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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe New Tenant - Chapter 14. Helen Thurwell Asks A Direct Question
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The New Tenant - Chapter 14. Helen Thurwell Asks A Direct Question Post by :ngood Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :2619

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The New Tenant - Chapter 14. Helen Thurwell Asks A Direct Question

CHAPTER XIV. HELEN THURWELL ASKS A DIRECT QUESTION

At the summit of the little spur of cliff they paused. Close on one side were the windows of Falcon's Nest, and on the other the batch of black firs which formed the background to it ran down the steep cliff side to the sea. The path which they were following curved round the cottage, and crossed the moor within a few yards of the spot where Sir Geoffrey had been found. As they stood together for a moment before parting, she noticed, with a sudden cold dismay, that thick shutters had recently been fitted to the windows of the little room into which she had stolen on the day of Sir Geoffrey's murder.

"Are you afraid of being robbed?" she asked. "One would imagine that your room there held a secret."

She was watching him, and she told herself the shot had gone to its mark.

He followed her finger with his eyes, and kept his face turned away from her.

"Yes, that is so," he answered quietly. "That little room holds its secret and its ghost for me. Would to God," he cried, with a sudden passion trembling in his tones, "that I had never seen it--that I had never come here!"

Her heart beat fast. Could it be that he was going to confess to her? Then he turned suddenly round, and in the twilight his white face and dark luminous eyes seemed to her like mute emblems of an anguish which moved her woman's heart to pity. There was none of the cowardice of guilt there, nothing of the criminal in the deep melancholy which seemed to have set its mark upon his whole being. And yet he must be very guilty--very much a criminal.

Her eyes strayed from his face back to the window again. There was no light anywhere in the house. It had a cold desolate look which chilled her.

"Is that the room where you sit?" she asked, pointing to it.

"Yes. There is no other furnished, except my housekeeper's, and she is away now."

"Away! Then who is with you in the house?"

"At present, no one," he answered. "She was taken ill, and went home this morning. She is generally ill."

She looked at him perplexed.

"But who does your cooking for you, and light the fires, and that sort of thing?"

"I haven't thought about it yet," he answered. "I did try to light the fire this afternoon, but I couldn't quite manage it. I--I think the sticks must have been damp," he added hesitatingly.

She looked at him, wet through and almost blue with cold, and at the dull cheerless-looking cottage. Again the woman in her triumphed, and her eyes filled with tears.

"I never heard anything so preposterous," she exclaimed almost angrily. "You must be out of your senses, Mr. Brown. Now, be so good as to obey me at once. Go into the house and get a thick overcoat, the thickest you have, and then come home with me, and I will give you some tea."

He hesitated, and stood quite still for a moment, with his face turned steadily away from her. All the subtle sweetness of that last visit of his to her home had come back to him, and his heart was sick with a great longing. Was he not a fool to refuse to enter into paradise, when the gates stood open for him? No words could describe the craving which he felt to escape, just for a brief while, from the lashings of his thoughts and the icy misery of his great loneliness. What though he were courting another sorrow! Could his state be worse than it was? Could any agony be keener than that which he had already tasted? Were there lower depths still in the hell of remorse? If so, he would sound them. Though he died for it, he would not deny himself this one taste of heaven. He turned suddenly round, with a glow in his eyes which had a strange effect upon her.

"You are very good to me, Miss Thurwell," he said. "I will come."

"That is sensible of you," she answered. "Get your coat, and you can catch me up. I think we had better go back the same way, as it is getting late."

She walked slowly down the path, and he hurried into the cottage. In a few minutes he overtook her, wrapped in a long Inverness cape from head to foot, and they walked on side by side.

The grey afternoon had suddenly faded into twilight. Overhead several stars were already visible, dimly shining through a gauze-like veil of mist stretched all over the sky, and from behind a black line of firs on the top of a distant hill the moon had slowly risen, and was casting a soft weird light upon the saddened landscape. Grey wreaths of phantom-like mist were floating away across the moor, and a faint breeze had sprung up, and was moaning in the pine plantation when they reached the hand-gate. They paused for a moment to listen, and the dull roar of the sea from below mingled with it in their ears. She turned away with a shudder.

"Come!" she said; "that sound makes me melancholy."

"I like it," he answered. "Nature is an exquisite musician. I never yet heard the sea speak in a tone which I did not love to hear. Listen to that slow mournful rise of sound, reaching almost to intensity, and then dying away so sadly--with the sadness that thrills. Ah! did you hear that? The shrieking of those pebbles dragged down to the sea, and crying out in almost human agony. I love the sea."

"Is that why you came to this desolate part of the world?" she asked.

"Partly."

"Tell me the whole reason," she said abruptly. "Was there anything special which made you fix on this neighborhood? You may think me curious, if you like--but I want to know."

"I had a vow to keep," he answered hoarsely. "You must ask me no more. I cannot tell you."

Her heart sank like lead. A vow to keep. There was something ominous in the sound of those words. She stole a glance at him as they walked on in silence, and again her judgments seemed put to confusion and her hopes revived. His face, dimly seen in the shadows of the plantation, was suddenly illuminated by a pale quivering moonbeam, as they passed through a slight opening. Could these be the features of a murderer? Her whole heart rebelled against her understanding, and cried out "No!" For the first time she realized the aesthetic beauty of his face, scarred and wasted though it was by the deep lines of intellectual toil and consuming sorrow. There was not a line out of place, save where his cheek-bones projected slightly, owing to his extreme thinness, and left deep hollows under his eyes. Nor was his expression the expression of a guilty man, for, notwithstanding the intense melancholy which dwelt always in his dark eyes, and seemed written into every feature, there was blended with it a strange pride, the slight yet wholesome contempt of a man conscious of a certain superiority in himself, neither physical nor in any way connected with material circumstances, over the majority of his fellows. And as the realization of this swept in upon her, and her faith in him suddenly leaped up with a new-born strength, there came with it a passionate desire to hear him proclaim his innocence with his own lips, and, having heard it, to banish for ever doubts and suspicions, and give herself up to this new sweetness which was hovering around her life. She caught hold of his hand, but dropped it almost at once, for the fire which flashed into his face at the touch of her fingers half frightened her. He had come to a sudden standstill, and before his eyes she felt hers droop and the hot color burn her cheeks. What had come to her? She could not tell. She was nervous, almost faint, with the dawning promise of a bewildering happiness. Yet her desire still clung to her, and she found words to express it.

"I cannot bear this any longer," she cried. "I must ask you a question, and you must answer it. The thought of it all is driving me mad."

"For God's sake, ask me nothing!" he said in a deep hollow tone. "Let me go back. I should not be here with you."

"You shall not go," she answered. "Stand there where the light falls upon your face, and answer me. Was it you who killed Sir Geoffrey Kynaston? Tell me, for I will know."

There was a dead silence, which seemed to her fevered nerves intolerable. From all around them came the quiet drip, drip, of the rain, from the bending boughs on to the damp soaked ground, and at that moment a slight breeze from over the moorland stirred amongst the branches, and the moisture which hung upon them descended in little showers. From below, the dull roar of the sea came up to them in a muffled undertone, like a melancholy background to the slighter sound. There was an indescribable dreariness about it all which quickened the acute agony of those few moments.

More awful than anything to her was the struggle which she saw in that white strained face half hidden in his clasped hands. What could hesitation mean but guilt? What need was there for it? Her feet seemed turned to stone upon the cold ground, and her heart almost stopped beating. There was a film before her eyes, and yet she saw his face still, though dimly, and as if it were far off. She saw his hands withdrawn, and she saw his ashen lips part slowly.

"I did not kill Sir Geoffrey Kynaston," he said in a low constrained voice. "If my life could have saved his, I would have given it."

A warm golden light seemed suddenly to banish the misty gloom of the damp plantation. The color rushed into her cheeks, and her heart leaped for joy. She heard, and she believed.

"Thank God!" she cried, holding out both her hands to him with a sudden impulsive gesture. "Come! let us go now."

She was smiling softly up at him, and her eyes were wet with tears. He took one quick passionate step towards her, seizing her hands, and drawing her unresistingly towards him. In a moment she would have been in his arms--already a great trembling had seized her, and her will had fled. But that moment was not yet.

Something seemed to have turned him to stone. He dropped her fingers as though they were burning him. A vacant light eclipsed the passion which had shone a moment before in his eyes. Suddenly he raised his hands to the sky in a despairing gesture.

"God forgive me!" he cried. "God forgive me!"

For very shame at his touch, and her ready yielding to it, her eyes had fallen to the ground. When she raised them he was gone. There was the sound of his retreating footsteps, the quick opening and closing of the hand-gate, and through the trees she saw him walking swiftly over the cliffs. Then she turned away, with her face half hidden in her hands, and the hot tears streaming down her cheeks.

Again there was silence, only broken by the louder roar of the incoming tide, and the faint rustling of the leaves. Suddenly it was broken by a human voice, and a human figure slowly arose from a cramped posture behind a clump of shrubs.

"Holy Moses! if this ain't a queer start," remarked Mr. Benjamin Levy, shaking the wet from his clothes, and slowly filling a pipe. "Wants him copped for murder, and yet tries to get him to make up to her. She's a deep un, she is. I wonder if she was in earnest! If only she was, I think I see my way to a real good thing--a real good thing," he repeated, meditatively.

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