MoboReader > Literature > The Inside Story of the Peace Conference

   Chapter 19 MISS MAKE-BELIEVE ESCAPES

The Inside Story of the Peace Conference By Emile Joseph Dillon Characters: 34419

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


THE discreet Pringle, as on one other memorable occasion, had seated himself on the box in the middle of the road out of earshot; Daniel Meggison, lounging not too steadily against the parapet of the bridge, addressed Gilbert.

"When I cast my mind back, sir, over the past, I find myself marvelling-marvelling is the correct word-at the splendid fashion in which you have kept the game alive for the sake of my child. For what," went on Mr. Meggison, waving a hand towards the sky, and addressing the landscape generally-"for what have you not done on her account? The splendid prodigality of it amazes me. In the first place, you give up to her a house in the country-to which, quite naturally, she brings her family, to say nothing of other relatives and friends who trespass upon her. From that we fly"-Daniel Meggison made a movement with his hands flutteringly in the air to suggest that flying-"to a well-appointed yacht, where perhaps at the beginning all is not as well as it might be. Reckless of the consequences-careless of the results to life, limb and property-you splendidly drive that vessel upon the rocks; you annex-(annex is the proper word, I believe)-a portion of country that is probably not your own property; declare it to be an island; and in the most romantic fashion provision the company cast upon it with you. In a word, sir, the thing is magnificent-even if carried a little too far."

"I firmly believed it to be an island until a few days ago," said Gilbert. "I, like others, have been deceived; I, like others, have been driven on a road I never meant to travel. Great things and great consequences have sprung from my small beginnings."

"Nobly said, sir!" exclaimed Daniel Meggison. "But what I would ask is-why give the game away now?" He lowered his voice to a whisper, and took a step towards the younger man. "You've played the game splendidly; play it a little longer. Here is a village-ready and willing to supply all our needs; here is a pleasant land, where we may pass the summer, or what remains of it, in idyllic simplicity. Why change anything? For my own part, I needed but little to complete my personal happiness, and that little I have found. Your credit here, sir-or the credit of your servant-is particularly well established; they bow before your name, sir."

"Are you another of them anxious to keep the fraud going?" asked Gilbert in amazement.

"Certainly, sir," replied the unabashed Daniel Meggison. "In a primitive fashion I am very happy here: what will happen when the winter comes on is of course quite another matter. But let the future take care of itself; for the moment we are children, and we laugh in the sunshine."

"The tide's turning, sir," said Pringle, getting up from his box, and preparing to shoulder it.

"I'm afraid the tide has turned for me," said Gilbert with a sigh, as he moved away.

Daniel Meggison was very merry over breakfast that morning. He chose to be flippant with Gilbert, and to rally Pringle on the ease with which these islands could really be inhabited when it came to the pinch. Dubbing himself the new Crusoe, he declared his intention of searching the shore that very morning, in the hope to find that solitary footprint of a possible Man Friday. He asked Gilbert whether it would not be wise to set about at once the building of a stockade, the better to protect themselves against the possible incursion of a dusky foe. Altogether Daniel Meggison enjoyed the situation mightily, and bore himself with that easy flippant gaiety that had marked him out in the Arcadia Arms as being above the common herd. He displayed his power by openly asking Gilbert if he had ever been to the west coast of Ireland, and if so, what he thought of the scenery.

But it was by a combination of circumstances that the secret was at last exposed to those who already were not in possession of it; and when the exposure came at last, it seemed to come in the strangest way from several quarters. In the first place, Daniel Meggison, growing bolder, walked across that narrow neck of land one morning, and spent the day in the village, or in an adjacent one, being regarded by the inhabitants as a species of amiable tramp who had drifted out of the great Unknown to enliven the monotony of their existence. As ill-luck would have it, however, he drifted down across the bridge to the shore again, blissfully forgetful of the fact that the tide only served at certain hours, and discovered that he was cut off for the night. Drifting back again, he made a bed for himself in an outhouse, and slept the night away.

But to Bessie his disappearance was a great and inexplicable disaster. She had been in the habit, even as in the old days of Arcadia Street, of bidding him good night, and asking the question-futile here-whether she could do anything more for him. But this night he was missing; and an inquiry in various directions among that very scanty population of the island revealed the fact that nothing had been seen of him since early morning.

Gilbert had his suspicions, of course, and so had Pringle; but Bessie was frantic with anxiety. A thousand things, in her imagination, might have happened to him; he might have climbed the rocks and fallen into the sea, or he might have fallen asleep on the shore and been carried away by the waves. At all events, the most exhaustive inquiry failed to find him within the limited circumference of the island; and Bessie was suddenly a new power to be reckoned with.

Those who were the head and front of the actual conspiracy came to Gilbert that night-drifting to him guiltily and secretly one after the other. Mr. Edward Stocker came first; and Mr. Edward Stocker was vaguely apologetic for his wife's brother.

"An anxiety to the family at all times, sir," said Mr. Stocker. "Clever man, of course, with much more dignity and much more of real gentlemanly feeling than ever I had, or am likely to have. Bit of genius in his way, sir." Mr. Stocker paused, and thoughtfully pulled at one ear as he looked at Gilbert. "I suppose it isn't necessary to ask where he's gone, sir?"

"I'm afraid not," replied the other. "He penetrated the secret of this place a little time back; he's making the most of his new freedom on the mainland-and I expect he's been cut off by the tide. He's safe enough; but it means that we must tell Bessie."

"I suppose so," said Mr. Stocker, with a long face. "And that also means that Mrs. Stocker and me will go back to Clapham. Well," he added, with a sigh-"the best of holidays must end."

Mr. Stocker had perhaps more gentlemanly feeling after all than he imagined; at the very moment of departure from Gilbert's hut he came back to him, to make a little set speech that had been in his mind evidently from the first. "I should like to say, sir, on behalf of self and Mrs. Stocker (although Mrs. Stocker may not think it absolutely necessary to speak for herself), I should like to say that we take it kind that people who force themselves on a gent like you, without so much as 'by your leave,' should have been so treated as I may say we have been. It isn't everyone that would go and put up with people that shoved themselves on him, and insisted on being shipwrecked with him-and even on being supported, like the early Christians, in rocks and caves of the earth. On behalf of self and Mrs. Stocker-I am very thankful, sir."

Mr. Jordan Tant came up the hill jubilantly enough; he carried his head almost defiantly. He was still a yard or two away, in fact, when he burst out with his great news.

"She accepts me! As I predicted, she accepts me!"

"That's not the most important thing on earth," retorted Gilbert. "What about this wretched old man who has suddenly disappeared, as his daughter supposes, and who will force us to tell the secret, and explain the false position in which we stand?"

"That scarcely matters to me now," said Tant. "My dear Enid is a woman of her word, and although I may be forced to return to civilization, she will I know go with me-understanding me better for the way in which I have risen to the occasion during our dangers and privations. She will say to herself-'If this man can behave in such a fashion amid unknown perils, and with the sea roaring and leaping about us-what will he not be like in the neighbourhood of a mere tame Hyde Park or Kensington Gardens?' That's what she will say; that's what she's already saying. Consequently, my dear Byfield, I don't mind how soon I go back to civilization."

"Well-you've won your woman; you can afford to play the deserter now," retorted Gilbert. "Go, by all means; I have a vision of you and Mrs. Ewart-Crane and the fair Enid, incongruously dressed, stepping daintily across to the mainland--"

"Where I shall immediately telegraph news of my safety, and proceed to buy a few rough garments with the money I still have, and which it has been impossible for me to spend in this place," broke in Jordan Tant. "Above all things, Byfield, I shall cherish the remembrance that in a fair and open field, when reduced almost to the condition of primitive men, I won her from you, as the better man. I always knew it; I was always certain that in me were qualities undeveloped by the artificial life I had led."

"You can believe that if you will," said Gilbert, laughing. "As for myself, the bottom seems to have dropped out of everything I ever contemplated doing, and I am living here a more artificial life than ever I lived in London. Take your way out into the world, my Tant-and be happy."

Meanwhile there were other happenings. Mr. Edward Stocker had deemed himself safe from his formidable spouse, and had perhaps grown a little careless under his new liberty; but it happened that on that particular night, when the little man had climbed the hill to Gilbert's hut, Mrs. Stocker had thought it prudent to follow him. She had marked his absence on other occasions; she who had forced from him every secret his unromantic life had known determined that she would force from him now any knowledge he possessed outside that she herself held. She listened outside the hut, and heard that talk of the mainland and of the absent Daniel Meggison; when Mr. Stocker, after his set speech, cautiously scrambled down the hill, Mrs. Stocker, scratching herself with briers, and gasping as she stumbled over the rough earth, followed him. Bessie being absent from the hut, Mrs. Stocker suddenly pounced upon Mr. Stocker, to his great alarm, and dragged him into that portion of the hut hitherto occupied by Bessie Meggison and herself.

"My dear-I've been for a little walk," faltered Edward Stocker, looking at her with a faint smile.

"Plotter and schemer!-so you thought you would keep everything from your Julia-did you?" she demanded, in a suppressed voice. "You had no objection to your wife being made a guy of for the amusement of those who consider themselves superior in station; you didn't care if she lived in a sort of cattle shed, without so much as a scrap of looking-glass or a comb for weeks on end; you didn't mind if she had to endure the pity of women who never really look anything at all unless they are dressed to death! What's this talk of the island and the mainland; and where is my brother?"

"My dear-we've really been very comfortable here," pleaded Edward Stocker. "It's been quite a new experience-the sort of holiday to talk to our friends about long years afterwards."

"I dare say," she sniffed. "Friends who have enjoyed the privileges of Margate or Ramsgate, or even Brighton, and worn respectable clothing with the best-with a special blouse for dinner in the evening. Holiday, indeed! I shall never be able to hold up my head again as long as I live."

"I'm extremely sorry," said Mr. Stocker. "What would you like me to do?"

"The moment this tide or whatever it is turns, you will conduct me to the mainland. There, after we have procured proper clothing, you will discover the best way to reach Clapham; and for the rest of your life you will remain there-respectably. No more gadding about after people with whom one is not really concerned. And don't you ever dare, Edward Stocker, to refer to this time as a holiday!"

Late though it was, Mrs. Edward Stocker, primed with this new knowledge, set out to impart it to the lady she had hitherto regarded as her foe. Mrs. Ewart-Crane should understand that Mrs. Stocker was no mere ordinary woman, to be imposed upon; Mrs. Ewart-Crane should be impressed with the fact that Mrs. Stocker had sprung into the very heart of the secret, and had in fact, if it came to that, suspected the truth from the first. Binding the trembling Edward Stocker to her with a fierce command, she set out to find Mrs. Ewart-Crane.

She performed the visit with all due ceremony; apologized profusely and yet with dignity for a call which she knew was not strictly in accordance with the usages of polite society; and then, in a most casual manner, declared that she had at last been able to verify the suspicion that she had entertained for a long time.

"In fact, for some inexplicable reason, we have been kept here, when we might have escaped at any moment. The whole thing is one gigantic hoax, and I am surprised that anyone should have been taken in by it for a moment," said Mrs. Stocker loftily. "Personally, I have had reasons for remaining here, not altogether unconnected with relatives of my own; but I see no further necessity for enduring discomfort when I can quite easily get home."

"I am extremely sorry that you should have had the trouble to call at this hour," retorted Mrs. Ewart-Crane, shaking out her print dress more gracefully about her. "But I was informed some time ago of the extraordinary fact you have related. Our friend Mr. Jordan Tant knows all about it. We shall of course return to London at once. We were brought into this discreditable business greatly against my wish, and the sooner we have done with it the better I shall be pleased. Good night, ma'am-and pray take care of your husband; he doesn't look strong."

Mrs. Stocker led Edward Stocker back to the hut, commenting fiercely upon the manners of the upper classes, and upon the airs they gave themselves. On second thoughts she decided that, once back in her Clapham home, she might reasonably expand the adventures on this supposed island; might come near to starvation and that casting of lots that had been threatened; and might be rescued in the nick of time and in the last stage of exhaustion by a friendly vessel, flying a foreign flag, the captain of which was not altogether unimpressed by her charms. Also she determined that the island should be placed in a situation very remote from the British Isles.

Pringle sought his master in the hope of having some new light thrown upon this strange development of the story. Single-hearted as to purpose, so far as Byfield was concerned, Pringle had held obstinately to that fact he had set before himself at the first: that the place was an island. Now, in a moment, it seemed that there was no hope of that fiction being kept alive; he desired fresh instructions as to how to deal with the problem before him.

"Asking your pardon, sir, for interfering," he said-"but I suppose you understand that this won't be the end of it, by no means. Mr. Meggison, sir, has been lured away in search of things he couldn't find here, sir-and I'm afraid the others'll follow. I've done my best from the very first; I wouldn't have you think otherwise, sir."

"I know you've done your best, Pringle," replied Gilbert, laughing ruefully-"but that doesn't mend matters. The thing has gone beyond Mr. Daniel Meggison; there are others already who know it. You have played your part of the game admirably, Pringle; but unfortunately I shall be supposed to have played it with you from the very beginning. So far as Mr. Meggison is concerned, let him stay on the mainland, or let him come back; personally, I should be glad if both he and his son had gone altogether. The others are free to go when they like, because I'm afraid that the sorry game is played out. It isn't your fault, Pringle, because if it comes to that you played your game better than any of us."

"Much obliged to you, sir, for your good opinion," said Pringle. "If it would ease matters at all, I'd take the boat and row across, and bring Mr. Meggison back-by force if necessary, sir."

"That wouldn't do at all; but we must invent some story to allay Miss Meggison's anxiety."

"If I might make so bold, sir-wouldn't it be better to tell her the truth? She's the best of the whole bunch, sir-again asking your pardon for the liberty-and I'm sure she'd understand, sir."

"Perhaps you're right, Pringle; in any case something has to be done, and that without delay."

That thought was in the mind of Pringle as he walked back towards his own quarters. Counting over in his mind the various people who had been so strangely brought together in that place, he came with particular dislike to a recollection of Mr. Aubrey Meggison-that coarse-mannered youth who had consistently refused to assist in

any work on the island, and who had always taken growlingly his full share of all the food and clothing that were to be had. It might be a good idea to rid this harassed master of his of the son as well as of the father.

Fortune played into his hands. He was sitting by the last remains of the fire when he heard steps, and, looking up, saw the man of whom he had been thinking staring moodily down at him. Pringle looked up, and nodded cheerfully, and spoke with that deep respect with which he spoke to all men.

"Good evening, sir," said Pringle cheerfully. "Bad business, sir-this about your guv'nor."

"A very mysterious business," said Aubrey darkly. "If I was in London, I should have a word or two to say about what the police had been doin'; I should let 'em know what I thought about the matter-and I should point out a theory or two, to put 'em on the right track. You can't deceive me, you know; I wasn't born yesterday, not by a long chalk."

"I can quite believe it, sir," said Pringle. "Now, what might be your theory, sir?-or, if left to yourself, how would you set about finding this guv'nor of yours, sir?"

Mr. Aubrey Meggison lowered himself to the ground, and, resting a hand on each knee, leaned forward towards Pringle. "My opinion," he said solemnly, "is that the guv'nor was in the way-another mouth to feed, you'll understand-and he's been made away with." Aubrey leaned back, and nodded slowly three times.

"Now, I should never have thought of that, sir," said Pringle.

"Nor anybody else that hadn't knocked about the world as I have, and seen things," said Aubrey composedly. "Mind, I'm not sayin' that in a way it doesn't serve the guv'nor right; he hasn't played what you might call the gentleman since we've been 'ere. At the same time, you see, he's my father-and as fathers go he wasn't bad. At the same time, justice is justice, and I want to know what's become of the old man."

"If you'll excuse the saying, sir," said Pringle, with deep respect-"you're smart-but your father's smarter. That's putting it in the rough, sir; but you've not been fairly dealt with, sir, and I should like to speak my mind to you."

"You're probably mistaken, you know," said Aubrey-"but you can go on."

"Thank you, sir," said Pringle. "You must know, then, that your father has discovered that there is a way of escape from this place-and he has taken that way."

"Come-no bunkum, you know," said Aubrey. "You can't gammon me; I'm much too fly."

"It would be waste of breath to try to, sir," replied Pringle. "But your father has discovered, quite by accident, what no one else knows; he has found out that this place is not an island at all, but is connected with the mainland. Consequently, sir, to that mainland he has gone; and I expect at the present moment he's got his toes stuck up in front of a very decent fire, sir-with a glass of something in his hand, and I shouldn't be surprised if there was a cigar in the other."

Aubrey Meggison slowly got to his knees, and leaned forward, and stared in blank amazement at the placid Pringle. "You don't mean to say that while all these mugs are rottin' about here, playin' shipwrecks, the guv'nor's gone and found a little place for himself, where he can be nice and comfortable? Don't tell me that the old man's gone one better than anybody else!" he pleaded.

"Unhappily it's a fact, sir. He's living on the fat of the land," said Pringle.

Aubrey got up, and walked round the fire, swearing softly to himself as he went. Then he stopped, and looked down at Pringle, and began to laugh; shook his head whimsically more than once, and slapped his thigh, and danced about a little.

"By George!-he's a wonder!" he exclaimed, in a tone of deep admiration. "I've always been proud of him in a way; never minded tippin' him the nod in a billiard-room or anything of that kind, because he wasn't quite like other chaps' guv'nors. But to think of him slipping off like that and having a good time-- I tell you what it is-my old guv'nor would make a jolly good livin' at the North Pole, without a relief expedition. He's a living wonder!"

"He's a very remarkable man, sir," supplemented Pringle.

"But I'll bowl him over; I'll show him that two can play at that game," said Aubrey, with a chuckle. "You show me what's the best way to get off this blessed place-same as father's done-and I'll ferret out the old man, and stand before him, and show him that two can play at that game as well as one. All's well that ends well, don't you know; when I've got a good old cigar in between my teeth, and something a little stronger than water ready to my hand, I shall feel like a man again!"

Pringle, delighted with the success of his scheme, arranged an early meeting at the point where the rocks jutted into the sea. That appointment (surprisingly enough for one who hated early rising) was kept by Aubrey Meggison; and on the way across the narrow neck of land the youth chuckled to himself at the ease with which it had been possible all along to reach the mainland. On the opposite shore he turned to Pringle impressively.

"Don't you run away with the idea, my man, that you've got rid of us," he said; "we're not so easy shaken off as that. I know the guv'nor, and I also know myself; and we shall have just a word to say, if necessary, to the person that placed us in this position. I don't think I need enlarge on the subject; if you want to understand my feelings just cast your eye over my clothes. This Mr. Byfield has trotted us about for his own convenience; he needn't think he's going to dump us anywhere, and leave us to shift for ourselves. I'm going to find the guv'nor, and I'm going to make myself comfortable with him. So long!"

Pringle stood to watch him climbing over the bridge; shook his head over his departing figure with an expression of disgust. "It's a rum thing, when you come to think of it," murmured Pringle to himself-"it's a mighty rum thing that that sort of creature generally manages to get through the world, and to get some one else to keep it. I suppose the real reason is that it turns so nasty if it doesn't get what it calls its rights, that it becomes pleasanter for all parties just to pay it to keep quiet."

Bessie had gone, in her bewilderment and anxiety, at last to Gilbert; to him she presented that mystery which was no mystery at all. What did he think had become of her dear father?

Even then he held back from the truth; even then he evaded the only explanation possible. "My dear," he said gently, taking her hand, "I can only assure you that your father is well-and safe."

"Then you know where he is?" she demanded quickly.

"I can guess-and I can only tell you that it is at the moment a little secret. You must trust me, just as you have trusted me all through. You shall know everything to-day; and everything shall be set right to-day."

"Set right?" She looked at him in perplexity. "Is anything wrong?"

"Nothing," he assured her. "You shall know everything to-day, my darling; that at least I can promise you. And your father is well."

She plied him with questions, but he would not answer her. Truth to tell, he had not yet made up his mind what to do; he seemed to see her, in imagination, drifting again out of his life-refusing to receive any explanation that he could offer. He whispered of his love for her-of all that they might do together in some impossible future, when they should have been rescued from that place. She listened with only a vague understanding of what he said; doubts were in her mind already as to what was happening, and why it should be necessary to keep her in ignorance concerning her father. She loved Gilbert-she thought she understood him; but passionately she declared to herself that she had been tricked once, and she would not be tricked again. She strove hard to keep an open mind; strove to remind herself that what he did was done for her sake, and out of his love for her. But he had sworn to tell her the truth always, and to cheat her no more; and to that he must keep steadfastly. There must be no second path.

Meanwhile, a series of personally conducted tours were taking place, under the guidance of Pringle. To Pringle each party appeared-and to him each party appealed. Mrs. Stocker, leading the obedient Stocker, demanded to be shown the way; the obliging Pringle, feeling that here at last was a solution of the great difficulty, willingly conducted the pair round the rocks-and pointed the way. He watched them climbing where Aubrey had climbed but a little time before-incongruous-looking figures, facing the dawn and going back into the world. Also he carried in his mind, as a message not to be delivered, certain parting words spoken by Mrs. Stocker.

"You may tell your master," that lady had said at the last moment, "that I am not likely to forget the position in which he has placed a lady who has hitherto been able to hold up her head with the very best in the most select part of Clapham. I am not sure that my husband will not lay the matter before his solicitors, with a view to a claim for damages. Do you understand?"

"I will bear it in mind, ma'am," said Pringle humbly.

"I am given to understand that we are probably on the western coast of Ireland, which is much the same as being cast among savages," went on the lady. "In any case the return fare to Clapham Junction (the station nearest our home), to say nothing of garments to be purchased, will be considerable; a claim shall be duly posted to your master, and must be met forthwith. So far as moral damage is concerned, I will consult with my husband, as I have suggested, and Mr. Byfield will doubtless receive a communication in due course."

"Very good, ma'am," said Pringle. "Go straight across, ma'am, and keep to the road. Nice little village, and pleasant people. Good morning!"

Pringle was turning away, not troubling for once to conceal his laughter, when he was met by the second party, consisting of Mr. Jordan Tant, Mrs. Ewart-Crane, and Enid. Pringle straightened his face, and gave them at once a cheerful but respectful greeting.

"Good morning, sir," he said to Tant. "Are you taking a walk, sir?"

"We are leaving this place, if it is at all possible," broke in Mrs. Ewart-Crane. "You can no longer deceive us, my good man."

"Not for the world, ma'am," said Pringle. "In fact, if you hurry a bit, there's just a chance you may be able to get across before the tide turns. Nice village, sir, just over the bridge; cheerful people. This way, sir."

He watched them also disappear-splashing a little in the middle of the neck of land, and with some lifting of skirts on the part of the ladies. Then he got back just in time himself, and set about the preparation of breakfast, quite as though nothing unusual had happened.

"Everybody's late this morning," commented Simon Quarle, as he took his place by the fire, and nodded to Pringle. "Heard anything about Meggison?"

Pringle saw Bessie approaching, and merely shook his head. The girl greeted Simon quietly; her face was white and set, and she did not look round even when Gilbert approached. Gilbert seemed a little surprised to find that they were the only breakfasters; a gloomy silence had settled upon them all. Pringle was withdrawing as usual, to take his breakfast a little apart, when Gilbert called him back.

"Pringle-have you called the others?"

Pringle looked uncomfortable, and gazed down into the cup he was carrying. "Might I have a word with you, sir?" he asked, without raising his eyes.

"You can speak now; there's nothing to hide," said Gilbert, watching the girl.

"Well, sir-very early this morning the ladies and gentlemen made up their minds, sir, to go. It seems that everybody understood, sir-they'd found it out somehow or other, sir, and the delights of the island no longer attracted them. They've gone, sir, by the way you know."

"All of them?" Gilbert stared at the man incredulously.

"Every one of 'em, sir," replied the man. "First it was Mr. Aubrey-longing to see his father-and then it was Mr. and Mrs. Stocker-and then Mr. Tant and the other ladies."

"That will do, Pringle-thank you," said Gilbert; and the man walked a few paces away, and seated himself on the ground, and began his breakfast.

"Gone? Where the devil have they gone?" demanded Quarle, staring open-mouthed at Byfield. "I want to understand. Where could they go to?"

Gilbert turned to the girl; there could be no further delay.

"Bessie," he began gently-"you must understand that this place is not, as we thought, an island at all. At low tide it is connected with the mainland-and that mainland is, I believe, Ireland. Your father found that out, and was one of the first to go back into civilization; the others have discovered the secret, and have followed him. I did not know until-until a day or two ago that this place was not an island. I have been perfectly honest with you-up to that time."

She did not take her eyes from his face; a chill drop of doubt seemed to fall upon her heart, and to deaden it. She got to her feet and walked away; the two men, watching her, saw her suddenly stop, and drop her face in her hands. Gilbert sprang to his feet, and Simon Quarle scrambled up also.

"Bessie!" cried the younger man; and again as he got nearer to her-"Bessie!"

She turned swiftly, and dropped her hands at her sides, and faced him. "And all these people know now that the thing has been a cheat-a lie from the beginning. Just as we played at make-believe at your house at Fiddler's Green-just as we played at make-believe on the yacht-so we've played at make-believe here. Is that true?"

He took a step towards her, and laid his hands upon her shoulders; he felt her stiffen under his touch.

"Bessie-my dear, dear girl-it's true-but it wasn't my fault this time. I did indeed believe that we were cast away here; I hadn't the remotest notion of where we were at all. Then, when at last-only a few days ago, comparatively speaking-I found out that we could get back into civilization so easily, I determined that I would keep the game alive a little longer--"

"Ah!-the game-always the game!" she breathed tearfully, and dropped her head.

"And I did that because I loved you; and because I was afraid that you might stand before me as you're standing now, and refuse to believe what I told you. I wanted to keep you here a little longer-I wanted to see you cheerfully playing make-believe day after day; I didn't want you to go back into the world-the common ordinary world again."

"And now the game is ended," she said, looking up at him with eyes brimming with tears. "Take your hands away from me, Mr. Byfield, please; the game is ended. It has been a poor game from the first-and God help me!-I've lost every time. Take your hands away from me!"

He watched her go-standing miserably and helplessly looking after her. He dared not follow; he was afraid to think what she would do, or how this poor comedy that had so strangely developed into a tragedy was to end. Simon Quarle said nothing; he stood grimly muttering a little to himself; he seemed dazed by the sudden turn of events.

"An island-and not an island; and to think that I never for a moment suspected it," muttered Quarle. "And for me, at my time of life, to play at shipwrecks and Robinson Crusoe and the devil knows what! It's amazing!"

Strangely enough, Simon Quarle was to cut the knot on this occasion. He had sought out Pringle, and had got the real truth from him-understanding only too well that it would be necessary to wait until early morning if he would cross to the mainland. He was wandering disconsolately on the shore when Bessie approached him.

"Mr. Quarle-you were always my friend-weren't you?" she pleaded, looking quickly round about to see that they were not observed. "And you're going to help me?"

He nodded. "With my life, if necessary, my dear," he said, with an attempt at whimsicality. "What are you going to do?"

"The boat will take us across to the mainland; we need not wait another night here," she whispered hurriedly. "Dear good kind old friend-take me across-and set me free."

He nodded again, and turned away at once in the direction of the boat, she following. Together they shoved it into the water, and with sturdy strokes the man pulled round the rocks and in the direction of the mainland. As he helped her out, she suddenly bent, and put her arms about his neck, and kissed him.

"Good-bye, old friend," she said, a little brokenly-"I'm going to run away."

"You'll find the others all down in the village, I expect," he reminded her.

She shook her head, and smiled through her tears. "I'm not going to find the others; I couldn't bear to meet them," she replied. "I'm going to run away into the world-all alone. Good-bye!"

"Stop!" he exclaimed, "you can't go like that." But she waved her hand to him, and ran up towards the bridge; turned there for a moment to wave her hand again, and to blow a kiss in his direction. And then ran on out of his sight, and down into the world.

* * *

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares