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CHAPTER V - TELLS OF AN INTERVIEW BETWEEN NORTHMOUR, CLARA, AND MYSELF
With the first peep of day, I retired from the open to my old lair among the sand-hills, there to await the coming of my wife. The morning was grey, wild, and melancholy; the wind moderated before sunrise, and then went about, and blew in puffs from the shore; the sea began to go down, but the rain still fell without mercy. Over all the wilderness of links there was not a creature to be seen. Yet I felt sure the neighbourhood was alive with skulking foes. The light that had been so suddenly and surprisingly flashed upon my face as I lay sleeping, and the hat that had been blown ashore by the wind from over Graden Floe, were two speaking signals of the peril that environed Clara and the party in the pavilion.
It was, perhaps, half-past seven, or nearer eight, before I saw the door open, and that dear figure come towards me in the rain. I was waiting for her on the beach before she had crossed the sand-hills.
"I have had such trouble to come!" she cried. "They did not wish me to go walking in the rain."
"Clara," I said, "you are not frightened!"
"No," said she, with a simplicity that filled my heart with confidence. For my wife was the bravest as well as the best of women; in my experience, I have not found the two go always together, but with her they did; and she combined the extreme of fortitude with the most endearing and beautiful virtues.
I told her what had happened; and, though her cheek grew visibly paler, she retained perfect control over her senses.
"You see now that I am safe," said I, in conclusion. "They do not mean to harm me; for, had they chosen, I was a dead man last night."
She laid her hand upon my arm.
"And I had no presentiment!" she cried.
Her accent thrilled me with delight. I put my arm about her, and strained her to my side; and, before either of us was aware, her hands were on my shoulders and my lips upon her mouth. Yet up to that moment no word of love had passed between us. To this day I remember the touch of her cheek, which was wet and cold with the rain; and many a time since, when she has been washing her face, I have kissed it again for the sake of that morning on the beach. Now that she is taken from me, and I finish my pilgrimage alone, I recall our old lovingkindnesses and the deep honesty and affection which united us, and my present loss seems but a trifle in comparison.
We may have thus stood for some seconds - for time passes quickly with lovers - before we were startled by a peal of laughter close at hand. It was not natural mirth, but seemed to be affected in order to conceal an angrier feeling. We both turned, though I still kept my left arm about Clara's waist; nor did she seek to withdraw herself; and there, a few paces off upon the beach, stood Northmour, his head lowered, his hands behind his back, his nostrils white with passion.
"Ah! Cassilis!" he said, as I disclosed my face.
"That same," said I; for I was not at all put about.
"And so, Miss Huddlestone," he continued slowly but savagely, "this is how you keep your faith to your father and to me? This is the value you set upon your father's life? And you are so infatuated with this young gentleman that you must brave ruin, and decency, and common human caution - "
"Miss Huddlestone - " I was beginning to interrupt him, when he, in his turn, cut in brutally -
"You hold your tongue," said he; "I am speaking to that girl."
"That girl, as you call her, is my wife," said I; and my wife only leaned a little nearer, so that I knew she had affirmed my words.
"Your what?" he cried. "You lie!"
"Northmour," I said, "we all know you have a bad temper, and I am the last man to be irritated by words. For all that, I propose that you speak lower, for I am convinced that we are not alone."
He looked round him, and it was plain my remark had in some degree sobered his passion. "What do you mean?" he asked.
I only said one word: "Italians."
He swore a round oath, and looked at us, from one to the other.
"Mr. Cassilis knows all that I know," said my wife.
"What I want to know," he broke out, "is where the devil Mr. Cassilis comes from, and what the devil Mr. Cassilis is doing here. You say you are married; that I do not believe. If you were, Graden Floe would soon divorce you; four minutes and a half, Cassilis. I keep my private cemetery for my friends."
"It took somewhat longer," said I, "for that Italian."
He looked at me for a moment half daunted, and then, almost civilly, asked me to tell my story. "You have too much the advantage of me, Cassilis," he added. I complied of course; and he listened, with several ejaculations, while I told him how I had come to Graden: that it was I whom he had tried to murder on the night of landing; and what I had subsequently seen and heard of the Italians.
"Well," said he, when I had done, "it is here at last; there is no mistake about that. And what, may I ask, do you propose to do?"
"I propose to stay with you and lend a hand," said I.
"You are a brave man," he returned, with a peculiar intonation.
"I am not afraid," said I.
"And so," he continued, "I am to understand that you two are married? And you stand up to it before my face, Miss Huddlestone?"
"We are not yet married," said Clara; "but we shall be as soon as we can."
"Bravo!" cried Northmour. "And the bargain? D-n it, you're not a fool, young woman; I may call a spade a spade with you. How about the bargain? You know as well as I do what your father's life depends upon. I have only to put my hands under my coat-tails and walk away, and his throat would he cut before the evening."
"Yes, Mr. Northmour," returned Clara, with great spirit; "but that is what you will never do. You made a bargain that was unworthy of a gentleman; but you are a gentleman for all that, and you will never desert a man whom you have begun to help."
"Aha!" said he. "You think I will give my yacht for nothing? You think I will risk my life and liberty for love of the old gentleman; and then, I suppose, be best man at the wedding, to wind up? Well," he added, with an odd smile, "perhaps you are not altogether wrong. But ask Cassilis here. HE knows me. Am I a man to trust? Am I safe and scrupulous? Am I kind?"
"I know you talk a great deal, and sometimes, I think, very foolishly," replied Clara, "but I know you are a gentleman, and I am not the least afraid."
He looked at her with a peculiar approval and admiration; then, turning to me, "Do you think I would give her up without a struggle, Frank?" said he. "I tell you plainly, you look out. The next time we come to blows - "
"Will make the third," I interrupted, smiling.
"Aye, true; so it will," he said. "I had forgotten. Well, the third time's lucky."
"The third time, you mean, you will have the crew of the RED EARL to help," I said.
"Do you hear him?" he asked, turning to my wife.
"I hear two men speaking like cowards," said she. "I should despise myself either to think or speak like that. And neither of you believe one word that you are saying, which makes it the more wicked and silly."
"She's a trump!" cried Northmour. "But she's not yet Mrs. Cassilis. I say no more. The present is not for me." Then my wife surprised me.
"I leave you here," she said suddenly. "My father has been too long alone. But remember this: you are to be friends, for you are both good friends to me."
She has since told me her reason for this step. As long as she remained, she declares that we two would have continued to quarrel; and I suppose that she was right, for when she was gone we fell at once into a sort of confidentiality.
Northmour stared after her as she went away over the sand-hill
"She is the only woman in the world!" he exclaimed with an oath. "Look at her action."
I, for my part, leaped at this opportunity for a little further light.
"See here, Northmour," said I; "we are all in a tight place, are we not?"
"I believe you, my boy," he answered, looking me in the eyes, and with great emphasis. "We have all hell upon us, that's the truth. You may believe me or not, but I'm afraid of my life."
"Tell me one thing," said I. "What are they after, these Italians? What do they want with Mr. Huddlestone?"
"Don't you know?" he cried. "The black old scamp had CARBONARO funds on a deposit - two hundred and eighty thousand; and of course he gambled it away on stocks. There was to have been a revolution in the Tridentino, or Parma; but the revolution is off, and the whole wasp's nest is after Huddlestone. We shall all be lucky if we can save our skins."
"The CARBONARI!" I exclaimed; "God help him indeed!"
"Amen!" said Northmour. "And now, look here: I have said that we are in a fix; and, frankly, I shall be glad of your help. If I can't save Huddlestone, I want at least to save the girl. Come and stay in the pavilion; and, there's my hand on it, I shall act as your friend until the old man is either clear or dead. But," he added, "once that is settled, you become my rival once again, and I warn you - mind yourself."
"Done!" said I; and we shook hands.
"And now let us go directly to the fort," said Northmour; and he began to lead the way through the rain.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER VI - TELLS OF MY INTRODUCTION TO THE TALL MAN