In the Garden
It so happened that I met nobody at all; but I must confess that my luck was better than my management. As I came upon the beck, a new sound reached me with the swirl. It was the jingle of bit and bridle; the beat of hoofs came after; and I had barely time to fling myself flat, when two horsemen emerged from the plantation, riding straight towards me in the moonlight. If they continued on that course they could not fail to see me as they passed along the opposite bank. However, to my unspeakable relief, they were scarce clear of the trees when they turned their horses' heads, rode them through the water a good seventy yards from where I lay, and so away at a canter across country towards the road. On my hands and knees I had a good look at them as they bobbed up and down under the moon; and my fears subsided in astonished curiosity. For I have already boasted of my eyesight, and I could have sworn that neither Rattray nor any one of his guests was of the horsemen; yet the back and shoulders of one of these seemed somehow familiar to me. Not that I wasted many moments over the coincidence, for I had other things to think about as I ran on to the hall.
I found the rear of the building in darkness unrelieved from within; on the other hand, the climbing moon beat so full upon the garden wall, it was as though a lantern pinned me as I crept beneath it. In passing I thought I might as well try the gate; but Eva was right; it was locked; and that made me half inclined to distrust my eyes in the matter of the two horsemen, for whence could they have come, if not from the hall? In any case I was well rid of them. I now followed the wall some little distance, and then, to see over it, walked backwards until I was all but in the beck; and there, sure enough, shone my darling's candle, close as close against the diamond panes of her narrow, lofty window! It brought those ready tears back to my foolish, fevered eyes. But for sentiment there was no time, and every other emotion was either futile or premature. So I mastered my full heart, I steeled, my wretched nerves, and braced my limp muscles for the task that lay before them.
I had a garden wall to scale, nearly twice my own height, and without notch or cranny in the ancient, solid masonry. I stood against it on my toes, and I touched it with my finger-tips as high up as possible. Some four feet severed them from the coping that left only half a sky above my upturned eyes.
I do not know whether I have made it plain that the house was not surrounded by four walls, but merely filled a breach in one of the four, which nipped it (as it were) at either end. The back entrance was approachable enough, but barred or watched, I might be very sure. It is ever the vulnerable points which are most securely guarded, and it was my one comfort that the difficult way must also be the safe way, if only the difficulty could be overcome. How to overcome it was the problem. I followed the wall right round to the point at which it abutted on the tower that immured my love; the height never varied; nor could my hands or eyes discover a single foot-hole, ledge, or other means of mounting to the top.
Yet my hot head was full of ideas; and I wasted some minutes in trying to lift from its hinges a solid, six-barred, outlying gate, that my weak arms could hardly stir. More time went in pulling branches from the oak-trees about the beck, where the latter ran nearest to the moonlit wall. I had an insane dream of throwing a long forked branch over the coping, and so swarming up hand-over-hand. But even to me the impracticability of this plan came home at last. And there I stood in a breathless lather, much time and strength thrown away together; and the candle burning down for nothing in that little lofty window; and the running water swirling noisily over its stones at my back.
This was the only sound; the wind had died away; the moonlit valley lay as still as the dread old house in its midst but for the splash and gurgle of the beck. I fancied this grew louder as I paused and listened in my helplessness. All at once - was it the tongue of Nature telling me the way, or common gumption returning at the eleventh hour? I ran down to the water's edge, and could have shouted for joy. Great stones lay in equal profusion on bed and banks. I lifted one of the heaviest in both hands. I staggered with it to the wall. I came back for another; for some twenty minutes I was so employed; my ultimate reward a fine heap of boulders against the wall.
Then I began to build; then mounted my pile, clawing the wall to keep my balance. My fingers were still many inches from the coping. I jumped down and gave another ten minutes to the back-breaking work of carrying more boulders from the water to the wall. Then I widened my cairn below, so that I could stand firmly before springing upon the pinnacle with which I completed it. I knew well that this would collapse under me if I allowed my weight to rest more than an instant upon it. And so at last it did; but my fingers had clutched the coping in time; had grabbed it even as the insecure pyramid crumbled and left me dangling.
Instantly exerting what muscle I had left, and the occasion gave me, I succeeded in pulling myself up until my chin was on a level with my hands, when I flung an arm over and caught the inner coping. The other arm followed; then a leg; and at last I sat astride the wall, panting and palpitating, and hardly able to credit my own achievement. One great difficulty had been my huge revolver. I had been terribly frightened it might go off, and had finally used my cravat to sling it at the back of my neck. It had shifted a little, and I was working it round again, preparatory to my drop, when I saw the light suddenly taken from the window in the tower, and a kerchief waving for one instant in its place. So she had been waiting and watching for me all these hours! I dropped into the garden in a very ecstasy of grief and rapture, to think that I had been so long in coming to my love, but that I had come at last. And I picked myself up in a very frenzy of fear lest, after all, I should fail to spirit her from this horrible place.
Doubly desolate it looked in the rays of that bright October moon. Skulking in the shadow of the wall which had so long baffled me, I looked across a sharp border of shade upon a chaos, the more striking for its lingering trim design. The long, straight paths were barnacled with weeds; the dense, fine hedges, once prim and angular, had fattened out of all shape or form; and on the velvet sward of other days you might have waded waist high in rotten hay. Towards the garden end this rank jungle merged into a worse wilderness of rhododendrons, the tallest I have ever seen. On all this the white moon smiled, and the grim house glowered, to the eternal swirl and rattle of the beck beyond its walls.
Long enough I stood where I had dropped, listening with all my being for some other sound; but at last that great studded door creaked and shivered on its ancient hinges, and I heard voices arguing in the Portuguese tongue. It was poor Eva wheedling that black rascal Jose. I saw her in the lighted porch; the nigger I saw also, shrugging and gesticulating for all the world like his hateful master; yet giving in, I felt certain, though I could not understand a word that reached me.
And indeed my little mistress very soon sailed calmly out, followed by final warnings and expostulations hurled from the step: for the black stood watching her as she came steadily my way, now raising her head to sniff the air, now stooping to pluck up a weed, the very picture of a prisoner seeking the open air for its own sake solely. I had a keen eye apiece for them as I cowered closer to the wall, revolver in hand. But ere my love was very near me (for she would stand long moments gazing ever so innocently at the moon), her jailer had held a bottle to the light, and had beaten a retreat so sudden and so hasty that I expected him back every moment, and so durst not stir. Eva saw me, however, and contrived to tell me so without interrupting the air that she was humming as she walked.
"Follow me," she sang, "only keep as you are, keep as you are, close to the wall, close to the wall."
And on she strolled to her own tune, and came abreast of me without turning her head; so I crept in the shadow (my ugly weapon tucked out of sight), and she sauntered in the shine, until we came to the end of the garden, where the path turned at right angles, running behind the rhododendrons; once in their shelter, she halted and beckoned me, and next instant I had her hands in mine.
"At last!" was all that I could say for many a moment, as I stood there gazing into her dear eyes, no hero in my heroic hour, but the bigger love-sick fool than ever. "But quick - quick - quick!" I added, as she brought me to my senses by withdrawing her hands. "We've no time to lose." And I looked wildly from wall to wall, only to find them as barren and inaccessible on this side as on the other.
"We have more time than you think," were Eva's first words. "We can do nothing for half-an-hour."
"I'll tell you in a minute. How did you manage to get over?"
"Brought boulders from the beck, and piled 'em up till I could reach the top."
I thought her eyes glistened.
"What patience!" she cried softly. "We must find a simpler way of getting out - and I think I have. They've all gone, you know, but Jose."
"The captain has been gone all day."
Then the other two must have been my horse-men, very probably in some disguise; and my head swam with the thought of the risk that I had run at the very moment when I thought myself safest. Well, I would have finished them both! But I did not say so to Eva. I did not mention the incident, I was so fearful of destroying her confidence in me. Apologizing, therefore, for my interruption, without explaining it, I begged her to let me hear her plan.
It was simple enough. There was no fear of the others returning before midnight; the chances were that they would be very much later; and now it was barely eleven, and Eva had promised not to stay out above half-an-hour. When it was up Jose would come and call her.
"It is horrid to have to be so cunning!" cried little Eva, with an angry shudder; "but it's no use thinking of that," she was quick enough to add, "when you have such dreadful men to deal with, such fiends! And I have had all day to prepare, and have suffered till I am so desperate I would rather die to-night than spend another in that house. No; let me finish! Jose will come round here to look for me. But you and I will be hiding n the other side of these rhododendrons. And when we hear him here we'll make a dash for it across the long grass. Once let us get the door shut and locked in his face, and he'll be in a trap. It will take him some time to break in; time enough to give us a start; what's more, when he finds us gone, he'll do what they all used to do in any doubt."
"Say nothing till it's found out; then lie for their lives; and it was their lives, poor creatures on the Zambesi!" She was silent a moment, her determined little face hard - set upon some unforgotten horror. "Once we get away, I shall be surprised if it's found out till morning," concluded Eva, without a word as to what I was to do with her; neither, indeed, had I myself given that question a moment's consideration.
"Then let's make a dash for it now!" was all I said or thought.
"No; they can't come yet, and Jose is strong and brutal, and I have heard how ill you are. "That you should have come to me notwithstanding - " and she broke off with her little hands lying so gratefully on my shoulders, that I know not how I refrained from catching her then and there to my heart. Instead, I laughed and said that my illness was a pure and deliberate sharp, and my presence there its direct result. And such was the virtue in my beloved's voice, the magic of her eyes, the healing of her touch, that I was scarce conscious of deceit, but felt a whole man once more as we two stood together in the moonlight.
In a trance I stood there gazing into her brave young eyes. In a trance I suffered her to lead me by the hand through the rank, dense rhododendrons. And still entranced I crouched by her side near the further side, with only unkempt grass-plot and a weedy path between us and that ponderous door, wide open still, and replaced by a section of the lighted hail within. On this we fixed our attention with mingled dread and impatience, those contending elements of suspense; but the black was slow to reappear; and my eyes stole home to my sweet girl's face, with its glory of moonlit curls, and the eager, resolute, embittered look that put the world back two whole months, and Eva Denison upon the Lady Jermyn's poop, in the ship's last hours. But it was not her look alone; she had on her cloak, as the night before, but with me (God bless her!) she found no need to clasp herself in its folds; and underneath she wore the very dress in which she had sung at our last concert, and been rescued in the gig. It looked as though she had worn it ever since. The roses were crushed and soiled, the tulle all torn, and tarnished some strings of beads that had been gold: a tatter of Chantilly lace hung by a thread: it is another of the relics that I have unearthed in the writing of this narrative.
"I thought men never noticed dresses?" my love said suddenly, a pleased light in her eyes (I thought) in spite of all. "Do you really remember it?"
"I remember every one of them," I said indignantly; and so I did.
"You will wonder why I wear it," said Eva, quickly. "It was the first that came that terrible night. They have given me many since. But I won't wear one of them - not one!"
How her eyes flashed! I forgot all about Jose.
"I suppose you know why they hadn't room for you in the gig?" she went on.
"No, I don't know, and I don't care. They had room for you," said I; "that's all I care about." And to think she could not see I loved her!
"But do you mean to say you don't know that these - murderers - set fire to the ship?"
"No - yes! I heard you say so last night."
"And you don't want to know what for?"
Out of politeness I protested that I did; but, as I live, all I wanted to know just then was whether my love loved me - whether she ever could - whether such happiness was possible under heaven!
"You remember all that mystery about the cargo?" she continued eagerly, her pretty lips so divinely parted!
"It turned out to be gunpowder," said I, still thinking only of her.
"No - gold!"
"But it was gunpowder," I insisted; for it was my incorrigible passion for accuracy which had led up to half our arguments on the voyage; but this time Eva let me off.
"It was also gold: twelve thousand ounces from the diggings. That was the real mystery. Do you mean to say you never guessed?"
"No, by Jove I didn't!" said I. She had diverted my interest at last. I asked her if she had known on board.
"Not until the last moment. I found out during the fire. Do you remember when we said good-by? I was nearly telling you then."
Did I remember! The very letter of that last interview was cut deep in my heart; not a sleepless night had I passed without rehearsing it word for word and look for look; and sometimes, when sorrow had spent itself, and the heart could bleed no more, vain grief had given place to vainer speculation, and I had cudgelled my wakeful brains for the meaning of the new and subtle horror which I had read in my darling's eyes at the last. Now I understood; and the one explanation brought such a tribe in its train, that even the perilous ecstasy of the present moment was temporarily forgotten in the horrible past.
"Now I know why they wouldn't have me in the gig! " I cried softly.
"She carried four heavy men's weight in gold."
"When on earth did they get it aboard?"
"In provision boxes at the last; but they had been filling the boxes for weeks."
"Why, I saw them doing it!" I cried. "But what about the gig? Who picked you up?"
She was watching that open door once more, and she answered with notable indifference, "Mr. Rattray."
"So that's the connection!" said I; and I think its very simplicity was what surprised me most.
"Yes; he was waiting for us at Ascension."
"Then it was all arranged?"
"And this young blackguard is as bad as any of them!"
"Worse," said she, with bitter brevity. Nor had I ever seen her look so hard but once, and that was the night before in the old justice hall, when she told Rattray her opinion of him to his face. She had now the same angry flush, the same set mouth and scornful voice; and I took it finally into my head that she was unjust to the poor devil, villain though he was. With all his villainy I declined to believe him as bad as the others. I told her so in as many words. And in a moment we were arguing as though we were back on the Lady Jermyn with nothing else to do.
"You may admire wholesale murderers and thieves," said Eva. "I do not."
"Nor I. My point is simply that this one is not as bad as the rest. I believe he was really glad for my sake when he discovered that I knew nothing of the villainy. Come now, has he ever offered you any personal violence?"
"Me? Mr. Rattray? I should hope not, indeed!"
"Has he never saved you from any?"
"I - I don't know."
"Then I do. When you left them last night there was some talk of bringing you back by force. You can guess who suggested that - and who set his face against it and got his way. You would think the better of Rattray had you heard what passed."
"Should I?" she asked half eagerly, as she looked quickly round at me; and suddenly I saw her eyes fill. "Oh, why will you speak about him?" she burst out. "Why must you defend him, unless it's to go against me, as you always did and always will! I never knew anybody like you - never! I want you to take me away from these wretches, and all you do is to defend them!"
"Not all," said I, clasping her hand warmly in mine. "Not all - not all! I will take you away from them, never fear; in another hour God grant you may be out of their reach for ever!"
"But where are we to go?" she whispered wildly. "What are you to do with me? All my friends think me dead, and if they knew I was not it would all come out."
"So it shall," said I; "the sooner the better; if I'd had my way it would all be out already."
I see her yet, my passionate darling, as she turned upon me, whiter than the full white moon.
"Mr. Cole," said she, "you must give me your sacred promise that so far as you are concerned, it shall never come out at all! "
"This monstrous conspiracy? This cold blooded massacre?"
And I crouched aghast.
"Yes; it could do no good; and, at any rate, unless you promise I remain where I am."
"In their hands?"
"Decidedly - to warn them in time. Leave them I would, but betray them - never!"
What could I say? What choice had I in the face of an alternative so headstrong and so unreasonable? To rescue Eva from these miscreants I would have let every malefactor in the country go unscathed: yet the condition was a hard one; and, as I hesitated, my love went on her knees to me, there in the moonlight among the rhododendrons.
"Promise - promise - or you will kill me!" she gasped. "They may deserve it richly, but I would rather be torn in little pieces than - than have them - hanged! "
"It is too good for most of them."
"To hold my tongue about them all?"
"Yes - promise!"
"When a hundred lives were sacrificed - "
"I can't," I said. "It's wrong."
"Then good-by!" she cried, starting to her feet.
"No - no -" and I caught her hand.
"I - promise."Next