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On the western side of the island of Arran. seldom visited, und almost unknown to tourists is the little island named Uffa. Between the two lies a strait, or roost, two miles and a half broad, with a dangerous current which sets in from the north. Even on the calmest day there are ripples and swirls and dimples on the surface of the roost, which suggest hidden influences, but when the wind blows from the west and the great Atlantic waves choke up the inlet and meet their brethren which have raced round the other side of the island, there is such seething und turmoil that old sailors say they have never seen the like. God help the boat that is caught there on such a day!
My father owned one-third part of the island of Uffa, and I was born and bred there. Our farm, or croft, was a small one enough, for if a good thrower were to pick up a stone on the shore at Carracuil (which was our place) he could manage, in three shies, to clear all our arable land, and it was hardly longer than it was broad. Behind this narrow track, on which we grew corn and potatoes. was the homesteading of Carracuil—a rather bleak-looking graystone house with a red-tiled byre buttressed against one side of it, and behind this again the barren undulating moorland stretched away up to Beg-na- sacher and Beg-na-phail, two rugged knowes which marked the centre of the island. We had grazing ground for a couple of cows and eight or ten sheep, and we had our boat anchored down in Carravoe. When the fishing failed there was more time to devote to the crops, and if the season was bad. as likely as not the herring would be thick on the coast. Taking one thing with another, a crofter in Uffa had as much chance of laying by a penny or two as most men on the mainland.
Besides our own family, the McDonalds of Carracuil, there were two others on the island. These were the Gibbs of Arden and the Fullartons of Corriemains. There was no priority claimed among us, for none had any legend of the coming of the others We had ali three held our farms by direct descent for rnany generations, paying rent to the Duke of Hamilton, and all prospering in a moderate way. My father had been enabled to send me to begin the study of medicine at the University of Glasgow, and I had attended lectures there for two Winter sessions, but, whether from caprice or from some lessening in his funds. he had recalled me, and in the year 1865 I found myself cribbed up in this little island with just education enough to wish for more, and with no associate at home but the grim, stern old man, for my mother had been dead some years, and I had neither brother nor sister.
There were two youths about my own age in the island, Geordie and Jock Gibbs, but they were rough, loutiish fellows, good-hearted enough, but with no ideas above fishing and farming. More to my taste was the society of Minnie Fullarton, the pretty daughter of old Fullarton of Corriemains. We had been children together, and it was natural that when she blossomed into a buxom, fresh-faced girl, and I into a square-shouldered, long-legged youth, there should be something warmer than friendship between us. Her elder brother was a corn chandler in Ardrossan, and was said to be doing welL so that the match was an eligible one, but for some reason my father objected very strongly to our intimacy and even forbade me entirely to meet her. I laughed at his commands, for I was a hot-headed, irreverent youngster. and continued to see Minnie, but when it came to his ears it caused many violent scenes between us, which nearly went the length of blows. We had a quarrel of this sort just before the equinoctial gales in the Spring of the year in which my story begins, and I left the old man with his face hushed and his great bony hands shaking with passion, while I went jauntily off to our usual trysting place. I have often regretted since that I was not more submissive, but how was I to guess the dark things which were to come upon us?
I can remember that day well. Many bit-ter thoughts rose in my heart as I strode along the narrow pathway, cutting savagely at the thistles on either side with my stick. One side of our little estate was bordered by the Combera cliiffs, which rose straight out of the water to the height of a couple of hundred feet. The top of these cliffs was covered with greensward and commanded a noble view on every side. I stretched myself on the turf there and watched the breakers dancing over the Winner sands and listened to the gurgling of the water down beneath me in the caves of the Combera. We faced the western side of the island, and from where I lay I could see the whole stretch of the Irish Sea, right across to where a long hazy line upon the horizon marked the northern coast of the sister isle. The wind was blowing freshly from the northwest, and the great Atlantic rollers were racing rnerrily in, one behind another. dark brown below, light green above. and breaking with a sullen roar at the base of the cliffs. Now and again a sluggish one would be overtaken by its successor, and the two would come crashing in together and send the spray right over me as I lay. The whole air was prickly with the smack of the sea. Away to the north there was a piling up of clouds, and the peak of Goatfell in Arran looked lurid and distinct. There were no craft in the oiiing except one little eager, panting steamer making for the shelter of the Clyde, and a trim brigantine tacking along the coast. I was speculating as to her destination when I heard a light, springy footstep, and Minnie Fullarton was standing beside me, her face rosy with exercise and her brown hair floating behind her.
"Wha's been vexing you, Archie?" she asked with the quick intuition of womanhood. "The auld man has been spealing aboot me again; has no'?"
It was strange how pretty and mellow the accents were in her mouth which came so raspingly from my father. We sat down on a little green hillock together, her hand in mine, while I told her of our quarrel in the morning.
"You see, they're bent on parting us," I said; "but, indeed, they"ll find they have the wrong man to deal with if they try to frighten me away from you."
"I'm no' worth it, Archiie," she answered, slghing. "I'm ower hamely and simple for one like you that speaks well and is a scholar forbye."
"You're too good and true for any one, Minne," I answered, though in my heart I thought there was some truth in what she said.
"I'Il no' trouble any one lang," she continued, looking earnestly into my face. " I got my call last nicht; I saw a ghaist, Archie."
"Saw a ghost!" I ejaculated.
"Yes, and I doubt it was a call for me. When my cousin Steevie deed he saw one the same way."
"Tell me about it, dear," I said, impressed by her solemnity.
"There's no much to tell: It was last nicht aboot twelve, or maybe one o'clock. I was lying awake thinking o' this and that wi' my een fixed on the window. Suddenly I saw a face looking in at me through the glass—an awfu'-like face, Archie. lt was na the face of any one on the island. I canna tell what it was like—it was just awfu'. lt was there may be a minute looking tae way and tither into the room. I could see the glint o' his very een—for it was a man's face—and his nose was white where it was pressed against the glass. My very blood ran cauld and I couldna scream for fright. The it went awa' as quickly and as sudden as it came."
"Who could it have been?" I exclaimed.
"A wraith or a bogle," said Minnie, positively.
"Are you sure it wasn't Tammy Gibbs?" I suggested.
"Na, na, it wasna Tammy. It was a dark, hard, dour sort of face."
"Well," I said, laughing, "I hope the fellow will give me a look up, whoever he is. l'll soon learn who he is and where he comes from. But we won't talk of it, or you'll be frightening yourself to-night again. It'll be a dreary night as it is."
"A bad nicht for the puir sailors," she answered, sadly, glancing at the dark wrack hurrying up from the northward, and at the white line of breakers on the Winner sands. "I wonder what yon brig is after? Unless it gets roond to Lamlash or Brodick Bay it'll find itself on a nasty coast."
She was watching the trim brigantine which had already attracted my attention. She was still standing off the coast, and evidently expected rough weather, for her foresail had been taken in and her topsail reefed down.
"It's too cold for you up here!" I exclaimed at last, as the clouds covered the sun, and the keen north wind came in more frequent gusts. \We walked back together, until we were close to Carracuil, when she left me, taking the footpath to Corriemains, which was about a mile from our bothy. I hoped that my father had not observed us together. but he met me at the door, foaming with passion. His face was quite livid with rage, and he held his shotgun in his hands. I forget if I mentioned that in spite of his age he was one lof the most powerful men I ever met in my life.
"So you've come!" he roared, shaking the gun at me. " You great gowk —" I did not wait for the string of adjectives which I knew was coming.
"You keep a civil tongue in your head," I said.
"You dare !" he shouted, raising his arm as if to strike me. " You wunna come in here. You can gang back where you come frae!"
"You can go to the devil!" I answered, losing my temper completely, on which he jabbed at me with the butt end of the gun, but I warded it off with my stick. For a moment the devil was busy in me, and my throat was full of oaths, but I choked them clown, and, turning on my heel, walked back to Corriemains, where I spent the day with the Fullartons. It seemed to me that my father, who had long been a miser, was rapidly becoming a madman—and a dangerous one to boot.
My mind was so busy with my grievance that I was poor company, I fear, and drank perhaps more whisky than was good for me. I remember that. I stumbled over a stool once and that Minnie looked surprised and tearful. while old Fullarton sniggered to himself and coughed to hide it. I did not set out for home till half-past nine, which was a very late hour for the island. I knew my father would be asleep, and that if I climbed through my bedroom window I should have one night in peace.
lt was blowing great guns by this time, and I had to put my shoulder against the gale as I came along the winding path which led down to Carracuil. I must still have been under the intluence of liquor, for I remember that I sang uproariously and joined my feeble pipe to the howling of the wind. I had just got to the inclosure of our croft when a little incident occurred which helped to sober me.
White is a color so rare in nature that in an island like ours, where even paper was a precious commodity, it would arrest the attention at once. Something white fluttered across my path and stuck flapping upon a furze bush. I lifted it up and discovered, to my very great surprise, that it was a linen pocket handkerchief—and scented. Now, I was very sure that beyond my own there was no such thing as a white pocket handkerchief in the island. A small community like ours knew each other's wardrobes to a nicety. But as to scent in Uffa—it was preposterous! Who did the handkerchief belong to. then? Was Minnie right. and was there really a stranger in the island? I walked on very thouglitfully, holding my discovery in my hand and thinking of what Minnie had seen the night before.
When I got into my bedroom and lit my rushlight I examined it again. It was clean and new, with the initials "A.W." worked in red silk in the corner. There was no other indication as to who it might belong to, though from its size it was evidently a man's. The incident struck me as so extraordinary that I sat for some time on the side of my bed turning it over in my befuddled mind, but without getting any nearer a conclusion. I might even have taken my father into confidence, but his hoarse snoring in the adjoining room showed that he was fast asleep. It is as well that it was so, for I was in no humour to be bullied, and we might have had words. The old man had little longer to live, and it is some solace to me now that that little was unmarred by any further strife between us. I did not take my clothes off, for my brain was getting swimmy after its temporary clearness, so I dropped my head upon the pillow and sank into profound slumber. I must have slept about four hours when I woke with a violent start. To this day I have never known what it was that roused me. Everything was perfectly still, and yet I found all my faculties in a state of extreme tension. Was there some one in the room?
It was very dark, but I peered about, leaning on my elbow. There was nothing to be seen, but still that eerie feeling haunted me. At that moment the flying scud passed away from the face of the moon and a flood of cold light was poured into my chamber. I turned my eyes up instinctively, and —good God!—there at the window was the face, an evil. malicious face, hard- cut and distinct against the silvery radiance, glaring in at me as Minnie had seen it the night before. For one moment I tingled and palpitated like a frighten ed child; the next both glass and sash were gone and I was rolling over and over on the gravel path with my arms round a tall strong man—the two of us worrying each other like a pair of dogs. Almost by intuition I knew as we went down together that he had slipped his hand into his side pocket, and I clung to that wrist like grim death. He tried hard to free it, but Iwas too strong for him, and we staggered on to our feet again in the same position, panting and snarling.
"Let go of my hand, damn you!" he said.
"Let go that pistol, then" I gasped.
We looked hard at each other in the moonlight, and than he laughed and opened his fingers. A heavy. glittering object, which I could see was a revolver, dropped witha clink on to the gravel. I put my foot on it and let go my grip of him.
"Well, matey, how now," he said with another laugh. "Is that the end of a round or the end of a battle? You islanders seem a hospitable lot.Your're so ready to welcome a. stranger that you can't. wait to find the door, but must; come flying through tho window like infernal fireworks."
"What do you want to come prowling round people's houses at night for, with weapons in your pocket," I asked. sternly.
"I should think I needed a weapon," he answered, "when ther are young devils like you knocking around, HuIlo! here's another of the family."
I turned my heady and there was my father almost at my elbow. He had come round from the front door. His gray woolen night dress and grizzled hair were streaming in the wind, and he was evidently much excited. He had in his hand the double-barreled gun with which he had threatened me in the morning. He put this up to his shoulder, and would most certainly have blown out either my brains or those of the stranger, had I not turned away the barrel with my hand.
"Wait a bit, father," I said, " let us hear what he has to say for himself. And you," I continued, turning to the stranger, "can come inside with us and justify yourselt if you can. But remember we are in a majority, so keep your tongue between your teeth."
"Not so fast, my young bantam," he grumbled; " you've got my six-shooter, but I have a Derringer in my pocket. I learned in Colorado to carry them both. However, come along into this shanty of yours, and let us get the damned palaver over. I'm wet through, and most infernally hungry."
My father was still mumbling to himself and fidgeting with his gun, but he did not oppose my taking the stranger into the house. I struck a match and lit the oil lamp in the kitchen, on which our prisoner stooped down to it and began smoking a cigarette. As the light fell full on his face both my father and I took a good look at him. He was a man of about forty, remarkably handsome, of rather a Spanish type, with blue—black hair and beard, and sun-burned features. His eyes were very bright and their gaze so intense that you would think they projected somewhat, unless you saw him in profile. There was a dash of recklessness and devilry about them, which, with his wiry, powerful frame and jaunty manner, gave the impression of a man whose past had been an adventurous one. He was elegantly dressed in a velveteen jacket and grayish trousers of a foreign cut. Without in the least resenting our prolonged scrutiny. he seated himself upon the dresser, swinging his legs and blowing little blue wreaths from his cigarette. His appearance seemed to reassure my father, or perhaps it was the sight of the rings which flashed on the stranger's left hand every time he raised it to his lips.
"Ye munna mind Archie, Sir," he said in a cringing voice. "He was aye a fashious bairn, ower quick wi' his hands, and wi' mair muscle than brains. I was fashed mysel' wi' the sudden stour, but as tae shootin' at ye, Sir, that was a' an auld man's havers. Nae doobt ye're a veesitor, or maybe it's a shipwreck—it's no' a shipwreck, is't?" The idea awoke the covetous devil in my father's soul, and it looked out through his glistening eyes, and set his long stringy hands a-shaking.
"I came here in a boat," said the stranger shortly. "This was the iirst house I came to after I left the shore, and I'm not likely to forget the reception you have given me. That young hopeful of yours has nearly broken my back."
"A good job too!" I interrupted hotly, "why couldn't you come up to the door like a man, instead of skulking at the window?"
"Hush, Archie, hush !" said my father imploringly; while our visitor grinned across at me as amicably as if my speech had been most conciliatory.
"I don't blame you," he said—he spoke with a strange mixture of accents, sometimes with a foreign lisp, sometimes with a slight Yankee intonation, and at other times very purely indeed. " I have done the same, mate. Maybe you noticed a brigantine standing on and off the shore yesterday?"
I nodded my head.
"That was mine," he said. "I'm owner, skipper, and everything else. Why shouldn't a man spend his money in his own way? I like cruising about and I like new experiences. I suppose there's no harm in that. I was in the Mediterranean last month, but I'm sick of blue skies and fine weather. Chios is a damnable paradise of a place. I've come up here for a little fresh air and freedom. I cruised all down the western isles, and when we came abreast ef this place of yours it rather took my fancy, so I hauled the foreyard aback and came ashore last night to prospect. It wasn't this house I struck, but another further to the west'ard: however, I saw enough to be sure it was a place after my own heart—a real quiet corner. So I went back and set everything straight aboard yesterday, and now here I am. You can put me up for a few weeks, I suppose. I'm not hard to please, and I can pay my way; suppose we say ten dollars a week for board and lodging, and a fortnight to be paid in advance?
He put his hand in his pocket and pro-duced four shining napoleons, which he pushed along the dresser to my father, who grabbed them up eagerly.
"I'm sorry I gave you such a rough reception," I said rather awkwardly. "I was hardly awake at the time."
"Say no more, mate, say no more!" he shouted heartily, holding out his hand and clasping mine. "Hard knocks are nothing new to me. I suppose we may consider the bargain settled then?"
"Ye can bide as lang as ye wull, Sir," answered my father, still fingering the four coins. "Archie and me'll do a' we can to mak' your veesit a pleasant ane. It's no' such a dreary place as ye might think. When the Lamlash boats come in we get the papers and a' the news."
It struck me that the stranger looked anything but overjoyed by this piece of inforniation. "You don't mean to say that you get the papers here," he said.
"O aye, the Scotsman an' the Glasgey Herald. But maybe you would like Archie and me to row ower to your ship in the morn, an' fetch your luggage?
"The brig is fifty miles away by this time," said,our visitor. "She is running before the wind for Marseilles. I told the mate to bring her round again in a month or so. As to luggage, I always travel light in that matter. If a man's purse is only full he can do with very little else. All I have is in a bundle under your window. By the way, my name is Digby—Charles Digby."
"I thought your initials were A.W.," I remarked.
He sprang off the dresser as if he had been stung, and is face turned quite gray for a moment. "What the devil do you mean by that?"' he said.
"I thought this might be yours," I answered, handing him the handkerchief I had found.
'"Oh, is that all !" he said, with rather a forced laugh. "I didn't quite see what you were driving at. That's all right. It belongs to Whittingdale, my second oflicer. l'll keep it until I see him again. And now suppose you give me something to eat, for I'm about famished."
We brought him out such rough fare as was to be found in our larder, and he ate ravenously, and tossed off a stiff glass of whisky and water. Afterward my father showed him into the solitary spare bedroom, with which he professed himself well pleased, and we all settled down for the night. As I went back to my couch I noticed that the gale had freshened up, and I saw long streamers of seaweed flying past my broken window in the moonlight. A great bat fluttered into the room, which is reckoned a sure sign of misfortune in the islands; but I was never superstitious, and let the poor thing find its way out again unmolested.
In the morning it was still blowing a whole gale, though the sky was blue for the most part. Our guest was up betimes, and we walked down to the beach together. It was at sight to see the great rollers sweeping in, overtopping one another like a herd of oxen, and then bursting with a roar, sending the Carracuil pebbles flying before them like grapeshot and filling the whole air with drifting spume.
We were standing together watching the scene, when, looking round, I saw my father hurrying towards us. He had been up and out since early dawn. When he saw us looking he began waving his hands and shouting, but the wind carried his voice sway. We ran towards him, however, seeiing that he was heavy with news.
"The brig's wrecked, and they're all drowned!" he cried as we met him.
"What!" roared our visitor.
If ever I heard exceeding great joy compressed into a monosyllable it vibrated in that one.
"They're a' drowned and naething saved! repeated my father. "Come yoursel' and see."
We followed him across the Combera to the level sends on the other side. They were strewn with wreckage, broken pieces of bulwark and handrail, paneling of a cabin, and an occasional caks. A single large spar was tossing in the waves close to the shore, occasionally shooting up towards the sky like some giant's javelin, then sinking and disappearing in the trough of the great scooping seas. Digby hurried up to the nearest piece of timber, and stooping over It examined it intently.
"By God!" he said at last, taking in a long breath between his teeth, "you are right. It's the Proserpine, and all hands are-lost. What a termble thing!"
His face was very solemn as he spoke, but his eyes danced and glittered. I was beginning to conceive .a great repugnanee and distrust toward this man.
"Is there no chance of any one having got ashore?" he said.
"Na, na, nor cargo neither," my father answered with real grief in his voice. "Ye dinna ken this coast. There's an awful undertow outside the Winners, and it's a' swept round to Holy Isle. De'il take it, if there was to be a shipwreck what for should they no run their ship agroond to the east'ard o' the point and let an honest mun have the pickings instead o' they rascally loons in Arran? An empty barrel might float in here, but there's no chance o' a sea chest, let alane a body."
"Poor fellows!" said Digby. " But there—-we must meet it some day, and why not here and now? I've lost my ship, but, thank heaven, I can buy another. It is sad about them though—very sad. I warned Lamarck that he was waiting too long with a low barometer and an ugly shore under his lee. He has himself to thank. He was my first officer, a prying, covetous, meddlesome hound."
"Don't call him names!" I said. "He's dead."
"Well said, my young prig!" he answered. "Perhaps you wouldn't be so mealy-mouthed yourself if you lost five thousand pounds before breakfast. But there—there's no use crying over spilt rnilk. Vogue la galère! as the French say. Things are never so bad but that they might be worse."
My father and Digby stayed at the scene of the wreck, but I walked over to Corriemains to reassure Minnie's mind as to the apparition at the window. Her opinion, when I had told her all, coincided with mine, that perhaps the crew of the brig knew more about the stranger than he cared for. We agreed that I should keep a close eye upon him without letting him know that he was watched.
"But oh, Archie," she said, “ye munna cross him or anger him while he carries them awfu' weapons. Ye maun be douce and saft, and no' gainsay him·."
I laughed, and promised her to be very prudent, which reassured her a little. Old Fullarton walked back with me in the hope of picking up a piece of timber, and both he an my father patrolled the shore for many days, without, however, finding any prize of importance, for the undercurrent off the Wiinners was very strong, and everything had probably drifted right round to Lamlash Bay, in Arran.
It was wonderful how quickly the stranger accommodated himself to our insular ways, and how useful he made himself about the homesteading. Within a fortnight he knew the island almost as well as I did myself. Had it not been for that one unpleasant recollection of the shipwreck which rankled in my remembrance. I could have found it in my heart to become fond of him. His nature was a tropical one—fiiercely depressed at times, but sunny as a rule, bursting continually into jest and song from pure instinct, in a manner which is unknown among us Northerners. In his graver moments he was a most interesting companion, talking shrewdly and eloquently of men and manners and his own innumerable and strange adventures. I have seldom heard a more brilliant conversationalist. Of an evening he would keep my father and myself spellbound by the kitchen fire for hours and hours, while he chatted away in a desultory fashion and smoked his cigarettes. It seemed to me that the packet he had brought with him on the first night must have consisted en-tirely of tobacco. I noticed that in these conversations, which were mostly addressed to my father, he used, unconsciously perhaps, to play upon the weak side of the old man's nature. Tales of cunning, of smartness, of various ways in which mankind had been cheated and money gained, came most readily to his lips, and were relished by an eager listener. I could not help one night remarkiug upon it, when my father had gone out of the room, laughing hoarsely, and vibrating with amusement over some story of how the Biscayan peasants will strap lanterns to a bullock's horns and, taking the beast some distance inland on a stormy night will make it prance and rear so that the ships at sea may imagine it to be the lights of a vessel, and steer fearlessly in that direction only to find themselves on a rockbound coast.
"You shouldn't tell such tales to an old man," I said.
"My dear fellow," he answered very kindly, "you have seen nothing of the world yet. You have formed fine ideas, no doubt, and notions of delicacy and such things, and you are very dogmatic about them, as clever men of your age always are. I had notions of right and wrong once, but it has been all knocked out of me. It's just a sort of varnish which the rough friction of the world soon rubs off. I started with a whole soul, but there are more gashes and seams and scars in it now than there are in my body, and that's pretty fair, as you'll allow"—with which he pulled open his tunic aud showed me his chest.
"Good heavens!" I said. "How on earth did you get those?"
"This was a bullet," he said, pointing to a deep bluish pucker underneath his collar bone. "I got it behind the barricades in Berlin in eighteen hundred and forty-eight. Langenback said it just missed the subclavian artery. And this," he went on, indicating a pair of curious elliptical scars upon his throat, "was a bite from a Sioux chief, when I was under Custer on the plains—I've got an arrow wound ou my leg from the same party. This is from a mutinous Lascar aboard ship, and the others are mere scratches —Californian vaccination marks. You can excuse my being a little ready with my own irons, though, when I've been dropped so often."
"What's this?" I asked, pointing to a little chamois leather bag which was hung by a strong cord around his neck. "It looks like a charm."
He buttoned up his tunic again hastily, looking extremely disconcerted. "It is nothing," he said brusquely. "I am a Roman Catholic, and it is what we call a scapular."
I could hardly get another word out of him that night, and even next day he was reserved and appeared to avoid me. This little incident made me very thoughtful, the more so as I noticed shortly afterward, when standing over him, that the string was no longer around his neck. Apparently he had taken it off after my remark about it. What could there be in that leather bag which needed such secrecy and precaution! Had I but known it, I would sooner have put my left hand in the fire than have pursued that inquiry.
One of the peculiarities of our visitor was that in all his plans for the future, with which he often regaled us, he seemed entirely untrammeled by any monetary considerations. He would talk in the lightest and most offhand way of schemes which would involve the outlay of much wealth. My father's eyes would glisten as he heard him talk carelessly of sums which in our frugal minds appeared enormous It seemed strange to both of us that a man who by his own confession had been a vagabond and adventurer all his life should he in possession of such a fortune. My father was inclined to put it down to some stroke of luck on the American gold fields. I had my own ideas even then —chaotic and half-formed as yet, but tending in the right direction. It was not long before these suspicions began to assume a more definite shape, which came about in this way. Minnie and I made the summit of the Combera cliff a favorite trystiug place, as I think I mentioned before, and it was rare for a day to pass without our spending two or three hours there. One morning, not long after my chat with our guest, we were seated together in a littlo nook there, which we had chosen as sheltering us from the wind as well as from my father's observation, when Minnie caught sight of Digby walking along the Carracuil beach. He sauntered up to the base of the cliff, which was boulder-studded and slimy from the receding tide, but instead of turning back he kept on climbing over the great green slippery stones, and threading his way among the pools until he was standing immediately beneath us, so that we looked straight down at him. To him the spot must have seemed the very acme of seclusion, with the great sea in front, the rocks on each side and the precipice behind. Even had he looked up he could hardly have made out the two human faces which peered down at him from the distant ledge. He gave a hurried glance around, and then slipping his hand into his pocket he pulled out the leather bag which I had noticed and took out of it a small object which he held in the palm of his hand and looked at long and, as it were, lovingly. We both had an excellent view of it from where we lay. He then replaced it in the bag, and shoving it down to the very bottom of his pocket picked his way back more cheerily than he had come. Minnie and I looked at each other. She was smiling; I was serious. "Did you see it?" I asked.
"Yon? Aye, I saw it,"
"What did you think it was, then?"
"A wee bit of glass," she answered, looking at me with wondering eyes.
"No," I cried excitedly, "glass could never catch the sun's rays so. It was a diamond, and, if I mistake not, one of extraordinary value. It was as large as all I have seen put together, and must be worth a fortune."
A diamond was a mere name to poor, simple Minnie, who had never seen one before, nor had any conception of their value, and she prattled away to me about this and that, but I hardly heard her. In vain she exhausted all her little wiles in attempting to recall my attention. My mind was full of what I had seen. Look where I would, the glistening of the breakers, or the sparkling of the mica-laden rocks, recalled the brilliant facets of the gem which I had seen. I was moody and distraught, and eventually let Minnie walk back to Corriemains by herself, while I made my way to the homesteading. My father and Digby were just sitting down to the midday meal, and the latter hailed me cheerily.
"Come along mate," he cried, pushing over a stool, "we were just wondering what had become of you. Ah! you rogue, I'll bet my bottom dollar it was that pretty wench I saw the other day that kept you."
"Mind your own affairs," I answered angrily.
"Don't be thin skinned," he said, "young people should control their tempers, and you've got a mighty bad one. my lad. Have you heard that I am going to leave you?"
"I'm sorry to hear it," I said frankly; "when do you intend to go?"
"Next week," he answered, "but don't be afraid; you'll see me again. I've had too good a time here to forget you easily. I'm going to buy a good steam yacht—250 tons or thereabouts—and I'll bring her round in a few months and give you a cruise."
"What would be a fair price for a craft of that sort?" I asked.
"Forty thousand dollars," said our visitor carelessly.
"You must very rich," I remarked, "to throw away so much' money on pleasure."
"Rich!" echoed my companion, his southern blood mantling up for a moment. "Rich; why, man, there is hardly a limit—but there, I was romancing a bit. I'm fairly well off, or shall be very shortly."
"How did you make your money?" I asked. The question came so glibly to my lips that I had no time to check it, though I felt the moment afterward that I had made a mistake. Our guest drew himself into himself at once, and took no notice of my query, whilo my father said:
"Hush, Archie laddie, ye munna speer they questions of the gentleman!" I could see, however, from the old man's eager gray eyes, looking out from under the great thatch of his brows, that he was meditating over the same problem himself.
During the next couple of days I hesitated very often as to whether I should tell my father of what I had seen and the opinions I had formed about our visitor; but he forestalled me by making a discovery himself which supplemented mine and explained all that had been dark. It was one day when the stranger was out for a ramble that, entering the kitchen, I found my father sitting by the fire deeply engaged in perusing a newspaper, spelling out the words laboriously and following the lines with his great forefinger. As I came in he crumpled up the paper as if his instinct were to conceal it, but then, spreading it out again on his knee, he beckoned me over to him.
"Wha d'ye think this chiel Digby is?" he asked. I could see by his manner that he was much excited.
"No good," I answered.
"Come here, laddie, come here!" he croaked. "You're a braw scholar. Read this tae me alood—read it and tell me if you dinna think I've fitted the cap on the right heid. It's a Glasgey Herald only four days auld —a Loch Ranza feeshin' boat brought it in the morn. Begin frae here —'Oor Paris Letter.' Here it is. 'Fuller details;' read it a' to me."
I began at the spot indicated, which waa a paragraph of the ordinary French correspondence of the Glasgow paper. It ran in this way:
"Fuller details have now come before the public of the diamond robbery by which the Duchesse de Rochevieille lost her celebrated gem. The diamond is a pure brilliant weighing eighty-three and one-half carats, and is supposed to be the third largest in France and the seventeenth in Europe. It came into the possession of the family through the great-granduncle of the duchess, who fought under Bussy in India, and brought it back to Europe with him. It represented a fortune then, but its value now is simply enormous. It was taken, as will be remembered, from the jewel case of the duchess two months ago during the night, and though the police have made every effort, no real clue has been obtained as to the thief. They are very reticent upon the subject, but it seems that they have reason to suspect one Achille Wolff, an Americanized native of Lorraine, who had called at the chateau a short time before. He is an eccentric man, of bohemian habits, and it is just possible that his sudden disappearance at the time of the robbery may have been a coincidence. In appearance he is described as romantic-looking, with an artistic face, dark eyes and hair, and a brusque manner. A large reward is offered for his capture."
When I finished reading this my father and I sat looking at each other in silence for a minute or so. Then my father jerked his finger over his shoulder. "Yon's him," he said.
"Yes, it must be he," I answered, thinking of the initials on the handkerchief.
Again we were silent for a time. My father took one of the faggots out of the grate and twisted it ahout in his hands. "It maun be a muckle stane," he said. "He canna hae it aboot him. Likely he's left it in France."
"No, he has it with him," I said, like a cursed fool as I was.
"Hoo d'ye ken that?" asked the old man, looking up quickly with eager eyes.
"Because I have seen it."
The faggot which he held broke in two in his grip, but he said nothing more. Shortly afterward our guest came in, and we had dinner, but neither of us alluded to the arrival of the paper.
I heard our visitor give a great scream. I have often been amused, when reading stories told in the first person, to see how the narrator makes himself out, as a matter of course, to be a perfect and spotless man. All around may have their passions and weaknesses and vices, but he remains a cold and blameless nonentity, running like a colorless thread through the tangled skein of the story. I shall not fall into this error. I see myself as I was in those days, shallow-hearted, hot-headed and with little principle of any kiud. Such I was, and such I depict myself.
From the time that I finally identified our visitor Digby with Achille Wolff, the diamond robber, my resolution was taken. Some might have been squeamish in the matter, and thought that because he had shaken their hand and broken their bread he had earned some sort of grace from them. I was not troubled with sentimentality of this sort. He was a criminal escaping from justice. Some providence had thrown him into our hands, and an enormous reward awaited his betrayers. I never hesitated for a moment as to what was to be done.
The more I thought of it the more I admired the cleverness with which he had managed the whole business. He was clear that he had a vessel ready, manned either by confederates or by unsuspecting fishermen. Hence he would be independent of all those parts where the police would be on the lookout for him. Again, if he had made for England or for America, he could hardly have escaped ultimate capture, but by choosing one of the most desolate and lonely spots in Europe he had thrown them off his track for a time, while the destruction of the brig seemed to destroy the last clue to his whereabouts. At present ho was entirely at our mercy, since he could not move from the island without our help. There was no necessity for us to hurry, therefore, and we could mature our plans at our leisure. But my father and I showed no change in our manner toward our guest, and he himself was as cheery and light-hearted as ever. It was pleasant to hear him singing as we mended the nets or calked the boat. His voice was a very high tenor and one of the most melodious I ever listened to. I am convinced that he could have made a name upon the operatic stage, but like most versatile scoundrels he placed small account upon the genuine talents which he possessed, and cultivated the worst portion of his nature. My father used sometimes to eye him sideways in a strange manner, and I thought I knew what he was thinking about—but there I made a mistake.
One day, about a week after our conversation, I was fixing up one of the rails of our fence, which had been snapped in the gale, when my father came along the seashore, plodding heavily among the pebbles, and sat down on a stone at my elbow. I went on knocking in the nails, but looked at him from the corner of my eyes as he pulled away at his short black pipe. I could see that he had something weighty on his mind, for he knitted his brows and his lips projected.
"D'ye mind what was in yon paper?" he said at last, knocking his ashes out against the stone.
"Yes," I answered shortly.
"Well, what's your opeenion?" he asked.
"Why, that we should have the reward, of course!" I replied.
"The reward!" he said with a fierce snarl. "You would tak' the reward. You'd let the stane that's worth thoosands an' thoosands gang awa' back tae some furrin Papist, an a' for the sake o' a few pund that they'd fling till ye, as they fling a bane to a dog when the meat's a' gone. It's a clean flingin' awa o' the gifts o' Providence."
"Well, father," I said, laying down the hammer, "you must be satisfied with what you can get. You can ouly have what is offered."
"But if we got the stane itsel'," whispered my father, with a leer ou his face.
"He'd never give it up," I said.
"But if he deed while he's here—if he was suddenly"
"Drop it, father, drop it!" I cried, for the old man looked like a fiend out of the pit. I saw now what he was aiming at.
"If he deed," he shouted, "wha saw him come, and wha wad speer where he'd ganged till? If an accident happened, if he came by a dud on the heid, or woke some nicht to find a knife at his trapple, wha wad be the wiser?"
"You mustn't speak so, father," I said, though I was thinking many things at the same time.
"It may as well be oot as in," he answered, and went away rather sulkily, turning around after a few yards and holding up his finger toward me to impress the necessity of caution.
My father did not speak of this matter to me again, but what he said rankled in my mind. I could hardly realize that he meant his words, for he had always, as far as I knew, been an upright, righteous man, hard in his ways and grasping in his nature, but guiltless of any great sin. Perhaps it was that he was removed from temptation, for isothermal lines of crime might be drawn on the map through places where it is hard to walk straight, and there are others where it is as hard to fall. It was easy to be a saint in the Island of Uffa.
One day we were finishing breakfast when our guest asked if the boat was mended (one of the tholepins had been broken). I answered that it was.
"I want you two," he said, "to take me round to Lamlash to-day. You shall have a couple of sovereigns for tho job. I don't know that I may not come back with you—but I may stay."
My eyes met those of my father for a flash. "There's no' vera much wind," he said.
"What there is is in the right direction," returned Digby, as I must call him.
"The new foresail has no' been bent," persisted my father.
"There's no use throwing difficulties in the way," said our visitor angrily. "If you won't come, I'll get Tommy Gibbs and his father, but go I shall. Is it a bargain or not?"
"I'll gang," my father replied sullenly, and went down to get the boat ready. I followed, and helped him to bend on the new foresail. I felt nervous and excited.
"What do you intend to do?" I asked.
"I dinna ken," he said irritably. "Gin the worst come to the worst we can gie him up at Lamlash—but oh, it wad be a peety, an awfu' peety. You're young an strong, laddie; can we no' master him between us?"
"No," I said, "I'm ready to give him up, but I'm damned if I lay a hand on him."
"You're a cooardly, white livered loon!" he cried, but I was not to be moved by taunts, and left him mumbling to himself and picking at the sail with nervous fingers. It was about two o'clock before tho boat was ready, but as there was a slight breeze from the north we reckoned on reaching Lamlash before nightfall. There was just a pleasant ripple upon the dark blue water, and as we stood on the beach before shoving off we could see the Carlin's Leap and Goatfell bathed in a purple mist, while beyond them along the horizon loomed the long line of the Argyleshire hills. Away to the south the great bald summit of Ailsa Crag glittered in the sun, and a single white fleck showed where a fishing boat was beating up from the Scotch coast. Digby and I stepped into the boat, but my father ran back to where I had been mending the rails and came back with the hatchet in his hand, which he stowed away under the thwarts.
"What d'ye want with the axe?" our visitor asked.
"It's a handy thing to hae aboot a boat," my father answered with averted eyes, and shoved us off. We set the foresail, jib and mainsail and shot away across the Roost, with the blue water splashing merrily under our bows. Looking back I saw the coast line of our little island extend rapidly on either side. There was Carravoe which we had left, and our own beach of Carracuil, and the steep, brown face of the Coinbera, and away behind the rugged crests of Beg-na-phail and Beg-na-sacher I could see the red tiles of the byre of our homesteading, and across the moor a thin blue reek in the air which marked the position of Corriemains. My heart warmed toward the place which had been my home since childhood.
We were about half way across the Roost when it fell a dead calm, and the sails flapped against the mast. We were perfectly motionless except for the drift of the current, which runs from north to south. I had been steering and my father managing the sails, while the stranger smoked his eternal cigarettes and admired the scenery; but at his suggestion we now got the sculls out to row. I shall never know how it began, but as I was stooping down to pick up an oar I heard our visitor give a great scream that he was murdered, aud looking up I saw him with his face all in a sputter of blood leaning against the mast, while my father made at him with the hatchet. Before I could move hand or foot Digby rushed at the old man and caught him round the waist. "You gray-headed devil," he cried in a husky voice, "I feel that you have done for me; but you'll never get what you want. No— never! never! never!" Nothing can ever erase from my memory the intense and concentrated malice of those words. My father gave a raucous cry, they swayed and balanced for a moment, and then over they went into the sea. I rushed to the side, boathook in hand, but they never came up. As the long rings caused by the splash widened out, however, and left an unruffled space in the center, I saw them once again. The water was very clear, and far, far down I could see the shimmer of two white faces coming and going, faces which seemed to look up at me with an expression of unutterable horror. Slowly they went down, revolving in each other's embrace until they were nothing but a dark loom and then faded from my view forever. There they shall lie, the Frenchman and the Scot, till the great trumpet shall sound, and the sea give up its dead. Storms may rage above them and great ships labor and creak, but their slumber shall be dreamless and unruffled in the silent green depths of the Roost of Uffa. I trust when the great day shall come that they will bring up the cursed stone with them that they may show the sore temptation which the devil had placed in their way as some slight extenuation of their errors while in this mortal flesh.
It was a weary and lonesome journey back to Carravoe. I remember tug- tugging at the oars as though to snap them in trying to relieve the tension of my mind. Towards evening a breeze sprang up and helped me on my way, and before nightfall I was back in the lonely homesteading once more, and all that had passed that Spring afternoon lay behind me like some horrible nightmare.
I did not remain in Uffa. The croft and the boat were sold by public roup in the market place of Androssan, and the sum realized was sufficient to enable me to continue my medical studies at the university. I fled from the island as from a cursed place, nor did I ever set foot on it again. Gibbs and his son, and even Minnie Fullarton, too, passed out of my life completely and forever. She missed me for a time no doubt, but I have heard that young McBane, who took the farm, went a-wooing to Corriemains after the white-fishing, and, as he was a comely fellow enough, he may have consoled her for my loss. As for myself, I have settled quietly down into a large middle-class practice in Paisley. It has been in the brief intervals of professional work that I have jotted down these reminiscences of the events which lead up to my father's death. Achille Wolff and the Rochevieille diamond are things of the past now, but there may be some who will care to hear of how they visited the Island of Uffa.
It was a dull October morning, and heavy, rolling fog-wreaths lay low over the wet grey roofs of the Woolwich houses. Down in the long, brick-lined streets all was sodden and greasy and cheerless. From the high dark buildings of the arsenal came the whirr of many wheels, the thudding of weights, and the buzz and babel of human toil. Beyond, the dwellings of the workingmen, smoke-stained and unlovely, radiated away in a lessening perspective of narrowing road and dwindling wall.
There were few folk in the streets, for the toilers had all been absorbed since break of day by the huge smoke-spouting monster, which sucked in the manhood of the town, to belch it forth weary and work-stained every night. Little groups of children straggled to school, or loitered to peep through the single, front windows at the big, gilt-edged Bibles, balanced upon small, three-legged tables, which were their usual adornment. Stout women, with thick, red arms and dirty aprons, stood upon the whitened doorsteps, leaning upon their brooms, and shrieking their morning greetings across the road. One stouter, redder, and dirtier than the rest, had gathered a small knot of cronies around her and was talking energetically, with little shrill titters from her audience to punctuate her remarks.
"Old enough to know better!" she cried, in answer to an exclamation from one of the listeners. "If he hain't no sense now, I 'specs he won't learn much on this side o'Jordan. Why, 'ow old is he at all? Blessed if I could ever make out."
"Well, it ain't so hard to reckon," said a sharp-featured pale-faced woman with watery blue eyes. "He's been at the battle o' Waterloo, and has the pension and medal to prove it."
"That were a ter'ble long time agone," remarked a third. "It were afore I were born."
"It were fifteen year after the beginnin' of the century," cried a younger woman, who had stood leaning against the wall, with a smile of superior knowledge upon her face. "My Bill was a-saying so last Sabbath, when I spoke to him o' old Daddy Brewster, here."
"And suppose he spoke truth, Missus Simpson, 'ow long agone do that make it?"
"It's eighty-one now," said the original speaker, checking off the years upon her coarse red fingers, "and that were fifteen. Ten and ten, and ten, and ten, and ten—why, it's only sixty-and-six year, so he ain't so old after all."
"But he weren't a newborn babe at the battle, silly!" cried the young woman with a chuckle. "S'pose he were only twenty, then he couldn't be less than six-and-eighty now, at the lowest."
"Aye, he's that—every day of it," cried several.
"I've had 'bout enough of it," remarked the large woman gloomily. "Unless his young niece, or grandniece, or whatever she is, come to-day, I'm off, and he can find some one else to do his work. Your own 'ome first, says I."
"Ain't he quiet, then, Missus Simpson?" asked the youngest of the group.
"Listen to him now," she answered, with her hand half raised and her head turned slantwise towards the open door. From the upper floor there came a shuffling, sliding sound with a sharp tapping of a stick. "There he go back and forrards, doing what he call his sentry go. 'Arf the night through he's at that game, the silly old juggins. At six o'clock this very mornin there he was beatin' with a stick at my door. 'Turn out, guard!' he cried, and a lot more jargon that I could make nothing of. Then what with his coughin' and 'awkin' and spittin', there ain't no gettin' a wink o' sleep. Hark to him now!"
"Missus Simpson, Missus Simpson!" cried a cracked and querulous voice from above.
"That's him!" she cried, nodding her head with an air of triumph. "He do go on somethin' scandalous. Yes, Mr. Brewster, sir."
"I want my morning ration, Missus Simpson."
"It's just ready, Mr. Brewster, sir."
"Blessed if he ain't like a baby cryin' for its pap," said the young woman.
"I feel as if I could shake his old bones up sometimes!" cried Mrs. Simpson viciously. "But who's for a 'arf of fourpenny?"
The whole company were about to shuffle off to the public house, when a young girl stepped across the road and touched the housekeeper timidly upon the arm. "I think that is No. 56 Arsenal View," she said. "Can you tell me if Mr. Brewster lives here?"
The housekeeper looked critically at the newcomer. She was a girl of about twenty, broad-faced and comely, with a turned-up nose and large, honest grey eyes. Her print dress, her straw hat, with its bunch of glaring poppies, and the bundle she carried, had all a smack of the country.
"You're Norah Brewster, I s'pose," said Mrs. Simpson, eyeing her up and down with no friendly gaze.
"Yes, I've come to look after my Granduncle Gregory."
"And a good job too," cried the housekeeper, with a toss of her head. "It's about time that some of his own folk took a turn at it, for I've had enough of it. There you are, young woman! In you go and make yourself at home. There's tea in the caddy and bacon on the dresser, and the old man will be about you if you don't fetch him his breakfast. I'll send for my things in the evenin'." With a nod she strolled off with her attendant gossips in the direction of the public house.
Thus left to her own devices, the country girl walked into the front room and took off her hat and jacket. It was a low-roofed apartment with a sputtering fire upon which a small brass kettle was singing cheerily. A stained cloth lay over half the table, with an empty brown teapot, a loaf of bread, and some coarse crockery. Norah Brewster looked rapidly about her, and in an instant took over her new duties. Ere five minutes had passed the tea was made, two slices of bacon were frizzling on the pan, the table was rearranged, the antimacassars straightened over the sombre brown furniture, and the whole room had taken a new air of comfort and neatness. This done she looked round curiously at the prints upon the walls. Over the fireplace, in a small, square case, a brown medal caught her eye, hanging from a strip of purple ribbon. Beneath was a slip of newspaper cutting. She stood on her tiptoes, with her fingers on the edge of the mantelpiece, and craned her neck up to see it, glancing down from time to time at the bacon which simmered and hissed beneath her. The cutting was yellow with age, and ran in this way:
"On Tuesday an interesting ceremony was performed at the barracks of the Third Regiment of Guards, when, in the presence of the Prince Regent, Lord Hill, Lord Saltoun, and an assemblage which comprised beauty as well as valour, a special medal was presented to Corporal Gregory Brewster, of Captain Haldane's flank company, in recognition of his gallantry in the recent great battle in the Lowlands. It appears that on the ever-memorable 18th of June four companies of the Third Guards and of the Coldstreams, under the command of Colonels Maitland and Byng, held the important farmhouse of Hougoumont at the right of the British position. At a critical point of the action these troops found themselves short of powder. Seeing that Generals Foy and Jerome Buonaparte were again massing their infantry for an attack on the position, Colonel Byng dispatched Corporal Brewster to the rear to hasten up the reserve ammunition. Brewster came upon two powder tumbrils of the Nassau division, and succeeded, after menacing the drivers with his musket, in inducing them to convey their powder to Hougoumont. In his absence, however, the hedges surrounding the position had been set on fire by a howitzer battery of the French, and the passage of the carts full of powder became a most hazardous matter. The first tumbril exploded, blowing the driver to fragments. Daunted by the fate of his comrade, the second driver turned his horses, but Corporal Brewster, springing upon his seat, hurled the man down, and urging the powder cart through the flames, succeeded in forcing his way to his companions. To this gallant deed may be directly attributed the success of the British arms, for without powder it would have been impossible to have held Hougoumont, and the Duke of Wellington had repeatedly declared that had Hougoumont fallen, as well as La Haye Sainte, he would have found it impossible to have held his ground. Long may the heroic Brewster live to treasure the medal which he has so bravely won, and to look back with pride to the day when, in the presence of his comrades, he received this tribute to his valour from the august hands of the first gentleman of the realm."
The reading of this old cutting increased in the girl's mind the veneration which she had always had for her warrior kinsman. From her infancy he had been her hero, and she remembered how her father used to speak of his courage and his strength, how he could strike down a bullock with a blow of his fist and carry a fat sheep under either arm. True, she had never seen him, but a rude painting at home which depicted a square-faced, clean shaven, stalwart man with a great bearskin cap, rose ever before her memory when she thought of him.
She was still gazing at the brown medal and wondering what the "Dulce et decorum est" might mean, which was inscribed upon the edge, when there came a sudden tapping and shuffling upon the stair, and there at the door was standing the very man who had been so often in her thoughts.
But could this indeed be he? Where was the martial air, the flashing eye, the warrior face which she had pictured? There, framed in the doorway, was a huge twisted old man, gaunt and puckered, with twitching hands and shuffling, purposeless feet. A cloud of fluffy white hair, a red-veined nose, two thick tufts of eyebrow and a pair of dimly questioning, watery blue eyes— these were what met her gaze. He leaned forward upon a stick, while his shoulders rose and fell with his crackling, rasping breathing.
"I want my morning rations," he crooned, as he stumped forward to his chair. "The cold nips me without 'em. See to my fingers!" He held out his distorted hands, all blue at the tips, wrinkled and gnarled, with huge, projecting knuckles.
"It's nigh ready," answered the girl, gazing at him with wonder in her eyes. "Don't you know who I am, granduncle? I am Norah Brewster from Witham."
"Rum is warm," mumbled the old man, rocking to and fro in his chair, "and schnapps is warm, and there's 'eat in soup, but it's a dish o' tea for me. What did you say your name was?"
"You can speak out, lass. Seems to me folk's voices isn't as loud as they used."
"I'm Norah Brewster, uncle. I'm your grandniece come down from Essex way to live with you."
"You'll be brother Jarge's girl! Lor, to think o' little Jarge having a girl!" He chuckled hoarsely to himself, and the long, stringy sinews of his throat jerked and quivered.
"I am the daughter of your brother George's son," said she, as she turned the bacon.
"Lor, but little Jarge was a rare un!" he continued. "Eh, by Jimini, there was no chousing Jarge. He's got a bull pup o' mine that I gave him when I took the bounty. You've heard him speak of it, likely?"
"Why, grandpa George has been dead this twenty year," said she, pouring out the tea.
"Well, it was a bootiful pup—aye, a well-bred un, by Jimini! I'm cold for lack o' my rations. Rum is good, and so is schnapps, but I'd as lief have tea as either."
He breathed heavily while he devoured his food. "It's a middlin' goodish way you've come," said he at last. "Likely the stage left yesternight."
"The what, uncle?"
"The coach that brought you."
"Nay, I came by the mornin' train."
"Lor, now, think o' that! You ain't afeard o' those newfangled things! By Jimini, to think of you comin' by railroad like that! What's the world a-comin' to!"
There was silence for some minutes while Norah sat stirring her tea and glancing sideways at the bluish lips and champing jaws of her companion.
"You must have seen a deal o' life, uncle," said she. "It must seem a long, long time to you!"
"Not so very long neither. I'm ninety, come Candlemas; but it don't seem long since I took the bounty. And that battle, it might have been yesterday. Eh, but I get a power o' good from my rations!" He did indeed look less worn and colourless than when she first saw him. His face was flushed and his back more erect.
"Have you read that?" he asked, jerking his head towards the cutting.
"Yes, uncle, and I'm sure you must be proud of it."
"Ah, it was a great day for me! A great day! The Regent was there, and a fine body of a man too! 'The ridgment is proud of you,' says he. 'And I'm proud of the ridgment,' say I. 'A damned good answer too!' says he to Lord Hill, and they both bu'st out a-laughin'. But what be you a-peepin' out o' the window for?"
"Oh, uncle, here's a regiment of soldiers coming down the street with the band playing in front of them."
"A ridgment, eh? Where be my glasses? Lor, but I can hear the band, as plain as plain! Here's the pioneers an' the drum-major! What be their number, lass?" His eyes were shining and his bony yellow fingers, like the claws of some fierce old bird, dug into her shoulder.
"They don't seem to have no number, uncle. They've something wrote on their shoulders. Oxfordshire, I think it be."
"Ah, yes!" he growled. "I heard as they'd dropped the numbers and given them newfangled names. There they go, by Jimini! They're young mostly, but they hain't forgot how to march. They have the swing-aye, I'll say that for them. They've got the swing." He gazed after them until the last files had turned the corner and the measured tramp of their marching had died away in the distance.
He had just regained his chair when the door opened and a gentleman stepped in.
"Ah, Mr. Brewster! Better to-day?" he asked.
"Come in, doctor! Yes, I'm better. But there's a deal o' bubbling in my chest. It's all them toobes. If I could but cut the phlegm, I'd be right. Can't you give me something to cut the phlegm?"
The doctor, a grave-faced young man, put his fingers to the furrowed, blue-corded wrist.
"You must be careful," he said. "You must take no liberties." The thin tide of life seemed to thrill rather than to throb under his finger.
The old man chuckled.
"I've got brother Jarge's girl to look after me now. She'll see I don't break barracks or do what I hadn't ought to. Why, darn my skin, I knew something was amiss!
"Why, with them soldiers. You saw them pass, doctor—eh? They'd forgot their stocks. Not one on 'em had his stock on." He croaked and chuckled for a long time over his discovery. "It wouldn't ha' done for the Dook!" he muttered. "No, by Jimini! the Dook would ha' had a word there."
The doctor smiled. "Well, you are doing very well," said he. "I'll look in once a week or so, and see how you are." As Norah followed him to the door, he beckoned her outside.
"He is very weak," he whispered. "If you find him failing you must send for me."
"What ails him, doctor?"
"Ninety years ails him. His arteries are pipes of lime. His heart is shrunken and flabby. The man is worn out."
Norah stood watching the brisk figure of the young doctor, and pondering over these new responsibilities which had come upon her. When she turned a tall, brown-faced artilleryman, with the three gold chevrons of sergeant upon his arm, was standing, carbine in hand, at her elbow.
"Good-morning, miss," said he, raising one thick finger to his jaunty, yellow-banded cap. "I b'lieve there's an old gentleman lives here of the name of Brewster, who was engaged in the battle o' Waterloo?"
"It's my granduncle, sir," said Norah, casting down her eyes before the keen, critical gaze of the young soldier. "He is in the front parlour."
"Could I have a word with him, miss? I'll call again if it don't chance to be convenient."
"I am sure that he would be very glad to see you, sir. He's in here, if you'll step in. Uncle, here's a gentleman who wants to speak with you."
"Proud to see you, sir—proud and glad, sir," cried the sergeant, taking three steps forward into the room, and grounding his carbine while he raised his hand, palm forwards, in a salute. Norah stood by the door, with her mouth and eyes open, wondering if her granduncle had ever, in his prime, looked like this magnificent creature, and whether he, in his turn, would ever come to resemble her granduncle.
The old man blinked up at his visitor, and shook his head slowly. "Sit ye down, sergeant," said he, pointing with his stick to a chair. "You're full young for the stripes. Lordy, it's easier to get three now than one in my day. Gunners were old soldiers then and the grey hairs came quicker than the three stripes."
"I am eight years' service, sir," cried the sergeant. "Macdonald is my name—Sergeant Macdonald, of H Battery, Southern Artillery Division. I have called as the spokesman of my mates at the gunner's barracks to say that we are proud to have you in the town, sir."
Old Brewster chuckled and rubbed his bony hands. "That were what the Regent said," he cried. "'The ridgment is proud of ye,' says he. 'And I am proud of the ridgment,' says I. 'And a damned good answer too,' says he, and he and Lord Hill bu'st out a-laughin'."
"The non-commissioned mess would be proud and honoured to see you, sir," said Sergeant Macdonald; "and if you could step as far you'll always find a pipe o' baccy and a glass o' grog a-waitin' you."
The old man laughed until he coughed. "Like to see me, would they? The dogs!" said he. "Well, well, when the warm weather comes again I'll maybe drop in. Too grand for a canteen, eh? Got your mess just the same as the orficers. What's the world a-comin' to at all!"
"You was in the line, sir, was you not?" asked the sergeant respectfully.
"The line?" cried the old man, with shrill scorn. "Never wore a shako in my life. I am a guardsman, I am. Served in the Third Guards—the same they call now the Scots Guards. Lordy, but they have all marched away— every man of them—from old Colonel Byng down to the drummer boys, and here am I a straggler—that's what I am, sergeant, a straggler! I'm here when I ought to be there. But it ain't my fault neither, for I'm ready to fall in when the word comes."
"We've all got to muster there," answered the sergeant. "Won't you try my baccy, sir?" handing over a sealskin pouch.
Old Brewster drew a blackened clay pipe from his pocket, and began to stuff the tobacco into the bowl. In an instant it slipped through his fingers, and was broken to pieces on the floor. His lip quivered, his nose puckered up, and he began crying with the long, helpless sobs of a child. "I've broke my pipe," he cried.
"Don't, uncle; oh, don't!" cried Norah, bending over him, and patting his white head as one soothes a baby. "It don't matter. We can easy get another."
"Don't you fret yourself, sir," said the sergeant. "'Ere's a wooden pipe with an amber mouth, if you'll do me the honour to accept it from me. I'd be real glad if you will take it."
"Jimini!" cried he, his smiles breaking in an instant through his tears. "It's a fine pipe. See to my new pipe, Norah. I lay that Jarge never had a pipe like that. You've got your firelock there, sergeant?"
"Yes, sir. I was on my way back from the butts when I looked in."
"Let me have the feel of it. Lordy, but it seems like old times to have one's hand on a musket. What's the manual, sergeant, eh? Cock your firelock —look to your priming—present your firelock—eh, sergeant? Oh, Jimini, I've broke your musket in halves!"
"That's all right, sir," cried the gunner laughing. "You pressed on the lever and opened the breech-piece. That's where we load 'em, you know."
"Load 'em at the wrong end! Well, well, to think o' that! And no ramrod neither! I've heard tell of it, but I never believed it afore. Ah! it won't come up to brown Bess. When there's work to be done, you mark my word and see if they don't come back to brown Bess."
"By the Lord, sir!" cried the sergeant hotly, "they need some change out in South Africa now. I see by this mornin's paper that the Government has knuckled under to these Boers. They're hot about it at the non-com. mess, I can tell you, sir."
"Eh—eh," croaked old Brewster. "By Jimini! it wouldn't ha' done for the Dook; the Dook would ha' had a word to say over that."
"Ah, that he would, sir!" cried the sergeant; and God send us another like him. But I've wearied you enough for one sitting. I'll look in again, and I'll bring a comrade or two with me, if I may, for there isn't one but would be proud to have speech with you."
So, with another salute to the veteran and a gleam of white teeth at Norah, the big gunner withdrew, leaving a memory of blue cloth and of gold braid behind him. Many days had not passed, however, before he was back again, and during all the long winter he was a frequent visitor at Arsenal View. There came a time, at last, when it might be doubted to which of the two occupants his visits were directed, nor was it hard to say by which he was most anxiously awaited. He brought others with him; and soon, through all the lines, a pilgrimage to Daddy Brewster's came to be looked upon as the proper thing to do. Gunners and sappers, linesmen and dragoons, came bowing and bobbing into the little parlour, with clatter of side arms and clink of spurs, stretching their long legs across the patchwork rug, and hunting in the front of their tunics for the screw of tobacco or paper of snuff which they had brought as a sign of their esteem.
It was a deadly cold winter, with six weeks on end of snow on the ground, and Norah had a hard task to keep the life in that time-worn body. There were times when his mind would leave him, and when, save an animal outcry when the hour of his meals came round, no word would fall from him. He was a white- haired child, with all a child's troubles and emotions. As the warm weather came once more, however, and the green buds peeped forth again upon the trees, the blood thawed in his veins, and he would even drag himself as far as the door to bask in the life-giving sunshine.
"It do hearten me up so," he said one morning, as he glowed in the hot May sun. "It's a job to keep back the flies, though. They get owdacious in this weather, and they do plague me cruel."
"I'll keep them off you, uncle," said Norah.
"Eh, but it's fine! This sunshine makes me think o' the glory to come. You might read me a bit o' the Bible, lass. I find it wonderful soothing."
"What part would you like, uncle?"
"Oh, them wars."
"Aye, keep to the wars! Give me the Old Testament for choice. There's more taste to it, to my mind. When parson comes he wants to get off to something else; but it's Joshua or nothing with me. Them Israelites was good soldiers —good growed soldiers, all of 'em."
"But, uncle," pleaded Norah, "it's all peace in the next world."
"No, it ain't, gal."
"Oh, yes, uncle, surely!"
The old corporal knocked his stick irritably upon the ground. "I tell ye it ain't, gal. I asked parson."
"Well, what did he say?"
"He said there was to be a last fight. He even gave it a name, he did. The battle of Arm—Arm—"
"Aye, that's the name parson said. I 'specs the Third Guards'll be there. And the Dook—the Dook'll have a word to say."
An elderly, grey-whiskered gentleman had been walking down the street, glancing up at the numbers of the houses. Now as his eyes fell upon the old man, he came straight for him.
"Hullo!" said he; "perhaps you are Gregory Brewster?"
"My name, sir," answered the veteran.
"You are the same Brewster, as I understand, who is on the roll of the Scots Guards as having been present at the battle of Waterloo?"
"I am that man, sir, though we called it the Third Guards in those days. It was a fine ridgment, and they only need me to make up a full muster."
"Tut, tut! they'll have to wait years for that," said the gentleman heartily. "But I am the colonel of the Scots Guards, and I thought I would like to have a word with you."
Old Gregory Brewster was up in an instant, with his hand to his rabbit- skin cap. "God bless me!" he cried, "to think of it! to think of it!"
"Hadn't the gentleman better come in?" suggested the practical Norah from behind the door.
"Surely, sir, surely; walk in, sir, if I may be so bold." In his excitement he had forgotten his stick, and as he led the way into the parlour his knees tottered, and he threw out his hands. In an instant the colonel had caught him on one side and Norah on the other.
"Easy and steady," said the colonel, as he led him to his armchair.
"Thank ye, sir; I was near gone that time. But, Lordy I why, I can scarce believe it. To think of me the corporal of the flank company and you the colonel of the battalion! How things come round, to be sure!"
"Why, we are very proud of you in London," said the colonel. "And so you are actually one of the men who held Hougoumont." He looked at the bony, trembling hands, with their huge, knotted knuckles, the stringy throat, and the heaving, rounded shoulders. Could this, indeed, be the last of that band of heroes? Then he glanced at the half-filled phials, the blue liniment bottles, the long-spouted kettle, and the sordid details of the sick room. "Better, surely, had he died under the blazing rafters of the Belgian farmhouse," thought the colonel.
"I hope that you are pretty comfortable and happy," he remarked after a pause.
"Thank ye, sir. I have a good deal o' trouble with my toobes—a deal o' trouble. You wouldn't think the job it is to cut the phlegm. And I need my rations. I gets cold without 'em. And the flies! I ain't strong enough to fight against them."
"How's the memory?" asked the colonel.
"Oh, there ain't nothing amiss there. Why, sir, I could give you the name of every man in Captain Haldane's flank company."
"And the battle—you remember it?"
"Why, I sees it all afore me every time I shuts my eyes. Lordy, sir, you wouldn't hardly believe how clear it is to me. There's our line from the paregoric bottle right along to the snuff box. D'ye see? Well, then, the pill box is for Hougoumont on the right—where we was—and Norah's thimble for La Haye Sainte. There it is, all right, sir; and here were our guns, and here behind the reserves and the Belgians. Ach, them Belgians!" He spat furiously into the fire. "Then here's the French, where my pipe lies; and over here, where I put my baccy pouch, was the Proosians a-comin' up on our left flank. Jimini, but it was a glad sight to see the smoke of their guns!"
"And what was it that struck you most now in connection with the whole affair?" asked the colonel.
"I lost three half-crowns over it, I did," crooned old Brewster. "I shouldn't wonder if I was never to get that money now. I lent 'em to Jabez Smith, my rear rank man, in Brussels. 'Only till pay-day, Grig,' says he. By Gosh! he was stuck by a lancer at Quatre Bras, and me with not so much as a slip o' paper to prove the debt! Them three half-crowns is as good as lost to me."
The colonel rose from his chair laughing. "The officers of the Guards want you to buy yourself some little trifle which may add to your comfort," he said. "It is not from me, so you need not thank me." He took up the old man's tobacco pouch and slipped a crisp banknote inside it.
"Thank ye kindly, sir. But there's one favour that I would like to ask you, colonel."
"Yes, my man."
"If I'm called, colonel, you won't grudge me a flag and a firing party? I'm not a civilian; I'm a guardsman—I'm the last of the old Third Guards."
"All right, my man, I'll see to it," said the colonel. "Good-bye; I hope to have nothing but good news from you."
"A kind gentleman, Norah," croaked old Brewster, as they saw him walk past the window; "but, Lordy, he ain't fit to hold the stirrup o' my Colonel Byng!"
It was on the very next day that the old corporal took a sudden change for the worse. Even the golden sunlight streaming through the window seemed unable to warm that withered frame. The doctor came and shook his head in silence. All day the man lay with only his puffing blue lips and the twitching of his scraggy neck to show that he still held the breath of life. Norah and Sergeant Macdonald had sat by him in the afternoon, but he had shown no consciousness of their presence. He lay peacefully, his eyes half closed, his hands under his cheek, as one who is very weary.
They had left him for an instant and were sitting in the front room, where Norah was preparing tea, when of a sudden they heard a shout that rang through the house. Loud and clear and swelling, it pealed in their ears —a voice full of strength and energy and fiery passion. "The Guards need powder!" it cried; and yet again, "The Guards need powder!"
The sergeant sprang from his chair and rushed in, followed by the trembling Norah. There was the old man standing up, his blue eyes sparkling, his white hair bristling, his whole figure towering and expanding, with eagle head and glance of fire. "The Guards need powder!" he thundered once again, "and, by God, they shall have it!" He threw up his long arms, and sank back with a groan into his chair. The sergeant stooped over him, and his face darkened.
"Oh, Archie, Archie," sobbed the frightened girl, "what do you think of him?"
The sergeant turned away. "I think," said he, "that the Third Guards have a full muster now."
Mrs. Esdaile, of the Lindens, Birchespool, was a lady of quite remarkable scientific attainments. As honorary secretary of the ladies' branch of the local Eclectic Society, she shone with a never-failing brilliance. It was even whispered that on the occasion of the delivery of Professor Tomlinson's suggestive lecture "On the Perigenesis of the Plastidule" she was the only woman in the room who could follow the lecturer even as far as the end of his title. In the seclusion of the Lindens she supported Darwin, laughed at Mivart, doubted Haeckel, and shook her head at Weissman, with a familiarity which made her the admiration of the University professors and the terror of the few students who ventured to cross her learned but hospitable threshold. Mrs. Esdaile had, of course, detractors. It is the privilege of exceptional merit. There were bitter feminine whispers as to the cramming from encyclopzedias and text-books which preceded each learned meeting, and as to the care with which in her own house the conversation was artfully confined to those particular channels with which the hostess was familiar. Tales there were, too, of brilliant speeches written out in some masculine hand, which had been committed to memory by the ambitious lady, and had afterwards flashed out as extempore elucidations of some dark, half-explored corner of modern science. It was even said that these little blocks of information got jumbled up occasionally in their bearer's mind, so that after an entomological lecture she would burst into a geological harangue, or vice versa, to the great confusion of her audience. So ran the gossip of the malicious, but those who knew her best were agreed that she was a very charming and clever little person.
It would have been a strange thing had Mrs. Esdaile not been popular among local scientists, for her pretty house, her charming grounds, and all the hospitality which an income of two thousand a year will admit of, were always at their command. On her pleasant lawns in the summer, and round her drawing- room fire in the winter, there was much high talk of microbes, and leucocytes, and sterilised bacteria, where thin, ascetic materialists from the University upheld the importance of this life against round, comfortable champions of orthodoxy from the Cathedral Close. And in the heat of thrust and parry, when scientific proof ran full tilt against inflexible faith, a word from the clever widow, or an opportune rattle over the keys by her pretty daughter Rose, would bring all back to harmony once more.
Rose Esdaile had just passed her twentieth year, and was looked upon as one of the beauties of Birchespool. Her face was, perhaps, a trifle long for perfect symmetry, but her eyes were fine, her expression kindly, and her complexion beautiful. It was an open secret, too, that she had under her father's will five hundred a year in her own right. With such advantages a far plainer girl than Rose Esdaile might create a stir in the society of a provincial town.
A scientific conversazione in a private house is an onerous thing to organise, yet mother and daughter had not shrunk from the task. On the morning of which I write, they sat together surveying their accomplished labours, with the pleasant feeling that nothing remained to be done save to receive the congratulations of their friends. With the assistance of Rupert, the son of the house, they had assembled from all parts of Birchespool objects of scientific interest, which now adorned the long tables in the drawing-room. Indeed, the full tide of curiosities of every sort which had swelled into the house had overflowed the rooms devoted to the meeting, and had surged down the broad stairs to invade the dining-room and the passage. The whole villa had become a museum. Specimens of the flora and fauna of the Philippine Islands, a ten-foot turtle carapace from the Gallapagos, the os frontis of the Bos montis as shot by Captain Charles Beesly in the Thibetan Himalayas, the bacillus of Koch cultivated on gelatine—these and a thousand other such trophies adorned the tables upon which the two ladies gazed that morning.
"You've really managed it splendidly, ma," said the young lady, craning her neck up to give her mother a congratulatory kiss. "It was so brave of you to undertake it."
"I think that it will do," purred Mrs. Esdaile complacently. "But I do hope that the phonograph will work without a hitch. You know at the last meeting of the British Association I got Professor Standerton to repeat into it his remarks on the life history of the Medusiform Gonophore."
"How funny it seems," exclaimed Rose, glancing at the square box-like apparatus, which stood in the post of honour on the central table, "to think that this wood and metal will begin to speak just like a human being."
"Hardly that, dear. Of course the poor thing can say nothing except what is said to it. You always know exactly what is coming. But I do hope that it will work all right."
"Rupert will see to it when he comes up from the garden. He understands all about them. Oh, ma, I feel so nervous."
Mrs. Esdaile looked anxiously down at her daughter, and passed her hand caressingly over her rich brown hair. "I understand," she said, in her soothing, cooing voice, "I understand."
"He will expect an answer to-night, ma."
"Follow your heart, child. I am sure that I have every confidence in your good sense and discretion. I would not dictate to you upon such a matter."
"You are so good, ma. Of course, as Rupert says, we really know very little of Charles—of Captain Beesly. But then, ma, all that we do know is in his favour."
"Quite so, dear. He is musical, and well-informed, and good-humoured, and certainly extremely handsome. It is clear, too, from what he says, that he has moved in the very highest circles."
"The best in India, ma. He was an intimate friend of the Governor- General's. You heard yourself what he said yesterday about the D'Arcies, and Lady Gwendoline Fairfax, and Lord Montague Grosvenor."
"Well, dear," said Mrs. Esdaile resignedly, "you are old enough to know your own mind. I shall not attempt to dictate to you. I own that my own hopes were set upon Professor Stares."
"Oh, ma, think how dreadfully ugly he is."
"But think of his reputation, dear. Little more than thirty, and a member of the Royal Society."
"I couldn't ma. I don't think I could, if there was not another man in the world. But, oh, I do feel so nervous; for you can't think how earnest he is. I must give him an answer to-night. But they will be here in an hour. Don't you think that we had better go to our rooms?"
The two ladies had risen, when there came a quick masculine step upon the stairs, and a brisk young fellow, with curly black hair, dashed into the room.
"All ready?" he asked, running his eyes over the lines of relic-strewn tables.
"All ready, dear," answered his mother.
"Oh, I am glad to catch you together," said he, with his hands buried deeply in his trouser pockets, and an uneasy expression on his face. "There's one thing that I wanted to speak to you about. Look here, Rosie; a bit of fun is all very well; but you wouldn't be such a little donkey as to think seriously of this fellow Beesly?"
"My dear Rupert, do try to be a little less abrupt," said Mrs. Esdaile, with a deprecating hand outstretched.
"I can't help seeing how they have been thrown together. I don't want to be unkind, Rosie; but I can't stand by and see you wreck your life for a man who has nothing to recommend him but his eyes and his moustache. Do be a sensible girl, Rosie, and have nothing to say to him."
"It is surely a point, Rupert, upon which I am more fitted to decide than you can be," remarked Mrs. Esdaile, with dignity.
"No, mater, for I have been able to make some inquiries. Young Cheffington, of the Gunners, knew him in India. He says—"
But his sister broke in upon his revelations. "I won't stay here, ma, to hear him slandered behind his back," she cried, with spirit. "He has never said anything that was not kind of you, Rupert, and I don't know why you should attack him so. It is cruel, unbrotherly." With a sweep and a whisk she was at the door, her cheek flushed, her eyes sparkling, her bosom heaving with this little spurt of indignation, while close at her heels walked her mother with soothing words, and an angry glance thrown back over her shoulder. Rupert Esdaile stood with his hands burrowing deeper and deeper into his pockets, and his shoulders rising higher and higher to his ears, feeling intensely guilty, and yet not certain whether he should blame himself for having said too much or for not having said enough.
Just in front of him stood the table on which the phonograph, with wires, batteries, and all complete, stood ready for the guests whom it was to amuse. Slowly his hands emerged from his pockets as his eye fell upon the apparatus, and with languid curiosity he completed the connection, and started the machine. A pompous, husky sound, as of a man clearing his throat proceeded from the instrument, and then in high, piping tones, thin but distinct, the commencement of the celebrated scientist's lecture. "Of all the interesting problems," remarked the box, "which are offered to us by recent researches into the lower orders of marine life, there is none to exceed the retrograde metamorphosis which characterises the common barnacle. The differentiation of an amorphous protoplasmic mass—" Here Rupert Esdaile broke the connection again, and the funny little tinkling voice ceased as suddenly as it began.
The young man stood smiling, looking down at this garrulous piece of wood and metal, when suddenly the smile broadened, and a light of mischief danced up into his eyes. He slapped his thigh, and danced round in the ecstasy of one who has stumbled on a brand-new brilliant idea. Very carefully he drew forth the slips of metal which recorded the learned Professor's remarks, and laid them aside for future use. Into the slots he thrust virgin plates, all ready to receive an impression, and then, bearing the phonograph under his arm, he vanished into his own sanctum. Five minutes before the first guests had arrived the machine was back upon the table, and all ready for use.
There could be no question of the success of Mrs. Esdaile's conversazione. From first to last everything went admirably. People stared through microscopes, and linked hands for electric shocks, and marvelled at the Gallapagos turtle, the os frontis of the Bos montis, and all the other curiosities which Mrs. Esdaile had taken such pains to collect. Groups formed and chatted round the various cases. The Dean of Birchespool listened with a protesting lip, while Professor Maunders held forth upon a square of triassic rock, with side-thrusts occasionally at the six days of orthodox creation; a knot of specialists disputed over a stuffed ornithorhynchus in the corner; while Mrs. Esdaile swept from group to group, introducing, congratulating, laughing, with the ready, graceful tact of a clever woman of the world. By the window sat the heavily-moustached Captain Beesly, with the daughter of the house, and they discussed a problem of their own, as old as the triassic rock, and perhaps as little understood.
"But I must really go and help my mother to entertain, Captain Beesly," said Rose at last, with a little movement as if to rise.
"Don't go, Rose. And don't call me Captain Beesly; call me Charles. Do, now!"
"Well, then, Charles."
"How prettily it sounds from your lips! No, now, don't go. I can't bear to be away from you. I had heard of love, Rose; but how strange it seems that I, after spending my life amid all that is sparkling and gay, should only find out now, in this little provincial town, what love really is!"
"You say so; but it is only a passing fancy."
"No, indeed. I shall never leave you, Rose—never, unless you drive me away from your side. And you would not be so cruel—you would not break my heart?"
He had very plaintive, blue eyes, and there was such a depth of sorrow in them as he spoke that Rose could have wept for sympathy.
"I should be very sorry to cause you grief in any way," she said, in a faltering tone.
"No, no; we cannot speak of it just now, and they are collecting round the phonograph. Do come and listen to it. It is so funny. Have you ever heard one?"
"It will amuse you immensely. And I am sure that you would never guess what it is going to talk about."
"Oh, I won't tell you. You shall hear. Let us have these chairs by the open door; it is so nice and cool."
The company had formed an expectant circle round the instrument. There was a subdued hush as Rupert Esdaile made the connection, while his mother waved her white hand slowly from left to right to mark the cadence of the sonorous address which was to break upon their ears.
"How about Lucy Araminta Pennyfeather?" cried a squeaky little voice. There was a rustle and a titter among the audience. Rupert glanced across at Captain Beesly. He saw a drooping jaw, two protruding eyes, and a face the colour of cheese.
"How about little Martha Hovedean of the Kensal Choir Union?" cried the piping voice.
Louder still rose the titters. Mrs. Esdaile stared about her in bewilderment. Rose burst out laughing, and the Captain's jaw drooped lower still, with a tinge of green upon the cheese-like face.
"Who was it who hid the ace in the artillery card-room at Peshawur? Who was it who was broke in consequence? Who was it—"
"Good gracious!" cried Mrs. Esdaile, "what nonsense is this? The machine is out of order. Stop it, Rupert. These are not the Professor's remarks. But, dear me, where is our friend Captain Beesly gone?"
"I am afraid that he is not very well, ma," said Rose. "He rushed out of the room."
"There can't be much the matter," quoth Rupert. "There he goes, cutting down the avenue as fast as his legs will carry him. I do not think, somehow, that we shall see the Captain again. But I must really apologise. I have put in the wrong slips. These, I fancy are those which belong to Professor Standerton's lecture."
Rose Esdaile has become Rose Stares now, and her husband is one of the most rising scientists in the provinces. No doubt she is proud of his intellect and of his growing fame, but there are times when she still gives a thought to the blue-eyed Captain, and marvels at the strange and sudden manner in which he deserted her.
There was some surprise in Birchespool when so quiet and studious a man as Colonel Bolsover became engaged to the very dashing and captivating Miss Hilda Thornton. And in truth this surprise was mingled with some feeling of pity for the gallant officer. It was not that anything really damaging could be alleged against the young lady. Her birth at least was excellent, and her accomplishments undeniable. But for some years she had been mixed up with a circle of people whose best friends could not deny that they were fast. "Smart" they preferred to call themselves, but the result was much the same.
Hilda Thornton was a very lovely woman of the blonde, queenly, golden- haired type. She was the belle of the garrison, and each fresh subaltern who came up from Woolwich or from Sandhurst bowed down and adored her. Yet subalterns grew into captains and captains into majors without a change in her condition. An interminable succession of sappers, gunners, cavalrymen and linesmen filed past through the social life of Birchespool, but Miss Hilda Thornton remained Miss Hilda still. Already she had begun to show a preference for subdued lights, and to appear some years younger in the evening than in the morning, when good, simple-hearted Colonel Bolsover, in one of his brief sallies into the social world, recognising in her all that was pure and fresh, with much diffidence made her the offer of an honoured name, a good position, and some two thousand a year. It is true that there were a grizzled head and an Indian constitution to set off against these advantages, but the young lady showed no hesitation, and the engagement was the talk next day of all the mess-rooms and drawing-rooms of the little town.
But even now it was felt that there was a doubt as to her ultimate marriage. Spinsters whispered dark prophecies upon the subject, and sporting ensigns had money on the event. Twice already had Hilda approached the happy state, and twice there had been a ring returned, and a pledge unfulfilled. The reason of these fiascos had never been made plain. There were some who talked of the fickleness and innate evil of mankind. Others spoke of escapes, and hinted at sinister things which had come to the horrified ears of her admirers, and had driven them from her side. Those who knew most said least, but they shook their heads sadly when the colonel's name was mentioned.
Just six days before the time fixed for the marriage Colonel Bolsover was seated in his study with his cheque-book upon the desk in front of him, glancing over the heavy upholsterer's bills, which had already commenced to arrive, when he received a visit from his very old friend, Major Barnes, of the Indian horse. They had done two campaigns together on the frontier, and it was a joy to Bolsover to see the dark, lean face and the spare, wiry figure of the Bengal Lancer.
"My dear boy," he cried, with outstretched hands. "I did not even know that you were in England."
"Six months' furlough," answered his old comrade, returning his greeting warmly. "Had a touch of liver in Peshawar, and a board thought that a whiff of the old air might stiffen me up. But you are looking well, Bolsover."
"So I should Barnes. I have had some good fortune lately, better fortune than I deserve. Have you heard it? You may congratulate me, my boy. I am a Benedict from next Wednesday."
The Indian soldier grasped the hand which was held out to him, but his grip was slack and his eyes averted.
"I'm sure I hope it is all for the best, Bolsover."
"For the best? Why, man, she is the most charming girl in England. Come in this evening and be introduced."
"Thank you, Bolsover, I think that I have already met the young lady. Miss Hilda Thornton, I believe? I dined with the Sappers last night and heard the matter mentioned."
Barnes was talking in a jerky, embarrassed style, which was very different to his usual free and frank manner. He paused to pick his words, and scraped his chin with his finger and thumb. The colonel glanced at him with a questioning eye.
"There's something wrong, Jock," said he.
"Well, old chap, I have been thinking—we have been thinking—several of your old chums, that is to say—I wish to the Lord they would come and do their own talking—"
"Oh, you're a deputy?" Bolsover's mouth set, and his brows gathered.
"Well, you see, we were talking it over, you know, Bolsover, and it seemed to us that marriage is a very responsible kind of thing, you know."
"Well, you ought to know," said the colonel, with a half smile. "You have been married twice."
"Ah, yes, but in each case I give you my word, Bolsover, that I acted with prudence. I knew all about my wife and her people: upon my honour I did!"
"I don't quite see what you are driving at, Barnes."
"Well, old chap, I am rather clumsy at anything of this sort. It's out of my line, but you will forgive me, I am sure. But we can't see a chum in danger without a word to warn him. I knew Tresillian in India. We shared one tent in the Afghan business. Tresillian knew Miss Thornton, no one better. I have reason to believe that when he was quartered here five years ago—"
Colonel Bolsover sprang from his chair, and threw up a protesting hand.
"Not another word, Barnes," said he. "I have already heard too much. I believe that you mean well to me, but I cannot listen to you upon this subject. My honour will not permit it."
Barnes had risen from his chair, and the two old soldiers looked into each other's eyes.
"You are quite resolved upon this, Bolsover?"
"Nothing would shake you?"
"Nothing on earth."
"Then that's an end of it. I won't say another word. I may be wrong and you may be right. I am sure that I wish you every happiness from the bottom of my heart."
"Thank you, Jock. But you'll stay tiffin. It's almost ready."
"No, thank you, my boy. I have a cab at the door, and I am off to town. I ought to have started by the early train, but I felt that I could not leave Birchespool without having warned—that is to say congratulated you upon the event. I must run now, but you'll hear from me by Friday."
Such was the embassy of Major Jack Barnes, the one and only attempt which was made to shake the constancy of Percy Bolsover. Within a week Hilda Thornton was Hilda Thornton no longer; and amid a pelting storm of rice the happy couple made their way to the Birchespool railway station, en route for the Riviera.
For fifteen months all went well with the Bolsovers. They had taken a large detached villa which stood in its own grounds on the outskirts of Birchespool, and there they entertained, with a frequency and a lavishness which astonished those who had known the soldierly simplicity of the colonel's bachelor days. Indeed he had not altered in his tastes. A life of frivolity was thoroughly repellent to him. But he was afraid of transplanting his wife too suddenly into an existence which might seem to her to be austere. After all he was nearly twenty years her senior, and was it reasonable to suppose that she could conform her tastes to his? He must sacrifice his own tastes. It was a duty. He must shake off his old ways and his old comforts. He set himself to the task with all the energy and thoroughness of an old soldier, until Bolsover's dances and Bolsover's dinners were one of the features of social life in Birchespool.
It was in the second winter after their marriage that the great ball was given in the little town on account of a very august and Royal visitor. The cream of the county had joined with the garrison to make it a brilliant success. Beautiful women were there in plenty. But Bolsover thought as he gazed upon the dancers that there was none who could compare with his own wife. In a grey tulle toilette, trimmed with apple-blossom, with a diamond aigrette twinkling from amid her golden hair, she might have stood as the very type and model of the blonde regal Anglo-Saxon beauty. In this light the first faint traces of time were smoothed away, and, with a gleam of pleasure in her eyes, and a dash of colour in her cheeks, she was so lovely that even the Royal and august, though reported to be very blasé in the matter of beauty, was roused to interest. The colonel stood among the palms and the rhododendrons, following her with his eyes, and thrilling with pride as he noticed how heads turned and quick whispers were exchanged as she passed through the crowd.
"You are to be congratulated, colonel," said Lady Shipton, the wife of the general of the brigade. "Madame is quite our belle to-night."
"I am very flattered to hear you say so," said the colonel, rubbing his hands in his honest delight.
"Ah, you know that you think so yourself," said the lady, archly, tapping his arm with her fan. "I have been watching your eyes."
The colonel coloured slightly and laughed. "She certainly seems to be enjoying herself," he remarked. "She is a little hard to please in the matter of partners, and when I see her dance twice with the same I know that she is satisfied."
The lady looked, and a slight shadow crossed her face. "Oh, her partner!" she exclaimed. "I did not notice him."
"He looks like a man who has been hard hit at some time," observed the colonel. "Do you know him?"
"Yes. He used to be stationed here before you came. Then he got an appointment and went to India. Captain Tresillian is his name, of the Madras Staff corps."
"Home on leave, I suppose!"
"Yes. He only arrived last week."
"He needed a change," observed the colonel. "But the band is rather overpowering here. This next is the 'Lancers.' May I have the pleasure?"
The face which had attracted the colonel's attention was indeed a remarkable one—swarthy, keen, and hawklike, with sunken cheeks and deep set eyes, which were Italian rather than English in their blackness and brightness. The Celtic origin of his old Cornish blood showed itself in his thin, wiry figure, his nervous, mobile features, and the little petulant gestures with which he lent emphasis to his remarks. Hilda Bolsover had turned pale to the lips at the sight of him as she entered the ballroom, but now they had danced two consecutive dances, and the third they had sat out under the shadow of the palms. There the colonel found them as he strolled round the room while the dancers were forming up for the cotillon.
"Why, Hilda, this is one of your favourites," said he. "You are surely not going to miss it?"
"Thank you, Percy; but I am a little tired. May I introduce you to my old friend, Captain Tresillian, of the Indian army! You may have heard me speak of him. I have known him for ever so many years."
Colonel Bolsover held out his hand cordially, but the other swung round his shoulder, and gazed vacantly across the ballroom as though he had heard nothing. Then suddenly, with a half shrug, like a man who yields to his fate, he turned and took the hand which was offered to him. The colonel glanced at him in some surprise, for his manner was strange, his eyes wild, and his grasp burned like that of a man in a fever.
"You have not been home long, I believe?"
"Got back last week in the Jumna."
"Had you been away long?"
"Only three years."
"Oh! Then you found little changed at home?"
Captain Tresillian burst into a harsh laugh.
"Oh, yes; I find plenty of change at home. Plenty of change. Things are very much altered."
His swarthy face had darkened, and his thin, dark hands were nervously opening and shutting.
"I think, Percy," said Hilda Bolsover, "that the carriage will be waiting now. Good night, Captain Tresillian. I am sure that we shall be happy to see you at Melrose Lodge."
"Most certainly," cried the colonel. "Any friend of my wife's is a welcome guest. When may we hope to see you?"
"Yes, yes; I shall certainly call," the other answered, "I am very much obliged to you. Good night."
"Do you know, Hilda," remarked the colonel, as they rattled homewards that night in their brougham, "I notice something very strange in the manner of your friend, Captain Tresillian. He struck me as a very nice fellow, you know, but his talk and his look were just a little wild at times. I should think he has had a touch of the sun in India."
"Very possibly. He has had some trouble, too, I believe."
"Ah, that might account for it. Well, we must try and make the place as pleasant to him as we can."
Hilda said nothing, but she put her arms round her husband's neck and kissed him.
The very next day and for many days after Captain Tresillian called at Melrose Lodge. He walked with Hilda, he rode with her, he chatted with her in the garden, and he escorted her out when the colonel was away at his duties. In a week there was gossip about it in Birchespool: in a month it was the notorious patent scandal of the town. Brother veterans sniggered about it, women whispered, some pitied, some derided; but amid all the conflict of opinions Bolsover alone seemed to be absolutely unconcerned. Once only Lady Shipton ventured to approach the subject with him, but he checked her as firmly as, if more gently than, he had his old friend in the days of his engagement. "I have implicit faith in her," he said. "I know her better than anyone else can do."
But there came a day when the colonel, too, found that he could no longer disregard what was going on beneath his roof. He had come back late one afternoon, and had found Captain Tresillian installed as usual in the drawing-room, while his wife sat pouring out tea at the small table by the fire. Their voices had sounded in brisk talk as he had entered, but this had tailed off to mere constraint and formalities. Bolsover took his seat by the window, thoughtfully stirring the cup of tea which his wife had handed to him, and glancing from time to time at Tresillian. He noticed him draw his note-book from his pocket, and scribble a few words upon a loose page. Then he saw him rise with his empty cup, step over to the table with it, and hand both it and the note to her. It was neatly done, but her fingers did not close upon it quickly enough, and the little slip of white paper fluttered down to the ground. Tresillian stooped for it, but Bolsover had taken a step forward, and had snatched it from the carpet.
"A note for you, Hilda," said he quietly, handing it to her. His words were gentle, but his mouth had set very grimly, and there was a dangerous glitter in his eyes.
She took it in her hand and then held it out to him again. "Won't you read it out to me?" said she.
He took it and hesitated for an instant. Then he threw it into the fire. "Perhaps it is better unread," said he. "I think, Hilda, you had best step up to your room."
There was something in his quiet, self-contained voice which dominated and subdued her. He had an air and a manner which was new to her. She had never seen the sterner side of his character. So he had looked and spoken on the fierce day before the Delhi Gates, when the Sepoy bullets were hopping like peas from the tires of his gun, and Nicholson's stormers were massing in the trenches beneath him. She rose, shot a scared, half-reproachful glance at Tresillian, and left the two men to themselves.
The colonel closed the door quickly behind her, and then turned to his visitor.
"What have you to say?" he asked, sternly and abruptly.
"There was no harm in the note." Tresillian was leaning with his shoulder against the mantelpiece, a sneering, defiant expression upon his dark, haggard face.
"How dare you write a note surreptitiously to my wife? What had you to say which might not be spoken out?"
"Well, really, you had the opportunity of reading it. You would have found it perfectly innocent. Mrs. Bolsover, at any rate, was not in the least to blame."
"I do not need your assurance on that point. It is in her name as much as in my own that I ask you what you have to say."
"I have nothing to say, except that you should have read the note when you had the chance."
"I am not in the habit of reading my wife's correspondence. I have implicit confidence in her, but it is one of my duties to protect her from impertinence. When I first joined the service there was a way by which I could have done so. Now I can only say that I think you are a blackguard, and that I shall see that you never again cross my threshold, or that of any other honest man in this town, if I can help it."
"You show your good taste in insulting me when I am under your roof," sneered the other. "I have no wish to enter your house, and as to the other thing you will find me very old-fashioned in my ideas if you should care to propose anything of the kind. I wish you good-day."
He took up his hat and gloves from the piano, and walked to the door. There he turned round with his hand upon the handle and faced Bolsover with a face which was deeply lined with passion and with misery.
"You asked me once whether I found things different in England. I told you that I did. Now I will tell you why. When I was in England last I loved a girl and she loved me—she loved me, you understand. There was a secret engagement between us. I was poor, with nothing but my pay, and she had been accustomed to every luxury. It was to earn enough to be able to keep her that I volunteered in India, that I worked for the Staff, that I saved and saved, and lived as I believe no British officer ever lived in India yet. I had what I thought was enough at last, and I came back with it. I was anxious, for I had had no word from my girl. What did I find? That she had been bought by a man twice my age—bought as you would buy—." He choked and put out a hand to his throat before he could find his voice. "You complain—you pose as being injured," he cried. "I call God to witness which has most reason to cry out, you or I."
Colonel Bolsover turned and rang the bell. Before the servant could come, however, his visitor was gone, and he heard the quick scrunch of his feet on the gravel without. For a time he sat with his chin on his hands, lost in thought. Then he rose and ascended to his wife's boudoir.
"I want to have a word with you, Hilda," said he, taking her hand, and sitting down beside her on the settee. "Tell me truly now, are you happy with me?"
"Why, Percy, what makes you ask?"
"Are you sorry that you married me? Do you regret it? Would you wish to be free?"
"Ohl Percy, don't ask such questions."
"You never told me that there was anything between you and that man before he went to India."
"It was quite informal. It was nothing—a mere friendship."
"He says an engagement."
"No, no; it was not quite that."
"You were fond of him?"
"Yes; I was fond of him."
"Perhaps you are so still?"
She turned away her face, and played with the jingling ornaments of her chatelaine. Her husband waited for an answer, and a spasm of pain crossed his face as no answer came.
"That will do," said he, gently disengaging his hand from hers. "At least you are frank. I had hoped for too much. I was a fool. But all may yet be set right. I shall not mar your life, Hilda, if I can help it."
The next day the authorities at the War office were surprised to receive a strongly-worded letter from so distinguished an artillery officer as Percy Bolsover, asking to be included in an expedition which was being fitted out in the North-west of India, and which notoriously promised a great deal of danger and very little credit. There was some delay in the answer, and before it arrived the colonel had reached his end in another and a more direct fashion.
No one will ever know how the fire broke out at Melrose Lodge. It may have been the paraffin in the cellars, or it may have been the beams behind the grate. Whatever the cause the colonel was wakened at two on a winter morning by the choking, suffocating smell of burning wood, and rushing out of his bedroom found that the stairs and all beneath him was already a sea of fire. Shouting to his wife he dashed upstairs, and roused the frightened maids, who came screaming, half-dressed, down into his bedroom.
"Come, Hilda," he cried, "we may manage the stairs."
They rushed down together as far as the first landing, but the fire spread with terrible rapidity; the dry woodwork was blazing like tinder, and the swirl of mingled smoke and flame drove them back into the bedroom. The colonel shut the door, and rushed to the window. A crowd had already assembled in the road and the garden, but there were no signs of the engines. A cry of horror and of sympathy went up from the people as they saw the figures at the window, and understood from the flames which were already bursting out from the lower floor that their retreat was already cut off.
But the colonel was too old a soldier to be flurried by danger, or at a loss for a plan. He opened the folding windows and dragging the feather-bed across the floor he hurled it out.
"Hold it under the window," he cried. And a cheer from below showed that they understood his meaning.
"It is not more than forty feet," said he, coolly. "You are not afraid, Hilda?"
She was as calm as he was. "No, I am not afraid," she answered.
"I have a piece of rope here. It is not more than twenty feet, but the feather bed will break the fall. We will pass the maids down first, Hilda. Noblesse oblige!"
There was little time to spare, for the flames were crackling like pistol shots at the further side of the door and shooting little red tongues through the slits. The rope was slung round one maid, under her arms, and she was instructed to slip out from it, and to fall when she had been lowered as far as it would go. The first was unfortunate, for she fell obliquely, bounded from the edge of the bed, and her screams told those above her of her mishap. The second fell straight, and escaped with a shaking. There were only the husband and wife now.
"Step back from the window, Hilda," said he. He kissed her on the forehead, as a father might a child. "Good-bye, dear," he said. "Be happy."
"But you will come after me, Percy?"
"Or go before you," said he, with a quiet smile. "Now, dear, slip the rope round you. May God watch over you and guard you!"
Very gently he lowered her down, leaning far over the window, that another three feet might be taken from her fall. Bravely and coolly she eyed the bed beneath her, put her feet together, and came down like an arrow into the centre of it. A cheer from beneath told him that she was unhurt. At the same instant there was a crash and a roar behind him, and a great yellow blast of flame burst roaring into the room. The colonel stood framed in the open window, looking down upon the crowd. He leaned with one shoulder against the stonework, with the droop of the head of a man who is lost in thought. Behind him was a lurid background of red flame, and a long venomous tongue came flickering out over his head. A hundred voices screamed to him to jump. He straightened himself up like a man who has taken his final resolution, glanced down at the crowd, and then, turning, sprang back into the flames.
And that was the colonel's choice. It was "Accidental death" at the inquest, and there was talk of the giddiness of suffocation and the slipping of feet; but there was one woman at least who could tell how far a man who truly loves will carry his self sacrifice.
"My dear, what a perfectly charming bodice! I mean the Louis Quinze with the vest of white chiffon de soie."
"Ah, but do look at that skirt of old rose silk, brocaded à la Pompadour, and trimmed with duchesse lace!"
"But you know, Alice, my favourite of them all is that satin foulard, the grey one, gouffred at the neck. It is so lovely, I think, and exactly my measurements, for I went in and inquired."
"Then why not have it?"
"My dear! Fifteen guineas! It was dreadful. Now, if it had been ten I might have managed it."
The speakers were two well-dressed ladies, standing in front of one of the largest plate-glass windows in Bond Street, and gazing up at the dense group of slim, headless figures in prim, straight-cut, tailor-made costumes, or in evening dresses of the many strange neutral tints which were the rage of the moment. They had raised their voices in their excitement, and gave little clutches at each other's wrists as they compared notes about the treasures in front of them. Close behind them stood a plainly-clad middle-aged woman with a sad wrinkled face, and the air of one who has found the world anything but a playground. She had stood gazing with a very critical eye at the various costumes, and listening with a half smile to the comments of the ladies beside her, but at their last remark she looked earnestly at the speaker, and put her hand out timidly towards her to attract her attention.
"If you please, ma'am," she said, "I could do that for you."
The lady looked round in surprise. "What could you do, my good woman?"
"A dress the exact same as that one at every point for ten pounds."
"You could do it?"
"Yes, ma'am. You'll excuse my speaking to you, but I could not help hearing what you said, and I know that I could give you satisfaction. I did all Madame Davoust's work when she was court dressmaker."
The lady looked inquiringly at her companion. "What do you say, Louise?"
"Well, my dear, if you wish such a dress. You need not pay unless you are satisfied with it."
"No, of course not. What is your name, please?"
"Well then, Mrs. Raby, you quite understand that I shall require the dress to be absolutely as well finished as the one in the window, material and cut identical."
"And it must be ready by next Monday before ten o'clock."
"Very well, madam."
"And your price is ten pounds, inclusive."
"Ten pounds, madam."
"I have your solemn promise that the dress shall be the same, and that I shall have it on Monday by ten?"
"I promise you, madam."
"Well, then, you may call this afternoon, and take your measurements. Mrs. Clive is the name, 73, Palace Gardens." She gave a nod, and turned again to her companion, while the dressmaker, with another very critical glance at the dress in the window, hurried off upon her way.
A busy morning lay before her, for her foulard was to be purchased at one shop, her linings at another, her braid and her buttons at yet another, all down in the depths of the City, far away from West-end prices. At last, with her arms full of brown paper parcels, she gained her 'bus, and drove out to Brompton, where in a quiet side street of two-storeyed houses, a small brass plate, "Mrs. Raby, costumier and dressmaker," showed where she carried on her modest business.
In the front room an assistant was whirring away upon a hand sewing machine, running a seam down the edge of a dress, while all round her lay heaped masses of cloth, grey strips of lining, and rolls of braid.
"Whose is that, Anna?" asked Mrs. Raby.
"It is Mrs. Summerton's." The assistant was a broad-faced, good-humoured girl, with red hair and freckles.
"Ah, you must be very careful with it. She is most particular. The front cut straight, and the back gored and cut on the cross."
"Yes, Mrs. Raby. It's coming out fine."
"I have a new order, a foulard dress, which must be ready by Monday. This is the stuff, and I shall have the measurements this evening. It will take us all our time. Is Mr. Raby in?"
"Yes, he came in half an hour ago."
"Where is he?"
"In the back room."
Mrs. Raby closed the door, and went into the next apartment. A small man, black bearded and swarthy, was seated at a side table, stooping over a box of colours and a small oval piece of ivory, upon which he was beginning to paint a background. He was a peaky, irritable-looking person, with sunken cheeks, a nervous manner, and a very large piece of blue-ribbon in his button-hole.
"It is no use, Helen," he said. "I can't paint until I have an order."
"But however are you to get an order if you don't show folk what you can do. Why don't you paint me, John, and hang me up in a case outside the door."
"I want something that will look nice and attractive," said he, petulantly.
She laughed good-humouredly. "Paint me as you remember me when you first met me, then," said she.
"Ah, you were different then."
"Well, if I am, you ought to know, John, what it is that has changed me. It has not been an easy life for me these twenty years."
"Well, I'm sure I don't know what more I can do. I've taken the ribbon to please you."
"Yes, John, dear, you've dropped the drink, and God bless you for it."
"Six months since I had a taste."
"And aren't you the better for it, in health and happiness and everything? I always knew that if you were to get away from those other clerks you would be all right. Now you are a clerk no longer. You're an artist."
"Yes, but I earned my money as a clerk, and I have made none as an artist. I don't see that I am the gainer by the change."
"Ah, I'd rather starve, dear, and have you a sober man. Besides, I can earn enough for both while you are gradually getting a few customers."
"Oh, yes, sitters. But you must go to them or they will never come to you. Why, look at me! I heard two ladies talking in the street, and by pushing myself in I got a ten-pound job."
"Did you, though."
"Yes, this very morning. My stuff will cost from five to six, but there should be four pound profit." She took a key from her pocket, unlocked a drawer in a side table, and taking a tin box out unlocked that also.
"We have fifteen pounds here," said she, turning out a small heap of gold. "We'll make it twenty soon, and then I think I may afford to take on another assistant."
Her husband looked wistfully at the gold. "It seems hard that you should put away all that money, and I should go about without a half-crown in my pocket," said he.
"I don't want your pocket to be empty, John, but you don't need more than sixpence. It is only putting yourself in the way of temptation."
"Well, anyway, I ought to be head in my own family. Why don't you give me the key, and let me have the keeping of the money."
"No, no, John; it is my earning and I'll have the keeping. What you want I'll buy for you, but what I save I must have in my own hands."
"A pretty thing, too!" He went back to his painting with a snarl, while she very carefully locked up her small treasure again, and then returned to the work-room. She had hardly turned her back when he sprang from his seat, rushed to the table and took two wicked little tugs at the drawer, but all was fast, so he slunk back, cursing under his breath, to his paints and his ivory.
That afternoon Mrs. Raby called at Palace Gardens, obtained her measurements, and forthwith got to work with might and main upon the dress. It was a Thursday, and she had only two and a half working days before her, but she had given her promise, and she was a woman who would keep her word, if flesh and blood could do it. On Saturday morning it must be ready for the trying on, and on the Monday by ten o'clock it must be actually delivered. So away she went cutting, and stitching, gouffring, and tabbing, and looping, and hemming, working late, and working early, until on the second day a dozen separate pieces were all brought together like a child's puzzle, a square there, a triangle here, a long narrow slip down the front, and there, out of what to a masculine eye would have seemed the merest scraps, there rose the daintiest, neatest little dress that heart could wish, still loosely pinned together, but taking already its ultimate outlines. In this state it was carried to Palace Gardens, tried on, and then brought back to be finally completed. By twelve o'clock at night it was finished, and all Sunday it stood upon the frame in the workroom looking so fresh and neat and perfect, that the wife, in the pride of her heart, could not forbear from running in every hour or so, and coaxing her husband in with her, to look and to admire.
He had been a sorry helpmate to her. It was not work which had placed those marks of care upon his face. As a clerk in the wholesale cocoa firm, he had for years been having some three pounds a week, but of the three it was seldom that one found its way to his wife, who planned, and worked, and managed as only a devoted woman can. At last she had herself turned to business, and had made herself independent of him, or, rather, had made him dependent upon her. A long course of secret drunkenness had ended in a raging attack of delirium tremens, which could not be concealed from his employers, and which brought about his instant dismissal from his situation. But it was no misfortune in the eyes of his wife. She had long made up her mind that his weak nature was not to be reformed while he was surrounded by temptation. Now, at last, she had him to herself. Some occupation must be found for him which would hold him within her influence. It was always with others that she laid the blame, never with him, for her eyes were blind to the shattered irritable wreck, and could only see the dark-haired bashful lad who had told her twenty years ago how he loved her. Could she keep out those evil influences, all would yet be well. Her woman's wit was set to do it. He had long had some leanings towards art, so now she bought him paints and paper and all that an artist could require. She had prayed and argued until he had taken the blue ribbon, and for six whole months she had stood between him and danger, shutting off what was evil, encouraging the little that was good, like some tender gardener watching over a sickly plant. And now at last all seemed bright before her. Her husband had forsworn his fatal habits. She had saved a little money, and there was a prospect of saving more. Soon she might hope for a second assistant, and even spend a few pounds in advertisements. As she went into her work-room for the last time that Sunday night, holding out the lamp in her work-worn hand, and looked at the delicate tint and dainty curves, it seemed to her that the long struggle was at last drawing to an end, and that the evening would be mellow if the day had been stormy.
She slept heavily that night, for she had worked almost continuously until the dress was finished. It was nearly eight o'clock when she woke. Her husband was not lying by her side. His clothes and boots were gone. She smiled to think how completely she had overslept herself, and, rising, she dressed, hurriedly putting on her outdoor things so that she might be ready to start immediately after breakfast to keep her appointment. As she descended the stair she noticed that the work-room door was open. She entered with a sudden strange sinking at the heart. The new dress had disappeared.
Mrs. Raby sat down on a packing case, and sank her face in her hands. The blow was so sudden, so unexpected! But she was a practical woman, and there was no use in sitting groaning. She walked through the house. Her husband, as she expected, was nowhere to be seen. Then she wrote a short note to the assistant, left it on the workroom table, and leaving the door upon the latch, set out upon her hopeless and piteous chase.
Just round the corner, in the Brompton Road, was a pawnbroker's shop, and into it she hastened. A heavy, red-bearded man, who was reading the morning paper in the corner, cocked his eye at her as she entered.
"What can I do for you, ma'am?"
"Would you kindly tell me, sir, if any one has been here this morning to pledge a grey dress?"
The pawnbroker called to his assistant, a young, pasty-faced man, who emerged from among the countless suits of clothes and piles of miscellaneous things which blocked the shop.
"There was some one here with a grey dress, Alec, was there not?" he asked.
"Yes, sir! that was the one that you thought might be a police matter."
"Ah, yes, of course. A small, dark man, with black hair?"
"That's it, sir."
"He was here at quarter-past seven, just after opening time. I wasn't down yet, but my assistant told me that the dress was a very good and new one, and that the man's manner was just a bit suspicious."
"You didn't take it, then?"
"You don't know where he went?"
The red-bearded man plunged back into his morning paper, and the woman hurried on upon her quest. Should she turn up the street or down. The sight of a distant glimmer of gilt balls decided her, and she found herself in another office. They had seen nothing there either of her husband or of the dress.
She paused irresolute outside the door. Then she reflected that if her husband had come up the road he would certainly have come there. He must have turned down then. She entered the first pawnbroker's in that direction, and there was the grey foulard dress hanging up upon a hook right in front of her. She gave a cry ofjoy at the sight of it. It was not yet nine, and there was time to keep her appointment.
"That's my dress," she gasped.
The pawnbroker gazed at her curiously. "It was pawned this morning, ma'am, by a small, dark man."
"Yes, sir, that was my husband. How much did he get on it?"
"Three pound, five."
She had put some money into her pocket when she left home. Now she laid four sovereigns upon the counter.
"Please let me have it at once."
"Where's the ticket?"
"The ticket? I have none."
"Then you can't have the dress."
"But it is my dress, and here is the money. Why can I not have it?"
"I am very sorry for you, marm. But we must stick to the law. Suppose I take your money and give you your dress, and suppose then your husband comes here with the ticket and demands his pledge, what could I say to him? He could put his own price on it, and I should have to pay him."
"But I promise you he won't come. Do, do, let me have the dress. I've promised it to a customer at ten."
"I tell you that I can't, and there's an end of it," said the pawnbroker, turning upon his heel.
It was heartbreaking to be within touch of it, and not to be allowed to take it. And yet she could not blame the pawnbroker. She could see that he could not act otherwise. What remained then? To find her husband. But how could she tell in which of a hundred public-houses he was making amends for his long abstention. She paced wildly up and down the pavement. What would this lady think of her? She had given a promise, and a promise had always been a sacred thing with her. Was there no way in which she could manage? And then suddenly an idea came to her, and she ran as hard as she could back to her own house, rushed into the back room, opened her drawer, poured her little heap of savings into her purse, and hastened out to catch an eastward bound 'bus.
At Bond Street she got out and sped on to the window where she had first undertaken this unhappy contract. Thank God, the dress was still unsold in the window. She remembered that the lady had said that the measurements were correct. In five minutes more her whole savings had gone into the till of the wealthy retail firm, and she, with her great cardboard-box was driving at the top of her speed to Palace Gardens.
"My dear Alice," remarked her friend, who had dropped in early that morning, in order to criticise the costume, "you see it never does to trust people in that class of life. She said ten o'clock, and now it is five minutes past. They have no idea of the nature of a promise."
"No, I suppose not. Still, she is sure to come, for I have not paid her anything yet. Ah, here she is coming up the stair, so she is not so very late after all."
The dress was duly unpacked, and Mrs. Alice Clive put it on at once, while her friend and the dressmaker walked slowly round her with sidelong heads, eyeing it up and down.
"Well, dear, how do you like it. It feels very comfortable and seems to sit well about the shoulders."
"Oh yes, I think it will do. I don't think, however, that the foulard is quite of the same quality as that which we saw in the shop."
"I assure you, madam, that it is."
"Well, Mrs. Raby, I am sure you will acknowledge that the lace is inferior."
"No, it is precisely the same."
The lady critic shrugged her shoulders.
"At least, there is no question as to the inferiority of the cut," said she, "I cannot refuse to believe my own eyes."
"Well, at least, it is not dear at that price," said her friend.
"It is entirely a matter of taste," the other rejoined, "but I confess that I would rather pay fifteen guineas for the other than ten for this."
"Well, well, on the whole I am pretty well satisfied," said she, Mrs. Clive, and paid over the ten pounds to the silent weary woman who stood before her.
But strange and wondrous are the ways of women, and where is the man who shall grasp them. As she walked home, tired, footsore, the loser in time and in money, with all her little hopes shattered to ruins, and all to be built up once more, she saw a crowd of jeering boys at the corner of the Brompton Road, and peeping over their shoulders, she caught a glimpse of a horrid crawling figure, a hatless head, and a dull, vacant, leering face. In an instant she had called a cab.
"It is my husband," said she, "he is ill. Help me to get him into the cab, policeman. We live quite close to here."
They thrust him into a four-wheeler, and she got in beside him, holding him up with her arms. His coat was covered with dust, and he mumbled and chuckled like an ape. As the cab drove on, she drew his head down upon her bosom, pushing back his straggling hair, and crooned over him like a mother over a baby.
"Did they make fun of him, then?" she cried. "Did they call him names? He'll come home with his little wifey, and he'll never be a naughty boy again."
Oh, blind, angelic, foolish love of woman! Why should men demand a miracle while you remain upon earth?
"Is Dr. Horace Wilkinson at home?"
"I am he. Pray step in."
The visitor looked somewhat astonished at having the door opened to him by the master of the house.
"I wanted to have a few words."
The doctor, a pale, nervous young man, dressed in an ultra-professional, long black frock-coat, with a high, white collar cutting off his dapper side- whiskers in the centre, rubbed his hands together and smiled. In the thick, burly man in front of him he scented a patient, and it would be his first. His scanty resources had begun to run somewhat low, and, although he had his first quarter's rent safely locked away in the right-hand drawer of his desk, it was becoming a question with him how he should meet the current expenses of his very simple housekeeping. He bowed, therefore, waved his visitor in, closed the hall door in a careless fashion, as though his own presence thereat had been a purely accidental circumstance, and finally led the burly stranger into his scantily furnished front room, where he motioned him to a seat. Dr. Wilkinson planted himself behind his desk, and, placing his finger-tips together, he gazed with some apprehension at his companion. What was the matter with the man? He seemed very red in the face. Some of his old professors would have diagnosed his case by now, and would have electrified the patient by describing his own symptoms before he had said a word about them. Dr. Horace Wilkinson racked his brains for some clue, but Nature had fashioned him as a plodder—a very reliable plodder and nothing more. He could think of nothing save that the visitor's watch-chain had a very brassy appearance, with a corollary to the effect that he would be lucky if he got half-a-crown out of him. Still, even half-a-crown was something in those early days of struggle.
Whilst the doctor had been running his eyes over the stranger, the latter had been plunging his hands into pocket after pocket of his heavy coat. The heat of the weather, his dress, and this exercise of pocket-rummaging had all combined to still further redden his face, which had changed from brick to beet, with a gloss of moisture on his brow. This extreme ruddiness brought a clue at last to the observant doctor. Surely it was not to be attained without alcohol. In alcohol lay the secret of this man's trouble. Some little delicacy was needed, however, in showing him that he had read his case aright —that at a glance he had penetrated to the inmost sources of his ailments.
"It's very hot," observed the stranger, mopping his forehead.
"Yes, it is weather which tempts one to drink rather more beer than is good for one," answered Dr. Horace Wilkinson, looking very knowingly at his companion from over his finger-tips.
"Dear, dear, you shouldn't do that."
"I! I never touch beer."
"Neither do I. I've been an abstainer for twenty years."
This was depressing. Dr. Wilkinson blushed until he was nearly as red as the other. "May I ask what I can do for you?" he asked, picking up his stethoscope and tapping it gently against his thumb-nail.
"Yes, I was just going to tell you. I heard of your coming, but I couldn't get round before—" He broke into a nervous little cough.
"Yes?" said the doctor encouragingly.
"I should have been here three weeks ago, but you know how these things get put off." He coughed again behind his large red hand.
"I do not think that you need say anything more," said the doctor, taking over the case with an easy air of command. "Your cough is quite sufficient. It is entirely bronchial by the sound. No doubt the mischief is circumscribed at present, but there is always the danger that it may spread, so you have done wisely to come to me. A little judicious treatment will soon set you right. Your waistcoat, please, but not your shirt. Puff out your chest and say ninety-nine in a deep voice."
The red-faced man began to laugh. "It's all right, doctor," said he. "That cough comes from chewing tobacco, and I know it's a very bad habit. Nine- and-ninepence is what I have to say to you, for I'm the officer of the gas company, and they have a claim against you for that on the metre."
Dr. Horace Wilkinson collapsed into his chair. "Then you're not a patient?" he gasped.
"Never needed a doctor in my life, sir."
"Oh, that's all right." The doctor concealed his disappointment under an affectation of facetiousness. "You don't look as if you troubled them much. I don't know what we should do if every one were as robust. I shall call at the company's offices and pay this small amount."
"If you could make it convenient, sir, now that I am here, it would save trouble—"
"Oh, certainly!" These eternal little sordid money troubles were more trying to the doctor than plain living or scanty food. He took out his purse and slid the contents on to the table. There were two half-crowns and some pennies. In his drawer he had ten golden sovereigns. But those were his rent. If he once broke in upon them he was lost. He would starve first.
"Dear me! " said he, with a smile, as at some strange, unheard-of incident. "I have run short of small change. I am afraid I shall have to call upon the company, after all."
"Very well, sir." The inspector rose, and with a practised glance around, which valued every article in the room, from the two-guinea carpet to the eight-shilling muslin curtains, he took his departure.
When he had gone Dr. Wilkinson rearranged his room, as was his habit a dozen times in the day. He laid out his large Quain's Dictionary of Medicine in the forefront of the table so as to impress the casual patient that he had ever the best authorities at his elbow. Then he cleared all the little instruments out of his pocket-case—the scissors, the forceps, the bistouries, the lancets—and he laid them all out beside the stethoscope, to make as good a show as possible. His ledger, day-book, and visiting-book were spread in front of him. There was no entry in any of them yet, but it would not look well to have the covers too glossy and new, so he rubbed them together and daubed ink over them. Neither would it be well that any patient should observe that his name was the first in the book, so he filled up the first page of each with notes of imaginary visits paid to nameless patients during the last three weeks. Having done all this, he rested his head upon his hands and relapsed into the terrible occupation of waiting.
Terrible enough at any time to the young professional man, but most of all to one who knows that the weeks, and even the days during which he can hold out are numbered. Economise as he would, the money would still slip away in the countless little claims which a man never understands until he lives under a rooftree of his own. Dr. Wilkinson could not deny, as he sat at his desk and looked at the little heap of silver and coppers, that his chances of being a successful practitioner in Sutton were rapidly vanishing away.
And yet it was a bustling, prosperous town, with so much money in it that it seemed strange that a man with a trained brain and dexterous fingers should be starved out of it for want of employment. At his desk, Dr. Horace Wilkinson could see the never-ending double current of people which ebbed and flowed in front of his window. It was a busy street, and the air was forever filled with the dull roar of life, the grinding of the wheels, and the patter of countless feet. Men, women, and children, thousands and thousands of them passed in the day, and yet each was hurrying on upon his own business, scarce glancing at the small brass plate, or wasting a thought upon the man who waited in the front room. And yet how many of them would obviously, glaringly have been the better for his professional assistance. Dyspeptic men, anemic women, blotched faces, bilious complexions—they flowed past him, they needing him, he needing them, and yet the remorseless bar of professional etiquette kept them forever apart. What could he do? Could he stand at his own front door, pluck the casual stranger by the sleeve, and whisper in his ear, "Sir, you will forgive me for remarking that you are suffering from a severe attack of acne rosacea, which makes you a peculiarly unpleasant object. Allow me to suggest that a small prescription containing arsenic, which will not cost you more than you often spend upon a single meal, will be very much to your advantage." Such an address would be a degradation to the high and lofty profession of Medicine, and there are no such sticklers for the ethics of that profession as some to whom she has been but a bitter and a grudging mother.
Dr. Horace Wilkinson was still looking moodily out of the window, when there came a sharp clang at the bell. Often it had rung, and with every ring his hopes had sprung up, only to dwindle away again, and change to leaden disappointment, as he faced some beggar or touting tradesman. But the doctor's spirit was young and elastic, and again, in spite of all experience, it responded to that exhilarating summons. He sprang to his feet, cast his eyes over the table, thrust out his medical books a little more prominently, and hurried to the door. A groan escaped him as he entered the hall. He could see through the half-glazed upper panels that a gypsy van, hung round with wicker tables and chairs, had halted before his door, and that a couple of the vagrants, with a baby, were waiting outside. He had learned by experience that it was better not even to parley with such people.
"I have nothing for you," said he, loosing the latch by an inch. "Go away!"
He closed the door, but the bell clanged once more. "Get away! Get away!" he cried impatiently, and walked back into his consulting-room. He had hardly seated himself when the bell went for the third time. In a towering passion he rushed back, flung open the door.
"If you please, sir, we need a doctor."
In an instant he was rubbing his hands again with his blandest professional smile. These were patients, then, whom he had tried to hunt from his doorstep—the very first patients, whom he had waited for so impatiently. They did not look very promising. The man, a tall, lank-haired gypsy, had gone back to the horse's head. There remained a small, hard-faced woman with a great bruise all round her eye. She wore a yellow silk handkerchief round her head, and a baby, tucked in a red shawl, was pressed to her bosom.
"Pray step in, madam," said Dr. Horace Wilkinson, with his very best sympathetic manner. In this case, at least, there could be no mistake as to diagnosis. "If you will sit on this sofa, I shall very soon make you feel much more comfortable."
He poured a little water from his carafe into a saucer, made a compress of lint, fastened it over the injured eye, and secured the whole with a spica bandage, secundum artem.
"Thank ye kindly, sir," said the woman, when his work was finished; "that's nice and warm, and may God bless your honour. But it wasn't about my eye at all that I came to see a doctor."
"Not your eye?" Dr. Horace Wilkinson was beginning to be a little doubtful as to the advantages of quick diagnosis. It is an excellent thing to be able to surprise a patient, but hitherto it was always the patient who had surprised him.
"The baby's got the measles."
The mother parted the red shawl, and exhibited a little dark, black-eyed gypsy baby, whose swarthy face was all flushed and mottled with a dark-red rash. The child breathed with a rattling sound, and it looked up at the doctor with eyes which were heavy with want of sleep and crusted together at the lids.
"Hum! Yes. Measles, sure enough—and a smart attack."
"I just wanted you to see her, sir, so that you could signify."
"Signify, if anything happened."
"Oh, I see—certify."
"And now that you've seen it, sir, I'll go on, for Reuben—that's my man—is in a hurry."
"But don't you want any medicine?"
"Oh, now you've seen it, it's all right. I'll let you know if anything happens."
"But you must have some medicine. The child is very ill." He descended into the little room which he had fitted as a surgery, and he made up a two- ounce bottle of cooling medicine. In such cities as Sutton there are few patients who can afford to pay a fee to both doctor and chemist, so that unless the physician is prepared to play the part of both he will have little chance of making a living at either.
"There is your medicine, madam. You will find the directions upon the bottle. Keep the child warm and give it a light diet."
"Thank you kindly, sir." She shouldered her baby and marched for the door.
"Excuse me, madam," said the doctor nervously. "Don't you think it too small a matter to make a bill of? Perhaps it would be better if we had a settlement at once."
The gypsy woman looked at him reproachfully out of her one uncovered eye.
"Are you going to charge me for that?" she asked. "How much, then?"
"Well, say half-a-crown." He mentioned the sum in a half-jesting way, as though it were too small to take serious notice of, but the gypsy woman raised quite a scream at the mention of it.
"'Arf-a-crown! for that?"
"Well, my good woman, why not go to the poor doctor if you cannot afford a fee?"
She fumbled in her pocket, craning awkwardly to keep her grip upon the baby.
"Here's sevenpence," she said at last, holding out a little pile of copper coins. "I'll give you that and a wicker footstool."
"But my fee is half-a-crown." The doctor's views of the glory of his profession cried out against this wretched haggling, and yet what was he to do? "Where am I to get 'arf-a-crown? It is well for gentlefolk like you who sit in your grand houses, and can eat and drink what you like, an' charge 'arf-a-crown for just saying as much as, ''Ow d'ye do?' We can't pick up' arf-crowns like that. What we gets we earns 'ard. This sevenpence is just all I've got. You told me to feed the child light. She must feed light, for what she's to have is more than I know."
Whilst the woman had been speaking, Dr. Horace Wilkinson's eyes had wandered to the tiny heap of money upon the table, which represented all that separated him from absolute starvation, and he chuckled to himself at the grim joke that he should appear to this poor woman to be a being living in the lap of luxury. Then he picked up the odd coppers, leaving only the two half-crowns upon the table.
"Here you are," he said brusquely. "Never mind the fee, and take these coppers. They may be of some use to you. Good-bye!" He bowed her out, and closed the door behind her. After all she was the thin edge of the wedge. These wandering people have great powers of recommendation. All large practices have been built up from such foundations. The hangers-on to the kitchen recommend to the kitchen, they to the drawing-room, and so it spreads. At least he could say now that he had had a patient.
He went into the back room and lit the spirit-kettle to boil the water for his tea, laughing the while at the recollection of his recent interview. If all patients were like this one it could easily be reckoned how many it would take to ruin him completely. Putting aside the dirt upon his carpet and the loss of time, there were twopence gone upon the bandage, fourpence or more upon the medicine, to say nothing of phial, cork, label, and paper. Then he had given her fivepence, so that his first patient had absorbed altogether not less than one sixth of his available capital. If five more were to come he would be a broken man. He sat down upon the portmanteau and shook with laughter at the thought, while he measured out his one spoonful and a half of tea at one shilling eightpence into the brown earthenware teapot. Suddenly, however, the laugh faded from his face, and he cocked his ear towards the door, standing listening with a slanting head and a sidelong eye. There had been a rasping of wheels against the curb, the sound of steps outside, and then a loud peal at the bell. With his teaspoon in his hand he peeped round the corner and saw with amazement that a carriage and pair were waiting outside, and that a powdered footman was standing at the door. The spoon tinkled down upon the floor, and he stood gazing in bewilderment. Then, pulling himself together, he threw open the door.
"Young man," said the flunky, "tell your master, Dr. Wilkinson, that he is wanted just as quick as ever he can come to Lady Millbank, at the Towers. He is to come this very instant. We'd take him with us, but we have to go back to see if Dr. Mason is home yet. Just you stir your stumps and give him the message."
The footman nodded and was off in an instant, while the coachman lashed his horses and the carriage flew down the street.
Here was a new development. Dr. Horace Wilkinson stood at his door and tried to think it all out. Lady Millbank, of the Towers! People of wealth and position, no doubt. And a serious case, or why this haste and summoning of two doctors? But, then, why in the name of all that is wonderful should he be sent for?
He was obscure, unknown, without influence. There must be some mistake. Yes, that must be the true explanation; or was it possible that some one was attempting a cruel hoax upon him? At any rate, it was too positive a message to be disregarded. He must set off at once and settle the matter one way or the other.
But he had one source of information. At the corner of the street was a small shop where one of the oldest inhabitants dispensed newspapers and gossip. He could get information there if anywhere. He put on his well-brushed top hat, secreted instruments and bandages in all his pockets, and without waiting for his tea closed up his establishment and started off upon his adventure.
The stationer at the corner was a human directory to every one and everything in Sutton, so that he soon had all the information which he wanted. Sir John Millbank was very well known in the town, it seemed. He was a merchant prince, an exporter of pens, three times mayor, and reported to be fully worth two millions sterling.
The Towers was his palatial seat, just outside the city. His wife had been an invalid for some years, and was growing worse. So far the whole thing seemed to be genuine enough. By some amazing chance these people really had sent for him.
And then another doubt assailed him, and he turned back into the shop.
"I am your neighbour, Dr. Horace Wilkinson," said he. "Is there any other medical man of that name in the town?"
No, the stationer was quite positive that there was not.
That was final, then. A great good fortune had come in his way, and he must take prompt advantage of it. He called a cab and drove furiously to the Towers, with his brain in a whirl, giddy with hope and delight at one moment, and sickened with fears and doubts at the next lest the case should in some way be beyond his powers, or lest he should find at some critical moment that he was without the instrument or appliance that was needed. Every strange and outre case of which he had ever heard or read came back into his mind, and long before he reached the Towers he had worked himself into a positive conviction that he would be instantly required to do a trephining at the least.
The Towers was a very large house, standing back amid trees, at the head of a winding drive. As he drove up the doctor sprang out, paid away half his worldly assets as a fare, and followed a stately footman who, having taken his name, led him through the oak-panelled, stained-glass hall, gorgeous with deers' heads and ancient armour, and ushered him into a large sitting-room beyond. A very irritable-looking, acid-faced man was seated in an armchair by the fireplace, while two young ladies in white were standing together in the bow window at the further end.
"Hullo! hullo! hullo! What's this—heh?" cried the irritable man. "Are you Dr. Wilkinson? Eh?"
"Yes, sir, I am Dr. Wilkinson."
"Really, now. You seem very young—much younger than I expected. Well, well, well, Mason's old, and yet he don't seem to know much about it. I suppose we must try the other end now. You're the Wilkinson who wrote something about the lungs? Heh?"
Here was a light! The only two letters which the doctor had ever written to The Lancet—modest little letters thrust away in a back column among the wrangles about medical ethics and the inquiries as to how much it took to keep a horse in the country—had been upon pulmonary disease. They had not been wasted, then. Some eye had picked them out and marked the name of the writer. Who could say that work was ever wasted, or that merit did not promptly meet with its reward?
"Yes, I have written on the subject."
"Ha! Well, then, where's Mason?"
"I have not the pleasure of his acquaintance."
"No?—that's queer too. He knows you and thinks a lot of your opinion. You're a stranger in the town, are you not?"
"Yes, I have only been here a very short time."
"That was what Mason said. He didn't give me the address. Said he would call on you and bring you, but when the wife got worse of course I inquired for you and sent for you direct. I sent for Mason, too, but he was out. However, we can't wait for him, so just run away upstairs and do what you can."
"Well, I am placed in a rather delicate position," said Dr. Horace Wilkinson, with some hesitation. "I am here, as I understand, to meet my colleague, Dr. Mason, in consultation. It would, perhaps, hardly be correct for me to see the patient in his absence. I think that I would rather wait."
"Would you, by Jove! Do you think I'll let my wife get worse while the doctor is coolly kicking his heels in the room below? No, sir, I am a plain man, and I tell you that you will either go up or go out."
The style of speech jarred upon the doctor's sense of the fitness of things, but still when a man's wife is ill much may be overlooked. He contented himself by bowing somewhat stiffly. "I shall go up, if you insist upon it," said he.
"I do insist upon it. And another thing, I won't have her thumped about all over the chest, or any hocus-pocus of the sort. She has bronchitis and asthma, and that's all. If you can cure it well and good. But it only weakens her to have you tapping and listening, and it does no good either."
Personal disrespect was a thing that the doctor could stand; but the profession was to him a holy thing, and a flippant word about it cut him to the quick.
"Thank you," said he, picking up his hat. "I have the honour to wish you a very good day. I do not care to undertake the responsibility of this case."
"Hullo! what's the matter now?"
"It is not my habit to give opinions without examining my patient. I wonder that you should suggest such a course to a medical man. I wish you good day."
But Sir John Millbank was a commercial man, and believed in the commercial principle that the more difficult a thing is to attain the more valuable it is. A doctor's opinion had been to him a mere matter of guineas. But here was a young man who seemed to care nothing either for his wealth or title. His respect for his judgment increased amazingly.
"Tut! tut!" said he; "Mason is not so thin-skinned. There! there! Have your way! Do what you like and I won't say another word. I'll just run upstairs and tell Lady Millbank that you are coming."
The door had hardly closed behind him when the two demure young ladies darted out of their corner, and fluttered with joy in front of the astonished doctor.
"Oh, well done! well done!" cried the taller, clapping her hands.
"Don't let him bully you, doctor," said the other. "Oh, it was so nice to hear you stand up to him. That's the way he does with poor Dr. Mason. Dr. Mason has never examined mamma yet. He always takes papa's word for everything. Hush, Maude; here he comes again." They subsided in an instant into their corner as silent and demure as ever.
Dr. Horace Wilkinson followed Sir John up the broad, thick-carpeted staircase, and into the darkened sick room. In a quarter of an hour he had sounded and sifted the case to the uttermost, and descended with the husband once more to the drawing-room. In front of the fireplace were standing two gentlemen, the one a very typical, clean-shaven, general practitioner, the other a striking-looking man of middle age, with pale blue eyes and a long red beard.
"Hullo, Mason, you've come at last!"
"Yes, Sir John, and I have brought, as I promised, Dr. Wilkinson with me."
"Dr. Wilkinson! Why, this is he."
Dr. Mason stared in astonishment. "I have never seen the gentleman before!" he cried.
"Nevertheless I am Dr. Wilkinson—Dr. Horace Wilkinson, of 114 Canal View."
"Good gracious, Sir John!" cried Dr. Mason.
"Did you think that in a case of such importance I should call in a junior local practitioner! This is Dr. Adam Wilkinson, lecturer on pulmonary diseases at Regent's College, London, physician upon the staff of the St. Swithin's Hospital, and author of a dozen works upon the subject. He happened to be in Sutton upon a visit, and I thought I would utilise his presence to have a first-rate opinion upon Lady Millbank."
"Thank you," said Sir John, dryly. "But I fear my wife is rather tired now, for she has just been very thoroughly examined by this young gentleman. I think we will let it stop at that for the present; though, of course, as you have had the trouble of coming here, I should be glad to have a note of your fees."
When Dr. Mason had departed, looking very disgusted, and his friend, the specialist, very amused, Sir John listened to all the young physician had to say about the case.
"Now, I'll tell you what," said he, when he had finished. "I'm a man of my word, d'ye see? When I like a man I freeze to him. I'm a good friend and a bad enemy. I believe in you, and I don't believe in Mason. From now on you are my doctor, and that of my family. Come and see my wife every day. How does that suit your book?"
"I am extremely grateful to you for your kind intentions toward me, but I am afraid there is no possible way in which I can avail myself of them."
"Heh! what d'ye mean?"
"I could not possibly take Dr. Mason's place in the middle of a case like this. It would be a most unprofessional act."
"Oh, well, go your own way!" cried Sir John, in despair. "Never was such a man for making difficulties. You've had a fair offer and you've refused it, and now you can just go your own way."
The millionaire stumped out of the room in a huff, and Dr. Horace Wilkinson made his way homeward to his spirit-lamp and his one-and-eightpenny tea, with his first guinea in his pocket, and with a feeling that he had upheld the best traditions of his profession.
And yet this false start of his was a true start also, for it soon came to Dr. Mason's ears that his junior had had it in his power to carry off his best patient and had forborne to do so. To the honour of the profession be it said that such forbearance is the rule rather than the exception, and yet in this case, with so very junior a practitioner and so very wealthy a patient, the temptation was greater than is usual. There was a grateful note, a visit, a friendship, and now the well-known firm of Mason and Wilkinson is doing the largest family practice in Sutton.
It was on the North Side of Butser on the long swell of the Hampshire Downs. Beneath, some two miles away, the grey roofs and red houses of Petersfield peeped out from amid the trees which surrounded it. From the crest of the low hills downwards the country ran in low, sweeping curves, as though some green primeval sea had congealed in the midst of a ground swell and set for ever into long verdant rollers. At the bottom, just where the slope borders upon the plain, there stood a comfortable square brick farmhouse, with a grey plume of smoke floating up from the chimney. Two cowhouses, a cluster of hayricks, and a broad stretch of fields, yellow with the ripening wheat, formed a fitting setting to the dwelling of a prosperous farmer.
The green slopes were dotted every here and there with dark clumps of gorse bushes, all alight with the flaming yellow blossoms. To the left lay the broad Portsmouth Road curving over the hill, with a line of gaunt telegraph posts marking its course. Beyond a huge white chasm opened in the grass, where the great Butser chalk quarry had been sunk. From its depths rose the distant murmur of voices, and the clinking of hammers. Just above it, between two curves of green hill, might be seen a little triangle of leaden-coloured sea, flecked with a single white sail.
Down the Portsmouth Road two women were walking, one elderly, florid and stout, with a yellow-brown Paisley shawl and a coarse serge dress, the other young and fair, with large grey eyes, and a face which was freckled like a plover's egg. Her neat white blouse with its trim black belt, and plain, close-cut skirt, gave her an air of refinement which was wanting in her companion, but there was sufficient resemblance between them to show that they were mother and daughter. The one was gnarled and hardened and wrinkled by rough country work, .the other fresh and pliant from the benign influence of the Board School; but their step, their slope of the shoulders, and the movement of their hips as they walked, all marked them as of one blood.
"Mother, I can see father in the five-acre field," cried the younger, pointing down in the direction of the farm.
The older woman screwed up her eyes, and shaded them with her hand.
"Who's that with him?" she asked.
"Oh, he's nobody. He's a-talkin' to some one."
"I don't know, mother. It's some one in a straw hat. Adam Wilson of the Quarry wears a straw hat."
"Aye, of course, it's Adam sure enough. Well, I'm glad we're back home time enough to see him. He'd have been disappointed if he had come over and you'd been away. Drat this dust! It makes one not fit to be seen."
The same idea seemed to have occurred to her daughter, for she had taken out her handkerchief, and was flicking her sleeves and the front of her dress.
"That's right, Dolly. There's some on your flounces. But, Lor' bless you, Dolly, it don't matter to him. It's not your dress he looks at, but your face. Now I shouldn't be very surprised if he hadn't come over to ask you from father."
"I think he'd best begin by asking me from myself," remarked the girl.
"Ah, but you'll have him, Dolly, when he does."
"I'm not so sure of that, mother." The older woman threw up her hands. "There! I don't know what the gals are coming to. I don't indeed. It's the Board Schools as does it. When I was a gal, if a decent young man came a- courtin', we gave him a 'Yes' or a 'No.' We didn't keep him hanging on like a half-clipped sheep. Now, here are you with two of them at your beck, and you can't give an answer to either of them."
"Why, mother, that's it," cried the daughter, with something between a laugh and a sob. "May be if they came one at a time I'd know what to say."
"What have you agin Adam Wilson?"
"Nothing. But I have nothing against Elias Mason."
"Nor I, either. But I know which is the most proper-looking young man."
"Looks isn't everything, mother. You should hear Elias Mason talk. You should hear him repeat poetry."
"Well, then, have Elias."
"Ah, but I haven't the heart to turn against Adam."
"There, now! I never saw such a gal. You're like a calf betwixt two hayricks; you have a nibble at the one and a nibble at the other. There's not one in a hundred as lucky as you. Here's Adam with three pound ten a week, foreman already at the Chalk Works, and likely enough to be manager if he's spared. And there's Elias, head telegraph clerk at the Post Office, and earning good money too. You can't keep 'em both on. You've got to take one or t'other, and it's my belief you'll get neither if you don't stop this shilly- shally."
"I don't care. I don't want them. What do they want to come bothering for?"
"It's human natur', gal. They must do it. If they didn't, you'd be the first to cry out maybe. It's in the Scriptures. 'Man is born for woman, as the sparks fly upwards.'" She looked up out of the corner of her eyes as if not very sure of her quotation. "Why, here be that dratted Bill. The good book says as we are all made of clay, but Bill does show it more than any lad I ever saw."
They had turned from the road into a narrow, deeply rutted lane, which led towards the farm. A youth was running towards them, loose-jointed and long- limbed, with a boyish, lumbering haste, clumping fearlessly with his great yellow clogs through pool and mire. He wore brown corduroys, a dingy shirt, and a red handkerchief tied loosely round his neck. A tattered old straw hat was tilted back upon his shock of coarse, matted, brown hair. His sleeves were turned up to the elbows, and his arms and face were both tanned and roughened until his skin looked like the bark of some young sapling. As he looked up at the sound of the steps, his face with its blue eyes, brown skin, and first slight down of a tawny moustache, was not an uncomely one, were it not marred by the heavy, stolid, somewhat sulky expression of the country yokel.
"Please, mum," said he, touching the brim of his wreck of a hat, "measter seed ye coming. He sent to say as 'ow 'e were in the five-acre lot."
"Run back, Bill, and say that we are coming," answered the farmer's wife, and the awkward figure sped away upon its return journey.
"I say, mother, what is Bill's other name?" asked the girl, with languid curiosity.
"He's not got one."
"No, Dolly, he's a found child, and never had no father or mother that ever was heard of. We had him from the work'us when he was seven, to chop mangel wurzel, and here he's been ever since, nigh twelve year. He was Bill there, and he's Bill here."
"What fun! Fancy having only one name. I wonder what they'll call his wife?"
"I don't know. Time to talk of that when he can keep one. But now, Dolly dear, here's your father and Adam Wilson comin' across the field. I want to see you settled, Dolly. He's a steady young man. He's blue ribbon, and has money in the Post Office."
"I wish I knew which liked me best," said her daughter glancing from under her hat-brim at the approaching figures. "That's the one I should like. But it's all right, mother, and I know how to find out, so don't you fret yourself any more."
The suitor was a well-grown young fellow in a grey suit, with a straw hat jauntily ribboned in red and black. He was smoking, but as he approached he thrust his pipe into his breast-pocket, and came forward with one hand outstretched, and the other gripping nervously at his watch-chain.
"Your servant, Mrs. Foster. And how are you, Miss Dolly? Another fortnight of this and you will be starting on your harvest, I suppose."
"It's bad to say beforehand what you will do in this country," said Farmer Foster, with an apprehensive glance round the heavens.
"It's all God's doing," remarked his wife piously.
"And He does the best for us, of course. Yet He does seem these last seasons to have kind of lost His grip over the weather. Well, maybe it will be made up to us this year. And what did you do at Horndean, mother?"
The old couple walked in front, and the other dropped behind, the young man lingering, and taking short steps to increase the distance.
"I say, Dolly," he murmured at last, flushing slightly as he glanced at her, "I've been speaking to your father about—you know what."
But Dolly didn't know what. She hadn't the slightest idea of what. She turned her pretty little freckled face up to him and was full of curiosity upon the point.
Adam Wilson's face flushed to a deeper red. "You know very well," said he, impatiently, "I spoke to him about marriage."
"Oh, then it's him you want."
"There, that's the way you always go on. It's easy to make fun, but I tell you that I am in earnest, Dolly. Your father says that he would have no objection to me in the family. You know that I love you true."
"How do I know that then?"
"I tell you so. What more can I do?"
"Did you ever do anything to prove it?"
"Set me something and see if I don't do it."
"Then you haven't done anything yet?"
"I don't know. I've done what I could."
"How about this?" She pulled a little crumpled sprig of dog-rose, such as grows wild in the wayside hedges, out of her bosom. "Do you know anything of that?"
He smiled, and was about to answer, when his brows suddenly contracted, his mouth set, and his eyes flashed angrily as they focussed some distant object. Following his gaze, she saw a slim, dark figure, some three fields off, walking swiftly in their direction. "It's my friend, Mr. Elias Mason," said she.
"Your friend!" He had lost his diffidence in his anger. "I know all about that. What does he want here every second evening?"
"Perhaps he wonders what you want."
"Does he? I wish he'd come and ask me. I'd let him see what I wanted. Quick too."
"He can see it now. He has taken off his hat to me," Dolly said, laughing.
Her laughter was the finishing touch. He had meant to be impressive, and it seemed that he had only been ridiculous. He swung round upon his heel.
"Very well, Miss Foster," said he, in a choking voice, "that's all right. We know where we are now. I didn't come here to be made a fool of, so good day to you." He plucked at his hat, and walked furiously off in the direction from which they had come. She looked after him, half frightened, in the hope of seeing some sign that he had relented, but he strode onwards with a rigid neck, and vanished at a turn of the lane.
When she turned again her other visitor was close upon her—a thin, wiry, sharp-featured man with a sallow face, and a quick, nervous manner.
"Good evening, Miss Foster. I thought that I would walk over as the weather was so beautiful, but I did not expect to have the good fortune to meet you in the fields."
"I am sure that father will be very glad to see you, Mr. Mason. You must come in and have a glass of milk."
"No, thank you, Miss Foster, I should very much prefer to stay out here with you. But I am afraid that I have interrupted you in a chat. Was not that Mr. Adam Wilson who left you this moment?" His manner was subdued, but his questioning eyes and compressed lips told of a deeper and more furious jealousy than that of his rival.
"Yes. It was Mr. Adam Wilson." There was something about Mason, a certain concentration of manner, which made it impossible for the girl to treat him lightly as she had done the other.
"I have noticed him here several times lately."
"Yes. He is head foreman, you know, at the big quarry."
"Oh, indeed. He is fond of your society, Miss Foster. I can't blame him for that, can I, since I am equally so myself. But I should like to come to some understanding with you. You cannot have misunderstood what my feelings are to you? I am in a position to offer you a comfortable home. Will you be my wife, Miss Foster?"
Dolly would have liked to make some jesting reply, but it was hard to be funny with those two eager, fiery eyes fixed so intently upon her own. She began to walk slowly towards the house, while he paced along beside her, still waiting for his answer.
"You must give me a little time, Mr. Mason," she said at last. "'Marry in haste,' they say, 'and repent at leisure.'"
"But you shall never have cause to repent."
"I don't know. One hears such things."
"You shall be the happiest woman in England."
"That sounds very nice. You are a poet, Mr. Mason, are you not?"
"I am a lover of poetry."
"And poets are fond of flowers?"
"I am very fond of flowers."
"Then perhaps you know something of these?" She took out the humble little sprig, and held it out to him with an arch questioning glance. He took it and pressed it to his lips.
"I know that it has been near you, where I should wish to be," said he.
"Good evening, Mr. Mason!" It was Mrs. Foster who had come out to meet them. "Where's Mr.—? Oh—ah! Yes, of course. The teapot's on the table, and you'd best come in afore it's over-drawn."
When Elias Mason left the farmhouse that evening, he drew Dolly aside at the door.
"I won't be able to come before Saturday," said he.
"We shall be glad to see you, Mr. Mason."
"I shall want my answer then."
"Oh, I cannot give any promise, you know."
"But I shall live in hope."
"Well, no one can prevent you from doing that." As she came to realize her power over him she had lost something of her fear, and could answer him now nearly as freely as if he were simple Adam Wilson.
She stood at the door, leaning against the wooden porch, with the long trailers of the honeysuckle framing her tall, slight figure. The great red sun was low in the west, its upper rim peeping over the low hills, shooting long, dark shadows from the beech-tree in the field, from the little group of tawny cows, and from the man who walked away from her. She smiled to see how immense the legs were, and how tiny the body in the great flat giant which kept pace beside him. In front of her in the little garden the bees droned, a belated butterfly or an early moth fluttered slowly over the flower-beds, a thousand little creatures buzzed and hummed, all busy working out their tiny destinies, as she, too, was working out hers, and each doubtless looking upon their own as the central point of the universe. A few months for the gnat, a few years for the girl, but each was happy now in the heavy summer air. A beetle scuttled out upon the gravel path and bored onwards, its six legs all working hard, butting up against stones, upsetting itself on ridges, but still gathering itself up and rushing onwards to some all-important appointment somewhere in the grass plot. A bat fluttered up from behind the beech-tree. A breath of night air sighed softly over the hillside with a little tinge of the chill sea spray in its coolness. Dolly Foster shivered, and had turned to go in when her mother came out from the passage.
"Whatever is that Bill doing there?" she cried.
Dolly looked, and saw for the first time that the nameless farm-labourer was crouching under the beech, his browns and yellows blending with the bark behind him.
"You go out o' that, Bill!" screamed the farmer's wife.
"What be I to do?" he asked humbly, slouching forward.
"Go, cut chaff in the barn." He nodded and strolled away, a comical figure in his mud-crusted boots, his strap-tied corduroys and his almond-coloured skin.
"Well, then, you've taken Elias," said the mother, passing her hand round her daughter's waist. "I seed him a-kissing your flower. Well, I'm sorry for Adam, for he is a well-grown young man, a proper young man, blue ribbon, with money in the Post Office. Still some one must suffer, else how could we be purified. If the milk's left alone it won't ever turn into butter. It wants troubling and stirring and churning. That's what we want, too, before we can turn angels. It's just the same as butter."
Dolly laughed. "I have not taken Elias yet," said she.
"No? What about Adam then?"
"Nor him either."
"Oh, Dolly girl, can you not take advice from them that is older. I tell you again that you'll lose them both."
"No, no, mother. Don't you fret yourself. It's all right. But you can see how hard it is. I like Elias, for he can speak so well, and is so sure and masterful. And I like Adam because—well, because I know very well that Adam loves me."
"Well, bless my heart, you can't marry them both. You'd like all the pears in the basket."
"No, mother, but I know how to choose. You see this bit of a flower, dear."
"It's a common dog-rose."
"Well, where d'you think I found it?"
"In the hedge likely."
"No, but on my window-ledge."
"Oh, but when?"
"This morning. It was six when I got up, and there it lay fresh and sweet, and new-plucked. 'Twas the same yesterday and the day before. Every morning there it lies. It's a common flower, as you say, mother, but it is not so common to find a man who'll break short his sleep day after day just to show a girl that the thought of her is in his heart."
"And which was it?"
"Ah, if I knew! I think it's Elias. He's a poet, you know, and poets do nice things like that."
"And how will you be sure?"
"I'll know before morning. He will come again, whichever it is. And whichever it is he's the man for me. Did father ever do that for you before you married?"
"I can't say he did, dear. But father was always a powerful heavy sleeper."
"Well then, mother, you needn't fret any more about me, for as sure as I stand here, I'll tell you to-morrow which of them it is to be."
That evening the farmer's daughter set herself to clearing off all those odd jobs which accumulate in a large household. She polished the dark, old- fashioned furniture in the sitting-room. She cleared out the cellar, re- arranged the bins, counted up the cider, made a great cauldron full of raspberry jam, potted, papered, and labelled it. Long after the whole household was in bed she pushed on with her self-imposed tasks until the night was far gone and she very spent and weary. Then she stirred up the smouldering kitchen fire and made herself a cup of tea, and, carrying it up to her own room, she sat sipping it and glancing over an old bound volume of the Leisure Hour. Her seat was behind the little dimity window curtains, whence she could see without being seen.
The morning had broken, and a brisk wind had sprung up with the dawn. The sky was of the lightest, palest blue, with a scud of flying white clouds shredded out over the face of it, dividing, coalescing, overtaking one another, but sweeping ever from the pink of the east to the still shadowy west. The high, eager voice of the wind whistled and sang outside, rising from moan to shriek, and then sinking again to a dull mutter and grumble. Dolly rose to wrap her shawl around her, and as she sat down again in an instant her doubts were resolved, and she had seen that for which she had waited.
Her window faced the inner yard, and was some eight feet from the ground. A man standing beneath it could not be seen from above. But she saw enough to tell her all that she wished to know. Silently, suddenly, a hand had appeared from below, had laid a sprig of flower upon her ledge, and had disappeared. It did not take two seconds; she saw no face, she heard no sound, but she had seen the hand and she wanted nothing more. With a smile she threw herself upon the bed, drew a rug over her, and dropped into a heavy slumber.
She was awakened by her mother plucking at her shoulder.
"It's breakfast time, Dolly, but I thought you would be weary, so I brought you lip some bread and coffee. Sit up, like a dearie, and take it."
"All right, mother. Thank you. I'm all dressed, so I'll be ready to come down soon."
"Bless the gal, she's never had her things off! And, dearie me, here's the flower outside the window, sure enough! Well, and did you see who put it there?"
"Yes, I did."
"Who was it then?"
"It was Adam."
"Was it now? Well, I shouldn't have thought that he had it in him. Then Adam it's to be. Well, he's steady, and that's better than being clever, yea, seven-and-seventy fold. Did he come across the yard?"
"No, along by the wall."
"How did you see him then?"
"I didn't see him."
"Then how can you tell?"
"I saw his hand."
"But d'you tell me you know Adam's hand?"
"It would be a blind man that couldn't tell it from Elias' hand. Why, the one is as brown as that coffee, and the other as white as the cup, with great blue veins all over it."
"Well, now I shouldn't have thought of it, but so it is. Well, it'll be a busy day, Dolly. Just hark to the wind!"
It had, indeed, increased during the few hours since dawn to a very violent tempest. The panes of the window rattled and shook. Glancing out, Dolly saw cabbage leaves and straw whirling up past the casement.
"The great hayrick is giving. They're all out trying to prop it up. My, but it do blow!"
It did indeed! When Dolly came downstairs it was all that she could do to push her way through the porch. All along the horizon the sky was brassy- yellow, but above the wind screamed and stormed, and the torn, hurrying clouds were now huddled together, and now frayed off into countless tattered streamers. In the field near the house her father and three or four labourers were working with poles and ropes, hatless, their hair and beards flying, staving up a great bulging hayrick. Dolly watched them for a moment, and then, stooping her head and rounding her shoulders, with one hand up to her little black straw hat, she staggered off across the fields.
Adam Wilson was at work always on a particular part of the hillside, and hither it was that she bent her steps. He saw the trim, dapper figure, with its flying skirts and hat-ribbons, and he came forward to meet her with a great white crowbar in his hand. He walked slowly, however, and his eyes were downcast, with the air of a man who still treasures a grievance.
"Good mornin', Miss Foster."
"Good morning, Mr. Wilson. Oh, if you are going to be cross with me, I'd best go home again."
"I'm not cross, Miss Foster. I take it very kindly that you should come out this way on such a day."
"I wanted to say to you—I wanted to say that I was sorry if I made you angry yesterday. I didn't mean to make fun. I didn't, indeed. It is only my way of talking. It was so good of you, so noble of you, to let it make no difference."
"None at all, Dolly." He was quite radiant again. "If I didn't love you so, I wouldn't mind what that other chap said or did. And if I could only think that you cared more for me than for him—"
"I do, Adam."
"God bless you for saying so! You've lightened my heart, Dolly. I have to go to Portsmouth for the firm today. To-morrow night I'll come and see you."
"Very well, Adam, I—Oh, my God, what's that!"
A rending breaking noise in the distance, a dull rumble, and a burst of shouts and cries.
"The rick's down! There's been an accident!" They both started running down the hill.
"Father!" panted the girl, "father!"
"He's all right!" shouted her companion, "I can see him. But there's some one down. They're lifting him now. And here's one running like mad for the doctor."
A farm-labourer came rushing wildly up the lane. "Don't you go, Missey," he cried. "A man's hurt."
"It's Bill. The rick came down and the ridge-pole caught him across the back. He's dead, I think. Leastwise, there's not much life in him. I'm off for Doctor Strong!" He bent his shoulder to the wind, and lumbered off down the road.
"Poor Bill! Thank God it wasn't father!" They were at the edge of the field now in which the accident had taken place. The rick lay, a shapeless mound upon the earth, with a long thick pole protruding from it, which had formerly supported the tarpaulin drawn across it in case of rain. Four men were walking slowly away, one shoulder humped, one hanging, and betwixt them they bore a formless clay-coloured bundle. He might have been a clod of the earth that he tilled, so passive, so silent, still brown, for death itself could not have taken the burn from his skin, but with patient, bovine eyes looking out heavily from under half-closed lids. He breathed jerkily, but he neither cried out nor groaned. There was something almost brutal and inhuman in his absolute stolidity. He asked no sympathy, for his life had been without it. It was a broken tool rather than an injured man.
"Can I do anything, father?"
"No, lass, no. This is no place for you. I've sent for the doctor. He'll be here soon."
"But where are they taking him?"
"To the loft where be sleeps."
"I'm sure he's welcome to my room, father."
"No, no, lass. Better leave it alone."
But the little group were passing as they spoke, and the injured lad had heard the girl's words.
"Thank ye kindly, Missey," he murmured, with a little flicker of life, and then sank back again into his stolidity and his silence.
Well, a farm hand is a useful thing, but what is a man to do with one who has an injured spine and half his ribs smashed. Farmer Foster shook his head and scratched his chin as he listened to the doctor's report.
"He can't get better?"
"Then we had better move him."
"To the work'us hospital. He came from there just this time eleven years. It'll be like going home to him."
"I fear that he is going home," said the doctor gravely. "But it's out of the question to move him now. He must lie where he is for better or for worse."
And it certainly looked for worse rather than for better. In a little loft above the stable he was stretched upon a tiny blue pallet which lay upon the planks. Above were the gaunt rafters, hung with saddles, harness, old scythe blades—the hundred things which droop, like bats, from inside such buildings. Beneath them upon two pegs hung his own pitiable wardrobe, the blue shirt and the grey, the stained trousers, and the muddy coat. A gaunt chaff-cutting machine stood at his head, and a great bin of the chaff behind it. He lay very quiet, still dumb, still uncomplaining, his eyes fixed upon the small square window looking out at the drifting sky, and at this strange world which God has made so queerly—so very queerly.
An old woman, the wife of a labourer, had been set to nurse him, for the doctor had said that he was not to be left. She moved about the room, arranging and ordering, grumbling to herself from time to time at this lonely task which had been assigned to her. There were some flowers in broken jars upon a cross-beam, and these, with a touch of tenderness, she carried over and arranged upon a deal packing-case beside the patient's head. He lay motionless, and as he breathed there came a gritty rubbing sound from somewhere in his side, but he followed his companion about with his eyes and even smiled once as she grouped the flowers round him.
He smiled again when he heard that Mrs. Foster and her daughter had been to ask after him that evening. They had been down to the Post Office together, where Dolly had sent off a letter which she had very carefully drawn up, addressed to Elias Mason, Esq., and explaining to that gentleman that she had formed her plans for life, and that he need spare himself the pain of coming for his answer on the Saturday. As they came back they stopped in the stable and inquired through the loft door as to the sufferer. From where they stood they could hear that horrible grating sound in his breathing. Dolly hurried away with her face quite pale under her freckles. She was too young to face the horrid details of suffering, and yet she was a year older than this poor waif, who lay in silence, facing death itself.
All night he lay very quiet—so quiet that were it not for that one sinister sound his nurse might have doubted whether life was still in him. She had watched him and tended him as well as she might, but she was herself feeble and old, and just as the morning light began to steal palely through the small loft window, she sank back in her chair in a dreamless sleep. Two hours passed, and the first voices of the men as they gathered for their work aroused her. She sprang to her feet. Great heaven! the pallet was empty. She rushed down into the stables, distracted, wringing her hands. There was no sign of him. But the stable door was open. He must have walked-but how could he walk?—he must have crawled—have writhed that way. Out she rushed, and as they heard her tale, the newly risen labourers ran with her, until the farmer with his wife and daughter were called from their breakfast by the bustle, and joined also in this strange chase. A whoop, a cry, and they were drawn round to the corner of the yard on which Miss Dolly's window opened. There he lay within a few yards of the window, his face upon the stones, his feet thrusting out from his tattered night-gown, and his track marked by the blood from his wounded knees. One hand was thrown out before him, and in it he held a little sprig of the pink dog-rose.
They carried him back, cold and stiff, to the pallet in the loft, and the old nurse drew the sheet over him and left him, for there was no need to watch him now. The girl had gone to her room, and her mother followed her thither, all unnerved by this glimpse of death.
"And to think," said she, "that it was only him, after all."
But Dolly sat at the side of her bed, and sobbed bitterly in her apron.
It was a cold, foggy, dreary evening in May. Along the Strand blurred patches of light marked the position of the lamps. The flaring shop windows flickered vaguely with steamy brightness through the thick and heavy atmosphere.
The high lines of houses which lead down to the Embankment were all dark and deserted, or illuminated only by the glimmering lamp of the caretaker. At one point, however, there shone out from three windows upon the second floor a rich flood of light, which broke the sombre monotony of the terrace. Passers-by glanced up curiously, and drew each other's attention to the ruddy glare, for it marked the chambers of Francis Pericord, the inventor and electrical engineer. Long into the watches of the night the gleam of his lamps bore witness to the untiring energy and restless industry which was rapidly carrying him to the first rank in his profession.
Within the chamber sat two men. The one was Pericord himself—hawk- faced and angular, with the black hair and brisk bearing which spoke of his Celtic origin. The other—thick, sturdy, and blue-eyed—was Jeremy Brown, the well-known mechanician. They had been partners in many an invention, in which the creative genius of the one had been aided by the practical abilities of the other. It was a question among their friends as to which was the better man.
It was no chance visit which had brought Brown into Pericord's workshop at so late an hour. Business was to be done—business which was to decide the failure or success of months of work, and which might affect their whole careers. Between them lay a long brown table, stained and corroded by strong acids, and littered with giant carboys, Faure's accumulators, voltaic piles, coils of wire, and great blocks of non-conducting porcelain. In the midst of all this lumber there stood a singular whizzing, whirring machine, upon which the eyes of both partners were riveted.
A small square metal receptacle was connected by numerous wires to a broad steel girdle, furnished on either side with two powerful projecting joints. The girdle was motionless, but the joints with the short arms attached to them flashed round every few seconds, with a pause between each rhythmic turn. The power which moved them came evidently from the metal box. A subtle odour of ozone was in the air.
"How about the flanges, Brown?" asked the inventor.
"They were too large to bring. They are seven foot by three. There is power enough there to work them, however. I will answer for that."
"Aluminium with an alloy of copper?"
"See how beautifully it works." Pericord stretched out a thin, nervous hand, and pressed a button upon the machine. The joints revolved more slowly, and came presently to a dead stop. Again he touched a spring and the arms shivered and woke up again into their crisp metallic life. "The experimenter need not exert his muscular powers," he remarked. "He has only to be passive, and use his intelligence."
"Thanks to my motor," said Brown.
"Our motor," the other broke in sharply.
"Oh, of course," said his colleague impatiently.
"The motor which you thought of, and which I reduced to practice— call it what you like."
"I call it the Brown-Pericord Motor," cried the inventor with an angry flash of his dark eyes. "You worked out the details, but the abstract thought is mine, and mine alone."
"An abstract thought won't turn an engine," said Brown, doggedly.
"That was why I took you into partnership," the other retorted, drumming nervously with his fingers upon the table. "I invent, you build. It is a fair division of labour."
Brown pursed up his lips, as though by no means satisfied upon the point. Seeing, however, that further argument was useless, he turned his attention to the machine, which was shivering and rocking with each swing of its arms, as though a very little more would send it skimming from the table.
"Is it not splendid?" cried Pericord.
"It is satisfactory," said the more phlegmatic Anglo-Saxon.
"There's immortality in it!"
"There's money in it!"
"Our names will go down with Montgolfier's."
"With Rothschild's, I hope."
"No, no, Brown; you take too material a view," cried the inventor, raising his gleaming eyes from the machine to his companion. "Our fortunes are a mere detail. Money is a thing which every heavy-witted plutocrat in the country shares with us. My hopes rise to something higher than that. Our true reward will come in the gratitude and goodwill of the human race."
Brown shrugged his shoulders. "You may have my share of that," he said. "I am a practical man. We must test our invention."
"Where can we do it?"
"That is what I wanted to speak about. It must be absolutely secret. If we had private grounds of our own it would be an easy matter, but there is no privacy in London."
"We must take it into the country."
"I have a suggestion to offer," said Brown. "My brother has a place in Sussex on the high land near Beachy Head. There is, I remember, a large and lofty barn near the house. Will is in Scotland, but the key is always at my disposal. Why not take the machine down tomorrow and test it in the barn?"
"Nothing could be better."
"There is a train to Eastbourne at one."
"I shall be at the station."
"Bring the gear with you, and I will bring the flanges," said the mechanician, rising. "Tomorrow will prove whether we have been following a shadow, or whether fortune is at our feet. One o'clock at Victoria." He walked swiftly down the stair and was quickly reabsorbed into the flood of comfortless clammy humanity which ebbed and flowed along the Strand.
The morning was bright and spring-like. A pale blue sky arched over London, with a few gauzy white clouds drifting lazily across it. At eleven o'clock Brown might have been seen entering the Patent Office with a great roll of parchment, diagrams, and plans under his arm. At twelve he emerged again smiling, and, opening his pocket-book, he packed away very carefully a small slip of official blue paper. At five minutes to one his cab rolled into Victoria Station. Two giant canvas-covered parcels, like enormous kites, were handed down by the cabman from the top, and consigned to the care of a guard. On the platform Pericord was pacing up and down, with long eager step and swinging arms, a tinge of pink upon his sunken and sallow cheeks.
"All right?" he asked.
Brown pointed in answer to his baggage.
"I have the motor and the girdle already packed away in the guard's van. Be careful, guard, for it is delicate machinery of great value. So! Now we can start with an easy conscience."
At Eastbourne the precious motor was carried to a four-wheeler, and the great flanges hoisted on the top. A long drive took them to the house where the keys were kept, whence they set off across the barren Downs. The building which was their destination was a commonplace white-washed structure, with straggling stables and out-houses, standing in a grassy hollow which sloped down from the edge of the chalk cliffs. It was a cheerless house even when in use, but now with its smokeless chimneys and shuttered windows it looked doubly dreary. The owner had planted a grove of young larches and firs around it, but the sweeping spray had blighted them, and they hung their withered heads in melancholy groups. It was a gloomy and forbidding spot.
But the inventors were in no mood to be moved by such trifles. The lonelier the place, the more fitted for their purpose. With the help of the cabman they carried their packages down the footpath, and laid them in the darkened dining-room. The sun was setting as the distant murmur of wheels told them that they were finally alone.
Pericord had thrown open the shutters and the mellow evening light streamed in through the discoloured windows. Brown drew a knife from his pocket and cut the pack-thread with which the canvas was secured. As the brown covering fell away it disclosed two great yellow metal fans. These he leaned carefully against the wall. The girdle, the connecting-bands, and the motor were then in turn unpacked. It was dark before all was set out in order. A lamp was lit, and by its light the two men continued to tighten screws, clinch rivets, and make the last preparations for their experiment.
"That finishes it," said Brown at last, stepping back and surveying the machine.
Pericord said nothing, but his face glowed with pride and expectation.
"We must have something to eat," Brown remarked, laying out some provisions which he had brought with him.
"No, now," said the stolid mechanician. "I am half starved." He pulled up to the table and made a hearty meal, while his Celtic companion strode impatiently up and down, with twitching fingers and restless eyes.
"Now then," said Brown, facing round, and brushing the crumbs from his lap, "who is to put it on?"
"I shall," cried his companion eagerly. "What we do to-night is likely to be historic."
"But there is some danger," suggested Brown. "We cannot quite tell how it may act."
"That is nothing," said Pericord, with a wave of his hand.
"But there is no use our going out of our way to incur danger."
"What then? One of us must do it."
"Not at all. The motor would act equally well if attached to any inanimate object."
"That is true," said Pericord, thoughtfully.
"There are bricks by the barn. I have a sack here. Why should not a bagful of them take your place?"
"It is a good idea. I see no objection."
"Come on then," and the two sallied out, bearing with them the various sections of their machine. The moon was shining cold and clear though an occasional ragged cloud drifted across her face. All was still and silent upon the Downs. They stood and listened before they entered the barn, but not a sound came to their ears, save the dull murmur of the sea and the distant barking of a dog. Pericord journeyed backwards and forwards with all that they might need, while Brown filled a long narrow sack with bricks.
When all was ready, the door of the barn was closed, and the lamp balanced upon an empty packing-case. The bag of bricks was laid upon two trestles, and the broad steel girdle was buckled round it. Then the great flanges, the wires, and the metal box containing the motor were in turn attached to the girdle. Last of all a flat steel rudder, shaped like a fish's tail, was secured to the bottom of the sack.
"We must make it travel in a small circle," said Pericord, glancing round at the bare high walls.
"Tie the rudder down at one side," suggested Brown. "Now it is ready. Press the connection and off she goes!"
Pericord leaned forward, his long sallow face quivering with excitement. His white nervous hands darted here and there among the wires. Brown stood impassive with critical eyes. There was a sharp burr from the machine. The huge yellow wings gave a convulsive flap. Then another. Then a third, slower and stronger, with a fuller sweep. Then a fourth which filled the barn with a blast of driven air. At the fifth the bag of bricks began to dance upon the trestles. At the sixth it sprang into the air, and would have fallen to the ground, but the seventh came to save it, and fluttered it forward through the air. Slowly rising, it flapped heavily round in a circle, like some great clumsy bird, filling the barn with its buzzing and whirring. In the uncertain yellow light of the single lamp it was strange to see the loom of the ungainly thing, flapping off into the shadows, and then circling back into the narrow zone of light.
The two men stood for a while in silence. Then Pericord threw his long arms up into the air.
"It acts!" he cried. "The Brown-Pericord Motor acts!" He danced about like a madman in his delight. Brown's eyes twinkled, and he began to whistle.
"See how smoothly it goes, Brown!" cried the inventor. "And the rudder —how well it acts! We must register it tomorrow."
His comrade's face darkened and set. "It is registered," he said, with a forced laugh.
"Registered?" said Pericord. "Registered?" He repeated the word first in a whisper, and then in a kind of scream. "Who has dared to register my invention?"
"I did it this morning. There is nothing to be excited about. It is all right."
"You registered the motor! Under whose name?"
"Under my own," said Brown, sullenly. "I consider that I have the best right to it."
"And my name does not appear?"
"You villain!" screamed Pericord. "You thief and villain! You would steal my work! You would filch my credit! I will have that patent back if I have to tear your throat out!" A sombre fire burned in his black eyes, and his hands writhed themselves together with passion. Brown was no coward, but he shrank back as the other advanced upon him.
"Keep your hands off!" he said, drawing a knife from his pocket. "I will defend myself if you attack me."
"You threaten me?" cried Pericord, whose face was livid with anger. "You are a bully as well as a cheat. Will you give up the patent?"
"No, I will not."
"Brown, I say, give it up!"
"I will not. I did the work."
Pericord sprang madly forward with blazing eyes and clutching fingers. His companion writhed out of his grasp, but was dashed against the packing-case, over which he fell. The lamp was extinguished, and the whole barn plunged into darkness. A single ray of moonlight shining through a narrow chink flickered over the great waving fans as they came and went.
"Will you give up the patent, Brown?"
There was no answer.
"Will you give it up?"
Again no answer. Not a sound save the humming and creaking overhead. A cold pang of fear and doubt struck through Pericord's heart. He felt aimlessly about in the dark and his fingers closed upon a hand. It was cold and unresponsive. With all his anger turned to icy horror he struck a match, set the lamp up, and lit it.
Brown lay huddled up on the other side of the packing-case. Pericord seized him in his arms, and with convulsive strength lifted him across. Then the mystery of his silence was explained. He had fallen with his right arms doubled up under him, and his own weight had driven the knife deeply into his body. He had died without a groan. The tragedy had been sudden, horrible, and complete.
Pericord sat silently on the edge of the case, staring blankly down, and shivering like one with the ague, while the great Brown-Pericord Motor boomed and hurtled above him. How long he sat there can never be known. It might have been minutes or it might have been hours. A thousand mad schemes flashed through his dazed brain. It was true that he had been only the indirect cause. But who would believe that? He glanced down at his blood-spattered clothing. Everything was against him. It would be better to fly than to give himself up, relying upon his innocence. No one in London knew where they were. If he could dispose of the body he might have a few days clear before any suspicion would be aroused.
Suddenly a loud crash recalled him to himself. The flying sack had gradually risen with each successive circle until it had struck against the rafters. The blow displaced the connecting-gear, and the machine fell heavily to the ground. Pericord undid the girdle. The motor was uninjured. A sudden strange thought flashed upon him as he looked at it. The machine had become hateful to him. He might dispose both of it and the body in a way that would baffle all human search.
He threw open the barn door, and carried his companion out into the moonlight. There was a hillock outside, and on the summit of this he laid him reverently down. Then he brought from the barn the motor, the girdle and the flanges. With trembling fingers he fastened the broad steel belt round the dead man's waist. Then he screwed the wings into the sockets. Beneath he slung the motor-box, fastened the wires, and switched on the connection. For a minute or two the huge yellow fans flapped and flickered. Then the body began to move in little jumps down the side of the hillock, gathering a gradual momentum, until at last it heaved up into the air and soared off in the moonlight. He had not used the rudder, but had turned the head for the south. Gradually the weird thing rose higher, and sped faster, until it had passed over the line of cliff, and was sweeping over the silent sea. Pericord watched it with a white drawn face, until it looked like a black bird with golden wings half shrouded in the mist which lay over the waters.
In the New York State Lunatic Asylum there is a wild-eyed man whose name and birth-place are alike unknown. His reason has been unseated by some sudden shock, the doctors say, though of what nature they are unable to determine. "It is the most delicate machine which is most readily put out of gear," they remark, and point, in proof of their axiom, to the complicated electric engines, and remarkable aeronautic machines which the patient is fond of devising in his more lucid moments.
So long as the oceans are the ligaments which bind together the great broad-cast British Empire, so long will there be a dash of romance in our minds. For the soul is swayed by the waters, as the waters are by the moon, and when the great highways of an empire are along such roads as these, so full of strange sights and sounds, with danger ever running like a hedge on either side of the course, it is a dull mind indeed which does not bear away with it some trace of such a passage. And now, Britain lies far beyond herself, for the three-mile limit of every seaboard is her frontier, which has been won by hammer and loom and pick rather than by arts of war. For it is written in history that neither king nor army can bar the path to the man who having twopence in his strong box, and knowing well where he can turn it to threepence, sets his mind to that one end. And as the frontier has broadened, the mind of Britain has broadened too, spreading out until all men can see that the ways of the island are continental, even as those of the Continent are insular.
But for this a price must be paid, and the price is a grievous one. As the beast of old must have one young human life as a tribute every year, so to our Empire we throw from day to day the pick and flower of our youth. The engine is world-wide and strong, but the only fuel that will drive it is the lives of British men. Thus it is that in the grey old cathedrals, as we look round upon the brasses on the walls, we see strange names, such names as they who reared those walls had never heard, for it is in Peshawar, and Umballah, and Korti and Fort Pearson that the youngsters die, leaving only a precedent and a brass behind them. But if every man had his obelisk, even where he lay, then no frontier line need be drawn, for a cordon of British graves would ever show how high the Anglo-Celtic tide had lapped.
This, then, as well as the waters which join us to the world, has done something to tinge us with romance. For when so many have their loved ones over the seas, walking amid hillmen's bullets, or swamp malaria, where death is sudden and distance great, then mind communes with mind, and strange stories arise of dream, presentiment or vision, where the mother sees her dying son, and is past the first bitterness of her grief ere the message comes which should have broken the news. The learned have of late looked into the matter and have even labelled it with a name; but what can we know more of it save that a poor stricken soul, when hard-pressed and driven, can shoot across the earth some ten-thousand-mile-distant picture of its trouble to the mind which is most akin to it. Far be it from me to say that there lies no such power within us, for of all things which the brain will grasp the last will be itself; but yet it is well to be very cautious over such matters, for once at least I have known that which was within the laws of nature seem to be far upon the further side of them.
John Vansittart was the younger partner of the firm of Hudson and Vansittart, coffee exporters of the Island of Ceylon, three-quarters Dutchman by descent, but wholly English in his sympathies. For years I had been his agent in London, and when in '72 he came over to England for a three months' holiday, he turned to me for the introductions which would enable him to see something of town and country life. Armed with seven letters he left my offices, and for many weeks scrappy notes from different parts of the country let me know that he had found favour in the eyes of my friends. Then came word of his engagement to Emily Lawson, of a cadet branch of the Hereford Lawsons, and at the very tail of the first flying rumour the news of his absolute marriage, for the wooing of a wanderer must be short, and the days were already crowding on towards the date when he must be upon his homeward journey. They were to return together to Colombo in one of the firm's own thousand-ton barque-rigged sailing ships, and this was to be their princely honeymoon, at once a necessity and a delight.
Those were the royal days of coffee-planting in Ceylon, before a single season and a rotten fungus drove a whole community through years of despair to one of the greatest commercial victories which pluck and ingenuity ever won. Not often is it that men have the heart when their one great industry is withered to rear up in a few years another as rich to take its place, and the tea-fields of Ceylon are as true a monument to courage as is the lion at Waterloo. But in '72 there was no cloud yet above the skyline, and the hopes of the planters were as high and as bright as the hillsides on which they reared their crops. Vansittart came down to London with his young and beautiful wife. I was introduced, dined with them, and it was finally arranged that I, since business called me also to Ceylon, should be a fellow-passenger with them on the Eastern Star, which was timed to sail on the following Monday.
It was on the Sunday evening that I saw him again. He was shown up into my rooms about nine o'clock at night, with the air of a man who is bothered and out of sorts. His hand, as I shook it, was hot and dry.
"I wish, Atkinson," said he, "that you could give me a little lime juice and water. I have a beastly thirst upon me, and the more I take the more I seem to want."
I rang and ordered a carafe and glasses. "You are flushed," said I. "You don't look the thing."
"No, I'm clean off colour. Got a touch of rheumatism in my back, and don't seem to taste my food. It is this vile London that is choking me. I'm not used to breathing air which has been used up by four million lungs all sucking away on every side of you." He flapped his crooked hands before his face, like a man who really struggles for his breath.
"A touch of the sea will soon set you right."
"Yes, I'm of one mind with you there. That's the thing for me. I want no other doctor. If I don't get to sea to-morrow I'll have an illness. There are no two ways about it." He drank off a tumbler of lime juice, and clapped his two hands with his knuckles doubled up into the small of his back.
"That seems to ease me," said he, looking at me with a filmy eye. "Now I want your help, Atkinson, for I am rather awkwardly placed."
"This way. My wife's mother got ill and wired for her. I couldn't go —you know best yourself how tied I have been—so she had to go alone. Now I've had another wire to say that she can't come to-morrow, but that she will pick up the ship at Falmouth on Wednesday. We put in there, you know, and in, though I count it hard, Atkinson, that a man should be asked to believe in a mystery, and cursed if he can't do it. Cursed, mind you, no less." He leaned forward and began to draw a catchy breath like a man who is poised on the very edge of a sob.
Then first it came to my mind that I had heard much of the hard-drinking life of the island, and that from brandy came those wild words and fevered hands. The flushed cheek and the glazing eye were those of one whose drink is strong upon him. Sad it was to see so noble a young man in the grip of that most bestial of all the devils.
"You should lie down," I said, with some severity.
He screwed up his eyes like a man who is striving to wake himself, and looked up with an air of surprise.
"So I shall presently," said he, quite rationally. "I felt quite swimmy just now, but I am my own man again now. Let me see, what was I talking about? Oh ah, of course, about the wife. She joins the ship at Falmouth. Now I want to go round by water. I believe my health depends upon it. I just want a little clean first-lung air to set me on my feet again. I ask you, like a good fellow, to go to Falmouth by rail, so that in case we should be late you may be there to look after the wife. Put up at the Royal Hotel, and I will wire her that you are there. Her sister will bring her down, so that it will be all plain sailing."
"I'll do it with pleasure," said I. "In fact, I would rather go by rail, for we shall have enough and to spare of the sea before we reach Colombo. I believe too that you badly need a change. Now, I should go and turn in, if I were you."
"Yes, I will. I sleep aboard tonight. You know," he continued, as the film settled down again over his eyes, "I've not slept well the last few nights. I've been troubled with theolololog—that is to say, theolological —hang it," with a desperate effort, "with the doubts of theolologicians. Wondering why the Almighty made us, you know, and why He made our heads swimmy, and fixed little pains into the small of our backs. Maybe I'll do better tonight." He rose and steadied himself with an effort against the corner of the chair back.
"Look here, Vansittart," said I, gravely, stepping up to him, and laying my hand upon his sleeve, "I can give you a shakedown here. You are not fit to go out. You are all over the place. You've been mixing your drinks."
"Drinks!" He stared at me stupidly.
"You used to carry your liquor better than this."
"I give you my word, Atkinson, that I have not had a drain for two days. It's not drink. I don't know what it is. I suppose you think this is drink." He took up my hand in his burning grasp, and passed it over his own forehead.
"Great Lord!" said I.
His skin felt like a thin sheet of velvet beneath which lies a close- packed layer of small shot. It was smooth to the touch at any one place, but to a finger passed along it, rough as a nutmeg grater.
"It's all right," said he, smiling at my startled face. "I've had the prickly heat nearly as bad."
"But this is never prickly heat."
"No, it's London. It's breathing bad air. But tomorrow it'll be all right. There's a surgeon aboard, so I shall be in safe hands. I must be off now."
"Not you," said I, pushing him back into a chair. "This is past a joke. You don't move from here until a doctor sees you. Just stay where you are."
I caught up my hat, and rushing round to the house of a neighbouring physician, I brought him back with me. The room was empty and Vansittart gone. I rang the bell. The servant said that the gentleman had ordered a cab the instant that I had left, and had gone off in it. He had told the cabman to drive to the docks.
"Did the gentleman seem ill?" I asked.
"Ill!" The man smiled. "No, sir, he was singin' his 'ardest all the time."
The information was not as reassuring as my servant seemed to think, but I reflected that he was going straight back to the Eastern Star, and that there was a doctor aboard of her, so that there was nothing which I could do in the matter. None the less, when I thought of his thirst, his burning hands, his heavy eye, his tripping speech, and lastly, of that leprous forehead, I carried with me to bed an unpleasant memory of my visitor and his visit.
At eleven o'clock next day I was at the docks, but the Eastern Star had already moved down the river, and was nearly at Gravesend. To Gravesend I went by train, but only to see her topmasts far off, with a plume of smoke from a tug in front of her. I would hear no more of my friend until I rejoined him at Falmouth. When I got back to my offices, a telegram was awaiting me from Mrs. Vansittart, asking me to meet her; and next evening found us both at the Royal Hotel, Falmouth, where we were to wait for the Eastern Star. Ten days passed, and there came no news of her.
They were ten days which I am not likely to forget. On the very day that the Eastern Star had cleared from the Thames, a furious easterly gale had sprung up, and blew on from day to day for the greater part of a week without the sign of a lull. Such a screaming, raving, long-drawn storm has never been known on the southern coast. From our hotel windows the sea view was all banked in haze, with a little rain-swept half-circle under our very eyes, churned and lashed into one tossing stretch of foam. So heavy was the wind upon the waves that little sea could rise, for the crest of each billow was torn shrieking from it, and lashed broadcast over the bay. Clouds, wind, sea, all were rushing to the west, and there, looking down at this mad jumble of elements, I waited on day after day, my sole companion a white, silent woman, with terror in her eyes, her forehead pressed ever against the window, her gaze from early morning to the fall of night fixed upon that wall of grey haze through which the loom of a vessel might come. She said nothing, but that face of hers was one long wail of fear.
On the fifth day I took counsel with an old seaman. I should have preferred to have done so alone, but she saw me speak with him, and was at our side in an instant, with parted lips and a prayer in her eyes.
"Seven days out from London," said he, "and five in the gale. Well, the Channel's swept clear by this wind. There's three things for it. She may have popped into port on the French side. That's like enough."
"No, no; he knew we were here. He would have telegraphed."
"Ah, yes, so he would. Well, then, he might have run for it, and if he did that he won't be very far from Madeira by now. That'll be it, marm, you may depend."
"Or else? You said there was a third chance."
"Did I, marm? No, only two, I think. I don't think I said anything of a third. Your ship's out there, depend upon it, away out in the Atlantic, and you'll hear of it time enough, for the weather is breaking. Now don't you fret, marm, and wait quiet, and you'll find a real blue Cornish sky tomorrow."
The old seaman was right in his surmise, for the next day broke calm and bright, with only a low dwindling cloud in the west to mark the last trailing wreaths of the storm-wrack. But still there came no word from the sea, and no sign of the ship. Three more weary days had passed, the weariest that I have ever spent, when there came a seafaring man to the hotel with a letter. I gave a shout of joy. It was from the captain of the Eastern Star. As I read the first lines of it I whisked my hand over it, but she laid her own upon it and drew it away. "I have seen it," said she, in a cold, quiet voice. "I may as well see the rest, too."
"DEAR SIR," said the letter,
"Mr. Vansittart is down with the small-pox, and we are blown so far on our course that we don't know what to do, he being off his head and unfit to tell us. By dead reckoning we are but three hundred miles from Funchal, so I take it that it is best that we should push on there, get Mr. V. into hospital, and wait in the Bay until you come. There's a sailing-ship due from Falmouth to Funchal in a few days' time, as I understand. This goes by the brig Marian of Falmouth, and five pounds is due to the master, Yours respectfully,
She was a wonderful woman that, only a chit of a girl fresh from school, but as quiet and strong as a man. She said nothing—only pressed her lips together tight, and put on her bonnet.
"You are going out?" I asked.
"Can I be of use?"
"No; I am going to the doctor's."
"To the doctor's?"
"Yes. To learn how to nurse a small-pox case."
She was busy at that all the evening, and next morning we were off with a fine ten-knot breeze in the barque Rose of Sharon for Madeira. For five days we made good time, and were no great way from the island; but on the sixth there fell a calm, and we lay without motion on a sea of oil, heaving slowly, but making not a foot of way.
At ten o'clock that night Emily Vansittart and I stood leaning on the starboard railing of the poop, with a full moon shining at our backs, and casting a black shadow of the barque, and of our own two heads upon the shining water. From the shadow a broadening path of moonshine stretched away to the lonely sky-line, flickering and shimmering in the gentle heave of the swell. We were talking with bent heads, chatting of the calm, of the chances of wind, of the look of the sky, when there came a sudden plop, like a rising salmon, and there, in the clear light, John Vansittart sprang out of the water and looked up at us.
I never saw anything clearer in my life than I saw that man. The moon shone full upon him, and he was but three oars' lengths away. His face was more puffed than when I had seen him last, mottled here and there with dark scabs, his mouth and eyes open as one who is struck with some overpowering surprise. He had some white stuff streaming from his shoulders, and one hand was raised to his ear, the other crooked across his breast. I saw him leap from the water into the air, and in the dead calm the waves of his coming lapped up against the sides of the vessel. Then his figure sank back into the water again, and I heard a rending, crackling sound like a bundle of brushwood snapping in the fire on a frosty night. There were no signs of him when I looked again, but a swift swirl and eddy on the still sea still marked the spot where he had been. How long I stood there, tingling to my finger-tips, holding up an unconscious woman with one hand, clutching at the rail of the vessel with the other, was more than I could afterwards tell. I had been noted as a man of-slow and unresponsive emotions, but this time at least I was shaken to the core. Once and twice I struck my foot upon the deck to be certain that I was indeed the master of my own senses, and that this was not some mad prank of an unruly brain. As I stood, still marvelling, the woman shivered, opened her eyes, gasped, and then standing erect with her hands upon the rail, looked out over the moonlit sea with a face which had aged ten years in a summer night.
"You saw his vision?" she murmured.
"I saw something."
"It was he! It was John! He is dead!"
I muttered some lame words of doubt.
"Doubtless he died at this hour," she whispered. "In hospital at Madeira. I have read of such things. His thoughts were with me. His vision came to me. Oh, my John, my dear, dear, lost John!"
She broke out suddenly into a storm of weeping, and I led her down into her cabin, where I left her with her sorrow. That night a brisk breeze blew up from the east, and in the evening of the next day we passed the two islets of Los Desertos, and dropped anchor at sundown in the Bay of Funchal. The Eastern Star lay no great distance from us, with the quarantine flag flying from her main, and her Jack half-way up her peak.
"You see," said Mrs. Vansittart, quickly. She was dry-eyed now, for she had known how it would be.
That night we received permission from the authorities to move on board the Eastern Star. The captain, Hines, was waiting upon deck with confusion and grief contending upon his bluff face as he sought for words with which to break this heavy tidings, but she took the story from his lips.
"I know that my husband is dead," she said. "He died yesterday night, about ten o'clock, in hospital at Madeira, did he not?"
The seaman stared aghast. "No, marm, he died eight days ago at sea, and we had to bury him out there, for we lay in a belt of calm, and could not say when we might make the land."
Well, those are the main facts about the death of John Vansittart, and his appearance to his wife somewhere about lat. 35 N. and long. 15 W. A clearer case of a wraith has seldom been made out, and since then it has been told as such, and put into print as such, and endorsed by a learned society as such, and so floated off with many others to support the recent theory of telepathy. For myself, I hold telepathy to be proved, but I would snatch this one case from amid the evidence, and say that I do not think that it was the wraith of John Vansittart, but John Vansittart himself whom we saw that night leaping into the moonlight out of the depths of the Atlantic. It has ever been my belief that some strange chance—one of those chances which seem so improbable and yet so constantly occur—had becalmed us over the very spot where the man had been buried a week before. For the rest, the surgeon tells me that the leaden weight was not too firmly fixed, and that seven days bring about changes which fetch a body to the surface. Coming from the depth to which the weight would have sunk it, he explains that it might well attain such a velocity as to carry it clear of the water. Such is my own explanation of the matter, and if you ask me what then became of the body, I must recall to you that snapping, crackling sound, with the swirl in the water. The shark is a surface feeder and is plentiful in those parts.
It was a very painful business. I don't think any of us have forgotten it or are at all likely to. The morality of the third Carabiniers was as loose as their discipline was tight, and if a man rode straight and was keen on soldiering he might work out his private record to his own mind. But still there is a limit to what even such a thoroughgoing old sportsman as the Colonel could stand, and that limit was passed on the instant that there was a breath of suspicion about fair play at the card table.
Take the mess. They had ridden through the Decalogue as gaily as through Arabi's guns at Kassassin. Professionally they had made free with other men's lives. But the unwritten laws of honour lay unbroken amid the shattered commandments. They were short and sharp, and woe to the man who transgressed them. Sporting debts must be paid. There was no such thing as a white feather. Above all, a man must play fair. It was a simple code of ethics, but it commanded an absolute obedience which might have been refused to a more elaborate system.
If there was one man in the mess who could be held up by the youngsters as the embodiment of honour it was Major Errington. He was older than the chief, and having served twice as a volunteer war correspondent and once as a military attaché, he had been shot over by Berdan's and Manuffcher repeaters, which seemed to us a much more gaudy thing than Jezails or even Egyptian Remingtons. We had all done Egypt and we had all done the Soudan, but when he would begin his modest after-mess anecdote with: "I remember when Gourko crossed the Balkans," or "I was riding beside the Red Prince's staff just two days before Gravelotte," we would feel quite ashamed of our poor "Puzzles" and "Pathans," and yearn to replace the foreign office by a committee of subalterns of the Carabiniers, all pledged to a spirited policy.
Then our Major was so humble and gentle with it all. That was his only fault as a soldier. He could fight—none better—but he could not be stern. No matter how heinous the crime of the defaulter who was brought before him, and no matter how resolutely he might purse up his features into a frown, there was still something so very human always gleaming from his eyes that the most drunken deserter could not but feel that this, instead of being a commanding officer, was merely a man and a brother. Though far the richest man in the regiment, for he had ample private means, he lived always in the simplest fashion. Some even set him down as parsimonious, and blamed him for it. But most of us saw in it only another example of the Major's delicacy which made him fear to make others feel poor by showing himself rich. It was no wonder that he was popular. We subalterns worshipped him, and it was to him that we brought all those tiffs and bickerings and misunderstandings which need a little gentle wisdom to set them right. He would sit patiently, with his cheroot reeking from the corner of his mouth and his eyes fixed upon the ceiling, listening to our details, and then would come the quick, "I think that you ought to withdraw the expression, Jones," or "Under the circumstances, you were quite justified, Hall," which settled the matter forever. If we had been told that the chief had burgled the regimental plate or that the chaplain had invited the secularist Sergeant Major to tea, we should have been less astonished than at the rumour that Major Errington had been guilty of anything which was dishonourable.
It came about in this way. The chief was a born plunger. Horses, cards, dice—they were all the same to him. He would bet on, or he would bet against, give the odds or take them, but bet he would. It was all very well as long as he stuck to shilling points and half-crown rubs at whist, or made his little book upon the regimental cup; but when he took to American railway scrip, and laid out all his savings on seven per cent bonds which were selling at sixty-two, he started a game where the odds are all on the bank and the dealer sits somewhere near Wall Street. It was no use telling the old man that Monte Carlo was a sound family investment in comparison. He held on grimly until the inevitable came round. The line was squelched by a big capitalist, who wished to buy it, and our chief was left on the very edge of the bankruptcy court, uncertain from week to week how long it might be before he would need to send in his papers. He said nothing, for he was as proud as Lucifer, but he looked bleary about the eyes in the morning, and his tunic did not fit him quite as tight as it used to. Of course, we were very sorry for the poor old chief, but we were sorrier still for his daughter Violet. We were all in love with Violet Lovell, and her grief was a blight to the regiment. She wasn't such a very pretty girl, either, but she was fresh and bright and sprightly as an English spring, and so sweet, and good, and sympathetic, that she was just the type of womanhood for all of us. She was one of those girls about whom when once you come to know them, you never think whether they are pretty or not. You only know that it is pleasant to be near them, to see their happy faces, to hear their voices, and to have life made sweeter and more beautiful by their presence. That was how we all felt toward Violet—from the old Major to the newly-joined subaltern, with a brand new razor case upon his dressing table. So when that bright face clouded over as the shadow of her father's troubles fell upon it, we clouded over also, and the mess of the Carabiniers sank into a state from which even the caterer's Deutz and Guelderman of '81 was unable to redeem it.
The Major was the most stricken of all. I think that he took the whole matter to heart even more than the Colonel did, although it had been against his strenuous advice that those cursed bonds had been bought. He was an old friend of the chief and he knew that the disgrace of bankruptcy would be the old man's death blow; but he was fonder still of the chiefs daughter—none of us ever knew how much so, for he was a shy, silent man, and, in his English fashion, he hid away his emotions as though they were shameful vices. Yet, with all his care, we got a little peep into his heart, if only through his grey eyes when he looked at her, and we knew that he was very fond of our Violet.
The chief used to go to his own room after mess, and whoever wished was welcome to follow him there. Major Errington always went, and the two would play écarte by the hour, while we others either made a four at whist, or smoked and looked on. It was worth looking at too. The chief was a fine écarte player, and they were doing all they knew, for they had taken to playing high points. Of course, the chief, bankruptcy or no, was always ready to plank down whatever he had in his pocket upon the turn of a card. But it was something new in Errington. There had been a time when he had refused to play for money at all. Now he closed at once with every challenge, and even seemed to goad his opponent on to higher stakes still. And he played with the air of a man who was anxious about the game—too anxious to be quite good form, considering that there was money upon the table. He was flustered and unlike himself, and more than once he misplayed the cards completely; but still luck was absolutely in his favour and he won. It went against us to see the old man, who had been so hard hit, losing the money which he needed badly to the richest man in the regiment; but still the Major was the soul of honour, and if he did it there must be some very good reason behind it all.
But there was one of our subalterns who was not so sure about that. Second Lieutenant Peterkin was young and small and newly joined, but he was as keen as a razor edge, with the wits of a racing tout of 50 crammed into a boy's body. He had made a book himself at 9, ridden a winner at 10 and owned one at 13, so that by the time he came our way he was as blasé and shrewd and knowing as any man in the corps. But he had pluck and he was good humoured, so we all got along with him pretty well until he breathed that first word of suspicion against the Major.
It was in the billiard-room one morning and there were six of us there, all subalterns except Austen, who was the junior captain. Austen and Peterkin were knocking the balls about and we others were helping them by sitting on the corner pockets. Suddenly Austen chucked down his cue with a clatter into the corner.
"You're a damned little liar, Peterkin," he remarked.
This was interesting, as we had not listened to the context. We came off our perches and stared. Peterkin took up the chalk and gently rubbed the tip of his cue.
"You'll be sorry for having said that, Captain Austen," said he. "Shall I?"
"Yes, and you'll apologise to me for it."
"All I ask is that you test the matter for yourself tonight, and that tomorrow we all meet here again at this hour, and that you let these gentlemen know what you think then."
"They have nothing to do with it."
"Excuse me, Captain Austen, they have everything to do with it. You used an expression to me a few moments ago in their presence, and you must withdraw it in their presence also. I shall tell them what the matter was about, and then—"
"Not a word!" cried Austen, angrily. "Don't dare to repeat such a libel!"
"Just as you like, but in that case you must agree to my conditions."
"Well, I'll do it. I'll watch tonight, and I'll meet you here tomorrow; but I warn you, young Peterkin, that when I have shown up this mare's nest of yours the regiment will be too hot to hold you!" He stalked out of the room in a passion, while Peterkin chuckled to himself and began to practise the spot stroke, deaf to our questions as to what was the matter.
We were all there to keep our appointment next day. Peterkin had nothing to say, but there was a twinkle in his little, sharp eyes, especially when Austen came in with a very crestfallen expression upon his face.
"Well," said he, "If I hadn't seen with my own eyes I should never have believed it, never! Peterkin, I withdraw what I said yesterday. You were right. By God, to think that an officer of this regiment should stoop so low!"
"It's a bad business," said Peterkin. "It was only by chance I noticed it."
"It's a good thing you did. We must have a public exposure."
"If it's a matter affecting the honour of any fellow of the mess it would surely be best to have Major Errington's opinion," said Hartridge.
Austen laughed bitterly. "You fellows may as well be told," said he. "There's no use in any mystification. Major Errington has, as you may know, been playing high stakes at écarte with the chief. He has been seen, on two evenings in succession, first by Peterkin and then by me, to hide cards and so strengthen his hand after dealing. Yes, yes, you may say what you like, but I tell you that I saw it with my own eyes. You know how short-sighted the chief is. Errington did it in the most barefaced way, when he thought no one was looking. I shall speak to the chief about it. I consider it to be my duty."
"You had better all come to-night," said Peterkin, "but don't sit near the table, or pretend to be watching. Six witnesses will surely be enough to settle it."
"Sixty wouldn't make me believe it," said Hartridge.
Austen shrugged his shoulders. "Well, you must believe your own eyes, I suppose. It's an awkward thing for a few subalterns to bring such a serious charge against a senior major of twenty years' service. But the chief shall be warned, and he may take such steps as he thinks best. It's been going on too long, and to-night should finish it for good and all."
So that night we were all in the Colonel's room, when the card table was pushed forward and the two seniors sat down to their écarte as usual. We others sat round the fire with a keen eye on the players. The Colonel's face was about two shades redder than usual, and his stiff hair bristled up, as it would when he was angry. Austen, too, looked ruffled. It was clear that he had told the chief, and that the chief had not taken it very sweetly.
"What points?" asked the Major.
"Pound a game, as before."
"Pound a trick, if you like," suggested the Major.
"Very good. A pound a trick." The chief put on his pince-nez and shot a keen questioning glance at his antagonist. The Major shuffled and pushed the cards over to be cut.
The first three games were fairly even. The Major held the better cards, but the chief played far the finer game. The fourth game and deal had come round to the Major again, and as he laid the pack down he spread his elbows out so as to screen his hands from me. Austen gave his neighbour a nudge and we all craned our necks. A hand whisked over the pack and Peterkin smiled.
The chief played a knave and the Major took it with a queen. As he put forward his hand to pick up the trick the Colonel sprang suddenly out of his chair with an oath.
"Lift up your sleeve, sir," he cried. "By—, you have a card under it!"
The Major had sprung up also, and his chair toppled backward onto the floor. We were all on our feet, but neither of the men had a thought for us. The Colonel leaned forward with his thick red finger upon a card which lay face downward upon the table. The Major stood perfectly composed, but a trifle paler than usual.
"I observe that there was a card there, sir," said he, "but surely you do not mean to insinuate that—"
The Colonel threw his hand down upon the table.
"It's not the first time," said he.
"Do you imagine that I would take an unfair advantage of you?"
"Why, I saw you slip the card from the pack—saw it with my own eyes."
"You should have known me better after twenty years," said Major Errington, gently. "I say sir, that you should have known me better, and that you should have been less ready to come to such a conclusion. I have the honour to wish you good evening, sir." He bowed very gravely and coldly and walked from the room.
But he had hardly closed the door when the curtains at the other end, which separated the card room from the little recess where Miss Lovell was pouring out our coffee, were opened, and she stepped through. She had not a thought for any of us, but walked straight up to her father.
"I couldn't help hearing you, Dad," said she. "I am sure that you have done him a cruel injustice."
"I have done him no injustice. Captain Austen, you were watching. You will bear me out."
"Yes, sir, I saw the whole affair. I not only saw the card taken, but I saw which it was that he discarded from his hand. It was this one." He leaned forward and turned up the top card.
"That one!" shouted the chief; "why that is the king of trumps."
"So it is."
"But who in his senses would discard the king of trumps; what did he exchange?" He turned up the card on the table. It was an eight. He whistled and passed his fingers through his hair.
"He weakened his hand," said he. "What was the meaning of that?"
"The meaning is that he was trying to lose, Dad."
"Upon my word, sir, now that I come to think of it, I am convinced that Miss Lovell is perfectly correct," said Captain Austen. "That would explain why he suggested high points, why he played such a vile game, and why, when he found that he had such good cards in his hand that he could not help winning, he thought himself justified in getting rid of some of them. For some reason or other he was trying to lose."
"Good Lord!" groaned the Colonel, "what can I say to put matters straight?" and he made for the door.
And so our little card scandal in the Carabiniers was brought to an honourable ending, for all came out as it had been surmised. Ever since the Colonel's financial misfortunes his comrade's one thought had been to convey help to him, but finding it absolutely impossible to do it directly he had tried it by means of the card table. Finding his efforts continually foiled by the run of good cards in his hands he had broken our usual calm by his clumsy attempts to weaken himself. However, American railway bonds are up to 87 now, owing to the providential death of the American millionaire, and the Colonel is no longer in need of any man's help. The Major soon forgave him for his mistake, and for a time hoped that Violet would have been the pledge of reconciliation—and no match would have been more popular in the regiment—but she destroyed the symmetry of things by marrying a young Madras Staff Corps man, home on leave, so our senior major is still a bachelor, and likely to remain so.
The Foreign Minister was down with the gout. For a week he had been confined to the house, and he had missed two Cabinet Councils at a time when the pressure upon his department was severe. It is true that he had an excellent undersecretary and an admirable staff, but the Minister was a man of such ripe experience and of such proven sagacity that things halted in his absence. When his firm hand was at the wheel the great ship of State rode easily and smoothly upon her way; when it was removed she yawed and staggered until twelve British editors rose up in their omniscience and traced out twelve several courses, each of which was the sole and only path to safety. Then it was that the Opposition said vain things, and that the harassed Prime Minister prayed for his absent colleague.
The Foreign Minister sat in his dressing-room in the great house in Cavendish Square. It was May, and the square garden shot up like a veil of green in front of his window, but, in spite of the sunshine, a fire crackled and sputtered in the grate of the sick-room. In a deep-red plush armchair sat the great statesman, his head leaning back upon a silken pillow, one foot stretched forward and supported upon a padded rest. His deeply-lined, finely- chiselled face and slow-moving, heavily-pouched eyes were turned upwards towards the carved and painted ceiling, with that inscrutable expression which had been the despair and the admiration of his Continental colleagues upon the occasion of the famous Congress when he had made his first appearance in the arena of European diplomacy. Yet at the present moment his capacity for hiding his emotions had for the instant failed him, for about the lines of his strong, straight mouth and the puckers of his broad, overhanging forehead, there were sufficient indications of the restlessness and impatience which consumed him.
And indeed there was enough to make a man chafe, for he had much to think of and yet was bereft of the power of thought. There was, for example, that question of the Dobrutscha and the navigation of the mouths of the Danube which was ripe for settlement. The Russian Chancellor had sent a masterly statement upon the subject, and it was the pet ambition of our Minister to answer it in a worthy fashion. Then there was the blockade of Crete, and the British fleet lying off Cape Matapan, waiting for instructions which might change the course of European history. And there were those three unfortunate Macedonian tourists, whose friends were momentarily expecting to receive their ears or their fingers in default of the exorbitant ransom which had been demanded. They must be plucked out of those mountains, by force or by diplomacy, or an outraged public would vent its wrath upon Downing Street. All these questions pressed for a solution, and yet here was the Foreign Minister of England, planted in an arm-chair, with his whole thoughts and attention riveted upon the ball of his right toe! It was humiliating— horribly humiliating! His reason revolted at it. He had been a respecter of himself, a respecter of his own will; but what sort of a machine was it which could be utterly thrown out of gear by a little piece of inflamed gristle? He groaned and writhed among his cushions.
But, after all, was it quite impossible that he should go down to the House? Perhaps the doctor was exaggerating the situation. There was a Cabinet Council that day. He glanced at his watch. It must be nearly over by now. But at least he might perhaps venture to drive down as far as Westminster. He pushed back the little round table with its bristle of medicine-bottles, and levering himself up with a hand upon either arm of the chair, he clutched a thick oak stick and hobbled slowly across the room. For a moment as he moved, his energy of mind and body seemed to return to him. The British fleet should sail from Matapan. Pressure should be brought to bear upon the Turks. The Greeks should be shown—Ow! In an instant the Mediterranean was blotted out, and nothing remained but that huge, undeniable, intrusive, red-hot toe. He staggered to the window and rested his left hand upon the ledge, while he propped himself upon his stick with his right. Outside lay the bright, cool, square garden, a few well-dressed passers-by, and a single, neatly-appointed carriage, which was driving away from his own door. His quick eye caught the coat-of-arms on the panel, and his lips set for a moment and his bushy eyebrows gathered ominously with a deep furrow between them. He hobbled back to his seat and struck the gong which stood upon the table.
"Your mistress!" said he as the serving-man entered.
It was clear that it was impossible to think of going to the House. The shooting up his leg warned him that his doctor had not overestimated the situation. But he had a little mental worry now which had for the moment eclipsed his physical ailments. He tapped the ground impatiently with his stick until the door of the dressing-room swung open, and a tall, elegant lady of rather more than middle age swept into the chamber. Her hair was touched with grey, but her calm, sweet face had all the freshness of youth, and her gown of green shot plush, with a sparkle of gold passementerie at her bosom and shoulders, showed off the lines of her fine figure to their best advantage.
"You sent for me, Charles?"
"Whose carriage was that which drove away just now?"
"Oh, you've been up!" she cried, shaking an admonitory forefinger. "What an old dear it is! How can you be so rash? What am I to say to Sir William when he comes? You know that he gives up his cases when they are insubordinate."
"In this instance the case may give him up," said the Minister, peevishly; "but I must beg, Clara, that you will answer my question."
"Oh! the carriage! It must have been Lord Arthur Sibthorpe's."
"I saw the three chevrons upon the panel," muttered the invalid.
His lady had pulled herself a little straighter and opened her large blue eyes.
"Then why ask?" she said. "One might almost think, Charles, that you were laying a trap! Did you expect that I should deceive you? You have not had your lithia powder."
"For Heaven's sake, leave it alone! I asked because I was surprised that Lord Arthur should call here. I should have fancied, Clara, that I had made myself sufficiently clear on that point. Who received him?"
"I did. That is, I and Ida."
"I will not have him brought into contact with Ida. I do not approve of it. The matter has gone too far already."
Lady Clara seated herself on a velvet-topped footstool, and bent her stately figure over the Minister's hand, which she patted softly between her own.
"Now you have said it, Charles," said she. "It has gone too far—I give you my word, dear, that I never suspected it until it was past all mending. I may be to blame—no doubt I am; but it was all so sudden. The tail end of the season and a week at Lord Donnythorne's. That was all. But oh! Charlie, she loves him so, and she is our only one! How can we make her miserable?"
"Tut, tut!" cried the Minister impatiently, slapping on the plush arm of his chair. "This is too much. I tell you, Clara, I give you my word, that all my official duties, all the affairs of this great empire, do not give me the trouble that Ida does."
"But she is our only one, Charles."
"The more reason that she should not make a mesalliance."
"Mesalliance, Charles! Lord Arthur Sibthorpe, son of the Duke of Tavistock, with a pedigree from the Heptarchy. Debrett takes them right back to Morcar, Earl of Northumberland."
The Minister shrugged his shoulders.
"Lord Arthur is the fourth son of the poorest duke in England," said he. "He has neither prospects nor profession."
"But, oh! Charlie, you could find him both."
"I do not like him. I do not care for the connection."
"But consider Ida! You know how frail her health is. Her whole soul is set upon him. You would not have the heart, Charles, to separate them?"
There was a tap at the door. Lady Clara swept towards it and threw it open.
"If you please, my lady, the Prime Minister is below."
"Show him up, Thomas."
"Now, Charlie, you must not excite yourself over public matters. Be very good and cool and reasonable, like a darling. I am sure that I may trust you."
She threw her light shawl round the invalid's shoulders, and slipped away into the bed-room as the great man was ushered in at the door of the dressing-room.
"My dear Charles," said he cordially, stepping into the room with all the boyish briskness for which he was famous, "I trust that you find yourself a little better. Almost ready for harness, eh? We miss you sadly, both in the House and in the Council. Quite a storm brewing over this Grecian business. The Times took a nasty line this morning."
"So I saw," said the invalid, smiling up at his chief. "Well, well, we must let them see that the country is not entirely ruled from Printing House Square yet. We must keep our own course without faltering."
"Certainly, Charles, most undoubtedly," assented the Prime Minister, with his hands in his pockets.
"It was so kind of you to call. I am all impatience to know what was done in the Council."
"Pure formalities, nothing more. By-the-way, the Macedonian prisoners are all right."
"Thank Goodness for that! "
"We adjourned all other business until we should have you with us next week. The question of a dissolution begins to press. The reports from the provinces are excellent."
The Foreign Minister moved impatiently and groaned.
"We must really straighten up our foreign business a little," said he. "I must get Novikoff's Note answered. It is clever, but the fallacies are obvious. I wish, too, we could clear up the Afghan frontier. This illness is most exasperating. There is so much to be done, but my brain is clouded. Sometimes I think it is the gout, and sometimes I put it down to the colchicum."
"What will our medical autocrat say?" laughed the Prime Minister. "You are so irreverent, Charles. With a bishop one may feel at one's ease. They are not beyond the reach of argument. But a doctor with his stethoscope and thermometer is a thing apart. Your reading does not impinge upon him. He is serenely above you. And then, of course, he takes you at a disadvantage. With health and strength one might cope with him. Have you read Hahnemann? What are your views upon Hahnemann?"
The invalid knew his illustrious colleague too well to follow him down any of those by-paths of knowledge in which he delighted to wander. To his intensely shrewd and practical mind there was something repellent in the waste of energy involved in a discussion upon the Early Church or the twenty-seven principles of Mesmer. It was his custom to slip past such conversational openings with a quick step and an averted face.
"I have hardly glanced at his writings," said he. "By-the-way, I suppose that there was no special departmental news?"
"Ah! I had almost forgotten. Yes, it was one of the things which I had called to tell you. Sir Algernon Jones has resigned at Tangier. There is a vacancy there."
"It had better be filled at once. The longer delay the more applicants."
"Ah, patronage, patronage!" sighed the Prime Minister. "Every vacancy makes one doubtful friend and a dozen very positive enemies. Who so bitter as the disappointed place-seeker? But you are right, Charles. Better fill it at once, especially as there is some little trouble in Morocco. I understand that the Duke of Tavistock would like the place for his fourth son, Lord Arthur Sibthorpe. We are under some obligation to the Duke."
The Foreign Minister sat up eagerly.
"My dear friend," he said, "it is the very appointment which I should have suggested. Lord Arthur would be very much better in Tangier at present than in—in—"
"Cavendish Square?" hazarded his chief, with a little arch query of his eyebrows.
"Well, let us say London. He has manner and tact. He was at Constantinople in Norton's time."
"Then he talks Arabic?"
"A smattering. But his French is good."
"Speaking of Arabic, Charles, have you dipped into Averroes?"
"No, I have not. But the appointment would be an excellent one in every way. Would you have the great goodness to arrange the matter in my absence?"
"Certainly, Charles, certainly. Is there anything else that I can do?"
"No. I hope to be in the House by Monday."
"I trust so. We miss you at every turn. The Times will try to make mischief over that Grecian business. A leader-writer is a terribly irresponsible thing, Charles. There is no method by which he may be confuted, however preposterous his assertions. Good-bye! Read Porson! Goodbye!"
He shook the invalid's hand, gave a jaunty wave of his broad-brimmed hat, and darted out of the room with the same elasticity and energy with which he had entered it.
The footman had already opened the great folding door to usher the illustrious visitor to his carriage, when a lady stepped from the drawing-room and touched him on the sleeve. From behind the half-closed portiere of stamped velvet a little pale face peeped out, half-curious, half-frightened.
"May I have one word?"
"Surely, Lady Clara."
"I hope it is not intrusive. I would not for the world overstep the limits—"
"My dear Lady Clara!" interrupted the Prime Minister, with a youthful bow and wave.
"Pray do not answer me if I go too far. But I know that Lord Arthur Sibthorpe has applied for Tangier. Would it be a liberty if I asked you what chance he has?"
"The post is filled up."
In the foreground and background there was a disappointed face.
"And Lord Arthur has it."
The Prime Minister chuckled over his little piece of roguery.
"We have just decided it," he continued.
"Lord Arthur must go in a week. I am delighted to perceive, Lady Clara, that the appointment has your approval. Tangier is a place of extraordinary interest. Catherine of Braganza and Colonel Kirke will occur to your memory. Burton has written well upon Northern Africa. I dine at Windsor, so I am sure that you will excuse my leaving you. I trust that Lord Charles will be better. He can hardly fail to be so with such a nurse."
He bowed, waved, and was off down the steps to his brougham. As he drove away, Lady Clara could see that he was already deeply absorbed in a paper- covered novel.
She pushed back the velvet curtains, and returned into the drawing-room. Her daughter stood in the sunlight by the window, tall, fragile, and exquisite, her features and outline not unlike her mother's, but frailer, softer, more delicate. The golden light struck one half of her high-bred, sensitive face, and glimmered upon her thickly-coiled flaxen hair, striking a pinkish tint from her closely-cut costume of fawn-coloured cloth with its dainty cinnamon ruchings. One little soft frill of chiffon nestled round her throat, from which the white, graceful neck and well-poised head shot up like a lily amid moss. Her thin white hands were pressed together, and her blue eyes turned beseechingly upon her mother.
"Silly girl! Silly girl!" said the matron, answering that imploring look. She put her hands upon her daughter's sloping shoulders and drew her towards her. "It is a very nice place for a short time. It will be a stepping stone."
"But oh! mamma, in a week! Poor Arthur!"
"He will be happy."
"What! happy to part?"
"He need not part. You shall go with him."
"Yes, I say it."
"Oh! mamma, in a week?"
"Yes indeed. A great deal may be done in a week. I shall order your trousseau to-day."
"Oh! you dear, sweet angel! But I am so frightened! And papa? Oh! dear, I am so frightened!"
"Your papa is a diplomatist, dear."
"But, between ourselves, he married a diplomatist too. If he can manage the British Empire, I think that I can manage him, Ida. How long have you been engaged, child?"
"Ten weeks, mamma."
"Then it is quite time it came to a head. Lord Arthur cannot leave England without you. You must go to Tangier as the Minister's wife. Now, you will sit there on the settee, dear, and let me manage entirely. There is Sir William's carriage! I do think that I know how to manage Sir William. James, just ask the doctor to step in this way!"
A heavy, two-horsed carriage had drawn up at the door, and there came a single stately thud upon the knocker. An instant afterwards the drawing-room door flew open and the footman ushered in the famous physician. He was a small man, clean-shaven, with the old-fashioned black dress and white cravat with high-standing collar. He swung his golden pince-nez in his right hand as he walked, and bent forward with a peering, blinking expression, which was somehow suggestive of the dark and complex cases through which he had seen.
"Ah" said he, as he entered. "My young patient! I am glad of the opportunity."
"Yes, I wish to speak to you about her, Sir William. Pray take this arm- chair."
"Thank you, I will sit beside her," said he, taking his place upon the settee. "She is looking better, less anaemic unquestionably, and a fuller pulse. Quite a little tinge of colour, and yet not hectic."
"I feel stronger, Sir William."
"But she still has the pain in the side."
"Ah, that pain!" He tapped lightly under the collar-bones, and then bent forward with his biaural stethoscope in either ear. "Still a trace of dulness —still a slight crepitation," he murmured.
"You spoke of a change, doctor."
"Yes, certainly a judicious change might be advisable."
"You said a dry climate. I wish to do to the letter what you recommend."
"You have always been model patients."
"We wish to be. You said a dry climate."
"Did I? I rather forget the particulars of our conversation. But a dry climate is certainly indicated."
"Well, I think really that a patient should be allowed some latitude. I must not exact too rigid discipline. There is room for individual choice —the Engadine, Central Europe, Egypt, Algiers, which you like."
"I hear that Tangier is also recommended."
"Oh, yes, certainly; it is very dry."
"You hear, Ida? Sir William says that you are to go to Tangier."
"No, no, Sir William! We feel safest when we are most obedient. You have said Tangier, and we shall certainly try Tangier."
"Really, Lady Clara, your implicit faith is most flattering. It is not everyone who would sacrifice their own plans and inclinations so readily."
"We know your skill and your experience, Sir William. Ida shall try Tangier. I am convinced that she will be benefited."
"I have no doubt of it."
"But you know Lord Charles. He is just a little inclined to decide medical matters as he would an affair of State. I hope that you will be firm with him."
"As long as Lord Charles honours me so far as to ask my advice I am sure that he would not place me in the false position of having that advice disregarded."
The medical baronet whirled round the cord of his pince-nez and pushed out a protesting hand.
"No, no, but you must be firm on the point of Tangier."
"Having deliberately formed the opinion that Tangier is the best place for our young patient, I do not think that I shall readily change my conviction."
"Of course not."
"I shall speak to Lord Charles upon the subject now when I go upstairs."
"And meanwhile she will continue her present course of treatment. I trust that the warm African air may send her back in a few months with all her energy restored."
He bowed in the courteous, sweeping, old-world fashion which had done so much to build up his ten thousand a year, and, with the stealthy gait of a man whose life is spent in sick-rooms, he followed the footman upstairs.
As the red velvet curtains swept back into position, the Lady Ida threw her arms round her mother's neck and sank her face on to her bosom.
"Oh! mamma, you ARE a diplomatist!" she cried.
But her mother's expression was rather that of the general who looked upon the first smoke of the guns than of one who had won the victory.
"All will be right, dear," said she, glancing down at the fluffy yellow curls and tiny ear. "There is still much to be done, but I think we may venture to order the trousseau."
"Oh I how brave you are!"
"Of course, it will in any case be a very quiet affair. Arthur must get the license. I do not approve of hole-and-corner marriages, but where the gentleman has to take up an official position some allowance must be made. We can have Lady Hilda Edgecombe, and the Trevors, and the Grevilles, and I am sure that the Prime Minister would run down if he could."
"Oh, yes; he will come too, if he is well enough. We must wait until Sir William goes, and, meanwhile, I shall write to Lord Arthur."
Half an hour had passed, and quite a number of notes had been dashed off in the fine, bold, park-paling handwriting of the Lady Clara, when the door clashed, and the wheels of the doctor's carriage were heard grating outside against the kerb. The Lady Clara laid down her pen, kissed her daughter, and started off for the sick-room. The Foreign Minister was lying back in his chair, with a red silk handkerchief over his forehead, and his bulbous, cotton-wadded foot still protruding upon its rest.
"I think it is almost liniment time," said Lady Clara, shaking a blue crinkled bottle. "Shall I put on a little?"
"Oh! this pestilent toe!" groaned the sufferer. "Sir William won't hear of my moving yet. I do think he is the most completely obstinate and pig-headed man that I have ever met. I tell him that he has mistaken his profession, and that I could find him a post at Constantinople. We need a mule out there."
"Poor Sir William!" laughed Lady Clara. But how has he roused your wrath?"
"He is so persistent-so dogmatic."
"Upon what point? "
"Well, he has been laying down the law about Ida. He has decreed, it seems, that she is to go to Tangier."
"He said something to that effect before he went up to you."
"Oh, he did, did he?"
The slow-moving, inscrutable eye came sliding round to her.
Lady Clara's face had assumed an expression of transparent obvious innocence, an intrusive candour which is never seen in nature save when a woman is bent upon deception.
"He examined her lungs, Charles. He did not say much, but his expression was very grave."
"Not to say owlish," interrupted the Minister.
"No, no, Charles; it is no laughing matter. He said that she must have a change. I am sure that he thought more than he said. He spoke of dulness and crepitation. and the effects of the African air. Then the talk turned upon dry, bracing health resorts, and he agreed that Tangier was the place. He said that even a few months there would work a change."
"And that was all?"
"Yes, that was all."
Lord Charles shrugged his shoulders with the air of a man who is but half convinced.
"But of course," said Lady Clara, serenely, if you think it better that Ida should not go she shall not. The only thing is that if she should get worse we might feel a little uncomfortable afterwards. In a weakness of that sort a very short time may make a difference. Sir William evidently thought the matter critical. Still, there is no reason why he should influence you. It is a little responsibility, however. If you take it all upon yourself and free me from any of it, so that afterwards—"
"My dear Clara, how you do croak!"
"Oh! I don't wish to do that, Charles. But you remember what happened to Lord Bellamy's child. She was just Ida's age. That was another case in which Sir William's advice was disregarded."
Lord Charles groaned impatiently.
"I have not disregarded it," said he.
"No, no, of course not. I know your strong sense, and your good heart too well, dear. You were very wisely looking at both sides of the question. That is what we poor women cannot do. It is emotion against reason, as I have often heard you say. We are swayed this way and that, but you men are persistent, and so you gain your way with us. But I am so pleased that you have decided for Tangier."
"Well, dear, you said that you would not disregard Sir William."
"Well, Clara, admitting that Ida is to go to Tangier, you will allow that it is impossible for me to escort her?
"And for you?
"While you are ill my place is by your side."
"There is your sister?"
"She is going to Florida."
"Lady Dumbarton, then?"
"She is nursing her father. It is out of the question."
"Well, then, whom can we possibly ask? Especially just as the season is commencing. You see, Clara, the fates fight against Sir William."
His wife rested her elbows against the back of the great red chair, and passed her fingers through the statesman's grizzled curls, stooping down as she did so until her lips were close to his ear.
"There is Lord Arthur Sibthorpe," said she softly.
Lord Charles bounded in his chair, and muttered a word or two such as were more frequently heard from Cabinet Ministers in Lord Melbourne's time than now.
"Are you mad, Clara!" he cried. "What can have put such a thought into your head?"
"The Prime Minister."
"Who? The Prime Minister?"
"Yes, dear. Now do, do be good! Or perhaps I had better not speak to you about it any more."
"Well, I really think that you have gone rather too far to retreat."
"It was the Prime Minister, then, who told me that Lord Arthur was going to Tangier."
"It is a fact, though it had escaped my memory for the instant."
"And then came Sir William with his advice about Ida. Oh! Charlie, it is surely more than a coincidence!"
"I am convinced," said Lord Charles, with his shrewd, questioning gaze, "that it is very much more than a coincidence, Lady Clara. You are a very clever woman, my dear. A born manager and organiser."
Lady Clara brushed past the compliment.
"Think of our own young days, Charlie," she whispered, with her fingers still toying with his hair. "What were you then? A poor man, not even Ambassador at Tangier. But I loved you, and believed in you, and have I ever regretted it? Ida loves and believes in Lord Arthur, and why should she ever regret it either?"
Lord Charles was silent. His eyes were fixed upon the green branches which waved outside the window; but his mind had flashed back to a Devonshire country-house of thirty years ago, and to the one fateful evening when, between old yew hedges, he paced along beside a slender girl, and poured out to her his hopes, his fears, and his ambitious. He took the white, thin hand and pressed it to his lips.
"You, have been a good wife to me, Clara," said he.
She said nothing. She did not attempt to improve upon her advantage. A less consummate general might have tried to do so, and ruined all. She stood silent and submissive, noting the quick play of thought which peeped from his eyes and lip. There was a sparkle in the one and a twitch of amusement in the other, as he at last glanced up at her.
"Clara," said he, "deny it if you can! You have ordered the trousseau."
She gave his ear a little pinch.
"Subject to your approval," said she.
"You have written to the Archbishop."
"It is not posted yet."
"You have sent a note to Lord Arthur."
"How could you tell that?"
"He is downstairs now."
"No; but I think that is his brougham."
Lord Charles sank back with a look of half-comical despair.
"Who is to fight against such a woman?" he cried. "Oh! if I could send you to Novikoff! He is too much for any of my men. But, Clara, I cannot have them up here."
"Not for your blessing?"
"It would make them so happy."
"I cannot stand scenes."
"Then I shall convey it to them."
"And pray say no more about it—to-day, at any rate. I have been weak over the matter."
"Oh! Charlie, you who are so strong!"
"You have outflanked me, Clara. It was very well done. I must congratulate you."
"Well," she murmured, as she kissed him, "you know I have been studying a very clever diplomatist for thirty years."
Of the dealings of Edward Bellingham with William Monkhouse Lee, and of the cause of the great terror of Abercrombie Smith, it may be that no absolute and final judgment will ever be delivered. It is true that we have the full and clear narrative of Smith himself, and such corroboration as he could look for from Thomas Styles the servant, from the Reverend Plumptree Peterson, Fellow of Old's, and from such other people as chanced to gain some passing glance at this or that incident in a singular chain of events. Yet, in the main, the story must rest upon Smith alone, and the most will think that it is more likely that one brain, however outwardly sane, has some subtle warp in its texture, some strange flaw in its workings, than that the path of Nature has been overstepped in open day in so famed a centre of learning and light as the University of Oxford. Yet when we think how narrow and how devious this path of Nature is, how dimly we can trace it, for all our lamps of science, and how from the darkness which girds it round great and terrible possibilities loom ever shadowly upwards, it is a bold and confident man who will put a limit to the strange by-paths into which the human spirit may wander.
In a certain wing of what we will call Old College in Oxford there is a corner turret of an exceeding great age. The heavy arch which spans the open door has bent downwards in the centre under the weight of its years, and the grey, lichen-blotched blocks of stone are, bound and knitted together with withes and strands of ivy, as though the old mother had set herself to brace them up against wind and weather. From the door a stone stair curves upward spirally, passing two landings, and terminating in a third one, its steps all shapeless and hollowed by the tread of so many generations of the seekers after knowledge. Life has flowed like water down this winding stair, and, waterlike, has left these smooth-worn grooves behind it. From the long-gowned, pedantic scholars of Plantagenet days down to the young bloods of a later age, how full and strong had been that tide of young English life. And what was left now of all those hopes, those strivings, those fiery energies, save here and there in some old-world churchyard a few scratches upon a stone, and perchance a handful of dust in a mouldering coffin? Yet here were the silent stair and the grey old wall, with bend and saltire and many another heraldic device still to be read upon its surface, like grotesque shadows thrown back from the days that had passed.
In the month of May, in the year 1884, three young men occupied the sets of rooms which opened on to the separate landings of the old stair. Each set consisted simply of a sitting-room and of a bedroom, while the two corresponding rooms upon the ground-floor were used, the one as a coal-cellar, and the other as the living-room of the servant, or gyp, Thomas Styles, whose duty it was to wait upon the three men above him. To right and to left was a line of lecture-rooms and of offices, so that the dwellers in the old turret enjoyed a certain seclusion, which made the chambers popular among the more studious undergraduates. Such were the three who occupied them now—Abercrombie Smith above, Edward Bellingham beneath him, and William Monkhouse Lee upon the lowest storey.
It was ten o'clock on a bright spring night, and Abercrombie Smith lay back in his arm-chair, his feet upon the fender, and his briar-root pipe between his lips. In a similar chair, and equally at his ease, there lounged on the other side of the fireplace his old school friend Jephro Hastie. Both men were in flannels, for they had spent their evening upon the river, but apart from their dress no one could look at their hard-cut, alert faces without seeing that they were open-air men—men whose minds and tastes turned naturally to all that was manly and robust. Hastie, indeed, was stroke of his college boat, and Smith was an even better oar, but a coming examination had already cast its shadow over him and held him to his work, save for the few hours a week which health demanded. A litter of medical books upon the table, with scattered bones, models and anatomical plates, pointed to the extent as well as the nature of his studies, while a couple of single-sticks and a set of boxing-gloves above the mantelpiece hinted at the means by which, with Hastie's help, he might take his exercise in its most compressed and least distant form. They knew each other very well—so well that they could sit now in that soothing silence which is the very highest development of companionship.
"Have some whisky," said Abercrombie Smith at last between two cloudbursts. "Scotch in the jug and Irish in the bottle."
"No, thanks. I'm in for the sculls. I don't liquor when I'm training. How about you?"
"I'm reading hard. I think it best to leave it alone."
Hastie nodded, and they relapsed into a contented silence.
"By-the-way, Smith," asked Hastie, presently, have you made the acquaintance of either of the fellows on your stair yet?"
"Just a nod when we pass. Nothing more."
"Hum! I should be inclined to let it stand at that. I know something of them both. Not much, but as much as I want. I don't think I should take them to my bosom if I were you. Not that there's much amiss with Monkhouse Lee."
"Meaning the thin one?"
"Precisely. He is a gentlemanly little fellow. I don't think there is any vice in him. But then you can't know him without knowing Bellingham."
"Meaning the fat one?"
"Yes, the fat one. And he's a man whom I, for one, would rather not know."
Abercrombie Smith raised his eyebrows and glanced across at his companion.
"What's up, then?" he asked. "Drink? Cards? Cad? You used not to be censorious."
"Ah! you evidently don't know the man, or you wouldn't ask. There's something damnable about him—something reptilian. My gorge always rises at him. I should put him down as a man with secret vices—an evil liver. He's no fool, though. They say that he is one of the best men in his line that they have ever had in the college."
"Medicine or classics?"
"Eastern languages. He's a demon at them. Chillingworth met him somewhere above the second cataract last long, and he told me that he just prattled to the Arabs as if he had been born and nursed and weaned among them. He talked Coptic to the Copts, and Hebrew to the Jews, and Arabic to the Bedouins, and they were all ready to kiss the hem of his frock-coat. There are some old hermit Johnnies up in those parts who sit on rocks and scowl and spit at the casual stranger. Well, when they saw this chap Bellingham, before he had said five words they just lay down on their bellies and wriggled. Chillingworth said that he never saw anything like it. Bellingham seemed to take it as his right, too, and strutted about among them and talked down to them like a Dutch uncle. Pretty good for an undergrad. of Old's, wasn't it?"
"Why do you say you can't know Lee without knowing Bellingham? "
"Because Bellingham is engaged to his sister Eveline. Such a bright little girl, Smith! I know the whole family well. It's disgusting to see that brute with her. A toad and a dove, that's what they always remind me of."
Abercrombie Smith grinned and knocked his ashes out against the side of the grate.
"You show every card in your hand, old chap," said he. "What a prejudiced, green-eyed, evil-thinking old man it is! You have really nothing against the fellow except that."
"Well, I've known her ever since she was as long as that cherry-wood pipe, and I don't like to see her taking risks. And it is a risk. He looks beastly. And he has a beastly temper, a venomous temper. You remember his row with Long Norton?"
"No; you always forget that I am a freshman."
"Ah, it was last winter. Of course. Well, you know the towpath along by the river. There were several fellows going along it, Bellingham in front, when they came on an old market-woman coming the other way. It had been raining—you know what those fields are like when it has rained —and the path ran between the river and a great puddle that was nearly as broad. Well, what does this swine do but keep the path, and push the old girl into the mud, where she and her marketings came to terrible grief. It was a blackguard thing to do, and Long Norton, who is as gentle a fellow as ever stepped, told him what he thought of it. One word led to another, and it ended in Norton laying his stick across the fellow's shoulders. There was the deuce of a fuss about it, and it's a treat to see the way in which Bellingham looks at Norton when they meet now. By Jove, Smith, it's nearly eleven o'clock!"
"No hurry. Light your pipe again."
"Not I. I'm supposed to be in training. Here I've been sitting gossiping when I ought to have been safely tucked up. I'll borrow your skull, if you can share it. Williams has had mine for a month. I'll take the little bones of your ear, too, if you are sure you won't need them. Thanks very much. Never mind a bag, I can carry them very well under my arm. Good-night, my son, and take my tip as to your neighbour."
When Hastie, bearing his anatomical plunder, had clattered off down the winding stair, Abercrombie Smith hurled his pipe into the wastepaper basket, and drawing his chair nearer to the lamp, plunged into a formidable green- covered volume, adorned with great colored maps of that strange internal kingdom of which we are the hapless and helpless monarchs. Though a freshman at Oxford, the student was not so in medicine, for he had worked for four years at Glasgow and at Berlin, and this coming examination would place him finally as a member of his profession. With his firm mouth, broad forehead, and clear-cut, somewhat hard-featured face, he was a man who, if he had no brilliant talent, was yet so dogged, so patient, and so strong that he might in the end overtop a more showy genius. A man who can hold his own among Scotchmen and North Germans is not a man to be easily set back. Smith had left a name at Glasgow and at Berlin, and he was bent now upon doing as much at Oxford, if hard work and devotion could accomplish it.
He had sat reading for about an hour, and the hands of the noisy carriage clock upon the side table were rapidly closing together upon the twelve, when a sudden sound fell upon the student's ear—a sharp, rather shrill sound, like the hissing intake of a man's breath who gasps under some strong emotion. Smith laid down his book and slanted his ear to listen. There was no one on either side or above him, so that the interruption came certainly from the neighbour beneath—the same neighbour of whom Hastie had given so unsavoury an account. Smith knew him only as a flabby, pale-faced man of silent and studious habits, a man, whose lamp threw a golden bar from the old turret even after he had extinguished his own. This community in lateness had formed a certain silent bond between them. It was soothing to Smith when the hours stole on towards dawning to feel that there was another so close who set as small a value upon his sleep as he did. Even now, as his thoughts turned towards him, Smith's feelings were kindly. Hastie was a good fellow, but he was rough, strong-fibred, with no imagination or sympathy. He could not tolerate departures from what he looked upon as the model type of manliness. If a man could not be measured by a public-school standard, then he was beyond the pale with Hastie. Like so many who are themselves robust, he was apt to confuse the constitution with the character, to ascribe to want of principle what was really a want of circulation. Smith, with his stronger mind, knew his friend's habit, and made allowance for it now as his thoughts turned towards the man beneath him.
There was no return of the singular sound, and Smith was about to turn to his work once more, when suddenly there broke out in the silence of the night a hoarse cry, a positive scream—the call of a man who is moved and shaken beyond all control. Smith sprang out of his chair and dropped his book. He was a man of fairly firm fibre, but there was something in this sudden, uncontrollable shriek of horror which chilled his blood and pringled in his skin. Coming in such a place and at such an hour, it brought a thousand fantastic possibilities into his head. Should he rush down, or was it better to wait? He had all the national hatred of making a scene, and he knew so little of his neighbour that he would not lightly intrude upon his affairs. For a moment he stood in doubt and even as he balanced the matter there was a quick rattle of footsteps upon the stairs, and young Monkhouse Lee, half dressed and as white as ashes, burst into his room.
"Come down!" he gasped. "Bellingham's ill."
Abercrombie Smith followed him closely down stairs into the sitting-room which was beneath his own, and intent as he was upon the matter in hand, he could not but take an amazed glance around him as he crossed the threshold. It was such a chamber as he had never seen before—a museum rather than a study. Walls and ceiling were thickly covered with a thousand strange relics from Egypt and the East. Tall, angular figures bearing burdens or weapons stalked in an uncouth frieze round the apartments. Above were bull-headed, stork-headed, cat-headed, owl-headed statues, with viper-crowned, almond-eyed monarchs, and strange, beetle-like deities cut out of the blue Egyptian lapis lazuli. Horus and Isis and Osiris peeped down from every niche and shelf, while across the ceiling a true son of Old Nile, a great, hanging-jawed crocodile, was slung in a double noose.
In the centre of this singular chamber was a large, square table, littered with papers, bottles, and the dried leaves of some graceful, palm-like plant. These varied objects had all been heaped together in order to make room for a mummy case, which had been conveyed from the wall, as was evident from the gap there, and laid across the front of the table. The mummy itself, a horrid, black, withered thing, like a charred head on a gnarled bush, was lying half out of the case, with its clawlike hand and bony forearm resting upon the table. Propped up against the sarcophagus was an old yellow scroll of papyrus, and in front of it, in a wooden armchair, sat the owner of the room, his head thrown back, his widely-opened eyes directed in a horrified stare to the crocodile above him, and his blue, thick lips puffing loudly with every expiration.
"My God! he's dying!" cried Monkhouse Lee distractedly.
He was a slim, handsome young fellow, olive-skinned and dark-eyed, of a Spanish rather than of an English type, with a Celtic intensity of manner which contrasted with the Saxon phlegm of Abercombie Smith.
"Only a faint, I think," said the medical student. "Just give me a hand with him. You take his feet. Now on to the sofa. Can you kick all those little wooden devils off? What a litter it is! Now he will be all right if we undo his collar and give him some water. What has he been up to at all?"
"I don't know. I heard him cry out. I ran up. I know him pretty well, you know. It is very good of you to come down."
"His heart is going like a pair of castanets," said Smith, laying his hand on the breast of the unconscious man. "He seems to me to be frightened all to pieces. Chuck the water over him! What a face he has got on him!"
It was indeed a strange and most repellent face, for colour and outline were equally unnatural. It was white, not with the ordinary pallor of fear but with an absolutely bloodless white, like the under side of a sole. He was very fat, but gave the impression of having at some time been considerably fatter, for his skin hung loosely in creases and folds, and was shot with a meshwork of wrinkles. Short, stubbly brown hair bristled up from his scalp, with a pair of thick, wrinkled ears protruding on either side. His light grey eyes were still open, the pupils dilated and the balls projecting in a fixed and horrid stare. It seemed to Smith as he looked down upon him that he had never seen nature's danger signals flying so plainly upon a man's countenance, and his thoughts turned more seriously to the warning which Hastie had given him an hour before.
"What the deuce can have frightened him so?" he asked.
"It's the mummy."
"The mummy? How, then?"
"I don't know. It's beastly and morbid. I wish he would drop it. It's the second fright he has given me. It was the same last winter. I found him just like this, with that horrid thing in front of him."
"What does he want with the mummy, then?"
"Oh, he's a crank, you know. It's his hobby. He knows more about these things than any man in England. But I wish he wouldn't! Ah, he's beginning to come to."
A faint tinge of colour had begun to steal back into Bellingham's ghastly cheeks, and his eyelids shivered like a sail after a calm. He clasped and unclasped his hands, drew a long, thin breath between his teeth, and suddenly jerking up his head, threw a glance of recognition around him. As his eyes fell upon the mummy, he sprang off the sofa, seized the roll of papyrus, thrust it into a drawer, turned the key, and then staggered back on to the sofa.
"What's up?" he asked. "What do you chaps want?"
"You've been shrieking out and making no end of a fuss," said Monkhouse Lee. "If our neighbour here from above hadn't come down, I'm sure I don't know what I should have done with you."
"Ah, it's Abercrombie Smith," said Bellingham, glancing up at him. "How very good of you to come in! What a fool I am! Oh, my God, what a fool I am!"
He sunk his head on to his hands, and burst into peal after peal of hysterical laughter.
"Look here! Drop it!" cried Smith, shaking him roughly by the shoulder.
"Your nerves are all in a jangle. You must drop these little midnight games with mummies, or you'll be going off your chump. You're all on wires now."
"I wonder," said Bellingham, "whether you would be as cool as I am if you had seen—"
"Oh, nothing. I meant that I wonder if you could sit up at night with a mummy without trying your nerves. I have no doubt that you are quite right. I dare say that I have been taking it out of myself too much lately. But I am all right now. Please don't go, though. Just wait for a few minutes until I am quite myself."
"The room is very close," remarked Lee, throwing open the window and letting in the cool night air.
"It's balsamic resin," said Bellingham. He lifted up one of the dried palmate leaves from the table and frizzled it over the chimney of the lamp. It broke away into heavy smoke wreaths, and a pungent, biting odour filled the chamber. "It's the sacred plant—the plant of the priests," he remarked. "Do you know anything of Eastern languages, Smith?"
"Nothing at all. Not a word."
The answer seemed to lift a weight from the Egyptologist's mind.
"By-the-way," he continued, "how long was it from the time that you ran down, until I came to my senses?"
"Not long. Some four or five minutes."
"I thought it could not be very long," said he, drawing a long breath. "But what a strange thing unconsciousness is! There is no measurement to it. I could not tell from my own sensations if it were seconds or weeks. Now that gentleman on the table was packed up in the days of the eleventh dynasty, some forty centuries ago, and yet if he could find his tongue he would tell us that this lapse of time has been but a closing of the eyes and a reopening of them. He is a singularly fine mummy, Smith."
Smith stepped over to the table and looked down with a professional eye at the black and twisted form in front of him. The features, though horribly discoloured, were perfect, and two little nut-like eyes still lurked in the depths of the black, hollow sockets. The blotched skin was drawn tightly from bone to bone, and a tangled wrap of black coarse hair fell over the ears. Two thin teeth, like those of a rat, overlay the shrivelled lower lip. In its crouching position, with bent joints and craned head, there was a suggestion of energy about the horrid thing which made Smith's gorge rise. The gaunt ribs, with their parchment-like covering, were exposed, and the sunken, leaden-hued abdomen, with the long slit where the embalmer had left his mark; but the lower limbs were wrapt round with coarse yellow bandages. A number of little clove-like pieces of myrrh and of cassia were sprinkled over the body, and lay scattered on the inside of the case.
"I don't know his name," said Bellingham, passing his hand over the shrivelled head. "You see the outer sarcophagus with the inscriptions is missing. Lot 249 is all the title he has now. You see it printed on his case. That was his number in the auction at which I picked him up."
"He has been a very pretty sort of fellow in his day," remarked Abercrombie Smith.
"He has been a giant. His mummy is six feet seven in length, and that would be a giant over there, for they were never a very robust race. Feel these great knotted bones, too. He would be a nasty fellow to tackle."
"Perhaps these very hands helped to build the stones into the pyramids," suggested Monkhouse Lee, looking down with disgust in his eyes at the crooked, unclean talons.
"No fear. This fellow has been pickled in natron, and looked after in the most approved style. They did not serve hodsmen in that fashion. Salt or bitumen was enough for them. It has been calculated that this sort of thing cost about seven hundred and thirty pounds in our money. Our friend was a noble at the least. What do you make of that small inscription near his feet, Smith?"
"I told you that I know no Eastern tongue."
"Ah, so you did. It is the name of the embalmer, I take it. A very conscientious worker he must have been. I wonder how many modern works will survive four thousand years?"
He kept on speaking lightly and rapidly, but it was evident to Abercrombie Smith that he was still palpitating with fear. His hands shook, his lower lip trembled, and look where he would, his eye always came sliding round to his gruesome companion. Through all his fear, however, there was a suspicion of triumph in his tone and manner. His eye shone, and his footstep, as he paced the room, was brisk and jaunty. He gave the impression of a man who has gone through an ordeal, the marks of which he still bears upon him, but which has helped him to his end.
"You're not going yet?" he cried, as Smith rose from the sofa.
At the prospect of solitude, his fears seemed to crowd back upon him, and he stretched out a hand to detain him.
"Yes, I must go. I have my work to do. You are all right now. I think that with your nervous system you should take up some less morbid study."
"Oh, I am not nervous as a rule; and I have unwrapped mummies before."
"You fainted last time," observed Monkhouse Lee.
"Ah, yes, so I did. Well, I must have a nerve tonic or a course of electricity. You are not going, Lee?"
"I'll do whatever you wish, Ned."
"Then I'll come down with you and have a shake-down on your sofa. Good- night, Smith. I am so sorry to have disturbed you with my foolishness."
They shook hands, and as the medical student stumbled up the spiral and irregular stair he heard a key turn in a door, and the steps of his two new acquaintances as they descended to the lower floor.
In this strange way began the acquaintance between Edward Bellingham and Abercrombie Smith, an acquaintance which the latter, at least, had no desire to push further. Bellingham, however, appeared to have taken a fancy to his rough-spoken neighbour, and made his advances in such a way that he could hardly be repulsed without absolute brutality. Twice he called to thank Smith for his assistance, and many times afterwards he looked in with books, papers, and such other civilities as two bachelor neighbours can offer each other. He was, as Smith soon found, a man of wide reading, with catholic tastes and an extraordinary memory. His manner, too, was so pleasing and suave that one came, after a time, to overlook his repellent appearance. For a jaded and wearied man he was no unpleasant companion, and Smith found himself, after a time, looking forward to his visits, and even returning them.
Clever as he undoubtedly was, however, the medical student seemed to detect a dash of insanity in the man. He broke out at times into a high, inflated style of talk which was in contrast with the simplicity of his life.
"It is a wonderful thing," he cried, "to feel that one can command powers of good and of evil—a ministering angel or a demon of vengeance." And again, of Monkhouse Lee, he said,—"Lee is a good fellow, an honest fellow, but he is without strength or ambition. He would not make a fit partner for a man with a great enterprise. He would not make a fit partner for me."
At such hints and innuendoes stolid Smith, puffing solemnly at his pipe, would simply raise his eyebrows and shake his head, with little interjections of medical wisdom as to earlier hours and fresher air.
One habit Bellingham had developed of late which Smith knew to be a frequent herald of a weakening mind. He appeared to be forever talking to himself. At late hours of the night, when there could be no visitor with him, Smith could still hear his voice beneath him in a low, muffled monologue, sunk almost to a whisper, and yet very audible in the silence. This solitary babbling annoyed and distracted the student, so that he spoke more than once to his neighbour about it. Bellingham, however, flushed up at the charge, and denied curtly that he had uttered a sound; indeed, he showed more annoyance over the matter than the occasion seemed to demand.
Had Abercrombie Smith had any doubt as to his own ears he had not to go far to find corroboration. Tom Styles, the little wrinkled man-servant who had attended to the wants of the lodgers in the turret for a longer time than any man's memory could carry him, was sorely put to it over the same matter.
"If you please, sir," said he, as he tidied down the top chamber one morning, "do you think Mr. Bellingham is all right, sir?"
"All right, Styles?"
"Yes sir. Right in his head, sir."
"Why should he not be, then?"
"Well, I don't know, sir. His habits has changed of late. He's not the same man he used to be, though I make free to say that he was never quite one of my gentlemen, like Mr. Hastie or yourself, sir. He's took to talkin' to himself something awful. I wonder it don't disturb you. I don't know what to make of him, sir."
"I don't know what business it is of yours, Styles."
"Well, I takes an interest, Mr. Smith. It may be forward of me, but I can't help it. I feel sometimes as if I was mother and father to my young gentlemen. It all falls on me when things go wrong and the relations come. But Mr. Bellingham, sir. I want to know what it is that walks about his room sometimes when he's out and when the door's locked on the outside."
"Eh! you're talking nonsense, Styles."
"Maybe so, sir; but I heard it more'n once with my own ears."
"Very good, sir. You'll ring the bell if you want me."
Abercrombie Smith gave little heed to the gossip of the old man-servant, but a small incident occurred a few days later which left an unpleasant effect upon his mind, and brought the words of Styles forcibly to his memory.
Bellingham had come up to see him late one night, and was entertaining him with an interesting account of the rock tombs of Beni Hassan in Upper Egypt, when Smith, whose hearing was remarkably acute, distinctly heard the sound of a door opening on the landing below.
"There's some fellow gone in or out of your room," he remarked.
Bellingham sprang up and stood helpless for a moment, with the expression of a man who is half incredulous and half afraid.
"I surely locked it. I am almost positive that I locked it," he stammered. "No one could have opened it."
"Why, I hear someone coming up the steps now," said Smith.
Bellingham rushed out through the door, slammed it loudly behind him, and hurried down the stairs. About half-way down Smith heard him stop, and thought he caught the sound of whispering. A moment later the door beneath him shut, a key creaked in a lock, and Bellingham, with beads of moisture upon his pale face, ascended the stairs once more, and re-entered the room.
"It's all right," he said, throwing himself down in a chair. "It was that fool of a dog. He had pushed the door open. I don't know how I came to forget to lock it."
"I didn't know you kept a dog," said Smith, looking very thoughtfully at the disturbed face of his companion.
"Yes, I haven't had him long. I must get rid of him. He's a great nuisance."
"He must be, if you find it so hard to shut him up. I should have thought that shutting the door would have been enough, without locking it."
"I want to prevent old Styles from letting him out. He's of some value, you know, and it would be awkward to lose him."
"I am a bit of a dog-fancier myself," said Smith, still gazing hard at his companion from the corner of his eyes. "Perhaps you'll let me have a look at it."
"Certainly. But I am afraid it cannot be to-night; I have an appointment. Is that clock right? Then I am a quarter of an hour late already. You'll excuse me, I am sure."
He picked up his cap and hurried from the room. In spite of his appointment, Smith heard him re-enter his own chamber and lock his door upon the inside.
This interview left a disagreeable impression upon the medical student's mind. Bellingham had lied to him, and lied so clumsily that it looked as if he had desperate reasons for concealing the truth. Smith knew that his neighbour had no dog. He knew, also, that the step which he had heard upon the stairs was not the step of an animal. But if it were not, then what could it be? There was old Styles's statement about the something which used to pace the room at times when the owner was absent. Could it be a woman? Smith rather inclined to the view. If so, it would mean disgrace and expulsion to Bellingham if it were discovered by the authorities, so that his anxiety and falsehoods might be accounted for. And yet it was inconceivable that an undergraduate could keep a woman in his rooms without being instantly detected. Be the explanation what it might, there was something ugly about it, and Smith determined, as he turned to his books, to discourage all further attempts at intimacy on the part of his soft-spoken and ill-favoured neighbour.
But his work was destined to interruption that night. He had hardly caught tip the broken threads when a firm, heavy footfall came three steps at a time from below, and Hastie, in blazer and flannels, burst into the room.
"Still at it!" said he, plumping down into his wonted arm-chair. "What a chap you are to stew! I believe an earthquake might come and knock Oxford into a cocked hat, and you would sit perfectly placid with your books among the rains. However, I won't bore you long. Three whiffs of baccy, and I am off."
"What's the news, then?" asked Smith, cramming a plug of bird's-eye into his briar with his forefinger.
"Nothing very much. Wilson made 70 for the freshmen against the eleven. They say that they will play him instead of Buddicomb, for Buddicomb is clean off colour. He used to be able to bowl a little, but it's nothing but half- vollies and long hops now."
"Medium right," suggested Smith, with the intense gravity which comes upon a 'varsity man when he speaks of athletics.
"Inclining to fast, with a work from leg. Comes with the arm about three inches or so. He used to be nasty on a wet wicket. Oh, by-the-way, have you heard about Long Norton?"
"He's been attacked."
"Yes, just as he was turning out of the High Street, and within a hundred yards of the gate of Old's."
"Ah, that's the rub! If you said 'what,' you would be more grammatical. Norton swears that it was not human, and, indeed, from the scratches on his throat, I should be inclined to agree with him."
"What, then? Have we come down to spooks?"
Abercrombie Smith puffed his scientific contempt.
"Well, no; I don't think that is quite the idea, either. I am inclined to think that if any showman has lost a great ape lately, and the brute is in these parts, a jury would find a true bill against it. Norton passes that way every night, you know, about the same hour. There's a tree that hangs low over the path—the big elm from Rainy's garden. Norton thinks the thing dropped on him out of the tree. Anyhow, he was nearly strangled by two arms, which, he says, were as strong and as thin as steel bands. He saw nothing; only those beastly arms that tightened and tightened on him. He yelled his head nearly off, and a couple of chaps came running, and the thing went over the wall like a cat. He never got a fair sight of it the whole time. It gave Norton a shake up, I can tell you. I tell him it has been as good as a change at the sea-side for him."
"A garrotter, most likely," said Smith.
"Very possibly. Norton says not; but we don't mind what he says. The garrotter had long nails, and was pretty smart at swinging himself over walls. By-the-way, your beautiful neighbour would be pleased if he heard about it. He had a grudge against Norton, and he's not a man, from what I know of him, to forget his little debts. But hallo, old chap, what have you got in your noddle?"
"Nothing," Smith answered curtly.
He had started in his chair, and the look had flashed over his face which comes upon a man who is struck suddenly by some unpleasant idea.
"You looked as if something I had said had taken you on the raw. By-the- way, you have made the acquaintance of Master B. since I looked in last, have you not? Young Monkhouse Lee told me something to that effect."
"Yes; I know him slightly. He has been up here once or twice."
"Well, you're big enough and ugly enough to take care of yourself. He's not what I should call exactly a healthy sort of Johnny, though, no doubt, he's very clever, and all that. But you'll soon find out for yourself. Lee is all right; he's a very decent little fellow. Well, so long, old chap! I row Mullins for the Vice-Chancellor's pot on Wednesday week, so mind you come down, in case I don't see you before."
Bovine Smith laid down his pipe and turned stolidly to his books once more. But with all the will in the world, he found it very hard to keep his mind upon his work. It would slip away to brood upon the man beneath him, and upon the little mystery which hung round his chambers. Then his thoughts turned to this singular attack of which Hastie had spoken, and to the grudge which Bellingham was said to owe the object of it. The two ideas would persist in rising together in his mind, as though there were some close and intimate connection between them. And yet the suspicion was so dim and vague that it could not be put down in words.
"Confound the chap!" cried Smith, as he shied his book on pathology across the room. "He has spoiled my night's reading, and that's reason enough, if there were no other, why I should steer clear of him in the future."
For ten days the medical student confined himself so closely to his studies that he neither saw nor heard anything of either of the men beneath him. At the hours when Bellingham had been accustomed to visit him, he took care to sport his oak, and though he more than once heard a knocking at his outer door, he resolutely refused to answer it. One afternoon, however, he was descending the stairs when, just as he was passing it, Bellingham's door flew open, and young Monkhouse Lee came out with his eyes sparkling and a dark flush of anger upon his olive cheeks. Close at his heels followed Bellingham, his fat, unhealthy face all quivering with malignant passion.
"You fool!" he hissed. "You'll be sorry."
"Very likely," cried the other. "Mind what I say. It's off! I won't hear of it!"
"You've promised, anyhow."
"Oh, I'll keep that! I won't speak. But I'd rather little Eva was in her grave. Once for all, it's off. She'll do what I say. We don't want to see you again."
So much Smith could not avoid hearing, but he hurried on, for he had no wish to be involved in their dispute. There had been a serious breach between them, that was clear enough, and Lee was going to cause the engagement with his sister to be broken off. Smith thought of Hastie's comparison of the toad and the dove, and was glad to think that the matter was at an end. Bellingham's face when he was in a passion was not pleasant to look upon. He was not a man to whom an innocent girl could be trusted for life. As he walked, Smith wondered languidly what could have caused the quarrel, and what the promise might be which Bellingham had been so anxious that Monkhouse Lee should keep.
It was the day of the sculling match between Hastie and Mullins, and a stream of men were making their way down to the banks of the Isis. A May sun was shining brightly, and the yellow path was barred with the black shadows of the tall elm-trees. On either side the grey colleges lay back from the road, the hoary old mothers of minds looking out from their high, mullioned windows at the tide of young life which swept so merrily past them. Black-clad tutors, prim officials, pale reading men, brown-faced, straw- hatted young athletes in white sweaters or many-coloured blazers, all were hurrying towards the blue winding river which curves through the Oxford meadows.
Abercrombie Smith, with the intuition of an old oarsman, chose his position at the point where he knew that the struggle, if there were a struggle, would come. Far off he heard the hum which announced the start, the gathering roar of the approach, the thunder of running feet, and the shouts of the men in the boats beneath him. A spray of half-clad, deep-breathing runners shot past him, and craning over their shoulders, he saw Hastie pulling a steady thirty-six, while his opponent, with a jerky forty, was a good boat's length behind him. Smith gave a cheer for his friend, and pulling out his watch, was starting off again for his chambers, when he felt a touch upon his shoulder, and found that young Monkhouse Lee was beside him.
"I saw you there," he said, in a timid, deprecating way. "I wanted to speak to you, if you could spare me a half-hour. This cottage is mine. I share it with Harrington of King's. Come in and have a cup of tea."
"I must be back presently," said Smith. "I am hard on the grind at present. But I'll come in for a few minutes with pleasure. I wouldn't have come out only Hastie is a friend of mine."
"So he is of mine. Hasn't he a beautiful style? Mullins wasn't in it. But come into the cottage. It's a little den of a place, but it is pleasant to work in during the summer months."
It was a small, square, white building, with green doors and shutters, and a rustic trellis-work porch, standing back some fifty yards from the river's bank. Inside, the main room was roughly fitted up as a study—deal table, unpainted shelves with books, and a few cheap oleographs upon the wall. A kettle sang upon a spirit-stove, and there were tea things upon a tray on the table.
"Try that chair and have a cigarette," said Lee. "Let me pour you out a cup of tea. It's so good of you to come in, for I know that your time is a good deal taken up. I wanted to say to you that, if I were you, I should change my rooms at once."
Smith sat staring with a lighted match in one hand and his unlit cigarette in the other.
"Yes; it must seem very extraordinary, and the worst of it is that I cannot give my reasons, for I am under a solemn promise—a very solemn promise. But I may go so far as to say that I don't think Bellingham is a very safe man to live near. I intend to camp out here as much as I can for a time."
"Not safe! What do you mean?"
"Ah, that's what I mustn't say. But do take my advice, and move your rooms. We had a grand row to-day. You must have heard us, for you came down the stairs."
"I saw that you had fallen out."
"He's a horrible chap, Smith. That is the only word for him. I have had doubts about him ever since that night when he fainted—you remember, when you came down. I taxed him to-day, and he told me things that made my hair rise, and wanted me to stand in with him. I'm not strait-laced, but I am a clergyman's son, you know, and I think there are some things which are quite beyond the pale. I only thank God that I found him out before it was too late, for he was to have married into my family."
"This is all very fine, Lee," said Abercrombie Smith curtly. "But either you are saying a great deal too much or a great deal too little."
"I give you a warning."
"If there is real reason for warning, no promise can bind you. If I see a rascal about to blow a place up with dynamite no pledge will stand in my way of preventing him."
"Ah, but I cannot prevent him, and I can do nothing but warn you."
"Without saying what you warn me against."
"But that is childish. Why should I fear him, or any man?"
"I can't tell you. I can only entreat you to change your rooms. You are in danger where you are. I don't even say that Bellingham would wish to injure you. But it might happen, for he is a dangerous neighbour just now."
"Perhaps I know more than you think," said Smith, looking keenly at the young man's boyish, earnest face. "Suppose I tell you that some one else shares Bellingham's rooms."
Monkhouse Lee sprang from his chair in uncontrollable excitement.
"You know, then?" he gasped.
Lee dropped back again with a groan.
"My lips are sealed," he said. "I must not speak."
"Well, anyhow," said Smith, rising, "it is not likely that I should allow myself to be frightened out of rooms which suit me very nicely. It would be a little too feeble for me to move out all my goods and chattels because you say that Bellingham might in some unexplained way do me an injury. I think that I'll just take my chance, and stay where I am, and as I see that it's nearly five o'clock, I must ask you to excuse me."
He bade the young student adieu in a few curt words, and made his way homeward through the sweet spring evening feeling half-ruffled, half-amused, as any other strong, unimaginative man might who has been menaced by a vague and shadowy danger.
There was one little indulgence which Abercrombie Smith always allowed himself, however closely his work might press upon him. Twice a week, on the Tuesday and the Friday, it was his invariable custom to walk over to Farlingford, the residence of Dr. Plumptree Peterson, situated about a mile and a half out of Oxford. Peterson had been a close friend of Smith's elder brother Francis, and as he was a bachelor, fairly well-to-do, with a good cellar and a better library, his house was a pleasant goal for a man who was in need of a brisk walk. Twice a week, then, the medical student would swing out there along the dark country roads, and spend a pleasant hour in Peterson's comfortable study, discussing, over a glass of old port, the gossip of the 'varsity or the latest developments of medicine or of surgery.
On the day which followed his interview with Monkhouse Lee, Smith shut up his books at a quarter past eight, the hour when he usually started for his friend's house. As he was leaving his room, however, his eyes chanced to fall upon one of the books which Bellingham had lent him, and his conscience pricked him for not having returned it. However repellent the man might be, he should not be treated with discourtesy. Taking the book, he walked downstairs and knocked at his neighbour's door. There was no answer; but on turning the handle he found that it was unlocked. Pleased at the thought of avoiding an interview, he stepped inside, and placed the book with his card upon the table.
The lamp was turned half down, but Smith could see the details of the room plainly enough. It was all much as he had seen it before—the frieze, the animal-headed gods, the banging crocodile, and the table littered over with papers and dried leaves. The mummy case stood upright against the wall, but the mummy itself was missing. There was no sign of any second occupant of the room, and he felt as he withdrew that he had probably done Bellingham an injustice. Had he a guilty secret to preserve, he would hardly leave his door open so that all the world might enter.
The spiral stair was as black as pitch, and Smith was slowly making his way down its irregular steps, when he was suddenly conscious that something had passed him in the darkness. There was a faint sound, a whiff of air, a light brushing past his elbow, but so slight that he could scarcely be certain of it. He stopped and listened, but the wind was rustling among the ivy outside, and he could hear nothing else.
"Is that you, Styles?" he shouted.
There was no answer, and all was still behind him. It must have been a sudden gust of air, for there were crannies and cracks in the old turret. And yet he could almost have sworn that be heard a footfall by his very side. He had emerged into the quadrangle, still turning the matter over in his head, when a man came running swiftly across the smooth-cropped lawn.
"Is that you, Smith?"
"For God's sake come at once! Young Lee is drowned! Here's Harrington of King's with the news. The doctor is out. You'll do, but come along at once. There may be life in him."
"Have you brandy?"
"I'll bring some. There's a flask on my table."
Smith bounded up the stairs, taking three at a time, seized the flask, and was rushing down with it, when, as he passed Bellingham's room, his eyes fell upon something which left him gasping and staring upon the landing.
The door, which he had closed behind him, was now open, and right in front of him, with the lamp-light shining upon it, was the mummy case. Three minutes ago it had been empty. He could swear to that. Now it framed the lank body of its horrible occupant, who stood, grim and stark, with his black shrivelled face towards the door. The form was lifeless and inert, but it seemed to Smith as he gazed that there still lingered a lurid spark of vitality, some faint sign of consciousness in the little eyes which lurked in the depths of the hollow sockets. So astounded and shaken was he that he had forgotten his errand, and was still staring at the lean, sunken figure when the voice of his friend below recalled him to himself.
"Come on, Smith!" he shouted. "It's life and death, you know. Hurry up! Now, then," he added, as the medical student reappeared, "let us do a sprint. It is well under a mile, and we should do it in five minutes. A human life is better worth running for than a pot."
Neck and neck they dashed through the darkness, and did not pull up until, panting and spent, they had reached the little cottage by the river. Young Lee, limp and dripping like a broken water-plant, was stretched upon the sofa, the green scum of the river upon his black hair, and a fringe of white foam upon his leaden-hued lips. Beside him knelt his fellow-student Harrington, endeavouring to chafe some warmth back into his rigid limbs.
"I think there's life in him," said Smith, with his hand to the lad's side. "Put your watch glass to his lips. Yes, there's dimming on it. You take one arm, Hastie. Now work it as I do, and we'll soon pull him round."
For ten minutes they worked in silence, inflating and depressing the chest of the unconscious man. At the end of that time a shiver ran through his body, his lips trembled, and he opened his eyes. The three students burst out into an irrepressible cheer.
"Wake up, old chap. You've frightened us quite enough."
"Have some brandy. Take a sip from the flask."
"He's all right now," said his companion Harrington. "Heavens, what a fright I got! I was reading here, and he had gone for a stroll as far as the river, when I heard a scream and a splash. Out I ran, and by the time that I could find him and fish him out, all life seemed to have gone. Then Simpson couldn't get a doctor, for he has a game-leg, and I had to run, and I don't know what I'd have done without you fellows. That's right, old chap. Sit up."
Monkhouse Lee had raised himself on his hands, and looked wildly about him.
"What's up?" he asked. "I've been in the water. Ah, yes; I remember."
A look of fear came into his eyes, and he sank his face into his hands.
"How did you fall in?"
"I didn't fall in."
"I was thrown in. I was standing by the bank, and something from behind picked me up like a feather and hurled me in. I heard nothing, and I saw nothing. But I know what it was, for all that."
"And so do I, " whispered Smith.
Lee looked up with a quick glance of surprise. "You've learned, then!" he said. "You remember the advice I gave you?"
"Yes, and I begin to think that I shall take it."
"I don't know what the deuce you fellows are talking about," said Hastie, "but I think, if I were you, Harrington, I should get Lee to bed at once. It will be time enough to discuss the why and the wherefore when he is a little stronger. I think, Smith, you and I can leave him alone now. I am walking back to college; if you are coming in that direction, we can have a chat."
But it was little chat that they had upon their homeward path. Smith's mind was too full of the incidents of the evening, the absence of the mummy from his neighbour's rooms, the step that passed him on the stair, the reappearance—the extraordinary, inexplicable reappearance of the grisly thing—and then this attack upon Lee, corresponding so closely to the previous outrage upon another man against whom Bellingham bore a grudge. All this settled in his thoughts, together with the many little incidents which had previously turned him against his neighbour, and the singular circumstances under which he was first called in to him. What had been a dim suspicion, a vague, fantastic conjecture, had suddenly taken form, and stood out in his mind as a grim fact, a thing not to be denied. And yet, how monstrous it was! how unheard of! how entirely beyond all bounds of human experience. An impartial judge, or even the friend who walked by his side, would simply tell him that his eyes had deceived him, that the mummy had been there all the time, that young Lee had tumbled into the river as any other man tumbles into a river, and that a blue pill was the best thing for a disordered liver. He felt that he would have said as much if the positions had been reversed. And yet he could swear that Bellingham was a murderer at heart, and that he wielded a weapon such as no man had ever used in all the grim history of crime.
Hastie had branched off to his rooms with a few crisp and emphatic comments upon his friend's unsociability, and Abercrombie Smith crossed the quadrangle to his corner turret with a strong feeling of repulsion for his chambers and their associations. He would take Lee's advice, and move his quarters as soon as possible, for how could a man study when his ear was ever straining for every murmur or footstep in the room below? He observed, as he crossed over the lawn, that the light was still shining in Bellingham's window, and as he passed up the staircase the door opened, and the man himself looked out at him. With his fat, evil face he was like some bloated spider fresh from the weaving of his poisonous web.
"Good-evening," said he. "Won't you come in?"
"No," cried Smith, fiercely.
"No? You are busy as ever? I wanted to ask you about Lee. I was sorry to hear that there was a rumour that something was amiss with him."
His features were grave, but there was the gleam of a hidden laugh in his eyes as he spoke. Smith saw it, and he could have knocked him down for it.
"You'll be sorrier still to hear that Monkhouse Lee is doing very well, and is out of all danger," he answered. "Your hellish tricks have not come off this time. Oh, you needn't try to brazen it out. I know all about it."
Bellingham took a step back from the angry student, and half-closed the door as if to protect himself.
"You are mad," he said. "What do you mean? Do you assert that I had anything to do with Lee's accident?"
"Yes," thundered Smith. "You and that bag of bones behind you; you worked it between you. I tell you what it is, Master B., they have given up burning folk like you, but we still keep a hangman, and, by George! if any man in this college meets his death while you are here, I'll have you up, and if you don't swing for it, it won't be my fault. You'll find that your filthy Egyptian tricks won't answer in England."
"You're a raving lunatic," said Bellingham.
"All right. You just remember what I say, for you'll find that I'll be better than my word."
The door slammed, and Smith went fuming up to his chamber, where he locked the door upon the inside, and spent half the night in smoking his old briar and brooding over the strange events of the evening.
Next morning Abercrombie Smith heard nothing of his neighbour, but Harrington called upon him in the afternoon to say that Lee was almost himself again. All day Smith stuck fast to his work, but in the evening he determined to pay the visit to his friend Dr. Peterson upon which he had started upon the night before. A good walk and a friendly chat would be welcome to his jangled nerves.
Bellingham's door was shut as he passed, but glancing back when he was some distance from the turret, he saw his neighbour's head at the window outlined against the lamp-light, his face pressed apparently against the glass as he gazed out into the darkness. It was a blessing to be away from all contact with him, but if for a few hours, and Smith stepped out briskly, and breathed the soft spring air into his lungs. The half-moon lay in the west between two Gothic pinnacles, and threw upon the silvered street a dark tracery from the stone-work above. There was a brisk breeze, and light, fleecy clouds drifted swiftly across the sky. Old's was on the very border of the town, and in five minutes Smith found himself beyond the houses and between the hedges of a May-scented Oxfordshire lane.
It was a lonely and little frequented road which led to his friend's house. Early as it was, Smith did not meet a single soul upon his way. He walked briskly along until he came to the avenue gate, which opened into the long gravel drive leading up to Farlingford. In front of him he could see the cosy red light of the windows glimmering through the foliage. He stood with his hand upon the iron latch of the swinging gate, and he glanced back at the road along which he had come. Something was coming swiftly down it.
It moved in the shadow of the hedge, silently and furtively, a dark, crouching figure, dimly visible against the black background. Even as he gazed back at it, it had lessened its distance by twenty paces, and was fast closing upon him. Out of the darkness he had a glimpse of a scraggy neck, and of two eyes that will ever haunt him in his dreams. He turned, and with a cry of terror he ran for his life up the avenue. There were the red lights, the signals of safety, almost within a stone's throw of him. He was a famous runner, but never had he run as he ran that night.
The heavy gate had swung into place behind him, but he heard it dash open again before his pursuer. As he rushed madly and wildly through the night, he could hear a swift, dry patter behind him, and could see, as he threw back a glance, that this horror was bounding like a tiger at his heels, with blazing eyes and one stringy arm outthrown. Thank God, the door was ajar. He could see the thin bar of light which shot from the lamp in the hall. Nearer yet sounded the clatter from behind. He heard a hoarse gurgling at his very shoulder. With a shriek he flung himself against the door, slammed and bolted it behind him, and sank half-fainting on to the hall chair.
"My goodness, Smith, what's the matter?" asked Peterson, appearing at the door of his study.
"Give me some brandy!"
Peterson disappeared, and came rushing out again with a glass and a decanter.
"You need it," he said, as his visitor drank off what he poured out for him. "Why, man, you are as white as a cheese."
Smith laid down his glass, rose up, and took a deep breath.
"I am my own man again now," said he. "I was never so unmanned before. But, with your leave, Peterson, I will sleep here to-night, for I don't think I could face that road again except by daylight. It's weak, I know, but I can't help it."
Peterson looked at his visitor with a very questioning eye.
"Of course you shall sleep here if you wish. I'll tell Mrs. Burney to make up the spare bed. Where are you off to now?"
"Come up with me to the window that overlooks the door. I want you to see what I have seen."
They went up to the window of the upper hall whence they could look down upon the approach to the house. The drive and the fields on either side lay quiet and still, bathed in the peaceful moonlight.
"Well, really, Smith," remarked Peterson, "it is well that I know you to be an abstemious man. What in the world can have frightened you?"
"I'll tell you presently. But where can it have gone? Ah, now look, look! See the curve of the road just beyond your gate."
"Yes, I see; you needn't pinch my arm off. I saw someone pass. I should say a man, rather thin, apparently, and tall, very tall. But what of him? And what of yourself? You are still shaking like an aspen leaf."
"I have been within hand-grip of the devil, that's all. But come down to your study, and I shall tell you the whole story."
He did so. Under the cheery lamplight, with a glass of wine on the table beside him, and the portly form and florid face of his friend in front, he narrated, in their order, all the events, great and small, which had formed so singular a chain, from the night on which he had found Bellingham fainting in front of the mummy case until his horrid experience of an hour ago.
"There now," he said as he concluded, "that's the whole black business. It is monstrous and incredible, but it is true."
Dr. Plumptree Peterson sat for some time in silence with a very puzzled expression upon his face.
"I never heard of such a thing in my life, never!" he said at last. "You have told me the facts. Now tell me your inferences."
"You can draw your own."
"But I should like to hear yours. You have thought over the matter, and I have not."
"Well, it must be a little vague in detail, but the main points seem to me to be clear enough. This fellow Bellingham, in his Eastern studies, has got hold of some infernal secret by which a mummy—or possibly only this particular mummy—can be temporarily brought to life. He was trying this disgusting business on the night when he fainted. No doubt the sight of the creature moving had shaken his nerve, even though he had expected it. You remember that almost the first words he said were to call out upon himself as a fool. Well, he got more hardened afterwards, and carried the matter through without fainting. The vitality which he could put into it was evidently only a passing thing, for I have seen it continually in its case as dead as this table. He has some elaborate process, I fancy, by which he brings the thing to pass. Having done it, he naturally bethought him that he might use the creature as an agent. It has intelligence and it has strength. For some purpose he took Lee into his confidence; but Lee, like a decent Christian, would have nothing to do with such a business. Then they had a row, and Lee vowed that he would tell his sister of Bellingham's true character. Bellingham's game was to prevent him, and he nearly managed it, by setting this creature of his on his track. He had already tried its powers upon another man—Norton—towards whom he had a grudge. It is the merest chance that he has not two murders upon his soul. Then, when I taxed him with the matter, he had the strongest reasons for wishing to get me out of the way before I could convey my knowledge to anyone else. He got his chance when I went out, for he knew my habits, and where I was bound for. I have had a narrow shave, Peterson, and it is mere luck you didn't find me on your doorstep in the morning. I'm not a nervous man as a rule, and I never thought to have the fear of death put upon me as it was to-night."
"My dear boy, you take the matter too seriously," said his companion. "Your nerves are out of order with your work, and you make too much of it. How could such a thing as this stride about the streets of Oxford, even at night, without being seen?"
"It has been seen. There is quite a scare in the town about an escaped ape, as they imagine the creature to be. It is the talk of the place."
"Well, it's a striking chain of events. And yet, my dear fellow, you must allow that each incident in itself is capable of a more natural explanation."
"What! even my adventure of to-night?"
"Certainly. You come out with your nerves all unstrung, and your head full of this theory of yours. Some gaunt, half-famished tramp steals after you, and seeing you run, is emboldened to pursue you. Your fears and imagination do the rest."
"It won't do, Peterson; it won't do."
"And again, in the instance of your finding the mummy case empty, and then a few moments later with an occupant, you know that it was lamplight, that the lamp was half turned down, and that you had no special reason to look hard at the case. It is quite possible that you may have overlooked the creature in the first instance."
"No, no; it is out of the question."
"And then Lee may have fallen into the river, and Norton been garrotted. It is certainly a formidable indictment that you have against Bellingham; but if you were to place it before a police magistrate, he would simply laugh in your face."
"I know he would. That is why I mean to take the matter into my own hands."
"Yes; I feel that a public duty rests upon me, and, besides, I must do it for my own safety, unless I choose to allow myself to be hunted by this beast out of the college, and that would be a little too feeble. I have quite made up my mind what I shall do. And first of all, may I use your paper and pens for an hour?"
"Most certainly. You will find all that you want upon that side table."
Abercrombie Smith sat down before a sheet of foolscap, and for an hour, and then for a second hour his pen travelled swiftly over it. Page after page was finished and tossed aside while his friend leaned back in his arm-chair, looking across at him with patient curiosity. At last, with an exclamation of satisfaction, Smith sprang to his feet, gathered his papers up into order, and laid the last one upon Peterson's desk.
"Kindly sign this as a witness," he said.
"A witness? Of what?"
"Of my signature, and of the date. The date is the most important. Why, Peterson, my life might hang upon it."
"My dear Smith, you are talking wildly. Let me beg you to go to bed."
"On the contrary, I never spoke so deliberately in my life. And I will promise to go to bed the moment you have signed it."
"But what is it?"
"It is a statement of all that I have been telling you to-night. I wish you to witness it."
"Certainly," said Peterson, signing his name under that of his companion. "There you are! But what is the idea?"
"You will kindly retain it, and produce it in case I am arrested."
"Arrested? For what?"
"For murder. It is quite on the cards. I wish to be ready for every event. There is only one course open to me, and I am determined to take it."
"For Heaven's sake, don't do anything rash!"
"Believe me, it would be far more rash to adopt any other course. I hope that we won't need to bother you, but it will ease my mind to know that you have this statement of my motives. And now I am ready to take your advice and to go to roost, for I want to be at my best in the morning."
Abercrombie Smith was not an entirely pleasant man to have as an enemy. Slow and easytempered, he was formidable when driven to action. He brought to every purpose in life the same deliberate resoluteness which had distinguished him as a scientific student. He had laid his studies aside for a day, but he intended that the day should not be wasted. Not a word did he say to his host as to his plans, but by nine o'clock he was well on his way to Oxford.
In the High Street he stopped at Clifford's, the gun-maker's, and bought a heavy revolver, with a box of central-fire cartridges. Six of them he slipped into the chambers, and half-cocking the weapon, placed it in the pocket of his coat. He then made his way to Hastie's rooms, where the big oarsman was lounging over his breakfast, with the Sporting Times propped up against the coffeepot.
"Hullo! What's up?" he asked. "Have some coffee?"
"No, thank you. I want you to come with me, Hastie, and do what I ask you."
"Certainly, my boy."
"And bring a heavy stick with you."
"Hullo!" Hastie stared. "Here's a hunting-crop that would fell an ox."
"One other thing. You have a box of amputating knives. Give me the longest of them."
"There you are. You seem to be fairly on the war trail. Anything else?"
"No; that will do." Smith placed the knife inside his coat, and led the way to the quadrangle. "We are neither of us chickens, Hastie," said he. "I think I can do this job alone, but I take you as a precaution. I am going to have a little talk with Bellingham. If I have only him to deal with, I won't, of course, need you. If I shout, however, up you come, and lam out with your whip as hard as you can lick. Do you understand?"
"All right. I'll come if I hear you bellow."
"Stay here, then. It may be a little time, but don't budge until I come down."
"I'm a fixture."
Smith ascended the stairs, opened Bellingham's door and stepped in. Bellingham was seated behind his table, writing. Beside him, among his litter of strange possessions, towered the mummy case, with its sale number 249 still stuck upon its front, and its hideous occupant stiff and stark within it. Smith looked very deliberately round him, closed the door, locked it, took the key from the inside, and then stepping across to the fireplace, struck a match and set the fire alight. Bellingham sat staring, with amazement and rage upon his bloated face.
"Well, really now, you make yourself at home," he gasped.
Smith sat himself deliberately down, placing his watch upon the table, drew out his pistol, cocked it, and laid it in his lap. Then he took the long amputating knife from his bosom, and threw it down in front of Bellingham.
"Now, then," said he, "just get to work and cut up that mummy."
"Oh, is that it?" said Bellingham with a sneer.
"Yes, that is it. They tell me that the law can't touch you. But I have a law that will set matters straight. If in five minutes you have not set to work, I swear by the God who made me that I will put a bullet through your brain!"
"You would murder me?"
Bellingham had half risen, and his face was the colour of putty.
"And for what?"
"To stop your mischief. One minute has gone."
"But what have I done?"
"I know and you know."
"This is mere bullying."
"Two minutes are gone."
"But you must give reasons. You are a madman—a dangerous madman. Why should I destroy my own property? It is a valuable mummy."
"You must cut it up, and you must burn it."
"I will do no such thing."
"Four minutes are gone."
Smith took up the pistol and he looked towards Bellingham with an inexorable face. As the second-hand stole round, he raised his hand, and the finger twitched upon the trigger.
"There! there! I'll do it!" screamed Bellingham.
In frantic haste he caught up the knife and hacked at the figure of the mummy, ever glancing round to see the eye and the weapon of his terrible visitor bent upon him. The creature crackled and snapped under every stab of the keen blade. A thick yellow dust rose up from it. Spices and dried essences rained down upon the floor. Suddenly, with a rending crack, its backbone snapped asunder, and it fell, a brown heap of sprawling limbs, upon the floor.
"Now into the fire!" said Smith.
The flames leaped and roared as the dried and tinderlike debris was piled upon it. The little room was like the stoke-hole of a steamer and the sweat ran down the faces of the two men; but still the one stooped and worked, while the other sat watching him with a set face. A thick, fat smoke oozed out from the fire, and a heavy smell of burned rosin and singed hair filled the air. In a quarter of an hour a few charred and brittle sticks were all that was left of Lot No. 249.
"Perhaps that will satisfy you," snarled Bellingham, with hate and fear in his little grey eyes as he glanced back at his tormenter.
"No; I must make a clean sweep of all your materials. We must have no more devil's tricks. In with all these leaves! They may have something to do with it."
"And what now?" asked Bellingham, when the leaves also had been added to the blaze.
"Now the roll of papyrus which you had on the table that night. It is in that drawer, I think."
"No, no," shouted Bellingham. "Don't burn that! Why, man, you don't know what you do. It is unique; it contains wisdom which is nowhere else to be found."
"Out with it!"
"But look here, Smith, you can't really mean it. I'll share the knowledge with you. I'll teach you all that is in it. Or, stay, let me only copy it before you burn it!"
Smith stepped forward and turned the key in the drawer. Taking out the yellow, curled roll of paper, he threw it into the fire, and pressed it down with his heel. Bellingham screamed, and grabbed at it; but Smith pushed him back, and stood over it until it was reduced to a formless grey ash.
"Now, Master B.," said he, "I think I have pretty well drawn your teeth. You'll hear from me again, if you return to your old tricks. And now good- morning, for I must go back to my studies."
And such is the narrative of Abercrombie Smith as to the singular events which occurred in Old College, Oxford, in the spring of '84. As Bellingham left the university immediately afterwards, and was last heard of in the Soudan, there is no one who can contradict his statement. But the wisdom of men is small, and the ways of nature are strange, and who shall put a bound to the dark things which may be found by those who seek for them?
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