"I fancy," Mr. Olver suggested, "he is worried by the number of visitors—ladies especially."
"Georgiana Pescod has been worrying?"
The patient lifted his right hand from the bed and spread out all its fingers; lifted his left, and spread out three more.
"What? Eight visits?"
"And that's not the worst of it," put in the Nurse, Mrs. Snell, sympathetically, smoothing the coverlet. "First and last there's been forty-two in these six days. It can't be for his looks, as I tell en; and his name bein' Solomon won't account for the whole of it."
"I sometimes think," said the Doctor pensively and with entire gravity, turning to his assistant, "we shall have to diminish the numbers of the Visiting Committee. My dear friend Hymen planned it, in years gone by, on a war footing; and even so I remember suggesting to him at the time that the scale was somewhat—er—grandiose. But it was characteristic of him, and we have clung to it for that reason, in a spirit perhaps too piously conservative. Forty-two ladies! My good fellow"—he turned to the patient—"I really think— if your leg is equal to it—a short stroll in the fresh air may be permitted. Pray do not think we desire to hurry your cure. Even setting aside the dictates of charity, and our natural tenderness towards one who, as I understand, has bled for our common country, we owe you something"—the Major's fingers plucked nervously at the bed-clothes—"some reparation," the Doctor went on, "for the—er—character of your reception. In short, I hope, on your complete recovery, to find you some steady employment, such as too many of our returning heroes are at this moment seeking in vain. In the meanwhile our town has some lions which may amuse your convalescence—a figurative term, meaning objects of interest."
Once or twice, in the course of his first stroll, the Major's eyes came near to brimming with tears. The town itself had suffered surprisingly little change. The Collector—he seemed scarcely a day older—stood as of old at the head of the Custom House stairs, and surveyed the world benignly with his thumbs in the arm-holes of his waistcoat. Before the Major's own doorway the myrtles were in bloom, and a few China roses on the well-trimmed standards. By the Broad Ship as of old his nostrils caught the odours of tar and hemp with a whiff of smoke from a schooner's galley (the Ranting Blade, with her figure-head repainted, but otherwise much the same as ever). Miss Jex, the postmistress, still peered over her blind. She studied the Major's wooden leg with interest. He, on his part, seemed to detect that the down on her upper lip had sensibly lightened in colour. En revanche, from the corner of his eye, as he passed the open door, he saw that the portrait over the counter (supposed of yore to represent the Prince Regent) wore a frame of black ribbon. The black, alas! was rusty.
The manners of the children had not improved. Half a dozen urchins, running into him here by the corner of the post-office on their way from school, fell back in a ring and began to call "Boney!" derisively. He escaped from them into the churchyard, and passing up between the graves, rested for a while, panting in the cool of the porch.
The door stood ajar. Pushing it open, he stepped within and paused again, half terrified by the unfamiliar tap-tap of his wooden leg on the pavement. The sunshine lay in soft panels of light across the floor, and ran in sharper lines along the tops of the pews, worn to a polish by generations of hands that had opened and shut their doors. Aloft, where the rays filtered through the clerestory windows, their innumerable motes swam like gold-dust held in solution.
The Major found his own pew, dropped into the familiar seat, and strove to collect his thoughts. A week ago, on his way from Plymouth, it had seemed the easiest thing in the world to reveal himself and step back into his own. The only question had been how to select the most impressive moment.
His eyes, travelling along the wall on his right, encountered an unfamiliar monument among the many familiar ones; an oval slab of black marble enclosed in a gilt wreath and inscribed with gilt lettering. He leaned forward, peering closer, blinking against the sunlight that poured through the window.
SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF SOLOMON HYMEN, ESQUIRE SEVEN TIMES MAYOR OF THIS BOROUGH AND MAJOR COMMANDING THE TROY VOLUNTEER ARTILLERY UNFORTUNATELY AND UNTIMELY SLAIN IN ACTION OFF THE COAST OF FRANCE NEAR BOULOGNE ON MAY 15TH, MDCCIV. THIS TABLET WAS ERECTED BY SUBSCRIPTION AMONG HIS SORROWING FRIENDS AND FELLOW CITIZENS OF THE BOROUGH HE, LIVING, ADORNED WITH HIS WISDOM AND DYING, ENDOWED WITH HIS WEALTH AS WITH HIS EXAMPLE. FORTIBUS ET COELUM PATRIA
He spelled out the inscription slowly, and, turning at the sound of a footstep in the porch, was aware of a tall figure in the doorway—his own faithful Scipio.
Least of all was Scipio changed. Ten years apparently had not even tarnished his livery. It shone in its accustomed scarlet and green and gold in the rays which, falling through the windows of the south aisle, lit up his white teeth and his habitual gentle grin.
"Mistah will be studyin' de board—berry fine board. Not so fine board in Cornwall, dey tell me."
The Major turned his face, avoiding recognition.
"No, not dat; dat's modern trash," went on Scipio, affably, following his gaze. "Good man, all same, Massa Hymen; lef plenty money. One hundred fifty pound. Lef Cai Tamblyn fifty. Every person say remarkable difference. But doan' you look at him; he's modern trash. Massa Hymen lef' me one hundred fifty pound. Dat all go to board up yonder, you see; 'Scipio Johnson, Esquire, of this Parish' in red letters an' gilt twirls. I doan' mind tellin' you. De hull parish an' Lawyer Chinn has it drafted—Vicar he promises me it shall go in—'Scipio Johnson, Esquire, of this Parish,' an' twiddles round de capital letters. Man, I served Mas' Hymen han' an' foot, wet an' dry, an' look like he las' anudder twenty year."
"You mean to say that I—that you, I mean—"
"Dat's so," put in Scipio, nodding cheerfully, while the stained-glass windows flung flecks of red and blue on his honest ebony features. "An' Cai Tamblyn all de while no better'n a fool. 'Him,' he'd sneer, not playin' up, but pullin' his cross face. Dat's a lesson if ebber dere was one. Cai Tamblyn left with fifty, an' me with three time fifty. 'To my faithful servant, Scipio Johnson. . . .' And so Miss Marty, when it came to choose, took me on—Scipio Johnson, Esquire, of this Parish—and Cai Tamblyn no more than 'Mister,' nor ebber a hope of it."
The Major found himself in the churchyard, staring at a headstone. He did not remember the stone, yet it seemed by no means a new one. Weather-stains ran down the lettering and lichen spotted it.
He read the name. It was the name of a man whom he had left hale and young—a promising corporal.
He made his way back slowly to the hospital, leaning heavily on his stick. Strange shrill noises brought him to a halt on the threshold. They came from the back of the house.
At the sound of his wooden leg in the brick passage, Cai Tamblyn thrust his head out from the kitchen doorway.
"You come in," said he. "Please the Lord, the worst is over; but I had to tell her."
"Her?" echoed the Major in bewilderment. "Who?"
"Why, you see, fixed up as we were here—the woman with six empty beds to nurse, and me on 'tother side with a roomful o' momentoes, an' no end to it but the grave—there seemed no way out but matterimony. What with my fifty an' her little savin's we might ha' managed it, too, comfertable enough. But when along comes you an' upsets the apple-cart, w'y, in justice, the woman had to be told. Which it took her like a slap in the wind, an' I'm surprised the way she'd set her heart on it. But never you mind; she's sensible enough when she comes round."
"Cai," said the Major, solemnly, "I thought we had agreed that no one was to be told?"
"So we did, sir," answered Mr. Tamblyn, setting his jaw. "But, come to think it over, 'twasn't fair to the woman. Not bein' a married man yourself, sir, or as good as such—"
"Excuse me," said the Major, lifting a hand. "I quite well understand. But suppose that I have not come back after all!"
WINDS UP WITH A MERRY-GO-ROUND.
Troy on a Regatta Day differs astonishingly from Troy on any other day in the year, and yet until you have seen us on a Regatta Day you have not seen Troy.
Once every August, on a Monday afternoon, the frenzy descends upon us; and then for three days we dress our town in bunting and bang starting guns and finishing guns, and put on fancy dresses, and march in procession with Japanese lanterns, and dance, and stare at pyrotechnical displays. But the centre, the pivot, the axis of our revelry is always the merry-go-round on the Town Quay.
"The merry-go-round, the merry-go-round, the merry-go-round at Troy, They whirl around, they gallop around, man, woman, and maid and boy!"
Yachtsmen, visitors, farmers and country wives, sober citizens and mothers of families, all meet centripetally and mount and are whirled to the mad strains of the barrel-organ under the flaming naphtha, around the revolving pillar where the mirrored images chase one another too quickly for thought to answer their reflections. We make no toil of our pleasure; yet, if you will mark the distinction, it keeps us hard at work, and reflection must wait until Thursday morning. Then we dismiss the yachts on their Channel race westward. We fire the last gun, pull down the blue Peter, and off they go. We draw a long breath, stow away our remaining blank cartridges, pocket the stopwatch, heap the recall numbers together, and, having redded up the jolly-boat, light our pipes and sit and gaze awhile after our retreating visitors. They go from us silent as great white moths; but, silent themselves, they take, as they brought, all the noise and racket with them. Our revel is over; behind us the harbour lies almost deserted, and we row back to our diurnal peace.
To be sure, in the days of which I write, there were no yachts to visit us. But three of His Majesty's training-brigs had arrived, bringing their gigs and long-boats, and sailing cutters, with the racing-shells in which the oarsmen of Dock were to do battle with our champions of Troy, and a couple of crews of the famous Saltash fishwomen who annually gave us an exhibition race for a purse of gold and in the evening danced quadrilles and country reels on the quarter-deck with His Majesty's officers.
The town, on its part, had made all due and zealous preparations; and at eight o'clock in the morning, when the Major stepped out of the hospital for a look at the weather (which was hazy but warm, with promise of a cloudless noon), already the streets breathed festival. Sir Felix's coppices had been thinned as usual for the occasion, and scores of small saplings, larch and beech and hazel, lined the narrow streets, their sharpened stems planted between the cobbles, their leafy tops braced back against the house-fronts and stayed with ropes which, leading through the upper windows, were made fast within to bars of grates, table-legs and bed-posts. Over them, from house to house, strings of flags waved in the light morning breeze, and over these again the air was jocund with the distant tunding of a drum and the voices of flute and clarionet calling men to mirth in the Town Square.
The Major gave a glance up and down the street and retired indoors to prepare his breakfast, for he was alone. Cai Tamblyn and the widow Snell had the day before departed—on their honeymoon.
To arrange that his honeymoon should take him from Troy on the day of all days to which every other soul in the town looked forward, was quite of a piece with Cai Tamblyn's sardonic humour. But he surely excelled himself when, the day before his marriage, he called on the Mayor and begged leave to appoint the patient in the hospital as his locum tenens for the week.
"The man's well enough to look after the place," he urged; "and you won't find him neglectin' it to go gaddin' round the shows. A wooden leg's a wonderful steadier at fair-times." And the Doctor assented.
It were too much to say that his appointment, when Cai Tamblyn reported it, touched our hero's sense of humour, for he had none; but he winced under the dreadful irony of it.
"Do you know what you're asking?" he cried. "Suppose that visitors call—as they will. Would you have me show them round and point out my own relics?"
"Damme, and I thought I was givin' you a bit o' fun!" said Cai, scratching his head. "It can't be often a man finds hisself in your position; and in the old days when you got hold of a rarity you liked to make the most of it."
"Fun!" echoed the Major. "And you'd have me reel off all those reminiscences—all the sickening praise, yard by yard, out of that infernal hand-book!"
Cai Tamblyn eyed him gravely.
"You don't like that neither?" he asked.
"Like it!" the poor man echoed again, sank into a chair, and, shuddering, covered his face. "It makes my soul creep with shame."
Silence followed for a dozen long seconds.
The Major shuddered again, but looked up a moment later with tears in his eyes as Cai laid a hand kindly yet respectfully on his shoulder.
"Master, I ax your pardon." He stepped back and paused, seeming to swallow some words in his throat before he spoke again. "You're a long way more of a man than ever I gave 'ee credit to be. Twelve year I passed in your service, too; an' I take ye to witness that 'twas Cai Tamblyn an' not Scipio Johnson that knawed 'ee agen, for all the change in your faytures. Whereby you misjudged us, sir, when you left me fifty pound and that nigger a hundred an' fifty. Whereby I misjudged ye in turn, an' I ax your pardon."
"No, Cai; you judged me truly enough, if severely. There was a time when I'd have fed myself on those praises that now sicken me."
"An' you was happy in them days."
"Yes, happy enough."
"Would you have 'em back, master?"
"Would I have them back?" The Major straightened himself up and stood for a moment staring out of the window. "No, Cai," he said resolutely, squaring his chin; "not for worlds."
"There's one little bit of it, sir, you got to have back," said Cai; "an' that's my fifty pound."
"Nonsense, man. I sha'n't hear of it."
"I've a-talked it over wi' the woman, an' she's agreeable. She says 'tis the only right an' proper thing to be done."
"She may be as agreeable as—as you deserve, Cai; but I tell you I don't touch a penny of it. And you may have formed your own opinion of me during twelve years of service, but in all that time I don't think you ever knew me go back on my word."
"That's truth, sir," Cai admitted, scratching his head again; "and more by token, 'tis about the only thing the book has forgot to praise 'ee for."
"Perhaps," said the Major, in his bitterness almost achieving a witticism, "the author felt 'twould be out of place."
"But all this apart, sir, I don't see how you'll get along without money."
"Make your mind easy on that score, my friend. I rather fancy that I'm provided for; but if that should prove to be a mistake, I may come to you for advice."
"Marryin'?" queried Cai. "But no; with a wooden leg—you'll excuse me—"
"Devil take the man! You can't argue that womenkind are squeamish."
Cai grinned, "You'll take on this little job, anyway, sir? I can't very well go to his Worship an' beg you off; it might set him suspectin'."
"I'll take the job," said the Major, hastily.
"Brayvo! But what I'd like to do"—Cai rubbed his chin reflectively—"is to get that cussed book written over agen, an' written different."
"Give it time," his master answered sadly. "Maybe even that is a job that will get itself done one of these days."
Cai and his bride had departed, and the Major faced the ordeal of Regatta Day with much trepidation. Heaven help him to play his part like a man!
But it appeared that the sightseers, who, as ever, began to pour into the town at nine in the morning and passed the door in one steady, continuous stream until long past noonday, had either seen the Hymen Hospital before or were intent first on culling the more evanescent pleasures of the day. In fact, no visitor troubled him until one o'clock, when, in the lull between the starts of the sailing and the rowing races, and while the Regatta Committee was dining ashore to the strains of a brass band, a farm labourer in his Sunday best, crowned with a sugar-loaf hat, entered, flung himself into a chair, and demanded to have a tooth extracted.
"You needn' mind which," he added encouragingly; "they all aches at times. Only don't let it be more than one, for I can't afford it. I been countin' up how to lay out my money, an' I got sixpence over; an' it can't be in beer, because I promised the missus."
The Major assured him that the extraction of a tooth or teeth did not fall within the sphere of the hospital's provision.
"W'y not?" asked the countryman, and added coaxingly, "Just to pass the time, now!"
"Not even to pass the time," the Major answered with firmness.
"Very well," said the man resignedly. "If you won't, you won't; but let's while it away somehow. Give me a black draught."
At rare intervals from three o'clock till five other country folk dropped in, two or three (once even half a dozen) at a time. As a show the Hymen Hospital and Museum appeared to have outlived its vogue. The male visitors, one and all, removed their hats on entering, and spoke in constrained tones as if in church. To the Major's relief, no one asked him to recite from the book, and the questions put to him were of the simplest. A farm maiden from the country requested that the bust might be wound up.
"I beg your pardon?"
"You don't tell me there isn' no music inside!" the maiden exclaimed. "What's it for, then?"
With difficulty the Major explained the purpose and also the limits of statuary. The girl turned to her swain with a moue of disgust.
"It's my belief," she reproached him, "you brought me here out of stinginess, pretending not to notice when we passed the waxworks, which is only tuppence, and real murderers with their chests a-rising an' fallin', as Maria's young man treated her to a last Regatta; an' a Sleepin' Beauty with a clockwork song inside like distant angels."
But at five o'clock, or thereabouts, arrived no less a personage than Sir Felix Felix-Williams himself, gallantly escorting a couple of ladies whom he had piloted through the various rustic sights of the fair.
"O—oof!" panted Sir Felix, gaining the cool passage and mopping his brow. "A veritable haven of rest after the dust and din! Hallo, my good man, are you the caretaker for the day? I don't seem to recollect your face. . . . Eh? No? Well, show us round, please. These ladies are curious to know something of our local hero."
The Major, his wooden leg trembling, opened the door of the Museum. The ladies put up their eye-glasses and gazed around, while Sir Felix dusted his coat.
"Hymen, his name was. That's his bust yonder," Sir Felix explained, flicking at his collar with his handkerchief. "A very decent body; a retired linen-draper, if I remember, from somewhere in the City, where he put together quite a tidy sum of money. Came home and spent it in his native town, where for years he was quite a big-wig. But our friend here has a book about him, written up by the apothecary of the place. Isn't that so?" he appealed to the Major, who drew the document from his pocket with shaking fingers.
"Eh? I thought so," went on Sir Felix. "But spare us the long-winded passages, my friend. Just a few particulars to satisfy the ladies, who, on this their first visit to Cornwall, are good enough to be inquisitive a folie about us—about Troy especially."
"But it is ravishing—quite ravishing!" declared one of the ladies.
"A duck of a place!" cried the other, inspecting the bust. "And see, Sophronia, what a duck of a man! And you say he was only a linen-draper?" She turned to Sir Felix.
"But all the Cornish are gentlemen—didn't Queen Elizabeth or somebody say something of the sort?" chimed in the first. "And the place kept as neat as a pin, I protest!"
"Gentlemen in their own conceit, I fear," Sir Felix answered. "But this fellow was, on the whole, a very decent fellow. Success, or what passes for it in a small country town, never turned his head. He had a foible, I'm told, on the strength of a likeness (you'll be amused) to the Prince Regent. But, so far as I observed, he knew how to conduct himself towards his—er—superiors. I had quite a respect for him. Yes, begad, quite a respect."
"I think, sir," said the Major, controlling his voice, "since you ask me to select a passage, this may interest the ladies:
"'But perhaps the most remarkable trait in the subject of our memoir was his invariable magnanimity, which alone persuaded all who met him that they had to deal with no ordinary man. It is related of him that once in childhood, having been pecked in the leg by a gander, he was found weeping rather at the aggressive insolence of the fowl (with which he had good-naturedly endeavoured to make friends) than at the trivial hurt received by his own boyish calves.'"
The ladies laughed, and Sir Felix joined in uproariously.
"How deliciously quaint!" exclaimed the one her friend had addressed as Sophronia. "What rural detail!"
"The very word. Quaint—devilish quaint!" Sir Felix agreed. "We are devilish quaint in these parts."
The Major turned a page:
"'So far as inquiry lifts the curtain over the closing scene, it was marked by a similar calm forgetfulness of self in the higher interests of his Sovereign, his Country, the British Race. If enemies he had, he forgave them. Attending only to his country's call for volunteers to defend her shores, he followed it in the least conspicuous manner, and fell; leaving at once an example and a reproach to those who, living at home in ease, enjoyed the protection of spirits better conscious of the destinies and duties of Englishmen.'"
"Gad, and so he did!" Sir Felix exclaimed. "I remember thinking something of the sort at the time and doubling my subscription." He yawned. "Shall we go, ladies?" he asked. "I assure you there is no time to be lost if you wish to see the menagerie."
But when the ladies were in the passage, the Major half-closed the door, shutting Sir Felix off.
"May I have just one word with you, sir? I will not detain you more than a moment."
"Eh?" said Sir Felix, and pulled out a shilling. "Is that what you're after? Well, I'm glad you had the delicacy to let the ladies pass out first. They think us an unsophisticated folk."
The Major waved the coin aside. He planted himself on his wooden leg, with his back to the door, and faced the baronet.
"I just want to tell you," he said quietly, "that the whole of what I read was a lie."
"Naturally, my good fellow. One allows for that in those memoirs."
"The man, except in parable, was never bitten by a gander in his life," persisted the Major. "Nor did he enlist and fall—if he fell—through any magnanimous motive. He just left Troy on finding himself betrayed by a neighbour—a dirty, little, mean-spirited, pompous gander of a neighbour—and whatever example he may have unwittingly—yes, and unwillingly—set, the lesson does not appear to have been learnt—at least, until this moment. But," concluded the Major, throwing wide the door, "we keep the ladies waiting, Sir Felix."
Sir Felix, ordinarily the most irascible of men, gasped once and passed out, cowed, beaten, utterly and hopelessly bewildered. The Major stood by the door with chest inflated as it had not been inflated for ten years and more.
Perhaps this inflation of the chest, reviving old recollections, prompted him to do what next he did. Otherwise I confess I cannot account for it. He stepped back from the door and looked around the room, emitting a long breath. Outside the window the dusk was already descending on the street. Within a glass-fronted cupboard in the corner, hung his old uniform, sword, epaulettes and cocked hat; above the mantelpiece a looking-glass.
He stepped to the cupboard, opened it, and took down the time-rotten regimentals. Slowly, very slowly, he divested himself of his clothes, and, piece by piece, indued himself in the old finery.
At the breeches he paused; then drew them on hastily over his wooden leg, and left them unbuttoned at the knees while he thrust his arms into coat and waistcoat. Prison fare had reduced his waist, and the garments hung limply about him. But the breeches were worst. Around his wooden leg the buttons would not meet at all. And what to do with the gaiter?
Methodically he unstrapped the leg and regarded it. Heavens! how for these three years past he had hated it! He looked up. From the far side of the room the bust watched him, still with its fatuous smile.
He rose in a sudden access of passion, gripping the leg, taking aim. . . . A slight noise in the passage arrested him, and, leaning against the door-jamb, he peered out. It was the woman with the evening's milk, and she had set down the jug in the passage.
He closed the door, swayed a moment, and with a spring off his sound leg, leapt on the still grinning bust and smote at it, crashing it into pieces.
Mrs. Tiddy, the milkwoman, ran home declaring that, in the act of delivering the usual two pennyworth at the hospital, she had seen the ghost of the Major himself, in full regimentals, in the act of assaulting his own statue; which, sure enough, was found next morning scattered all over the floor.
The crash of it recalled the Major to his senses. He stared down on the fragments at his feet. He had burnt his boats now.
As methodically as he had indued them he divested himself of his regimentals, and so, having slipped into his old clothes again and strapped on his leg, stumped resolutely forth into the street.
Cai Tamblyn, like every other Trojan, kept a boat of his own; and on the eve of departing he had placed her at the Major's disposal. She lay moored by a frape off a semi-public quay door, approached from the Fore Street by a narrow alley known as Cherry's (or Charity's) Court.
The Major stumped down to the waterside in the fast gathering dusk and hauled in the boat. Luckily the tide was high, and reached within four feet of the sill of the doorway; luckily, I say, because few contrivances in this world are less compatible than a ladder and a wooden leg. The tide being high, however, he managed to scramble down and on board without much difficulty; unmoored, shipped a paddle in the sculling-notch over the boat's stern, and very quietly worked her up and alongshore, in the shadow of the waterside houses.
Arrived at the quay-ladder leading up to Dr. Hansombody's garden— once, alas! his own—and to the terrace consecrated by memories of the green-sealed Madeira, he checked the boat's way and looked up for a moment, listening. Hearing no sound, he slipped the painter around a rung, made fast with a hitch, and cautiously, very cautiously, pulled himself up the ladder, bringing his eyes level with the sill of the open door.
Heaven be praised! the little garden was empty. A moment later he had heaved himself on to the sill and was crawling along the terrace.
At the end of the terrace, in a dark corner by the wall, grew a stunted fig-tree, its roots set among the flagstones, its boughs overhanging the tide; and by the roots, between the bole of the trees and the wall, one of the flagstones had a notch in its edge, a notch in old days cunningly concealed, the trick of it known only to the Major.
He drew out a small marlingspike which he carried in a sheath at his hip, and, bending over the flagstone, felt for the notch; found it, inserted the point, and began to prise, glancing, as he worked, over his shoulder at the windows of the house. A lamp shone in one. . . . So much the better. If the room had an inmate, the lamp would make it harder for him or her to see what went on in the dim garden. Ten years. . . . Could his hoard have lain all that time undisturbed? He had hidden it in the old days of the invasion-scare, as many a citizen had made secret deposit against emergencies. Banks were novelties in those days. Who knew what might happen to a bank, if Boney landed?
But ten years . . . a long time . . . and yet to all appearances the stone had not been tampered with. He levered it up and thrust it aside.
No! There the bags lay amid the earth! Two bags, and a hundred guineas in each! He clutched and felt their full round sides. Yes, yes, they were full, as he had left them!
Heavens! What was that?
The Major gripped his bags and was preparing to run; but, an instant later, cowered low, and backed into the fig-tree's shadow as the whole sky leapt into flame and shook with a terrific detonation.
The Regatta fireworks had begun.
Across the little garden a window went up.
"My dear," said a voice (the Doctor's), "bring the child to look, if he won't be frightened."
In the window they stood, all three—the Doctor, "Miss Marty," the child—a happy domestic group, framed there with the lamp behind them. Deep as he could squeeze himself back into the shadow, the Major cowered and watched them.
The child crowed and leapt with delight. His father and mother looked down at him, then at one another, and laughed happily. Alas! poor Major!
They had no eyes to search the garden. What should they suspect, those two, there in the warm circle of the lamp, wrapped in their own security?
The rockets ceased to blaze and bang. At length the heavens resumed their dark peace, and the distant barrel-organ reasserted itself from the Town Quay. The child's voice demanded more, but his father closed the window and drew the curtain close. Panting hard, his brow clammy with sweat, the Major stole forth and down to the boat with his poor spoils.
Half an hour later he found himself in the crowd, his pockets weighted with guineas. Whither should he go? In what direction set his face? Eastward for Plymouth, or westward for Falmouth? He roamed the streets, letting the throng of merrymakers carry him for the while as it willed; and it ended, of course (you may make the experiment for yourself on a regatta night), in carrying him to the merry-go-round on the Town Quay.
He stared at it stupidly, his hands in his bulging pockets. He feared no thieves. To begin with, his appearance was not calculated to invite the attention of pickpockets, and moreover, there are none in Troy. He stared at the whirling horses, the blazing naphtha jets, the revolving mirrors, the laughing, irresponsible faces as they swept by and away again, and reappeared and once again passed laughing thither where, on the farther side of the circle, brooded (as it seemed to him) a great shadow of darkness.
Suddenly his heart stood still, and his few hairs stiffened under his tarpaulin hat. That sailor, riding with a happy grin on his face, and his face towards his horse's tail! Surely not—surely it could not be . . .? But as the sailor whirled round into view again, it surely was Ben Jope!
The music and the merry-go-round slowed down together and came to a standstill. A score of riders clambered off, and a score of onlookers surged up and took their places. The Major ran with them, pushing his way to the far side of the circle where Mr. Jope's horse had come to a stop. He arrived, but too late. Mr. Jope had disappeared.
A moment later, however, the Major caught sight of him, elbowing his way through the gut of a narrow lane leading off the Quay by the fish-market, and gave chase. But the weight in his pockets handicapped him, and the crowd seemed to take a malicious delight in blocking his way.
Nevertheless he kept his quarry in sight. A dozen times at least Mr. Jope halted before a shop or a booth and dallied, staring, but ever on the point of capture he would start off again, threading the throng with extreme nimbleness. With a dexterity as marvellous as it was unconscious, he dodged his pursuer past the Broad Ship, up Custom House Hill, along Passage Street, out through the Tollway Arch and among the greater shows—the menagerie, the marionettes, the travelling theatre—all in full blast, almost to the extreme edge of the fair, where it melted into the darkness of the woods and the high road winding up between them into open country. Here, hanging on his heel for a moment, he appeared to make a final choice between these many attractions, and dived into a booth over which a flaming board announced a conjuring entertainment by Professor Boscoboglio,— "Prestidigitateur to the Allied Sovereigns."
The Major spied Mr. Jope's broad back as he dipped and entered beneath the flap of the tent; and followed, elate at having run his quarry to earth. A stout woman, seated at the entrance beside a drum on which she counted her change, thrust out an arm of no mean proportions to block his entrance, and demanded twopence, fee for admission.
The Major, who had forgotten this formality, dipped his hand into his breeches pocket and tendered her a guinea. She eyed it suspiciously, took it, rang it on the lid of her money-box, and, recognising it for a genuine coin, at once transferred her suspicions to him.
"Tuppence out of a guinea?" she sniffed. "Not likely, with a man of your looks."
"It's genuine, ma'am."
"I ain't a fool," answered the lady. "I was wondering how you came by it. Well, anyway, I can't give you change; so take yourself off, please."
He argued, but she was obdurate. She hadn't the change about her, she affirmed, with a jerk of her thumb towards the interior of the tent. Their takings to-day hadn't amounted to five shillings, as she was a Christian woman.
The Major, glancing beneath the tent-cloth, spied a melancholy man extracting ribbons from his mouth before an audience of three men, a child and a woman. He heard Ben Jope's voice raised in approval. He announced that he would wait outside until the performance concluded.
"Twenty minutes," said the stout woman nonchalantly.
"Good evening, ma'am," said he, and stepping back, began to pace to and fro in front of the tent.
Why had he followed this man who, if you looked at it in one way, had been the prime cause of all his calamity? He smiled grimly at the thought that, as justice went in this world, he should be tracking Ben Jope down in a cold passion of revenge; whereas, in fact, he was hungry to grip the honest fellow's hand. From the panorama of these ten mischanced years the face of Ben Jope shone out as in a halo, wreathed with good-natured smiles. Ben Jope—
Here the Major flung up both hands and tottered back as, with a lift of the earth beneath his feet, a flame ripped the roof off the tent, and roaring, hurled it right and left into the night.
Under the shock of the explosion he dropped on hands and knees, and, still on hands and knees, crawled forward to a ditch, a full ten yards to the left of the spot where the tent had stood. In the darkness one of the victims lay groaning.
"Are—are you hurt?" The Major's teeth chattered as he crawled near and stretched out a hand towards the sufferer.
"Damn the fellow!" swore Ben Jope cheerfully, sitting up. "What'll be his next trick, I wonder?"
"You—you are not hurt?"
"Hurt? No, I reckon. Who are you?"
"Hymen, Ben—Solomon Hymen. You remember—in the Plymouth Theatre, ten years back. Oh, hush, man, hush!" for Ben, casting both hands up to his face, had let out a squeal like a rabbit's.
"An' I saw you die! Oh, take him away someone! With these very eyes! No, damn it!" Mr. Jope pulled himself together and scrambled to his feet. "I paid for two pennyworth, but if this goes on I gets my money back!"
By this time showmen and merrymakers, startled out of the neighbouring tents by the explosion, as bees from their hives, were running to and fro with lanterns and naphtha flares, seeking for the victims. A ring of the searchers came to a halt around the Major and Ben Jope, and Ben, catching sight of his companion's face, let out another yell.
"It's all right." The Major clutched him by the arm and turned. "It's all right, my good people. He can walk, you see. I'll take him along to the hospital."
He managed to reassure them, and they passed on. He slipped an arm under Ben's and led him away into the darkness.
"But I seen you blowed into air, ten years ago, with these very eyes," persisted Ben.
"And with these very eyes I saw you blown into air ten minutes ago; and yet we're both alive," the Major assured him.
"An' I come here o' purpose to look up your ha'nts, havin' been always pretty curious about that tale o' your'n, but kep' moderate busy all these years."
"And Bill Adams?"
"Wot?" Mr. Jope halted. "Haven't you 'eard? Bill's dead. Drink done it—comin' upon it too 'asty. Simmons's boarding-house, Plymouth, that's where it was. Quite a decent house, an' the proprietor behaved very well about it, I will say. But where on earth have you been hidin' all these years, that you never heard about Bill?"
"In a French war prison, Ben. And, Ben, you found me a berth once, you remember. I wonder if you could get me into another?"
"O' course I can," Mr. Jope answered cheerily. "You come along o' me to Plymouth an' I'll put you into the very job. A cook's galley, it is, and so narra' that with a wooden leg in dirty weather you can prop yourself tight when she rolls, an' stir the soup with it between-times!"
They entered the hospital, and the Major packed his knapsack with hasty, eager hands.
"What's this mess on the floor?" asked Ben Jope, pointing to the fragments of plaster of Paris.
"That?" The Major looked up from his packing. "That's a sort of image I broke. Come along; we haven't time to pick up the pieces."
They crossed the harbour in Cai Tamblyn's boat, and moored her safely at the ferry slip. On the knap of the hill the Major turned for a last look.
From the Town Quay, far below and across the water, the lights of the merry-go-round winked at him gaily, knowingly.