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The Haunted Cove

Commonplace in itself and showing positive vulgarity in the style in
which its pleasure-grounds are laid out, Clyffe, near Berwick-on-Tweed,
has yet one delightful feature of its own,--to wit, a private bay to
which access is obtained by a tunnel seventy or eighty yards long, cut
through the soft formation of the cliff from the sloping gardens above.
The result is that, if you are a visitor at Clyffe, you have your own
private bathing ground, your own private beach where the children may
play, without fear of being encroached upon, unless, indeed, a boat
should be run in among the rocks from seaward. In the early nineties of
the last century, the only daughter of the house of Clyffe was engaged
to be married to a young officer quartered at the military depot at
Berwick. They were a blameless but not particularly interesting couple,
and one of their hobbies was to meet and promenade on the smooth sands
of Clyffe bay in the brilliant autumn moonlight. In order to prevent
possible intrusion from the sea, the seaward end of the tunnel was
closed by a heavy iron gate, and upon the inner side of this gate the
Lieutenant was to wait until his fiancee should steal forth bringing
with her the key which should give access to the beach. It was all very
foolish and romantic, no doubt, for they might have met just as
conveniently in the conservatory of Clyffe House, where their privacy
would have been equally respected, and where Miss Alix's satin shoes
and diaphanous draperies would have exposed her to no risk of a chill.
Lovers are like that, however, and had they not been so on this
occasion, I should have had no story to tell.

Like the exemplary swain he was, Dick arrived early at the
rendezvous,--that is to say, early in respect to the time agreed upon,
though, as a matter of fact, it was nearly eleven o'clock. There he lit
a cigarette, and approaching the heavy iron bars of the locked gate,
looked forth upon the peaceful scene beyond. It was a perfect night, the
harvest moon riding through fleecy cloud aloft, whilst the breaking of
the sea between the rocky points to right and left was soothing in its
gentle iteration. Dick had been on parade extremely early that morning,
and, tell it not in Gath! his eyes involuntarily closed. Starting awake
again, he saw with surprise that, though Alix had not yet come forward,
he was no longer alone. No! the sacred beach had been invaded, and a
female figure clad in light draperies was pacing slowly in the moonlight
betwixt himself and the distant rocks. Who on earth could she be, and
how had she got there? were the questions he asked himself, his first
sensation being one of annoyance at so unexpected and so ill-timed an
intrusion. But as the moments passed and the figure came more clearly
into view, impatience gave way to curiosity, and curiosity to something
like awe.

What he saw was the tall and slender form of a young girl whose hands
were clasped in front of her, and whose eyes were fixed on the ground in
a pensive, not to say sorrowful, attitude. Clear as was the moonlight,
at least in the intervals of the moon's passage through the broken
clouds, her features were not plainly visible; but her every movement
was instinct with grace. What could she be doing there? Under other
circumstances, possibly Dick might have felt inclined to pass the gate
and himself step forth on to the sands. But, besides that the gate was
locked, he gradually became conscious of a singular delicacy or
unwillingness to intrude upon the privacy of this solitary,
inexplicable, and impressive figure. He was content, therefore, to watch
her noiseless progress, and, as he did so, even his untrained masculine
eye seemed to note something unusual--out of date, it might be--in the
fashion of her garments. So perhaps might some old-world portrait have
appeared, had it stept down from its frame against the wall. This,
however, stirred him little. What he was not prepared for was the
gesture of anguish, nay, of positive despair, with which, when about
opposite him, the figure threw her head back and her arms aloft, as if
in mute and agonised appeal to Heaven. The action was heart-rending even
to look on; nor, to a male eye, did it lose aught from the fact that, as
the moonlight now fell for the first time on her upturned face, it
showed it to be deathly pale indeed, but also exquisitely lovely.
Another moment or two, and the graceful and appealing form had passed
beyond his field of vision, for, as the locked gate stood some little
way back from the mouth of the tunnel, his view was restricted.

A short time only, though he knew not exactly how long, had passed when
Alix stood beside him.

"I had some difficulty," she archly explained, "in eluding prying eyes."

For an ardent lover, Dick's greetings were perfunctory; after which,
being still powerfully under the impression of what he had just seen, he
told Alix all about it.

"We shall soon see who she is," replied that practical young lady, as
she placed the heavy key in the cumbrous lock, "and I shall also take
leave to inform her that this bit of coast is strictly private."

And strictly private it appeared to be when they emerged from the
tunnel. For though their eyes swept the beach to right and left, and
though the moon just then was unobscured, they saw no trace of any
living form.

"She must have landed from a boat," said Alix; but as little trace of a
boat could they discover.

Still it was quite possible that she might pass unobserved against the
dark rocks, so they turned first to the right, then to the left, keeping
a keen look-out for any sign of motion.

They detected nothing.

And by this time I am bound to confess that a slightly uncomplimentary
suspicion had more than once crossed the brain of Alix. She knew that,
as a rule, her Dick was a pattern of moderation. But even the most
prudent may be liable to be occasionally overtaken. And she recalled his
having mentioned that this was to be a guest-night at the mess. Indeed,
it was chiefly upon that account that the assignation had been fixed so
late. This present portentous solemnity was certainly most unlike him.
Was it possible that the poor fellow had taken just one more
whisky-and-soda than he could conveniently carry? Outspoken by nature,
she blurted out her suspicion, which was strengthened rather than the
reverse by the great earnestness with which he repelled it.

Less convinced than before, Alix then exclaimed: "Look here, Dick! If,
as you say, the young woman passed this way, she must have left tracks
on the smooth sand. Where do you say the place was?"

With some uncertainty, Dick then led her to what he took to be the
place. No tracks were there. He then tried further back from the mouth
of the tunnel, and with as little success. It was true the tide was
coming up, but it could scarcely yet have reached footmarks which had
been imprinted so far inshore as he supposed these to have been.

In a spirit of levity which jarred on him, Alix now recommended her
lover to go back to his quarters and have a good sleep; and then, having
again passed through the gate and pushed their way up the tunnel, the
two young people parted in something very like a tiff.

Dick did not call at Clyffe House the next day, and when he called on
the day following, Alix met him in a complaisant mood. After all, she
had no wish to quarrel with him. And very soon she said, "Going back to
what you told me you had seen the other night, Dick, it occurred to me,
after you were gone, that it fits in rather curiously with an old story
connected with this place." And then, at his request, she proceeded to
tell him how, some thirty years ago, her grandmother had had a favourite
maid, a friendless orphan girl named Barbara, to whom attached a
mystery. Barbara was a very lovely creature of refinement and education
above her station, and she had of course numerous admirers. Young as she
was, her discretion was faultless, with the sole exception that her
native amiability and desire to please sometimes betrayed her into
conduct which meant less than her admirers wished to think it did. Well,
at last Barbara became plighted to a respectable young fisherman,
part-owner of a boat sailing from The Greenses, and, though details were
vague, it was generally understood that, as a consequence, several
hearts were severely damaged. As Barbara had no relatives, it was
arranged by her employer that she should remain in her situation until
the wedding-day and should be married from Clyffe House. Considerable
preparations had also been made to do honour to the occasion,
when--judge of the consternation of the inmates of the house!--upon the
morning of the wedding-day Barbara was not to be found. She was believed
to have retired to rest on the previous night as usual, yet her bed had
not been slept in. Nor, although most of her clothes were packed in
anticipation of her change of domicile, had she apparently taken
anything with her. Nothing in the least unusual had been observed in her
demeanour; nor could the unhappy bridegroom suggest any possible motive
for her conduct. Exhaustive inquiries and exhaustive search were made;
but, to cut the story short, nothing had ever again been seen or heard
of the fair Barbara to that day. Her mistress, who had been sincerely
attached to her, had long mourned for her, and in after times would
often sing her praises. But, in order to be quite candid, it must be
acknowledged that there were others, not a few, who declined to believe
that the girl had come to an untimely end; and, who, knowing that she
had several suitors, and had sometimes appeared uncertain which to
favour, preferred to think that she had changed her mind at the last
moment, and, deciding to throw over her fisherman, had made her escape
from Clyffe House during the night to join some more eligible swain.
This would have been a desperate step indeed; nor could her conduct in
withholding subsequent explanations be absolved of heartlessness. But,
after all, she was the sort of girl who, where no actual misconduct was
involved, might easily allow herself to be over-persuaded. And certainly
the tangled skein of love does sometimes present a knot which must be
cut rather than untied.

The Lieutenant professed himself profoundly interested in this
narrative, which he and Alix then proceeded to discuss in all its
bearings, and more particularly, of course, in its relation to the
figure seen by him in the cove. It is true that Alix never quite
believed in the genuineness of the apparition; but, seeing that Dick
really wished to have it taken seriously, she decided tactfully to
humour him, and made quite a nine days' wonder of the mysterious
occurrence. Their own wedding-day was, however, fast drawing on, so they
soon found other things to talk and think of. To be brief, they were in
due course married, and, amid the cares and pleasures of wedded life,
the story, though not forgotten, came to be very seldom referred to. So
twenty years passed; at the end of which time the Colonel (as he now
was), accompanied by his wife and several youngsters, paid one of his
not very frequent visits to his wife's parents at Clyffe House.

On the first night of the visit, after dinner, Alix's father had
significantly recalled the story of the maid Barbara's disappearance,
and, after stating that the mystery had now been finally cleared up, had
gone on to relate the following particulars:--A few days previously
there had lain at the point of death in the infirmary at Berwick an aged
fisherman, who had long been known in the seaport town for his solitary
habits and morose and violent ways. As death drew near, it became
evident that his mind was sorely troubled, and to one of the nurses or
doctors who had sought to comfort him he had been led to make the
acknowledgment that a guilty secret weighed upon his soul, making him
fearful to confront his Maker. He then told how, as a young man, he had
passionately loved a pretty servant-girl employed at Clyffe House.
Misled by those smiles and that graciousness of manner which in the
guileless amiability of her nature the girl lavished upon all alike, he
had for a moment imagined himself her favoured suitor. How bitter, then,
was the blow, and how rude the awakening when he learned that a younger
brother of his own, a mere boy, was preferred before himself! Nor was it
only unrequited love that grieved him. No, he believed, or managed to
persuade himself, that an unfair advantage had been taken of him, by
which he had been made the lovers' dupe. A silent man, he took no one
into his confidence, but abode his time until the eve of the
wedding-day. On that day he had accidentally intercepted a note from the
girl Barbara, addressed to his brother, in which she had agreed to meet
her bridegroom of the morrow in the cove below Clyffe House one hour
before midnight, to spend a final hour together before the momentous
crisis in their lives. Instantly it had occurred to the elder brother to
use the knowledge gained from the note in order to make one last
desperate appeal on his own account to the sweet girl he loved so
madly. Accordingly he kept back the missive, and, to make assurance
doubly sure, mixed a soporific drug with his brother's drink when the
latter came in from fishing. Then, whilst the youngster slumbered
heavily, he himself embarked in a cockle-boat and, unobserved, rowed
quietly round the headland, into Clyffe cove, where he ran his boat into
a safe creek he knew of, and jumped ashore. Poor Barbara had come down
to the water's edge to meet the boat, and great was her consternation on
finding herself confronted by the wrong brother.

Then an impassioned scene was enacted, in which the seaman used every
means of persuasion known to him to get the girl to give up his brother
and plight herself to him. But though alternately distressed and
terrified, Barbara had stood her ground, and, gentle and yielding though
she appeared to be, neither threats nor vows had had the slightest
effect upon her constancy. And then, of a sudden, the reckless brother
had "seen red." If he could not have this girl to wife, then neither
should another, and a moment later her white form lay stretched upon the
dark rocks at his feet.

The sight brought him to himself. There was no room for doubt that life
was extinct; and if he was to escape suspicion, he must act at once, for
the summer night was short and the dread interview had lasted long. He
accordingly placed the body in the boat, and, having collected several
heavy stones, proceeded to make use of his seacraft by binding them
closely and firmly about the poor girl's body by means of her clothing.
Then he rowed out to sea, some mile or more, and there quietly dropped
the body overboard. Such, in essentials, was the story told by the dying
fisherman, and so it had come about that the bride of that fatal morning
was never seen or heard of more. Though possibly intended to be regarded
as confidential, certain it is that the confession had leaked out, and
very soon became public property. For a few days it attracted great
attention; and then, like other more important things which had preceded
it, it ceased, save very occasionally, to be alluded to at all. But the
Colonel never forgot it, any more than he ever forgot the lovely and
inexplicable vision which had appeared to him for so brief an interval,
in the moonlight, on the shore below Clyffe House. It is true that he
seldom referred to it. Nor did that stately dame, who had once been Miss
Alix and who was now believed to command the regiment, encourage him to
do so. For she had observed that he was always most ready to tell the
story after an exceptionally good dinner. And, with her high sense of
what was due to his rank, she fancied that it made him mildly
ridiculous. Neither, it might be, had her earliest doubts been ever
wholly laid to rest. But members of the fair sex, when they are
practical, are apt to be very practical indeed.

Next: Wandering Willie's Tale

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