"She was buried when?" he asked.
"On December the 11th," replied the labourer.
Sir Charles showed no surprise. He stood very still for a moment, then he gave the man his two shillings, and walked to the gate where his horse was tied. Then he inquired the nearest way to the Quarry House, and he was pointed out a bridle-path running across fields to a hill. As he mounted he asked another question.
"Mr. Ripley is alive?"
"It must be Mr. Ripley," Sir Charles assured himself, as he rode through the dusk of the evening. "It must be ... It must be ..." until the words in his mind became a meaningless echo of his horse's hoofs. He rode up the hill, left the bridle-path for the road, and suddenly, and long before he had expected, he saw beneath him the red square of the Quarry House and the smoke from its chimneys. He was on that very road up which he and Gibson Jerkley had looked that morning. Down that road, he had said, would come the man who knew how Major Lashley had disappeared, and within twelve hours down that road the man was coming. "But it must be Mr. Ripley," he said to himself.
None the less he took occasion at supper to speak of his ride.
"I rode by Leamington to Burley Wood. I went into the churchyard." Then he stopped, but as though the truth was meant to come to light, Resilda helped him out.
"I had a dear friend buried there not so long ago," she said. "Father, you remember Mrs. Ripley."
"I saw her grave this afternoon," said Fosbrook, with his eyes upon Mr. Mardale. It might have been a mere accident, it was in any case a trifling thing, the mere shaking of a hand, the spilling of a spoonful of salt upon the table, but trifling things have their suggestions. He remembered that Resilda, when she had waked up on the night of December the 11th to find herself alone, had sought out her father, who was still up, and at work in the big drawing-room. He remembered too that the window of that room gave on to a terrace of grass. A man might go out by that window—aye and return without a soul but himself being the wiser.
Of course it was all guess work and inference, and besides, it must be Mr. Ripley. Mr. Ripley might as easily have discovered the secret of the Memoirs as himself—or anyone else. Mr. Ripley would have justification for anger and indeed for more—yes for what men who are not affected are used to call a crime ... Sir Charles abruptly stopped his reasoning, seeing that it was prompted by a defence of Mr. Mardale. He made his escape from his hosts as soon as he decently could and retired to his room. He sat down in his room and thought, and he thought to some purpose. He blew out his candle, and stole down the stairs into the hall. He had met no one. From the hall he went to the library-door and opened it—ever so gently. The room was quite dark. Sir Charles felt his way across it to his chair in the corner. He sat down in the darkness and waited. After a time inconceivably long, after every board in the house had cracked a million times, he heard distinctly a light shuffling step in the passage, and after that the latch of the door release itself from the socket. He heard nothing more, for a little, he could only guess that the door was being silently opened by some one who carried no candle. Then the shuffling footsteps began to move gently across the room, towards him, towards the corner where he was sitting. Sir Charles had had no doubt but that they would, not a single doubt, but none the less as he sat there in the dark, he felt the hair rising on his scalp, and all his body thrill. Then a hand groped and touched him. A cry rang out, but it was Sir Charles who uttered it. A voice answered quietly:
"You had fallen asleep. I regret to have waked you."
"I was not asleep, Mr. Mardale."
There was a pause and Mr. Mardale continued.
"I cannot sleep to-night, I came for a book."
"I know. For the book I took back to Leamington to-day, before I went to visit Mrs. Ripley's grave."
There was a yet longer pause before Mr. Mardale spoke again.
"Stay then!" he said in the same gentle voice. "I will fetch a light." He shuffled out of the room, and to Sir Charles it seemed again an inconceivably long time before he returned. He came back with a single candle, which he placed upon the table, a little star of light, showing the faces of the two men shadowy and dim. He closed the door carefully, and coming back, said simply:
"How did you find out?"
"I saw the grave. I noticed the remarkable height of the mound. I guessed."
"Yes," said Mr. Mardale, and in a low voice he explained. "I found the book here one day, that he left by accident. On December 11th Mrs. Ripley was buried, and that night he left the house—for the stables, yes, but he did not return from the stables. It seemed quite clear to me where he would be that night. People hereabouts take me for a man crazed and daft, I know that very well, but I know something of passion, Sir Charles. I have had my griefs to bear. Oh, I knew where he would be. I followed over the hill down to the churchyard of Burley Wood. I had no thought of what I should do. I carried a stick in my hand, I had no thought of using it. But I found him lying full-length upon the grave with his lips pressed to the earth of it, whispering to her who lay beneath him.... I called to him to stand up and he did. I bade him, if he dared, repeat the words he had used to my face, to me, the father of the girl he had married, and he did—triumphantly, recklessly. I struck at him with the knob of my stick, the knob was heavy, I struck with all my might, the blow fell upon his forehead. The spade was lying on the ground beside the grave. I buried him with her. Now what will you do?"
"Nothing," said Sir Charles.
"But Mr. Jerkley asked you to help him."
"I shall tell a lie."
"My friend, there is no need," said the old man with his gentle smile. "When I went out for this candle I ..." Sir Charles broke in upon him in a whirl of horror.
"No. Don't say it! You did not!"
"I did," replied Mr. Mardale. "The poison is a kindly one. I shall be dead before morning. I shall sleep my way to death. I do not mind, for I fear that, after all, my inventions are of little worth. I have left a confession on my writing-desk. There is no reason—is there?—why he and she should be kept apart?"
It was not a question which Sir Charles could discuss. He said nothing, and was again left alone in the darkness, listening to the shuffling footsteps of Mr. Mardale as, for the last time, he mounted the stairs.
MR. MITCHELBOURNE'S LAST ESCAPADE.
It was in the kitchen of the inn at Framlingham that Mr. Mitchelbourne came across the man who was afraid, and during the Christmas week of the year 1681. Lewis Mitchelbourne was young in those days, and esteemed as a gentleman of refinement and sensibility, with a queer taste for escapades, pardonable by reason of his youth. It was his pride to bear his part in the graceful tactics of a minuet, while a saddled horse waited for him at the door. He delighted to vanish of a sudden from the lighted circle of his friends into the byways where none knew him, or held him of account, not that it was all vanity with Mitchelbourne though no doubt the knowledge that his associates in London Town were speculating upon his whereabouts tickled him pleasurably through many a solitary day. But he was possessed both of courage and resource, qualities for which he found too infrequent an exercise in his ordinary life; and so he felt it good to be free for awhile, not from the restraints but from the safeguards, with which his social circumstances surrounded him. He had his spice of philosophy too, and discovered that these sharp contrasts,—luxury and hardship, treading hard upon each other and the new strange people with whom he fell in, kept fresh his zest of life.
Thus it happened that at a time when families were gathering cheerily each about a single fireside, Mr. Mitchelbourne was riding alone through the muddy and desolate lanes of Suffolk. The winter was not seasonable; men were not tempted out of doors. There was neither briskness nor sunlight in the air, and there was no snow upon the ground. It was a December of dripping branches, and mists and steady pouring rains, with a raw sluggish cold, which crept into one's marrow.
The man who was afraid, a large, corpulent man, of a loose and heavy build, with a flaccid face and bright little inexpressive eyes like a bird's, sat on a bench within the glow of the fire.
"You travel far to-night?" he asked nervously, shuffling his feet.
"To-night!" exclaimed Mitchelbourne as he stood with his legs apart taking the comfortable warmth into his bones. "No further than from this fire to my bed," and he listened with enjoyment to the rain which cracked upon the window like a shower of gravel flung by some mischievous urchin. He was not suffered to listen long, for the corpulent man began again.
"I am an observer, sir. I pride myself upon it, but I have so much humility as to wish to put my observations to the test of fact. Now, from your carriage, I should judge you to serve His Majesty."
"A civilian may be straight. There is no law against it," returned Mitchelbourne, and he perceived that the ambiguity of his reply threw his questioner into a great alarm. He was at once interested. Here, it seemed, was one of those encounters which were the spice of his journeyings.
"You will pardon me," continued the stranger with a great assumption of heartiness, "but I am curious, sir, curious as Socrates, though I thank God I am no heathen. Here is Christmas, when a sensible gentleman, as upon my word I take you to be, sits to his table and drinks more than is good for him in honour of the season. Yet here are you upon the roads to Suffolk which have nothing to recommend them. I wonder at it, sir."
"You may do that," replied Mitchelbourne, "though to be sure, there are two of us in the like case."
"Oh, as for me," said his companion shrugging his shoulders, "I am on my way to be married. My name is Lance," and he blurted it out with a suddenness as though to catch Mitchelbourne off his guard. Mitchelbourne bowed politely.
"And my name is Mitchelbourne, and I travel for my pleasure, though my pleasure is mere gipsying, and has nothing to do with marriage. I take comfort from thinking that I have no friend from one rim of this country to the other, and that my closest intimates have not an inkling of my whereabouts."
Mr. Lance received the explanation with undisguised suspicion, and at supper, which the two men took together, he would be forever laying traps. Now he slipped some outlandish name or oath unexpectedly into his talk, and watched with a forward bend of his body to mark whether the word struck home; or again he mentioned some person with whom Mitchelbourne was quite unfamiliar. At length, however, he seemed satisfied, and drawing up his chair to the fire, he showed himself at once in his true character, a loud and gusty boaster.
"An exchange of sentiments, Mr. Mitchelbourne, with a chance acquaintance over a pipe and a glass—upon my word I think you are in the right of it, and there's no pleasanter way of passing an evening. I could tell you stories, sir; I served the King in his wars, but I scorn a braggart, and all these glories are over. I am now a man of peace, and, as I told you, on my way to be married. Am I wise? I do not know, but I sometimes think it preposterous that a man who has been here and there about the world, and could, if he were so meanly-minded, tell a tale or so of success in gallantry, should hamper himself with connubial fetters. But a man must settle, to be sure, and since the lady is young, and not wanting in looks or breeding or station, as I am told—"
"As you are told?" interrupted Mitchelbourne.
"Yes, for I have never seen her. No, not so much as her miniature. Nor have I seen her mother either, or any of the family, except the father, from whom I carry letters to introduce me. She lives in a house called 'The Porch' some miles from here. There is another house hard by to it, I understand, which has long stood empty and I have a mind to buy it. I bring a fortune, the lady a standing in the county."
"And what has the lady to say to it?" asked Mitchelbourne.
"The lady!" replied Lance with a stare. "Nothing but what is dutiful, I'll be bound. The father is under obligations to me." He stopped suddenly, and Mitchelbourne, looking up, saw that his mouth had fallen. He sat with his eyes starting from his head and a face grey as lead, an image of panic pitiful to behold. Mitchelbourne spoke but got no answer. It seemed Lance could not answer—he was so arrested by a paralysis of terror. He sat staring straight in front of him, and it seemed at the mantelpiece which was just on a level with his eyes. The mantelpiece, however, had nothing to distinguish it from a score of others. Its counterpart might be found to this day in the parlour of any inn. A couple of china figures disfigured it, to be sure, but Mitchelbourne could not bring himself to believe that even their barbaric crudity had power to produce so visible a discomposure. He inclined to the notion that his companion was struck by a physical disease, perhaps some recrudescence of a malady contracted in those foreign lands of which he vaguely spoke.
"Sir, you are ill," said Mitchelbourne. "I will have a doctor, if there is one hereabouts to be found, brought to your relief." He sprang up as he spoke, and that action of his roused Lance out of his paralysis. "Have a care," he cried almost in a shriek, "Do not move! For pity, sir, do not move," and he in his turn rose from his chair. He rose trembling, and swept the dust off a corner of the mantelpiece into the palm of his hand. Then he held his palm to the lamp.
"Have you seen the like of this before?" he asked in a low shaking voice.
Mitchelbourne looked over Lance's shoulder. The dust was in reality a very fine grain of a greenish tinge.
"Never!" said Mitchelbourne.
"No, nor I," said Lance, with a sudden cunning look at his companion, and opening his fingers, as he let the grain run between them. But he could not remove as easily from Mitchelbourne's memories that picture he had shown him of a shaking and a shaken man. Mitchelbourne went to bed divided in his feelings between pity for the lady Lance was to marry, and curiosity as to Lance's apprehensions. He lay awake for a long time speculating upon that mysterious green seed which could produce so extraordinary a panic, and in the morning his curiosity predominated. Since, therefore, he had no particular destination he was easily persuaded to ride to Saxmundham with Mr. Lance, who, for his part, was most earnest for a companion. On the journey Lance gave further evidence of his fears. He had a trick of looking backwards whenever they came to a corner of the road—an habitual trick, it seemed, acquired by a continued condition of fear. When they stopped at midday to eat at an ordinary, he inspected the guests through the chink at the hinges of the door before he would enter the room; and this, too, he did as though it had long been natural to him. He kept a bridle in his mouth, however; that little pile of grain upon the mantelshelf had somehow warned him into reticence, so that Mitchelbourne, had he not been addicted to his tobacco, would have learnt no more of the business and would have escaped the extraordinary peril which he was subsequently called upon to face.
But he was addicted to his tobacco, and no sooner had he finished his supper that night at Saxmundham than he called for a pipe. The maidservant fetched a handful from a cupboard and spread them upon the table, and amongst them was one plainly of Barbary manufacture. It had a straight wooden stem painted with hieroglyphics in red and green and a small reddish bowl of baked earth. Nine men out of ten would no doubt have overlooked it, but Mitchelbourne was the tenth man. His fancies were quick to kindle, and taking up the pipe he said in a musing voice:
"Now, how in the world comes a Barbary pipe to travel so far over seas and herd in the end with common clays in a little Suffolk village?"
He heard behind him the grating of a chair violently pushed back. The pipe seemingly made its appeal to Mr. Lance also.
"Has it been smoked?" he asked in a grave low voice.
"The inside of the bowl is stained," said Mitchelbourne.
Mitchelbourne had been inclined to believe that he had seen last evening the extremity of fear expressed in a man's face: he had now to admit that he had been wrong. Mr. Lance's terror was a Circe to him and sunk him into something grotesque and inhuman; he ran once or twice in a little tripping, silly run backwards and forwards like an animal trapped and out of its wits; and his face had the look of a man suffering from a nausea; so that Mitchelbourne, seeing him, was ashamed and hurt for their common nature.
"I must go," said Lance babbling his words. "I cannot stay. I must go."
"To-night?" exclaimed Mitchelbourne. "Six yards from the door you will be soaked!"
"Then there will be the fewer men abroad. I cannot sleep here! No, though it rained pistols and bullets I must go." He went into the passage, and calling his host secretly asked for his score. Mitchelbourne made a further effort to detain him.
"Make an inquiry of the landlord first. It may be a mere shadow that frightens you."
"Not a word, not a question," Lance implored. The mere suggestion increased a panic which seemed incapable of increase. "And for the shadow, why, that's true. The pipe's the shadow, and the shadow frightens me. A shadow! Yes! A shadow is a horrible, threatning thing! Show me a shadow cast by nothing and I am with you. But you might as easily hold that this Barbary pipe floated hither across the seas of its own will. No! 'Ware shadows, I say." And so he continued harping on the word, till the landlord fetched in the bill.
The landlord had his dissuasions too, but they availed not a jot more than Mr. Mitchelbourne's.
"The road is as black as a pauper's coffin," said he, "and damnable with ruts."
"So much the better," said Lance.
"There is no house where you can sleep nearer than Glemham, and no man would sleep there could he kennel elsewhere."
"So much the better," said Lance. "Besides, I am expected to-morrow evening at 'The Porch' and Glemham is on the way." He paid his bill, slipped over to the stables and lent a hand to the saddling of his horse. Mitchelbourne, though for once in his life he regretted the precipitancy with which he welcomed strangers, was still sufficiently provoked to see the business to its end. His imagination was seized by the thought of this fat and vulgar person fleeing in terror through English lanes from a Barbary Moor. He had now a conjecture in his mind as to the nature of that greenish seed. He accordingly rode out with Lance toward Glemham.
It was a night of extraordinary blackness; you could not distinguish a hedge until the twigs stung across your face; the road was narrow, great tree-trunks with bulging roots lined it, at times it was very steep—and, besides and beyond every other discomfort, there was the rain. It fell pitilessly straight over the face of the country with a continuous roar as though the earth was a hollow drum. Both travellers were drenched to the skin before they were free of Saxmundham, and one of them, when after midnight they stumbled into the poor tumble-down parody of a tavern at Glemham, was in an extreme exhaustion. It was no more than an ague, said Lance, from which he periodically suffered, but the two men slept in the same bare room, and towards morning Mitchelbourne was awakened from a deep slumber by an unfamiliar voice talking at an incredible speed through the darkness in an uncouth tongue. He started up upon his elbow; the voice came from Lance's bed. He struck a light. Lance was in a high fever, which increased as the morning grew.
Now, whether he had the sickness latent within him when he came from Barbary, or whether his anxieties and corpulent habit made him an easy victim to disease, neither the doctor nor any one else could determine. But at twelve o'clock that day Lance was seized with an attack of cholera and by three in the afternoon he was dead. The suddenness of the catastrophe shocked Mr. Mitchelbourne inexpressibly. He stood gazing at the still features of the man whom fear had, during these last days, so grievously tormented, and was solemnly aware of the vanity of those fears. He could not pretend to any great esteem for his companion, but he made many suitable reflections upon the shears of the Fates and the tenacity of life, in which melancholy occupation he was interrupted by the doctor, who pointed out the necessity of immediate burial. Seven o'clock the next morning was the hour agreed upon, and Mitchelbourne at once searched in Lance's coat pockets for the letters which he carried. There were only two, superscribed respectively to Mrs. Ufford at "The Porch" near Glemham, and to her daughter Brasilia. At "The Porch" Mitchelbourne remembered Lance was expected this very evening, and he thought it right at once to ride thither with his gloomy news.
Having, therefore, sprinkled the letters plentifully with vinegar and taken such rough precautions as were possible to remove the taint of infection from the letters, he started about four o'clock. The evening was most melancholy. For, though no rain any longer fell, there was a continual pattering of drops from the trees and a ghostly creaking of branches in a light and almost imperceptible wind. The day, too, was falling, the grey overhang of cloud was changing to black, except for one wide space in the west, where a pale spectral light shone without radiance; and the last of that was fading when he pulled up at a parting of the roads and inquired of a man who chanced to be standing there his way to "The Porch." He was directed to ride down the road upon his left hand until he came to the second house, which he could not mistake, for there was a dyke or moat about the garden wall. He passed the first house a mile further on, and perhaps half a mile beyond that he came to the dyke and the high garden wall, and saw the gables of the second house loom up behind it black against the sky. A wooden bridge spanned the dyke and led to a wide gate. Mitchelbourne stopped his horse at the bridge. The gate stood open and he looked down an avenue of trees into a square of which three sides were made by the high garden wall, and the fourth and innermost by the house. Thus the whole length of the house fronted him, and it struck him as very singular that neither in the lower nor the upper windows was there anywhere a spark of light, nor was there any sound but the tossing of the branches and the wail of the wind among the chimneys. Not even a dog barked or rattled a chain, and from no chimney breathed a wisp of smoke. The house in the gloom of that melancholy evening had a singular eerie and tenantless look; and oppressive silence reigned there; and Mitchelbourne was unaccountably conscious of a growing aversion to it, as to something inimical and sinister.
He had crossed the mouth of a lane, he remembered, just at the first corner of the wall. The lane ran backwards from the road, parallel with the side wall of the garden. Mitchelbourne had a strong desire to ride down that lane and inspect the back of the house before he crossed the bridge into the garden. He was restrained for a moment by the thought that such a proceeding must savour of cowardice. But only for a moment. There had been no doubting the genuine nature of Lance's fears and those fears were very close to Mr. Mitchelbourne now. They were feeling like cold fingers about his heart. He was almost in the icy grip of them.
He turned and rode down the lane until he came to the end of the wall. A meadow stretched behind the house. Mitchelbourne unfastened the catch of a gate with his riding whip and entered it. He found himself upon the edge of a pool, which on the opposite side wetted the house wall. About the pool some elder trees and elms grew and overhung, and their boughs tapped like fingers upon the window-panes. Mitchelbourne was assured that the house was inhabited, since from one of the windows a strong yellow light blazed, and whenever a sharper gust blew the branches aside, swept across the face of the pool like a flaw of wind.
The lighted window was in the lowest storey, and Mitchelbourne, from the back of his horse, could see into the room. He was mystified beyond expression by what he saw. A deal table, three wooden chairs, some ragged curtains drawn back from the window, and a single lamp made up the furniture. The boards of the floor were bare and unswept; the paint peeled in strips from the panels of the walls; the discoloured ceiling was hung with cobwebs; the room in a word matched the outward aspect of the house in its look of long disuse. Yet it had occupants. Three men were seated at the table in the scarlet coats and boots of the King's officers. Their faces, though it was winter-time, were brown with the sun, and thin and drawn as with long privation and anxiety. They had little to say to one another, it seemed. Each man sat stiffly in a sort of suspense and expectation, with now and then a restless movement or a curt word as curtly answered.
Mitchelbourne rode back again, crossed the bridge, fastened his horse to a tree in the garden, and walked down the avenue to the door. As he mounted the steps, he perceived with something of a shock, that the door was wide open and that the void of the hall yawned black before him. It was a fresh surprise, but in this night of surprises, one more or less, he assured himself, was of little account. He stepped into the hall and walked forwards feeling with his hands in front of him. As he advanced, he saw a thin line of yellow upon the floor ahead of him. The line of yellow was a line of light, and it came, no doubt, from underneath a door, and the door, no doubt, was that behind which the three men waited. Mitchelbourne stopped. After all, he reflected, the three men were English officers wearing His Majesty's uniform, and, moreover, wearing it stained with their country's service. He walked forward and tapped upon the door. At once the light within the room was extinguished.
It needed just that swift and silent obliteration of the slip of light upon the floor to make Mitchelbourne afraid. He had been upon the brink of fear ever since he had seen that lonely and disquieting house; he was now caught in the full stream. He turned back. Through the open doorway, he saw the avenue of leafless trees tossing against a leaden sky. He took a step or two and then came suddenly to a halt. For all around him in the darkness he seemed to hear voices breathing and soft footsteps. He realised that his fear had overstepped his reason; he forced himself to remember the contempt he had felt for Lance's manifestations of terror; and swinging round again he flung open the door and entered the room.
"Good evening, gentlemen," said he airily, and he got no answer whatsoever. In front of him was the grey panel of dim twilight where the window stood. The rest was black night and an absolute silence. A map of the room was quite clear in his recollections. The three men were seated he knew at the table on his right hand. The faint light from the window did not reach them, and they made no noise. Yet they were there. Why had they not answered him, he asked himself. He could not even hear them breathing, though he strained his ears. He could only hear his heart drumming at his breast, the blood pulsing in his temples. Why did they hold their breath? He crossed the room, not knowing what he did, bereft of his wits. He had a confused, ridiculous picture of himself wearing the flaccid, panic stricken face of Mr. Lance, like an ass' head, not holding the wand of Titania. He reached the window and stood in its embrasure, and there one definite, practical thought crept into his mind. He was visible to these men who were invisible to him. The thought suggested a precaution, and with the trembling haste of a man afraid, he tore at the curtains and dragged them till they met across the window so that even the faint grey glimmer of the night no longer had entrance. The next moment he heard the door behind him latch and a key turn in the lock. He crouched beneath the window and did not stand up again until a light was struck, and the lamp relit.
The lighting of the lamp restored Mr. Mitchelbourne, if not to the full measure of his confidence, at all events to an appreciation that the chief warrant for his trepidation was removed. What he had with some appearance of reason feared was a sudden attack in the dark. With the lamp lit, he could surely stand in no danger of any violence at the hands of three King's officers whom he had never come across in all his life. He took, therefore, an easy look at them. One, the youngest, now leaned against the door, a youth of a frank, honest face, unremarkable but for a firm set of the jaws. A youth of no great intellect, thought Mitchelbourne, but tenacious, a youth marked out for a subordinate command, and never likely for all his sterling qualities to kindle a woman to a world-forgetting passion, or to tread with her the fiery heights where life throbs at its fullest. Mr. Mitchelbourne began to feel quite sorry for this young officer of the limited capacities, and he was still in the sympathetic mood when one of the two men at the table spoke to him. Mitchelbourne turned at once. The officers were sitting with a certain air of the theatre in their attitudes, one a little dark man and the other a stiff, light complexioned fellow with a bony, barren face, unmistakably a stupid man and the oldest of the three. It was he who was speaking, and he spoke with a sort of aggravated courtesy like a man of no breeding counterfeiting a gentleman upon the stage.
"You will pardon us for receiving you with so little ceremony. But while we expected you, you on the other hand were not expecting us, and we feared that you might hesitate to come in if the lamp was burning when you opened the door."
Mitchelbourne was now entirely at his ease. He perceived that there was some mistake and made haste to put it right.
"On the contrary," said he, "for I knew very well you were here. Indeed, I knocked at the door to make a necessary inquiry. You did not extinguish the lamp so quickly but that I saw the light beneath the door, and besides I watched you some five minutes through the window from the opposite bank of the pool at the back of the house."
The officers were plainly disconcerted by the affability of Mr. Mitchelbourne's reply. They had evidently expected to carry off a triumph, not to be taken up in an argument. They had planned a stroke of the theatre, final and convincing, and behold the dialogue went on! There was a riposte to their thrust.
The spokesman made some gruff noises in his throat. Then his face cleared.
"These are dialectics," he said superbly with a wave of the hand.
"Good," said the little dark fellow at his elbow, "very good!"
The youth at the door nodded superciliously towards Mitchelbourne.
"True, these are dialectics," said he with a smack of the lips upon the word. It was a good cunning scholarly word, and the man who could produce it so aptly worthy of admiration.
"You make a further error, gentlemen," continued Mitchelbourne, "you no doubt are expecting some one, but you were most certainly not expecting me. For I am here by the purest mistake, having been misdirected on the way." Here the three men smiled to each other, and their spokesman retorted with a chuckle.
"Misdirected, indeed you were. We took precautions that you should be. A servant of mine stationed at the parting of the roads. But we are forgetting our manners," he added rising from his chair. "You should know our names. The gentleman at the door is Cornet Lashley, this is Captain Bassett and I am Major Chantrell. We are all three of Trevelyan's regiment."
"And my name," said Mitchelbourne, not to be outdone in politeness, "is Lewis Mitchelbourne, a gentleman of the County of Middlesex."
At this each of the officers was seized with a fit of laughter; but before Mitchelbourne had time to resent their behavior, Major Chantrell said indulgently:
"Well, well, we shall not quarrel about names. At all events we all four are lately come from Tangier."
"Oh, from Tangier," cried Mitchelbourne. The riddle was becoming clear. That extraordinary siege when a handful of English red-coats unpaid and ill-fed fought a breached and broken town against countless hordes for the honour of their King during twenty years, had not yet become the property of the historian. It was still an actual war in 1681. Mitchelbourne understood whence came the sunburn on his antagonists' faces, whence the stains and the worn seams of their clothes. He advanced to the table and spoke with a greater respect than he had used.
"Did one of you," he asked, "leave a Moorish pipe behind you at an inn of Saxmundham?"
"Ah," said the Major with a reproachful glance at Captain Bassett. The Captain answered with some discomfort:
"Yes. I made that mistake. But what does it matter? You are here none the less."
"You have with you some of the Moorish tobacco?" continued Mitchelbourne.
Captain Bassett fetched out of his pocket a little canvas bag, and handed it to Mitchelbourne, who untied the string about the neck, and poured some of the contents into the palm of his hand. The tobacco was a fine, greenish seed.
"I thought as much," said Mitchelbourne, "you expected Mr. Lance to-night. It is Mr. Lance whom you thought to misdirect to this solitary house. Indeed Mr. Lance spoke of such a place in this neighbourhood, and had a mind to buy it."
Captain Bassett suddenly raised his hand to his mouth, not so quickly, however, but Mitchelbourne saw the grim, amused smile upon his lips. "It is Mr. Lance for whom you now mistake me," he said abruptly.
The young man at the door uttered a short, contemptuous laugh, Major Chantrell only smiled.
"I am aware," said he, "that we meet for the first time to-night, but you presume upon that fact too far. What have you to say to this?" And dragging a big and battered pistol from his pocket, he tossed it upon the table, and folded his arms in the best transpontine manner.
"And to this?" said Captain Bassett. He laid a worn leather powder flask beside the pistol, and tapped upon the table triumphantly.
Mr. Mitchelbourne recognised clearly that villainy was somehow checkmated by these proceedings and virtue restored, but how he could not for the life of him determine. He took up the pistol.
"It appears to have seen some honourable service," said he. This casual remark had a most startling effect upon his auditors. It was the spark to the gun-powder of their passions. Their affectations vanished in a trice.
"Service, yes, but honourable! Use that lie again, Mr. Lance, and I will ram the butt of it down your throat!" cried Major Chantrell. He leaned forward over the table in a blaze of fury. Yet his face did no more than match the faces of his comrades.
Mitchelbourne began to understand. These simple soldier-men had endeavoured to conduct their proceedings with great dignity and a judicial calmness; they had mapped out for themselves certain parts which they were to play as upon a stage; they were to be three stern imposing figures of justice; and so they had become simply absurd and ridiculous. Now, however, that passion had the upper hand of them, Mitchelbourne saw at once that he stood in deadly peril. These were men.
"Understand me, Mr. Lance," and the Major's voice rang out firm, the voice of a man accustomed to obedience. "Three years ago I was in command of Devil's Drop, a little makeshift fort upon the sands outside Tangier. In front the Moors lay about us in a semicircle. Sir, the diameter was the line of the sea at our backs. We could not retire six yards without wetting our feet, not twenty without drowning. One night the Moors pushed their trenches up to our palisades; in the dusk of the morning I ordered a sortie. Nine officers went out with me and three came back, we three. Of the six we left behind, five fell, by my orders, to be sure, for I led them out; but, by the living God, you killed them. There's the pistol that shot my best friend down, an English pistol. There's the powder flask which charged the pistol, an English flask filled with English powder. And who sold the pistol and the powder to the Moors, England's enemies? You, an Englishman. But you have come to the end of your lane to-night. Turn and turn as you will you have come to the end of it."
The truth was out now, and Mitchelbourne was chilled with apprehension. Here were three men very desperately set upon what they considered a mere act of justice. How was he to dissuade them? By argument? They would not listen to it. By proofs? He had none to offer them. By excuses? Of all unsupported excuses which can match for futility the excuse of mistaken identity? It springs immediate to the criminal's lips. Its mere utterance is almost a conviction.
"You persist in error, Major Chantrell," he nevertheless began.
"Show him the proof, Bassett," Chantrell interrupted with a shrug of the shoulders, and Captain Bassett drew from his pocket a folded sheet of paper.
"Nine officers went out," continued Chantrell, "five were killed, three are here. The ninth was taken a prisoner into Barbary. The Moors brought him down to their port of Marmora to interpret. At Marmora your ship unloaded its stores of powder and guns. God knows how often it had unloaded the like cargo during these twenty years—often enough it seems, to give you a fancy for figuring as a gentleman in the county. But the one occasion of its unloading is enough. Our brother officer was your interpreter with the Moors, Mr. Lance. You may very likely know that, but this you do not know, Mr. Lance. He escaped, he crept into Tangier with this, your bill of lading in his hand," and Bassett tossed the sheet of paper towards Mitchelbourne. It fell upon the floor before him but he did not trouble to pick it up.
"Is it Lance's death that you require?" he asked.
"Yes! yes! yes!" came from each mouth.
"Then already you have your wish. I do not question one word of your charges against Lance. I have reason to believe them true. But I am not Lance. Lance lies at this moment dead at Great Glemham. He died this afternoon of cholera. Here are his letters," and he laid the letters on the table. "I rode in with them at once. You do not believe me, but you can put my words to the test. Let one of you ride to Great Glemham and satisfy himself. He will be back before morning."
The three officers listened so far with impassive faces, or barely listened, for they were as indifferent to the words as to the passion with which they were spoken.
"We have had enough of the gentleman's ingenuities, I think," said Chantrell, and he made a movement towards his companions.
"One moment," exclaimed Mitchelbourne. "Answer me a question! These letters are to the address of Mrs. Ufford at a house called 'The Porch.' It is near to here?"
"It is the first house you passed," answered the Major and, as he noticed a momentary satisfaction flicker upon his victim's face, he added, "But you will not do well to expect help from 'The Porch'—at all events in time to be of much service to you. You hardly appreciate that we have been at some pains to come up with you. We are not likely again to find so many circumstances agreeing to favour us, a dismantled house, yourself travelling alone and off your guard in a country with which you are unfamiliar and where none know you, and just outside the window a convenient pool. Besides—besides," he broke out passionately, "There are the little mounds about Tangier, under which my friends lie," and he covered his face with his hands. "My friends," he cried in a hoarse and broken voice, "my soldier-men! Come, let's make an end. Bassett, the rope is in the corner. There's a noose to it. The beam across the window will serve;" and Bassett rose to obey.
But Mitchelbourne gave them no time. His fears had altogether vanished before his indignation at the stupidity of these officers. He was boiling with anger at the thought that he must lose his life in this futile ignominious way for the crime of another man, who was not even his friend, and who besides was already dead. There was just one chance to escape, it seemed to him. And even as Bassett stooped to lift the coil of rope in the corner he took it.
"So that's the way of it," he cried stepping forward. "I am to be hung up to a beam till I kick to death, am I? I am to be buried decently in that stagnant pool, am I? And you are to be miles away before sunrise, and no one the wiser! No, Major Chantrell, I am not come to the end of my lane," and before either of the three could guess what he was at, he had snatched up the pistol from the table and dashed the lamp into a thousand fragments.
The flame shot up blue and high, and then came darkness.
Mitchelbourne jumped lightly back from his position to the centre of the room. The men he had to deal with were men who would follow their instincts. They would feel along the walls; of so much he could be certain. He heard the coil of rope drop down in a corner to his left; so that he knew where Captain Bassett was. He heard a chair upset in front of him, and a man staggered against his chest. Mitchelbourne had the pistol still in his hand and struck hard, and the man dropped with a crash. The fall followed so closely upon the upsetting of the chair that it seemed part of the same movement and accident. It seemed so clearly part, that a voice spoke on Mitchelbourne's left, just where the empty hearth would be.
"Get up! Be quick!"
The voice was Major Chantrell's and Mitchelbourne had a throb of hope. For since it was not the Major who had fallen nor Captain Bassett, it must be Lashley. And Lashley had been guarding the door, of which the key still remained in the lock. If only he could reach the door and turn the key! He heard Chantrell moving stealthily along the wall upon his left hand and he suffered a moment's agony; for in the darkness he could not surely tell which way the Major moved. For if he moved to the window, if he had the sense to move to the window and tear aside those drawn curtains, the grey twilight would show the shadowy moving figures. Mitchelbourne's chance would be gone. And then something totally unexpected and unhoped for occurred. The god of the machine was in a freakish mood that evening. He had a mind for pranks and absurdities. Mitchelbourne was strung to so high a pitch that the ridiculous aspect of the occurrence came home to him before all else, and he could barely keep himself from laughing aloud. For he heard two men grappling and struggling silently together. Captain Bassett and Major Chantrell had each other by the throat, and neither of them had the wit to speak. They reserved their strength for the struggle. Mitchelbourne stepped on tiptoe to the door, felt for the key, grasped it without so much as a click, and then suddenly turned it, flung open the door and sprang out. He sprang against a fourth man—the servant, no doubt, who had misdirected him—and both tumbled on to the floor. Mitchelbourne, however, tumbled on top. He was again upon his feet while Major Chantrell was explaining matters to Captain Bassett; he was flying down the avenue of trees before the explanation was finished. He did not stop to untie his horse; he ran, conscious that there was only one place of safety for him—the interior of Mrs. Ufford's house. He ran along the road till he felt that his heart was cracking within him, expecting every moment that a hand would be laid upon his shoulder, or that, a pistol shot would ring out upon the night. He reached the house, and knocked loudly at the door. He was admitted, breathless, by a man, who said to him at once, with the smile and familiarity of an old servant:
"You are expected, Mr. Lance."
Mitchelbourne plumped down upon a chair and burst into uncontrollable laughter. He gave up all attempt for that night to establish his identity. The fates were too heavily against him. Besides he was now quite hysterical.
The manservant threw open a door.
"I will tell my mistress you have come, sir," said he.
"No, it would never do," cried Mitchelbourne. "You see I died at three o'clock this afternoon. I have merely come to leave my letters of presentation. So much I think a proper etiquette may allow. But it would never do for me to be paying visits upon ladies so soon after an affair of so deplorable a gravity. Besides I have to be buried at seven in the morning, and if I chanced not to be back in time, I should certainly acquire a reputation for levity, which since I am unknown in the county, I am unwilling to incur," and, leaving the butler stupefied in the hall, he ran out into the road. He heard no sound of pursuit.
"Geoffrey," said General Faversham, "look at the clock!"
The hands of the clock made the acutest of angles. It was close upon midnight, and ever since nine the boy had sat at the dinner-table listening. He had not spoken a word, indeed had barely once stirred in the three hours, but had sat turning a white and fascinated face upon speaker after speaker. At his father's warning he waked with a shock from his absorption, and reluctantly stood up.
"Must I go, father?" he asked.
The General's three guests intervened in a chorus. The conversation was clear gain for the lad, they declared,—a first taste of powder which might stand him in good stead at a future time. So Geoffrey was allowed furlough from his bed for another half-hour, and with his face supported between his hands he continued to listen at the table. The flames of the candles were more and more blurred with a haze of tobacco smoke, the room became intolerably hot, the level of the wine grew steadily lower in the decanters, and the boy's face took a strained, quivering look, his pallour increased, his dark, wide-opened eyes seemed preternaturally large.
The stories were all of that terrible winter in the Crimea, now ten years past, and a fresh story was always in the telling before its predecessor was ended. For each of the four men had borne his share of that winter's wounds and privations. It was still a reality rather than a memory to them; they could feel, even in this hot summer evening and round this dinner-table, the chill of its snows, and the pinch of famine. Yet their recollections were not all of hardships. The Major told how the subalterns, of whom he had then been one, had cheerily played cards in the trenches three hundred yards from the Malakoff. One of the party was always told off to watch for shells from the fort's guns. If a black speck was seen in the midst of the cannon smoke, then the sentinel shouted, and a rush was made for safety, for the shell was coming their way. At night the burning fuse could be seen like a rocket in the air; so long as it span and flew, the card-players were safe, but the moment it became stationary above their heads it was time to run, for the shell was falling upon them. The guns of the Malakoff were not the rifled guns of a later decade. When the Major had finished, the General again looked at the clock, and Geoffrey said good-night.
He stood outside the door listening to the muffled talk on the other side of the panels, and, with a shiver, lighted his candle, and held it aloft in the dark and silent hall. There was not one man's portrait upon the walls which did not glow with the colours of a uniform,—and there were the portraits of many men. Father and son the Faversham's had been soldiers from the very birth of the family. Father and son,—no steinkirks and plumed hats, no shakos and swallow tails, no frogged coats and no high stocks. They looked down upon the boy as though summoning him to the like service. No distinction in uniform could obscure their resemblance to each other: that stood out with a remarkable clearness. The Favershams were men of one stamp,—lean-faced, hard as iron—they lacked the elasticity of steel—, rugged in feature; confident in expression, men with firm, level mouths but rather narrow at the forehead, men of resolution and courage, no doubt; but hardly conspicuous for intellect, men without nerves or subtlety, fighting-men of the first-class, but hardly first-class soldiers. Some of their faces, indeed, revealed an actual stupidity. The boy, however, saw none of their defects. To him they were one and all portentous and terrible; and he had an air of one standing before his judges and pleading mutely for forgiveness. The candle shook in his hand.
These Crimean knights, as his father termed them, were the worst of torturers to Geoffrey Faversham. He sat horribly thralled, so long as he was allowed; he crept afterwards to bed and lay there shuddering. For his mother, a lady who some twenty years before had shone at the Court of Saxe-Coburg, as much by the refinement of her intellect as by the beauty of her person, had bequeathed to him a very burdensome gift of imagination. It was visible in his face, marking him off unmistakably from his father, and from the study portraits in the hall. He had the capacity to foresee possibilities, and he could not but exercise that capacity. A hint was enough for the boy. Straightway he had a vivid picture before his mind, and as he listened to the men at the dinner-table, their rough clipped words set him down in the midst of their battlefields, he heard the drone of bullets, he quivered expecting the shock of a charge. But of all the Crimean nights this had been fraught with the most torments.
His father had told a story with a lowered voice, and in his usual jerky way. But the gap was easy to fill up.
"A Captain! Yes, and he bore one of the best names in all England. It seemed incredible, and mere camp rumour. But the rumour grew with every fight he was engaged in. At the battle of Alma the thing was proved. He was acting as galloper to his General. I believe, upon my soul, that the General chose him for this duty so that the man might set himself right. He was bidden to ride with a message a quarter of a mile, and that quarter of a mile was bullet-swept. There were enough men looking on to have given him a reputation, had he dared and come through. But he did not dare, he refused, and was sent under arrest to his tent. He was court-martialled and broken. He dropped out of his circle like a plummet of lead; the very women in Piccadilly spat if he spoke to them. He blew his brains out three years later in a back bedroom off the Haymarket. Explain that if you can. Turns tail, and says 'I daren't!' But you, can you explain it? You can only say it's the truth, and shrug your shoulders. Queer, incomprehensible things happen. There's one of them."
Geoffrey, however, understood only too well. He was familiar with many phases of warfare of which General Faversham took little account, such as, for instance, the strain and suspense of the hours between the parading of the troops and the first crack of a rifle. He took that story with him up the great staircase, past the portraits to his bed. He fell asleep only in the grey of the morning, and then only to dream of a crisis in some hard-fought battle, when, through his cowardice, a necessary movement was delayed, his country worsted, and those dead men in the hall brought to irretrievable shame. Geoffrey's power to foresee in one flash all the perils to be encountered, the hazards to be run, had taught him the hideous possibility of cowardice. He was now confronted with the hideous fact. He could not afterwards clear his mind of the memory of that evening.
He grew up with it; he looked upon himself as a born coward, and all the time he knew that he was destined for the army. He could not have avoided his destiny without an explanation, and he could not explain. But what he could do, he did. He hunted deliberately, hoping that familiarity with danger would overcome the vividness of his anticipations. But those imagined hours before the beginnings of battles had their exact counterpart in the moments of waiting while the covers were drawn. At such times he had a map of the country-side before his eyes, with every ditch and fence and pit underlined and marked dangerous; and though he rode straight when the hounds were off, he rode straight with a fluttering heart. Thus he spent his youth. He passed into Woolwich and out of it with high honours; he went to India with battery, and returned home on a two years' furlough. He had not been home more than a week when his father broke one morning into his bedroom in a great excitement—
"Geoff," he cried, "guess the news to-day!"
Geoffrey sat up in his bed:—"Your manner, Sir, tells me the news. War is declared."
"Between France and Germany."
Geoffrey said slowly:—
"My mother, Sir, was of Germany."
"So we can wish that country all success."
"Can we do no more?" said Geoffrey. And at breakfast-time he returned to the subject. The Favershams held property in Germany; influence might be exerted; it was only right that those who held a substantial stake in a country should venture something for its cause. The words came quite easily from Geoffrey's lips; he had been schooling himself to speak them ever since it had become apparent that Germany and France were driving to the collision of war. General Faversham laughed with content when he heard them.
"That's a Faversham talking," said he. "But there are obstacles, my boy. There is the Foreign Enlistment Act, for instance. You are half German, to be sure, but you are an English subject, and, by the Lord! you are all Faversham. No, I cannot give you permission to seek service in Germany. You understand. I cannot give you permission," he repeated the words, so that the limit as well as the extent of their meaning might be fully understood; and as he repeated them, he solemnly winked. "Of course, you can go to Germany; you can follow the army as closely as you are allowed. In fact, I will give you some introductions with that end in view. You will gain experience, of course; but seek service,—no! To do that, as I have said, I cannot give you permission."
The General went off chuckling to write his letters; and with them safely tucked away in his pocket, Geoffrey drove later in the day to the station.
General Faversham did not encourage demonstrations. He shook his son cordially by the hand—
"There's no way I would rather you spent your furlough. But come back, Geoff," said he. He was not an observant man except in the matter of military detail; and of Geoffrey's object he had never the slightest suspicion. Had it been told him, however, he would only have considered it one of those queer, inexplicable vagaries, like the history of his coward in the Crimea.
Geoffrey's action, however, was of a piece with the rest of his life: it was due to no sudden, desperate resolve. He went out to the war as deliberately as he had ridden out to the hunting-field. The realities of battle might prove his anticipations mere unnecessary torments of the mind.
"If only I can serve,—as a volunteer, as a private, in any capacity," he thought, "I shall at all events know. And if I fail, I fail not in the company of my fellows. I disgrace only myself, not my name. But if I do not fail—" He drew a great breath, he saw himself waking up one morning without oppression, without the haunting dread that he was destined one day to slink in forgotten corners of the world a forgotten pariah, destitute even of the courage to end his misery. He went out to the war because he was afraid of fear.
On the evening of the capitulation of Paris, two subalterns of German Artillery were seated before a camp fire on a slope of hill overlooking the town. To both of them the cessation of alarm was as yet strange and almost incomprehensible, and the sudden silence after so many months lived amongst the booming of cannon had even a disquieting effect. Both were particularly alert on this night when vigilance was never less needed. If a gust of wind caught the fire and drove the red flare of the flame like a ripple across the grass, one would be sure to look quickly over his shoulder, the other perhaps would lift a warning finger and listen to the shivering of the trees behind them. Then with a relaxation of his attitude he would say "All right" and light his pipe again at the fire. But after one such gust, he retained his position.
"What is it, Faversham?" asked his companion.
"Listen, Max," said Geoffrey; and they heard a faint jingle. The jingle became more distinct, another sound was added to it, the sound of a horse galloping over hard ground. Both officers turned their faces away from the yellow entrenchment with its brown streak of gun, below them and looked towards a roofless white-walled farmhouse on the left, of which the rafters rose black against the sky like a gigantic gallows. From behind that farmhouse an aide-de-camp galloped up to the fire.
"I want the officer in command of this battery," he cried out and Geoffrey stood up.
"I am in command."
The aide-de-camp looked at the subaltern in an extreme surprise.
"You!" he exclaimed. "Since when?"
"Since yesterday," answered Faversham.
"I doubt if the General knows you have been hit so hard," the aide-de-camp continued. "But my orders are explicit. The officer in command is to take sixty men and march to-morrow morning into St. Denis. He is to take possession of that quarter, he is to make a search for mines and bombs, and wait there until the German troops march in." There was to be no repetition, he explained, of a certain unfortunate affair when the Germans after occupying a surrendered fort had been blown to the four winds. He concluded with the comforting information that there were 10,000 French soldiers under arms in St. Denis and that discretion was therefore a quality to be much exercised by Faversham during his day of search. Thereupon he galloped back.
Faversham remained standing a few paces from the fire looking down towards Paris. His companion petulantly tossed a branch upon the fire.
"Luck comes your way, my friend," said he enviously.
Geoffrey looked up to the stars and down again to Paris which with its lights had the look of a reflected starlit firmament. Individual lights were the separate stars and here and there a gash of fire, where a wide thoroughfare cleaved, made a sort of milky way.
"I wonder," he answered slowly.
Max started up on his elbow and looked at his friend in perplexity.
"Why, you have sixty men and St. Denis to command. To-morrow may bring you your opportunity;" and again with the same slowness, Geoffrey answered, "I wonder."
"You joined us after Gravelotte," continued Max, "Why?"
"My mother was German," said Faversham, and turning suddenly back to the fire he dropped on the ground beside his companion.
"Tell me," he said in a rare burst of confidence, "Do you think a battle is the real test of courage? Here and there men run away to be sure. But how many fight and fight no worse than the rest by reason of a sort of cowardice? Fear of their companions in arms might dominate fear of the enemy."
"No doubt," said Max. "And you infer?"
"That the only touchstone is a solitary peril. When danger comes upon a man and there is no one to see whether he shirks—when he has no friends to share his risks—that I should think would be the time when fear would twist a man's bowels."
"I do not know," said Max. "All I am sure of is that luck comes your way and not mine. To-morrow you march into St. Denis."
Geoffrey Faversham marched down at daybreak and formally occupied the quarter. The aide-de-camp's calculations were confirmed. There were at the least 10,000 French soldiers crowded in the district. Geoffrey's discretion warned against any foolish effort to disarm them; he simply ignored their chassepots and bulging pouches, and searched the barracks, which the Germans were to occupy, from floor to ceiling. Late in the afternoon he was able to assure himself that his duty was ended. He billeted his men, and inquired whether there was a hotel where he could sleep the night. A French sergeant led him through the streets to an Inn which matched in every detail of its appearance that dingy quarter of the town. The plaster was peeling from its walls, the window panes were broken, and in the upper storey and the roof there were yawning jagged holes where the Prussian shells had struck. In the dusk the building had a strangely mean and sordid look. It recalled to Faversham's mind the inns in the novels of the elder Dumas and acquired thus something of their sinister suggestions. In the eager and arduous search of the day he had forgotten these apprehensions to which he had given voice by the camp fire. They now returned to him with the relaxation of his vigilance. He looked up at the forbidding house. "I wonder," he said to himself.
He was met in the hall by a little obsequious man who was full of apologies for the disorder of his hostelry. He opened a door into a large and dusty room.
"I will do my best, Monsieur," said he, "but food is not yet plentiful in Paris."
In the centre of the room was a large mahogany table surrounded by chairs. The landlord began to polish the table with his napkin.
"We had an ordinary, Sir, every day before the war broke out. But most cheerful, every chair had its regular occupant. There were certain jokes, too, which every day were repeated. Ah, but it was like home. However, all is changed as you see. It has not been safe to sit in this room for many a long month."
Faversham unstrapped his sword and revolver from his belt and laid them on the table.
"I saw that your house had unfortunately suffered."
"Suffered!" said the garrulous little man. "It is ruined, sir, and its master with it. Ah, war! It is a fine thing no doubt for you young gentlemen, but for me? I have lived in a cellar, Sir, under the ground ever since your guns first woke us from our sleep. Look, I will show you."
He went out from the dining-room into the hall and from the hall into the street; Faversham followed him. There was a wooden trap in the pavement close by the wall with an iron ring. The landlord pulled at the ring and raised the trap disclosing a narrow flight of stone steps. Faversham bent forward and peered down into a dark cellar.
"Yes it is there that I have lived. Come down, Sir, and see for yourself;" and the landlord moved down a couple of steps. Faversham drew back. At once the landlord turned to him.
"But there is nothing to fear, Sir," he said with a deprecatory smile. Faversham coloured to the roots of his hair.
"Of course there is nothing," said he and he followed the landlord. The cellar was only lighted by the trap-door and at first Faversham coming out of the daylight could distinguish nothing at all. He stood, however, with his back to the light and in a little he began to see. A little truckle-bed with a patchwork counterpane stood at the end, the floor was merely hard earth, the furniture consisted of a stove, a stool and a small deal table. And as Faversham took in the poverty of this underground habitation, he suddenly found himself in darkness again. The explanation came to him at once, the entrance to the cellar had been blocked from the light. Yet he had heard no sound except the footsteps of people in the street above his head. He turned and faced the stair steps. As he did so, the light streamed down again; the obstruction had been removed, and that obstruction had not been the trap-door as Faversham had suspected, but merely the body of some inquisitive passer-by. He recognised this with relief and immediately heard voices speaking together, and as it seemed to him in lowered tones.
A sword rattled on the pavement, the entrance was again darkened, but Faversham had just time to see that the man who stooped down wore the buttons of a uniform and a soldier's kepi. He kept quite still, holding his breath while the man peered down into the cellar. He remembered with a throb of hope that he had himself been unable to distinguish a thing in the gloom. And then the landlord knocked against the table and spoke aloud. At once the man at the head of the steps stood up. Faversham heard him cry out in French, "They are here," and he detected a note of exultation in the cry. At the same moment a picture flashed before his eyes, the picture of that dusty desolate dining-room up the steps, and of a long table surrounded by chairs, upon which lay a sword and a revolver,—his sword, his revolver. He had dismissed his sixty soldiers, he was alone.
"This is a trap," he blurted out.
"But, Sir, I do not understand," began the landlord, but Faversham cut him short with a whispered command for silence.
The cellar darkened again, and the sound of boots rang upon the stone steps. A rifle besides clanged as it struck against the wall. The French soldiers were descending. Faversham counted them by the light which escaped past their legs; there were three. The landlord kept the silence which had been enjoined upon him but he fancied in the darkness that he heard some one's teeth chattering.
The Frenchmen descended into the cellar and stood barring the steps. Their leader spoke.
"I have the honour to address the Prussian officer in command of St. Denis."
The Frenchman got no reply whatever to his words but he seemed to hear some one sharply draw in a breath. He spoke again into the darkness; for it was now impossible for any one of the five men in the cellar to see a hand's breadth beyond his face.
"I am the Captain Plessy of Mon Vandon's Division. I have the honour to address the Prussian officer."
This time he received an answer, quietly spoken yet with an inexplicable note of resignation.
"I am Lieutenant Faversham in command of St. Denis."
Captain Plessy stepped immediately forward, and bowed. Now as he dipped his shoulders in the bow a gleam of light struck over his head into the cellar, and—he could not be sure—but it seemed to him that he saw a man suddenly raise his arm as if to ward off a blow. Captain Plessy continued.
"I ask Lieutenant Faversham for permission for myself and my two officers to sleep to-night at this hotel;" and now he very distinctly heard a long, irrepressible sigh of relief. Lieutenant Faversham gave him the permission he desired in a cordial, polite way. Moreover he added an invitation. "Your name, Captain Plessy, is well known to me as to all on both sides who have served in this campaign and to many more who have not. I beg that you and your officers will favour me with your company at dinner."
Captain Plessy accepted the invitation and was pleased to deprecate the Lieutenant's high opinion of his merits. But his achievement none the less had been of a redoubtable character. He had broken through the lines about Metz and had ridden across France into Paris without a single companion. In the sorties from that beleaguered town he had successively distinguished himself by his fearless audacity. His name and reputation had travelled far as Lieutenant Faversham was that evening to learn. But Captain Plessy, for the moment, was all for making little of his renown.
"Such small exploits should be expected from a soldier. One brave man may say that to another,—is it not so?—and still not be thought to be angling for praise," and Captain Plessy went up the steps, wondering who it was that had drawn the long sharp breath of suspense, and uttered the long sigh of immense relief. The landlord or Lieutenant Faversham? Captain Plessy had not been in the cellar at the time when the landlord had seemed to hear the chatter of a man's teeth.
The dinner was not a pronounced success, in spite of Faversham's avoidance of any awkward topic. They sat at the long table in the big, desolate and shabby room, lighted only by a couple of tallow candles set up in their candlesticks upon the cloth. And the two junior officers maintained an air of chilly reserve and seldom spoke except when politeness compelled them. Faversham himself was absorbed, the burden of entertainment fell upon Captain Plessy. He strove nobly, he told stories, he drank a health to the "Camaraderie of arms," he drew one after the other of his companions into an interchange of words, if not of sympathies. But the strain told on him visibly towards the end of the dinner. His champagne glass had been constantly refilled, his face was now a trifle overflushed, his eyes beyond nature bright, and he loosened the belt about his waist and at a moment when Faversham was not looking the throat buttons of his tunic. Moreover while up till now he had deprecated any allusions to his reputation he now began to talk of it himself; and in a particularly odious way.
"A reputation, Lieutenant, it has its advantages," and he blew a kiss with his fingers into the air to designate the sort of advantages to which he referred. Then he leaned on one side to avoid the candle between Faversham and himself.
"You are English, my Commandant?" he asked.
"My mother was German," replied Faversham.
"But you are English yourself. Now have you ever met in England a certain Miss Marian Beveridge," and his leer was the most disagreeable thing that Faversham ever remembered to have set eyes upon.
"No," he answered shortly.
"And you have not heard of her?"
Captain Plessy leaned back in his chair and filled his glass. Lieutenant Faversham's tone was not that of a man inviting confidence. But the Captain's brains were more than a little fuddled, he repeated the name over to himself once or twice with the chuckle which asks for questions, and since the questions did not come, he must needs proceed of his own accord.
"But I must cross to England myself. I must see this Miss Marian Beveridge. Ah, but your English girls are strange, name of Heaven, they are very strange."
Lieutenant Faversham made a movement. The Captain was his guest, he was bound to save him if he could from a breach of manners and saw no way but this of breaking up the party. Captain Plessy, however, was too quick for him, he lifted his hand to his breast.
"You wish for something to smoke. It is true, we have forgotten to smoke, but I have my cigarettes and I beg you to try them, the tobacco I think is good and you will be saved the trouble of moving."
He opened the case and reached it over to Faversham. But as Faversham with a word of thanks took a cigarette, the Captain upset the case as though by inadvertence. There fell out upon the table under Faversham's eyes not merely the cigarettes, but some of the Captain's visiting-cards and a letter. The letter was addressed to Captain Plessy in a firm character but it was plainly the writing of a woman. Faversham picked it up and at once handed it back to Plessy.
"Ah," said Plessy with a start of surprise, "Was the letter indeed in the case?" and he fondled it in his hands and finally kissed it with the upturned eyes of a cheap opera singer. "A pigeon, Sir, flew with it into Paris. Happy pigeon that could be the bearer of such sweet messages."
He took out the letter from the envelope and read a line or two with a sigh, and another line or two with a laugh.
"But your English girls are strange!" he said again. "Here is an instance, an example, fallen by accident from my cigarette-case. M. le Commandant, I will read it to you, that you may see how strange they are."
One of Plessy's subalterns extended his hand and laid it on his sleeve. Plessy turned upon him angrily, and the subaltern withdrew his hand.
"I will read it to you," he said again to Faversham. Faversham did not protest nor did he now make any effort to move. But his face grew pale, he shivered once or twice, his eyes seemed to be taking the measure of Plessy's strength, his brain to be calculating upon his prowess; the sweat began to gather upon his forehead.
Of these signs, however, Plessy took no note. He had reached however inartistically the point at which he had been aiming.
He was no longer to be baulked of reading his letter. He read it through to the end, and Faversham listened to the end. It told its own story. It was the letter of a girl who wrote in a frank impulse of admiration to a man whom she did not know. There was nowhere a trace of coquetry, nowhere the expression of a single sentimentality. Its tone was pure friendliness, it was the work of a quite innocent girl who because she knew the man to whom she wrote to be brave, therefore believed him to be honourable. She expressed her trust in the very last words. "You will not of course show this letter to any one in the world. But I wrong you even by mentioning such an impossibility."
"But you have shown it," said Faversham.
His face was now grown of an extraordinary pallor, his lips twitched as he spoke and his fingers worked in a nervous uneasy manner upon the table-cloth. Captain Plessy was in far too complacent a mood to notice such trifles. His vanity was satisfied, the world was a rosy mist with a sparkle of champagne, and he answered lightly as he unfastened another button of his tunic.
"No, my friend, I have not shown it. I keep the lady's wish."
"You have read it aloud. It is the same thing."
"Pardon me. Had I shown the letter I should have shown the name. And that would have been a dishonour of which a gallant man is incapable, is it not so? I read it and I did not read the name."
"But you took pains, Captain Plessy, that we should know the name before you read the letter."
"I? Did I mention a name?" exclaimed Plessy with an air of concern and a smile upon his mouth which gave the lie to the concern. "Ah, yes, a long while ago. But did I say it was the name of the lady who had written the letter? Indeed, no. You make a slight mistake, my friend. I bear no malice for it—believe me, upon my heart, no! After a dinner and a little bottle of champagne, there is nothing more pardonable. But I will tell you why I read the letter."
"If you please," said Faversham, and the gravity of his tone struck upon his companion suddenly as something unexpected and noteworthy. Plessy drew himself together and for the first time took stock of his host as of a possible adversary. He remarked the agitation of his face, the beads of perspiration upon his forehead, the restless fingers, and beyond all these a certain hunted look in the eyes with which his experience had made him familiar. He nodded his head once or twice slowly as though he were coming to a definite conclusion about Faversham. Then he sat bolt upright.
"Ah," said he with a laugh. "I can answer a question which puzzled me a little this afternoon," and he sank back again in his chair with an easy confidence and puffed the smoke of his cigarette from his mouth. Faversham was not sufficiently composed to consider the meaning of Plessy's remark. He put it aside from his thoughts as an evasion.
"You were to tell me, I think, why you read the letter."
"Certainly," answered Plessy. He twirled his moustache, his voice had lost its suavity and had taken on an accent of almost contemptuous raillery. He even winked at his two brother officers, he was beginning to play with Faversham. "I read the letter to illustrate how strange, how very strange, are your English girls. Here is one of them who writes to me. I am grateful—oh, beyond words, but I think to myself what a different thing the letter would be if it had been written by a Frenchwoman. There would have been some hints, nothing definite you understand, but a suggestion, a delicate, provoking suggestion of herself, like a perfume to sting one into a desire for a nearer acquaintance. She would delicately and without any appearance of intention have permitted me to know her colour, perhaps her height, perhaps even to catch an elusive glimpse of her face. Very likely a silk thread of hair would have been left inadvertently clinging to a sheet of the paper. She would sketch perhaps her home and speak remorsefully of her boldness in writing. Oh, but I can imagine the letter, full of pretty subtleties, alluring from its omissions, a vexation and a delight from end to end. But this, my friend!" He tossed the letter carelessly upon the table-cloth. "I am grateful from the bottom of my heart, but it has no art."
At once Geoffrey Faversham's hand reached out and closed upon the letter.
"You have told me why you have read it aloud."
"Yes," said Plessy, a little disconcerted by the quickness of Faversham's movement.
"Now I will tell you why I allowed you to read it to the end. I was of the same mind as that English girl whose name we both know. I could not believe that a man, brave as I knew you to be, could outside his bravery be so contemptible."
The words were brought out with a distinct effort. None the less they were distinctly spoken.
A startled exclamation broke from the two subalterns. Plessy commenced to bluster.
"Sir, do I understand you?" and he saw Faversham standing above him, in a quiver of excitement.
"You will hold your tongue, Captain Plessy, until I have finished. I allowed you to read the letter, never thinking but that some pang of forgotten honour would paralyse your tongue. You read it to the end. You complain there is no art in it, that it has no delicate provocations, such as your own countrywomen would not fail to use. It should be the more sacred on that account, and I am glad to believe that you misjudge your country women. Captain Plessy, I acknowledge that as you read out that letter with its simple, friendly expression of gratitude for the spectacle of a brave man, I envied you heartily, I would have been very proud to have received it. I would have much liked to know that some deed which I had done had made the world for a moment brighter to some one a long way off with whom I was not acquainted. Captain Plessy, I shall not allow you to keep this letter. You shall not read it aloud again."
Faversham thrust the letter into the flame of the candle which stood between Plessy and himself. Plessy sprang up and blew the candle out; but little colourless flames were already licking along the envelope. Faversham held the letter downwards by a corner and the colourless flame flickered up into a tongue of yellow, the paper charred and curled in the track of the flames, the flames leapt to Faversham's fingers; he dropped the burning letter on the floor and crushed it with his foot. Then he looked at Plessy and waited. He was as white as the table-cloth, his dark eyes seemed to have sunk into his head and burned unnaturally bright, every nerve in his body seemed to be twitching; he looked very like the young boy who used to sit at the dinner-table on Crimean nights and listen in a quiver to the appalling stories of his father's guests. As he had been silent then, so he was silent now. He waited for Captain Plessy to speak. Captain Plessy, however, was in no hurry to begin. He had completely lost his air of contemptuous raillery, he was measuring Faversham warily with the eyes of a connoisseur.
"You have insulted me," he said abruptly, and he heard again that indrawing of the breath which he had remarked that afternoon in the cellar. He also heard Faversham speak immediately after he had drawn the breath.
"There are reparations for insults," said Faversham.
Captain Plessy bowed. He was now almost as sober as when he had sat down to his dinner.
"We will choose a time and place," said he.
"There can be no better time than now," suddenly cried Faversham, "no better place than this. You have two friends of whom with your leave I will borrow one. We have a large room and a candle apiece to fight by. To-morrow my duties begin again. We will fight to-night, Captain Plessy, to-night," and he leaned forward almost feverishly, his words had almost the accent of a prayer. The two subalterns rose from their chairs, but Plessy motioned them to keep still. Then he seized the candle which he had himself blown out, lighted it from the candle at the far end of the table and held it up above his head so that the light fell clearly upon Faversham's face. He stood looking at Faversham for an appreciable time. Then he said quietly,
"I will not fight you to-night."
One of the subalterns started up, the other merely turned his head towards Plessy, but both stared at their Captain with an unfeigned astonishment and an unfeigned disappointment. Faversham continued to plead.
"But you must to-night, for to-morrow you cannot. To-night I am alone here, to-night I give orders, to-morrow I receive them. You have your sword at your side to-night. Will you be wearing it to-morrow? I pray you gentlemen to help me," he said turning to the subalterns, and he began to push the heavy table from the centre of the room.
"I will not fight you to-night, Lieutenant," Captain Plessy replied.
"And why?" asked Faversham ceasing from his work. He made a gesture which had more of despair than of impatience.
Captain Plessy gave his reason. It rang false to every man in the room and indeed he made no attempt to give to it any appearance of sincerity. It was a deliberate excuse and not his reason.
"Because you are the Prussian officer in command and the Prussian troops march into St. Denis to-morrow. Suppose that I kill you, what sort of penalty should I suffer at their hands?"
"None," exclaimed Faversham. "We can draw up an account of the quarrel, here now. Look here is paper and ink and as luck will have it a pen that will write. I will write an account with my own hand, and the four of us can sign it. Besides if you kill me, you can escape into Paris."
"I will not fight you to-night," said Captain Plessy and he set down the candle upon the table. Then with an elaborate correctness he drew his sword from its scabbard and offered the handle of it to Faversham.
"Lieutenant, you are in command of St. Denis. I am your prisoner of war."
Faversham stood for a moment or two with his hands clenched. The light had gone out of his face.
"I have no authority to make prisoners," he said. He took up one of the candles, gazed at his guest in perplexity.
"You have not given me your real reason, Captain Plessy," he said. Captain Plessy did not answer a word.
"Good-night, gentlemen," said Faversham and Captain Plessy bowed deeply as Faversham left the room.
A silence of some duration followed upon the closing of the door. The two subalterns were as perplexed as Faversham to account for their hero's conduct. They sat dumb and displeased. Plessy stood for a moment thoughtfully, then he made a gesture with his hands as though to brush the whole incident from his mind and taking a cigarette from his case proceeded to light it at the candle. As he stooped to the flame he noticed the glum countenances of his brother-officers, and laughed carelessly.
"You are not pleased with me, my friends," said he as he threw himself on to a couch which stood against the wall opposite to his companions. "You think I did not speak the truth when I gave the reason of my refusal? Well you are right. I will give you the real reason why I would not fight. It is very simple. I do not wish to be killed. I know these white-faced, trembling men—there are no men more terrible. They may run away but if they do not, if they string themselves to the point of action—take the word of a soldier older than yourselves—then is the time to climb trees. To-morrow I would very likely kill our young friend, he would have had time to think, to picture to himself the little point of steel glittering towards his heart—but to-night he would assuredly have killed me. But as I say I do not wish to be killed. You are satisfied?"
It appeared that they were not. They sat with all the appearances of discontent. They had no words for Captain Plessy. Captain Plessy accordingly rose lightly from his seat.
"Ah," said he, "my good friend the Lieutenant has after all left me my sword. The table too is already pushed sufficiently on one side. There is only one candle to be sure, but it will serve. You are not satisfied, gentlemen? Then—" But both subalterns now hastened to assure Captain Plessy that they considered his conduct had been entirely justified.
Lieutenant Fevrier of the 69th regiment, which belonged to the first brigade of the first division of the army of the Rhine, was summoned to the Belletonge farm just as it was getting dusk. The Lieutenant hurried thither, for the Belletonge farm opposite the woods of Colombey was the headquarters of the General of his division.
"I have been instructed," said General Montaudon, "to select an officer for a special duty. I have selected you."
Now for days Lieutenant Fevrier's duties had begun and ended with him driving the soldiers of his company from eating unripe fruit; and here, unexpectedly, he was chosen from all the officers of his division for a particular exploit. The Lieutenant trembled with emotion.
"My General!" he cried.
The General himself was moved.
"What your task will be," he continued, "I do not known. You will go at once to the Mareschal's headquarters when the chief of the staff, General Jarras, will inform you."
Lieutenant Fevrier went immediately up to Metz. His division was entrenched on the right bank of the Mosel and beyond the forts, so that it was dark before he passed through the gates. He had never once been in Metz before; he had grown used to the monotony of camps; he had expected shuttered windows and deserted roads, and so the aspect of the town amazed him beyond measure. Instead of a town besieged, it seemed a town during a fairing. There were railway carriages, it is true, in the Place Royale doing duty as hospitals; the provision shops, too, were bare, and there were no horses visible.
But on the other hand, everywhere was a blaze of light and a bustle of people coming and going upon the footpaths. The cafes glittered and rang with noise. Here one little fat burgher was shouting that the town-guard was worth all the red-legs in the trenches; another as loudly was criticising the tactics of Bazaine and comparing him for his invisibility to a pasha in his seraglio; while a third sprang upon a table and announced fresh victories. An army was already on the way from Paris to relieve Metz. Only yesterday MacMahon had defeated the Prussians, any moment he might be expected from the Ardennes. Nor were they only civilians who shouted and complained. Lieutenant Fevrier saw captains, majors, and even generals who had left their entrenchments to fight the siege their own way with dominoes upon the marble tables of the cabarets.
"My poor France," he said to himself, and a passer-by overhearing him answered:
"True, monsieur. Ah, but if we had a man at Metz!"
Lieutenant Fevrier turned his back upon the speaker and walked on. He at all events would not join in the criticisms. It was just, he reflected, because he had avoided the cafes of Metz that he was singled out for special distinction, and he fell to wondering what work it was he had to do that night. Was it to surprise a field-watch? Or to spike a battery? Or to capture a convoy? Lieutenant Fevrier raised his head. For any exploit in the world he was ready.
General Jarras was writing at a table when Fevrier was admitted to his office. The Chief of the Staff inclined his lamp-shade so that the light fell full upon Fevrier's face, and the action caused the lieutenant to rejoice. So much care in the choice of the officer meant so much more important a duty.
"The General Montaudon tells me," said Jarras, "that you are an obedient soldier."
"Obedience, my General, is the soldier's first lesson."
"That explains to me why it is first forgotten," answered Jarras, drily. Then his voice became sharp and curt. "You will choose fifty men. You will pick them carefully."
"They shall be the best soldiers in the regiment," said Fevrier.
"No, the worst."
Lieutenant Fevrier was puzzled. When dangers were to be encountered, when audacity was needed, one requires the best soldiers. That was obvious, unless the mission meant annihilation. That thought came to Fevrier, and remembering the cafes and the officers dishonouring their uniforms, he drew himself up proudly and saluted. Already he saw his dead body recovered from the enemy, and borne to the grave beneath a tricolour. He heard the lamentations of his friends, and the firing of the platoon. He saw General Montaudon in tears. He was shaken with emotion. But Jarras's next words fell upon him like cold water.
"You will parade your fifty men unarmed. You will march out of the lines, and to-morrow morning as soon as it is light enough for the Prussians to see you come unarmed you will desert to them. There are too many mouths to feed in Metz[A]."
[Footnote A: See the Daily News War Correspondence, 1870.]
The Lieutenant had it on his lips to shout, "Then why not lead us out to die?" But he kept silence. He could have flung his kepi in the General's face; but he saluted. He went out again into the streets and among the lighted cafes and reeled like a drunken man, thinking confusedly of many things; that he had a mother in Paris who might hear of his desertion before she heard of its explanation; that it was right to claim obedience but lache to exact dishonour—but chiefly and above all that if he had been wise, and had made light of his duty, and had come up to Metz to re-arrange the campaign with dominoes on the marble-tables, he would not have been specially selected for ignominy. It was true, it needed an obedient officer to desert! And so laughing aloud he reeled blindly down to the gates of Metz. And it happened that just by the gates a civilian looked after him, and shrugging his shoulders, remarked, "Ah! But if we had a Man at Metz!"
From Metz Lieutenant Fevrier ran. The night air struck cool upon him. And he ran and stumbled and fell and picked himself up and ran again until he reached the Belletonge farm.
"The General," he cried, and so to the General a mud-plastered figure with a white, tormented face was admitted.
"What is it?" asked Montaudon. "What will this say?"
Lieutenant Fevrier stood with the palms of his hands extended, speechless like an animal in pain. Then he suddenly burst into tears and wept, and told of the fine plan to diminish the demands upon the commissariat.
"Courage, my old one!" said the General. "I had a fear of this. You are not alone—other officers in other divisions have the same hard duty," and there was no inflection in the voice to tell Fevrier what his General thought of the duty. But a hand was laid soothingly upon his shoulder, and that told him. He took heart to whisper that he had a mother in Paris.
"I will write to her," said Montaudon. "She will be proud when she receives the letter."
Then Lieutenant Fevrier, being French, took the General's hand and kissed it, and the General, being French, felt his throat fill with tears.
Fevrier left the headquarters, paraded his men, laid his sword and revolver on the ground, and ordered his fifty to pile their arms. Then he made them a speech—a very short speech, but it cost him much to make it in an even voice.
"My braves," said he, "my fellow-soldiers, it is easy to fight for one's country, it is not difficult to die for it. But the supreme test of patriotism is willingly to suffer shame for it. That test your country now claims of you. Attention! March!"