The Malefactor

Book 2

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 5 - Ghosts Of Dead Things


"It was here," she said, as they passed through the walled garden seawards, "that I saw you first--you and the other gentleman who was so kind to me."

Wingrave nodded.

"I believe that I remember it," he said; "you were a mournful-looking object in a very soiled pinafore and most untidy hair."

"I had been out on the cliffs," she reminded him, "where I am taking you now. If you are going to make unkind remarks about my hair, I think that I had better fetch a hat."

"Pray don't leave me," he answered. "I should certainly lose my way. Your hair in those days was, I fancy, a little more--unkempt!"

She laughed.

"It used to be cut short," she said. "Hideous! There! Isn't that glorious?"

She had opened the postern gate in the wall, and through the narrow opening was framed a wonderful picture of the Cornish sea, rolling into the rock-studded bay. Its soft thunder was in their ears; salt and fragrant, the west wind swept into their faces. She closed the gate behind her, and stepped blithely forward.

"Come!" she cried. "We will climb the cliffs where we left you alone once before."

Side by side they stood looking over the ocean. Her head was thrown back, her lips a little parted. He watched her curiously.

"You must have sea blood in your veins," he remarked. "You listen as though you heard music all the time."

"And what about you?" she asked him, smiling. "You are the grandson of Admiral Sir Wingrave Seton who commanded a frigate at Trafalgar, and an ancestor of yours fought in the Armada."

"I am afraid," he said quietly, "that there is a hiatus in my life somewhere. There are no voices which call to me any more, and my family records are so much dead parchment."

Trouble passed into her glowing face and clouded her eyes.

"Ah!" she said, "I do not like to hear you talk so. Do you know that when you do, you make me afraid that something I have always hoped for will never come to pass?"

"What is it?" he asked.

"I have always hoped," she said, "that some day you would come once more to Tredowen. I suppose I am rather a fanciful person. This is a country of superstitions and fancies, you know; but sometimes when I have been alone in the picture gallery with all that long line of dark faces looking down upon me from the walls, I have felt like an interloper. Always they seem to be waiting! Tonight, after dinner, I will take you there. I will try and show you what I mean."

He shook his head.

"I shall never come back," he said, "and there are no more of my name."

She hesitated. When at last she spoke, the color was coming and going in her cheeks.

"Sir Wingrave," she said, "I am only an ignorant girl, and I have no right to talk to you like this. Please be angry with me if you want to. I deserve it. I know all about--that ten years! Couldn't you forget it, and come back? None of the country people round here, your own people, believe anything evil about you. You were struck, and you struck back again. A man would do that. You could be as lonely as you liked here, or you could have friends if you wished for them. But this is the place where you ought to live. You would be happier here, I believe, than in exile. The love of it all would come back, you would never be lonely. It is the same sea which sang to you when you were a child, and to your fathers before you. It would bring you forgetfulness when you wanted it, or--"

Wingrave interrupted her. His tone was cold, but not unkind.

"My dear young lady," he said, "it is very good of you to be so sympathetic, but I am afraid I am not at all the sort of person you imagine me to be. What I was before those ten years--well, I have forgotten. What I am now, I unfortunately know. I am a soured, malevolent being whose only pleasure lies in the dealing out to others some portion of the unhappiness which was dealt out to me."

"I do not believe it," she declared briskly.

He shrugged his shoulders.

"Nevertheless, it is true," he declared coolly. "Listen! More or less you interest me. I will tell you something which I have never yet told to a single human being. I need not go into particulars. You will probably believe a broad statement. My ten years' imprisonment was more or less an injustice!"

"Sir Wingrave!"

He checked her. There was not a tremor in his tone. The gesture with which he had repelled her was stiff and emotionless.

"I went into prison one man, I came out another. While I live, I shall never be able to think kindly again of a single one of my fellow creatures. It was not my fault. So far as our affections are concerned, we are machines, all of us. Well, my mainspring has broken."

"I don't believe it," she declared.

"It is, nevertheless, true," he affirmed calmly. "I am living in exile because I have no friends, because friends have become an impossibility to me. I shall not tell you any more of my life because you are young and you would not believe me if I did. Some day," he added grimly, "you will probably hear for yourself."

"I shall never believe anything," she declared, "which I do not choose to believe. I shall never believe, for instance, that you are quite what you think yourself."

"We will talk of other things," he said. "Five years ago, you showed Aynesworth where the seagulls built."

"And now I will show you," she exclaimed, "if you are sure that your head is steady enough. Come along!" . . .

It was after dinner that she took him into the picture gallery. Miss Harrison, very much disturbed by the presence of the master of Tredowen, and still more so by the hint which she had already received as to coming changes, followed them at a little distance.

"I am so sorry," Juliet said, "that we have no cigars or cigarettes."

"I seldom smoke," Wingrave answered.

"If only we had had the slightest idea of your coming," Miss Harrison said for the tenth time, "we would have made more adequate preparations. The wine cellar, at least, could have been opened. I allowed Mr. and Mrs. Tresfarwin to go for their holiday only yesterday, and the cellars, of course, are never touched."

"Your claret was excellent," Wingrave assured her.

"I am quite sure," Miss Harrison said, "that claret from the local grocer is not what you are accustomed to--"

"My dear madam," Wingrave protested, "I seldom touch wine. Show me which picture it is, Juliet, that you--ah!"

She had led him to the end of the gallery and stopped before what seemed to be a plain oak cupboard surrounded by a massive frame. She looked at him half fearfully.

"You want to see that picture?" he asked.

"If I might."

He drew a bunch of keys from his pocket and calmly selected one. It was a little rusty, but the cupboard turned at once on its hinges. A woman's face smiled down upon them, dark and splendid, from the glowing touch of a great painter. Juliet studied it eagerly, and then stole a sidelong glance at the man by her side. He was surveying it critically and without any apparent emotion.

"Herkomer's, I think," he remarked. "Quite one of his best."

"It is your mother?" she whispered.

He nodded.

"I'm not great at genealogy," he said, "but I can go as far back as that. She was by way of being a great lady, the daughter of the Duke of Warminster."

"You were an only son," she said softly. "She must have been very fond of you."

"Customary thing, I suppose," he remarked. "Lucky for her, under the circumstances, that she died young."

He closed the oaken door in front of the picture, and locked it.

"I should like to see the armory," he said; "but I really forget--let me see, it is at the end of the long gallery, isn't it?"

She led him there without a word. She was getting a little afraid of him. They inspected the library and wandered back into the picture gallery. It was she, now, who was silent. She had shown him all her favorite treasures without being able to evoke a single spark of enthusiasm.

"Once," she remarked, "we all had a terrible fright. We were told that everything was going to be sold."

He nodded.

"I did think of it," he admitted; "but there seemed to be no hurry. All these things are growing into money year by year. Some day I shall send everything to Christie's."

She looked at him in horror.

"You cannot--oh, you cannot mean it?" she cried.

"Why not? They are no use to me."

"No use?" she faltered.

"Not a bit. I don't suppose I shall see them again for many years. And the money--well, one can use that."

"But I thought--that you were rich?" she faltered.

"So I am," he answered, "and yet I go on making more and more, and I shall go on. Money is the whip with which its possessor can scourge humanity. It is with money that I deal out my--forgive me, I forgot that I was talking aloud, and to a child," he wound up suddenly.

She looked at him, dry-eyed, but with a strained look of sorrow strangely altering her girlish face.

"You must be very unhappy," she said.

"Not at all," he assured her. "I am one of those fortunate persons who have outlived happiness and unhappiness. I have nothing to do but live--and pay off a few little debts."

He rose directly afterwards, and she walked with him out to the gardens whence a short cut led to the village.

"I have not tried again to make you change your mind," he said as they stood for a moment on the terrace. "If my wishes have any weight with you, I trust that you will do nothing without consulting Mr. Pengarth."

"And you--" she faltered, "are you--never in London? Sha'n't I see you again any time?"

"If you care to, by all means," he answered. "Tell Mr. Pengarth to let me have your address. Goodbye! Thank you for taking care of my treasures so well."

She held his cold hand in hers and suddenly raised it to her lips. Then she turned away and hurried indoors.

Wingrave stood still for a moment and gazed at his hand through the darkness as though the ghosts of dead things had flitted out from the dark laurel shrubs. Then he laughed quietly to himself.