Michael's Crag by Grant Allen
Chapter III. Face to Face.
When Eustace Le Neve returned to lunch at Penmorgan that day he was silent to his host about Trevennack of Trevennack. To say the truth, he was so much attracted by Miss Cleer's appearance that he didn't feel inclined to mention having met her. But he wanted to meet her again for all that, and hoped he would do so. Perhaps Tyrrel might know the family, and ask them round to dine some night. At any rate, society is rare at the Lizard. Sooner or later, he felt sure, he'd knock up against the mysterious stranger somewhere. And that involved the probability of knocking up against the mysterious stranger's beautiful daughter.
Next morning after breakfast, however, he made a vigorous effort to induce Walter Tyrrel to mount the cliff and look at the view from Penmorgan Point toward the Rill and Kynance. It was absurd, he said truly, for the proprietor of such an estate never to have seen the most beautiful spot in it. But Tyrrel was obdurate. On the point of actually mounting the cliff itself he wouldn't yield one jot or tittle. Only, after much persuasion, he consented at last to cross the headland by the fields at the back and come out at the tor above St. Michael's Crag, provided always Eustace would promise he'd neither go near the edge himself nor try to induce his friend to approach it.
Satisfied with this lame compromise--for he really wished his host to enjoy that glorious view--Eustace Le Neve turned up the valley behind the house, with Walter Tyrrel by his side, and after traversing several fields, through gaps in the stone walls, led out his companion at last to the tor on the headland.
As they approached it from behind, the engineer observed, not without a faint thrill of pleasure, that Trevennack's stately figure stood upright as before upon the wind-swept pile of fissured rocks, and that Cleer sat reading under its shelter to leeward. But by her side this morning sat also an elder lady, whom Eustace instinctively recognized as her mother--a graceful, dignified lady, with silvery white hair and black Cornish eyes, and features not untinged by the mellowing, hallowing air of a great sorrow.
Le Neve raised his hat as they drew near, with a pleased smile of welcome, and Trevennack and his daughter both bowed in return. "A glorious morning!" the engineer said, drinking in to the full the lovely golden haze that flooded and half-obscured the Land's End district; and Trevennack assented gravely. "The crag stands up well in this sunshine against the dark water behind," he said, waving one gracious hand toward the island at his foot, and poising lighter than ever.
"Oh, take care!" Walter Tyrrel cried, looking up at him, on tenterhooks. It's so dangerous up there! You might tumble any minute."
"I never tumble," Trevennack made answer with solemn gravity, spreading one hand on either side as if to balance himself like an acrobat. But he descended as he spoke and took his place beside them.
Tyrrel looked at the view and looked at the pretty girl. It was evident he was quite as much struck by the one as by the other. Indeed, of the two, Cleer seemed to attract the larger share of his attention. For some minutes they stood and talked, all five of them together, without further introduction than their common admiration for that exquisite bay, in which Trevennack appeared to take an almost proprietary interest. It gratified him, obviously, a Cornish man, that these strangers (as he thought them) should be so favorably impressed by his native county. But Tyrrel all the while looked ill at ease, though he sidled away as far as possible from the edge of the cliff, and sat down near Cleer at a safe distance from the precipice. He was silent and preoccupied. That mattered but little, however, as the rest did all the talking, especially Trevennack, who turned out to be indeed a perfect treasure-house of Cornish antiquities and Cornish folk-lore.
"I generally stand below, on top of Michael's Crag," he said to Eustace, pointing it out, "when the tide allows it; but when it's high, as it is now, such a roaring and seething scour sets through the channel between the rock and the mainland that no swimmer could stem it; and then I come up here, and look down from above upon it. It's the finest point on all our Cornish coast, this point we stand on. It has the widest view, the purest air, the hardest rock, the highest and most fantastic tor of any of them."
"My husband's quite an enthusiast for this particular place," Mrs. Trevennack interposed, watching his face as she spoke with a certain anxious and ill-disguised wifely solicitude.
"He's come here for years. It has many associations for us."
"Some painful and some happy," Cleer added, half aloud; and Tyrrel, nodding assent, looked at her as if expecting some marked recognition.
"You should see it in the pilchard season," her father went on, turning suddenly to Eustace with much animation in his voice. "That's the time for Cornwall--a month or so later than now--you should see it then, for picturesqueness and variety. 'When the corn is in the shock,' says our Cornish rhyme, 'Then the fish are off the rock'--and the rock's St. Michael's. The Huer, as we call him, for he gives the hue and cry from the hill-top lookout when the fish are coming, he stands on Michael's Crag just below there, as I stand myself so often, and when he sights the shoals by the ripple on the water, he motions to the boats which way to go for the pilchards. Then the rowers in the lurkers, as we call our seine-boats, surround the shoal with a tuck- net, or drag the seine into Mullion Cove, all alive with a mass of shimmering silver. The jowsters come down with their carts on to the beach, and hawk them about round the neighborhood--I've seen them twelve a penny; while in the curing-houses they're bulking them and pressing them as if for dear life, to send away to Genoa, Leghorn, and Naples. That's where all our fish go--to the Catholic south. 'The Pope and the Pilchards,' says our Cornish toast; for it's the Friday fast that makes our only market."
"You can see them on St. George's Island in Looe Harbor," Cleer put in quite innocently. "They're like a sea of silver there--on St. George's Island."
"My dear," her father corrected with that grave, old-fashioned courtesy which the coast-guard had noted and described as at once so haughty and yet so condescending, "how often I've begged of you not to call it St. George's Island! It's St. Nicholas' and St. Michael's--one may as well be correct--and till a very recent date a chapel to St. Michael actually stood there upon the rocky top; it was only destroyed, you remember, at the time of the Reformation."
"Everybody calls it St. George's now," Cleer answered, with girlish persistence. And her father looked round at her sharply, with an impatient snap of the fingers, while Mrs. Trevennack's eye was fixed on him now more carefully and more earnestly, Tyrrel observed, than ever.
"I wonder why it is," Eustace Le Neve interposed, to spare Cleer's feelings, "that so many high places, tops of mountains and so forth, seem always to be dedicated to St. Michael in particular? He seems to love such airy sites. There's St. Michael's Mount here, you know, and Mont St. Michel in Normandy; and at Le Puy, in Auvergne, there's a St. Michael's Rock, and at ever so many other places I can't remember this minute."
Trevennack was in his element. The question just suited him. He smiled a curious smile of superior knowledge. "You've come to the right place for information," he said, blandly, turning round to the engineer. "I'm a Companion of St. Michael and St. George myself, and my family, as I told you, once owned St. Michael's Mount; so, for that and various other reasons, I've made a special study of St. Michael the Archangel, and all that pertains to him." And then he went on to give a long and learned disquisition, which Le Neve and Walter Tyrrel only partially followed, about the connection between St. Michael and the Celtic race, as well as about the archangel's peculiar love for high and airy situations. Most of the time, indeed, Le Neve was more concerned in watching Cleer Trevennack's eyes, as her father spoke, than in listening to the civil servant's profound dissertation. He gathered, however, from the part he caught, that St. Michael the Archangel had been from early days a very important and powerful Cornish personage, and that he clung to high places on the tors and rocks because he had to fight and subdue the Prince of the Air, whom he always destroyed at last on some pointed pinnacle. And now that he came to think of it, Eustace vaguely recollected he had always seen St. Michael, in pictures or stained glass windows, delineated just so --with drawn sword and warrior's mien--in the act of triumphing over his dragon-like enemy on the airy summit of some tall jagged crag or rock-bound precipice.
As for Mrs. Trevennack, she watched her husband every moment he spoke with a close and watchful care, which Le Neve hardly noticed, but which didn't for a minute escape Walter Tyrrel's more piercing and observant scrutiny.
At last, as the amateur lecturer was beginning to grow somewhat prolix, a cormorant below created a slight diversion for awhile by settling in his flight on the very highest point of Michael's Crag, and proceeding to preen his glittering feathers in the full golden flood of that bright August sunlight.
With irrepressible boyish instinct Le Neve took up a stone, and was just on the point of aiming it (quite without reason) at the bird on the pinnacle.
But before he could let it go, the two other men, moved as if by a single impulse, had sprung forward with a bound, and in the self-same tone and in the self-same words cried out with one accord, in a wildly excited voice, "For God's sake, don't throw! You don't know how dangerous it is!"
Le Neve let his hand drop flat, and allowed the stone to fall from it. As he did so the two others stood back a pace, as if guarding him, but kept their hands still ready to seize the engineer's arm if he made the slightest attempt at motion. Eustace felt they were watching him as one might watch a madman. For a moment they were silent. Trevennack was the first to speak. His voice had an earnest and solemn ring in it, like a reproving angel's. "How can you tell what precious life may be passing below?" he said, with stern emphasis, fixing Le Neve with his reproachful eye. "The stone might fall short. It might drop out of sight. You might kill whomsoever it struck, unseen. And then"--he drank in a deep breath, gasping--"you would know you were a murderer."
Walter Tyrrel drew himself up at the words like one stung. "No, no! not a murderer!" he cried; "not quite as bad as a murderer! It wouldn't be murder, surely. It would be accidental homicide-- unintentional, unwilled--a terrible result of most culpable carelessness, of course; but it wouldn't be quite murder; don't call it murder. I can't allow that. Not that name by any means. . . .Though to the end of your life, Eustace, if you were to kill a man so, you'd never cease to regret it and mourn over it daily; you'd never cease to repent your guilty carelessness in sackcloth and ashes."
He spoke so seriously, so earnestly, with such depth of personal feeling, that Trevennack, starting back, stood and gazed at him slowly with those terrible eyes, like one who awakens by degrees from a painful dream to some awful reality. Tyrrel winced before his scrutiny. For a moment the elder man just looked at him and stared. Then he took one step forward. "Sir," he said, in a very low voice, half broken with emotion, "I had a dear son of my own once; a very dear, dear son. He was killed by such an accident on this very spot. No wonder I remember it."
Mrs. Trevennack and Cleer both gave a start of surprise. The man's words astonished them; for never before, during fifteen long years, had that unhappy father alluded in any way in overt words to his son's tragic end. He had brooded and mused over it in his crushed and wounded spirit; he had revisited the scene of his loss whenever opportunity permitted him; he had made of his sorrow a cherished and petted daily companion; but he had stored it up deep in his own inmost heart, never uttering a word of it even to his wife or daughter. The two women knew Michael Trevennack must be profoundly moved, indeed, so to tear open the half-healed wound in his tortured bosom before two casual strangers.
But Tyrrel, too, gave a start as he spoke, and looked hard at the careworn face of that unhappy man. "Then you're Mr. Trevennack!" he exclaimed, all aghast. "Mr. Trevennack of the Admiralty!"
And the dignified stranger answered, bowing his head very low, "Yes, you've guessed me right. I'm Michael Trevennack."
With scarcely a word of reply Walter Tyrrel turned and strode away from the spot. "I must go now," he muttered faintly, looking at his watch with some feigned surprise, as a feeble excuse. "I've an appointment at home." He hadn't the courage to stay. His heart misgave him. Once fairly round the corner he fled like a wounded creature, too deeply hurt even to cry. Eustace Le Neve, raising his hat, hastened after him, all mute wonder. For several hundred yards they walked on side by side across the open heathy moor. Then, as they passed the first wall, Tyrrel paused for a moment and spoke. "Not a murderer!" he cried in his anguish; "oh, no, not quite as bad as a murderer, surely, Eustace; but still, a culpable homicide. Oh, God, how terrible."
And even as he disappeared across the moor to eastward, Trevennack, far behind, seized his wife's arm spasmodically, and clutching it tight in his iron grip, murmured low in a voice of supreme conviction, "Do you see what that means, Lucy? I can read it all now. It was he who rolled down that cursed stone. It was he who killed our boy. And I can guess who he is. He must be Tyrrel of Penmorgan."
Cleer didn't hear the words. She was below, gazing after them.