"We'll allow it for the moment. But that only proves that no boat was warned away."
"And when I sent a boat in to capture it, you deliberately opened fire; in other words, tried to murder me, His Majesty's representative."
"Tried to murder you? Look here." Captain John stepped to one of his still loaded guns and pointed it carefully at a plank floating out at the mouth of the Cove—a plank knocked by the cutter's guns out of Uncle Bill Leggo's 'taty patch, and now drifting out to sea on the first of the ebb. He pointed the gun carefully, let fly, and knocked the bit of wood to flinders. "That's what I do when I try," he said. "Why, bless 'ee, I was no more in earnest than you were!"
This made Wearne blush for his marksmanship. "But you'll have to prove that," he said.
"Why, damme," said John Carter, and fined himself another sixpence on the spot; "if you are so partic'ler, get out there in the boat again, and I will."
Well, the upshot was that after some palaver Wearne agreed to walk up to the captain's house and reckon the accounts between them. He had missed a pretty haul and been openly defied. On the other hand he hadn't a man hurt, and he knew the King's Government still owed John Carter for a lugger he had lent two years before to chase a French privateer lying off Ardevora. Carter had sent the lugger round at Wearne's particular request; she was short handed, and after a running fight of three or four hours the Frenchman put in a shot which sent her to the bottom and drowned fourteen hands. For this, as Wearne knew, he had never received proper compensation. I fancy the two came to an agreement to set one thing against another and call quits. At any rate, John was put to no further annoyance over that day's caper. As for the preacher, I'm told that no person in these parts ever set eyes on him again. And Ann Geen drove home that evening with her Phoby beside her. "I'm sorry to let 'ee go, my son," said John; "but 'twould never do for me to have your mother comin' over here too often. I've a great respect for all the Lemals; but on the female side they be too frolicsome for a steady-going trade like mine."
 Drinking-house.  Huguenot's house.  Feu de joie.
THE MAN WHO COULD HAVE TOLD.
It was ten o'clock—a sunny, gusty morning in early September—when H.M.S. Berenice, second-class cruiser, left the Hamoaze and pushed slowly out into the Sound on her way to the China Seas.
From the Hoe, on a grassy slope below the great hotel, John Gilbart watched her as she thrust her long white side into view between Devil's Point and the wooded slopes of Mount Edgcumbe; watched her as she stole past Drake's Island and headed up the Asia passage. She kept little more than steerage way, threading her path among anchored yachts gay with bunting, and now and then politely slowing in the crowd of smaller craft under sail. For it was regatta morning. The tall club flagstaff behind and above Gilbart's head wore its full code of signals, with blue ensign on the gaff and blue burgee at the topmast head, and fluttered them intermittently as the nor'westerly breeze broke down in flaws over the leads of the club-house. Below him half a dozen small boys with bundles of programmes came skirmishing up the hill through the sparse groups of onlookers. Off the promenade pier, where the excursion steamers bumped and reeked and blew their sirens, the committee-ship lay moored in a moving swarm of rowboats, dingies, and steam-launches. She flew her B signal as yet, but the seconds were drawing on toward the five-minute gun; and beyond, on the ruffled Sound, nine or ten yachts were manoeuvring and trimming their canvas; two forty-raters dodging and playing through the opening stage of their duel for the start; four or five twenties taking matters easy as yet; all with jackyards hoisted. To the eastward a couple of belated twenties came creeping out from their anchorage in Cattewater.
All this Gilbart's gaze took in; with the stately merchantmen riding beyond the throng, and the low breakwater three miles away, and the blue horizon beyond all. Out of that blue from time to time came the low, jarring vibration which told of an unseen gunboat at practice; and from time to time a puff of white smoke from the Picklecombe battery held him listening for its louder boom. But he returned always to the Berenice moving away up the Asia passage, so cautiously that between whiles she seemed to be drifting; but always moving, with the smoke blown level from her buff-coloured funnels, with clean white sides and clean white ensign, and here and there a sparkle of sunlight on rail or gun-breech or torpedo-tube. She was bound on a three-years' cruise; and Gilbart, who happened to know this and was besides something of a sentimentalist, detected pathos in this departure on a festival morning. It seemed to him—as she swung round her stern and his quick eye caught the glint of her gilded name with the muzzle of her six-inch gun on the platform above, foreshortened in the middle of its white screen like a bull's-eye in a target—it seemed to him that this holiday throng took little heed of the three hundred odd men so silently going forth to do England's work and fight her battles. On her deck yesterday afternoon he had shaken hands and parted with a friend, a stoker on board, and had seen some pitiful good-byes. His friend Casey, to be sure, was unmarried—an un-amiable man with a cynical tongue—with no one to regret him and no disposition to make a fuss over a three-years' exile. But at the head of the ship's ladder Gilbart had passed through a group of red-eyed women, one or two with babies at the breast. It was not a pretty sight: one poor creature had abandoned herself completely, and rocked to and fro holding on by the bulwarks and bellowing aloud. This and a vision of dirty wet handkerchiefs haunted him like a physical sickness.
Gilbart considered himself an Imperialist, read his newspaper religiously, and had shown great loyalty as secretary of a local sub-committee at the time of the Queen's Jubilee, in collecting subscriptions among the dockyardsmen. Habitually he felt a lump in his throat when he spoke of the Flag. His calling—that of lay-assistant and auxiliary preacher (at a pinch) to a dockyard Mission—perhaps encouraged this surface emotion; but by nature he was one of those who need to make a fuss to feel they are properly patriotic. To his thinking every yacht in the Sound should have dipped her flag to the Berenice.
Surely even a salute of guns would not have been too much. But no: that is the way England dismisses her sons, without so much as a cheer!
He felt ashamed of this cold send-off; ashamed for his countrymen. "What do they know or care?" he asked himself, fastening his scorn on the backs of an unconscious group of country-people who had raced one another uphill from an excursion steamer and halted panting and laughing half-way up the slope. It irritated him the more when he thought of Casey's pale, derisive face. He and Casey had often argued about patriotism; or rather he had done the arguing while Casey sneered. Casey was a stoker, and knew how fuel should be applied.
Casey made no pretence to love England. Gilbart never quite knew why he tolerated him. But so it was: they had met in the reading-room of a Sailors' Home, and had somehow struck up an acquaintance, even a sort of unacknowledged friendship. Their common love of books may have helped; for Casey—Heaven knew where or how—had picked up an education far above Gilbart's, and amazing in a common stoker. Also he wore some baffling, attractive mystery behind his reserve. Once or twice— certainly not half a dozen times—he had at a casual word pulled open for an instant the doors of his heart and given Gilbart a sensation of looking into a furnace, into white-hot depths, sudden and frightening. But what chiefly won him was the knowledge that in some perverse, involuntary and quite inexplicable way he was liked by this sullen fellow, who had no other friend and sought none. He knew the liking to be there as surely as he knew it to be shy and sullen, curt in expression, contemptuous of itself. Had he ever troubled to examine himself honestly, Gilbart must have acknowledged himself Casey's inferior in all but amiability; and Casey no doubt knew this. But in friendship as in love there is usually one who likes and one who suffers himself to be liked, and the positions are not allotted by merit. Gilbart—a self-deceiver all his life—had accepted the compliment complacently enough.
The Berenice cleared the crowd and quickened her speed as the five-minute gun puffed out from the committee-ship and the Blue Peter ran up the halyards in the smoke. Gilbart turned his attention upon the two big yachts and followed their movements until the starting-gun was fired; saw them haul up and plunge over the line so close together that the crews might have shaken hands; watched them as they fluttered out their spinnakers for the run to the eastern mark, for all the world like two great white moths floating side by side swiftly but with no show of hurry. When he returned to the cruiser she was far away, almost off the western end of the breakwater—gone, so far as he was concerned and whoever else might be watching her from the shore; the parting over, the threads torn and snapped, her crew face to face now with the long voyage.
He drew a long breath, and was aware for the first time of a woman standing about twenty yards on his left behind a group of chattering holiday-makers. He saw at a glance that she did not belong to them, but was gazing after the Berenice; a forlorn, tearless figure, with a handkerchief crumpled up into a ball in her hand. Affability was a part of Gilbart's profession, and besides, he hated to see a woman suffer. He edged toward her and lifted his hat.
"I hope," said he, "these persons are not annoying you? They don't understand, of course. I, too, have a friend on the Berenice."
The woman looked at him as though she heard but could not for the moment grasp what he said. She tightened her grip on the handkerchief and kept her lips firmly compressed.
Gilbart saw that, though tearless, her eyes wore traces of tears—no redness, but some swelling of the lids, with dark semicircles underneath.
"To them," he went on, nodding toward the holiday-keepers, "it's only regatta day. To them she's only a passing ship helping to make up the pretty scene. They know nothing of the gallant hearts she carries or the sore ones she leaves behind. If they knew, I wonder if they'd care? The ordinary Anglo-Saxon has so little imagination!"
She was staring at him now, and at length seemed to understand. But with understanding there grew in her eyes a look of anger, almost of repugnance. "Oh, please go away!" she said.
He lifted his hat and obeyed; indeed, he walked off to the farthest end of the Hoe. He was hurt. He had a thin-skinned vanity, and hated to look small even before a stranger. That snub poisoned his morning, and although he looked at the yachts, his mind ran all the time upon the encounter. To be sure he had brought it upon himself, but he preferred to consider that he had meant kindly—had obviously meant kindly. He tried to invent a retort,—a gentle, dignified retort which would have touched her to a regret for her injustice—nothing more. Perhaps it was not yet too late to return and convey his protest under a delicate apology; or perhaps the mere sight of him, casually passing, might move her to make amends. He even strolled back some way with this idea, but she had disappeared.
The Berenice had vanished too; around Penlee Point no doubt. He remembered the field-glasses slung in a case by his hip and was fumbling with the leather strap when a drop of rain fell on his hand, the herald of a smart shower. A dark squall came whistling down the Hamoaze; and standing there in the fringe of it he saw it strike and spread itself out like a fan over the open Sound at his feet, blotting the sparkle out of the water, while some of the small boats heeled to it and others ran up into the wind and lay shaking. It was over in five minutes, and the sun broke out again before the rain ceased falling; but Gilbart decided that there was more to follow. He had not come out to keep holiday, and an unfinished manuscript waited for him in his lodgings—an address on True Manliness, to be delivered two evenings hence in the Mission Room to lads under eighteen. Though he delivered them without manuscript, Gilbart always prepared his addresses carefully and kept the fair copies in his desk. He lived in hope of being reported some day, and then—who could say but a book might be called for?
His lodgings lay midway down a long, dreary street of small houses, each with a small yard at the back, each built of brick and stuccoed, all as like as peas, all inhabited by dockyardsmen or the families of gunners, artificers, and petty officers in the navy. Prospect Place was its deceptive name, and it ran parallel with three precisely similar thoroughfares—Grafton Place, Alderney Place, and Belvedere Avenue. These four—with a cross-street, where the Mission Room stood facing a pawnbroker's—comprised Gilbart's field of labour.
He reached home a little after twelve, ate his dinner, and fell to work on his manuscript. By half-past three he had finished all but the peroration. Gilbart prided himself on his perorations; and knowing from experience that it helped him to ideas and phrases he caught up his hat and went out for a walk.
During that walk he did indeed catch and fix the needed sentences. But, as it happened, he was never afterward able to recall one of them. All he remembered was that much rain must have fallen; for the pavements which had been dry in the morning were glistening, and the roadways muddy and with standing puddles. On his way homeward each of these puddles reflected the cold, pure light of the dying day, until Prospect Place might have been a street in the New Jerusalem, paved with jasper, beryl, and chrysoprase. So much he remembered, and also that his feet must have taken him back to the Hoe, where the crowd was thicker and the regatta drawing to an end—a few yachts only left to creep home under a greenish sky, out of which the wind was fast dying. He had paused somewhere to listen to a band: he could give no further account to himself.
For this was what had happened: as he entered his lodgings and closed the front door, the letter-box behind it fell open and he saw a sealed envelope lying inside. He picked it out and read the address.
"Mrs. Wilcox!" he called down the passage. "When did this come?"
Mrs. Wilcox, appearing at the kitchen door and wiping her hands, could not tell. The midday post or else the three o'clock. There were no others. Come to think of it, she had heard a postman's knock when she was dishing up the dinner, but had supposed it to be next door. It sounded like next door.
Gilbart took the letter upstairs with him. The address was in Casey's handwriting. "Queer fellow, Casey." He broke the seal in the little bay window. "Just like him, though, to shake hands yesterday without a spark of feeling, and then send his good-byes to reach me after he was well on his way." He drew out the inclosure, unfolded it, and saw that the paper bore the printed address of the Sailors' Home where Casey dossed when ashore, and where writing-paper was supplied gratis. "Couldn't have come ashore after I left him: he'd paid his bill at the Rest and his bag was aboard. Must have had this in his pocket all the time; might just as well have handed it to me—with instructions not to open it—and saved the stamp. What a secretive old chap it is!"
He held the letter close to his eyes in the waning daylight.
"DEAR JOHN,—By the time this reaches you we shall have started; and by then, or a little later, I shall have gone and the Berenice with me. If you ask where, I don't know; but it is where we shall never meet.
"You serve your country in your own way. I am going to serve mine. Perhaps I shall also be serving yours; for it is only by striking terribly and without warning that the brave men in this world can get even with the cowards who make its laws.
"One thing I envy you—you'll be alive to see the rage of the sheep. I am playing this hand alone and without help. So when your silly newspapers begin to cry out about secret societies, you will know. I never belonged to one in my life.
"I think I am sorriest about the way you'll think of me. But that makes no real difference, because I know it to be foolish. I have the stuff on board and the little machine. I cannot fix the time to an hour up or down; but you may take it for sure that some time between 10 p.m. and midnight the Berenice will be at the bottom of the sea with
"Yours, P. C."
While John Gilbart read this there was silence in the stuffy little room, and for some minutes after. Then he stepped to the mantelpiece for the match-box and candle. A small ormolu clock ticked there, and while he groped for the matches he put out a hand to stop the noise, which had suddenly grown intolerable. He desisted, remembering that he did not know how the clock worked—that Mrs. Wilcox, who wound it up religiously on Monday mornings, was proud of it, and—anyway, that wasn't the machine he wanted to stop. He found a match, lit it and held it close to the letter.
The match burned low, scorched his fingers. He dropped it in the fender, where it flickered out, just missing the "waterfall" of shavings with which Mrs. Wilcox decorated her fireplace in the summer months. He did not light another, but went back to the window and stood there, quite still.
Down the street to the westward, over the wet roofs still glimmering in the twilight, one pale green rift divided the heavy clouds, and in that rift the last of the daylight was dying. Across the way, in the house facing him, a woman was lighting a lamp. As a rule the inhabitants of Prospect Place did not draw the blinds of their upper rooms until they closed the shutters also and went to bed: and Gilbart looked straight into the little parlour. But he saw nothing.
He was trying—vainly trying—to bring his mind to it. Nothing really big had happened to him before: and his first feeling, characteristically selfish, was that this terrible thing had risen up to alter all the rest of his life. He must disentangle himself, get away to a distance and have a look at it. His brain was buzzing. Yes, there it rose, like a black wall between this moment and all the hours to come; a brute barrier stretching clean across the prospect. Again and again he brought his mind up to it as you might coax a horse up to a fence; again and again it refused. Each time in the last few steps his heart froze, extending its chill until every separate faculty hung back springless and inert. And there was no getting round!
Why had this happened to him of all people? It never for a moment occurred to him to doubt Casey's word. He saw it now; hideous as the deed was, Casey was capable of it—had always been capable of it. Let it go for a miserable tribute to Casey's honesty in the past that Gilbart accepted the infernal statement at once and without suspicion. He knew now that from the bottom of their intercourse this candid devil had been grinning up at him all the time; only his own cowardly, comfortable habit of seeing the world as he wished it had kept his eyes turned from the truth. Men don't as a rule commit crimes; not one man in millions translates himself into a crime of this sort; the odds against his daring it are only to be told in millions. Yet it had happened. Man or devil, Casey never paltered with his creed; if the world differed from him, then it was Casey against the world; a hopeless business for him, yet he would get in a blow if possible. And Casey had got in his blow. The incredible had happened; but (Gilbart groaned) why had it happened to him? In his stupefaction he returned again and again upon this, catching in the flood at that one little straw of self; not inhumanly, as callous to the ruin of others; but pitifully, meanly, because it was the one thing familiar in the roar and din. He cursed Casey; cursed him for betraying his friendship. The man had no right— He pulled up suddenly, with a laugh. After all, Casey had played the game, had faced the music, and would go down with the Berenice. One soul against three hundred and fifty, perhaps; not what you would call atonement; but, after all, the best he had to offer. Wonder how many Samson pulled down with him at Gaza? Wonder if the Bible says?
"Beg pardon, Mr. Gilbart?"
It was Mrs. Wilcox standing in the doorway with his tea on a tray.
"It—it was nothing," he stammered. She must have heard his laugh.
"Talking to yourself? I often hear you at it over your sermons and things; sometimes at your dressing, too; I hears you when I'm in here doing up the room. You'd like the lamp lit, I suppose?" She set down the tray.
"Not just yet."
"Well, it's a bad habit, reading with your meals."
"It's not worth while to bring a lamp. I must drink my tea in a hurry, and run out. I have an engagement."
He heard her go out and close the door. "Casey had no right. It was a betrayal. If the man were bent on this infernal crime—put the atrocity of it aside for a moment—call it just an ordinary crime; . . . but why need he have written that letter? Why involve him? Well, not involve, perhaps; still there was a kind of responsibility—"
His eyes had been fastened on the little parlour across the road. The woman after lighting the lamp had set it in the centre of a round table and left the room. Between this table and the hearth an old man sat in an arm-chair, smoking his pipe and reading a newspaper. The back of the chair was turned toward the window, but over it Gilbart could see the crown of a grey head and small, steady puffs of smoke ascending between it and the upper edge of the paper. A light appeared in the room above; the light of a candle behind the drawn blind. It lasted there perhaps for ten minutes, and once the woman's shadow moved across the blind.
The light went out, and after a minute or two the woman reappeared in the parlour. She carried a work-basket, and after speaking a word with the old man in the chair she set the basket down on the table, drew up a chair and began to darn a child's stocking. Now and then she looked up as if listening for some sound or movement in the room overhead, but after a moment or two began to ply her needle again. The needle moved more slowly—stopped—she bowed her head over the stocking. Gilbart knew why. She was the wife of a petty officer on the Berenice. The old man in the chair went on reading.
All this while a light had been growing in Gilbart's brain, and now he saw. In this street, and the next, and the next, lived scores who had sons, husbands, brothers on board the Berenice; thin walls of brick and plaster dividing to-night their sore hearts and their prayers; a whole town with its hopes and its happy days given into keeping of one ship; not its love only but its trust for life's smallest comforts following her as she moved away through the darkness. And he alone knew! He had only to throw open the window—to fling four words into that silent street—to shout, "The Berenice is lost!"—and with the breath of it windows would fly open, partitions fall down, and all those privacies meet and answer in one terrible outcry. He put up a hand to thrust it away—this awful gift of power. He would have none of it; he was unfit. "Oh, my God!"—it was he, not Casey, who held the real infernal machine. It was here, not in the Berenice, that the levin must fall; and he, John Gilbart, held it in his fingers. "Oh, my God, I am unfit—thrust not this upon me!"
But there was no escape. He must take his hat and run—run to the Port Admiral. The errand was useless, he knew; for all the while at the back of his soul's confusion some practical corners of his brain had been working at the problem of time—was there time to follow and prevent? There was not. He knew the Berenice's natural speed to be eighteen knots. Put it at sixteen, fifteen even; still not the fastest destroyer in the port—following in a bee-line—could overtake her by midnight. And there might be, must be, delays. Yet God, too, might interfere; some providential accident might delay the cruise. He must run, at any rate. He picked up his hat and ran.
Now that he was taking action—doing something—the worst horror of responsibility left him for a while; he seemed to have cast some of it already off his own shoulders and on to the Admiral's. As he ran he found time to think of Casey. Casey was doing this thing—not in hatred or in villainy for gain—but because it seemed to him right—right, or at least necessary. Casey was laying down his own life in the deed. How could man, framed in God's image, expect ultimate good out of devilish cruelty? Yet from the world's beginning men had murdered and tortured each other on this only plea; had butchered women and the very babes; had stamped upon God's image and—marvel of marvels—for its soul's salvation, not for their own advantage. At every stride Gilbart felt his moral footing, trusted for years without question, cracking and crumbling and swirling away in blocks. Red flames leapt into the fissures and filled them. The end of the world had surely come; but—he must run to the Admiral! He kept that uppermost in his mind, and ran.
The windows of the Admiralty House blazed with light. The Admiral's wife was giving a dinner and a dance, and already a small crowd had gathered to see the earlier guests arrive. The sight dashed Gilbart. Suddenly he remembered that the letter had reached him by the afternoon post. It was now half-past seven, and he would have to explain the interval; for of course the Admiral would suspect the whole story at first. Gilbart knew the official manner; he had been privileged to study the fine flower of it in this particular Admiral one afternoon six months before, when the great man had condescended to sit on the platform at the Mission anniversary. "Tut, tut—a stupid practical joke "—that would be the beginning; and then would follow cross-examination in the coldest court-martial fashion. Well, he could explain; but it would be just as well to have the story pat beforehand.
One minute—ten minutes went by. Cabs rattled up and private carriages; officers in glittering uniforms, ladies muffled in silk and swansdown stepped past the policeman behind whom Gilbart hesitated. This would never do; better he had gone in with the story hot on his lips. He twitched the policeman's elbow.
"May I pass, please? I want to see the Admiral."
"That's likely, ain't it?"
"But I have a message for him; an urgent one—one that won't keep a moment!"
"Why, I have seen you hanging round here this quarter hour with these very eyes! 'Won't keep'? Here, you get out!"
"I tell you—"
"Oh, deliver us!" the policeman interrupted. "What's the matter with you? Come to keep the Admiral's dinner cold while you hand over command of the Channel Fleet?" He winked heavily at one or two of the nearest in the crowd, and they laughed.
Gilbart eyed them savagely. He had a word in his mouth which would stop their laughing; and for one irrational moment he was near speaking it, near launching against half a dozen loafers the bolt which only to hold and handle had aged him ten years in an hour. The word was even on his tongue when a carriage passed and at its open window a young girl leaned forward and looked out on the crowd. Her face in the light of the entrance-lamp was exquisitely fair, delicately rose and white as the curved inner lip of a sea-shell. At her throat, where her cloak-collar fell back a little, showing its quilted lining of pale blue satin, a diamond necklace shimmered, and a rosebud of diamonds in her hair sparkled so that it seemed to dance. It caught Gilbart's eye, and somehow it seemed to lift and remove her and the house she was entering—the lit windows, the guests, the Admiral himself—into another world. If it were real, then (like enough) this fragile thing, this Dresden goddess, owned a brother, perhaps a lover, on board the Berenice. If so, here was another world waiting to be shattered—a world of silks and toys and pretty uniforms and tiny bric-a-brac—a sort of doll's house inhabited by angels at play. But could it be real? Could such a world exist and be liable as his own to It? Could the same brutal touch destroy this fabric and the sordid privacies of Prospect Place—all in a run like a row of card-houses?
"Never you mind 'im, Mister Gilbart," said a voice at his elbow, and he turned and looked in the face of a girl who, in an interval of dressmaking, had once helped him with his district work.
"The peeler," Milly Sanders nodded; and it flashed on Gilbart that the policeman's joke, the carriage, the girl's face and these thoughts of his had all gone by in something less than ten seconds. "He've got the 'ump to-night, that's what's the matter with 'im." And Milly Sanders nodded again reassuringly.
"What are you doing here?" Gilbart asked.
"Me? Oh, it's in the way of business, as you might say. I comes here to pick up 'ints. I s'pose now you thought 'twasn't very feelin'-'earted, and my Dick gone away foreign only this mornin'?"
He remembered now that the girl's zeal for Mission work had cooled ever since she had been walking-out with her Dick—a young stoker in the Berenice.
"I reckon that's the last of the dinner-guests. The others won't be comin' much before ten. Well, I'm off to the 'Oe; there's going to be fireworks, and that's the best place for seein'."
"In the way of business, too, I suppose?" said Gilbart, and wondered how he could say it.
Milly giggled. "You 'ad me there," she confessed. "But what's the good to give way? I'm sure"—with conviction—"it's just what Dick would like me to do. I'm going, anyway. So long!" She paused: "that is— unless you'd like to come along, too?"
It was, after all, astonishingly easy. Even if he found and convinced the Admiral, nothing could be done. Why then should he hasten all this misery? Was it not, rather, an act of large mercy to hold back the news? Say that by holding his tongue he delayed it by twenty-four hours; life after all was made up of days and not so very many of them. By silence then—it stood to reason—he gained from woe a clear day for hundreds. Meanwhile here stood one of those hundreds. Might he not give her, under the very shadow of fate, an hour or two of actual, positive happiness? He told himself this, knowing all the while that he lied. He knew that the thing was easier to put off than to do. He knew that he took Milly's arm in his not to comfort her (although he meant to do this, too) but to drug his own conscience, and because he was mad— yes, mad—for human company and support. For hours—it seemed for weeks—he had been isolated, alone with that secret and his own soul. He could bear it no longer; he must ease the torment—only for a little—then perhaps he would go back to the Admiral. Chatter was what he wanted, the sound of a fellow-creature's voice, babbling no matter what. He knew also that he bought this respite at a price, and the price must be paid terribly when he came to wake. And yet he found it astonishingly easy to take Milly's arm.
"But I say," she rattled on, "you must be soft!"
"Why?" He was drinking in the sound of her words, letting the sense run by him.
"Why, to suppose the Admiral would see you at this time. What was it about?"
"Please go on talking."
"Well, I am. What did you want to see the Admiral for? Some Mission business, I s'pose. . . .Oh, you needn't tell if you don't choose; I'm not dying to hear."
They stood side by side on the Hoe, watching the fireworks. Three or four searchlights were playing over the Sound, turned now upon the anchored craft, now upward, following the rockets, and again downward, crisscrossing their white rays as if to catch the dropping multi-coloured stars. "O—o—oh!" exclaimed Milly, as each shower of rockets exploded. "But what makes you jump like that?"
"I say," he asked after a time, "since we've come to enjoy ourselves why not do the thing thoroughly? What do you say to the theatre after this?"
"The theatre! Well, you are gettin' on! That would be 'eavenly. They've got the 'Charity Girl' on this week—Gertie Lennox dancing. But don't you disapprove of that sort of thing?"
"So I—I mean I don't make a practice of it. But perhaps—once in a way—"
"I love it; though 'tisn't often I gets the chance. I dunno what Dick would say, though."
She said it archly, meaning to suggest that Dick might be jealous. John Gilbart misunderstood.
"But that's foolish. Why not to-night as well as any other night? What difference can it make to—to—" He broke off, laughing a little wildly. "We'll go and give each other moral support. We'll take tickets for the pit—no, the dress circle!"
"The dress circle!" There was awe in Milly's voice; her hand went up to her head. "They make you take your 'at off there. Oh, I couldn't!" But he caught her by the arm and hurried her off almost at a run—the girl giggling and panting and beginning to enjoy herself amazingly.
The performance had begun; but they found seats in the front row of the dress circle, almost before she had ceased panting, and Milly was unpinning her hat and glancing up at the gallery on the chance of an envious friendly recognition. The lights, the colours, the clash of brass in the orchestra made Gilbart's head spin. A stout tenore robusto in the uniform of a naval lieutenant was parading the stage in halos of mauve and green lime-light, and bawling his own praises to a semicircle of females. Gilbart's ear caught and retained but a line or two of their shrill chorus:
Through the world so wide He's old England's pride, But we'er glad now he's come back: For he's dressed in blue, And he's always true— Heaven bless you, dear old Jack!
The sentiments of this ditty did not materially differ from those which Gilbart was in the habit of assimilating from his morning newspaper; nor were they much more fatuously expressed. Twenty-four hours ago he might even have applauded them as noisily as anyone in the enraptured house. Now his gorge rose against the song, the complacent singer, the men and women who could be amused by such things. Could this be what they called the joy of living? Milly's eyes had begun to sparkle. He forgot that in this very contempt the theatre was providing what he had come to seek—a drug for conscience. And before he recognised this the drug was weakening. Horribly, stealthily, It began to reassert itself. These people—what would happen if he stood up in his place and shouted It? His mind played with the temptation; he saw white faces, men standing and looking up at him, the performance on the stage arrested, the orchestra mute; almost he heard his voice ring out over the sudden frozen consternation. No; he gripped the velvet cushion before him. "I must sit it out. I will sit it out."
And he did, though he suffered horribly. Milly found him a desperately dull companion, but luckily her neighbours' dresses and ornaments diverted her between the acts. She would have liked an orange; but it appeared that oranges were not eaten in the dress circle.
Outside the theatre door in the great portico Gilbart flung up both hands and let out a long, shuddering sigh.
"My! What's the matter with you?" asked Milly.
"Come along and have some supper."
He led her to a supper-room. "Well, you do know how to do things," she said. But it frightened her when he ordered champagne. She looked at him nervously. "I've never tasted it," she confessed; "and"—with a glance around the room—"and I don't think I like it."
She drank her glassful, however, while he finished the pint bottle. Then she picked up her worn gloves.
"Must we be going?" The end had come and worse torment must begin.
"Of course we must; and 'igh time too, if you knew what mother'll say when I get home. You mustn't think I 'aven't enjoyed myself, though," she added, "because I 'ave."
Out in the street as they walked arm in arm she unbent still further. "I shall tell mother, of course. She won't mind when she knows it's you, because you're so respectable. But girls 'ave to be careful."
At her door she paused before saying good-night. She loved Dick, of course; but she wondered a little what Mr. Gilbart meant. His manner had been so queer when he said, "Must we be going?"
For a moment she waited, half expecting him to say something, meaning to be angry if he said it. Such was her crude idea of coquettishness. But John Gilbart merely shook hands, waited until the door closed behind her, and bent his steps toward home.
That was in the next street. He walked briskly up to the door—then turned on his heel and strode away rapidly. He could not go upstairs; could not face the silent hours alone. As he retreated the front door was opened. Mrs. Wilcox had been sitting up for him, and had heard and recognised his footstep. He ran. After a minute the door was closed again.
At nine o'clock next morning a sentry on the seaward side of Tregantle Fort saw a man sitting below in the sunshine on the edge of the cliff, and took him for a tramp. It was John Gilbart. He had spent the night trudging the streets, but always returning to the pavement in front of one or the other of the two important newspaper offices. Lights shone in the upper windows of each, but all was quiet; and he saw the men leave one by one and walk away into darkness with brisk but regular footfall. A little before dawn he had caught the newspaper-train for the west, left it at the first station over the Cornish border and set his face toward the sea. His walk took him past dewy hedgerows over which the larks sang. But he neither saw nor heard. A deep peace had fallen upon him. He knew himself now; had touched the bottom of his cowardice, his falsity. He would never be happy again, but he could never deceive himself again; no, not though God interfered.
He looked out on the sunshine with purged eyes. Now and then he listened, as if for some sound from the horizon or the great town behind him.
Had God interfered? How still the world was!
THE CELLARS OF RUEDA.
I ENTER THE CELLARS.
It happened on a broiling afternoon in July 1812, and midway in a fortnight of exquisite weather, during which Wellington and Marmont faced each other across the Douro before opening the beautiful series of evolutions—or, rather, of circumvolutions—which ended suddenly on the 22nd, and locked the two armies in the prettiest pitched battle I have lived to see.
For the moment neither General desired a battle. Marmont, thrust back from Salamanca, had found a strong position where he could safely wait for reinforcements, and had indeed already collected near upon forty thousand of all arms, when, on the 8th, Bonnet marched into camp from Asturias with another six thousand infantry. He had sent, too, to borrow some divisions from Caffarelli's Army of the North. But these he expected in vain: for Bonnet's withdrawal from Asturias had laid bare the whole line of French communication, and so frightened Caffarelli for the safety of his own districts that he at once recalled the twelve thousand men he was moving down to the Douro, and in the end sent but a handful of cavalry, and that grudgingly.
All this I had the honour to predict to Lord Wellington just twelve hours before Bonnet's arrival on the scene. I staked my reputation that Caffarelli (on whom I had been watching and waiting for a month past) would not move. And Lord Wellington on the spot granted me the few days' rest I deserved—not so much in joy of the news (which, nevertheless, was gratifying) as because for the moment he had no work for me. The knot was tied. He could not attack except at great disadvantage, for the fords were deep, and Marmont held the one bridge at Tordesillas. His business was to hold on, covering Salamanca and the road back to Portugal, and await Marmont's first move.
The French front stretched as a chord across an arc of the river, which here takes a long sweep to the south; and the British faced it around this arc, with their left, centre, and right, upon three tributary streams—the Guarena, Trabancos, and Zapardiel—over which last, and just before it joins the Douro, towers the rock of Rueda, crowned with a ruinated castle.
Upon this rock—for my quarters lay in face of it, on the opposite bank of the stream—I had been gazing for the best part of an idle afternoon. I was comfortable; my cigarritos lay within reach; my tent gave shade enough; and through the flapway I found myself watching a mighty pretty comedy, with the rock of Rueda for its back-scene.
A more satisfactory one I could not have wished, and I have something of a connoisseur's eye. To be sure, the triangular flapway narrowed the picture, and although the upstanding rock and castle fell admirably within the frame, it cut off an animated scene on the left, where their distant shouts and laughter told me that French and British were bathing together in the river below and rallying each other on the battles yet to be fought. For during these weeks, and indeed through the operations which followed up to the moment of fighting, the armies behaved less like foes than like two teams before a cricket-match, or two wrestlers who shake hands and afterwards grin amicably as they move in circles seeking for a hitch. As I lay, however, the bathing-place could only be brought into view by craning my neck beyond the tent-door: and my posture was too well chosen to be shifted. Moreover, I had a more singular example of these amenities in face of me, on the rock of Rueda itself.
The cliff, standing out against the sun's glare like ivory beneath the blue, and quivering with heat, was flecked here and there with small lilac shadows; and these shadows marked the entrances of the caves with which Rueda was honeycombed. I had once or twice resolved to visit these caves; for I had heard much of their renown, and even (although this I disbelieved) that they contained wine enough to intoxicate all the troops in the Peninsula. Wine in abundance they certainly contained, and all the afternoon men singly and in clusters had been swarming in and out of these entrances like flies about a honeypot. For whatever might be happening on the Trabancos under Lord Wellington's eye, here at Rueda, on the extreme right, discipline for the while had disappeared: and presumably the like was true of Marmont's extreme left holding the bridge of Tordesillas. For from the bridge a short roadway leads to Rueda; and among the figures moving about the rock, diminished by distance though they were, I counted quite a respectable proportion of Frenchmen. No one who loves his calling ever quite forgets it: and though no one could well have appeared (or indeed felt) lazier, I was really giving my eye practice in discriminating, on this ant-hill, the drunk from the sober, and even the moderately drunk from the incapable.
There could be no doubt, at any rate, concerning one little Frenchman whom two tall British grenadiers were guiding down the cliff towards the road. And against my will I had to drop my cigarette and laugh aloud: for the two guides were themselves unsteady, yet as desperately intent upon the job as though they handled a chest of treasure. Now they would prop him up and run him over a few yards of easy ground: anon, at a sharp descent, one would clamber down ahead and catch the burden his comrade lowered by the collar, with a subsidiary grip upon belt or pantaloons. But to the Frenchman all smooth and rugged came alike: his legs sprawled impartially: and once, having floundered on top of the leading Samaritan with a shock which rolled the pair to the very verge of a precipice, he recovered himself, and sat up in an attitude which, at half a mile's distance, was eloquent of tipsy reproach. In short, when the procession had filed past the edge of my tent-flap, I crawled out to watch: and then it occurred to me as worth a lazy man's while to cross the Zapardiel by the pontoon bridge below and head these comedians off upon the highroad. They promised to repay a closer view.
So I did; gained the road, and, seating myself beside it, hailed them as they came.
"My friend," said I to the leading grenadier, "you are taking a deal of trouble with your prisoner."
The grenadier stared at his comrade, and his comrade at him. As if by signal they mopped their brows with their coat-sleeves. The Frenchman sat down on the road without more ado.
"Prisoner?" mumbled the first grenadier.
"Ay," said I. "Who is he? He doesn't look like a general of brigade."
"Devil take me if I know. Who will he be, Bill?"
Bill stared at the Frenchman blankly, and rooted him out of the dust with his toe. "I wonder, now! 'Picked him up, somewheres—Get up, you little pig, and carry your liquor like a gentleman. It was Mike intojuced him."
"I did not," said Mike.
"Very well, then, ye did not. I must have come by him some other way."
"It was yourself tripped over him in the cellar, up yandhar." He broke off and eyed me, meditating a sudden thought. "It seems mighty queer, that—speaking of a cellar as 'up yandhar.' Now a cellar, by rights, should be in the ground, under your fut."
"And so it is," argued Bill; "slap in the bowels of it."
"Ah, be quiet wid your bowels! As I was saying, sor, Bill tripped over the little fellow: and the next I knew he was crying to be tuk home to camp, and Bill swearing to do it if it cost him his stripes. And that is where I come into this fatigue job: for the man's no friend of mine, and will not be looking it, I hope."
"Did I so?" Bill exclaimed, regarding himself suddenly from outside, as it were, and not without admiration. "Did I promise that? Well, then"—he fixed a sternly disapproving stare on the Frenchman— "the Lord knows what possessed me; but to the bridgehead you go, if I fight the whole of Clausel's division single-handed. Take his feet, Mike; I'm a man of my word. Hep!—ready is it? For'ard!"
For a minute or so, as they staggered down the road, I stared after them; and then upon an impulse mounted the track by which they had descended.
It was easy enough, or they had never come down alive; but the sun's rays smote hotly off the face of the rock, and at one point I narrowly missed being brained by a stone dislodged by some drunkard above me. Already, however, the stream of tipplers had begun to set back towards the camp, and my main difficulty was to steer against it, avoiding disputes as to the rule of the road. I had no intention of climbing to the castle: my whim was—and herein again I set my training a test—to walk straight to the particular opening from which, across the Zapardiel, I had seen my comedians emerge.
I found it, not without difficulty—a broad archway of rock, so low that a man of ordinary stature must stoop to pass beneath it; with, for threshold, a sill of dry fine earth which sloped up to a ridge immediately beneath the archway, and on the inner side dipped down into darkness so abruptly that as I mounted on the outer side I found myself staring, at a distance of two yards or less, into the face of an old man seated within the cave, out of which his head and shoulders arose into view as if by magic.
"Ah!" said he calmly. "Good evening, senor. You will find good entertainment within." He pointed past him into absolute night, or so it seemed to my dazzled eyes.
He spoke in Spanish, which is my native tongue—although not my ancestral one. And as I crouched to pass the archway I found time to speculate on his business in this cavern. For clearly he had not come hither to drink, and as clearly he had nothing to do with either army. At first glance I took him for a priest; but his bands, if he wore them, were hidden beneath a dark poncho fitting tightly about his throat, and his bald head baffled any search for a tonsure. Although a small book lay open on his lap, I had interrupted no reading; for when I came upon him his spectacles were perched high over his brows and gleamed upon me like a duplicate pair of eyes. He was patently sober, too, which perhaps came as the greatest shock of all to me, after meeting so many on my path who were patently the reverse.
I answered his salutation. "But you will pardon me, excellent sir, for saying that you perhaps mistake the entertainment I seek. We gentlemen of Spain are temperate livers, and I will confess that curiosity alone has brought me—or say, rather, the fame of your wonderful cellars of Rueda."
I put it thus, thinking he might perhaps be some official of the caves or of the castle above. But he let the shot pass. His lean hands from the first had been fumbling with his poncho, to throw back the folds of it in courtesy to a stranger; but this seemed no easy matter, and at a sign from me he desisted.
"I can promise you," he answered, "nothing more amusing than the group with which you paused to converse just now by the road."
"Eh? You saw me?"
"I was watching from the path outside; for I too can enjoy a timely laugh."
No one, I am bound to say, would have guessed it. With his long scrag neck and great moons of spectacles, which he had now drawn down, the better to study me, he suggested an absurd combination of the vulture and the owl.
"Dios! You have good eyes, then."
"For long distances. But they cannot see Salamanca." His gaze wandered for a moment to the entrance beyond which, far below and away, a sunny landscape twinkled, and he sighed. But before I could read any meaning in the words or the sigh, his spectacles were turned upon me again. "You are Spanish?" he asked abruptly.
"Of Castile, for that matter; though not, I may own to you, of pure descent. I come from Aranjuez, where a Scottish ancestor, whose name I bear, settled and married soon after the War of Succession."
"A Scot?" He leaned forward, and his hands, which had been resting on his lap, clutched the book nervously. "Of the Highlands?"
I nodded, wondering at his agitation.
"Even so, senor."
"They say that all Scotsmen in Spain know one another. Tell me, my son "—he was a priest, then, after all—"tell me, for the love of God, if you know where to find a certain Manuel McNeill, who, I hear, is a famous scout."
"That, reverend father, is not always easy, as the French would tell you; but for me, here, it happens to be very easy indeed, seeing that I am the unworthy sinner you condescend to compliment."
"You?" He drew back, incredulous. "You?" he repeated, thrusting the book into his pocket and groping on the rocky soil beside him. "The finger of God, then, is in this. What have I done with my candle? Ah, here it is. Oblige me by holding it—so—while I strike a light." I heard the rattle of a tinder-box. "They sell these candles"—here he caught a spark and blew—"they sell these candles at the castle above. The quality is indifferent and the price excessive; but I wander at night and pick up those which the soldiers drop—an astonishing number, I can assure you. See, it is lit!" He stretched out a hand and took the candle from me. "Be careful of your footsteps, for the floor is rough."
"But, pardon me; before I follow, I have a right to know upon what business."
He turned and peered at me, holding the candle high. "You are suspicious," he said, almost querulously.
"It goes with my trade."
"I take you to one who will be joyful to see you. Will that suffice, my son?"
"Your description, reverend father, would include many persons—from the Duke of Ragusa downwards—whom, nevertheless, I have no desire to meet."
"Well, I will tell you, though I was planning it for a happy surprise. This person is a kinsman of yours—a Captain Alan McNeill."
I stepped back a pace and eyed him. "Then," said I, "your story will certainly not suffice; for I know it to be impossible. It was only last April that I took leave of Captain Alan McNeill on the road to Bayonne and close to the frontier. He was then a prisoner under escort, with a letter from Marmont ordering the Governor of Bayonne to clap him in irons and forward him to Paris, where (the Marshal hinted) no harm would be done by shooting him."
"Then he must have escaped."
"Pardon me, that again is impossible; for I should add that he was under some kind of parole."
"A prisoner under escort, in irons—condemned, or at least intended, to be shot—and all the while under parole! My friend, that must surely have been a strange kind of parole!"
"It was, and, saving your reverence, a cursed dirty kind. But it sufficed for my kinsman, as I know to my cost. For with the help of the partidas I rescued him, close to the frontier; and he—like the fool, or like the noble gentleman he was—declined his salvation, released the escort (which we had overpowered), shook hands with us, and rode forward to his death."
"A brave story."
"You would say so, did you know the whole of it. There is no man alive whose hand I could grasp as proudly as I grasped his at the last: and no other, alive or dead, of whom I could say, with the same conviction, that he made me at once think worse of myself and better of human nature."
"He seems, then, to have a mania for improving his fellow-men; for," said my guide, still pausing with the candle aloft and twinkling on his spectacles, "I assure you he has been trying to make a Lutheran of me!"
Wholly incredulous as I was, this took me fairly between wind and water. "Did he," I stammered, "did he happen to mention the Scarlet Woman?"
"Several times: though (in justice to his delicacy, I must say it) only in his delirium."
"He has been ill; almost desperately ill. A case of sunstroke, I believe. Do I understand that you believe sufficiently to follow me?"
"I cannot say that I believe. Yet if it be not Captain Alan McNeill, and if for some purpose which—to be frank with you—I cannot guess, I am being walked into a trap, you may take credit to yourself that it has been well, nay excellently, invented. I pay you that compliment beforehand, and for my kinsman's sake, or for the sake of his memory, I accept the risk."
"There is no risk," answered the reverend father, at once leading the way: "none, that is to say, with me to guide you."
"There is risk, then, in some degree?"
"We skirt a labyrinth," he answered quietly. "You will have observed, of course, that no one has passed us or disturbed our talk. To be sure, the archway under which you found me is one of the 'false entrances,' as they are called, of Rueda cellars. There are a dozen between this and the summit, and perhaps half a dozen below, which give easy access to the wine-vaults, and in any of which a crowd of goers and comers would have incommoded us. For the soldiers would seem—and very wisely, I must allow—to follow a chart and confine themselves to the easier outskirts of these caves. Wisely, because the few cellars they visit contain Val de Penas enough to keep two armies drunk until either Wellington enters Madrid or Marmont recaptures Salamanca. But they are not adventurous: and the few who dare, though no doubt they penetrate to better wine, are not in the end to be envied. . . . Now this passage of ours is popularly, but quite erroneously, supposed to lead nowhere, and is therefore by consent avoided."
"Excuse me," said I, "but it was precisely by this exit that I saw emerge three men as honestly drunk as any three I have met in my life."
For the moment he seemed to pay no heed, but stooped and held the candle low before his feet.
"The path, you perceive, here shelves downwards. By following it we should find ourselves, after ten minutes or so, at the end of a cul de sac. But see this narrow ledge to the right—pay particular heed to your footsteps here, I pray you: it curves to the right, broadening ever so little before it disappears around the corner: yet here lies the true path, and you shall presently own it an excellent one." He sprang forward like a goat, and turning, again held the candle low that I might plant my feet wisely. Sure enough, just around the corner the ledge widened at once, and we passed into a new gallery.
"Ah, you were talking of those three drunkards? Well, they must have emerged by following this very path."
"Excuse me, but for a scout whose fame is acknowledged, you seem fond of a word which Bonaparte (we are told) has banished from the dictionaries. Ask yourself, now. They were assuredly drunk, and your own eyes have assured you there is no wine between us and daylight. My son, I have inhabited Rueda long enough to acquire a faith in miracles, even had I brought none with me. Along this ledge our three drunkards strolled like children out of the very womb of earth. They will never know what they escaped: should the knowledge ever come to them it ought to turn their hair grey then and there."
"Children and drunkards," said I. "You know the byword?"
"And might believe it—but for much evidence on the other side."
But I was following another thought, and for the moment did not hear him closely. "I suppose, then, the owners guard the main entrances, but leave such as this, for instance, to be defended by their own difficulty?"
"Why should any be guarded?" he asked, pausing to untie a second candle from the bunch he had suspended from his belt.
"Eh? Surely to leave all this wine exposed in a world of thieves—"
The reverend father smiled as he lit the new candle from the stump of his old one. "No doubt the wine-growers did not contemplate a visit from two armies, and such very thirsty ones. The peasants hereabouts are abstemious, and the few thieves count for no more than flies. For the rest—"
He was stooping again, with his candle all but level with the ledge and a few inches wide of it. Held so, it cast a feeble ray into the black void below us: and down there—thirty feet down perhaps—as his talk broke in two like a snapped guitar-string, my eyes caught a blur of scarlet.
"For God's sake," I cried, "hold the light steady!"
"To what purpose?" he asked grimly. "That is one whom Providence did not lead out to light. See, he is broken to pieces—you can tell from the way he lies; and dead, too. My son, the caves of Rueda protect themselves."
He shuffled to the end of the ledge, and there, at the entrance of a dark gallery, so low that our heads almost knocked against the rock-roof, he halted again and leaned his ear against the wall on the right.
"Sometimes where the wall is thin I have heard them crying and beating on it with their fists."
I shivered. The reader knows me by this time for a man of fair courage: but the bravest man on earth may be caught off his own ground, and I do not mind confessing that here was a situation for which a stout parentage and a pretty severe training had somehow failed to provide. In short, as my guide pushed forward, I followed in knock-knee'd terror. I wanted to run. I told myself that if this indeed were a trap, and he should turn and rush upon me, I was as a child at his mercy. And he might do worse: he might blow out the light and disappear. As the gallery narrowed and at the same time contracted in height, so that at length we were crawling on hands and knees, this insanity grew. Two or three times I felt for my knife, with an impulse to drive it through his back, seize the candles and escape: nor at this moment can I say what restrained me.
At length, and after crawling for at least two hundred yards, without any warning he stood erect: and this was the worst moment of all. For as he did so the light vanished—or so nearly as to leave but the feeblest glimmer, the reason being (and I discovered it with a sob) that he stood in an ample vaulted chamber while I was yet beneath the roof of the tunnel. The first thing I saw on emerging beside him was the belly of a great wine-tun curving out above my head, its recurve hidden, lost somewhere in upper darkness: and the first thing I heard was the whip of a bat's wing by the candle. My guide beat it off.
"Better take a candle and light it from mine. These creatures breed here in thousands—hear them now above us!"
"But what is that other sound?" I asked, and together we moved towards it.
Three enormous tuns stood in the chamber, and we halted by the base of the farthest, where, with a spilt pail beside him, lay a British sergeant of the 36th Regiment tranquilly snoring! That and no other was the sound, and a blesseder I never heard. I could have kicked the fellow awake for the mere pleasure of shaking hands with him. My guide moved on.
"But we are not going to leave him here!"
"Oh, as for that, his sleep is good for hours to come. If you choose, we can pick him up on our return."
So we left him, and now I went forward with a heart strangely comforted, although on leaving the great cellar I knew myself hopelessly lost. Hitherto I might have turned, and, fortune aiding, have found daylight: but beyond the cellar the galleries ramified by the score, and we walked so rapidly and chose between them with such apparent lack of method that I lost count. My one consolation was the memory of a burly figure in scarlet supine beneath a wine-tun.
I was thinking of him when, at the end of a passage to me indistinguishable from any of the dozen or so we had already followed, my guide put out a hand, and, drawing aside a goatskin curtain, revealed a small chamber with a lamp hanging from the roof, and under the lamp a bed of straw, and upon the bed an emaciated man, propped and holding a book.
His eyes were on the entrance; for he had heard our footsteps. And almost we broke into one cry of joy. It was indeed my kinsman, Captain McNeill!
CAPTAIN MCNEILL'S ADVENTURES.
"But how on earth came you here?" was the unspoken question in the eyes of both of us; and, each reading the reflection of his own, we both broke out together into a laugh—though my kinsman's was all but inaudible—and after it he lay back on his pillow (an old knapsack) and panted.
"My story must needs be the shorter," said I; "so let us have it over and get it out of the way. I come from watching Caffarelli in the north, and for the last four days have been taking a holiday and twiddling my fingers in camp here, just across the Zapardiel. Happening this afternoon to stroll to this amazing rock, I fell in with the reverend father here, and most incautiously told him my name: since which he has been leading me a dance which may or may not have turned my hair grey."
"The reverend father?" echoed Captain Alan.
"He has not," said I, turning upon my guide, who stood apart with a baffling smile, "as yet done me the honour to reciprocate my weak confidences."
Captain Alan too stared at him. "Are you a priest, sir?" he demanded.
He was answered by a bow. "You didn't know it?" cried I. "It's the one thing he has allowed me to discover."
"But I understood that you were a scholar, sir—"
"The two callings are not incompatible, I hope?"
"—of the University of Salamanca: a Doctor, too. My memory is yet weak, but surely I had it from your own lips that you were a Doctor?"
"—of Moral Philosophy," the old man answered with another bow. "Of the College of the Conception—now, alas! destroyed."
"The care with which you have tended me, sir, has helped my mistake: and now my gratitude for it must help my apologies. I fear I have, from time to time, allowed my tongue to take many liberties with your profession."
"You have, to be sure, been somewhat hard with us."
"My prejudice is an honest one, sir."
"Of that there can be no possible doubt."
"But it must frequently have pained you."
"Not the least in the world," the old Doctor assured him, almost with bonhomie. "Besides, you were suffering from sunstroke."
My kinsman eyed him; and I could have laughed to watch it—that gaze betrayed a faint expiring hope that, after all, his diatribes against the Scarlet Woman had shaken the Doctor—upon whom (I need scarcely say) they had produced about as much effect as upon the rock of Rueda itself. And I think that, though regretfully, he must at length have realised this, for he sank back on the pillow again with a gentle weariness in every line of his Don Quixote face.
"Ah, yes, from sunstroke! My cousin"—here he turned towards me—"this gentleman—or, as I must now learn to call him, this most reverend Doctor of Philosophy, Gil Gonsalvez de Covadonga—found me some days ago stretched unconscious beside the highroad to Tordesillas, and in two ways has saved my life: first, by conveying me to this hiding-place, for the whole terrain was occupied by Marmont's troops, and I lay there in my scarlet tunic, a windfall for the first French patrol that might pass; and, secondly, by nursing me through delirium back to health of mind and strength of body."
"The latter has yet to come, Senor Capitano," the Doctor interposed.
And I: "My cousin, your distaste for disguise will yet be the death of you. But tell me, what were you doing in this neighbourhood?"
"Why, watching Marmont, to be sure, as my orders were."
"Your orders? You don't mean to tell me that Lord Wellington knows of your return!"
"I reported myself to him on the nineteenth of last month in the camp on San Christoval: he gave me my directions that same evening."
"But, Heavens!" I cried, "it is barely a week ago that I returned from the north and had an hour's interview with him; and he never mentioned your name, though aware (as he must be) that no news in the world could give me more joy."
"Is that so, cousin?" He gazed at me earnestly and wistfully, as I thought.
"You know it is so," I answered, turning my face away that he might not see my emotion.
"As for Lord Wellington's silence," Captain Alan went on, after musing a while, "he has a great capacity for it, as you know; and perhaps he has persuaded himself that we work better apart. Our later performances in and around Sabugal might well excuse that belief."
"But now I suppose you have some message for him. Is it urgent? Or will you satisfy me first how you came here—you, whom I left a prisoner on the road to Bayonne and, as I desperately thought, to execution?"
"There is no message, for I broke down before my work had well recommenced; and Wellington knows of my illness and my whereabouts, so there is no urgency."
He glanced at the Doctor and so did I. "The reverend father's behaviour assuredly suggested urgency," I said.
"And was there none?" asked the old man quietly. "You sons of war chase the oldest of human illusions: to you nothing is of moment but the impact of brutal forces or the earthly cunning which arrays and moves them. To me all this is less hateful than contemptible, in moment not comparable with the joy of a single human soul. Believe me, my sons, although the French have destroyed my peerless University—fortis Salamantina, arx sapientia—I were less eager to hurry God's avenging hand on them than to bring together two souls which in the pure joy of meeting soar for a moment together, and, fraternising, forget this world. Nay, deny it not: for I saw it, standing by. Least of all be ashamed of it."
"I am not sure that I understand you, holy father," I answered. "But you have done us a true service, and shall be rewarded by a confession—from a stubborn heretic, too." I glanced at Captain Alan mischievously.
My kinsman put up a hand in protest.
"Oh, I will prepare the way for you," said I: "and by and by you will be astonished to find how easy it comes." I turned to the Doctor Gonsalvez. "You must know, then, my father, that the Captain and I, though we follow the same business and with degrees of success we are too amiable to dispute about, yet employ very different methods. He, for instance, scorns disguises, while I pride myself upon mine. And, by the way, as a Professor of Moral Philosophy, you are doubtless used to deciding questions of casuistry?"
"For twenty years, more or less, I have presided at the public disputations in the Sala del Claustro of our University."
"Then perhaps you will resolve me the moral difference between hiding in a truss of hay and hiding under a wig? For, in faith, I can see none."
"That is matter for the private conscience," broke in Captain Alan.
"Pardon me," suggested the Doctor; "you promised me a narrative, I believe."
"We'll proceed, then. Our methods—this, at least, is important—were different: which made it the more distressing that the similarity of our names confused us in our enemies' minds, who grossly mistook us for one and the same person: which not only humiliated us as artists but ended in positive inconvenience. At Sabugal, in April last, after a bewildering comedy of errors, the Duke of Ragusa captured my kinsman here, and held him to account for some escapade of mine, of which, as a matter of fact, he had no knowledge whatever. You follow me?"
The Doctor nodded gravely.
"Well, Marmont showed no vindictiveness, but said in effect, 'You have done, sir, much damage to our arms, and without stretching a point I might have you hanged for a spy. I shall, however, treat you leniently, and send you to France into safe keeping, merely exacting your promise that you will not consent to be released by any of the partidas on the journey through Spain.' My cousin might have answered that he had never done an hour's scouting in his life save in the uniform of a British officer, and nothing whatever to deserve the death of a spy. Suspecting, however, that I might be mixed up in the business, he gave his parole and set out for the frontier under the guard of a young cavalry officer and one trooper.
"Meanwhile I had word of his capture: and knowing nothing of this parole, I posted to Lord Wellington, obtained a bond for twelve thousand francs payable for my kinsman's rescue, sought out the guerilla chief, Mina, borrowed two men on Wellington's bond—the scoundrel would lend no more—and actually brought off the rescue at Beasain, a few miles on this side of the frontier. One of our shots broke the young officer's sword-arm, the trooper was pitched from his horse and stunned, and behold! my kinsman in our hands, safe and sound.
"It was then, reverend father, that I first heard of his parole. He informed me of it, and while thanking me for my succour, refused to accept it. 'Very well done,' say you as a Doctor of Morality. But meanwhile I was searching the young officer, and finding a letter upon him from the Duke of Ragusa, broke the seal. 'Not so well done,' say you: but again wait a moment. This letter was addressed to the Governor of Bayonne, and gave orders that Captain McNeill, as a spy and a dangerous man, should be forwarded to Paris in irons. There was also a hint that a request for his execution might accompany him to Paris. And this was a prisoner who, on promise of clemency, had given his parole! Now what, in your opinion, was a fair course for our friend here, on proof of this dirty treachery?"
"We will reserve this as Question Number Two," answered the Doctor gravely, "and proceed with the narrative, which (I opine) goes on to say that Captain McNeill preferred his oath to the excuse for considering it annulled, collected his escort, shook hands with you, and went forward to his fate."
"A man must save his soul," Captain McNeill explained modestly.
"You are to me, sir, a heretic (pardon my saying it); which prevents me from taking as cheerful a view as I could wish concerning your soul. But assuredly you saved your honour."
"Well, I hope so," the Captain answered, picking up the story: "but really, in the sequel, I had to take some decisions which, obvious as they seemed at the time, have since caused me grave searchings of heart, and upon which I shall be grateful for your opinion."
"Am I appealed to as a priest?"
"Most certainly not, but as a Professor—a title for which, by the way, we have in Scotland an extraordinary reverence. I rode on, sir, with my escort, and that night we reached Tolosa, where the young Lieutenant— his name was Gerard—found a surgeon to set his bone. He suffered considerable pain, yet insisted next morning upon proceeding with me. I imagine his motives to have been mixed; but please myself with thinking that a latent desire to serve me made one of them. On the other hand, the seal of Marmont's letter had been broken in his keeping; a serious matter for a young officer, and one which he would naturally desire to defer explaining. At Tolosa he accounted for his wound by some tale of brigands and a chance shot at long range. On the morrow we rode to Irun and crossed the Bidassoa. We were now on French soil. Throughout the morning he had spoken little, and I too had preferred my own thoughts. But now, as we broke our fast and cracked a bottle together at the first tavern on the French shore, I opened fire by asking him if he yet carried the Marshal's letter with the broken seal. 'To be sure,' said he. 'And what will you do with it?' I went on. 'Why, deliver it, I suppose, to the Governor of Bayonne, to whom it is addressed.' 'And, when asked to account for the broken seal, you will tell him the exact truth about it and the rescue?' 'I must,' he answered; 'and I hope my report will help you, sir. It will not be my fault if it does not.' 'You are an excellent fellow,' said I; 'but it will help me little. You do not know the contents of that letter as I do—not willingly, but because it was read aloud in my presence by the man who opened it.' And, before he could remonstrate, I had told him its purport. Now, sir, that was not quite fair to the young man, and I am not sure that it was strictly honourable?"
Captain McNeill paused with a question in his voice."
"Proceed, sir," said the Doctor: "I reserve this as Question Number Three, remarking only that the young man owed you something for having saved his life."
"Just so; and that is where the unfairness came in. He was inexpressibly shocked. 'Why,' he cried, 'the Marshal had put you under parole!' 'So far as the frontier,' said I. 'The promise upon which I swore was that I would not consent to be released by the partidas on my journey through Spain. Once in France, I could not escape his vengeance. Now for this very reason I have a right to interpret my promise strictly, and I consider that during the past half-hour my parole has expired.' 'I cannot deny it,' he allowed, and took a pace or two up and down the room, then halted in front of me. 'You would suggest, sir, that since this letter was taken from me by the partidas, and you and I alone know that it was restored, I owe you the favour of suppressing it.' 'Good Heavens! my young friend,' I exclaimed, 'I suggest nothing of the sort. I may ask you to risk for my sake a professional ambition which is very dear to you, but certainly not to imperil your young soul by a falsehood. No, sir, if you will deliver me to the Governor of Bayonne as a prisoner on honourable parole—which I will renew here and extend to the gates of that city only—and will then request an interview for the purpose of delivering your letter and explaining how the seal came to be broken, with Joly'— this was the trooper—'for witness, you will gain me all the time I hope to need.' 'That will be little enough,' objected he. 'I must make the most of it,' said I; 'and we must manage to time our arrival for the evening, when the Governor will either be supping or at the theatre, that the delay, if possible, may be of his creating.' 'I owe you more than this,' said the ingenuous youth. 'And I, sir, am even ashamed of myself for asking so much,' I answered.
"Well, so we contrived it; entered Bayonne at nightfall, presented ourselves at the Citadel, and were, to our inexpressible joy, received by the Deputy-Governor, who heard the Lieutenant's report and endorsed the false paper of parole which Marmont had given me, and which, in fact, had now expired. The fatal letter Lieutenant Gerard kept in his pocket, while demanding an interview with the Governor himself. This (he was told) could not be granted until the morning—'the Governor was entertaining that night'—and with a well-feigned reluctance he saluted and withdrew. Outside the Deputy's door we parted without a word, and at the Citadel gate, having shown my pass, which left me free to seek lodgings in the city, I halted, and, under the sentry's nose, dropped a note into the Governor's letter-box. I had written it at Hendaye, and addressed it to the Duke of Ragusa; and it ran—
"MONSIEUR LE MARECHAL,—I send this under cover of the Governor from the city of Bayonne, out of which I hope to escape to-night, having come so far in obedience to my word, which appears to be more sacred than that of a Marshal of France. My escort having been overpowered between Vittoria and Tolosa, I declined the rescue offered me, but not before your letter to the Governor had been broken open and its contents read, in my presence. This letter also I saw restored to its bearer, who during its perusal lay unconscious, of a severe and painful wound in his sword-arm. I beg to assure you that he has behaved in all respects as a gentleman of courage and honour: and, conceiving that you owe me some reparation, I shall rely on you that his prospects as a soldier are not in any way compromised by the miscarriage of your benevolent plans concerning me."
I laughed aloud, and even the Doctor relaxed his features.
"Bravo, kinsman!" said I. "If Marmont hates one thing more than another it's to see his majestic image diminished in the looking-glass. But— faith! I'd have kept that letter in my pocket until I was many miles south of Bayonne."
"South? You don't suppose I had any intention of escaping towards the Pyrenees? Why, my dear fellow, that's the very direction in which they were bound to search."
"Oh, very well," said I—a trifle nettled, I will confess—"perhaps you preferred Paris!"
"Precisely," was the cool answer. "I preferred Paris: and having but an hour or two to spare before the hotels closed, I at once inquired at the chief hotels if any French officer were starting that night for the capital. The first-named, if I remember, the Hotel du Sud—I drew blank. At the second, the Trois Couronnes, I was informed that a chaise and four had been ordered by no less a man than General Souham, who would start that night as soon as he returned from supping with the Governor. I waited: the General arrived a few minutes before ten o'clock: I introduced myself—"
"General Souham," I groaned. "Reverend father, I have not yet tasted the wine of Rueda: it appears to me that the fumes are strong enough. He tells me he introduced himself to General Souham!"
"—and, I assure you, found him excellent company. We travelled three in the chaise—the General, his aide-de-camp, and your fortunate kinsman. A second chaise followed with the General's baggage. He and the aide-de-camp at times beguiled the road with a game of picquet: for myself, I disapprove of cards."
"Doubtless you told them so at an early stage?" I suggested, with a last effort at irony.
"I was obliged to, seeing that the General challenged me to a partie; but I did not, I hope, adopt a tone inconsistent with good fellowship. We travelled through to Paris, with a few hours' break at Orleans—an opportunity which I seized to purchase a suit of clothes more congruous than my uniform with the part I had to play in Paris. I had ventured to ask General Souham's advice, and he assured me that a British officer, though a prisoner on parole, might incur some risk from the Parisian mob by wearing his uniform in public."
"Cousin," said I, "henceforth pursue your tale without interruption. There was a time when, in my folly, I presumed to criticise your methods. I apologise."
"On leaving the tailor's shop I was accosted by a wretched creature who had seen me alight from the chaise in His Majesty's uniform, and had followed, but did not venture to introduce himself until I emerged in a less compromising garb. He was, it appeared, a British agent—and a traitor to his own country—and I gathered that a part of his dirty trade lay in assisting British prisoners to break their parole. He assumed that I travelled on parole, and insinuated that I might have occasion to break it: and, with all the will in the world to crack his head, I let the mistake and suspicion pass. For a napoleon I received the address of a Parisian agent in the Rue Carcassonne, whose name I will confide in you, in case you should ever require his services. For truly, although I had some difficulty in persuading him that I broke no faith in seeking to escape from France (a point in which self-respect obliged me to insist, though he himself treated it with irritating nonchalance), this agent proved a zealous fellow, and served me well.
"He fell in, too, with my proposals, complimented me on their boldness, and advanced me money to further them. I took a lodging au troisieme in the Faubourg St. Honore, and for a fortnight walked Paris without an attempt at concealment, frequenting the cafes, and spending my evenings at the theatre. Once or twice I encountered Souham himself, with whom I had parted on the friendliest terms: but he did not choose to recognise me—perhaps he had his good-natured suspicions. I lived unchallenged, though walking all the while on a razor's edge. I had reckoned on two fair chances in my favour. There was a chance that the Governor of Bayonne, on finding himself tricked, would for his own security suppress Marmont's letter, trusting that the affair would pass without inquiry: and there was the further chance that Marmont himself, on receipt of my note, would remember the magnanimity which (to do him justice) he usually has at call, and give orders whistling off the pursuit. At any rate, I spent a fortnight in Paris; and no man questioned or troubled me.
"On the same morning that I paid my second weekly bill the agent called on me with a capital plan of escape, which (being a facetious fellow) he announced as follows: 'I wish you good morning, Mr. Buck,' he began. 'Sir,' I answered, 'I have no claim to such a designation. My pleasures in Paris have been entirely respectable, and I dislike familiarity.' 'Mr. Jonathan Buck, I should have said.' 'Sir,' I corrected him, 'if your clients are so numerous that you confuse their names, I must remind you that mine is McNeill.' 'Pardon me,' he replied, 'you have this morning inherited that of an American citizen who died suddenly last evening in an obscure lodging near the Barriere de Pantin; and, in addition, a passport now waiting for him at the Foreign Office, if you have the courage to claim it. You resemble the deceased sufficiently to answer a passport's description: and if you secure it, I advise a speedy departure, with Nantes for your objective.' Accordingly, that same evening I left Paris for the Loire."
"You had the coolness to apply for that passport?"
"And the good fortune to obtain it. If anything, my dear fellow, deserves the degree of astonishment your face expresses, it should rather be my consenting to use disguise, and so breaking through a self-denying ordinance on which you have sometimes rallied me. Suspense—the danger from Bayonne hourly anticipated—had perhaps shaken my nerves. To be brief, I travelled to Nantes as Mr. Jonathan Buck, and in that name took passage in a vessel bound for Philadelphia and on the point (as I understood) of lifting anchor.
"I slept that night on board the Minnie Dwight—this was the vessel's name—in full hope that my troubles were at an end. But next morning her captain came to me with a long face and a report that some hitch had occurred between him and the port authorities over his clearing-papers. 'And how long will this detain us?' I asked, cutting short an explanation too technical for my understanding. He answered that he had been to his Consul to protest, but could promise nothing short of a week's delay.
"Well, I saw nothing for it but to shut the cabin-door, make a clean breast of my fears, and desire him to help me in devising some new plan. He was a good fellow, and ingenious too; for after he had dashed up my hopes with the news that a similar embargo lay on all foreign ships in the port, his face cleared, and, said he, 'There's no help for it, but you must play the sea-lawyer and I the brutal tyrant. It's hard, too, upon a man who treats his crew like his own children, and victuals his ship like an eating-house: but a seaman's rig and forty dollars is all you need, and with this you'll fare off to the American Consul's and swear that I've made life a burden to you.' 'Why forty dollars?' I asked. He winked. 'That's earnest money that when you reach the United States you'll have the law of me for ill-usage.' 'And what shall I get in exchange?' 'You will get a certificate enabling you to pass from port as a discharged sailor seeking a ship.' I thanked him warmly, and agreed; climbed down the ship's side in my new rig, waved an affecting farewell to my benevolent tyrant, and sought the American Consul who (it seemed) was used to discontented seamen. At all events, he accepted without suspicion his share in the dishonouring comedy, took my forty dollars, and made out my certificate."
Here the Captain glanced at Doctor Gonsalvez, who blinked.
Said I: "Even a Protestant must sometimes understand the relief of confession."
"Armed with this," he went on, "I made my way to the mouth of the Loire, to St. Nazaire, between which and Le Croisic lies a small island where, in the present weakness of the French marine, English ships of war are suffered to water unmolested. For ten napoleons I bribed an old fisherman to row me out at night to this island, which we reached at daybreak, and to our dismay found the anchorage empty. We cast our nets, however, for a blind, and taking a few fish on our way, worked slowly down to the south-west, where my comrade (and a faithful one he proved) had heard reports of an English frigate nosing about the coast. Sure enough, between breakfast and noon we caught sight of her topmasts: but to reach her we must pass in full view and almost within point-blank range of a coast battery. We were scarcely abreast of it when a round-shot plumped into the sea ahead of us and brought us to, and almost at once a boatful of soldiers put off to board us.