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   Chapter 18 EXPLANATIONS

The Inside Story of the Peace Conference By Emile Joseph Dillon Characters: 24059

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


DURING the time he had awaited the return of Pringle, Gilbert Byfield had been able to look the position clearly in the face, and to understand exactly how he was situated. Bessie alone had to be considered; her opinion of the situation was the one thing to be thought of then. After that first burst of laughter the real tragedy faced him, and was not to be lightly thrust aside.

For when this was discovered, as it must be-when this amazing fraud was laid bare-she would see once again that the man who professed to love her had treated her as a child, and had played again that amazing game of make-believe. So much she must believe; for it would never be credited that Pringle had acted on his own responsibility, and that his master had been innocent. Once again the girl must be held up to ridicule; once again it must be shown that she had been playing with life, just as she had played with it, outside the sordid details of ordinary existence, in the old garden in Arcadia Street. The island was no island at all; but for some extraordinary circumstance, yet to be discovered, the little party must have been rescued a dozen times over. The comforts of civilization had lain within a mile of them; yet they had dealt out food sparingly, and had been tricked by a servant into believing that a special Providence had watched over them, and had provided them miraculously with things the man had actually purchased.

"How long has this game been going on, Pringle?" asked Gilbert at last, looking down at the man, who had seated himself upon the packing-case in the road.

"Quite a long time, sir," said Pringle, recovering his cheerfulness a little. "I've done my best, sir."

"Your best?" exclaimed Gilbert. "Don't you understand the position in which you have placed me; don't you understand that they've all been cheated and fooled-and that they'll believe it's my fault. What induced you to play such a game?"

Pringle looked really aggrieved. "It was my wish, sir, to please you," he said. "In a wakeful moment, sir, I happened to overhear you say something to the young lady about liking the idea of this being an island-I mean that place over there, sir-and you being cut off romantic-like with her, with nobody to interfere, sir. I'd only found out a little while before that at a certain state of the tide you could cut across to the mainland; and as everybody was so comfortable and happy, it seemed to me that it wasn't at all a bad idea to keep the game alive, sir, when that game was so easy played. I had money with me, sir, part of which I'd used for stocking the yacht and paying wages, so there wasn't no difficulty."

"Have you any idea where we are, or what that village is?" asked Gilbert, after a gloomy pause.

"I haven't made any exact inquiries, sir-but from the tongue and from general appearances I believe we're on a remote part of the western coast of Ireland. Nice people, sir-but a bit superstitious."

"Superstitious? What do you mean?" asked Byfield.

"Well, sir-luckily for us, they're a little bit afraid of that bit of land we've called an island; there's a sort of feeling among them that it's haunted, sir."

"Haunted?"

"Yes, sir. It seems that there was a man who had a big house here who went a bit off his head, sir; and one day, when the tide was low, he slipped across to that bit of land, and had a look at it. He liked it, sir-and he liked the loneliness; so he got them to bring timber and so on out to him, and build him that shed that we first found on the day of our arrival. After that, sir," went on Pringle, "he liked it so much that he lived there altogether; cooked his own food, sir, and made a sort of hermit of himself. And then one day took it into his head to die, sir."

"Not a word of this to the ladies, mind," said Gilbert hastily.

"Not for the world, sir," responded Pringle solemnly. "It seems, sir, that somebody came out to him, to bring food or something or other, and found that he'd passed away, sir; and ever since then there's been a feeling that his ghost is knocking about, sir-unquiet like. Consequently no one comes to the place-which is a bit fortunate for us, sir."

"I'm glad you think it's fortunate, Pringle," retorted Gilbert. "And pray what explanation have you given of your purchases, and your surreptitious visits to the village?"

Pringle got up from the box, and passed a hand slowly across his mouth; it was as though with that action he wiped away a smile that would not have been becoming to the situation. "Well, sir, you see, I found it a bit difficult at first, sir; the natives were what you might call a bit avaricious, and had a fancy for running over to the island, and selling things that they didn't actually want to keep themselves. So havin' discovered, sir, about the last tenant, I was careful to spread it about that you was another one of the same kidney, sir; and I never said a word about anybody else bein' there at all. I hope you'll excuse the liberty, sir-but something had to be done under the circumstances. As a matter of fact, sir, of course they were only too willin' to be quiet, because I've been rather a good customer to the village, one way and another, sir."

The sheer absurdity of the thing was borne in again upon Gilbert Byfield. From where he sat he could see the path leading down the narrow strip of sand; beyond that the great wall of rock-and beyond that (in his imagination, at least) the little company who had been playing, all unconsciously, that game of privation and starvation for weeks past. He thought of how the business had begun-far away in Arcadia Street; of that mad race to the yacht; of this madder business on an island that had never been an island at all. He thought of the outrageous costumes carefully made from comic-opera material supplied by the resourceful Pringle: and he told himself bitterly enough that the one being for whom it had all been done, and for whom the sorry business had been kept up, would believe less than ever that the man had not planned it all himself in sheer mockery of her.

The voice of Pringle recalled him to a remembrance of where he was. "Excuse me, sir-but we shan't get back if we don't look quick, sir. The tide's coming up fast."

Gilbert set off at once, and Pringle, shouldering the box, followed him. As they came to the narrow strip of land, Gilbert turned to the man, and voiced for a moment what was in his mind.

"For the present you will say nothing, Pringle," he suggested.

"Very good, sir," replied the man.

"When the time comes for the truth to be told, I'll tell it," went on Gilbert. "You've landed me into rather a difficulty, Pringle; such a lot of explanations will be necessary-explanations that will not be believed. For the next few days, at all events, our necessaries will come to us in the same romantic fashion as before-and not from the village shops."

"I quite understand, sir," said Pringle. "And if you don't hurry up, sir, we shall have to wade."

They just got round the corner of the line of rocks in time; the sea was within a foot or two of their base, and was rapidly rising. In due course Pringle appeared with the news that was no longer surprising; that another box had been washed ashore. There being in it nothing more exciting than provisions, the discovery passed almost without comment.

Now the sea fell only in the very early morning, leaving that neck of land exposed; and fortunately for Gilbert's scheme the islanders were not early risers. Pringle, who had kept the secret so well, would keep it even better for the future; Gilbert had nothing to fear from him. Nothing short of an accident could betray the fact that they were so near to civilization, and an accident of that sort was not likely to happen. The splendid summer weather and the open-air life and the freedom from anxiety and world-worry had had a soothing effect upon them all; they accepted all that came to them with the blind confidence of children, and appeared almost to have forgotten that they had ever led any other lives.

But the accident came, and the secret was surprised by the most unexpected person of them all. Gilbert had retired to his hut one night, when he thought he heard a movement outside it; and, knowing that Pringle was still busily occupied with domestic arrangements over the remains of the fire, he went out to see who was stirring at that hour. Somewhat to his surprise he saw Mr. Edward Stocker in the moonlight, smiling apologetically, and bowing with ceremony.

"Is anything the matter?" asked Gilbert.

"Nothing at all, sir," said Mr. Stocker in a whisper. "Only I rather wanted to have a word with you-in private-if you wouldn't mind sparing me five minutes. Might I come in?"

"By all means," said Gilbert, wondering what the little man wanted. "Sorry I can't offer you a seat-but the ground's dry, and I'm used to it myself."

"Nice little place," said Stocker, looking round it, and then lowering himself to the ground. "For my part, sir, I often feel that in a way this is really very much superior to Clapham. No one to call after you from the front door when you're going out that you haven't got your gloves on, or that you've got one trouser leg turned up and the other down (not that I would wish to express any disrespect to Mrs. Stocker for a moment; the very best of wives, sir). And then again you don't have to take a cheap return to the seaside; you've got it on the premises, as it were. Of course, you don't get the niggers, or little entertainments of that kind; but, after all, niggers ain't everything."

"You had something rather important to say to me," Gilbert reminded him.

Mr. Stocker put a finger to his lips, and appeared to be listening intently; nodded his head with relief after a moment or so; and motioned to Byfield to sit down beside him. Then suddenly and unexpectedly, and with a note of triumph in his tones, he made a dramatic announcement-

"Sir-it's not an island at all!"

All sorts of wild suggestions flitted through Byfield's brain. There was of course the possibility that Pringle, after all, had betrayed the secret; there was the further possibility that Mr. Edward Stocker, in some early morning excursion, had discovered it for himself. Quite mechanically, Gilbert returned an evasive answer.

"I'm afraid I don't understand you," he said. "What makes you say the place isn't an island?"

Mr. Stocker ventured to lay a hand on the other's arm; in his excitement he raised his voice a little. "This morning I went for a walk round the island, and it occurred to me that I would like to climb the rocks at the further end-partly by way of a little pleasing exercise, and partly because I thought that if I gained the top I should be able to see much farther than I should while down below. With considerable difficulty I gained the top, grazing myself a good deal in the process. There was only a narrow ledge to which I could cling, but the air was clear, and the view very fine. I repeat, sir," he added impressively-"the view was very fine."

"Of a wide expanse of sea?" asked Gilbert.

"No, sir; of a certain expanse of sea, and, quite near to me-land-and civilized land at that. I distinctly saw the roofs of houses, with smoke coming from them; I saw a bridge-and I saw many other things to indicate that we are quite close to a sort of civilization, however primitive. There was a little strip of land that was almost covered by water; but as the tide was rising I should imagine that that strip of land is not covered at all at low water."

Gilbert was silent for what seemed a long time; then out of the darkness of the little hut he spoke. "Well-I suppose you've told everybody about it?" he said.

"Oh, dear, no," replied Mr. Stocker, with what seemed to be a little chuckle. "I haven't said a word all day about it; I've been waiting until I could catch you alone, and tell you about it."

"I knew it some days ago," said Gilbert calmly

. "But I had my own reasons for saying nothing. Now I am in your hands, and you have a perfect right to tell anyone you like-to let the whole company walk ashore, in fact, with the least possible delay."

"Well, you see, sir-that's just my difficulty," said Edward Stocker gravely. "Of course I know that everybody ought to be told-and everybody ought to go back to their own particular walk in life, after having had a rather good little holiday. But you see, sir, it means that Mrs. Stocker and me would go straight back to Clapham, where I've no doubt the girl (if she thinks we're still alive) has been using my credit to live upon, and has been keeping the little house properly and respectably. It's a nice house, as houses go-hot and cold water, and a bit of garden back and front, and so forth; but after all it is a house."

"And doubtless you will be glad to go back to it," said Gilbert.

"Not exactly, sir-quite between ourselves, of course. You see, Mrs. Stocker and me, while rubbing along in a manner of speaking from the first of January until the end of the year pretty tolerably, might sometimes hit it off a good deal better together than what we do; that is to say, in Clapham. Now here, sir, on the contrary, we've done rather well; Mrs. Stocker has developed no edges to speak of-and the island is a bit larger than my little bit of property at Clapham, even with the front and back garden thrown in. In other words, sir"-Edward Stocker lowered his voice to a mere whisper-"in other words, I'm able to dodge Mrs. S. rather easily here-and I've had a better time than I've ever had in all my life before. Consequently, sir, if you was to say to me at the present moment-'Edward Stocker-be mum about it, and forget that you ever saw that bit of civilization beyond the rocks'-I should be the first to take you by the hand, sir, (the liberty being excused) and to say to you, sir-'Righto!'"

"Then that is exactly what I want you to do," said Gilbert. "For a little time, at least, until I know what is going to happen to us all, I want everybody to believe that we are stranded here, save for a miracle, for the rest of our lives. Go back to bed, Mr. Stocker, and sleep peacefully; unless you tell other people yourself, they will never hear it from me."

"I'm sure I'm very much obliged, sir," said Mr. Stocker, getting to his feet. "After all, sir, if the winter comes on, or we get tired of it, we can always find out quite by accident that there's a road by which Mrs. Stocker and me can start off for Clapham; let's hope it won't be soon, sir. Good night; I'm very much obliged to you."

Gilbert was still laughing to himself over the extraordinary reason given by Stocker for a further sojourn on the island when the apology for a curtain which covered the doorway of the hut was pulled aside, and he saw Jordan Tant looking down at him. After a moment of silence Tant came in, and stood leaning against a tree which formed one of the supports of the hut, staring moodily at Gilbert over his folded arms. In these days it was a sturdier, healthier-looking Mr. Tant, and his fair beard and moustache rather suited him.

"I like always to be strictly honest, Byfield," he began abruptly, "and therefore I begin at once by saying that I have been playing the eavesdropper. It was accidental; because I heard voices just as I got up to the hut, and then I was so interested that I didn't seem to be able to tear myself away. You have every right to speak strongly about the matter, but I beg that you will refrain until you have heard me."

"How much did you hear?" asked Gilbert, feeling that now indeed the game was ended, and that he was at the mercy of this chatterer.

"Practically everything," replied Jordan Tant. "The first I heard was the surprising announcement by the man Stocker that this place was not an island-a statement afterwards corroborated by yourself. So far as that is concerned, I may be said to resemble the man Stocker, because I too have to make an appeal to you."

"An appeal?"

Mr. Tant nodded slowly. "It is one to which I would ask you to lend a generous ear, because it is one which affects not only myself but another person also. I refer of course to Enid-and I refer to her with the utmost delicacy. That young lady has been placed in a most equivocal position; she has been compelled to dress in garments totally unsuited to her position in the world; she has been compelled to live in caves and in rude constructions of timber. Consequently, whatever is done in regard to that young lady must be done with the utmost delicacy. Surely you see that?" Mr. Tant put his head on one side, and thoughtfully pulled at his new beard.

"I see it from the lady's point of view, of course," replied Gilbert. "But I don't quite see where the appeal comes in, so far as you're concerned."

"I will explain," said Jordan Tant eagerly. "You must know that when I was in London Enid looked coldly upon me-probably because I really did not shine in a civilized place. There was nothing romantic about me then; you were the one to whom she turned, naturally, because you did things rather out of the common. Since we have been in this place, however, she seems to have discovered in me qualities which had before lain dormant. She has hinted as much more than once, when we have been sitting in front of her rude dwelling-place at night. I will not say that the moon has had nothing to do with it; nevertheless, the fact remains that she is much more partial to me-I mean, of course, Enid, and not the moon-since we have been in this place. Perhaps my dog-like fidelity in keeping guard over her sleeping-place has touched her; at all events, she has given a promise that she will consider my claims, and will in all probability consider them favourably."

"I'm delighted to hear it, my dear fellow," Gilbert replied. "But what appeal have you to make to me?"

"Not to let her know that this place is not really an island, and that she can escape at any moment," urged Jordan Tant. "Here, my dear Byfield, I am a person of importance-a man to be leant upon, and to be trusted in an emergency; she leans upon, and she trusts me. Take me back to London, and I become at once a well-dressed atom that rides in cabs and takes afternoon tea; there would be nothing heroic about me there at all."

"But, my dear Tant-you can't remain here for ever," said Gilbert.

"I do not ask to remain here for ever," retorted Jordan Tant. "I ask to be allowed to remain here-keeping Enid in ignorance-until such time as she shall have promised to share what she believes to be an everlasting exile with me. She is a woman of her word, and once she promises to love me I can safely pass beyond the barrier of rocks, reach the mainland, and marry her with due propriety. If she were to discover now that in a sense she has been cheated, she would believe that I had been guilty of the deception. In other words, my dear Byfield, I am very near to winning her, in my present bold, bearded, and badly-dressed character; and it is the only real chance I have ever had."

"Very well, Tant-I am already pledged not to reveal the secret-so you can proceed with your wooing as long as you like. And I wish you luck."

Mr. Jordan Tant felt for the other's hand in the darkness, and wrung it hard. "It's the real romance of the thing that touches her," he said solemnly. "The shipwreck-and the stores washed ashore-and the camp fire at night-and so forth. When we do get back to London it'll be so very nice, because we shall have quite enough to talk about for the rest of our lives. Think of the difference: in the old days I was not considered brilliant at all at dinner parties and so forth; now I shall be able to tell of how we nearly cast lots to decide which of us should be eaten."

"I'm glad it never came to that," said Gilbert, with a laugh.

"I may tell you in confidence, my dear Byfield," said Tant, coming nearer to him for a moment in the darkness-"in the strictest confidence, of course, that Enid has already assured me that had the lot fallen upon myself, nothing would have induced her to do anything other than starve on my account. I think that's rather touching. Good night-and thank you!"

So it came about that the strange game was kept alive for yet a few days longer. Dread of what the girl might say or do when she heard of the deception that had been practised upon her, and when she saw clearly before her the way of escape, held Gilbert silent; he knew, too, that those who had already penetrated the secret would for their own purposes say nothing. More than once he was in a mind to tell Bessie everything, and to throw himself upon her mercy; but he had blundered too often before to care to make the experiment. She, for her part, with no particular care nor thought of the future, had her own secret to keep; she met him night after night in the wood-binding him to her more closely at each meeting with her innocence and her gentleness, and her tenderness for him. For now, when at last it seemed that they were both in the same helpless position, she did not hesitate to tell him frankly and fearlessly what was in her heart, and what had been in her heart so long. And even while he made up his mind that with the next moment she should learn the truth, she silenced him all unconsciously by whispering that now for the first time in her life she was happy-that now all doubts and fears had been swept away. It was all impossible-idyllic-absurd; yet he clung to the vague hope that they might make-believe a little longer yet.

The utter impossibility of the whole business was sprung upon them when Mr. Daniel Meggison stepped jauntily in, and pricked the bubble. It had not seemed possible that that wily old schemer should be able to discover anything; but Meggison had been cunningly setting his wits to work to discover some way of escape from the island.

For him were no dreams and no romance; his exile here was marked only by the fact that he was sternly deprived of stimulants. He knew that Pringle had in charge some spirits, rigorously withheld until such time as they might be wanted for medicinal purposes; and it is safe to assert that Daniel Meggison had practised every art, and had pleaded every complaint known to science, in a vain endeavour to extract them from Pringle's custody. But he had failed; and for that reason had set himself to watch, in the hope that Pringle might be absent on one occasion, and so leave the way open for a direct theft.

It was in that spirit that he awoke early one morning, and crept out of the large hut, leaving his companions sleeping. In this particular instance he was rewarded; for he saw not only Pringle but Gilbert Byfield stealing away through the shadows of the dawn towards the north of the island. Curiosity overcame every other consideration, and Daniel Meggison stealthily followed.

It was, of course, a shopping excursion to the village. Gilbert and Pringle hurried on their way, and crossed the narrow neck of land; Mr. Daniel Meggison rounded the corner of the rocks, and gasped, and saw freedom before him. He followed them at a discreet distance, and disappeared in the village; then, the better to enjoy his triumph, returned to the bridge, and seated himself there, and waited. And while he waited he gazed smilingly at the dawn through a bottle he held up before one eye.

Gilbert Byfield and Pringle, toiling up to the bridge, came upon him, and stopped in amazement; Daniel Meggison winked at them knowingly. His face was flushed, and he had about him some of the old swagger that had been seen in Arcadia Street.

"Splendid notion!" he said, pointing at the village and then at the distant line of rocks-"quite the best game of all, my dear Byfield. I beg you'll keep it up. I was so fortunate as to find an early morning house; charmingly easy manners the Irish have. Trust me, my dear Byfield-I won't say a word. Splendid notion!"

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