Jane Marley was roused from her sleep before dawn by the sound of some one entering the house. Then she heard the door being locked and barred, and a heavy tread was on the stair.
She knew at once that Captain Rattenbury had returned, earlier than he had proposed, and she had been prepared to expect, and at ease in her mind she laid her head again on the pillow for sleep. But not an hour had elapsed before she again heard a hand on the door, followed by loud knocking.
She paused a while, expecting the master of the house to respond; but as he did not do so, she opened the casement and asked who caused the disturbance.
‘We want Job Rattenbury,’ was the imperious reply.
‘He is abed, asleep.’
‘Open the door.’
‘I will call him—the house is his, not mine.’
‘The fox is awake, never doubt.’
‘Who are you?’
‘King’s service men. Now will you unbar?’
‘I will call the master. You must have patience till I slip into my clothes, and can light a candle.’
Some words were whispered outside the house, and in obedience to orders a couple of men went about the cottage to guard the back.
The moon had now set; it was dark.
Jane was not ready for some time. It took long in those days, before the phosphorus match had been invented, to light a candle. Flint and steel had to be struck till sparks falling ignited tinder. Then a sulphur match had to be applied to the smouldering fire, and when the match blazed then only could the wick be ignited. It was for this reason that usually a rush-light[90] was kept burning in every house. Burglars might break in and plunder it before the master could get light by which to see them.
It was true that ashes still smouldered on the hearth in the kitchen. Jane had heaped them up purposely before going to bed, so as to save her the trouble of striking a light in the morning, with the inseparable risk of skinning her knuckles, but she did not have recourse to the embers: she deemed it advisable to detain the men without as long as possible, so as to allow the master time to secrete anything he desired to conceal before the servants of the Crown were admitted.
But before she was ready to go to the door, his tread was audible on the stair; he descended leisurely, and as she entered the kitchen with a candle, she saw him with towzled head, rubbing his eyes and half-clothed.
‘Jane,’ said he, ‘who are these disturbing me in the night?’
‘The gaugers,’ she replied.
‘What do they want with me?’ he asked.
‘They are outside—ask them. How should I know?’
He undid the bars and turned the key.
‘So!’ said he. ‘What is your business here at this hour?’
‘We must search your house.’
‘Have you a warrant?’
‘No—we do not require one when the scent lies strong. The drag leads this way.’
‘I do not demand one. Come in. For what are you in search?’
‘Oh! you know well enough,’ said the officer in command, entering. ‘There has been at least one cargo that has to be dispersed to-night, but the rascals have snuffed us, and have slipped away. We shall catch them yet. But as a preliminary we will look for their tracks here. If they have taken to their heels they cannot have carried off their burdens. They must be deposited somewhere. You confounded old rogue, who are at the bottom of it all, we shall not let you off if we can find a thread of rope by which to hang you.’
‘It is a little dark for finding such a thread,’ said Job. ‘Jane, light all the candles in the kitchen to assist the gentlemen. There is a pair of horn spectacles of my grandmother’s I can lend the officer.’
Suddenly Mrs. Marley cried out—’My child! Winefred! Where is she?’
She had discovered that her daughter was not in her bed. She had vanished.
‘Where is Winefred?’ cried the mother, forgetting everything in a paroxysm of maternal anxiety. ‘Captain Rattenbury, where is she?’
‘How the deuce should I know?’ answered he angrily; ‘I am not a nurse.’
‘Where is Winefred?’ cried the woman again. She ran distractedly to the door, and called into the darkness, repeating her child’s name. She waited, listened; no answer. She came back to the preventive men. At first she thought that, frightened by the noise at the door, the girl was hidden in the house, or had run forth at the back, and she felt the bed. It was cold. It could not have been left recently.
Clasping her hands, standing before the men who had entered, she entreated, ‘Tell me, where is she? What has become of her? Have you taken her? Did you suppose she could have told you anything?’
‘My good woman,’ said the officer in command of the search party, ‘we know absolutely nothing of your child. We have not seen her. Do not disturb us now. We have our duties to attend to, and cannot look after runaway wenches.’
The men dispersed through the house. They sought on every side. They sounded the walls, tapped on the floors, but could detect no signs of a place of concealment. One man took a candle and examined the hearth, he called for a besom and swept it. He tried the light up the chimney, and struck the bricks with a hammer. All in vain.
‘What is in that cabinet?’ asked the officer, indicating the oak wardrobe clamped with brass and iron.
‘You are welcome to look,’ answered Rattenbury. ‘It is not locked. Old clothes. Are they contraband?’
One of the men threw open the doors and revealed the ranges of garments; he swept them aside. ‘Women’s gear,’ said he in a tone of vexation.
‘I may husband my wife’s old suits without your leave,’ retorted Captain Rattenbury.
‘No liquor anywhere?’ asked the officer.
‘Yes, a flask of Schiedam for my own consumption,’ sneered Job. ‘You will find that under the seat in the window. I will not begrudge you a drop to wash down your mortification.’
‘You infernal rascal, you are too deep for us. But we shall be even with you yet.’
‘The loudest-ticking clocks tell the worst time,’ said the captain; and then added, with a twinkle of the eye, ‘Do you[92] suppose that if I were what you take me to be I should be so soft as to stow away goods where a parcel of green fools would look for them?’
The officer bit his lip.
‘Come away, my hearties,’ he ordered.
‘My child! Where is my child?’ pleaded the frantic mother, whose attention had not for a moment been distracted from her own loss. She clung to the officer as he was leaving.
‘My good creature, I know nothing about her.’
‘But you have seen her. You have seized her to get some information out of her.’
‘No such thing. We have not cast eyes on her.’
‘Then you may see her. Send her back. She may be dead. If you find her——’
‘Pshaw! A girl is not to be accounted dead till all other probabilities are exhausted. Look for her yourself. We have other things to attend to.’
‘Sorry you have been detained so long for nothing,’ sneered Captain Rattenbury, bowing. Then he shut the door on the baffled visitors, and at once his expression underwent a change.
He did not replace the bolt.
He stood for a moment observing the restless woman, who paced the room with her hands to her brow; her hair had not been tidied and bound up when she left her bed, and now it floated over her shoulders.
‘Captain, where can she be?’ she asked, suddenly facing Rattenbury.
‘I will tell you, mistress,’ he answered, and his lips were set hard and his face was menacing. ‘These sharks may have denied having swallowed her, but they know. She ran into their mouths.’
‘What do you mean?’ She stood breathless before him, with her hands down, her arms rigid.
‘What do I mean? Why this. The job of to-night finds its explanation in her absence. We have been betrayed. Some one who has known our secret has told it. That is the sense of all this disturbance. And there was no one else who could or would turn cat-in-the-pan. I sent her with a letter to Beer; and, like a fool, David, to whom I sent it, let her have a peep into it, and learn what was intended for his eye alone. Why is she away? Because she stole out as soon as it was dark to sell me and my mates to those devils at the station. Go there—you will find her there. Olver was right; I was a fool to have pity[93] and house you. Who expects gratitude of a woman, or that she can keep a secret, is as one who expects a cat to keep from milk. However—they have not got what they reckoned on. They have not caught me sitting on my eggs, and from what they say, the rest have stolen away. None else knew about the plan save your girl. No one else could have blown upon it.’
‘It is false. She knew nothing. She has done nothing.’
‘Where then is she now? Know she did—that David admitted to me. She did not tell you, lest you should spoil her little game. This is how I am repaid for what I have done.’
‘Repaid!’ exclaimed Jane harshly, rendered furious by the charge laid against her child, coming on her at a moment when maddened with anxiety as to her fate. ‘Repaid, say you,’ she repeated, and her eyes flamed. ‘Who is it who has sold and betrayed his mates, over and over again? If he is served with the same sauce he has mixed for others—I rejoice.’
‘Woman, I do not understand you.’
‘Yes, you do understand me; but you will not allow that you do. How is it that my father, who worked with and for you, and spent himself in pushing your schemes, died in poverty, whereas you are rich?’
‘Rich! I am not rich.’
‘Oh, yes, you are—though you pretend to poverty.’
‘You are a spy on me, are you?’ demanded Rattenbury, with manifest alarm in his manner, movement, and tone of voice.
‘How is it that my father died poor? Answer me that,’ asked Jane.
‘That is easily explained. He did not lay by his money. He had not that bird-lime rubbed into the palms of his hands that makes money cling—no thrift.’
‘It was not so. You sucked him as an orange and then threw him aside. And my brother Philip——’
‘What of him?’ asked Job scornfully.
‘You had him put out of your way as soon as he became inconvenient, when he had broken with you and set up for himself.’
‘Who told you this?’
‘You see I know all.’
‘You have imagined all this. It is arrant falsehood. There is not a spice of truth in it. These are the fancies of a mad woman. You shall leave my house.’
‘Yes, cast me forth now. I hope in my heart that it be true that Winefred has betrayed you. But I do not believe it.[94] You, who betrayed my kin, ought in all justice to be betrayed in turn.’
‘Leave my house,’ shouted Job. ‘I was unwise in taking you in to watch me and go behind me in what I take in hand. I swear I believe now that you sent your child to call the sharks together.’
‘You believe that?’
‘I do; you are capable of anything. Olver said as much. By my soul I know it. You would have killed your child had I not stayed you. And now in your crazy rage over fancied wrongs you would finish me. I see it in your tigerish eyes, in your wild and furious manner. You are not to be reasoned with, not to be trusted. Gather up your duds, and be gone.’
‘But my child!’
‘Go after her—go to where the sharks are. They can give you an account of her. I allow you ten minutes to clear out—no more. Good Lord! what a loss is ours to-night, and all through you and your girl. If you were not a woman, I would strangle you.’
Jane cast herself at his knees. ‘She is not with the coastguard. She knows nothing. Help me to find her. I will forgive what you did to Philip and my father.’
‘Forgive!’ he shouted. His face flamed. ‘You forgive! That is news! Begone!’ He stopped, caught her under the arms, lifted, carried her bodily, and flung her outside his door. ‘I have harboured you too long. If either of you were dying on my doorstep, I would not open to take you in.’