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   Chapter 27 No.27

The Moon Rock By Arthur J. Rees Characters: 22811

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Flint House looked a picture of desolation in the chill grey day, wrapped in such silence that Charles's cautious knock seemed to reverberate through the stillness around. But the knocking, repeated more loudly, aroused no human response. After waiting awhile the young man pulled the bell. From within the house a cracked and jangling tinkle echoed faintly, and then quivered into silence. He rang again, but there was no sound of foot or voice; no noise but the cries of the gulls overhead and the hoarse beat of the sea at the foot of the cliffs.

A cormorant, sitting on a rock near by, twisted its thin neck to stare fearlessly at the visitor. But Charles Turold was not thinking of cormorants. Where was Thalassa? Where was his wife? He believed they were still in Cornwall, but they might have left the house. He had been in London a long while. Not so long, though-only twelve days. Twelve days! Twelve eternities of unendurable hopelessness and loneliness, such as the damned might know. Was he to fail, now, after finding Sisily? He had a responsibility, a solemn duty. He had reached Cornwall safely from London-run the gauntlet of all the watching eyes of the police-and he would not go back without seeing Thalassa. His mind was thoroughly made up. He would find him, if he had to walk every inch of Cornwall in search of him. And when he found him he would wrest the truth out of him-yes, by God, he would! When he found him, but where was he to be found? The crafty old scoundrel might be in the house at that moment, lurking there like a wolf, perhaps grinning down at him from behind some closed window…. A sudden rage surged over him at that thought, and he fell savagely on the shut door, beating it with insensate fury with his fists. Damn him, he would force his way in!

The cormorant ruffled its greenish feathers and watched him curiously. The faint cries of the gulls overhead seemed borne downward with a note of mocking derision. Charles Turold stepped back from the door with an uneasy look at the cormorant, as though fearing to detect in its unreflecting beadiness of glance some humanly cynical enjoyment at his loss of self-control. The wave of feeling had spent itself. Not thus was victory to be won. He paused to consider, then tried the knocker again. The knocker smote the wood with a hollow sound, like a stroke on the iron door of a vault, loud enough to rouse the dead. Charles Turold had a disagreeable impression of Robert Turold starting up in his grave-clothes at the summons, listening…. But no! The dead man was safe in his grave by this time. He had forgotten that.

A sudden silence fell on the house: a deep and profound stillness, as though seas and wind had hushed their wailing speech to listen for the answer to the knock. The birds, too, were silent. The house remained immutably quiet. Charles Turold bent down, and peered through the keyhole, but could see nothing within but darkness. Then, as he looked, a sound reached his ears, a sound like a thin cackle of laughter from the interior of the house. In the gathering gloom within he had a momentary impression of a stealing greyish shape-a shape which vanished from his vision as he looked.

He rose to his feet, his mind groping blindly for some tangible explanation of this spectral thing, but finding none. A ghost? He shook off that feeling roughly. God knows, that house might well be haunted, but not by a ghost that could laugh, though there was no merriment in that ghastly cackle. The reality of the thing, whatever it was, could not be worse than the sound. Had he really seen anything, after all? Was there some trap about it, some danger to himself? He would have to risk that.

The distant sight of a human figure far away on the wide space of the moors, clambering over the granite slabs of a stile, turned his thoughts to a more perceptible danger. If he could see that man more than half a mile away, his own figure must be apparent over a long distance in that clear brown expanse. Perhaps at that very moment the policeman from the churchtown was prowling about the moors in search of him. His actions at that lonely house were suspicious enough to attract anybody's attention. That was an act of imprudence which he had no right to commit. He had not evaded the keen eyes of the London police to be trapped like a rat by a rural constable. It was too dangerous for him to remain there. He determined to spend the rest of the day among the cliffs, and return to Flint House when night fell.

He walked away, briskly at first, but with a more laggard step as he plunged into the shelter of the great rocks, for he had had nothing to eat since the night before, and was beginning to be conscious of his weakness. But he strode on, doggedly enough, for more than an hour, until he found himself at a part of the coast he had not seen before-a theatre of black rocks, with dark towering walls, and a hissing sea whitening at the base.

At the foot of these cliffs three jagged conical rocks rose bare and glistening, the spray from the broken sea dashing far up their sides. As Charles stood there, looking down, he saw a man appear from the edge of the furthest one and walk rapidly across the sloping shelf of rock which spanned the narrow bay near the surface of the sea. His heart leapt within him as he took in the figure of the man. It was Thalassa.

As Charles climbed down from the higher cliffs to intercept him, there came to his mind an imperfectly comprehended fragment of conversation which he had overheard, between waking and dozing, in the train that morning. The voices drifted to his dulled hearing from the next compartment, where some men seemed to be discussing somebody of whom they stood in dread, somebody who was forever striding along the cliffs with his eyes fixed on some distant horizon, as though seeking some one. The object of the mysterious being's quest, if it was a quest, nobody who met him cared to ask. So much he had gathered. He had heard one of the speakers say: "I've met un, ever so laate, stalkin' aloong like th' devil. Tes aw token o' a bad conscience. Tes dreadful to think about. I got owt o' his way…. I'd as soon speak to th' devil. Iss, aw'd." Charles had thought nothing of this chatter at the time, but he wondered now if they were talking of Thalassa. Did the local fisherfolk believe that he had something to do with the murder, and shunned him like Ishmael in consequence?

He looked like Ishmael at that moment, crossing that wild place, earnestly scanning every nook of those seamed and riven walls, sometimes glancing stealthily behind him. His preoccupation in this search-if it was a search-was so great that he never once glanced ahead, and he did not see Charles until the young man leaped down the last few paces of his slippery descent and stood plainly forth before him. Thalassa's brown face did not move a muscle as he looked at him.

"Thalassa," said Charles sternly, "I have been looking for you."

Thalassa went on, still scanning the secret places of the towering cliffs as he walked forward with Charles beside him. When the rugged passage was crossed, and the narrow wild bay left behind, he spoke.

"For what?"

"To have the truth out of you, you infernal scoundrel!" cried the young man fiercely, his self-control suddenly vanishing at that indifferent tone. "You know all about the murder of your master; you're going to tell me, or I'll throw you off these cliffs into the sea."

He gripped the other's arm as he spoke, but Thalassa tore off his fingers, and leapt backward against a rock, a knife in his hand, snarling like a wild beast.

"Keep off!" he cried. "Keep off, or by Christ, I'll-" He hooked the air with his knife.

Charles eyed him across the space, affected almost to nausea by his evil glance. What a fool he had been to lose his temper! Not in that way was the truth to be reached. The man before him was not to be terrorized or intimidated. Sisily's way would have been the best. He wondered whether it was too late to attempt it.

"I was hasty, Thalassa," he said. "Come, do not let us quarrel after I have risked everything to get down here to see you. I have a message for you-from Sisily."

The face of the man crouching by the rock changed instantly. He made a step forward, as if to speak, then cast a gleaming eye of unbelief at his companion.

"It's a lie!" he said. "You haven't seen her."

"I'm speaking the truth," Charles earnestly replied. "Do you think I'd have come back to Cornwall otherwise, knowing the police are searching for me?"

"Ay, you know that, do you?" muttered the other. "They've been watching Flint House for you. You were a fool to come back here."

"I'd risk more than that to learn the truth, Thalassa. It's for Sisily's sake. I've seen her. She's in London, and I've come from her. She gave me this message to bring to you. She said: 'Tell Thalassa that I ask him to tell the truth-if he knows it.' The police are looking for her as well as me."

"I've heered so." With these words, uttered quickly, Thalassa fell into the silence of a man on his guard and pondering. Charles approached nearer.

"Thalassa," he pleaded, "if you are keeping anything back you must tell me for Sisily's sake."

"How do I know you've seen her?" retorted Thalassa, darting a dark crafty look at him.

Charles was overwhelmed by a sense of catastrophe. Here was a possibility which had been overlooked. How was he to instil belief that he spoke the truth? A moment passed. Thalassa cast another black look at him, and turned as if to walk away. "I'll keep my word," he muttered to himself.

The young man's quick ear caught the whispered sentence, and saw the way. "I'll prove it to you," he said. "You promised Sisily that you'd tell nobody she was at Flint House to see her father on the night he was killed. How could I know that unless I'd seen her?"

"What else?" said Thalassa, facing him with a strange and doubtful glance.

"You let her in," Charles rapidly continued, "and you waited downstairs for her. Afterwards you took her back across the moors to catch the wagonette. It was on the way, near the cross-roads, that Sisily made you promise not to tell anybody that she'd been there that night."

"Suppose it's true-what then?" Thalassa's voice was edged with the craftiest caution. "She's sent you to me to ask for the truth, say you. 'Twould have been safer not. What else is there to say, when she's told you everything?" He cast a look of savage jealousy at the young man.

"Much." Charles spoke rapidly, but his glance was despairing. "What happened while you were away from the house? What sent your wife mad? What did you find when you returned? You know these things, Thalassa."

"Happen I did, what good'd come of telling them?"

"To save Sisily."

"They'd not help to save her."

"Do you think she shot her father?"

Thalassa gave him another dark look, but remained silent.

"You know she didn't, you hound!" cried Charles, anger flaring up in him again. "It was you-it must have been you. Listen to me! I know almost enough to hang you. I was in the house while you were away, and found your master lying dead in his study, and the key of the door in the passage outside. Who could have dropped it there except you?"

"'Tweren't me. 'Twas done afore I got back to the house,

" answered Thalassa.

"What time was it when you left the house with Sisily?"

"Agone half-past eight: perhaps ten minutes after. She came running downstairs, her eyes staring and blazing. 'Thalassa, dear Thalassa, for pity's sake let me out,' she said half-sobbing. 'Oh, what did I come for? He's wicked-wicked.' Twasn't for me to say anything between father and daughter, so I just opened the door without a word, and went out with her."

"What time did Sisily catch the wagonette?"

"That's what I don't know. She made me go back when we got to the cross-roads. She knew as well as I did that the old fool who drives it wasn't particular as to time, and she worried about my old woman getting scairt if she found herself alone, and me out. 'Go back to her, Thalassa,' she said, 'I shall be all right now.' That was just after she'd made me promise to tell nobody that she'd been to see her father that night. And, by God, I kept my word. Nobody got anything out of me, though they tried hard enough. Well, when she sent me back I went, leaving her standing, for I had my own reason for going. When I looked back after a bit I saw her standing there by the light of the dirty little lamp above the cross-roads."

"Did you see the wagonette on the road?"

"Not a sign of it. Just her-alone."

A faint hope died in Charles's breast. Even the drunken irregularity of a Cornish cabman told against Sisily. But that point was not so immediately important as Thalassa's story that the murder had been committed during his absence from Flint House. Although his own experience supported that supposition, Charles was reluctant to accept a theory which plunged the events of that night into deeper mystery than ever.

"Well, go on," he said. "What did you find when you got back?"

"The house was dark and the door open. The wind was coming in from the sea sharp enough to take your head off your shoulders, and I thought perhaps I'd jammed the door without closing it, and it had blowed open with the wind. But when I got inside I heered something like moaning. I thought that might be the wind too, for it's for ever screeching up and down the passages like a devil, specially o' nights. I-" He stopped suddenly, with a cautious sidelong look at his listener.

"Yes, yes!" cried Charles. "And what then?"

Thalassa went on, but a little moodily.

"I went along to the kitchen and found the old woman lying on the floor, in a kind of fit or faint, making the queer noise I'd just heered. When I picked her up she opened her eyes, laughing and crying and making mouths as she pointed to the ceiling. I could get nothing out of her for a while. Then she mutters something about a crash upstairs, and goes off into another fit. I carried her into her bedroom and went upstairs as fast as my legs would take me. There was a light under his door, but he didn't answer when I knocked. I tried to open it, but it was locked inside. In a bit there was a knock downstairs. You know what happened after that." He lapsed into silence again, with another look at the young man.

"That was when my aunt and her husband and Dr. Ravenshaw came to the door?" said Charles, filling in the pause. "But how was it that you told them that you feared something had happened to your master? Was that pure guesswork on your part? You hadn't been in the room, you say."

"I had to tell them something, hadn't I?" retorted the other sullenly. "If I hadn't told them that, it would a' all come out about me going out with Miss Sisily, and not into the coal cellar, as I said."

"It is astonishing that your story should have been so near the truth when you knew nothing of what had taken place."

"I did know something. The door was open, the house dark, and she in a fit on the floor, saying there'd been a crash upstairs. Then his door was locked, and I couldn't get an answer. Wasn't that enough?"

"Hardly enough to warrant your saying that you feared your master had been murdered-unless you expected him to be murdered."

"I didn't say that," replied Thalassa with unusual quickness. "All I said was that I was afeered something had happened to him. There was reason for thinking that. I had to make up my story quick-that part about just going for Dr. Ravenshaw. That was because I'd still got my hat and topcoat on, just as I'd come in from the moors, and I wasn't going to break my promise to Miss Sisily."

"Did you see the blood under the door when you went up and tried to get in?"

"I've told you all there is to tell," was the dogged response.

"What frightened your wife so much? Do you think she saw the murderer?"

"That's what I would like to know," responded Thalassa, with a swift cunning glance.

He turned his face away and looked across the sea, the brown outline of his hooked profile more than ever like an effigy carved by savage hands. Charles scanned him despairingly. The feeling was strong within him that he was still keeping something back.

"Thalassa," he said, "you should have told this story before. You have done wrong in keeping it back."

"'Twould a' been breaking of my word to Miss Sisily."

"It was of more importance to clear her. You could have done that if you had come forward and told the police, as you've just told me, that she left the house with you before nine o'clock on that night."

"'Twouldn't a' helped if I had. I found out next day that the wagonette didn't get to the cross-roads that night till nearly ten o'clock. 'Twas after half-past nine when it left the inn."

"What made you find out that?"

"Do you think I didn't put my wits to work when the damned detective was trying to put me into it as well as her? I thought it all out then-about telling the truth. But I saw 'twould a' been no good for her, but only made matters worse. Who'd a' believed me? There be times when a man can say too much, so I kept my mouth shut."

There was so much sense in this that Charles had nothing to say in reply. In silence they tramped along till they reached the dip of the sea in which the Moon Rock lay. Here they paused, as if with the mutual feeling that the time had come for the interview to end. Behind them towered the cliffs, with Flint House hanging crazily on the summit far above where they stood. The eye of Charles ranged along the shore to the spot where he had said good-bye to Sisily not so very long ago, then returned to rest doubtingly on Thalassa. The old man stood with his hand resting on a giant rock, his dark eyes fixed on the rim of the waste of grey water where a weak declining sun hung irresolutely, as though fearing the inevitable plunge.

"I'd a' given my right arm to have saved her from this," Charles heard him mutter.

Charles found himself looking down at Thalassa's brown muscular arm, corded with veins, stretched out on the rock by which he stood. It was as though it had been bared for his inspection, which was not, indeed, the case. If that arm could save Sisily, it was at her service. But what was the good of that? What was the good of his own efforts to help her? Charles had a suffocating feeling of the futility of human effort when opposed by the malignity of Fate. He asked himself with aching heart what was to be the outcome of it all? He had failed. What then? It was not until that moment that he realized how strongly he had been buoyed up by the false optimism of hope. His consciousness, as though directed by the power of a devil, was forced to look for the first time upon the hideous inevitability of the appointed end.

"No, no! Not that-not that," he shudderingly whispered to himself.

Neither moved. The minutes passed leaden-footed. It was silent and still in that wild spot, as if theirs were the only two human hearts beating in a dead world. It seemed as though neither could bring it upon himself to terminate the interview. Charles was the first to break the silence. He spoke like a man coming out of a dream.

"Did that clock upstairs keep good time?" he asked in a low voice.

Thalassa turned on him as if not understanding the purport of the question.

"It was going shipshape and Bristol fashion in the afternoon. What's that got to do with it? What does it signify if it was five minutes fast or slow?"

The logic of the answer was apparent to Charles, who knew he was only attempting to pluck something by chance out of the dark maze. But another and shrewder idea started up in his mind.

"What was your reason for hurrying back across the moors that night?"

"Miss Sisily told me to go."

"But you had another reason-a reason of your own," said Charles, turning quickly to regard him. "You said so yourself."

"If I had I've forgotten what it was," said Thalassa with a black look.

"You cannot have forgotten!" cried Charles. "What was it?" Hope sprang up in his heart again like a warm flame as he detected something confused and irresolute in the other's attitude. "Thalassa, you are keeping something back. You know, or you guess, who the murderer is!"

"I'm keeping nothing back."

"You are. I can see it in your face. What is it that you will not tell? What do you fear?"

"The gallows-for one thing."

"You'd sooner see Sisily lose her life on them?"

This bitter taunt, wrung from the depth of the young man's anguished heart, had an instantaneous and unexpected effect on his companion.

"No, no!" he hoarsely cried, "I couldn't a' bear that. But it's nothing to tell, nothing to help. It was earlier that night, before she came. I was looking out of the kitchen window, when I thought I saw a rock move. Then I looked again, and it seemed like a man-though I couldn't see his face."

"Is that all?" Bitter disappointment rang in Charles's voice. "That might have been me. I was out on the rocks that night, close to Flint House."

"'Tweren't you." Thalassa's reply was so low as to be almost inaudible. "I don't know who it was, but I'll take my Bible oath it weren't you."

"Who was it then?" Charles asked breathlessly.

"A dead man, or his spirit. I know that now, though I laughed when he said it. I know better now."

He stopped suddenly, like one who has said too much, and looked moodily out to sea.

"What do you mean by that?"

"Never mind what I mean. It's nothing to do with you. A man's a fool when he gets talking. The tongue trips you up."

"Thalassa," said Charles solemnly, "if you know anything which might throw the remotest light on this mystery it is your duty to reveal it."

"It's easy to talk. But I swore-I swore I would never tell."

"This is the moment to forget your oath."

"It's fine to talk-for you. But he'd come back to haunt me, if he knew." He jerked his thumb in the direction of the distant churchyard where Robert Turold lay.

Charles looked at his grim and secret face in despair. "I hope you realize what you are doing by keeping silence," he said.

"I'm keeping a still tongue in my head, for one thing."

"For one thing-yes. For another, you're injuring Sisily-you're doing more than injure her. You're letting her remain under suspicion of her father's death, in hiding in London, hunted by the police. Yet she believed in you. It was she who sent me to you, it was she who said: 'Tell Thalassa from me to tell the truth, if he knows it.' Is she mistaken in you, Thalassa? Do you think more of your own skin than her safety?"

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