The Adventures of Harry Revel
THE MOCK-ORANGE BUSH
To my dismay, he halted but five paces from me.
"Is that you, Leicester?" he whispered.
"Sergeant Letcher, if you please," answered a quiet voice close by; "unless you wish to be called Pickthall."
"Not so loud—the windows are open. How on earth did you come here? You're not with the van to-night?"
"I came on a horse, and a lame one: one of your tub-carriers. The captain saw me mount him, down at the cove, and sent me off to scour the country for evidence. I guessed pretty well in what direction he'd take me. But you're a careless lot, I will say. Look at this bit of rope."
"For God's sake don't talk so loud! Rope? What rope?"
"Oh, you needn't be afraid! It's not your sort! Here—if you can't see, take hold and feel it. Left-handed, you'll notice—French sling-stuff. And that Belcher woman has no more sense of caution than to tie up her roses with it! Now see here, my son"—and his voice became a snarl—"it may do for her to play tricks. All the country knows her, the magistrates included. But for the likes of you this dancing on the edge of the law is risky, and I can't afford it. Understand? Why the devil you haunt the house as you do is more than I can fathom, unless maybe you're making up to marry the old fool." He paused and added contemplatively, "'Twould be something in your line to be sure. Women were always your game."
"You didn't whistle me out to tell me this," said Mr. Whitmore stiffly. "No, I did not. I want ten pounds."
Mr. Whitmore groaned. "Look here, Leicst—"
"But this makes twice in ten days. It's pushing a man too hard altogether!"
"Not a bit of it," Letcher assured him cheerfully. "You're too devilish fond of your own neck, my lad; and I know it too devilish well to be come over by that talk." He chuckled to himself. "How's the beauty down at the cottage?"
"I don't know," Mr. Whitmore answered sulkily. "Is Plinlimmon there?"
"No, he's not; and you ought to know he's not. Where have you been, all day?"
The curate was silent.
"He'll be down again on Saturday, though. Leave of absence is going cheap, just now. I've an idea that our marching orders must be about due. Maybe I'll be able to run down myself, though my father hadn't the luck to be a friend of the Colonel's. If I don't, you're to keep your eye lifting, and report."
"Is there really a chance of the order coming?" asked Mr. Whitmore, with a shake in his low voice.
"Dissemble your joy, my friend! When it comes, I shall call on you for fifty. Meanwhile I tell you to keep your eye lifting. The battalion's raw, yet. About the order, it's only my guesswork, and before we sail you may yet do the christening."
"Hush, you fool! Gad, if somebody hasn't heard you! Who's that?"
They held their breath; and I held mine, pressing my body into the mock-orange bush until the twigs cracked. Mr. Jack Rogers stepped out upon the verandah, and stood by one of the pillars, not a dozen yards from me, contemplating the sky where the dawn was now beginning to break over the dark shrubberies. I heard the two men tip-toeing away through the laurels.
He, too, seemed to catch the sound, for he turned his head sharply. But at that moment Miss Belcher's voice called him back into the room.
A minute later he reappeared with a loaf of bread in either hand, and walked moodily past my bush without turning his head or observing me.
I faced about cautiously and looked after him. From the end of the verandah the ground, sheltered on the right by a belt of evergreen trees, fell away steeply to a valley where, under the paling sky, a sheet of water glimmered. Towards this, down the grassy slope, Mr. Rogers went with long strides. I broke cover, and ran after him.
I ran as fast as my hurt hip and the trailing folds of the rug allowed. The grass underfoot was grey with dew, and overhead the birds were singing. An old horse that had been sleeping in his pasture heaved himself up and gazed at me as I went by, and either his snort of contempt or the sound of my footsteps must have struck on Mr. Rogers's ear. He turned and allowed me to catch up with him.
"It's you, eh?" He eyed me between pity and distrust. "Here, catch hold, if you're feeling peckish."
He thrust a loaf into my hands and I fell on it ravenously, plucking off a crust and gnawing it while I trotted beside him.
"Got to feed her blessed swans now!" he muttered. "The deuce is in her for perversity to-night."
He kept growling to himself, knitting his brow and pausing once or twice for a moody stare. He was not drunk, and his high complexion showed no trace of his all-night sitting; and yet something had changed him utterly from the cheerful gentleman of a few hours back.
The water in the valley bottom proved to be an artificial lake, very cunningly contrived to resemble a wild one. At the head of it, where we trod on asphodels and sweet-smelling mints and brushed the young stalks of the loose-strife, stood a rustic bridge partly screened by alders. Here Mr. Rogers halted, and a couple of fine swans came steering towards him out of the shadows.
He broke his loaf into two pieces. "That's for you," he exclaimed, hurling the first chunk viciously at the male bird. The pair turned in alarm at the splash and paddled away, hissing. "And that's for you!" The second chunk caught the female full astern, and Mr. Rogers leaned on the rail and laughed grimly. He thrust his hand into his breeches pocket and drew forth a guinea. The young daylight touched its edge as it lay in his palm.
"I'm a Justice of the Peace; or I'd toss that after the bread."
"What's the matter with it, sir?"
He turned it over gingerly with his forefinger. "See?" he said. "I put that mark on it myself, for sport, three weeks ago, and this very night I won it back."
"Was it one you sold to Mr. Rodriguez?"
"Hey?" I thought he would have taken me by the collar. "So you are the boy! What do you know of Rodriguez, boy?"
"I—I was listening in the verandah, sir. And oh, but I've something to tell you! I'm the boy, sir, that Mr. Whitmore spoke about—the boy that's being searched for—"
"Look here," Mr. Rogers interrupted, "I'm a Justice of the Peace, you know."
"I can't help it, sir—begging your pardon. But I was in the house, and I saw things: and if they catch me, I must tell."
"Tell the truth and shame the devil," said Mr. Rogers.
"But the more truth I told, sir, the worse it would look for someone who's innocent."
"You changed a note with Mr. Whitmore, didn't you, sir?"
This confused him. "You've been using your ears to some purpose," he growled.
"I don't know how Mr. Whitmore comes to be mixed up in it. But here's another thing, sir—You remember that he walked out after the game—for fresh air, he said?"
"And he didn't come back?"
"He stepped out because he was whistled out. There was a man waiting for him."
"His name's Letcher—at least—"
"I don't know the name."
"He was one of the soldiers on the beach this evening."
"But he hadn't come about that business."
"About what, then?"
"Well now, sir, I must ask you a question. They were talking about 'the beauty down at the cottage.' Who would that be?"
"That," said he slowly, "would be Isabel Brooks, for a certainty."
"And the cottage?"
"Remember the one we passed on the road?—the one with a light downstairs? That's it. She lives there with her father—an old soldier and three-parts blind. There's no mischief brewing against her, I hope?"
"I don't know sir," I went on breathlessly. "But if you please, go on answering me. Do you know a young man called Plinlimmon— Archibald Plinlimmon?"
"Plinlimmon? Ay, to be sure I do. Met him there once—another soldier, youngish and good-looking—in the ranks, but seemed a gentleman—didn't catch his Christian name. The Major introduced him as the son of an old friend—comrade-in-arms, he said, if I remember. He was there with a black-faced fellow, whose name I didn't catch either."
"That was Letcher!"
"What? The man Whitmore was talking with? What were they saying?"
"They said something about a christening. And Letcher asked for money."
"A christening? What in thunder has a christening to do with it?"
"That's what I don't know, sir."
Mr. Rogers looked at me and rubbed his chin. "I meant to take you to Lydia," he said; "but now that Whitmore's mixed up in this, I'll be shot if I do. That fellow has bewitched her somehow, and where he's concerned—" He glanced up the slope and clutched me suddenly by the shoulder: for Whitmore himself was there, walking alone, and coming straight towards us. "Talk of the devil—here, hide, boy—duck down, I tell you, there behind the bushes! No! Through the hedge, then—"
I burst across the hedge and dropped through a mat of brambles, dragging my rug after me. The fall landed me on all-fours upon the sunken high road, along which I ran as one demented—stark naked, too—a small Jack of Bedlam under the broadening eye of day; ran past Miss Belcher's entrance gate with its sentinel masses of tall laurels, and had reached the bend of the road opening the low cottage into view, when a sudden jingling of bells and tramp of horses drove me aside through a gate on the left, to cower behind a hedge there while they passed.
Two wagons came rumbling by, each drawn by six horses and covered by a huge white tilt bearing in great letters the words "Russell and Co., Falmouth to London." On the front of each a lantern shone pale against the daylight. At the head of each team rode a wagoner, mounted on a separate horse and carrying a long whip. Beside the wagons tramped four soldiers with fixed bayonets, and two followed behind: they wore the uniform of the North Wilts Regiment.
I knew them well enough by repute—these famous wagons conveying untold treasure between London and the Falmouth Packets. They passed, and I crept out into the road again, to stare after them.
With that, turning my head, I was aware of a girl in the roadway outside the cottage door. But if she had come out to gaze after the wagons, she was gazing now at me. It was too late to hide, and moreover I had come almost to the end of my powers. With a cry for pity I ran towards her.