My Great Hour
The library doors were shut, and I closed the secret one behind me before opening the other and peering out through a wrack of bluish smoke; and there lay Captain Harris, sure enough, breathing his last in the arms of one constable, while another was seated on the table with a very wry face, twisting a tourniquet round his arm, from which the blood was dripping like raindrops from the eaves. A third officer stood in the porch, issuing directions to his men without.
"He's over the wall, I tell you! I saw him run up our ladder. After him every man of you - and spread!"
I looked in vain for Rattray and the rest; yet it seemed as if only one of them had escaped. I was still looking when the man in the porch wheeled back into the hall, and instantly caught sight of me at my door.
"Hillo! here's another of them," cried he. "Out you come, young fellow! Your mates are all dead men."
"They're not my mates."
"Never mind; come you out and let's have a look at you."
I did so, and was confronted by a short, thickset man, who recognized me with a smile, but whom I failed to recognize.
"I might have guessed it was Mr. Cole," said he. "I knew you were here somewhere, but I couldn't make head or tail of you through the smoke."
"I'm surprised that you can make head or tail of me at all," said I.
"Then you've quite forgotten the inquisitive parson you met out fishing? You see I found out your name for myself!"
"So it was a detective!"
"It was and is," said the little man, nodding. "Detective or Inspector Royds, if you're any the wiser.
"What has happened? Who has escaped?" "Your friend Rattray; but he won't get far."
"What of the Portuguese and the nigger?"
I forgot that I had crippled Jose, but remembered with my words, and wondered the more where he was.
"I'll show you," said Royds. "It was the nigger let us in. We heard him groaning round at the back - who smashed his leg? One of our men was at that cellar grating; there was some of them down there; we wanted to find our way down and corner them, but the fat got in the fire too soon. Can you stand something strong? Then come this way."
He led me out into the garden, and to a tangled heap lying in the moonlight, on the edge of the long grass. The slave had fallen on top of his master; one leg lay swathed and twisted; one black hand had but partially relaxed upon the haft of a knife (the knife) that stood up hilt-deep in a blacker heart. And in the hand of Santos was still the revolver (my Deane and Adams) which had sent its last ball through the nigger's body.
"They slipped out behind us, all but the one inside," said Royds, ruefully; "I'm hanged if I know yet how it happened - but we were on them next second. Before that the nigger had made us hide him in the grass, but the old devil ran straight into him, and the one fired as the other struck. It's the worst bit of luck in the whole business, and I'm rather disappointed on the whole. I've been nursing the job all this week; had my last look round this very evening, with one of these officers, and only rode back for more to make sure of taking our gentlemen alive. And we've lost three out of four of 'em, and have still to lay hands on the gold! I suppose you didn't know there was any aboard ?" he asked abruptly.
"Not before to-night."
"Nor did we till the Devoren came in with letters last week, a hundred and thirty days out. She should have been in a month before you, but she got amongst the ice around the Horn. There was a letter of advice about the gold, saying it would probably go in the Lady Jermyn; and another about Rattray and his schooner, which had just sailed; the young gentleman was known to the police out there."
"Do you know where the schooner is ?"
"Bless you, no, we've had no time to think about her; the man had been seen about town, and we've done well to lay hands on him in the time."
"You will do better still when you do lay hands on him," said I, wresting my eyes from the yellow dead face of the foreign scoundrel. The moon shone full upon his high forehead, his shrivelled lips, dank in their death agony, and on the bauble with the sacred device that he wore always in his tie. I recovered my property from the shrunken fingers, and so turned away with a harder heart than I ever had before or since for any creature of Almighty God.
Harris had expired in our absence.
"Never spoke, sir," said the constable in whose arms we had left him.
"More's the pity. Well, cut out at the back and help land the young gent, or we'll have him giving us the slip too. He may double back, but I'm watching out for that. Which way should you say he'd head, Mr. Cole?"
"Inland," said I, lying on the spur of the moment, I knew not why. "Try at the cottage where I've been staying."
"We have a man posted there already. That woman is one of the gang, and we've got her safe. But I'll take your advice, and have that side scoured whilst I hang about the place."
And he walked through the house, and out the back way, at the officer's heels; meanwhile the man with the wounded arm was swaying where he sat from loss of blood, and I had to help him into the open air before at last I was free to return to poor Eva in her place of loathsome safety.
I had been so long, however, that her patience was exhausted, and as I returned to the library by one door, she entered by the other.
"I could bear it no longer. Tell me - the worst!"
"Three of them are dead."
She had crossed to the other door, and would not have me shut it. So I stood between her and the hearth, on which lay the captain's corpse, with the hearthrug turned up on either side to cover it.
"Harris for one," said I. "Outside lie Jose and - "
Her face was as though the name meant nothing to her.
"And Mr. Rattray?" she cried. "And Mr. Rattray -"
"Has escaped for the present. He seems to have cut his way through the police and got over the wall by a ladder they left behind them. They are scouring the country - Miss Denison! Eva! My poor love!"
She had broken down utterly in a second fit of violent weeping; and a second time I took her in my arms, and stood trying in my clumsy way to comfort her, as though she were a little child. A lamp was burning in the library, and I recognized the arm-chair which Rattray had drawn thence for me on the night of our dinner - the very night before! I led Eva back into the room, and I closed both doors. I supported my poor girl to the chair, and once more I knelt before her and took her hands in mine. My great hour was come at last: surely a happy omen that it was also the hour before the dawn.
"Cry your fill, my darling," I whispered, with the tears in my own voice. "You shall never have anything more to cry for in this world! God has been very good to us. He brought you to me, and me to you. He has rescued us for each other. All our troubles are over; cry your fill; you will never have another chance so long as I live, if only you will let me live for you. Will you, Eva? Will you? Will you?"
She drew her hands from mine, and sat upright in the chair, looking at me with round eyes; but mine were dim; astonishment was all that I could read in her look, and on I went headlong, with growing impetus and passion.
"I know I am not much, my darling; but you know I was not always what my luck, good and bad, has left me now, and you will make a new man of me so soon! Besides, God must mean it, or He would not have thrown us together amid such horrors, and brought us through them together still. And you have no one else to take care of you in the world! Won't you let me try, Eva? Say that you will!"
"Then - you - ove me?" she said slowly, in a low, awe-struck voice that might have told me my fate at once; but I was shaking all over in the intensity of my passion, and for the moment it was joy enough to be able at last to tell her all.
"Love you?" I echoed. "With every fibre of my being! With every atom of my heart and soul and body! I love you well enough to live to a hundred for you, or to die for you to-night!"
"Well enough to - give me up?" she whispered.
I felt as though a cold hand had checked my heart at its hottest, but I mastered myself sufficiently to face her question and to answer it as honestly as I might.
"Yes!" I cried; "well enough even to do that, if it was for your happiness; but I might be rather difficult to convince about that."
"You are very strong and true," she murmured. "Yes, I can trust you as I have never trusted anybody else! But - how long have you been so foolish?" And she tried very hard to smile.
"Since I first saw you; but I only knew it on the night of the fire. Till that night I resisted it like an idiot. Do you remember how we used to argue? I rebelled so against my love! I imagined that I had loved once already and once for all. But on the night of the fire I knew that my love for you was different from all that had gone before or would ever come again. I gave in to it at last, and oh! the joy of giving in! I had fought against the greatest blessing of my life, and I never knew it till I had given up fighting. What did I care about the fire? I was never happier - until now! You sang through my heart like the wind through the rigging; my one fear was that I might go to the bottom without telling you my love. When I asked to say a few last words to you on the poop, it was to tell you my love before we parted, that you might know I loved you whatever came. I didn't do so, because you seemed so frightened, poor darling! I hadn't it in my heart to add to your distress. So I left you without a word. But I fought the sea for days together simply to tell you what I couldn't die without telling you. When they picked me up, it was your name that brought back my senses after days of delirium. When I heard that you were dead, I longed to die myself. And when I found you lived after all, the horror of your surroundings was nothing to be compared with the mere fact that you lived; that you were unhappy and in danger was my only grief, but it was nothing to the thought of your death; and that I had to wait twenty-four hours without coming to you drove me nearer to madness than ever I was on the hen-coop. That's how I love you, Eva," I concluded; "that's how I love and will love you, for ever and ever, no matter what happens."
Those sweet gray eyes of hers had been fixed very steadily upon me all through this outburst; as I finished they filled with tears, and my poor love sat wringing her slender fingers, and upbraiding herself as though she were the most heartless coquette in the country.
"How wicked I am!" she moaned. "How ungrateful I must be! You offer me the unselfish love of a strong, brave man. I cannot take it. I have no love to give you in return."
"But some day you may," I urged, quite happily in my ignorance. "It will come. Oh, surely it will come, after all that we have gone through together!"
She looked at me very steadily and kindly through her tears.
"It has come, in a way," said she; "but it is not your way, Mr. Cole. I do love you for your bravery and your - love - but that will not quite do for either of us."
"Why not?" I cried in an ecstasy. "My darling, it will do for me! It is more than I dared to hope for; thank God, thank God, that you should care for me at all!"
She shook her head.
"You do not understand," she whispered.
"I do. I do. You do not love me as you want to love."
"As I could love -"
"And as you will! It will come. It will come. I'll bother you no more about it now. God knows I can afford to leave well alone! I am only too happy - too thankful - as it is!"
And indeed I rose to my feet every whit as joyful as though she had accepted me on the spot. At least she had not rejected me; nay, she confessed to loving me in a way. What more could a lover want? Yet there was a dejection in her drooping attitude which disconcerted me in the hour of my reward. And her eyes followed me with a kind of stony remorse which struck a chill to my bleeding heart.
I went to the door; the hall was still empty, and I shut it again with a shudder at what I saw before the hearth, at all that I had forgotten in the little library. As I turned, another door opened
- the door made invisible by the multitude of books around and upon it - and young Squire Rattray stood between my love and me.
His clear, smooth skin was almost as pale as Eva's own, but pale brown, the tint of rich ivory. His eyes were preternaturally bright. And they never glanced my way, but flew straight to Eva, and rested on her very humbly and sadly, as her two hands gripped the arms of the chair, and she leant forward in horror and alarm.
"How could you come back?" she cried. "I was told you had escaped!"
"Yes, I got away on one of their horses."
"I pictured you safe on board!"
"I very nearly was."
"Then why are you here ?"
"To get your forgiveness before I go."
He took a step forward; her eyes and mine were riveted upon him; and I still wonder which of us admired him the more, as he stood there in his pride and his humility, gallant and young, and yet shamefaced and sad.
"You risk your life - for my forgiveness?" whispered Eva at last. "Risk it? I'll give myself up if you'll take back some of the things you said to me - last night - and before."
There was a short pause.
"Well, you are not a coward, at all events!"
"Nor a murderer, Eva!"
"Then forgive me for everything else that I have been - to you!"
And he was on his knees where I had knelt scarce a minute before; nor could I bear to watch them any longer. I believed that he loved her in his own way as sincerely as I did in mine. I believed that she detested him for the detestable crime in which he had been concerned. I believed that the opinion of him which she had expressed to his face, in my hearing, was her true opinion, and I longed to hear her mitigate it ever so little before he went. He won my sympathy as a gallant who valued a kind word from his mistress more than life itself. I hoped earnestly that that kind word would be spoken. But I had no desire to wait to hear it. I felt an intruder. I would leave them alone together for the last time. So I walked to the door, but, seeing a key in it, I changed my mind, and locked it on the inside. In the hall I might become the unintentional instrument of the squire's capture, though, so far as my ears served me, it was still empty as we had left it. I preferred to run no risks, and would have a look at the subterranean passage instead.
"I advise you to speak low," I said, "and not to be long. The place is alive with the police. If they hear you all will be up."
Whether he heard me I do not know. I left him on his knees still, and Eva with her face hidden in her hands.
The cellar was a strange scene to revisit within an hour of my deliverance from that very torture-chamber. It had been something more before I left it, but in it I could think only of the first occupant of the camp-stool. The lantern still burned upon the floor. There was the mattress, still depressed where I had lain face to face with insolent death. The bullet was in the plaster; it could not have missed by the breadth of many hairs. In the corner was the shallow grave, dug by Harris for my elements. And Harris was dead. And Santos was dead. But life and love were mine.
I would have gone through it all again!
And all at once I was on fire to be back in the library; so much so, that half a minute at the manhole, lantern in hand, was enough for me; and a mere funnel of moist brown earth - a terribly low arch propped with beams - as much as I myself ever saw of the subterranean conduit between Kirby House and the sea. But I understood that the curious may traverse it for themselves to this day on payment of a very modest fee.
As for me, I returned as I had come after (say) five minutes' absence; my head full once more of Eva, and of impatient anxiety for the wild young squire's final flight; and my heart still singing with the joy of which my beloved's kindness seemed a sufficient warranty. Poor egotist! Am I to tell you what I found when I came up those steep stairs to the chamber where I had left him on his knees to her? Or can you guess?
He was on his knees no more, but he held her in his arms, and as I entered he was kissing the tears from her wet, flushed cheek. Her eyelids drooped; she was pale as the dead without, so pale that her eyebrows looked abnormally and dreadfully dark. She did not cling to him. Neither did she resist his caresses, but lay passive in his arms as though her proper paradise was there. And neither heard me enter; it was as though they had forgotten all the world but one another.
"So this is it," said I very calmly. I can hear my voice as I write.
They fell apart on the instant. Rattray glared at me, yet I saw that his eyes were dim. Eva clasped her hands before her, and looked me steadily in the face. But never a word.
"You love him ?" I said sternly.
The silence of consent remained unbroken.
"Villain as he is?" I burst out.
And at last Eva spoke.
"I loved him before he was one," said she. "We were engaged."
She looked at him standing by, his head bowed, his arms folded; next moment she was very close to me, and fresh tears were in her eyes. But I stepped backward, for I had had enough.
"Can you not forgive me?"
"Oh, dear, yes."
"Can't you understand?"
"Perfectly," said I.
"You know you said - "
"I have said so many things!"
"But this was that you - you loved me well enough to - give me up."
And the silly ego in me - the endless and incorrigible I - imagined her pouting for a withdrawal of those brave words.
"I not only said it," I declared, "but I meant every word of it."
None the less had I to turn from her to hide my anguish. I leaned my elbows on the narrow stone chimney-piece, which, with the grate below and a small mirror above, formed an almost solitary oasis in the four walls of books. In the mirror I saw my face; it was wizened, drawn, old before its time, and merely ugly in its sore distress, merely repulsive in its bloody bandages. And in the mirror also I saw Rattray, handsome, romantic, audacious, all that I was not, nor ever would be, and I "understood" more than ever, and loathed my rival in my heart.
I wheeled round on Eva. I was not going to give her up - to him. I would tell her so before him - tell him so to his face. But she had turned away; she was listening to some one else. Her white forehead glistened. There were voices in the hall.
"Mr. Cole! Mr. Cole! Where are you, Mr. Cole?"
I moved over to the locked door. My hand found the key. I turned round with evil triumph in my heart, and God knows what upon my face. Rattray did not move. With lifted hands the girl was merely begging him to go by the door that was open, down the stair. He shook his head grimly. With an oath I was upon them.
"Go, both of you!" I whispered hoarsely. "Now - while you can - and I can let you. Now! Now!"
Still Rattray hung back.
I saw him glancing wistfully at my great revolver lying on the table under the lamp. I thrust it upon him, and pushed him towards the door.
"You go first. She shall follow. You will not grudge me one last word? Yes, I will take your hand. If you escape - be good to her!"
He was gone. Without, there was a voice still calling me; but now it sounded overhead.
"Good-by, Eva, I said. "You have not a moment to lose."
Yet those divine eyes lingered on my ugliness.
"You are in a very great hurry," said she, in the sharp little voice of her bitter moments.
"You love him; that is enough."
"And you, too!" she cried. "And you, too!"
And her pure, warm arms were round my neck; another instant, and she would have kissed me, she! I know it. I knew it then. But it was more than I would bear. As a brother! I had heard that tale before. Back I stepped again, all the man in me rebelling.
"That's impossible," said I rudely.
"It isn't. It's true. I do love you - for this!"
God knows how I looked!
"And I mayn't say good-by to you," she whispered. "And - and I love you - for that!"
"Then you had better choose between us," said I.Next