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   Chapter 10 A CLEAR HORIZON

The Mystery of the Sea By Bram Stoker Characters: 16268

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


If any ordinary person be afflicted with ennui and want something to take his thoughts away from a perpetual consideration of his own weariness let me recommend him to take up the interpretation of secret writing. At first, perhaps, he may regard the matter lightly and be inclined to smile at its triviality. But after a little while, if he have in him at all any of the persistence or doggedness which is, and should be, a part of a man's nature, he will find the subject take possession of him to the almost entire exclusion of all else. Turn from it how he will; make he never so many resolutions to put the matter behind him; try he never so hard to find some more engrossing topic, he will still find the evasive mystery ever close before him. For my own part I can honestly say that I ate, drank, slept and dreamed secret writing during the entire of the days and nights which intervened between my taking up the task and the coming of Miss Anita to Cruden Bay. All day long the hidden mystery was before me; wherever I was, in my room, still or contorting myself; walking on the beach; or out on the headlands, with the breezes singing in my ears, and the waves lapping below my feet. Hitherto in my life my only experience of haunting had been that of Gormala; but even that experience failed before the ever-hopeful, ever-baffling subject of the cryptograms. The worst of my feeling, and that which made it more poignant, was that I was of the firm belief not only that there was a cryptogram but that my mind was already on the track of it. Every now and again, sometimes when the MS. or its copy was before me and sometimes when I was out in the open, for the moment not thinking of it at all, a sort of inspiration would come to me; some sort of root idea whose full significance I felt it difficult to grasp.

My first relief came on Tuesday when at noon I saw the high dog-cart dash past the gate and draw up short opposite the post-office.

I did not lose any time in reaching the cart so as to be able to help the ladies down. Marjory gave me both her hands and jumped lightly, but the elder lady required a good deal of help. It is always thus; the experience of every young man is the same. Every woman, old or young, except the one whom he likes to lift or carry tenderly, is willing to be lifted or carried in the most leisurely or self-denying manner.

When Mrs. Jack and 'her friend' had come into the hotel sitting-room the latter said to me:

"I hope you forgive us for all the trouble we have put you to."

"No trouble at all," I answered-and oh! it sounded so tame-"only a pleasure!" "Thank you," she continued gravely, "that is very nice of you. Now we want you to add to your kindness and take us out again on that rock. I have not yet finished my sketch, and I don't like to be baffled."

"Finished your sketch, my dear," said Mrs. Jack, in a tone which manifestly showed that the whole thing was new to her. "Why, Marjory, it was washed into the sea before Mr. Hunter came to help us!" The slight, quick blush which rose to her face showed that she understood the false position in which the maladroit remark placed her; but she went on pluckily:

"Oh, yes, dear, I know! What I mean is, that having set my heart on making that sketch, I want to do it; even if my first effort went wrong. That is, dear Mrs. Jack, if you do not mind our going out there again."

"Oh, my dear," said the elder lady, "of course I will do just whatever you wish. But I suppose it will do if I sit on the rock near at hand? Somehow, since our experience there, I seem to prefer the mainland than any place where you may have to swim to get away from it." Marjory smiled at me as she said to her:

"That will do capitally. And you can keep the lunch basket; and have your eye on me and the rising of the tide all the time."

So I sent to Whinnyfold to have a boat ready when we should drive over. Whilst the ladies were preparing themselves for the boating trip I went to my room and took in my pocket the papers from the chest and my rescripts. I took also the letter which I had not been able to deliver.

At Whinnyfold Miss Anita and I took the steep zigzag to the beach, piloted by one of John Hay's boys whilst the other took Mrs. Jack across the neck of the headland to the Sand Craigs.

As we went down the steep path, the vision of the procession of ghosts moving steadily up it on Lammas Eve, came back to me; instinctively I looked round to see if Gormala was watching. I breathed more freely when I saw she was not about.

I should dearly have liked to take Miss Anita alone in the boat, but I feared that such was not safe. Rowing amongst the rocks of the Skares is at the best of times no child's play, and I was guardian of too great a treasure to be willing to run any risks. Young Hay and I pulled, the boy being in the bow and doing the steering. This position of affairs suited me admirably, for it kept me close to my companion and facing her. It was at all times a pleasure to me as it would have been to any man, to watch her face; but to-day her eager joy at the beauty of all around her made me thrill with delight. The day was ideal for the place; a bright, clear day with just a ripple of wind from the water which took the edge from the July heat. The sea quivered with points of light, as though it were strewn with diamonds, and the lines of the racing tide threading a way amongst the rocks below were alone an endless source of interest. We rowed slowly which is much the safest way of progression in these waters, and especially when, as now, the tide was running towards the end of the ebb. As the boy seemed to know every one of the myriad rocks which topped the water, and by a sort of instinct even those that lay below, we steered a devious course. I had told him to take us round by the outer rocks from which thousands of seabirds rose screaming as we approached; and as we crept in under the largest of them we felt that mysterious sense of unworthiness which comes to one in deep water under the shadow of rocks. I could see that Marjory had the sense of doubt, or of possible danger, which made her clutch hard at each gunwale of the boat till her knuckles grew white. As we rounded the Reivie o' Pircappies, and found the tide swirling amongst the pointed rocks, she grew so deadly pale that I felt concerned. I should have liked to question her, but as I knew from my experience of her courage that she would probably prefer that I remained silent, I pretended not to notice. Male pretence does not count for much with women. She saw through me at once, and with a faint smile, which lit the pallor of her face like sunshine on snow, she said in so low a whisper that it did not reach the fisher boy:

"I was thinking what it would have been for us that day-only for you."

"I was glad," I answered in an equally low voice, "to be able to render any help to-to Mrs. Jack and her friend."

"Mrs. Jack-and her friend-are very much obliged to you," she answered gaily in her natural voice and tone. I could see that she had fully regained her courage, as involuntarily she took her hands from the sides of the boat. We kept now well out from the rocks and in deep water, and shortly sighted the Sand Craigs. As we could see Mrs. Jack and her escort trudging leisurely along the sand, and as we did not wish to hurry her, I asked young Hay with my companion's consent, to keep round the outermost of the Sand Craigs, which was now grey-white with sea-gulls. On our approach the birds all rose and wheeled round with myriad screaming; the wonder and admiration of the girl's eyes as they eagerly followed the sweep of the cloud of birds was good to see.

We hung around the great pointed rock till we saw Mrs. Jack making her way cautiously along the rocks. We rowed at once to the inner rock and placed the luncheon basket in a safe place. We then prepared a little sheltered nook for Mrs. Jack, with rugs and cushions so that she might be quite at ease. Miss Anita chose the place herself. I am bound to say it was not just as I should have selected;

for when she sat down, her back was towards the rock from which she had been rescued. It was doubtless the young girl's thoughtfulness in keeping her mind away from a place fraught with such unpleasant memories.

When she was safely installed we dismissed the boys till the half tide. Mrs. Jack was somewhat tired with her trudge over the sand, and even when we left her she was nodding her head with coming sleep. Then Miss Anita got out her little easel which I fixed for her as she directed; when her camp stool was rightly placed and her palette prepared I sat down on the rock at her feet and looked at her whilst she began her work. For a little while she painted in silence: then turning to me she said suddenly:

"What about those papers? Have you found anything yet?" It was only then I bethought me of the letter in my pocket. Without a word I took it out and handed it to her. There was a slight blush as well as a smile on her face as she took it. When she saw the date she said impulsively:

"Why did I not get it before?"

"Because I had not got your address, and did not know how to reach you."

"I see!" she answered abstractedly as she began to read. When she had gone right through it she handed it to me and said:

"Now you read it out loud to me whilst I paint; and let me ask questions so that I may understand." So I read; and now and again she asked me searching questions. Twice or three times I had to read over the memorandum; but each time she began to understand better and better, and at last said eagerly:

"Have you ever worked out such reductions?"

"Not yet, but I could do so. I have been so busy trying to decipher the secret writing that I have not had time to try any such writing myself."

"Have you succeeded in any way?"

"No!" I answered. "I am sorry to say that as yet I have nothing definite; though I am bound to say I am satisfied that there is a cipher."

"Have you tried both the numbers and the dots?"

"Both," I answered; "but as yet I want a jumping-off place."

"Do you really think from what you have studied that the cipher is a biliteral one, or on the basis of a biliteral cipher?"

"I do! I can't say exactly how I came to think so; but I certainly do."

"Are there combinations of five?"

"Not that I can see."

"Are there combinations of less than five?"

"There may be. There are certainly."

"Then why on earth don't you begin by reducing the biliteral cipher to the lowest dimensions you can manage? You may light on something that way."

A light began to dawn upon me, and I determined that my task-so soon as my friends had left Cruden-would be to reduce Bacon's biliteral. It was with genuine admiration for her suggestion that I answered Miss Anita:

"Your woman's intuition is quicker than my man's ratiocination. 'I shall in all my best obey you, Madam!'" She painted away steadily for some time. I was looking at her, covertly but steadily when an odd flash of memory came to me; without thinking I spoke:

"When I first saw you, as you and Mrs. Jack stood on the rock, and away beyond you the rocks were all fringed with foam, your head looked as if it was decked with flowers." For a moment or two she paused before asking:

"What kind of flowers?"

Once again in our brief acquaintance I stood on guard. There was something in her voice which made me pause. It made my brain whirl, too, but there was a note of warning. At this time, God knows, I did not want any spurring. I was head over heels in love with the girl, and my only fear was lest by precipitancy I should spoil it all. Not for the wide world would I have cancelled the hopes that were dawning in me and filling me with a feverish anxiety. I could not help a sort of satisfied feeling as I answered:

"White flowers!"

"Oh!" she said impulsively, and then with a blush continued, painting hard as she spoke:

"That is what they put on the dead! I see!" This was a counter-stroke with a vengeance. It would not do to let it pass so I added:

"There is another 'first-column' function also in which white flowers are used. Besides, they don't put flowers on the head of corpses."

"Of whom then?" The note of warning sounded again in the meekness of the voice. But I did not heed it. I did not want to heed it. I answered:

"Of Brides!" She made no reply-in words. She simply raised her eyes and sent one flashing glance through me, and then went on with her work. That glance was to a certain degree encouragement; but it was to a much greater degree dangerous, for it was full of warning. Although my brain was whirling, I kept my head and let her change the conversation with what meekness I could.

We accordingly went back to the cipher. She asked me many questions, and I promised to show her the secret writings when we should go back to the hotel. Here she struck in:

"We have ordered dinner at the hotel; and you are to dine with us." I tried not to tremble as I answered:

"I shall be delighted."

"And now," she said "if we are to have lunch here to-day we had better go and wake Mrs. Jack. See! the tide has been rising all the time we have been talking. It is time to feed the animals."

Mrs. Jack was surprised when we wakened her; but she too was ready for lunch. We enjoyed the meal hugely.

At half-tide the Hay boys came back. Miss Anita thought that there was enough work for them both in carrying the basket and helping Mrs. Jack back to the carriage. "You will be able to row all right, will you not?" she said, turning to me. "You know the way now and can steer. I shall not be afraid!"

When we were well out beyond the rock and could see the figures of Mrs. Jack and the boys getting further away each step, I took my courage in both hands; I was getting reckless now, and said to her:

"When a man is very anxious about a thing, and is afraid that just for omitting to say what he would like to say, he may lose something that he would give all the rest of the world to have a chance of getting-do-do you think he should remain silent?" I could see that she, too, could realise a note of warning. There was a primness and a want of the usual reality in her voice as she answered me:

"Silence, they say, is golden." I laughed with a dash of bitterness which I could not help feeling as I replied:

"Then in this world the gold of true happiness is only for the dumb!" she said nothing but looked out with a sort of steadfast introspective eagerness over the million flashing diamonds of the sea; I rowed on with all my strength, glad to let go on something. Presently she turned to me, and with all the lambency of her spirit in her face, said with a sweetness which tingled through me:

"Are you not rowing too hard? You seem anxious to get to Whinnyfold. I fear we shall be there too soon. There is no hurry; we shall meet the others there in good time. Had you not better keep outside the dangerous rocks. There is not a sail in sight; not one, so far as I know, over the whole horizon, so you need not fear any collision. Remember, I do not advise you to cease rowing; for, after all, the current may bear us away if we are merely passive. But row easily; and we may reach the harbour safely and in good time!"

Her speech filled me with a flood of feeling which has no name. It was not love; it was not respect; it was not worship; it was not, gratitude. But it was compounded of them all. I had been of late studying secret writing so earnestly that there was now a possible secret meaning in everything I read. But oh! the poverty of written words beside the gracious richness of speech! No man who had a heart to feel or a brain to understand could have mistaken her meaning. She gave warning, and hope, and courage, and advice; all that wife could give husband, or friend give friend. I only looked at her, and without a word held out my hand. She placed hers in it frankly; for a brief, blissful moment my soul was at one with the brightness of sea and sky.

There, in the very spot where I had seen Lauchlane Macleod go down into the deep, my own life took a new being.

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