The Island of Intrigue/Chapter 9
AFTER breakfast the next morning I started out in good earnest, to find a cool, shady spot, and write some letters. I wanted to reach Daddy in London before he left for the continent, to beg him to hurry back as soon as possible. I meant to tell him of Mr. Fordyce's visit, too, but I didn't think I would mention Gilbert Spear, just yet; at least not until I had told Gilbert of my identity. Daddy might cable to Arnold Spear, and spoil my surprise.
Aunt Julie had said at breakfast that Mr. Fordyce might return before long, and I was very glad. It was odd, but the more I thought of him, the more familiar his face had seemed to me; just as I had fancied when I first met Bijou again, that I must have seen her some- where lately, so I felt toward him.
I was walking slowly along the path leading to the cove, when all at once my thoughts were interrupted by a slight sound behind me, as if a twig had snapped beneath a stealthy footfall. I glanced over my shoulder, but no one was to be seen, and I sauntered on. I had come to a little path which branched off to the right, and I remembered that it was somewhere about here that I had chanced upon the little clearing, two days before, where the peculiarly shaped flower-bed was. I could have laughed now, at the silly, morbid fancies it had awakened, and the sudden impulse came to me to look for it, and see if the gardener had arranged flowers in it yet.
I came upon the thicket by the spring, where I had literally fallen into Gilbert Spear's arms, and retracing my steps, I found the clearing without much difficulty, yet—was it the right spot after all? It could not be, for there wasn't any flower-bed at all, just a smooth stretch of mossy green sward. Then, as I looked closely, I discovered that an oblong space in it seemed wilted and trampled upon, and going over gingerly to its edge, I saw that the mound had been levelled and very carelessly sodded.
As I moved on, wondering why whoever had planned the flower-bed had changed their minds, I heard again, unmistakably, a soft footstep behind me, and the rustle of branches as someone parted the bushes. I was being followed! Why, and by whom I could not imagine, but I determined to find out. I did not look around, but kept straight on slowly until I came to a sharp curve in the path. Then I slipped quickly behind a screening clump of bushes, and waited.
The footsteps drew nearer, and presently a man appeared, walking with a stealthy, cat-like tread, and peering sharply ahead. It was Monsieur Pelissier! I stepped quietly from behind the bushes, and faced him.
"May I ask you why you are following me, Monsieur?" I demanded coldly.
He started in surprise at my abrupt appearance, and then smiled blandly as he uncovered his head.
"I, Mademoiselle?" he began, but I cut him short.
"Yes. I have been aware for some time that I was being followed. Will you tell me why, please?"
I stood my ground, and looked firmly into his shifting eyes, and he shrugged with a gesture of half mocking appeal.
"I will admit, Miss Waring, I am guilty. I did follow you."
"I should like to know for what purpose?" I persisted.
"Can you ask?" He rolled his eyes beseechingly. "See! I am desolate, in disgrace because of two days ago. You have not granted me a look, a word, an opportunity to abase myself, to ask your pardon for my rudeness, my gaucherie! Ah,, if you could know my fears, my anxiety for you in the storm which was approaching, you would understand and forgive my ill-chosen words when I came upon you."
"Perhaps I should," I returned, with involuntary frankness. "There is a great deal about you that I do not understand, Monsieur Pelissier. If I knew the nature of your fears for me that day, I might be able to comprehend many things which are obscure to me."
He shot a lightning glance at me. Then his face changed swiftly, and he smiled.
"I am delighted to have awakened your interest, Mademoiselle. … You will permit?"
He lighted a cigarette airily but his hand trembled a little, and he tossed the match quickly aside.
"My fears for you?" He went on, smoothly. "Surely they are not incomprehensible? You were in very real danger, alone in the forest in that rising wind, with trees crashing down all about you! Mrs. Smith was almost beside herself with anxiety, and as for me, I scarcely realized what I said when I found you, unharmed, my relief was so great. You will be kind, and try to forget that little incident, or forgive it on the score of my solicitude for you?"
I shook my head.
"I assure you that I do not wish to remember it, Monsieur, nor do I wish to talk with you. I do not see any need of continuing this conversation further. I am going home. Will you allow me to pass, please?"
Considering that he was Aunt Julie's guest, that was putting it as strongly as I dared, and I should have thought that anyone with the merest instinct of a gentleman would have accepted it, and taken himself away from my presence as quickly as possible. But Monsieur Pelissier was evidently made of different clay.
"Do not tell me that I have in one little moment offended beyond reparation, I implore you, Mademoiselle!" He spread his hands out, palm upwards, and elevated his shoulders appealingly. His voice held no trace of resentment at the tone which I had taken. "Tiens! I have apologized, most humbly, I have done all in my power to make amends. I am of a temperament—how do you say?—excitable, impetuous, and I was half-crazed with anxiety. My rudeness was almost beyond pardon, I know, but it was quite without intent. Surely you will not be so cruel as to refuse my apology?"
He had me at a disadvantage there. We were both guests of Aunt Julie's, and as such I could not absolutely ignore his presence, as I most emphatically should have done under other circumstances, without an explanation which would have made the situation an extremely awkward one for all of us.
"No, Monsieur Pelissier," I said, at last. "I cannot refuse to accept your apology, of course. We will say no more about it."
"Will you not be still more generous, and say that we are to be friends?" he begged. "I am sure that you would take pity on me, if you could know how I have suffered under you displeasure these last two days!"
I saw that the only hope of ending this interview quickly, before I lost my temper and precipitated a scene, lay in. He would have stood there ignoring all snubs blocking my pathway and apologizing until sunset, if I didn't.
So I smiled a weak, surface smile which I was far from feeling, and observed:
"Friends, Monsieur? Perhaps. That will depend upon the future. And now I really must return to the house. If you will let me pass——"
"I will go with you!" he announced, with alacrity, and I resigned myself to the inevitable.
He tried to make conversation, of a sort, but I discouraged it bluntly, and after a time he desisted, and we walked on almost in silence. We came at length to a break in the curving line of the beach, where a neck of the woods jutted out into the water, forming a tiny peninsula, and to my surprise, voices sounded beyond it; young voices, several of them, and laughter, and little subdued shrieks.
I looked at Monsieur Pelissier. His eyes were flashing and his face fairly distorted with rage as it had been when he came upon me in the storm. He sprang forward and instinctively I followed him, but he turned upon me.
"Stay back!" he commanded, harshly. "I will attend to these interlopers, Mademoiselle! You will remain here!"
My seething temper boiled up at the insolent dominance of his tone, but I stepped back involuntarily, before the violence of his manner, and he rushed on.
The lighthearted chorus of voices ceased suddenly, and I heard a sharp exclamation from his lips, followed by a perfect stream of vituperation.
I crept forwards and peered between the bushes. Two launches were drawn up on the beach and a merry party of young people had been scurrying about, unloading picnic hampers and gathering driftwood for a fire. They had stopped paralyzed with surprise at Monsieur Pelissier's sudden appearance and onslaught.
His words were an almost unintelligible torrent of French and English combined, but his tone was unmistakably insulting, and one of the young men, taller and more tanned than the rest, stepped forward, flushing a little.
"Canaille! Monsieur Pelissier snarled, fairly dancing with rage. "How dare you land here with your miserable peecneec? Do you not know that you are upon private property? You shall leave at once, do you comprehend? At once, and do not dare to approach this island again!"
"Look here, sir!" the young man said, indignantly. "There's no reason for you to adopt that tone with us. We didn't know we were trespassing; we've picnicked here for four years and there's never been any objection raised before. Of course, we'll leave right away, there isn't any need for you to be so uncivil about it!"
"Onceevil! Onceevil!" the snarl rose to a scream. "How dare you! Cochon! Go before I pull your nose for you——"
"Come on and try it!" the young man invited with a chuckle, suddenly regaining his temper, as the last vestige of Monsieur Pelissier's self-control vanished. "Come on, you hollow-chested, narrow-shouldered French shrimp, and I'll show you what I'll do to you! Who are you, anyway? You don't belong on this island!"
"Oh, Charlie, don't!" one of the girls laid her hand on his arm. "It isn't worth while. Come, let's go just as quickly as we can. What's the good of a row? We are trespassing, you know."
After a long look at Monsieur Pelissier, the young man turned somewhat reluctantly, and helped to reload the launches. No further recriminations were exchanged and in a few minutes they backed out into the bay, and headed for one of the other islands.
Monsieur Pelissier stood watching them, until the launches were mere specks upon the water. Then suddenly he remembered me and turned. He was still flushed with anger, and his attempt at a smile died when he head the scorn and disgust in my eyes.
"It was insufferable!" he muttered, as if in self-defense. "One is not safe from the intrusion of the common people, even here! Mademoiselle will pardon the distressing scene. It was in execrable taste, but one must protect oneself against trespassers and vagabonds."
"They were not vagabonds!" I protested. "Why should they not have remained? What harm could they possibly do? They looked as if they were having a lovely time when you interrupted them! You need not have been so discourteous, in any event, Monsieur."
I could not help adding that; I was indignant at his unnecessarily violent outburst, and I felt sure that even easy-going Aunt Julie would resent his abrogating to himself the authority to order anyone away so insultingly.
"I am acting for Mrs, Smith," he returned, with an injured air. "I know that she desires no trespassers——"
"Weren't you a little hasty in that assumption?" I asked. "The young man said that they had been coming here unmolested for years."
"You heard?" he darted a quick look at me, then added with a laugh. "Nevertheless, you will find, Mademoiselle, that I have only carried out the wishes of Mrs. Smith."
And to my great surprise, his prediction proved well-founded. As soon as we reached the house, he plunged into a highly colored account of the incident, and Aunt Julie was agitated beyond all proportion to what had occurred.
"I have not overstepped my authority?" he asked, suavely, when the episode had been thoroughly discussed. "Miss Waring was surprised, I think, that I should have taken it upon myself to order them away."
"I am heartily grateful to you for doing so!" Aunt Julie returned, with a cold glance at me. "I hope you were sufficiently emphatic to keep them from returning again. The effrontery of these villagers is amazing! I will not have trespassers on this island!"
Considering that the Barfords owned a part of it, and that the lighthouse end was the property of the government, I thought she was a trifle more arrogant than the circumstances warranted, but of course I kept my opinion to myself. I wondered what she would say when she knew that Gilbert Spear was on the island, and who he was. It seemed a miracle that they had none of them discovered his presence before this.
I didn't try to make any excuses to myself, but after lunch I slipped away, and started out deliberately to find him. I didn't care a whit, that we hadn't met conventionally, now that I knew who he really was.
I was sure Daddy would think it was all right, and I didn't mind anyone else's opinion. Only I felt that my little joke had been silly, and I intended to tell him the truth about my identity at the earliest opportunity.
I went first in the direction of the cove, in case Monsieur Pelissier should again be following me to force his detestable society upon me, and then doubled back and made straight through the kitchen garden, which was screened with tall hollyhocks from any view from the windows of Hard-a-lee.
As I entered the woods on the farther side I saw a figure moving toward me along the path ahead, and stopped in dismay. If it was that odious Monsieur Pelissier——! Then a muffled but joyous bark reached my ears, and I smiled in relief and walked on.
"I was waiting for you," Gilbert said simply, as he clasped my hand. "I hoped that you would come, and I did not think you would try the beach after this morning."
"This morning?" I echoed. "You saw——"
"The reception that was tendered the picnic party? Yes. Your French friend is quite temperamental, isn't he?"
"Don't! You know what I think of him!" I protested. "It was disgraceful, wasn't it? The worst of it is, that when we reached home Aunt Julie quite upheld him in what he had done. He might at least have been courteous about it, and I told him so! You see now how out of the question it would be for you to call, even though you are not a trespasser, of course. I am sure that Aunt Julie means to keep in strict retirement."
"Nevertheless, I wish that I might call," he said, decidedly. "I shouldn't want anyone to blame you, if we were discovered talking together. They might think I—I was trying to flirt with you!"
"Well, I know you're not," I returned, comfortably. "I will tell Daddy all about it, of course, when he comes, and I know he'll understand, as I told you yesterday. It really doesn't matter to me what Aunt Julie or any of the rest think."
Gilbert looked rather doubtful.
"They could make it very unpleasant for you, you know! Little girl, I wouldn't bring a moment's unhappiness upon you for the world, or a single wrong thought! Let me introduce myself to your cousin!"
"No," I said decidedly. "It wouldn't do, Mr. Spear. It wouldn't be of any use, and they would take good care that neither the other girls nor I should encounter you. I don't know the reason for this queer, unsociable seclusion, but I'm convinced that Aunt Julie would insist on it."
"I'm sorry. We must take care, then, that they don't come upon us, particularly the French person. What is his name?"
"Pelissier," I answered, "Raoul Pelissier."
"That's an odd name," remarked Gilbert, thoughtfully. "I know a man who called himself that once six years ago, but he couldn't be any connection of your aunt's guest, of course. The man I speak of was a steamship crook, a gambler on a P. and O. boat off the China coast."
"No," I laughed. "He could scarcely have been a relation of this Monsieur Pelissier, and yet I don't know. I believe him to be an adventurer, a fortune hunter of the worst type. Surely that is as bad."
Gilbert laughed too.
"Oh, this chap on board the Empress, didn't look at all like him, anyway. You spoke of one of your cousins being favorably impressed by him, and now you call him a fortune hunter. Do you think, then, that your cousin will marry him?"
"I'm afraid so!" I nodded slowly. "Oh, I wish Daddy were here now! He would see through him at once, I know, and make Aunt Julie listen!"
"Will he return soon?" Gilbert looked away.
"I don't know. He's gone to Europe you know.—Oh, won't he be surprised when he comes back, and learns that I have met you, on this queer out-of-the-way little corner of the earth!"
Surprised?" asked Gilbert. "Why?"
"Because," I began, and hesitated. "Because—Mr. Spear, I have a confession to make to you. It was such fun to turn the tables on you that I really couldn't resist it. I—I'm not——"
I paused in astonishment, as he grasped my arm suddenly, and glanced at him. His face was set in a strained, listening expression, and he motioned me to silence, although I could not hear a sound save the rustle and whisper of the trees. At length, he leaned over with his lips close to my ear, and murmured tonelessly:
"Someone is coming, advancing a few steps at a time and then stopping, as if looking for something. Come to the spring where we had tea, tomorrow morning, if you can get away. I'm going to slip off now. You sit quietly where you are for half an hour and then get up and stroll slowly home. Understand, little girl? Goodbye."
He pressed my hand and disappeared, gliding silently through the bushes with Laddie at his heels. I curled my feet up under me on the moss, leaned comfortably against a tree, and opened the book which I had carried, but the letters danced before my eyes. I was listening, listening with all my ears.
At last I did hear something, that same stealthy, cat-like tread of the morning, and I could feel my cheeks flame as my temper rose at his surveillance.
The footsteps came nearer, then halted suddenly, as if I had evidently been discovered. After a pause, the man came on, humming airily to himself, obviously for effect. I did not raise my eyes from my book, until he halted beside me, with an expression of surprise.
"Ah, Mademoiselle, again I come upon you!"
I looked up at him, a long, slow look, until his eyes shifted and fell.
"Yes. Curious, isn't it, Monsieur?"
"Will you not ask me to share your cool, shady retreat?" he asked, smiling insistently. "It is very inviting, but tantalizing the solitude in which you envelope yourself."
His words may have been idle ones, but I fancied all at once they held an ironical significance. I closed my book with a snap.
"It would scarcely be worth while," I said coolly. "I was on the point of returning to the house when you appeared."
"You are still unkind? Only this morning you agreed that we were to be friends; have I offended again? Mademoiselle is too young and charming to cherish resentment, enmity! Nor is it always wise. One may never know when one will need a friend, Miss Waring."
He spoke lightly, half laughingly, but beneath his tone there seemed a note of warning. With what was he threatening me? That there was some purpose in his attitude was apparent. Whatever it was, he would not have gone so far unless he felt that he held some advantage over me. Could he have seen me with Gilbert, and put his own vulgar construction on our meeting? If that was the stand he meant to take, I decided on a swift impulse to meet him on his own ground.
"That is true," I replied. "But one finds friends in all sorts of unlikely places. I really meant to return to the house to write some letters. When do you go again to the mainland?"
"Alaric will run over in the morning, I believe. I do not seem to have great success in the management of that launch."
"No?" I smiled in my turn, and added. "Tell me, Monsieur, what does a motor boat do when the engine breaks down?"
"It stops, of course, and one drifts, as I did yesterday morning. It was maddening."
"You drifted quite far, didn't you?" I asked quietly enough, but the shot took effect.
He had been leaning nonchalantly against a tree, switching aimlessly at a young maple shoot with his stick. Now he straightened himself and darted a swift enigmatic glance at me.
"For an hour or so, Mademoiselle, as you know, before I could discover what was wrong, and repair the engine," he replied quickly.
"There are some peculiar currents about the coast here, are there not?" I pursued, blandly.
"What do you mean?" He took a step forward, involuntarily, and the set smile disappeared from his face.
"It was odd that you were carried so far to the south, and so swiftly." I met his eyes then, without attempting to conceal the significance in mine."
"Mademoiselle has sharp eyes." He drew in his breath quickly. "But as one grows older one learns the wisdom of being blind, sometimes!"
"Indeed, Monsieur?" I raised my eyebrows a trifle. "I'm afraid I don't follow you!"
"Miss Waring." His manner all at once became soft and appealing and he spoke with an assumption of disarming frankness. "I will tell you the truth. You will, I am sure, respect my confidence. The engines did not break down. Instead I took that opportunity to perform a mission of my own. There is a lady whose summer home is upon one of the islands to the south. It was an affair of the heart, you comprehend. I should not perhaps speak of it, but in America, the young girls understand these things. The lady was insistent, and it is always well to be off with the old love before one is on with the new, is it not so? It was most affecting——" he paused, with an impressive sigh, "but necessary. Naturally I could not have explained the circumstances to Lorna, she would not have permitted herself to believe, and so I stole away for an hour or two."
I did not believe a word of it, myself, but I smiled up at him as sweetly as I could.
"We will say no more about it, Monsieur. As you say it is purely your own affair. It is already—almost—forgotten. And now we really must go back."
He assisted me to my feet, and loathing him as I did, I tried not to shrink from the touch of his hand. We made our way homeward almost in silence, but just before we reached the pergola at the end of the kitchen garden, he paused.
You may not be an adept at fencing, Mademoiselle, but permit me to say you would make an admirable chessplayer."
I smiled, in spite of myself. I knew what he meant. Checkmate!