"Certainly, to have done so would show the better providence."
"Sir, I said the foolishness appeared. But, I tell you, there was foresight in the disposition—in neighbouring the building to the cliff path. For so they could the easier enter unobserved, and store their Tcegs of Nantes brandy in the belly of the organ."
"They? Who were they?"
"Why, who—but two-thirds of all Dunburgh?"
"It was a nest of 'em—traffickers in the eternal fire o' weekdays, and on the Sabbath, who so sanctimonious? But honesty comes not from the washing, like a clean shirt, nor can the piety of one day purge the evil of six. They built their church anigh the margin, forasmuch as it was handy, and that they thought, 'Surely the Lord will not undermine His own?' A rare community o' blasphemers, fro' the parson that took his regular toll of the organ-loft, to him that sounded the keys and pulled out the joyous stops as if they was so many spigots to what lay behind."
"Of when do you speak?"
"I speak of nigh a century and a half ago. I speak of the time o' the Seven Years' War and of Exciseman Jones, that, twenty year after he were buried, took his revenge on the cliff side of the man that done him to death."
"And who was that?"
"They called him Dark Dignum, sir—a great feat smuggler, and as wicked as he was bold,"
"Is your story about him?"
"Ay, it is; and of my grandfather, that were a boy when they laid, and was glad to lay, the exciseman deep as they could dig; for the sight of his sooty face in his coffin was worse than a bad dream."
"Why was that?"
The old man edged closer to me, and spoke in a sibilant voice.
"He were murdered, sir, foully and horribly, for all they could never bring it home to the culprit."
"Will you tell me about it?"
He was nothing loth. The wind, the place of perished tombs, the very wild-blown locks of this 'withered apple-john', were eerie accompaniments to the tale he piped in my ear:—
"When my grandfather were a boy," he said, "there lighted in Dunburgh Exciseman Jones. P'r'aps the village had gained an ill reputation. P'r'aps Exciseman Jones's predecessor had failed to secure the confidence o' the exekitive. At any rate, the new man was little to the fancy of the village. He was a grim, sour-looking, brass-bound galloot; and incorruptible—which was the worst. The keg o' brandy left on his doorstep o' New Year's Eve had been better unspiled and run into the gutter; for it led him somehow to the identification of the innocent that done it, and he had him by the heels in a twinkling. The squire snorted at the man, and the parson looked askance; but Dark Dignum, he swore he'd be even with him, if he swung for it. They was hurt and surprised, that was the truth, over the scrupulosity of certain people; and feelin' ran high against Exciseman Jones.
"At that time Dark Dignum was a young man with a reputation above his years for profaneness and audacity. Ugly things there were said about him; and amongst many wicked he was feared for his wickedness. Exciseman Jones had his eye on him; and that was bad for Exciseman Jones.
"Now one murk December night Exciseman Jones staggered home with a bloody long slice down his scalp, and the red drip from it spotting the cobble-stones.
"'Summut fell on him from a winder,' said Dark Dignum, a little later, as he were drinkin' hisself hoarse in the Black Boy. 'Summut fell on him retributive, as you might call it. For, would you believe it, the man had at the moment been threatenin' me? He did. He said, "I know damn well about you, Dignum; and for all your damn ingenuity, I'll bring you with a crack to the ground yet."'
"What had happened? Nobody knew, sir. But Exciseman Jones was in his bed for a fortnight; and when he got on his legs again, it was pretty evident there was a hate between the two men that only blood-spillin' could satisfy.
"So far as is known, they never spoke to one another again. They played their game of death in silence—the lawful, cold and unfathomable; the unlawful, swaggerin' and crool—and twenty year separated the first move and the last.
"This were the first, sir—as Dark Dignum leaked it out long after in his cups. This were the first; and it brought Exciseman Jones to his grave on the cliff here.
"It were a deep soft summer night; and the young smuggler sat by hisself in the long room of the Black Boy. Now, I tell you he were a fox-ship intriguer—grand, I should call him, in the aloneness of his villainy. He would play his dark games out of his own hand; and sure, of all his wickedness, this game must have seemed the sum.
"I say he sat by hisself; and I hear the listening ghost of him call me a liar. For there were another body present, though invisible to mortal eye; and that second party were Exciseman Jones, who was hidden up the chimney.
"How had he inveigled him there? Ah, they've met and worried that point out since. No other will ever know the truth this side the grave. But reports come to be whispered; and reports said as how Dignum had made an appointment with a bodiless master of a smack as never floated, to meet him in the Black Boy and arrange for to run a cargo as would never be shipped; and that somehow he managed to acquent Exciseman Jones o' this dissembling appointment, and to secure his presence in hidin' to witness it.
"That's conjecture; for Dignum never let on so far. But what is known for certain is that Exciseman Jones, who were as daring and determined as his enemy—p'r'aps more so—for some reason was in the chimney, on to a grating in which he had managed to lower hisself from the roof; and that he could, if given time, have scrambled up again with difficulty, but was debarred from going lower. And, further, this is known—that, as Dignum sat on, pretendin' to yawn and huggin' his black intent, a little sut plopped down the chimney and scattered on the coals of the laid fire beneath.
"At that—'Curse this waitin'!' said he. 'The room's as chill as a belfry'; and he got to his feet, with a secret grin, and strolled to the hearthstone.
"'I wonder,' said he, 'will the landlord object if I ventur' upon a glint of fire for comfort's sake?' and he pulled out his flint and steel, struck a spark, and with no more feelin' than he'd express in lighting a pipe, set the flame to the sticks.
"The trapt rat above never stirred or give tongue. My God! what a man! Sich a nature could afford to bide and bide—ay, for twenty year, if need be.
"Dignum would have enjoyed the sound of a cry; but he never got it. He listened with the grin fixed on his face; and of a sudden he heard a scrambling struggle, like as a dog with the colic jumping at a wall; and presently, as the sticks blazed and the smoke rose denser, a thick coughin', as of a consumptive man under bed-clothes. Still no cry, nor any appeal for mercy; no, not from the time he lit the fire till a horrible rattle come down, which was the last twitches of somethin' that choked and died on the sooty gratin' above.
"When all was quiet, Dignum he knocks with his foot on the floor and sits hisself down before the hearth, with a face like a pillow for innocence.
"'I were chilled and lit it,' says he to the landlord. 'You don't mind?'
"Mind? Who would have ventur'd to cross Dark Dignum's fancies?
"He give a boisterous laugh, and ordered in a double noggin of humming stuff.
"'Here,' he says, when it comes, 'is to the health of Exciseman Jones, that swore to bring me to the ground.'
"'To the ground,' mutters a thick voice from the chimney.
"'My God!' says the landlord—'there's something up there!'
"Something there was; and terrible to look upon when they brought it to light. The creature's struggles had ground the sut into its face, and its nails were black below the quick.
"Were those words the last of its death-throe, or an echo from beyond? Ah! we may question; but they were heard by two men.
"Dignum went free. What could they prove agen him? Not that he knew there was aught in the chimney when he lit the fire. The other would scarcely have acquent him of his plans. And Exciseman Jones was hurried into his grave alongside the church up here.
"And therein he lay for twenty year, despite that, not a twelvemonth after his coming, the sacrilegious house itself sunk roaring into the waters. For the Lord would have none of it, and, biding His time, struck through a fortnight of deluge, and hurled church and cliff into ruin. But the yard remained, and, nighest the seaward edge of it, Exciseman Jones slept in his fearful winding sheet and bided his time.
"It came when my grandfather were a young man of thirty, and mighty close and confidential with Dark Dignum. God forgive him! Doubtless he were led away by the older smuggler, that had a grace of villainy about him, 'tis said, and used Lord Chesterfield's printed letters for wadding to his bullets.
"By then he was a ramping, roaring devil; but, for all his bold hands were stained with crime, the memory of Exciseman Jones and of his promise dwelled with him and darkened him ever more and more, and never left him. So those that knew him said.
"Now all these years the cliff edge agen the graveyard, where it was broke off, was scabbing into the sea below. But still they used this way of ascent for their ungodly traffic; and over the ruin of the cliff they had drove a new path for to carry up their kegs.
"It was a cloudy night in March, with scud and a fitful moon, and there was a sloop in the offing, and under the shore a loaded boat that had just pulled in with muffled rowlocks. Out of this Dark Dignum was the first to sling hisself a brace of rundlets; and my grandfather followed with two more. They made softly for the cliff path—began the ascent—was half-way up.
"Whiz!—a stone of chalk went by them with a skirl, and slapped into the rubble below.
"'Some more of St. Dunstan's gravel!' cried Dignum, pantin' out a reckless laugh under his load; and on they went again.
"Hwish!—a bigger lump came like a thunderbolt, and the wind of it took the bloody smuggler's hat and sent it swooping into the darkness like a bird.
"'Thunder!' said Dignum; 'the cliff's breaking away!'
"The words was hardly out of his mouth, when there flew such a volley of chalk stones as made my grandfather, though none had touched him, fall upon the path where he stood, and begin to gabble out what he could call to mind of the prayers for the dying. He was in the midst of it, when he heard a scream come from his companion as froze the very marrow in his bones. He looked up, thinkin' his hour had come.
"My God! What a sight he saw! The moon had shone out of a sudden, and the light of it struck down on Dignum's face, and that was the colour of dirty parchment. And he looked higher, and give a sort of sob.
"For there, stickin' out of the cliff side, was half the body of Exciseman Jones, with its arms stretched abroad, and it was clawin' out lumps of chalk and hurling them down at Dignum!
"And even as he took this in through his terror, a great ball of white came hurtling, and went full on to the man's face with a splash—and he were spun down into the deep night below, a nameless thing."
The old creature came to a stop, his eyes glinting with a febrile excitement.
"And so," I said, "Exciseman Jones was true to his word?"
The tension of memory was giving—the spring slowly uncoiling itself.
"Ay," he said doubtfully. "The cliff had flaked away by degrees to his very grave. They found his skelington stickin' out of the chalk."
"His skeleton?" said I, with the emphasis of disappointment.
"The first, sir, the first. Ay, his was the first. There've been a many exposed since. The work of decay goes on, and the bones they fall into the sea. Sometimes, sailing off shore, you may see a shank or an arm protrudin' like a pigeon's leg from a pie. But the wind or the weather takes it and it goes. There's more to follow yet. Look at 'em! look at these bents! Every one a grave, with a skelington in it. The wear and tear from the edge will reach each one in turn, and then the last of the ungodly will have ceased from the earth."
"And what became of your grandfather?"
"My grandfather? There were something happened made him renounce the devil. He died one of the elect. His youth were heedless and unregenerate; but, 'tis said, after he were turned thirty he never smiled agen. There was a reason. Did I ever tell you the story of Dark Dignum and Exciseman Jones?"
WILLIAM TYRWHITT'S "COPY"
This is the story of William Tyrwhitt, who went to King's Cobb for rest and change, and, with the latter, at least, was so far accommodated as for a time to get beyond himself and into regions foreign to his experiences or his desires. And for this condition of his I hold myself something responsible, inasmuch as it was my inquisitiveness was the means of inducing him to an exploration, of which the result, with its measure of weirdness, was for him alone. But, it seems, I was appointed an agent of the unexplainable without my knowledge, and it was simply my misfortune to find my first unwitting commission in the selling of a friend.
I was for a few days, about the end of a particular July, lodged in that little old seaboard town of Dorset that is called King's Cobb. Thither there came to me one morning a letter from William Tyrwhitt, the polemical journalist (a queer fish, like the cuttle, with an ink-bag for the confusion of enemies), complaining that he was fagged and used up, and desiring me to say that nowhere could complete rest be obtained as in King's Cobb.
I wrote and assured him on this point. The town, I said, lay wrapped in the hills as in blankets, its head only, winking a sleepy eye, projecting from the top of the broad steep gully in which it was stretched at ease. Thither few came to the droning coast; and such as did, looked up at the High Street baking in the sun, and, thinking of Jacob's ladder, composed them to slumber upon the sand and left the climbing to the angels. Here, I said, the air and the sea were so still that one could hear the oysters snoring in their beds; and the little frizzle of surf on the beach was like to the sound to dreaming ears of bacon frying in the kitchens of the blest.
William Tyrwhitt came, and I met him at the station, six or seven miles away. He was all strained and springless, like a broken child's toy—"not like that William who, with lance in rest, shot through the lists in Fleet Street." A disputative galley-puller could have triumphed over him morally; a child physically.
The drive in the inn brake, by undulating roads and scented valleys, shamed his cheek to a little flush of self-assertion.
"I will sleep under the vines," he said, "and the grapes shall drop into my mouth."
"Beware," I answered, "lest in King's Cobb your repose should be everlasting. The air of that hamlet has matured like old port in the bin of its hills, till to drink of it is to swoon."
We alighted at the crown of the High Street, purposing to descend on foot the remaining distance to the shore.
"Behold," I exclaimed, "how the gulls float in the shimmer, like ashes tossed aloft by the white draught of a fire! Behold these ancient buildings nodding to the everlasting lullaby of the bay waters! The cliffs are black with the heat apoplexy; the lobster is drawn scarlet to the surface. You shall be like an addled egg put into an incubator."
"So," he said, "I shall rest and not hatch. The very thought is like sweet oil on a burn."
He stayed with me a week, and his body waxed wondrous round and rosy, while his eye acquired a foolish and vacant expression. So it was with me. We rolled together, by shore and by road of this sluggard place, like spent billiard balls; and if by chance we cannoned, we swerved sleepily apart, until, perhaps, one would fall into a pocket of the sand, and the other bring up against a cushion of sea-wall.
Yet, for all its enervating atmosphere, King's Cobb has its fine traditions of a sturdy independence, and a slashing history withal; and its aspect is as picturesque as that of an opera bouffe fishing-harbour. Then, too, its High Street, as well as its meandering rivulets of low streets, is rich in buildings, venerable and antique.
We took an irresponsible, smiling pleasure in noting these advantages—particularly after lunch; and sometimes, where an old house was empty, we would go over it, and stare at beams and chimneypieces and hear the haunted tale of its fortunes, with a faint half-memory in our breasts of that one-time bugbear we had known as "copy." But though more than once a flaccid instinct would move us to have out our pencils, we would only end by bunging our foolish mouths with them, as if they were cigarettes, and then vaguely wondering at them for that, being pencils, they would not draw.
By then we were so sinewless and demoralized that we could hear in the distant strains of the European Concert nothing but an orchestra of sweet sounds, and would have given ourselves away in any situation with a pound of tea. Therefore, perhaps, it was well for us that, a peremptory summons to town reaching me after seven days of comradeship with William, I must make shift to collect my faculties with my effects, and return to the more bracing climate of Fleet Street.
And here, you will note, begins the story of William Tyrwhitt, who would linger yet a few days in that hanging garden of the south coast, and who would pull himself together and collect matter for "copy."
He found a very good subject that first evening of his solitude.
I was to leave in the afternoon, and the morning we spent in aimlessly rambling about the town. Towards mid-day, a slight shower drove us to shelter under the green verandah of a house, standing up from the lower fall of the High Street, that we had often observed in our wanderings. This house—or rather houses, for it was a block of two—was very tall and odd-looking, being all built of clean squares of a whitish granite; and the double porch in the middle base—led up to by side-going steps behind thin iron railings—roofed with green-painted zinc. In some of the windows were jalousies, but the general aspect of the exterior was gaunt and rigid; and the whole block bore a dismal, deserted look, as if it had not been lived in for years.
Now we had taken refuge in the porch of that half that lay uppermost on the slope; and here we noticed that, at a late date, the building was seemingly in process of repair, painters' pots and brushes lying on a window-sill, and a pair of steps showing within through the glass.
"They have gone to dinner," said I. "Supposing we seize the opportunity to explore?"
We pushed at the door; it yielded. We entered, shut ourselves in, and paused to the sound of our own footsteps echoing and laughing from corners and high places. On the ground floor were two or three good-sized rooms with modern grates, but cornices, chimney-pieces, embrasures finely Jacobean. There were innumerable under-stair and over-head cupboards, too, and pantries, and closets, and passages going off darkly into the unknown.
We clomb the stairway—to the first floor—to the second. Here was all pure Jacobean; but the walls were crumbling, the paper peeling, the windows dim and foul with dirt.
I have never known a place with such echoes. They shook from a footstep like nuts rattling out of a bag; a mouse behind the skirting led a whole camp-following of them; to ask a question was, as in that other House, to awaken the derisive shouts of an Opposition. Yet, in the intervals of silence, there fell a deadliness of quiet that was quite appalling by force of contrast.
"Let us go down," I said. "I am feeling creepy."
"Pooh!" said William Tyrwhitt; "I could take up my abode here with a feather bed."
We descended, nevertheless. Arrived at the ground floor, "I am going to the back," said William.
I followed him—a little reluctantly, I confess. Gloom and shadow had fallen upon the town, and this old deserted hulk of an abode was ghostly to a degree. There was no film of dust on its every shelf or sill that did not seem to me to bear the impress of some phantom finger feeling its way along. A glint of stealthy eyes would look from dark uncertain corners; a thin evil vapour appear to rise through the cracks of the boards from the unvisited cellars in the basement.
And here, too, we came suddenly upon an eccentricity of out-building that wrought upon our souls with wonder. For, penetrating to the rear through what might have been a cloak-closet or butler's pantry, we found a supplementary wing, or rather tail of rooms, loosely knocked together, to proceed from the back, forming a sort of skilling to the main building. These rooms led direct into one another, and, consisting of little more than timber and plaster, were in a woeful state of dilapidation. Everywhere the laths grinned through torn gaps in the ceilings and walls; everywhere the latter were blotched and mildewed with damp, and the floor-boards rotting in their tracks. Fallen mortar, rusty tins, yellow teeth of glass, whitened soot—all the decay and rubbish of a generation of neglect littered the place and filled it with an acrid odour. From one of the rooms we looked forth through a little discoloured window upon a patch of forlorn weedy garden, where the very cats glowered in a depression that no surfeit of mice could assuage.
We went on, our nervous feet apologetic to the grit they crunched; and, when we were come to near the end of this dreary annexe, turned off to the left into a short gloom of passage that led to a closed door.
Pushing this open, we found a drop of some half-dozen steps, and, going gingerly down these, stopped with a common exclamation of surprise on our lips.
Perhaps our wonder was justified, for we were in the stern cabin of an ancient West Indiaman.
Some twenty feet long by twelve wide—there it all was, from the deck transoms above, to the side lockers and great curved window, sloping outwards to the floor and glazed with little panes in galleries, that filled the whole end of the room. Thereout we looked, over the degraded garden, to the lower quarters of the town—as if, indeed, we were perched high up on waves—and even to a segment of the broad bay that swept by them.
But the room itself! What phantasy of old sea-dog or master-mariner had conceived it? What palsied spirit, condemned to rust in inactivity, had found solace in this burlesque of shipcraft? To renew the past in such a fixture, to work oneself up to the old glow of flight and action, and then, while one stamped and rocked maniacally, to feel the refusal of so much as a timber to respond to one's fervour of animation! It was a grotesque picture.
Now, this cherished chamber had shared the fate of the rest. The paint and gilding were all cracked and blistered away; much of the glass of the stern-frame was gone or hung loose in its sashes; the elaborately carved lockers mouldered on the walls.
These were but dummies when we came to examine them—mere slabs attached to the brickwork, and decaying with it.
"There should be a case-bottle and rummers in one, at least," said William Tyrwhitt.
"There are, sir, at your service," said a voice behind us.
We started and turned.
It had been such a little strained voice that it was with something like astonishment I looked upon the speaker. Whence he had issued I could not guess; but there he stood behind us, nodding and smiling—a squab, thick-set old fellow with a great bald head, and, for all the hair on his face, a tuft like a teasel sprouting from his under lip.
He was in his shirt-sleeves, without coat or vest; and I noticed that his dirty lawn was oddly plaited in front, and that about his ample paunch was buckled a broad belt of leather. Greased hip-boots encased his lower limbs, and the heels of these were drawn together as he bowed.
William Tyrwhitt—a master of nervous English—muttered "Great Scott!" under his breath.
"Permit me," said the stranger—and he held out to us a tin pannikin (produced from Heaven knows where) that swam with fragrance.
I shook my head. William Tyrwhitt, that fated man, did otherwise. He accepted the vessel and drained it.
"It smacks of all Castille," he said, handing it back with a sigh of ecstasy. "Who the devil are you, sir?"
The stranger gave a little crow.
"Peregrine Iron, sir, at your service—Captain Penegrine Iron, of the Raven sloop amongst others. You are very welcome to the run of my poor abode."
"Yours?" I murmured in confusion. "We owe you a thousand apologies."
"Not at all," he said, addressing all his courtesy to William. Me, since my rejection of his beaker, he took pains to ignore.
"Not at all," he said. "Your intrusion was quite natural under the circumstances. I take a pleasure in being your cicerone. This cabin (he waved his hand pompously)—a fancy of mine, sir, a fancy of mine. The actual material of the latest of my commands brought hither and adapted to the exigencies of shore life. It enables me to live eternally in the past—a most satisfying illusion. Come to-night and have a pipe and a glass with me."
I thought William Tyrwhitt mad.
"I will come, by all means," he said.
The stranger bowed us out of the room.
"That is right," he exclaimed. "You will find me here. Good-bye for the present."
As we plunged like dazed men into the street, now grown sunny, I turned on my friend.
"William," I said, "did you happen to look back as we left the cabin?"
"There was no stranger there at all. The place was empty."
"You will not go to-night?"
"You bet I do."
I shrugged my shoulders. We walked on a little way in silence. Suddenly my companion turned on me, a most truculent expression on his face.
"For an independent thinker," he said, "you are rather a pusillanimous jackass. A man of your convictions to shy at a shadow! Fie, sir, fie! What if the room were empty? The place was full enough of traps to permit of Captain Iron's immediate withdrawal."
Much may be expressed in a sniff. I sniffed.
That afternoon I went back to town, and left the offensive William to his fate.
* * * * *
It found him at once.
The very day following that of my retreat, I was polishing phrases by gaslight in the dull sitting-room of my lodgings in the Lambeth Road, when he staggered in upon me. His face was like a sheep's, white and vacant; his hands had caught a trick of groping blindly along the backs of chairs.
"You have obtained your 'copy'?" I said.
I made him out to murmur "yes" in a shaking under-voice. He was so patently nervous that I put him in a chair and poured him out a wine-glassful of London brandy. This generally is a powerful emetic, but it had no more effect upon him than water. Then I was about to lower the gas, to save his eyes, but he stopped me with a thin shriek.
"Light, light!" he whispered. "It cannot be too light for me!"
"Now, William Tyrwhitt," I said, by-and-by, watchful of him, and marking a faint effusion of colour soak to his cheek, "you would not accept my warning, and you were extremely rude to me. Therefore you have had an experience—"
"An awful one," he murmured.
"An awful one, no doubt; and to obtain surcease of the haunting memory of it, you must confide its processes to me. But, first, I must put it to you, which is the more pusillanimous—to refuse to submit one's manliness to the tyranny of the unlawful, or to rush into situations you have not the nerve to adapt yourself to?"
"I could not foresee, I could not foresee."
"Neither could I. And that was my very reason for declining the invitation. Now proceed."
It was long before he could. But presently he essayed, and gathered voice with the advance of his narrative, and even unconsciously threw it into something the form of "copy." And here it is as he murmured it, but with a gasp for every full-stop.
"I confess I was so far moved by the tone of your protest as, after your departure, to make some cautious inquiries about the house we had visited. I could discover nothing to satisfy my curiosity. It was known to have been untenanted for a great number of years; but as to who was the landlord, whether Captain Iron or another, no one could inform me; and the agent for the property was of the adjacent town where you met me. I was not fortunate, indeed, in finding that any one even knew of the oddly appointed room; but considering that, owing to the time the house had remained vacant, the existence of this eccentricity could be a tradition only with some casual few, my failure did not strike me as being at all bodeful. On the contrary, it only whetted my desire to investigate further in person, and penetrate to the heart of a very captivating little mystery. But probably, I thought, it is quite simple of solution, and the fact of the repairers and the landlord being in evidence at one time, a natural coincidence.
"I dined well, and sallied forth about nine o'clock. It was a night pregnant with possibilities. The lower strata of air were calm, but overhead the wind went down the sea with a noise of baggage-wagons, and there was an ominous hurrying and gathering together of forces under the bellying standards of the clouds.
"As I went up the steps of the lonely building, the High Street seemed to turn all its staring eyes of lamps in my direction. 'What a droll fellow!' they appeared to be saying; 'and how will he look when he reissues?'
"'There ain't nubbudy in that house,' croaked a small boy, who had paused below, squinting up at me.
"'How do you know?' said I. 'Move on, my little man.'
"He went; and at once it occurred to me that, as no notice was taken of my repeated knockings, I might as well try the handle. I did, found the door unlatched, as it had been in the morning, pushed it open, entered, and swung it to behind me.
"I found myself in the most profound darkness—that darkness, if I may use the paradox, of a peopled desolation that men of but little nerve or resolution find insupportable. To me, trained to a serenity of stoicism, it could make no demoralizing appeal. I had out my matchbox, opened it at leisure, and, while the whole vaulting blackness seemed to tick and rustle with secret movement, took a half-dozen vestas into my hand, struck one alight, and, by its dim radiance, made my way through the building by the passages we had penetrated in the morning. If at all I shrank or perspired on my spectral journey, I swear I was not conscious of doing so.
"I came to the door of the cabin. All was black and silent.
"'Ah!' I thought, 'the rogue has played me false.'
"Not to subscribe to an uncertainty, I pushed at the door, saw only swimming dead vacancy before me, and tripping at the instant on the sill, stumbled crashing into the room below and slid my length on the floor.
"Now, I must tell you, it was here my heart gave its first somersault. I had fallen, as I say, into a black vault of emptiness; yet, as I rose, bruised and dazed, to my feet, there was the cabin all alight from a great lanthorn that swung from the ceiling, and our friend of the morning seated at a table, with a case-bottle of rum and glasses before him.
"I stared incredulous. Yes, there could be no doubt it was he, and pretty flushed with drink, too, by his appearance.
"'Incandescent light in a West Indiaman!' I muttered; for not otherwise could I account for the sudden illumination. 'What the deuce!'
"'Belay that!' he growled. He seemed to observe me for the first time.
"'A handsome manner of boarding a craft you've got, sir,' said he, glooming at me.
"I was hastening to apologize, but he stopped me coarsely.
"'Oh, curse the long jaw of him! Fill your cheek with that, you Barbary ape, and wag your tail if you can, but burn your tongue.'
"He pointed to the case-bottle with a forefinger that was like a dirty parsnip. What induced me to swallow the insult, and even some of the pungent liquor of his rude offering? The itch for 'copy' was, no doubt, at the bottom of it.
"I sat down opposite my host, filled and drained a bumper. The fire ran to my brain, so that the whole room seemed to pitch and courtesy.
"'This is an odd fancy of yours,' I said.
"'What is?' said he.
"'This,' I answered, waving my hand around—'this freak of turning a back room into a cabin.'
"He stared at me, and then burst into a malevolent laugh.
"'Back room, by thunder!' said he. 'Why, of course—just a step into the garden where the roses and the buttercupses be agrowing.'
"Now I pricked my ears.
"'Has the night turned foul?' I muttered. 'What a noise the rain makes beating on the window!'
"'It's like to be a foul one for you, at least,' said he. 'But, as for the rain, it's blazing moonlight.'
"I turned to the broad casement in astonishment. My God! what did I see? Oh, my friend, my friend! will you believe me? By the melancholy glow that spread therethrough I saw that the whole room was rising and sinking in rhythmical motion; that the lights of King's Cobb had disappeared, and that in their place was revealed a world of pale and tossing water, the pursuing waves of which leapt and clutched at the glass with innocuous fingers.
"I started to my feet, mad in an instant.
"'Look, look!' I shrieked. 'They follow us—they struggle to get at you, you bloody murderer!'
"They came rising on the crests of the billows; they hurried fast in our wake, tumbling and swaying, their stretched, drowned faces now lifted to the moonlight, now over-washed in the long trenches of water. They were rolled against the galleries of glass, on which their hair slapped like ribbons of seaweed—a score of ghastly white corpses, with strained black eyes and pointed stiff elbows crookt up in vain for air.
"I was mad, but I knew it all now. This was no house, but the good, ill-fated vessel Rayo, once bound for Jamaica, but on the voyage fallen into the hands of the bloody buccaneer, Paul Hardman, and her crew made to walk the plank, and most of her passengers. I knew that the dark scoundrel had boarded and mastered her, and—having first fired and sunk his own sloop—had steered her straight for the Cuban coast, making disposition of what remained of the passengers on the way, and I knew that my great-grandfather had been one of these doomed survivors, and that he had been shot and murdered under orders of the ruffian that now sat before me. All this, as retailed by one who sailed for a season under Hardman to save his skin, is matter of old private history; and of common report was it that the monster buccaneer, after years of successful trading in the ship he had stolen, went into secret and prosperous retirement under an assumed name, and was never heard of more on the high seas. But, it seemed, it was for the great-grandson of one of his victims to play yet a sympathetic part in the grey old tragedy.
"How did this come to me in a moment—or, rather, what was that dream buzzing in my brain of 'proof' and 'copy' and all the tame stagnation of a long delirium of order? I had nothing in common with the latter. In some telepathic way—influenced by these past-dated surroundings—dropped into the very den of this Procrustes of the seas, I was there to re-enact the fearful scene that had found its climax in the brain of my ancestor.
"I rushed to the window, thence back to within a yard of the glowering buccaneer, before whom I stood, with tost arms, wild and menacing.
"'They follow you!' I screamed. 'Passive, relentless, and deadly, they follow in your wake and will not be denied. The strong, the helpless, the coarse and the beautiful—all you have killed and mutilated in your wanton devilry—they are on your heels like a pack of spectre-hounds, and sooner or later they will have you in their cold arms and hale you down to the secret places of terror. Look at Beston, who leads, with a fearful smile on his mouth! Look at that pale girl you tortured, whose hair writhes and lengthens—a swarm of snakes nosing the hull for some open port-hole to enter by! Dog and devil, you are betrayed by your own hideous cruelty!'
"He rose and struck at me blindly; staggered, and found his filthy voice in a shriek of rage.
"'Jorinder! make hell of the galley-fire! Heat some irons red and fetch out a bucket of pitch. We'll learn this dandy galloot his manners!'
"Wrought to the snapping-point of desperation, I sprang at and closed with him; and we went down on the floor together with a heavy crash. I was weaponless, but I would choke and strangle him with my hands. I had him under, my fingers crookt in his throat. His eyeballs slipped forward, like banana ends squeezed from their skins; he could not speak or cry, but he put up one feeble hand and flapped it aimlessly. At that, in the midst of my fury, I glanced above me, and saw a press of dim faces crowding a dusk hatch; and from them a shadowy arm came through, pointing a weapon; and all my soul reeled sick, and I only longed to be left time to destroy the venomous horror beneath me before I passed.
"It was not to be. Something, a physical sensation like the jerk of a hiccup, shook my frame; and immediately the waters of being seemed to burst their dam and flow out peaceably into a valley of rest."
William Tyrwhitt paused, and "Well?" said I.
"You see me here," he said. "I woke this morning, and found myself lying on the floor of that shattered and battered closet, and a starved demon of a cat licking up something from the boards. When I drove her away, there was a patch there like ancient dried blood."
"And how about your head?"
"My head? Why, the bullet seemed stuck in it between the temples; and there I am afraid it is still."
"Just so. Now, William Tyrwhitt, you must take a Turkish, bath and some cooling salts, and then come and tell me all about it again."
"Ah! you don't believe me, I see. I never supposed you would. Good-night!"
But, when he was gone, I sat ruminating.
"That Captain Iron," I thought, "walked over the great rent in the floor without falling through. Well, well!"
A LAZY ROMANCE
I had slept but two nights at King's Cobb, when I saw distinctly that the novel with which I was to revolutionize society and my own fortunes, and with the purpose of writing which in an unvexed seclusion I had buried myself in this expedient hamlet on the South Coast, was withered in the bud beyond redemption. To this lamentable canker of a seedling hope the eternal harmony of the sea was a principal contributor; but Miss Whiffle confirmed the blight. I had fled from the jangle of a city, and the worries incidental to a life of threepenny sociabilities; and the result was—
I had rooms on the Parade—a suggestive mouthful. But then the Parade is such a modest little affair. The town itself is flung down a steep hill, at the mouth of a verdurous gorge; and lies pitched so far as the very waterside, a picturesque jumble of wall and roof. Its banked edges bristle and stand up in the bight of a vaster bay, with a crooked breakwater, like a bent finger, beckoning passing sails to its harbourage—an invitation which most are coy of accepting. For the attractions of King's Cobb are—comparatively—limited, and its nearest station is a full six miles distant along a switchback road.
Possibly this last fact may have militated against the popularity of King's Cobb as a holiday resort. If so, all the better; and may enterprise for ever languish in the matter. For vulgarity can claim no commoner purpose with fashion than is shown in that destruction of ancient landmarks and double gilding of new which follows the "opening out" of some unsophisticated colony of simple souls.
King's Cobb, if "remote and unfriended," is neither "melancholy" nor "slow"; but it is small, and all its fine little history—for it has had a stirring one—has ruffled itself out on a liliputian platform.
Than this, its insignificance, I desired nothing better. I wished to feel the comparative importance of the individual, which one cannot do in crowded colonies. I coveted surroundings that should be primitive—an atmosphere in which my thoughts could speak to me coherent. I would be as one in a cave, looking forth on sea, and sky, and the buoyant glory of Nature; unvexed of conventions; untrammelled by social observances; building up my enchanted palace of the imagination against such a background as only the unsullied majesty of sky and ocean could present. For the result was to crown with my name an epoch in literature; and hither in future ages should the pilgrim stand at gaze, murmuring to himself, 'And here he wrote it!'
I laid my head on my pillow, that first night of my stay, with a brimming brain and a heart of high resolve. The two little windows, under a thatched roof, of my sleeping place (that lay over my sitting-room, and both looked oceanwards) were open to the inpour of sweet hot air; and only the regular wash of the sea below broke the close stillness of the night. I say this was all; and, with the memory upon me, I could easily, at any time, break the second commandment.
I had thought myself fortunate in my lodgings. They were in a most charming old-world cottage—as I have said on the Parade—and at high tide I could have thrown a biscuit into the sea with merely a lazy jerk. My sitting-room put forth a semi-circular window—like a lighthouse lantern—upon the very pathway, and it had been soothing during the afternoon to look from out this upon the little world of sea and sky and striding cliff that was temporarily mine. From the Parade four feet of stone wall dipped to a second narrow terrace, and this, in its turn, was but a step above a slope of shingle that ran down to the water.
Veritably had I pitched my tent on the wide littoral of rest. So I thought with a smile, as I composed myself for slumber.
I slept, and I woke, and I lay awake for hours. Every vext problem of my life and of the hereafter presented itself to me, and had to be argued out and puzzled over with maddening reiteration. The reason for this was evident and flagrant. It had woven itself into the tissue of my brief unconsciousness, and was now recognised as, ineradicably, part of myself.
The tide was incoming, that was all, and the waves currycombed the beach with a swishing monotony that would have dehumanized an ostler.
This rings like the undue inflation of a little theme. I ask no pity for it, nor do I make apology for my weakness. Men there may be, no doubt, to whom the unceasing recurrent thump and scream of a coasting tide on shingle speaks, even in sleep, of the bountiful rhythm of Nature. I am not one of them—at least, since I visited King's Cobb. The noise of the waters got into my brain and stayed there. It turned everything else out—sleep, thought, faith, hope, and charity. From that first awakening my skull was a mere globe of stagnant fluid, for any disease germs that listed to propagate in.
Perhaps I was too near the coast-line. The highest appreciations of Nature's thunderous forces are conceived, I believe, in the muffled seclusion of the study. I had heard of still-rooms. I did not quite know what they were; but they seemed to me an indispensable part of seaside lodgings, and for the rest of that night I ardently and almost tearfully longed to be in one.
I came down in the morning jaded and utterly unrefreshed. It was patent that I was in no state to so much as outline the preliminaries of my great undertaking. "Use shall accustom me," I groaned. "I shall scarcely notice it to-night."
And it was at this point that Miss Whiffle walked like a banshee into the disturbed chambers of my life, and completed my demoralization.
I must premise that I am an exquisitively nervous man—one who would accept almost ridiculous impositions if the alternative were a "scene." Strangers, I fancy, are quick to detect the signs of this weakness in me; but none before had ever ventured to take such outrageous advantage of it as did Miss Whiffle, with the completest success.
This lady had secured me for a month. My rights extended over the lantern-windowed sitting-room and the bedroom above it. They were to include, moreover, board of a select quality.
"Select" represented Miss Whiffle's brazen mean of morality; and, indeed, it is an elastic and accommodating word. One, for instance, may select an aged gander for its wisdom, knowing that the youthful gosling is proverbially "green." Miss Whiffle selected the aged gander for me, and I gnawed its sinewy limbs without a protest. On a similar principle she appeared to ransack the town shops for prehistoric joints (the locality was rich in fossils), and vegetables that, like eggs, only grew harder the more they were boiled.
I submitted, of course; and should have done no less by a landlady not so obstreperously constituted. But this terrible person gauged and took me in hand from the very morning following my arrival.
She came to receive my orders after breakfast (tepid chicory and an omelette like a fragment of scorched blanket) with her head wrapped up in a towel. Thus habited she had the effrontery to trust the meal had been to my liking. I gave myself away at once by weakly answering, "Oh, certainly!"
"As to dinner, sir," she said faintly, "it is agreed, no kitching fire in the hevening. That is understood."
I said, "Oh, certainly!" again.
"What I should recommend," she said—and she winced obtrusively at every sixth word—"is an 'arty meal at one, and a light supper at height."
"That will suit me admirably," I said.
She tapped her fingers together indulgently.
"So I thought," she murmured. "Now, what do you fancy, sir?"
"Dear me!" I exclaimed, for her face was horribly contorted. "Are you in pain?"
"Agonies!" said Miss Whiffle.
"Neuralgia, sir, for my sins."
"Is there—is there no remedy?"
She was taken with a sharp spasm of laughter, mirthless, but consciously expressive of all the familiar processes of self-effacement under torture.
"I arks nothing but my duty, sir," she said. "That is the myrrh and balsam to a racking 'ed. Not but what I owns to a shrinking like unto death over the thought of what lays before me this very morning. Rest and quiet is needful, but it's little I shall get of either out of a kitching fire in the dog days. And what would you fancy for your dinner, sir?"
"I am sorry," I murmured, "that you should suffer on my account. I suppose there is nothing cold—"
"Not enough, sir, in all the 'ouse to bait a mousetrap. Nor would I inconvenience you, if not for your own kind suggestion. But potted meats is 'andy and ever sweet, and if I might make bold to propose a tin—"
"Very well. Get me what you like, Miss Whiffle."
"I must arks your pardin, sir. But to walk out in this 'eat, and every rolling pebble under my foot a knife through my 'ed—no, sir. I make bold to claim that consideration for myself."
"Leave it to me, then. I will do my own catering this morning."
Then I added, in the forlorn hope of justifying my moral ineptitude to myself, "If you take my advice, you will lie down."
"And where, sir?" she answered, with a particularly patient smile. "The beds is unmade as yet, sir," she went on, in a suffering decline, "and rumpled sheets is thorns to a bursting brain."
Then she looked meaningly at the sitting-room sofa.
"I made bold to think, if you 'ad 'appened to been a-going to bathe, the only quiet place in the 'ouse—" she murmured, in semi-detached sentences, and put her hand to her brow.
Five minutes later (I fear no one will credit it) I was outside the house, and Miss Whiffle was installed, towel and all, upon my sofa.
For a moment I really think the outrageous absurdity of the situation did goad me to the tottering point of rebellion. I had not the courage, however, to let myself go, and, as usual, succumbed to the tyranny of circumstances.
It was a blazing morning. The flat sea lay panting on its coasts, as if, for all its liquid sparkle, it were athirst; and the town, under the oven of its hills, burned red-hot, like pottery in a kiln.
I went and bought my tinned meat (a form of preserve quite odious to me) and strolled back disconsolately to the Parade. Occasionally, flitting past the lantern window, I would steal a side glance into the cool luminosity of my own inaccessible parlour; and there always, reclining at her ease upon my sofa, was the ineradicable presentment of Miss Whiffle.
At one o'clock I ventured to reclaim my own, and sat me down at table, a scorched and glutinous wreck, too overcome with lassitude to tackle the obnoxious meal of my own providing. And to the sofa, already made familiar of that dishonoured towel, I was fain presently to confide the empty problem of my own aching head.
All this was but the forerunner and earnest of a month's long martyrdom. That night the sea had me by the nerves again, and for many nights after; and, although I grew in time to a certain tolerance of the booming monotony, it was the tolerance of a dully resigned, not an indifferent, brain.
When it came to the second morning, not only the novel, but the mere idea of my ever having contemplated writing one, was a thing with me to feebly marvel over. And from that time I set myself down to exist and broil only, doling out a languid interest to the locality, the shimmer of whose baking hill-sides made all life a quivering, glaring phantom of itself.
Miss Whiffle tyrannized over me more or less according to her mood; but she did not usurp my sitting-room again. I used to sit by the hour at the lantern window, in a sort of greasy blankness, like a meat pudding, and vacantly scrutinize the loiterers who passed by on the hot asphalt of the Parade. Screened by the window curtains, I could see and hear without endangering my own privacy; and many were the odd interchanges of speech that fell from strangers unconscious of a listener.
One particularly festering day after dinner I had the excitement of quite a pretty little quarrel for dessert. Miss Whiffle had stuffed me with suet, in meat and pudding, to a point of stupefaction that stopped short only of absolute insensibility; and in this state I took up my usual post at the window, awaiting in swollen vacuity the possibilities of the afternoon.
On the horizon violet-hot sea and sky showed scarce a line of demarcation between them. Nearer in the waves snored stertorously from exhausted lungs, as if the very tide were in extremis. Not a breath of air fanned the pitiless Parade, and the sole accent on life came from a droning, monotonous voice pitched from somewhere in querulous complaint.
"Frarsty!" it wailed, "Frarsty! I warnt thee!" and again, "I warnt thee, Frarsty! Frarsty! Frar—r—r—rsty!" drawn out in an inconceivable passionlessness of desire again and again, till I felt myself absorbing the ridiculous yearning for an absurd person and inclined to weep hysterical tears at his unresponsiveness.
Then through the suffocating miasma thridded another sound—the whine of a loafing tramp slowly pleading along the house fronts—vainly, too, as it appeared.
"Friends," went his formula, nasal and forcibly spasmodic in the best gull-catcher style, "p'raps you will ask why I, a able-bodied man, are asking for ass—ist—ance in your town. Friends, I answer, becorse I cannot get work and becorse I cannot starve. Any honest work I would be thankful for; but no one will give it to me."
Then followed an elaborate presentation, in singsong verse, of his own undeserved indigence and the brutality of employers, and so the recitation again:—
"Friends, the least ass—ist—ance would be welcome. I am a honest British workman, and employ—ment I cannot ob—tain. You sit in your com—for—ta—ble 'ouses, and I ask you to ass—ist a fellow creature, driven to this for no fault of his own—for many can 'elp one where one cannot 'elp many."
Then he hove into sight—a gastropodous tub of a fellow, with a rascally red eye; and I shrank behind my curtains, for I never court parley with such gentlemen.
He spotted me, of course,—rogues of his feather have a hawk's eye for timid quarry,—and his bloated face appeared at the window.
"Sir—friend," he said, in a confidential, hoarse whisper, "won't you 'elp a starvin' British workman?"
I gave him sixpence, cursing inwardly this my concession to pure timorousness, and the bestial mask of depravity vanished with a grin.
After that I was left to myself, heat and haze alone reigning without; and presently, I think, I must have fallen into a suetty doze, for I was semi-conscious of voices raised in dispute for a length of time, before I roused to the fact that two people were quarrelling just outside my window.
They were a young man—almost a boy—and a girl of about his own age; and both evidently belonged to the labouring classes.
She was, I took occasion to notice, aggressively pretty in that hot red and black style that finds its warmest admirers in a class cultivated above that to which she belonged; and she was scorning and flouting her slow, perplexed swain with that over-measure of vehemence characteristic of a sex devoid of the sense of proportion.
"Aw!" she was saying, as I came into focus of their dispute. "That's the moral of a mahn, it is. Yer ter work when ye like an' ter play when ye like, and the girls hahs ter sit and dangle their heels fer yer honours' convenience."
"I doan't arlays get my likes, Jenny, or I shud a' met you yesterday."
"Ay, as yer promused."
"We worked ower late pulling the lias, I tell yer. 'Twould 'a' meant half a day's wages garn if I'd com', and theer, my dear, 'ud been reason for another delay in oor getting spliced."
"You're fine and vulgar, upon my word! A little free, too, and a little mistook. I've no mind ter get spliced, as yer carls it, wi' a chap as cannot see's way ter keep tryst."
"Yer doan't mean thart?"
"Doan't I? Yer'll answer fer me in everything, 't seems. But yer've got enough ter answer fer yerself, Jack Curtice. I'm none of the sort ter go or stay at anny mahn's pleasure. There's kerps and dabs in the sea yet, Jack Curtice; and fatter ones ter fish fer, too."
"But yer doan't understand."
"I understand my own vally; and that isn't ter be kep' drarging my toes on the Parade half an a'rtenoon fer a chap as thinks he be better engaged summer else."
"And yer gone ter break wi' me fer thart?"
"Good-bye, Mr. Curtice," she said, and jerked her nose high and walked off.
Now here was an inconsistent jade, and I felt sorry and relieved for the sake of the young fellow.
He stood, after the manner of his kind, amazed and speechless. Man's saving faculty of logic was in him, but tongue-tied; and he could not express his intuitive recognition of the self-contradictory. Such natures frequently make reason articulate through a blow—a rough way of knocking her into shape, but commonly effectual. Jack, however, was evidently a large gentle swain of the dumb-suffering type—one of those unresisting leviathans of good-humour, upon whom a woman loves to vent that passion of the illogical which an antipathetic sex has vainly tried to laugh her out of conceit with.
I peered a little longer, and presently saw Mr. Curtice walk off in a state compound of bewilderment and abject depression.
This was the beginning to me of an interest apart from that which had brought me to King's Cobb. A real nutshell drama had usurped the place of that fictitious one that had as yet failed to mark an epoch by so much as a scratch. I accepted the former as some solace for the intolerable wrong inflicted upon me by the sea and Miss Whiffle.
I happened across my unconscious friends fairly frequently after that my first introduction to them; so often, indeed, that, judged by what followed, it would almost seem as if Fate, desiring record of an incident in the lives of these two, had intentionally worked to discomfit me from a task more engrossing.
Apart, and judged on their natural merits, I took Jack for a good stolid fellow, innately and a little aggravatingly virtuous, and perhaps a trifle more just than generous.
Jenny, I felt, had the spurious brilliancy of that division of her sex that claims as intuition an inability to master the processes of thought, and attributes to this faculty all fortunate conclusions, but none that is faulty. I thought, with some commiseration for him, that at bottom her manner showed some real leaning towards the lover she had discarded—that she felt the need of a pincushion, as it were, into which to stick the little points of her malevolence. I think I was inclined to be hard on her. I have felt the same antagonism many times towards beauty that was unattainable by me. For she was richly pretty, without doubt.
When in the neighbourhood of one another, however, they were wont to assume an elaborate artificiality of speech and manner in communion with their friends, that was designed with each to point the moral of a complete indifference and forgetfulness. But the girl was by far the better actor; and not only did she play her own part convincingly, but she generally managed to show up in her rival that sense of mortification that it was his fond hope he was effectually concealing.
A fortnight passed; and, lo! there came the end of the lovers' quarrel in all dramatic appropriateness.
By that time the doings of Jack and Jenny had come to be my mind's only refuge from such a vacancy of outlook as I had never before experienced. "All down the coast," that summer, "the languid air did swoon." The earth broiled, and very thought perspired; and Miss Whiffle's voice was like a steam-whistle.
One day, as I was exhaustedly trifling with my meridian meal, and balancing the gratification against the trouble of eating lumpy tapioca pudding, a muffled, rolling thud broke upon my ears, making the window and floor vibrate slightly. It seemed so distant and unimportant that I took no notice of it; and it was only when, ten minutes later, I became aware that certain excited townsfolk were scurrying past outside that I roused slowly to the thought that here was something unusual toward. Then, indeed, a sort of insane abandon flashed into life in me, and I leapt to my feet with maniac eyes. Something stirring in King's Cobb! I should have thought nothing less than the last trump could have pricked it out of its accustomed grooves; and that even then it would have slipped back into them with a sluggish sense of grievance after the first flourish.
I left my congealing dish, snatched up my hat, and joined the attenuated chase. It was making in one direction—a point, apparently, to the east of the town. As I sped excited through the narrow and tortuous streets, a great bulge of acrid dust bellied upon me suddenly at a corner; and, turning the latter, I plunged into a perfect fog of the same gritty smoke. In this, phantom figures moved, appeared, and vanished; hoarse cries resounded, and a general air of wild confusion and alarm prevailed. For the moment, I felt as if some history of the town's past were re-enacting, as if a sudden swoop of Frank or Dutchman upon the coast had called forth all the defensive ardour of its people. There was nothing of gunpowder in the stringent opacity, however; but, rather, a strong suggestion of ancient and disintegrated mortar.
A shape sped by me in the fog, and I managed to stay and question it.
"What is it all?" I asked.
"House fell down," was the breathless answer; "and a poor chap left aloft on the ruins."
Then I grew as insane as the rest of the company. I strode aimlessly to and fro, striving at every coign to pierce with my eyesight the white drift. I pushed back my hat; I gnawed my knuckles; I felt that I could not stay still, yet knew not for what point to make. Almost I felt that in another moment I should screech out—when a breath of sea air caught the skirt of the cloud, and rolled the bulk of it up and away over the house-tops.
Then, at once, was revealed to me the cause and object of all this gaggle, and confusion, and outcry. It was revealed to the crowd, too, that stood about me, and, in the revelation, the noise of its mouthing went off and faded, till a tense silence reigned and the murmur of one's breathing seemed a sacrilege.
I saw before me a ruinous space—a great ragged gap in a lofty block of brick and mortar. This block had evidently, at one time, consisted of two high semi-detached houses, and of these, one lay a monstrous heap of tumbled and shattered debris. A ruin, but not quite; for, as the course of a landslip will often tower with great spires and pinnacles of rock and ragged earth that have withstood the pull and onset of the moving hill-side, so here a high sheet of shattered wall, crowned with a cluster of toppling chimneys, stood up stark in the midst of the general overthrow. And there aloft, clinging to the crumbling stack, that might at any moment part, and fling and crush him into the savage ruin below, stood the figure of a solitary man. And the man was my friend of the Parade, Jack Curtice.
I could see and recognise him plainly—even the frantic clutch of his hands and the deadly pallor of his face.
The block—an ancient one—had been, as I afterwards learned, in course of demolition when the catastrophe took place. At the moment the poor fellow had been alone at his work, and now his destruction seemed a mere matter of seconds.
White dust rose from the heap, like smoke from an extinguished fire; and ever, as we looked, spars and splinters of brick tore away from the high fragment yet standing, and plunged with a thud into the wrack underneath.
It was glaringly evident that not long could elapse before wall and man would come down with a hideous, shattering run. A slip, a wilder clutch at his frail support, might in an instant precipitate the calamity.
Then from the upturned faces of the women cries of pity and anguish broke forth, and men nipped one another's arms and gasped, and knew not what counsel to offer.
"Do summut! do summut!" cried the women; and their mates only shook off their pleadings with a peevish show of callousness, that was merely the dumb anguish of undemonstrativeness. For, while their throats were thick, their practical brains were busy.
Some one suggested a ladder, and in a moment there was an aimless scurrying and turning amongst the women.
"Why don't 'ee stir theeself and hunt for un, Jarge?" panted one that stood near me, twisting hysterically upon a slow youth at her side.
"Shut up, 'Liza!" he answered gruffly; then, with a sort of indrawn gasp—"Look art the wall, lass—look art the wall!"
It was obvious to the least knowing what he meant. To lean so much as a broomstick, it seemed, against that tottering ruin would infallibly complete its destruction.
One foot of the clinging figure high up was seen to move slightly, and a little bomb of mortar span out into the air and burst into dust on a projecting brick. A long shrill sigh broke from the crowd.
Then the male wiseheads came together, and, desperate to snap the chord of impotent suspense, mooted and rejected plan after plan that their sane judgment knew from the first to be impracticable.
At the outset it was plainly impossible for a soul to approach the ruins. Apart from the almost certain mangling such a venture would entail upon the explorer, the least stirring or shifting of the great heap of rubbish flung about the base of the wall would certainly risk the immediate collapse of the latter.
Success, it was evident, must come, if at all, from a distance—but how?
One suggested slinging a rope from window to window of adjacent houses across the path of the broken chimney-stack—a good method of rescue had circumstances lent themselves to it. They did not. On the ruin side a wide space intervened; on the other, the sister house to that which had fallen, and which was also included in the order of demolition, was itself affected by the loss of its support, and leaned in a sinister manner, its party walls bulged and rent towards the scene of devastation.
Nothing short of the great Roc itself could, it seemed, snatch the poor fellow from his death perch.
There came suddenly an ominous silence. Then strode out in front of his fellows—and he moved so close to the ruin that the women whimpered and held one another—an old, rough-bearded chap in stained corduroy.
"Whart's he gone to do?" gasped the sibilant voices.
He hollowed his hands to his mouth, he cleared his hoarse throat two or three times. Only a little trailing screech came from it at first. Then he cursed his weakness, and pulled himself together.
"Jark! Jark Curtus!" he hailed, in an explosive voice.
The weak, small response floated down.
"My lard! my poor lard! we've thought oor best, arnd we can do nothun fower 'ee."
Instantly a shrill protest of horror went up from the women. This was not what they had expected.
"What! leave the mis'rable boy to his fate!"
There followed a storm of hisses from them—absolutely unreasonable, of course. The old fellow turned to retire, with hanging head.
At the moment a girl, flushed, blowzed, breathless, broke through the skirt of the mob and barred his retreat.
"Oh!" she panted, shaking her jet-black noddle at him—"here's a parcel o' gor-crows for discussin' help to a Christian marn! What! a score o' wiselings, and not one to hit oot the means and the way?"
She had only just heard, and had run a mile to the rescue of her old lad.
The women caught her enthusiasm, and jeered and cheered formlessly, as their manner is; for each desired for her own voice a separate recognition.
Jenny pushed rudely past the abashed gaffer. She was hatless, and her hair had tumbled abroad. She raised her face, with the eyes shining.
"Jack!" she cried, in a shrill voice—"Jack!"
The little weak response wailed down again.
"Jenny! I'm anigh done."
"Hold on a bit longer, Jack!" she screamed. "Don't move till I tell 'ee. I'm agone to save thee, Jack!"
Again from the women a rapturous cry broke out. What incompetent noodles appeared their masters in juxtaposition with this fearless, defiant creature.
The man up aloft seemed to shiver in the shock of the outcry; and once more some fragments of mortar rolled from under his feet and bounded into the depths. The girl rounded upon the voicers.
"Hold thee blazing tongues!" she cried in fury. "D'ee warnt to shake un from his perch?"
She turned to the foremost group of men.
"A couple o' long scaffold poles fro' yonder!" she cried hurriedly, "and twenty fathom o' rope!"
Her quick eyes and intelligence had found what she wanted in a builder's yard no great distance away.
"Follow, a dozen o' you!" she cried; and sped off in the direction she had indicated.
Just twelve men, and no more, obeyed her. She was mistress of the situation, and the crowd felt it. They made room for the dominant intellect, and awaited developments, watching, in suppressed excitement and trepidation, the figure—whom exhaustion was slowly mastering—high up above them.
Suddenly a sort of huge L-shaped structure moved down the street, until it stood opposite the ruined house. Then, twisting and rearing itself aloft, it took to itself the form of a lofty, slender gallows.
It was formed of a couple of forty-foot scaffolding poles, stoutly bound and corded together, the base of one to the top of the other, so that they stood at right angles. Five or six feet of the butt of the horizontal one was projected beyond its lashings, and to this three lengths of rope were fastened, and trailed long ends in the dust as the structure was held aloft and pushed and dragged into position.
"Now!" shrieked the girl, red-hot, reliant, never still for a moment; "as marny as can hold to each end there, and swing the blessed boom out towards him!"
Fifty may have responded. They swarmed like ants about the upraised pole, and she drove them into position—a black knot of men hauling on the triple cordage—left, right, and middle, like the ribs of a tent.
They saw her meaning and fell into place with a shout. To hold the projecting pole levered up at that height was a test of weight and muscle, even without their man on the end of it; but there were plenty more to help pull, did their united force waver.
"Jack!" screamed the girl again, in a wildness of excitement. "Only a second longer, Jack! Hold on by your eyelids, and snatch the stick the moment it comes agen thee!"
The horizontal spar pointed down the street. Slowly the men worked round with the ropes, and slowly the point of the pole turned in the direction of the chimney-stack and its forlorn burden. There was room and to spare for the process in the wide gap made by the tumbled house.
The crowd held its breath. Here and there a strangled sob was rent from overstrained lungs; here and there the wailing voice of a baby whined up and subsided.
The pole swung round with the toiling men—neared him on the ruin. He turned his head and saw, shifted his position and staggered. Jenny gave a piercing screech. The men, thinking something was wrong, paused a moment.
On the instant there came a crackling, tearing sound—a heaving roll—a splintering crash and uproar. The man aloft was seen to make a flying leap—or was it only a hurled fragment of the falling chimney?—and white dust rose in a fog once more and blotted out all the tragedy that might be enacting behind it.
A horrible silence succeeded, then a single woman yelled, and her cry was echoed by fifty hoarse voices.
The noise came from those at the ropes. They were straining and tugging, and some of them bobbed up and down like peas on a drum.
"More on ye! more on ye! We've hooked un, and he's got the pull of a sea sarpint!"
The ropes became thick with striving men. The whole street resounded with a medley of cries.
Then the point of the boom swung slowly out of the fog, and there was the rescued man swinging and swaying at the end of it.
They lowered him gradually into the street. But the strain upon them was awful, and he came down with a run the last few yards.
Then they let the angle of the gallows wheel over as it listed, and stood and mopped their hot foreheads, while the crowd rushed for the poor shaky subject of all its turmoil.
I could not get within fifty feet of him; or, I think, I should have given him and Jenny then and there all my fortune.
Later, I made their acquaintance in a casual way, and compromised with my conscience by presenting them with a very pretty tea-service to help them set up house with.
"George," said Plancine.
"Please say it again," said George.
She dimpled at him and obeyed, with the soft suggestion of accent that was like a tender confidence. Her feet were sunk in Devonshire grass; her name was on the birth register of a little Devonshire sea-town; yet the sun of France was in her veins as surely as his caress was on her lips.
Therefore she said "George" with a sweet dragging sound that greatly fluttered the sensibilities of the person addressed, and not infrequently led them to alight, like Prince Dummling's queen bee, on the very mouth of that honeyed flower of speech.
Now Plancine put her cheek on her George's rough sleeve, and said she,—
"I have a confession to make—about something a little silly. Consequently I have postponed it till now, when it is too dark for you to see my face."
"Never!" he murmured fervently. "A double cataract could not deprive me of that vision. It is printed here, Plancine."
He smacked his chest hard on the left side.
"Yet it sounds hollow, George?"
"Yes," he said. "It is a sandwich-box, an empty one. I would not consign your image to such a deplorable casket. My heart was what I meant. How I hate sandwiches—misers shivering between sheets—a vile gastronomic economy!"
"Poor boy! I will make you little dough-cakes when you go apainting."
"Plancine! Your image here, yes. But your dough-cakes—!"
"Then keep to your sandwiches, sir."
"I must. But the person who invented them was no gentleman!"
"Papa would like to hear you say that."
"Admit the possibility of any social distinction."
"It is only a question of sandwiches."
"George, must you be a Chartist and believe in Feargus O'Connor?"
"My soul, I cannot go back on my principles, for all that the violets of your eyes have sprouted under the shadow of a venerable family-tree."
"That is very prettily said. You may kiss my thumb-nail with the white spot in it for luck. No, sir. That is presuming. Now I am snug, and you may talk."
"Plancine, I am a son of the people. I hold by my own. No doubt, if I had blue blood to boast of, I should keep a vial of it in a prominent place on the drawing-room mantelpiece. As it is, I confess my desire is to carve for myself a name in art that shall be independent of all adventitious support; to answer to my vocation straight, upright, and manly."
"That is better than nobility—though I have pride in my own. I wish papa thought so. Yet he has both himself."
"The fine soul! For fifty years he has stood square to adversity with a smile on his face. Could I ever achieve that? Already I cry out on poverty; because I want an unencumbered field for work, and—yes, one other trifle."
"One other trifle, George?"
He took Plancine's face between his hands and looked very lovingly into her eyes.
"I think I did the old man too much honour," he said. "You nestling of eighteen—what credit to scout misfortune with such a bird at one's side!"
"Ah! but papa is sixty-nine and the bird but eighteen."
"And eighteen years of heaven are a good education in happiness."
So they coo'd, these two. The June scents of the little garden were wafted all about them. The moon had come up out of the sea, and, finding a trellis of branches over their heads, hung their young brows with coronals of shadowy leaves, like the old dame she was, rummaging in her trinket box for something for her favourites.
In the dimly-luminous parlour (that smelt of folios and warm coffee) of the little dark house in the background, the figure of papa, poring at the table over geological maps, was visible.
Fifty years ago an emigre, denounced, proscribed, and escaped from the ruin of a shattered society: here, in '49, a stately, large-boned man, placidly enjoying the consciousness of a serene dignity maintained at the expense of much and prolonged self-effacement—this was papa.
Grey hair, thinning but slightly near the temples; grey moustache and beard pointed de bouc; flowered dressing-gown girdled about a heart as simple as a child's—this was papa, papa who grubbed over his ordnance surveys while the young folks outside whispered of the stars.
Right beneath them—the latter—a broad gully of the hills went plunging precipitously, all rolled with leaf and flower, to the undercliff of soft blue lias and the very roof ridges of King's Cobb, whose walls and chimneys, now snowed with light, fretted a scallop of the striding bay that swept the land here like a scythe.
Plancine's village, a lofty appanage or suburb of this little seaboard town at the hill-foot, seemed rather the parent stock from which the other had emancipated itself. For all down the steep slope that fled from Upper to King's Cobb was flung a debris of houses that, like the ice-fall of a glacier, would appear to have broken from the main body and gone careering into the valley below.
It was in point of fact, however, but a subordinate hamlet—a hanging garden for the jaded tourist in the dog days, when his soul stifled in the oven of the sea-level cliffs—an eyrie for Plancine, and for George, the earnest painter, a Paradise before the fall.
And now says George, "We have talked all round your confession, and still I wait to give you absolution."
"I will confess. I read it in one of papa's books that is called the Talmud."
"Gracious me! you should be careful. What did you read?"
"That whoever wants to see the souls of the dead—"
"—must take finely sifted ashes, and strew them round his bed; and in the morning he will see their foot-tracks, as a cock's. I did it."
"Last night, yes. And what a business I had afterwards sweeping them up!"
"And did you see anything?"
"Something—yes—I think so. But it might have been mice. There are plenty up there."
"Now you are an odd Plancine! What did you want with the ghosts of the dead?"
"I will tell you, you tall man; and you will not abuse my confidence. George, for all your gay independence, you must allow me a little family pride and a little pathetic interest in the fortunes of the dead and gone De Jussacs."
"It is Mademoiselle De Jussac that speaks."
"It is Plancine, who knows so little:—that 'The Terror' would have guillotined her father, a boy of fourteen: that he escaped to Prussia, to Belgium, to England; for six years always a wanderer and a fugitive: that he was wrecked on this dear coast and, penniless, started life anew here on his little accomplishments: that he made out a meagre existence, and late in the order of years (he was fifty) married an expatriated countrywoman, who died—George, my mother died when I was seventeen months old—and that is where I stop. My good, big father—so lonely, so poor, and so silent! He tells me little. He speaks scantily of the past. But he was a Vicomte and is the last of his line; and I wanted the ghosts to explain to me so much that I have never learned."
The moonlight fell upon her sweet, pale, uplifted face. There were tears in her eyes that glittered like frost.
But George, for all his love, showed a little masculine impatience.
"Reserve is very good," he said; "but we can't all be Lord Burleighs by holding our tongues. There is a sort of silence that is pregnant with nothing."
"George, you cannot mean to insult my father?"
"No, dear. But why does he make such a mystery of his past? I would have mine as clear as a window, for all to look through. Why does he treat me with such suave and courteous opposition—permitting my suit, yet withholding his consent?"
"If you could be less democratic, dear—"
"It is a religion with me—not a brutal indulgence."
"Perhaps he cannot dissociate the two. Then, he admires your genius and commends your courage; but your poor purse hungers, my lover, and he desires riches for his Plancine."
"She will die a grey-haired maid for thee, 'O Richard! O my king!'"
"My sweet—my bird—my wife! Oh, that you could be that now and kiss me on to fortune! I should be double-souled and inspired. A few months, and Madame la Vicomtesse should 'walk in silk attire.' I flame at the picture. Why will your father not yield you gracefully, instead of plying us with that eternal enigma of Black Venn?"
"Because enthusiasm alone may not command wealth," said a deep voice near them.
Papa had come upon them unobserved. The young man wheeled and charged while his blood was hot.
"Mr. De Jussac, it is a shame to hold me in this unending suspense."
"Is it not better than decided rejection?"
"I have served like Jacob. You cannot doubt my single-hearted devotion?"
"I doubt nothing, my George" (about his accent there was no tender compromise)—"I doubt nothing, but that the balance at your bankers' is excessive."
"You would not value Plancine at so much bullion?"
"But yes, my friend; for bullion is the algebraic formula that represents comfort. When Black Venn slips his apron—"
George made a gesture of impatience.
"When Black Venn slips his apron," repeated the father quietly, "I shall be in a position to consider your suit."
"That is tantamount to putting me off altogether. It is ungenerous. It is preposterous. You may or may not be right; but it is simply farcical (Plancine cried, "George!"—but he went on warmly, nevertheless) to make our happiness contingent on the possible tumbling down of a bit of old cliff—an accident that, after all, may never happen."
"Ah!" the quiet, strong voice went on; and in the old eyes turned moonwards one might have fancied one could read a certain pathos of abnegation, or approaching self-sacrifice; "but it will, and shortly, for I prophesy. It was no idle cruelty of mine that first suggested this condition, but a natural reluctance to sign myself back to utter loneliness."
Plancine cried, "Papa! papa!" and sprang into his arms.
"A little patience," said De Jussac, pressing his moustache to the round head, "and you will honour this weary prophet, I think. I was up on the cliff to-day. The great crack is ever widening. A bowling wind, a loud thunderstorm, and that apron of the hill will tear from its bondage and sink sweltering down the slopes."
In the moment of speaking a tremor seized all his limbs, his eyes glared maniacal, his outstretched arm pointed seawards.
"The guillotine!" he shrieked, "the guillotine!"
In the offing of the bay was a vessel making for the unseen harbour below. It stood up black against the moonlight, its sails and yards presenting some fantastic resemblance to that engine of blood.
George stepped back and hung his head embarrassed. He had more than once been witness of a like seizure. It was the guillotine fright—the fright that had smitten the boy of fourteen, and had pursued the man ever since with periodic attacks of illusion. Anything—a branch, a door-post, a window, would suggest the hateful form during those periods—happily brief—when the poor mind was temporarily unhinged. No doubt, in earlier years, the fits had occurred frequently. Now they were rare, and generally, it seemed, attributable to some strong excitement or emotion.
Plancine knew how to act. She put her hand over the frantic eyes, and led the old man stumbling up the garden path. She was going to sing to him from the little sweet folk-ballads of the old gay France before the trouble came—
"The king would wed his daughter Over the English sea; But never across the water Shall a husband come to me."
Love floated on the freshet of her voice straight into the heart of the young man who stood without.
Perhaps at first it had not been the least of the bitterness in M. De Jussac's cup of calamity that his mere pride of name must adjust itself to its altered conditions. That the Vicomte De Jussac should have been expatriated because he declined when called upon to contribute his heart's blood to the red conduit in the Faubourg St. Antoine was certainly an infamy, but one of which the very essence was that unquestioning acknowledgment of his rank. That the land of his adoption should have dubbed him Mr. Jussuks—in stolid unconsciousness, too, of the solecism—was an outrage of a totally different order—an outrage only to be condoned on the score that an impenetrable insular gaucherie, and not a malicious impertinence, was responsible for it.
Mr. Jussuks had, however, outlived his sense of the injurious appellation; had outlived much prejudice, the wear of poverty, his memory of many things, and, very early, his scorn of the plebeian processes that to the impecunious are a condition of living at all. He was certainly a man of courageous independence, inasmuch as from the hour of his setting foot in England—and that was at the outset of the century—he had controlled his own little fortunes without a hand to help him over the deep places.
Of his first struggles little is known but this—that for years, turning to account some small knowledge of draughtsmanship he had acquired, he found employment in ladies' academies, of which there was a plenitude at that date in King's Cobb.
That, however, which brought him eventually into a modest prominence—not only in that same beautiful but indifferently known watering-place (upon which he had happened, it would appear, fortuitously), but elsewhere and amongst men of a certain mark—was a discovery—or the practical application of one—which in its result procured him a definite object in life, together with the means to pursue it.
Ammonites, and such small geological fry, were to be found by the thousand in the petrified mud beds of the Cobb region; but it was left to the ingenuity, aided by good fortune, of the foreigner to unearth from the flaking and perishing cliffs of lias some of the earliest and finest specimens of the ichthyo- and plesio-saurus that a past world has yielded to the naturalists.
Out of these the emigre made money, and so was enabled to pursue and enlarge upon his researches. Presently he prospered into a competence, married (poor Mademoiselle Belleville, of the Silver Street Academy, who died of typhoid at the end of a couple of summers), and so grew into the kindly old age of the absorbed and gentle naturalist, with his Plancine budding at his side.
What in all these fifty years had he forgotten? His name, his rank, his very origin? Much, no doubt. But that there was one haunting memory that had dwelt with him throughout, his child and her lover were to learn—one memory, and that dreadful recurring illusion of the guillotine.
"When Black Venn slips his apron, I shall be in a position to consider your suit."
Surely that was an odd and enigmatical condition, entirely remote from the subject at issue? Yet from the moment of the first impassioned pleadings of the stricken George, De Jussac had insisted upon it as one from which there should be no appeal.
Now the Black Venn referred to was a great mound of lias that rolled up and inland, in the far sweep of the bay, from the giddy margin of the lower ruin of cliffs. These—mere compressed mountains of mud, blown by the winds and battered by the sea—were in a constant state of yawn and collapse. Yard by yard they yielded to the scourge of Time, and landslides were of common occurrence.
All along the middle slope of Black Venn itself, a wide, deep fissure, dark and impenetrable, had stretched from ages unrecorded. But the eventual opening-out of this crevasse, and the consequent subsidence of the incline, or apron, below it, had been foretold by Mr. De Jussac; and this, in fact, was the condition to which he had alluded.
"Mr. De Jussac! do you hear me?"
"I am coming, my friend."
The light shining steadily through a front window of the cottage flickered and shifted. The young man in the rain and storm outside danced with impatience.
Suddenly the door opened, and Plancine's father stood there, candle in hand.
"What is it, my George?"
"The hill, sir—the hill! It's fallen! You were right. You must stand by your word. Black Venn has slipped his apron!"
"My God, no!"
There were despair and exultation in his voice.
"My God, no!" he whispered again, and dived into a cupboard under the stair.
Thence he reappeared with a horn lantern and his old blue cloak.
"Come, then!" he cried. "My hour is upon me!"
"Mr. De Jussac, it will wait till the morning."
"No, no, no! Do you trifle with your destiny? It has happened opportunely, while all are within doors and we have a clear field. How do you know? have you seen? Is it possible to descend to it from above?"
"I passed there less than an hour ago. It is possible, I am sure."
They set off hurriedly through the rain-beaten night. Not a word passed between them as they left the village and struck into the high-valley road that ran past, at a moderate distance, the head of the bay. De Jussac strode rapidly in advance of his companion. His long cloak whirled in the blast; it flogged his gaunt limbs all set to intense action. He seemed uplifted, translated—like one in whom the very article of a life-long faith, or monomania, is about to be justified.
Toiling onward, like driven cattle, they swerved from the road presently and breasted a sharp incline. Their boots squelched on the sodden turf; the wind bore on them heavily.
George saw the dancing lanthorn go up the slope in front of him like a will-o'-the-wisp—stop, and swing steady, heard the loud cry of jubilation that issued from the withered throat.
"It is true! The moment is realized!"
They stood together on the verge of the upper lip of the fissure. It was a cliff now, twenty, thirty feet to its base. The lower ground had fallen like a dead jaw; had slipped—none so great a distance—down the slope leading to the under-cliff, and lay a billowing mass subsided upon itself.
De Jussac would stand not an instant.
"We must climb down—somehow, anyhow!" he cried feverishly. "We must search all along what was once the bottom of the cleft."