The frantic woman lay in a heap at the door, crouching against it, in such a tumult of brain and heart, of distress at the loss of her child, and rage against the captain, that she was incapable of rising. She remained panting, biting her fingers, beating her head, and sobbing.
But the very violence of her emotions exhausted their force, and presently she rose to her feet and reeled away.
Whither should she go? In what direction look? Already a cold light was beginning to show over the Rousdon heights. A November day was at hand. The bushes deepened into intense blackness in contrast with the paling skies. The fangs of chalk seemed to gleam as teeth exposed against her.
Rattenbury had bidden her seek Winefred at the coastguards’ station, but the officer had declared his ignorance of the whereabouts of the girl.
The charge of having betrayed him made by Captain Job served as an excuse for ridding himself of guests whom he had come to regard as encumbrances if not as enemies. Jane knew her daughter sufficiently to be aware that the charge was groundless. Winefred was not one to show treachery to the man whose house had sheltered her.
But whither was she to turn?
She took some steps towards the preventive station rather because she knew not where else to go than with any expectation of obtaining tidings there. She had not gone far before she came upon a man, one of the service, on the watch.
At her demand he replied that he could supply her with no information.
‘It is of no use whatever your going to the station,’ said he; ‘no one there can help you.’
She turned irresolutely and wandered not knowing whither[96] she went, first in one direction, then in another. Her appearance was forlorn; half-clothed, with dishevelled hair, and with face white with despair.
She came repeatedly on men upon the watch. To each she put her question, always to receive the same discouraging answer.
In her dazed condition she did not consider that it was strange that she should encounter so many men on the alert at so raw an hour. She could think of but one topic—her loss.
Then an idea came glimmering into her clouded brain, that possibly her child might have strayed into Axmouth. And yet why? What cause could have drawn her from her bed and from the house at night?
She took a turn in the direction of the village; the lane she followed led from the down by a sharp descent to Bindon, an ancient and picturesque house, once a mansion of the Wyke family, now occupied as a farm.
The light was widening. She opened the gate in the wall and entered the court before the dwelling.
The house with its gables and broad mullioned windows, bore a peaceful, smiling appearance. In the grey dawn the yellow illumined windows winked at her in friendly fashion. As the unhappy mother rapped at the door, a stout, motherly body bounced forth with her lap full of wheat for the pigeons.
She drew back with an exclamation—then bade Jane enter, drew her into the hall, where a fire was burning and candles were lighted, and at once recognised her.
Jane Marley told what was on her mind.
‘Sit down,’ said the farmer’s wife, whose name was Jose, ‘sit down and have a cup of tea. Mercy on us, you look shivered and scared and starving, and as if you’d been up all night. It is of no use your trying to think when the stomach is empty. I’ve attempted it scores of times and failed. Do not fret till you have a cause. I have been the mother of nine children.’
‘I have but one.’
‘Then I have had nine times your worries. Bless you! children will be children. They with their pranks are always giving us heartaches; but if we was sensible we would not worry. She has been playing a trick on you to see how you would take it.’
Mrs. Marley shook her head.
‘You eat a rasher of bacon,’ said Mrs. Jose. ‘It is wonderful how different we see things when the stomach is full to what we[97] do when it is empty. Spectacles are nothing to it. All will come right. That is my experience, especially when we are expecting ills. When the evil drops on us it is when we are not on the look-out. What I have found, time out of mind, is that when I have been terrified with fancying disaster was on me, it has been a token that good luck was on its way. There was my Tomasine. I missed her. I made sure she had got smothered in the mud; but it was only she was settling with her young man the day they were to be married, and he was a warm man with several hundreds, and had as fine a breed of sheep as any in the country. My Samuel fell off a waggon, and I thought he had broke his neck; he was laid up a bit—but it prevented him from enlisting; he was mad on soldiering, and he might have been shot. Now he is settled as a horse jobber and doing finely. Be still now, puss!’
The last words were addressed to a kitten that was rubbing against her skirt, and finding that no attention was paid to her, proceeded to claw into the garment.
‘Milk in good time,’ said Mrs. Jose; ‘there are others to be attended to besides kitties. Drat the canaries, what a clamour they keep up! Of a morning all creation is on the alert, and all, every member of it, thinking only of itself and its stomach. Mrs. Marley, you sit in the chimney corner, warm yourself. You shall have a dish of tea in a jiffy. I can smell the bacon, it is being fried. I hear that you have been scampering all round the world seeking work, and you did not think of coming to me.’
‘This house is so large——’
‘More the reason I should require help in it. I dare be bound we can find a corner for you. Martha Ann has gone home with a housemaid’s knee, and that has made us short of hands. Those canaries must be looked to, or they will crack my ears. Do not trouble about your girl, she will turn up all right.’
The kindliness, the cheerfulness, the confidence of the woman soothed and encouraged Jane. She took the seat indicated by the fire, and Mrs. Jose unhooked the cage of birds to give fresh water and groundsel to her vociferous pets. She talked the whole time, now to Mrs. Marley, then to her servants, to the cat, to the canaries, to herself. Then hearing the tread of one of the farm men, she dashed out of the hall to give him orders, and was back again in five minutes.
‘The boys know all about it,’ she said to Jane. ‘Ebenezer is going with milk into Axmouth, and he will make inquiries there.[98] They tell me some one has been lying in the barn, but he has left. Timothy got a glimpse of him, and protests he is a Beer man, from over the water. Trust the lads—ours are good as gold—they will make inquiries everywhere. I hope you like my bacon. I do not over-salt it as do some. I keep it in malt-combs. That makes hams and sides rarely sweet. It is a pity that this house looks west. One ray of the rising sun is said to be worth a dozen of the rays of the sun when setting. Are you better, Mrs. Marley? There is more colour in your cheeks; and let me give you a comb and brush and you shall do up your hair. You look like a wild woman. As to Captain Rattenbury—it is all nonsense. If you like it you may come here, but I suspect he knows when he is well off, and he will not find anywhere a woman more handy, frugal, and clean to keep house for him. The old man is failing. He has led a rough life, and that tells in the end.’
Jane Marley rose.
She put her hair together, smoothed her dress, thanked Mrs. Jose, and said she could rest there no longer, she must go forth and seek her daughter.
‘Take my advice,’ said the farmer’s wife, ‘always look well at home before searching abroad. Many a lost article for which you have searched the roads lurks in your pocket. Go back to the captain’s on the undercliff. Back the child will be to a dead certainty. She will be wanting her breakfast. All living beings want that, and young things—desperately. It is a law of Nature’s, so look and follow that.’
The advice given by Mrs. Jose was reasonable. Jane was not in a condition of mind to understand the reason of it, but the direction given commended itself to her instinctively.
As she went up the lane, she felt that her knees gave way, and that her breath was short. The excitement through which she had passed told on her prowess, and her strength failed. She made her way over the open upland to the descent leading to the undercliff. On the way she had passed no man. The coastguards, baffled, disappointed, had been withdrawn. Perhaps they also, like all other members of creation, sought their breakfasts. Jane followed the path among the bushes till she reached the house of Rattenbury. In place of going to the front door, which she supposed would be fastened, she went round to the back of the cottage. Whether the captain were within or not she did not know, nor concern herself to consider. She sought not him, but Winefred. If he were out—well. If[99] within, and he opposed her entry, she would withdraw when satisfied that her child was not there.
She lifted the latch noiselessly and entered the back kitchen. This she traversed, and finding the door ajar into the front apartment, that served as parlour and sitting-room, she thrust it open with a finger, and entered.
As she did so, to her surprise, she saw the captain on a stool before the wardrobe, both the valves of which were thrown back; and the rail from which depended the garments from crooks was drawn forward beyond the depth of the cabinet, so as to prevent the closing of the doors.
Further, she perceived that this rail was actually the front of a drawer which must have been contrived to run back when pressed into the depth of the wall, or the rock against which the cottage leaned. Into this drawer Rattenbury was dipping.
She stood motionless and speechless in her astonishment, gazing at him.
A double set of pegs or crooks was affixed to the rail, the hooks set alternately, so as to allow of a double range of garments being suspended in the wardrobe, hanging clear of each other, and completely concealing the backboard of the closet. These clothes—gowns, cloaks, petticoats, shawls—were now brought forward and hung clear, suspended at a distance of two feet six inches from the back of the wardrobe.
Jane saw the captain extract a little bag from the drawer. He then moved on the stool and slightly turned himself about as he proceeded to thrust the bag into his breeches pocket. At the same time he leaned his shoulder against the rail to thrust the drawer back into its place.
As he did this he caught sight of her observing him.
At once his face became livid, then turned purple. With an oath he sprang to the ground, ran to the hearth, snatched down a pistol that hung above the mantelshelf, and, grasping it by the barrel, turned on her and raised his hand to fell her to the ground.
‘Watching! Spying!——’
He could no more; a splutter of foam, not words.
As he leaped at her, she sprang back, raising her hands to protect her head; but at the same moment he went down in a lump on the floor as though the pistol butt had fallen on his head instead of hers.
Jane Marley stood for a moment uncertain what had happened, and what should be done.
Had his ankle turned, and would he pluck himself up again, once more to rush at her? Or had he been felled by an apoplectic stroke? Should she turn, whilst there was time, and fly? Or should she tarry and assist the fallen man?
After a brief moment of hesitation, seeing that he made no movement to rise, uttered no sound, she stepped forward, bent over him, and endeavoured to remove the pistol from his grip. But the fingers were tight locked and she could not disengage them. She turned his head and saw by the face that he was unconscious.
Then she laboured to unloose his neckcloth and his shirt-collar; she forced him over on his back, and was by this means able to dash water into his face.
As he lay thus, his hand gradually relaxed, and the pistol fell from it.
Jane immediately secured it, and replaced it on the crooks above the mantelshelf whence he had taken it.
Was the man dead or in a fit?
The wardrobe doors were wide open, and the range of old clothes still projecting into and depending in mid-air in the room. Jane had sufficient shrewdness to see that it was advisable to replace all before she summoned assistance.
Mounting the stool she looked into the drawer and found that it contained purses, small canvas bags, wooden and metal boxes, and at once satisfied herself that they were filled with money, gold mostly, some silver.
She caught her breath, then breathed heavily, and her heart beat fast. She did not immediately close the drawer, but remained staring at the wealth that was amassed there before her—the accumulations of a man, saving, unscrupulous, daring, and so cunning as never to be caught—the spoils of a long, adventurous life.
Looking about her she saw the captain to whom all this gold belonged lying on the lime-ash floor, his face grey, his eyes open, but expressionless. They saw nothing, the brain knew nothing of what she was doing.
She thrust the drawer back into its place. It slid on runners let into each side. It moved smoothly, noiselessly, and when in place was so ingeniously contrived that no one could have guessed at its existence. All the hanging garments retreated with it, and showed as though suspended in the most ordinary way from a rail attached to the back of the closet. So firmly did the drawer fit that when Jane Marley pulled at the pegs she[101] failed to make it oscillate to such a degree as to indicate that it was movable. She descended from the stool and shut the wardrobe doors over the range of female dresses.
Again she looked at the prostrate man, and now saw that his eyes were on her. There was in them a flicker of intelligence. She thought, but could not be sure, that he knew her and was aware what she was about, but his mouth did not move. He made no attempt to speak. There was no token of resentment in the eyes, and the features were drawn, distorted, but expressionless. When the cabinet was shut, and the secret secure, then Jane endeavoured to lift the captain and remove him to the adjoining bedroom, which she had occupied, and to lay him on the bed. But his weight was too considerable and too dead for her to be able to effect her purpose, and after several unsuccessful attempts she abandoned them. It would, she realised, be necessary for her to leave the cottage and summon assistance.
She stood over him for a few minutes considering.
Then she noticed that the little bag he had begun to thrust into his pocket had fallen out and was on the floor.
She stooped, picked it up, and, assured that it contained coin, unloosed the string that bound it and filled her palm with guineas. Then hastily, with a sense of fear, she poured them back into the bag, and kneeling by the prostrate man thrust it into his breast pocket.
Having done this she drew a long breath, as freed from some weight that had come across her heart; she unbarred the front door and opened it.
As she did this a cool breeze puffed in, and the rising sun sent a stream of gold over the floor and the figure that lay motionless upon it.
Jane looked back, holding the latch in her hand, musing.
Then she stepped to the side of the prostrate figure and said, ‘Job! Captain Job! your secret is now mine.’
Thereupon she turned to leave the house and run towards Bindon to summon aid.