THE girl seemed to be controlling herself with an effort. The look on her face was half angry, half scornful. And a very beautiful face it was, in Stephen Sherlock's opinion. A little hard and haughty, perhaps, but there was a reason for that.
"It is rather difficult to follow you, Miss Llewellyn," he said. "I should be guilty of lamentable weakness if I adopted your suggestion. Besides, those fellows are deliberately breaking the law. If they were permitted to do so in the old times—But I beg your pardon."
"Oh, you had better say it!" Ethel Llewellyn cried. "You were going to remark that, in my father's time, the tenants did as they pleased. When I was a child, there were salmon poaching riots on the upper reaches of the Wye very often. Once a river-bailiff was killed."
"Precisely," Sherlock responded. "After that the poachers did as they liked for ages. They have been doing pretty well as they liked ever since, only they don't call themselves 'Rebeccaites' now. They prefer to speak of their rights. They are backed up by certain irresponsible agitators. When I bought this property, I was led to believe that a little firmness on my part would turn the Elan into one of the best salmon catches in the kingdom. To my mind, it was one of the most valuable assets to the property."
Miss Llewellyn's sense of justice struggled with her annoyance. It was exactly as Sherlock had stated. After Captain Llewellyn's death there would have been little or nothing for her from Cwm Place had not Stephen Sherlock had such grand ideas on the subject of the fishing. In ordinary circumstances the purchase money had hardly cleared the mortgages. As it was, she had a few hundreds a year, and Sherlock had allowed her to retain the old mill house. It would have broken her heart to have had to turn out of Cwm altogether.
She had done her deliberate best to try to dislike this man. Had he not made money in trade, and had he not invaded her ancestral home? He was always doing things that jarred on her. He had a way with him which the tenants, for the most part, found it hard to resist. At any rate, they had comfortable households now, and barns capable of keeping out the rain. From Llewellyn they had had none of these things. Still, there were prejudices to be overcome, notably as to the right to net the Elan for salmon. Every loafer on the waterside claimed that. Sherlock had promptly taken the case to the courts, and a decision had been given in his favour. Custom was one thing, and legality another altogether. And Sherlock was not disposed to be puffed up over his victory. A certain amount of legitimate fishing would be allowed, but the idle and imprudent were not going to fill their pockets at his expense. There was a deal of muttering and one or two threats of personal violence, for the hillmen were a wild lot and none too civilised. A poaching affray had been followed by a prosecution and conviction, and it was freely stated that Sherlock would take his life in his hands the first time he ventured on to the hills.
"You don't appreciate the feelings of the people," Ethel said. "How should you?"
"Being all my life in trade and in sympathy with its views?" Sherlock asked.
"I did not say so," Miss Llewellyn said. But we will let it go at that."
Sherlock smiled just a little bitterly.
"I thought we should get to this in time," he said. "Quite in accordance with the best traditions, isn't it? New men and old acres. You may not be aware that my father was Sherlock of Mannergride. You will admit that the family was at one time as influential and powerful as your own. My traditions are exactly as yours, and my training has been very much the same. My father preferred to work instead of loaf on the heavily mortgaged family acres. And he had his reward. He made me work pretty hard, too, for fifteen years, and I am all the better man for it. You are all going to find that out in time. And those poaching fellows are going to find it out, too. They shall have a lesson to-night which they will remember for many a long day to come."
Ethel Llewellyn stood there under the shadow of the old waterfall tapping her foot thoughtfully. It was very difficult not to like this man, with his direct method and sterling integrity of purpose. And to the good things that he did there was no end. Nobody on the estate who really needed anything asked for it in vain. If only Sherlock could have got his tenants out of sympathy with the salmon poachers, all would have been well. But then this sort of thing had been going on for generations...
"You will need a strong force behind you to-night," the girl said.
"Indeed. Then you know something about what is going to happen?"
"Mr. Sherlock," the girl said earnestly, I am bound to. Rightly or wrongly, those hillsiders—who are your tenants, mind— have been netting the Elan. They are liberal with their catch, and therefore the bulk of the more respectable tenants are on their side. It is a tacit support they get. They will 'play the game' and lie for them in the police court. This is part of their code of honour. These things are hinted to me because I am supposed to be your bitter enemy."
Sherlock turned a little white under the healthy tan on his face. The slanting March sun was shining in his eyes. It was hard for any girl to regard a man like this as an enemy.
"If I thought that," Sherlock said slowly, I would go away."
"I hope you won't," Ethel murmured. The glint of a smile danced in her eyes. "Let me be quite candid. You have done far better here than I had expected. I was jealous of your success and now that I have made this confession—I feel jealous no longer. And I am glad that you are—well, one of the Sherlocks. It is hard to get outside that kind of thing, naturally, when you have struggled like we did to keep the old place together. And I'm glad you bought it."
She held out her hand wath a frank gesture, a warm smile on her face. She stood with her back to the waterfall, with the salmon ladder by the side of it and the black-beamed old house beyond. It was here that she lived alone with two faithful servants who would have followed her to death. She slept to the lullaby of the waterfall, and the river was the only music she knew. The lovely desolation and wild beauty of the spot appealed to Sherlock now as the sun glittered upon it. Here was the place where the poachers were wont to gather vicariously. Here was the salmon ladder and the long silent pool below, where the fish lay before going on to the spawning beds. The pool lay black and still under the tail of the waterfall, and here salmon could be seen sometimes by the score. All that was necessary was a dark night, a Dutch oven filled with blazing pine knots, and a spear. The poachers came with blackened faces and speared the helpless, fascinated fish as they lay there, a mass of blue and silver.
"This is very good of you," Sherlock murmured. "If you think that I ought—"
"No, I don't think so," Ethel laughed. All the time I knew that you were right. What business have those people to destroy the salmon so recklessly? The whole thing leads to idleness and crime. Besides, I have a horrible feeling that I have taken your money under false pretences. And I'm going to ask you to be very cautious to-night. They will be in a strong force—a score or more."
"Oh, we shall be sufficient for them," Sherlock replied carelessly. "We have light on our side. They are going to get a proper lesson to-night. Don't be afraid for me."
Miss Llewellyn turned away only half convinced. She knew those men far better than Sherlock did, and she was quite aware what they were capable of when their blood was up. They had not forgotten, either, that one of their leaders was in gaol for this very poaching. The resources of civilisation conveyed little to a descendant of the old Rebeccaites.
Sherlock returned to Cwm Place in a curiously elated frame of mind. He had established something like amiable relations with Miss Llewellyn at last. For the most part she had been cold and distant with him. She was bound to accept his money, but all the same she had always treated him as an intruder. It was terribly unjust, of course, but then, in the girl's case, it was more or less natural. And she had never been able to disguise from herself, even from the first, that he always did the right thing. Most of the scandalous abuses on the estate had continued to exist simply because they had become traditions, but Sherlock was stamping them out. Whether he would be able to stamp out the salmon poaching was quite another thing. There was danger in the air, though Sherlock did not appear to recognise it. And the trouble was fast approaching.
It was dark and still as Sherlock set out that same evening for the salmon ladder. He had made his plans with great prudence and caution. He had with him three experienced water-bailiffs who knew every inch of the river. There was another man in the party who had gone out of his way to learn the plans of the poachers. Sherlock's idea was to take the gang red-handed and hold them up till the police could be sent for. If there was a certain amount of violence, so much the better—so much more severe would the sentences on the poachers be. Sherlock pushed along by the side of the river, his head held high and his lips compressed. He was going to put a stop to this kind of thing once and for all. Those fellows should learn that he was master; he would teach them that poaching did not pay. A certain amount of legitimate fishing they should have. When the fame of the Elan as a salmon stream was established, the poachers would find it far more remunerative to act as gillies to the crowd of honest sportsmen who would flock here.
They came at length to the salmon ladder, with the deep black pool where the fish lay below it. There were scores of great silvery monsters waiting for the spate to come down thick and brown over the ladder, so they might go on to the spawning beds. Sherlock had counted a hundred of the long slim shadows there the day before. These were the fish that the poachers were after. They would come down presently with their spears and their lanterns, and in half an hour there would not be a single fish in the pool.
But they would find Sherlock and his bailiffs awaiting them. They were under the impression that the watchers had gone miles down-stream; even the servants at Cwm Place had been led to believe that much. In a clannish place like this no risks could be taken. There was a fringe of bushes here where Sherlock and his gang could hide. By the side of the ladder was the waterfall, and high over it the old mill house, where Ethel Llewellyn had taken up her abode. It looked a dark and forbidding place enough as it loomed out of the shadows.
"What sort of a place is the mill house, Jenkins?" Sherlock whispered to the man next to him. "What did they use it for in the old days?"
"Well, sir, they called it a mill," Jenkins responded. "A certain amount of corn used to be ground there, but in the old days it was used by smugglers. The Ap Griffiths family had it for three hundred years. Millers they called themselves. They did no milling whatever, sir. There was brandy and tobacco came over from Cardigan Bay, and the place used to be full of it. And the squire of Cwm Place for the time being, he knew all about it. So long as he had his brandy and tobacco free, it didn't matter to him. A rare wild lot the Llewellyns used to be, sir. They do say as there's a secret way up the pool and behind the waterfall to the mill house. If that's so, sir, you see a lot of stuff could come by water. But I've never seen the way myself, nor anybody who has seen it. I dare say it is an old woman's tale, after all."
"A poor house, I suppose, Jenkins?"
"Oh, no, indeed, whatever. Beautiful rooms are some of them. My lady furnished them from Cwm Place. Some of the summer visitors rave about the place."
Sherlock asked no further questions, but the romance of the situation was not lost on him. He had a great curiosity to see the inside of the old house where Ethel Llewellyn had made her home. Possibly she might give him the opportunity one of these days. At the moment there were sterner things to occupy his attention. The poachers would be here soon, and...
Jenkins grabbed him excitedly by the arm. Down the sloping path leading to the river half a dozen figures loomed hazily through the gloom. They came quietly enough, one behind the other, with the easy confident tread of men who knew every inch of the ground. It was easy to see that this was by no means their first expedition of the kind. They came presently to the side of the black and silent pool, where the oily ripples lapped the stones. The light of a match flared out, then a stronger gleam as the pine knots in one of the lanterns burst into a blaze. In the ring of flame five men stood with blackened faces, grim, resolute, ready for anything short of murder, and not afraid of that when their blood was hot. Another and yet another lantern danced and flickered as the poachers prepared to wade out into the stream. They moved now without the slightest caution; evidently they feared nothing. A spear was thrust down deep into the darkness of the water, a great bar of clear silver came headlong to the bank, flapping in the light like a mass of gold.
"A present for the Squire," somebody laughed, "and another to keep him company."
With blood aflame and face hot with anger, Sherlock strode from his hiding-place. The electric torch he held in his hand cast a flame of brilliant light into the darkness—picked out the five figures there in the water. In the background the waterfall rained down a white angry mass. The five figures in the glare turned like one and hurled defiance.
"You're welcome to take us, if you can, Squire," one of them said defiantly.
"You scoundrels!" Sherlock cried. "You infernal midnight thieves! Come out, every one, and give yourselves up. I have plenty of help behind me. Come out of it!"
A laugh followed, a jeer of voices, and then a chattering in the language of the Celt, which was lost on Sherlock altogether. It seemed to him that he was in for an easy victory, after all. A certain sense of disappointment filled him as the poachers stepped solemnly shorewards. Perhaps he was thinking about Ethel Llewellyn. He would have liked to figure as the central character of a romance before her eyes. He had not expected these fellows to play the game like this.
"I thought you would find it better to take it lying down," he said. "If you care to—"
Something seemed to stir in the bushes behind him like a sudden rush of wind. The air was full of oaths and curses and the noise of struggling bodies.
"Look to yourself, sir!" Jenkins yelled. They've got us tangled in their nets. Stepped into a regular ambush whatever! Just as useless as a lot of cats in a bag!"
It was even as Jenkins had said. There were other poachers concealed in the bushes behind the hiding-place of the bailiffs. The nets had fallen on them; they were being tugged by cunning hands so that the bailiffs were swept off their feet and dragged along in the string meshes as helpless as if they had been a catch of salmon. They lay there, a struggling mass of humanity, tightly bound together and watched over by a couple of men armed with cudgels. There was the sickening impact of a blow, followed by a groan, and a silence broken only by the heavy breathing of stricken humanity.
So these fellows really meant mischief. Sherlock could see that in their threatening aspect as they advanced towards him. He noticed uneasily, for the first time, that they had been drinking. He had the comforting assurance that he was armed.
"I can swear to three of you, at any rate," he said grimly. "Evan Evan, John Rees, and Joseph Morgan—"
A howl of rage drowned the rest of the sentence. Heedless of the gleaming barrel of the revolver, they rushed on Sherlock. He fired two shots at point-blank range; he saw one man's arm drop useless to his side ; he saw one of the others fall on his knees. If they closed in on him now, he was doomed. The revolver was wrenched from his hand and flung far over the deep side of the pool. Somebody clutched him from behind; strong arms swung him to and fro; then the hands released, and Sherlock dropped like a plummet in the centre of the pool. He came up again with the yells of rage and ribald laughter in his ears.
"Throw a net over him!" somebody yelled. "Drown him like a water-rat in the nets!"
A yell of applause followed. A big pocket-net cast by a skilled hand skimmed over the water and dropped plump over Sherlock's head. A second later and he was fighting for his life. Down he went again and again, till his lungs were bursting and his heart was beating like a drum. It was only now and again that he contrived to snatch a mouthful of air. The water was roaring in his ears, deepened by the yells of the fiends on the bank, who were sapping his life in this cold-blooded fashion. They were beyond all control now; the lust for blood and slaughter was on them; they would never release their grip so long as there was a spark of life in Sherlock's body. What would Ethel Llewellyn say if she knew?
Somebody was whispering something in his ear. In a dreamy way he seemed to see a boat come, like a brown shadow, from the side of the waterfall; somebody was leaning over the stern of the boat, and somebody was slashing at the net with a knife. Then, as the dream grew clearer and more concrete, Sherlock found himself sitting in the stern of the boat gasping for breath, and somebody who looked like Ethel Llewellyn was addressing the mob on the bank. She had a gun in her hand. Sherlock could see the shining barrel as it lay across the knees of this angry young goddess.
"Go home, all of you!" Ethel cried. And release those "bailiffs first. Understand, this business can't stop here. This will be the last time any poaching is done in the Elan. I can swear to every one of you. I can send every one of you to gaol, and I will!"
The figures on the bank melted away, the night was wrapped in silence once more. In the same dreamy way Sherlock found himself behind the waterfall and climbing a set of sloping steps till he stood in a great stone-flagged hall with Ethel by his side. A little later and he was in an oak-panelled dining-room, clad in a set of clothing supplied by Ethel's old man-servant.
"I suppose you know that you have saved my life?" he asked.
"It was like that," Ethel smiled. "I was afraid that there would be trouble. I could see something of it from my bedroom window, and that is why I got the boat out. Oh, there was no danger so far as I was concerned. I could do anything I like with those people. But you have got your own way, Mr. Sherlock. There will never be any more poaching in the Elan. If you see those men—"
"I am going to see them all to-morrow," Sherlock said. "I bear no malice, and it seems to me that I have got the game in my own hands. A policy of the sleeping dog seems to be the programme."
Ethel smiled approvingly. Her glance was warm and soft, the colour was in her cheeks.
"I am glad that all this has happened," Sherlock went on, "because we understand each other now. I shall never have any more trouble here so long as you are on my side. Won't you always help me, Ethel?"
"What do you mean by that?" Ethel asked.
"Oh, I think you know. I have always admired you. And it is one of my dreams to see the old place managed between us. Don't laugh at me. If I could some day speak of you as, say, Mrs. Llewellyn-Sherlock..."
Ethel smoothed her hair presently, as well as she could with Sherlock's arms about her.
"You are a far better manager than I ever should be," she whispered. "But I will come and help you if you like. And—how natural it all seems, doesn't it, Stephen dear?"