My Lady's Bidding
Scribbled in sore haste, by a very tremulous little hand, with a pencil, on the flyleaf of some book, my darling's message is still difficult to read; it was doubly so in the moonlight, five-and-forty autumns ago. My eyesight, however, was then perhaps the soundest thing about me, and in a little I had deciphered enough to guess correctly (as it proved) at the whole: -
"You say you heard everything just now, and there is no time for further explanations. I am in the hands of villains, but not ill-treated, though they are one as bad as the other. You will not find it easy to rescue me. I don't see how it is to be done. You have promised not to do anything I ask you not to do, and I implore you not to tell a soul until you have seen me again and heard more. You might just as well kill me as come back now with help.
"You see you know nothing, though I told them you knew all. And so you shall as soon as I can see you for five minutes face to face. In the meantime do nothing - know nothing when you see Mr. Rattray - unless you wish to be my death.
"It would have been possible last night, and it may be again to-morrow night. They all go out every night when they can, except Jose, who is left in charge. They are out from nine or ten till two or three; if they are out to-morrow night my candle will be close to the window as I shall put it when I have finished this. You can see my window from over the wall. If the light is in front you must climb the wall, for they will leave the gate locked. I shall see you and will bribe Jose to let me out for a turn. He has done it before for a bottle of wine. I can manage him. Can I trust to you? If you break your promise - but you will not? One of them would as soon kill me as smoke a cigarette, and the rest are under his thumb. I dare not write more. But my life is in your hands.
"Oh! beware of the woman Braithwaite; she is about the worst of the gang."
I could have burst out crying in my bitter discomfiture, mortification, and alarm: to think that her life was in my hands, and that it depended, not on that prompt action which was the one course I had contemplated, but on twenty-four hours of resolute inactivity! I would not think it. I refused the condition. It took away my one prop, my one stay, that prospect of immediate measures which alone preserved in me such coolness as I had retained until now. I was cool no longer; where I had relied on practical direction I was baffled and hindered and driven mad; on my honor believe I was little less for some moments, groaning, cursing, and beating the air with impotent fists - in one of them my poor love's letter crushed already to a ball.
Danger and difficulty I had been prepared to face; but the task that I was set was a hundred-fold harder than any that had whirled through my teeming brain. To sit still; to do nothing; to pretend I knew nothing; an hour of it would destroy my reason - and I was invited to wait twenty-four!
No; my word was passed; keep it I must. She knew the men, she must know best; and her life depended on my obedience: she made that so plain. Obey I must and would; to make a start, I tottered over the plank that spanned the beck, and soon I saw the cottage against the moonlit sky. I came up to it. I drew back in sudden fear. It was alight upstairs and down, and the gaunt strong figure of the woman Braithwaite stood out as I had seen it first, in the doorway, with the light showing warmly through her rank red hair.
"Is that you, Mr. Cole?" she cried in a tone that she reserved for me; yet through the forced amiability there rang a note of genuine surprise. She had been prepared for me never to return at all!
My knees gave under me as I forced myself to advance; but my wits took new life from the crisis, and in a flash I saw how to turn my weakness into account. I made a false step on my way to the door; when I reached it I leant heavily against the jam, and I said with a slur that I felt unwell. I had certainly been flushed with wine when I left Rattray; it would be no bad thing for him to hear that I had arrived quite tipsy at the cottage; should he discover I had been near an hour on the way, here was my explanation cut and dried.
So I shammed a degree of intoxication with apparent success, and Jane Braithwaite gave me her arm up the stairs. My God, how strong it was, and how weak was mine!
Left to myself, I reeled about my bedroom, pretending to undress; then out with my candles, and into bed in all my clothes, until the cottage should be quiet. Yes, I must lie still and feign sleep, with every nerve and fibre leaping within me, lest the she-devil below should suspect me of suspicions! It was with her I had to cope for the next four-and-twenty hours; and she filled me with a greater present terror than all those villains at the hall; for had not their poor little helpless captive described her as "about the worst of the gang?"
To think that my love lay helpless there in the hands of those wretches; and to think that her lover lay helpless here in the supervision of this vile virago!
It must have been one or two in the morning when I stole to my sitting-room window, opened it, and sat down to think steadily, with the counterpane about my shoulders.
The moon sailed high and almost full above the clouds; these were dispersing as the night wore on, and such as remained were of a beautiful soft tint between white and gray. The sky was too light for stars, and beneath it the open country stretched so clear and far that it was as though one looked out at noonday through slate-colored glass. Down the dewy slope below my window a few calves fed with toothless mouthings; the beck was very audible, the oak-trees less so; but for these peaceful sounds the stillness and the solitude were equally intense.
I may have sat there like a mouse for half an hour. The reason was that I had become mercifully engrossed in one of the subsidiary problems: whether it would be better to drop from the window or to trust to the creaking stairs. Would the creaking be much worse than the thud, and the difference worth the risk of a sprained ankle? Well worth it, I at length decided; the risk was nothing; my window was scarce a dozen feet from the ground. How easily it could be done, how quickly, how safely in this deep, stillness and bright moonlight! I would fall so lightly on my stocking soles; a single soft, dull thud; then away under the moon without fear or risk of a false step; away over the stone walls to the main road, and so to the nearest police-station with my tale; and before sunrise the villains would be taken in their beds, and my darling would be safe!
I sprang up softly. Why not do it now? Was I bound to keep my rash, blind promise? Was it possible these murderers would murder her? I struck a match on my trousers, I lit a candle, I read her letter carefully again, and again it maddened and distracted me. I struck my hands together. I paced the room wildly. Caution deserted me, and I made noise enough to wake the very mute; lost to every consideration but that of the terrifying day before me, the day of silence and of inactivity, that I must live through with an unsuspecting face, a cool head, a civil tongue! The prospect appalled me as nothing else could or did; nay, the sudden noise upon the stairs, the knock at my door, and the sense that I had betrayed myself already even now all was over - these came as a relief after the haunting terror which they interrupted.
I flung the door opcn, and there stood Mrs. Braithwaite, as fully dressed as myself.
"You'll not be very well sir?"
No, I'm not."
"What's t' matter wi' you?"
This second question was rude and fierce with suspicion: the real woman rang out in it, yet its effect on me was astonishng: once again was I inspired to turn my slip into a move.
"Matter?" I cried. "Can't you see what's the matter; couldn't you see when I came in? Drink's the matter! I came in drunk, and now I'm mad. I can't stand it; I'm not in a fit state. Do you know nothng of me? Have they told you nothing? I'm the only man that was saved from the Lady Jermyn, the ship that was burned to the water's edge with every soul but me. My nerves are in little ends. I came down here for peace and quiet and sleep. Do you bow that I have hardly slept for two months? And now I shall never sleep again! O my God I shall die for want of it! The wine has done it. I never should have touched a drop. I can't stand it; I can't sleep after it; I shall kill myself if I get no sleep. Do you hear, you woman? I shall kill myself in your house if I don't get to sleep!"
I saw her shrink, virago as she was. I waved my arms, I shrieked in her face. It was not all acting. Heaven knows how true it was about the sleep. I was slowly dying of insomnia. I was a nervous wreck. She must have heard it. Now she saw it for herself.
No; it was by no means all acting. Intending only to lie, I found myself telling little but the strictest truth, and longing for sleep as passionately as though I had nothing to keep me awake. And yet, while my heart cried aloud in spite of me, and my nerves relieved themselves in this unpremeditated ebullition, I was all the time watching its effect as closely as though no word of it had been sincere.
Mrs. Braithwaite seemed frightened; not at all pitiful; and as I calmed down she recovered her courage and became insolent. I had spoilt her night. She had not been told she was to take in a raving lunatic. She would speak to Squire Rattray in the morning.
"Morning?" I yelled after her as she went. "Send your husband to the nearest chemist as soon as it's dawn; send him for chloral, chloroform, morphia, anything they've got and as much of it as they'll let him have. I'll give you five pounds if you get me what'll send me to sleep all to-morrow - and to-morrow night!"
Never, I feel sure, were truth and falsehood more craftily interwoven; yet I had thought of none of it until the woman was at my door, while of much I had not thought at all. It had rushed from my heart and from my lips. And no sooner was I alone than I burst into hysterical tears, only to stop and compliment myself because they sounded genuine - as though they were not! Towards morning I took to my bed in a burning fever, and lay there, now congratulating myself upon it, because when night came they would all think me so secure; and now weeping because the night might find me dying or dead. So I tossed, with her note clasped in my hand underneath the sheets; and beneath my very body that stout weapon that I had bought in town. I might not have to use it, but I was fatalist enough to fancy that I should. In the meantime it helped me to lie still, my thoughts fixed on the night, and the day made easy for me after all.
If only I could sleep!
About nine o'clock Jane Braithwaite paid me a surly visit; in half an hour she was back with tea and toast and an altered mien. She not only lit my fire, but treated me the while to her original tone of almost fervent civility and respect and determination. Her vagaries soon ceased to puzzle me: the psychology of Jane Braithwaite was not recondite. In the night it had dawned upon her that Rattray had found me harmless and was done with me, therefore there was no need for her to put herself out any further on my account. In the morning, finding me really ill, she had gone to the hall in alarm; her subsequent attentions were an act of obedience; and in their midst came Rattray himself to my bedside.Next