Ensign Knightley and Other Stories/The Man of Wheels
THE MAN OF WHEELS.
When Sir Charles Fosbrook was told by Mr. Pepys that Tangier had been surrendered to the Moors, he asked at once after the fate of his gigantic mole; and when he was informed that his mole had been, before the evacuation, so utterly blown to pieces that its scattered blocks made the harbour impossible for anchorage, he forbade so much as the mention in his presence of the name of Africa. But if he had done with Tangier, Tangier had not done with him, and five years afterwards he became concerned in the most unexpected way with certain tragic consequences of that desperate siege.
He received a letter from an acquaintance of whom he had long lost sight, a Mr. Mardale of the Quarry House near Leamington, imploring him to give his opinion upon some new inventions. The value of the inventions could be easily gauged; Mr. Mardale claimed to have invented a wheel of perpetual rotation. Sir Charles, however, had his impulses of kindness. He knew Mr. Mardale to be an old and gentle person, a little touched in the head perhaps, who with money enough to surfeit every instinct of pleasure, had preferred to live a shy secluded life, busily engaged either in the collection of curiosities or the invention of toy-like futile machines. There was a girl too whom Sir Charles remembered, a weird elfin creature with extraordinary black eyes and hair and a clear white face. Her one regret in those days had been that she was not born a horse, and she had lived in the stables, in as horse like a fashion as was possible. Her ankle indeed still must bear an unnecessary scar through the application of a fierce horse-liniment to a sprain. No doubt, however, she had long since changed her ambitions. Sir Charles calculated her age. Resilda Mardale must be twenty-five years old and a deuced fine woman into the bargain. Sir Charles took a glance at his figure in his cheval-glass. He had reached middle-age to be sure, but he had a leg that many a spindle-shanked youngster might envy, nor was there any unbecoming protuberance at his waist. He wrote a letter accepting the invitation and a week later in the dusk of a June evening, drove up the long avenue of trees to the terrace of the Quarry House.
The house was a solid square mansion built upon the side of a hill, and the ground in front of it fell away very quickly from the terrace to what Sir Charles imagined must be a pond, for a light mist hung at the bottom. On the other side of the pond the ground rose again in a steep hill. But Sir Charles had no opportunity at this moment to get any accurate knowledge of the house and its surroundings. For apart from the darkness, it was close upon supper-time and Miss Resilda Mardale must assuredly not be kept waiting. His valet subsequently declared that Sir Charles had seldom been so particular in the choice of his coat and small-clothes; and the supper-bell certainly rang out before he was satisfied with the set of his cravat.
He could not, however, consider his pains wasted when once he was set down opposite to Resilda. She was taller than he had expected her to be, but he did not count height a fault so long as there was grace to carry it off, and grace she had in plenty. Her face had gained in delicacy and lost nothing of its brilliancy, or of its remarkable clearness of complexion. Her hair too if it was less rebellious, and more neatly coiled, had retained its glory of profusion, and her big black eyes, though to be sure they were grown a trifle sedate, no doubt could sparkle as of old. Sir Charles set himself to make them sparkle. Old Mr. Mardale prattled of his inventions to his heart's delight—he described the wheel, and also a flying machine and besides the flying machine, an engine by which steam might be used to raise water to great altitudes. Sir Charles was ready from time to time with a polite, if not always an appropriate comment, and for the rest he paid compliments to Resilda. Still the eyes did not sparkle, indeed a pucker appeared and deepened on her forehead. Sir Charles accordingly redoubled his gallantries, he was slyly humorous about the horse-liniment, and thereupon came the remark which so surprised him and was the beginning of his strange discoveries. For Resilda suddenly leaned towards him and said frankly:
"I would much rather, Sir Charles, you told me something of your great mole at Tangier."
Sir Charles had reason for surprise. The world had long since forgotten his mole, if ever it had been concerned in it. Yet here was a girl whose thoughts might be expected to run on youths and ribands talking of it in a little village four miles from Leamington as though there were no topic more universal. Sir Charles Fosbrook answered her gravely.
"I thought never to speak of Tangier and the mole again. I spent many years upon the devising and construction of that great breakwater. It could have sheltered every ship of his Majesty's navy. It was wife and children to me. My heart lay very close to it. I fancied indeed my heart was disrupted with the disruption of the mole, and it has at all events, lain ever since as heavy as King Charles' Chest."
"Yes, I can understand that," said Resilda.
Sir Charles had vowed never to speak of the matter again. But he had kept his vow for five long years, and besides here was a girl of a remarkable beauty expressing sympathy and asking for information. Sir Charles broke his vow and talked, and the girl helped him. A suspicion that she might have primed herself with knowledge in view of his coming, vanished before the flame of her enthusiasm. She knew the history of its building almost as well as he did himself, and could even set him right in his dates. It was she who knew the exact day on which King Charles' Chest, that great block of mortised stones, which formed as it were the keystone of the breakwater, had been lowered into its place. Sir Charles abandoned all reserve, and talked freely of his hopes and fears as the pier ran farther out and out into the currents of the Straits, of his bitter disappointment when his labours were destroyed. He forgot his gallantries, he showed himself the man he was. Neither he nor Resilda noticed a low rumble of thunder or the beating of sudden rain upon the windows, so occupied were they with the theme of their talk; and at last Sir Charles, leaning back in his chair, cried out with astonishment and delight.
"But how is it that my mole is so familiar a thing to you? Explain it if you please! Never have I spent so agreeable an evening."
A momentary embarrassment seemed to follow upon his words. Resilda looked at her father who chuckled and explained.
"Sir, an old soldier years ago came over the hill in front of the house and begged for alms. He found my daughter on the terrace in a lucky moment for himself. He had all sorts of wonderful stories of Tangier and the great mole which was then a building. Resilda was set on fire that day, and though the King and the Parliament might shut their eyes to the sore straits of that town and the gallantry of its defenders, no one was allowed to forget them in the Quarry House. To tell the truth I sometimes envied the obliviousness of Parliament," and he laughed gently. "So from the first my daughter was primed with the history of that siege, and lately we have had further means of knowledge—" He began to speak warily and with embarrassment— "For two years ago Resilda married an officer of The King's Battalion, Major Lashley."
"Here are two surprises," cried Sir Charles. "For in the first place, Madam, I had no thought you were wed. Blame a bachelor's stupidity!" and he glanced at her left hand which lay upon the table-cloth with the band of gold gleaming upon a finger. "In the second place I knew Major Lashley very well, though it is news to me that he ever troubled his head with my mole. A very gallant officer, who defended Charles Fort through many nights of great suspense, and cleft his way back to Tangier when his ammunition was expended. I shall be very glad to shake the Major once more by the hand."
At once Sir Charles was aware that he had uttered the most awkward and unsuitable remark. Resilda Lashley, as he must now term her, actually flinched away from him and then sat with a vague staring look of pain as though she had been shocked clean out of her wits. She recovered herself in a moment, but she did not speak, neither had Sir Charles any words. He looked at her dress which was white and had not so much as a black riband dangling anywhere about it.
But there were other events than death which could make the utterance of his wish a gaucherie. Sir Charles prided himself upon his tact, particularly with a good-looking woman, and he was therefore much abashed and confused. The only one who remained undisturbed was Mr. Mardale. His mind was never for very long off his wheels, or his works of art. It was the turn of his pictures now. He had picked up a genuine Rubens in Ghent, he declared. It was standing somewhere in the great drawing-room on the carpet against the back of a chair, and Sir Charles must look at it in the morning, if only it could be found. He had clean forgotten all about his daughter it appeared. She, however, had a mind to clear the mystery up, and interrupting her father.
"It is right that you should know," she said simply, "Major Lashley disappeared six months ago."
"Disappeared!" exclaimed Sir Charles in spite of himself, and the astonishment in his voice woke the old gentleman from his prattle.
"To be sure," said he apologetically, "I should have told you before of the sad business. Yes, Sir, Major Lashley disappeared, utterly from this very house on the eleventh night of last December, and though the country-side was scoured and every ragamuffin for miles round brought to question, no trace of him has anywhere been discovered from that day to this."
An intuition slipped into Sir Charles Fosbrook's mind, and though he would have dismissed it as entirely unwarrantable, persisted there. The thought of the steep slope of ground before the house and the mist in the hollow between the two hills. The mist was undoubtedly the exhalation from a pond. The pond might have reeds which might catch and gather a body. But the pond would have been dragged. Still the thought of the pond remained while he expressed a vague hope that the Major might by God's will yet be restored to them.
He had barely ended before a louder gust of rain than ordinary smote upon the windows and immediately there followed a knocking upon the hall-door. The sound was violent, and it came with so opposite a rapidity upon the heels of Fosbrook's words that it thrilled and startled him. There was something very timely in the circumstances of night and storm and that premonitory clapping at the door. Sir Charles looked towards the door in a glow of anticipation. He had time to notice, however, how deeply Resilda herself was stirred; her left hand which had lain loose upon the table-cloth was now tightly clenched, and she had a difficulty in breathing. The one strange point in her conduct was that although she looked towards the door like Sir Charles Fosbrook, there was more of suspense in the look than of the eagerness of welcome. The butler, however, had no news of Major Lashley to announce. He merely presented the compliments of Mr. Gibson Jerkley who had been caught in the storm near the Quarry House and ten miles from his home. Mr. Jerkley prayed for supper and a dry suit of clothes.
"And a bed too," said Resilda, with a flush of colour in her cheeks, and begging Sir Charles' permission she rose from the table. Sir Charles was disappointed by the mention of a strange name. Mr. Mardale, however, to whom that loud knocking upon the door had been void of suggestion, now became alert. He looked with a strange anxiety after his daughter, an anxiety which surprised Fosbrook, to whom this man of wheels and little toys had seemed lacking in the natural affections.
"And a bed too," repeated Mr. Mardale doubtfully, "to be sure! To be sure!" And though he went into the hall to welcome his visitor, it was not altogether without reluctance.
Mr. Gibson Jerkley was a man of about thirty years. He had a brown open personable countenance, a pair of frank blue eyes, and the steady restful air of a man who has made his account with himself, and who neither speaks to win praise nor is at pains to escape dislike. Sir Charles Fosbrook was from the first taken with the man, though he spoke little with him for the moment. For being tired with his long journey from London, he retired shortly to his room.
But however tired he was, Sir Charles found that it was quite impossible for him to sleep. The cracking of the rain upon his windows, the groaning trees in the park, and the wail of the wind among the chimneys and about the corners of the house were no doubt for something in a Londoner's sleeplessness. But the mysterious disappearance of Major Lashley was at the bottom of it. He thought again of the pond. He imagined a violent kidnapping and his fancies went to work at devising motives. Some quarrel long ago in the crowded city of Tangier and now brought to a tragical finish amongst the oaks and fields of England. Perhaps a Moor had travelled over seas for his vengeance and found his way from village to village like that Baracen lady of old times. And when he had come to this point of his reflections, he heard a light rapping upon his door. He got out of bed and opened it. He saw Mr. Gibson Jerkley standing on the threshold with a candle in one hand and a finger of the other at his lip.
"I saw alight beneath your door," said Jerkley, and Sir Charles made room for him to enter. He closed the door cautiously, and setting his candle down upon a chest of drawers, said without any hesitation:
"I have come, Sir, to ask for your advice. I do not wonder at your surprise, it is indeed a strange sort of intrusion for a man to make upon whom you have never clapped your eyes before this evening. But for one thing I fancy Mrs. Lashley wishes me to ask you for the favour. She has said nothing definitely, in faith she could not as you will understand when you have heard the story. But that I come with her approval I am very sure. For another, had she disapproved, I should none the less have come of my own accord. Sir, though I know you very well by reputation, I have had the honour of few words with you, but my life has taught me to trust boldly where my eyes bid me trust. And the whole affair is so strange that one more strange act like this intrusion of mine is quite of apiece. I ask you therefore to listen to me. The listening pledges you to nothing, and at the worst, I can promise you, my story will while away a sleepless hour. If when you have heard, you can give us your advice, I shall be very glad. For we are sunk in such a quandary that a new point of view cannot but help us."
Sir Charles pointed to a chair and politely turned away to hide a yawn. For the young man's lengthy exordium had made him very drowsy. He could very comfortably had fallen asleep at this moment. But Gibson Jerkley began to speak, and in a short space of time Sir Charles was as wide-awake as any house-breaker.
"Eight years ago," said he, "I came very often to the Quarry House, but I always rode homewards discontented in the evening. Resilda at that time had a great ambition to be a boy. The sight of any brown bare-legged lad gipsying down the hill with a song upon his lips, would set her viciously kicking the toes of her satin slippers against the parapet of the terrace, and clamouring at her sex. Now I was not of the same mind with Resilda."
"That I can well understand," said Sir Charles drily. "But, my young friend, I can remember a time when Resilda desired of all things to be a horse. There was something hopeful because more human in her wish to be a boy, had you only known."
Mr. Jerkley nodded gravely and continued:
"I was young enough to argue the point with her, which did me no good, and then to make matters worse, the soldier from Tangier came over the hill, with his stories of Major Lashley—Captain he was then."
"Major Lashley," exclaimed Sir Charles. "I did not hear the soldier was one of Major Lashley's men!"
"But he was and thenceforward the world went very ill with me. Reports of battles, and sorties came home at rare intervals. She was the first to read of them. Major Lashley's name was more than once mentioned. We country gentlemen who stayed at home and looked after our farms and our tenants, having no experience of war, suffered greatly in the comparison. So at the last I ordered my affairs for a long voyage, and without taking leave of any but my nearest neighbours and friends, I slipped off one evening to the wars."
"You did not wish your friends at the Quarry House good-bye?" said Fosbrook.
"No. It might have seemed that I was making claims, and, after all, one has one's pride. I would never, I think, ask a woman to wait for me. But she heard of course after I had gone and—I am speaking frankly—I believe the news woke the woman in her. At all events there was little talk after of Tangier at the Quarry House."
Mr. Jerkley related his subsequent history. He had sailed at his own charges to Africa; he had enlisted as a gentleman volunteer in The King's Battalion; he had served under Major Lashley in the Charles Fort where he was in charge of the great speaking-trumpet by which the force received its orders from the Lieutenant-Governor in Tangier Castle; he took part in the desperate attempt to cut a way back through the Moorish army into the town. In that fight he was wounded and left behind for dead.
"A year later peace was made. Tangier was evacuated, Major Lashley returned to England. Now the Major and I despite the difference in rank had been friends. I had spoken to him of Miss Mardale's admiration, and as chance would have it, he came to Leamington to take the waters."
"Chance?" said Sir Charles drily.
"Well it may have been intention," said Jerkley. "There was no reason in the world why he should not seek her out. She was not promised to me, and very likely I had spoken of her with enthusiasm. For a long time she would not consent to listen to him. He was, however, no less persistent—he pleaded his suit for three years. I was dead you understand, and what man worth a pinch of salt would wish a woman to waste her gift of life in so sterile a fidelity. … You follow me? At the end of three years Resilda yielded to his pleadings, and the persuasions of her friends. For Major Lashley quickly made himself a position in the country. They were married, Major Lashley was not a rich man, it was decided that they should both live at the Quarry House."
"And what had Mr. Mardale to say to it?" asked Fosbrook.
"Oh, Sir," said Gibson Jerkley with a laugh. "Mr. Mardale is a man of wheels, and little steel springs. Let him sit at his work-table in that crowded drawing-room on the first floor, without interruption, and he will be very well content, I can assure you. … Hush!" and he suddenly raised his hand. In the silence which followed, they both distinctly heard the sound of some one stirring in the house. Mr. Jerkley went to the door and opened it. The door gave on to the passage which was shut off at its far end by another door from the square tulip-wood landing, at the head of the stairs. He came back into the bedroom.
"There is a light on the other side of the passage-door," said he. "But I have no doubt it is Mr. Mardale going to his bed. He sits late at his work-table."
Sir Charles brought him back to his story.
"Meanwhile you were counted for dead, but actually you were taken prisoner. There is one thing which I do not understand. When peace was concluded the prisoners were freed and an officer was sent up into Morocco to secure their release."
"There were many oversights like mine, I have no doubt. The Moors were reluctant enough to produce their captives. We who were supposed to be dead were not particularly looked for. I have no doubt there is many a poor English soldier sweating out his soul in the uplands of that country to this day. I escaped two years ago, just about the time, in fact, when Miss Resilda Mardale became Mrs. Lashley. I crept down over the hillside behind Tangier one dark evening, and lay all night beneath a bush of tamarisks dreaming the Moors were still about me. But an inexplicable silence reigned and nowhere was the darkness spotted by the flame of any camp-fire. In the morning I looked down to Tangier. The first thing which I noticed was your broken stump of mole, the second that nowhere upon the ring of broken wall could be seen the flash of a red coat or the glitter of a musket-barrel. I came down into Tangier, I had no money and no friends. I got away in a felucca to Spain. From Spain I worked my passage to England. I came home nine months ago. And here is the trouble. Three months after I returned Major Lashley disappeared. You understand?"
"Oh," cried Sir Charles, and he jumped in his chair. "I understand indeed. Suspicion settled upon you," and as it ever will upon the least provocation suspicion passed for a moment into Fosbrook's brain. He was heartily ashamed of it when he looked into Jerkley's face. It would need, assuredly, a criminal of an uncommon astuteness to come at this hour with this story. Mr. Jerkley was not that criminal.
"Yes," he answered simply, "I am looked at askance, devil a doubt of it. I would not care a snap of the fingers were I alone in the matter; but there is Mrs. Lashley … she is neither wife nor widow … and," he took a step across the room and said quickly—and were she known for a widow, there is still the suspicion upon me like a great iron door between us."
"Can you help us, Sir Charles! Can you see light?"
"You must tell me the details of the Major's disappearance," said Sir Charles, and the following details were given.
On the eleventh of December and at ten o'clock of the evening Major Lashley left the house to visit the stables which were situated in the Park and at the distance of a quarter of a mile from the house. A favourite mare, which he had hunted the day before, had gone lame, and all day Major Lashley had shown some anxiety; so that there was a natural reason why he should have gone out at the last moment before retiring to bed. Mrs. Lashley went up to her room at the same time, indeed with so exact a correspondence of movement that as she reached the polished tulip-wood landing at the top of the stairs, she heard the front door latch as her husband drew it to behind him. That was the last she heard of him.
"She woke up suddenly," said Jerkley, "in the middle of the night, and found that her husband was not at her side. She waited for a little and then rose from her bed. She drew the window-curtains aside and by the glimmering light which came into the room, was able to read the dial of her watch. It was seven minutes past three of the morning. She immediately lighted her candle and went to rouse her father. Her door opened upon the landing, it is the first door upon the left hand side as you mount the stairs; the big drawing-room opens on to the landing too, but faces the stairs. Mrs. Lashley at once went to that room, knowing how late Mr. Mardale is used to sit over his inventions, and as she expected, found him there. A search was at once arranged; every servant in the house was at once impressed, and in the morning every servant on the estate. Major Lashley had left the stable at a quarter past ten. He has been seen by no one since."
Sir Charles reflected upon this story.
"There is a pond in front of the house," said he.
"It was dragged in the morning," replied Jerkley.
Sir Charles made various inquiries and received the most unsatisfactory answers for his purpose. Major Lashley had been a favourite alike at Tangier, and in the country. He had a winning trick of a smile, which made friends for him even among his country's enemies. Mr. Jerkley could not think of a man who had wished him ill.
"Well, I will think the matter over," said Sir Charles, who had not an idea in his head, and he held the door open for Mr. Jerkley. Both men stood upon the threshold, looked down the passage and then looked at one another.
"It is strange," said Jerkley.
"The light has been a long while burning on the landing," said Sir Charles. They walked on tip-toe down the passage to the door beneath which one bright bar of light stretched across the floor. Jerkley opened the door and looked through; Sir Charles who was the taller man looked over Jerkley's head and never were two men more surprised. In the embrasure of that door to the left of the staircase, the door behind which Resilda Lashley slept, old Mr. Mardale reclined, with his back propped against the door-post. He had fallen asleep at his post, and a lighted candle half-burnt flamed at his side. The reason of his presence then was clear to them both.
"A morbid fancy!" he said in a whisper, but with a considerable anger in his voice. "Such a fancy as comes only to a man who has lost his judgment through much loneliness. See, he sits like any negro outside an Eastern harem! Sir, I am shamed by him."
"You have reason I take the liberty to say," said Sir Charles absently, and he went back to his room puzzling over what he had seen, and over what he could neither see nor understand. The desire for sleep was altogether gone from him. He opened his window and leaned out. The rain had ceased, but the branches still dripped and the air was of an incomparable sweetness. Blackbirds and thrushes on the lawns, and in the thicket-depths were singing as though their lives hung upon the full fresh utterance of each note. A clear pure light was diffused across the world. Fosbrook went back to his old idea of some vengeful pursuit sprung from a wrong done long ago in Tangier. The picture of Major Lashley struck with terror as he got news of his pursuers, and slinking off into the darkness. Even now, somewhere or another, on the uplands or the plains of England, he might be rising from beneath a hedge to shake the rain from his besmeared clothes, and start off afresh on another day's aimless flight. The notion caught his imagination and comforted him to sleep. But in the morning he woke to recognise its unreality. The unreality became yet more vivid to him at the breakfast-table, when he sat with two pairs of young eyes turning again and again trustfully towards him. The very reliance which the man and woman so clearly placed in him spurred him. Since they looked to him to clear up the mystery, why he must do it, and there was an end of the matter.
He was none the less glad, however, when Mr. Jerkley announced his intention of returning home. There would at all events be one pair of eyes the less. He strolled with Mr. Jerkley on the terrace after breakfast with a deep air of cogitation, the better to avoid questions. Gibson Jerkley, however, was himself in a ruminative mood. He stopped, and gazing across the valley to the riband of road descending the hill:
"Down that road the soldier came," said he, "whose stories brought about all this misfortune."
"And very likely down that road will come the bearer of news to make an end of it," rejoined Fosbrook sententiously. Mr. Jerkley looked at him with a sudden upspringing of hope, and Sir Charles nodded with ineffable mystery, never guessing how these lightly spoken words were to return to his mind with the strength of a fulfilled prophecy.
As he nodded, however, he turned about towards the house, and a certain disfigurement struck upon his eyes. Two windows on the first floor were entirely bricked up, and as the house was square with level tiers of windows, they gave to it an unsightly look. Sir Charles inquired of his companion if he could account for them.
"To be sure," said Jerkley, with the inattention of a man diverted from serious thought to an unimportant topic. "They are the windows of the room in which Mrs. Mardale died a quarter of a century ago. Mr. Mardale locked the door as soon as his wife was taken from it to the church, and the next day he had the windows blocked. No one but he has entered the room during all these years, the key has never left his person. It must be the ruin of a room by now. You can imagine it, the dust gathering, the curtains rotting, in the darkness and at times the old man sitting there with his head running on days long since dead. But you know Mr. Mardale, he is not as other men."
Sir Charles swung round alertly to his companion. To him at all events the topic was not an indifferent one.
"Yet you say, you believe that he is void of the natural affections. Last night we saw a proof, a crazy proof if you will, but none the less a proof of his devotion to his daughter. To-day you give me as sure a one of his devotion to his dead wife," and almost before he had finished, Mr. Mardale was calling to him from the steps of the house.
He spent all that morning in the great drawing-room on the first floor. It was a room of rich furniture, grown dingy with dust and inattention, and crowded from end to end with tables and chairs and sofas, on which were heaped in a confused medley, pictures, statues of marble, fans and buckles from Spain, queer barbaric ornaments, ivory carvings from the Chinese. Sir Charles could hardly make his way to the little cleared space by the window, where Mr. Mardale worked, without brushing some irreplaceable treasure to the floor. Once there he was fettered for the morning. Mr. Mardale with all the undisciplined enthusiasm of an amateur, jumping from this invention to that, beaming over his spectacles. Sir Charles listened with here and there a word of advice, or of sympathy with the labour of creation. But his thoughts were busy elsewhere, he was pondering over his discovery of the morning, over the sight which he and Jerkley had seen last night, he was accustoming himself to regard the old man in a strange new light, as an over-careful father and a sorely-stricken husband. Meanwhile he sat over against the window which was in the side of the house, and since the house was built upon a slope of hill, although the window was on the first floor, a broad terrace of grass stretched away from it to a circle of gravel ornamented with statues. On this terrace he saw Mrs. Lashley, and reflected uncomfortably that he must meet her at dinner and again sustain the inquiry of her eyes.
He avoided actual questions, however, and as soon as dinner was over, with a meaning look at the girl to assure her that he was busy with her business, he retired to the library. Then he sat himself down to think the matter over restfully. But the room, walled with books upon its three sides, fronted the Southwest on its fourth, and as the afternoon advanced, the hot June sun streamed farther and farther into the room. Sir Charles moved his chair back, and again back, and again, until at last it was pushed into the one cool dark corner of the room. Then Sir Charles closed his wearied eyes the better to think. But he had slept little during the last night, and when he opened them again, it was with a guilty start. He rubbed his eyes, then he reached a hand down quickly at his side, and lifted a book out of the lowest shelf in the corner. The book was a volume of sermons. Sir Charles replaced it, and again dipped his hand into the lucky-bag. He drew out a tome of Mr. Hobbes' philosophy; Sir Charles was not in the mood for Hobbes; he tried again. On this third occasion he found something very much more to his taste, namely the second Volume of Anthony Hamilton's Memoirs of Count Grammont. This he laid upon his knee, and began glancing through the pages while he speculated upon the mystery of the Major's disappearance. His thoughts, however, lagged in a now well-worn circle, they begot nothing new in the way of a suggestion. On the other hand the book was quite new to him. He became less and less interested in his thoughts, more and more absorbed in the Memoirs. There were passages marked with a pencil-line in the margin, and marked, thought Sir Charles, by a discriminating judge. He began to look only for the marked passages, being sure that thus he would most easily come upon the raciest anecdotes. He read the story of the Count's pursuit by the brother of the lady he was affianced to. The brother caught up the Count when he was nearing Dover to return to France. "You have forgotten something," said the brother. "So I have," replied Grammont. "I have forgotten to marry your sister." Sir Charles chuckled and turned over the pages. There was an account of how the reprobate hero rode seventy miles into the country to keep a tryst with an inamorata and waited all night for no purpose in pouring rain by the Park gate. Sir Charles laughed aloud. He turned over more pages, and to his surprise came across, amongst the marked passages, a quite unentertaining anecdote of how Grammont lost a fine new suit of clothes, ordered for a masquerade at White Hall. Sir Charles read the story again, wondering why on earth this passage had been marked; and suddenly he was standing by the window, holding the book to the light in a quiver of excitement. Underneath certain letters in the words of this marked passage he had noticed dents in the paper, as though by the pressure of a pencil point. Now that he stood by the light, he made sure of the dents, and he saw also by the roughness of the paper about them, that the pencil-marks had been carefully erased. He read these underlined letters together—they made a word, two words—a sentence, and the sentence was an assignation.
Sir Charles could not remember that the critical moment in any of his great engineering undertakings, had ever caused him such a flutter of excitement, such a pulsing in his temples, such a catching of his breath—no, not even the lowering of Charles' Chest into the Waters of Tangier harbour. Everything at once became exaggerated out of its proportions, the silence of the house seemed potential and expectant, the shadows in the room now that the sun was low had their message, he felt a queer chill run down his spine like ice, he shivered. Then he hurried to the door, locked it and sat down to a more careful study. And as he read, there came out before his eyes a story—a story told as it were in telegrams, a story of passion, of secret meetings, of gratitude for favours.
Who was the discriminating judge who had marked these passages and underlined these letters? The book was newly published, it was in the Quarry House, and there were three occupants of the Quarry House. Was it Mr. Mardale? The mere question raised a laugh. Resilda? Never. Major Lashley then? If not Major Lashley, who else?
It flashed into his mind that here in this book he might hold the history of the Major's long courtship of Resilda. But he dismissed the notion contemptuously. Gibson Jerkley had told him of that courtship, and of the girl's reluctance to respond to it. Besides Resilda was never the woman in this story. Perhaps the first volume might augment it and give the clue to the woman's identity. Sir Charles hunted desperately through the shelves. Nowhere was the first volume to be found. He wasted half-an-hour before he understood why. Of course the other volume would be in the woman's keeping, and how in the world to discover her?
Things moved very quickly with Sir Charles that afternoon. He had shut up the volume and laid it on the table, the while he climbed up and down the library steps. From the top of the steps he glanced about the room in a despairing way, and his eyes lit upon the table. For the first time he remarked the binding which was of a brown leather. But all the books on the shelves were bound uniformly in marble boards with a red backing. He sprang down from the steps with the vigour of a boy, and seizing the book looked in the fly leaf for a name. There was a name, the name of a bookseller in Leamington, and as he closed the book again, some one rapped upon the door. Sir Charles opened it and saw Mr. Mardale. He gave the old gentleman no time to speak.
"Mr. Mardale," said he, "I am a man of plethoric habits, and must needs take exercise. Can you lend me a horse?"
Mr. Mardale was disappointed as his manner showed. He had perhaps at that very moment hit upon a new and most revolutionary invention. But his manners hindered him from showing more than a trace of the disappointment, and Sir Charles rode out to the bookseller at Leamington, with the volume beneath his coat.
"Can you show me the companion to this?" said he, dumping it down upon the counter. The bookseller seized upon the volume and fondled it.
"It is not fair," he cried. "In any other affair but books, it would be called at once sheer dishonesty. Here have been my subscribers clamouring for the Memoirs for six months and more."
"You hire out your books!" cried Sir Charles.
"Give would be the properer word," grumbled the man.
Sir Charles humbly apologised.
"It was the purest oversight," said he, "and I will gladly pay double. But I need the first volume."
"The first volume, Sir," replied the bookseller in a mollified voice, "is in the like case with the second. There has been an oversight."
"But who has it?"
The bookseller was with difficulty persuaded to search his list. He kept his papers in the greatest disorder, so that it was no wonder people kept his volumes until they forgot them. But in the end he found his list.
"Mrs. Ripley," he read out, "Mrs. Ripley of Burley Wood."
"And where is Burley Wood?" asked Sir Charles.
"It is a village, Sir, six miles from Leamington," replied the bookseller, and he gave some rough directions as to the road.
Sir Charles mounted his horse and cantered down the Parade. The sun was setting; he would for a something miss his supper; but he meant to see Burley Wood that day, and he would have just daylight enough for his purpose. As he entered the village, he caught up a labourer returning from the fields. Sir Charles drew rein beside him.
"Will you tell me, if you please, where Mrs. Ripley lives?"
The man looked up and grinned.
"In the churchyard," said he.
"Do you mean she is dead?"
"When did she die?"
"Well, it may have been a month or two ago, or it may have been more."
"Show me her grave and there's a silver shilling in your pocket."
The labourer led Fosbrook to a corner of the churchyard. Then upon a head-stone he read that Mary Ripley aged twenty-nine had died on December 7th. December the 7th thought Sir Charles, five days before Major Lashley died. Then he turned quickly to the labourer.
"Can you tell me when Mrs. Ripley was buried?"
"I can find out for another shilling."
"You shall have it, man."
The labourer hurried off, discovered the sexton, and came back. But instead of the civil gentleman he had left, he found now a man with a face of horror, and eyes that had seen appalling things. Sir Charles had remained in the churchyard by the grave, he had looked about him from one to the other of the mounds of turf, his imagination already stimulated had been quickened by what he had seen; he stood with the face of a Medusa.
"She was buried when?" he asked.
"On December the 11th," replied the labourer.
Sir Charles showed no surprise. He stood very still for a moment, then he gave the man his two shillings, and walked to the gate where his horse was tied. Then he inquired the nearest way to the Quarry House, and he was pointed out a bridle-path running across fields to a hill. As he mounted he asked another question.
"Mr. Ripley is alive?"
"It must be Mr. Ripley," Sir Charles assured himself, as he rode through the dusk of the evening. "It must be … It must be …" until the words in his mind became a meaningless echo of his horse's hoofs. He rode up the hill, left the bridle-path for the road, and suddenly, and long before he had expected, he saw beneath him the red square of the Quarry House and the smoke from its chimneys. He was on that very road up which he and Gibson Jerkley had looked that morning. Down that road, he had said, would come the man who knew how Major Lashley had disappeared, and within twelve hours down that road the man was coming. "But it must be Mr. Ripley," he said to himself.
None the less he took occasion at supper to speak of his ride.
"I rode by Leamington to Burley Wood. I went into the churchyard." Then he stopped, but as though the truth was meant to come to light, Resilda helped him out.
"I had a dear friend buried there not so long ago," she said. "Father, you remember Mrs. Ripley."
"I saw her grave this afternoon," said Fosbrook, with his eyes upon Mr. Mardale. It might have been a mere accident, it was in any case a trifling thing, the mere shaking of a hand, the spilling of a spoonful of salt upon the table, but trifling things have their suggestions. He remembered that Resilda, when she had waked up on the night of December the 11th to find herself alone, had sought out her father, who was still up, and at work in the big drawing-room. He remembered too that the window of that room gave on to a terrace of grass. A man might go out by that window—aye and return without a soul but himself being the wiser.
Of course it was all guess work and inference, and besides, it must be Mr. Ripley. Mr. Ripley might as easily have discovered the secret of the Memoirs as himself—or anyone else. Mr. Ripley would have justification for anger and indeed for more—yes for what men who are not affected are used to call a crime … Sir Charles abruptly stopped his reasoning, seeing that it was prompted by a defence of Mr. Mardale. He made his escape from his hosts as soon as he decently could and retired to his room. He sat down in his room and thought, and he thought to some purpose. He blew out his candle, and stole down the stairs into the hall. He had met no one. From the hall he went to the library-door and opened it—ever so gently. The room was quite dark. Sir Charles felt his way across it to his chair in the corner. He sat down in the darkness and waited. After a time inconceivably long, after every board in the house had cracked a million times, he heard distinctly a light shuffling step in the passage, and after that the latch of the door release itself from the socket. He heard nothing more, for a little, he could only guess that the door was being silently opened by some one who carried no candle. Then the shuffling footsteps began to move gently across the room, towards him, towards the corner where he was sitting. Sir Charles had had no doubt but that they would, not a single doubt, but none the less as he sat there in the dark, he felt the hair rising on his scalp, and all his body thrill. Then a hand groped and touched him. A cry rang out, but it was Sir Charles who uttered it. A voice answered quietly:
"You had fallen asleep. I regret to have waked you."
"I was not asleep, Mr. Mardale."
There was a pause and Mr. Mardale continued.
"I cannot sleep to-night, I came for a book."
"I know. For the book I took back to Leamington to-day, before I went to visit Mrs. Ripley's grave."
There was a yet longer pause before Mr. Mardale spoke again.
"Stay then!" he said in the same gentle voice. "I will fetch a light." He shuffled out of the room, and to Sir Charles it seemed again an inconceivably long time before he returned. He came back with a single candle, which he placed upon the table, a little star of light, showing the faces of the two men shadowy and dim. He closed the door carefully, and coming back, said simply:
"How did you find out?"
"I saw the grave. I noticed the remarkable height of the mound. I guessed."
"Yes," said Mr. Mardale, and in a low voice he explained. "I found the book here one day, that he left by accident. On December 11th Mrs. Ripley was buried, and that night he left the house—for the stables, yes, but he did not return from the stables. It seemed quite clear to me where he would be that night. People hereabouts take me for a man crazed and daft, I know that very well, but I know something of passion, Sir Charles. I have had my griefs to bear. Oh, I knew where he would be. I followed over the hill down to the churchyard of Burley Wood. I had no thought of what I should do. I carried a stick in my hand, I had no thought of using it. But I found him lying full-length upon the grave with his lips pressed to the earth of it, whispering to her who lay beneath him. … I called to him to stand up and he did. I bade him, if he dared, repeat the words he had used to my face, to me, the father of the girl he had married, and he did—triumphantly, recklessly. I struck at him with the knob of my stick, the knob was heavy, I struck with all my might, the blow fell upon his forehead. The spade was lying on the ground beside the grave. I buried him with her. Now what will you do?"
"Nothing," said Sir Charles.
"But Mr. Jerkley asked you to help him."
"I shall tell a lie."
"My friend, there is no need," said the old man with his gentle smile. "When I went out for this candle I …" Sir Charles broke in upon him in a whirl of horror.
"No. Don't say it! You did not!"
"I did," replied Mr. Mardale. "The poison is a kindly one. I shall be dead before morning. I shall sleep my way to death. I do not mind, for I fear that, after all, my inventions are of little worth. I have left a confession on my writing-desk. There is no reason—is there?—why he and she should be kept apart?"
It was not a question which Sir Charles could discuss. He said nothing, and was again left alone in the darkness, listening to the shuffling footsteps of Mr. Mardale as, for the last time, he mounted the stairs.