HELEN drew a chair to the table and waited with her hands folded before her.
“Dick,” said I, turning to the lad, who stood just within the door, “that oath of yours.”
“I have broken it already,” said he.
“There was never priest in the world who would refuse to absolve you. The virtue of it lies in the forswearing. Now!” and I turned to Helen. “But I must speak frankly,” I premised.
She nodded her assent.
“Very well. I can make a consecutive sort of story, but I may well be at fault, for my knowledge is scanty, and if I am in error over the facts, I beg you. Miss Mayle, to correct me. Old Mr. Mayle’s talk ran continually about his wild doings on the Guinea coast, in Africa. There can be no doubt that he spent some considerable portion of his life there, and that he managed to scrape together a sufficient fortune. It is likely, therefore, that he was engaged in the slave trade, and, to be quite frank, Miss Helen, from what I have gathered of his manner and style, I am not indisposed to think that he found an occasional diversion from that pursuit in a little opportune piracy.”
I made the suggestion with some diffidence, for the old man, whatever his sins, had saved her life, and shown her much affection, of which, moreover, at his death he had given her very tangible proofs. It was necessary for me, however, to say it, for I had nothing but suspicion to go upon, and I looked to her in some way, either by words or manner, to confirm or confute my suspicions. And it seemed to me that she confirmed it, for she simply pressed the palms of her hands to her forehead, and said quietly,
“You are very frank.”
“There is no other way but frankness, believe me,” I returned. “Now let us come to that Sunday, four years ago, when Cullen Mayle sat in the stocks and George Glen came to Tresco. It was you who took George Glen to St. Mary’s Church,” I turned to Dick Parmiter.
“Yes.” said he. “I was kicking my heels in the sand, close to our cottage, when he came ashore in a boat. He was most anxious to speak with Mr. Mayle.”
“So you carried him across to St. Mary’s, and he told you, I think, that he had been quartermaster with Adam Mayle at Whydah, on the Guinea coast?”
“Did he name the ship by any chance?”
“He did once, whilst we were at supper,” interrupted Helen, “and I remember the name very well, for my father turned upon him fiercely when he spoke it, and Mr. Glen immediately said that he was mistaken and substituted another name, which I have forgotten. The first name was the Royal Fortune.
“The Royal Fortune,’’ said I, thoughtfully. The name in a measure was familiar to me; it seemed familiar too in precisely this connection with the Guinea coast. But I could not be sure. I was anxious to discover George Glen’s business with Adam Mayle, and very likely my anxiety misled me into imagining clues where there were none. I put the name away in my mind and went on with my conjecture.
“Now on that Sunday George Glen met Adam Mayle in the churchyard, you, Miss Mayle, and Lieutenant Clutterbuck were of the party. Together you sailed across to Tresco. So that George Glen could have had no private word with Mr. Mayle.”
“No,” Helen Mayle agreed. “There was no opportunity.”
“Nor was there an opportunity all that afternoon and evening, until Cullen left the house.”
“But after Cullen had gone,” said she, “they had their opportunity and made use of it. I left them together in my father’s room.
“The room fitted up as a cabin, where every word they spoke could be heard though the door was shut and the eavesdropper need not even trouble to lay his ear to the keyhole.”
“Yes, that is true,” said Helen. “But the servants were in bed, and there was no one to hear.”
At that Dick gave a start and a jump, and I cried:
“But there was some one to hear. Tell your story, Dick!” and Dick told how Cullen Mayle had climbed through the window, and how some hours after he had waked him up and sworn him to secrecy.
“Now, do you see?” I continued. “Why should Cullen Mayle have sworn Dick here to silence unless he had discovered some sort of secret which might prove of value to himself, unless he had overhead George Glen talking to Adam Mayle? And there’s this besides. Where has Cullen Mayle been these last two years? I can tell you that.”
‘’You can?” said Helen. She was leaning across the table, her face all lighted up with excitement.
“Yes. There’s the negro above stairs for one thing, Cullen’s servant. For another I met Cullen Mayle on the road as I was travelling here. He counterfeited an ague, which he told me he had caught on the Guinea coast. The ague was counterfeit, but very likely he has been on the Guinea coast.”
“Of course,” cried Dick.
“Not a doubt of it,” said Helen.
“So this is my theory. George Glen came to enlist Adam Mayle’s help and Adam Mayle’s money, in some voyage to Africa. Cullen Mayle overheard it, and got the start of George Glen. So here’s George Glen back again upon Tresco, and watching for Cullen Mayle.”
“See!” cried Helen suddenly. “Did I not tell you you were sent here to a good end?”
“But we are not out of the wood yet,” I protested. “We have to discover what it was that Glen proposed to Mr. Mayle. How shall we do that?”
“How?” repeated Helen, and she looked to me confidently for the answer.
“I can think of but one way,” said I, “to go boldly to George Glen and make terms with him.”
“Would he speak, do you think?”
“Most likely not,” I answered, and so in spite of my fine conjecture, we did not seem to have come any nearer to an issue. We were both of us silent for some while. The very confidence which Helen displayed stung me into an activity of thought. Helen herself was sunk in an abstraction, and in that abstraction she spoke.
“You are hurt,” she said.
My right hand was resting upon the table. It was cut in one or two places, and covered with scratches.
“It is nothing,” said I, “I slipped on the hill yesterday night and cut it with the gorse;” and again we fell to silence.
“What I am thinking is this,” she said, at length. “You overtook Cullen upon the road, and you reached the islands last night. At any moment then we may expect his coming.”
“Why, that’s true,” said I, springing up to my feet. ‘’And if Dick will sail me across to St. Mary’s, we’ll make a shift to stop him.”
Helen Mayle rose at that moment from her seat. She was wearing a white frock, and upon one side of it I noticed for the first time a red smear or two, as though she had brushed against paint—or blood. I looked at my hand scratched and torn by the gorse bush. It would have been bleeding at the time when a woman, coming swiftly past us in the fog, brushed against it. The woman was certainly hurrying in the direction of this house.
“You have told me everything, I suppose,” I said—“everything at all events that it concerns me to know.”
“Everything,” she replied.
We crossed that afternoon to St. Mary’s. There was no sign of Cullen Mayle at Hugh Town. No one had seen him or heard of his coming. He had not landed upon St. Mary’s. I thought it possible that he might not have touched St. Mary’s at all, but rowed ashore to Tresco even as I had done. But no ship had put into the Road that day but one which brought Castile soap from Marseilles. We sailed back to Tresco, and ran the boat’s nose into the sand not twenty yards from the door of the house on Merchant’s Point. A man, an oldish, white-haired man, loitering upon the beach very civilly helped us to run the boat up out of the water. We thanked him, and he touched his hat and answered with something of a French accent, which surprised me. But as we walked up to the house,
“That’s one of the five,” Dick explained. “He came on the boat with the negro to Penzance. Peter Tortue he is called, and he was loitering there on purpose to get a straight look at you.”
“Well,” said I, “it is at all events known that I am here,” and going into the house I found Helen Mayle eagerly waiting for our return. I told her that Cullen Mayle could not by any means have yet reached the Scillies, and that we had left word with the harbour master upon St. Mary’s to detain him if he landed; at which she expressed great relief.
“And since it is known I am here,” I added, “it will be more suitable if I carry my valise over to New Grimsby and seek a bed at the Palace Inn. I shall besides make the acquaintance of Mr. George Glen. It is evident that he and his fellows intend no hurt to you, so that you may sleep in peace.”
“No,” said she, bravely enough. “I am not afraid for myself.”
“And you will do that?” “What? “she asked.
“Sleep in peace,” said I; and putting my hand into my pocket as if by accident, I let her see again the corner of her white scarf. Her face flushed a little as she saw it.
“Oh, yes,” she answered, and to my surprise with the easiest laugh imaginable. “I shall sleep in peace. You need have no fear.”
I could not understand her. What a passion of despair it must have needed to string her to that act of death last night! Yet to-day—she could even allude to it with a laugh. I was lost in perplexity, but I had this one sure thing to comfort me. She was to-day hopeful, however much she despaired yesterday. She relied upon me to rescue Cullen from his peril. I was not sure that I should be doing her the service she imagined it to be, even if I succeeded. But she loved him, and looked to me to help her. So that I, too, could sleep in peace without fear that to-night another scarf would be fetched out to do the office this one I kept had failed to do.
I gave Dick my valise to carry across the island, and waited until he was out of sight before I started. Then I walked to the palisade at the end of the house. I found a spot where the palisade was broken; the splintered wood was fresh and clean; it was I who had broken the palisade last night. From that point I marched straight up the hill through the gorse, and when I had walked for about twenty minutes I stopped and looked about me. I struck away to my left, and after a little I stopped again. I marched up and down that hill, to the right, to the left, for perhaps the space of an hour, and at last I came upon that for which I searched—a steep slope where the grass was crushed, and underneath that slope a sheer descent. On the brink of the precipice—for that I judged it to be—I saw a broken gorse-bush. I lay down on my face and carefully crawled down the slope. The roots of the gorse-bush still held firmly in the ground. I clutched it in my left hand, dug the nails of my right through the grass into the soil and leaned over. My precipice was no more than a hollow some twenty feet deep, and had I slipped yesterday night, I should not have fallen even those twenty feet; for a sort of low barn was built in the hollow, with its back leaning against the perpendicular wall. I should have dropped perhaps ten feet on to the roof of this barn.
I drew myself up the hill again and sat down. The evening was very quiet and still. I was near to the summit of the island. Over my left shoulder I could see the sun setting far away in the Atlantic, and the waves rippling gold. Beneath me was the house, a long one-storied building of granite, on the horn of a tiny bay. The windows looked across the bay; behind the house stretched that tangled garden, and at the end of the garden rose the Merchant’s Rock. As it stood thus in the evening light, with the smoke curling from its chimneys, and the sea murmuring at its door, it seemed quite impossible to believe that any story of turmoil and strife and tragedy could have locality there. That old buccaneer Adam Mayle, and his soft-voiced son Cullen, whom he had turned adrift, seemed the figures of a dream and my adventure in Cullen’s room—a hideous nightmare.
And yet even as I looked footsteps brushed through the grass behind me, and turning I saw a sailor with a brass telescope under one arm and a black patch over one eye; who politely passed me the time of day and went by. He was a big man, with a great beard and hair sprouting from his ears and nostrils. He was another of the five no doubt, and though he went by he did not pass out of sight. I waited, hoping that he would go, for I had a great desire to examine the barn beneath me more closely. It was from the barn that the unearthly screeching had risen which had so terrified Dick Parmiter. It was between the barn and the house that a girl had brushed against my wounded hand and taken a stain of blood upon her dress.
The hollow was only a break in the steep slope of the hill. The barn could easily be approached by descending the hill to the right or the left, and then turning in. I was anxious to do it, to try the door, to enter the barn, but I dared not, for the sailor was within sight, and I had no wish to arouse any suspicions. Helen had told me everything, she had said—everything which it concerned me to know. But had she? I found myself asking, as I got to my feet and crossed the hill down towards New Grimsby.
The sun had set by this time, a cool twilight took the colour from the gorse, and numberless small winged things flew and sung about one’s face; all round a grey sea went down to a grey sky, and sea and sky were merged; and at my feet the lights began to twinkle in the little fishing village by the sea. I hired a bed at the Palace Inn, bade them prepare me supper and then walked on to Parmiter’s cottage for my valise.
There was a great hubbub going on within; Dick’s voice was explaining, and a woman’s shrill voice overtopped his explanation. The cause of his offence was twofold. He had not been near the cottage all day, so that it was thought he had run away again, and the key of the cottage was gone. It had not been seen since yesterday, and Dick had been accused of purloining it. I explained to Mrs. Parmiter that it was my fault Dick had kept away all day, and I made a bargain with her that I should have the lad as my servant while I stayed upon the island. Dick shouldered my valise in a state of considerable indignation.
“What should I steal the key for?” said he. “It only stands in the door for show. No one locks his door in Tresco. What should I steal the key for?” and he was within an ace of whimpering.
‘’Come, Dick,” said I, “you mustn’t mind a trifle of a scolding. Why, you are a hero to everybody in these parts, and to one man at all events outside them.”
“That doesn’t hinder mother from chasing me about with an oar,” he answered.
“It is the fate of all heroes,” said I, “to be barbarously used by their womenfolk.”
“Then I am damned if I want to be a hero,” said Dick, violently. “And as for the key—of what consequence is it at all if you never lock your door?”
“Of no more consequence than your bruises, Dick,” said I.
But I was wrong. You may do many things with a key besides locking a door. You can slip it down your back to stop your nose bleeding, for instance; if it’s a big key you can weigh a line with it, and perhaps catch a mackerel for your breakfast. And there’s another use for a key of which I did not at this time know, or I should have been saved from considerable perplexity and not a little danger.