A dozen of these engines, claimed the inventor, if towed within range and released, to be swept down upon Boulogne pier by the tide, would within a few minutes shatter and dispel the nightmare of invasion.
The Admiralty sanctioned the experiment, news of which had awakened some interest not unmixed with derision throughout the British Fleet; and the business which called the Vesuvius to Portsmouth was to take in tow the first of these catamarans (as our sailors called them) and convey it across to the squadron watching Boulogne.
On the morning after the Vesuvius's arrival, two dockyard boats arrived with the hull of the machine in tow—it resembled nothing so much as a mahogany coffin—and attached her to the Vesuvius's stern by a kind of shoreline. This done, the officer in charge presented himself on board with the clockwork under his arm, and in his hand a letter for Captain Crang, the first result of which was an order to dress ship. Within half an hour the Vesuvius's crew had adorned her from bowsprit to trucks and from trucks to stern with bunting, as if for a Birthday; though, as Mr. Jope observed, with a glance at the catamaran astern, the preparations pointed rather to a funeral. Mr. Jope, as third officer of the ship, betrayed some soreness that his two superiors had not taken him into their confidence.
At eleven o'clock Captain Crang and Mr. Wapshott appeared on the poop in full uniform, and a further order was issued to load the guns blank for a salute.
Hitherto the Major had been but an idler about deck; but finding the crew of a gun short-handed, he volunteered his services, and was immersed in the business of loading when a hand clapped him on the shoulder. Turning, he confronted the boatswain.
"And you go for to pretend for to tell me," said Mr. Jope reproachfully, "that you're a amachoor!"
The Major was about to explain that as an officer of artillery he understood the working of a gun, when a loud banging from the town drew all eyes shoreward; and presently Captain Crang, who had been gazing in that direction through his glass, called to Mr. Wapshott, who in turn shouted an order to man the yards.
As this was an order which the Major neither understood nor, had he understood it, could comply with, he remained on deck while the sailors swarmed aloft and disposed themselves in attitudes the mere sight of which turned him giddy, so wantonly precarious they seemed.
The strains of the National Anthem from a distant key-bugle drew his eyes shoreward again, and between the moored ships he descried a white-painted gig approaching, manned by twenty oars and carrying an enormous flag on a staff astern—the Royal Standard of England.
Not until the gig, fetching a long sweep, had made a half-circuit of the Vesuvius and fallen alongside her accommodation-ladder did the Major comprehend. Captain Crang, with Mr. Wapshott behind him, had stepped down the ladder and stood at the foot of it reverently lifting his cocked hat.
That rotund, star-bedecked figure in the stern sheet, beside the Port Admiral—that classic but full-blooded face crowned with a chestnut wig. . . . Who could it be if not his Royal Highness the Prince Regent?
Yes, it was he. Had not our Major scanned those features often enough—in his own mirror?
The Port Admiral was inviting Captain Crang to step into the gig. The Prince nodded a careless, haughty assent, shrinking a little, however, as Mr. Wapshott passed down the clockwork of the catamaran for his royal inspection. Recovering himself, he glanced at it perfunctorily and nodded to the sailors to give way and pull towards the hull of the infernal machine.
The curiosity which had brought him down to Portsmouth to inspect it seemed, however, to have evaporated. The gig fell alongside the coffin-like log, and the Port Admiral, having taken the clockwork out of Captain Crang's hand, had launched into an explanation of its working when the Prince signified hurriedly that he had seen as much as he desired. Back to the ship the gig drifted on the tide, and Captain Crang, dismissed with a curt nod, stepped on to the ladder again, turned, and saluted profoundly.
As he did so, the Major, erect above the bulwarks, found speech.
"Your Royal Highness!" he cried. "Nay, but pardon me, your Royal Highness! If I may crave the favour—explanation—a prisoner, unjustly detained—"
The Prince Regent lifted his eyes lazily as the bowman thrust off.
"What a dam funny-looking little man!" commented he aloud, nudging the Port Admiral, who had risen and was calling out the order to give way for shore.
"But, your Royal Highness!—"
The Major raised himself on tiptoe with arms outstretched after the receding boat. On the instant the ship shook under him as with an earthquake, and drowned his voice in the thunders of a royal salute.
"The Emperor Jovinian, Mr. Jope—"
"Who was 'e?" Mr. Jope interrupted.
Two days had passed, and the better part of a third. They seemed as many years to our hero as, seated on the carriage of one of the Vesuvius's starboard guns in company with the boatswain and Bill Adams, he watched through its open port the many-twinkling smiles of the sea, and, scarce two leagues away, the coast of France golden against the sunset.
"I am not precisely aware when he flourished," said the Major, "but will make a point of inquiring when I return home. To tell you the truth, I heard the story in church, in a sermon of our worthy Vicar's, little dreaming under what circumstances I should recall it as applicable to my own lot."
"If it's out of a sermon," said Mr. Jope, "you may fire ahead. But if, as you say, the man was taken for someone else, I thought it would be clearer to start by knowing who he was."
"It happened in this way. The Emperor Jovinian one sultry afternoon in summer was hunting—"
"Keep quiet," put in Mr. Adams. "When he's telling you it happened in a sermon!"
"In the ardour of the chase he had left his retinue far behind; and finding himself by the shore of a lake, he alighted and refreshed himself with a swim in its cool waters. While he thus disported himself, a beggar stole his horse and his clothes."
Mr. Jope smote his leg. "Now I call that a thundering good yarn! Short, sharp, and to the point."
"But you haven't heard the end."
"Eh? Is there any more of it?"
"Certainly. The Emperor, discovering the theft, was forced to creep naked and ashamed to the nearest castle."
"What was he ashamed of?"
"Why, of being naked."
"I see. Damme, it fits in like a puzzle!"
"But at the castle, sad to say, no one recognised the proud Jovinian. 'Avaunt!' said the porter, and threatened to have him whipped for his impudence. This distressing experience caused the Emperor to reflect on the vanity of human pretensions, seeing that he, of whom the world stood in awe, had, with the loss of a few clothes, forfeited the respect of a slave."
"I see," repeated Mr. Jope, as the narrator paused. "What became of the beggar?"
"I knew a worse case than that, even," said Bill Adams, turning his quid meditatively. "It happened to a Bristol man, once a shipmate of mine; by name Zekiel Philips, and not at all inclined to stoutness when I knew him."
"Why should he be?"
"You wait. His wife kept a slop-shop at Bristol, near the foot of Christmas Stairs—if you know where that is?"
The Major, thus challenged, shook his head.
"Ah, well; you'll have heard of O-why-hee, anyway—where they barbecued Captain Cook? And likewise of Captain Bligh of the Bounty—Breadfruit Bligh, as they call him to this day? Well, Bligh, as you know, took the Bounty out to the Islands under Government orders to collect breadfruit, the notion being that it could be planted in the West Indies and grown at a profit. When he came to grief and Government lookedlike dropping the job, a party of Bristol merchants took the matter up, having interests of their own in the West Indies, and fitted out a vessel—a brig she was, as I remember—called the Perseverance. Whereby this here friend o' mine, Zekiel Philips by name, shipped aboard of her. Whereby they made a good passage and anchored off one of the islands—Otaheety or not, I won't say—and took aboard a cargo, being, as they supposed, ord'nary breadfruit; and stood away east-by-south for the Horn, meaning to work up to Kingston, Jamaica. But this particular breadfruit was of a fattening natur', whether eaten or, as you may say, ab-sorbed into the system through a part of it getting down to the bilge and fermenting, and the gas of it working up through the vessel. Whereby, the breeze holding steady and no sail to trim for some days, the crew took it easy below, with naught to warn 'em, unless, maybe, 'twas a tight'ning o' the buttons. Whereby on the fifth day they ran a-foul of a cyclone; and the cry being for all hands on deck, half a dozen stuck in the hatchway and had to be sawed loose. Whereby, in the meantime, she carried away her mainm'st, and the wreckage knocked a hole in her starboard quarter. Likewise, her stern-post being rotten, she lost a pintle, and the helm began to look fifty ways for Sunday. All o' which caused the skipper to lay to, fix up a jury rudder and run up for the nearest island to caulk and repair. But meantime, and before he sighted land, this unfortunate crew kept puttin' on flesh—and the cause of it hid from them all the time—till there wasn't on the ship a pair of smallclothes but had refused duty. Whereby, coming to the island in question, they went ashore, every man Jack in loin-cloths cut out o' the stun-s'le, and the rest of 'em as bare as the back of my hand. Whereby their appearance excited the natives to such a degree, being superstitious, they was set upon and eaten to a man. The moral bein'," concluded Mr. Adams, "that a man lay be brought low by bein' puffed up."
"Ay," said Mr. Jope after a pause. "I never had no great acquaintance with poetry, but I bought a pocket-handkercher once for tuppence with a verse on it:"
"'Ri fal de ral diddle, ri fal de ral dee, What ups and downs in the world there be!'
"And I don't believe you could use a truer text for the purpose, no matter what you paid."
The Major sighed. He was a high-spirited man, as the reader knows, and I believe that, but for one cruel memory, he might have learnt even to taste some humour in his situation. Thanks to Mr. Jope and Mr. Adams, who had taken a genuine fancy to him, he found life on board the Vesuvius cheerful if not comfortable. The fare was Spartan, indeed, but, for a short holiday, tolerable. The prospect of seeing some real fighting excited him pleasurably, for he was no coward. Here, before his eyes, lay the coast of France; the actual forts and guns with which his imagination had so often played. What a tale he would have to tell on his return! And, by the way, how his poor Trojans must be suffering in his absence, without news of him! He pictured that return. . . . Yes, indeed, it was at the expense of Troy that Fortune had conceived this practical joke. He could even smile, as yet, at the thought of the Baskets' dismay as they searched the house for him. He wondered if Mr. Basket had forwarded his letter to Miss Marty, at the same time announcing his disappearance. Well, well, he would dry her tears. . . .
But upon this came the recollection of those cruel words:
"What a dam funny-looking little man!"
He might—he assuredly would—keep them a secret in his own breast. But they echoed there.
His vanity was robust. Again and again it asserted its health in his day-dreams, expelling, or all but expelling, that poisonous memory. Only at night, in his hammock, it awoke again—sinister, premonitory. But as yet the man continued cheerfully incredulous. Fate was playing, less on him than through him, a rare practical joke—no more.
On the eighth of June, at about nine o'clock in the evening, it occurred to Admiral Lord Keith that the wind and weather afforded an excellent opportunity of testing the Vesuvius's far-famed catamaran against the shipping moored off Boulogne pier. He signalled accordingly; and at nine-thirty, under the eyes of the squadron, a boat from the bomb-ship started to tow the infernal machine towards the harbour. By leave of Bill Adams, commanding, our Major made one of the crew of twelve.
In less than a quarter of an hour their approach was signalled by the enemy's vedettes to the forts ashore, which promptly opened fire. Mr. Adams, having towed the catamaran within its proper range, with his own hand pulled the plug releasing the clockwork, and gave the order to cast off, leaving wind and tide to do the rest; which they doubtless would have done had not a gun from one of the French batteries plumped a shot accurately into the catamaran.
The catamaran exploded with a terrific report, and the wave of the explosion caught the retreating boat, lifted her seven feet, capsized her, and brought her accurately down, bottom upwards.
A score of boats put out to the rescue, picked up the exhausted swimmers, and attempted to right and recover the boat, but abandoned this attempt on the approach of an overwhelming force of French.
These, coming up, seized on the boat and gallantly, under a short-dropping fire from our squadron, proceeded to right their prize; and, righting her, discovered Major Hymen, clinging to a thwart, trapped as an earwig is trapped beneath an inverted flower-pot.
Miss Marty had just finished watering her sweet-peas and mignonette; had inspected each of the four standard roses beside the front gate in search of green-fly; had caught a snail sallying forth to dine late upon her larkspurs, and called to Cai Tamblyn to destroy it; had, in short, performed all her ritual for the cool of the day; and was removing her gardening gloves when a vehement knocking agitated the front door, and Scipio hurried to announce that a caller—a Mr. Basket—desired to see her on important business.
"Mr. Basket?" she echoed apprehensively, and made at once for the parlour, where she found her visitor mopping his brow. Despite the heat, he was pale. In his left hand he held a letter.
"You will pardon me," he began in a flutter. "Am I addressing Miss Martha Hymen?"
"You are, sir." Miss Marty clasped her hands in alarm at his demeanour. "Oh, tell me what has happened!"
"All the way from Plymouth on purpose," answered Mr. Basket. "Most mysterious occurrence . . . ate a good dinner and retired to his room apparently in the best of health and spirits. On our return from the theatre he was gone."
"Disappeared, vanished! We searched the house. His watch and pocket-book lay on the bed, together with a certain amount of loose change. His wig, too . . . you were aware?"
"I have gone so far as to suspect it. But what dreadful news is this? Disappeared? Leaving no clue?"
"We are in hopes, my wife and I, that this may afford a clue. A letter, and addressed to you; it lay upon his writing-table. We did not feel ourselves at liberty to break the seal. I trust—I sincerely trust—it may put a period to our suspense."
Miss Marty took the letter, glanced at the address and tore the paper open with trembling hands. She perused the first few sentences with a puckered, puzzled brow; then of a sudden her eyes grew wide and round. Despite herself she uttered a little gasping cry.
"It contains a clue at least?" asked Mr. Basket, who had been watching her face anxiously. "Dear lady, what does he say?"
"Nun—nothing," Miss Marty caught at the back of a Chippendale chair for support.
"Nothing?" echoed Mr. Basket blankly.
"Nothing—That is to say I can't tell you. Oh, this is horrible!"
"But pardon me," Mr. Basket insisted. "After travelling all the way from Plymouth!"
"I can't possibly tell you," she repeated.
"But, madam, consider my responsibility! I must really ask you to consider my responsibility."
"If I could only realise it! Oh, give me time, sir!"
"Certainly, certainly; by all means take your time. Nevertheless, when you consider my distress of mind, I appeal to you, madam, to be merciful and relieve it. After travelling all this distance in the dark—"
"In the dark?" queried Miss Marty, with a glance at the window.
"Tormented by a thousand speculations. In my house, too! In good health, and apparently the best of spirits; and then without a word, like the snuff of a candle!"
"His brain must be affected," Miss Marty murmured, gazing at the letter again. The handwriting swam before her. "Excuse me, sir, I will not detain you a minute."
She ran from the room and upstairs to her room, her knees shaking beneath her. Heaven grant that the Doctor was at home! She agitated her window-blind violently and drew it down to the third pane. "You are wanted—urgent," was the message it conveyed.
Yes, he was at home. "I come, instantly," answered her lover's window; and in less than a minute, to her infinite relief, the Doctor emerged from his front doorway and came bustling up the street almost at a trot.
She ran down and admitted him. In her face he read instantly that something serious had happened; something serious if not catastrophical: but with finger on lip she enjoined silence and led the way to the parlour.
"This gentleman has just arrived from Plymouth, with serious news of the Major."
"Serious? He is not ill, I trust?"
"Worse," said Mr. Basket.
"But first," interposed Miss Marty, "you must read this letter. Yes, yes!"—blushing hotly, she thrust it into the Doctor's unresisting hands—"you have the right. Forgive me if I seem indecorous: but in such a situation you only can help me."
"Eh? Oh, certainly—h'm, h'm!—" The Doctor adjusted his glasses and began to read in a low mumbling voice. By and by he paused, then slowly looked up with pained, incredulous eyes.
"This is some horrible dream!" he groaned and, feeling his way to the Major's armchair, sank into it heavily.
"He swoons!" exclaimed Miss Marty. "One moment—a glassful of the Fra Angelico!"
She ran to the cupboard, found decanter and glasses, poured out a dose and came hurrying back with it. He declined it, waving her off with a feeble motion of the hand.
She appealed to Mr. Basket. "Will you, sir?"
Mr. Basket confessed afterwards that for the moment, excusably perhaps, he lost his presence of mind. She had motioned to him to administer the dose. He misunderstood. Taking the glass distractedly, he drained it to the dregs, clapped a hand to his windpipe, and collapsed, sputtering, in a chair facing the Doctor.
"Oh, what have I done?" wailed Miss Marty.
"He deserved it!"
The Doctor pulled himself together, stood erect, and, lurching forward, gripped Mr. Basket by the shoulder.
"Sir, this lady is my affianced wife!"
"Would you—mind—tapping me in the back?" pleaded Mr. Basket, between the catches of his breath.
"Not at all, sir." The Doctor complied. "As I was saying, this lady is my affianced wife. Though Major Hymen were ten thousand times my friend—by placing both hands on your stomach and bending forward a little you will find yourself relieved—though Major Hymen were ten thousand times my friend, it should be over my prostrate body, sir; and so you may go back and tell him!"
"But I can't find him!" almost screamed Mr. Basket.
"He has disappeared!" quavered Miss Marty.
"It's the best thing he could do!" Dr. Hansombody folded his arms and looked at Mr. Basket with fierce decision. "Disappeared? Where?"
They answered him in agitated duetto. "Where indeed?" The Major had vanished, dissolved out of mortal ken, melted (one might say) into thin air. "If one may quote the Bard, sir, in this connection"—Mr. Basket wound up his recital—"like an insubstantial pageant faded he has left not a rack behind; that is to say, unless the letter in your hands may be considered as answering that description."
"There's only one explanation," the Doctor declared. "The man must be mad."
Mr. Basket considered this for a moment and shook his head. "We left him, sir, in the completest possession of his faculties. In all my long acquaintance with him I never detected the smallest symptom of mental aberration; and last night—good God! to think that this happened no longer ago than last night!"—Mr. Basket passed a hand over his brow—"Last night, sir, I recognised with delight the same shrewd judgment, the same masculine intellect, the same large outlook on men and affairs, the same self-confidence and self-respect—in short, sir, all the qualities for which I ever admired my old friend."
"Nevertheless," the Doctor insisted, "he must have been mad when he penned this letter."
"Of the contents of which, let me remind you, I am still ignorant."
The Doctor glanced at Miss Marty, then handed the letter to Mr. Basket with a bow. "You have a right to peruse it, sir. You will see, however, that its contents are of a strictly private nature, and will respect this lady's confidence."
"Certainly, certainly." Mr. Basket drew out his spectacles, and, receiving Miss Marty's permission, seated himself at the table, spread out the letter and slowly read it through. "Most extraordinary! Most extraordinary! But you'll excuse my saying that while, unfortunately, it affords no clue, this seems to me as far as possible removed from the composition of a madman." He gazed almost gallantly over his spectacles at Miss Marty, who coloured. "In any case," he went on, folding up the letter and returning it, "the man must be found. I understand, madam, that you are a relative of his? Has he any others with whom we can communicate?"
"So far as I know, sir, none."
"I have a chaise awaiting me on the other side of the ferry. With all respect, dear madam, I suggest it; I am sorry indeed to put you to inconvenience—"
"You propose that Miss Marty, here, should accompany you back to Plymouth?"
"That was the suggestion in my mind. And you, too, sir—that is, if you can make it square with your engagements. Mrs. Basket will be happy to extend her hospitality. . . . Two heads are better than one, sir. We will prosecute our investigations together . . . with the help of the constabulary, of course. We should communicate with the constabulary, or our position may eventually prove an awkward one."
"Yes, yes; the man having disappeared from your house."
"Quite so. Apart from that, I see no immediate necessity for making the matter public; but am willing to defer to your judgment."
"That is a question we had better leave until we have seen the Chief Constable at Plymouth. To publish the news here and now in Troy would cause an infinite alarm, possibly an idle one. By the time we reach Plymouth our friend may have reappeared, or at least disclosed his whereabouts."
Alas! at Plymouth, where they arrived late that night, no news of the missing one awaited them. Mrs. Basket, her face white as a sheet, her ample body swathed in a red flannel dressing-gown, herself opened the door to the travellers as soon as the chaise drew up. For hours she had been expecting it, listening for the sounds of wheels. Almost before the introductions were over she announced with tears that she had nothing to tell.
For a while she turned her thoughts perforce from the disaster to the business of making ready the bedrooms for her guests and preparing a light supper. But the meal had not been in progress five minutes, before, in the act of loading Miss Marty's plate, she sat back with a gasp.
"Oh, and I was forgetting! Misfortunes, they say, never come singly, and—would you believe it, my dear?—as I was walking in the garden this afternoon, thinking to calm my poor brain, I happened to look at the fish-pond and what do I see there but two of the gold-fish floating with their chests uppermost!"
"Chests, madam?" queried Dr. Hansombody.
But sharp as his query was came a cry from Mr. Basket. "The fish-pond?" He thrust back his chair, a terrible surmise dawning in his eyes. "And the fish, you say, floating—"
"Chest uppermost," repeated Mrs. Basket, "and dead as dead."
"She means, on their backs," her husband explained parenthetically; "a fashion de parlour, as the French would say. Did you examine the pond? Heavens, Maria! did you examine the pond?"
"Elihu, you make my flesh creep! Why should I examine the pond? You don't mean to tell me—"
"My shrimping-net! Don't sit shivering there, Maria, but bring me my shrimping-net! And a lantern!" Mr. Basket caught up a Sheffield-plated candle-sconce from the table, motioned the Doctor to fetch along its fellow, and led the way out to the front garden.
The night outside was windless, but dark as the inside of a hat.
Their candles drew a dewy glimmer from the congregated statuary: apparitions so ghostly that the Doctor scarcely repressed a cry of terror. Mr. Basket advanced to the pond and set down his light on the brink.
"A foot deep . . . only a foot deep," he murmured. "It could not possibly cover him."
The two goldfish floated as Mrs. Basket had described them. Mr. Basket, taking the shrimping-net from his wife, who shrank back at once into darkness, plunged it beneath the water, deep into the mud. Dr. Hansombody held a sconce aloft to guide him.
The two ladies cowered behind a pedestal supporting the Farnese Hercules.
For a while nothing was heard in the garden but the splash of water as Mr. Basket plunged his net again and again and drew it forth dripping. Each time as he drew it to shore, he emptied the mud on the brink and bent over it, the Doctor holding a candle close to assist the inspection.
As he emptied his net for maybe the twentieth time, something jingled on the pebbles. Mr. Basket stooped swiftly, plunged his hand in the slime, and held it up to the light.
"Eh?" said the Doctor, peering close. "What? A latchkey?"
"My duplicate latchkey!" In spite of the heat engendered by his efforts, Mr. Basket's teeth chattered. "My wife gave it to him the last thing."
He turned and drove his net beneath the dark water with redoubled energy. The very next haul brought to shore an even more convincing piece of evidence—a silver snuff-box.
It was the Major's. Mr. Basket had seen his friend use it a thousand times; and called Miss Marty forward to identify it. Yes, undeniably it was the Major's snuff-box, engraved with "S.H.," his initials, in entwined italics.
The two male searchers, regardless of their small-clothes, now plunged knee-deep into the pond. For an hour they searched it; searched it from end to end; searched it twice over.
No further discovery rewarded them.
Here was evidence—tangible evidence. Yet of what? The Major had visited the pond during his hosts' absence at the theatre, and had dropped these two articles into it. How, if accidentally? If purposely, why? The mystery had become a deeper mystery.
A little after midnight the search was abandoned. Mrs. Basket administered hot brandy-and-water to the two gentlemen, and the household retired to rest—but not to sleep.
At breakfast next morning, before seeking the Chief Constable, Mr. Basket and the Doctor compared notes. Each owned himself more puzzled than ever.
As it turned out, their discoveries led them straight away from the true explanation. The Chief Constable, when they interviewed him, was disposed for a brief while to suspect the press-gang. There had, in fact, on the night before last, been a "hot press," as it was called. At least a score of bodies of the Royal Marines, in parties of twelve and fourteen, each accompanied by a marine and a naval officer, had boarded the colliers off the new quay, the ships in Cattewater and the Pool, and had swept the streets and gin-shops. A gang of seamen, too, had entered the theatre and cleared the whole gallery except the women; had even descended upon the stage and carried off practically the whole company of actors, including the famous Mr. Sturge. (This Mr. Basket could confirm.) The whole town was in a ferment. He had already received at least seventy visits from inquirers after missing relatives.
But the discoveries in the fish-pond led him clean off the scent. No press-gang would enter a private house or a private garden such as Mr. Basket's. Even supposing that their friend had fallen a victim to the press while walking the streets, they must admit it to be inconceivable that he should return and cast a latchkey and a snuff-box into Mr. Basket's fish-pond.
"Cui bono?" asked the Chief Constable.
"I beg your pardon?" said Mr. Basket.
"Well, in other words, what do you suggest he did it for? It's an expression we use in these cases."
The Doctor granted the force of the Chief Constable's reasoning, but suggested that there could be no harm in rowing round the Fleet and making inquiries.
The Chief Constable answered again that the squadron—it was no more than a squadron—had taken precious good care to time the press for the eve of sailing; had in fact weighed anchor in the small hours of the morning, and by this time had probably joined Admiral Cornwallis's fleet off Brest.
What was to be done?
"In my belief," said the Chief Constable, "it's a case of foul play. Mind, I'm not accusing anyone," he went on; "but this person disappeared from your house, Mr. Basket, and in your place I'd put myself right with the public by getting out a handbill at once."
This dreadful possibility of coming under public suspicion had never occurred to Mr. Basket. He begged to be supplied at once with pen, ink and paper.
"'Lost, stolen or strayed'—is that how you begin?"
"If you ask me," said the Chief Constable, "I'd put him down as 'Missing.' It's more usual."
"'Missing,' then. 'On the night of May 2nd—'"
"From your house."
"Must that go in?" Mr. Basket pleaded.
"If you want to put yourself right with the public."
"Yes, yes—'from The Retreat, East Hoe, the residence of E. Basket, Esq., on the night of May 2nd, between the hours of 7 and 11 p.m., a Gentleman—'"
Mr. Basket paused.
"We must describe him," said the Doctor.
"I am coming to that. 'A Gentleman, answering to the name of Hymen—'"
Mr. Basket ran his pen through the word. "The fact is," he explained, "I've only written out a thing of this sort once before in my life; and that was when Mrs. Basket missed a black-and-tan terrier. H'm, let me see. . . . Between the hours of 7 and 11 p.m., Solomon Hymen, Esquire, and Justice of the Peace, Major of the Troy Volunteer Artillery. The missing gentleman was of imposing exterior—"
"Height five feet, three inches," said the Doctor.
"Eh? Are you sure?"
"As medical officer of the Troy Artillery, I keep account of every man in the corps; height, chest measurement, waist measurement, any peculiarity of structure, any mole, cicatrix, birth-mark and so on. I began to take these notes at the Major's own instance, for purposes of identification on the field of battle. Little did I dream, as I passed the tape around my admired friend, that his proportions would ever be the subject of this melancholy curiosity!"
"It reminds me," said Mr. Basket, "of a group in my garden entitled Finding the body of Harold. Five feet three, you say? I had better scratch out 'imposing exterior'; or, stay!—we'll alter it to 'carriage.'"
"Chest, thirty-six inches; waist, forty-three inches; complexion— does that come next?" Doctor Hansombody appealed to the Chief Constable, who nodded.
"Complexion, features, colour of hair, of eyes . . . any order you please."
"We must leave out all allusion to his hair, I think," said Mr. Basket; "and, by the way, I suppose the—er—authorities will desire to take possession of any other little odds-and-ends our friend left behind him? Complexion, clear and sanguine; strongly marked features. His eye, sir, was like Mars, to threaten and command; but I forget the precise colour at this moment. We might, perhaps, content ourselves with 'piercing.' If I allow myself to be betrayed into a description of his moral qualities—"
"Unnecessary," put in the Chief Constable.
"And yet, sir, it was by his moral qualities that my friend ever impressed himself most distinctly on all who met him. Alas! that I should be speaking of him in the past tense! He was a man, sir, as Shakespeare puts it:
"Take him for all in all, We shall not look upon his like again."
"A most happy description, Mr. Basket," the Doctor agreed. "Would you mind saying it over again, that I may commit it to memory?"
Mr. Basket obligingly repeated it.
"Most happy! Shakespeare, you say? Thank you." The Doctor copied it into his pocket-book among the prescriptions.
"One might add, perhaps," Mr. Basket submitted respectfully, "that a mere physical description, however animated, cannot do justice to my friend's moral grandeur, which, indeed, would require the brush of a Michael Angelo."
The Chief Constable inquired what reward they proposed to offer.
"Ah, yes; to be sure!" Taken somewhat unexpectedly, Mr. Basket and the Doctor exchanged glances.
"On behalf of the relatives, now—" began Mr. Basket.
"So far as I know, Miss Martha was the one relative he had in the world," answered the Doctor.
"So much the better, my friend, seeing that you have (as I understand) her entire confidence."
"I was about to suggest that—circumstances having forced you into prominence—to take the lead, so to speak, in this unhappy affair—"
"But why do we talk of price?" interposed Mr. Basket briskly, "seeing that the loss, if loss it be, is nothing short of irreparable? To my mind there is something—er—"
"Desecrating," suggested the Doctor.
"Quite so—desecrating—in this reduction of our poor friend to pounds, shillings, and pence."
"Nevertheless it is usual to name a sum," the Chief Constable assured them. "Shall we say fifty pounds?" Mr. Basket took off his spectacles and wiped them with a trembling hand. Dr. Hansombody stood considering, pulling thoughtfully at his lower lip.
"I think I can undertake," he suggested, "that the Town Council will contribute a moiety of that sum. Something can be done by private subscription."
Mr. Basket brightened visibly. "Put it at fifty pounds, then," he commanded, with a wave of the hand. "Should Providence see fit to restore him to us, our friend, as a reasonable man, will doubtless discharge some part of the expenses."
Accordingly the bill was drafted, and the Chief Constable, after running his blue pencil through some of its more monumental periods, engaged to have it printed and distributed.
"Do you know," confessed Mr. Basket, as he and the Doctor walked homewards, "I felt all the while as if we were composing our friend's epitaph. I have a presentimen—"
"Do not utter it, my dear sir!" the Doctor entreated.
"He was a man—"
"Yes, yes; 'taking one thing with another, it is more than likely we shall never see him again.' The words, sir, struck upon my spirit like the tolling of a bell. But for Heaven's sake let us not despair!"
"Life is precarious, Dr. Hansombody; as your profession, if any, should teach. We are here to-day; we are gone—in the more sudden cases—to-morrow. What do you say, sir, to a glass of wine at the 'Benbow'? To my thinking, we should both be the better for it."
At this point my pen falters. The order of events would require us now to travel back to Troy with Miss Marty and the Doctor and break the news to the town. But have you the heart for it? Not I.
I tell you that I never now pass the Ferry Slip on the shore facing Troy, on a summer's evening when the sun slants over the hill and the smoke of the town rises through shadow into the bright air through which the rooks are winging homeward—I never rest on my oars to watch the horse-boat unmooring, the women up the street filling their pitchers at the water-shute, the strawberry-gatherers at work in their cliff gardens; but I see again Boutigo's van descend the hill and two passengers in black alight from it upon the shore—Miss Marty and the Doctor, charged with their terrible message. I see them stand on the slip and shade their eyes as they look across to the town glassed in the evening tide, I see beneath the shade of her palm Miss Marty's lips tremble with the words that are to shatter that happy picture of repose, brutally, violently, as a stone crashing into a mirror. In the ferry-boat she trembles from head to foot, between fear and a fever to speak and have it over. . . .
But the town would not believe. Nay, even when Town Crier Bonaday, dropping tears into his paste-pot, affixed the placard to the door of the Town Hall, the town would not believe. Men and women gathered at his back, read the words stupidly, looked into each other's faces and shook their heads. Two or three gazed skyward.
"The Major gone? No, no . . . there must be some mistake. He would come back—to-morrow, perhaps—and bring light and laughter back with him. It was long since the town had enjoyed a good laugh, and here were all the makings of a rare one."
But the days passed and brought no tidings.
Miss Marty had drawn down the blinds in the Major's house, in token of mourning and to shut out prying eyes: for during the first day or two small crowds had collected in front and hung about the garden gate to stare pathetically up at the windows. They meant no harm: always when Cai Tamblyn or Scipio stepped out to remonstrate, they moved away quietly.
They were stunned. They could not believe.
On the third day the Town Council met and elected Dr. Hansombody Deputy-Mayor, "during the temporary absence of one whose permanent loss this Council for the present declines to contemplate." That same evening the Doctor called a public meeting, and in a careful speech, interrupted here and there by emotion, told the burgesses all there was to tell. "My friends," he concluded, "With a sad and sorry heart I lay these few facts, these poor shreds of evidence, before you. Oppressed as I am by the shadow of calamity, I refuse to consider it as more than a shadow, soon under Providence to be lifted from us. You, the witnesses of our daily intimacy, will understand with what emotion I take up the sceptre which has fallen from my friend's hand, with what diffidence I shall wield it, with what impatience I shall expect the hour which restores it to his strong grasp. In the words of Shakespeare"—here the Doctor consulted his note-book—"he was indeed a man:"
"'Take him for all in all We shall not look upon his like again.'"
"Of my own instance, ladies and gentlemen, I made bold to bid fifty pounds for his recovery, feeling confident that Troy would endorse the offer. Nor did I mistake. This morning the Corporation by unanimous vote has guaranteed the sum. I have now the melancholy privilege of proposing from this chair that a house-to-house canvass be made throughout the town with the object of doubling this guarantee." (Murmurs of approval from all parts of the hall.)
The Vicar seconded. He would remind his audience that in the thirteenth century Richard, Earl of Cornwall, afterwards King of the Romans, had the misfortune to fall into the hands of the Saracens who held him at ransom: and that by the promptness with which the Cornishmen of those days, rich and poor together, made voluntary contribution and discharged the price, they earned their coat-of-arms of fifteen gold coins upon a sable ground, as well as their proud motto "One and All." It had been said (I forget if in my hearing), that the days of chivalry were past. Here was an opportunity to disprove it and declare that the spirit of their ancestors survived and animated the Cornishmen of to-day. (A Voice—"How about the Millennium?") He would pass over that interruption with the contempt it deserved. They were not met to bandy personalities, but as citizens united in the face of calamity by affection for their common borough. As stars upon the night, as the gold coins on their Duchy's sable shield, so might their free-will offerings spell hope upon the dark ground of present desolation. He, for his part, was ready to subscribe one guinea—yes, and more if necessary.
Although the Chairman had deprecated cheering, the audience broke into loud applause as the Vicar resumed his seat. The town had taken fire. Resolving itself into Committee, the meeting then and there nominated fifty collectors, all volunteers. Nor did the movement end here. Under the leadership of Miss Pescod the ladies of Troy devoted each a favourite article of personal adornment to be coined at need into money for the Major's redemption. (I myself possess a brooch which, left by my great-grandmother to her daughter upon this condition, to this day is known in the family as the Major's Cameo.) In six days the guarantee fund ran up to eleven hundred pounds, of which at least one-third might be accounted good money. In Troy we allow, by habit, some margin for enthusiasm.
A new placard was issued at once, and the reward increased to one hundred and fifty pounds.
For ten days this handsome offer evoked no more response than the previous one. For ten days yet all trace of the Major vanished at the edge of Mr. Basket's fish-pond.
"It would almost seem," said Miss Sally Tregentil, discussing the mystery for the hundredth time with Miss Pescod, "as if from that fatal brink he had soared into the regions of the unknown and scaled, as the expression goes, the empyrean."
"If that's the case," remarked Miss Pescod practically, "twice the money won't bring him back."
On the 2nd of July the Chief Constable wrote to Dr. Hansombody that he had discovered a clue. A doorkeeper of the Theatre Royal reported (and was corroborated by the man in charge of the ticket-office) that on the night of May 2nd, at about 10.30, a rough-looking fellow had presented himself, dripping-wet, at the doors and demanded, in a state of agitation, apparently the result of drink, to see Mr. Basket, who occupied a reserved seat in the house; further, that falling in with two sailors, who bought a ticket for him, the man had mounted the gallery stairs in their company, and this was the last seen of him by either of the deponents.
The Doctor posted to Plymouth, carrying with him the only extant portrait of the Major—a miniature taken at the age of twenty-five; called on Mr. Basket, haled him off to the Chief Constable's office, and there by appointment examined the two witnesses. The men stuck to their story, but swore positively that the fellow they had seen bore no resemblance to the portrait.
"If you ask me," added the doorkeeper with conviction, "he was a dam sight more likely to have been his murderer. He looked it, anyhow."
The Doctor and Mr. Basket returned to the latter's house in deeper perplexity than ever.
"The evidence," began Mr. Basket, lighting his pipe after dinner, "vague as it is, points more decidedly than before to foul play. We have been assuming that our poor friend, whether by accident or design, found himself in my fish-pond."
"He would hardly have walked into it on purpose," said the Doctor.
"It is at least highly improbable. Well, here we have another man who comes running to the theatre wet through—also, we will assume, from an immersion in the fish-pond. We will suppose that he plunged into it to the rescue and having brought his burden safe to shore, ran to the theatre to inform me of the accident. At once we are confronted with half a dozen serious difficulties. To begin with, why, having asked for me, did he disappear?"
"Press-gang," the Doctor suggested.
"Granted. But why, having an urgent message to deliver, did he proceed to take a ticket for the gallery in company with two sailors, apparently strangers to him? Again, this explanation does not even touch the crucial question, which is—How came our friend to disappear?"
The Doctor shook his head.
"On the other hand," Mr. Basket continued, "if we take the darker view, that this man had entered the fish-pond not for purposes of rescue, but—dreadful thought—to hold the victim under water, why should he have exposed himself to detection by coming to the theatre? Why, in fine, should he desire to communicate at all with me?"
"Perhaps," suggested Mrs. Basket, who had been listening while she knitted, "his conscience pricked him."
"My dear Maria!" began her husband testily. But at this moment the house rang with an alarm upon the front-door bell.
The poor lady stood up fluttering, white in the face.
"You must answer it, Elihu! I couldn't, not if you was to offer me twice the reward at this moment—and him standing there, perhaps, or his ghost, like Peter out of prison!"
But their visitor proved to be the Chief Constable himself. He, too, was pale with excitement, and he held in his hand a copy of the Sherborne Mercury.
"Your friend—" he began.
"He is dead. The mystery is not, indeed, explained, but the issue of it appears too certain. I was walking along old Town Street when the Sherborne Rider came along. He gave me my copy, and see here!"—The Chief Constable spread the paper under the lamp and pointed to this paragraph:
"Operations off Boulogne. By advices received from Admiral Lord Keith, the first experiment made with the new engines of destruction (of which so much was hoped) against the vessels moored off Boulogne pier, has not resulted in an unqualified success. On the 15th ult. one of these catamarans, as they are called, was launched against the foe from the Vesuvius bomb. The machinery had been set in motion, and the bomb's boat, having towed it into range, was preparing to return to the ship, when a shot from the shore batteries, falling close, precipitated our gallant fellows into the water. We are happy to add that they were all picked up by the boats of the squadron with the exception of one seaman, recently shipped at Plymouth. His name is given as Hymen; and the Captain of the Vesuvius reports that he joined as a volunteer.
"We need hardly remind our readers that the name of Hymen has figured prominently for a fortnight past in our advertisement columns. If this gallant but unfortunate man should prove to be none other than Solomon Hymen, Esquire, Chief Magistrate of Troy, Cornwall, whose recent mysterious disappearance has cast a gloom over the small borough, we commiserate our friends in the West while envying them this exemplar of an unselfish patriotism. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori."
Troy required no further evidence. To those of us indeed who had known the man—who, to borrow the words of a later poet, had lived in his mild and magnificent eye—the news carried its own verification. Precisely how—in what circumstances—he had volunteered, we might never elucidate: but the act itself, when we came to consider it, was of a piece with his character. He had left us in chagrin, betrayed by our unworthiness, nursing a wound deeper than any personal spite. Summarily, by a stroke, in the simplicity of his greatness, he had at once rebuked us and restored our pride. Perishing, he had left us an imperishable boast; an example to which, though our own conscience might accuse us, we could point, and saying "This was a Son of Troy," silence detraction for ever. Need I add that we made the most of it?
Mayor-choosing Day came round, and Dr. Hansombody, elected by the unanimous vote of his fellow-councillors, attained to one of the twin summits of his ambition and was indued as Chief Magistrate with robe and chain. Six weeks later the town heard, at first incredulously, that he and Miss Marty were betrothed. The nuptials, it was announced, would be celebrated next June, on the decent expiry of a year of mourning.
Miss Sally Tregentil, on hearing the news, opined the Doctor's conduct to be quixotic—a self-immolation, almost, upon the altar of friendship.
Miss Pescod, for her part, believed that he was after the woman's money. This unworthy suspicion the Doctor was fortunately able to rebut, and in the most public manner. After the wedding (a quiet one) he and his bride spent a short honeymoon at Sidmouth and returned but to announce their departure on a more distant journey. The Major's death being by this time, in legal phrase, "presumed," the Court of Canterbury had allowed Miss Marty to take out letters of administration. It behoved her now to travel up to London, interview proctors, and prove the will, executed (as the reader will remember) on the eve of that fatal First of May and confided to Lawyer Chinn's keeping. The town having subscribed for and purchased a pair of silver candelabra as a homecoming gift, the Mayor and Mayoress had no sooner returned and been welcomed with firing off cannon and pealing of bells than a day was fixed and a public meeting called for the presentation—a ceremony performed by the Vicar in brief but felicitous terms. The Doctor made a suitable speech of acknowledgment, and then, after waiting until the applause had subsided, lifted a hand.
"My friends," he said, "before we disperse I am charged to tell you that my wife and I contemplate another journey, and almost immediately. You may think how sad that errand is for us when I tell you that we go to prove the late Major Hymen's will. But I dare to hope you will understand that our feelings are not wholly tinged with gloom when you hear the provisions of that document, which I will now ask my friend Mr. Chinn to read aloud to you."
And this is the substance of what Lawyer Chinn read:
To his kinswoman Miss Martha Hymen, the Major left a life interest in the sum of five thousand pounds, invested in Government stock.
To his faithful servant Scipio Johnston the sum of one hundred and fifty pounds. To his servant Caius Tamblyn, fifty pounds.
To each member of the Corporation of the Borough of Troy holding office at the time of his death, five pounds to buy a mourning ring.
To the Town Clerk the same, and to Mr. Jago, Town Constable, the same.
To the Honourable and Gallant Corps of the Troy Volunteer Artillery, nineteen guineas, to purchase two standards, to be borne by them on all occasions of ceremony.
To the Vicar and Churchwardens, two hundred pounds, the interest to be distributed annually among the poor of the Parish, on Easter Day.
To the Feoffees and Governors of the Free Grammar School, a like sum to be spent in renovating the building, and a further sum of one thousand pounds to be invested for the maintenance, clothing and education of ten poor boys of the Borough.
To the Vicar and Dr. Hansombody, his executors, fifty pounds apiece.
And lastly, the residue of his estate (some four thousand pounds), together with the five thousand pounds reverting on his kinswoman's death, to the Mayor and Corporation, to build and endow a Hospital for the relief of the sick; the same to be known as the Hymen Hospital, 'in the hope that the name of one who left no heirs may yet be preserved a while by the continuity of human suffering.'
At the conclusion of Lawyer Chinn's reading it is not too much to say that all his audience caught their breaths. They had known the Major to be a great man: but not till now—not perhaps until that last solemn sentence fell on their ears—had they understood his greatness.
I have heard that the silence which followed was broken by a sob. Certainly the meeting dispersed in choking silence.
At length Troy realised its loss.
From that moment the figure, hitherto remembered in the clear outlines of affection, begun to grow, loom, expand, in the mists of awe. It ceased to be familiar, having put on greatness. Men began to tell how, on that last fatal expedition, the Major had turned single-handed and held a whole squadron of Dragoons at bay.
In his garden, by the brink of the fish-pond, Mr. Basket reared a stone with the following inscription:
ATTEND O PASSER BY! ON THIS SPOT AS NEARLY AS CAN BE ASCERTAINED SOLOMON HYMEN, ESQUIRE SEVEN TIMES MAYOR OF TROY IN CORNWALL RELINQUISHED HIS HONOURS FOR HIS COUNTRY'S NEED AND RESOLUTELY SACRIFICED EASE, FRIENDSHIP, FAME TO EMBARK HIS SOLE MANHOOD IN HER DEFENCE AMID THE SURROUNDING MEMORIALS OF GREECE AND ROME CHALLENGING THE SEVEREST VIRTUES OF ANTIQUITY WITH A BRITON'S RESOLUTION
There lies before me a copy of The Plymouth and Dock Telegraph, dated Saturday, July 2nd, 1814, much tattered and broken along the creases into which my great-grandmother (the same that left us the Major's Cameo) folded it these many years ago, to be laid away for a memorial.
The advertisements need not detain us long. Two husbands will not be responsible for their wives' debts, and one of them alleges that his lady "has behaved herself improperly during my absence at sea." A solicitor will lend 1000 pounds on good security. A medical man, yielding to the persuasions of numerous friends, will remain another fortnight in the town; and may be consulted as usual at Mr. Kitt's, Grocer, King Street, Dock, every Tuesday and Saturday from ten to six. M. La Barre (whom I guess to have been a Royalist refugee) will reopen instruction for young ladies and gentlemen in the French language on the 12th inst. The tolls and profits of the Saltash and the Ashburton turnpikes will be bidden for by public auction. The schooner Brothers and the fast-sailing cutter Gambier are for sale, together with the model of a frigate, "about six feet two inches long, copper-bottomed, and mounted with thirty-two guns." The Royal Auxiliary Mail will start from Congdon's Commercial Inn every afternoon at a quarter before five, reaching the "Bell and Crown," Holborn, in thirty-six hours: passengers for London have a further choice of the "Devonshire" (running through Bristol) or the "Royal Clarence" (through Salisbury). Two rival light coaches compete for passengers to Portsmouth. The "Self-Defence," Plymouth to Falmouth, four insides, will keep the same time as His Majesty's Mail. The Unitarian Association advertises a meeting at which Dr. Toulmin of Birmingham will preach. The Friends of the Abolition of the Slave Trade print a long manifesto. The Phoenix, Eagle and Atlas Companies invite insurers. Sufferers from various disorders will find relief in Spilsbury's Patent Antiscorbutic, Dr. Bateman's Pectoral, and Wessel's Jesuit's Drops.
Turning to the news columns, we find the whole country aflame with joy at the restoration of Peace. Once again (it is ten years since we last saw him there) the Prince Regent is at Portsmouth, feasting, speech-making, dancing, reviewing the fleet and the troops. With him are the Emperor of Russia; the Emperor's sister, the Duchess of Oldenburg; the King of Prussia; the Royal Dukes of Clarence, York, Cambridge; the Duke of Wellington and Field-Marshal Blucher. We read that on first catching sight of Wellington the Prince Regent "seized his hand and appeared lost in sensibility for the moment." As for Blucher, a party of sailors, defying his escort of dragoons, boarded and "took possession of the quarter-deck, or, in other words, the top of the carriage."
"Some were capsized; but two of them swore to defend the brave, and, as the carriage drew on, to the delight of all the tars commenced reels a la Saunders on the top, all the way to Government House, where the General was received with open hands and hearts, amid a group of as brave warriors as ever graced a festive table or bled in defence of their country's wrongs (sic)."
At the subsequent Ball:
"The Duke did not dance: and the gallant Blucher was so overcome by the heat of the ballroom as to oblige him to retire for a short time. . . . The two gallant Generals rode from the Government House in the same carriage; and it was observed that the Emperor of Russia shook hands with the illustrious Wellington every time he was near him."
From Portsmouth next day the Duke posts up to Westminster, to be introduced by the Dukes of Richmond and Beaufort and take his seat in the Lords under his new patents of nobility. Simultaneously in the Commons, Lord Castlereagh moves a Vote of Thanks, which is carried by a unanimous House. For the rest, Parliament is mainly occupied in discussing Lord Cochrane's case and the sorrows of Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales, especially "the inadequacy of her income to support the ordinary dignities of her rank, and afford her those consolations which the unfortunate state of her domestic feelings require." Mr. Wilberforce delivers a most animated speech against the Slave Trade. It is rumoured that Princess Charlotte of Wales has definitely refused the hand of the Prince of Orange, and that the rejected lover has left London, full of grief, in his carriage-and-four.
In short, our Major has been lost to us for ten full years, and still the world goes on: nay, for the moment it is going on excitedly. The procession with which the officers and artificers of Plymouth Dockyard yesterday celebrated the establishment of Peace alone occupies five columns of the paper.
What, then, of Troy? Ah, my friends, never doubt that Troy did its part, and, what is more, was beforehand as usual!
REJOICINGS AT TROY
"In consequence of the re-establishment of Peace, the inhabitants of Troy were at an early hour on Monday, June 13th, busily employed in decorating their houses with laurel, etc., and forming arches in the streets, variegated with flowers and emblematical representations; and thirty-eight well-formed arches soon graced the joyful town. . . ."
Thirty-eight arches! Consider it, you provincial towns of twice, thrice, ten times Troy's size, who erected a beggarly five or six on Queen Victoria's last Jubilee, and doubtless plumed yourselves on your exuberant loyalty!
". . . To regale the poor, a bullock, two sheep (each weighing a hundred pounds), eight hundred twopenny loaves, with a great quantity of beer and porter, the gift of Sir Felix Felix-Williams, were distributed in the Market House and Town Hall by the Mayor (Dr. Hansombody) and gentlemen. Every individual appeared happy: indeed it was highly gratifying to see so many people with joy painted on their countenances showing forth the delight of their hearts. To crown the day, a number of respectable citizens drank tea with the Mayoress, after which they adjourned to the Town Hall and commenced dancing, which was kept up for a long time with great spirit and regularity.
"Tuesday morning was ushered in with ringing of bells, etc., and a great number of people assembled before the 'Ship' Inn to dance, during which the ladies were engaged in ornamenting, with flowers, flags and emblems, two boats placed on wheel sledges drawn by the populace. In fitting them up with such taste and elegance, Miss P—d and Miss S. T—l were particularly active and deserve every praise. At three o'clock the Mayor and a respectable company sat down to an excellent dinner at the 'Ship' Inn, the band playing many grand national tunes in an adjoining room. After the repast signals were given from the Town Quay for the Battery guns to fire, and they accordingly fired three royal salutes in compliment to the Allied Sovereigns. The boats before mentioned were soon ready to start, the former filled by ladies with garlands and other emblems of Peace in their hands, and the latter with musicians; but previous to their removal Lord Wellington and some Cossacks appeared on horseback in search of Bonaparte, who according to his late practice had taken flight. However, he was soon driven back and taken, being met by a miller, who jumped up behind him and, observing his dejected and mournful countenance, embraced him with all the seeming fondness of a parent, desiring him to rouse up his spirits, if possible, to preserve his life. The grand procession of boats now began by a slow but graceful movement of the first, in the bow of which was a dove with outspread wings, holding an olive branch in her mouth. The boats were followed by a great concourse of people through the streets, and on their return were met by many gentlemen with wine, etc. This day, like the preceding, ended with a merry dance in the Town Hall.
"Wednesday's rejoicings opened at noon with a dinner at the 'King of Prussia,' attended by the survivors of the disbanded Troy Volunteer Artillery, attired in the uniforms of that ever-famous corps. The sight of the old regimentals evoked the tears of sensibility from more than one eye which had never flinched before the prospect of actual warfare. After the meal, at which many a veteran 'told his battles o'er again,' a number of toasts were proposed by the Mayor, including 'The Allied Sovereigns,' 'The Prince Regent,'' The Duke of Wellington' (with three times three), 'The Troy Gallants,' 'The Memory of their first beloved Commander, Major Hymen'—this last being drunk in silence. The company then dispersed, to reassemble below the Town Quay, where the boats which had adorned Monday's festivities were again launched, this time upon their native element, and proceeded, amid the clanging of joy-bells from the church tower, to cross the harbour, on the farther shores of which a large and enthusiastic crowd awaited them. In the first boat were the musicians; in the second a number of ladies and gentlemen in fancy costumes. A score of boats followed, filled with spectators; and were welcomed, as they reached the shore, with loud expressions of joy. Lord Wellington was again mounted on horseback, with General Platoff and some Cossacks. Bonaparte and his followers were also mounted, and some skirmishes took place of so lifelike a character as to evoke universal plaudits. . . ."
A wooden-legged man, who had been stumping it for many hours along the high road from Plymouth, paused on the knap of the hill, mopped his dusty brow, and gazed down upon the harbour, shading his eyes. He wore a short blue jacket with tattered white facings, a pair of white linen trousers patched at the knees, a round tarpaulin hat, a burst shoe upon his hale foot, and carried a japanned knapsack—all powdered with white dust of the road in which his wooden leg had been prodding small round holes for mile after mile.
He had halted first as his ear caught the merry chime of bells from the opposite shore. Having mopped his brow, he moved forward and halted again by a granite cross and drinking-trough whence the road led steeply downhill between the first houses of the village. He was visibly agitated. His hand trembled on his stick: his face flushed hotly beneath its mask of dust and sweat, and upon the flush a cicatrix—the mark of a healed bullet-wound—showed up for the moment on his left cheek, white as if branded there.
The people were shouting below, cheering vociferously. Yes, and along the harbour every vessel, down to the smallest sailing-boat, was bedecked with bunting from bowsprit-end to taffrail. The bells rang on like mad. The bells. . . . He dropped the hand which had been shading his eyes, let dip his frayed cuff in the water of the fountain and, removing his hat, dabbed his bald head. This—had he known it—worsened the smears of dust. But he was not thinking of his appearance.
He was thinking—had been thinking all the way from Plymouth—only of the harbour at his feet, and the town beyond. His eyes rested on them again, after ten years. All the way his heart had promised him nothing but this. He had forgotten self; having in ten years, and painfully, learnt that lesson.
But the music of the bells, the distant sounds of cheering, recalled that forgotten self; or perhaps it leapt into assertiveness again unwittingly, by association of ideas with the old familiar scene. He had left the people cheering. . . . Was it ten years ago? They were cheering still. . . .
The road within view was deserted. But from below the dip of the hill the cheers ascended, louder and louder yet, deepening in volume.
He had intended to walk down the hill—as he hoped, unrecognised— cross the ferry, and traverse the streets of Troy to his own front door; then, or later, to announce himself. A thousand times in his far prison in Briancon among the high Alps he had pictured it. He had discounted all possibilities of change. In ten years, to be sure, much may happen. . . .
But here below him lay the harbour and the town, save for these evidences of joy surprisingly unchanged.
Why were the church bells ringing; the people shouting? Could word have been carried to them? He could not conceive how the news had managed to outstrip him.
He had left the people cheering; they were cheering still. . . . Were these ten years, then, but a grotesque and hideous dream? He gazed down upon his wooden leg, stiffly protruding before him and pointing, as it were ironically, at the scene of which it shared no memories.
A moment later he lifted his head at the sound of hoofs galloping up the road towards him. Round the corner, on a shaggy yellow horse almost ventre-a-terre, came a little man in a cocked hat, who rose in his stirrups drunkenly and blew a kiss to a dozen armed pursuers pounding at his heels.
Between wonder and alarm, the Major (you have guessed it was he) sprang up from his seat by the fountain. Fatal movement! At the sudden apparition the yellow horse shied violently, swerving more than halfway across the road; and its rider, looking backwards and taken at unawares, was shot out of his stirrups and flung shoulders-over-head in the dust, where he rolled sideways and lay still. His pursuers reined up with loud outcries of dismay. The Major advanced to the body, knelt beside it and turned it over. The man was bleeding from a cut in the head; but this and a slight concussion of the brain appeared to be the extent of his injuries. His neck-cloth being loosened, he groaned heavily. The Major looked up.
"A nasty shock! For the moment I was half afraid—"
The words died away on his lips. One or two of the riders had alighted and all stood, or sat their horses, around him in a ring. He knew their faces, their names; yes, one and all he knew them; and they wore the uniform of the Troy Volunteer Artillery!
With a tightly beating heart he waited for their recognition. . . . No sign of recognition came. They eyed him curiously. It seemed to them that he spoke with something of a foreign accent. To be sure he articulated oddly—owing to his wound, of which his cheek bore the visible scar.
He knew them all. Had they not, each one of them, aforetime saluted him their commander, raising their hand to the peaks of these very shakos? Had they not marched, doubled, halted, presented arms, stood at attention, all as he bade them? He recognised the victim of the accident, too—a little tailor, Tadd by name, who in old days had borne a reputation for hard drinking.
"I reckon they must ha' stationed you here for a relay," suggested Gunner Sobey (ever the readiest man, no matter in what company he found himself) after eyeing the Major for a while.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I beg yours. Seemin' to me I've seen your features before, somewhere, though I can't call up your name." It is a point of honour with the men of Troy (I may here observe) to profess an ignorance of their less-favoured neighbours across the harbour. "I can't call up your name for the moment, dressed as you be—but 'twas thoughtful of 'em, knowing Tadd's habit, to post up a second figger for a relay. The man seems to be shaken considerable," he went on. "'Twould be a cruelty, as you might say, to ask him to go on playin' Boney, with a wife and family dependent and his heart not in it."
"He certainly isn't fit to mount again, if that is what you mean," said the Major, and glanced up the road where one of the troop (Bugler Opie) had ridden in pursuit of the yellow horse and now reappeared leading back the captive by the bridle.
"That's just what I'm saying," agreed Gunner Sobey; "and you'll do very well if you change hats." He stooped and picked Tadd-Bonaparte's tricorne out of the dust and brushed it with the sleeve of his tunic. "Here, let's see how you look in it." He flipped off the Major's tarpaulin hat, clapped on the substitute, and fell back admiringly. "The Ogre to the life," he exclaimed; "and with a wooden leg! Hurroo, boys!"
Before the Major could expostulate a dozen hands had lifted him into the saddle astride the yellow horse.
"But—but I don't know in the least, my friends, what you intend! I cannot ride; indeed I cannot!"
"With a wooden leg! The idea!" answered Gunner Sobey, cheerfully. "Never you mind, but catch hold o' the pommel. We'll see to the rest."
The riders closed in and walked him forward down the hill, Gunner Sobey pressing close and supporting him, holding his wooden leg tight against the saddle-flap. The Major cast a wild look about him and saw Bugler Opie and another Gallant (Gunner Warboys—he knew all their names) lifting the half-unconscious Tadd and bearing him towards the fountain, to revive him. What was happening? Should he declare himself, here and now?
The company broke into cheers as they set their horses in motion. Had they indeed recognised him? The procession was assuredly a triumph, of some sort or another. But what did they intend?
From across the harbour the bells of Troy were ringing madly.
The Major shut his teeth. If this were indeed the town's fashion of welcoming him, well and good! If it were a mistake—a practical joke (but why should it be either?)—he had not long to wait for his revenge. . . .
Let The Plymouth and Dock Telegraph narrate, in its own succinct language, what followed:
"The Corsican tyrant coming to grief in an attempt to elude the righteous wrath of his pursuers, another impersonator was speedily found, with the additional touch of a wooden leg, which was generally voted to be artistic. This new Boney on being conveyed down to the water's edge was driven into a boat, his countenance eliciting laugher by its almost comic display of the remorse of fallen ambition. A pair of his soi-disant supporters leapt in and affected to aid his escape, and were followed by pursuing boats in every direction, which had a most pleasing effect. At length, being hemmed in and made captive, he was taken to an island near the shore, supported by two officers of the Troy Volunteers, who affixed a board over him, upon which was printed, in large letters, 'ELBA.' We regret to say that in his vivacious efforts to reproduce the feelings of the fallen tyrant, the impersonator—who by latest accounts is a seaman recently paid off and impressed, almost at a moment's notice, for the role he sustained with such impromptu spirit—slipped on the wet seaweed and sustained a somewhat serious injury of the hip. Being with all expedition rescued, he was conveyed ashore to the Infirmary, which, founded by the late Major Hymen as a War Hospital, henceforward will open its doors to those diseases and casualties from which even Peace cannot exempt our poor humanity. By latest advices the invalid is well on his way to recovery. In the evening there was a grand display of fireworks on the Town Quay, conducted by the Magistrates, to whom every praise is due for their efforts to promote conviviality and order."
IN WHICH THE MAJOR LEARNS THAT NO MAN IS NECESSARY.
For six days Troy continued to rejoice, winding up each day with a dance. We will content ourselves, however, with one last extract from The Plymouth and Dock Telegraph:
"At noon on Thursday the town assembled again and escorted its Mayor and Mayoress to the Hymen Hospital, where, in the presence of a distinguished company, Mrs. Hansombody (ward and heiress of the late S. Hymen) unveiled a bust of her gallant kinsman, whose premature heroic death Troy has never ceased to lament. Sir Felix Felix-Williams made eulogistic reference to the deceased, remarking on the number of instances by which the late war had confirmed the truth of the Roman poet's observation that it is pleasant and seemly to die for one's country. The Mayor responded on behalf of his amiable lady, whom Sir Felix's tribute had visibly affected. The sculpture was pronounced to be a lifelike image, reflecting great credit on the artist, Mr. Tipping, R.A. The pedestal, five feet in height, is of polished black Luxulyan granite, and bears name and date with the words 'Take Him for All in All We shall not Look upon his Like again.' The bust, executed in plaster of Paris, will be replaced by marble when funds allow. The crowd dispersed in silence after the ceremony. Dancing in the street followed at 6 p.m., and was kept up with spirit for some hours, during which a large quantity of beer was given away."
The Major lay in the next room—the casualty ward—and stared up at the whitewashed ceiling.
His whole being ached as though, mind and body, he had been set upon and beaten senseless with bladders. And this was the second time! Yes—good heavens, how had he deserved it?—the second time! He remembered, after the disaster off Boulogne—many days after— awaking to consciousness in his prison bed in the fortress of Givet. Then, as now, he had lain staring, his whole soul sickened by the cruel jar of the jest. Hand of fate, was it? Nay, a jocose and blundering finger, rather, that had flipped him, as a man might flip a beetle, into the night. Then, as now, his soul had welled up in sullen indignation. He blamed no one; for in all the stupid chapter of accidents there was no one to blame. But when the Protestant chaplain in Givet came to his bed he turned his face to the wall.
He refused to give his name. He did not understand this blind malevolence of fate, but he would make no terms with it. He—Solomon Hymen—had a will of his own and a proper pride. If the world chose to use him so, after all his services to mankind, let it go and be damned to it. I tell you, the man had courage.
If his friends at home valued him, let them seek him out. He had given them cause enough for gratitude. If not, he asked nothing of them. In the prison he gave his name as Mr. Solomon.
Yet he had made two attempts to escape. In the first he ran away with two comrades as far as Mezieres. Being pursued by the gens-d'armes there, and called upon to surrender, his companions had given themselves up. Not so our hero; nor was he secured until he lay unconscious with a bullet-hole in the cheek. It was this which ever afterwards affected his speech, the bullet having cut or partially paralysed some string of the tongue.
It had been touch-and-go with him; but he recovered, and, passing henceforward as a desperate character, was drafted south with a dozen other desperate characters to the gloomy fortress of Briancon. There, in a second attempt for liberty, a fall from the ramparts had cost him his leg.
But worse than all his incarceration had been the final tramp through France—right away north to Valenciennes; then left-about-turn, three hundred and fifty miles to Tours; then south-east to Riou; and from Riou south-west to Bordeaux, where the transport took him off—one of six transports for about fifteen hundred released prisoners. All the way, too, on a wooden leg! Heaven knows how bitterly he had come to hate that leg. Yet his heart, hardened though it was by all this long adversity, had melted as the Romney transport beat up closer and closer for England, and at sight of Plymouth heights he had broken into tears.
Troy! Troy! After all, Troy would remember him. Though he knew it brought him nearer to freedom, all that marching through France had been a weariness eating into his soul. Now a free man, along the road from Plymouth to Troy he had almost skipped.
And this had been his homecoming!
They remembered him. Beyond all his hopes they remembered him. In their memory he had grown into a Homeric man, a demi-god. He had only to declare himself. . . .
The Major lay on his hospital bed and stared at the ceiling. It was all very well, but ten years had made a difference—a mighty difference; a difference which beat all his calculations. It was a double difference, too; for all the while that he had been shrinking in self-knowledge, his reputation at home had been expanding like a cucumber.
Good Lord! How could he live up to it now? To obey his impulses and declare himself was simple enough, perhaps; but afterwards—
He had nearly betrayed himself when Cai Tamblyn—in a queer straight-cut frock-coat of livery, blue with brass buttons, but otherwise looking much the same as ever—thrust his head in at the door.
In the first shock of astonishment the Major had almost cried out on him by name.
"Why—eh?—what are you doing here?" he stammered. Hitherto he had been waited on by a strange doctor (Hansombody's new partner) and a nurse whom he had assisted twelve years ago, when she was left a widow, to set up as a midwife.
"Might ask the same question of you," said Cai Tamblyn. "I'm the kew-rator, havin' been Hymen's servant in the old days, and shows around the visitors, besides dustin' the mementoes—locks of his bloomin' 'air and the rest of the trash, I looked in to see how you was a-gettin' on after the palaver. If I'm not wanted I'll go."
"Very well, then, I won't." Mr. Tamblyn took a seat on the edge of an unoccupied bed, drew from his pocket a knife and a screw of pig-tail tobacco, sliced off a portion and rubbed it meditatively between his hands. "I done you a good turn just now," he continued. "Some o' the company—the womenkind especially—wanted to come in and make a fuss over you before leavin'."
"Why should they want to make a fuss over me?"
"Well you may ask," said Mr. Tamblyn, candidly. "'Tain't a question of looks, though. There's a kind of female—an' 'tis the commonest kind, too—can't hear of a man bein' hurt an' put to bed but she wants to see for herself. 'Tis like the game a female child plays with a dollies' house. Here they've got a nice little orspital to amuse 'em, with nice clean blankets an' sheets, an' texteses 'pon the walls, an' a cupboard full o' real medicines an' splints, and along comes a real live patient to be put to bed, an' the thing's complete. Hows'ever, they didn' get no fun out of 'ee to-day, for I told 'em you was sleepin' peaceful an' not to be disturbed."
"Thank you." Under pretence of settling down more comfortably against the pillow, the Major turned his head aside. "Then it seems you knew this—this—"
"Hymen? Knew him intimate."
"What—what sort of man was he?"
Cai Tamblyn transferred the shreds of tobacco to a pouch made of pig's bladder, pocketed it, and rubbed his two palms together, chuckling softly.
"Look here, I'll show you the bust of 'en if you like; that is"—he checked himself and added dubiously—"if you're sure it won't excite you."
"Sure it won't give you a relapse or something o' the sort? The woman Snell has stepped down to the Mayor's to wash up after the light refreshments, and I'm in charge. Prettily she'll blow me up if she comes back an' finds I've been an' gone an' excited you." He cleared a space on the wash-stand. "I've no business to be in here at all, really, talkin' wi' the pashent; but damme, you can't think what 'tis like, sittin' by yourself in a museum. I wish sometimes they'd take an' stuff me!"
He hobbled out and returned grunting under the weight of the bust, which he set down upon the wash-stand, turning it so that the Major might have a full view of its features.
"There!" he exclaimed, drawing back and panting a little.
"Good heavens!" The Major drew the bed-clothes hurriedly up to his chin. "Was he—was he like that?"
"I thank the Lord he was not," Mr. Tamblyn answered, slowly and piously. "Leavin' out the question o' colour and the material, which is plaster pallis and terrible crips, and the shortage, which is no more than the head an' henge of 'en, so to speak, 'tis no more like the man than you be. And I say again that I thank the Lord for it. For to have the old feller stuck up in the corner an' glazin' at me nat'rel as life every time I turned my head would be more than nerves could stand."
"You wouldn't wish him back, then, in the flesh?"
Cai Tamblyn turned around smartly and gazed at the patient, whose face, however, rested in shadow.
"Look 'ee here. You've a-been in a French war prison, I hear, but that's no excuse for talkin' irreligious. The man was blowed to pieces, I tell you, by a thing called a catamaran, off the coast o' France; not so much left of 'en as would cover a half-crown piece. And you ask me if I want 'en back in the flesh!"
"But suppose that should turn out to be a mistake?" muttered the Major.
"Hey?" Cai Tamblyn gave a start. "Oh, I see; you're just puttin' it so for the sake of argyment. Well, then,"—the old man turned his quid deliberately—"did you ever hear tell what old Sammy Mennear said when his wife died an' left him a widow-man? 'I wouldn' ha' lost my dear Sarah for a hundred pound,' said he; 'an' I dunno as I'd have her back for five hundred.' That's about the size o't with Hymen, I reckon—though, mind you, I bear en no grudge. He left me fifty pound by will, and a hundred an' fifty to a heathen nigger; and how that can be reconciled with Christian principle I leave you to answer. But I bear 'en no grudge."
"What? They proved his will?" The Major stared at his portrait and shivered.
"In course they did. The man was blowed to pieces, I tell you. 'Tis written up on the pedestal. 'Take 'en for all in all'—or piece by piece, they might ha' said, for that matter—'we shall not look upon his like agen.' No, nor they don't want to, for all their speechifyin'. I ain't what the parson calls a pessimist; I thinks poorly o' most things, that's all; and folks; and I say they don't want to. Why, one way and another, he left close on twelve thousand pound!"
The Major drew the bed-clothes maybe an inch farther over his chin and so lay still, answering nothing, his eyes fastened on the bust. Beneath its hyacinthine curls it beamed on him with a fixed benevolent smile.
"Not that Hymen hadn't decent qualities, mind you," Cai Tamblyn continued. "The fellow was plucky, and well-meanin', too, in his way; and a better master you wouldn't find in a day's march. What he suffered from was wind in his stomach. With all the women settin' their caps at him he couldn't help it: but so 'twas. And the men were a'most as bad. Just you hearken to this—"
Cai seated himself on the edge of the bed again, felt in his breast-pocket and drew out a spectacle-case and a folded pocket-book; adjusted the spectacles on his nose, slapped the pocket-book viciously, spread it on his knee, cleared his throat, and began to read:
"'As a boy he was studious in his habits, shy in company, unflinchingly truthful, and fond of animals. For obvious reasons these pets of his childhood are unrepresented among the memorials so piously preserved in the Hymen Museum; but through the kindness of our esteemed townswoman, Mrs. (or, as she is commonly called, 'Mother') Hancock, aged ninety-one, we are able to include in our collection a marble of the kind known as 'glass-alley,' with which she avers that, at the age of ten or thereabouts, our future hero disported himself. It must have been by some premonition that the venerable lady cherished it, having received it originally, as she remembers, in barter for a pennyworth of saffron cake, a species of delicacy to which the youthful Solomon was pardonably addicted. . . .'
"I got to show that damned glass-alley," interjected Mr. Tamblyn. "Why? Because a man past work can't stay his belly on the interest o' fifty pound. Oh, but there's more about it:
"'The cobble-stones with which the streets of Troy are paved do not lend themselves readily to expertness in shooting with marbles. But the subject of this memoir was ever one who, adapting himself to difficulties, rose superior to them. The glass material of which the relic is composed shows numerous indentations in its spherical outline, eloquent testimony to the character which had already begun to learn the lesson of greatness and by perseverance to bend circumstances to its will. In the case containing this relic, and beside it, reposes a horn-book, used for many generations in the Troy Infant School, conducted A.D. 1739-1782 by Miss Sleeman, schoolmistress. Although we have no positive evidence, there is every reason to believe that the youthful Solomon—'
"Ain't it enough to make a man sick?" demanded Cai Tamblyn, looking up. "And I got to speak this truck, day in an' day out."
"Who wrote it?"
"Hansombody. Oh, I ain't denyin' he was well paid. But when I see'd Miss Marty this very afternoon, unwrappin' the bust with tears in her eyes, an' her husband standin' by as modest as Moll at a christenin', and him the richer by thousands—"
The Major, despite his hurt, had risen on his elbow. Cai Tamblyn, too, bounced up.
"The Mayor, I'm talkin' of—Dr. Hansombody," he stammered, gating into the invalid's face in dismay.
So, for ten slow seconds or so, they eyed one another. Speech began to work in Cai Tamblyn's throat, but none came. He cast one bewildered, incredulous, horror-stricken glance back from the face on the bed to the fatuously smiling face on the washhand stand, and with that—for the Major had picked up his pillow and was poising to hurl it—flung his person between them, cast both arms about the bust, lifted it, and tottered from the room.
FACES IN WATER.
"Eh? Wants to get up, does he?"
Dr. Hansombody during the last year or two had gradually withdrawn himself from professional cares, relinquishing them to his young and energetic assistant, Mr. Olver. Magisterial and other public business claimed more and more of the time he more and more grudgingly spared from domestic felicity and the business of rearranging his entomological cabinet. He had found himself, early in his third term of mayoral office, the father of a bouncing boy. A silver cradle, the gift of the borough, decorated his sideboard. As for the moths and butterflies, he designed to bequeath them, under the title of "The Hansombody Collection," to the town. They would find a last resting-place in the Hymen Museum, and so his name would go down to posterity linked with that of his distinguished friend. This was the first visit he had paid to the stranger's bedside; and even now he had only stepped in, at his assistant's request, from the next room, where for half an hour he had been engaged with Cai Tamblyn in choosing a position for the first case of butterflies.
"Wants to get up, does he?" asked the Doctor absently, after a perfunctory look at the patient. "Restless, eh?" He still carried in his hand the two-foot rule with which he had been taking measurements. "You've tried a change of diet?"