THERE was a faint, half-amused smile smile on the g1rl's face, half contempt for herself and a certain feminine weakness which she obviously felt herself to be incapable of. We are not wholly masters of our fate, even at the mature age of twenty-four. We may he healthy and beautiful and rich—all of which Ellen Ridsdale undoubtedly was —but it is impossible to have everything.
She sat on the balcony of the Mimosa Beach Hotel, watching the fireflies flitting like a swarm of golden bees amongst the orange groves. She could hear the steady beat of the surf; the band in the ballroom beyond was playing a languorous Southern waltz. And here was a night surely carved out of heaven! Overhead was a powder of silver stars like the sheen of a bridal veil, the slanting rays of in moon that picked out grove and forest in an exquisite gold-edged tracery. There was no suggestion of poverty, or sorrow, or suffering here.
And yet Nell Ridsdale was dreadfully unhappy. She had come down to Mimosa Beach with the prospect of unalloyed pleasure before her. The place was a winter paradise, with the oranges hanging ripe and luscious, the sea as blue as the eyes of Aphrodite. The woods and forests at the back of the Beach belonged to her for the most part. She was going to build her soul a lordly pleasure-house, and Hugh Cranston had come down to help her. There was nobody on the American continent more capable. He had graduated in honours in forestry; multi-millionaires along the Florida coast had risen up and called him blessed.
There was a romance behind it all, of course. Old man Eli Dankins, who had left Nell this smiling paradise, had been some kind of connection of Cranston's, who had one time every expectation of getting the deceased magnate's money. There had been a quarrel of some kind, and Denkins had changed his mind. Everything went to Miss Ellen Ridsdale, an English girl whom he had never seen. She was some sort of relative on his mother's side, but the kinsmanship was very remote.
So far the fairy story was complete. Nell Ridsdale had come out to Mimosa Beach all alone to look after the property there. She had the frank independence of one who had had four gears as a high school teacher, as one who had been left to fight her way in the world from an early age, and she had come under the sway of Hugh Cranston at once.
He had met her frankly from the first. He did not seem to grudge her the fortuitous circumstances that had deprived him of an immense fortune. He had offered his services in the rendition of the aforesaid "lordly pleasure-house," the transforming of the woods into a new Eden, and Nell had accepted gratefully. A firm in New York had told her that she would be lucky to get Cranston for the work, and Cranston, in is cheery way, seemed to share the same opinion. Besides, he had not a commission just then, and he was grateful for the opportunity.
"It's the chance of a lifetin1e," he told Nell. "I'll make this one of the show places of the South. Multi-millionaires will make pilgrimages to see it. I shall grow famous on the strength of it. My one crime will he wiped out, Miss Ridsdale."
"And what is that?" Nell asked.
"The crime called poverty. Oh,you need not laugh! It is a crime. And there are other penalties. Perhaps I shall be able to explain better what I mean later on."
It had been a happy time for the last three months. Nell hardly liked to admit to herself how really happy it had been. There had been adventures, too, by flood and fault. There was that little matter of the rattlesnake. How well Cranston had behaved over it! And the other time when they had lost their way! And this was the man she had robbed of a fortune! How handsome and strong and good-natured he was! What exquisite taste and good feeling he possessed! Still—
Nell sat there under the spangled canopy of the stars and pondered. She did not want to believe what Bedlake had told her. She refused to believe that Cranston was using her and her scheme of improvements as a blind for robbing the Davison Syndicate, who held the lands beyond her boundary. She could not credit the fact that Cranston had found gold there, and that he was working a secret hoard for himself. Bedlake disliked Cranston for some reason, though Nell had never asked herself why. All the same, she knew perfectly well. She knew that Bedlake would take the first opportunity of asking her to marry him—after he had got Cranston out of the way. Nell would have been furiously angry had anyone dared to suggest this, but she was aware of it, all the same. She was not aware of the fact that she was in love with Hugh Cranston, because she deliberately shut her eyes to the problem.
Bedlake had bound her to secrecy; he had contrived to let his suspicions fall as if his tongue had betrayed him against his will. Ha knew everything about it. Was he not himself acting on behalf of the Davison Syndicate? All the drawings and plans, all the correspondence, were locked up at the hacienda in the woods where Cranston lived and worked. Only one link in the evidence was needed, and Cranston would be arrested; and to-morrow the thing would be done.
Bedlake had just told her as much as that. He had spoken quietly and sorrowfully. The whole thing was exceedingly well done, but then Bedlake had taken no account of the thing called womanly instinct, that played so important a part in this matter. Nell had dismissed him under plea that she wished to be alone. She sat there—a white, still figure in her evening-dress; from her place she could see into the room beyond, where the hotel guests were dining. She could see Cranston's well-knit figure, could hear his laugh and see the frank joy of life in his eyes. It seemed impossible to believe that a man like that could be guilty, unless, perhaps, Bedlake?s evidence—
She would have to clear him, of course. She could not permit a man who had saved her life twice to be branded as a criminal, to stand in the dock. She might go as far as the hacienda and set it afire. She knew the path through the woods blindfold. From the hacienda it was possible to see the lights of the hotel. It was such a lovely night, too. She could slip away just as she was, with a cloak over her shoulders, and in an hour all the evidence that Bedlake had spoken about would be destroyed. The whole scheme was wild and emotional to the last degree. Nell had a vague recollection of having seen something like this on the stage. She had rather scoffed over it at the time. But the "prunes and prisms"* were in her mouth then; somehow it seemed quite different in Florida.
[* "Prunes and prisms". From a sententia of the prim and snobbish Mrs. General in Charles Dickens' novel Little Dorrit. "Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism are all very good words for the lips." In the course of several chapters Dickens elaborates on the nature of "prunes and prisms" and how the Dorrit girls are oppressed by Mrs. General's snobbery and prim nature.]
She would do it. She knew where the petrol tank was: the rest was only a matter of a box of matches. She would tell Cranston afterwards; she would give him a large cheque and her pardon. He would promise her to go his way and sin no more. Tears came into Nell's eyes as she thought of it. He was only a young man, and doubtless he had many temptations.
She could hear the dim, distant music of the band as she made her way through the orange tangle towards the woods. Here was the winding shell road that she and Cranston had planned together, there was the stream that they had converted into a series of waterfalls. She could see the fine spray gleaming like molten silver in the moonlight. This was going to be a fine trout and salmon river later on. Beyond this would be a chain of silver lakes into the heart of the forest. Down there in the hollow stood the hacienda in its fringe of creepers. Here it was that Cranston lived absolutely alone. He had no use for such servants as the place afforded: most of his meals he took at the hotel.
There was no light in the place; it looked solitary under the moon. Nell hesitated just for a moment. It occurred to her that there was another way. Awkward questions were frequently asked about fires, but visitations by flood are more incidental. The dam at the top of the long waterfall was not quite finished; great blocks of masonry lay scattered about. If those new flood-gates could he lifted, and the great mass of water released, why—
Nell had a hazy idea as to how things should be done: Cranston had explained to her more than once. He had been rather concerned over these flood-gates. Here was a tool-shed, the door of which had been left carelessly open. Masses of implements lay about inside. Nell was heedless of the fact that her white satin shoes were in rags, that her dress was a mass of floating shreds. She was going to save one man from the fruits of his folly. There were certain things that she could not forget. After all said and done, the crowbar was not so heavy as she had expected. A girl who had played centre-forward for three years in her school hockey team does not lack certain qualities.
That was the spot, of course. By inserting the point of the crowbar under that lock, and using the cross-bar as a fulcrum, the thing was easy. Nell was heedless of the fact that she was standing up to her knees in water. The sensation of power and strength was not unpleasant. As she strained with her white bare arm, she could feel the gates shake and tremble. Some of the timbers gave way with a crack like a pistol-shot. It was as if the whole structure responded to her touch.
In reality, she little dreamt of the force she was playing with. A volume of clear green water came suddenly with the force of a battering-ram and carried her backwards. She went down under the first cruel assault of the mass, until it seemed to her that she was plumbing the depth of the Pacific. She came up presently, after an agony of time, reeling and breathless, her face to the bridal veil of stars that seemed to mock her. There was a roar in her ears like thunder. Something seemed to grasp her arm and wrench it from the socket.
"Good Heavens," a hoarse voice said, "what is the meaning of this?"
In a dim and distant way the voice sounded familiar. Even in that moment of dire peril Nell caught herself wondering where she had heard it before. Then it was borne in upon her that she was clinging to a rugged pinnacle of rock with Cranston's arm about her waist. She dashed the water from her eyes, she flung back the clinging masses of her hair.
"Is it you?" she asked weakly. "What are you doing here?"
"Upon may word, I don't quite know," Cranston said grimly. "I was going to turn in early, as a preparation for a stiff day to-morrow, when I saw a ghost standing by the flood-gates. Before I could make up my mind what was happening, the flood-gates broke. What were you doing there?"
Nell gasped. She could not explain; it was no time for that. She could see the angry yellow water rising upwards, could feel the force of it tugging at her heels.
"Is there any danger ?" she contrived to say.
Cranston echoed the word with a quick intaking of his breath. He would have spoken brutally enough if his companion had chanced to be a man. So far as he could see, escape was hopeless. In that moment, with his arm about her, Nell was happy. The moon shone on his face, grim and determined and without fear. Whatever his faults were, the man was no coward, and he was telling her more plainly than words could speak what the danger was.
"I—I never expected anything like this," Nell said unsteadily.
Cranston said nothing; it was no time for asking questions. He was measuring up the danger with a cold and critical eye. So far as he could see, they were doomed. There was no discomfort in the coldness of the water—the mildness of the season had taken all the sting out of that—but it was rising higher and higher, and dragging them downwards with a steady force from the surface of the rock. Once they lost their hold of that, the end was not far to see. The would be swept down into the valley headlong, battered and bruised out of all recognition. The weight of it was pressing on Nell now; her heart was beating like a drum. And yet she was conscious of no fear; she was strangely indifferent to that so long as Cranston was by her side. She could see that he was holding on for dear life; she could feel him quivering under the strain. There was no feeling of bitterness against him, no wild passion that the peril was all her doing—nothing but s certain nameless sense of shame and humiliation.
"Is there no way out of it all?" she asked.
Again Cranston made no reply. He was still counting up the odds. He could see no way out. The first lash and roar of the yellow flood had died away to a hoarse murmur, so deep and steady that it was possible to hear the band in the ballroom, to catch glimpses of passing figures. A knot of fireflies was tangled in a mass of foliage overhead; the music of the woods was not quite silent.
"Could we manage to steer a way down to the valley?"
"That will he inevitable in any case," Cranston said. "The rock we are on is giving way. If by a miracle we reached the valley, we should he no better off. The second dam is bound to give way, once the water in the lower one has escaped. There will be no liquor wall* [sic] to support it. This will sweep down the valley, and we'll—"
[* possibly a typographical error for "anchor wall."]
Nell could see the new danger for herself. If the upper dam gave way, the flood would form a new channel of its own, and, sweeping round in a semicircle, join the first wild rush lower down. She could feel the rock trembling and swaying under her feet; the yellow foam was under her armpits. Cranston was holding her closely to him, and she was strangely glad.
"Oh, my darling girl," he groaned, "why did you do it?"
He was speaking more to himself than to her, yet his eyes were alert and vigorous. Something dark and struggling came floating on the yellow bosom of the flood, with a tangle of tentacles twisting and tossing like some grotesque animal in pain. Cranston grabbed for it and slewed it round by sheer muscular force. He fairly gasped with the exertion of it.
"A tree," he grunted—"the trunk of a tree. We may possibly float off on it. The odds are that we shall he smashed up before we reach the valley, but there is a ghost of a chance."
"I will do just as you tell me," Nell said as a little child might have done.
Cranston swayed to and fro on the rock. He could feel it staggering like a drunken thing under his feet. He lifted Nell clear and laid her across the trunk of the tree. Then he shoved the trunk clear and held to it desperately with the bulldog courage of despair.
It was magnificent. In the midst of all the roaring peril, Nell could not fail to see that. He ought to have reviled her—he should have cursed her for interfering in this cheap and tawdry way—instead of which he had given his life to save hers. Bedlake was either a knave or a fool. No mean and cunning scoundrel could have acted in this splendid fashion. It would hare been far nobler and more honest to have spoken to Hugh Cranston and given him a chance to explain. Of course, he had an explanation; she was mad not to have thought of it before.
How strange that she should he working out this problem so calmly and logically! She ought to have been beside herself with terror, yet her prevailing emotion was pure humiliation. They were moving along swiftly now—down, down on a wall of yellow water into the valley. The roots of the tree dragged from time to time and checked the mad, headlong speed as an anchor might have done. Cranston lay out full length there, his eye glued on the track. Just before them the hacienda stood in the centre of a wild bulk of mad water. The tree struck it with a force that set the frail structure reeling, and stopped. The shock was almost painful.
"So far so good"" Cranston gasped. "We might win through now if the upper dam holds. But it won't: it may keep good for an hour, but no longer. Come inside."
The tree lay half out of the water, jammed across the front of the hacienda, forming a kind of barrier against the full force of the yellow tide. Cranston lifted his companion off the sloping trunk and carried her up the steps of the verandah. And yet the floor of the living-room was dry, though the building itself stood an island on a tossing sea. When the waters of the upper dam gave way, the place would collapse like a castle on the sands. There was a possible chance that the tree might hold, and to this Cranston pinned his faith. It was the only ark in sight.
He groped about in the semi-darkness of the house for matches. He lighted two of the lamps presently, and the room stood out clear and distinct. There was little or no comfort here, beyond a couple of deep basket-chairs and a smoking-table. The latter was littered with plans and papers. Nell could see how pale and set Cranston's features were: she saw that his hands were raw and bleeding. She wondered what the high school personages would say if they could see her now!
"You are the bravest woman I ever met," Cranston said; yet the words came grudgingly and as if they were forced from him. "But why did you do it?"
"I did it for your sake," Ne1l said simply; "I had to."
"Really!" Cranston laughed. "For my sake you have destroyed the work of weeks! For my sake you tore the gates away and made this smiling paradise a hideous wreck! But for the mere accident that I was going home early to-night, at the present moment you would be—well——The danger is not over yet; the worst of it has yet to come. You understand what I mean?"
"You want me to speak plainly?"
"That is it," Cranston replied grimly: "it is no time for social amenities. Will you kindly explain how I benefit by this reckless destruction?"
Nell winced under the cold contempt of the words. This man was looking at her with the whole story of his love and devotion in his eyes, yet he could speak like that. He could see the clear outline of her splendid form, he could see the masses of her hair shining and dripping in the lamplight, and he knew that she cared for him, as he cared for her. He took a step forward.
"Not yet—not et!" Nell said breathlessly. "I did it to save you. They told me that, if the truth came out, you would be prosecuted. The said you would go to gaol."
"Did they really? And who may 'they' be?"
"Mr.—Mr. Bedlake. I don't think he meant to tell me. He was—was—"
"Jealous of me. Did I not tell you it was no time for social amenities? Mr, Bedlake was jealous of me, and he tried to poison your mind. It is a great consolation to me to know that he failed. But would you mind telling me what I have done?"
"The Davison Syndicate," Neil said incoherently—"the land of theirs that joins mine They said that you were after their gold. They had found gold. Only you discovered it first, and you made a way underground and stole their money. All the evidence and correspondence is here in this house. They had only to lay their hands on it, and you were lost! And they are going to do so tomorrow; they are coming for that purpose in the morning. Mr. Bedlake told me. He didn't mean to tell me, but I—I got it out of him. And that is why I tried to save you. If I could only destroy everything—"
Cranston took another step forward and checked himself. His eyes were shining now.
"You don't suspect Bedlake of treachery?" he asked.
"I don't think so," Nell said; "he seems too—too transparent for that. If he has been deceived—"
But Cranston was listening no longer. From the distance came a muffled roar, then a staggering shock, and the house trembled to its foundations. Cranston snatched Nell up in his arms and carried her on to the verandah. A moving wall of water came raging towards them. Cranston fought his way up the trunk of the tree till he stood, panting and breathless, level with the roof. A moment later and the rolling tempest was upon them. The house bent and trembled and collapsed, leaving the outer walls and the roof timbers only standing, The rugged tree formed one side of a triangle locked together at the apex, whilst the torrent spent itself out below. There was just the flicker of a smile on Cranston's face.
"Blind luck," he said—"just blind luck! If we can hold out half an hour, we are safe."
Nell nestled down in the shelter of his arm. As the roar subsided to a hoarse gurgle, it was possible to hear the music of the band. The tangle of fireflies weaved and darted overhead heedless of the flood: the whole world seemed to he settling down on its foundations again.
"I'm glad I did it," Nell said, with a sudden wild, hysterical impulse—"yes glad!."
Cranston bent down and kissed her. It seemed the proper thing to do in the circumstances.
"So am I," he replied. "We're safe now. In half an hour's time we shall he able in wade back to the hotel. I owe Bedlake a great debt of gratitude."
"I don't think he quite meant it that way," Nell murmured.
"Perhaps not. He's not a bad fellow, though he is an awful ass. That Davison Syndicate is no more than a gang of sharpers. They have humbugged Bedlake, and got no end of money out of him under the pretence that they have found gold here. The gold they got came off your property. There is gold here on the outskirts, and I am the man who found it. Those people stole some of it and salted their claim. They robbed my safe to do so. They are not going to touch me. The story they told Bedlake was only just a pack of lies to get more money out of him."
"But if you found the gold," Nell pro- tested, "why didn't you—"
"Tell you? I was going to when I had everything ready for those ruffians. I didn't say anything about the gold because I did not want to spoil your pleasure. There isn't much of it, after all. If once there was a rush here, your lovely paradise would be spoilt for ever. Then you would have gone away, and I should never have seen you again, darling. You see, you are rich and I am poor."
"I am the richest girl in the world," Nell cried, " because I've got you, dear! And, without knowing it, I have wanted you all along. And I did you an injury—I took the property that was yours. And I want somebody to take care of me, Hugh ! If you can forgive my folly——"
Hugh took her in his arms and looked down into her beautiful face. Then she lifted her head and kissed him.
"I'm glad I did it," she said, "because you know now that I love you and—and—"