A Tragedy in Black and White and Other Stories
Helen was awakened, next morning, by Martha bringing her a cup of tea and a note from Miss Whyte saying she hoped Helen and Mr. Steyne would go down to the cottage that afternoon if Helen could get away. “She seems to have no doubt about Jack's going,” thought Helen, “I suppose she asked me thinking I should be unable to go. I fear she will be disappointed.”
She dressed, and went to see her aunt, then she spent an hour with the rector, who was much better. He asked to see Jack, and on being told that he was away, said: “Indeed, but I fancy he will not stay long, eh, my dear? Do you know, Helen, I have long thought that you and he had a liking for each other. Well, you could not do better; I would trust Jack, even with my little Nell.” Helen shivered, it was like having a wound probed, and she went hastily out of the room, on pretence of having some work to do.
After lunch, she saw her aunt was comfortably settled for the afternoon, and then, telling her where she was going, set out for the cottage. At the gate Miss Whyte met her.
“Dearest Helen, how delightful to see you! I am so glad you were able to leave. But where is J—— Mr. Steyne?”
“He has gone to town for a day or two, and I have come to have a long talk with you.”
“That will be delicious, dear. Don't go into the house; Mamma has an ancient friend who came to lunch, and apparently means to stay to supper. Let us go to the bench in the shrubbery.”page 60
Helen negatived this proposal with much decision, giving as her reason that she did not want to be interrupted. “We will go down to Jackdaw's Cove,” she said.
“Very well,” said Flossie, “and I will take my sketchbook. Just wait while I fetch it, and tell Mamma where we are going.”
Helen assented, and in a few minutes Miss Whyte was fully equipped, and they set off.
It was a most glorious afternoon. The sky, innocent of the tiniest cloud, was only less blue than the sea, which lay calm and sparkling. So smooth was it that the little ripples, too small to be called waves, crept softly up the sand, as though they loved the warmth, and were loth to end their short life and return to their parent ocean. A mile or two out were some fishing boats, their ruddy brown sails idly flapping against the masts, and far on the horizon were the white wings of a homeward-bound vessel, spreading all her canvas to catch what breeze she might.
The two girls stood for a minute on the edge of the cliff, enjoying the beauty of the scene. Then Helen turned and looked behind her at the village nestling in a little valley and bowered in trees. The church stood on a hill, its square gray tower serving as a landmark for the fishermen for many miles round. She gazed long and earnestly, thinking she had never seen the place look so lovely, and then without a word led the way along the break-neck path which wound down the face of the cliff. Miss Whyte followed in silence. During the first part of their walk she had chattered gaily, but had met with so little encouragement from her companion that she had given up the effort to make conversation. Besides, she had a feeling that a storm was impending. She had no idea that her friend had been a witness of the little episode in the garden; she merely imagined that Helen begrudged her lover spending so much time with her (Flossie), and she rather looked forward to the encounter.
When they reached the bottom of the path they found themselves in a small rocky bay or cove, as these tiny indents of the coast are called in Devon. Helen seated page 61 herself on a large boulder, but Flossie suggested that they should go round the point, which they accordingly did. This next cove was rather larger, and not so rocky. It was also considerably deeper, the cliff jutting out at each point so as to form a deep semicircle. The cliff here was quite inaccessible, even to the most skilful climber, and at the further side there was a small cave which in former days had been a favourite resort of Helen's and Jack's. Arrived here, Flossie sat down on the sand about the middle of the cave, with her back against the cliff, and began arranging her sketching materials. Helen watched her for a short time, and then flung herself down beside her.
“Please put away those things for a moment,” she said, “I want to speak to you.”
“Can't you talk while I am painting? It must be very important,” rejoined Flossie, airily, still mixing her colours.
“It is important, at least to me,” said Helen, earnestly, and Miss Whyte, looking up into her face, was struck by the sad, grave look it wore. She put down her brush and folded her hands in her lap as a sort of protest against her enforced idleness. There was silence for a minute or so, then Helen said abruptly:
“You knew that I was engaged to Jack Steyne.”
“So you told me, my dear, Mr. Steyne never mentioned the fact.”
“Therefore you thought it wasn't true?”
“Well I fancied perhaps you had taken things more seriously than was intended by Mr. Steyne. For you know, my dear,” continued Flossie, with an air of great candour, “he is a dreadful flirt.”
Helen winced. To hear Jack, whom she had always looked up to as a model of all manly virtues, described by that most unmanly epithet “flirt,” was too much for her. She said hastily:
“But at all events you knew that I loved him, and that he cared for me till—till you took him away from me.”
Miss White was secretly much gratified by this tribute to her powers, but thought proper to appear indignant.page 62
“Took him from you, Helen? What do you mean? Why, it was your own wish we should be friends, and yet you grudge my showing him the commonest civilities.”
Helen smiled rather grimly.
“Your ideas must be remarkably liberal,” she said, “if they include kissing among the ordinary civilities of life.”
Miss Whyte was startled out of her self-possession.
“How do you know anything about that?” she exclaimed. “Who told you?”
“Nobody; I saw you,” answered Helen, curtly.
“But when? where?”
“Yesterday. I brought a telegram for Jack. You were not in the house, so I looked in the garden, but when I found you I did not like to disturb you, you looked so happy.”
“Really, Helen,” (with an air of grieved surprise), “I did not think you would play the spy in that way.”
This was carrying the war into the enemy's country with a vengeance. Helen's self-control vanished, and she sprang up with flashing eyes.
“Play the spy!” she cried indignantly, “How dare you say such a thing! It is you who are dishonourable; you lure my lover away from me, and make him as false as yourself. Tell me the truth. Did he ever kiss you before?”
“Did he ever say he was tired of me, did he make love to you?”
“I guessed as much,” interrupted Helen, “And all this time, while I, like a fool, have trusted you both, you have been deceiving me. I will never marry him, and I will never forgive you.”
So saying, she walked rapidly away across the sand, and disappeared into the cave.
Miss Whyte looked after her: “Really, she is quite tragic,” she murmured. “I had no idea she would take it so much to heart. Of course, it's all nonsense about not page 63 marrying Jack Steyne. She will forgive him soon enough, especially when I've told her about Mr. Simpson. Let me see, where is his letter?”
She hunted in her pocket, and drew thence an official-looking document, with a huge crest emblazoned on paper and envelope. This contained a formal proposal from Mr. Simpson. Miss Whyte read it through, then folding it again: “Heigho!” she sighed, “certainly Jack Steyne is the nicer of the two; but then he is poor, and I don't believe in love in a cottage, especially as he doesn't really care a rap about me, only I flatter his vanity. He will go back to Helen, and she will forgive him, and pity me because I'm going to marry Mr. Simpson. I'll tell her about it on our way home. She'll think me dreadfully mercenary, but she'll be glad to get me out of the way.” A long pause; then: “It's very nice here, the sun is so warm. Poor Helen, she was awfully upset. She seems to worship that man. How soothing the sound of the waves is, it makes one quite drowsy. I'll just close my eyes. He really isn't worth all that devotion; no man is. Poor Helen.” Here the fair philosopher fell asleep.
Miss Whyte had a most vivid dream, wherein she fancied herself on board “H.M.S. Pinafore,” while Helen, dressed as Sir Joseph Porter, was ordering her to be “keel-hauled” for “conduct unbecoming to an officer and a gentleman.” So real did it seem that she thought the sentence was being carried out, and that she was already submerged as far as the knees. She woke with a start. What transformation scene was this, and what had happened to the beach. It had all disappeared. She lay for a moment, half dazed, and then in a flash came the solution of the mystery. Neither she nor Helen had thought of the tide. It must have been coming in when they arrived, and the sea being so very calm, the noise of the tiny waves approaching had not disturbed her slumbers till the ripples had reached her feet.
She looked at the point round which they must pass to gain the path that led to safety. The sea was gently heaving against the side of the cliff. But where was Helen all this time? Why had she not foreseen this page 64 danger? Could she, horrible thought, have made her escape and left Miss Whyte to perish? “She said she would never forgive me. But she couldn't do such a thing; she must be in the cave.” Thither Flossie ran. The low mouth of the cave was in a line with her own resting-place, and the ripples were just floating in. Coming so hastily out of the bright sunshine, Flossie at first could distinguish nothing in the gloom. Presently she made out a dark figure lying face downwards at the end of the cave. A new fear filled her heart. Was Helen dead? She hastened towards her, and with great relief heard a deep sob. She stooped down and grasped Helen's shoulder.
“Get up,” she cried. “Get up. Look at the tide!”
“The tide!” repeated Helen, rising. “What do you mean?”
Flossie pointed to the mouth of the cave.
It was answer enough. With an exclamation Helen rushed forward, Flossie following. Outside the cave all was water; even the little strip of sand which was visible when Flossie woke was now covered. The point they had to pass was by this time surrounded by deep water; nevertheless it was thither that Helen turned her eyes.
“I believe we can pass, Flossie,” she said; “I don't think it is out of our depth yet. At all events we must try.”
They started, but before they had got half way the water was up to their shoulders.
“It's no good. Will you stay here while I swim round for help?” asked Helen.
“No, no? you shan't leave me. You brought me here on purpose, and if I drown you shall drown too,” wailed Flossie, who had quite lost her head.
Helen made no reply. The accusation was of course ridiculous, but she did blame herself for not having thought of the tide. She looked round. It was quite hopeless to think of scaling the cliff, which was almost perpendicular. Suddenly she exclaimed—page 65
“The pulpit! It's all right Flossie; we are saved;” and she hastened towards the cliff, dragging the hapless Miss Whyte after her.
The pulpit was a detached, needle-like rock, jutting up through the sand at a short distance from the cliff. Its name had been given to it by Jack and Helen when children, and was due to the fact that at the top the rock ended in two irregular ledges, one above the other, the lowest and biggest being just capable of holding one person standing, and the upper one serving as a means of support to the adventurous wight who should climb so high. How many mock sermons had been preached by Jack Steyne in his youthful days, to an attentive audience of one, sitting on the sand beneath. A sudden remembrance of this came across Helen's mind, but there was no time for reminis-cences as the water round the rock was already waist-deep.
Helen had never been in the cove at high tide, but she was sure that the top of the rock was never covered. She helped Miss Whyte, at no time an expert climber, and now almost helpless with fear, and together they scrambled up till they stood exactly beneath the two ledges already mentioned. Here they were safe for the present, the water only just flowing over their feet. How much higher the tide would rise, Helen did not know, but she was certain that if they could gain the ledge they would be quite safe. Suddenly it struck her that the ledge would only hold one. She was sure of it, having often tried in vain to stand there with Jack. For a moment she hesitated, then—
“Now, Flossie, you must try and scramble up there; you will be quite safe. I know the water won't rise so high.”
But Miss Whyte could only wring her hands and sob out: “No, no; I can't climb up there; I should get so giddy”
“Well,” said Helen, impatiently, “take your choice. You may get giddy up there; you are almost sure to be drowned if you stay here.”
Thus urged, Miss Whyte consented to half clamber, half be hoisted on to the ledge. Arrived there, and holding tightly to the upper projection, she looked down on her companion.page 66
“But, Helen, what are you going to do?” she asked; “it's awfully narrow; do you think we can both stand here.”
“I'm going to try presently, when the water is deeper here,” answered Helen. “Now, let us shout for help.”
They did so, but in vain. The cliff echoed their cries, and the startled sea birds wheeled above their heads, but there was no answer, and the tide was still rising.
“Now,” said Helen, “I'm going to try and get higher up. Can you stoop and give me a hand?”
Miss Whyte did so, and Helen was climbing slowly up, when she gave a little cry and fell back, almost over-balancing her companion.
“What is the matter, Helen?”
“My ankle. I've twisted it! Oh!” And she moaned with pain.
“It's out of the question, my getting up there now,” she said presently. Besides, there isn't room for two, I know. I must wait here till help comes, or—–” She did not finish her sentence. She could not put her fate into words, though now, for the first time, she lost all hope. Miss Whyte began to cry again. Helen watched her with a sort of wonder. Why should Flossie weep? If she could only hold on till the tide turned she was safe, though no doubt her position would not be enviable.
Helen looked out to sea again.
The sails—white and brown—had all disappeared, the sun was setting, and the sea was like molten gold. The silence was intense, broken only by the occasional scream of a gull and the lapping of the water as it crept higher and higher. It was above her waist now. She made an effort, and, in spite of her injured foot, dragged herself an inch or two higher. Then she was obliged to stop—the pain was too great. She was standing on the sound foot, her hands clinging to the ledge whereon Miss Whyte was standing. The attitude was strained, and she felt very exhausted, her heavy serge dress dragging her down.page 67
“Let us shout once more,” she said to Miss Whyte, who had sunk down, a limp, white heap. They shouted, but their voices were weak and hoarse, and there was no reply.
Helen desisted, and returned to her dreamy thoughts. She wondered if her uncle and aunt would miss her much; she thought they would. And Jack, would he miss her? A bitter pang ran through her as she thought, “At any rate, he ought to be thankful to me. I have saved Flossie for him.”
By this time the water was up to her shoulders, and she was very weak.
“Flossie,” she murmured, “I can't hold any longer. Give my love to them all, and —–Jack.”
“Helen! you musn't let go. Try a little longer; I'm sure the tide is turning. Can't you scramble up now?”
Helen shook her head.
“It's no good, but I think you will be safe. Goodbye.”
At that instant a shout resounded from the top of the cliff. Both girls looked up, and Flossie sprang to her feet. It was Jack.
“Hold on!” he shouted. “For Heaven's sake, Flossie, keep up till I come,” and he disappeared.
It was the last drop in Helen's cup. She was physically unable to hold on any longer, and the idea that Flossie should be the first object in Jack's thoughts, took away all desire for life. She gave a long sigh, her weary hands relaxed their grasp, and as the next wave eddied gently away from the rock, it bore on its breast the body of Helen Graham.
* * * * *
Had Jack Steyne been half-an-hour later, it would have been too late to save Miss Whyte. As it was, what with the shock and exposure she was very ill. When she had recovered a little she and her mother went to London, whither they were followed by Mr. Simpson. Some page 68 months afterwards there was a short notice in the papers under the heading of marriages. Mrs. Simpson is greatly admired, and always has a cavaliere servante dangling after her. She is also remarkable for two peculiarities; she cannot bear the name of “Helen,” and she has a morbid horror of the sea. She and Jack Steyne have never met since that day.
The poor old rector heard of the death of his favourite niece through the carelessness of a servant. The shock was too much for him in his weak state, and he died on the day of Helen's funeral. After his death Mrs. Graham went to live with a sister.
Jack Steyne worked very hard at his profession for six or seven years. At the end of that time he married. His wife, a bright little brunette, adores her grave husband. She knows that he was engaged before to a girl who died, but she is not jealous of the memory for she also knows how fond her husband is of her now. The only secret Jack keeps from her, though not from fear of her anger, is the presence, in a drawer of his desk, of a little packet, which he sometimes looks at. It only contains a long lock of ruddy brown hair.