THE SEARCH was entirely unsuccessful. Through the months of November and December I travelled hither and thither, but I had no hint as to Cullen Mayle’s whereabouts; and towards the end of the year I took passage in a barque bound for St. Mary’s, where I landed the day before Christmas and about the fall of the dusk. It was my intention to cross over that night to Tresco and report my ill-success, which I was resolved to do with a deal of stateliness. I was also curious to know whether Peter Tortue was still upon the island.
But as I walked along the street of Hugh Town to the “Dolphin” Inn, by the Customs House, a band of women dancing and shouting, with voices extraordinarily hoarse, swept round the corner.
I fell plump amongst them, and discovered they were men masquerading as women. Moreover, they stopped me, and were for believing that I was a woman masquerading as a man; and, in deed, when they had let me go I did come upon a party of girls dressed up for sea captains and the like, who swaggered, counterfeiting a manly walk, and drawing their hangers upon one another with a great show of spirit.
The reason of these transformations was explained to me at the “Dolphin.” It seems that they call this sort of amusement “a goose-dancing,” and the young people exercise it in these islands at Christmas time. I was told that it would be impossible for me to hire a boatman to put me over to Tresco that night; so I made the best of the matter, and to pass the time stepped out again into the street, which was now lighted up with many torches and crowded with masqueraders. They went dancing and singing from house to house; the women paid their addresses with an exaggeration of courtly manners to the men, who, dressed in the most uncouth garments that could be devised, received them with a droll shyness and modesty, and altogether, what with liquor and music, the festival went with a deal of noise and spirit. But in the midst of it one of these false women, with a great bonnet pulled forward over her face, clapped a hand upon my shoulder and said in my ear:
“Mr. Berkeley, I hope you have been holding better putt cards of late;” and would have run on, but I caught him by the arm.
“Mr. Featherstone,” said I, “you stole my horse; I have a word to say to you.”
“I have not the time to listen,” said he, wrenching his arm free as he flung himself into the thick of the crowd. I kept close upon his heels, however, which he perceived, and drawing into a corner he suddenly turned round upon me.
“Your horse is dead,” said he. “I very much regret it; but I will pay you, for I have but now come into an inheritance. I will pay you for it to-morrow.”
“I did not follow you to speak of the horse, or to Mr. Featherstone at all, but to Mr. Cullen Mayle.”
“You know me?” he exclaimed, looking about him lest the name should have been overheard.
“And have news for you,” I added. “Will you follow me to the ‘Dolphin?’”
I went back to the inn, secured from my host a room where we could be private, and went out to the door. Cullen Mayle was waiting; he followed me quickly in, hiding his face so that no one could recognise him, and when the door was shut—
“How in the world did you come to know of my name?” said he. “I cannot think, but I shall be obliged if you will keep it secret for a day or so, for I am not sure but what I may have some inconvenient friends among these islands.”
“Those inconvenient friends are all gone but one,” said I.
“You know that too,” he exclaimed. “Indeed, Mr. Berkeley, you seem to be very well acquainted with my affairs; but I cannot regret it, since you give me such comforting news. Only one of my inconvenient friends left! Why, I am a match for one—I think I may say so without vaunting—so it seems I can come to Tresco and take up my inheritance.”
With that he began briskly to unhook the cotton dress which he had put on over his ordinary clothes.
“Inheritance!” said I. “You mentioned the word before. I do not understand.”
“Oh,” said he, “it is a long story and a melancholy. My father drove me from the house, and bequeathed his fortune to an adopted daughter.”
“Yes,” said I quickly, “I know that too.”
“Indeed!” and he stopped his toilette to stare at me. “Perhaps you are aware then that Helen Mayle, conscious of my father’s injustice, bequeathed it again to me.”
“Yes, but—but—you spoke of an immediate inheritance.”
“Ah,” said he, coolly, “there is something, then, I can inform you of. Helen Mayle is dead.”
“What’s that?” I cried, and started to my feet. I did not understand. I was like a man struck by a bullet, aware dimly that some hurt has come to him, but not yet conscious of the pain, not yet sensible of the wound.
“Hush!” said Cullen Mayle, and untying a string at his waist he let his dress fall about his feet. “It is most sad. Not for the world would I have come into this inheritance at such a cost. You knew Helen Mayle, perhaps?” he asked, with a shrewd glance at me. “A girl very staunch, very true, who would never forget a friend.” He emphasised that word “friend” and made it of a greater significance. “Indeed, I am not sure, but I must think it was because she could not forget a—friend that, alas! she died.”
I was standing stupefied. I heard the words he spoke, but gave them at this moment no meaning. I was trying to understand the one all-important fact.
“Dead!” I babbled. “Helen Mayle—dead!”
“Yes, and in the strangest, pitiful way. I cannot think of it, without the tears come into my eyes. The news came to me but lately, and you will perhaps excuse me on that account.” His voice broke as he spoke; there were tears, too, in his eyes. I wondered, in a dull way, whether after all he had really cared for her. “But how comes it that you knew her? “he asked.
I sat down upon a chair and told him—of Dick Parmiter’s coming to London, of my journey into the West. I told him how I had come to recognise him at the inn; and as I spoke the comprehension of Helen’s death crept slowly into my mind, so that I came to a stop and could speak no more.
“You were on your way to Tresco,” said he, “when we first met. Then you know that she is dead?”
“No,” I answered. “When did she die?”
“On the sixth of October,” said he.
I do not think that I should have paid great heed to his words, but something in his voice—an accent of alarm—roused me. I lifted my eyes and saw that he was watching me with a singular intentness.
“The sixth of October,” I repeated vaguely, and then I broke into a laugh, so harsh and hysterical that it seemed quite another voice than mine. “Your news is false,” I cried; “she is not dead! Why, I did not leave Tresco till the end of October, and she was alive then and no sign of any malady. The sixth of October! No, indeed, she did not die upon that day.”
“Are you sure?” he exclaimed.
“Sure?” said I. “I have the best of reasons to be sure; for it was on the sixth of October that I first set foot in Tresco,” and at once Cullen Mayle sprang up and shook me by the hand.
“Here is the bravest news,” he said. His whole face was alight; he could not leave hold of my hand. “Mr. Berkeley, I may thank God that I spoke to you to-night. ‘Helen!’”—and he lingered upon the name. “Upon my word, it would take little more to unman me. So you landed on the sixth of October. But are you sure of the date?” he asked with earnestness. “I borrowed your horse but a few days before. You would hardly have travelled so quickly.”
“I travelled by sea with a fair wind,” said I. “It was the sixth of October. Could I forget it? Why, that very night I crossed Castle Down to Merchant’s Point; that very night I entered the house. Dick Parmiter showed me a way. I crept into the house, and slept in your bedroom——”
I had spoken so far without a notion of the disclosure to which my words were leading me. I was not looking at Cullen Mayle, but on to the ground, else very likely I might have read it upon his face. But now in an instant the truth of the matter was clear to me. For as I said, “I slept in your bedroom,” he uttered one loud cry, leapt to his feet, and stood over against me, very still and quiet. I had sufficient wit not to raise my head and betray this new piece of knowledge. That sad and pitiful death on the sixth of October, of which he had heard with so deep a pain—he had never heard it, he had planned it, and the plan miscarried. He knew why, now, and so was standing in front of me very still and quiet. He had seen Helen that night on Castle Down; there, no doubt, she had told him how in her will she had disposed of her inheritance; and he had persuaded her, working on her generosity—with what prepared speeches of despair!—to that strange, dark act which it had been my good fortune to interrupt. It was clear to me. The very choice of that room, wherein alone secrecy was possible, made it clear. He had suggested to her the whole cunning plan; and a moment ago I had almost been deceived to believe his expressions of distress sincere!
“I told you I was nearly unmanned,” I heard him say; “and you see even so I underrated the strength of my relief, so that the mere surprise of your ingenious shift to get a lodging took my breath away.”
He resumed his seat, and I, having now composed my face, raised it full to him. I have often wondered since whether, as he stood above me, motionless and silent during those few moments, I was in any danger.
“Yes,” said I, “it was no doubt surprising.”
This, however, was not the only surprise I was to cause Cullen Mayle that night.
He proposed immediately that we should cross to Tresco together, and on my objecting that we should get no one to carry us over—
“Oh,” said he, “I have convenient friends in Scilly as well as inconvenient.” He looked out of the window. “The tide is high, and washes the steps at the back of the inn. Do you wait here upon the steps. I will have a boat there in less than half an hour;” and on the word he hooked up his dress again and got him out of the inn.
I waited upon the steps as he bade me. Behind me were the lights and the uproar of the street; in front, the black water and the cool night; and still further, out of sight, the island of Tresco, the purple island of bracken and gorse, resonant with the sea.
In a little I heard a ripple of water, and the boat swam to the steps. I was careful as we sailed across the road to say nothing to Cullen Mayle which would provoke his suspicion. I did not even allow him to see I was aware that he himself had been upon Tresco on the sixth of October. It was not difficult for me to keep silence. For as the water splashed and seethed under the lee of the boat, and Tresco drew nearer, I had to consider what I should do in the light of my new knowledge. It would have been so much easier had only Helen been frank with me.
Tresco dimly loomed up out of the darkness.
“By the way,” said Cullen Mayle, who had been silent too, “you said that one of the watchers had remained. It will be George Glen, I suppose.”
“No,” I answered. “It is a Frenchman, Peter Tortue,” and by the mere mention of the name I surprised Cullen Mayle again that evening. It is true that this time he uttered no exclamation, and did not start from his seat. But the boat shot up into the wind and got into irons, as the saying is, so that I knew his hand had left the tiller. But he said nothing until we were opposite to the Blockhouse, and then he asked in a low trembling voice:
“Did you say Peter Tortue?”
There was another interval of silence. Then he put another question and in the same tone of awe:
“A young fellow, less than my years——”
“No. The young fellow’s father,” said I. “A man of sixty years. I think I should be wary of him.”
“He said, ‘I am looking, not for the cross, but for a man to nail upon the cross,’ and he meant his words, every syllable.”
Again we fell to silence, and so crossed the Old Grimsby Harbour and rounded its northern point. The lights of the house were in view at last. They shot out across the darkness in thin lines of light and wavered upon the black water lengthening and shortening with the slight heave of the waves. When they shortened, I wondered whether they beckoned me to the house; when they lengthened out, were they fingers which pointed to us to be gone?
“Since you know so much, Mr. Berkeley,” whispered Cullen Mayle, “perhaps you can tell me whether Glen secured the cross.”
“No, he failed in that.”
“I felt sure he would,” said Cullen with a chuckle, and he ran the boat aground, not on the sand before the house but on the bank beneath the garden hedge. We climbed through the hedge; two windows blazed upon the night, and in the room sat Helen Mayle close by the fire, her violin on a table at her side and the bow swinging in her hand. I stepped forward and rapped at the window. She walked across the room and set her face to the pane, shutting out the light from her eyes with her hands. She saw us standing side by side. Instantly she drew down the blinds and came to the door, and over the grass towards us. She came first to me with her hand outstretched.
“It is you,” she said gently, and the sound of her voice was wonderful in my ears. I had taken her hand before I was well aware what I did.
“Yes,” said I.
“You have come back. I never thought you would. But you have come.”
“I have brought back Cullen Mayle,” said I, as indifferently as I could, and so dropped her hand. She turned to Cullen then.
“Quick,” she said. “You must come in.”
We went inside the door.
“It is some years since I trod these flags,” said Cullen. “Well, I am glad to come home, though it is only as an outcast; and indeed, Helen, I have not the right even to call it home.”
It was as cruel a remark as he could well have made, seeing at what pains the girl had been, and still was, to restore that home to him. That it hurt her I knew very well, for I heard her, in the darkness of the passage, draw in her breath through her clenched teeth. Cullen walked along the passage and through the hall.
“Lock the door,” Helen said to me, and I did lock it. “Now drop the bar.”
When that was done we walked together into the hall, where she stopped.
“Look at me,” she said, “please!” and I obeyed her.
“You have come back,” she repeated. “You do not, then, any longer believe that I deceived you?”
“There is a reason why I have come back,” I answered. It was a reason which I could not give to her. I was resolved not to suffer her to lie at the mercy of Cullen Mayle. Fortunately, she did not think to ask me to be particular about the reason. But she beat her hands once or twice together, and—
“You still believe it, then!” she cried. “With these two months to search and catch and hold the truth, you still hold me in the same contempt as when you turned your back on me and walked out through that door?”
“No, no!” I exclaimed. “Contempt! That never entered into any thought I ever had of you. Make sure of that!”
“Yet you believe I tricked you. How can you believe that, and yet spare me your contempt!”
“I am no philosopher. It is the truth I tell you,” I answered, simply; and the face of Cullen Mayle appeared at the doorway of the parlour, so that no more was said.