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Moonfleet/Chapter 13

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CHAPTER 13
AN INTERVIEW

No human creature stirred to go or come,
  No face looked forth from shut or open casement,
No chimney smoked, there was no sign of home
  From parapet to basement—Hood


And so the days went on, until there came to be but two nights more before we were to leave our cave. Now I have said that the delay chafed us, because we were impatient to get at the treasure; but there was something else that vexed me and made me more unquiet with every day that passed. And this was that I had resolved to see Grace before I left these parts, and yet knew not how to tell it to Elzevir. But on this evening, seeing the time was grown so short, I knew that I must speak or drop my purpose, and so spoke.

We were sitting like the sea-birds on the ledge outside our cave, looking towards St. Alban's Head and watching the last glow of sunset. The evening vapours began to sweep down Channel, and Elzevir shrugged his shoulders. 'The night turns chill,' he said, and got up to go back to the cave. So then I thought my time was come, and following him inside said:

'Dear Master Elzevir, you have watched over me all this while and tended me kinder than any father could his son; and 'tis to you I owe my life, and that my leg is strong again. Yet I am restless this night, and beg that you will give me leave to climb the shaft and walk abroad. It is two months and more that I have been in the cave and seen nothing but stone walls, and I would gladly tread once more upon the Down.'

'Say not that I have saved thy life,' Elzevir broke in; '’twas I who brought thy life in danger; and but for me thou mightst even now be lying snug abed at Moonfleet, instead of hiding in the chambers of these rocks. So speak not of that, but if thou hast a mind to air thyself an hour, I see little harm in it. These wayward fancies fall on men as they get better of sickness; and I must go tonight to that ruined house of which I spoke to thee, to fetch a pocket compass Master Ratsey was to put there. So thou canst come with me and smell the night air on the Down.'

He had agreed more readily than I looked for, and so I pushed the matter, saying:

'Nay, master, grant me leave to go yet a little farther afield. You know that I was born in Moonfleet, and have been bred there all my life, and love the trees and stream and very stones of it. And I have set my heart on seeing it once more before we leave these parts for good and all. So give me leave to walk along the Down and look on Moonfleet but this once, and in this ploughboy guise I shall be safe enough, and will come back to you tomorrow night'

He looked at me a moment without speaking; and all the while I felt he saw me through and through, and yet he was not angry. But I turned red, and cast my eyes upon the ground, and then he spoke:

'Lad, I have known men risk their lives for many things: for gold, and love, and hate; but never one would play with death that he might see a tree or stream or stones. And when men say they love a place or town, thou mayst be sure 'tis not the place they love but some that live there; or that they loved some in the past, and so would see the spot again to kindle memory withal. Thus when thou speakest of Moonfleet, I may guess that thou hast someone there to see—or hope to see. It cannot be thine aunt, for there is no love lost between ye; and besides, no man ever perilled his life to bid adieu to an aunt. So have no secrets from me, John, but tell me straight, and I will judge whether this second treasure that thou seekest is true gold enough to fling thy life into the scale against it.'

Then I told him all, keeping nothing back, but trying to make him see that there was little danger in my visiting Moonfleet, for none would know me in a carter's dress, and that my knowledge of the place would let me use a hedge or wall or wood for cover; and finally, if I were seen, my leg was now sound, and there were few could beat me in a running match upon the Down. So I talked on, not so much in the hope of convincing him as to keep saying something; for I durst not look up, and feared to hear an angry word from him when I should stop. But at last I had spoken all I could, and ceased because I had no more. Yet he did not break out as I had thought, but there was silence; and after a moment I looked up, and saw by his face that his thoughts were wandering. When he spoke there was no anger in his voice, but only something sad.

'Thou art a foolish lad,' he said. 'Yet I was young once myself, and my ways have been too dark to make me wish to darken others, or try to chill young blood. Now thine own life has got a shadow on't already that I have helped to cast, so take the brightness of it while thou mayst, and get thee gone. But for this girl, I know her for a comely lass and good-hearted, and have wondered often how she came to have him for her father. I am glad now I have not his blood on my hands; and never would have gone to take it then, for all the evil he had brought on me, but that the lives of every mother's son hung on his life. So make thy mind at ease, and get thee gone and see these streams and trees and stones thou talkest of. Yet if thou'rt shot upon the Down, or taken off to jail, blame thine own folly and not me. And I will walk with thee to Purbeck Gates tonight, and then come back and wait. But if thou art not here again by midnight tomorrow, I shall believe that thou art taken in some snare, and come out to seek thee.'

I took his hand, and thanked him with what words I could that he had let me go, and then got on the smock, putting some bread and meat in my pockets, as I was likely to find little to eat on my journey. It was dark before we left the cave, for there is little dusk with us, and the division between day and night sharper than in more northern parts. Elzevir took me by the hand and led me through the darkness of the workings, telling me where I should stoop, and when the way was uneven. Thus we came to the bottom of the shaft, and looking up through ferns and brambles, I could see the deep blue of the sky overhead, and a great star gazing down full at us. We climbed the steps with the soap-stone slide at one side, and then walked on briskly over the springy turf through the hillocks of the coveted quarry-heaps and the ruins of the deserted cottages.

There was a heavy dew which got through my boots before we had gone half a mile, and though there was no moon, the sky was very clear, and I could see the veil of gossamers spread silvery white over the grass. Neither of us spoke, partly because it was safer not to speak, for the voice carries far in a still night on the Downs; and partly, I think, because the beauty of the starry heaven had taken hold upon us both, ruling our hearts with thoughts too big for words. We soon reached that ruined cottage of which Elzevir had spoken, and in what had once been an oven, found the compass safe enough as Ratsey had promised. Then on again over the solitary hills, not speaking ourselves, and neither seeing light in window nor hearing dog stir, until we reached that strange defile which men call the Gates of Purbeck. Here is a natural road nicking the highest summit of the hill, with walls as sharp as if the hand of man had cut them, through which have walked for ages all the few travellers in this lonely place, shepherds and sailors, soldiers and Excisemen. And although, as I suppose, no carts have been through it for centuries, there are ruts in the chalk floor as wide and deep as if the cars of giants used it in past times.

So here Elzevir stopped, and drawing from his bosom that silver-butted pistol of which I have spoken, thrust it in my hand. 'Here, take it, child,' he said, 'but use it not till thou art closely pressed, and then if thou must shoot, shoot low—it flings.' I took it and gripped his hand, and so we parted, he going back to Purbeck, and I making along the top of the ridge at the back of Hoar Head. It must have been near three when I reached a great grass-grown mound called Culliford Tree, that marks the resting-place of some old warrior of the past. The top is planted with a clump of trees that cut the skyline, and there I sat awhile to rest. But not for long, for looking back towards Purbeck, I could see the faint hint of dawn low on the sea-line behind St. Alban's Head, and so pressed forward knowing I had a full ten miles to cover yet.

Thus I travelled on, and soon came to the first sign of man, namely a flock of lambs being fed with turnips on a summer fallow. The sun was well up now, and flushed all with a rosy glow, showing the sheep and the roots they eat white against the brown earth. Still I saw no shepherd, nor even dog, and about seven o'clock stood safe on Weatherbeech Hill that looks down over Moonfleet.

There at my feet lay the Manor woods and the old house, and lower down the white road and the straggling cottages, and farther still the Why Not? and the glassy Fleet, and beyond that the open sea. I cannot say how sad, yet sweet, the sight was: it seemed like the mirage of the desert, of which I had been told—so beautiful, but never to be reached again by me. The air was still, and the blue smoke of the morning wood-fires rose straight up, but none from the Why Not? or Manor House. The sun was already very hot, and I dropped at once from the hill-top, digging my heels into the brown-burned turf, and keeping as much as might be among the furze champs. So I was soon in the wood, and made straight for the little dell and lay down there, burying myself in the wild rhubarb and burdocks, yet so that I could see the doorway of the Manor House over the lip of the hill.

Then I reflected what I was to do, or how I should get to speak with Grace: and thought I would first wait an hour or two, and see whether she came out, and afterwards, if she did not, would go down boldly and knock at the door. This seemed not very dangerous, for it was likely, from what Ratsey had said, that there was no one with her in the house, and if there was it would be but an old woman, to whom I could pass as a stranger in my disguise, and ask my way to some house in the village. So I lay still and munched a piece of bread, and heard the clock in the church tower strike eight and afterwards nine, but saw no one move in the house. The wood was all alive with singing-birds, and with the calling of cuckoo and wood-pigeon. There were deep patches of green shade and lighter patches of yellow sunlight, in which the iris leaves gleamed with a sheeny white, and a shimmering blue sea of ground-ivy spread all through the wood. It struck ten, and as the heat increased the birds sang less and the droning of the bees grew more distinct, and at last I got up, shook myself, smoothed my smock, and making a turn, came out on the road that led to the house.

Though my disguise was good, I fear I made but an indifferent bad ploughboy when walking, and found a difficulty in dealing with my hands, not knowing how ploughboys are wont to carry them. So I came round in front of the house, and gave a rat-tat on the door, while my pulse beat as loud inside of me as ever did the knocker without. The sound ran round the building, and backwards among the walks, and all was silent as before. I waited a minute, and was for knocking again, thinking there might be no one in the house, and then heard a light footstep coming along the corridor, yet durst not look through the window to see who it was in passing, as I might have done, but kept myself close to the door.

The bolts were being drawn, and a girl's voice asked, 'Who is there?' I gave a jump to hear that voice, knowing it well for Grace's, and had a mind to shout out my name. But then I remembered there might be some in the house with her besides, and that I must remain disguised. Moreover, laughing is so mixed with crying in our world, and trifling things with serious, that even in this pass I believe I was secretly pleased to have to play a trick on her, and test whether she would find me out in this dress or not. So I spoke out in our round Dorset speech, such as they talk it out in the vale, saying, 'A poor boy who is out of his way.'

Then she opened one leaf of the door, and asked me whither I would go, looking at me as one might at a stranger and not knowing who it was.

I answered that I was a farm lad who had walked from Purbeck, and sought an inn called the Why Not? kept by one Master Block. When she heard that, she gave a little start, and looked me over again, yet could make nothing of it, but said:

'Good lad, if you will step on to this terrace I can show you the Why Not? inn, but 'tis shut these two months or more, and Master Block away.'

With that she turned towards the terrace, I following, but when we were outside of ear-shot from the door, I spoke in my own voice, quick but low:

'Grace, it is I, John Trenchard, who am come to say goodbye before I leave these parts, and have much to tell that you would wish to hear. Are there any beside in the house with you?'

Now many girls who had suffered as she had, and were thus surprised, would have screamed, or perhaps swooned, but she did neither, only flushing a little and saying, also quick and low, 'Let us go back to the house; I am alone.'

So we went back, and after the door was bolted, took both hands and stood up face to face in the passage looking into one another's eyes. I was tired with a long walk and sleepless night, and so full of joy to see her again that my head swam and all seemed a sweet dream. Then she squeezed my hands, and I knew 'twas real, and was for kissing her for very love; but she guessed what I would be at, perhaps, and cast my hands loose, drawing back a little, as if to see me better, and saying, 'John, you have grown a man in these two months.' So I did not kiss her.

But if it was true that I was grown a man, it was truer still that she was grown a woman, and as tall as I. And these recent sufferings had taken from her something of light and frolic girlhood, and left her with a manner more staid and sober. She was dressed in black, with longer skirts, and her hair caught up behind; and perhaps it was the mourning frock that made her look pale and thin, as Ratsey said. So while I looked at her, she looked at me, and could not choose but smile to see my carter's smock; and as for my brown face and hands, thought I had been hiding in some country underneath the sun, until I told her of the walnut-juice. Then before we fell to talking, she said it was better we should sit in the garden, for that a woman might come in to help her with the house, and anyway it was safer, so that I might get out at the back in case of need. So she led the way down the corridor and through the living-part of the house, and we passed several rooms, and one little parlour lined with shelves and musty books. The blinds were pulled, but let enough light in to show a high-backed horsehair chair that stood at the table. In front of it lay an open volume, and a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles, that I had often seen on Maskew's nose; so I knew it was his study, and that nothing had been moved since last he sat there. Even now I trembled to think in whose house I was, and half-expected the old attorney to step in and hale me off to jail; till I remembered how all my trouble had come about, and how I last had seen him with his face turned up against the morning sun.

Thus we came to the garden, where I had never been before. It was a great square, shut in with a brick wall of twelve or fifteen feet, big enough to suit a palace, but then ill kept and sorely overgrown. I could spend long in speaking of that plot; how the flowers, and fruit-trees, pot-herbs, spice, and simples ran all wild and intermixed. The pink brick walls caught every ray of sun that fell, and that morning there was a hushed, close heat in it, and a warm breath rose from the strawberry beds, for they were then in full bearing. I was glad enough to get out of the sun when Grace led the way into a walk of medlar-trees and quinces, where the boughs interlaced and formed an alley to a brick summer-house. This summer-house stands in the angle of the south wall, and by it two fig-trees, whose tops you can see from the outside. They are well known for the biggest and the earliest bearing of all that part, and Grace showed me how, if danger threatened, I might climb up their boughs and scale the wall.

We sat in the summer-house, and I told her all that had happened at her father's death, only concealing that Elzevir had meant to do the deed himself; because it was no use to tell her that, and besides, for all I knew, he never did mean to shoot, but only to frighten.

She wept again while I spoke, but afterwards dried her tears, and must needs look at my leg to see the bullet-wound, and if it was all soundly healed.

Then I told her of the secret sense that Master Ratsey's words put into the texts written on the parchment. I had showed her the locket before, but we had it out again now; and she read and read again the writing, while I pointed out how the words fell, and told her I was going away to get the diamond and come back the richest man in all the countryside.

Then she said, 'Ah, John! set not your heart too much upon this diamond. If what they say is true, 'twas evilly come by, and will bring evil with it. Even this wicked man durst not spend it for himself, but meant to give it to the poor; so, if indeed you ever find it, keep it not for yourself, but set his soul at rest by doing with it what he meant to do, or it will bring a curse upon you.'

I only smiled at what she said, taking it to be a girlish fancy, and did not tell her why I wanted so much to be rich—namely, to marry her one day. Then, having talked long about my own concerns as selfishly as a man always does, I thought to ask after herself, and what she was going to do. She told me that a month past lawyers had come to Moonfleet, and pressed her to leave the place, and they would give her in charge to a lady in London, because, said they, her father had died without a will, and so she must be made a ward of Chancery. But she had begged them to let her be, for she could never live anywhere else than in Moonfleet, and that the air and commodity of the place suited her well. So they went off, saying that they must take direction of the Court to know whether she might stay here or not, and here she yet was. This made me sad, for all I knew of Chancery was that whatever it put hand on fell to ruin, as witness the Chancery Mills at Cerne, or the Chancery Wharf at Wareham; and certainly it would take little enough to ruin the Manor House, for it was three parts in decay already.

Thus we talked, and after that she put on a calico bonnet and picked me a dish of strawberries, staying to pull the finest, although the sun was beating down from mid-heaven, and brought me bread and meat from the house. Then she rolled up a shawl to make me a pillow, and bade me lie down on the seat that ran round the summer-house and get to sleep, for I had told her that I had walked all night, and must be back again at the cave come midnight She went back to the house, and that was the most sweet and peaceful sleep that ever I knew, for I was very tired, and had this thought to soothe me as I fell asleep—that I had seen Grace, and that she was so kind to me.

She was sitting beside me when I awoke and knitting a piece of work. The heat of the day was somewhat less, and she told me that it was past five o'clock by the sun-dial; so I knew that I must go. She made me take a packet of victuals and a bottle of milk, and as she put it into, my pocket the bottle struck on the butt of Maskew's pistol, which I had in my bosom. 'What have you there?' she said; but I did not tell her, fearing to call up bitter memories.

We stood hand in hand again, as we had done in the morning, and she said: 'John, you will wander on the sea, and may perhaps put into Moonfleet. Though you have not been here of late, I have kept a candle burning at the window every night, as in the past. So, if you come to beach on any night you will see that light, and know Grace remembers you. And if you see it not, then know that I am dead or gone, for I will think of you every night till you come back again.' I had nothing to say, for my heart was too full with her sweet words and with the sorrow of parting, but only drew her close to me and kissed her; and this time she did not step back, but kissed me again.

Then I climbed up the fig-tree, thinking it safer so to get out over the wall than to go back to the front of the house, and as I sat on the wall ready to drop the other side, turned to her and said good-bye.

'Good-bye,' cried she; 'and have a care how you touch the treasure; it was evilly come by, and will bring a curse with it.'

'Good-bye, good-bye,' I said, and dropped on to the soft leafy bottom of the wood.