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   Chapter 4 No.4

The Moon Rock By Arthur J. Rees Characters: 17176

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Sisily first opened her eyes on a grey day by a grim coast, and life had always been grim and grey to her. Her memory was a blurred record of wanderings from place to place in pursuit of something which was never to be found. Her earliest recollection was of a bleak eastern coast, where Robert Turold had spent long years in a losing game of patience with the sea. He had gone there in the belief that some of his ancestors were buried in a forgotten churchyard on the cliffs, and he spent his time attempting to decipher inscriptions which had been obliterated almost as effectually as the dead whose remains they extolled.

The old churchyard had been called "The Garden of Rest" by some sentimental versifier, but there was no rest for the dead who tried to sleep within its broken walls. The sea kept undermining the crumbling cliffs upon which it stood, carrying away earth, and tombstones, and bones. Nor was it a garden. Nothing grew in the dank air but crawling things which were horrible to the eye. There were great rank growths of toadstools, yellow, blue, livid white, or spotted like adders, which squirmed and squelched underfoot to send up a sickly odour of decay. The only green thing was some ivy, a parasitic vampire which drew its lifeblood from the mouldering corpse of an old church.

It was in this desolate place that the girl conceived her first impression of her father as a stern and silent man who burrowed among old graves like a mole. Robert Turold had fought a stout battle for the secret contained in those forgotten graves on a bleak headland, but the sea had beaten him in the long run, carrying off the stones piecemeal until only one remained, a sturdy pillar of granite which marked the bones of one who, some hundred and fifty years before had been "An English Gentleman and a Christian"-so much of the epitaph remained. Robert Turold hoped that it was an ancestor, but he was not destined to know. One night the stone was carried off with a great splash which was heard far, and left a ragged gap in the cliffside, like a tooth plucked from a giant's mouth.

When Sisily first saw the cliffs of Cornwall she was reminded of those early days, with the difference that the Cornish granite rocks stood firm, as though saying to the sea, "Here rises England."

The house Robert Turold had taken looked down on the sea from the summit. It was a strange place to build a house, on the brink of a broken Cornish cliffline, above the grey surges of the Atlantic, among a wilderness of dark rocks, facing black moors, which rolled away from the cliffs as lonely and desolate as eternity. The place had been built by a London artist, long since dead, who had lived there and painted seascapes from an upstairs studio which overlooked the sea.

The house had remained empty for years until Robert Turold had taken it six months before. It was too isolated and lonely to gain a permanent tenant, and it stood in the teeth of Atlantic gales. The few scattered houses and farms of the moors cringed from the wind in sheltered depressions, but Flint House faced its everlasting fury on the top of the cliffs, a rugged edifice of grey stone, a landmark visible for many miles.

The house suited Robert Turold well enough, because it was near the churchtown in which he was conducting his final investigations. It never occurred to him to consider whether it suited his wife and daughter. It was a house, and it was furnished; what more was necessary? It was nothing to him if his wife and daughter were unhappy. It was nothing to him if the sea roared and the house shook as he sat poring at nights over his parchments in the dead artist's studio. He had other things to occupy his mind than Nature's brutality or the feelings of womanhood.

Sisily had climbed down to the foot of the rocks. She was sitting in her favourite spot, a spur of rock overhanging a green nook in the broken ugliness of the cliffs, sheltered from the sea by an encircling arm of rock, and reached by a steep path down the cliff. Around her towered an amphitheatre of vast cliffs in which the sea sang loud music to the spirit of solitude. In the moaning waters in front of the cove a jagged rock rose from the incomparable green, tilted backward and fantastically shaped, like a great grave face watching the house on the summit of the cliff.

The rock had fascinated the girl from the first moment she had seen it. In the summer months, tourists came from afar to gaze on its fancied resemblance to one of the illustrious dead. But to Sisily there was a secret brooding consciousness in the dark mask. It seemed to her to be watching and waiting for something. For what? Its glance seemed to follow her like the eyes of a picture. And it conveyed a menace by its mere proximity, even when she could not see it. When she looked out of her window at night, and saw only the shadow of the rock with the face veiled in darkness, she seemed to hear the whisper of its words: "I am here. Do not think to escape. I will have you yet."

Among the fisher-folk of that part of the coast it was known as the Moon Rock. The old Cornish women had a tradition that when a fishing-boat failed to return to that bay of storms, the spirit of the drowned man would rise to the surface and answer his wife if she hailed him from the shore. It was a rite and solemn ceremony, now fallen into decay. There was a story of one young wife who, getting no answer, left her desolate cottage at midnight and swam out to the Moon Rock at high tide. She had scrambled up its slippery sides and called her husband from the summit. She had called and called his name until he came. In the morning they were found-the wife, and the husband who had been called from the depth of the sea, floating together in one of the sea caverns at the base of the Moon Rock, their white faces tangled in the red seaweed which streaked the green surging water like blood.

Sisily knew this story, and believed it to be true. Sometimes, when the moon lingered on the black glistening surface of the Moon Rock, she fancied she could see a misty fluttering figure on the rock, and hear it calling … calling. She would sit motionless at her window, straining her ears for the reply. After a time the response would come faintly from the sea, at first far out, then sounding louder and clearer as the spirit of the husband guided his drowned body back to his wife's arms. When it sounded close to the rock the evanescent figure on the summit would vanish to join the spirit of her husband in the churning waters at the base. Then the face of the Moon Rock seemed to smile, and the smile was so cruel that Sisily would turn from the window with a shudder, covering her face with her hands.

Her strange upbringing may have contributed to such morbid fancies. In his monstrous preoccupation with a single idea Robert Turold had neglected his duty to his daughter. She counted for nothing in his scheme of life, and there were periods when he seemed to be unconscious of her existence. She had been allowed to grow up with very little education or training. She had passed her childhood and girlhood in remote parts of England, without companions, and nobody to talk to except her mother and Thalassa, who accompanied the family everywhere. She loved her mother, but her love was embittered by her helplessness to mitigate her mother's unhappy lot. Thalassa was a savage old pagan whose habitual watchful secretiveness relaxed into roaring melody in his occasional cups; in neither aspect could he be considered a suitable companion for the budding mind of a girl, but he loomed in her thoughts as a figure of greater import than her father or mother. Her father was a gloomy recluse, her mother was crushed and broken in spirit. Thalassa had been the practical head of the house ever since Sisily could remember anything, an autocrat who managed the domestic economy of their strange household in his own way, and brooked no interference. "Ask Thalassa-Thalassa will know," was Robert Turold's unvarying formula when anybody attempted to fix upon him his responsibility as head of the house. Sometimes Sisily was under the impression that her father for some reason or other, feared Thalassa. She could recall a chance collision, witnessed unseen, through a half-open door. There had been loud voices, and she had seen a fiery threatening eye-Thalassa's-and her; father's moody averted face.

From a child she had developed in her own way, as wild and wayward as the gulls which swooped around the rocks where she was

sitting. Nature revealed her heart to her in long solitary walks by sea and fen. But of the world of men and women Sisily knew nothing whatever. The secrets of the huddle of civilization are not to be gathered from books or solitude. Sisily was completely unsophisticated in the ways of the world, and her deep passionate temperament was full of latent capacity for good or evil, for her soul's salvation or shipwreck. Because of her upbringing and temperament she was not the girl to count the cost in anything she did. She was a being of impulse who had never learnt restraint, who would act first and think afterwards.

Her dislike of her father was instinctive, almost impersonal, being based, indeed, on his treatment of her mother rather than on any resentment of his neglect of herself. But Robert Turold had never been able to intimidate his daughter or tame her fearless spirit. She had inherited too much of his own nature for that.

At that moment she was sitting motionless, immersed in thought, her chin on her hand, looking across the water to the horizon, where the Scilly Islands shimmered and disappeared in a grey, melting mist. She did not hear the sound of Charles Turold's footsteps, descending the cliff path in search of her.

The young man stood still for a moment admiring her exquisite features in their soft contour and delicate colouring. He pictured her to himself as a white wildflower in a grey wilderness. He could not see himself as an exotic growth in that rugged setting-a rather dandified young man in a well-cut suit, with an expression at once restless and bored on his good-looking face.

He scrambled down the last few slippery yards of the path and had almost reached her side before she saw him.

"I have been sent for you," he explained. "I knew I should find you here."

She got up immediately from the rock where she had been sitting, and they stood for a moment in silence. She thought by his look that he had something to say to her, but as he did not speak she commenced the ascent of the stiff cliff path. He started after her, but the climb took all his attention, and she was soon far ahead. When he reached the top she was standing near the edge looking around her.

"This is my last look," she said as he reached her side. Her hand indicated the line of savage cliffs, the tossing sea, the screaming birds, the moors beyond the rocks.

"Perhaps you will come back here again some day," he replied.

She made no answer. He drew closer, so close that she shrank back and turned away.

"I must go now," she hurriedly said.

"Stay, Sisily," he said. "I want to speak to you. It may be the final opportunity-the last time we shall be alone together here."

She hesitated, walking with slower steps and then stopping. As he did not speak she broke the silence in a low tone-

"What do you wish to say to me?"

"Are you sorry you are leaving Cornwall?" he hesitatingly began.

She made a slight indifferent gesture. "Yes, but it does not matter. Mother is dead, and my father does not care for me." She flushed a deep red and hastily added, "No one will miss me. I am so alone."

"You are not alone!" he impetuously exclaimed-"I love you, Sisily-that is what I wished to say. I came here to tell you."

He caught a swift fleeting glance from her dark eyes, immediately veiled.

"Do you really mean what you say?" she replied, a little unsteadily.

"Yes, Sisily. I have loved you ever since I first met you," he replied. "And, since then, I have loved you more and more."

"Oh, why have you told me this now?" she exclaimed. "You think I am lonely, and you are sorry for me. I cannot stay longer. Aunt will be waiting for me."

He sprang before her in the narrow path.

"You must hear what I have to say before you go," he said curtly. "We are not likely to meet again for some time if we part now. I intend to leave England."

She looked at him at those words, but he was at a loss to divine the meaning of the look.

"You are leaving England?" A quick ear would have caught a strange note in her soft voice. "Oh, but you cannot-you have responsibilities."

"Are you thinking of the title, and your father's money?" he observed, glancing at her curiously. "What do you know about it, Sisily?"

"I have heard of nothing but the title ever since I can remember," she replied.

"I learnt for the first time this afternoon that I was brought down here to rob you," he said gloomily.

"I am glad for your sake if you are to have it-the money," she simply replied.

He answered with a bitter, almost vengeful aspect.

"I would not take the money or the title, if they ever came to me. They should be yours. I will show them. I will let them know that they cannot do what they like with me." He brought out this obscure threat in a savage voice. "If I had only known-if I had guessed that your father-" He ceased abruptly, with a covert glance, like one fearing he had said too much.

She kept her eyes fixed on the lengthening shadows around the rocks.

"Do not take it so much to heart," she timidly counselled. "It is nothing to me-the title or the money. They made my mother's life a misery. My father was always cruel to her because of them, I do not know why. It is in his nature to be cruel, I think. He has a heart of granite, like these rocks. I hate him!" She brought out the last words in a sudden burst of passion which startled him.

"What nonsense it all is!" he exclaimed, suddenly changing his tone. "All this talk about a title which may never be revived. Let them have it between them, and the money too. Sisily, I love you, dear, love you better than all the titles and money in the world. I am not worthy of you, but I will try to be. Let us go Sway and start life … just our two selves."

"I cannot." She stood in front of him with downcast gaze, and then raised her eyes to his.

Had he been as experienced in the ways of her sex as he believed himself to be, he would have read more in her elusive glance than her words.

"You may be sorry if you do not," he said, with a sudden access of male brutality. "There are reasons-reasons I cannot explain to you-"

"Even if there are I cannot do what you ask," she replied. Her face was still averted, but her voice was steady.

"Then do you want to go with Aunt to London?" he persisted, trying to catch a glimpse of her hidden face.

She shook her head.

"Or to stay with your father?"

"No!" There was a strange intense note in the brief word.

"Then come with me, Sisily. I love you more than all the world. We have nobody to please except our two selves."

"You have your duty to your father to consider."

"Let us leave him out of the question," said the young man hurriedly. "He is as selfish and heartless as-his brother. I tell you again, I'll have nothing to do with this title or your father's money. I will make my own way with you by my side. I have a friend in London who would be only too glad to receive you until we could be married. You are leaving your home to-night, and you are as free as air to choose. Will you come?"

"Of course," he began again, in a different tone, as she still kept silent, "it may be that I have misunderstood. I thought that you had learnt to care for me. But if you dislike me-"

"Do not say that," she replied, turning a deeply wounded face towards him. "It is not that-do not think so. You have been kind and good to me, and I-I shall never forget you. But I-I have a contempt for myself."

"I have a contempt for myself also after this afternoon," he retorted. "Come, Sisily-"

"No, it is impossible. Hark, what was that?" The girl spoke with a sudden uplifting of her head. Above them, from the direction of the house, the sound of a voice was heard.

"It is Aunt calling me," she said, "I must go. Good-bye."

"Is it good-bye, then?"

"It must be. But I shall often think of you."

He had the unforgettable sensation of two soft burning lips touching the hand which hung at his side, and turned swiftly-but too late. She was speeding along the rocky pathway which led to the house.

"Wait, Sisily!" he cried.

A seabird's mournful cry was the only answer. He glanced irresolutely towards the path, and then retraced his steps towards the edge of the cliffs.

A cold sun dipped suddenly, as though pulled down by a stealthy invisible hand. The twilight deepened, and in the lengthening shadows the rocks assumed crouching menacing shapes which seemed to watch the solitary figure standing near the edge, lost in thought.

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