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   Chapter 24 No.24

The Moon Rock By Arthur J. Rees Characters: 24126

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Austin Turold was wrong in supposing that his son had left Cornwall to fly from England. Charles had stated his intention truly enough when he said he was going to London to look for Sisily, but he did not disclose to his father the real reason that led him there.

His visit to London was the pursuit of a definite plan. He was animated by the hope that he knew where Sisily was likely to have sought shelter. Ever since her disappearance this idea had lurked in his imagination and occupied his secret thoughts.

It was the fruit of one of their last talks together-a memory they shared in common. How well he remembered the occasion! They had been on the cliffs looking down at the Gurnard's Head wallowing like a monster with a broken back in the foam of a raging sea. It was the day after the death of Sisily's mother, and Sisily had clung to him as if he were the only friend she had in the world. She had spoken to him from the depth of an overburdened soul impelled to confide in another, telling him of her mother's sad life, unintentionally revealing something of the unhappiness of her own. And she told him a strange thing about her mother's last hours.

On her death-bed the unhappy woman must have had her fears concerning the future of her daughter-belated uneasy premonitions arising after her dying confession to the man supposed to be her husband, perhaps causing her to doubt the wisdom of that revelation. That seemed plain enough to Charles afterwards, though not apparent at the time Sisily had confided in him, for she had died without giving the girl the slightest indication of her life's secret, as if in some inscrutable hope that the tangle might be made straight.

What she did do was to make a feeble effort to save her daughter from the consequences of her own unhappy act, or at least to help her if those results arose. She had whispered a name, the name of an old friend of her girlhood who would befriend her child if ever she needed help. At her urgent request Sisily had propped her up in bed while she wrote down the address. Having performed this feat with infinite labour, she dropped back on her pillow, clinging fast to the hand of the child she loved and whose future she had blasted at the command of conscience.

Charles recalled how Sisily had taken that pathetic little scrap of paper from her blouse, kissed it with quivering lips, and handed it to him in silence. He had deciphered the pencilled scrawl with difficulty. The name was Catherine Pursill, Charleswood, Surrey. It remained in his mind for a special reason. Sisily was afraid she might lose the paper (perhaps, like her mother, she had some prescience of the future) and he had endeavoured to divert her thoughts by making "memory pictures" of the name and address after the method of a thought reader. He had told her to picture a cat sitting on a window ledge, and that would fix the name in her mind. "Purr"-"Sill"-there it was! As for the place, it was only necessary to imagine him wandering in a wood (he slyly suggested it)-Charleswood, and there they were again!

Sisily had smiled wanly at these "memory pictures" and said she would always be able to remember the address of her mother's old friend by their means.

They were effectual enough in his own case. The grotesque association of ideas brought the address to his mind when he first thought of seeking Sisily in London. He decided to go to Charleswood as soon as he reached there. The dying woman seemed quite certain her old friend was still in Charleswood, although it was twenty years since she had heard from her. She had told Sisily that Mrs. Pursill's house was her own, and it had belonged to her parents before her. She had assumed that she was not likely to move. The possibility that Death might have moved her without consulting her convenience did not seem to have occurred to her.

It did to Charles Turold though, on his journey up from Cornwall. But he thrust the chilling thought resolutely from him, clinging to his slight clue because he had nothing else to sustain him, building such hopes upon it that by the time he reached London scarcely a doubt remained. He spent the last hour of his journey picturing his meeting with the runaway girl, holding her, kissing her, sheltering her in his arms from the world. And afterwards? He refused to contemplate what was to happen afterwards, and how he was to shield her from the unsentimental clutch of the law which was also seeking her. He declined also to allow his thoughts to dwell upon his own position, which was invidious and threatening enough in all conscience for a man setting out to be the buckler and shield of a girl in Sisily's plight. He put these obtrusive contingencies out of his mind. Time enough for those bitter reflections afterwards. The great thing was to find Sisily first, before shaping further action. So he reasoned, with the single purpose of a man mastered by love, and the desperate instinct of a reckless temperament which gambled with life, never looking beyond the next throw.

He retained sufficient caution to refrain from going to his father's house in Richmond when he reached London. His father's parting words lingered unpleasantly in his mind to serve as a warning against the folly of that course. The same unusual prudence compelled him to leap out of a taxi-cab as soon as he had leapt into it. For himself he did not care, but he had to be careful for Sisily's sake. So he clambered on top of a 'bus with his suit case. The same sobering feeling of responsibility directed his choice of an hotel when he descended from the vehicle into the seething streets. He chose a quiet small place off Charing Cross, and booked a room. After a bath and some lunch he went out to a neighbouring bookstall and bought a railway time-table. The next train to Charleswood left Charing Cross in less than half an hour. He walked across to the station, purchased a ticket, and took his seat. In a few minutes the train started.

Now that he was actually on the way of putting his idea to the test his former doubts assailed him again with renewed force, but he refused to listen to them. He told himself that a dying woman's idea was not likely to be wrong, and that he would find Sisily at Charleswood. She was sure to be there, because she had nowhere else to go. So he reasoned, or sought to reason, until the train slowed down at the station which held the solution of his hopes and fears.

It was a small wayside station at which he alighted-a mere hamlet set in the slumberous calm of English rural scenery, passed by express trains with a roar of derision by day and contemptuously winking tail-lights at night. On the dark green background of the distant heights an eruption of new red bungalows threatened to spread and destroy the beauty of Charleswood at no remote date. But at present the sylvan charm of the spot was unspoiled. Its meadows and fields seemed to lie happily unconscious of the contagion flaming on the billowy hills.

The porter who emerged from a kind of wooden kennel and clattered up to Charles to collect his ticket, stared hard when the young man asked if Mrs. Pursill lived at Charleswood. He appeared to give the matter deep thought before nodding affirmatively, and accompanied him to the station entrance to point out an old house lying behind a strip of white fence and a clump of dark-green trees half-way up a distant hill (not where the bungalows were cropping up, but in the opposite direction), with the intimation that it was the residence of the lady he was looking for. He then watched Charles down the rambling village street until he was out of sight.

It was a long walk-more than a mile-before Charles reached the white fence and the group of trees which shielded the house behind dark-green foliage. He caught a glimpse of partly shuttered windows peeping through this leafy screen, but it was not until he had passed through the trees that he had a clear view of the house.

The place was dreary and dilapidated, with a partly shuttered front. The green-stained walls and a mask of ivy gave the place a resemblance to a large ivy-grown tomb. Charles's spirits were depressed as he looked at it. There was something so wan and melancholy in its appearance that his high anticipations rapidly faded. In the face of that reality he could no longer picture a silver-haired gracious old lady welcoming Sisily with tears in her eyes for the sake of her dead mother. The human qualities of warmth and tenderness did not accord with that chilling neglected exterior.

He approached the door, his sensations painful enough in the mingled tumult of suspense, hope, and fear. There was no bell, only an old-fashioned brass knocker, which, with a kind of surly stiffness, resisted his attempt to use it. He managed to wrench one knock out of it, and left it suspended in the air.

There was a considerable pause before the knock was answered. Then the door was opened by a pretty slim servant girl. There was nothing funereal in her appearance except her black dress, and that was set off by a coquettish white apron. She looked at the young man with questioning bright eyes, as though surprised at his appearance there.

"Does Mrs. Pursill live here?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," she replied with a trace of hesitation.

The barometer of hope went up several degrees in Charles's breast. "Could I see her?" he eagerly said.

"I'll ask, sir. What name, please?"

"No name. Mrs. Pursill would not know it. But my business is very important."

The maid looked at him doubtfully, and left him standing there while she disappeared within. From the depth of the house an agitated feminine murmur reached him through the half-open door. "What's he like, Ruby?" "Quite the gentleman, miss-young and very good-looking." A pause, and the first voice rejoined: "Show him into the drawing-room, and ask him to sit down."

The maid came back with this message, and took Charles into a large sombre room. She gave him a fluttered glance of coquetry as she offered him a chair, as though she would have liked to linger with such an unusual visitor, then went out softly, closing the door behind her.

The room into which he had been ushered was furnished after some faded standard of departed elegance with tapestried chairs, and couches, painted screens, landscapes worked in black lutestring on white silk, and collections of stuffed humming-birds which gazed wanly at the intruder from glassy eyes. A massive dead Christ in Gobelin tapestry covered the whole side of one wall, and from the opposite one the threaded features of Joseph and his brethren stared gloomily down. These subjects accorded ill with several pieces of marble statuary scattered about the room-a reeling Bacchus, a nude Psyche, and an unchaste presentment of Leda drooping her head over an amorous swan. A broken statue of a pastoral shepherd had been laid on a table in the corner and partly covered with a cloth, where it looked very much like a corpse awaiting its turn in a dissecting-room.

Charles had a dreary wait in these surroundings. At first he sat still, but as the time passed he endeavoured to distract his anxious thoughts by walking round the room looking at the extraordinary collections of objects it contained. He was earnestly scrutinizing a lutestring picture depicting "The Origin of the Dimple"-a cupid poking his forefinger into the double chin of a fat languishing female-when the door opened and a woman entered.

She was tall and thin, and had reached that period of life when it costs a woman an effort to look in a mirror because of the menace of approaching age which stares back from the depth of frightened eyes. Her dress, however, suggested that she could not bring herself to believe she was yet out of the hunt, but was still trying to follow it breathlessly on the back of that broken-kneed and sorry steed, late middle-age. There was something ridiculous in the girlish attire intended to convince her fell

ow creatures that her day was not over; something terrible in the low blouse, short skirt, silk stockings, gauze, lace and fluttering ribbons with which she sought to delude the sneering figure of waiting Time.

Charles's first startled thought was that he had unwittingly entered one of those neglected shuttered houses of romance, where an eccentric female recluse sits with a waiting wedding breakfast in readiness for a bridegroom who has disappeared thirty years before. But the face of the woman advancing towards him suggested that she was not particular about the identity of the form emerging from the mists of time to rescue her from virginity. She looked as if she would have gladly surrendered that jewel to any freebooter in return for a passage in the ship of matrimony, and gone off flying the proud signal, "All's well."

She approached with a smile, and heaven knows what agitation in her breast at the sight of a handsome well-dressed young man in her lonely nest. "You wished to see me?" she asked.

"Mrs. Pursill?" he said interrogatively.

She made a negative sign. "I am Miss Pursill. My mother is an invalid."

"I am most anxious to see her."

"My mother keeps to her bedroom."

"I have come down from London purposely to see her," he said anxiously. "My business is very important."

"Could you not tell me?" she murmured.

"I am afraid not."

She fidgeted and came a little closer, as though she liked the nearness of his handsome presence.

"Very well, you shall see her, but you won't be able to talk to her. Come with me."

They went from the room and upstairs. Miss Pursill opened a door on the first floor and beckoned Charles to enter. It was a bedroom, furnished on the same scale of antique magnificence as the drawing-room downstairs. In a deep armchair in front of a fire sat an old woman, tucked up in an eiderdown of blue and white satin. She did not look round as they entered, but remained quite still-an immobile figure with a nodding head.

"That is Mrs. Pursill," said her daughter.

Charles glanced at the old woman in the chair and turned away. She was past anything except waiting for death, and it was impossible to speak to her or question her. She was in the last stage of senile decay. He masked his disappointment with an effort, conscious that the eyes of the younger woman were fixed on his face.

"If there is anything I can tell you-" she simpered, as she met his glance.

His face betrayed his anxiety.

"I had some reason to think that a young lady of my acquaintance, the daughter of an old friend of your mother's, might be staying with her."

"There is no young lady here," said Miss Pursill with a hard look. "I know nothing about it. What is her name?"

"I have made a mistake, I am afraid." Charles was instantly on his guard. "I am really very sorry-"

She was not altogether proof against the winning smile with which he tendered an apology, but she looked at him strangely as she accompanied him downstairs to the front door.

Charles went back to London with a dark and angry face. His anger was directed against Fate, which had arranged such a fantastic anticlimax for his cherished hopes. The blow was almost too much for him. He had deceived himself into thinking that he would find Sisily at Charleswood, and he felt that he had really lost her. He was now reduced to searching for her in the great wilderness of London, which seemed a hopeless task.

By the time the train reached Charing Cross he rallied from his fit of despondency. He refused to despair. Sisily was somewhere in London, at that moment walking alone among its countless hordes, perhaps thinking of him. He would find her-he must! Where to commence? She had reached Paddington only a few nights ago, so that was obviously the logical starting-point of any inquiries. To Paddington he went, this time in a taxi-cab.

He had an extraordinary initial piece of luck. Fortune, either regretting her previous treatment or tantalizing him in feminine fashion with the expectation of greater favours to come, threw him at the very outset of his inquiries against the red-headed luggage porter who had spoken with Sisily on her arrival from Penzance. The porter, leaning against the white enamelled walls of a Tube passage, pictured the scene with much loquacity, and a faithful recollection of his own share in the interview. Charles anxiously asked him if the young lady he had encountered was very pretty-pale and dark. The porter, with a judicial air, responded that looks in women was, after all, a matter of taste-what was one man's meat was another man's poison, as you might say-but this young lady had dark hair and eyes, and her face hadn't too much colour in it, so far as he remembered. He apologized for this vagueness of description on the plea that one girl was very like another to a man who saw them in droves every day, as he did. But one or two minute particulars of her dress which he was able to supply convinced Charles that he had seen Sisily. The man added that as far as he knew the young lady went on to Euston Square, though he couldn't say he'd actually seen her catch the train for there.

It was not until he had pocketed the half-crown Charles gave him that he added a piece of information of some importance.

"You're not the first who's been inquiring about this particular young lady," he said. "There was somebody before you-let me see-Thursday it was. He came strolling along, affable as you please, and seemed to know all about it before he started. 'That young lady who arrived by the Cornwall train on Tuesday night, porter, and asked you the way to Euston Square-what was she like?' That took me back a bit, but I told him, just as I've told you. He asked me another question or two, and then went into the station-master's office."

"What was he like?"

"Not much older than yourself, in a brown suit, tall and thin, with sharpish features and quick smiling eyes."

Barrant! Charles recognized the description with a sinking heart. He turned away with a sickening sense of the impotence of his own efforts. Scotland Yard was searching for Sisily, and no doubt had warned all the London police to look out for her. She might be arrested any minute. Outside the station he bought an evening paper from a yelling newsboy, and hastily scanned the headlines under the flare of a street lamp. There was nothing about the Cornwall murder. So far they were safe. His own departure from Cornwall had apparently caused no suspicion, and Sisily was still free-somewhere in London.

Where? To find her-that was his task. He rallied sharply from his despondency. He would pit himself against the police. A desperate man, guided by love, could do much-might even outwit the tremendous forces of Scotland Yard. He would not be worthy of Sisily if he lost heart because the odds were against him. Fortune's wheel might have a lucky turn in store for him.

He beckoned a passing taxi-cab. "Euston Square," he said as he entered. That was obviously the next point of his search.

But Fortune vouchsafed him no more favours that day. His dive into the crowded depths of Euston Square brought forth no result-no clue which would help in his search. He interviewed many keepers of the "temperance hotels" and boarding-houses which abounded in that quarter, all sorts of women, but all alike in their quick suspicious resentment of his guarded inquiries and in their pretended ignorance of past visitors to their dingy portals. He had little experience of the embittered sordid outlook of a class which earned its own bread by supplying indifferent food and shelter to London's floating population, but after his fiftieth repulse he had no difficulty in reaching the conclusion that the police were again ahead of him with their inquiries.

Nevertheless he persevered fruitlessly until a late hour before returning to his hotel to pass a sleepless night in a fever of baffled excitement. Not till then did he realize how much he had been upheld by the hope of finding Sisily at Charleswood. He was lost in a maze of conjectures, fears, and impossible plans, though his intelligence told him that no plan of search he could form was likely to be of the slightest use. Only luck could help him there, and it was part of the hopelessness of the situation that he dared not invoke the aid of any of those agencies or organizations which make it their business to find persons who have disappeared in London. His search must be a solitary one.

The morning saw him enter upon it with a feverish energy borrowed from the future and the desperate optimism of a temperament willing to gamble with Fortune against such incalculable odds. At first he attempted to divine the motives likely to actuate a girl ignorant of London in seeking a hiding-place there, and shaped his search accordingly; but he gave that up after a while, and decided to search the streets of the inner suburbs, in the hope of encountering her sooner or later. His method was to purchase a map of each district, and explore it thoroughly from one end to the other. He got his meals anywhere, and slept in the nearest hotel where he happened to find himself late at night. But his meals were often missed and his broken sleep haunted with nightmare visions of the pitfalls and snares spread for inexperienced girls in London.

So Charles passed nearly a week of interminable tramping of London streets, scanning the endless medley of faces in the hope of a chance glimpse of Sisily's wistful eyes and pale features. But it is one thing to gamble with Fortune, and another to win from her. Sometimes she flattered Charles with a chance resemblance which sent him flying across the traffic at the risk of his life, and once he sprang off a 'bus after a girl he saw vanishing into an Underground lift, but it was not Sisily. The end of the week saw him returning from uncharted areas of outer London to the more familiar thoroughfares of the city's life, for in that time his dauntless spirit had realized the colossal folly of any attempt to search London by system. He had no intention of abandoning his quest, but he now felt that it did not matter where his footsteps led him, because it was only by a piece of wonderful luck that he could ever hope to meet Sisily. He did not even know if she was in London. But he believed she was, and some indomitable inward whisper kept assuring him that he would find her sooner or later. So he kept on-and on, seeking the vision of his desires with the insatiable eagerness of a man pursuing the unreachable horizon of a hashish dream.

It was towards the end of this time that it occurred to Charles to wonder if Sisily had made her way to Charleswood since his first visit there. He was resting in a Lambeth public-house after an exhausting day's wanderings over South London when this thought came to him. He sat up, slapping his thigh with excitement, asking himself why he had not thought of that before. It was a chance-certainly a chance. He decided to run down to Charleswood again on the following afternoon.

He did, and found himself disappointed once more. The elegant Miss Pursill had gone to Brighton for change of air, but the pretty maid, who had been left behind to look after the house and the decayed old lady, assured him that there had been nobody to see Mrs. Pursill since his last visit. Miss Pursill went away the very next day after he was down, and there had been no callers or visitors.

She imparted this information at first with a sparkle of coquetry in her eye, then with a glance of compassion as she noticed how much the debonair visitor had changed for the worse since she saw him last. She looked at him solicitously, as though she would have liked to remove with womanly hands the marks of neglect from his apparel. From the door she watched him making his way back to the station. She stood there in the shade of the evening, following him with her eyes until the bend of the road hid him from view.

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