The Adventures of Harry Revel
THE MAN IN THE VERANDAH
The mare settled down to a beautiful stride and we spun along smoothly over a road which, for a coast road, must have been well laid, or Mr. Rogers's tilbury was hung on exceptionally good springs. We were travelling inland, for the wind blew in our faces, and I huddled myself up from it in the rug—on which a dew had fallen, making it damp and sticky. For two miles or so we must have held on at this pace without exchanging a word, meeting neither vehicle nor pedestrian in all that distance, nor passing any; and so came to a sign-post and swerved by it into a broader road, which ran level for maybe half a mile and then began to climb. Here Mr. Rogers eased down the mare and handed me the reins, bidding me hold them while he lit a cigar.
"We're safe enough now," said he, pulling out a pocket tinder-box: "and while I'm about it we'd better light the lamps." He slipped them from their sockets and lit the pair cleverly from the same brimstone match. "The Highflier's due about this time," he explained; "and Russell's Wagon 's another nasty thing to hit in the dark. We're on the main road, you know." Before refixing the lamp beside him, he held it up for a good stare at me, and grinned. "Well, you're a nice guest for a spinster at this hour, I must say! But there's no shyness about Lydia."
"Is she—is this Miss Lydia unmarried?" I made bold to ask.
"Lydia Belcher 's a woman in a thousand. There's no better fellow living, and I've known worse ladies. Yes, she's unmarried."
He took the reins from me and the mare quickened her pace. After sucking at his cigar for a while he chuckled aloud. "She's to be seen to be believed: past forty and wears top-boots. But she was a beauty in her day. Her mother's looks were famous—she was daughter to one of the Earl's cottagers, on the edge of the moors"—here Mr. Rogers jerked his thumb significantly, but in what direction the night hid from me: "married old Sam Belcher, one of his lordship's keepers, a fellow not fit to black her boots; and had this one child, Lydia. This was just about the time of the Earl's own marriage. Folks talked, of course: and sure enough, when the Earl came to die, 'twas found he'd left Lydia a thousand a year in the funds. That's the story: and Lydia—well she's Lydia. Couldn't marry where she would, I suppose, and wouldn't where she could; though they do say Whitmore 's trimming sail for her."
"Whitmore?" I echoed.
"Ay, the curate: monstrous clever fellow, and a sportsman too: Trinity College Dublin man. Don't happen to know him, do you?"
"Is he a thin-faced gentleman, very neatly dressed? Oh, but it can't be the gentleman I mean, sir! The one I mean has a slow way of speaking, and the hair seems gone on each side of his forehead—"
"That's Whitmore, to a T. So you know him? Well, you'll meet him at Lydia's, I shouldn't wonder. He's there most nights."
"If you please, sir, will you set me down? I can shift for myself somehow—indeed I can! I promised—that is, I mean, Mr. Whitmore won't like it if—if—"
While I stammered on, Mr. Rogers pulled up the mare, quartering at the same time to make room for the mail-coach as it thundered up the road from westward and swept by at the gallop, with lamps flashing and bits and swingles shaken in chorus.
"Look here, what's the matter?" he demanded. "Why don't you want to meet Whitmore?" Then as I would not answer but continued to entreat him, "There's something deuced fishy about you. Here I find you, stark naked, hiding from the soldiers: yet you can't be one of the 'trade,' for you don't know the country or the folks living hereabouts—only Whitmore: and Whitmore you won't meet, and your name you won't tell, nor where you come from—only that you've been swimming. 'Swimming,' good Lord! You didn't swim from France, I take it." He flicked his whip and fell into a muse. "And I'm a Justice of the Peace, and the Lord knows what I'm compounding with." He mused again. "Tell you what I'll do," he exclaimed; "I'll take you up to Lydia's as I promised. If Whitmore's there, you shan't meet him if you don't want to: and if the house is full, I'll drop you in the shrubbery with the rug, and get them to break up early. Only I must have your solemn davey that you'll stay there and not quit until I give you leave. Eh?"
I gave that promise.
"Very well. I'll tip the wink to Lydia, and when we've cleared the company, we'll have you in and get the rights of this. Oh, you may trust Lydia!"
As he said this we were passing a house the long whitewashed front of which abutted glimmering on the road. A light shone behind the blind of one lower window and showed through a chink under the door. "The Major 's sitting up late," observed Mr. Rogers, and again flicked up the mare.
Two minutes later he pulled the left rein and we swung through an open gateway and were rolling over soft gravel. Tall bushes of laurel on either hand glinted back the lights of the tilbury, and presently around a sweep of the drive I saw a window shining. Mr. Rogers pulled up once more.
"Jump out and take the path to the left. It'll bring you out almost facing the front door. Wait among the laurels there."
I climbed down and drew my rug about me as he drove on and I heard the tilbury's wheels come to a halt on the gravel before the house. Then, following the path which wound about a small shrubbery, I came to the edge of the gravel sweep before the porch just as a groom took the mare and cart from him and led them around to the left, towards the stables. I saw this distinctly, for on the right of the porch, where there ran a pretty deep verandah, each window on the ground floor was lit and flung its light across the gravel to the laurel behind which I crouched. There were in all five windows; of which three seemed to belong to an empty room, and two to another filled with people. The windows of this one stood wide open, and the racket within was prodigious. Also the company seemed to consist entirely of men. But what surprised me most was to see that the tables at which these guests drank and supped—as the clatter of knives and plates told me, and the shouting of toasts—were drawn up in a semicircle about a tall bed-canopy reaching almost to the ceiling in the far right-hand corner. The bed itself was hidden from me by the broad backs of two sportsmen seated in line with it and nursing a bottle apiece under their chairs.
Now while I wondered, Mr. Jack Rogers passed briskly through the room with the closed windows towards this chamber of revelry, preceded by an elderly woman with a smoking dish in her hands. I could not see the doorway between the two rooms; but the company announced his appearance with a shout, and several guests pushing back their chairs and rising to welcome him, in the same instant were disclosed to me, first, the pale face of the Rev. Mr. Whitmore under a sporting print by the wall opposite, and next, reclining in the bed, the most extraordinary figure of a woman.
So much of her as appeared above the bedclothes was arrayed in an orange-coloured dressing-gown and a night-cap the frills of which towered over a face remarkable in many ways, but chiefly for its broad masculine forehead and the firm outline of its jaw and chin. Indeed, I could hardly believe that the face belonged to a woman. A slight darkening of the upper lip even suggested a moustache, but on a second look I set this down to the shadow of the bed-canopy.
A round table stood at her elbow, with a bottle and plate upon it: and in one hand she lifted a rummer to Mr. Rogers's health, crooking back the spoon in it with her forefinger as she drank, that it might not incommode her aquiline nose.
"Good health, Jack, and sit you down!" she hailed him, her voice ringing above the others like a bell. "Tripe and onions it is, and Plymouth gin—the usual fare: and while you're helping yourself, tell me—do I owe you ten pounds or no?"
"That depends," Mr. Rogers answered, searching about for a clean plate and seating himself amid the hush of the company. "All the horses back?"
"Five of 'em. They came in together, nigh on an hour ago, and not a tub between 'em. The roan's missing."
"Maybe the red-coats have him," said Mr. Rogers, holding out his tumbler. "Here, pass the kettle, somebody!"
"Red-coats?" she cried sharply. "You don't tell me—" But the sentence was drowned by a new and (to me) very horrible noise—the furious barking of dogs from the stables or kennels in the rear of the house. Here was a new danger: and I liked it so little—the prospect of being bayed naked through those pitch-dark shrubberies by a pack of hounds—that I broke from my covert of laurel, hurriedly skirted the broad patch of light on the carriage sweep, and plumped down close to the windows, behind a bush of mock-orange at the end of the verandah, whence a couple of leaps would land me within it among Miss Belcher's guests. And I felt that even Mr. Whitmore was less formidable than Miss Belcher's dogs.
Their barking died down after a minute or so, and the company, two or three of whom had started to their feet, seemed to be reassured and began to call upon Jack Rogers for his explanation. It now turned out that, quite unintentionally, I had so posted myself as to hear every word spoken; and, I regret to say, was deep in Mr. Rogers's story—from which he considerately omitted all mention of me—when my eye caught a movement among the shadows at the far end of the verandah.
A man was stealing along it and towards me, close by the house wall.
He reached the first of the lighted windows, and peeped warily round its angle. This room, as I have said, was empty: but while he assured himself of this, the light rested on his face, and through the branches of the mock-orange bush I saw his features distinctly. It was Sergeant Letcher.
He wore his red uniform and white pantaloons, but had slipped off his boots and—as I saw when he rapidly passed the next two panels of light—was carrying them in his hand. Reaching the first of the open windows, he stood for a while in the shade beside it, listening; and then, to my astonishment, turned and stole back by the way he had come. I watched him till he disappeared in the darkness beyond the house-porch.
Meanwhile Miss Belcher had been calling to clear away the supper and set the tables for cards.
"Nonsense, Lydia!" Mr. Rogers objected. "It's a good one-in-the-morning, and the company tired. Where's the sense, too, of keeping the place ablaze on a night like this, with Gauger Rosewarne scouring the country, and the dragoons behind him, and all in the worst possible tempers?"
"My little Magistrate," Miss Belcher retorted, "there's naught to hinder your trotting home to bed if you're timorous. Jim's on his way to the moor by this time with the rest of the horses: 'twas at his starting the dogs gave tongue just now, and I'll have to teach them better manners. As for the roan, if he's hurt or Rosewarne happens on him, there's evidence that I sold him to a gipsy three weeks back, at St. Germans fair. Here, Bathsheba, take the keys of my bureau upstairs; you'll find some odd notes in the left-hand drawer by the fire-place. Bring Mr. Rogers down his ten pounds and let him go. We'll not compromise a Justice of the Peace if we can help it."
"Don't play the fool, Lydia," growled Mr. Rogers, and added ingenuously, "The fact is, I wanted a word with you alone."
"Oh, you scandalous man! And me tucked between the sheets!" she protested, while the company haw-haw'd. "You'll have to put up with some more innocent amusement, my dear. There's a badger somewhere round at the back, in a barrel: we'll have him in with the dogs— unless you prefer a quiet round with the cards."
"Oh, damn the badger at this hour!" swore Mr. Rogers. "Cards are quiet at any rate. Here, Raby—Penrose—Tregaskis—which of you'll cut in? Whitmore—you'll take a hand, won't you?"
"The Parson's tired to-night, and with better excuse than you. He's ridden down from Plymouth."
"Hallo, Whitmore—what were you doing in Plymouth?"
Mr. Whitmore ignored the question. "I'm ready for a hand, Miss Belcher," he announced quietly: "only let it be something quiet—a rubber for choice."
"Half-guinea points?" asked somebody.
"Yes, if you will."
I heard them settle to cards, and their voices sink to a murmur. Now and again a few coins clinked, and one of the guests yawned.
"You're as melancholy as gib-cats," announced Miss Belcher. "The next that yawns, I'll send him out to fetch in that badger. Tell us a story, somebody."
"I heard the beginning of a queer one," said Mr. Whitmore in his deliberate voice. "The folks were discussing it at Torpoint Ferry as I crossed. There's, been a murder at Plymouth, either last night or this morning."
"A murder? Who's the victim?"
"An old Jew, living on the Barbican or thereabouts. My deal, is it not?"
"What's his name?"
"His name?" Mr. Whitmore seemed to be considering. "Wait a moment, or I shall misdeal." After a pause, he said, "A Spanish-sounding one—Rodriguez, I think. They were all full of it at the Ferry."
"What! Old Ike Rodriguez? Why, he was down in these parts buying up guineas the other day!" exclaimed Mr. Rogers.
"Why, hang it all, Whitmore," said a guest, "you know he was! More by token I pointed him out to you myself on Looe hill."
"Was that the man?"
"Of course it was. Don't you remember admiring his face? It put you in mind of Caiaphas—those were your very words, and at the moment I didn't clearly recollect who Caiaphas was. It can't be three weeks since."
"Three weeks less two days," said Miss Belcher; "for he called here and bought fifteen off me: gave me twenty-four shillings and sixpence apiece for all but one, which he swore was light. Who's murdered him?"
"There was talk of a boy," said Mr. Whitmore, still very deliberately. "At least, a boy was missing who had been seen in the house just previously, and they were watching the ferries for him. Why, surely, Rogers, that's a revoke!"
"A revoke?" stammered Mr. Rogers. "So it is—I beg your pardon, Tregaskis! Damn the cards! I'm too sleepy to tell one suit from another."
"That makes our game then, and the rubber. Rub and rub—shall we play the conqueror? No? As you please then. How do we stand?"
"We owe three guineas on points," growled a voice which, to judge by its sulkiness, belonged to Mr. Tregaskis.
"I'm a clumsy fool," Mr. Rogers again accused himself. "Here, Whitmore, give me change out of a note."
"With pleasure. It's as good as a gift, though, with the cards you held," said Mr. Whitmore, and I heard the coins jingle in changing hands, when from the shrubbery, where the gravel sweep narrowed, there sounded the low hoot of an owl. Being town-bred and unused to owls, I took it for a human cry in the darkness and shrank closer against my mock-orange bush.
"Hallo, Whitmore, you've dropped a guinea. Here it is, by the table-leg. Take twenty-four shillings for it, now that old Rodriguez is gone?"
Mr. Whitmore thanked the speaker as the coin was restored to him. "The room's hot, as Mr. Rogers says, and I think I'll step out for a mouthful of fresh air. Phe—ew!" he drew a long breath as he appeared at the window.
He strolled carelessly out beneath the verandah and stood for a moment by one of its pillars. And at that moment the owl's cry sounded again, but more softly, from the shrubbery on my left. I knew, then, that it came from no true bird. With a swift glance back into the room Mr. Whitmore stepped out upon the gravel and followed the sound, almost brushing the mock-orange bush as he passed.