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It is hard for the general practitioner who sits among his patients both morning and evening, and sees them in their homes between, to steal time for one little daily breath of cleanly air. To win it he must slip early from his bed and walk out between shuttered shops when it is chill but very clear, and all things are sharply outlined, as in a frost. It is an hour that has a charm of its own, when, but for a postman or a milkman, one has the pavement to oneself, and even the most common thing takes an ever-recurring freshness, as though causeway, and lamp, and signboard had all wakened to the new day. Then even an inland city may seem beautiful, and bear virtue in its smoke-tainted air.
But it was by the sea that I lived, in a town that was unlovely enough were it not for its glorious neighbour. And who cares for the town when one can sit on the bench at the headland, and look out over the huge, blue bay, and the yellow scimitar that curves before it. I loved it when its great face was freckled with the fishing boats, and I loved it when the big ships went past, far out, a little hillock of white and no hull, with topsails curved like a bodice, so stately and demure. But most of all I loved it when no trace of man marred the majesty of Nature, and when the sun-bursts slanted down on it from between the drifting rainclouds. Then I have seen the further edge draped in the gauze of the driving rain, with its thin grey shading under the slow clouds, while my headland was golden, and the sun gleamed upon the breakers and struck deep through the green waves beyond, showing up the purple patches where the beds of seaweed are lying. Such a morning as that, with the wind in his hair, and the spray on his lips, and the cry of the eddying gulls in his ear, may send a man back braced afresh to the reek of a sick-room, and the dead, drab weariness of practice.
It was on such another day that I first saw my old man. He came to my bench just as I was leaving it. My eye must have picked him out even in a crowded street, for he was a man of large frame and fine presence, with something of distinction in the set of his lip and the poise of his head. He limped up the winding path leaning heavily upon his stick, as though those great shoulders had become too much at last for the failing limbs that bore them. As he approached, my eyes caught Nature's danger signal, that faint bluish tinge in nose and lip which tells of a labouring heart.
"The brae is a little trying, sir," said I. "Speaking as a physician, I should say that you would do well to rest here before you go further."
He inclined his head in a stately, old-world fashion, and seated himself upon the bench. Seeing that he had no wish to speak I was silent also, but I could not help watching him out of the corners of my eyes, for he was such a wonderful survival of the early half of the century, with his low-crowned, curly-brimmed hat, his black satin tie which fastened with a buckle at the back, and, above all, his large, fleshy, clean-shaven face shot with its mesh of wrinkles. Those eyes, ere they had grown dim, had looked out from the box- seat of mail coaches, and had seen the knots of navvies as they toiled on the brown embankments. Those lips had smiled over the first numbers of "Pickwick," and had gossiped of the promising young man who wrote them. The face itself was a seventy-year almanack, and every seam an entry upon it where public as well as private sorrow left its trace. That pucker on the forehead stood for the Mutiny, perhaps; that line of care for the Crimean winter, it may be; and that last little sheaf of wrinkles, as my fancy hoped, for the death of Gordon. And so, as I dreamed in my foolish way, the old gentleman with the shining stock was gone, and it was seventy years of a great nation's life that took shape before me on the headland in the morning.
But he soon brought me back to earth again. As he recovered his breath he took a letter out of his pocket, and, putting on a pair of horn-rimmed eye- glasses, he read it through very carefully. Without any design of playing the spy I could not help observing that it was in a woman's hand. When he had finished it he read it again, and then sat with the corners of his mouth drawn down and his eyes staring vacantly out over the bay, the most forlorn-looking old gentleman that ever I have seen. All that is kindly within me was set stirring by that wistful face, but I knew that he was in no humour for talk, and so, at last, with my breakfast and my patients calling me, I left him on the bench and started for home.
I never gave him another thought until the next morning, when, at the same hour, he turned up upon the headland, and shared the bench which I had been accustomed to look upon as my own. He bowed again before sitting down, but was no more inclined than formerly to enter into conversation. There had been a change in him during the last twenty-four hours, and all for the worse. The face seemed more heavy and more wrinkled, while that ominous venous tinge was more pronounced as he panted up the hill. The clean lines of his cheek and chin were marred by a day's growth of grey stubble, and his large, shapely head had lost something of the brave carriage which had struck me when first I glanced at him. He had a letter there, the same, or another, but still in a woman's hand, and over this he was moping and mumbling in his senile fashion, with his brow puckered, and the corners of his mouth drawn down like those of a fretting child. So I left him, with a vague wonder as to who he might be, and why a single spring day should have wrought such a change upon him.
So interested was I that next morning I was on the look out for him. Sure enough, at the same hour, I saw him coming up the hill; but very slowly, with a bent back and a heavy head. It was shocking to me to see the change in him as he approached.
"I am afraid that our air does not agree with you, sir," I ventured to remark.
But it was as though he had no heart for talk. He tried, as I thought, to make some fitting reply, but it slurred off into a mumble and silence. How bent and weak and old he seemed—ten years older at the least than when first I had seen him! It went to my heart to see this fine old fellow wasting away before my eyes. There was the eternal letter which he unfolded with his shaking fingers. Who was this woman whose words moved him so? Some daughter, perhaps, or granddaughter, who should have been the light of his home instead of——I smiled to find how bitter I was growing, and how swiftly I was weaving a romance round an unshaven old man and his correspondence. Yet all day he lingered in my mind, and I had fitful glimpses of those two trembling, blue- veined, knuckly hands with the paper rustling between them.
I had hardly hoped to see him again. Another day's decline must, I thought, hold him to his room, if not to his bed. Great, then, was my surprise when, as I approached my bench, I saw that he was already there. But as I came up to him I could scarce be sure that it was indeed the same man. There were the curly-brimmed hat, and the shining stock, and the horn glasses, but where were the stoop and the grey-stubbled, pitiable face? He was clean-shaven and firm lipped, with a bright eye and a head that poised itself upon his great shoulders like an eagle on a rock. His back was as straight and square as a grenadier's, and he switched at the pebbles with his stick in his exuberant vitality. In the button-hole of his well-brushed black coat there glinted a golden blossom, and the corner of a dainty red silk handkerchief lapped over from his breast pocket. He might have been the eldest son of the weary creature who had sat there the morning before.
"Good morning, Sir, good morning!" he cried with a merry waggle of his cane.
"Good morning!" I answered how beautiful the bay is looking."
"Yes, Sir, but you should have seen it just before the sun rose."
"What, have you been here since then?"
"I was here when there was scarce light to see the path."
"You are a very early riser."
"On occasion, sir; on occasion!" He cocked his eye at me as if to gauge whether I were worthy of his confidence. "The fact is, sir, that my wife is coming back to me to day."
I suppose that my face showed that I did not quite see the force of the explanation. My eyes, too, may have given him assurance of sympathy, for he moved quite close to me and began speaking in a low, confidential voice, as if the matter were of such weight that even the sea-gulls must be kept out of our councils.
"Are you a married man, Sir?"
"No, I am not."
"Ah, then you cannot quite understand it. My wife and I have been married for nearly fifty years, and we have never been parted, never at all, until now."
"Was it for long?" I asked.
"Yes, sir. This is the fourth day. She had to go to Scotland. A matter of duty, you understand, and the doctors would not let me go. Not that I would have allowed them to stop me, but she was on their side. Now, thank God! it is over, and she may be here at any moment."
"Yes, here. This headland and bench were old friends of ours thirty years ago. The people with whom we stay are not, to tell the truth, very congenial, and we have, little privacy among them. That is why we prefer to meet here. I could not be sure which train would bring her, but if she had come by the very earliest she would have found me waiting."
"In that case—"said I, rising.
"No, sir, no," he entreated, "I beg that you will stay. It does not weary you, this domestic talk of mine?"
"On the contrary."
"I have been so driven inwards during these few last days! Ah, what a nightmare it has been! Perhaps it may seem strange to you that an old fellow like me should feel like this."
"It is charming."
"No credit to me, sir! There's not a man on this planet but would feel the same if he had the good fortune to be married to such a woman. Perhaps, because you see me like this, and hear me speak of our long life together, you conceive that she is old, too."
He laughed heartily, and his eyes twinkled at the humour of the idea.
"She's one of those women, you know, who have youth in their hearts, and so it can never be very far from their faces. To me she's just as she was when she first took my hand in hers in '45. A wee little bit stouter, perhaps, but then, if she had a fault as a girl, it was that she was a shade too slender. She was above me in station, you know—I a clerk, and she the daughter of my employer. Oh! it was quite a romance, I give you my word, and I won her; and, somehow, I have never got over the freshness and the wonder of it. To think that that sweet, lovely girl has walked by my side all through life, and that I have been able—"
He stopped suddenly, and I glanced round at him in surprise. He was shaking all over, in every fibre of his great body. His hands were clawing at the woodwork, and his feet shuffling on the gravel. I saw what it was. He was trying to rise, but was so excited that he could not. I half extended my hand, but a higher courtesy constrained me to draw it back again and turn my face to the sea. An instant afterwards he was up and hurrying down the path.
A woman was coming towards us. She was quite close before he had seen her —thirty yards at the utmost. I know not if she had ever been as he described her, or whether it was but some ideal which he carried in his brain. The person upon whom I looked was tall, it is true, but she was thick and shapeless, with a ruddy, full-blown face, and a skirt grotesquely gathered up. There was a green ribbon in her hat, which jarred upon my eyes, and her blouse- like bodice was full and clumsy. And this was the lovely girl, the ever youthful! My heart sank as I thought how little such a woman might appreciate him, how unworthy she might be of his love.
She came up the path in her solid way, while he staggered along to meet her. Then, as they came together, looking discreetly out of the furthest corner of my eye, I saw that he put out both his hands, while she, shrinking from a public caress, took one of them in hers and shook it. As she did so I saw her face, and I was easy in my mind for my old man. God grant that when this hand is shaking, and when this back is bowed, a woman's eyes may look so into mine.
It was in the days when the German armies had broken their way across France, and when the shattered forces of the young Republic had been swept away to the north of the Aisne and to the south of the Loire. Three broad streams of armed men had rolled slowly but irresistibly from the Rhine, now meandering to the north, now to the south, dividing, coalescing, but all uniting to form one great lake round Paris.And from this lake there welled out smaller streams—one to the north, one southward, to Orleans, and a third westward to Normandy.Many a German trooper saw the sea for the first time when he rode his horse girth-deep into the waves at Dieppe.
Black and bitter were the thoughts of Frenchmen when they saw this weal of dishonour slashed across the fair face of their country.They had fought and they had been overborne.That swarming cavalry, those countless footmen, the masterful guns—they had tried and tried to make head against them.In battalions their invaders were not to be beaten, but man to man, or ten to ten, they were their equals.A brave Frenchman might still make a single German rue the day that he had left his own bank of the Rhine.Thus, unchronicled amid the battles and the sieges, there broke out another war, a war of individuals, with foul murder upon the one side and brutal reprisal on the other.
Colonel von Gramm, of the 24th Posen Infantry, had suffered severely during this new development.He commanded in the little Norman town of Les Andelys, and his outposts stretched amid the hamlets and farmhouses of the district round.No French force was within fifty miles of him, and yet morning after morning he had to listen to a black report of sentries found dead at their posts, or of foraging parties which had never returned.Then the colonel would go forth in his wrath, and farmsteadings would blaze and villages tremble; but next morning there was still that same dismal tale to be told.Do what he might, he could not shake off his invisible enemies.And yet it should not have been so hard, for, from certain signs in common, in the plan and in the deed, it was certain that all these outrages came from a single source.
Colonel von Gramm had tried violence, and it had failed.Gold might be more successful.He published it abroad over the countryside that 500frs.would be paid for information.There was no response.Then 800frs.The peasants were incorruptible.Then, goaded on by a murdered corporal, he rose to a thousand, and so bought the soul of Francois Rejane, farm labourer, whose Norman avarice was a stronger passion than his French hatred.
"You say that you know who did these crimes?" asked the Prussian colonel, eyeing with loathing the blue-bloused, rat-faced creature before him.
"And it was—?"
"Those thousand francs, colonel—"
"Not a sou until your story has been tested.Come!Who is it who has murdered my men?"
"It is Count Eustace of Chateau Noir."
"You lie!" cried the colonel, angrily."A gentleman and a nobleman could not have done such crimes."
The peasant shrugged his shoulders."It is evident to me that you do not know the count.It is this way, colonel.What I tell you is the truth, and I am not afraid that you should test it.The Count of Chateau Noir is a hard man, even at the best time he was a hard man. But of late he has been terrible.It was his son's death, you know. His son was under Douay, and he was taken, and then in escaping from Germany he met his death.It was the count's only child, and indeed we all think that it has driven him mad.With his peasants he follows the German armies.I do not know how many he has killed, but it is he who cut the cross upon the foreheads, for it is the badge of his house."
It was true.The murdered sentries had each had a saltire cross slashed across their brows, as by a hunting-knife.The colonel bent his stiff back and ran his forefinger over the map which lay upon the table.
"The Chateau Noir is not more than four leagues," he said.
"Three and a kilometre, colonel."
"You know the place?"
"I used to work there."
Colonel von Gramm rang the bell.
"Give this man food and detain him," said he to the sergeant.
"Why detain me, colonel? I can tell you no more."
"We shall need you as guide."
"As guide?But the count?If I were to fall into his hands? Ah, colonel—"
The Prussian commander waved him away."Send Captain Baumgarten to me at once," said he.
The officer who answered the summons was a man of middle-age, heavy- jawed, blue-eyed, with a curving yellow moustache, and a brick-red face which turned to an ivory white where his helmet had sheltered it. He was bald, with a shining, tightly stretched scalp, at the back of which, as in a mirror, it was a favourite mess-joke of the subalterns to trim their moustaches.As a soldier he was slow, but reliable and brave.The colonel could trust him where a more dashing officer might be in danger.
"You will proceed to Chateau Noir to-night, captain," said he."A guide has been provided.You will arrest the count and bring him back. If there is an attempt at rescue, shoot him at once."
"How many men shall I take, colonel?"
"Well, we are surrounded by spies, and our only chance is to pounce upon him before he knows that we are on the way.A large force will attract attention.On the other hand, you must not risk being cut off."
"I might march north, colonel, as if to join General Goeben.Then I could turn down this road which I see upon your map, and get to Chateau Noir before they could hear of us.In that case, with twenty men—"
"Very good, captain.I hope to see you with your prisoner to-morrow morning."
It was a cold December night when Captain Baumgarten marched out of Les Andelys with his twenty Poseners, and took the main road to the north west.Two miles out he turned suddenly down a narrow, deeply rutted track, and made swiftly for his man.A thin, cold rain was falling, swishing among the tall poplar trees and rustling in the fields on either side.The captain walked first with Moser, a veteran sergeant, beside him.The sergeant's wrist was fastened to that of the French peasant, and it had been whispered in his ear that in case of an ambush the first bullet fired would be through his head.Behind them the twenty infantrymen plodded along through the darkness with their faces sunk to the rain, and their boots squeaking in the soft, wet clay. They knew where they were going, and why, and the thought upheld them, for they were bitter at the loss of their comrades.It was a cavalry job, they knew, but the cavalry were all on with the advance, and, besides, it was more fitting that the regiment should avenge its own dead men.
It was nearly eight when they left Les Andelys.At half-past eleven their guide stopped at a place where two high pillars, crowned with some heraldic stonework, flanked a huge iron gate.The wall in which it had been the opening had crumbled away, but the great gate still towered above the brambles and weeds which had overgrown its base.The Prussians made their way round it and advanced stealthily, under the shadow of a tunnel of oak branches, up the long avenue, which was still cumbered by the leaves of last autumn.At the top they halted and reconnoitred.
The black chateau lay in front of them.The moon had shone out between two rain-clouds, and threw the old house into silver and shadow.It was shaped like an L, with a low arched door in front, and lines of small windows like the open ports of a man-of-war.Above was a dark roof, breaking at the corners into little round overhanging turrets, the whole lying silent in the moonshine, with a drift of ragged clouds blackening the heavens behind it.A single light gleamed in one of the lower windows.
The captain whispered his orders to his men.Some were to creep to the front door, some to the back.Some were to watch the east, and some the west.He and the sergeant stole on tiptoe to the lighted window.
It was a small room into which they looked, very meanly furnished. An elderly man, in the dress of a menial, was reading a tattered paper by the light of a guttering candle.He leaned back in his wooden chair with his feet upon a box, while a bottle of white wine stood with a half-filled tumbler upon a stool beside him.The sergeant thrust his needle-gun through the glass, and the man sprang to his feet with a shriek.
"Silence, for your life!The house is surrounded, and you cannot escape.Come round and open the door, or we will show you no mercy when we come in."
"For God's sake, don't shoot!I will open it!I will open it!" He rushed from the room with his paper still crumpled up in his hand. An instant later, with a groaning of old locks and a rasping of bars, the low door swung open, and the Prussians poured into the stone-flagged passage.
"Where is Count Eustace de Chateau Noir?"
"My master!He is out, sir."
"Out at this time of night?Your life for a lie!"
"It is true, sir.He is out!"
"I do not know."
"I cannot tell.No, it is no use your cocking your pistol, sir.You may kill me, but you cannot make me tell you that which I do not know."
"Is he often out at this hour?"
"And when does he come home?"
Captain Baumgarten rasped out a German oath.He had had his journey for nothing, then.The man's answers were only too likely to be true.It was what he might have expected.But at least he would search the house and make sure.Leaving a picket at the front door and another at the back, the sergeant and he drove the trembling butler in front of them—his shaking candle sending strange, flickering shadows over the old tapestries and the low, oak- raftered ceilings.They searched the whole house, from the huge stone-flagged kitchen below to the dining-hall on the second floor, with its gallery for musicians, and its panelling black with age, but nowhere was there a living creature.Up above, in an attic, they found Marie, the elderly wife of the butler; but the owner kept no other servants, and of his own presence there was no trace.
It was long, however, before Captain Baumgarten had satisfied himself upon the point.It was a difficult house to search.Thin stairs, which only one man could ascend at a time, connected lines of tortuous corridors.The walls were so thick that each room was cut off from its neighbour.Huge fireplaces yawned in each, while the windows were 6ft. deep in the wall.Captain Baumgarten stamped with his feet, tore down curtains, and struck with the pommel of his sword.If there were secret hiding-places, he was not fortunate enough to find them.
"I have an idea," said he, at last, speaking in German to the sergeant. "You will place a guard over this fellow, and make sure that he communicates with no one."
"And you will place four men in ambush at the front and at the back.It is likely enough that about daybreak our bird may return to the nest."
"And the others, captain?"
"Let them have their suppers in the kitchen.The fellow will serve you with meat and wine.It is a wild night, and we shall be better here than on the country road."
"And yourself, captain?"
"I will take my supper up here in the dining-hall.The logs are laid and we can light the fire.You will call me if there is any alarm. What can you give me for supper—you?"
"Alas, monsieur, there was a time when I might have answered, 'What you wish!' but now it is all that we can do to find a bottle of new claret and a cold pullet."
"That will do very well.Let a guard go about with him, sergeant, and let him feel the end of a bayonet if he plays us any tricks."
Captain Baumgarten was an old campaigner.In the Eastern provinces, and before that in Bohemia, he had learned the art of quartering himself upon the enemy.While the butler brought his supper he occupied himself in making his preparations for a comfortable night.He lit the candelabrum of ten candles upon the centre table.The fire was already burning up, crackling merrily, and sending spurts of blue, pungent smoke into the room.The captain walked to the window and looked out. The moon had gone in again, and it was raining heavily.He could hear the deep sough of the wind, and see the dark loom of the trees, all swaying in the one direction.It was a sight which gave a zest to his comfortable quarters, and to the cold fowl and the bottle of wine which the butler had brought up for him.He was tired and hungry after his long tramp, so he threw his sword, his helmet, and his revolver-belt down upon a chair, and fell to eagerly upon his supper.Then, with his glass of wine before him and his cigar between his lips, he tilted his chair back and looked about him.
He sat within a small circle of brilliant light which gleamed upon his silver shoulder-straps, and threw out his terra-cotta face, his heavy eyebrows, and his yellow moustache.But outside that circle things were vague and shadowy in the old dining-hall.Two sides were oak-panelled and two were hung with faded tapestry, across which huntsmen and dogs and stags were still dimly streaming.Above the fireplace were rows of heraldic shields with the blazonings of the family and of its alliances, the fatal saltire cross breaking out on each of them.
Four paintings of old seigneurs of Chateau Noir faced the fireplace, all men with hawk noses and bold, high features, so like each other that only the dress could distinguish the Crusader from the Cavalier of the Fronde.Captain Baumgarten, heavy with his repast, lay back in his chair looking up at them through the clouds of his tobacco smoke, and pondering over the strange chance which had sent him, a man from the Baltic coast, to eat his supper in the ancestral hall of these proud Norman chieftains.But the fire was hot, and the captain's eyes were heavy.His chin sank slowly upon his chest, and the ten candles gleamed upon the broad, white scalp.
Suddenly a slight noise brought him to his feet.For an instant it seemed to his dazed senses that one of the pictures opposite had walked from its frame.There, beside the table, and almost within arm's length of him, was standing a huge man, silent, motionless, with no sign of life save his fierce-glinting eyes.He was black-haired, olive-skinned, with a pointed tuft of black beard, and a great, fierce nose, towards which all his features seemed to run.His cheeks were wrinkled like a last year's apple, but his sweep of shoulder, and bony, corded hands, told of a strength which was unsapped by age.His arms were folded across his arching chest, and his mouth was set in a fixed smile.
"Pray do not trouble yourself to look for your weapons," he said, as the Prussian cast a swift glance at the empty chair in which they had been laid."You have been, if you will allow me to say so, a little indiscreet to make yourself so much at home in a house every wall of which is honeycombed with secret passages.You will be amused to hear that forty men were watching you at your supper.Ah!what then?"
Captain Baumgarten had taken a step forwardwith clenched fists. The Frenchman held up tho revolver which he grasped in his right hand, while with the left he hurled the German back into his chair.
"Pray keep your seat," said he."You have no cause to trouble about your men.They have already been provided for.It is astonishing with these stone floors how little one can hear what goes on beneath. You have been relieved of your command, and have now only to think of yourself.May I ask what yourname is?"
"I am Captain Baumgarten of, the 24th Posen Regiment."
"Your French is excellent, though you incline, like most of your countrymen, to turn the 'p' into a 'b.'I have been amused to hear them cry 'Avez bitie sur moi!' You know, doubtless, who it is who addresses you."
"The Count of Chateau Noir."
"Precisely.It would have been a misfortune if you had visited my chateau and I had been unable to have a word with you.I have had to do with many German soldiers, but never with an officer before.I have much to talk to you about."
Captain Baumgarten sat still in his chair.Brave as he was, there was something in this man's manner which made his skin creep with apprehension.His eyes glanced to right and to left, but his weapons were gone, and in a struggle he saw that he was but a child to this gigantic adversary.The count had picked up the claret bottle and held it to the light.
"Tut! tut!" said he."And was this the best that Pierre could do for you? I am ashamed to look you in the face, Captain Baumgarten.We must improve upon this."
He blew a call upon a whistle which hung from his shooting-jacket. The old manservant was in the room in an instant.
"Chambertin from bin 15!" he cried, and a minute later a grey bottle, streaked with cobwebs, was carried in as a nurse bears an infant. The count filled two glasses to the brim.
"Drink!" said he."It is the very best in my cellars, and not to be matched between Rouen and Paris.Drink, sir, and be happy! There are cold joints below.There are two lobsters, fresh from Honfleur.Will you not venture upon a second and more savoury supper?"
The German officer shook his head.He drained the glass, however, and his host filled it once more, pressing him to give an order for this or that dainty.
"There is nothing in my house which is not at your disposal.You have but to say the word.Well, then, you will allow me to tell you a story while you drink your wine.I have so longed to tell it to some German officer.It is about my son, my only child, Eustace, who was taken and died in escaping.It is a curious little story, and I think that I can promise you that you will never forget it.
"You must know, then, that my boy was in the artillery—a fine young fellow, Captain Baumgarten, and the pride of his mother.She died within a week of the news of his death reaching us.It was brought by a brother officer who was at his side throughout, and who escaped while my lad died.I want to tellyou all that he told me.
"Eustace was taken at Weissenburg on the 4th of August.The prisoners were broken up into parties, and sent back into Germany by different routes.Eustace was taken upon the 5th to a village called Lauterburg, where he met with kindness from the German officer in command. This good colonel had the hungry lad to supper, offered him the best he had, opened a bottle of good wine, as I have tried to do for you, and gave him a cigar from his own case.Might I entreat you to take one from mine?"
The German again shook his head.His horror of his companion had increased as he sat watching the lips that smiled and the eyes that glared.
"The colonel, as I say, was good to my boy.But, unluckily, the prisoners were moved next day across the Rhine into Ettlingen. They were not equally fortunate there.The officer who guarded them was a ruffian and a villain, Captain Baumgarten.He took a pleasure in humiliating and ill-treating the brave men who had fallen into his power.That night upon my son answering fiercely back to some taunt of his, he struck him in the eye, like this!"
The crash of the blow rang through the hall.The German's face fell forward, his hand up, and blood oozing through his fingers.The count settled down in his chair once more.
"My boy was disfigured by the blow, and this villain made his appearance the object of his jeers.By the way, you look a little comical yourself at the present moment, captain, and your colonel would certainly say that you had been getting into mischief.To continue, however, my boy's youth and his destitution—for his pockets were empty—moved the pity of a kind-hearted major, and he advanced him ten Napoleons from his own pocket without security of any kind.Into your hands, Captain Baumgarten, I return these ten gold pieces, since I cannot learn the name of the lender.I am grateful from my heart for this kindness shown to my boy.
"The vile tyrant who commanded the escort accompanied the prisoners to Durlack, and from there to Carlsruhe.He heaped every outrage upon my lad, because the spirit of the Chateau Noirs would not stoop to turn away his wrath by a feigned submission.Ay, this cowardly villain, whose heart's blood shall yet clot upon this hand, dared to strike my son with his open hand, to kick him, to tear hairs from his moustache—to use him thus— and thus—and thus!"
The German writhed and struggled.He was helpless in the hands of this huge giant whose blows were raining upon him.When at last, blinded and half- senseless, he staggered to his feet, it was only to be hurled back again into the great oaken chair.He sobbed in his impotent anger and shame.
"My boy was frequently moved to tears by the humiliation of his position," continued the count."You will understand me when I say that it is a bitter thing to be helpless in the hands of an insolent and remorseless enemy.On arriving at Carlsruhe, however, his face, which had been wounded by the brutality of his guard, was bound up by a young Bavarian subaltern who was touched by his appearance.I regret to see that your eye is bleeding so.Will you permit me to bind it with my silk handkerchief?"
He leaned forward, but the German dashed his hand aside.
"I am in your power, you monster!" he cried; "I can endure your brutalities, but not your hypocrisy."
The count shrugged his shoulders.
"I am taking things in their order, just as they occurred," said he. "I was under vow to tell it to the first German officer with whom I could talk tête-à-tête.Let me see, I had got as far as the young Bavarian at Carlsruhe.I regret extremely that you will not permit me to use such slight skill in surgery as I possess.At Carlsruhe, my lad was shut up in the old caserne, where he remained for a fortnight. The worst pang of his captivity was that some unmannerly curs in the garrison would taunt him with his position as he sat by his window in the evening.That reminds me, captain, that you are not quite situated upon a bed of roses yourself, are you now?You came to trap a wolf, my man, and now the beast has you down with his fangs in your throat. A family man, too, I should judge, by that well-filled tunic.Well, a widow the more will make little matter, and they do not usually remain widows long.Get backinto the chair, you dog!
"Well, to continue my story—at the end of a fortnight my son and his friend escaped.I need not trouble you with the dangers which they ran, or with the privations which they endured.Suffice it that to disguise themselves they had to take the clothes of two peasants, whom they waylaid in a wood.Hiding by day and travelling by night, they had got as far into France as Remilly, and were within a mile—a single mile, captain—of crossing the German lines when a patrol of Uhlans came right upon them.Ah! it was hard, was it not, when they had come so far and were so near to safety?"The count blew a double call upon his whistle, and three hard-faced peasants entered the room.
"These must represent my Uhlans," said he."Well, then, the captain in command, finding that these men were French soldiers in civilian dress within the German lines, proceeded to hang them without trial or ceremony.I think, Jean, that the centre beam is the strongest."
The unfortunate soldier was dragged from his chair to where a noosed rope had been flung over one of the huge oaken rafters which spanned the room.The cord was slipped over his head, and he felt its harsh grip round his throat.The three peasants seized the other end, and looked to the count for his orders.The officer, pale, but firm, folded his arms and stared defiantly at the man who tortured him.
"You are now face to face with death, and I perceive from your lips that you are praying.My son was also face to face with death, and he prayed, also.It happened that a general officer came up, and he heard the lad praying for his mother, and it moved him so—he being himself a father— that he ordered his Uhlans away, and he remained with his aide-de-camp only, beside the condemned men.And when he heard all the lad had to tell— that he was the only child of an old family, and that his mother was in failing health—he threw off the rope as I throw off this, and he kissed him on either cheek, as I kiss you, and he bade him go, as I bid you go, and may every kind wish of that noble general, though it could not stave off the fever which slew my son, descend now upon your head."
And so it was that Captain Baumgarten, disfigured, blinded, and bleeding, staggered out into the wind and the rain of that wild December dawn.
March 24. The spring is fairly with us now. Outside my laboratory window the great chestnut-tree is all covered with the big, glutinous, gummy buds, some of which have already begun to break into little green shuttlecocks. As you walk down the lanes you are conscious of the rich, silent forces of nature working all around you. The wet earth smells fruitful and luscious. Green shoots are peeping out everywhere. The twigs are stiff with their sap; and the moist, heavy English air is laden with a faintly resinous perfume. Buds in the hedges, lambs beneath them—everywhere the work of reproduction going forward!
I can see it without, and I can feel it within. We also have our spring when the little arterioles dilate, the lymph flows in a brisker stream, the glands work harder, winnowing and straining. Every year nature readjusts the whole machine. I can feel the ferment in my blood at this very moment, and as the cool sunshine pours through my window I could dance about in it like a gnat. So I should, only that Charles Sadler would rush upstairs to know what was the matter. Besides, I must remember that I am Professor Gilroy. An old professor may afford to be natural, but when fortune has given one of the first chairs in the university to a man of four-and-thirty he must try and act the part consistently.
What a fellow Wilson is! If I could only throw the same enthusiasm into physiology that he does into psychology, I should become a Claude Bernard at the least. His whole life and soul and energy work to one end. He drops to sleep collating his results of the past day, and he wakes to plan his researches for the coming one. And yet, outside the narrow circle who follow his proceedings, he gets so little credit for it. Physiology is a recognized science. If I add even a brick to the edifice, every one sees and applauds it. But Wilson is trying to dig the foundations for a science of the future. His work is underground and does not show. Yet he goes on uncomplainingly, corresponding with a hundred semi-maniacs in the hope of finding one reliable witness, sifting a hundred lies on the chance of gaining one little speck of truth, collating old books, devouring new ones, experimenting, lecturing, trying to light up in others the fiery interest which is consuming him. I am filled with wonder and admiration when I think of him, and yet, when he asks me to associate myself with his researches, I am compelled to tell him that, in their present state, they offer little attraction to a man who is devoted to exact science. If he could show me something positive and objective, I might then be tempted to approach the question from its physiological side. So long as half his subjects are tainted with charlatanerie and the other half with hysteria we physiologists must content ourselves with the body and leave the mind to our descendants.
No doubt I am a materialist. Agatha says that I am a rank one. I tell her that is an excellent reason for shortening our engagement, since I am in such urgent need of her spirituality. And yet I may claim to be a curious example of the effect of education upon temperament, for by nature I am, unless I deceive myself, a highly psychic man. I was a nervous, sensitive boy, a dreamer, a somnambulist, full of impressions and intuitions. My black hair, my dark eyes, my thin, olive face, my tapering fingers, are all characteristic of my real temperament, and cause experts like Wilson to claim me as their own. But my brain is soaked with exact knowledge. I have trained myself to deal only with fact and with proof. Surmise and fancy have no place in my scheme of thought. Show me what I can see with my microscope, cut with my scalpel, weigh in my balance, and I will devote a lifetime to its investigation. But when you ask me to study feelings, impressions, suggestions, you ask me to do what is distasteful and even demoralizing. A departure from pure reason affects me like an evil smell or a musical discord.
Which is a very sufficient reason why I am a little loath to go to Professor Wilson's tonight. Still I feel that I could hardly get out of the invitation without positive rudeness; and, now that Mrs. Marden and Agatha are going, of course I would not if I could. But I had rather meet them anywhere else. I know that Wilson would draw me into this nebulous semi-science of his if he could. In his enthusiasm he is perfectly impervious to hints or remonstrances. Nothing short of a positive quarrel will make him realize my aversion to the whole business. I have no doubt that he has some new mesmerist or clairvoyant or medium or trickster of some sort whom he is going to exhibit to us, for even his entertainments bear upon his hobby. Well, it will be a treat for Agatha, at any rate. She is interested in it, as woman usually is in whatever is vague and mystical and indefinite.
10.50 P.M. This diary-keeping of mine is, I fancy, the outcome of that scientific habit of mind about which I wrote this morning. I like to register impressions while they are fresh. Once a day at least I endeavor to define my own mental position. It is a useful piece of self-analysis, and has, I fancy, a steadying effect upon the character. Frankly, I must confess that my own needs what stiffening I can give it. I fear that, after all, much of my neurotic temperament survives, and that I am far from that cool, calm precision which characterizes Murdoch or Pratt-Haldane. Otherwise, why should the tomfoolery which I have witnessed this evening have set my nerves thrilling so that even now I am all unstrung? My only comfort is that neither Wilson nor Miss Penclosa nor even Agatha could have possibly known my weakness.
And what in the world was there to excite me? Nothing, or so little that it will seem ludicrous when I set it down.
The Mardens got to Wilson's before me. In fact, I was one of the last to arrive and found the room crowded. I had hardly time to say a word to Mrs. Marden and to Agatha, who was looking charming in white and pink, with glittering wheat-ears in her hair, when Wilson came twitching at my sleeve.
"You want something positive, Gilroy," said he, drawing me apart into a corner. "My dear fellow, I have a phenomenon—a phenomenon!"
I should have been more impressed had I not heard the same before. His sanguine spirit turns every fire-fly into a star.
"No possible question about the bona fides this time," said he, in answer, perhaps, to some little gleam of amusement in my eyes. "My wife has known her for many years. They both come from Trinidad, you know. Miss Penclosa has only been in England a month or two, and knows no one outside the university circle, but I assure you that the things she has told us suffice in themselves to establish clairvoyance upon an absolutely scientific basis. There is nothing like her, amateur or professional. Come and be introduced!"
I like none of these mystery-mongers, but the amateur least of all. With the paid performer you may pounce upon him and expose him the instant that you have seen through his trick. He is there to deceive you, and you are there to find him out. But what are you to do with the friend of your host's wife? Are you to turn on a light suddenly and expose her slapping a surreptitious banjo? Or are you to hurl cochineal over her evening frock when she steals round with her phosphorus bottle and her supernatural platitude? There would be a scene, and you would be looked upon as a brute. So you have your choice of being that or a dupe. I was in no very good humor as I followed Wilson to the lady.
Any one less like my idea of a West Indian could not be imagined. She was a small, frail creature, well over forty, I should say, with a pale, peaky face, and hair of a very light shade of chestnut. Her presence was insignificant and her manner retiring. In any group of ten women she would have been the last whom one would have picked out. Her eyes were perhaps her most remarkable, and also, I am compelled to say, her least pleasant, feature. They were gray in color,—gray with a shade of green,— and their expression struck me as being decidedly furtive. I wonder if furtive is the word, or should I have said fierce? On second thoughts, feline would have expressed it better. A crutch leaning against the wall told me what was painfully evident when she rose: that one of her legs was crippled.
So I was introduced to Miss Penclosa, and it did not escape me that as my name was mentioned she glanced across at Agatha. Wilson had evidently been talking. And presently, no doubt, thought I, she will inform me by occult means that I am engaged to a young lady with wheat-ears in her hair. I wondered how much more Wilson had been telling her about me.
"Professor Gilroy is a terrible sceptic," said he; "I hope, Miss Penclosa, that you will be able to convert him."
She looked keenly up at me.
"Professor Gilroy is quite right to be sceptical if he has not seen any thing convincing," said she. "I should have thought," she added, "that you would yourself have been an excellent subject."
"For what, may I ask?" said I.
"Well, for mesmerism, for example."
"My experience has been that mesmerists go for their subjects to those who are mentally unsound. All their results are vitiated, as it seems to me, by the fact that they are dealing with abnormal organisms."
"Which of these ladies would you say possessed a normal organism?" she asked. "I should like you to select the one who seems to you to have the best balanced mind. Should we say the girl in pink and white?—Miss Agatha Marden, I think the name is."
"Yes, I should attach weight to any results from her."
"I have never tried how far she is impressionable. Of course some people respond much more rapidly than others. May I ask how far your scepticism extends? I suppose that you admit the mesmeric sleep and the power of suggestion."
"I admit nothing, Miss Penclosa."
"Dear me, I thought science had got further than that. Of course I know nothing about the scientific side of it. I only know what I can do. You see the girl in red, for example, over near the Japanese jar. I shall will that she come across to us."
She bent forward as she spoke and dropped her fan upon the floor. The girl whisked round and came straight toward us, with an enquiring look upon her face, as if some one had called her.
"What do you think of that, Gilroy?" cried Wilson, in a kind of ecstasy.
I did not dare to tell him what I thought of it. To me it was the most barefaced, shameless piece of imposture that I had ever witnessed. The collusion and the signal had really been too obvious.
"Professor Gilroy is not satisfied," said she, glancing up at me with her strange little eyes. "My poor fan is to get the credit of that experiment. Well, we must try something else. Miss Marden, would you have any objection to my putting you off?"
"Oh, I should love it!" cried Agatha.
By this time all the company had gathered round us in a circle, the shirt-fronted men, and the white-throated women, some awed, some critical, as though it were something between a religious ceremony and a conjurer's entertainment. A red velvet arm-chair had been pushed into the centre, and Agatha lay back in it, a little flushed and trembling slightly from excitement. I could see it from the vibration of the wheat-ears. Miss Penclosa rose from her seat and stood over her, leaning upon her crutch.
And there was a change in the woman. She no longer seemed small or insignificant. Twenty years were gone from her age. Her eyes were shining, a tinge of color had come into her sallow cheeks, her whole figure had expanded. So I have seen a dull-eyed, listless lad change in an instant into briskness and life when given a task of which he felt himself master. She looked down at Agatha with an expression which I resented from the bottom of my soul—the expression with which a Roman empress might have looked at her kneeling slave. Then with a quick, commanding gesture she tossed up her arms and swept them slowly down in front of her.
I was watching Agatha narrowly. During three passes she seemed to be simply amused. At the fourth I observed a slight glazing of her eyes, accompanied by some dilation of her pupils. At the sixth there was a momentary rigor. At the seventh her lids began to droop. At the tenth her eyes were closed, and her breathing was slower and fuller than usual. I tried as I watched to preserve my scientific calm, but a foolish, causeless agitation convulsed me. I trust that I hid it, but I felt as a child feels in the dark. I could not have believed that I was still open to such weakness.
"She is in the trance," said Miss Penclosa.
"She is sleeping!" I cried.
"Wake her, then!"
I pulled her by the arm and shouted in her ear. She might have been dead for all the impression that I could make. Her body was there on the velvet chair. Her organs were acting—her heart, her lungs. But her soul! It had slipped from beyond our ken. Whither had it gone? What power had dispossessed it? I was puzzled and disconcerted.
"So much for the mesmeric sleep," said Miss Penclosa. "As regards suggestion, whatever I may suggest Miss Marden will infallibly do, whether it be now or after she has awakened from her trance. Do you demand proof of it?"
"Certainly," said I.
"You shall have it." I saw a smile pass over her face, as though an amusing thought had struck her. She stooped and whispered earnestly into her subject's ear. Agatha, who had been so deaf to me, nodded her head as she listened.
"Awake!" cried Miss Penclosa, with a sharp tap of her crutch upon the floor. The eyes opened, the glazing cleared slowly away, and the soul looked out once more after its strange eclipse.
We went away early. Agatha was none the worse for her strange excursion, but I was nervous and unstrung, unable to listen to or answer the stream of comments which Wilson was pouring out for my benefit. As I bade her good-night Miss Penclosa slipped a piece of paper into my hand.
"Pray forgive me," said she, "if I take means to overcome your scepticism. Open this note at ten o'clock to-morrow morning. It is a little private test."
I can't imagine what she means, but there is the note, and it shall be opened as she directs. My head is aching, and I have written enough for to-night. To-morrow I dare say that what seems so inexplicable will take quite another complexion. I shall not surrender my convictions without a struggle.
March 25. I am amazed, confounded. It is clear that I must reconsider my opinion upon this matter. But first let me place on record what has occurred.
I had finished breakfast, and was looking over some diagrams with which my lecture is to be illustrated, when my housekeeper entered to tell me that Agatha was in my study and wished to see me immediately. I glanced at the clock and saw with sun rise that it was only half-past nine.
When I entered the room, she was standing on the hearth-rug facing me. Something in her pose chilled me and checked the words which were rising to my lips. Her veil was half down, but I could see that she was pale and that her expression was constrained.
"Austin," she said, "I have come to tell you that our engagement is at an end."
I staggered. I believe that I literally did stagger. I know that I found myself leaning against the bookcase for support.
"But—but—" I stammered. "This is very sudden, Agatha."
"Yes, Austin, I have come here to tell you that our engagement is at an end."
"But surely," I cried, "you will give me some reason! This is unlike you, Agatha. Tell me how I have been unfortunate enough to offend you."
"It is all over, Austin."
"But why? You must be under some delusion, Agatha. Perhaps you have been told some falsehood about me. Or you may have misunderstood something that I have said to you. Only let me know what it is, and a word may set it all right."
"We must consider it all at an end."
"But you left me last night without a hint at any disagreement. What could have occurred in the interval to change you so? It must have been something that happened last night. You have been thinking it over and you have disapproved of my conduct. Was it the mesmerism? Did you blame me for letting that woman exercise her power over you? You know that at the least sign I should have interfered."
"It is useless, Austin. All is over:"
Her voice was cold and measured; her manner strangely formal and hard. It seemed to me that she was absolutely resolved not to be drawn into any argument or explanation. As for me, I was shaking with agitation, and I turned my face aside, so ashamed was I that she should see my want of control.
"You must know what this means to me!" I cried. "It is the blasting of all my hopes and the ruin of my life! You surely will not inflict such a punishment upon me unheard. You will let me know what is the matter. Consider how impossible it would be for me, under any circumstances, to treat you so. For God's sake, Agatha, let me know what I have done!"
She walked past me without a word and opened the door.
"It is quite useless, Austin," said she. "You must consider our engagement at an end." An instant later she was gone, and, before I could recover myself sufficiently to follow her, I heard the hall-door close behind her.
I rushed into my room to change my coat, with the idea of hurrying round to Mrs. Marden's to learn from her what the cause of my misfortune might be. So shaken was I that I could hardly lace my boots. Never shall I forget those horrible ten minutes. I had just pulled on my overcoat when the clock upon the mantel-piece struck ten.
Ten! I associated the idea with Miss Penclosa's note. It was lying before me on the table, and I tore it open. It was scribbled in pencil in a peculiarly angular handwriting.
"MY DEAR PROFESSOR GILROY [it said]: Pray excuse the personal nature of the test which I am giving you. Professor Wilson happened to mention the relations between you and my subject of this evening, and it struck me that nothing could be more convincing to you than if I were to suggest to Miss Marden that she should call upon you at half-past nine to-morrow morning and suspend your engagement for half an hour or so. Science is so exacting that it is difficult to give a satisfying test, but I am convinced that this at least will be an action which she would be most unlikely to do of her own free will. Forget any thing that she may have said, as she has really nothing whatever to do with it, and will certainly not recollect any thing about it. I write this note to shorten your anxiety, and to beg you to forgive me for the momentary unhappiness which my suggestion must have caused you. "Yours faithfully; "HELEN PENCLOSA.
Really, when I had read the note, I was too relieved to be angry. It was a liberty. Certainly it was a very great liberty indeed on the part of a lady whom I had only met once. But, after all, I had challenged her by my scepticism. It may have been, as she said, a little difficult to devise a test which would satisfy me.
And she had done that. There could be no question at all upon the point. For me hypnotic suggestion was finally established. It took its place from now onward as one of the facts of life. That Agatha, who of all women of my acquaintance has the best balanced mind, had been reduced to a condition of automatism appeared to be certain. A person at a distance had worked her as an engineer on the shore might guide a Brennan torpedo. A second soul had stepped in, as it were, had pushed her own aside, and had seized her nervous mechanism, saying: "I will work this for half an hour." And Agatha must have been unconscious as she came and as she returned. Could she make her way in safety through the streets in such a state? I put on my hat and hurried round to see if all was well with her.
Yes. She was at home. I was shown into the drawing-room and found her sitting with a book upon her lap.
"You are an early visitor, Austin," said she, smiling.
"And you have been an even earlier one," I answered.
She looked puzzled. "What do you mean?" she asked.
"You have not been out to-day?"
"No, certainly not."
"Agatha," said I seriously, "would you mind telling me exactly what you have done this morning?"
She laughed at my earnestness.
"You've got on your professional look, Austin. See what comes of being engaged to a man of science. However, I will tell you, though I can't imagine what you want to know for. I got up at eight. I breakfasted at half-past. I came into this room at ten minutes past nine and began to read the 'Memoirs of Mme. de Remusat.' In a few minutes I did the French lady the bad compliment of dropping to sleep over her pages, and I did you, sir, the very flattering one of dreaming about you. It is only a few minutes since I woke up."
"And found yourself where you had been before?"
"Why, where else should I find myself?"
"Would you mind telling me, Agatha, what it was that you dreamed about me? It really is not mere curiosity on my part."
"I merely had a vague impression that you came into it. I cannot recall any thing definite."
"If you have not been out to-day, Agatha, how is it that your shoes are dusty?"
A pained look came over her face.
"Really, Austin, I do not know what is the matter with you this morning. One would almost think that you doubted my word. If my boots are dusty, it must be, of course, that I have put on a pair which the maid had not cleaned."
It was perfectly evident that she knew nothing whatever about the matter, and I reflected that, after all, perhaps it was better that I should not enlighten her. It might frighten her, and could serve no good purpose that I could see. I said no more about it, therefore, and left shortly afterward to give my lecture.
But I am immensely impressed. My horizon of scientific possibilities has suddenly been enormously extended. I no longer wonder at Wilson's demonic energy and enthusiasm. Who would not work hard who had a vast virgin field ready to his hand? Why, I have known the novel shape of a nucleolus, or a trifling peculiarity of striped muscular fibre seen under a 300-diameter lens, fill me with exultation. How petty do such researches seem when compared with this one which strikes at the very roots of life and the nature of the soul! I had always looked upon spirit as a product of matter. The brain, I thought, secreted the mind, as the liver does the bile. But how can this be when I see mind working from a distance and playing upon matter as a musician might upon a violin? The body does not give rise to the soul, then, but is rather the rough instrument by which the spirit manifests itself. The windmill does not give rise to the wind, but only indicates it. It was opposed to my whole habit of thought, and yet it was undeniably possible and worthy of investigation.
And why should I not investigate it? I see that under yesterday's date I said: "If I could see something positive and objective, I might be tempted to approach it from the physiological aspect." Well, I have got my test. I shall be as good as my word. The investigation would, I am sure, be of immense interest. Some of my colleagues might look askance at it, for science is full of unreasoning prejudices, but if Wilson has the courage of his convictions, I can afford to have it also. I shall go to him to-morrow morning—to him and to Miss Penclosa. If she can show us so much, it is probable that she can show us more.
March 26. Wilson was, as I had anticipated, very exultant over my conversion, and Miss Penclosa was also demurely pleased at the result of her experiment. Strange what a silent, colorless creature she is save only when she exercises her power! Even talking about it gives her color and life. She seems to take a singular interest in me. I cannot help observing how her eyes follow me about the room.
We had the most interesting conversation about her own powers. It is just as well to put her views on record, though they cannot, of course, claim any scientific weight.
"You are on the very fringe of the subject," said she, when I had expressed wonder at the remarkable instance of suggestion which she had shown me. "I had no direct influence upon Miss Marden when she came round to you. I was not even thinking of her that morning. What I did was to set her mind as I might set the alarum of a clock so that at the hour named it would go off of its own accord. If six months instead of twelve hours had been suggested, it would have been the same."
"And if the suggestion had been to assassinate me?"
"She would most inevitably have done so."
"But this is a terrible power!" I cried.
"It is, as you say, a terrible power," she answered gravely, "and the more you know of it the more terrible will it seem to you."
"May I ask," said I, "what you meant when you said that this matter of suggestion is only at the fringe of it? What do you consider the essential?"
"I had rather not tell you."
I was surprised at the decision of her answer.
"You understand," said I, "that it is not out of curiosity I ask, but in the hope that I may find some scientific explanation for the facts with which you furnish me."
"Frankly, Professor Gilroy," said she, "I am not at all interested in science, nor do I care whether it can or cannot classify these powers."
"But I was hoping—"
"Ah, that is quite another thing. If you make it a personal matter," said she, with the pleasantest of smiles, "I shall be only too happy to tell you any thing you wish to know. Let me see; what was it you asked me? Oh, about the further powers. Professor Wilson won't believe in them, but they are quite true all the same. For example, it is possible for an operator to gain complete command over his subject—presuming that the latter is a good one. Without any previous suggestion he may make him do whatever he likes."
"Without the subject's knowledge?"
"That depends. If the force were strongly exerted, he would know no more about it than Miss Marden did when she came round and frightened you so. Or, if the influence was less powerful, he might be conscious of what he was doing, but be quite unable to prevent himself from doing it."
"Would he have lost his own will power, then?"
"It would be over-ridden by another stronger one."
"Have you ever exercised this power yourself?"
"Is your own will so strong, then?"
"Well, it does not entirely depend upon that. Many have strong wills which are not detachable from themselves. The thing is to have the gift of projecting it into another person and superseding his own. I find that the power varies with my own strength and health."
"Practically, you send your soul into another person's body."
"Well, you might put it that way."
"And what does your own body do?"
"It merely feels lethargic."
"Well, but is there no danger to your own health?" I asked.
"There might be a little. You have to be careful never to let your own consciousness absolutely go; otherwise, you might experience some difficulty in finding your way back again. You must always preserve the connection, as it were. I am afraid I express myself very badly, Professor Gilroy, but of course I don't know how to put these things in a scientific way. I am just giving you my own experiences and my own explanations."
Well, I read this over now at my leisure, and I marvel at myself! Is this Austin Gilroy, the man who has won his way to the front by his hard reasoning power and by his devotion to fact? Here I am gravely retailing the gossip of a woman who tells me how her soul may be projected from her body, and how, while she lies in a lethargy, she can control the actions of people at a distance. Do I accept it? Certainly not. She must prove and re-prove before I yield a point. But if I am still a sceptic, I have at least ceased to be a scoffer. We are to have a sitting this evening, and she is to try if she can produce any mesmeric effect upon me. If she can, it will make an excellent starting-point for our investigation. No one can accuse me, at any rate, of complicity. If she cannot, we must try and find some subject who will be like Caesar's wife. Wilson is perfectly impervious.
10 P.M. I believe that I am on the threshold of an epoch-making investigation. To have the power of examining these phenomena from inside —to have an organism which will respond, and at the same time a brain which will appreciate and criticise—that is surely a unique advantage. I am quite sure that Wilson would give five years of his life to be as susceptible as I have proved myself to be.
There was no one present except Wilson and his wife. I was seated with my head leaning back, and Miss Penclosa, standing in front and a little to the left, used the same long, sweeping strokes as with Agatha. At each of them a warm current of air seemed to strike me, and to suffuse a thrill and glow all through me from head to foot. My eyes were fixed upon Miss Penclosa's face, but as I gazed the features seemed to blur and to fade away. I was conscious only of her own eyes looking down at me, gray, deep, inscrutable. Larger they grew and larger, until they changed suddenly into two mountain lakes toward which I seemed to be falling with horrible rapidity. I shuddered, and as I did so some deeper stratum of thought told me that the shudder represented the rigor which I had observed in Agatha. An instant later I struck the surface of the lakes, now joined into one, and down I went beneath the water with a fulness in my head and a buzzing in my ears. Down I went, down, down, and then with a swoop up again until I could see the light streaming brightly through the green water. I was almost at the surface when the word "Awake!" rang through my head, and, with a start, I found myself back in the arm-chair, with Miss Penclosa leaning on her crutch, and Wilson, his note book in his hand, peeping over her shoulder. No heaviness or weariness was left behind. On the contrary, though it is only an hour or so since the experiment, I feel so wakeful that I am more inclined for my study than my bedroom. I see quite a vista of interesting experiments extending before us, and am all impatience to begin upon them.
March 27. A blank day, as Miss Penclosa goes with Wilson and his wife to the Suttons'. Have begun Binet and Ferre's "Animal Magnetism." What strange, deep waters these are! Results, results, results—and the cause an absolute mystery. It is stimulating to the imagination, but I must be on my guard against that. Let us have no inferences nor deductions, and nothing but solid facts. I KNOW that the mesmeric trance is true; I KNOW that mesmeric suggestion is true; I KNOW that I am myself sensitive to this force. That is my present position. I have a large new note-book which shall be devoted entirely to scientific detail.
Long talk with Agatha and Mrs. Marden in the evening about our marriage. We think that the summer vac. (the beginning of it) would be the best time for the wedding. Why should we delay? I grudge even those few months. Still, as Mrs. Marden says, there are a good many things to be arranged.
March 28. Mesmerized again by Miss Penclosa. Experience much the same as before, save that insensibility came on more quickly. See Note-book A for temperature of room, barometric pressure, pulse, and respiration as taken by Professor Wilson.
March 29. Mesmerized again. Details in Note-book A.
March 30. Sunday, and a blank day. I grudge any interruption of our experiments. At present they merely embrace the physical signs which go with slight, with complete, and with extreme insensibility. Afterward we hope to pass on to the phenomena of suggestion and of lucidity. Professors have demonstrated these things upon women at Nancy and at the Salpetriere. It will be more convincing when a woman demonstrates it upon a professor, with a second professor as a witness. And that I should be the subject—I, the sceptic, the materialist! At least, I have shown that my devotion to science is greater than to my own personal consistency. The eating of our own words is the greatest sacrifice which truth ever requires of us.
My neighbor, Charles Sadler, the handsome young demonstrator of anatomy, came in this evening to return a volume of Virchow's "Archives" which I had lent him. I call him young, but, as a matter of fact, he is a year older than I am.
"I understand, Gilroy," said he, "that you are being experimented upon by Miss Penclosa."
"Well," he went on, when I had acknowledged it, "if I were you, I should not let it go any further. You will think me very impertinent, no doubt, but, none the less, I feel it to be my duty to advise you to have no more to do with her."
Of course I asked him why.
"I am so placed that I cannot enter into particulars as freely as I could wish," said he. "Miss Penclosa is the friend of my friend, and my position is a delicate one. I can only say this: that I have myself been the subject of some of the woman's experiments, and that they have left a most unpleasant impression upon my mind."
He could hardly expect me to be satisfied with that, and I tried hard to get something more definite out of him, but without success. Is it conceivable that he could be jealous at my having superseded him? Or is he one of those men of science who feel personally injured when facts run counter to their preconceived opinions? He cannot seriously suppose that because he has some vague grievance I am, therefore, to abandon a series of experiments which promise to be so fruitful of results. He appeared to be annoyed at the light way in which I treated his shadowy warnings, and we parted with some little coldness on both sides.
March 31. Mesmerized by Miss P.
April 1. Mesmerized by Miss P. (Note-book A.)
April 2. Mesmerized by Miss P. (Sphygmographic chart taken by Professor Wilson.)
April 3. It is possible that this course of mesmerism may be a little trying to the general constitution. Agatha says that I am thinner and darker under the eyes. I am conscious of a nervous irritability which I had not observed in myself before. The least noise, for example, makes me start, and the stupidity of a student causes me exasperation instead of amusement. Agatha wishes me to stop, but I tell her that every course of study is trying, and that one can never attain a result with out paying some price for it. When she sees the sensation which my forthcoming paper on "The Relation between Mind and Matter" may make, she will understand that it is worth a little nervous wear and tear. I should not be surprised if I got my F. R. S. over it.
Mesmerized again in the evening. The effect is produced more rapidly now, and the subjective visions are less marked. I keep full notes of each sitting. Wilson is leaving for town for a week or ten days, but we shall not interrupt the experiments, which depend for their value as much upon my sensations as on his observations.
April 4. I must be carefully on my guard. A complication has crept into our experiments which I had not reckoned upon. In my eagerness for scientific facts I have been foolishly blind to the human relations between Miss Penclosa and myself. I can write here what I would not breathe to a living soul. The unhappy woman appears to have formed an attachment for me.
I should not say such a thing, even in the privacy of my own intimate journal, if it had not come to such a pass that it is impossible to ignore it. For some time,—that is, for the last week,—there have been signs which I have brushed aside and refused to think of. Her brightness when I come, her dejection when I go, her eagerness that I should come often, the expression of her eyes, the tone of her voice—I tried to think that they meant nothing, and were, perhaps, only her ardent West Indian manner. But last night, as I awoke from the mesmeric sleep, I put out my hand, unconsciously, involuntarily, and clasped hers. When I came fully to myself, we were sitting with them locked, she looking up at me with an expectant smile. And the horrible thing was that I felt impelled to say what she expected me to say. What a false wretch I should have been! How I should have loathed myself to-day had I yielded to the temptation of that moment! But, thank God, I was strong enough to spring up and hurry from the room. I was rude, I fear, but I could not, no, I COULD not, trust myself another moment. I, a gentleman, a man of honor, engaged to one of the sweetest girls in England—and yet in a moment of reasonless passion I nearly professed love for this woman whom I hardly know. She is far older than myself and a cripple. It is monstrous, odious; and yet the impulse was so strong that, had I stayed another minute in her presence, I should have committed myself. What was it? I have to teach others the workings of our organism, and what do I know of it myself? Was it the sudden upcropping of some lower stratum in my nature—a brutal primitive instinct suddenly asserting itself? I could almost believe the tales of obsession by evil spirits, so overmastering was the feeling.
Well, the incident places me in a most unfortunate position. On the one hand, I am very loath to abandon a series of experiments which have already gone so far, and which promise such brilliant results. On the other, if this unhappy woman has conceived a passion for me—But surely even now I must have made some hideous mistake. She, with her age and her deformity! It is impossible. And then she knew about Agatha. She understood how I was placed. She only smiled out of amusement, perhaps, when in my dazed state I seized her hand. It was my half-mesmerized brain which gave it a meaning, and sprang with such bestial swiftness to meet it. I wish I could persuade myself that it was indeed so. On the whole, perhaps, my wisest plan would be to postpone our other experiments until Wilson's return. I have written a note to Miss Penclosa, therefore, making no allusion to last night, but saying that a press of work would cause me to interrupt our sittings for a few days. She has answered, formally enough, to say that if I should change my mind I should find her at home at the usual hour.
10 P.M. Well, well, what a thing of straw I am! I am coming to know myself better of late, and the more I know the lower I fall in my own estimation. Surely I was not always so weak as this. At four o'clock I should have smiled had any one told me that I should go to Miss Penclosa's to-night, and yet, at eight, I was at Wilson's door as usual. I don't know how it occurred. The influence of habit, I suppose. Perhaps there is a mesmeric craze as there is an opium craze, and I am a victim to it. I only know that as I worked in my study I became more and more uneasy. I fidgeted. I worried. I could not concentrate my mind upon the papers in front of me. And then, at last, almost before I knew what I was doing, I seized my hat and hurried round to keep my usual appointment.
We had an interesting evening. Mrs. Wilson was present during most of the time, which prevented the embarrassment which one at least of us must have felt. Miss Penclosa's manner was quite the same as usual, and she expressed no surprise at my having come in spite of my note. There was nothing in her bearing to show that yesterday's incident had made any impression upon her, and so I am inclined to hope that I overrated it.
April 6 (evening). No, no, no, I did not overrate it. I can no longer attempt to conceal from myself that this woman has conceived a passion for me. It is monstrous, but it is true. Again, tonight, I awoke from the mesmeric trance to find my hand in hers, and to suffer that odious feeling which urges me to throw away my honor, my career, every thing, for the sake of this creature who, as I can plainly see when I am away from her influence, possesses no single charm upon earth. But when I am near her, I do not feel this. She rouses something in me, something evil, something I had rather not think of. She paralyzes my better nature, too, at the moment when she stimulates my worse. Decidedly it is not good for me to be near her.
Last night was worse than before. Instead of flying I actually sat for some time with my hand in hers talking over the most intimate subjects with her. We spoke of Agatha, among other things. What could I have been dreaming of? Miss Penclosa said that she was conventional, and I agreed with her. She spoke once or twice in a disparaging way of her, and I did not protest. What a creature I have been!
Weak as I have proved myself to be, I am still strong enough to bring this sort of thing to an end. It shall not happen again. I have sense enough to fly when I cannot fight. From this Sunday night onward I shall never sit with Miss Penclosa again. Never! Let the experiments go, let the research come to an end; any thing is better than facing this monstrous temptation which drags me so low. I have said nothing to Miss Penclosa, but I shall simply stay away. She can tell the reason without any words of mine.
April 7. Have stayed away as I said. It is a pity to ruin such an interesting investigation, but it would be a greater pity still to ruin my life, and I KNOW that I cannot trust myself with that woman.
11 P.M. God help me! What is the matter with me? Am I going mad? Let me try and be calm and reason with myself. First of all I shall set down exactly what occurred.
It was nearly eight when I wrote the lines with which this day begins. Feeling strangely restless and uneasy, I left my rooms and walked round to spend the evening with Agatha and her mother. They both remarked that I was pale and haggard. About nine Professor Pratt-Haldane came in, and we played a game of whist. I tried hard to concentrate my attention upon the cards, but the feeling of restlessness grew and grew until I found it impossible to struggle against it. I simply COULD not sit still at the table. At last, in the very middle of a hand, I threw my cards down and, with some sort of an incoherent apology about having an appointment, I rushed from the room. As if in a dream I have a vague recollection of tearing through the hall, snatching my hat from the stand, and slamming the door behind me. As in a dream, too, I have the impression of the double line of gas-lamps, and my bespattered boots tell me that I must have run down the middle of the road. It was all misty and strange and unnatural. I came to Wilson's house; I saw Mrs. Wilson and I saw Miss Penclosa. I hardly recall what we talked about, but I do remember that Miss P. shook the head of her crutch at me in a playful way, and accused me of being late and of losing interest in our experiments. There was no mesmerism, but I stayed some time and have only just returned.
My brain is quite clear again now, and I can think over what has occurred. It is absurd to suppose that it is merely weakness and force of habit. I tried to explain it in that way the other night, but it will no longer suffice. It is something much deeper and more terrible than that. Why, when I was at the Mardens' whist-table, I was dragged away as if the noose of a rope had been cast round me. I can no longer disguise it from myself. The woman has her grip upon me. I am in her clutch. But I must keep my head and reason it out and see what is best to be done.
But what a blind fool I have been! In my enthusiasm over my research I have walked straight into the pit, although it lay gaping before me. Did she not herself warn me? Did she not tell me, as I can read in my own journal, that when she has acquired power over a subject she can make him do her will? And she has acquired that power over me. I am for the moment at the beck and call of this creature with the crutch. I must come when she wills it. I must do as she wills. Worst of all, I must feel as she wills. I loathe her and fear her, yet, while I am under the spell, she can doubtless make me love her.
There is some consolation in the thought, then, that those odious impulses for which I have blamed myself do not really come from me at all. They are all transferred from her, little as I could have guessed it at the time. I feel cleaner and lighter for the thought.
April 8. Yes, now, in broad daylight, writing coolly and with time for reflection, I am compelled to confirm every thing which I wrote in my journal last night. I am in a horrible position, but, above all, I must not lose my head. I must pit my intellect against her powers. After all, I am no silly puppet, to dance at the end of a string. I have energy, brains, courage. For all her devil's tricks I may beat her yet. May! I MUST, or what is to become of me?
Let me try to reason it out! This woman, by her own explanation, can dominate my nervous organism. She can project herself into my body and take command of it. She has a parasite soul; yes, she is a parasite, a monstrous parasite. She creeps into my frame as the hermit crab does into the whelk's shell. I am powerless What can I do? I am dealing with forces of which I know nothing. And I can tell no one of my trouble. They would set me down as a madman. Certainly, if it got noised abroad, the university would say that they had no need of a devil-ridden professor. And Agatha! No, no, I must face it alone.
I read over my notes of what the woman said when she spoke about her powers. There is one point which fills me with dismay. She implies that when the influence is slight the subject knows what he is doing, but cannot control himself, whereas when it is strongly exerted he is absolutely unconscious. Now, I have always known what I did, though less so last night than on the previous occasions. That seems to mean that she has never yet exerted her full powers upon me. Was ever a man so placed before?
Yes, perhaps there was, and very near me, too. Charles Sadler must know something of this! His vague words of warning take a meaning now. Oh, if I had only listened to him then, before I helped by these repeated sittings to forge the links of the chain which binds me! But I will see him to-day. I will apologize to him for having treated his warning so lightly. I will see if he can advise me.
4 P.M. No, he cannot. I have talked with him, and he showed such surprise at the first words in which I tried to express my unspeakable secret that I went no further. As far as I can gather (by hints and inferences rather than by any statement), his own experience was limited to some words or looks such as I have myself endured. His abandonment of Miss Penclosa is in itself a sign that he was never really in her toils. Oh, if he only knew his escape! He has to thank his phlegmatic Saxon temperament for it. I am black and Celtic, and this hag's clutch is deep in my nerves. Shall I ever get it out? Shall I ever be the same man that I was just one short fortnight ago?
Let me consider what I had better do. I cannot leave the university in the middle of the term. If I were free, my course would be obvious. I should start at once and travel in Persia. But would she allow me to start? And could her influence not reach me in Persia, and bring me back to within touch of her crutch? I can only find out the limits of this hellish power by my own bitter experience. I will fight and fight and fight—and what can I do more?
I know very well that about eight o'clock to-night that craving for her society, that irresistible restlessness, will come upon me. How shall I overcome it? What shall I do? I must make it impossible for me to leave the room. I shall lock the door and throw the key out of the window. But, then, what am I to do in the morning? Never mind about the morning. I must at all costs break this chain which holds me.
April 9. Victory! I have done splendidly! At seven o'clock last night I took a hasty dinner, and then locked myself up in my bedroom and dropped the key into the garden. I chose a cheery novel, and lay in bed for three hours trying to read it, but really in a horrible state of trepidation, expecting every instant that I should become conscious of the impulse. Nothing of the sort occurred, however, and I awoke this morning with the feeling that a black nightmare had been lifted off me. Perhaps the creature realized what I had done, and understood that it was useless to try to influence me. At any rate, I have beaten her once, and if I can do it once, I can do it again.
It was most awkward about the key in the morning. Luckily, there was an under-gardener below, and I asked him to throw it up. No doubt he thought I had just dropped it. I will have doors and windows screwed up and six stout men to hold me down in my bed before I will surrender myself to be hag-ridden in this way.
I had a note from Mrs. Marden this afternoon asking me to go round and see her. I intended to do so in any case, but had not excepted to find bad news waiting for me. It seems that the Armstrongs, from whom Agatha has expectations, are due home from Adelaide in the Aurora, and that they have written to Mrs. Marden and her to meet them in town. They will probably be away for a month or six weeks, and, as the Aurora is due on Wednesday, they must go at once—to-morrow, if they are ready in time. My consolation is that when we meet again there will be no more parting between Agatha and me.
"I want you to do one thing, Agatha," said I, when we were alone together. "If you should happen to meet Miss Penclosa, either in town or here, you must promise me never again to allow her to mesmerize you."
Agatha opened her eyes.
"Why, it was only the other day that you were saying how interesting it all was, and how determined you were to finish your experiments."
"I know, but I have changed my mind since then."
"And you won't have it any more?"
"I am so glad, Austin. You can't think how pale and worn you have been lately. It was really our principal objection to going to London now that we did not wish to leave you when you were so pulled down. And your manner has been so strange occasionally—especially that night when you left poor Professor Pratt-Haldane to play dummy. I am convinced that these experiments are very bad for your nerves."
"I think so, too, dear."
"And for Miss Penclosa's nerves as well. You have heard that she is ill?"
"Mrs. Wilson told us so last night. She described it as a nervous fever. Professor Wilson is coming back this week, and of course Mrs. Wilson is very anxious that Miss Penclosa should be well again then, for he has quite a programme of experiments which he is anxious to carry out."
I was glad to have Agatha's promise, for it was enough that this woman should have one of us in her clutch. On the other hand, I was disturbed to hear about Miss Penclosa's illness. It rather discounts the victory which I appeared to win last night. I remember that she said that loss of health interfered with her power. That may be why I was able to hold my own so easily. Well, well, I must take the same precautions to-night and see what comes of it. I am childishly frightened when I think of her.
April 10. All went very well last night. I was amused at the gardener's face when I had again to hail him this morning and to ask him to throw up my key. I shall get a name among the servants if this sort of thing goes on. But the great point is that I stayed in my room without the slightest inclination to leave it. I do believe that I am shaking myself clear of this incredible bond—or is it only that the woman's power is in abeyance until she recovers her strength? I can but pray for the best.
The Mardens left this morning, and the brightness seems to have gone out of the spring sunshine. And yet it is very beautiful also as it gleams on the green chestnuts opposite my windows, and gives a touch of gayety to the heavy, lichen-mottled walls of the old colleges. How sweet and gentle and soothing is Nature! Who would think that there lurked in her also such vile forces, such odious possibilities! For of course I understand that this dreadful thing which has sprung out at me is neither supernatural nor even preternatural. No, it is a natural force which this woman can use and society is ignorant of. The mere fact that it ebbs with her strength shows how entirely it is subject to physical laws. If I had time, I might probe it to the bottom and lay my hands upon its antidote. But you cannot tame the tiger when you are beneath his claws. You can but try to writhe away from him. Ah, when I look in the glass and see my own dark eyes and clear-cut Spanish face, I long for a vitriol splash or a bout of the small-pox. One or the other might have saved me from this calamity.
I am inclined to think that I may have trouble to-night. There are two things which make me fear so. One is that I met Mrs. Wilson in the street, and that she tells me that Miss Penclosa is better, though still weak. I find myself wishing in my heart that the illness had been her last. The other is that Professor Wilson comes back in a day or two, and his presence would act as a constraint upon her. I should not fear our interviews if a third person were present. For both these reasons I have a presentiment of trouble to-night, and I shall take the same precautions as before.
April 10. No, thank God, all went well last night. I really could not face the gardener again. I locked my door and thrust the key underneath it, so that I had to ask the maid to let me out in the morning. But the precaution was really not needed, for I never had any inclination to go out at all. Three evenings in succession at home! I am surely near the end of my troubles, for Wilson will be home again either today or tomorrow. Shall I tell him of what I have gone through or not? I am convinced that I should not have the slightest sympathy from him. He would look upon me as an interesting case, and read a paper about me at the next meeting of the Psychical Society, in which he would gravely discuss the possibility of my being a deliberate liar, and weigh it against the chances of my being in an early stage of lunacy. No, I shall get no comfort out of Wilson.
I am feeling wonderfully fit and well. I don't think I ever lectured with greater spirit. Oh, if I could only get this shadow off my life, how happy I should be! Young, fairly wealthy, in the front rank of my profession, engaged to a beautiful and charming girl—have I not every thing which a man could ask for? Only one thing to trouble me, but what a thing it is!
Midnight. I shall go mad. Yes, that will be the end of it. I shall go mad. I am not far from it now. My head throbs as I rest it on my hot hand. I am quivering all over like a scared horse. Oh, what a night I have had! And yet I have some cause to be satisfied also.
At the risk of becoming the laughing-stock of my own servant, I again slipped my key under the door, imprisoning myself for the night. Then, finding it too early to go to bed, I lay down with my clothes on and began to read one of Dumas's novels. Suddenly I was gripped—gripped and dragged from the couch. It is only thus that I can describe the overpowering nature of the force which pounced upon me. I clawed at the coverlet. I clung to the wood-work. I believe that I screamed out in my frenzy. It was all useless, hopeless. I MUST go. There was no way out of it. It was only at the outset that I resisted. The force soon became too overmastering for that. I thank goodness that there were no watchers there to interfere with me. I could not have answered for myself if there had been. And, besides the determination to get out, there came to me, also, the keenest and coolest judgment in choosing my means. I lit a candle and endeavored, kneeling in front of the door, to pull the key through with the feather-end of a quill pen. It was just too short and pushed it further away. Then with quiet persistence I got a paper-knife out of one of the drawers, and with that I managed to draw the key back. I opened the door, stepped into my study, took a photograph of myself from the bureau, wrote something across it, placed it in the inside pocket of my coat, and then started off for Wilson's.
It was all wonderfully clear, and yet disassociated from the rest of my life, as the incidents of even the most vivid dream might be. A peculiar double consciousness possessed me. There was the predominant alien will, which was bent upon drawing me to the side of its owner, and there was the feebler protesting personality, which I recognized as being myself, tugging feebly at the overmastering impulse as a led terrier might at its chain. I can remember recognizing these two conflicting forces, but I recall nothing of my walk, nor of how I was admitted to the house.
Very vivid, however, is my recollection of how I met Miss Penclosa. She was reclining on the sofa in the little boudoir in which our experiments had usually been carried out. Her head was rested on her hand, and a tiger-skin rug had been partly drawn over her. She looked up expectantly as I entered, and, as the lamp-light fell upon her face, I could see that she was very pale and thin, with dark hollows under her eyes. She smiled at me, and pointed to a stool beside her. It was with her left hand that she pointed, and I, running eagerly forward, seized it,—I loathe myself as I think of it, —and pressed it passionately to my lips. Then, seating myself upon the stool, and still retaining her hand, I gave her the photograph which I had brought with me, and talked and talked and talked—of my love for her, of my grief over her illness, of my joy at her recovery, of the misery it was to me to be absent a single evening from her side. She lay quietly looking down at me with imperious eyes and her provocative smile. Once I remember that she passed her hand over my hair as one caresses a dog; and it gave me pleasure—the caress. I thrilled under it. I was her slave, body and soul, and for the moment I rejoiced in my slavery.
And then came the blessed change. Never tell me that there is not a Providence! I was on the brink of perdition. My feet were on the edge. Was it a coincidence that at that very instant help should come? No, no, no; there is a Providence, and its hand has drawn me back. There is something in the universe stronger than this devil woman with her tricks. Ah, what a balm to my heart it is to think so!
As I looked up at her I was conscious of a change in her. Her face, which had been pale before, was now ghastly. Her eyes were dull, and the lids drooped heavily over them. Above all, the look of serene confidence had gone from her features. Her mouth had weakened. Her forehead had puckered. She was frightened and undecided. And as I watched the change my own spirit fluttered and struggled, trying hard to tear itself from the grip which held it— a grip which, from moment to moment, grew less secure.
"Austin," she whispered, "I have tried to do too much. I was not strong enough. I have not recovered yet from my illness. But I could not live longer without seeing you. You won't leave me, Austin? This is only a passing weakness. If you will only give me five minutes, I shall be myself again. Give me the small decanter from the table in the window."
But I had regained my soul. With her waning strength the influence had cleared away from me and left me free. And I was aggressive—bitterly, fiercely aggressive. For once at least I could make this woman understand what my real feelings toward her were. My soul was filled with a hatred as bestial as the love against which it was a reaction. It was the savage, murderous passion of the revolted serf. I could have taken the crutch from her side and beaten her face in with it. She threw her hands up, as if to avoid a blow, and cowered away from me into the corner of the settee.
"The brandy!" she gasped. "The brandy!"
I took the decanter and poured it over the roots of a palm in the window. Then I snatched the photograph from her hand and tore it into a hundred pieces.
"You vile woman," I said, "if I did my duty to society, you would never leave this room alive!"
"I love you, Austin; I love you!" she wailed.
"Yes," I cried, "and Charles Sadler before. And how many others before that?"
"Charles Sadler!" she gasped. "He has spoken to you? So, Charles Sadler, Charles Sadler!" Her voice came through her white lips like a snake's hiss.
"Yes, I know you, and others shall know you, too. You shameless creature! You knew how I stood. And yet you used your vile power to bring me to your side. You may, perhaps, do so again, but at least you will remember that you have heard me say that I love Miss Marden from the bottom of my soul, and that I loathe you, abhor you!
"The very sight of you and the sound of your voice fill me with horror and disgust. The thought of you is repulsive. That is how I feel toward you, and if it pleases you by your tricks to draw me again to your side as you have done to-night, you will at least, I should think, have little satisfaction in trying to make a lover out of a man who has told you his real opinion of you. You may put what words you will into my mouth, but you cannot help remembering—"
I stopped, for the woman's head had fallen back, and she had fainted. She could not bear to hear what I had to say to her! What a glow of satisfaction it gives me to think that, come what may, in the future she can never misunderstand my true feelings toward her. But what will occur in the future? What will she do next? I dare not think of it. Oh, if only I could hope that she will leave me alone! But when I think of what I said to her—Never mind; I have been stronger than she for once.
April 11. I hardly slept last night, and found myself in the morning so unstrung and feverish that I was compelled to ask Pratt-Haldane to do my lecture for me. It is the first that I have ever missed. I rose at mid-day, but my head is aching, my hands quivering, and my nerves in a pitiable state.
Who should come round this evening but Wilson. He has just come back from London, where he has lectured, read papers, convened meetings, exposed a medium, conducted a series of experiments on thought transference, entertained Professor Richet of Paris, spent hours gazing into a crystal, and obtained some evidence as to the passage of matter through matter. All this he poured into my ears in a single gust.
"But you!" he cried at last. "You are not looking well. And Miss Penclosa is quite prostrated to-day. How about the experiments?"
"I have abandoned them."
"Tut, tut! Why?"
"The subject seems to me to be a dangerous one."
Out came his big brown note-book.
"This is of great interest," said he. "What are your grounds for saying that it is a dangerous one? Please give your facts in chronological order, with approximate dates and names of reliable witnesses with their permanent addresses."
"First of all," I asked, "would you tell me whether you have collected any cases where the mesmerist has gained a command over the subject and has used it for evil purposes?"
"Dozens!" he cried exultantly. "Crime by suggestion—"
"I don't mean suggestion. I mean where a sudden impulse comes from a person at a distance—an uncontrollable impulse."
"Obsession!" he shrieked, in an ecstasy of delight. "It is the rarest condition. We have eight cases, five well attested. You don't mean to say—" His exultation made him hardly articulate.
"No, I don't," said I. "Good-evening! You will excuse me, but I am not very well to-night." And so at last I got rid of him, still brandishing his pencil and his note-book. My troubles may be bad to hear, but at least it is better to hug them to myself than to have myself exhibited by Wilson, like a freak at a fair. He has lost sight of human beings. Every thing to him is a case and a phenomenon. I will die before I speak to him again upon the matter.
April 12. Yesterday was a blessed day of quiet, and I enjoyed an uneventful night. Wilson's presence is a great consolation. What can the woman do now? Surely, when she has heard me say what I have said, she will conceive the same disgust for me which I have for her. She could not, no, she COULD not, desire to have a lover who had insulted her so. No, I believe I am free from her love—but how about her hate? Might she not use these powers of hers for revenge? Tut! why should I frighten myself over shadows? She will forget about me, and I shall forget about her, and all will be well.
April 13. My nerves have quite recovered their tone. I really believe that I have conquered the creature. But I must confess to living in some suspense. She is well again, for I hear that she was driving with Mrs. Wilson in the High Street in the afternoon.
April 14. I do wish I could get away from the place altogether. I shall fly to Agatha's side the very day that the term closes. I suppose it is pitiably weak of me, but this woman gets upon my nerves most terribly. I have seen her again, and I have spoken with her.
It was just after lunch, and I was smoking a cigarette in my study, when I heard the step of my servant Murray in the passage. I was languidly conscious that a second step was audible behind, and had hardly troubled myself to speculate who it might be, when suddenly a slight noise brought me out of my chair with my skin creeping with apprehension. I had never particularly observed before what sort of sound the tapping of a crutch was, but my quivering nerves told me that I heard it now in the sharp wooden clack which alternated with the muffled thud of the foot fall. Another instant and my servant had shown her in.
I did not attempt the usual conventions of society, nor did she. I simply stood with the smouldering cigarette in my hand, and gazed at her. She in her turn looked silently at me, and at her look I remembered how in these very pages I had tried to define the expression of her eyes, whether they were furtive or fierce. To-day they were fierce—coldly and inexorably so.
"Well," said she at last, "are you still of the same mind as when I saw you last?"
"I have always been of the same mind."
"Let us understand each other, Professor Gilroy," said she slowly. "I am not a very safe person to trifle with, as you should realize by now. It was you who asked me to enter into a series of experiments with you, it was you who won my affections, it was you who professed your love for me, it was you who brought me your own photograph with words of affection upon it, and, finally, it was you who on the very same evening thought fit to insult me most outrageously, addressing me as no man has ever dared to speak to me yet. Tell me that those words came from you in a moment of passion and I am prepared to forget and to forgive them. You did not mean what you said, Austin? You do not really hate me?"
I might have pitied this deformed woman—such a longing for love broke suddenly through the menace of her eyes. But then I thought of what I had gone through, and my heart set like flint.
"If ever you heard me speak of love," said I, "you know very well that it was your voice which spoke, and not mine. The only words of truth which I have ever been able to say to you are those which you heard when last we met."
"I know. Some one has set you against me. It was he!" She tapped with her crutch upon the floor. "Well, you know very well that I could bring you this instant crouching like a spaniel to my feet. You will not find me again in my hour of weakness, when you can insult me with impunity. Have a care what you are doing, Professor Gilroy. You stand in a terrible position. You have not yet realized the hold which I have upon you."
I shrugged my shoulders and turned away.
"Well," said she, after a pause, "if you despise my love, I must see what can be done with fear. You smile, but the day will come when you will come screaming to me for pardon. Yes, you will grovel on the ground before me, proud as you are, and you will curse the day that ever you turned me from your best friend into your most bitter enemy. Have a care, Professor Gilroy!" I saw a white hand shaking in the air, and a face which was scarcely human, so convulsed was it with passion. An instant later she was gone, and I heard the quick hobble and tap receding down the passage.
But she has left a weight upon my heart. Vague presentiments of coming misfortune lie heavy upon me. I try in vain to persuade myself that these are only words of empty anger. I can remember those relentless eyes too clearly to think so. What shall I do—ah, what shall I do? I am no longer master of my own soul. At any moment this loathsome parasite may creep into me, and then—I must tell some one my hideous secret—I must tell it or go mad. If I had some one to sympathize and advise! Wilson is out of the question. Charles Sadler would understand me only so far as his own experience carries him. Pratt-Haldane! He is a well-balanced man, a man of great common-sense and resource. I will go to him. I will tell him every thing. God grant that he may be able to advise me!
6.45 P.M. No, it is useless. There is no human help for me; I must fight this out single-handed. Two courses lie before me. I might become this woman's lover. Or I must endure such persecutions as she can inflict upon me. Even if none come, I shall live in a hell of apprehension. But she may torture me, she may drive me mad, she may kill me: I will never, never, never give in. What can she inflict which would be worse than the loss of Agatha, and the knowledge that I am a perjured liar, and have forfeited the name of gentleman?
Pratt-Haldane was most amiable, and listened with all politeness to my story. But when I looked at his heavy set features, his slow eyes, and the ponderous study furniture which surrounded him, I could hardly tell him what I had come to say. It was all so substantial, so material. And, besides, what would I myself have said a short month ago if one of my colleagues had come to me with a story of demonic possession? Perhaps. I should have been less patient than he was. As it was, he took notes of my statement, asked me how much tea I drank, how many hours I slept, whether I had been overworking much, had I had sudden pains in the head, evil dreams, singing in the ears, flashes before the eyes—all questions which pointed to his belief that brain congestion was at the bottom of my trouble. Finally he dismissed me with a great many platitudes about open-air exercise, and avoidance of nervous excitement. His prescription, which was for chloral and bromide, I rolled up and threw into the gutter.
No, I can look for no help from any human being. If I consult any more, they may put their heads together and I may find myself in an asylum. I can but grip my courage with both hands, and pray that an honest man may not be abandoned.
April 10. It is the sweetest spring within the memory of man. So green, so mild, so beautiful! Ah, what a contrast between nature without and my own soul so torn with doubt and terror! It has been an uneventful day, but I know that I am on the edge of an abyss. I know it, and yet I go on with the routine of my life. The one bright spot is that Agatha is happy and well and out of all danger. If this creature had a hand on each of us, what might she not do?
April 16. The woman is ingenious in her torments. She knows how fond I am of my work, and how highly my lectures are thought of. So it is from that point that she now attacks me. It will end, I can see, in my losing my professorship, but I will fight to the finish. She shall not drive me out of it without a struggle.
I was not conscious of any change during my lecture this morning save that for a minute or two I had a dizziness and swimminess which rapidly passed away. On the contrary, I congratulated myself upon having made my subject (the functions of the red corpuscles) both interesting and clear. I was surprised, therefore, when a student came into my laboratory immediately after the lecture, and complained of being puzzled by the discrepancy between my statements and those in the text books. He showed me his note-book, in which I was reported as having in one portion of the lecture championed the most outrageous and unscientific heresies. Of course I denied it, and declared that he had misunderstood me, but on comparing his notes with those of his companions, it became clear that he was right, and that I really had made some most preposterous statements. Of course I shall explain it away as being the result of a moment of aberration, but I feel only too sure that it will be the first of a series. It is but a month now to the end of the session, and I pray that I may be able to hold out until then.
April 26. Ten days have elapsed since I have had the heart to make any entry in my journal. Why should I record my own humiliation and degradation? I had vowed never to open it again. And yet the force of habit is strong, and here I find myself taking up once more the record of my own dreadful experiences—in much the same spirit in which a suicide has been known to take notes of the effects of the poison which killed him.
Well, the crash which I had foreseen has come—and that no further back than yesterday. The university authorities have taken my lectureship from me. It has been done in the most delicate way, purporting to be a temporary measure to relieve me from the effects of overwork, and to give me the opportunity of recovering my health. None the less, it has been done, and I am no longer Professor Gilroy. The laboratory is still in my charge, but I have little doubt that that also will soon go.
The fact is that my lectures had become the laughing-stock of the university. My class was crowded with students who came to see and hear what the eccentric professor would do or say next. I cannot go into the detail of my humiliation. Oh, that devilish woman! There is no depth of buffoonery and imbecility to which she has not forced me. I would begin my lecture clearly and well, but always with the sense of a coming eclipse. Then as I felt the influence I would struggle against it, striving with clenched hands and beads of sweat upon my brow to get the better of it, while the students, hearing my incoherent words and watching my contortions, would roar with laughter at the antics of their professor. And then, when she had once fairly mastered me, out would come the most outrageous things—silly jokes, sentiments as though I were proposing a toast, snatches of ballads, personal abuse even against some member of my class. And then in a moment my brain would clear again, and my lecture would proceed decorously to the end. No wonder that my conduct has been the talk of the colleges. No wonder that the University Senate has been compelled to take official notice of such a scandal. Oh, that devilish woman!
And the most dreadful part of it all is my own loneliness. Here I sit in a commonplace English bow-window, looking out upon a commonplace English street with its garish 'buses and its lounging policeman, and behind me there hangs a shadow which is out of all keeping with the age and place. In the home of knowledge I am weighed down and tortured by a power of which science knows nothing. No magistrate would listen to me. No paper would discuss my case. No doctor would believe my symptoms. My own most intimate friends would only look upon it as a sign of brain derangement. I am out of all touch with my kind. Oh, that devilish woman! Let her have a care! She may push me too far. When the law cannot help a man, he may make a law for himself.
She met me in the High Street yesterday evening and spoke to me. It was as well for her, perhaps, that it was not between the hedges of a lonely country road. She asked me with her cold smile whether I had been chastened yet. I did not deign to answer her. "We must try another turn of the screw;" said she. Have a care, my lady, have a care! I had her at my mercy once. Perhaps another chance may come.
April 28. The suspension of my lectureship has had the effect also of taking away her means of annoying me, and so I have enjoyed two blessed days of peace. After all, there is no reason to despair. Sympathy pours in to me from all sides, and every one agrees that it is my devotion to science and the arduous nature of my researches which have shaken my nervous system. I have had the kindest message from the council advising me to travel abroad, and expressing the confident hope that I may be able to resume all my duties by the beginning of the summer term. Nothing could be more flattering than their allusions to my career and to my services to the university. It is only in misfortune that one can test one's own popularity. This creature may weary of tormenting me, and then all may yet be well. May God grant it!
April 29. Our sleepy little town has had a small sensation. The only knowledge of crime which we ever have is when a rowdy undergraduate breaks a few lamps or comes to blows with a policeman. Last night, however, there was an attempt made to break-into the branch of the Bank of England, and we are all in a flutter in consequence.
Parkenson, the manager, is an intimate friend of mine, and I found him very much excited when I walked round there after breakfast. Had the thieves broken into the counting-house, they would still have had the safes to reckon with, so that the defence was considerably stronger than the attack. Indeed, the latter does not appear to have ever been very formidable. Two of the lower windows have marks as if a chisel or some such instrument had been pushed under them to force them open. The police should have a good clue, for the wood-work had been done with green paint only the day before, and from the smears it is evident that some of it has found its way on to the criminal's hands or clothes.
4.30 P.M. Ah, that accursed woman! That thrice accursed woman! Never mind! She shall not beat me! No, she shall not! But, oh, the she-devil! She has taken my professorship. Now she would take my honor. Is there nothing I can do against her, nothing save—Ah, but, hard pushed as I am, I cannot bring myself to think of that!
It was about an hour ago that I went into my bedroom, and was brushing my hair before the glass, when suddenly my eyes lit upon something which left me so sick and cold that I sat down upon the edge of the bed and began to cry. It is many a long year since I shed tears, but all my nerve was gone, and I could but sob and sob in impotent grief and anger. There was my house jacket, the coat I usually wear after dinner, hanging on its peg by the wardrobe, with the right sleeve thickly crusted from wrist to elbow with daubs of green paint.
So this was what she meant by another turn of the screw! She had made a public imbecile of me. Now she would brand me as a criminal. This time she has failed. But how about the next? I dare not think of it—and of Agatha and my poor old mother! I wish that I were dead!
Yes, this is the other turn of the screw. And this is also what she meant, no doubt, when she said that I had not realized yet the power she has over me. I look back at my account of my conversation with her, and I see how she declared that with a slight exertion of her will her subject would be conscious, and with a stronger one unconscious. Last night I was unconscious. I could have sworn that I slept soundly in my bed without so much as a dream. And yet those stains tell me that I dressed, made my way out, attempted to open the bank windows, and returned. Was I observed? Is it possible that some one saw me do it and followed me home? Ah, what a hell my life has become! I have no peace, no rest. But my patience is nearing its end.
10 P.M. I have cleaned my coat with turpentine. I do not think that any one could have seen me. It was with my screw-driver that I made the marks. I found it all crusted with paint, and I have cleaned it. My head aches as if it would burst, and I have taken five grains of antipyrine. If it were not for Agatha, I should have taken fifty and had an end of it.
May 3. Three quiet days. This hell fiend is like a cat with a mouse. She lets me loose only to pounce upon me again. I am never so frightened as when every thing is still. My physical state is deplorable—perpetual hiccough and ptosis of the left eyelid.
I have heard from the Mardens that they will be back the day after to-morrow. I do not know whether I am glad or sorry. They were safe in London. Once here they may be drawn into the miserable network in which I am myself struggling. And I must tell them of it. I cannot marry Agatha so long as I know that I am not responsible for my own actions. Yes, I must tell them, even if it brings every thing to an end between us.
To-night is the university ball, and I must go. God knows I never felt less in the humor for festivity, but I must not have it said that I am unfit to appear in public. If I am seen there, and have speech with some of the elders of the university it will go a long way toward showing them that it would be unjust to take my chair away from me.
10 P.M. I have been to the ball. Charles Sadler and I went together, but I have come away before him. I shall wait up for him, however, for, indeed, I fear to go to sleep these nights. He is a cheery, practical fellow, and a chat with him will steady my nerves. On the whole, the evening was a great success. I talked to every one who has influence, and I think that I made them realize that my chair is not vacant quite yet. The creature was at the ball—unable to dance, of course, but sitting with Mrs. Wilson. Again and again her eyes rested upon me. They were almost the last things I saw before I left the room. Once, as I sat sideways to her, I watched her, and saw that her gaze was following some one else. It was Sadler, who was dancing at the time with the second Miss Thurston. To judge by her expression, it is well for him that he is not in her grip as I am. He does not know the escape he has had. I think I hear his step in the street now, and I will go down and let him in. If he will—
May 4. Why did I break off in this way last night? I never went down stairs, after all—at least, I have no recollection of doing so. But, on the other hand, I cannot remember going to bed. One of my hands is greatly swollen this morning, and yet I have no remembrance of injuring it yesterday. Otherwise, I am feeling all the better for last night's festivity. But I cannot understand how it is that I did not meet Charles Sadler when I so fully intended to do so. Is it possible—My God, it is only too probable! Has she been leading me some devil's dance again? I will go down to Sadler and ask him.
Mid-day. The thing has come to a crisis. My life is not worth living. But, if I am to die, then she shall come also. I will not leave her behind, to drive some other man mad as she has me. No, I have come to the limit of my endurance. She has made me as desperate and dangerous a man as walks the earth. God knows I have never had the heart to hurt a fly, and yet, if I had my hands now upon that woman, she should never leave this room alive. I shall see her this very day, and she shall learn what she has to expect from me.
I went to Sadler and found him, to my surprise, in bed. As I entered he sat up and turned a face toward me which sickened me as I looked at it.
"Why, Sadler, what has happened?" I cried, but my heart turned cold as I said it.
"Gilroy," he answered, mumbling with his swollen lips, "I have for some weeks been under the impression that you are a madman. Now I know it, and that you are a dangerous one as well. If it were not that I am unwilling to make a scandal in the college, you would now be in the hands of the police."
"Do you mean—" I cried.
"I mean that as I opened the door last night you rushed out upon me, struck me with both your fists in the face, knocked me down, kicked me furiously in the side, and left me lying almost unconscious in the street. Look at your own hand bearing witness against you."
Yes, there it was, puffed up, with sponge-like knuckles, as after some terrific blow. What could I do? Though he put me down as a madman, I must tell him all. I sat by his bed and went over all my troubles from the beginning. I poured them out with quivering hands and burning words which might have carried conviction to the most sceptical. "She hates you and she hates me!" I cried. "She revenged herself last night on both of us at once. She saw me leave the ball, and she must have seen you also. She knew how long it would take you to reach home. Then she had but to use her wicked will. Ah, your bruised face is a small thing beside my bruised soul!"
He was struck by my story. That was evident. "Yes, yes, she watched me out of the room," he muttered. "She is capable of it. But is it possible that she has really reduced you to this? What do you intend to do?"
"To stop it!" I cried. "I am perfectly desperate; I shall give her fair warning to-day, and the next time will be the last."
"Do nothing rash," said he.
"Rash!" I cried. "The only rash thing is that I should postpone it another hour." With that I rushed to my room, and here I am on the eve of what may be the great crisis of my life. I shall start at once. I have gained one thing to-day, for I have made one man, at least, realize the truth of this monstrous experience of mine. And, if the worst should happen, this diary remains as a proof of the goad that has driven me.
Evening. When I came to Wilson's, I was shown up, and found that he was sitting with Miss Penclosa. For half an hour I had to endure his fussy talk about his recent research into the exact nature of the spiritualistic rap, while the creature and I sat in silence looking across the room at each other. I read a sinister amusement in her eyes, and she must have seen hatred and menace in mine. I had almost despaired of having speech with her when he was called from the room, and we were left for a few moments together.
"Well, Professor Gilroy—or is it Mr. Gilroy?" said she, with that bitter smile of hers. "How is your friend Mr. Charles Sadler after the ball?"
"You fiend!" I cried. "You have come to the end of your tricks now. I will have no more of them. Listen to what I say." I strode across and shook her roughly by the shoulder "As sure as there is a God in heaven, I swear that if you try another of your deviltries upon me I will have your life for it. Come what may, I will have your life. I have come to the end of what a man can endure."
"Accounts are not quite settled between us," said she, with a passion that equalled my own. "I can love, and I can hate. You had your choice. You chose to spurn the first; now you must test the other. It will take a little more to break your spirit, I see, but broken it shall be. Miss Marden comes back to-morrow, as I understand."
"What has that to do with you?" I cried. "It is a pollution that you should dare even to think of her. If I thought that you would harm her—"
She was frightened, I could see, though she tried to brazen it out. She read the black thought in my mind, and cowered away from me.
"She is fortunate in having such a champion," said she. "He actually dares to threaten a lonely woman. I must really congratulate Miss Marden upon her protector."
The words were bitter, but the voice and manner were more acid still.
"There is no use talking," said I. "I only came here to tell you,— and to tell you most solemnly,—that your next outrage upon me will be your last." With that, as I heard Wilson's step upon the stair, I walked from the room. Ay, she may look venomous and deadly, but, for all that, she is beginning to see now that she has as much to fear from me as I can have from her. Murder! It has an ugly sound. But you don't talk of murdering a snake or of murdering a tiger. Let her have a care now.
May 5. I met Agatha and her mother at the station at eleven o'clock. She is looking so bright, so happy, so beautiful. And she was so overjoyed to see me. What have I done to deserve such love? I went back home with them, and we lunched together. All the troubles seem in a moment to have been shredded back from my life. She tells me that I am looking pale and worried and ill. The dear child puts it down to my loneliness and the perfunctory attentions of a housekeeper. I pray that she may never know the truth! May the shadow, if shadow there must be, lie ever black across my life and leave hers in the sunshine. I have just come back from them, feeling a new man. With her by my side I think that I could show a bold face to any thing which life might send.
5 P.M. Now, let me try to be accurate. Let me try to say exactly how it occurred. It is fresh in my mind, and I can set it down correctly, though it is not likely that the time will ever come when I shall forget the doings of to-day.
I had returned from the Mardens' after lunch, and was cutting some microscopic sections in my freezing microtome, when in an instant I lost consciousness in the sudden hateful fashion which has become only too familiar to me of late.
When my senses came back to me I was sitting in a small chamber, very different from the one in which I had been working. It was cosey and bright, with chintz-covered settees, colored hangings, and a thousand pretty little trifles upon the wall. A small ornamental clock ticked in front of me, and the hands pointed to half-past three. It was all quite familiar to me, and yet I stared about for a moment in a half-dazed way until my eyes fell upon a cabinet photograph of myself upon the top of the piano. On the other side stood one of Mrs. Marden. Then, of course, I remembered where I was. It was Agatha's boudoir.
But how came I there, and what did I want? A horrible sinking came to my heart. Had I been sent here on some devilish errand? Had that errand already been done? Surely it must; otherwise, why should I be allowed to come back to consciousness? Oh, the agony of that moment! What had I done? I sprang to my feet in my despair, and as I did so a small glass bottle fell from my knees on to the carpet.
It was unbroken, and I picked it up. Outside was written "Sulphuric Acid. Fort." When I drew the round glass stopper, a thick fume rose slowly up, and a pungent, choking smell pervaded the room. I recognized it as one which I kept for chemical testing in my chambers. But why had I brought a bottle of vitriol into Agatha's chamber? Was it not this thick, reeking liquid with which jealous women had been known to mar the beauty of their rivals? My heart stood still as I held the bottle to the light. Thank God, it was full! No mischief had been done as yet. But had Agatha come in a minute sooner, was it not certain that the hellish parasite within me would have dashed the stuff into her—Ah, it will not bear to be thought of! But it must have been for that. Why else should I have brought it? At the thought of what I might have done my worn nerves broke down, and I sat shivering and twitching, the pitiable wreck of a man.
It was the sound of Agatha's voice and the rustle of her dress which restored me. I looked up, and saw her blue eyes, so full of tenderness and pity, gazing down at me.
"We must take you away to the country, Austin," she said. "You want rest and quiet. You look wretchedly ill."
"Oh, it is nothing!" said I, trying to smile. "It was only a momentary weakness. I am all right again now."
"I am so sorry to keep you waiting. Poor boy, you must have been here quite half an hour! The vicar was in the drawing-room, and, as I knew that you did not care for him, I thought it better that Jane should show you up here. I thought the man would never go!"
"Thank God he stayed! Thank God he stayed!" I cried hysterically.
"Why, what is the matter with you, Austin?" she asked, holding my arm as I staggered up from the chair. "Why are you glad that the vicar stayed? And what is this little bottle in your hand?"
"Nothing," I cried, thrusting it into my pocket. "But I must go. I have something important to do."
"How stern you look, Austin! I have never seen your face like that. You are angry?"
"Yes, I am angry."
"But not with me?"
"No, no, my darling! You would not understand."
"But you have not told me why you came."
"I came to ask you whether you would always love me—no matter what I did, or what shadow might fall on my name. Would you believe in me and trust me however black appearances might be against me?"
"You know that I would, Austin."
"Yes, I know that you would. What I do I shall do for you. I am driven to it. There is no other way out, my darling!" I kissed her and rushed from the room.
The time for indecision was at an end. As long as the creature threatened my own prospects and my honor there might be a question as to what I should do. But now, when Agatha—my innocent Agatha—was endangered, my duty lay before me like a turnpike road. I had no weapon, but I never paused for that. What weapon should I need, when I felt every muscle quivering with the strength of a frenzied man? I ran through the streets, so set upon what I had to do that I was only dimly conscious of the faces of friends whom I met—dimly conscious also that Professor Wilson met me, running with equal precipitance in the opposite direction. Breathless but resolute I reached the house and rang the bell. A white cheeked maid opened the door, and turned whiter yet when she saw the face that looked in at her.
"Show me up at once to Miss Penclosa," I demanded.
"Sir," she gasped, "Miss Penclosa died this afternoon at half-past three!"
There are many folk who knew Alphonse Lacour in his old age.From about the time of the Revolution of '48 until he died in the second year of the Crimean War he was always to be found in the same corner of the Cafe de Provence, at the end of the Rue St. Honore, coming down about nine in the evening, and going when he could find no one to talk with.It took some self-restraint to listen to the old diplomatist, for his stories were beyond all belief, and yet he was quick at detecting the shadow of a smile or the slightest little raising of the eyebrows.Then his huge, rounded back would straighten itself, his bull-dog chin would project, and his r's would burr like a kettledrum.When he got as far as, "Ah, monsieur r-r-r-rit!" or "Vous ne me cr-r-r-royez pas donc!" it was quite time to remember that you had a ticket for the opera.
There was his story of Talleyrand and the five oyster-shells, and there was his utterly absurd account of Napoleon's second visit to Ajaccio. Then there was that most circumstantial romance (which he never ventured upon until his second bottle had been uncorked) of the Emperor's escape from St. Helena—how he lived for a whole year in Philadelphia, while Count Herbert de Bertrand, who was his living image, personated him at Longwood.But of all his stories there was none which was more notorious than that of the Koran and the Foreign Office messenger.And yet when Monsieur Otto's memoirs were written it was found that there really was some foundation for old Lacour's incredible statement.
"You must know, monsieur," he would say, "that I left Egypt after Kleber's assassination.I would gladly have stayed on, for I was engaged in a translation of the Koran, and between ourselves I had thoughts at the time of embracing Mahometanism, for I was deeply struck by the wisdom of their views about marriage.They had made an incredible mistake, however, upon the subject of wine, and this was what the Mufti who attempted to convert me could never get over.Then when old Kleber died and Menou came to the top, I felt that it was time for me to go.It is not for me to speak of my own capacities, monsieur, but you will readily understand that the man does not care to be ridden by the mule.I carried my Koran and my papers to London, where Monsieur Otto had been sent by the First Consul to arrange a treaty of peace; for both nations were very weary of the war, which had already lasted ten years.Here I was most useful to Monsieur Otto on account of my knowledge of the English tongue, and also, if I may say so, on account of my natural capacity.They were happy days during which I lived in the square of Bloomsbury.The climate of monsieur's country is, it must be confessed, detestable.But then what would you have?Flowers grow best in the rain.One has but to point to monsieur's fellow country-women to prove it.
"Well, Monsieur Otto, our Ambassador, was kept terribly busy over that treaty, and all of his staff were worked to death.We had not Pitt to deal with, which was, perhaps, as well for us.He was a terrible man that Pitt, and wherever half a dozen enemies of France were plotting together, there was his sharp-pointed nose right in the middle of them. The nation, however, had been thoughtful enough to put him out of office, and we had to do with Monsieur Addington.But Milord Hawkesbury was the Foreign Minister, and it was with him that we were obliged to do our bargaining.
"You can understand that it was no child's play.After ten years of war each nation had got hold of a great deal which had belonged to the other, or to the other's allies.What was to be given back, and what was to be kept?Is this island worth that peninsula?If we do this at Venice, will you do that at Sierra Leone?If we give up Egypt to the Sultan, will you restore the Cape of Good Hope, which you have taken from our allies the Dutch?So we wrangled and wrestled, and I have seen Monsieur Otto come back to the Embassy so exhausted that his secretary and I had to help him from his carriage to his sofa.But at last things adjusted themselves, and the night came round when the treaty was to be finally signed.Now, you must know that the one great card which we held, and which we played, played, played at every point of the game, was that we had Egypt.The English were very nervous about our being there.It gave us a foot at each end of the Mediterranean, you see. And they were not sure that that wonderful little Napoleon of ours might not make it the base of an advance against India.So whenever Lord Hawkesbury proposed to retain anything, we had only to reply, 'In that case, of course, we cannot consent to evacuate Egypt,' and in this way we quickly brought him to reason.It was by the help of Egypt that we gained terms which were remarkably favourable, and especially that we caused the English to consent to give up the Cape of Good Hope.We did not wish your people, monsieur, to have any foothold in South Africa, for history has taught us that the British foothold of one half-century is the British Empire of the next.It is not your army or your navy against which we have to guard, but it is your terrible younger son and your man in search of a career.When we French have a possession across the seas, we like to sit in Paris and to felicitate ourselves upon it. With you it is different.You take your wives and your children, and you run away to see what kind of place this may be, and after that we might as well try to take that old Square of Bloomsbury away from you.
"Well, it was upon the first of October that the treaty was finally to be signed.In the morning I was congratulating Monsieur Otto upon the happy conclusion of his labours.He was a little pale shrimp of a man, very quick and nervous, and he was so delighted now at his own success that he could not sit still, but ran about the room chattering and laughing, while I sat on a cushion in the corner, as I had learned to do in the East.Suddenly, in came a messenger with a letter which had been forwarded from Paris.Monsieur Otto cast his eye upon it, and then, without a word, his knees gave way, and he fell senseless upon the floor.I ran to him, as did the courier, and between us we carried him to the sofa.He might have been dead from his appearance, but I could still feel his heart thrilling beneath my palm.'What is this, then?' I asked.
"'I do not know,' answered the messenger.'Monsieur Talleyrand told me to hurry as never man hurried before, and to put this letter into the hands of Monsieur Otto.I was in Paris at midday yesterday.'
"I know that I am to blame, but I could not help glancing at the letter, picking it out of the senseless hand of Monsieur Otto.My God! the thunderbolt that it was!I did not faint, but I sat down beside my chief and I burst into tears.It was but a few words, but they told us that Egypt had been evacuated by our troops a month before.All our treaty was undone then, and the one consideration which had induced our enemies to give us good terms had vanished.In twelve hours it would not have mattered.But now the treaty was not yet signed.We should have to give up the Cape.We should have to let England have Malta. Now that Egypt was gone we had nothing left to offer in exchange.
"But we are not so easily beaten, we Frenchmen.You English misjudge us when you think that because we show emotions which you conceal, that we are therefore of a weak and womanly nature.You cannot read your histories and believe that.Monsieur Otto recovered his senses presently, and we took counsel what we should do.
"'It is useless to go on, Alphonse,' said he.'This Englishman will laugh at me when I ask him to sign.'
"'Courage!' I cried; and then a sudden thought coming into my head— 'How do we know that the English will have news of this?Perhaps they may sign the treaty before they know of it.'
"Monsieur Otto sprang from the sofa and flung himself into my arms.
"'Alphonse,' he cried, 'you have saved me!Why should they know about it?Our news has come from Toulon to Paris, and thence straight to London.Theirs will come by sea through the Straits of Gibraltar.At this moment it is unlikely that anyone in Paris knows of it, save only Talleyrand and the First Consul.If we keep our secret, we may still get our treaty signed.'
"Ah! monsieur, you can imagine the horrible uncertainty in which we spent the day.Never, never shall I forget those slow hours during which we sat together, starting at every distant shout, lest it should be the first sign of the rejoicing which this news would cause in London.Monsieur Otto passed from youth to age in a day.As for me, I find it easier to go out and meet danger than to wait for it.I set forth, therefore, towards evening.I wandered here, and wandered there. I was in the fencing-rooms of Monsieur Angelo, and in the salon-de-boxe of Monsieur Jackson, and in the club of Brooks, and in the lobby of the Chamber of Deputies, but nowhere did I hear any news.Still, it was possible that Milord Hawkesbury had received it himself just as we had. He lived in Harley Street, and there it was that the treaty was to be finally signed that night at eight.I entreated Monsieur Otto to drink two glasses of Burgundy before he went, for I feared lest his haggard face and trembling, hands should rouse suspicion in the English minister.
"Well, we went round together in one of the Embassy's carriages about half-past seven.Monsieur Otto went in alone; but presently, on excuse of getting his portfolio, he came out again, with his cheeks flushed with joy, to tell me that all was well.
"'He knows nothing,' he whispered.'Ah, if the next half-hour were over!'
"'Give me a sign when it is settled,' said I.
"'For what reason?'
"'Because until then no messenger shall interrupt you.I give you my promise—I, Alphonse Lacour.'
"He clasped my hand in both of his.
"'I shall make an excuse to move one of the candles on to the table in the window,' said he, and hurried into the house, whilst I was left waiting beside the carriage.
"Well, if we could but secure ourselves from interruption for a single half-hour the day would be our own.I had hardly begun to form my plans when I saw the lights of a carriage coming swiftly from the direction of Oxford Street.Ah! if it should be the messenger!What could I do? I was prepared to kill him—yes, even to kill him—rather than at this last moment allow our work to be undone.Thousands die to make a glorious war.Why should not one die to make a glorious peace? What though they hurried me to the scaffold?I should have sacrificed myself for my country.I had a little curved Turkish knife strapped to my waist.My hand was on the hilt of it when the carriage which had alarmed me so rattled safely past me.
"But another might come.I must be prepared.Above all, I must not compromise the Embassy.I ordered our carriage to move on, and I engaged what you call a hackney coach.Then I spoke to the driver, and gave him a guinea.He understood that it was a special service.
"'You shall have another guinea if you do what you are told,' said I.
"'All right, master,' said he, turning his slow eyes upon me without a trace of excitement or curiosity.
"' If I enter your coachwith another gentleman, you will drive up and down Harley Street, and take no orders from anyone but me.When I get out, you will carry the other gentleman to Watier's Club, in Bruton Street.'
"'All right, master,' said he again.
"So I stood outside Milord Hawkesbury's house, and you can think how often my eyes went up to that window in the hope of seeing the candle twinkle in it.Five minutes passed, and another five.Oh, how slowly they crept along!It was a true October night, raw and cold, with a white fog crawling over the wet, shining cobblestones, and blurring the dim oil-lamps.I could not see fifty paces in either direction, but my ears were straining, straining, to catch the rattle of hoofs or the rumble of wheels.It is not a cheering place, monsieur, that street of Harley, even upon a sunny day.The houses are solid and very respectable over yonder, but there is nothing of the feminine about them.It is a city to be inhabited by males.But on that raw night, amid the damp and the fog, with the anxiety gnawing at my heart, it seemed the saddest, weariest spot in the whole wide world.I paced up and down slapping my hands to keep them warm, and still straining my ears.And then suddenly out of the dull hum of the traffic down in Oxford Street I heard a sound detach itself, and grow louder and louder, and clearer and clearer with every instant, until two yellow lights came flashing through the fog, and a light cabriolet whirled up to the door of the Foreign Minister.It had not stopped before a young fellow sprang out of it and hurried to the steps, while the driver turned his horse and rattled off into the fog once more.
"Ah, it is in the moment of action that I am best, monsieur.You, who only see me when I am drinking my wine in the Cafe de Provence, cannot conceive the heights to which I rise.At that moment, when I knew that the fruits of a ten years' war were at stake, I was magnificent.It was the last French campaign and I the general and army in one.
"'Sir," said I, touching him upon the arm, 'are you the messenger for Lord Hawkesbury?'
"'Yes,' said he.
"'I have been waiting for you half an hour,' said I.'You are to follow me at once.He is with the French Ambassador.'
"I spoke with such assurance that he never hesitated for an instant. When he entered the hackney coach and I followed him in, my heart gave such a thrill of joy that I could hardly keep from shouting aloud. He was a poor little creature, this Foreign Office messenger, not much bigger than Monsieur Otto, and I—monsieur can see my hands now, and imagine what they were like when I was seven-and-twenty years of age.
"Well, now that I had him in my coach, the question was what I should do with him.I did not wish to hurt him if I could help it.
"'This is a pressing business,' said he.'I have a despatch which I must deliver instantly.'
"Our coach had rattled down Harley Street now, in accordance with my instruction, it turned and began to go up again.
"'Hullo!' he cried.'What's this?'
"'What then?'I asked.
"'We are driving back.Where is Lord Hawkesbury?'
"'We shall see him presently.'
"'Let me out!' he shouted.'There's some trickery in this.Coachman, stop the coach!Let me out, I say!'
"I dashed him back into his seat as he tried to turn the handle of the door.He roared for help.I clapped my palm across his mouth.He made his teeth meet through the side of it.I seized his own cravat and bound it over his lips.He still mumbled and gurgled, but the noise was covered by the rattle of our wheels.We were passing the minister's house, and there was no candle in the window.
"The messenger sat quiet for a little, and I could see the glint of his eyes as he stared at me through the gloom.He was partly stunned, I think, by the force with which I had hurled him into his seat.And also he was pondering, perhaps, what he should do next.Presently he got his mouth partly free from the cravat.
"'You shall have my watch and my purse if you will let me go,' said he.
"'Sir,' said I, 'I am as honourable a man as you are yourself.'
"'Who are you, then?'
"'My name is of no importance.'
"'What do you want with me?'
"It is a bet.'
"'A bet?What d'you mean?Do you understand that I am on the Government service, and that you will see the inside of a gaol for this?'
"'That is the bet.That is the sport, said I.'
"'You may find it poor sport before you finish,' he cried.'What is this insane bet of yours then?'
"'I have bet,' I answered, 'that I will recite a chapter of the Koran to the first gentleman whom I should meet in the street.'
"I do not know what made me think of it, save that my translation was always running in my head.He clutched at the door-handle, and again I had to hurl him back into his seat.
"'How long will it take?' he gasped.
"'It depends on the chapter,' I answered.
"'A short one, then, and let me go!'
"'But is it fair?' I argued.'When I say a chapter, I do not mean the shortest chapter, but rather one which should be of average length.'
"'Help! help! help!' he squealed, and I was compelled again to adjust his cravat.
"'A little patience,' said I, 'and it will soon be over.I should like to recite the chapter which would be of most interest to yourself.You will confess that I am trying to make things as pleasant as I can for you?"
He slipped his mouth free again.
"'Quick, then, quick!' he groaned.
"'The Chapter of the Camel?' I suggested.
"'Or that of the Fleet Stallion?'
"'Yes, yes.Only proceed!'
"We had passed the window and there was no candle.I settled down to recite the Chapter of the Stallion to him.Perhaps you do not know your Koran very well, monsieur?Well, I knew it by heart then, as I know it by heart now.The style is a little exasperating for anyone who is in a hurry.But, then, what would you have?The people in the East are never in a hurry, and it was written for them.I repeated it all with the dignity and solemnity which a sacred book demands, and the young Englishman he wriggled and groaned.
"'When the horses, standing on three feet and placing the tip of their fourth foot upon the ground, were mustered in front of him in the evening, he said, I have loved the love of earthly good above the remembrance of things on high, and have spent the time in viewing these horses.Bring the horses back to me.And when they were brought back he began to cut off their legs and —'
"It was at this moment that the young Englishman sprang at me.My God! how little can I remember of the next few minutes!He was a boxer, this shred of a man.He had been trained to strike.I tried to catch him by the hands.Pac, pac, he came upon my nose and upon my eye.I put down my head and thrust at him with it.Pac, he came from below.But ah! I was too much for him.I hurled myself upon him, and he had no place where he could escape from my weight.He fell flat upon the cushions and I seated myself upon him with such conviction that the wind flew from him as from a burst bellows.
"Then I searched to see what there was with which I could tie him.I drew the strings from my shoes, and with one I secured his wrists, and with another his ankles.Then I tied the cravat round his mouth again, so that he could only lie and glare at me.When I had done all this, and had stopped the bleeding of my own nose, I looked out of the coach and ah, monsieur, the very first thing which caught my eyes was that candle—that dear little candle—glimmering in the window of the minister.Alone, with these two hands, I had retrieved the capitulation of an army and the loss of a province.Yes, monsieur, what Abercrombie and 5,000 men had done upon the beach at Aboukir was undone by me, single-handed, in a hackney coach in Harley Street.
"Well, I had no time to lose, for at any moment Monsieur Otto might be down.I shouted to my driver, gave him his second guinea, and allowed him to proceed to Watier's.For myself, I sprang into our Embassy's carriage, and a moment later the door of the minister opened.He had himself escorted Monsieur Otto downstairs, and now so deep was he in talk that he walked out bareheaded as far as the carriage.As he stood there by the open door, there came the rattle of wheels, and a man rushed down the pavement.
"'A despatch of great importance for Milord Hawkesbury!' he cried.
"I could see that it was not my messenger, but a second one.Milord Hawkesbury caught the paper from his hand, and read it by the light of the carriage lamp.His face, monsieur, was as white as this plate, before he had finished.
"'Monsieur Otto,' he cried, 'we have signed this treaty upon a false understanding.Egypt is in our hands.'
"'What!' cried Monsieur Otto.'Impossible!'
"'It is certain.It fell to Abercrombie last month.'
"'In that case,' said Monsieur Otto, 'it is very fortunate that the treaty is signed.'
"'Very fortunate for you, sir,' cried Milord Hawkesbury, as he turned back to the house.
"Next day, monsieur, what they call the Bow Street runners were after me, but they could not run across salt water, and Alphonse Lacour was receiving the congratulations of Monsieur Talleyrand and the First Consul before ever his pursuers had got as far as Dover."
"WHO can he be?" thought I, as I watched my companion in the second-class carriage of the London and Dover Railway.
I had been so full of the fact that my long-expected holiday had come at last, and that for a few days, at least, the gayeties of Paris were about to supersede the dull routine of the hospital wards, that we were well out of London before I observed that I was not alone in the compartment. In these days we have all pretty well agreed that "three is company and two is none" upon the railway. At the time I write of, however, people were not so morbidly sensitive about their travelling companions. It was rather an agreeable surprise to me to find that there was some chance of whiling away the hours of a tedious journey. I therefore pulled my cap down over my eyes, took a good look from beneath it at my vis-à-vis, and repeated to myself: "Who can he be?"
I used rather to pride myself on being able to spot a man's trade or profession by a good look at his exterior. I had the advantage of studying under a master of the art, who used to electrify both his patients and his clinical classes by long shots, sometimes at the most unlikely of pursuits; and never very far from the mark.
"Well, my man," I have heard him say, "I can see by your fingers that you play some musical instrument for your livelihood, but it is a rather curious one; something quite out of my line." The man afterwards informed us that he earned a few coppers by blowing "Rule Britannia" on a coffee-pot, the spout of which was pierced to form a rough flute. Though a novice in the art, I was still able to astonish my ward companions on occasion, and I never lost an opportunity of practising. It was not mere curiosity, then, which led me to lean back on the cushions and analyze the quiet middle-aged man in front of me.
I used to do the thing systematically, and my train of reflections ran somewhat in this wise: "General appearance, vulgar; fairly opulent and extremely self-possessed; looks like a man who could out-chaff a bargee, and yet be at his ease in middle-class society. Eyes well set together and nose rather prominent; would be a good long-range marksman. Cheeks flabby, but the softness of expression redeemed by a square-cut jaw and a well-set lower lip. On the whole, a powerful type. Now for the hands—rather disappointed there. Thought he was a self-made man by the look of him, but there is no callous in the palm and no thickness at the joints. Has never been engaged in any real physical work, I should think. No tanning on the backs of the hands; on the contrary, they are very white, with blue projecting veins and long, delicate fingers. Couldn't be an artist with that face, and yet he has the hands of a man engaged in delicate manipulations. No red acid spots upon his clothes, no ink stains, no nitrate of silver marks upon the hands (this helps to negative my half-formed opinion that he was a photographer). Clothes not worn in any particular part. Coat made of tweed, and fairly old; but the left elbow, as far as I can see it, has as much of the fluff left on as the right, which is seldom the case with men who do much writing. Might be a commercial traveller, but the little pocketbook in the waistcoat is wanting, nor has he any of those handy valises suggestive of samples."
I give these brief headings of my ideas merely to demonstrate my method of arriving at a conclusion. As yet I had obtained nothing but negative results; but now, to use a chemical metaphor, I was in a position to pour off this solution of dissolved possibilities and examine the residue. I found myself reduced to a very limited number of occupations. He was neither a lawyer nor a clergyman, in spite of a soft felt hat, and a somewhat clerical cut about the necktie. I was wavering now between pawnbroker and horsedealer; but there was too much character about his face for the former, and he lacked that extraordinary equine atmosphere which hangs about the latter even in his hours of relaxation; so I formed a provisional diagnosis of betting man of methodistical persuasions, the latter clause being inserted in deference to his hat and necktie.
Pray, do not think that I reasoned it out like this in my own mind. It is only now, sitting down with pen and paper, that I can see the successive steps. As it was, I had formed my conclusion within sixty seconds of the time when I drew my hat down over my eyes and uttered the mental ejaculation with which my narrative begins.
I did not feel quite satisfied even then with my deduction. However, as a leading question would—to pursue my chemical analogy—act as my litmus paper, I determined to try one. There was a "Times" lying by my companion, and I thought the opportunity too good to be neglected.
"Do you mind my looking at your paper? " I asked.
"Certainly, sir, certainly," said he most urbanely, handing it across.
I glanced down its columns until my eye rested upon the list of the latest betting. "Hullo!" I said, "they are laying odds upon the favorite for the Cambridgeshire. But perhaps," I added, looking up, "you are not interested in these matters?"
"Snares, sir!" said he violently; "wiles of the enemy! Mortals are but given a few years to live; how can they squander them so? They have not even an eye to their poor worldly interests," he added in a quieter tone, "or they would never back a single horse at such short odds with a field of thirty."
There was something in this speech of his which tickled me immensely. I suppose it was the odd way in which he blended religious intolerance with worldly wisdom. I laid the "Times" aside with the conviction that I should be able to spend the next two hours to better purpose than in its perusal.
"You speak as if you understood the matter, at any rate," I remarked.
"Yes, sir," he answered; "few men in England understood these things better in the old days before I changed my profession. But that is all over now."
"Changed your profession?" said I, interrogatively.
"Yes; I changed my name, too."
"Indeed?" said I.
"Yes; you see, a man wants a real fresh start when his eyes become opened, so he has a new deal all round, so to speak. Then he gets a fair chance."
There was a short pause here, as I seemed to be on delicate ground in touching on my companion's antecedents, and he did not volunteer any information. I broke the silence by offering him a cheroot.
"No, thanks," said he; "I have given up tobacco. It was the hardest wrench of all, was that. It does me good to smell the whiff of your weed. Tell me," he added suddenly, looking hard at me with his shrewd gray eyes, "why did you take stock of me so carefully before you spoke?"
"It is a habit of mine," said I. "I am a medical man, and observation is everything in my profession. I had no idea you were looking."
"I can see without looking," he answered. "I thought you were a detective, at first; but I couldn't recall your face at the time I knew the force."
"Were you a detective, then?" said I.
"No," he answered, with a laugh; "I was the other thing—the detected, you know. Old scores are wiped out now, and the law cannot touch me; so I don't mind confessing to a gentleman like yourself what a scoundrel I have been in my time."
"We are none of us perfect," said I.
"No; but I was a real out-and-outer. A 'fake,' you know, to start with, and afterwards a 'cracksman.' It is easy to talk of these things now, for I've changed my spirit. It's as if I was talking of some other man, you see."
"Exactly so," said I. Being a medical man, I had none of that shrinking from crime and criminals which many men possess. I could make all allowances for congenital influence and the force of circumstances. No company, therefore, could have been more acceptable to me than that of the old malefactor; and as I sat puffing at my cigar, I was delighted to observe that my air of interest was gradually loosening his tongue.
"Yes; I'm converted now," he continued, "and of course I am a happier man for that. And yet," he added wistfully, "there are times when I long for the old trade again, and fancy myself strolling out on a cloudy night with my jimmy in my pocket. I left a name behind me in my profession, sir. I was one of the old school, you know. It was very seldom that we bungled a job. We used to begin at the foot of the ladder, the rope ladder, if I may say so, in my younger days, and then work our way up, step by step, so that we were what you might call good men all through."
"I see," said I.
"I was always reckoned a hard-working, conscientious man, and had talent, too; the very cleverest of them allowed that. I began as a blacksmith, and then did a little engineering and carpentering, and then I took to sleight-of-hand tricks, and then to picking pockets. I remember, when I was home on a visit, how my poor old father used to wonder why I was always hovering around him. He little knew that I used to clear everything out of his pockets a dozen times a day, and then replace them, just to keep my hand in. He believes to this day that I am in an office in the City. There are few of them could touch me in that particular line of business, though."
"I suppose it is a matter of practice?" I remarked.
"To a great extent. Still, a man never quite loses it, if he has once been an adept—excuse me; you have dropped some cigar ash on your coat," and he waved his hand politely in front of my breast, as if to brush it off. "There," he said, handing me my gold scarf pin, "you see I have not forgot my old cunning yet."
He had done it so quickly that I hardly saw the hand whisk over my bosom, nor did I feel his fingers touch me, and yet there was the pin glittering in his hand. "It is wonderful," I said as I fixed it again in its place.
"Oh, that's nothing! But I have been in some really smart jobs. I was in the gang that picked the new patent safe. You remember the case. It was guaranteed to resist anything; and we managed to open the first that was ever issued, within a week of its appearance. It was done with graduated wedges, sir, the first so small that you could hardly see it against the light, and the last strong enough to prize it open. It was a clever managed affair."
"I remember it," said I. " But surely some one was convicted for that? "
"Yes, one was nabbed. But he didn't split, nor even let on how it was done. We'd have cut his soul out if—" He suddenly damped down the very ugly fires which were peeping from his eyes. "Perhaps I am boring you, talking about these old wicked days of mine? "
"On the contrary," I said, "you interest me extremely."
"I like to get a listener I can trust. It's a sort of blow-off, you know, and I feel lighter after it. When I am among my brethren I dare hardly think of what has gone before. Now I'll tell you about another job I was in. To this day, I cannot think about it without laughing." I lit another cigar, and composed myself to listen.
"It was when I was a youngster," said he. "There was a big City man in those days who was known to have a very valuable gold watch. I followed him about for several days before I could get a chance; but when I did get one, you may be sure I did not throw it away. He found, to his disgust, when he got home that day, that there was nothing in his fob. I hurried off with my prize, and got it stowed away in safety, intending to have it melted down next day. Now, it happened that this watch possessed a special value in the owner's eyes because it was a sort of ancestral possession—presented by his father on coming of age, or something of that sort. I remember there was a long inscription on the back. He was determined not to lose it if he could help it, and accordingly he put an advertisement in an evening paper, offering thirty pounds reward for its return, and promising that no questions should be asked. He gave the address of his house, 31 Caroline Square, at the end of the advertisement. The thing sounded good enough, so I set off for Caroline Square, leaving the watch in a parcel at a public house which I passed on the way. When I got there, the gentleman was at dinner; but he came out quick enough when he heard that a young man wanted to see him. I suppose he guessed who the young man would prove to be. He was a genial-looking old fellow, and he led me away with him into his study.
"'Well, my lad,' said he, 'what is it?'
"'I've come about that watch of yours,' said I. 'I think I can lay my hands on it.'
"'Oh, it was you that took it!' said he.
"'No,' I answered; 'I know nothing whatever about how you lost it. I have been sent by another party to see you about it. Even if you have me arrested you will not find out anything.'
"'Well,' he said, 'I don't want to be hard on you. Hand it over, and here is my check for the amount.'
"'Checks won't do,' said I;' I must have it in gold.'
"'It would take an hour or so to collect in gold,' said he.
"'That will just suit,' I answered, 'for I have not got the watch with me. I'll go back and fetch it, while you raise the money.'
"I started off and got the watch where I had left it. When I came back, the old gentleman was sitting behind his study table, with the little heap of gold in front of him.
"'Here is your money,' he said, and pushed it over.
"'Here is your watch,' said I.
"He was evidently delighted to get it back; and after examining it carefully, and assuring himself that it was none the worse, he put it into the watch-pocket of his coat with a grunt of satisfaction.
"'Now, my lad,' he said, 'I know it was you that took the watch. Tell me how you did it, and I don't mind giving you an extra five-pound note.'
"'I wouldn't tell you in any case,' said I; 'but especially I wouldn't tell you when you have a witness hid behind that curtain.' You see, I had all my wits about me, and it didn't escape me that the curtain was drawn tighter than it had been before.
"'You are too sharp for us,' said he, good-humoredly. 'Well, you have got your money, and that's an end of it. I'll take precious good care you don't get hold of my watch again in a hurry. Good night—no; not that door,' he added as I marched towards a cupboard. 'This is the door,' and he stood up and opened it. I brushed past him, opened the hall door, and was round the corner of the square in no time. I don't know how long the old gentleman took to find it out, but in passing him at the door, I managed to pick his pocket for the second time, and next morning the family heirloom was in the melting-pot, after all. That wasn't bad, was it?'"
The old war-horse had evidently forgotten all about his conversion now. There was a tone of triumph in the conclusion of his anecdote which showed that his pride in his smartness far surpassed his repentance of his misdeeds. He seemed pleased at the astonishment and amusement I expressed at his adroitness.
"Yes," he continued with a laugh, "it was a capital joke. But sometimes the fun lies all the other way. Even the sharpest of us come to grief at times. There was one rather curious incident which occurred in my career. You may possibly have seen the anecdote, for it got into print at the time."
"Pray let me hear it," said I.
"Well, it is hard lines telling stories against one's self, but this was how it happened: I had made a rather good haul, and invested some of the swag in buying a very fine diamond ring. I thought it would be something to fall back upon when all the ready was gone and times were hard. I had just purchased it, and was going back to my lodgings in the omnibus, when, as luck would have it, a very stylishly-dressed young lady came in and took her seat beside me. I didn't pay much attention to her at first; but after a time something hard in her dress knocked up against my hand, which my experienced touch soon made out to be a purse. It struck me that I could not pass the time more profitably or agreeably than by making this purse my own. I had to do it very carefully; but I managed at last to wriggle my hand into her rather light pocket, and I thought the job was over. Just at this moment she rose abruptly to leave the 'bus, and I had hardly time to get my hand with the purse in it out of her pocket without detection. It was not until she had been gone some time that I found out that in drawing out my hand in that hurried manner the new and ill-fitting ring had slipped over my finger and remained in the young lady's pocket. I sprang out and ran in the direction in which she had gone with the intention of picking her pocket once again. She had disappeared, however; and from that day till this I have never set eyes on her. To make the matter worse, there was only four pence half-penny in coppers inside the purse. Sarve me right for trying to rob such a pretty girl; still, if I had that two hundred quid now I should not be reduced to—Good heavens, forgive me! What am I saying?"
He seemed inclined to relapse into silence after this; but I was determined to draw him out a little more, if I could possibly manage it.
"There is less personal risk in the branch you have been talking of," I remarked, " than there is in burglary."
"Ah!" he said, warming to his subject once again, "it is the higher game which is best worth aiming at. Talk about sport, sir, talk about fishing or hunting! Why, it is tame in comparison! Think of the great country house with its men-servants and its dogs and its firearms, and you with only your jimmy and your centre-bit, and your mother wit, which is best of all. It is the triumph of intellect over brute force, sir, as represented by bolts and bars."
"People generally look upon it as quite the reverse," I remarked.
"I was never one of those blundering life-preserver fellows," said my companion. "I did try my hand at garroting once; but it was against my principles, and I gave it up. I have tried everything. I have been a bedridden widow with three young children; but I do object to physical force."
"You have been what? " said I.
"A bedridden widow. Advertising, you know, and getting subscriptions. I have tried them all. You seem interested in these experiences," he continued, "so I will tell you another anecdote. It was the narrowest escape from penal servitude that ever I had in my life. A pal and I had gone down on a country beat—it doesn't signify where it was—and taken up our headquarters in a little provincial town. Somehow it got noised abroad that we were there, and householders were warned to be careful, as suspicious characters had been seen in the neighborhood. We should have changed our plans when we saw the game was up; but my chum was a plucky fellow, and wouldn't consent to back down. Poor little Jim! He was only thirty-four round the chest, and about twelve at the biceps; but there is not a measuring-tape in England could have given the size of his heart. He said we were in for it, and we must stick to it; so I agreed to stay, and we chose Morley Hall, the country house of a certain Colonel Morley, to begin with.
"Now this Colonel Morley was about the last man in the world that we should have meddled with. He was a shrewd, coolheaded fellow, who had knocked about and seen the world, and it seems that he took a special pride in the detection of criminals. However, we knew nothing of all this at that time; so we set forth hopefully to have a try at the house.
"The reason that made us pick him out among the rest was that he had a good-for-nothing groom, who was a tool in our hands. This fellow had drawn up a rough plan of the premises for us. The place was pretty well locked up and guarded, and the only weak point we could see was a certain trap-door, the padlock of which was broken, and which opened from the roof into one of the lumber-rooms. If we could only find any method of reaching the roof, we might force a way securely from above. We both thought the plan rather a good one, and it had a spice of originality about it which pleased us. It is not the mere jewels or plate, you know, that a good cracksman thinks about. The neatness of the job and his reputation for smartness are almost as important in his eyes.
"We had been very quiet for a day or two, just to let suspicion die away. Then we set out one dark night, Jim and I, and got over the avenue railings and up to the house without meeting a soul. It was blowing hard, I remember, and the clouds were hurrying across the sky. We had a good look at the front of the house, and then Jim went round to the garden side. He came running back in a minute or two in a great state of delight. 'Why, Bill,' he said, gripping me by the arm, 'there never was such a bit of luck! They've been repairing the roof or something, and they've left the ladder standing.' We went round together, and there, sure enough, was the ladder towering above our heads, and one or two laborers' hods lying about, which showed that some work had been going on during the day. We had a good look round, to see that everything was quiet, and then we climbed up, Jim first and I after him. We got to the top, and were sitting on the slates, having a bit of a breather before beginning business, when you can fancy our feelings to see the ladder that we came up by suddenly stand straight up in the air, and then slowly descend until it rested in the garden below. At first we hoped it might have slipped, though that was bad enough; but we soon had that idea put out of our heads.
"'Hullo, up there!' cried a voice from below.
"We craned our heads over the edge, and there was a man, dressed, as far as we could make out, in evening dress, and standing in the middle of the grass plot. We kept quiet.
"'Hullo!' he shouted again. 'How do you feel yourself? Pretty comfortable, eh? Ha! ha! You London rogues thought we were green in the country. What's your opinion now?'
"We both lay still, though feeling pretty considerably small, as you may imagine.
"'It's all right; I see you,' he continued. 'Why, I have been waiting behind that lilac bush every night for the last week, expecting to see you. I knew you couldn't resist going up that ladder, when you found the windows were too much for you.—Joe! Joe!'
"'Yes, sir,' said a voice, and another man came from among the bushes.
"'Just you keep your eye on the roof, will you, while I ride down to the station and fetch up a couple of constables?—Au revoir, gentlemen! You don't mind waiting, I suppose?' And Colonel Morley—for it was the owner of the house himself—strode off; and in a few minutes we heard the rattle of his horse's hoofs going down the avenue.
"Well, sir, we felt precious silly, as you may imagine. It wasn't so much having been nabbed that bothered us, as the feeling of being caught in such a simple trap. We looked at each other in blank disgust, and then, to save our lives, we couldn't help bursting into laughter at our own fix. However, it was no laughing matter; so we set to work going around the roof, and seeing if there was a likely water-pipe or anything that might give us a chance of escape. We had to give it up as a bad job; so we sat down again, and made up our minds to the worst. Suddenly an idea flashed into my head, and I groped my way over the roof until I felt wood under my feet. I bent down and found that the colonel had actually forgotten to secure the padlock! You will often notice, as you go through life, that it is the shrewdest and most cunning man who falls into the most absurd mistakes; and this was an example of it. You may guess that we did not lose much time, for we expected to hear the constables every moment. We dropped through into the lumber-room, slipped downstairs, tore open the library shutters, and were out and away before the astonished groom could make out what had happened. There wasn't time enough to take any little souvenir with us, worse luck. I should have liked to have seen the colonel's face when he came back with the constables and found that the birds were flown."
"Did you ever come across the colonel again?" I asked.
"Yes; we skinned him of every bit of plate he had, down to the salt- spoons, a few years later. It was partly out of revenge, you see, that we did it. It was a very well-managed and daring thing, one of the best I ever saw, and all done in open daylight, too."
"How in the world did you do it? " I asked.
"Well, there were three of us in it—Jim was one—and we set about it in this way: We wanted to begin by getting the colonel out of the way, so I wrote him a note purporting to come from Squire Brotherwick, who lived about ten miles away, and was not always on the best of terms with the master of Morley Hall. I dressed myself up as a groom, and delivered the note myself. It was to the effect that the squire thought he was able to lay his hands on the scoundrels who had escaped from the colonel a couple of years before, and that if the colonel would ride over they would have little difficulty in securing them. I was sure that this would have the desired effect; so, after handing it in, and remarking that I was the squire's groom, I walked off again, as if on the way back to my master's.
"After getting out of sight of the house, I crouched down behind a hedge; and, as I expected, in less than a quarter of an hour the colonel came swinging past me on his chestnut mare. Now, there is another accomplishment I possess which I have not mentioned to you yet, and that is, that I can copy any handwriting that I see. It is a very easy trick to pick up if you only give your mind to it. I happened to have come across one of Colonel Morley's letters some days before, and I can write so that even now I defy an expert to detect a difference between the hands. This was a great assistance to me now, for I tore a leaf out of my pocket-book and wrote something to this effect:
"'As Squire Brotherwick has seen some suspicious characters about, and the house may be attempted again, I have sent down to the bank, and ordered them to send up their bank-cart to convey the whole of the plate to a place of safety. It will save us a good deal of anxiety to know that it is in absolute security. Have it packed up and ready, and give the bearer a glass of beer.'
"Having composed this precious epistle, I addressed it to the butler, and carried it back to the Hall, saying that their master had overtaken me on the way and asked me to deliver it. I was taken in and made much of down-stairs, while a great packing case was dragged into the hall, and the plate stowed away, among cotton-wool and stuffing. It was nearly ready, when I heard the sound of wheels upon the gravel, and sauntered round just in time to see a business-like closed car drive up to the door. One of my pals was sitting very demurely on the box, while Jim, with an official-looking hat, sprang out and bustled into the hall.
"'Now then,' I heard him say, 'look sharp! What's for the bank? Come on!'
"'Wait a minute, sir,' said the butler.
"'Can't wait. There's a panic all over the country, and they are clamoring for us everywhere. Must drive on to Lord Blackbury's place, unless you are ready.'
"'Don't go, sir!' pleaded the butler. 'There's only this one rope to tie. There, it is ready now. You'll look after it, won't you?'
"'That we will. You'll never have any more trouble with it now,' said Jim, helping to push the great case into the car.
"'I think I had better go with you and see it stowed away in the bank,' said the butler.
"'All right,' said Jim, nothing abashed. 'You can't come in the car, though, for Lord Blackbury's box will take up all the spare room. Let's see; it's twelve o'clock now. Well, you be waiting at the bank door at half-past one, and you will just catch us.'
"'All right; half-past one,' said the butler.
"'Good-day,' cried my chum; and away went the car, while I made a bit of a short cut and caught it around a turn of the road. We drove right off into the next county, got a down-train to London, and before midnight the colonel's silver was fused into a solid lump."
I could not help laughing at the versatility of the old scoundrel. "It was a daring game to play," I said.
"It is always the daring game which succeeds best," he answered.
At this point the train began to show symptoms of slowing down, and my companion put on his overcoat and gave other signs of being near the end of his journey.
"You are going on to Dover? " he said.
"For the Continent?"
"How long do you intend to travel?"
"Only for a week or so."
"Well, I must leave you here. You will remember my name, won't you? John Wilkie. I am pleased to have met you. Is my umbrella behind you?" he added, stretching across. "No; I beg your pardon. Here it is in the corner;" and with an affable smile, the ex-cracksman stepped out, bowed, and disappeared among the crowd upon the platform.
I lit another cigar, laughed as I thought of my late companion, and lifted up the "Times," which he had left behind him. The bell had rung, the wheels were already revolving, when, to my astonishment, a pallid face looked in at me through the window. It was so contorted and agitated that I hardly recognized the features which I had been gazing upon during the last couple of hours. "Here, take it," he said, "take it. It's hardly worth my while to rob you of seven pounds four shillings, but I couldn't resist once more trying my hand;" and he flung something into the carriage and disappeared.
It was my old leather purse, with my return ticket, and the whole of my travelling expenses. His newly awakened conscience had driven him to instant restitution.
There was only the one little feathery clump of dôm plants in all that great wilderness of black rocks and orange sand. It stood high on the bank, and below it the brown Nile swirled swiftly towards the Ambigole Cataract, fitting a little frill of foam round each of the boulders which studded its surface. Above, out of a naked blue sky, the sun was beating down upon the sand, and up again from the sand under the brims of the pith-hats of the horsemen with the scorching glare of a blast-furnace. It had risen so high that the shadows of the horses were no larger than themselves.
"Whew!" cried Mortimer, mopping his forehead, "you'd pay five shillings for this at the hummums."
"Precisely," said Scott. "But you are not asked to ride twenty miles in a Turkish bath with a field-glass and a revolver, and a water-bottle and a whole Christmas-treeful of things dangling from you. The hot-house at Kew is excellent as a conservatory, but not adapted for exhibitions upon the horizontal bar. I vote for a camp in the palm-grove and a halt until evening."
Mortimer rose in his stirrups and looked hard to the southward. Everywhere were the same black burned rocks and deep orange sand. At one spot only an intermittent line appeared to have been cut through the rugged spurs which ran down to the river. It was the bed of the old railway, long destroyed by the Arabs, but now in process of reconstruction by the advancing Egyptians. There was no other sign of man's handiwork in all that desolate scene.
"It's palm trees or nothing," said Scott.
"Well, I suppose we must; and yet I grudge every hour until we catch the force up. What would our editors say if we were late for the action?"
"My dear chap, an old bird like you doesn't need to be told that no sane modern general would ever attack until the Press is up."
"You don't mean that?" said young Anerley. "I thought we were looked upon as an unmitigated nuisance."
"'Newspaper correspondents and travelling gentlemen, and all that tribe of useless drones'—being an extract from Lord Wolseley's Soldier's Pocket-Book," cried Scott. "We know all about that, Anerley;" and he winked behind his blue spectacles. "If there was going to be a battle we should very soon have an escort of cavalry to hurry us up. I've been in fifteen, and I never saw one where they had not arranged for a reporter's table."
"That's very well; but the enemy may be less considerate," said Mortimer.
"They are not strong enough to force a battle."
"A skirmish, then?"
"Much more likely to be a raid upon the rear. In that case we are just where we should be."
"So we are! What a score over Reuter's man up with the advance! Well, we'll outspan and have our tiffin under the palms."
There were three of them, and they stood for three great London dailies. Reuter's was thirty miles ahead; two evening pennies upon camels were twenty miles behind. And among them they represented the eyes and ears of the public —the great silent millions and millions who paid for everything, and who waited so patiently to know the result of their outlay.
They were remarkable men, these body-servants of the Press; two of them already veterans in camps, the other setting out upon his first campaign, and full of deference for his famous comrades.
This first one, who had just dismounted from his bay polo-pony, was Mortimer, of the Intelligence—tall, straight, and hawk-faced, with khaki tunic and riding-breeches, drab putties, a scarlet cummerbund, and a skin tanned to the red of a Scotch fir by sun and wind, and mottled by the mosquito and the sand-fly. The other—small, quick, mercurial, with blue-black curling beard and hair, a fly-switch for ever flicking his left hand—was Scott, of the Courier, who had come through more dangers and brought off more brilliant coups than any man in the profession, save the eminent Chandler, now no longer in a condition to take the field. They were a singular contrast, Mortimer and Scott, and it was in their differences that the secret of their close friendship lay. Each dovetailed into the other. The strength of each was in the other's weakness. Together they formed a perfect unit. Mortimer was Saxon—slow, conscientious, and deliberate; Scott was Celtic—quick, happy-go-lucky, and brilliant. Mortimer was the more solid, Scott the more attractive. Mortimer was the deeper thinker, Scott the brighter talker. By a curious coincidence, though each had seen much of warfare, their campaigns had never coincided. Together they had covered all recent military history. Scott had done Plevna, the Shipka, the Zulus, Egypt, Suakim; Mortimer had seen the Boer War, the Chilian, the Bulgarian and Servian, the Gordon relief, the Indian frontier, Brazilian rebellion, and Madagascar. This intimate personal knowledge gave a peculiar flavour to their talk. There was none of the second-hand surmise and conjecture which form so much of our conversation; it was all concrete and final. The speaker had been there, had seen it, and there was an end of it.
In spite of their friendship there was the keenest professional rivalry between the two men. Either would have sacrificed himself to help his companion, but either would also have sacrificed his companion to help his paper. Never did a jockey yearn for a winning mount as keenly as each of them longed to have a full column in a morning edition whilst every other daily was blank. They were perfectly frank about the matter. Each professed himself ready to steal a march on his neighbour, and each recognized that the other's duty to his employer was far higher than any personal consideration.
The third man was Anerley, of the Gazette—young, inexperienced, and rather simple-looking. He had a droop of the lip which some of his more intimate friends regarded as a libel upon his character, and his eyes were so slow and sleepy that they suggested an affectation. A leaning toward soldiering had sent him twice to autumn manoeuvres, and a touch of colour in his descriptions had induced the proprietors of the Gazette to give him a trial as a war-special. There was a pleasant diffidence about his bearing which recommended him to his experienced companions, and if they had a smile sometimes at his guileless ways, it was soothing to them to have a comrade from whom nothing was to be feared. From the day that they left the telegraph-wire behind them at Sarras, the man who was mounted upon a fifteen-guinea thirteen-four Syrian was delivered over into the hands of the owners of the two fastest polo-ponies that ever shot down the Ghezireh ground.
The three had dismounted and led their beasts under the welcome shade. In the brassy, yellow glare every branch above threw so black and solid a shadow that the men involuntarily raised their feet to step over them.
"The palm makes an excellent hat-rack," said Scott, slinging his revolver and his water-bottle over the little upward-pointing pegs which bristled from the trunk. "As a shade-tree, however, it isn't an unqualified success. Curious that in the universal adaptation of means to ends something a little less flimsy could not have been devised for the tropics."
"Like the banyan in India."
"Or the fine hardwood trees in Ashantee, where a whole regiment could picnic under the shade."
"The teak tree isn't bad in Burmah, either. By Jove, the baccy has all come loose in the saddle-bag! That long-cut mixture smokes rather hot for this climate. How about the baggles, Anerley?"
"They'll be here in five minutes."
Down the winding path which curved among the rocks the little train of baggage-camels was daintily picking its way. They came mincing and undulating along, turning their heads slowly from side to side with the air of a self- conscious woman. In front rode the three Berberee body-servants upon donkeys, and behind walked the Arab camel-boys. They had been travelling for nine long hours, ever since the first rising of the moon, at the weary camel-drag of two and a half miles an hour, but now they brightened, both beasts and men, at the sight of the grove and the riderless horses. In a few minutes the loads were unstrapped, the animals tethered, a fire lighted, fresh water carried up from the river, and each camel provided with his own little heap of tibbin laid in the centre of the tablecloth, without which no well-bred Arabian will condescend to feed. The dazzling light without, the subdued half-tones within, the green palm-fronds outlined against the deep blue sky, the flitting, silent-footed Arab servants, the crackling of sticks, the reek of a lighting fire, the placid supercilious heads of the camels, they all come back in their dreams to those who have known them.
Scott was breaking eggs into a pan and rolling out a love-song in his rich, deep voice. Anerley, with his head and arms buried in a deal packing- case, was working his way through strata of tinned soups, bully beef, potted chicken and sardines to reach the jams which lay beneath. The conscientious Mortimer, with his note-book upon his knee, was jotting down what the railway engineer had told him at the line-end the day before. Suddenly he raised his eyes and saw the man himself on his chestnut pony, dipping and rising over the broken ground.
"Hullo! here's Merryweather!"
"A pretty lather his pony is in! He's had her at that hand-gallop for hours, by the look of her. Hullo, Merryweather, hullo!"
The engineer, a small, compact man with a pointed red beard, had made as though he would ride past their camp without word or halt. Now he swerved, and easing his pony down to a canter, he headed her towards them.
"For God's sake, a drink!" he croaked. "My tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth."
Mortimer ran with the water-bottle, Scott with the whisky-flask, and Anerley with the tin pannikin. The engineer drank until his breath failed him.
"Well, I must be off," said he, striking the drops from his red moustache.
"A hitch in the railway construction. I must see the General. It's the devil not having a telegraph."
"Anything we can report?" Out came three notebooks.
"I'll tell you after I've seen the General."
"The usual shaves. Hud-up, Jinny! Good-bye."
With a soft thudding upon the sand and a clatter among the stones the weary pony was off upon her journey once more.
"Nothing serious, I suppose?" said Mortimer, staring after him.
"Deuced serious," cried Scott. "The ham and eggs are burned! No— it's all right—saved, and one to a turn! Pull the box up, Anerley. Come on, Mortimer, stow that note-book! The fork is mightier than the pen just at present. What's the matter with you, Anerley?"
"I was wondering whether what we have just seen was worth a telegram."
"Well, it's for the proprietors to say if it's worth it. Sordid money considerations are not for us. We must wire about something just to justify our khaki coats and our putties."
"But what is there to say?"
Mortimer's long, austere face broke into a smile over the youngster's innocence. "It's not quite usual in our profession to give each other tips," said he. "However, as my telegram is written, I've no objection to your reading it. You may be sure that I would not show it to you if it were of the slightest importance."
Anerley took up the slip of paper and read—
MERRYWEATHER OBSTACLES STOP JOURNEY CONFER GENERAL STOP NATURE DIFFICULTIES LATER STOP RUMOURS DERVISHES.
"That is very condensed," said Anerley, with wrinkled brows.
"Condensed!" cried Scott. "Why, it's sinfully garrulous. If my old man got a wire like that his language would crack the lamp-shades. I'd cut out half this; for example, I'd have out 'journey,' and 'nature,' and 'rumours.' But my old man would make a ten-line paragraph of it for all that."
"Well, I'll do it myself just to show you. Lend me that stylo." He scribbled for a minute in his notebook. "It works out somewhat on these lines —
"'Mr. Charles H. Merryweather, the eminent railway engineer, who is at present engaged in superintending the construction of the line from Sarras to the front, has met with considerable obstacles to the rapid completion of his important task'— of course the old man knows who Merryweather is, and what he is about, so the word 'obstacles' would suggest all that to him. 'He has to-day been compelled to make a journey of forty miles to the front in order to confer with the General upon the steps which are necessary in order to facilitate the work. Further particulars of the exact nature of the difficulties met with will be made public at a later date. All is quiet upon the line of communications, though the usual persistent rumours of the presence of dervishes in the Eastern desert continue to circulate. —Our own Correspondent.'
"How's that?" cried Scott, triumphantly, and his white teeth gleamed suddenly through his black beard. "That's the sort of flapdoodle for the dear old public."
"Will it interest them?"
"Oh, everything interests them. They want to know all about it; and they like to think that there is a man who is getting a hundred a month simply in order to tell it to them."
"It's very kind of you to teach me all this."
"Well, it is a little unconventional, for, after all, we are here to score over each other if we can. There are no more eggs, and you must take it out in jam. Of course, as Mortimer says, such a telegram as this is of no importance one way or another, except to prove to the office that we are in the Soudan and not at Monte Carlo. But when it comes to serious work it must be every man for himself."
"Is that quite necessary?"
"Why, of course it is."
"I should have thought if three men were to combine and to share their news, they would do better than if they were each to act for himself; and they would have a much pleasanter time of it."
The two older men sat with their bread-and-jam in their hands, and an expression of genuine disgust upon their faces.
"We are not here to have a pleasant time," said Mortimer, with a flash through his glasses. "We are here to do our best for our papers. How can they score over each other if we do not do the same. If we all combine we might as well amalgamate with Reuter at once."
"Why, it would take away the whole glory of the profession!" cried Scott. "At present the smartest man gets his stuff first on the wires. What inducement is there to be smart if we all share and share alike."
"And at present the man with the best equipment has the best chance," remarked Mortimer, glancing across at the shot-silk polo-ponies and the cheap little Syrian grey. "That is the fair reward of foresight and enterprise. Every man for himself, and let the best man win."
"That's the way to find who the best man is. Look at Chandler. He would never have got his chance if he had not played always off his own bat. You've heard how he pretended to break his leg, sent his fellow-correspondent off for the doctor, and so got a fair start for the telegraph-office."
"Do you mean to say that was legitimate?"
"Everything is legitimate. It's your wits against my wits."
"I should call it dishonourable."
"You may call it what you like. Chandler's paper got the battle and the other's didn't. It made Chandler's name."
"Or take Westlake," said Mortimer, cramming the tobacco into his pipe. "Hi, Abdul, you may have the dishes! Westlake brought his stuff down by pretending to be the Government courier, and using the relays of the Government's horses. Westlake's paper sold half a million."
"Is that legitimate also?" asked Anerley, thoughtfully.
"Well, it looks a little like horse-stealing and lying."
"Well, I think I should do a little horse-stealing and lying if I could have a column to myself in a London daily. What do you say, Scott?"
"Anything short of manslaughter."
"And I'm not sure that I'd trust you there."
"Well, I don't think I should be guilty of newspaper-man-slaughter. That I regard as a distinct breach of professional etiquette. But if any outsider comes between a highly-charged correspondent and an electric wire, he does it at his peril. My dear Anerley, I tell you frankly that if you are going to handicap yourself with scruples you may just as well be in Fleet Street as in the Soudan. Our life is irregular. Our work has never been systematized. No doubt it will be some day, but the time is not yet. Do what you can and how you can, and be first on the wires; that's my advice to you; and also, that when next you come upon a campaign you bring with you the best horse that money can buy. Mortimer may beat me or I may beat Mortimer, but at least we know that between us we have the fastest ponies in the country. We have neglected no chance."
"I am not so certain of that," said Mortimer, slowly. "You are aware, of course, that though a horse beats a camel on twenty miles, a camel beats a horse on thirty."
"What, one of those camels?" cried Anerley in astonishment.
"No, no, the real high-bred trotter—the kind of beast the dervishes ride when they make their lightning raids."
"Faster than a galloping horse?"
"Well, it tires a horse down. It goes the same gait all the way, and it wants neither halt nor drink, and it takes rough ground much better than a horse. They used to have long distance races at Haifa, and the camel always won at thirty."
"Still, we need not reproach ourselves, Scott, for we are not very likely to have to carry a thirty-mile message. They will have the field telegraph next week."
"Quite so. But at the present moment—"
"I know, my dear chap; but there is no motion of urgency before the house. Load baggles at five o'clock; so you have just three hours clear. Any sign of the evening pennies?"
Mortimer swept the northern horizon with his binoculars.
"Not in sight yet."
"They are quite capable of travelling during the heat of the day. Just the sort of thing evening pennies would do. Take care of your match, Anerley. These palm-groves go up like a powder magazine if you set them alight. Bye-bye." The two men crawled under their mosquito-nets and sank instantly into the easy sleep of those whose lives are spent in the open.
Young Anerley stood with his back against a palm tree and his briar between his lips, thinking over the advice which he had received. After all, they were the heads of the profession, these men, and it was not for him, the newcomer, to reform their methods. If they served their papers in this fashion, then he must do the same. They had at least been frank and generous in teaching him the rules of the game. If it was good enough for them it was good enough for him.
It was a broiling afternoon, and those thin frills of foam round the black, glistening necks of the Nile boulders looked delightfully cool and alluring. But it would not be safe to bathe for some hours to come. The air shimmered and vibrated over the baking stretch of sand and rock. There was not a breath of wind, and the droning and piping of the insects inclined one for sleep. Somewhere above a hoopoe was calling. Anerley knocked out his ashes, and was turning towards his couch, when his eye caught something moving in the desert to the south.
It was a horseman riding towards them as swiftly as the broken ground would permit. A messenger from the army, thought Anerley; and then, as he watched, the sun suddenly struck the man on the side of the head, and his chin flamed into gold. There could not be two horsemen with beards of such a colour. It was Merryweather, the engineer, and he was returning. What on earth was he returning for? He had been so keen to see the General, and yet he was coming back with his mission unaccomplished. Was it that his pony was hopelessly foundered? It seemed to be moving well. Anerley picked up Mortimer's binoculars, and a foam-spattered horse and a weary koorbash-cracking man came cantering up the centre of the field. But there was nothing in his appearance to explain the mystery of his return.
Then as he watched them they dipped down into a hollow and disappeared. He could see that it was one of those narrow khors which led to the river, and he waited, glass in hand, for their immediate reappearance. But minute passed after minute and there was no sign of them. That narrow gully appeared to have swallowed them up. And then with a curious gulp and start he saw a little grey cloud wreathe itself slowly from among the rocks and drift in a long, lazy shred over the desert. In an instant he had torn Scott and Mortimer from their slumbers.
"Get up, you chaps!" he cried. "I believe Merryweather has been shot by dervishes."
"And Reuter not here!" cried the two veterans, exultantly clutching at their note-books. "Merryweather shot! Where? When? How?"
In a few words Anerley explained what he had seen.
"You heard nothing?"
"Well, a shot loses itself very easily among rocks. By George, look at the buzzards!"
Two large brown birds were soaring in the deep blue heaven. As Scott spoke they circled down and dropped into the little khor.
"That's good enough," said Mortimer, with his nose between the leaves of his book. "'Merryweather headed dervishes stop returned stop shot mutilated stop raid communications.' How's that?"
"You think he was headed off?"
"Why else should he return?"
"In that case, if they were out in front of him and others cut him off, there must be several small raiding-parties."
"I should judge so."
"How about the 'mutilated'?"
"I've fought against Arabs before."
"Where are you off to?"
"I think I'll race you in," said Scott.
Anerley stared in astonishment at the absolutely impersonal way in which these men regarded the situation. In their zeal for news it had apparently never struck them that they, their camp and their servants, were all in the lion's mouth. But even as they talked there came the harsh, importunate rat-tat-tat of an irregular volley from among the rocks, and the high, keening whistle of bullets over their heads. A palm spray fluttered down amongst them. At the same instant the six frightened servants came running wildly in for protection.
It was the cool-headed Mortimer who organized the defence, for Scott's Celtic soul was so aflame at all this "copy" in hand and more to come, that he was too exuberantly boisterous for a commander. The other, with his spectacles and his stern face, soon had the servants in hand.
"Tali henna! Egri! What the deuce are you frightened about? Put the camels between the palm trunks. That's right. Now get the knee-tethers on them. Quies! Did you never hear bullets before? Now put the donkeys here. Not much—you don't get my polo-pony to make a zareba with. Picket the ponies between the grove and the river out of danger's way. These fellows seem to fire even higher than they did in '85."
"That's got home, anyhow," said Scott, as they heard a soft, splashing thud like a stone in a mud-bank.
"Who's hit, then?"
"The brown camel that's chewing the cud."
As he spoke the creature, its jaw still working, laid its long neck along the ground and closed its large dark eyes.
"That shot cost me fifteen pounds," said Mortimer, ruefully. "How many of them do you make?"
"Four, I think."
"Only four Bezingers, at any rate; there may be some spearmen."
"I think not; it is a little raiding-party of riflemen. By the way, Anerley, you've never been under fire before, have you?"
"Never," said the young pressman, who was conscious of a curious feeling of nervous elation.
"Love and poverty and war, they are all experiences necessary to make a complete life. Pass over those cartridges. This is a very mild baptism that you are undergoing, for behind these camels you are as safe as if you were sitting in the back room of the Authors' Club."
"As safe, but hardly as comfortable," said Scott. "A long glass of hock and seltzer would be exceedingly acceptable. But oh, Mortimer, what a chance! Think of the General's feelings when he hears that the first action of the war has been fought by the Press column. Think of Reuter, who has been stewing at the front for a week! Think of the evening pennies just too late for the fun! By George, that slug brushed a mosquito off me!"
"And one of the donkeys is hit."
"This is sinful. It will end in our having to carry our own kits to Khartoum."
"Never mind, my boy, it all goes to make copy. I can see the headlines —'Raid on Communications'; 'Murder of British Engineer'; 'Press Column Attacked.' Won't it be ripping?"
"I wonder what the next line will be," said Anerley.
"'Our Special Wounded!'" cried Scott, rolling over on to his back. "No harm done," he added, gathering himself up again; "only a chip off my knee. This is getting sultry. I confess that the idea of the back room at the Authors' Club begins to grow upon me."
"I have some diachylon."
"Afterwards will do. We're having 'a 'appy day with Fuzzy on the rush.' I wish he would rush."
"They're coming nearer."
"This is an excellent revolver of mine if it didn't throw so devilish high. I always aim at a man's toes if I want to stimulate his digestion. O Lord, there's our kettle gone!"
With a boom like a dinner-gong a Remington bullet had passed through the kettle, and a cloud of steam hissed up from the fire. A wild shout came from the rocks above.
"The idiots think that they have blown us up. They'll rush us now, as sure as fate; then it will be our turn to lead. Got your revolver, Anerley?"
"I have this double-barrelled fowling-piece."
"Sensible man! It's the best weapon in the world at this sort of rough- and-tumble work. What cartridge?"
"That will do all right. I carry this big bore double-barrelled pistol loaded with slugs. You might as well try to stop one of these fellows with a peashooter as with a service revolver."
"There are ways and means," said Scott. "The Geneva Convention does not hold south of the first cataract. It's easy to make a bullet mushroom by a little manipulation of the tip of it. When I was in the broken square at Tamai—"
"Wait a bit," cried Mortimer, adjusting his glasses. "I think they are coming now."
"The time," said Scott, snapping up his watch, "being exactly seventeen minutes past four."
Anerley had been lying behind a camel, staring with an interest which bordered upon fascination at the rocks opposite. Here was a little woolly puff of smoke, and there was another one, but never once had they caught a glimpse of the attackers. To him there was something weird and awesome in these unseen, persistent men who, minute by minute, were drawing closer to them. He had heard them cry out when the kettle was broken, and once, immediately afterwards, an enormously strong voice had roared something which had set Scott shrugging his shoulders.
"They've got to take us first," said he, and Anerley thought his nerve might be better if he did not ask for a translation.
The firing had begun at a distance of some hundred yards, which put it out of the question for them, with their lighter weapons, to make any reply to it. Had their antagonists continued to keep that range the defenders must either have made a hopeless sally or tried to shelter themselves behind their zareba as best they might on the chance that the sound might bring up help. But luckily for them the African had never taken kindly to the rifle, and his primitive instinct to close with his enemy is always too strong for his sense of strategy. They were drawing in, therefore, and now for the first time Anerley caught sight of a face looking at them from over a rock. It was a huge, virile, strong-jawed head of a pure negro type, with silver trinkets gleaming in the ears. The man raised a great arm from behind the rock and shook his Remington at them.
"Shall I fire?" asked Anerley.
"No, no, it is too far; your shot would scatter all over the place."
"It's a picturesque ruffian," said Scott. "Couldn't you kodak him, Mortimer? There's another!"
A fine-featured brown Arab, with a black, pointed beard, was peeping from behind another boulder. He wore the green turban which proclaimed him hadji, and his face showed the keen, nervous exultation of the religious fanatic.
"They seem a piebald crowd," said Scott.
"That last is one of the real fighting Baggara," remarked Mortimer. "He's a dangerous man."
"He looks pretty vicious. There's another negro!"
"Two more! Dingas, by the look of them. Just the same chaps we get our own black battalions from. As long as they get a fight they don't mind who it's for; but if the idiots had only sense enough to understand, they would know that the Arab is their hereditary enemy, and we are their hereditary friends. Look at the silly juggins gnashing his teeth at the very men who put down the slave trade!"
"Couldn't you explain?"
"I'll explain with this pistol when he comes a little nearer. Now sit tight, Anerley. They're off!"
They were indeed. It was the brown man with the green turban who headed the rush. Close at his heels was the negro with the silver earrings—a giant of a man, and the other two were only a little behind. As they sprang over the rocks one after the other, it took Anerley back to the school sports, when he held the tape for the hurdle-race. It was magnificent, the wild spirit and abandon of it, the flutter of the chequered galabeeahs, the gleam of steel, the wave of black arms, the frenzied faces, the quick pitter-patter of the rushing feet. The law-abiding Briton is so imbued with the idea of the sanctity of human life that it was hard for the young pressman to realize that these men had every intention of killing him, and that he was at perfect liberty to do as much for them. He lay staring as if this were a show and he a spectator.
"Now, Anerley, now! Take the Arab!" cried somebody.
He put up the gun and saw the brown fierce face at the other end of the barrel. He tugged at the trigger, but the face grew larger and fiercer with every stride. Again and again he tugged. A revolver-shot rang out at his elbow, then another one, and he saw a red spot spring out on the Arab's brown breast. But he was still coming on.
"Shoot, you ass, shoot!" screamed Scott.
Again he strained unavailingly at the trigger. There were two more pistol- shots, and the big negro had fallen and risen and fallen again.
"Cock it, you fool!" shouted a furious voice; and at the same instant, with a rush and flutter, the Arab bounded over the prostrate camel and came down with his bare feet upon Anerley's chest. In a dream he seemed to be struggling frantically with someone upon the ground, then he was conscious of a tremendous explosion in his very face, and so ended for him the first action of the war.
* * * * *
"Good-bye, old chap. You'll be all right. Give yourself time." It was Mortimer's voice, and he became dimly conscious of a long-spectacled face, and of a heavy hand upon his shoulder.
"Sorry to leave you. We'll be lucky now if we are in time for the morning editions." Scott was tightening his girth as he spoke.
"We'll put in our wire that you have been hurt, so your people will know why they don't hear from you. If Reuter or the evening pennies come up, don't give the thing away. Abbas will look after you, and we'll be back to-morrow afternoon. Bye-bye!"
Anerley heard it all, though he did not feel energy enough to answer. Then, as he watched two sleek brown ponies with their yellow-clad riders dwindling among the rocks, his memory cleared suddenly, and he realized that the first great journalistic chance of his life was slipping away from him. It was a small fight, but it was the first of the war, and the great public at home was all athirst for news. They would have it in the Courier; they would have it in the Intelligence, and not a word in the Gazette. The thought brought him to his feet, though he had to throw his arm round the stem of the palm tree to steady his swimming head.
There was the big black man lying where he had fallen, his huge chest pocked with bullet-marks, every wound rosetted with its circle of flies. The Arab was stretched out within a few yards of him, with two hands clasped over the dreadful thing which had been his head. Across him was lying Anerley's fowling-piece, one barrel discharged, the other at half cock.
"Scott effendi shoot him your gun," said a voice. It was Abbas, his English-speaking body-servant.
Anerley groaned at the disgrace of it. He had lost his head so completely that he had forgotten to cock his gun; and yet he knew that it was not fear but interest which had so absorbed him. He put his hand up to his head and felt that a wet handkerchief was bound round his forehead.
"Where are the two other dervishes?"
"They ran away. One got shot in arm."
"What's happened to me?"
"Effendi got cut on head. Effendi catch bad man by arms, and Scott effendi shoot him. Face burn very bad."
Anerley became conscious suddenly that there was a pringling about his skin and an overpowering smell of burned hair under his nostrils. He put his hand to his moustache. It was gone. His eyebrows too? He could not find them. His head, no doubt, was very near to the dervish's when they were rolling upon the ground together, and this was the effect of the explosion of his own gun. Well, he would have time to grow some more hair before he saw Fleet Street again. But the cut, perhaps, was a more serious matter. Was it enough to prevent him from getting to the telegraph-office at Sarras? The only way was to try and see.
But there was only that poor little Syrian grey of his. There it stood in the evening sunshine, with a sunk head and a bent knee, as if its morning's work was still heavy upon it. What hope was there of being able to do thirty- five miles of heavy going upon that? It would be a strain upon the splendid ponies of his companions—and they were the swiftest and most enduring in the country. The most enduring? There was one creature more enduring, and that was a real trotting camel. If he had had one he might have got to the wires first after all, for Mortimer had said that over thirty miles they have the better of any horse. Yes, if he had only had a real trotting camel! And then like a flash came Mortimer's words, "It is the kind of beast that the dervishes ride when they make their lightning raids."
The beasts the dervishes ride! What had these dead dervishes ridden? In an instant he was clambering up the rocks, with Abbas protesting at his heels. Had the two fugitives carried away all the camels, or had they been content to save themselves? The brass gleam from a litter of empty Remington cases caught his eye, and showed where the enemy had been crouching. And then he could have shouted for joy, for there, in the hollow, some little distance off, rose the high, graceful white neck and the elegant head of such a camel as he had never set eyes upon before—a swan-like, beautiful creature, as far from the rough, clumsy baggles as the cart-horse is from the racer.
The beast was kneeling under the shelter of the rocks with its waterskin and bag of doora slung over its shoulders, and its forelegs tethered Arab fashion with a rope round the knees. Anerley threw his leg over the front pommel while Abbas slipped off the cord. Forward flew Anerley towards the creature's neck, then violently backwards, clawing madly at anything which might save him, and then, with a jerk which nearly snapped his loins, he was thrown forward again. But the camel was on its legs now, and the young pressman was safely seated upon one of the fliers of the desert. It was as gentle as it was swift, and it stood oscillating its long neck and gazing round with its large brown eyes, whilst Anerley coiled his legs round the peg and grasped the curved camel-stick which Abbas had handed up to him. There were two bridle-cords, one from the nostril and one from the neck, but he remembered that Scott had said that it was the servant's and not the house-bell which had to be pulled, so he kept his grasp upon the lower. Then he touched the long, vibrating neck with his stick, and in an instant Abbas' farewells seemed to come from far behind him, and the black rocks and yellow sand were dancing past on either side.
It was his first experience of a trotting camel, and at first the motion, although irregular and abrupt, was not unpleasant. Having no stirrup or fixed point of any kind, he could not rise to it, but he gripped as tightly as he could with his knee, and he tried to sway backwards and forwards as he had seen the Arabs do. It was a large, very concave Makloofa saddle, and he was conscious that he was bouncing about on it with as little power of adhesion as a billiard-ball upon a tea-tray. He gripped the two sides with his hands to hold himself steady. The creature had got into its long, swinging, stealthy trot, its sponge-like feet making no sound upon the hard sand. Anerley leaned back with his two hands gripping hard behind him, and he whooped the creature on.
The sun had already sunk behind the line of black volcanic peaks, which look like huge slag-heaps at the mouth of a mine. The western sky had taken that lovely light-green and pale-pink tint which makes evening beautiful upon the Nile, and the old brown river itself, swirling down amongst the black rocks, caught some shimmer of the colours above. The glare, the heat, and the piping of the insects had all ceased together. In spite of his aching head, Anerley could have cried out for pure physical joy as the swift creature beneath him flew along with him through that cool, invigorating air, with the virile north wind soothing his pringling face.
He had looked at his watch, and now he made a swift calculation of times and distances. It was past six when he had left the camp. Over broken ground it was impossible that he could hope to do more than seven miles an hour —less on bad parts, more on the smooth. His recollection of the track was that there were few smooth and many bad. He would be lucky, then, if he reached Sarras anywhere from twelve to one. Then the messages took a good two hours to go through, for they had to be transcribed at Cairo. At the best he could only hope to have told his story in Fleet Street at two or three in the morning. It was possible that he might manage it, but the chances seemed enormously against him. About three the morning edition would be made up, and his chance gone for ever. The one thing clear was that only the first man at the wires would have any chance at all, and Anerley meant to be first if hard riding could do it. So he tapped away at the bird-like neck, and the creature's long, loose limbs went faster and faster at every tap. Where the rocky spurs ran down to the river, horses would have to go round, while camels might get across, so that Anerley felt that he was always gaining upon his companions.
But there was a price to be paid for the feeling. He had heard of men who had burst when on camel journeys, and he knew that the Arabs swathe their bodies tightly in broad cloth bandages when they prepare for a long march. It had seemed unnecessary and ridiculous when he first began to speed over the level track, but now, when he got on the rocky paths, he understood what it meant. Never for an instant was he at the same angle. Backwards, forwards he swung, with a tingling jar at the end of each sway, until he ached from his neck to his knee. It caught him across the shoulders, it caught him down the spine, it gripped him over the loins, it marked the lower line of his ribs with one heavy, dull throb. He clutched here and there with his hand to try to ease the strain upon his muscles. He drew up his knees, altered his seat, and set his teeth with a grim determination to go through with it should it kill him. His head was splitting, his flayed face smarting, and every joint in his body aching as if it were dislocated. But he forgot all that when, with the rising of the moon, he heard the clinking of horses' hoofs down upon the track by the river, and knew that, unseen by them, he had already got well abreast of his companions. But he was hardly half-way and the time already eleven.
All day the needles had been ticking away without intermission in the little corrugated iron hut which served as a telegraph station in Sarras. With its bare walls and its packing-case seats it was none the less for the moment one of the vital spots upon the earth's surface, and the crisp, importunate ticking might have come from the world-old clock of Destiny. Many august people had been at the other end of those wires, and had communed with the moist-faced military clerk. A French Premier had demanded a pledge, and an English marquis had passed on the request to the General in command, with a question as to how it would affect the situation. Cipher telegrams had nearly driven the clerk out of his wits, for of all crazy occupations the taking of a cipher message, when you are without the key to the cipher, is the worst. Much high diplomacy had been going on all day in the innermost chambers of European chancelleries, and the results of it had been whispered into this little corrugated iron hut. About two in the morning an enormous dispatch had come at last to an end, and the weary operator had opened the door, and was lighting his pipe in the cool, fresh air, when he saw a camel plump down in the dust, and a man, who seemed to be in the last stage of drunkenness, come rolling towards him.
"What's the time?" he cried, in a voice which appeared to be the only sober thing about him.
It was on the clerk's lips to say that it was time that the questioner was in his bed, but it is not safe upon a campaign to be ironical at the expense of khaki-clad men. He contented himself therefore with the bald statement that it was after two.
But no retort that he could have devised could have had a more crushing effect. The voice turned drunken also, and the man caught at the door-post to uphold him.
"Two o'clock! I'm done after all!" said he. His head was tied up in a bloody handkerchief, his face was crimson, and he stood with his legs crooked as if the pith had all gone out of his back. The clerk began to realize that something out of the ordinary was in the wind.
"How long does it take to get a wire to London?"
"About two hours."
"And it's two now. I could not get it there before four."
"But you said two hours."
"Yes, but there's more than an hour's difference in longitude."
"By Heaven, I'll do it yet!" cried Anerley, and staggering to a packing- case, he began the dictation of his famous dispatch.
And so it came about that the Gazette had a long column, with headlines like an epitaph, when the sheets of the Intelligence and the Courier were as blank as the faces of their editors. And so, too, it happened that when two weary men, upon two foundered horses, arrived about four in the morning at the Sarras post-office they looked at each other in silence and departed noiselessly, with the conviction that there are some situations with which the English language is not capable of dealing.
When the great wars of the Spanish Succession had been brought to an end by the Treaty of Utrecht, the vast number of privateers which had been fitted out by the contending parties found their occupation gone.Some took to the more peaceful but less lucrative ways of ordinary commerce, others were absorbed into the fishing fleets, and a few of the more reckless hoisted the Jolly Rodger at the mizzen, and the bloody flag at the main, declaring a private war upon their own account against the whole human race.
With mixed crews, recruited from every nation, they scoured the seas, disappearing occasionally to careen in some lonely inlet, or putting in for a debauch at some outlying port, where they dazzled the inhabitants by their lavishness, and horrified them by their brutalities.
On the Coromandel Coast, at Madagascar, in the African waters, and above all in the West Indian and American seas, the pirates were a constant menace.With an insolent luxury they would regulate their depredations by the comfort of the seasons, harrying New England in the summer, and dropping south again to the tropical islands in the winter.
They were the more to be dreaded because they had none of that discipline and restraint which made their predecessors, the Buccaneers, both formidable and respectable.These Ishmaels of the sea rendered an account to no man, and treated their prisoners according to the drunken whim of the moment.Flashes of grotesque generosity alternated with longer stretches of inconceivable ferocity, and the skipper who fell into their hands might find himself dismissed with his cargo, after serving as boon companion in some hideous debauch, or might sit at his cabin table with his own nose and his lips served up with pepper and salt in front of him.It took a stout seaman in those days to ply his calling in the Caribbean Gulf.
Such a man was Captain John Scarrow, of the ship Morning Star, and yet he breathed a long sigh of relief when he heard the splash of the falling anchor and swung at his moorings within a hundred yards of the guns of the citadel of Basseterre.St. Kitt's was his final port of call, and early next morning his bowsprit would be pointed for Old England.He had had enough of those robber-haunted seas.Ever since he had left Maracaibo upon the Main, with his full lading of sugar and red pepper, he had winced at every topsail which glimmered over the violet edge of the tropical sea.He had coasted up the Windward Islands, touching here and there, and assailed continually by stories of villainy and outrage.
Captain Sharkey, of the twenty-gun pirate barque, Happy Delivery, had passed down the coast, and had littered it with gutted vessels and with murdered men.Dreadful anecdotes were current of his grim pleasantries and of his inflexible ferocity.From the Bahamas to the Main his coal-black barque, with the ambiguous name, had been freighted with death and many things which are worse than death.So nervous was Captain Scarrow, with his new full-rigged ship, and her full and valuable lading, that he struck out to the west as far as Bird's Island to be out of the usual track of commerce.And yet even in those solitary waters he had been unable to shake off sinister traces of Captain Sharkey.
One morning they had raised a single skiff adrift upon the face of the ocean.Its only occupant was a delirious seaman, who yelled hoarsely as they hoisted him aboard, and showed a dried-up tongue like a black and wrinkled fungus at the back of his mouth.Water and nursing soon transformed him into the strongest and smartest sailor on the ship. He was from Marblehead, in New England, it seemed, and was the sole survivor of a schooner which had been scuttled by the dreadful Sharkey.
For a week Hiram Evanson, for that was his name, had been adrift beneath a tropical sun.Sharkey had ordered the mangled remains of his late captain to be thrown into the boat, "as provisions for the voyage," but the seaman had at once committed it to the deep, lest the temptation should be more than he could bear.He had lived upon his own huge frame until, at the last moment, the Morning Star had found him in that madness which is the precursor of such a death.It was no bad find for Captain Scarrow, for, with a short-handed crew, such a seaman as this big New Englander was a prize worth having.He vowed that he was the only man whom Captain Sharkey had ever placed under an obligation.
Now that they lay under the guns of Basseterre, all danger from the pirate was at an end, and yet the thought of him lay heavily upon the seaman's mind as he watched the agent's boat shooting out from the Custom-house quay.
"I'll lay you a wager, Morgan," said he to the first mate, "that the agent will speak of Sharkey in the first hundred words that pass his lips."
"Well, captain, I'll have you a silver dollar, and chance it," said the rough old Bristol man beside him.
The negro rowers shot the boat alongside, and the linen-clad steersman sprang up the ladder."Welcome, Captain Scarrow!" he cried. "Have you heard about Sharkey?"
The captain grinned at the mate.
"What devilry has he been up to now?" he asked.
"Devilry!You've not heard, then?Why, we've got him safe under lock and key at Basseterre.He was tried last Wednesday, and he is to be hanged to-morrow morning."
Captain and mate gave a shout of joy, which an instant later was taken up by the crew.Discipline was forgotten as they scrambled up through the break of the poop to hear the news.The New Englander was in the front of them with a radiant face turned up to Heaven, for he came of the Puritan stock.
"Sharkey to be hanged!" he cried."You don't know, Master Agent, if they lack a hangman, do you?"
"Stand back!" cried the mate, whose outraged sense of discipline was even stronger than his interest at the news."I'll pay that dollar, Captain Scarrow, with the lightest heart that ever I paid a wager yet. How came the villain to be taken?"
"Why, as to that, he became more than his own comrades could abide, and they took such a horror of him that they would not have him on the ship. So they marooned him upon the Little Mangles to the south of the Mysteriosa Bank, and there he was found by a Portobello trader, who brought him in.There was talk of sending him to Jamaica to be tried, but our good little Governor, Sir Charles Ewan, would not hear of it. 'He's my meat,' said he, 'and I claim the cooking of it.'If you can stay till to-morrow morning at ten, you'll see the joint swinging."
"I wish I could," said the captain, wistfully, "but I am sadly behind time now.I should start with the evening tide."
"That you can't do," said the agent with decision."The Governor is going back with you."
"Yes.He's had a dispatch from Government to return without delay. The fly- boat that brought it has gone on to Virginia.So Sir Charles has been waiting for you, as I told him you were due before the rains."
"Well, well!" cried the captain in some perplexity, "I'm a plain seaman, and I don't know much of governors and baronets and their ways.I don't remember that I ever so much as spoke to one.But if it's in King George's service, and he asks a cast in the Morning Star as far as London, I'll do what I can for him.There's my own cabin he can have and welcome.As to the cooking, it's lobscouse and salmagundy six days in the week; but he can bring his own cook aboard with him if he thinks our galley too rough for his taste."
"You need not trouble your mind, Captain Scarrow," said the agent. "Sir Charles is in weak health just now, only clear of a quartan ague, and it is likely he will keep his cabin most of the voyage. Dr. Larousse said that he would have sunk had the hanging of Sharkey not put fresh life into him.He has a great spirit in him, though, and you must not blame him if he is somewhat short in his speech."
"He may say what he likes, and do what he likes, so long as he does not come athwart my hawse when I am working the ship," said the captain. "He is Governor of St. Kitt's, but I am Governor of the Morning Star, and, by his leave, I must weigh with the first tide, for I owe a duty to my employer, just as he does to King George."
"He can scarce be ready to-night, for he has many things to set in order before he leaves."
"The early morning tide, then."
"Very good.I shall send his things aboard to-night; and he will follow them to-morrow early if I can prevail upon him to leave St. Kitt's without seeing Sharkey do the rogue's hornpipe.His own orders were instant, so it may be that he will come at once.It is likely that Dr. Larousse may attend him upon the journey."
Left to themselves, the captain and mate made the best preparations which they could for their illustrious passenger.The largest cabin was turned out and adorned in his honour, and orders were given by which barrels of fruit and some cases of wine should be brought off to vary the plain food of an ocean-going trader.In the evening the Governor's baggage began to arrive —great iron-bound ant-proof trunks, and official tin packing-cases, with other strange-shaped packages, which suggested the cocked hat or the sword within.And then there came a note, with a heraldic device upon the big red seal, to say that Sir Charles Ewan made his compliments to Captain Scarrow, and that he hoped to be with him in the morning as early as his duties and his infirmities would permit.
He was as good as his word, for the first grey of dawn had hardly begun to deepen into pink when he was brought alongside, and climbed with some difficulty up the ladder.The captain had heard that the Governor was an eccentric, but he was hardly prepared for the curious figure who came limping feebly down his quarter-deck, his steps supported by a thick bamboo cane.He wore a Ramillies wig, all twisted into little tails like a poodle's coat, and cut so low across the brow that the large green glasses which covered his eyes looked as if they were hung from it.A fierce beak of a nose, very long and very thin, cut the air in front of him.His ague had caused him to swathe his throat and chin with a broad linen cravat, and he wore a loose damask powdering-gown secured by a cord round the waist.As he advanced he carried his masterful nose high in the air, but his head turned slowly from side to side in the helpless manner of the purblind, and he called in a high, querulous voice for the captain.
"You have my things?" he asked.
"Yes, Sir Charles."
"Have you wine aboard?"
"I have ordered five cases, sir."
"There is a keg of Trinidad."
"You play a hand at picquet?"
"Passably well, sir."
"Then anchor up, and to sea!"
There was a fresh westerly wind, so by the time the sun was fairly through the morning haze, the ship was hull down from the islands. The decrepit Governor still limpid the deck, with one guiding hand upon the quarter rail.
"You are on Government service now, captain," said he."They are counting the days till I come to Westminster, I promise you.Have you all that she will carry?"
"Every inch, Sir Charles."
"Keep her so if you blow the sails out of her.I fear, Captain Scarrow, that you will find a blind and broken man a poor companion for your voyage."
"I am honoured in enjoying your Excellency's society," said the captain. "But I am sorry that your eyes should be so afflicted."
"Yes, indeed.It is the cursed glare of the sun on the white streets of Basseterre which has gone far to burn them out."
"I had heard also that you had been plagued by a quartan ague."
"Yes; I have had a pyrexy, which has reduced me much."
"We had set aside a cabin for your surgeon."
"Ah, the rascal!There was no budging him, for he has a snug business amongst the merchants.But hark!"He raised his ring-covered band in the air.From far astern there came the low, deep thunder of cannon.
"It is from the island!" cried the captain in astonishment."Can it be a signal for us to put back?"
The Governor laughed."You have heard that Sharkey, the pirate, is to be hanged this morning.I ordered the batteries to salute when the rascal was kicking his last, so that I might know of it out at sea. There's an end of Sharkey!"
"There's an end of Sharkey!" cried the captain; and the crew took up the cry as they gathered in little knots upon the deck and stared back at the low, purple line of the vanishing land.
It was a cheering omen for their start across the Western Ocean, and the invalid Governor found himself a popular man on board, for it was generally understood that but for his insistence upon an immediate trial and sentence, the villain might have played upon some more venal judge and so escaped.At dinner that day Sir Charles gave many anecdotes of the deceased pirate; and so affable was he, and so skilful in adapting his conversation to men of lower degree, that captain, mate, and Governor smoked their long pipes, and drank their claret as three good comrades should.
"And what figure did Sharkey cut in the dock?" asked the captain.
"He is a man of some presence," said the Governor.
"I had always understood that he was an ugly, sneering devil," remarked the mate.
"Well, I dare say he could look ugly upon occasions," said the Governor.
"I have heard a New Bedford whaleman say that he could not forget his eyes," said Captain Scarrow."They were of the lightest filmy blue, with red- rimmed lids.Was that not so, Sir Charles?"
"Alas, my own eyes will not permit me to know much of those of others! But I remember now that the adjutant-general said that he had such an eye as you describe, and added that the jury was so foolish as to be visibly discomposed when it was turned upon them.It is well for them that he is dead, for he was a man who would never forget an injury, and if he had laid hands upon any one of them he would have stuffed him with straw and hung him for a figure-head."
The idea seemed to amuse the Governor, for he broke suddenly into a high, neighing laugh, and the two seamen laughed also, but not so heartily, for they remembered that Sharkey was not the last pirate who sailed the western seas, and that as grotesque a fate might come to be their own.Another bottle was broached to drink to a pleasant voyage, and the Governor would drink just one other on the top of it, so that the seamen were glad at last to stagger off—the one to his watch, and the other to his bunk.But when, after his four hours' spell, the mate came down again, he was amazed to see the Governor, in his Ramillies wig, his glasses, and his powdering-gown, still seated sedately at the lonely table with his reeking pipe and six black bottles by his side.
"I have drunk with the Governor of St. Kitt's when he was sick," said he, "and God forbid that I should ever try to keep pace with him when he is well."
The voyage of the Morning Star was a successful one, and in about three weeks she was at the mouth of the British Channel.From the first day the infirm Governor had begun to recover his strength, and before they were halfway across the Atlantic, he was, save only for his eyes, as well as any man upon the ship.Those who uphold the nourishing qualities of wine might point to him in triumph, for never a night passed that he did not repeat the performance of his first one.And yet be would be out upon deck in the early morning as fresh and brisk as the best of them, peering about with his weak eyes, and asking questions about the sails and the rigging, for he was anxious to learn the ways of the sea.And he made up for the deficiency of his eyes by obtaining leave from the captain that the New England seaman— he who had been cast away in the boat—should lead him about, and, above all, that he should sit beside him when he played cards and count the number of the pips, for unaided he could not tell the king from the knave.
It was natural that this Evanson should do the Governor willing service, since the one was the victim of the vile Sharkey and the other was his avenger.One could see that it was a pleasure to the big American to lend his arm to the invalid, and at night he would stand with all respect behind his chair in the cabin and lay his great stub-nailed forefinger upon the card which he should play.Between them there was little in the pockets either of Captain Scarrow or of Morgan, the first mate, by the time they sighted the Lizard.
And it was not long before they found that all they had heard of the high temper of Sir Charles Ewan fell short of the mark.At a sign of opposition or a word of argument his chin would shoot out from his cravat, his masterful nose would be cocked at a higher and more insolent angle, and his bamboo cane would whistle up over his shoulders. He cracked it once over the head of the carpenter when the man had accidentally jostled him upon the deck.Once, too, when there was some grumbling and talk of a mutiny over the state of the provisions, he was of opinion that they should not wait for the dogs to rise, but that they should march forward and set upon them until they had trounced the devilment out of them."Give me a knife and a bucket!" he cried with an oath, and could hardly be withheld from setting forth alone to deal with the spokesman of the seamen.
Captain Scarrow had to remind him that though he might be only answerable to himself at St. Kitt's, killing became murder upon the high seas.In politics he was, as became his official position, a stout prop of the House of Hanover, and he swore in his cups that he had never met a Jacobite without pistolling him where he stood.Yet for all his vapouring and his violence he was so good a companion, with such a stream of strange anecdote and reminiscence, that Scarrow and Morgan had never known a voyage pass so pleasantly.
And then at length came the last day, when, after passing the island, they had struck land again at the high white cliffs at Beachy Head.As evening fell the ship lay rolling in an oily calm, a league off from Winchelsea, with the long, dark snout of Dungeness jutting out in front of her.Next morning they would pick up their pilot at the Foreland, and Sir Charles might meet the King's ministers at Westminster before the evening.The boatswain had the watch, and the three friends were met for a last turn of cards in the cabin, the faithful American still serving as eyes to the Governor.There was a good stake upon the table, for the sailors had tried on this last night to win their losses back from their passenger.Suddenly he threw his cards down, and swept all the money into the pocket of his long-flapped silken waistcoat.
"The game's mine!" said he.
"Heh, Sir Charles, not so fast!" cried Captain Scarrow; "you have not played out the hand, and we are not the losers."
"Sink you for a liar!" said the Governor."I tell you I have played out the hand, and that you are a loser."He whipped off his wig and his glasses as he spoke, and there was a high, bald forehead, and a pair of shifty blue eyes with the red rims of a bull terrier.
"Good God!" cried the mate."It's Sharkey!"
The two sailors sprang from their seats, but the big American castaway had put his huge back against the cabin door, and he held a pistol in each of his hands.The passenger had also laid a pistol upon the scattered cards in front of him, and he burst into his high, neighing laugh."Captain Sharkey is the name, gentlemen," said he, "and this is Roaring Ned Galloway, the quartermaster of the Happy Delivery. We made it hot, and so they marooned us: me on a dry Tortuga cay, and him in an oarless boat.You dogs —you poor, fond, water-hearted dogs—we hold you at the end of our pistols!"
"You may shoot, or you may not!" cried Scarrow, striking his hand upon the breast of his frieze jacket."If it's my last breath, Sharkey, I tell you that you are a bloody rogue and miscreant, with a halter and hell-fire in store for you!"
"There's a man of spirit, and one of my own kidney, and he's going to make a very pretty death of it!" cried Sharkey."There's no one aft save the man at the wheel, so you may keep your breath, for you'll need it soon.Is the dinghy astern, Ned?"
"Ay, ay, captain!"
"And the other boats scuttled?"
"I bored them all in three places."
"Then we shall have to leave you, Captain Scarrow.You look as if you hadn't quite got your bearings yet.Is there anything you'd like to ask me?"
"I believe you're the devil himself!" cried the captain."Where is the Governor of St. Kitt's?"
"When last I saw him his Excellency was in bed with his throat cut. When I broke prison I learnt from my friends—for Captain Sharkey has those who love him in every port—that the Governor was starting for Europe under a master who had never seen him.I climbed his verandah, and I paid him the little debt that I owed him.Then I came aboard you with such of his things as I had need of, and a pair of glasses to hide these tell-tale eyes of mine, and I have ruffled it as a governor should.Now, Ned, you can get to work upon them."
"Help! help! Watch ahoy!" yelled the mate;but the butt of the pirate's pistol crashed down on his head, and he dropped like a pithed ox. Scarrow rushed for the door, but the sentinel clapped his hand over his mouth, and threw his other arm round his waist.
"No use, Master Scarrow," said Sharkey."Let us see you go down on your knees and beg for your life."
"I'll see you—" cried Scarrow, shaking his mouth clear.
"Twist his arm round, Ned.Now will you?"
"No; not if you twist it off."
"Put an inch of your knife into him."
"You may put six inches, and then I won't."
"Sink me, but I like his spirit!" cried Sharkey."Put your knife in your pocket, Ned.You've saved your skin, Scarrow, and it's a pity so stout a man should not take to the only trade where a pretty fellow can pick up a living.You must be born for no common death, Scarrow, since you have lain at my mercy and lived to tell the story.Tie him up, Ned."
"To the stove, captain?"
"Tut, tut! there's a fire in the stove.None of your rover tricks, Ned Galloway, unless they are called for, or I'll let you know which of us two is captain and which is quartermaster.Make him fast to the table."
"Nay, I thought you meant to roast him!" said the quartermaster. "You surely do not mean to let him go?"
"If you and I were marooned on a Bahama cay, Ned Galloway, it is still for me to command and for you to obey.Sink you for a villain, do you dare to question my orders?"
"Nay, nay, Captain Sharkey, not so hot, sir!" said the quartermaster, and, lifting Scarrow like a child, he laid him on the table.With the quick dexterity of a seaman, he tied his spread-eagled hands and feet with a rope which was passed underneath, and gagged him securely with the long cravat which used to adorn the chin of the Governor of St. Kitt's.
"Now, Captain Scarrow, we must take our leave of you," said the pirate. "If I had half a dozen of my brisk boys at my heels I should have had your cargo and your ship, but Roaring Ned could not find a foremast hand with the spirit of a mouse.I see there are some small craft about, and we shall get one of them.When Captain Sharkey has a boat he can get a smack, when he has a smack he can get a brig, when he has a brig he can get a barque, and when he has a barque he'll soon have a full-rigged ship of his own—so make haste into London town, or I may be coming back, after all, for the Morning Star."
Captain Scarrow heard the key turn in the lock as they left the cabin. Then, as he strained at his bonds, he heard their footsteps pass up the companion and along the quarter-deck to where the dinghy hung in the stern.Then, still struggling and writhing, he heard the creak of the falls and the splash of the boat in the water.In a mad fury he tore and dragged at his ropes, until at last, with flayed wrists and ankles, he rolled from the table, sprang over the dead mate, kicked his way through the closed door, and rushed hatless on to the deck.
"Ahoy! Peterson, Armitage,Wilson!" he screamed."Cutlasses and pistols!Clear away the long-boat!Clear away the gig!Sharkey, the pirate, is in yonder dinghy. Whistle up the larboard watch, bo'sun, and tumble into the boats, all hands."
Down splashed the long-boat and down splashed the gig, but in an instant the coxswains and crews were swarming up the falls on to the deck once more.
"The boats are scuttled!" they cried."They are leaking like a sieve."
The captain gave a bitter curse.He had been beaten and outwitted at every point.Above was a cloudless, starlit sky, with neither wind nor the promise of it.The sails flapped idly in the moonlight.Far away lay a fishing-smack, with the men clustering over their net.Close to them was the little dinghy, dipping and lifting over the shining swell.
"They are dead men!" cried the captain."A shout all together, boys, to warn them of their danger."But it was too late.At that very moment the dinghy shot into the shadow of the fishing-boat.There were two rapid pistol-shots, a scream, and then another pistol-shot, followed by silence.The clustering fishermen had disappeared.And then, suddenly, as the first puffs of a land- breeze came out from the Sussex shore, the boom swung out, the mainsail filled, and the little craft crept out with her nose to the Atlantic.
Careening was a very necessary operation for the old pirate. On his superior speed he depended both for overhauling the trader and escaping the man-of-war. But it was impossible to retain his sailing qualities unless he periodically—once a year, at the least—cleared his vessel's bottom from the long, trailing plants and crusting barnacles which gather so rapidly in the tropical seas. For this purpose he lightened his vessel, thrust her into some narrow inlet where she would be left high and dry at low water, fastened blocks and tackles to her masts to pull her over on to her bilge, and then scraped her thoroughly from rudder-post to cut-water.
During the weeks which were thus occupied the ship was, of course, defenceless; but, on the other hand, she was unapproachable by anything heavier than an empty hull, and the place for careening was chosen with an eye to secrecy, so that there was no great danger. So secure did the captains feel, that it was not uncommon for them, at such times, to leave their ships under a sufficient guard, and to start off in the long-boat, either upon a sporting expedition or, more frequently, upon a visit to some outlying town, where they burned the heads of the women by their swaggering gallantry, or broached pipes of wine in the market square, with a threat to pistol all who would not drink with them.
Sometimes they would even appear in cities of the size of Charleston, and walk the streets with their clattering side-arms—an open scandal to the whole law-abiding colony. Such visits were not always paid with impunity. It was one of them, for example, which provoked Lieutenant Maynard to hack off Blackbeard's head, and to spear it upon the end of his bowsprit. But, as a rule, the pirate ruffled and bullied and drabbed without let or hindrance, until it was time for him to go back to his ship once more.
There was one pirate, however, who never crossed even the skirts of civilisation, and that was the sinister Sharkey, of the barque Happy Delivery. It may have been from his morose and solitary temper, or, as is more probable, that he knew that his name upon the coast was such that outraged humanity would, against all odds, have thrown themselves upon him, but never once did he show his face in a settlement.
When his ship was laid up he would leave her under the charge of Ned Galloway—her New England quartermaster—and would take long voyages in his boat, sometimes, it was said, for the purpose of burying his share of the plunder, and sometimes to shoot the wild oxen of Hispaniola, which, when dressed and barbecued, provided provisions for his next voyage. In the latter case the barque would come round to some pre-arranged spot to pick him up, and take on board what he had shot.
There had always been a hope in the islands that Sharkey might be taken on one of these occasions; and at last there came news to Kingston which seemed to justify an attempt upon him. It was brought by an elderly logwood-cutter who had fallen into the pirate's hands, and in some freak of drunken benevolence had been allowed to get away with nothing worse than a slit nose and a drubbing. His account was recent and definite. The Happy Delivery was careening at Torbec on the south-west of Hispaniola. Sharkey, with four men, was buccaneering on the outlying island of La Vache. The blood of a hundred murdered crews was calling out for vengeance, and now at last it seemed as if it might not call in vain.
Sir Edward Compton, the high-nosed, red-faced Governor, sitting in solemn conclave with the commandant and the head of the council, was sorely puzzled in his mind as to how he should use this chance. There was no man-of-war nearer than Jamestown, and she was a clumsy old fly-boat, which could neither overhaul the pirate on the seas, nor reach her in a shallow inlet. There were forts and artillerymen both at Kingston and Port Royal, but no soldiers available for an expedition.
A private venture might be fitted out—and there were many who had a blood-feud with Sharkey—but what could a private venture do? The pirates were numerous and desperate. As to taking Sharkey and his four companions, that, of course, would be easy if they could get at them; but how were they to get at them on a large well-wooded island like La Vache, full of wild hills and impenetrable jungles?A reward was offered to whoever could find a solution, and that brought a man to the front who had a singular plan, and was himself prepared to carry it out.
Stephen Craddock had been that most formidable person, the Puritan gone wrong. Sprung from a decent Salem family, his ill-doing seemed to be a recoil from the austerity of their religion, and he brought to vice all the physical strength and energy with which the virtues of his ancestors had endowed him. He was ingenious, fearless, and exceedingly tenacious of purpose, so that when he was still young, his name became notorious upon the American coast. He was the same Craddock who was tried for his life in Virginia for the slaying of the Seminole Chief, and, though he escaped, it was well known that he had corrupted the witnesses and bribed the judge.
Afterwards, as a slaver, and even, as it was hinted, as a pirate, he had left an evil name behind him in the Bight of Benin. Finally he had returned to Jamaica with a considerable fortune, and had settled down to a life of sombre dissipation. This was the man, gaunt, austere, and dangerous, who now waited upon the Governor with a plan for the extirpation of Sharkey. Sir Edward received him with little enthusiasm, for in spite of some rumours of conversion and reformation, he had always regarded him as an infected sheep who might taint the whole of his little flock. Craddock saw the Governor's mistrust under his thin veil of formal and restrained courtesy.
"You've no call to fear me, sir," said he; "I'm a changed man from what you've known. I've seen the light again of late, after losing sight of it for many a black year. It was through the ministration of the Rev. John Simons, of our own people. Sir, if your spirit should be in need of quickening, you would find a very sweet savour in his discourse."
The Governor cocked his episcopalian nose at him.
"You came here to speak of Sharkey, Master Craddock," said he.
"The man Sharkey is a vessel of wrath," said Craddock. "His wicked horn has been exalted over long, and it is borne in upon me that if I can cut him off and utterly destroy him, it will be a goodly deed, and one which may atone for many backslidings in the past. A plan has been given to me whereby I may encompass his destruction."
The Governor was keenly interested, for there was a grim and practical air about the man's freckled face which showed that he was in earnest. After all, he was a seaman and a fighter, and, if it were true that he was eager to atone for his past, no better man could be chosen for the business.
"This will be a dangerous task, Master Craddock," said he.
"If I meet my death at it, it may be that it will cleanse the memory of an ill-spent life. I have much to atone for."
The Governor did not see his way to contradict him.
"What was your plan?" he asked.
"You have heard that Sharkey's barque, the Happy Delivery, came from this very port of Kingston?"
"It belonged to Mr. Codrington, and it was taken by Sharkey, who scuttled his own sloop and moved into her because she was faster," said Sir Edward.
"Yes; but it may be that you have lever heard that Mr. Codrington has a sister ship, the White Rose, which lies even now in the harbour, and which is so like the pirate, that, if it were not for a white paint line, none could tell them apart."
"Ah! and what of that?" asked the Governor keenly, with the air of one who is just on the edge of an idea.
"By the help of it this man shall be delivered into our hands."
"I will paint out the streak upon the White Rose, and make it in all things like the Happy Delivery. Then I will set sail for the Island of La Vache, where this man is slaying the wild oxen. When he sees me he will surely mistake me for his own vessel which he is awaiting, and he will come on board to his own undoing."
It was a simple plan, and yet it seemed to the Governor that it might be effective. Without hesitation he gave Craddock permission to carry it out, and to take any steps he liked in order to further the object which he had in view. Sir Edward was not very sanguine, for many attempts had been made upon Sharkey, and their results had shown that he was as cunning as he was ruthless. But this gaunt Puritan with the evil record was cunning aid ruthless also. The contest of wits between two such men as Sharkey and Craddock appealed to the Governor's acute sense of sport, and though he was inwardly convinced that the chances were against him, he backed his man with the same loyalty which he would have shown to his horse or his cock.
Haste was, above all things, necessary, for upon any day the careening might be finished, and the pirates out at sea once more. But there was not very much to do, and there were many willing hands to do it, so the second day saw the White Rose beating out for the open sea. There were many seamen in the port who knew the lines and rig of the pirate barque, and not one of them could see the slightest difference in this counterfeit. Her white side line had been painted out, her masts and yards were smoked, to give them the dingy appearance of the weather-beaten rover, and a large diamond-shaped patch was let into her foretopsail. Her crew were volunteers, many of them being men who had sailed with Stephen Craddock before—the mate, Joshua Hird, an old slaver, had been his accomplice in many voyages, and came now at the bidding of his chief.
The avenging barque sped across the Caribbean Sea, and, at the sight of that patched topsail, the little craft which they met flew left and right like frightened trout in a pool. On the fourth evening Point Abacou bore five miles to the north and east of them. On the fifth they were at anchor in the Bay of Tortoises at the Island of La Vache, where Sharkey and his four men had been hunting. It was a well-wooded place, with the palms and underwood growing down to the thin crescent of silver sand which skirted the shore. They had hoisted the black flag and the red pennant, but no answer came from the shore. Craddock strained his eyes, hoping every instant to see a boat shoot out to them with Sharkey seated in the sheets. But the night passed away, and a day and yet another night, without any sign of the men whom they were endeavouring to trap. It looked as if they were already gone.
On the second morning Craddock went ashore in search of some proof whether Sharkey and his men were still upon the island. What he found reassured him greatly. Close to the shore was a boucan of green wood, such as was used for preserving the meat, and a great store of barbecued strips of ox-flesh was hung upon lines all round it. The pirate ship had not taken off her provisions, and therefore the hunters were still upon the island.
Why had they not shown themselves? Was it that they had detected that this was not their own ship?Or was it that they were hunting in the interior of the island, and were not on the look-out for a ship yet? Craddock was still hesitating between the two alternatives, when a Carib Indian came down with information. The pirates were in the island, he said, and their camp was a day's march from the Sea. They had stolen his wife, and the marks of their stripes were still pink upon his brown back. Their enemies were his friends, and he would lead them to where they lay.
Craddock could not have asked for anything better; so early next morning, with a small party armed to the teeth, he set off, under the guidance of the Carib. All day they struggled through brushwood and clambered over rocks, pushing their way further and further into the desolate heart of the island. Here and there they found traces of the hunters, the bones of a slain ox, or the marks of feet in a morass, and once, towards evening, it seemed to some of them that they heard the distant rattle of guns.
That night they spent under the trees, and pushed on again with the earliest light. About noon they came to the huts of bark, which, the Carib told them, were the camp of the hunters, but they were silent and deserted. No doubt their occupants were away at the hunt and would return in the evening, so Craddock and his men lay in ambush in the brushwood around them. But no one came, and another night was spent in the forest. Nothing more could be done, and it seemed to Craddock that after the two days' absence it was time that he returned to his ship once more.
The return journey was less difficult, as they had already blazed a path for themselves. Before evening they found themselves once more at the Bay of Palms, and saw their ship riding at anchor where they had left her. Their boat and oars had been hauled up among the bushes, so they launched it and pulled out to the barque.
"No luck, then!" cried Joshua Hird, the mate, looking down with a pale face from the poop.
"His camp was empty, but he may come down to us yet," said Craddock, with his hand on the ladder.
Somebody upon deck began to laugh. "I think," said the mate, "that these men had better stay in the boat."
"If you will come aboard, sir, you will understand it."He spoke in a curious, hesitating fashion.
The blood flushed to Craddock's gaunt face. "How is this, Master Hird?" he cried, springing up the side. "What mean you by giving orders to my boat's crew?"
But as he passed over the bulwarks, with one foot upon the deck and one knee upon the rail, a tow-bearded man, whom he had never before observed aboard his vessel, grabbed suddenly at his pistol. Craddock clutched at the fellow's wrist, but at the same instant his mate snatched the cutlass from his side.
"What roguery is this?" shouted Craddock, looking furiously around him. But the crew stood in knots about the deck, laughing and whispering amongst themselves without showing any desire to go to his assistance. Even in that hurried glance Craddock noticed that they were dressed in the most singular manner, with long riding-coats, full-skirted velvet gowns and coloured ribands at their knees, more like men of fashion than seamen.
As he looked at their grotesque figures he struck his brow with his clenched fist to be sure that he was awake. The deck seemed to be much dirtier than when he had left it, and there were strange, sun-blackened faces turned upon him from every side. Not one of them did he know save only Joshua Hird. Had the ship been captured in his absence?Were these Sharkey's men who were around him?At the thought he broke furiously away and tried to climb over to his boat, but a dozen hands were on him in an instant, and he was pushed aft through the open door of his own cabin.
And it was all different to the cabin which he had left. The floor was different, the ceiling was different, the furniture was different. His had been plain and austere. This was sumptuous and yet dirty, hung with rare velvet curtains splashed with wine-stains, and panelled with costly woods which were pocked with pistol-marks.
On the table was a great chart of the Caribbean Sea, and beside it, with compasses in his hand, sat a clean-shaven, pale-faced man with a fur cap and a claret-coloured coat of damask. Craddock turned white under his freckles as he looked upon the long, thin high-nostrilled nose and the red-rimmed eyes which were turned upon him with the fixed, humorous gaze of the master player who has left his opponent without a move. "Sharkey!" cried Craddock.
Sharkey's thin lips opened, and he broke into his high, sniggering laugh.
"You fool!" he cried, and, leaning over, he stabbed Craddock's shoulder again and again with his compasses. "You poor, dull-witted fool, would you match yourself against me?"
It was not the pain of the wounds, but it was the contempt in Sharkey's voice which turned Craddock into a savage madman. He flew at the pirate, roaring with rage, striking, kicking, writhing, foaming. It took six men to drag him down on to the floor amidst the splintered remains of the table —and not one of the six who did not bear the prisoner's mark upon him. But Sharkey still surveyed him with the same contemptuous eye. From outside there came the crash of breaking wood and the clamour of startled voices.
"What is that?" asked Sharkey.
"They have stove the boat with cold shot, and the men are in the water."
"Let them stay there," said the pirate. "Now, Craddock, you know where you are. You are aboard my ship, the Happy Delivery, and you lie at my mercy. I knew you for a stout seaman, you rogue, before you took to this long-shore canting. Your hands then were no cleaner than my own. Will you sign articles, as your mate has done, and join us, or shall I heave you over to follow your ship's company?"
"Where is my ship?" asked Craddock.
"Scuttled in the bay."
"And the hands?"
"In the bay, too."
"Then I'm for the bay, also."
"Hock him and heave him over," said Sharkey.
Many rough hands had dragged Craddock out upon deck, and Galloway, the quartermaster, had already drawn his hanger to cripple him, when Sharkey came hurrying from his cabin with an eager face. "We can do better with the hound!" he cried. "Sink me if it is not a rare plan. Throw him into the sail-room with the irons on, and do you come here, quarter-master, that I may tell you what I have in my mind."
So Craddock, bruised and wounded in soul and body, was thrown into the dark sail-room, so fettered that he could not stir hand or foot, but his Northern blood was running strong in his veins, and his grim spirit aspired only to make such an ending as might go some way towards atoning for the evil of his life. All night he lay in the curve of the bilge listening to the rush of the water and the straining of the timbers which told him that the ship was at sea and driving fast. In the early morning someone came crawling to him in the darkness over the heap of sails.
"Here's rum and biscuits," said the voice of his late mate. "It's at the risk of my life, Master Craddock, that I bring them to you."
"It was you who trapped me and caught me as in a snare!" cried Craddock. "How shall you answer for what you have done?"
"What I did I did with the point of a knife betwixt my blade-bones."
"God forgive you for a coward, Joshua Hird. How came you into their hands?"
"Why, Master Craddock, the pirate ship came back from its careening upon the very day that you left us. They laid us aboard, and, short-handed as we were, with the best of the men ashore with you, we could offer but a poor defence. Some were cut down, and they were the happiest. The others were killed afterwards. As to me, I saved my life by signing on with them."
"And they scuttled my ship?"
"They scuttled her, and then Sharkey and his men, who had been watching us from the brushwood, came off to the ship. His mainyard had been cracked and fished last voyage, so he had suspicions of us, seeing that ours was whole. Then he thought of laying the same trap for you which you had set for him."
Craddock groaned. "How came I not to see that fished mainyard?" he muttered. "But whither are we bound?"
"We are running north and west."
"North and west!Then we are heading back towards Jamaica."
"With an eight-knot wind."
"Have you heard what they mean to do with me?"
"I have not heard. If you would but sign the articles—"
"Enough, Joshua Hird!I have risked my soul too often."
"As you wish. I have done what I could. Farewell!"
All that night and the next day the Happy Delivery ran before the easterly trades, and Stephen Craddock lay in the dark of the sail-room working patiently at his wrist-irons. One he had slipped off at the cost of a row of broken and bleeding knuckles, but, do what he would, he could not free the other, and his ankles were securely fastened. From hour to hour he heard the swish of the water, and knew that the barque must be driving with all set in front of the trade wind. In that case they must be nearly back again to Jamaica by now. What plan could Sharkey have in his head, and what use did he hope to make of him? Craddock set his teeth, and vowed that if he had once been a villain from choice he would, at least, never be one by compulsion.
On the second morning Craddock became aware that sail had been reduced in the vessel, and that she was tacking slowly, with a light breeze on her beam. The varying slope of the sail room and the sounds from the deck told his practised senses exactly what she was doing. The short reaches showed him that she was manoeuvring near shore, and making for some definite point. If so, she must have reached Jamaica. But what could she be doing there?
And then suddenly there was a burst of hearty cheering from the deck, and then the crash of a gun above his head, and then the answering booming of guns from far over the water. Craddock sat up and strained his ears. Was the ship in action?Only the one gun had been fired, and though many had answered, there were none of the crashings which told of a shot coming home. Then, if it was not an action, it must be a salute. But who would salute Sharkey, the pirate?It could only be another pirate ship which would do so. So Craddock lay back again with a groan, and continued to work at the manacle which still held his right wrist. But suddenly there came the shuffling of steps outside, and he had hardly time to wrap the loose links round his free hand, when the door was unbolted and two pirates came in.
"Got your hammer, carpenter?" asked one, whom Craddock recognised as the big quartermaster.
"Knock off his leg shackles, then. Better leave the bracelets—he's safer with them on."
With hammer and chisel the carpenter loosened the irons.
"What are you going to do with me?" asked Craddock.
"Come on deck and you'll see."
The sailor seized him by the arm and dragged him roughly to the foot of the companion. Above him was a square of blue sky cut across by the mizzen gaff, with the colours flying at the peak. But it was the sight of those colours which struck the breath from Stephen Craddock's lips. For there were two of them, and the British ensign was flying above the Jolly Rodger— the honest flag above that of the rogue.
For an instant Craddock stopped in amazement, but a brutal push from the pirates behind drove him up the companion ladder. As he stepped out upon deck, his eyes turned up to the main, and there again were the British colours flying above the red pennant, and all the shrouds and rigging were garlanded with streamers.
Had the ship been taken, then?But that was impossible, for there were the pirates clustering in swarms along the port bulwarks, and waving their hats joyously in the air. Most prominent of all was the renegade mate, standing on the foc'sle head, and gesticulating wildly. Craddock looked over the side to see what they were cheering at, and then in a flash he saw how critical was the moment.
On the port bow, and about a mile off, lay the white houses and forts of Port Royal, with flags breaking out everywhere over their roofs. Right ahead was the opening of the palisades leading to the town of Kingston. Not more than a quarter of a mile off was a small sloop working out against the very slight wind. The British ensign was at her peak, and her rigging was all decorated. On her deck could be seen a dense crowd of people cheering and waving their hats, and the gleam of scarlet told that there were officers of the garrison among them.
In an instant, with the quick perception of a man of action, Craddock saw through it all. Sharkey, with that diabolical cunning and audacity which were among his main characteristics, was simulating the part which Craddock would himself have played had he come back victorious. It was in his honour that the salutes were firing and the flags flying. It was to welcome him that this ship with the Governor, the commandant, and the chiefs of the island were approaching. In another ten minutes they would all be under the guns of the Happy Delivery, and Sharkey would have won the greatest stake that ever a pirate played for yet.
"Bring him forward," cried the pirate captain, as Craddock appeared between the carpenter and the quartermaster. "Keep the ports closed, but clear away the port guns, and stand by for a broadside. Another two cable lengths and we have them."
"They are edging away," said the boatswain. "I think they smell us."
"That's soon set right," said Sharkey, turning his filmy eyes upon Craddock. "Stand there, you—right there, where they can recognise you, with your hand on the guy, and wave your hat to them. Quick, or your brains will be over your coat. Put an inch of your knife into him, Ned. Now, will you wave your hat? Try him again, then. Hey, shoot him! Stop him!"
But it was too late. Relying upon the manacles, the quartermaster had taken his hands for a moment off Craddock's arm. In that instant he had flung off the carpenter, and, amid a spatter of pistol bullets, had sprung the bulwarks and was swimming for his life. He had been hit and hit again, but it takes many pistols to kill a resolute and powerful man who has his mind set upon doing something before he dies. He was a strong swimmer, and, in spite of the red trail which he left in the water behind him, he was rapidly increasing his distance from the pirate. "Give me a musket!" cried Sharkey, with a savage oath.
He was a famous shot, and his iron nerves never failed him in an emergency. The dark head appearing on the crest of a roller, and then swooping down on the other side, was already half-way to the sloop. Sharkey dwelt long upon his aim before he fired. With the crack of the gun the swimmer reared himself up in the water, waved his hands in a gesture of warning, and roared out in a voice which rang over the bay. Then, as the sloop swung round her head-sails, and the pirate fired an impotent broadside, Stephen Craddock, smiling grimly in his death agony, sank slowly down to that golden couch which glimmered far beneath him.
The Buccaneers were something higher than a mere band of marauders. They were a floating republic, with laws, usages, and discipline of their own.In their endless and remorseless quarrel with the Spaniards they had some semblance of right upon their side. Their bloody harryings of the cities of the Main were not more barbarous than the inroads of Spain upon the Netherlands—or upon the Caribs in these same American lands.
The chief of the Buccaneers, were he English or French, a Morgan or a Granmont, was still a responsible person, whose country might countenance him, or even praise him, so long as he refrained from any deed which might shock the leathery seventeenth-century conscience too outrageously.Some of them were touched with religion, and it is still remembered how Sawkins threw the dice overboard upon the Sabbath, and Daniel pistolled a man before the altar for irreverence.
But there came a day when the fleets of the Buccaneers no longer mustered at the Tortugas, and the solitary and outlawed pirate took their place.Yet even with him the tradition of restraint and of discipline still lingered; and among the early pirates, the Avorys, the Englands, and the Robertses, there remained some respect for human sentiment.They were more dangerous to the merchant than to the seaman. But they in turn were replaced by more savage and desperate men, who frankly recognised that they would get no quarter in their war with the human race, and who swore that they would give as little as they got. Of their histories we know little that is trustworthy.They wrote no memoirs and left no trace, save an occasional blackened and blood-stained derelict adrift upon the face of the Atlantic. Their deeds could only be surmised from the long roll of ships who never made their port.
Searching the records of history, it is only here and there in an old- world trial that the veil that shrouds them seems for an instant to be lifted, and we catch a glimpse of some amazing and grotesque brutality behind.Such was the breed of Ned Low, of Gow the Scotchman, and of the infamous Sharkey, whose coal-black barque, the Happy Delivery, was known from the Newfoundland Banks to the mouths of the Orinoco as the dark forerunner of misery and of death.
There were many men, both among the islands and on the Main, who had a blood feud with Sharkey, but not one who had suffered more bitterly than Copley Banks, of Kingston.Banks had been one of the leading sugar merchants of the West Indies.He was a man of position, a member of the Council, the husband of a Percival, and the cousin of the Governor of Virginia.His two sons had been sent to London to be educated, and their mother had gone over to bring them back.On their return voyage the ship, the Duchess of Cornwall, fell into the hands of Sharkey, and the whole family met with an infamous death.
Copley Banks said little when he heard the news, but he sank into a morose and enduring melancholy.He neglected his business, avoided his friends, and spent much of his time in the low taverns of the fishermen and seamen.There, amidst riot and devilry, he sat silently puffing at his pipe, with a set face and a smouldering eye.It was generally supposed that his misfortunes had shaken his wits, and his old friends looked at him askance, for the company which he kept was enough to bar him from honest men.
From time to time there came rumours of Sharkey over the sea.Sometimes it was from some schooner which had seen a great flame upon the horizon, and approaching to offer help to the burning ship, had fled away at the sight of the sleek, black barque, lurking like a wolf near a mangled sheep.Sometimes it was a frightened trader, which had come tearing in with her canvas curved like a lady's bodice, because she had seen a patched foretopsail rising slowly above the violet water-line. Sometimes it was from a coaster, which had found a waterless Bahama cay littered with sun-dried bodies.Once there came a man who had been mate of a Guineaman, and who had escaped from the pirate's hands.He could not speak—for reasons which Sharkey could best supply—but he could write, and he did write, to the very great interest of Copley Banks. For hours they sat together over the map, and the dumb man pointed here and there to outlying reefs and tortuous inlets, while his companion sat smoking in silence, with his unvarying face and his fiery eyes.
One morning, some two years after his misfortunes, Mr. Copley Banks strode into his own office with his old air of energy and alertness. The manager stared at him in surprise, for it was months since he had shown any interest in business.
"Good morning, Mr. Banks!" said he.
"Good morning, Freeman.I see that Ruffling Harry is in the Bay."
"Yes, sir; she clears for the Windward Islands on Wednesday."
"I have other plans for her, Freeman.I have determined upon a slaving venture to Whydah."
"But her cargo is ready, sir."
"Then it must come out again, Freeman.My mind is made up, and the Ruffling Harry must go slaving to Whydah."
All argument and persuasion were vain, so the manager had dolefully to clear the ship once more.And then Copley Banks began to make preparations for his African voyage.It appeared that he relied upon force rather than barter for the filling of his hold, for he carried none of those showy trinkets which savages love, but the brig was fitted with eight nine-pounder guns, and racks full of muskets and cutlasses. The after-sailroom next the cabin was transformed into a powder magazine, and she carried as many round shot as a well-found privateer. Water and provisions were shipped for a long voyage.
But the preparation of his ship's company was most surprising.It made Freeman, the manager, realise that there was truth in the rumour that his master had taken leave of his senses.For, under one pretext or another, he began to dismiss the old and tried hands, who had served the firm for years, and in their place he embarked the scum of the port—men whose reputations were so vile that the lowest crimp would have been ashamed to furnish them.There was Birthmark Sweetlocks, who was known to have been present at the killing of the logwood-cutters, so that his hideous scarlet disfigurement was put down by the fanciful as being a red afterglow from that great crime.He was first mate, and under him was Israel Martin, a little sun- wilted fellow who had served with Howell Davies at the taking of Cape Coast Castle.
The crew were chosen from amongst those whom Banks had met and known in their own infamous haunts, and his own table-steward was a haggard-faced man, who gobbled at you when he tried to talk.His beard had been shaved, and it was impossible to recognise him as the same man whom Sharkey had placed under the knife, and who had escaped to tell his experiences to Copley Banks.These doings were not unnoticed, nor yet uncommented upon in the town of Kingston.The Commandant of the troops—Major Harvey of the Artillery —made serious representations to the Governor.
"She is not a trader, but a small warship," said he.
"I think it would be as well to arrest Copley Banks and to seize the vessel."
"What do you suspect?" asked the Governor, who was a slow-witted man, broken down with fevers and port wine.
"I suspect," said the soldier, "that it is Stede Bonnet over again."
Now, Stede Bonnet was a planter of high reputation and religious character who, from some sudden and overpowering freshet of wildness in his blood, had given up everything in order to start off pirating in the Caribbean Sea.The example was a recent one, and it had caused the utmost consternation in the islands. Governors had before now been accused of being in league with pirates, and of receiving commissions upon their plunder, so that any want of vigilance was open to a sinister construction.
"Well, Major Harvey," said he, "I am vastly sorry to do anything which may offend my friend Copley Banks, for many a time have my knees been under his mahogany, but in face of what you say there is no choice for me but to order you to board the vessel and to satisfy yourself as to her character and destination."
So at one in the morning Major Harvey, with a launchful of his soldiers, paid a surprise visit to the Ruffling Harry, with the result that they picked up nothing more solid than a hempen cable floating at the moorings.It had been slipped by the brig, whose owner had scented danger.She had already passed the Palisades, and was beating out againstthe north-east trades on a course for the Windward Passage.
When upon the next morning the brig had left Morant Point a mere haze upon the Southern horizon, the men were called aft, and Copley Banks revealed his plans to them.He had chosen them, he said, as brisk boys and lads of spirit, who would rather run some risk upon the sea than starve for a living upon the shore.King's ships were few and weak, and they could master any trader who might come their way.Others had done well at the business, and with a handy, well-found vessel, there was no reason why they should not turn their tarry jackets into velvet coats. If they were prepared to sail under the black flag, he was ready to command them; but if any wished to withdraw, they might have the gig and row back to Jamaica.
Four men out of six-and-forty asked for their discharge, went over the ship's side into the boat, and rowed away amidst the jeers and howlings of the crew.The rest assembled aft, and drew up the articles of their association.A square of black tarpaulin had the white skull painted upon it, and was hoisted amidst cheering at the main.
Officers were elected, and the limits of their authority fixed.Copley Banks was chosen captain, but, as there are no mates upon a pirate craft, Birthmark Sweetlocks became quartermaster, and Israel Martin the boatswain.There was no difficulty in knowing what was the custom of the brotherhood, for half the men at least had served upon pirates before.Food should be the same for all, and no man should interfere with another man's drink!The captain should have a cabin, but all hands should be welcome to enter it when they chose.
All should share and share alike, save only the captain, quartermaster, boatswain, carpenter, and master-gunner, who had from a quarter to a whole share extra.He who saw a prize first should have the best weapon taken out of her.He who boarded her first should have the richest suit of clothes aboard of her.Every man might treat his own prisoner, be it man or woman, after his own fashion.If a man flinched from his gun, the quartermaster should pistol him.These were some of the rules which the crew of the Ruffling Harry subscribed by putting forty-two crosses at the foot of the paper upon which they had been drawn.
So a new rover was afloat upon the seas, and her name before a year was over became as well known as that of the Happy Delivery.From the Bahamas to the Leewards, and from the Leewards to the Windwards, Copley Banks became the rival of Sharkey and the terror of traders.For a long time the barque and the brig never met, which was the more singular as the Ruffling Harry was for ever looking in at Sharkey's resorts; but at last one day, when she was passing down the inlet of Coxon's Hole, at the east end of Cuba, with the intention of careening, there was the Happy Delivery, with her blocks and tackle-falls already rigged for the same purpose.Copley Banks fired a shotted salute and hoisted the green trumpeter ensign, as the custom was among gentlemen of the sea. Then he dropped his boat and went aboard.
Captain Sharkey was not a man of a genial mood, nor had he any kindly sympathy for those who were of the same trade as himself.Copley Banks found him seated astride upon one of the after guns, with his New England quartermaster, Ned Galloway, and a crowd of roaring ruffians standing about him.Yet none of them roared with quite such assurance when Sharkey's pale face and filmy blue eyes were tuned upon him. He was in his shirt-sleeves, with his cambric frills breaking through his open red satin long-flapped vest.The scorching sun seemed to have no power upon his fleshless frame, for he wore a low fur cap, as though it had been winter.A many-coloured band of silk passed across his body and supported a short, murderous sword, while his broad, brass-buckled belt was stuffed with pistols.
"Sink you for a poacher!" he cried, as Copley Banks passed over the bulwarks."I will drub you within an inch of your life, and that inch also!What mean you by fishing in my waters?"
Copley Banks looked at him, and his eyes were like those of a traveller who sees his home at last."I am glad that we are of one mind," said he, "for I am myself of opinion that the seas are not large enough for the two of us.But if you will take your sword and pistols and come upon a sand-bank with me, then the world will be rid of a damned villain, whichever way it goes."
"Now, this is talking!" said Sharkey, jumping off the gun and holding out his hand."I have not met many who could look John Sharkey in the eyes and speak with a full breath.May the devil seize me if I do not choose you as a consort!But if you play me false, then I will come aboard of you and gut you upon your own poop."
"And I pledge you the same!" said Copley Banks, and so the two pirates became sworn comrades to each other.
That summer they went north as far as the Newfoundland Banks, and harried the New York traders and the whale ships from New England. It was Copley Banks who captured the Liverpool ship, House of Hanover, but it was Sharkey who fastened her master to the windlass and pelted him to death with empty claret-bottles.
Together they engaged the King's ship Royal Fortune, which had been sent in search of them, and beat her off after a night action of five hours, the drunken, raving crews fighting naked in the light of the battle- lanterns, with a bucket of rum and a pannikin laid by the tackles of every gun.They ran to Topsail Inlet in North Carolina to refit, and then in the spring they were at the Grand Caicos, ready for a long cruise down the West Indies.
By this time Sharkey and Copley Banks had become very excellent friends, for Sharkey loved a whole-hearted villain, and he loved a man of metal, and it seemed to him that the two met in the captain of the Ruffling Harry.It was long before he gave his confidence to him, for cold suspicion lay deep in his character.Never once would he trust himself outside his own ship and away from his own men.But Copley Banks came often on board the Happy Delivery, and joined Sharkey in many of his morose debauches, so that at last any lingering misgivings of the latter were set at rest.He knew nothing of the evil that he had done to his new boon companion, for of his many victims how could he remember the woman and the two boys whom he had slain with such levity so long ago! When, therefore, he received a challenge to himself and to his quartermaster for a carouse upon the last evening of their stay at the Caicos Bank he saw no reason to refuse.
A well-found passenger ship had been rifled the week before, so their fare was of the best, and after supper five of them drank deeply together.There were the two captains,Birthmark Sweetlocks, Ned Galloway, and Israel Martin, the old buccaneers-man.To wait upon them was the dumb steward, whose head Sharkey split with a glass, because he had been too slow in the filling of it.The quarter-master has slipped Sharkey's pistols away from him, for it was an old joke with him to fire them cross-handed under the table and see who was the luckiest man. It was a pleasantry which had cost his boatswain his leg, so now, when the table was cleared, they would coax Sharkey's weapons away from him on the excuse of the heat, and lay them out of his reach.
The captain's cabin of the Ruffling Harry was in a deck-house upon the poop, and a stern-chaser gun was mounted at the back of it.Round shot were racked round the wall, and three great hogsheads of powder made a stand for dishes and for bottles.In this grim room the five pirates sang and roared and drank, while the silent steward still filled up their glasses, and passed the box and the candle round for their tobacco-pipes.Hour after hour the talk became fouler, the voices hoarser, the curses and shoutings more incoherent, until three of the five had closed their blood-shot eyes, and dropped their swimming heads upon the table.
Copley Banks and Sharkey were left face to face, the one because he had drunk the least, the other because no amount of liquor would ever shake his iron nerve or warm his sluggish blood.Behind him stood the watchful steward, for ever filling up his waning glass.From without came the low lapping of the tide, and from over the water a sailor's chanty from the barque.In the windless tropical night the words came clearly to their ears:—
A trader sailed from Stepney Town, Wake her up! Shake her up! Try her with the mainsail! A trader sailed from Stepney Town With a keg full of gold and a velvet gown. Ho, the bully Rover Jack, Waiting with his yard aback Out upon the Lowland Sea.
The two boon companions sat listening in silence.Then Copley Banks glanced at the steward, and the man took a coil of rope from the shot-rack behind him.
"Captain Sharkey," said Copley Banks, "do you remember the Duchess of Cornwall, hailing from London, which you took and sank three years ago off the Statira Shoal?"
"Curse me if I can bear their names in mind," said Sharkey."We did as many as ten ships a week about that time."
"There were a mother and two sons among the passengers.Maybe that will bring it back to your mind."
Captain Sharkey leant back in thought, with his huge thin beak of a nose jutting upwards.Then he burst suddenly into a high treble, neighing laugh.He remembered it, he said, and he added details to prove it. "But burn me if it had not slipped from my mind!" he cried."How came you to think of it?"
"It was of interest to me," said Copley Banks, "for the woman was my wife, and the lads were my only sons."
Sharkey stared across at his companion, and saw that the smouldering fire which lurked always in his eyes had burned up into a lurid flame. He read their menace, and he clapped his hands to his empty belt. Then he turned to seize a weapon, but the bight of a rope was cast round him, and in an instant his arms were bound to his side.He fought like a wild cat, and screamed for help."Ned!" he yelled."Ned!Wake up! Here's damned villainy!Help, Ned!— help!"
But the three men were far too deeply sunk in their swinish sleep for any voice to wake them.Round and round went the rope, until Sharkey was swathed like a mummy from ankle to neck.They propped him stiff and helpless against a powder barrel, and they gagged him with a handkerchief, but his filmy, red- rimmed eyes still looked curses at them.The dumb man chattered in his exultation, and Sharkey winced for the first time when he saw the empty mouth before him.He understood that vengeance, slow and patient, had dogged him long, and clutched him at last.
The two captors had their plans all arranged, and they were somewhat elaborate.First of all they stove the heads of two of the great powder barrels, and they heaped the contents out upon the table and floor. They piled it round and under the three drunken men, until each sprawled in a heap of it.Then they carried Sharkey to the gun and they triced him sitting over the port-hole, with his body about a foot from the muzzle.Wriggle as he would he could not move an inch either to the right or left, and the dumb man trussed him up with a sailor's cunning, so that there was no chance that he should work free.
"Now, you bloody devil," said Copley Banks, softly, "you must listen to what I have to say to you, for they are the last words that you will hear.You are my man now, and I have bought you at a price, for I have given all that a man can give here below, and I have given my soul as well.
"To reach you I have had to sink to your level.For two years I strove against it, hoping that some other way might come, but I learnt that there was no other.I've robbed and I have murdered—worse still, I have laughed and lived with you—and all for the one end.And now my time has come, and you will die as I would have you die, seeing the shadow creeping upon you and the devil waiting for you in the shadow."
Sharkey could hear the hoarse voices of his rovers singing their chanty over the water.
Where is the trader of Stepney Town? Wake her up! Shake her up! Every stick a-bending! Where is the trader of Stepney Town? His gold's on the capstan, his blood's on his gown, All for bully Rover Jack, Reaching on the weather tack Right across the Lowland Sea.
The words came clear to his ear, and just outside he could hear two men pacing backwards and forwards upon the deck.And yet he was helpless, staring down the mouth of the nine-pounder, unable to move an inch or to utter so much as a groan.Again there came the burst of voices from the deck of the barque.
So it's up and it's over to Stornoway Bay, Pack it on! Crack it on! Try her with stunsails! It's off on a bowline to Stornoway Bay, Where the liquor is good and the lasses are gay, Waiting for their bully Jack, Watching for him sailing back, Right across the Lowland Sea.
To the dying pirate the jovial words and rollicking tune made his own fate seem the harsher, but there was no softening in those venomous blue eyes.Copley Banks had brushed away the priming of the gun, and had sprinkled fresh powder over the touch-hole.Then he had taken up the candle and cut it to the length of about an inch.This he placed upon the loose powder at the breach of the gun.Thin he scattered powder thickly over the floor beneath, so that when the candle fell at the recoil it must explode the huge pile in which the three drunkards were wallowing.
"You've made others look death in the face, Sharkey," said he; "now it has come to be your own turn.You and these swine here shall go together!" He lit the candle-end as he spoke, and blew out the other lights upon the table.Then he passed out with the dumb man, and locked the cabin door upon the outer side.But before he closed it he took an exultant look backwards, and received one last curse from those unconquerable eyes.In the single dim circle of light that ivory-white face, with the gleam of moisture upon the high, bald forehead, was the last that was ever seen of Sharkey.
There was a skiff alongside, and in it Copley Banks and the dumb steward made their way to the beach, and looked back upon the brig riding in the moonlight just outside the shadow of the palm trees.They waited and waited watching that dim light which shone through the stem port.And then at last there came the dull thud of a gun, and an instant later the shattering crash of an explosion.The long, sleek, black barque, the sweep of white sand, and the fringe of nodding feathery palm trees sprang into dazzling light and back into darkness again.Voices screamed and called upon the bay.
Then Copley Banks, his heart singing within him, touched his companion upon the shoulder, and they plunged together into the lonely jungle of the Caicos.
"What do you make of her, Allardyce?" I asked.
My second mate was standing beside me upon the poop, with his short, thick legs astretch, for the gale had left a considerable swell behind it, and our two quarter-boats nearly touched the water with every roll. He steadied his glass against the mizzen-shrouds, and he looked long and hard at this disconsolate stranger every time she came reeling up on to the crest of a roller and hung balanced for a few seconds before swooping down upon the other side.She lay so low in the water that I could only catch an occasional glimpse of a pea-green line of bulwark. She was a brig, but her mainmast had been snapped short off some 10ft. above the deck, and no effort seemed to have been made to cut away the wreckage, which floated, sails and yards, like the broken wing of a wounded gull upon the water beside her.The foremast was still standing, but the foretopsail was flying loose, and the headsails were streaming out in long, white pennons in front of her.Never have I seen a vessel which appeared to have gone through rougher handling.But we could not be surprised at that, for there had been times during the last three days when it was a question whether our own barque would ever see land again.For thirty-six hours we had kept her nose to it, and if the Mary Sinclair had not been as good a seaboat as ever left the Clyde, we could not have gone through.And yet here we were at the end of it with the loss only of our gig and of part of the starboard bulwark. It did not astonish us, however, when the smother had cleared away, to find that others had been less lucky, and that this mutilated brig staggering about upon a blue sea and under a cloudless sky, had been left, like a blinded man after a lightning flash, to tell of the terror which is past.Allardyce, who was a slow and methodical Scotchman, stared long and hard at the little craft, while our seamen lined the bulwark or clustered upon the fore shrouds to have a view of the stranger.In latitude 20° and longitude 10 degrees, which were about our bearings, one becomes a little curious as to whom one meets, for one has left the main lines of Atlantic commerce to the north. For ten days we had been sailing overa solitary sea.
"She's derelict, I'm thinking," said the second mate.
I had come to the same conclusion, for I could seeno signs of life upon her deck, and there was no answer to the friendly wavings from our seamen.The crew had probably deserted her under the impression that she was about to founder.
"She can't last long," continued Allardyce, in hismeasured way. "She may put her nose down and her tail up any minute.The water's lipping up tothe edge of her rail."
"What's her flag?" I asked.
"I'm trying to make out.It's got all twisted and tangled with the halyards.Yes, I've got it now, clear enough.It's the Brazilian flag, but it's wrong side up."
She had hoisted a signal of distress, then, beforeher people had abandoned her.Perhaps they had only just gone.I took the mate's glass and looked round over the tumultuous face of the deep blue Atlantic, still veined and starred with white lines and spoutings of foam.But nowhere could I see anything human beyond ourselves.
"There may be living men aboard," said I.
"There may be salvage," muttered the second mate.
"Then we will run down upon her lee side, and lie to."We were not more than a hundred yards from her when we swung our foreyard aback, and there we were, the barque and the brig, ducking and bowing like two clowns in a dance.
"Drop one of the quarter-boats," said I."Take four men, Mr. Allardyce, and see what you can learnof her."
But just at that moment my first officer, Mr. Armstrong, came on deck, for seven bells had struck, and it was but a few minutes off his watch. It would interest me to go myself to this abandoned vessel and to see what there might be aboard of her.So, with a word to Armstrong, I swung myself over the side, slipped down the falls, and took my place in the sheets of the boat.
It was but a little distance, but it took some time to traverse, and so heavy was the roll that often when we were in the trough of the sea, we could not see either the barque which we had left or the brig which we were approaching.The sinking sun did not penetrate down there, and it was cold and dark in the hollows of the waves, but each passing billow heaved us up into the warmth and the sunshine once more.At each of these moments, as we hung upon a white-capped ridge between the two dark valleys, I caught a glimpse of the long, pea-green line, and the nodding foremast of the brig, and I steered so as to come round by her stern, so that we might determine which was the best way of boarding her.As we passed her we saw the name Nossa Sehnora da Vittoria painted across her dripping counter.
"The weather side, sir," said the second mate."Stand by with the boat- hook, carpenter!"An instant later we had jumped over the bulwarks, which were hardly higher than our boat, and found ourselves upon the deck of the abandoned vessel.Our first thought was to provide for our own safety in case —as seemed very probable—the vessel should settle down beneath our feet.With this object two of our men held on to the painter of the boat, and fended her off from the vessel's side, so that she might be ready in case we had to make a hurried retreat. The carpenter was sent to find out how much water there was, and whether it was still gaming, while the other seaman, Allardyce and myself, made a rapid inspection of the vessel and her cargo.
The deck was littered with wreckage and with hen-coops, in which the dead birds were washing about.The boats were gone, with the exception of one, the bottom of which had been stove, and it was certain that the crew had abandoned the vessel.The cabin was in a deck-house, one side of which had been beaten in by a heavy sea.Allardyce and I entered it, and found the captain's table as he had left it, his books and papers—all Spanish or Portuguese—scattered over it, with piles of cigarette ash everywhere.I looked about for the log, but could not find it.
"As likely as not he never kept one," said Allardyce."Things are pretty slack aboard a South American trader, and they don't do more than they can help.If there was one it must have been taken away with him in the boat."
"I should like to take all these books and papers," said I."Ask the carpenter how much time we have."
His report was reassuring.The vessel was full of water, but some of the cargo was buoyant, and there was no immediate danger of her sinking. Probably she would never sink, but would drift about as one of those terrible unmarked reefs which have sent so many stout vessels to the bottom.
"In that case there is no danger in your going below, Mr. Allardyce," said I."See what you can make of her and find out how much of her cargo may be saved.I'll look through these papers while you are gone."
The bills of lading, and some notes and letters which lay upon the desk, sufficed to inform me that the Brazilian brig Nossa Sehnora da Vittoria had cleared from Bahia a month before.The name of the captain was Texeira, but there was no record as to the number of the crew.She was bound for London, and a glance at the bills of lading was sufficient to show me that we were not likely to profit much in the way of salvage.Her cargo consisted of nuts, ginger, and wood, the latter in the shape of great logs of valuable tropical growths.It was these, no doubt, which had prevented the ill-fated vessel from going to the bottom, but they were of such a size as to make it impossible for us to extract them.Besides these, there were a few fancy goods, such as a number of ornamental birds for millinery purposes, and a hundred cases of preserved fruits.And then, as I turned over the papers, I came upon a short note in English, which arrested my attention.
It is requested (said the note) that the various old Spanish and Indian curiosities, which came out of the Santarem collection, and which are consigned to Prontfoot & Neuman of Oxford Street, London, should be put in some place where there may be no danger of these very valuable and unique articles being injured or tampered with.This applies most particularly to the treasure-chest of Don Ramirez di Leyra, which must on no account be placed where anyone can get at it.
The treasure-chest of Don Ramirez!Unique and valuable articles! Here was a chance of salvage after all.I had risen to my feet with the paper in my hand when my Scotch mate appeared in the doorway.
"I'm thinking all isn't quite as it should be aboardof this ship, sir," said he.He was a hard-faced man, and yet I could see that he had been startled.
"What's the matter?"
"Murder's the matter, sir.There's a man here with his brains beaten out."
"Killed in the storm?" said I.
"May be so, sir, but I'll be surprised if you think so after you have seen him."
"Where is he, then?"
"This way, sir; here in the maindeck house."
There appeared to have been no accommodation below in the brig, for there was the after-house for the captain, another by the main hatchway, with the cook's galley attached to it, and a third in the forecastle for the men.It was to this middle one that the mate led me.As you entered, the galley, with its litter of tumbled pots and dishes, was upon the right, and upon the left was a small room with two bunks for the officers.Then beyond there was a place about 12ft. square, which was littered with flags and spare canvas.All round the walls were a number of packets done up in coarse cloth and carefully lashed to the woodwork.At the other end was a great box, striped red and white, though the red was so faded and the white so dirty that it was only where the light fell directly upon it that one could see the colouring. The box was, by subsequent measurement, 4ft. 3ins. in length, 3ft. 2ins. in height, and 3ft. across—considerably larger than a seaman's chest. But it was not to the box that my eyes or my thoughts were turned as I entered thestore-room.On the floor, lying across the litter of bunting, there was stretched a small, dark man with a short, curling beard.He lay as far as it was possible from the box, with his feet towards it and his head away.A crimson patch was printed upon the white canvas on which his head was resting, and little red ribbons wreathed themselves round his swarthy neck and trailed away on to the floor, but there was no sign of a wound that I could see, and his face was as placid as that of a sleeping child.It was only when I stooped that I could perceive his injury, and then I turned away with an exclamation of horror.He had been pole-axed; apparently by some person standing behind him.A frightful blow had smashed in the top of his head and penetrated deeply into his brains.His face might well be placid, for death must have been absolutely instantaneous, and the position of the wound showed that he could never have seen the person who had inflicted it.
"Is that foul play or accident, Captain Barclay?" asked my second mate, demurely.
"You are quite right, Mr. Allardyce.The man has been murdered— struck down from above by a sharp and heavy weapon.But who was he, and why did they murder him?"
"He was a common seaman, sir," said the mate."You can see that if you look at his fingers."He turned out his pockets as he spoke and brought to light a pack of cards, some tarred string, and a bundleof Brazilian tobacco.
"Hello, look at this!" said he.
It was a large, open knife with a stiff spring blade which he had picked up from the floor.The steel was shining and bright, so that we could not associate it with the crime, and yet the dead man had apparently held it in his hand when he was struck down, for it still lay within his grasp.
"It looks to me, sir, as if he knew he was in danger and kept his knife handy," said the mate."However, we can't help the poor beggar now. I can't make out these things that are lashed to the wall.They seem to be idols and weapons and curios of all sorts done up in old sacking."
"That's right," said I."They are the only things of value that we are likely to get from the cargo.Hail the barque and tell them to send the other quarter-boat to help us to get the stuff aboard."
While he was away I examined this curious plunder which had come into our possession.The curiosities were so wrapped up that I could only form a general idea as to their nature, but the striped box stood in a good light where I could thoroughly examine it.On the lid, which was clamped and cornered with metal-work, there was engraved a complex coat of arms, and beneath it was a line of Spanish which I was able to decipher as meaning, "The treasure-chest of Don Ramirez di Leyra, Knight of the Order of Saint James, Governor and Captain-General of Terra Firma and of the Province of Veraquas."In one corner was the date, 1606, and on the other a large white label, upon which was written in English, "You are earnestly requested, upon no account, to open this box." The same warning was repeated underneath in Spanish.As to the lock, it was a very complex and heavy one of engraved steel, with a Latin motto, which was above a seaman's comprehension.By the time I had finished this examination of the peculiar box, the other quarter-boat with Mr. Armstrong, the first officer, had come alongside, and we began to carry out and place in her the various curiosities which appeared to be the only objects worth moving from the derelict ship.When she was full I sent her back to the barque, and then Allardyce and I, with the carpenter and one seaman, shifted the striped box, which was the only thing left, to our boat, and lowered it over, balancing it upon the two middle thwarts, for it was so heavy that it would have given the boat a dangerous tilt had we placed it at either end.As to the dead man, we left him where we had found him.The mate had a theory that, at the moment of the desertion of the ship, this fellow had started plundering, and that the captain, in an attempt to preserve discipline, had struck him down with a hatchet or some other heavy weapon. It seemed more probable than any other explanation, and yet it did not entirely satisfy me either.But the ocean is full of mysteries, and we were content to leave the fate of the dead seaman of the Brazilian brig to be added to that long list which every sailor can recall.
The heavy box was slung up by ropes on to the deck of the Mary Sinclair, and was carried by four seamen into the cabin, where, between the table and the after-lockers, there was just space for it to stand. There it remained during supper, and after that meal the mates remained with me, and discussed over a glass of grog the event of the day. Mr. Armstrong was a long, thin, vulture-like man, an excellent seaman, but famous for his nearness and cupidity.Our treasure-trove had excited him greatly, and already he had begun with glistening eyes to reckon up how much it might be worth to each of us when the shares of the salvage came to be divided.
"If the paper said that they were unique, Mr. Barclay, then they may be worth anything that you like to name.You wouldn't believe the sums that the rich collectors give.A thousand pounds is nothing to them. We'll have something to show for our voyage, or I am mistaken."
"I don't think that," said I."As far as I can see, they are not very different from any other South American curios."
"Well, sir, I've traded there for fourteen voyages, and I have never seen anything like that chest before.That's worth a pile of money, just as it stands.But it's so heavy that surely there must be something valuable inside it.Don't you think that we ought to open it and see?"
"If you break it open you will spoil it, as likely as not," said the second mate.
Armstrong squatted down in front of it, with his head on one side, and his long, thin nose within a few inches of the lock.
"The wood is oak," said he, "and it has shrunk a little with age.If I had a chisel or a strong-bladed knife I could force the lock back without doing any damage at all."
The mention of a strong-bladed knife made me think of the dead seaman upon the brig.
"I wonder if he could have been on the job when someone came to interfere with him," said I.
"I don't know about that, sir, but I am perfectly certain that I could open the box.There's a screwdriver here in the locker.Just hold the lamp, Allardyce, and I'll have it done in a brace of shakes."
"Wait a bit," said I, for already, with eyes which gleamed with curiosity and with avarice, he was stooping over the lid."I don't see that there is any hurry over this matter.You've read that card which warns us not to open it.It may mean anything or it may mean nothing, but somehow I feel inclined to obey it.After all, whatever is in it will keep, and if it is valuable it will be worth as much if it is opened in the owner's offices as in the cabin of the Mary Sinclair."
The first officer seemed bitterly disappointed at my decision.
"Surely, sir, you are not superstitious about it," said he, with a slight sneer upon his thin lips."If it gets out of our own hands, and we don't see for ourselves what is inside it, we may be done out of our rights; besides—"
"That's enough, Mr. Armstrong," said I, abruptly."You may have every confidence that you will get your rights, but I will not have that box opened to-night."
"Why, the label itself shows that the box has been examined by Europeans," Allardyce added."Because a box is a treasure-box is no reason that it has treasures inside it now.A good many folk have had a peep into it since the days of the old Governor of Terra Firma."
Armstrong threw the screwdriver down upon the table and shrugged his shoulders.
"Just as you like," said he; but for the rest of the evening, although we spoke upon many subjects, I noticed that his eyes were continually coming round, with the same expression of curiosity and greed, to the old striped box.
And now I come to that portion of my story which fills me even now with a shuddering horror when I think of it.The main cabin had the rooms of the officers round it, but mine was the farthest away from it at the end of the little passage which led to the companion.No regular watch was kept by me, except in cases of emergency, and the three mates divided the watches among them.Armstrong had the middle watch, which ends at four in the morning, and he was relieved by Allardyce.For my part I have always been one of the soundest of sleepers, and it is rare for anything less than a hand upon my shoulder to arouse me.
And yet I was aroused that night, or rather in the early grey of the morning.It was just half-past four by my chronometer when something caused me to sit up in my berth wide awake and with every nerve tingling.It was a sound of some sort, a crash with a human cry at the end of it, which still jarred on my ears.I sat listening, but all was now silent.And yet it could not have been imagination, that hideous cry, for the echo of it still rang in my head, and it seemed to have come from some place quite close to me.I sprang from my bunk, and, pulling on some clothes, I made my way into the cabin.At first I saw nothing unusual there.In the cold, grey light I made out the red-clothed table, the six rotating chairs, the walnut lockers, the swinging barometer, and there, at the end, the big striped chest.I was turning away, with the intention of going upon deck and asking the second mate if he had heard anything, when my eyes fell suddenly upon something which projected from under the table.It was the leg of a man—a leg with a long sea-boot upon it.I stooped, and there was a figure sprawling upon his face, his arms thrown forward and his body twisted.One glance told me that it was Armstrong, the first officer, and a second that he was a dead man.For a few moments I stood gasping. Then I rushed on to the deck, called Allardyce to my assistance, and came back with him into the cabin.
Together we pulled the unfortunate fellow from under the table, and as we looked at his dripping head we exchanged glances, and I do not know which was the paler of the two.
"The same as the Spanish sailor," said I.
"The very same.God preserve us!It's that infernal chest!Look at Armstrong's hand!"
He held up the mate's right hand, and there was the screwdriver which he had wished to use the night before.
"He's been at the chest, sir.He knew that I was on deck and you were asleep.He knelt down in front of it, and he pushed the lock back with that tool.Then something happened to him, and he cried out so that you heard him."
"Allardyce," I whispered, "what could have happened to him?"
The second mate put his hand upon my sleeve and drew me into his cabin.
"We can talk here, sir, and we don't know who may be listening to us in there.What do you suppose is in that box, Captain Barclay?"
"I give you my word, Allardyce, that I have no idea."
"Well, I can only find one theory which will fit all the facts.Look at the size of the box.Look at all the carving and metal-work which may conceal any number of holes.Look at the weight of it; it took four men to carry it.On top of that, remember that two men have tried to open it, and both have come to their end through it.Now, sir, what can it mean except one thing?"
"You mean there is a man in it?"
"Of course there is a man in it.You know how it is in these South American States, sir.A man may be president one week and hunted like a dog the next —they are for ever flying for their lives.My idea is that there is some fellow in hiding there, who is armed and desperate, and who will fight to the death before he is taken."
"But his food and drink?"
"It's a roomy chest, sir, and he may have some provisions stowed away. As to his drink, he had a friend among the crew upon the brig who saw that he had what he needed."
"You think, then, that the label asking people not to open the box was simply written in his interest?"
"Yes, sir, that is my idea.Have you any other way of explaining the facts?"
I had to confess that I had not.
"The question is what we are to do?" I asked.
"The man's a dangerous ruffian, who sticks at nothing.I'm thinking it wouldn't be a bad thing to put a rope round the chest and tow it alongside for half an hour; then we could open it at our ease.Or if we just tied the box up and kept him from getting any water maybe that would do as well.Or the carpenter could put a coat of varnish over it and stop all the blow-holes."
"Come, Allardyce," said I, angrily."You don't seriously mean to say that a whole ship's company are going to be terrorised by a single man in a box.If he's there, I'll engage to fetch him out!" I went to my room and came back with my revolver in my hand."Now, Allardyce," said I, "do you open the lock, and I'll stand on guard."
"For God's sake, think what you are doing, sir!" cried the mate."Two men have lost their lives over it, and the blood of one not yet dry upon the carpet."
"The more reason why we should revenge him."
"Well, sir, at least let me call the carpenter.Three are better than two, and he is a good stout man."
He went off in search of him, and I was left alone with the striped chest in the cabin.I don't think that I'm a nervous man, but I kept the table between me and this solid old relic of the Spanish Main. In the growing light of morning the red and white striping was beginning to appear, and the curious scrolls and wreaths of metal and carving which showed the loving pains which cunning craftsmen had expended upon it.Presently the carpenter and the mate came back together, the former with a hammer in his hand.
"It's a bad business, this, sir," said he, shaking his head, as he looked at the body of the mate."And you think there's someone hiding in the box?"
"There's no doubt about it," said Allardyce, picking up the screwdriver and setting his jaw like a man who needs to brace his courage. "I'll drive the lock back if you will both stand by.If he rises let him have it on the head with your hammer, carpenter.Shoot at once, sir, if he raises his hand.Now!"
He had knelt down in front of the striped chest, and passed the blade of the tool under the lid.With a sharp snick the lock flew back."Stand by!" yelled the mate, and with a heave he threw open the massive top of the box.As it swung up we all three sprang back, I with my pistol levelled, and the carpenter with the hammer above his head.Then, as nothing happened, we each took a step forward and peeped in.The box was empty.
Not quite empty either, for in one corner was lying an old yellow candle- stick, elaborately engraved, which appeared to be as old as the box itself.Its rich yellow tone and artistic shape suggested that it was an object of value.For the rest there was nothing more weighty or valuable than dust in the old striped treasure-chest.
"Well, I'm blessed!" cried Allardyce, staring blankly into it. "Where does the weight come in, then?"
"Look at the thickness of the sides, and look at the lid.Why, it's five inches through.And see that great metal spring across it."
"That's for holding the lid up," said the mate."You see, it won't lean back.What's that German printing on the inside?"
"It means that it was made by Johann Rothstein of Augsburg, in 1606."
"And a solid bit of work, too.But it doesn't throw much light on what has passed, does it, Captain Barclay?That candlestick looks like gold. We shall have something for our trouble after all."
He leant forward to grasp it, and from that moment I have never doubted as to the reality of inspiration, for on the instant I caught him by the collar and pulled him straight again.It may have been some story of the Middle Ages which had come back to my mind, or it may have been that my eye had caught some red which was not that of rust upon the upper part of the lock, but to him and to me it will always seem an inspiration, so prompt and sudden was my action.
"There's devilry here," said I."Give me the crooked stick from the corner."
It was an ordinary walking-cane with a hooked top.I passed it over the candlestick and gave it a pull.With a flash a row of polished steel fangs shot out from below the upper lip, and the great striped chest snapped at us like a wild animal.Clang came the huge lid into its place, and the glasses on the swinging rack sang and tinkled with the shock.The mate sat down on the edge of the table and shivered like a frightened horse.
"You've saved my life, Captain Barclay!" said he.
So this was the secret of the striped treasure-chest of old Don Ramirez di Leyra, and this was how he preserved his ill-gotten gains from the Terra Firma and the Province of Veraquas.Be the thief ever so cunning he could not tell that golden candlestick from the other articles of value, and the instant that he laid hand upon it the terrible spring was unloosed and the murderous steel pikes were driven into his brain, while the shock of the blow sent the victim backward and enabled the chest to automatically close itself.How many, I wondered, had fallen victims to the ingenuity of the mechanic of Ausgburg?And as I thought of the possible history of that grim striped chest my resolution was very quickly taken.
"Carpenter, bring three men, and carry this on deck."
"Going to throw it overboard, sir?"
"Yes, Mr. Allardyce.I'm not superstitious as a rule, but there are some things which are more than a sailor can be called upon to stand."
"No wonder that brig made heavy weather, Captain Barclay, with such a thing on board.The glass is dropping fast, sir, and we are only just in time."
So we did not even wait for the three sailors, but we carried it out, the mate, the carpenter, and I, and we pushed it with our own hands over the bulwarks.There was a white spout of water, and it was gone.There it lies, the striped chest, a thousand fathoms deep, and if, as they say, the sea will some day be dry land, I grieve for the man who finds that old box and tries to penetrate into its secret.
It was no easy matter to bring the Gamecock up to the island, for the river had swept down so much silt that the banks extended for many miles out into the Atlantic. The coast was hardly to be seen when the first white curl of the breakers warned us of our danger, and from there onwards we made our way very carefully under mainsail and jib, keeping the broken water well to the left, as is indicated on the chart. More than once her bottom touched the sand (we were drawing something under six feet at the time), but we had always way enough and luck enough to carry us through. Finally, the water shoaled, very rapidly, but they had sent a canoe from the factory, and the Krooboy pilot brought us within two hundred yards of the island. Here we dropped our anchor, for the gestures of the negro indicated that we could not hope to get any farther. The blue of the sea had changed to the brown of the river, and, even under the shelter of the island, the current was singing and swirling round our bows. The stream appeared to be in spate, for it was over the roots of the palm trees, and everywhere upon its muddy greasy surface we could see logs of wood and debris of all sorts which had been carried down by the flood.
When I had assured myself that we swung securely at our moorings, I thought it best to begin watering at once, for the place looked as if it reeked with fever. The heavy river, the muddy, shining banks, the bright poisonous green of the jungle, the moist steam in the air, they were all so many danger signals to one who could read them. I sent the long-boat off, therefore, with two large hogsheads, which should be sufficient to last us until we made St. Paul de Loanda. For my own part I took the dinghy and rowed for the island, for I could see the Union Jack fluttering above the palms to mark the position of Armitage and Wilson's trading station.
When I had cleared the grove, I could see the place, a long, low, whitewashed building, with a deep verandah in front, and an immense pile of palm-oil barrels heaped upon either flank of it. A row of surf boats and canoes lay along the beach, and a single small jetty projected into the river. Two men in white suits with red cummerbunds round their waists were waiting upon the end of it to receive me. One was a large portly fellow with a greyish beard. The other was slender and tall, with a pale pinched face, which was half-concealed by a great mushroom-shaped hat.
"Very glad to see you," said the latter, cordially. "I am Walker, the agent of Armitage and Wilson. Let me introduce Doctor Severall of the same company. It is not often we see a private yacht in these parts."
"She's the Gamecock," I explained. "I'm owner and captain— Meldrum is the name."
"Exploring?" he asked.
"I'm a lepidopterist—a butterfly-catcher. I've been doing the west coast from Senegal downwards."
"Good sport?" asked the Doctor, turning a slow yellow-shot eye 'upon me.
"I have forty cases full. We came in here to water, and also to see what you have in my line."
These introductions and explanations had filled up the time whilst my two Krooboys were making the dinghy fast. Then I walked down the jetty with one of my new acquaintances upon either side, each plying me with questions, for they had seen no white man for months.
"What do we do?" said the Doctor, when I had begun asking questions in my turn. "Our business keeps us pretty busy, and in our leisure time we talk politics."
"Yes, by the special mercy of Providence Severall is a rank Radical, and I am a good stiff Unionist, and we talk Home Rule for two solid hours every evening."
"And drink quinine cocktails," said the Doctor. "We're both pretty well salted now, but our normal temperature was about 103 last year. I shouldn't, as an impartial adviser, recommend you to stay here very long unless you are collecting bacilli as well as butterflies. The mouth of the Ogowai River will never develop into a health resort."
There is nothing finer than the way in which these outlying pickets of civilization distil a grim humour out of their desolate situation, and turn not only a bold, but a laughing face upon the chances which their lives may bring. Everywhere from Sierra Leone downwards I had found the same reeking swamps, the same isolated fever-racked communities, and the same bad jokes. There is something approaching to the divine in that power of man to rise above his conditions and to use his mind for the purpose of mocking at the miseries of his body.
"Dinner will be ready in about half an hour, Captain Meldrum," said the Doctor. "Walker has gone in to see about it; he's the housekeeper this week. Meanwhile, if you like, we'll stroll round and I'll show you the sights of the island."
The sun had already sunk beneath the line of palm trees, and the great arch of the heaven above our head was like the inside of a huge shell, shimmering with dainty pinks and delicate iridescence. No one who has not lived in a land where the weight and heat of a napkin become intolerable upon the knees can imagine the blessed relief which the coolness of evening brings along with it. In this sweeter and purer air the Doctor and I walked round the little island, he pointing out 'the stores, and explaining the routine of his work.
"There's a certain romance about the place," said he, in answer to some remark of mine about the dullness of their lives. "We are living here just upon the edge of the great unknown. Up there," he continued, pointing to the north-east, "Du Chaillu penetrated, and found the home of the gorilla. That is the Gaboon country—the land of the great apes. In this direction," pointing to the south-east, "no one has been very far. The land which is drained by this river is practically unknown to Europeans. Every log which is carried past us by the current has come from an undiscovered country. I've often wished that I was a better botanist when I have seen the singular orchids and curious-looking plants which have been cast up on the eastern end of the island."
The place which the Doctor indicated was a sloping brown beach, freely littered with the flotsam of the stream. At each end was a. curved point, like a little natural breakwater, so that a small shallow bay was left between. This was full of floating vegetation, with a single huge splintered tree lying stranded in the middle of it, the current rippling against its high black side.
"These are all from up country," said the Doctor. "They get caught in our little bay, and then when some extra freshet comes they are washed out again and carried out to sea."
"What is the tree?" I asked.
"Oh, some kind of teak, I should imagine, but pretty rotten by the look of it. We get all sorts of big hardwood trees floating past here, to say nothing of the palms. Just come in here, will you?"
He led the way into a long building with an immense quantity of barrel staves and iron hoops littered about in it.
"This is our cooperage," said he. "We have the staves sent out in bundles, and we put them together ourselves. Now, you don't see anything particularly sinister about this building, do you?"
I looked round at the high corrugated iron roof, the white wooden walls, and the earthen floor. In one corner lay a mattress and a blanket.
"I see nothing very alarming," said I.
"And yet there's something out of the common, too," he remarked. "You see that bed? Well, I intend to sleep there to-night. I don't want to buck, but I think it's a bit of a test for nerve."
"Oh, there have been some funny goings on. You were talking about the monotony of our lives, but I assure you that they are sometimes quite as exciting as we wish them to be. You'd better come back to the house now, for after sundown we begin to get the fever-fog up from the marshes. There, you can see it coming across the river."
I looked and saw long tentacles of white vapour writhing out from among the thick green underwood and crawling at us over the broad swirling surface of the brown river. At the same time the air turned suddenly dank and cold.
"There's the dinner gong," said the Doctor. "If this matter interests you I'll tell you about it afterwards."
It did interest me very much, for there was something earnest and subdued in his manner as he stood in the empty cooperage, which appealed very forcibly to my imagination. He was a big, bluff, hearty man, this Doctor, and yet I had detected a curious expression in his eyes as he glanced about him —an expression which I would not describe as one of fear, but rather that of a man who is alert and on his guard.
"By the way," said I, as we returned to the house, you have shown me the huts of a good many of your native assistants, but I have not seen any of the natives themselves."
"They sleep in the hulk over yonder," the Doctor answered, pointing over to one of the banks.
"Indeed. I should not have thought in that case they would need the huts."
"Oh, they used the huts until quite recently. We've put them on the hulk until they recover their confidence a little. They were all half mad with fright, so we let them go, and nobody sleeps on the island except Walker and myself."
"What frightened them? I asked.
"Well, that brings us back to the same story. I suppose Walker has no objection to your hearing all about it. I don't know why we should make any secret about it, though it is certainly a pretty bad business."
He made no further allusion to it during the excellent dinner which had been prepared in my honour. It appeared that no sooner had the little white topsail of the Gamecock shown round Cape Lopez than these kind fellows had begun to prepare their famous pepper-pot—which is the pungent stew peculiar to the West Coast—and to boil their yams and sweet potatoes. We sat down to as good a native dinner as one could wish, served by a smart Sierra Leone waiting boy. I was just remarking to myself that he at least had not shared in the general flight when, having laid the dessert and wine upon the table; he raised his hand to his turban.
"Anyting else I do, Massa Walker?" he asked.
"No, I think that is all right, Moussa," my host answered. "I am not feeling very well to-night, though, and I should much prefer if you would stay on the island."
I saw a struggle between his fears and his duty upon the swarthy face of the African. His skin had turned of that livid purplish tint which stands for pallor in a negro, and his eyes looked furtively about him.
"No, no, Massa Walker," he cried, at last, "you better come to the hulk with me, sah. Look after you much better in the hulk, sah!"
"That won't do, Moussa. White men don't run away from the posts where they are placed."
Again I saw the passionate struggle in the negro's face, and again his fears prevailed.
"No use, Massa Walker, sah!" he cried. "S'elp me, I can't do it. If it was yesterday or if it was tomorrow, but this is' the third night, sah, an' it's more than I can face."
Walker shrugged his shoulders.
"Off with you then!" said he. "When the mail-boat comes you can get back to Sierra Leone, for I'll have no servant who deserts me when I need him most. I suppose this is all mystery to you, or has the Doctor told you, Captain Meldrum?"
"I showed Captain Meldrum the cooperage, but I did not tell him anything," said Doctor Severall. "You're looking bad, Walker," he added, glancing at his companion. "You have a strong touch coming on you."
"Yes, I've had the shivers all day, and now my head is like a cannon- ball. I took ten grains of quinine, and my ears are singing like a kettle. But I want to sleep with you in the cooperage to-night."
"No, no, my dear chap. I won't hear of such a thing. You must get to bed at once, and I am sure Meldrum will excuse you. I shall sleep in the cooperage, and I promise you that I'll be round with your medicine before breakfast."
It was evident that Walker had been struck by one of those sudden and violent attacks of remittent fever which are the curse of the West Coast. His sallow cheeks were flushed and his eyes shining with fever, and suddenly as he sat there he began to croon out a song in the high-pitched voice of delirium.
"Come, come, we must get you to bed, old chap," said the Doctor, and with my aid he led his friend into his bedroom. There we undressed him and presently, after taking a strong sedative, he settled down into a deep slumber.
"He's right for the night," said the Doctor, as we sat down and filled our glasses once more. "Sometimes it is my turn and sometimes his, but, fortunately, we have never been down together. I should have been sorry to be out of it to-night, for I have a little mystery to unravel. I told you that I intended to sleep in the cooperage."
"Yes, you said so."
"When I said sleep I meant watch, for there will be no sleep for me. We've had such a scare here that no native will stay after sundown, and I mean to find out to-night what the cause of it all may be. It has always been the custom for a native watchman to sleep in the cooperage, to prevent the barrel hoops being stolen. Well, six days ago the fellow who slept there disappeared, and we have never seen a trace of him since. It was certainly singular, for no canoe had been taken, and these waters are too full of crocodiles for any man to swim to shore. What became of the fellow, or how he could have left the island, is a complete mystery. Walker and I were merely surprised, but the blacks were badly scared and queer Voodoo tales began to get about amongst them. But the real stampede broke out three nights ago, when the new watchman in the cooperage also disappeared."
"What became of him?" I asked.
"Well, we not only don't know, but we can't even give a guess which would fit the facts. The niggers swear there is a fiend in the cooperage who claims a man every third night. They wouldn't stay in the island—nothing could persuade them. Even Moussa, who is a faithful bay enough, would, as you have seen, leave his master in a fever rather than remain for the night. If we are to continue to run this place we must reassure our niggers, and I don't know any better way of doing it than by putting in a night there myself. This is the third night, you see, so I suppose the thing is due, whatever it may be."
"Have you no clue?" I asked. "Was there no mark of violence, no blood- stain, no footprints, nothing to give a hint as to what kind of danger you may have to meet?"
"Absolutely nothing. The man was gone and that was all. Last time it was old who has been wharf-tender here since the place was started. He was always as steady as a rock, and nothing but foul play would take him from his work."
"Well," said I, "I really don't think that this is a one-man job. Your friend is full of laudanum, and come what might he can be of no assistance to you. You must let me stay and put in a night with you at the cooperage."
"Well, now, that's very good of you, Meldrum," said he heartily, shaking my hand across the table. "It's not a thing that I should have ventured to propose, for it is asking a good deal of a casual visitor, but if you really mean it—
"Certainly I mean it. If you will excuse me a moment, I will hail the Gamecockand let them know that they need not expect me."
As we came back from the other end of the little jetty we were both struck by the appearance of the night. A huge blue-black pile of clouds had built itself up upon the landward side, and the wind came from it in little hot pants, which beat upon our faces like the draught from a blast furnace. Under the jetty the river was swirling and hissing, tossing little white spurts of spray over the planking.
"Confound it!" said Doctor Severall. "We are likely to have a flood on the top of all our troubles. That rise in the river means heavy rain up-country, and when it once begins you never know how far it will go. We've had the island nearly covered before now. Well, we'll just go and see that Walker is comfortable, and then if you like we'll settle down in our quarters."
The sick man was sunk in a profound slumber, and we left him with some crushed limes in a glass beside him in case he should awake with the thirst of fever upon him. Then we made our way through the unnatural gloom thrown by that menacing cloud. The river had risen so high that the little bay which I have described at the end of the island had become almost obliterated through the submerging of its flanking peninsula. The great raft of driftwood, with the huge black tree in the middle, was swaying up and down in the swollen current.
"That's one good thing a flood will do for us," said the Doctor. "It carries away all the vegetable stuff which is brought down on to the east end of the island. It came down with the freshet the other day, and here it will stay until a flood sweeps it out into the main stream. Well, here's our room, and here are some books and here is my tobacco pouch, and we must try and put in the night as best we may."
By the light of our single lantern the great lonely room looked very gaunt and dreary. Save for the piles of staves and heaps of hoops there was absolutely nothing in it, with the exception of the mattress for the Doctor, which had been laid in the corner. We made a couple of seats and a table out of the staves, and settled down together for a long vigil. Severall had brought a revolver for me and was himself armed with a double-barrelled shot-gun. We loaded our weapons and laid them cocked within reach of our hands. The little circle of light and the black shadows arching over us were so melancholy that he went off to the house, and returned with two candles. One side of the cooperage was pierced, however, by several open windows, and it was only by screening our lights behind staves that we could prevent them from being extinguished.
The Doctor, who appeared to be a man of iron nerves, had settled down to a book, but I observed that every now and then he laid it upon his knee, and took an earnest look all round him. For my part, although I tried once or twice to read, I found it impossible to concentrate my thoughts upon the book. They would always wander back to this great empty silent room, and to the sinister mystery which overshadowed it. I racked my brains for some possible theory which would explain the disappearance of these two men. There was the black fact that they were gone, and not the least tittle of evidence as to why or whither. And here we were waiting in the same place— waiting without an idea as to what we were waiting for. I was right in saying that it was not a one-man job. It was trying enough as it was, but no force upon earth would have kept me there without a comrade.
What an endless, tedious night it was! Outside we heard the lapping and gurgling of the great river, and the soughing of the rising wind. Within, save for our breathing, the turning of the Doctor's pages, and the high, shrill ping of an occasional mosquito, there was a heavy silence. Once my heart sprang into my mouth as Severall's book suddenly fell to the ground and he sprang to his feet with his eyes on one of the windows.
"Did you see anything, Meldrum?"
"No, did you?"
"Well, I had a vague sense of movement outside that window." He caught up his gun and approached it. "No, there's nothing to be seen, and yet I could have sworn that something passed slowly across it."
"A palm leaf, perhaps," said I, for the wind was growing stronger every instant.
"Very likely," said he, and settled down to his book again, but his eyes were for ever darting little suspicious glances up at the window. I watched it also, but all was quiet outside.
And then suddenly our thoughts were turned into a new direction by the bursting of the storm. A blinding flash was followed by a clap which shook the building. Again and again came the vivid white glare with thunder at the same instant, like the flash and roar of a monstrous piece of artillery. And then down came the tropical rain, crashing and rattling on the corrugated iron roofing of the cooperage. The big hollow room boomed like a drum. From the darkness arose a strange mixture of noises, a gurgling, splashing, tinkling, bubbling, washing, dripping—every liquid sound that nature can produce from the thrashing and swishing of the rain to the deep steady boom of the river. Hour after hour the uproar grew louder and more sustained.
"My word," said Severall, we are going to have the father of all the floods this time. Well, here's the dawn coming at last and that is a blessing. We've about exploded the third night superstition, anyhow."
"A grey light was stealing through the room, and there was the day upon us in an instant. The rain had eased off, but the coffee-coloured river was roaring past like a waterfall. Its power made me fear for the anchor of the Gamecock.
"I must get aboard," said I. "If she drags she'll never be able to beat up the river again."
"The island is as good as a breakwater," the Doctor answered. "I can give you a cup of coffee if you will come up to the house."
I was chilled and miserable, so the suggestion was a welcome one. We left the ill-omened cooperage with its mystery still unsolved, and we splashed our way up to the house.
"There's the spirit lamp," said Severall. "If you would just put a light to it, I will see how Walker feels this morning."
He left me, but was back in an instant with a dreadful face.
"He's gone!" he cried hoarsely.
The words sent a thrill of horror through me. I stood with the lamp in my hand, glaring at him.
"Yes, he's gone!" he repeated. "Come and look!"
I followed him without a word, and the first thing that I saw as I entered the bedroom was Walker himself lying huddled on his bed in the grey flannel sleeping suit in which I had helped to dress him on the night before.
"Not dead, surely!" I gasped.
The Doctor was terribly agitated. His hands were shaking like leaves in the wind.
"He's been dead some hours."
"Was it fever?"
"Fever! Look at his foot."
I glanced down and a cry of horror burst from my lips. One foot was not merely dislocated, but was turned completely round in a most grotesque contortion.
"Good God," I cried. "What can have done this?"
Severall had laid his hand upon the dead man's chest.
"Feel here," he whispered.
I placed my hand at the same spot. There was no resistance. The body was absolutely soft and limp. It was like pressing a sawdust doll.
"The breast-bone is gone," said Severall in the same awed whisper. "He's broken to bits. Thank God that he had the laudanum. You can see by his face that he died in his sleep."
"But who can have done this?"
"I've had about as much as I can stand," said the Doctor, wiping his forehead. "I don't know that I'm a greater coward than my neighbours, but this gets beyond me. If you're going out to the Gamecock—
"Come on!" said I, and off we started. If we did not run it was because each of us wished to keep up the last shadow of his self-respect before the other. It was dangerous in a light canoe on that swollen river, but we never paused to give the matter a thought. He bailing and I paddling we kept her above water, and gained the deck of the yacht. There, with two hundred yards of water between us and this cursed island we felt that we were our own men once more.
"We'll go back in an hour or so," said he. "But we need have a little time to steady ourselves. I wouldn't have had the niggers see me as I was just now for a year's salary."
"I've told the steward to prepare breakfast. Then we shall go back," said I. "But in God's name, Doctor Severall, what do you make of it all?"
"It beats me—beats me clean. I've heard of Voodoo devilry, and I've laughed at it with the others. But that poor old Walker, a decent, God- fearing, nineteenth-century, Primrose-League Englishman should go under like this without a whole bone in his body—it's given me a shake, I won't deny it. But look there, Meldrum, is that hand of yours mad or drunk, or what is it?"
Old Patterson, the oldest man of my crew, and as steady as the Pyramids, had been stationed in the bows with a boat-hook to fend off the drifting logs which came sweeping down with the current. Now he stood with crooked knees, glaring out in front of him, and one forefinger stabbing furiously at the air.
"Look at it!" he yelled. "Look at it!"
And at the same instant we saw it.
A huge black tree trunk was coming down the river, its broad glistening back just lapped by the water. And in front of it—about three feet in front—arching upwards like the figure-head of a ship, there hung a dreadful face, swaying slowly from side to side. It was flattened, malignant, as large as a small beer-barrel, of a faded fungoid colour, but the neck which supported it was mottled with a dull yellow and black. As it flew past the Gamecock in the swirl of the waters I saw two immense coils roll up out of some great hollow in the tree, and the villainous head rose suddenly to the height of eight or ten feet, looking with dull, skin-covered eyes at the yacht. An instant later the tree had shot past us and was plunging with its horrible passenger towards the Atlantic.
"What was it?" I cried.
"It is our fiend of the cooperage," said Doctor Severall, and he had become in an instant the same bluff, self-confident man that he had been before. "Yes, that is the devil who has been haunting our island. It is the great python of the Gaboon."
I thought of the stories which I had heard all down the coast of the monstrous constrictors of the interior, of their periodical appetite, and of the murderous effects of their deadly squeeze. Then it all took shape in my mind. There had been a freshet the week before. It had brought down this huge hollow tree with its hideous occupant. Who knows from what far distant tropical forest it may have come! It had been stranded on the little east bay of the island. The cooperage had been the nearest house. Twice with the return of its appetite it had carried off the watchman. Last night it had doubtless come again, when Severall had thought he saw something move at the window, but our lights had driven it away. It had writhed onwards and had slain poor Walker in his sleep.
"Why did it not carry him off?" I asked.
"The thunder and lightning must have scared the brute away. There's your steward, Meldrum. The sooner we have breakfast and get back to the island the better, or some of those niggers might think that we had been frightened."
The Convent of the Third Order of Dominican Nuns—a large whitewashed building with little deep-set windows—stands at the corner of the Rua de St. Pedro in Lisbon. Inside the high wooden porch there is a life-size wooden statue of Saint Dominic, founder of the order, and the stranger is surprised to observe the curious scraps which are scattered over the pedestal. These singular votive offerings vary from week to week. For the most part they consist of cups of wine, splinters of firewood, crumbs of cheese, and berries of coffee, but occasionally a broken tin saucepan or a cracked plate is to be found among them. With simple faith the sisters, when their household stores run low, lay a piece of whatever it is they lack in front of their saint, as a reminder to him that they look to him for help; and sure enough upon the next day there arrives the wood, the wine, the new saucepan, or whatever else it is that they need. Whether this is due to a miracle, or to the help of the pious laity outside, may be a question to others, but it is none to the simple-minded Sisters of Saint Dominic. To them their whole existence is one continued miracle, and they point to the shelves of their own larder as a final refutation of every heretical doubt.
And had they been asked, these gentle fanatics, why their order above all others should be chosen for this constant supernatural care, they would have answered that it was a heavenly recognition of the sanctity of their Mother Superior. For twenty years Sister Monica had worked among those fallen classes which it is the special mission of the Dominican nuns to rescue. There was not an alley in Lisbon which had not been brightened by the flutter of her long white gown. And still as lady abbess she went on working and praying, with a tireless energy which put the young novices to shame. No one could compute how many there were who had been drawn from a life of sin through her exertions. For she had, above all things, the power of showing sympathy and of drawing the confidence of those who had suffered. They said that it was a sign that she had suffered herself; but none knew her early history, for she had come from the mountains of the north, and she spoke seldom and briefly of her own life. Her wax-like face was cold and serene, but there came a look sometimes into her large dark eyes which made the wretched and the poor feel that there was no depth of sorrow where the Abbess Monica had not been before them.
In the placid life of the convent, there is one annual event which is preceded by six months of expectation and followed by six of reminiscence. It is the yearly mission or "retreat," when some reverend preacher comes among them, and, through a week of prayer and exhortation, stimulates these pious souls to a finer shade of spirituality. Only a saint could hope to influence so saint-like a congregation, and it is the last crown to the holy and earnest priest that he should have given a retreat to the Sisters of Saint Dominic. On one year it had been Espinas, the Franciscan; on another Father Menas, the famous Abbot of Alcantara. But neither of these had caused the suppressed excitement which filled the convent when it passed from cell to cell that the retreat this year was to be given by no less a man than Father Garcia, the Jesuit.
For Father Garcia was a priest whose name was famous through all Catholic Europe as being a worthy successor to those great men, the Xaviers and Loyolas, who founded the first company of Jesus. He was a preacher; he was a writer; above all he was a martyr, for he had carried the gospel into Thibet and had come back with splintered fingers and twisted wrists as a sign of his devotion. Those mutilated hands raised in exhortation had moved his hearers more than the exhortation itself. In person he was tall, dark, and bent, worn to the bone with self-discipline, with a keen, eager face, and the curved predatory nose of the aggressive Churchman. Once that dark, deep-lined face had grace and beauty; now it had character and power; but in youth or age it was a face which neither man nor woman could look upon with indifference. A pagan sword-cut, which had disfigured the cheek, gave it an additional grace in the eyes of the faithful. So warped, and worn, and haggard was the man's whole appearance, that one might have doubted whether such a frame could contain so keen and earnest a spirit, had it not been for those flashing dark eyes which burned in the heavy shadows of the tufted brows.
It was those eyes which dominated his hearers, whether they consisted of the profligate society of Lisbon or of the gentle nuns of St. Dominic. When they gleamed fiercely as he denounced sin and threatened the sinner, or when, more seldom, they softened into a serene light as he preached the gospel of love, they forced those who saw them into the emotion which they expressed. Standing at the foot of the altar, with his long black figure and his eager face, he swayed the dense crowd of white-cowled women with every flash of those terrible eyes and with every sweep of that mutilated hand. But most of all he moved the Abbess. Her eyes were never taken from his face, and it was noticed that she, who had seemed for so long to have left all the emotions of this world beneath her, sat now with her wax-like face as white as the cowl which framed it, and that after every sermon she would tremble and shake until her rosary rattled against the wooden front of her prie-dieu. The lay-sister of the refectory, who had occasion to consult the Lady Abbess upon one of those nights, could scarcely believe her eyes when she saw her self-contained Superior sobbing her heart out, with her face buried in her little hard pillow.
At last the week of the retreat was over, and upon the Saturday night each nun was to make her general confession as a preparation for the Communion upon the Sunday morning. One after another these white-gowned figures, whose dress was emblematic of their souls, passed into the confessional, whispered through the narrow grating the story of their simple lives, and listened in deep humility and penitence to the wise advice and gentle admonitions which the old priest, with eyes averted, whispered back to them. So in their due order, lay-sisters, novices, sisters, they came back into the chapel, and waited only for the return of their Abbess to finish the day with the usual vespers.
The Abbess Monica had entered the little dark confessional, and saw through the foot-square wire-latticed opening the side of a grey head, one listening ear, and a claw-like hand which covered the rest of the face. A single candle was burning dimly by the Jesuit's side, and she heard the faint rustle as he turned over the leaves of his breviary. With the air of one who discloses the most terrible crimes, she knelt, with her head abased in sweet humility, and murmured the few trivial faults which still united her to humanity. So slight they were, and so few, that the priest was wondering in his mind what penance there was which would not be out of all proportion to her innocence, when the penitent hesitated, as if she still had something to say but found it difficult to say it.
"Courage, my sister," said Father Garcia: "what is there which still remains?"
"What remains," said she, "is the worst of all."
"And yet it may not be very serious," said the confessor reassuringly: "have no fear, my sister, in confiding it to me."
But still the Abbess hesitated, and when at last she spoke it was in a whisper so low that the hand beyond the grating gathered itself round the ear.
"Reverend father," she said, "we who wear the garb of the holy Dominic have vowed to leave behind us all thoughts of that which is worldly. And yet I, who am the unworthy Abbess, to whom all others have a right to look for an example, have during all this week been haunted by the memory of one whom I loved—of a man whom I loved, father—in the days so many years ago before I took the veil."
"My sister," said the Jesuit, "our thoughts are not always ours to command. When they are such as our conscience disapproves we can but regret them and endeavour to put them away."
"There lies the blackness of my sin, father. The thoughts were sweet to me, and I could not in my heart wish to put them away. When I was in my cell I did indeed struggle with my own weakness, but at the first words which fell from your lips—"
"From my lips!"
"It was your voice, father, which made me think of what I had believed that I had at last forgotten. Every tone of your voice brought back the memory of Pedro."
The confessor started at this indiscretion by which the penitent had voluntarily uttered the name of her lover. She heard his breviary flutter down upon the ground, but he did not stoop to pick it up. For some little time there was a silence, and then with head averted he pronounced the penance and the absolution.
She had risen from the cushion, and was turning to go, when a little gasping cry came from beside her. She looked down at the grating, and shrank in terror from the sight. A convulsed face was looking out at her, framed in that little square of oak. Two terrible eyes looked out of it—two eyes so full of hungry longing and hopeless despair that all the secret miseries of thirty years flashed into that one glance.
"Julia!" he cried.
And she leaned against the wooden partition of the confessional, her hand upon her heart, her face sunk. Pale and white-clad, she looked a drooping lily.
"It is you, Pedro," said she at last. "We must not speak. It is wrong."
"My duty as a priest is done," said he. "For God's sake give me a few words. Never in this world shall we two meet again."
She knelt down upon the cushion, so that her pale pure face was near to those terrible eyes which still burned beyond the grating.
"I did not know you, Pedro. You are very changed. Only your voice is the same."
"I did not know you either—not until you mentioned my old name. I did not know that you had taken the veil."
She heaved a gentle sigh.
"What was there left for me to do?" she said. "I had nothing to live for when you had left me."
His breath came quick, and harsh through the grating. "When I left you? When you ordered me away," said he.
"Pedro, you know that you left me."
The eager, dark face composed itself suddenly, with the effort of a strong man who steadies himself down to meet his fate.
"Listen, Julia," said he. "I saw you last upon the Plaza. We had but an instant, because your family and mine were enemies. I said that if you put your lamp in your window I would take it as a sign that you wished me to remain true to you, but that if you did not I should vanish from your life. You did not put it."
"I did put it, Pedro."
"Your window was the third from the top?"
"It was the first. Who told you that it was the third?"
"Your cousin Alphonso—my only friend in the family."
"My cousin Alphonso was my rejected suitor."
The two claw-like hands flew up into the air with a horrible spasm of hatred.
"Hush, Pedro, hush!" she whispered.
"I have said nothing."
"No, I shall never forgive him. Never! never!"
"You did not wish to leave me, then?"
"I joined the order in the hope of death."
"And you never forgot me?"
"God help me, I never could."
"I am so glad that you could not forget me. Oh, Pedro, your poor, poor hands! My loss has been the gain of others. I have lost my love, and I have made a saint and a martyr."
But he had sunk his face, and his gaunt shoulders shook with his agony.
"What about our lives!" he murmured. "What about our wasted lives!"
The Sisters of St. Dominic still talk of the last sermon which Father Garcia delivered to them—a sermon upon the terrible mischances of life, and upon the hidden sweetness which may come from them, until the finest flower of good may bloom upon the foulest stem of evil. He spoke of the soul-killing sorrow which may fall upon us, and how we may be chastened by it, if it be only that we learn a deeper and truer sympathy for the sorrow of our neighbour. And then he prayed himself, and implored his hearers to pray, that an unhappy man and a gentle woman might learn to take sorrow in such a spirit, and that the rebellious spirit of the one might be softened and the tender soul of the other made strong. Such was the prayer which a hundred of the sisters sent up; and if sweetness and purity can aid it, their prayer may have brought peace once more to the Abbess Monica and to Father Garcia of the Order of Jesus.
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