[At this point the Author's MS. breaks off: what follows is the work of MR. A.T. QUILLER-COUCH.]
EVENTS OF THURSDAY: THE ASSEMBLY BALL
But I awoke to the chill reminder of dawn, and found myself no master even of cheerless mirth. I had supped with the Senatus Academicus of Cramond: so much my head informed me. It was Thursday, the day of the Assembly Ball. But the ball was fixed by the card for 8 P.M., and I had, therefore, twelve mortal hours to wear through as best I could. Doubtless it was this reflection which prompted me to leap out of bed instanter and ring for Mr. Rowley and my shaving water.
Mr. Rowley, it appeared, was in no such hurry. I tugged a second time at the bell-rope. A groan answered me: and there in the doorway stood, or rather titubated, my paragon of body-servants. He was collarless, unkempt; his face a tinted map of shame and bodily disorder. His hand shook on the hot-water can, and spilled its contents into his shoes. I opened on him with a tirade, but had no heart to continue. The fault, after all, was mine: and it argued something like heroism in the lad that he had fought his nausea down and come up to time.
"But not smiling," I assured him.
"O, please, Mr. Anne. Go on, sir; I deserve it. But I'll never do it again, strike me sky-blue scarlet!"
"In so far as that differed from your present colouring, I believe," said I, "it would be an improvement."
"Never again, Mr. Anne."
"Certainly not, Rowley. Even to good men this may happen once: beyond that, carelessness shades off into depravity."
"You gave a good deal of trouble last night. I have yet to meet Mrs. McRankine."
"As for that, Mr. Anne," said he, with an incongruous twinkle in his bloodshot eye, "she've been up with a tray: dry toast and a pot of tea. The old gal's bark is worse than her bite, sir, begging your pardon, and meaning as she's a decent one, she is."
"I was fearing that might be just the trouble," I answered.
One thing was certain. Rowley, that morning, should not be entrusted with a razor and the handling of my chin. I sent him back to his bed, with orders not to rise from it without permission; and went about my toilette deliberately. In spite of the lad, I did not enjoy the prospect of Mrs. McRankine.
I enjoyed it so little, indeed, that I fell to poking the sitting-room fire when she entered with the Mercury; and read the Mercury assiduously while she brought in breakfast. She set down the tray with a slam and stood beside it, her hands on her hips, her whole attitude breathing challenge.
"Well, Mrs. McRankine?" I began, upturning a hypocritical eye from the newspaper.
"'Well,' is it? Nhm!"
I lifted the breakfast cover, and saw before me a damnatory red herring.
"Rowley was very foolish last night," I remarked, with a discriminating stress on the name.
"'The ass knoweth his master's crib.'" She pointed to the herring. "It's all ye'll get, Mr.—Ducie, if that's your name."
"Madam"—I held out the fish at the end of my fork—"you drag it across the track of an apology." I set it back on the dish and replaced the cover. "It is clear that you wish us gone. Well and good: grant Rowley a day for recovery, and to-morrow you shall be quit of us." I reached for my hat.
"Whaur are ye gaun?"
"To seek other lodgings."
"I'll no say—Man, man! have a care! And me beat to close an eye the nicht!" She dropped into a chair. "Nay, Mr. Ducie, ye daurna! Think o' that innocent lamb!"
"That little pig."
"He's ower young to die," sobbed my landlady.
"In the abstract I agree with you: but I am not aware that Rowley's death is required. Say rather that he is ower young to turn King's evidence." I stepped back from the door. "Mrs. McRankine," I said, "I believe you to be soft-hearted. I know you to be curious. You will be pleased to sit perfectly still and listen to me."
And, resuming my seat, I leaned across the corner of the table and put my case before her without suppression or extenuation. Her breathing tightened over my sketch of the duel with Goguelat; and again more sharply as I told of my descent of the rock. Of Alain she said, "I ken his sort," and of Flora twice, "I'm wonderin' will I have seen her?" For the rest she heard me out in silence, and rose and walked to the door without a word. There she turned. "It's a verra queer tale. If McRankine had told me the like, I'd have gien him the lie to his face."
Two minutes later I heard the vials of her speech unsealed abovestairs, with detonations that shook the house. I had touched off my rocket, and the stick descended—on the prostrate Rowley.
And now I must face the inert hours. I sat down, and read my way through the Mercury. "The escaped French soldier, Champdivers, who is wanted in connection with the recent horrid murder at the Castle, remains at large—" the rest but repeated the advertisement of Tuesday. "At large!" I set down the paper and turned to my landlady's library. It consisted of Derham's "Physico- and Astro-Theology," "The Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin," by one Taylor, D.D., "The Ready Reckoner or Tradesman's Sure Guide," and "The Path to the Pit delineated, with Twelve Engravings on Copper-plate." For distraction I fell to pacing the room, and rehearsing those remembered tags of Latin verse concerning which M. de Culemberg had long ago assured me, "My son, we know not when, but some day they will come back to you with solace if not with charm." Good man! My feet trod the carpet to Horace's Alcaics. Virtus recludensim meritis mori Coelum—h'm, h'm—raro—
raro antecedentem scelestum deseruit pede Poena claudo.
I paused by the window. In this there was no indiscretion; for a cold drizzle washed the panes, and the warmth of the apartment dimmed their inner surface.
"Pede Poena claudo," my finger traced the words on the damp glass.
A sudden clamour of the street-door bell sent me skipping back to the fire-place with my heart in my mouth. Interminable minutes followed, and at length Mrs. McRankine entered with my ball suit from the tailor's. I carried it into the next room, and disposed it on the bed—olive-green coat with gilt buttons and facings of watered silk, olive-green pantaloons, white waistcoat sprigged with blue and green forget-me-nots. The survey carried me on to midday and the midday meal.
The ministry of meal-time is twice blest: for prisoners and men without appetite it punctuates and makes time of eternity. I dawdled over my chop and pint of brown stout until Mrs. McRankine, after twice entering to clear away, with the face of a Cumaean sibyl, so far relaxed the tension of unnatural calm as to inquire if I meant to be all night about it.
The afternoon wore into dusk; and with dusk she re-appeared with a tea-tray. At six I retired to dress.
Behold me now issuing from my chamber, conscious of a well-fitting coat and a shapely pair of legs: the dignified simplicity of my tournure (simplicity so proper to the scion of an exiled house) relieved by a dandiacal hint of shirt-frill, and corrected into tenderness by the virgin waistcoat sprigged with forget-me-nots (for constancy), and buttoned with pink coral (for hope). Satisfied of the effect, I sought the apartment of Mr. Rowley of the Rueful Countenance, and found him less yellow, but still contrite, and listening to Mrs. McRankine, who sat with open book by his bedside, and plied him with pertinent dehortations from the Book of Proverbs.
"My heye, Mr. Hann, if that ain't up to the knocker!"
Mrs. McRankine closed the book, and conned me with austerer approval.
"Ye carry it well, I will say."
"It fits, I think."
I turned myself complacently about.
"The drink, I am meaning. I kenned McRankine."
"Shall we talk of business, madam? In the first place, the quittance for our board and lodging."
"I mak' it out on Saturdays."
"Do so; and deduct it out of this." I handed twenty-five of my guineas into her keeping; this left me with five and a crown piece in my pocket. "The balance, while it lasts, will serve for Rowley's keep and current expenses. Before long I hope he may lift the money which lies in the bank at his service, as he knows."
"But you'll come back, Mr. Anne?" cried the lad.
"I'm afraid it's a toss-up, my boy. Discipline, remember!"—for he was preparing to leap out of bed there and then—"You can serve me better in Edinburgh. All you have to do is to wait for a clear coast, and seek and present yourself in private before Mr. T. Robbie of Castle Street, or Miss Flora Gilchrist of Swanston Cottage. From either or both of these you will take your instructions. Here are the addresses."
"If that's a' your need for the lad," said Mrs. McRankine, "he'll be eating his head off: no' to say drinking." Rowley winced. "I'll tak' him on mysel'."
"My dear woman——"
"He'll be a brand frae the burnin': and he'll do to clean the knives."
She would hear no denial. I committed the lad to her in this double capacity; and equipped with a pair of goloshes from the wardrobe of the late McRankine, sallied forth upon the rain-swept street.
The card of admission directed me to Buccleuch Place, a little off George Square; and here I found a wet rag of a crowd gathered about a couple of lanterns and a striped awning. Beneath the awning a panel of light fell on the plashy pavement. Already the guests were arriving. I whipped in briskly, presented my card, and passed up a staircase decorated with flags, evergreens, and national emblems. A venerable flunkey waited for me at the summit. "Cloak lobby to the left, sir." I obeyed, and exchanged my overcoat and goloshes for a circular metal ticket. "What name, sir?" he purred over my card, as I lingered in the vestibule for a moment to scan the ball-room and my field of action: then, having cleared his throat, bawled suddenly, "Mr. Ducie!"
It might have been a stage direction. "A tucket sounds. Enter the Vicomte, disguised." To tell the truth, this entry was a daunting business. A dance had just come to an end; and the musicians in the gallery had fallen to tuning their violins. The chairs arrayed along the walls were thinly occupied, and as yet the social temperature scarce rose to thawing-point. In fact, the second-rate people had arrived, and from the far end of the room were nervously watching the door for notables. Consequently my entrance drew a disquieting fire of observation. The mirrors, reflectors, and girandoles had eyes for me; and as I advanced up the perspective of waxed floor, the very boards winked detection. A little Master of Ceremonies, as round as the rosette on his lapel, detached himself from the nearest group, and approached with something of a skater's motion and an insinuating smile.
"Mr.-a-Ducie, if I heard aright? A stranger, I believe, to our northern capital, and I hope a dancer?" I bowed. "Grant me the pleasure, Mr. Ducie, of finding you a partner."
"If," said I, "you would present me to the young lady yonder, beneath the musicians' gallery——" For I recognised Master Ronald's flame, the girl in pink of Mr. Robbie's party, to-night gowned in apple-green.
"Miss McBean—Miss Camilla McBean? With pleasure. Great discrimination you show, sir. Be so good as to follow me."
I was led forward and presented. Miss McBean responded to my bow with great play of shoulders; and in turn presented me to her mother, a moustachioed lady in stiff black silk, surmounted with a black cap and coquelicot trimmings.
"Any friend of Mr. Robbie's, I'm sure," murmured Mrs. McBean, affably inclining. "Look, Camilla dear—Sir William and Lady Frazer—in laylock sarsnet—how well that diamond bandeau becomes her! They are early to-night. As I was saying, Mr.——"
"To be sure. As I was saying, any friend of Mr. Robbie—one of my oldest acquaintance. If you can manage now to break him of his bachelor habits? You are making a long stay in Edinburgh?"
"I fear, madam, that I must leave it to-morrow."
"You have seen all our lions, I suppose? The Castle, now? Ah, the attractions of London!—now don't shake your head, Mr. Ducie. I hope I know a Londoner when I see one. And yet 'twould surprise you how fast we are advancing in Edinburgh. Camilla dear, that Miss Scrymgeour has edged her China crape with the very ribbon trimmings—black satin with pearl edge—we saw in that new shop in Princes Street yesterday: sixpenny width at the bottom, and three-three-farthings round the bodice. Perhaps you can tell me, Mr. Ducie, if it's really true that ribbon trimmings are the height in London and Bath this year?"
But the band struck up, and I swept the unresisting Camilla towards the set. After the dance, the ladies (who were kind enough to compliment me on my performance) suffered themselves to be led to the tea-room. By this time the arrivals were following each other thick and fast; and, standing by the tea-table, I heard name after name vociferated at the ball-room door, but never the name my nerves were on the strain to echo. Surely Flora would come: surely none of her guardians, natural or officious, would expect to find me at the ball. But the minutes passed, and I must convey Mrs. and Miss McBean back to their seats beneath the gallery.
"Miss Gilchrist—Miss Flora Gilchrist—Mr. Ronald Gilchrist! Mr. Robbie! Major Arthur Chevenix!"
The first name plumped like a shot across my bows, and brought me up standing—for a second only. Before the catalogue was out I had dropped the McBeans at their moorings, and was heading down on my enemies' line of battle. Their faces were a picture. Flora's cheek flushed, and her lips parted in the prettiest cry of wonder. Mr. Robbie took snuff. Ronald went red in the face, and Major Chevenix white. The intrepid Miss Gilchrist turned not a hair.
"What will be the meaning of this?" she demanded, drawing to a stand, and surveying me through her gold-rimmed eye-glass.
"Madam," said I, with a glance at Chevenix, "you may call it a cutting-out expedition."
"Miss Gilchrist," he began, "you will surely not—"
But I was too quick for him.
"Madam, since when has the gallant Major superseded Mr. Robbie as your family adviser?"
"H'mph!" said Miss Gilchrist; which in itself was not reassuring. But she turned to the lawyer.
"My dear lady," he answered her look, "this very imprudent young man seems to have burnt his boats, and no doubt recks very little if, in that heroical conflagration, he burns our fingers. Speaking, however, as your family adviser"—and he laid enough stress on it to convince me that there was no love lost between him and the interloping Chevenix—"I suggest that we gain nothing by protracting this scene in the face of a crowded assembly. Are you for the card-room, madam?"
She took his proffered arm, and they swept from us, leaving Master Ronald red and glum, and the Major pale but nonplussed.
"Four from six leaves two," said I; and promptly engaged Flora's arm, and towed her away from the silenced batteries.
"And now, my dear," I added, as we found two isolated chairs, "you will kindly demean yourself as if we were met for the first or second time in our lives. Open your fan—so. Now listen: my cousin, Alain, is in Edinburgh, at Dumbreck's Hotel. No, don't lower it."
She held up her fan, though her small wrist trembled.
"There is worse to come. He has brought Bow Street with him, and likely enough at this moment the runners are ransacking the city hot-foot for my lodgings."
"And you linger and show yourself here!—here of all places! O, it is mad! Anne, why will you be so rash?"
"For the simple reason that I have been a fool, my dear. I banked the balance of my money in George Street, and the bank is watched. I must have money to win my way south. Therefore I must find you and reclaim the notes you were kind enough to keep for me. I go to Swanston and find you under surveillance of Chevenix, supported by an animal called Towzer. I may have killed Towzer, by the way. If so, transported to an equal sky, he may shortly have the faithful Chevenix to bear him company. I grow tired of Chevenix."
But the fan dropped: her arms lay limp in her lap; and she was staring up at me piteously, with a world of self-reproach in her beautiful eyes.
"And I locked up the notes at home to-night—when I dressed for the ball—the first time they have left my heart! O, false!—false of trust that I am!"
"Why, dearest, that is not fatal, I hope. You reach home to-night—you slip them into some hiding—say in the corner of the wall below the garden——"
"Stop: let me think." She picked up her fan again, and behind it her eyes darkened while I watched and she considered. "You know the hill we pass before we reach Swanston?—it has no name, I believe, but Ronald and I have called it the Fish-back since we were children: it has a clump of firs above it like a fin. There is a quarry on the east slope. If you will be there at eight—I can manage it, I think, and bring the money."
"But why should you run the risk?"
"Please, Anne—O, please, let me do something! If you knew what it is to sit at home while your—your dearest——"
"THE VISCOUNT OF SAINT-YVES!"
The name, shouted from the doorway, rang down her faltering sentence as with the clash of an alarm bell. I saw Ronald—in talk with Miss McBean but a few yards away—spin round on his heel and turn slowly back on me with a face of sheer bewilderment. There was no time to conceal myself. To reach either the tea-room or the card-room, I must traverse twelve feet of open floor. We sat in clear view of the main entrance; and there already, with eye-glass lifted, raffish, flamboyant, exuding pomades and bad style, stood my detestable cousin. He saw us at once; wheeled right-about-face and spoke to some one in the vestibule; wheeled round again, and bore straight down, a full swagger varnishing his malign triumph. Flora caught her breath as I stood up to accost him.
"Good evening, my cousin! The newspaper told me you were favouring this city with a stay."
"At Dumbreck's Hotel: where, my dear Anne, you have not yet done me the pleasure to seek me out."
"I gathered," said I, "that you were forestalling the compliment. Our meeting, then, is unexpected?"
"Why, no; for, to tell you the truth, the secretary of the Ball Committee, this afternoon, allowed me a glance over his list of invites. I am apt to be nice about my company, cousin."
Ass that I was! I had never given this obvious danger so much as a thought.
"I fancy I have seen one of your latest intimates about the street."
He eyed me, and answered, with a bluff laugh, "Ah! You gave us the very devil of a chase. You appear, my dear Anne, to have a hare's propensity for running in your tracks. And begad, I don't wonder at it!" he wound up, ogling Flora with an insolent stare.
Him one might have hunted by scent alone. He reeked of essences.
"Present me, mon brave."
"I'll be shot if I do."
"I believe they reserve that privilege for soldiers," he mused.
"At any rate they don't extend it to——" I pulled up on the word. He had the upper hand, but I could at least play the game out with decency. "Come," said I, "contre-danse will begin presently. Find yourself a partner, and I promise you shall be our vis-a-vis."
"You have blood in you, my cousin."
He bowed, and went in search of the Master of Ceremonies. I gave an arm to Flora. "Well, and how does Alain strike you?" I asked.
"He is a handsome man," she allowed. "If your uncle had treated him differently, I believe——"
"And I believe that no woman alive can distinguish between a gentleman and a dancing-master! A posture or two, and you interpret worth. My dear girl—that fellow!"
She was silent. I have since learned why. It seems, if you please, that the very same remark had been made to her by that idiot Chevenix, upon me!
We were close to the door: we passed it, and I flung a glance into the vestibule. There, sure enough, at the head of the stairs, was posted my friend of the moleskin waistcoat, in talk with a confederate by some shades uglier than himself, a red-headed, loose-legged scoundrel in cinder-grey.
I was fairly in the trap. I turned, and between the moving crowd caught Alain's eye and his evil smile. He had found a partner: no less a personage than Lady Frazer of the lilac sarsnet and diamond bandeau.
For some unaccountable reason, in this infernal impasse my spirits began to rise, to soar. I declare it: I led Flora forward to the set with a gaiety which may have been unnatural, but was certainly not factitious. A Scotsman would have called me fey. As the song goes—and it matters not if I had it then, or read it later in my wife's library—
"Sae rantingly, sae wantonly, Sae dauntingly gaed he; He played a spring and danced it round Beneath——"
never mind what. The band played the spring and I danced it round, while my cousin eyed me with extorted approval. The quadrille includes an absurd figure—called, I think, La Pastourelle. You take a lady with either hand, and jig them to and fro, for all the world like an Englishman of legend parading a couple of wives for sale at Smithfield; while the other male, like a timid purchaser, backs and advances with his arms dangling.
"I've lived a life of sturt and strife, I die by treacherie——"
I challenged Alain with an open smile as he backed before us; and no sooner was the dance over, than I saw him desert Lady Frazer on a hurried excuse, and seek the door to satisfy himself that his men were on guard.
I dropped laughing into a chair beside Flora. "Anne," she whispered; "who is on the stairs?"
"Two Bow Street runners."
If you have seen a dove—a dove caught in a gin! "The back stairs!" she urged.
"They will be watched too. But let us make sure." I crossed to the tea-room, and, encountering a waiter, drew him aside. Was there a man watching the back entrance? He could not tell me. For a guinea would he find out? He went, and returned in less than a minute. Yes, there was a constable below. "It's just a young gentleman to be put to the horn for debt," I explained, recalling the barbarous and, to me, still unmeaning phrase. "I'm no speiring," replied the waiter.
I made my way back, and was not a little disgusted to find my chair occupied by the unconscionable Chevenix.
"My dear Miss Flora, you are unwell!" Indeed, she was pale enough, poor child, and trembling. "Major, she will be swooning in another minute. Get her to the tea-room, quick! while I fetch Miss Gilchrist. She must be taken home."
"It is nothing," she faltered: "it will pass. Pray do not—" As she glanced up, she caught my meaning. "Yes, yes: I will go home."
She took the Major's arm, while I hurried to the card-room. As luck would have it, the old lady was in the act of rising from the green table, having just cut out from a rubber. Mr. Robbie was her partner; and I saw (and blessed my star for the first time that night) the little heap of silver, which told that she had been winning.
"Miss Gilchrist," I whispered, "Miss Flora is faint: the heat of the room—"
"I've not observed it. The ventilation is considered pairfect."
"She wishes to be taken home."
With fine composure she counted back her money, piece by piece, into a velvet reticule.
"Twelve and sixpence," she proclaimed. "Ye held good cards, Mr. Robbie. Well, Mosha the Viscount, we'll go and see about it."
I led her to the tea-room: Mr. Robbie followed. Flora rested on a sofa in a truly dismal state of collapse, while the Major fussed about her with a cup of tea. "I have sent Ronald for the carriage," he announced.
"H'm," said Miss Gilchrist, eyeing him oddly. "Well, it's your risk. Ye'd best hand me the teacup, and get our shawls from the lobby. You have the tickets. Be ready for us at the top of the stairs."
No sooner was the Major gone than, keeping an eye on her niece, this imperturbable lady stirred the tea and drank it down herself. As she drained the cup—her back for the moment being turned on Mr. Robbie—I was aware of a facial contortion. Was the tea (as children say) going the wrong way?
No: I believe—aid me Apollo, and the Nine! I believe—though I have never dared, and shall never dare to ask—that Miss Gilchrist was doing her best to wink!
On the instant entered Master Ronald with word that the carriage was ready. I slipped to the door and reconnoitred. The crowd was thick in the ball-room; a dance in full swing; my cousin gambolling vivaciously, and, for the moment, with his back to us. Flora leaned on Ronald, and, skirting the wall, our party gained the great door and the vestibule, where Chevenix stood with an armful of cloaks.
"You and Ronald can return and enjoy yourselves," said the old lady, "as soon as ye've packed us off. Ye'll find a hackney coach, no doubt, to bring ye home." Her eye rested on the two runners, who were putting their heads together behind the Major. She turned on me with a stiff curtsy. "Good-night, sir, and I am obliged for your services. Or stay—you may see us to the carriage, if ye'll be so kind. Major, hand Mr. What-d'ye-call some of your wraps."
My eyes did not dare to bless her. We moved down the stairs—Miss Gilchrist leading, Flora supported by her brother and Mr. Robbie, the Major and I behind. As I descended the first step, the red-headed runner made a move forward. Though my gaze was glued upon the pattern of Miss Gilchrist's Paisley shawl, I saw his finger touch my arm! Yes, and I felt it, like a touch of hot iron. The other man—Moleskin—plucked him by the arm: they whispered. They saw me bareheaded, without my overcoat. They argued, no doubt, that I was unaware; was seeing the ladies to their carriage; would of course return. They let me pass.
Once in the boisterous street, I darted round to the dark side of the carriage. Ronald ran forward to the coachman (whom I recognised for the gardener, Robie). "Miss Flora is faint. Home, as fast as you can!" He skipped back under the awning. "A guinea to make it faster!" I called up from the other side of the box-seat; and out of the darkness and rain I held up the coin and pressed it into Robie's damp palm. "What in the name——!" He peered round, but I was back and close against the step. The door was slammed. "Right away!"
It may have been fancy; but with the shout I seemed to hear the voice of Alain lifted in imprecation on the Assembly Room stairs. As Robie touched up the grey, I whipped open the door on my side and tumbled in—upon Miss Gilchrist's lap.
Flora choked down a cry. I recovered myself, dropped into a heap of rugs on the seat facing the ladies, and pulled-to the door by its strap.
Dead silence from Miss Gilchrist!
I had to apologise, of course. The wheels rumbled and jolted over the cobbles of Edinburgh; the windows rattled and shook under the uncertain gusts of the city. When we passed a street lamp it shed no light into the vehicle, but the awful profile of my protectress loomed out for a second against the yellow haze of the pane, and sank back into impenetrable shade.
"Madam, some explanation—enough at least to mitigate your resentment—natural, I allow."—Jolt, jolt! And still a mortuary silence within the coach! It was disconcerting. Robie for a certainty was driving his best, and already we were beyond the last rare outposts of light on the Lothian Road.
"I believe, madam, the inside of five minutes—if you will allow——"
I stretched out a protesting hand. In the darkness it encountered Flora's. Our fingers closed upon the thrill. For five, ten beatific seconds our pulses sang together, "I love you! I love you!" in the stuffy silence.
"Mosha Saint-Yvey!" spoke up a deliberate voice (Flora caught her hand away), "as far as I can make head and tail of your business—supposing it to have a modicum of head, which I doubt—it appears to me that I have just done you a service; and that makes twice."
"A service, madam, I shall ever remember."
"I'll chance that, sir; if ye'll kindly not forget yoursel'."
In resumed silence we must have travelled a mile and a half, or two miles, when Miss Gilchrist let down the sash with a clatter, and thrust her head and mamelone cap forth into the night.
Robie pulled up.
"The gentleman will alight."
It was only wisdom, for we were nearing Swanston. I rose. "Miss Gilchrist, you are a good woman; and I think the cleverest I have met."
"Umph," replied she.
In the act of stepping forth I turned for a final handshake with Flora, and my foot caught in something and dragged it out upon the road. I stooped to pick it up, and heard the door bang by my ear.
But the coach lurched forward; the wheels splashed me; and I was left standing alone on the inclement highway.
While yet I watched the little red eyes of the vehicle, and almost as they vanished, I heard more rumbling of wheels, and descried two pairs of yellow eyes upon the road, towards Edinburgh. There was just time enough to plunge aside, to leap a fence into a rain-soaked pasture; and there I crouched, the water squishing over my dancing-shoes, while with a flare, a slant of rain, and a glimpse of flogging drivers, two hackney carriages pelted by at a gallop.
EVENTS OF FRIDAY MORNING: THE CUTTING OF THE GORDIAN KNOT
I pulled out my watch. A fickle ray—the merest filtration of moonlight—glimmered on the dial. Fourteen minutes past one! "Past yin o'clock, and a dark, haary moarnin'." I recalled the bull voice of the watchman as he had called it on the night of our escape from the Castle—its very tones: and this echo of memory seemed to strike and reverberate the hour closing a long day of fate. Truly, since that night the hands had run full circle, and were back at the old starting-point. I had seen dawn, day: I had basked in the sunshine of men's respect; I was back in Stygian night—back in the shadow of that infernal Castle—still hunted by the law—with possibly a smaller chance than ever of escape—the cockshy of the elements—with no shelter for my head but a Paisley shawl of violent pattern. It occurred to me that I had travelled much in the interval, and run many risks, to exchange a suit of mustard-yellow for a Paisley shawl and a ball dress that matched neither it nor the climate of the Pentlands. The exhilaration of the ball, the fighting spirit, the last communicated thrill of Flora's hand, died out of me. In the thickening envelope of sea-fog I felt like a squirrel in a rotatory cage. That was a lugubrious hour.
To speak precisely, those were seven lugubrious hours; since Flora would not be due before eight o'clock, if, indeed, I might count on her eluding her double cordon of spies. The question was, whither to turn in the meantime? Certainly not back to the town. In the near neighbourhood I knew of no roof but "The Hunters' Tryst," by Alexander Hendry. Suppose that I found it (and the chances in that fog were perhaps against me), would Alexander Hendry; aroused from his bed, be likely to extend his hospitality to a traveller with no more luggage than a Paisley shawl? He might think I had stolen it. I had borne it down the staircase under the eyes of the runners, and the pattern was bitten upon my brain. It was doubtless unique in the district and familiar: an oriflamme of battle over the barter of dairy produce and malt liquors. Alexander Hendry must recognise it, and with an instinct of antagonism. Patently it formed no part of my proper wardrobe: hardly could it be explained as a gage d'amour. Eccentric hunters trysted under Hendry's roof; the Six-Foot Club, for instance. But a hunter in a frilled shirt and waistcoat sprigged with forget-me-nots! And the house would be watched, perhaps. Every house around would be watched.
The end was that I wore through the remaining hours of darkness upon the sodden hillside. Superlative Miss Gilchrist! Folded in the mantle of that Spartan dame; huddled upon a boulder, while the rain descended upon my bare head, and coursed down my nose, and filled my shoes, and insinuated a playful trickle down the ridge of my spine; I hugged the lacerating fox of self-reproach, and hugged it again, and set my teeth as it bit upon my vitals. Once, indeed, I lifted an accusing arm to heaven. It was as if I had pulled the string of a douche-bath. Heaven flooded the fool with gratuitous tears; and the fool sat in the puddle of them and knew his folly. But heaven at the same time mercifully veiled that figure of abasement: and I will lift but a corner of the sheet.
Wind in hidden gullies, and the talk of lapsing waters on the hillside, filled all the spaces of the night. The high-road lay at my feet, fifty yards or so below my boulder. Soon after two o'clock (as I made it) lamps appeared in the direction of Swanston, and drew nearer; and two hackney coaches passed me at a jog-trot, towards the opaline haze into which the weather had subdued the lights of Edinburgh. I heard one of the drivers curse as he went by, and inferred that my open-handed cousin had shirked the weather and gone comfortably from the Assembly Rooms to Dumbreck's Hotel and bed, leaving the chase to his mercenaries.
After this you are to believe that I dozed and woke by snatches. I watched the moon descend in her foggy circle; but I saw also the mulberry face and minatory forefinger of Mr. Romaine, and caught myself explaining to him and Mr. Robbie that their joint proposal to mortgage my inheritance for a flying broomstick took no account of the working-model of the whole Rock and Castle of Edinburgh, which I dragged about by an ankle chain. Anon I was pelting with Rowley in a claret-coloured chaise through a cloud of robin-redbreasts; and with that I awoke to the veritable chatter of birds and the white light of dawn upon the hills.
The truth is, I had come very near to the end of my endurance. Cold and rain together, supervening in that hour of the spirit's default, may well have made me light-headed; nor was it easy to distinguish the tooth of self-reproach from that of genuine hunger. Stiff, qualmish, vacant of body, heart, and brain, I left my penitential boulder and crawled down to the road. Glancing along it for sight or warning of the runners, I spied, at two gunshots' distance or less, a milestone with a splash of white upon it—a draggled placard. Abhorrent thought! Did it announce the price upon the head of Champdivers? "At least I will see how they describe him"—this I told myself; but that which tugged at my feet was the baser fascination of fright. I had thought my spine inured by the night's experiences to anything in the way of cold shivers. I discovered my mistake while approaching that scrap of paper.
"AERIAL ASCENSION EXTRAORDINARY!!! IN THE MONSTRE BALLOON LUNARDI
PROFESSOR BYFIELD (BY DIPLOMA), THE WORLD-RENOWNED EXPONENT OF AEROSTATICS AND AERONAUTICS,
Has the honour to inform the Nobility and Gentry of Edinburgh and the neighbourhood——"
The shock of it—the sudden descent upon sublimity, according to Byfleld—took me in the face. I put up my hands. I broke into elfish laughter, and ended with a sob. Sobs and laughter together shook my fasting body like a leaf; and I zigzagged across the fields, buffeted this side and that by a mirth as uncontrollable as it was idiotic. Once I pulled up in the middle of a spasm to marvel irresponsibly at the sound of my own voice. You may wonder that I had will and wit to be drifted towards Flora's trysting-place. But in truth there was no missing it—the low chine looming through the weather, the line of firs topping it, and, towards the west, diminishing like a fish's dorsal fin. I had conned it often enough from the other side; had looked right across it on the day when she stood beside me on the bastion and pointed out the smoke of Swanston Cottage. Only on this side the fish-tail (so to speak) had a nick in it; and through that nick ran the path to the old quarry.
I reached it a little before eight. The quarry lay to the left of the path, which passed on and out upon the hill's northern slope. Upon that slope there was no need to show myself. I measured out some fifty yards of the path, and paced it to and fro, idly counting my steps; for the chill crept back into my bones if I halted for a minute. Once or twice I turned aside into the quarry, and stood there tracing the veins in the hewn rock: then back to my quarter-deck tramp and the study of my watch. Ten minutes past eight! Fool—to expect her to cheat so many spies. This hunger of mine was becoming serious....
A stone dislodged—a light footfall on the path—and my heart leapt. It was she! She came, and earth flowered again, as beneath the feet of the goddess, her namesake. I declare it for a fact that from the moment of her coming the weather began to mend.
"My poor Anne!"
"The shawl has been useful," said I.
"You are starving."
"That is unpleasantly near the truth."
"I knew it. See, dear." A shawl of hodden grey covered her head and shoulders, and from beneath it she produced a small basket and held it up. "The scones will be hot yet, for they went straight from the hearth into the napkin."
She led the way to the quarry. I praised her forethought; having in those days still to learn that woman's first instinct, when a man is dear to her and in trouble, is to feed him.
We spread the napkin on a big stone of the quarry, and set out the feast: scones, oatcake, hard-boiled eggs, a bottle of milk, and a small flask of usquebaugh. Our hands met as we prepared the table. This was our first housekeeping; the first breakfast of our honeymoon I called it, rallying her. "Starving I may be; but starve I will in sight of food, unless you share it," and, "It escapes me for the moment, madam, if you take sugar." We leaned to each other across the rock, and our faces touched. Her cold cheek with the rain upon it, and one small damp curl—for many days I had to feed upon the memory of that kiss, and I feed upon it yet.
"But it beats me how you escaped them," said I.
She laid down the bannock she had been making pretence to nibble. "Janet—that is our dairy girl—lent me her frock and shawl: her shoes too. She goes out to the milking at six, and I took her place. The fog helped me. They are hateful."
"They are, my dear. Chevenix—"
"I mean these clothes. And I am thinking, too, of the poor cows."
"The instinct of animals—" I lifted my glass. "Let us trust it to find means to attract the notice of two paid detectives and two volunteers."
"I had rather count on Aunt," said Flora, with one of her rare and adorable smiles, which fleeted as it came. "But, Anne, we must not waste time. They are so many against you, and so near. O, be serious!"
"Now you are talking like Mr. Romaine."
"For my sake, dear!" She clasped her hands. I took them in mine across the table, and, unclasping them, kissed the palms.
"Sweetheart," I said, "before this weather clears——"
"It is clearing."
"We will give it time. Before this weather clears, I must be across the valley and fetching a circuit for the drovers' road, if you can teach me when to hit it."
She withdrew one of her hands. It went up to the throat of her bodice, and came forth with my packet of notes.
"Good Lord!" said I: "if I hadn't forgotten the money!"
"I think nothing teaches you," sighed she.
She had sewed them tightly in a little bag of yellow oiled silk; and as I held it, warm from her young bosom, and turned it over in my hand, I saw that it was embroidered in scarlet thread with the one word "Anne" beneath the Lion Rampant of Scotland, in imitation of the poor toy I had carved for her—it seemed, so long ago!
"I wear the original," she murmured.
I crushed the parcel into my breast-pocket, and, taking both hands again, fell on my knees before her on the stones.
"Flora—my angel! my heart's bride!"
"Hush!" She sprang away. Heavy footsteps were coming up the path. I had just time enough to fling Miss Gilchrist's shawl over my head and resume my seat, when a couple of buxom country wives bustled past the mouth of the quarry. They saw us, beyond a doubt: indeed, they stared hard at us, and muttered some comment as they went by, and left us gazing at each other.
"They took us for a picnic," I whispered.
"The queer thing," said Flora, "is that they were not surprised. The sight of you——"
"Seen sideways in this shawl, and with my legs hidden by the stone here, I might pass for an elderly female junketer."
"This is scarcely the hour for a picnic," answered my wise girl, "and decidedly not the weather."
The sound of another footstep prevented my reply. This time the wayfarer was an old farmer-looking fellow in a shepherd's plaid and bonnet powdered with mist. He halted before us and nodded, leaning rheumatically on his staff.
"A coarse moarnin'. Ye'll be from Leadburn, I'm thinkin'?"
"Put it at Peebles," said I, making shift to pull the shawl close about my damning finery.
"Peebles!" he said reflectively. "I've ne'er ventured so far as Peebles. I've contemplated it! But I was none sure whether I would like it when I got there. See here: I recommend ye no' to be lazin' ower the meat, gin ye'd drap in for the fun. A'm full late, mysel'!"
He passed on. What could it mean? We hearkened after his tread. Before it died away, I sprang and caught Flora by the hand.
"Listen! Heavens above us, what is that?"
"It sounds to me like Gow's version of 'The Caledonian Hunt's Delight,' on a brass band."
Jealous powers! Had Olympus conspired to ridicule our love, that we must exchange our parting vows to the public strains of "The Caledonian Hunt's Delight," in Gow's version and a semitone flat? For three seconds Flora and I (in the words of a later British bard) looked at each other with a wild surmise, silent. Then she darted to the path, and gazed along it down the hill.
"We must run, Anne. There are more coming!"
We left the scattered relics of breakfast, and, taking hands, scurried along the path northwards. A few yards, and with a sharp turn it led us out of the cutting and upon the hillside. And here we pulled up together with a gasp.
Right beneath us lay a green meadow, dotted with a crowd of two or three hundred people; and over the nucleus of this gathering, where it condensed into a black swarm, as of bees, there floated, not only the dispiriting music of "The Caledonian Hunt's Delight," but an object of size and shape suggesting the Genie escaped from the Fisherman's Bottle, as described in M. Galland's ingenious "Thousand and One Nights." It was Byfield's balloon—the monster Lunardi—in process of inflation.
"Confound Byfield!" I ejaculated in my haste.
"Who is Byfield?"
"An aeronaut, my dear, of bilious humour; which no doubt accounts for his owning a balloon striped alternately with liver-colour and pale blue, and for his arranging it and a brass band in the very line of my escape. That man dogs me like fate." I broke off sharply. "And after all, why not?" I mused.
The next instant I swung round, as Flora uttered a piteous little cry; and there, behind us, in the outlet of the cutting, stood Major Chevenix and Ronald.
The boy stepped forward, and, ignoring my bow, laid a hand on Flora's arm.
"You will come home at once."
I touched his shoulder. "Surely not," I said, "seeing that the spectacle apparently wants but ten minutes of its climax."
He swung on me in a passion. "For God's sake, St. Ives, don't force a quarrel now, of all moments! Man, haven't you compromised my sister enough?"
"It seems to me that, having set a watch on your sister at the suggestion, and with the help of a casual Major of Foot, you might in decency reserve the word 'compromise' for home consumption; and further, that against adversaries so poorly sensitive to her feelings, your sister may be pardoned for putting her resentment into action."
"Major Chevenix is a friend of the family." But the lad blushed as he said it.
"The family?" I echoed. "So? Pray did your aunt invite his help? No, no, my dear Ronald; you cannot answer that. And while you play the game of insult to your sister, sir, I will see that you eat the discredit of it."
"Excuse me," interposed the Major, stepping forward. "As Ronald said, this is not the moment for quarrelling; and, as you observed, sir, the climax is not so far off. The runner and his men are even now coming round the hill. We saw them mounting the slope, and (I may add) your cousin's carriage drawn up on the road below. The fact is, Miss Gilchrist has been traced to the hill: and as it secretly occurred to us that the quarry might be her objective, we arranged to take the ascent on this side. See there!" he cried, and flung out a hand.
I looked up. Sure enough, at that instant, a grey-coated figure appeared on the summit of the hill, not five hundred yards away to the left. He was followed closely by my friend of the moleskin waistcoat; and the pair came sidling down the slope towards us.
"Gentlemen," said I, "it appears that I owe you my thanks. Your stratagem in any case was kindly meant."
"There was Miss Gilchrist to consider," said the Major stiffly. But Ronald cried, "Quick, St. Ives! Make a dash back by the quarry path. I warrant we don't hinder."
"Thank you, my friend: I have another notion. Flora," I said, and took her hand, "here is our parting. The next five minutes will decide much. Be brave, dearest; and your thoughts go with me till I come again."
"Wherever you go, I'll think of you. Whatever happens, I'll love you. Go, and God defend you, Anne!" Her breast heaved, as she faced the Major, red and shame-fast, indeed, but gloriously defiant.
"Quick!" cried she and her brother together. I kissed her hand and sprang down the hill.
I heard a shout behind me; and, glancing back, saw my pursuers, three now, with my full-bodied cousin for whipper-in—change their course as I leapt a brook and headed for the crowded enclosure. A somnolent fat man, bulging, like a feather-bed, on a three-legged stool, dozed at the receipt of custom, with a deal table and a bowl of sixpences before him. I dashed on him with a crown-piece.
"No change given," he objected, waking up and fumbling with a bundle of pink tickets.
"None required." I snatched the ticket and ran through the gateway.
I gave myself time for another look before mingling with the crowd. The moleskin waistcoat was leading now, and had reached the brook; with red-head a yard or two behind, and my cousin, a very bad third, panting—it pleased me to imagine how sorely—across the lower slopes to the eastward. The janitor leaned against his toll-bar and still followed me with a stare. Doubtless by my uncovered head and gala dress he judged me an all-night reveller—a strayed Bacchanal fooling in the morrow's eye.
Prompt upon the inference came inspiration. I must win to the centre of the crowd, and a crowd is invariably indulgent to a drunkard. I hung out the glaring sign-board of crapulous glee. Lurching, hiccoughing, jostling, apologising to all and sundry with spacious incoherence, I plunged my way through the sightseers, and they gave me passage with all the good-humour in life.
I believe that I descended upon that crowd as a godsend, a dancing rivulet of laughter. They needed entertainment. A damper, less enthusiastic company never gathered to a public show. Though the rain had ceased, and the sun shone, those who possessed umbrellas were not to be coaxed, but held them aloft with a settled air of gloom which defied the lenitives of nature and the spasmodic cajolery of the worst band in Edinburgh. "It'll be near full, Jock?" "It wull." "He'll be startin' in a meenit?" "Aiblins he wull." "Wull this be the sixt time ye've seen him?" "I shudna wonder." It occurred to me that, had we come to bury Byfield, not to praise him, we might have displayed a blither interest.
Byfield himself, bending from the car beneath his gently swaying canopy of liver-colour and pale blue, directed the proceedings with a mien of saturnine preoccupation. He may have been calculating the receipts. As I squeezed to the front, his underlings were shifting the pipe which conveyed the hydrogen gas, and the Lunardi strained gently at its ropes. Somebody with a playful thrust sent me staggering into the clear space beneath.
And here a voice hailed and fetched me up with a round turn.
"Ducie, by all that's friendly! Playmate of my youth and prop of my declining years, how goes it?"
It was the egregious Dalmahoy. He clung and steadied himself by one of the dozen ropes binding the car to earth; and with an air of doing it all by his unaided cleverness—an air so indescribably, so majestically drunken, that I could have blushed for the poor expedients which had carried me through the throng.
"You'll excuse me if I don't let go. Fact is, we've been keeping it up a bit all night. Byfield leaves us—to expatiate in realms untrodden by the foot of man—
"'The feathered tribes on pinions cleave the air; Not so the mackerel, and, still less, the bear.'
But Byfield does it—Byfield in his Monster Foolardi. One stroke of this knife (always supposing I miss my own hand), and the rope is severed: our common friend scales the empyrean. But he'll come back—oh, never doubt he'll come back!—and begin the dam business over again. Tha's the law 'gravity 'cording to Byfield."
Mr. Dalmahoy concluded inconsequently with a vocal imitation of a post-horn; and, looking up, I saw the head and shoulders of Byfield projected over the rim of the car.
He drew the natural inference from my dress and demeanour, and groaned aloud.
"O, go away—get out of it, Ducie! Isn't one natural born ass enough for me to deal with? You fellows are guying the whole show!"
"Byfield!" I called up eagerly, "I'm not drunk. Reach me down the ladder, quick! A hundred guineas if you'll take me with you!" I saw over the crowd, not ten deep behind me, the red head of the man in grey.
"That proves it," said Byfield. "Go away; or at least keep quiet. I'm going to make a speech." He cleared his throat. "Ladies and gentlemen——"
I held up my packet of notes, "Here's the money—for pity's sake, man! There are bailiffs after me, in the crowd!"
"—the spectacle which you have honoured with your enlightened patronage—I tell you I can't." He cast a glance behind him into the car—"with your enlightened patronage, needs but few words of introduction or commendation."
"Hear, hear!" from Dalmahoy.
"Your attendance proves the sincerity of your interest——"
I spread out the notes under his eyes. He blinked, but resolutely lifted his voice.
"The spectacle of a solitary voyager——"
"Two hundred!" I called up.
"The spectacle of two hundred solitary voyagers—cradled in the brain of a Montgolfier and a Charles—O, stop it! I'm no public speaker! How the deuce——?"
There was a lurch and a heave in the crowd. "Pitch oot the drunken loon!" cried a voice. The next moment I heard my cousin bawling for a clear passage. With the tail of my eye I caught a glimpse of his plethoric perspiring face as he came charging past the barrels of the hydrogen-apparatus; and, with that, Byfield had shaken down a rope-ladder and fixed it, and I was scrambling up like a cat.
"Cut the ropes!"
"Stop him!" my cousin bawled. "Stop the balloon! It's Champdivers, the murderer!"
"Cut the ropes!" vociferated Byfield; and to my infinite relief I saw that Dalmahoy was doing his best. A hand clutched at my heel. I let out viciously, amid a roar of the crowd; felt the kick reach and rattle home on somebody's teeth; and, as the crowd made a rush and the balloon swayed and shot upwards, heaved myself over the rim into the car.
Recovering myself on the instant, I bent over. I had on my tongue a neat farewell for Alain, but the sight of a hundred upturned and contorted faces silenced me as a blow might. There had lain my real peril, in the sudden wild-beast rage now suddenly baffled. I read it, as clear as print, and sickened. Nor was Alain in a posture to listen. My kick had sent Moleskin flying on top of him; and borne to earth, prone beneath the superincumbent bulk of his retainer, he lay with hands outspread like a swimmer's and nose buried in the plashy soil.
THE INCOMPLETE AERONAUTS
All this I took in at a glance: I dare say in three seconds or less. The hubbub beneath us dropped to a low, rumbling bass. Suddenly a woman's scream divided it—one high-pitched, penetrating scream, followed by silence. And then, as a pack of hounds will start into cry, voice after voice caught up the scream and reduplicated it until the whole enclosure rang with alarm.
"Hullo!" Byfield called to me: "what the deuce is happening now?" and ran to his side of the car. "Good Lord, it's Dalmahoy!"
It was. Beneath us, at the tail of a depending rope, that unhappy lunatic dangled between earth and sky. He had been the first to cut the tether; and, having severed it below his grasp, had held on while the others cut loose, taking even the asinine precaution to loop the end twice round his wrist. Of course the upward surge of the balloon had heaved him off his feet, and his muddled instinct did the rest. Clutching now with both hands, he was borne aloft like a lamb from the flock.
So we reasoned afterwards. "The grapnel!" gasped Byfield: for Dalmahoy's rope was fastened beneath the floor of the car, and not to be reached by us. We fumbled to cast the grapnel loose, and shouted down together—
"For God's sake hold on! Catch the anchor when it comes! You'll break your neck if you drop!"
He swung into sight again beyond the edge of the floor, and uplifted a strained, white face.
We cast loose the grapnel, lowered it and jerked it towards him. He swung past it like a pendulum, caught at it with one hand, and missed: came flying back on the receding curve, and missed again. At the third attempt he blundered right against it, and flung an arm over one of the flukes, next a leg, and in a trice we were hauling up, hand over hand.
We dragged him inboard. He was pale, but undefeatedly voluble.
"Must apologise to you fellows, really. Dam silly, clumsy kind of thing to do; might have been awkward too. Thank you, Byfield, my boy, I will: two fingers only—a harmless steadier."
He took the flask and was lifting it. But his jaw dropped and his hand hung arrested.
"He's going to faint," I cried. "The strain——"
"Strain on your grandmother, Ducie! What's that?"
He was staring past my shoulder, and on the instant I was aware of a voice—not the aeronaut's—speaking behind me, and, as it were, out of the clouds—
"I tak' ye to witness, Mister Byfield——"
Consider, if you please. For six days I had been oscillating within a pretty complete circumference of alarms. It is small blame to me, I hope, that with my nerve on so nice a pivot, I quivered and swung to this new apprehension like a needle in a compass-box.
On the floor of the car, at my feet, lay a heap of plaid rugs and overcoats, from which, successively and painfully disinvolved, there emerged first a hand clutching a rusty beaver hat, next a mildly indignant face, in spectacles, and finally the rearward of a very small man in a seedy suit of black. He rose on his knees, his finger-tips resting on the floor, and contemplated the aeronaut over his glasses with a world of reproach.
"I tak' ye to witness, Mr. Byfield!"
Byfield mopped a perspiring brow.
"My dear sir," he stammered, "all a mistake—no fault of mine—explain presently"; then, as one catching at an inspiration, "Allow me to introduce you. Mr. Dalmahoy, Mr.——"
"My name is Sheepshanks," said the little man stiffly. "But you'll excuse me——"
Mr. Dalmahoy interrupted with a playful cat-call.
"Hear, hear! Silence! 'His name is Sheepshanks. On the Grampian Hills his father kept his flocks—a thousand sheep,' and, I make no doubt, shanks in proportion. Excuse you, Sheepshanks? My dear sir! At this altitude one shank was more than we had a right to expect: the plural multiplies the obligation." Keeping a tight hold on his hysteria, Dalmahoy steadied himself by a rope and bowed.
"And I, sir,"—as Mr. Sheepshanks' thoroughly bewildered gaze travelled around and met mine—"I, sir, am the Vicomte Anne de Keroual de Saint-Yves, at your service. I haven't a notion how or why you come to be here: but you seem likely to be an acquisition. On my part," I continued, as there leapt into my mind the stanza I had vainly tried to recover in Mrs. McRankine's sitting-room, "I have the honour to refer you to the inimitable Roman, Flaccus—
"'Virtus, recludens immeritis mori Coelum negata temptat iter via, Coetusque vulgares et udam Spernit humum fugiente penna'
—you have the Latin, sir?"
"Not a word." He subsided upon the pile of rugs and spread out his hands in protest. "I tak' ye to witness, Mr. Byfield!"
"Then in a minute or so I will do myself the pleasure of construing," said I, and turned to scan the earth we were leaving—I had not guessed how rapidly.
We contemplated it from the height of six hundred feet—or so Byfield asserted after consulting his barometer. He added that this was a mere nothing: the wonder was the balloon had risen at all with one-half of the total folly of Edinburgh clinging to the car. I passed the possible inaccuracy and certain ill-temper of this calculation. He had (he explained) made jettison of at least a hundred-weight of sand ballast. I could only hope it had fallen on my cousin. To me, six hundred feet appeared a very respectable eminence. And the view was ravishing.
The Lunardi, mounting through a stagnant calm in a line almost vertical, had pierced the morning mists, and now swam emancipated in a heaven of exquisite blue. Below us, by some trick of eyesight, the country had grown concave, its horizons curving up like the rim of a shallow bowl—a bowl heaped, in point of fact, with sea-fog, but to our eyes with a froth delicate and dazzling as a whipped syllabub of snow. Upon it the travelling shadow of the balloon became no shadow but a stain: an amethyst (you might call it) purged of all grosser properties than colour and lucency. At times thrilled by no perceptible wind, rather by the pulse of the sun's rays, the froth shook and parted: and then behold, deep in the crevasses, vignetted and shining, an acre or two of the earth of man's business and fret—tilled slopes of the Lothians, ships dotted on the Forth, the capital like a hive that some child had smoked—the ear of fancy could almost hear it buzzing.
I snatched the glass from Byfield, and brought it to focus upon one of these peepshow rifts: and lo! at the foot of the shaft, imaged, as it were, far down in a luminous well, a green hillside and three figures standing. A white speck fluttered; and fluttered until the rift closed again. Flora's handkerchief! Blessings on the brave hand that waved it!—at a moment when (as I have since heard and knew without need of hearing) her heart was down in her shoes, or, to speak accurately, in the milkmaid Janet's. Singular in many things, she was at one with the rest of her sex in its native and incurable distrust of man's inventions.
I am bound to say that my own faith in aerostatics was a plant—a sensitive plant—of extremely tender growth. Either I failed, a while back, in painting the emotions of my descent of the Devil's Elbow, or the reader knows that I am a chicken-hearted fellow about a height. I make him a present of the admission. Set me on a plane superficies, and I will jog with all the insouciance of a rolling stone: toss me in air, and, with the stone in the child's adage, I am in the hands of the devil. Even to the qualified instability of a sea-going ship I have ever committed myself with resignation rather than confidence.
But to my unspeakable relief the Lunardi floated upwards, and continued to float, almost without a tremor. Only by reading the barometer, or by casting scraps of paper overboard, could we tell that the machine moved at all. Now and again we revolved slowly: so Byfield's compass informed us, but for ourselves we had never guessed it. Of dizziness I felt no longer a symptom, for the sufficient reason that the provocatives were nowhere at hand. We were the only point in space, without possibility of comparison with another. We were made one with the clean silences receiving us; and speaking only for the Vicomte Anne de Saint-Yves, I dare assert that for five minutes a newly bathed infant had not been less conscious of original sin.
"But look here, you know"—it was Byfield at my elbow—"I'm a public character, by George; and this puts me in a devilish awkward position."
"So it does," I agreed. "You proclaimed yourself a solitary voyager: and here, to the naked eye, are four of us."
"And pray how can I help that? If, at the last moment, a couple of lunatics come rushing in——"
"They still leave Sheepshanks to be accounted for." Byfield began to irritate me. I turned to the stowaway. "Perhaps," said I, "Mr. Sheepshanks will explain."
"I paid in advance," Mr. Sheepshanks began, eager to seize the opening presented. "The fact is, I'm a married man."
"Already at two points you have the advantage of us. Proceed, sir."
"You were good enough, just now, to give me your name, Mr.——"
"The Vicomte Anne de Keroual de Saint-Yves."
"It is a somewhat difficult name to remember."
"If that be all, sir, within two minutes you shall have a memoria technica prepared for use during the voyage."
Mr. Sheepshanks harked back. "I am a married man, and—d'ye see?—Mrs. Sheepshanks, as you might say, has no sympathy with ballooning. She was a Guthrie of Dumfries."
"Which accounts for it, to be sure," said I.
"To me, sir, on the contrary, aerostatics have long been an alluring study. I might even, Mr. ——, I might even, I say, term it the passion of my life." His mild eyes shone behind their glasses. "I remember Vincent Lunardi, sir. I was present in Heriot's Gardens when he made an ascension there in October '85. He came down at Cupar. The Society of Gentlemen Golfers at Cupar presented him with an address; and at Edinburgh he was admitted Knight Companion of the Beggar's Benison, a social company, or (as I may say) crew, since defunct. A thin-faced man, sir. He wore a peculiar bonnet, if I may use the expression, very much cocked up behind. The shape became fashionable. He once pawned his watch with me, sir; that being my profession. I regret to say he redeemed it subsequently: otherwise I might have the pleasure of showing it to you. O yes, the theory of ballooning has long been a passion with me. But in deference to Mrs. Sheepshanks I have abstained from the actual practice—until to-day. To tell you the truth, my wife believes me to be brushing off the cobwebs in the Kyles of Bute."
"Are there any cobwebs in the Kyles of Bute?" asked Dalmahoy, in a tone unnaturally calm.
"A figure of speech, sir—as one might say, holiday-keeping there. I paid Mr. Byfield five pounds in advance. I have his receipt. And the stipulation was that I should be concealed in the car and make the ascension with him alone."
"Are we then to take it, sir, that our company offends you?" I demanded.
He made haste to disclaim. "Not at all: decidedly not in the least. But the chances were for less agreeable associates." I bowed. "And a bargain's a bargain," he wound up.
"So it is," said I. "Byfield, hand Mr. Sheepshanks back his five pounds."
"O, come now!" the aeronaut objected. "And who may you be, to be ordering a man about?"
"I believe I have already answered that question twice in your hearing."
"Mosha the Viscount Thingamy de Something-or-other? I dare say!"
"Have you any objection?"
"Not the smallest. For all I care, you are Robert Burns, or Napoleon Buonaparte, or anything, from the Mother of the Gracchi to Balaam's Ass. But I knew you first as Mr. Ducie; and you may take it that I'm Mr. Don't-see." He reached up a hand towards the valve-string.
"What are you proposing to do?"
"What?—back to the enclosure?"
"Scarcely that, seeing that we have struck a northerly current, and are travelling at the rate of thirty miles an hour, perhaps. That's Broad Law to the south of us, as I make it out."
"But why descend at all?"
"Because it sticks in my head that some one in the crowd called you by a name that wasn't Ducie; and by a title, for that matter, which didn't sound like 'Viscount.' I took it at the time for a constable's trick; but I begin to have my strong doubts."
The fellow was dangerous. I stooped nonchalantly on pretence of picking up a plaid; for the air had turned bitterly cold of a sudden.
"Mr. Byfield, a word in your private ear, if you will."
"As you please," said he, dropping the valve-string.
We leaned together over the breastwork of the car. "If I mistake not," I said, speaking low, "the name was Champdivers."
"The gentleman who raised that foolish but infernally risky cry was my own cousin, the Viscount de Saint-Yves. I give you my word of honour to that." Observing that this staggered him, I added, mighty slily, "I suppose it doesn't occur to you now that the whole affair was a game, for a friendly wager?"
"No," he answered brutally, "it doesn't. And what's more, it won't go down."
"In that respect," said I, with a sudden change of key, "it resembles your balloon. But I admire the obstinacy of your suspicions; since, as a matter of fact, I am Champdivers."
"Certainly not. I killed the man in fair duel."
"Ha!" he eyed me with sour distrust. "That is what you have to prove."
"Man alive, you don't expect me to demonstrate it up here, by the simple apparatus of ballooning?"
"There is no talk of 'up here,'" said he, and reached for the valve-string.
"Say 'down there,' then. Down there it is no business of the accused to prove his innocence. By what I have heard of the law, English or Scotch, the boot is on the other leg. But I'll tell you what I can prove. I can prove, sir, that I have been a deal in your company of late; that I supped with you and Mr. Dalmahoy no longer ago than Wednesday. You may put it that we three are here together again by accident; that you never suspected me; that my invasion of your machine was a complete surprise to you, and, so far as you were concerned, wholly fortuitous. But ask yourself what any intelligent jury is likely to make of that cock-and-bull story." Mr. Byfield was visibly shaken. "Add to this," I proceeded, "that you have to explain Sheepshanks; to confess that you gulled the public by advertising a lonely ascension, and haranguing a befooled multitude to the same intent, when, all the time, you had a companion concealed in the car. 'A public character!' you call yourself! My word, sir! there'll be no mistake about it, this time."
I paused, took breath, and shook a finger at him:—
"Now just you listen to me, Mr. Byfield. Pull that string, and a sadly discredited aeronaut descends upon the least charitable of worlds. Why, sir, in any case your game in Edinburgh is up. The public is dog-tired of you and your ascensions, as any observant child in to-day's crowd could have told you. The truth was there staring you in the face; and next time even your purblind vanity must recognise it. Consider; I offered you two hundred guineas for the convenience of your balloon. I now double that offer on condition that I become its owner during this trip, and that you manipulate it as I wish. Here are the notes; and out of the total you will refund five pounds to Mr. Sheepshanks."
Byfield's complexion had grown streaky as his balloon; and with colours not so very dissimilar. I had stabbed upon his vital self-conceit, and the man was really hurt.
"You must give me time," he stammered.
"By all means." I knew he was beaten. But only the poorness of my case excused me, and I had no affection for the weapons used. I turned with relief to the others. Dalmahoy was seated on the floor of the car, and helping Mr. Sheepshanks to unpack a carpet bag.
"This will be whisky," the little pawnbroker announced: "three bottles. My wife said, 'Surely, Elshander, ye'll find whisky where ye're gaun.' 'No doubt I will,' said I, 'but I'm not very confident of its quality; and it's a far step.' My itinerary, Mr. Dalmahoy, was planned from Greenock to the Kyles of Bute and back, and thence coastwise to Saltcoats and the land of Burns. I told her, if she had anything to communicate, to address her letter to the care of the postmaster, Ayr—ha, ha!" He broke off and gazed reproachfully into Dalmahoy's impassive face. "Ayr—air," he explained: "a little play upon words."
"Skye would have been better," suggested Dalmahoy, without moving an eyelid.
"Skye? Dear me—capital, capital! Only, you see," he urged, "she wouldn't expect me to be in Skye."
A minute later he drew me aside. "Excellent company your friend is, sir: most gentlemanly manners; but at times, if I may so say, not very gleg."
My hands by this time were numb with cold. We had been ascending steadily, and Byfield's English thermometer stood at thirteen degrees. I borrowed from the heap a thicker overcoat, in the pocket of which I was lucky enough to find a pair of furred gloves; and leaned over for another look below, still with a corner of my eye for the aeronaut, who stood biting his nails, as far from me as the car allowed.
The sea-fog had vanished, and the south of Scotland lay spread beneath us from sea to sea, like a map in monotint. Nay, yonder was England, with the Solway cleaving the coast—a broad, bright spearhead, slightly bent at the tip—and the fells of Cumberland beyond, mere hummocks on the horizon; all else flat as a board or as the bottom of a saucer. White threads of high-road connected town to town: the intervening hills had fallen down, and the towns, as if in fright, had shrunk into themselves, contracting their suburbs as a snail his horns. The old poet was right who said that the Olympians had a delicate view. The lace-makers of Valenciennes might have had the tracing of those towns and high-roads; those knots of guipure and ligatures of finest reseau-work. And when I considered that what I looked down on—this, with its arteries and nodules of public traffic—was a nation; that each silent nodule held some thousands of men, each man moderately ready to die in defence of his shopboard and hen-roost; it came into my mind that my Emperor's emblem was the bee, and this Britain the spider's web, sure enough.
Byfield came across and stood at my elbow.
"Mr. Ducie, I have considered your offer, and accept it. It's a curst position——"
"For a public character," I put in affably.
"Don't, sir! I beg that you don't. Your words just now made me suffer a good deal: the more, that I perceive a part of them to be true. An aeronaut, sir, has ambition—how can he help it? The public, the newspapers, feed it for a while; they fete, and flatter, and applaud him. But in its heart the public ranks him with the mountebank, and reserves the right to drop him when tired of his tricks. Is it wonderful that he forgets this sometimes? For in his own thoughts he is not a mountebank—no, by God, he is not!"
The man spoke with genuine passion. I held out my hand.
"Mr. Byfield, my words were brutal. I beg you will allow me to take them back."
He shook his head. "They were true, sir; partly true, that is."
"I am not so sure. A balloon, as you hint and I begin to discover, may alter the perspective of man's ambitions. Here are the notes; and on the top of them I give you my word that you are not abetting a criminal. How long should the Lunardi be able to maintain itself in the air?"
"I have never tried it; but I calculate on twenty hours—say twenty-four at a pinch."
"We will test it. The current, I see, is still north-east, or from that to north-by-east. And our height?"
He consulted the barometer. "Something under three miles."
Dalmahoy heard, and whooped. "Hi! you fellows, come to lunch! Sandwiches, shortbread, and cleanest Glenlivet—Elshander's Feast:
"'Let old Timotheus yield the prize, Or both divide the crown; He raised a mortal to the skies——'
Sheepshanks provided the whisky. Rise, Elshander: observe that you have no worlds left to conquer, and, having shed the perfunctory tear, pass the corkscrew. Come along, Ducie: come, my Daedalian boy; if you are not hungry, I am, and so is—Sheepshanks—what the dickens do you mean by consorting with a singular verb? Verbum cum nominativo—I should say, so are sheepshanks."
Byfield produced from one of the lockers a pork pie and a bottle of sherry (the viaticum in choice and assortment almost explained the man) and we sat down to the repast. Dalmahoy's tongue ran like a brook. He addressed Mr. Sheepshanks with light-hearted impartiality as Philip's royal son, as the Man of Ross, as the divine Clarinda. He elected him Professor of Marital Diplomacy to the University of Cramond. He passed the bottle and called on him for a toast, a song—"Oblige me, Sheepshanks, by making the welkin ring." Mr. Sheepshanks beamed, and gave us a sentiment instead. The little man was enjoying himself amazingly. "Fund of spirits your friend has, to be sure, sir—quite a fund."
Either my own spirits were running low or the bitter cold had congealed them. I was conscious of my thin ball-suit, and moreover of a masterful desire of sleep. I felt no inclination for food, but drained half a tumblerful of the Sheepshanks whisky, and crawled beneath the pile of plaids. Byfield considerately helped to arrange them. He may or may not have caught some accent of uncertainty in my thanks: at any rate he thought fit to add the assurance, "You may trust me, Mr. Ducie." I saw that I could, and began almost to like the fellow.
In this posture I dozed through the afternoon. In dreams I heard Dalmahoy and Sheepshanks lifting their voices in amoebaean song, and became languidly aware that they were growing uproarious. I heard Byfield expostulating, apparently in vain: for I awoke next to find that Sheepshanks had stumbled over me while illustrating, with an empty bottle, the motions of tossing the caber. "Old Hieland sports," explained Dalmahoy, wiping tears of vain laughter: "his mother's uncle was out in the 'Forty-Five. Sorry to wake you, Ducie: balow, my babe!" It did not occur to me to smoke danger in this tomfoolery. I turned over and dozed again.
It seemed but a minute later that a buzzing in my ears awoke me, with a stab of pain as though my temples were being split with a wedge. On the instant I heard my name cried aloud, and sat up, to find myself blinking in a broad flood of moonlight over against the agitated face of Dalmahoy.
"Byfield——" I began.
Dalmahoy pointed. The aeronaut lay at my feet, collapsed like some monstrous marionette, with legs and arms a-splay. Across his legs, with head propped against a locker, reclined Sheepshanks, and gazed upwards with an approving smile. "Awkward business," explained Dalmahoy, between gasps. "Sheepshanks 'nmanageable; can't carry his liquor like a gentleman: thought it funny 'pitch out ballast. Byfield lost his temper: worst thing in the world. One thing I pride myself, 'menable to reason. No holding Sheepshanks: Byfield got him down; too late; faint both of us. Sheepshanks wants ring for 'shistance: pulls string: breaks. When string breaks Lunardi won't fall—tha's the devil of it."
"With my tol-de-rol," Mr. Sheepshanks murmured. "Pretty—very pretty."
I cast a look aloft. The Lunardi was transformed: every inch of it frosted as with silver. All the ropes and cords ran with silver too, or liquid mercury. And in the midst of this sparkling cage, a little below the hoop, and five feet at least above reach, dangled the broken valve-string.
"Well," I said, "you have made a handsome mess of it! Pass me the broken end, and be good enough not to lose your head."
"I wish I could," he groaned, pressing it between his palms. "My dear sir, I'm not frightened, if that is your meaning."
I was, and horribly. But the thing had to be done. The reader will perhaps forgive me for touching shyly on the next two or three minutes, which still recur on the smallest provocation and play bogey with my dreams. To balance on the edge of night, quaking, gripping a frozen rope; to climb, and feel the pit of one's stomach slipping like a bucket in a fathomless well—I suppose the intolerable pains in my head spurred me to the attempt—these and the urgent shortness of my breathing—much as toothache will drive a man up to the dentist's chair. I knotted the broken ends of the valve-string and slid back into the car: then tugged the valve open, while with my disengaged arm I wiped the sweat from my forehead. It froze upon the coat-cuff.
In a minute or so the drumming in my ears grew less violent. Dalmahoy bent over the aeronaut, who was bleeding at the nose and now began to breathe stertorously. Sheepshanks had fallen into placid slumber. I kept the valve open until we descended into a stratum of fog—from which, no doubt, the Lunardi had lately risen: the moisture collected here would account for its congelated coat of silver. By and by, still without rising, we were quit of the fog, and the moon swept the hollow beneath us, rescuing solitary scraps and sheets of water and letting them slip again like imprehensible ghosts. Small fiery eyes opened and shut on us; cressets of flame on factory chimneys, more and more frequent. I studied the compass. Our course lay south-by-west. But our whereabouts? Dalmahoy, being appealed to, suggested Glasgow: and thenceforward I let him alone. Byfield snored on.
I pulled out my watch, which I had forgotten to wind; and found it run down. The hands stood at twenty minutes past four. Daylight, then, could not be far off. Eighteen hours—say twenty: and Byfield had guessed our rate at one time to be thirty miles an hour. Five hundred miles——
A line of silver ahead: a ribbon drawn taut across the night, clean-edged, broadening—the sea! In a minute or two I caught the murmur of the coast. "Five hundred miles," I began to reckon again, and a holy calm dawned on me as the Lunardi swept high over the fringing surf, and its voice faded back with the glimmer of a whitewashed fishing-haven.
I roused Dalmahoy and pointed. "The sea!"
"Looks like it. Which, I wonder?"
"The English Channel, man."
"I say—are you sure?"
"Eh?" exclaimed Byfield, waking up and coming forward with a stagger.
"The English Channel."
"The French fiddlestick," said he with equal promptness.
"O, have it as you please!" I retorted. It was not worth arguing with the man.
"What is the hour?"
I told him that my watch had run down. His had done the same. Dalmahoy did not carry one. We searched the still prostrate Sheepshanks: his had stopped at ten minutes to four. Byfield replaced it and underlined his disgust with a kick.
"A nice lot!" he ejaculated. "I owe you my thanks, Mr. Ducie, all the same. It was touch and go with us, and my head's none the better for it."
"But I say," expostulated Dalmahoy. "France! This is getting past a joke."
"So you are really beginning to discover that, are you?"
Byfield stood, holding by a rope, and studied the darkness ahead. Beside him I hugged my convictions—hour after hour, it seemed; and still the dawn did not come.
He turned at length.
"I see a coast line to the south of us. This will be the Bristol Channel: and the balloon is sinking. Pitch out some ballast if these idiots have left any."
I found a couple of sand bags and emptied them overboard. The coast, as a matter of fact, was close at hand. But the Lunardi rose in time to clear the cliff barrier by some hundreds of feet. A wild sea ran on it: of its surf, as of a grey and agonising face, we caught one glimpse as we hurled high and clear over the roar: and, a minute later, to our infinite dismay, were actually skimming the surface of a black hillside. "Hold on!" screamed Byfield, and I had barely time to tighten my grip when crash! the car struck the turf and pitched us together in a heap on the floor. Bump! the next blow shook us like peas in a bladder. I drew my legs up and waited for the third.
None came. The car gyrated madly and swung slowly back to equilibrium. We picked ourselves up, tossed rugs, coats, instruments, promiscuously overboard, and mounted again. The chine of the tall hill, our stumbling-block, fell back and was lost, and we swept forward into formless shadow.
"Confound it!" said Byfield, "the land can't be uninhabited!"
It was, for aught we could see. Not a light showed anywhere; and to make things worse the moon had abandoned us. For one good hour we swept through chaos to the tuneless lamentations of Sheepshanks, who declared that his collar-bone was broken.
Then Dalmahoy flung a hand upwards. Night lay like a sack around and below us: but right aloft, at the zenith, day was trembling. Slowly established, it spread and descended upon us until it touched a distant verge of hills, and there, cut by the rim of the rising sun, flowed suddenly with streams of crimson.
"Over with the grapnel!" Byfield sprang to the valve-string and pulled; and the featureless earth rushed up towards us.
The sunlight through which we were falling had not touched it yet. It leaped on us, drenched in shadow, like some incalculable beast from its covert: a land shaggy with woods and coppices. Between the woods a desolate river glimmered. A colony of herons rose from the tree-tops beneath us and flew squawking for the farther shore.
"This won't do," said Byfield, and shut the escape. "We must win clear of these woods. Hullo!" Ahead of us the river widened abruptly into a shining estuary, populous with anchored shipping. Tall hills flanked it, and in the curve of the westernmost hill a grey town rose from the waterside: its terraces climbing, tier upon tier, like seats in an amphitheatre; its chimneys lifting their smoke over against the dawn. The tiers curved away southward to a round castle and a spit of rock, off which a brig under white canvas stood out for the line of the open sea.
We swept across the roadstead towards the town, trailing our grapnel as it were a hooked fish, a bare hundred feet above the water. Faces stared up at us from the ships' decks. The crew of one lowered a boat to pursue; we were half a mile away before it touched the water. Should we clear the town? At Byfield's orders we stripped off our overcoats and stood ready to lighten ship; but seeing that the deflected wind in the estuary was carrying us towards the suburbs and the harbour's mouth, he changed his mind.
"It is devil or deep sea," he announced. "We will try the grapnel. Look to it, Ducie, while I take the valve!" He pressed a clasp-knife into my hand. "Cut, if I give the word."
We descended a few feet. We were skimming the ridge. The grapnel touched, and, in the time it takes you to wink, had ploughed through a kitchen garden, uprooting a regiment of currant bushes; had leaped clear and was caught in the eaves of a wooden outhouse, fetching us up with a dislocating shock. I heard a rending noise, and picked myself up in time to see the building collapse like a house of cards, and a pair of demented pigs emerge from the ruins and plunge across the garden-beds. And with that I was pitched off my feet again as the hook caught in an iron chevaux-de-frise, and held fast.
"Hold tight!" shouted Byfield, as the car lurched and struggled, careering desperately. "Don't cut, man! What the devil!"
Our rope had tautened over the coping of a high stone wall; and the straining Lunardi—a very large and handsome blossom, bending on a very thin stalk—overhung a gravelled yard; and lo! from the centre of it stared up at us, rigid with amazement, the faces of a squad of British red-coats!
I believe that the first glimpse of that abhorred uniform brought my knife down upon the rope. In two seconds I had slashed through the strands, and the flaccid machine lifted and bore us from their ken. But I see their faces yet, as in basso relievo: round-eyed, open-mouthed; honest country faces, and boyish, every one: an awkward squad of recruits at drill, fronting a red-headed sergeant; the sergeant, with cane held horizontally across and behind his thighs, his face upturned with the rest, and "Irishman" on every feature of it. And so the vision fleeted, and Byfield's language claimed attention. The man took the whole vocabulary of British profanity at a rush, and swore himself to a standstill. As he paused for second wind I struck in:
"Mr. Byfield, you open the wrong valve. We drift, as you say, towards—nay, over the open sea. As master of this balloon, I suggest that we descend within reasonable distance of the brig yonder; which, as I make out, is backing her sails; which, again, can only mean that she observes us and is preparing to lower a boat."
He saw the sense of this, and turned to business, though with a snarl. As a gull from the cliff, the Lunardi slanted downwards, and passing the brig by less than a cable's length to leeward, soused into the sea.
I say "soused": for I confess that the shock belied the promise of our easy descent. The Lunardi floated: but it also drove before the wind. And as it dragged the car after it like a tilted pail, the four drenched and blinded aeronauts struggled through the spray and gripped the hoop, the netting—nay, dug their nails into the oiled silk. In its new element the machine became inspired with a sudden infernal malice. It sank like a pillow if we tried to climb it: it rolled us over in the brine; it allowed us no moment for a backward glance. I spied a small cutter-rigged craft tacking towards us, a mile and more to leeward, and wondered if the captain of the brig had left our rescue to it. He had not. I heard a shout behind us; a rattle of oars as the bowmen shipped them; and a hand gripped my collar. So one by one we were plucked—uncommon specimens!—from the deep; rescued from what Mr. Sheepshanks a minute later, as he sat on a thwart and wiped his spectacles, justly termed "a predicament, sir, as disconcerting as any my experience supplies."