BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
"Mersey Street, sir? Oh, yes; first to the right, second to the left, and then third to the right."
Frank Onslow nodded his thanks and hurried away, trying hard to retain the sequence of rights and lefts in his confused brain; while the police-man whom he had questioned stood looking after him and beating his gloves.
"What does he want down Mersey Street? No accounting for these swells."
Onslow had not noticed the man's manner, but he could not help hesitating for a moment as he reached the street named; and he hesitated again as he paused at the open door of No. 10—open, as he thought, like a trap.
But the intense desire to test the value of the promised information bore down everything else; and, forgetting the aspect of the coarse-looking women and ruffianly men loafing about at public-house doors and the corners of the streets, he knocked sharply.
"I will not go in," he said to himself. "Ronny—Fenella—my life may be of value to them, if it is little to me."
A hard faced, showily dressed woman of about forty came to the door, looked him sharply up and down, and before he could speak exclaimed:
"Oh, you're the gent, are you?"
"What do you mean? Yes, I am the gentleman who was to come here by appointment."
"Then you're too late," said the woman sourly. "She's gone."
"She—has—gone?" faltered Onslow. "The appointment was at four o'clock. It is not ten minutes past."
"I can't help that. She came back in a hurry in a cab, fetched her bag, and she's gone."
"But the—the lady—is coming back?"
"Not likely. If you came you was to be shown into the room she took. Want to wait?"
"No," said Onslow shortly, as a strange suspicion flashed through his brain, and he turned and hurried away.
Had Lucille been saved, and was this some fresh scheme on her part, some fresh web spinning to entangle him and keep him and Fenella apart?
He shivered slightly as he walked sharply away, feeling that he must by an accident have escaped from some new peril; and as he walked rapidly on through the crowded streets he saw nothing but the face of his fair young wife gazing at him reproachfully, but with a yearning look of forgiveness in her eyes.
"Yes, there must be forgiveness now," he muttered feverishly; "I do not deserve it, but for Ronny's sake. And she is waiting for me—waiting till I go to her and on my knees beg her to come, and she will come, for the sake of our darling boy."
He was hurrying on with the busy tide of life eddying by his side, but his eyes had once more assumed their fixed, hypnotic look as he gazed straight before him, seeing the chamber in which his child lay dying, as it seemed, his little head tossing from side to side, while his monotonous, ceaseless cry was for his mother.
He had room but for one thought now, and that was to fetch Fenella to her boy's bedside; and as the mental vision faded, and his countenance resumed its wonted aspect, the influence remained.
He hesitated for a few moments, thinking that he would first return to the hotel, but feeling that if the boy were worse he would not have the strength of mind to leave him, he forced himself in the other direction and made straight for the great station.
"It was madness to expect her to come here," he kept on muttering. "It was my duty to fetch her to our child."
His actions were almost mechanical, but throughout he felt as if some force other than his own natural impulse was urging him on in all that followed, though there seemed nothing unusual in the aspect of the careworn man who spoke to the inspector on the great platform, learned that the next London express started in half an hour, and then paced the flags slowly till he could take a ticket and his place in a corner of one of the coupés.
The rest was dreamlike, and there were times when he became unconscious. It could hardly be called sleep. And at those moments, mingled with the rush and roar of the swift train, he could hear Ronny's plaintive cry for her who would bring him back to life and health, while in the faint distance, as if beckoning him onward, there was Fenella's sweet, half-reproachful face, waiting, always waiting until he should come.
Ever the same, whether sunk in repose or awake and staring out at the blurred landscape, there was Fenella, with her great eyes, silently calling him to her feet.
Yes, all dreamlike—visionary—of a great station, of a short journey through the great city, then of the rail once more, and then of the steamer calmly gliding down Southampton Water. The lights here and there, then the darkness and the cool, soft, light breeze fanning his burning temples, as he leaned over the bulwarks forward with fixed eyes, waiting for the morning and the first glimpse of the sunny island which he loved.
Always confused and dreamlike, but there were memories of the dancing waters, of dimly seen white rocks, and of a great blaze of light flashing out at intervals with electric glare, and seeming to sweep the sea. Then a long, long period of darkness in a rough, tossing sea, whose cool spray ever dashed in his face, and at last a pale pearly gray, changing to a warm glow; then broad sunshine, and at last the rocky islets and his destination looking a very paradise set in the deep blue sea.
The sight of the island gave him hope, and his brain cleared for the time. He saw Fenella placing her hands in his, eager to follow him to their child, and for one moment he closed his eyes and clung fast to the vessel's side, for there was a sensation of joy that turned him giddy. It seemed greater than he could bear.
The port at last and the tedious landing, for it was low water, but he sprang down into the first boat that came alongside, and feeling calmer now, he landed, but, as he stepped ashore, staggered and nearly fell.
A curious feeling of irritation came over him as he saw a man smile, and he turned upon him resentfully.
"Don't be cross, sir," said the man. "You're not the first who has felt dizzy after being seasick. You'll be all right after breakfast."
"Breakfast!" The man's words rang in his ears and he remembered that it was many hours since anything had passed his lips. But he thought no more of his growing weakness, and had himself driven to the rose-hung cottage where Fenella was waiting for him with outstretched hands.
How long the time seemed, and how misty and dim everything looked. The sun shone brilliantly, but there was a something pressing, as it were, upon his brain, a strange pain too at his heart, and that feeling of faintness which seemed to overcome him from time to time.
At last! The cottage where he had left her—his darling—yes, the only woman he had ever loved; and he sat up eager to spring out—to tell her that his mission had been faithfully performed. But he had to avail himself of the driver's arm and totter up to the door, his eyes wildly searching the window for Fenella's face.
Then once more, as in a dream, someone meeting him and a voice speaking: "The lady? No, sir, she left here in the bad weather, two days ago, by the boat."
Onslow heard no more, for a black cloud closed him in, and when he recovered consciousness he was looking in the pleasant face of the elderly little doctor who had attended his wife.
"That's better, my dear sir," he said. "You are suffering from exhaustion. That's right—no, no, you must drink this. You are not used to the sea, I suppose. It does prostrate some people, and leave them weak."
"Mrs.—Lady Onslow—my wife?" gasped the wretched man.
"She has left the island, my dear sir, and really you must— Good Heavens! what are you going to do?"
"Return at once," said Onslow, trying to rise.
"Impossible. You are not fit to travel."
"But there is no boat till to-morrow morning between nine and ten, and even if there were, believe me, my dear sir, it would be madness. It is my duty to tell you that you seem to me to be developing symptoms that—"
The doctor said no more, for Frank Onslow had sunk on the couch insensible once more, and the next day's boat had gone when, weak so that he had to support himself with a stick, he made his way slowly along the cliffs after dispatching a telegram to Jacynth at the hotel at Liverpool telling him of his state, of his failure, and imploring him to send news.
He knew that it would be hours before an answer could come, and to try and calm himself he was slowly walking along the path, gazing out to sea at the swiftly coming tide, and thinking of the long period that had to be got over before he could take boat the next morning, and escape from what now seemed to him a prison.
Sick at heart and angry at his weakness, he sat down upon one of the blocks of stone that rose from among the heather just as footsteps approached from the direction in which he had come, and a strange, foreign-looking man, thin, ghastly, and whose ragged garments were hardly hidden under a rough pea-jacket, looked at him sharply as he passed, and raised his cap, showing his closely cut hair.
Onslow acknowledged his salute, saw in him a beggar, and his hand involuntarily went to his pocket; but the man made a quick gesture, and passed on.
"One as wretched, perhaps, as I," thought Onslow; and then, as if moved by some strange impulse, he rose and followed the man, who somehow had a strange fascination for him.
The path turned there, and the man disappeared beyond a projecting rock, but reappeared, sheltering behind the rock, as if to avoid being seen.
It was curious, but Onslow passed on, and left the man bending downward, as if to fill a pipe. But the man and his gestures passed out of Onslow's thoughts instantly, for, as he went on past the rock in turn, he stopped short, paralyzed at the sight of a well-dressed lady approaching him rapidly, leaning down and talking to a little elfish, sharp-faced peasant child, whom she was leading by one hand, while she carried a small traveling bag in the other.
"Lucille!" gasped Onslow, as a great dread of some fresh complication assailed him.
She started, drew herself up erect, and then, with a look of wonder in her eyes which gave place to a look of delight:
"Ah! mon chéri, she cried. "Then you have followed me?" Then to the wondering child, "Go back to the cottage, petite, I do not want you yet. I will fetch you soon. The little one of an old friend, Frank," she continued.
The handsome, smiling face suddenly turned livid, the jaw dropped, and with her eyes dilated, Lucille de Vigny stood gazing past Onslow as if at some spectral object at his back. Then, clutching the bag to her breast as if to protect herself, she uttered a wild, animal-like cry of dread, turned and dashed down among the rocks where a precipitous track led to the sea.
Almost at the same moment a hoarse voice cried to Onslow in French:
"Take care! The poor child! Do not let her see!"
But as the man literally plunged down the track, the child uttered a piercing shriek, covered her little face with her hands, and dropped down upon her knees.
Onslow was paralyzed for the moment, and then, as he heard another cry from below, he forgot his weakness, a thrill of vigor ran through him, and he staggered to the commencement of the track. The woman was hateful to him now; he had looked upon her as a serpent in his path, but still she had loved him in her way. She was a woman, and he could not stand supine and not raise a hand to defend her from the attack of the savage-looking wretch whose aspect had filled her with such horror. He looked to right and left; there was not a soul in sight, while at his feet the sea came rushing and swirling in amid the wild, jagged rocks, a wave every now and then rising up and falling with a roar, scattering the spray high in air.
In his weak state it was madness to attempt the descent, one at which he would have hesitated even when well and strong, while now, as he lowered himself down, clinging to rock after rock and grasping at a handful of the tangled growth among their interstices, he felt that the thrill of strength was passing rapidly away.
But still he went on, with the thought in his mind that even had Fenella been present, and known of her enemy's peril, she would have urged him to try and save her from this man.
But now he felt that it could not be robbery; it must be something more; and again, as from below there arose a hoarse, despairing cry for help, he asked himself, was this another of Lucille's victims, and—good Heavens! the thought chilled him with horror. The man refused his alms—he was no common beggar—did it mean some terrible revenge?
The idea thrilled him with another wave of strength, and he went on lowering himself down, feeling that those who had gone before must have fallen. For there was no track now; he was on a precipitous slope, where a false step would have sent him headlong down to where the waves were racing in among the broken crags of granite crusted with limpet and barnacle, and amber, clinging fucus, and among which every now and then were the long strands of ruddy or olive sea-wrack tossed here and there, like the shaggy hair of strange sea monsters, coming in with the tide.
Onslow had lowered himself down till his strength totally failed, and he sank upon a ledge, giddy with weakness and excitement, as he looked about him in vain for those he sought.
At that moment a huge wave broke with a heavy, booming roar, and in the following noise and rush of the waters, he lay down on his chest, reaching out over the edge of the shelf to peer below, for the chilling thought came upon him now that both must have reached the bottom and have been swept away.
A thrill ran through him again for there, not thirty feet below him, in a complete cul-de-sac among the rocks stood Lucille, her face toward him, her wrist thrust through the handle of the bag, and her fingers with her delicate gloves all torn, cramped as it were into the rough rock on either side, as, with her head thrown back and her body bowed, she seemed to be at one and the same time clinging desperately to the rock and forcing herself as far back as she could from the bareheaded man who stood a couple of paces away, his arms crossed upon a breast-high stone between them, and his chin upon them as he gazed with a grim satisfaction at the terror-convulsed face before him.
Onslow grasped the position, and he saw, too, something glitter—it was the point of a knife which appeared between the rock and the man's elbow.
"And I can do no more," groaned Onslow to himself.
At that moment he made an effort to try and climb down, and a terrible spasm at his breast made him sink down again, panting.
But his movement had caught Lucille's eye, and she glanced up wildly and uttered a shriek.
"Frank! Frank!" she cried; "help, help, he is mad."
The man looked up and uttered a loud laugh, as he said calmly, in good English:
"No, monsieur, I am not mad. I am this woman's fate."
"No, no," shrieked Lucille, about whose feet the waves were now surging, but she dared not stir lest the man should spring upon her with that knife. "Frank, for God's sake, help! He will kill me."
"Yes," said the man, "as you killed me, body and soul, and buried me in a dungeon that was like a tomb."
"No, no!" shrieked Lucille. "Help, Frank! You loved me once."
"Ha! ha!" cried the man, unfolding his arms, and glaring at Frank. "Another lover! Poor wretch, I pity you. She has wrecked you as she wrecked me."
"No, no," cried the wretched woman hoarsely. "Help! help!"
"There is no help, woman," thundered the man. "The end has come. Monsieur, I claim the right of punishment. I am her husband. Bah! you can do nothing. It is her fate!"
"And so," he continued, as he turned his terrible eyes on the shrinking woman, "you saw me away there yonder, and fled here. Fool! I knew you would come here to steal away my little Lucille—curse you! Why did I let her bear your name? You would have stolen her away, not that you loved her—you never loved, you cannot—and it was to plant another sting, another poisoned arrow in the breast of the poor trusting wretch who loved you, idolized you, and committed crime for your sake. But you could not escape me longer. I followed you from yonder town, I followed you step by step till I have you here before me dying—do you hear, wretch—dying before my eyes."
"No, no, for pity's sake!" she shrieked, her thin voice hardly rising above the roar of the coming tide. "Frank, call for help, he will murder me!"
"Yes—call, monsieur, call loud. There is none to hear. No one can help her now This is the time for which I prayed in the cold, silent dungeon at Clairvaux—for which I prayed as I toiled, and it has come—come at last. Lucille, dearest wife—ah, how beautiful you are—will you embrace me once again? Thus, with the knife between us, the hilt to my breast, the point to thine? Shall we clasp each other in our arms once more, or shall I wait and see the waves slowly rise, and rise, and rise till they sweep above your head?"
She uttered no sound now for the moment, but kept her eyes fixed upon him, while Onslow strove vainly to call for help—to go to the woman's aid, but every nerve seemed chained, and he could only gaze down as the man glided round the rock which parted him from his wife, holding the knife-hilt against his breast.
Then, heard above the roar of the waves, Lucille's voice rang out inarticulately as she still clung there, her back to the rock, her arms out-stretched. It was the cry of the rat driven to the corner from which there is no escape, and in his agony Onslow lay there, watching the dénouement of the tragedy, perfectly helpless to save.