It had been a bright cloudless morning when he had set out. Reckless as usual, he had ignored the warnings of the old fishermen standing on the harbour slipway.
“If it squalls, I can run for shelter. There are many coves where I can rest,” he had laughed.
“You won’t know the rocks, Sir,” one of them had ventured. “Cornwall coast is not kind to strangers.”
“Stranger! For shame! How can you call me so when I’ve lived here all my life, Jem!”
“Not so’s you know the rocks, Sir Denzil. You come and sail your boat for a month, mebbee two, each year. You don’t know them like we do, nor the weather signs. It’ll blow up real hard soon.”
Denzil had laughed and pointed to the blue sky, but they had gloomily shaken their heads. Now it seemed they had been right. With the suddenness he should have remembered of Cornwall the sky had clouded over, and the wind had veered. He shrugged, still in reckless mood, and for a while ran before the storm, musing more on his distant future than on the next few hours. Last night he had finally resolved to do what everyone confidently expected of him, and make an offer for Araminta Floode. There was no fear that she would reject his suit, for she had made it excessively plain where her preference lay. The rub was that he had no desire to shackle himself. Not yet, he had been telling himself for several years. Next year, perhaps. But Araminta’s mother was growing increasingly impatient, and though he had given the girl no particular reason to suppose he considered himself bound to her, he knew his agreeable flirtation with her must end soon. If he had to marry, it might as well be Araminta as anyone else.
Why did he hesitate? She was lovely enough, had been one of the toasts of the season, and was of a most charming disposition. Their fortunes matched admirably, and she had indicated, in a prettily flattering, but not forward fashion, that she would adore him – if only he gave her the right to do so. He concluded yet again that the ties of matrimony simply had no attraction for him. Last night, however, he had finally brought himself to accept what his sister had been long pressing on him, that his duty to his name demanded the sacrifice that would be entailed in marriage, and the speedy provision of an heir to his title and estates. This morning, after celebrating on far too much brandy, he had awoken in a foul mood, thrown his boots at his valet when he had discovered an infinitesimal smudge on their gleaming surface, and ordered his boatman to prepare his yacht for the day.
“Confound it, why can I not offer for the wretched girl and have done with the matter?” he mused aloud, but the only answer he received was an isolated mew from a seabird.
The weather grew steadily worse. It began to rain, lightly at first, then it came down in torrents and shut out the sight of land. When he was soaked through to the skin, he began to think of making for a harbour. Cautiously he reefed in some sail and headed landwards. But even after sailing for half an hour, it was still blotted out completely by the driving rain.
Denzil swore lustily, recalling some of the oaths he had learned as a boy from the old fisherman who had taught him what he knew about boats. With the very minimum of sail he steered a careful course, watching anxiously for rocks. Although he had scoffed at Jem’s warning, he knew the dangers only too well.
It was another hour before the rain eased, and when it did sufficiently for him to see a few hundred yards, he was thankful to note he was still within sight of land. But it was a part of the coast he did not recognise, with wild grey gaunt cliffs rearing out of the turbulent foam-flecked waves. Then the wind rose again, wilder and more capricious than before, and he had all he could do to control the boat. It was too big to be handled comfortably by one man in rough seas, and he wished for a moment that he had brought Ted, his boatman, with him. Grimly he lashed the tiller while he struck the sail completely. He would just have to ride out the storm. Without warning there was a sickening jar, and the boat heaved drunkenly to one side.
Denzil knew before he looked that it had struck a hidden rock. The boom swung over and he ducked to avoid it, scrambling along the thwarts to inspect the damage. It was serious, the hole being far too large to be plugged.
Coolly Denzil looked towards the shore. He judged he was half a mile or more from the nearest jagged line of rocks that stretched out from the shore. Beyond them was what looked like a fairly large cove, from which he would be able to climb to the top of the cliffs and find help.
Glancing regretfully at his boat, which he had sailed in and enjoyed for several years, he slipped over the side and swam towards the shore.
The elements had, however, not yet finished their sport with him. There was a strong current against which he could make little progress, strong swimmer though he was. Before he was a quarter the way to the shore he saw he had been swept far past the cove. He turned to swim with the current, and found he was being carried near to another spur of land. It looked like an island a short way from the coast, but he was too low down in the water to judge. He struck out across the current towards it, and after a severe struggle came within a hundred yards. Suddenly he found himself in calmer water and swam more easily, looking cautiously for hidden rocks until without warning he found himself being tossed about like a piece of driftwood.
With an immense effort, as he was being swept past, he reached out and grasped at some rocks that hung above the water.
Desperately he managed to grip them, but there was a wrenching pain in his shoulder that almost caused him to swoon.
Somehow he managed to drag himself along until he could drop back into calm water. To his relief he found it was shallow enough for him to touch the bottom. Wearily he pulled himself forward, his left arm hanging helpless at his side, and fell to his knees at the edge of the water. Determinedly he forced himself on despite the agonising pain, until he had crawled above the high water mark, then he sat down and tried to estimate the damage.
He was certain it was only a dislocated shoulder, and that there were no bones broken. After one agonising effort to ease it back into place, he grimly admitted he would need help for the task. Looking about he found he was on a small shell-strewn beach, surrounded by what appeared to be sheer rocks. He was too exhausted to explore further, but that could wait. First he needed to rest, and he lay down on the sand as comfortably as was possible, protecting his injured arm, and settled himself to sleep, blessing the years of soldiering in the Peninsula that had given him the ability to sleep at any time and in any place.
* * * *
With the same suddenness that had heralded the start of the storm, it ceased, and when Denzil woke an hour later, it was to find the sun beating down on him. He stretched, and then groaned as the pain of his injured shoulder made itself felt.
“Oh, so you are not dead. Are you real?” he heard a voice say from behind him.
He turned slowly, wondering if he were dreaming. Then he closed his eyes tightly for a moment, but the vision was still there when he looked again.
“Can you speak English? Parlez-vous Francais?”
“I am English, and astounded,” he managed to reply.
“That’s an odd thing to say. I haven’t read of anyone saying that,” the vision commented, and smiling, sat down beside him. “You are very wet. Why do you not take off your clothes and dry them in the sun? I do when I have been caught in the rain, or fallen into the sea.”
Denzil blinked. Was he really awake? This was an extremely odd conversation, and an excessively unusual girl. She looked very young, with her short hair curling softly round her ears. She had small, delicate features, and the most vivid blue eyes he had ever seen, fringed by long dark lashes that made an unusual contrast to her flaxen hair. She was wearing a tunic of scarlet linen that reminded him of paintings of Roman togas. It reached to her ankles, but was slit up the side, and as she sat unconcernedly beside him it revealed long slender shapely legs. Her tunic was caught in with a girdle of plaited leather, and it was obvious that her body was as shapely as her legs.
“Have I strayed into Arcadia?” he mused, half to himself.
Her blue eyes widened. “Why should you be there? It is not warm enough for Greece. You do say the strangest things. Not at all what I would have expected a man to say. You are on an island. Shipwrecked, I suppose, though no one has been before while I have lived here.”
“Who are you?” Denzil asked, fascinated by this mixture of innocence and practical comment.
“My name is Redruth.”
“But – but that is the name of a town!” he protested dazedly.
“Yes, I was born there,” she replied composedly, as if that were sufficient explanation.
“Have you then no other name?”
“No-o. At least I suppose I must have, but I have never been told what it is. People I read of all seem to have two names, unless they are very ancient. I mean lived in ancient times. Or Kings and Queens. But I cannot be that.”
“How long have you lived here on this island?” he demanded, more and more puzzled. “And who else lives here with you?”
“I’ve been here since I was a year old, though I can’t remember that for myself, of course. That is just sixteen years. There is only my governess, Miss Brockton, and Anna and Bob Fletcher who are our servants.”
“Do you never go off the island?”
“No. I would dearly love to go, and be able to see all the people and places I have read about, but Miss Brockton says it would not be wise. Do you know London, and Paris, and perhaps even Rome and Athens? Oh please, will you tell me about them?”
There was a strange urgency about her tone.
“Why is it not wise?” He was struggling to follow the odd things she said, that seemed unreal, unbelievable.
“Because I am mad,” she replied nonchalantly.
“What?” In his astonishment he forgot his injured shoulder, and sat up, jerking it, and letting out an involuntary gasp of pain.
“Mm, I always have been. But you are hurt. Where is it?”
“Only my shoulder. Never mind that, it can be put right easily enough. What do you mean, mad? Who says so?”
“Miss Brockton. My father did not wish me to be shut away in Bedlam, so he sent me to live here on the island.” She shuddered. “I have seen drawings of people there, and I should not like it, for certain. I am much better here. My father is very good to me.”
“Does he ever visit you?”
“No. I have never seen him. No one comes.”
Denzil stared at her silently, and she returned his regard with admirable calmness.
“You are hoaxing me,” he said suddenly.
“Hoax? That means to tell lies, to pretend, doesn’t it? You are unkind! I never tell lies!” she declared indignantly.
Denzil hastened to apologise.
“But it is too incredible!”
“It is true. Why should I tell lies? But if all men are as insupportable as you are, perhaps I do not wish to meet any. I thought they were nice, for females always seem to be falling in love with them. Those women must be excessively foolish!” she declared, her eyes bright with indignation.
He gasped. “Have you met no men before?”
“Only Bob. I told you, no one comes to the island. But I read a great deal, and I was only a little uncertain, which is why I asked if you were real. I hope you were not offended?”
She smiled shyly as if regretting her earlier outburst, and Denzil closed his eyes for a moment. His head was in a whirl.
“What do you read?” he asked faintly.
“Whatever I choose from the library here. My father had a lot of old books here, I think they belonged to his father. There are history books, and many volumes of plays. I like those best. Then books of stories and poetry. Some are in Latin or Greek,” she added as an afterthought.
“You know Latin and Greek?” Denzil’s amazement was increasing.
She nodded. “Miss Brockton taught me Latin, and she knew a little Greek too, but I learned the rest from an old grammar and a dictionary. But I like French best, for if I could, I would love to go to France. After all, I suppose Latin and Greek are not of much value to present day travellers! Miss Brockton has the Lady’s Magazine and some books sent to her, and there are French novels I read.”
Denzil listened to this catalogue. “You are decidedly not mad,” he declared vehemently.
“But they all say I am, so I must be.” She dismissed it lightly.
“Have you ever consulted a doctor?”
“No. Why should I need to? If I am ill Anna doses me. But I am not as a rule.”
His shoulder was paining him considerably by now, and he decided to postpone further questioning on this strange situation.
“How did you get down here?” he asked, looking round. “I can see no way down the cliff.”
“There is none, not here. But at low tide there is a way beneath the cliff into the next cove, and we can climb up a path from there. I expect Anna or Bob will be able to help you. Though they will be most surprised to see you, for we have never had a visitor before.”
She stood up, and asked if he needed help. He rose slowly to his feet, to find that she was tall, reaching to his shoulder, and he was over six feet.
“I shall contrive, if you will be good enough to lead the way,” he answered, smiling down at her.
She nodded, and turned to do so. She was barefoot, and walked with a sinuous grace across the sands towards the rocks that stretched out into the sea. He followed, and saw a dark shadow in the rock face. The girl led the way into the hole, which was just a short passage, for after a couple of yards he saw daylight again round a bend. They emerged onto a larger beach, and he was relieved to see a sloping path ascending easily beside a narrow stream that had cut a passage through the cliffs.
* * * *
By the time they had climbed to the top of the cliffs, to the fairly flat centre of the island, he was sweating profusely with the pain and the exertion. On the far side of the flat ground, only a hundred yards or so, he was thankful to see, there stood a gaunt building. It had at one time been a castle, he judged, but had fallen into ruins, and the stones had been used to construct a small house against the wall of the keep. There was a woman outside, hanging washing on a line stretched between two scraggy, windblown trees.
“Anna!” the girl – he could not bring himself to think of her as Redruth – called, and the woman turned, then came running towards them in an awkward rolling fashion.
“What have you, child? Sir! How did you come to this island?”
“He was shipwrecked, Anna, and I found him sleeping on the beach in the shell cove. He did not know there was a way out. His shoulder is hurt. Can you help him?”
“Pardon, sir!” She bobbed a curtsey. “We are so remote here. Come into the kitchen, and I will see what is to be done. Child, go and fetch Bob, I may need his help. He’s my husband, sir, and he’s good with animals.”
Denzil laughed. “I hope I do not seem to be such?”
“Oh, no, indeed, sir! I pray you will not be offended? I am bemused. I but meant that he often treats the animals. It looks like a broken bone by the way you hold it, and he can set them.”
“I think it only a dislocation,” Denzil said hopefully.
“We will see. Ah, here he comes now. He was not far away.”
A small wiry man trudged up, followed by the girl, and he soon had Denzil’s coat and shirt removed, apologising that he had to tear out the sleeves. Watched with interest by the two women, he quickly examined Denzil’s shoulder, and then gave it a twist. Denzil bit back a yell of agony, and then realised the nagging pain was eased. Cautiously he tried to move his arm, and found to his delight that Bob had put it right.
“I am very greatly in your debt,” he smiled.
“It will be stiff for some time,” Bob warned, “but there are no bones broke. What happened? Was there anyone else with you?”
Anna suddenly seemed to realise that the girl was still there.
“Redruth, you had best go and tell Miss Brockton about the gentleman. What was your name, sir?”
“Sir Denzil Trewyn. I was alone, and my boat was driven onto some rocks in the storm. I had to swim for it, but I was caught in a whirlpool, and it happened then. I was resting, for I was unable to go further, when Miss – Redruth found me.”
They nodded, and Anna bustled about offering him cider and a pastie that she took from the oven. He accepted gratefully, for he had eaten nothing in his ill mood that morning, and only a leg of chicken from the food Ted had packed for him.
“Bob will be able to row you across to the mainland when the tide turns,” she said.
“Is there an inn and a town nearby?” he asked, glancing out of the window at the sun, which was now low in the west, and not relishing the thought of being landed so late in the day on a strange, and probably deserted part of the coast.
She seemed about to reply, and then changed her mind, pursing her lips and returning to her cooking.
“I do not know this part of the coast at all. Where is this island? What is it called?” he queried.
“Miss Brockton will decide what’s best to be done,” she said, ignoring his questions, and he could see he would not obtain any information from her.
There was a commotion outside the kitchen, and a tall, severe looking woman in her forties appeared.
“Redruth, go back to your room as I have ordered, and I will attend to the matter,” she said over her shoulder.
He could hear Redruth protesting, but Miss Brockton closed the door firmly and turned to regard him, an inscrutable look on her hard, determined features.
“So you maintain you were shipwrecked?” she asked coldly, and Denzil had the absurd impression he was expected to apologise for being so incredibly careless. Suppressing a grin, he began a graceful apology for having caused them so much trouble, and she listened in silence, her forbidding expression not relaxing in the slightest degree.
“That is as maybe,” she said briefly. “But I fear it is too late to send you over to the mainland tonight. Anna will prepare a bed for you.”
She glanced briefly at Anna, who nodded and left the kitchen.
“And now, Sir Denzil, may I have your promise you will not excite my charge in any way? It is most unfortunate this had to happen, for she has already been considerably upset.”
This he could not accept. “Naturally I do not wish to harm Miss – “ He paused, but she did not offer to supply a name. “Miss Redruth, but I judged her exceptionally calm and competent, in the distressing event of finding a shipwrecked mariner on her doorstep!”
Miss Brockton smiled, grimly. “That is her manner, which is deceptive. I must inform you that she is – shall we say somewhat unhinged? The least event out of the ordinary is likely to disturb her further. That is why we live in such seclusion, which you may have wondered at. If you cannot promise to behave circumspectly before her, I must ask you to eat your dinner in your room. As it is, I must request that you have no more private speech with her.”
“I will naturally do nothing to upset her,” he prevaricated, wondering fleetingly whether it was Miss Brockton who was unhinged.
She seemed satisfied, however, and conversed with him about boats, and the weather, and the treacherous Cornish coast, all without giving him any further information, until Anna returned.
“Show Sir Denzil to his room, Anna, and take some hot water to him. Then look in the old trunk where those clothes of – those old clothes are kept, and find something for him to wear while you dry and repair his own.”
She waited, and Anna led the way. Denzil followed meekly, and found himself in a small, barely furnished room which was almost filled with an old four poster bed. There were no hangings to either bed or window, and only a single small rug was thrown on the floorboards. Denzil went to look out of the window, but it was close to the old castle wall, and he could see little apart from that and bare rocks sloping towards the clifftop.
Anna appeared with hot water, and a voluminous coat of the style popular half a century before, a pair of silk stockings and velvet knee breeches. She removed his own garments, shaking her head dubiously at the damage.
“I doubt I will be able to mend this coat, Sir Denzil. It was a rare tight fit.”
Privately Denzil was well aware the coat was unfit for further service, and he would normally not have dreamed of appearing in a mended garment, but the circumstances were not normal. He grinned quizzically at Anna.
“Believe me, I am grateful to you for making the attempt. Stitch it together so that I may wear it without the sleeve hanging off. That is all that can be done, Anna.”
“I will come back to show you the way to the dining parlour in a few minutes, Sir,” she assured him, and disappeared, leaving the normally fastidious and elegant Sir Denzil somewhat ruefully regarding the clothes she had left for him.
Then, grinning at the thought of the sight he would present, and the sheer disbelief his friends would express at the very notion of his exhibiting himself in such a rig before a charming young female, he stripped off the rest of his wet clothes and pulled on the borrowed finery. Fortunately they were large enough, and not too loose, though the seams of the coat creaked alarmingly across his broad shoulders, but they would serve.
He peered into the small mirror he found, and grimaced at the view which confronted him. The small stock which Anna had provided was rather loose, and he felt most odd without his normal cravat, but he shrugged, and his thoughts turned to his next meeting with the unusual girl he had discovered, so that when Anna reappeared he was impatient to follow her.