She lifted her face to him, her eyes heavy with the agony of restraint, and she spread out her hands in supplication.
"What will they do to him, Mr. Davey?" she said. "What will they do to him?"
The pale, expressionless eyes stared back at her, and for the first time she saw a shadow pass across them, and a flicker of surprise.
"Do?" he said, obviously puzzled. "Why should they do anything?
I suppose he has made his peace with Mr. Bassat and has nothing more to fear.
They will hardly throw old sins in his face after the service he has done them."
"I don't understand you.
What service has he done?"
"Your mind works slowly tonight, Mary Yellan, and I appear to talk in riddles.
Did you not know that it was Jem Merlyn who informed against his brother?"
She stared at him stupidly, her brain clogged and refusing to work.
She repeated the words after him like a child who learns a lesson.
"Jem Merlyn informed against his brother?"
The vicar pushed away his plate and began to set the things in order on the tray.
"Why, certainly," he said; "so Mr. Bassat gave me to understand.
It appears that it was the squire himself who fell in with your friend at Launceston on Christmas Eve and carried him off to North Hill, as an experiment.
'You've stolen my horse,' said he, 'and you're as big a rogue as your brother.
I've the power to clap you in jail tomorrow and you wouldn't set eyes on a horse for a dozen years or more.
But you can go free if you bring me proof that your brother at Jamaica Inn is the man I believe him to be.'
"Your young friend asked for time; and when the time was up he shook his head.
'No,' said he; 'you must catch him yourself if you want him.
I'm damned if I'll have truck with the law.'
But the squire pushed a proclamation under his nose.
'Look there, Jem,' he said, 'and see what you think of that.
There's been the bloodiest wreck on Christmas Eve since the Lady of Gloucester went ashore above Padstow last winter.
Now will you change your mind?'
As to the rest of the story, the squire said little in my hearing — people were coming and going all the time, you must remember — but I gather your friend slipped his chain and ran for it in the night, and then came back again yesterday morning, when they thought to have seen the last of him, and went straight to the squire as he came out of church and said, as cool as you please,
'Very well, Mr. Bassat, you shall have your proof.'
And that is why I remarked to you just now that Jem Merlyn had a better brain than his brother."
The vicar had cleared the table and set the tray in the corner, but he continued to stretch his legs before the fire and take his ease in the narrow high-backed chair.
Mary took no account of his movements.
She stared before her into space, her whole mind split, as it were, by his information, the evidence she had so fearfully and so painfully built against the man she loved collapsing into nothing like a pack of cards.
"Mr. Davey," she said slowly, "I believe I am the biggest fool that ever came out of Cornwall."
"I believe you are, Mary Yellan," said the vicar.
His dry tone, so cutting after the gentle voice she knew, was a rebuke in itself, and she accepted it with humility.
"Whatever happens," she continued, "I can face the future now, bravely and without shame."
"I am glad of that," he said.
She shook her hair back from her face and smiled for the first time since he had known her.
The anxiety and the dread had gone from her at last.
"What else did Jem Merlyn say and do?" she asked.
The vicar glanced at his watch and replaced it with a sigh.
"I wish I had the time to tell you," he said, "but it is nearly eight already.
The hours go by too fast for both of us.
I think we have talked enough about Jem Merlyn for the present."
"Tell me one thing — was he at North Hill when you left?"
In fact, it was his last remark that hurried me home."
"What did he say to you?"
"He did not address himself to me.
He announced his intention of riding over tonight to visit the blacksmith at Warleggan."