Chapter XX. The Stranger from the Sea
 

I held his hand tight. It was so pleasant to know I could love him now with a clear conscience, even if I had to give myself up to the police to-morrow. And indeed, being a woman, I didn't really much care whether they took me or not, if only I could love Jack, and know Jack loved me.

"You must tell me everything--this minute--Jack," I said, clinging to him like a child. "I can't bear this suspense. Begin telling me at once. You'll do me more harm than good if you keep me waiting any longer."

Jack took instinctively a medical view of the situation.

"So I think, my child," he said, looking lovingly at me. "Your nerves are on the rack, and will be the better for unstringing. Oh, Una, it's such a comfort that you know at last who I am! It's such a comfort that I'm able to talk to you to-day just as we two used to talk four years ago in Devonshire!"

"Did I love you then, Jack?" I whispered, nestling still closer to him, in spite of my horror. Or rather, my very horror made me feel more acutely than ever the need for protection. I was no longer alone in the world. I had a man to support me.

"You told me so, darling," he answered, smoothing my hair with his hand. "Have you forgotten all about it? Doesn't even that come back? Can't you remember it now, when I've told you who I am and how it all happened?"

I shook my head.

"All cloudy still," I replied, vaguely. "Some dim sense of familiarity, perhaps,--as when people say they have a feeling of having lived all this over somewhere else before,--but nothing more certain, nothing more definite."

"Then I must begin at the beginning," Jack answered, bracing himself for his hard task, "and reconstruct your whole life for you, as far as I know it, from your very childhood. I'm particularly anxious you should not merely be told what took place, but should remember the past. There are gaps in my own knowledge I want you to eke out. There are places I want you to help me myself over. And besides, it'll be more satisfactory to yourself to remember than to be told it."

I leaned back, almost exhausted. Incredible as it may seem to you, in spite of that awful photograph, I couldn't really believe even so I had killed my father. And yet I knew very well now that Jack, at least, hadn't done it. That was almost enough. But not quite. My head swam round in terror. I waited and longed for Jack to explain the whole thing to me.

"You remember," he said, watching me close, "that when you lived as a very little girl in Australia you had a papa who seems different to you still from the papa in your later childish memories?"

"I remember it very well," I replied. "It came back to me on the Sarmatian. I think of him always now as the papa in the loose white linen coat. The more I dwell on him, the more does he come out to me as a different man from the other one--the father...I shot at The Grange, at Woodbury. The father that lives with me in that ineffaceable Picture."

"He was a different man," Jack answered, with a sudden burst, as if he knew all my story. "Una, I may as well relieve your mind all at once on that formidable point. You shot that man"--he pointed to the white-bearded person in the photograph,--"but it was not parricide: it was not even murder. It was under grave provocation...in more than self-defence...and he was not your father."

"Not my father!" I cried, clasping my hands and leaning forward in my profound suspense. "But I killed him all the same! Oh, Jack, how terrible!"

"You must quiet yourself, my child," he said, still soothing me automatically. "I want your aid in this matter. You must listen to me calmly, and bring your mind to bear on all I say to you."

Then he began with a regular history of my early life, which came back to me as fast as he spoke, scene by scene and year by year, in long and familiar succession. I remembered everything, sometimes only when he suggested it; but sometimes also, before he said the words, my memory outran his tongue, and I put in a recollection or two with my own tongue as they recurred to me under the stimulus of this new birth of my dead nature. I recalled my early days in the far bush in Australia; my journey home to England on the big steamer with mamma; the way we travelled about for years from place to place on the Continent. I remembered how I had been strictly enjoined, too, never to speak of baby; and how my father used to watch my mother just as closely as he watched me, always afraid, as it appeared to me, she should make some verbal slip or let out some great secret in an unguarded moment. He seemed relieved, I recollected now, when my poor mother died: he grew less strict with me then, but as far as I could judge, though he was careful of my health, he never really loved me.

Then Jack reminded me further of other scenes that came much later in my forgotten life. He reminded me of my trip to Torquay, where I first met him: and all at once the whole history of my old visits to the Moores came back like a flood to me. The memory seemed to inundate and overwhelm my brain. They were the happiest time of all life, those delightful visits, when I met Jack and fell in love with him, and half confided my love to my Cousin Minnie. Strange to say, though at Torquay itself I'd forgotten it all, in that little Canadian house, with Jack by my side to recall it, it rushed back like a wave upon me. I'd fallen in love with Jack without my father's knowledge or consent; and I knew very well my father would never allow me to marry him. He had ideas of his own, my father, about the sort of person I ought to marry: and I half suspected in my heart of hearts he meant if possible always to keep me at home single to take care of him and look after him. I didn't know, as yet, he had sufficient reasons of his own for desiring me to remain for ever unmarried.

I remembered, too, that I never really loved my father. His nature was hard, cold, reserved, unsympathetic. I only feared and obeyed him. At times, my own strong character came out, I remembered, and I defied him to his face, defied him openly. Then there were scenes in the house, dreadful scenes, too hateful to dwell upon: and the servants came up to my room at the end and comforted me.

So, step by step, Jack reminded me of everything in my own past life, up to the very night of the murder, from which my Second State dated. I'd come back from Torquay a week or two before, very full indeed of Jack, and determined at all costs, sooner or later, to marry him. But though I had kept all quiet, papa had suspected my liking on the day of the Berry Pomeroy athletics, and had forbidden me to see Jack, or to write to him, or to have anything further to say to him. He was determined, he told me, whoever I married, I shouldn't at least marry a beggarly doctor. All that I remembered; and also how, in spite of the prohibition, I wrote letters to Jack, but could receive none in return--lest my father should see them.

And still, the central mystery of the murder was no nearer solution. I held my breath in terror. Had I really any sort of justification in killing him?

Dimly and instinctively, as Jack went on, a faint sense of resentment and righteous indignation against the man with the white beard rose up vaguely in my mind by slow degrees. I knew I had been angry with him, I knew I had defied him, but how or why as yet I knew not.

Then Jack suddenly paused, and began in a different voice a new part of his tale. It was nothing I remembered or could possibly remember, he said; but it was necessary to the comprehension of what came after, and would help me to recall it. About a week after I left Torquay, it seemed, Jack was in his consulting-room at Babbicombe one day, having just returned from a very long bicycle ride--for he was a first-rate cyclist,--when the servant announced a new patient; and a very worn-out old man came in to visit him.

The man had a ragged grey beard and scanty white hair; he was clad in poor clothes, and had tramped on foot all the way from London to Babbicombe, where Jack used to practice. But Jack saw at once under this rough exterior he had the voice and address of a cultivated gentleman, though he was so broken down by want and long suffering and exposure and illness that he looked like a beggar just let loose from the workhouse.

I held my breath as Jack showed me the poor old man's photograph. It was a portrait taken after death--for Jack attended him to the end through a fatal illness;--and it showed a face thin and worn, and much lined by unspeakable hardships. But I burst out crying at once the very moment I looked at it. For a second or two, I couldn't say why: I suppose it was instinct. Blood is thicker than water, they tell us; and I have the intuition of kindred very strong in me, I believe. But at any rate, I cried silently, with big hot tears, while I looked at that dead face of silent suffering, as I never had cried over the photograph of the respectable-looking man who lay dead on the floor of the library, and whom I was always taught to consider my father. Then it came back to me, why... I gazed at it and grew faint. I clutched Jack's arm for support. I knew what it meant now. The poor worn old man who lay dead on the bed with that look of mute agony on his features--was my first papa: the papa in the loose white linen coat: the one I remembered with childlike love and trustfulness in my earliest babyish Australian recollections!

I couldn't mistake the face. It was burnt into my brain now. This was he, though much older and sadder, and more scarred and lined by age and weather. It was my very first papa. My own papa. I cried silently still. I couldn't bear to look at it. Then the real truth broke upon me once more. This, and this alone, was in very deed my one real father!

I seized the faded photograph and pressed it to my lips.

"Oh, I know him!" I cried wildly. "It's my father! My father!"

Some minutes passed before Jack could go on with his story. This rush of emotions was too much for me for a while. I could hardly hear him or attend to him, so deeply did it stir me.

At last I calmed down, still holding that pathetic photograph on the table before me.

"Tell me all about him," I murmured, sobbing. "For, Jack, I remember now, he was so good and kind, and I loved him--I loved him."

Jack went on with his story, trying to soothe me and reassure me. The old man introduced himself by very cautious degrees as a person in want, not so much of money, though of that to be sure he had none, as of kindness and sympathy in a very great sorrow. He was a shipwrecked mariner, in a sense: shipwrecked on the sea of Life and on the open Pacific as well. But once he had been a clergyman, and a man of education, position, reputation, fortune.

Gradually as he went on Jack began to grasp at the truth of this curious tale. The worn and battered stranger had but lately landed in London from a sailing vessel which had brought him over from a remote Pacific islet: not a tropical islet of the kind with whose palms and parrots we are all so familiar, but a cold and snowy rock, away off far south, among the frosts and icebergs, near the Antarctic continent. There for twenty long years that unhappy man had lived by himself a solitary life.

I started at the sound.

"For twenty years!" I exclaimed. "Oh, Jack, you must be wrong; for how could that be? I was only eighteen when all this happened. How could my real father have been twenty years away from me, when I was only eighteen, and I remember him so perfectly?"

Jack looked at me and shook his head.

"You've much to learn yet, Una," he answered. "The story's a long one. You were not eighteen but twenty-two at the time. You've been deliberately misled as to your own age all along. You developed late, and were always short for your real years, not tall and precocious as we all of us imagined. But you were four years older than Mr. Callingham pretended. You're twenty-six now, not twenty-two as you think. Wait, and in time you'll hear all about it."

He went on with his story. I listened, spell-bound. The unhappy man explained to Jack how he had been wrecked on the voyage, and escaped on a raft with one other passenger: how they had drifted far south, before waves and current, till they were cast at last on this wretched island: how they remained there for a month or two, picking up a precarious living on roots and berries and eggs of sea-birds: and how at last, one day, he had come back from hunting limpets and sea-urchins on the shore of a lonely bay--to find, to his amazement, his companion gone, and himself left alone on that desolate island. His fellow-castaway, he knew then, had deceived and deserted him!

There was no room, indeed, to doubt the treachery of the wretched being who had so basely treated him. As he looked, a ship under full sail stood away to northward. In vain the unhappy man made wild signals from the shore with his tattered garments. No notice was taken of them. His companion must deliberately have suppressed the other's existence, and pretended to be alone by himself on the island.

"And his name?" Jack asked of the poor old man, horrified.

The stranger answered without a moment's pause:

"His name, if you want it--was Vivian Callingham."

"And yours?" Jack continued, as soon as he could recover from his first shock of horror.

"And mine," the poor castaway replied, "is Richard Wharton."

As Jack told me those words, another strange thrill ran through me.

"Richard Wharton was the name of mamma's first husband. Then I'm not a Callingham at all!" I cried, unable to take it all in at first in its full complexity. "I'm really a Wharton!"

Jack nodded his head in assent.

"Yes, you're really a Wharton," he said. "You're the baby that died, as we all were told. Your true Christian name's Mary. But, Una, you were always Una to all of us in England; and though the real Una Callingham died when you were a little girl of three or four years old, you'll be Una always now to Elsie and me. We can't think of you as other than we've always called you."

Then he went on to explain to me how the stranger had landed in London, alone and friendless, twenty years later, from a passing Australian merchant vessel which had picked him up on the island. All those years he had waited, and fed himself on eggs of penguins. He landed by himself, the crew having given him a suit of old clothes, and subscribed to find him in immediate necessaries. He began to inquire cautiously in London about his wife and family. At first, he could learn little or nothing; for nobody remembered him, and he feared to ask too openly, a sort of Enoch Arden terror restraining him from proclaiming his personality till he knew exactly what had happened in his long absence. But bit by bit, he found out at last that his wife had married again, and was now long dead: and that the man she had married was Vivian Callingham, his own treacherous companion on the Crozet Islands. As soon as he learned that, the full depth of the man's guilt burst upon him like a thunderbolt. Richard Wharton understood now why Vivian Callingham had left him alone on those desert rocks, and sailed away in the ship without telling the captain of his fellow-castaway's plight. He saw the whole vile plot the man had concocted at once, and the steps he had taken to carry it into execution.

Vivian Callingham, whom I falsely thought my father, had gone back to Australia with pretended news of Richard Wharton's death. He had sought my widowed mother in her own home up country, and told her a lying tale of his devotion to her husband in his dying moments on that remote ocean speck in the far Southern Pacific. By this story he ingratiated himself. He knew she was rich: he knew she was worth marrying: and to marry her, he had left my own real father, Richard Wharton, to starve and languish for twenty years among rocks and sea-fowl on a lonely island!

My blood ran cold at such a tale of deadly treachery. I remembered now to have heard some small part of it before. But much of it, as Jack told it to me, was quite new and unexpected. No wonder I had turned in horror that night from the man I long believed to be my own father, when I learned by what vile and cruelly treacherous means he had succeeded in imposing his supposed relationship upon me! But still, all this brought me no nearer the real question of questions--why did I shoot him?