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MISS MOYAT'S PROMISE
We stood looking at one another on the edge of the marsh. In the clear morning sunlight I had no chance of escape or subterfuge. There was terror in my face, and she could see it.
"You--you cannot be sure!" I exclaimed. "It may not be the same man."
"It is the same man," she answered confidently. "He stopped me and asked if I could direct him to your house. It was about half an hour after you had gone. He spoke very softly and almost like a foreigner. I told him exactly where your cottage was. Didn't he come to you?"
"No," I answered. "I have never seen him before in my life."
"Why do you look--so terrified?" she asked. "You are as pale as a ghost."
I clutched hold of the railings. She came over to my side. Up the road I heard in the distance the crunching of heavy wheels. A wagon was passing through the lodge gates. John, the woodman, was walking with unaccustomed briskness by the horses' heads, cracking his whip as he came. I looked into the girl's face by my side.
"Miss Moyat," I said hoarsely, "can't you forget that you saw this man?"
"Why?" she asked bewildered.
"I don't want to be dragged into it," I answered, glancing nervously over my shoulder along the road. "Don't you see that if he is just found here with his head and shoulders in the creek, and nothing is known about him, they will take it that he has been washed up by the sea in the storm last night? But if it is known that he came from the land, that he was seen in the village asking for me--then there will be many things said."
"I don't see as it matters," she answered, puzzled. "He didn't come, and you don't know anything about him. But, of course, if you want me to say nothing--"
She paused. I clutched her arm.
"Miss Moyat," I said, "I have strong reasons for not wishing to be brought into this."
"All right," she said, dropping her voice. "I will do--as you ask."
There was an absurd meaning in her little side-glance, which at another time would have put me on my guard. But just then I was engrossed with my own vague fears. I forgot even to remove my hand from her arm. So we were standing, when a moment later the silence was broken by the sound of a galloping horse coming fast across the marshes. We started aside. Lady Angela reined in a great bay mare a few yards away from us. Her habit was all bespattered with mud. She had evidently ridden across country from one of the private entrances to the Park.
"What is this terrible story, Mr. Ducaine?" she exclaimed. "Is there really a shipwreck? I can see no signs of it."
"No shipwreck that I know of, Lady Angela," I answered. "There is a dead man here--one only. I have heard of nothing else."
Her eyes followed my outstretched hand, and she saw the body half on the sands, half on the marsh. She shivered a little.
"Poor fellow!" she exclaimed. "Is it any one from the village, Mr. Ducaine?"
"It is a stranger, Lady Angela," I answered. "We think that his body must have been washed in from the sea."
She measured the distance from high-water mark with a glance, and shook her head.
"Too far away," she declared.
"There was a wild sea last night," I answered, "and such a tide as I have never seen here before."
"What are you doing with it?" she asked, pointing with her whip.
"John Hefford is bringing a wagon," I answered. "I suppose he had better take it to the police station."
She wheeled her horse round.
"I am glad that it is no worse," she said. "There are reports going about of a terrible shipwreck. I trust that you are feeling better, Mr. Ducaine?"
"I am quite recovered--thanks to your kindness and Colonel Ray's," I answered.
"You will hear from my father during the day," she said. "He is quite anxious to come to your lecture. Good-morning."
"Good-morning, Lady Angela."
She galloped away. Miss Moyat turned towards me eagerly.
"Why, Mr. Ducaine," she exclaimed, "I had no idea that you knew Lady Angela."
"Nor do I," I answered shortly. "Our acquaintance is of the slightest."
"What did she mean about the lecture?"
I affected not to hear. John the wagoner had pulled up his team by the side of the palings, and was touching his hat respectfully.
"Another job for the dead 'ouse, sir, my missis tells me."
"There is the body of a dead man here, John," I answered, "washed up by the tide, I suppose. It isn't an uncommon occurrence here, is it?"
"Lor bless you, no, sir," the man answered, stepping over the palings. "I had three of them here in one month last year. If you'll just give me a hand, sir, we'll take him down to the police station."
I set my teeth and advanced towards the dead man. John Hefford proved at once that he was superior to all such trifles as nerves. He lifted the body up and laid it for the first time flat upon the sands.
"My! he's had a nasty smash on the head," John remarked, looking down at him with simple curiosity. "Quite the gent too, I should say. Will you give me a hand, sir, and we'll have him in the wagon."
So I was forced to touch him after all. Nevertheless I kept my eyes as far as possible from the ghastly face with the long hideous wound across it. I saw now, however, in one swift unwilling glance, what manner of man this was. He had thin features, a high forehead, deep-set eyes too close together, a thin iron-grey moustache. Whatever his station in life may have been, he was not of the labouring classes, for his hands were soft and his nails well cared for. We laid him in the bottom of the wagon, and covered him over with a couple of sacks. John cracked the whip and strode along by the side of the horses. Blanche Moyat and I followed behind.
She was unusually silent, and once or twice I caught her glancing curiously at me, as though she had something which it was in her mind to say, but needed encouragement. As we neared my cottage she asked me a question.
"Why don't you want me to say that I saw this man in the village last night, and that he asked for you, Mr. Ducaine? I can't understand what difference it makes. He may have spoken to others besides me, and then it is bound to be known. What harm can it do you?"
"I cannot explain how I feel about it," I answered. "I am not sure that I know myself. Only you must see that if it were known that he set out from the village last night to call upon me, people might say unpleasant things."
She lowered her voice.
"You mean--that they might suspect you of killing him?"
"Why not? Nobody knows much about me here, and it would seem suspicious. It was I who found him, and only a few hundred yards from my cottage. If it were known that he had left the village last night to see me, don't you think that it would occur to any one to wonder if we had met--and quarrelled? There could be no proof, of course, but the mere suggestion is unpleasant enough." We were in the middle of the open road, and the wagon was several yards in front. Nevertheless she drew a little closer to me, and almost whispered in my ear--
"Do you know who he is, what he wanted to see you about?"
"I have no idea," I answered. "I am quite sure that I never saw him before in my life."
"Did you see him last night?" she asked.
"Not to speak to," I answered. "I did catch just a glimpse of him, I believe, in rather a strange way. But that was all."
"What do you mean
"I saw him looking in through my window, but he came no nearer. Lady Angela and Colonel Ray were in the room."
"In your room?"
"Yes. Colonel Ray called to say that he was sorry to have spoilt my lecture."
"And Lady Angela?"
"She came in too?"
The girl's open-mouthed curiosity irritated me.
"I happened to be ill when Colonel Ray came. They were both very kind to me."
"This man, then," she continued, "he looked in and went away?"
"I suppose so," I answered. "I saw no more of him."
She turned towards me breathlessly.
"I don't see how a fall could have killed him, or how he could have wandered off into the marshes just there. The creek isn't nearly deep enough to have drowned him unless he had walked deliberately in and lain down. He was quite sober, too, when he spoke to me. Mr. Ducaine, how did he die? What killed him?"
I shook my head.
"If I could answer you these questions," I said, "I should feel much easier in my own mind. But I cannot. I know no more about it than you do."
We were both silent for a time, but I saw that there was a new look in her face. It was a welcome relief when a groom from Rowchester overtook us and pulled up his horse by our side.
"Are you Mr. Ducaine, sir?" he asked, touching his hat.
"Yes," I answered.
"I have a note for you from his Grace, sir," he said. "I was to take back an answer if I found you at home."
He handed it to me, and I tore it open. It contained only a few lines, in a large sprawling hand-writing.
"ROWCHESTER, Wednesday Morning.
"The Duke of Rowchester presents his compliments to Mr. Ducaine, and would be much obliged if he could make it convenient to call upon him at Rowchester between three and four o'clock this afternoon."
I folded the note up and turned to the groom.
"Will you tell his Grace," I said, "that you found me on the road, and I was unable, therefore, to write my answer, but I will call at the time he mentions?"
The man touched his hat and rode away. Blanche Moyat, who had been standing a few yards off, rejoined me.
"Has the Duke sent for you to go there?" she asked, with obvious curiosity.
"Yes. He has offered to lend me the village hall," I told her. "I expect that is what he wants to see me about."
She tossed her head.
"You didn't tell me so just now when I told you that father had offered to speak about it," she remarked.
"I am afraid," I said, gravely, "my mind was full of more serious matters."
She said no more until we reached the front of the Moyats' house. Then she did not offer me her hand, but she stood quite close to me, and spoke in an unnaturally low tone.
"You wish me, then," she said, "not to mention about that man--his asking the way to your cottage?"
"It seems quite unnecessary," I answered, "and it would only mean that I should be bothered with questions which I could not answer."
"Very well," she said, "Good-bye!"
I shuddered to myself as I followed the wagon down the narrow street towards the police station. A strange reserve had crept into her manner during the latter portion of our walk. There was something in her mind which she shrank from putting into words. Did she believe that I was responsible for this grim tragedy which had so suddenly thrown its shadow over my humdrum little life?
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