Read CHAPTER FIFTY - A Place of Rest of Witness to the Deed , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on ReadCentral.com.

There was a feeling in the air along that dark shore which accorded well with Stratton’s sensations.  The solemn melancholy of the place was calming; and as he watched the sheet of spangled gold before him softly heaving and appearing to send the star reflections sweeping at last in a golden cream upon the sands, life seemed, after all, worth living, and his cares and sufferings petty and contemptible.

He wandered on close by the sea, where it broke gently in phosphorescent spray, till he was abreast of the cottage under the cliff where Brettison lodged with their charge.  There was a feeble light burning, and it shed out its glow through the open door, while lamps glimmered from higher up the cliff, where three or four miniature chateaux, the property of Parisians ­let to visitors to the lovely little fishing village ­were snugly ensconced in the sheltering rocks.

There were voices just above the cottage, and a woman’s speaking volubly, and he fancied he recognised that of the nurse, but felt that she would hardly have left her patient, though there was no reason why she should not, for Barron would have been in bed an hour or two, and it was absurd to expect her to be always on the watch.

Stratton felt a strong desire, almost irresistible, as he gazed at the light from the cottage door, to go up, enter, and gaze at the man who had come between him and happiness.  He took a few steps forward under the influence upon rum, but only to stop and think, as the voluble voice above still went on in its peculiar French.

“It would not be safe,” he thought, with a shudder.  His presence had influenced the man imperceptibly when waking, might it not also as he slept?

Stratton drew back, and continued his walk along the shore, enjoying the coolness of the fiery looking water which washed over and about his feet, full, as it were, of phosphorescent creatures, while here and there to his right, where the sea lay calm amid the rocks, the water was covered with what resembled a golden, luminous oil, which flashed softly at times with a bluish tint.

“Brettison is right,” he said to himself.  “Life is grand, and it is our petty cares which spoil it.  Not petty, though, mine,” he added, with a sigh.  “Ah! what it might be if I could but hope.”

He drew a long, deep breath, and then made an effort to forget the past in the glory of the present.  He bared his head to the soft, warm night air, and walked slowly on, gazing up into the depths of the vast arch above his head, where stars innumerable shone on and on till they resembled golden dust.  The grandeur of the scene impressed him, and, feeling his own littleness more and more, he resolved to cast his old despondency aside and make a fresh start from that moment, accepting all his worries as the share apportioned to him, and cease to nurse them to the exclusion of the good.

He could not help a bitter smile crossing his lips the next minute as he stopped short; for there, dimly seen before him, were two figures gazing out to sea, and so occupied by their own thoughts that they had not noticed his approach.  They were talking in a low voice of the sea and the phosphorescence ­nothing more; but the tone of their voices!

The old, old story breathed in every modulation, and Stratton sighed and drew silently away among the rocks farther from the sea, unnoticed by the pair, who turned and began to retrace their steps toward the lights he had left behind.

They were silent now; but just as they passed him ­their figures looking like one shadow between him and the luminous sea ­the man said softly: 

“I often feel as if it were a sin to be so happy when I think of them.”

“Yes.”

They passed on, while Stratton felt as if he had suddenly received a tremendous blow, and he staggered back a step or two with his hands to his brow.

Guest and Edie there!  Had he gone mad?

He remained for a few seconds, as if paralysed, before he could collect himself and follow the figures, which had now passed on and been swallowed up in the darkness.  A cold perspiration broke out upon his face, and he walked on to overtake them ­hurriedly now; but by degrees, as he drew near enough to make out their silent, shadowy figures, seeming to glide over the soft sand, he grew a little more calm.

For he felt that the fact of his dwelling so much upon the Jerrold family had made him ready to jump at the conclusion that this was Edie and her lover.  He could not distinguish face or figure in the gloom, and he had only had the man’s voice to suggest the idea ­the woman’s was but a whisper.  They were English, of course; but what of that?  It was a foolish mistake; for it was utterly impossible that Guest and Edie could be alone there that night upon those sands.

All the same, he followed to see where they went, shrinking from going closer, now that he felt less sure, in dread lest he should seem to be acting the part of spy upon two strangers; while if it were they it would be madness to speak.  There was only one thing to be done:  warn Brettison, and get their charge away at once.

There before him walked the pair so slowly and leisurely that he had to be careful not to overtake them.  They were nearing the cottage with the open door, but the loud voice he had heard in passing was silent now, and the stillness was oppressive ­the beating of his own heart and the soft whispering “whish” of the feet on the loose sand being all that was audible to his ears.

It now occurred to him that, by a little management, he would be able to convince himself that this was only a mad fancy; for the couple must pass the open door, and if he struck off a little to his left, so as to get nearer to the sea, he could hurry on unseen, and get opposite to the door, so that when they passed the light he would have them like silhouettes for a moment or two, quite long enough to make out their profiles.

He set about carrying his plan into effect, and in a minute or so was abreast of the pair, but they were quite invisible now; and, feeling that he had gone too far, as soon as he was opposite to the lighted door he began to advance slowly, expecting moment by moment to see the two figures move into the light; but they did not come.

They must pass the door, he felt, for he could recall no way up the cliff, the house perched up there being approached by a broad step-like path from the rough roadway leading up the ravine which came down to the shore with its stream, beside which, on either side, many of the cottages were built.

Still they did not come, but Stratton waited patiently, for, lover-like, they might be hanging back for a few moments before approaching the light.

At last a dark figure in front of the doorway was plainly enough seen, and Stratton leaned forward with eyes dilated, but only to utter a muttered interjection, for the figure he saw was undoubtedly Brettison, as he stood there apparently peering about in the darkness.

Another moment or two, and still no sign of the figures he sought, and, wondering whether they could have passed through some miscalculation on his part, he stepped forward quickly to make sure, when he became visible to Brettison, who joined him at once.

“There you are, then.  I was getting uneasy.  One of the fishermen saw you go along in this direction, and I was beginning to think that I must get some of them to come and help me search for you.”

“Why?” said Stratton harshly.

“Because the coast is dangerous, and there is always the risk of anyone being surrounded by the advancing tide.”

“Tide is going down,” said Stratton quietly.  “See anybody pass?” he continued as he debated whether he should take Brettison into his confidence, while all the time he kept a sharp look about him.

“No, not a soul.  The most solitary place a man could select for a stay.”

“Is there a way up into the village beyond the cottage here?” said Stratton quietly.

“Yes, but it is only a sort of flight of steps used by the people here.  It would be farther round, too.  Better keep to the beach.”

As he spoke Brettison walked by his side, and tried to edge him away from the light, speaking in quite a whisper the while, as if afraid that their voices might reach the occupant of the cottage.

And meanwhile Stratton was still debating within himself as to whether he should tell his companion of the startling adventure he had had.  But feeling more and more that the idea was only coloured by his imagination, and knowing in his heart that the old man would smile and point out the impossibility of such an encounter, he determined to be silent till the morning ­if he could not learn anything about any visitors who might be staying there.

Twice over as they walked he was on the point of speaking, but checked himself, and then the opportunity was gone, for Brettison held out his hand.

“Good-night, my boy,” he said; “you are tired.  There, go to the inn and have a good night’s rest.”

“One moment, Brettison,” said Stratton, arresting him.  “You do not think it possible that ­”

He stopped short:  he could not say it.  The idea was absurd.

“Well, think what possible?” said Brettison, smiling.

“That he is likely to turn dangerous?”

“I have no fear of him whatever,” said the old man.  “There, don’t fidget; good-night.”

Stratton went on to the inn, wishing that he had spoken to Brettison, after all; and he had hardly taken his seat before he sprang up again to go back to him.  Before starting he summoned the landlady to question her about visitors to the place, but only to find in a few minutes that her knowledge was confined to those who came to her hotel.  There were people who let their houses and took in lodgers, she knew ­yes, but she had no patience with people who played at keeping an hotel.

Stratton went out once more into the night with the intention of going straight to Brettison, telling him his suspicions, and asking his advice; but he shrank from the task; and on the impulse of the moment turned off to go and explore the village on the chance of happening upon something which would give him a clue.

Five minutes devoted to his task was sufficient to satisfy him of the hopelessness of the task, and he returned to the inn agitated, weary, and trying to make some plan as to his proceedings as soon as it was light.

“The post!” he said to himself.  He would be able to learn there; and half disposed to hire some vehicle and go across ten miles to the town, he entered the doorway, to start once more, this time with a thrill of certainty.

For, as he advanced, he saw at the end of the passage a man in conversation with the landlady.  He was making inquiries about a boat for a sail next day.  The next minute he turned to leave, and came face to face with Guest.

“Great Heavens!” cried the latter hoarsely; “you or your ghost.  O Mal, old man, if it is you how could you be so mad?”

“Mad?  Mad?” stammered Stratton.  “What do you mean?”

“Why, as to follow me?”

“I ­I did not know you were here.”

“Oh, hang that, man.  I told you in my letter.”

“What letter?”

“The one I wrote and pushed into your letter-box after coming twice to tell you.”

“Letter?”

“Why, of course.  You had it or you couldn’t have come here.”

Stratton’s hand went to his breast, and the next minute he drew out a soiled letter doubled up into three from the pressure of his pocketbook.

“You wrote this letter to me to tell me you were coming here?” said Stratton in slow, strange accents.

“Of course I did, and I tell you that you have done a mean, cruel thing in following me.  It can do no good; Sir Mark will be furious, and it is cruel to Myra.”

“Myra ­Myra here!” gasped Stratton as he reeled against the wall.

“Don’t make a scene, man,” said Guest in a low whisper.  “Of course; I told you she was coming, and how the old man insisted upon my coming too.  Why, you haven’t opened the letter!”

“No,” said Stratton in a hoarse whisper.

“Then how came you here?”

“I ­Heaven only knows!” said Stratton.  “It is beyond me.”

Guest looked at him curiously, as if he doubted his word.

“We only came to-day.  Had to stop at place after place; Myra is so weak and ill.”

Stratton groaned.

“Yes,” said Guest; “that’s better.  Now look here.  You and I will start off at daybreak for home.  It’s hard on me, but it must be done.”

“Yes.  I saw you two ­on the sands to-night.  I was not sure.  But tell me, where are they staying?”

“At a little chateau-like place on the cliff; they got it through a woman they knew at Saint Malo a couple or three years ago.  She was servant there.  She is nurse now to an invalid gentleman staying at a cottage just below.”

Stratton stood gazing at his friend as if he had been turned to stone.