A guilty man does not usually tie the rope around his own neck."
Mary made a helpless movement with her hands, and he must have seen the despair in her face, for his voice became gentle again that had been harsh hitherto, and he laid his hand on her knee.
"Our bright days are done, and we are for the dark," he said softly. "If it were permitted to take our text from Shakespeare, there would be strange sermons preached in Cornwall tomorrow, Mary Yellan.
Your uncle and his companions are not members of my congregation, however, and if they were they would not understand me.
You shake your head at me. I speak in riddles.
'This man is no comforter,' you say; 'he is a freak with his white hair and eyes.'
Don't turn away; I know what you think.
I will tell you one thing for consolation, and you can make of it what you will.
A week from now will bring the New Year.
The false lights have flickered for the last time, and there will be no more wrecks; the candles will be blown."
"I don't understand you," said Mary. "How do you know this, and what has the New Year to do with it?"
He took his hand from her and began to fasten his coat preparatory to departure.
He lifted the sash of the window and called to the driver to rein in his horse, and the cold air rushed into the carriage with a sting of frozen rain.
"I return tonight from a meeting in Launceston," he said, "which was but a sequel to many other similar meetings during the past few years. And those of us present were informed at last that His Majesty's Government was prepared to take certain steps during the coming year to patrol the coasts of His Majesty's country.
There will be watchers on the cliffs instead of flares, and the paths known only at present to men like your uncle and his companions will be trodden by officers of the law.
"There will be a chain across England, Mary, that will be very hard to break.
Now do you understand?"
He opened the door of the carriage and stepped out into the road.
He bared his head under the rain, and she saw the thick white hair frame his face like a halo.
He smiled again to her and bowed, and he reached for her hand once more and held it a moment.
"Your troubles are over," he said; "the waggon wheels will rust and the barred room at the end of the passage can be turned into a parlour.
Your aunt will sleep in peace again, and your uncle will either drink himself to death and be a riddance to all of you, or he will turn Wesleyan and preach to travellers on the highroad.
As for you, you will ride south again and find a lover.
Sleep well tonight.
Tomorrow is Christmas Day, and the bells at Altarnun will be ringing for peace and good will.
I shall think of you."
He waved his hand to the driver, and the carriage went on without him.
Mary leant out of the window to call to him, but he had turned to the right down one of the five lanes and was already lost to sight.
The carriage rattled on along the Bodmin road.
There were still three miles to cover before the tall chimneys of Jamaica Inn broke upon the skyline, and those miles were the wildest and most exposed of all the long one-and-twenty that stretched between the two towns.
Mary wished now that she had gone with Francis Davey.
She would not hear the wind in Altarnun, and the rain would fall silently in the sheltered lane.
Tomorrow she could have knelt in the church and prayed for the first time since leaving Helford.
If what he said was true, then there would be cause for rejoicing after all, and there would be some sense in giving thanks.
The day of the wrecker was over; he would be broken by the new law, he and his kind; they would be blotted out and razed from the countryside as the pirates had been twenty, thirty years ago; and there would be no memory of them any more, no record left to poison the minds of those who should come after.
A new generation would be born who had never heard their name.
Ships would come to England without fear; there would be no harvest with the tide.
Coves that had sounded once with the crunch of footsteps on shingle and the whispered voices of men would be silent again, and the scream that broke upon the silence would be the scream of a gull.
Beneath the placid surface of the sea, on the ocean bed, lay skulls without a name, green coins that had once been gold, and the old bones of ships: they would be forgotten for ever more.
The terror they had known died with them.
It was the dawn of a new age, when men and women would travel without fear, and the land would belong to them.
Here, on this stretch of moor, farmers would till their plot of soil and stack the sods of turf to dry under the sun as they did today, but the shadow that had been upon them would have vanished. Perhaps the grass would grow and the heather bloom again where Jamaica Inn had stood.
She sat in the corner of the carriage, with the vision of the new world before her; and through the open window, travelling down upon the wind, she heard a shot ring out in the silence of the night, and a distant shout, and a cry. The voices of men came out of the darkness, and the padding of feet upon the road.
She leant out of the window, the rain blowing in on her face, and she heard the driver of the carriage call out in fear as his horse shied and stumbled. The road rose steeply from the valley, winding away to the top of the hill, and there in the distance were the lean chimneys of Jamaica Inn crowning the skyline like a gallows.
Down the road came a company of men, led by one who lept like a hare and tossed a lantern before him as he ran.
Another shot rang out, and the driver of the carriage crumpled in his seat and fell.
The horse stumbled again and headed like a blind thing for the ditch.
For a moment the carriage swayed upon its wheels, rocked, and was still.
Somebody screamed a blasphemy to the sky; somebody laughed wildly; there was a whistle and a cry.
A face was thrust in at the window of the carriage, a face crowned with matted hair that fell in a fringe above the scarlet, bloodshot eyes.