"I do not understand you," said Herrick.
"Not?" said Attwater.
"You seem to speak in riddles," said Herrick unsteadily. "I do not understand what manner of man you are, nor what you are driving at."
Attwater stood with his hands upon his hips, and his head bent forward. "I am a fatalist," he replied, "and just now (if you insist on it) an experimentalist. Talking of which, by the by, who painted out the schooner's name?" he said, with mocking softness, "because, do you know? one thinks it should be done again. It can still be partly read; and whatever is worth doing is surely worth doing well. You think with me? That is so nice! Well, shall we step on the verandah? I have a dry sherry that I would like your opinion of."
Herrick followed him forth to where, under the light of the hanging lamps, the table shone with napery and crystal; followed him as the criminal goes with the hangman, or the sheep with the butcher; took the sherry mechanically, drank it, and spoke mechanical words of praise. The object of his terror had become suddenly inverted; till then he had seen Attwater trussed and gagged, a helpless victim, and had longed to run in and save him; he saw him now tower up mysterious and menacing, the angel of the Lord's wrath, armed with knowledge and threatening judgment. He set down his glass again, and was surprised to see it empty.
"You go always armed?" he said, and the next moment could have plucked his tongue out.
"Always," said Attwater. "I have been through a mutiny here; that was one of my incidents of missionary life."
And just then the sound of voices reached them, and looking forth from the verandah they saw Huish and the captain drawing near.
THE DINNER PARTY
They sat down to an island dinner, remarkable for its variety and excellence: turtle-soup and steak, fish, fowls, a sucking-pig, a cocoa-nut salad, and sprouting cocoa-nut roasted for dessert. Not a tin had been opened; and save for the oil and vinegar in the salad, and some green spears of onion which Attwater cultivated and plucked with his own hand, not even the condiments were European. Sherry, hock, and claret succeeded each other, and the Farallone champagne brought up the rear with the dessert.
It was plain that, like so many of the extremely religious in the days before teetotalism, Attwater had a dash of the epicure. For such characters it is softening to eat well; doubly so to have designed and had prepared an excellent meal for others; and the manners of their host were agreeably mollified in consequence. A cat of huge growth sat on his shoulder purring, and occasionally, with a deft paw, capturing a morsel in the air. To a cat he might be likened himself, as he lolled at the head of his table, dealing out attentions and innuendoes, and using the velvet and the claw indifferently. And both Huish and the captain fell progressively under the charm of his hospitable freedom.
Over the third guest the incidents of the dinner may be said to have passed for long unheeded. Herrick accepted all that was offered him, ate and drank without tasting, and heard without comprehension. His mind was singly occupied in contemplating the horror of the circumstances in which he sat. What Attwater knew, what the captain designed, from which side treachery was to be first expected, these were the ground of his thoughts. There were times when he longed to throw down the table and flee into the night. And even that was debarred him; to do anything, to say anything, to move at all, were only to precipitate the barbarous tragedy; and he sat spellbound, eating with white lips. Two of his companions observed him narrowly, Attwater with raking, sidelong glances that did not interrupt his talk, the captain with a heavy and anxious consideration.
"Well, I must say this sherry is a really prime article," said Huish. "'Ow much does it stand you in, if it's a fair question?"
"A hundred and twelve shillings in London, and the freight to Valparaiso, and on again," said Attwater. "It strikes one as really not a bad fluid."
"A 'undred and twelve!" murmured the clerk, relishing the wine and the figures in a common ecstasy: "O my!"
"So glad you like it," said Attwater. "Help yourself, Mr. Whish, and keep the bottle by you."
"My friend's name is Huish and not Whish, sir," said the captain, with a flush.
"I beg your pardon, I am sure. Huish and not Whish; certainly," said Attwater. "I was about to say that I have still eight dozen," he added, fixing the captain with his eye.
"Eight dozen what?" said Davis.
"Sherry," was the reply. "Eight dozen excellent sherry. Why, it seems almost worth it in itself—to a man fond of wine."
The ambiguous words struck home to guilty consciences, and Huish and the captain sat up in their places and regarded him with a scare.
"Worth what?" said Davis.
"A hundred and twelve shillings," replied Attwater.
The captain breathed hard for a moment. He reached out far and wide to find any coherency in these remarks; then, with a great effort, changed the subject.
"I allow we are about the first white men upon this island, sir," said he.
Attwater followed him at once, and with entire gravity, to the new ground. "Myself and Dr. Symonds excepted, I should say the only ones," he returned. "And yet who can tell? In the course of the ages some one may have lived here, and we sometimes think that some one must. The coco-palms grow all round the island, which is scarce like nature's planting. We found besides, when we landed, an unmistakable cairn upon the beach; use unknown; but probably erected in the hope of gratifying some mumbo-jumbo whose very name is forgotten, by some thick-witted gentry whose very bones are lost. Then the island (witness the Directory) has been twice reported; and since my tenancy, we have had two wrecks, both derelict. The rest is conjecture."
"Dr. Symonds is your partner, I guess?" said Davis.
"A dear fellow, Symonds! How he would regret it, if he knew you had been here!" said Attwater.
"'E's on the Trinity 'All, ain't he?" asked Huish.
"And if you could tell me where the Trinity 'All was, you would confer a favour, Mr. Whish!" was the reply.
"I suppose she has a native crew?" said Davis.
"Since the secret has been kept ten years, one would suppose she had," replied Attwater.
"Well, now, see 'ere!" said Huish. "You have everythink about you in no end style, and no mistake, but I tell you it wouldn't do for me. Too much of 'the old rustic bridge by the mill'; too retired by 'alf. Give me the sound of Bow Bells!"
"You must not think it was always so," replied Attwater. "This was once a busy shore, although now, hark! you can hear the solitude. I find it stimulating. And talking of the sound of bells, kindly follow a little experiment of mine in silence." There was a silver bell at his right hand to call the servants; he made them a sign to stand still, struck the bell with force, and leaned eagerly forward. The note rose clear and strong; it rang out clear and far into the night and over the deserted island; it died into the distance until there only lingered in the porches of the ear a vibration that was sound no longer. "Empty houses, empty sea, solitary beaches!" said Attwater. "And yet God hears the bell! And yet we sit in this verandah on a lighted stage with all heaven for spectators! And you call that solitude?"
There followed a bar of silence, during which the captain sat mesmerised.
Then Attwater laughed softly. "These are the diversions of a lonely man," he resumed, "and possibly not in good taste. One tells oneself these little fairy tales for company. If there should happen to be anything in folk-lore, Mr. Hay? But here comes the claret. One does not offer you Lafitte, captain, because I believe it is all sold to the railroad dining-cars in your great country; but this Brane-Mouton is of a good year, and Mr. Whish will give me news of it."
"That's a queer idea of yours!" cried the captain, bursting with a sigh from the spell that had bound him. "So you mean to tell me now, that you sit here evenings and ring up ... well, ring on the angels ... by yourself?"
"As a matter of historic fact, and since you put it directly, one does not," said Attwater. "Why ring a bell, when there flows out from oneself and everything about one a far more momentous silence? the least beat of my heart and the least thought in my mind echoing into eternity for ever and for ever and for ever."
"O, look 'ere," said Huish, "turn down the lights at once, and the Band of 'Ope will oblige! This ain't a spiritual seance."
"No folk-lore about Mr. Whish—I beg your pardon, captain: Huish, not Whish, of course," said Attwater.
As the boy was filling Huish's glass, the bottle escaped from his hand and was shattered, and the wine spilt on the verandah floor. Instant grimness as of death appeared in the face of Attwater; he smote the bell imperiously, and the two brown natives fell into the attitude of attention and stood mute and trembling. There was just a moment of silence and hard looks; then followed a few savage words in the native; and, upon a gesture of dismissal, the service proceeded as before.
None of the party had as yet observed upon the excellent bearing of the two men. They were dark, undersized, and well set up; stepped softly, waited deftly, brought on the wines and dishes at a look, and their eyes attended studiously on their master.
"Where do you get your labour from anyway?" asked Davis.
"Ah, where not?" answered Attwater.
"Not much of a soft job, I suppose?" said the captain.
"If you will tell me where getting labour is!" said Attwater, with a shrug. "And of course, in our case, as we could name no destination, we had to go far and wide and do the best we could. We have gone as far west as the Kingsmills and as far south as Rapa-iti. Pity Symonds isn't here! He is full of yarns. That was his part, to collect them. Then began mine, which was the educational."
"You mean to run them?" said Davis.
"Ay! to run them," said Attwater.
"Wait a bit," said Davis; "I'm out of my depth. How was this? Do you mean to say you did it single-handed?"
"One did it single-handed," said Attwater, "because there was nobody to help one."
"By God, but you must be a holy terror!" cried the captain, in a glow of admiration.
"One does one's best," said Attwater.
"Well, now!" said Davis, "I have seen a lot of driving in my time, and been counted a good driver myself. I fought my way, third mate, round the Cape Horn with a push of packet-rats that would have turned the devil out of hell and shut the door on him; and I tell you, this racket of Mr. Attwater's takes the cake. In a ship, why, there ain't nothing to it! You've got the law with you, that's what does it. But put me down on this blame' beach alone, with nothing but a whip and a mouthful of bad words, and ask me to ... no, sir! it's not good enough! I haven't got the sand for that!" cried Davis. "It's the law behind," he added; "it's the law does it, every time!"
"The beak ain't as black as he's sometimes pynted," observed Huish humorously.
"Well, one got the law after a fashion," said Attwater. "One had to be a number of things. It was sometimes rather a bore."
"I should smile!" said Davis. "Rather lively, I should think!"
"I daresay we mean the same thing," said Attwater. "However, one way or another, one got it knocked into their heads that they must work, and they did ... until the Lord took them!"
"'Ope you made 'em jump," said Huish.
"When it was necessary, Mr. Whish, I made them jump," said Attwater.
"You bet you did," cried the captain. He was a good deal flushed, but not so much with wine as admiration; and his eyes drank in the huge proportions of the other with delight. "You bet you did, and you bet that I can see you doing it! By God, you're a man, and you can say I said so."
"Too good of you, I'm sure," said Attwater.
"Did you—did you ever have crime here?" asked Herrick, breaking his silence with a pungent voice.
"Yes," said Attwater, "we did."
"And how did you handle that, sir?" cried the eager captain.
"Well, you see, it was a queer case," replied Attwater. "It was a case that would have puzzled Solomon. Shall I tell it you? yes?"
The captain rapturously accepted.
"Well," drawled Attwater, "here is what it was. I daresay you know two types of natives, which may be called the obsequious and the sullen? Well, one had them, the types themselves, detected in the fact; and one had them together. Obsequiousness ran out of the first like wine out of a bottle, sullenness congested in the second. Obsequiousness was all smiles; he ran to catch your eye, he loved to gabble; and he had about a dozen words of beach English, and an eighth-of-an-inch veneer of Christianity. Sullens was industrious; a big down-looking bee. When he was spoken to, he answered with a black look and a shrug of one shoulder, but the thing would be done. I don't give him to you for a model of manners; there was nothing showy about Sullens; but he was strong and steady, and ungraciously obedient. Now Sullens got into trouble; no matter how; the regulations of the place were broken, and he was punished accordingly—without effect. So, the next day, and the next, and the day after, till I began to be weary of the business, and Sullens (I am afraid) particularly so. There came a day when he was in fault again, for the—O perhaps the thirtieth time; and he rolled a dull eye upon me, with a spark in it, and appeared to speak. Now the regulations of the place are formal upon one point: we allow no explanations; none are received, none allowed to be offered. So one stopped him instantly, but made a note of the circumstance. The next day he was gone from the settlement. There could be nothing more annoying; if the labour took to running away, the fishery was wrecked. There are sixty miles of this island, you see, all in length like the Queen's highway; the idea of pursuit in such a place was a piece of single-minded childishness, which one did not entertain. Two days later, I made a discovery; it came in upon me with a flash that Sullens had been unjustly punished from beginning to end, and the real culprit throughout had been Obsequiousness. The native who talks, like the woman who hesitates, is lost. You set him talking and lying; and he talks, and lies, and watches your face to see if he has pleased you; till, at last, out comes the truth! It came out of Obsequiousness in the regular course. I said nothing to him; I dismissed him; and late as it was, for it was already night, set off to look for Sullens. I had not far to go: about two hundred yards up the island the moon showed him to me. He was hanging in a coco-palm—I'm not botanist enough to tell you how—but it's the way, in nine cases out of ten, these natives commit suicide. His tongue was out, poor devil, and the birds had got at him. I spare you details: he was an ugly sight! I gave the business six good hours of thinking in this verandah. My justice had been made a fool of; I don't suppose that I was ever angrier. Next day, I had the conch sounded and all hands out before sunrise. One took one's gun, and led the way, with Obsequiousness. He was very talkative; the beggar supposed that all was right now he had confessed; in the old schoolboy phrase he was plainly 'sucking up' to me; full of protestations of good-will and good behaviour; to which one answered one really can't remember what. Presently the tree came in sight, and the hanged man. They all burst out lamenting for their comrade in the island way, and Obsequiousness was the loudest of the mourners. He was quite genuine; a noxious creature without any consciousness of guilt. Well, presently—to make a long story short—one told him to go up the tree. He stared a bit, looked at one with a trouble in his eye, and had rather a sickly smile; but went. He was obedient to the last; he had all the pretty virtues, but the truth was not in him. So soon as he was up he looked down, and there was the rifle covering him; and at that he gave a whimper like a dog. You could hear a pin drop; no more keening now. There they all crouched upon the ground with bulging eyes; there was he in the tree-top, the colour of lead; and between was the dead man, dancing a bit in the air. He was obedient to the last, recited his crime, recommended his soul to God. And then...."
Attwater paused, and Herrick, who had been listening attentively, made a convulsive movement which upset his glass.
"And then?" said the breathless captain.
"Shot," said Attwater. "They came to the ground together."
Herrick sprang to his feet with a shriek and an insensate gesture.
"It was a murder!" he screamed, "a cold-hearted, bloody-minded murder! You monstrous being! Murderer and hypocrite—murderer and hypocrite—murderer and hypocrite——" he repeated, and his tongue stumbled among the words.
The captain was by him in a moment. "Herrick!" he cried, "behave yourself! Here, don't be a blame' fool!"
Herrick struggled in his embrace like a frantic child, and suddenly bowing his face in his hands, choked into a sob, the first of many, which now convulsed his body silently, and now jerked from him indescribable and meaningless sounds.
"Your friend appears over-excited," remarked Attwater, sitting unmoved but all alert at table.
"It must be the wine," replied the captain. "He ain't no drinking man, you see. I—I think I'll take him away. A walk'll sober him up, I guess."
He led him without resistance out of the verandah and into the night, in which they soon melted; but still for some time, as they drew away, his comfortable voice was to be heard soothing and remonstrating, and Herrick answering, at intervals, with the mechanical noises of hysteria.
"'E's like a bloomin' poultry yard!" observed Huish, helping himself to wine (of which he spilled a good deal) with gentlemanly ease. "A man should learn to beyave at table," he added.
"Rather bad form, is it not?" said Attwater. "Well, well, we are left tete-a-tete. A glass of wine with you, Mr. Whish!"
THE OPEN DOOR
The captain and Herrick meanwhile turned their back upon the lights in Attwater's verandah, and took a direction towards the pier and the beach of the lagoon.
The isle, at this hour, with its smooth floor of sand, the pillared roof overhead, and the prevalent illumination of the lamps, wore an air of unreality, like a deserted theatre or a public garden at midnight. A man looked about him for the statues and tables. Not the least air of wind was stirring among the palms, and the silence was emphasised by the continuous clamour of the surf from the seashore, as it might be of traffic in the next street.
Still talking, still soothing him, the captain hurried his patient on, brought him at last to the lagoon side, and leading him down the beach, laved his head and face with the tepid water. The paroxysm gradually subsided, the sobs became less convulsive and then ceased; by an odd but not quite unnatural conjunction, the captain's soothing current of talk died away at the same time and by proportional steps, and the pair remained sunk in silence. The lagoon broke at their feet in petty wavelets, and with a sound as delicate as a whisper; stars of all degrees looked down on their own images in that vast mirror; and the more angry colour of the Farallone's riding lamp burned in the middle distance. For long they continued to gaze on the scene before them, and hearken anxiously to the rustle and tinkle of that miniature surf, or the more distant and loud reverberations from the outer coast. For long speech was denied them; and when the words came at last, they came to both simultaneously.
"Say, Herrick ..." the captain was beginning.
But Herrick, turning swiftly towards his companion, bent him down with the eager cry: "Let's up anchor, captain, and to sea!"
"Where to, my son?" said the captain. "Up anchor's easy saying. But where to?"
"To sea," responded Herrick. "The sea's big enough! To sea—away from this dreadful island and that, O! that sinister man!"
"O, we'll see about that," said Davis. "You brace up, and we'll see about that. You're all run down, that's what's wrong with you; you're all nerves, like Jemimar; you've got to brace up good and be yourself again, and then we'll talk."
"To sea," reiterated Herrick, "to sea to-night—now—this moment!"
"It can't be, my son," replied the captain firmly. "No ship of mine puts to sea without provisions; you can take that for settled."
"You don't seem to understand," said Herrick. "The whole thing is over, I tell you. There is nothing to do here, when he knows all. That man there with the cat knows all; can't you take it in?"
"All what?" asked the captain, visibly discomposed. "Why, he received us like a perfect gentleman and treated us real handsome, until you began with your foolery—and I must say I seen men shot for less, and nobody sorry! What more do you expect anyway?"
Herrick rocked to and fro upon the sand, shaking his head.
"Guying us," he said; "he was guying us—only guying us; it's all we're good for."
"There was one queer thing, to be sure," admitted the captain, with a misgiving of the voice; "that about the sherry. Damned if I caught on to that. Say, Herrick, you didn't give me away?"
"O! give you away!" repeated Herrick with weary, querulous scorn. "What was there to give away? We're transparent; we've got rascal branded on us: detected rascal—detected rascal! Why, before he came on board, there was the name painted out, and he saw the whole thing. He made sure we would kill him there and then, and stood guying you and Huish on the chance. He calls that being frightened! Next he had me ashore; a fine time I had! The two wolves, he calls you and Huish. What is the puppy doing with the two wolves? he asked. He showed me his pearls; he said they might be dispersed before morning, and all hung by a hair—and smiled as he said it, such a smile! O, it's no use, I tell you! He knows all, he sees through all; we only make him laugh with our pretences—he looks at us and laughs like God!"
There was a silence. Davis stood with contorted brows, gazing into the night.
"The pearls?" he said suddenly. "He showed them to you? He has them?"
"No, he didn't show them; I forgot: only the safe they were in," said Herrick. "But you'll never get them!"
"I've two words to say to that," said the captain.
"Do you think he would have been so easy at table, unless he was prepared?" cried Herrick. "The servants were both armed. He was armed himself; he always is; he told me. You will never deceive his vigilance. Davis, I know it! It's all up, I tell you, and keep telling you and proving it. All up; all up. There's nothing for it, there's nothing to be done: all gone: life, honour, love. O my God, my God, why was I born?"
Another pause followed upon this outburst.
The captain put his hands to his brow.
"Another thing!" he broke out. "Why did he tell you all this? Seems like madness to me!"
Herrick shook his head with gloomy iteration. "You wouldn't understand if I were to tell you," said he.
"I guess I can understand any blame' thing that you can tell me," said the captain.
"Well, then, he's a fatalist," said Herrick.
"What's that? a fatalist?" said Davis.
"O, it's a fellow that believes a lot of things," said Herrick; "believes that his bullets go true; believes that all falls out as God chooses, do as you like to prevent it; and all that."
"Why, I guess I believe right so myself," said Davis.
"You do?" said Herrick.
"You bet I do!" says Davis.
Herrick shrugged his shoulders. "Well, you must be a fool," said he, and he leaned his head upon his knees.
The captain stood biting his hands.
"There's one thing sure," he said at last. "I must get Huish out of that. He's not fit to hold his end up with a man like you describe."
And he turned to go away. The words had been quite simple; not so the tone; and the other was quick to catch it.
"Davis!" he cried, "no! Don't do it. Spare me, and don't do it—spare yourself, and leave it alone—for God's sake, for your children's sake!"
His voice rose to a passionate shrillness; another moment, and he might be overheard by their not distant victim. But Davis turned on him with a savage oath and gesture; and the miserable young man rolled over on his face on the sand, and lay speechless and helpless.
The captain meanwhile set out rapidly for Attwater's house. As he went, he considered with himself eagerly, his thoughts racing. The man had understood, he had mocked them from the beginning; he would teach him to make a mockery of John Davis! Herrick thought him a god; give him a second to aim in, and the god was overthrown. He chuckled as he felt the butt of his revolver. It should be done now, as he went in. From behind? It was difficult to get there. From across the table? No, the captain preferred to shoot standing, so as you could be sure to get your hand upon your gun. The best would be to summon Huish, and when Attwater stood up and turned—ah, then would be the moment. Wrapped in this ardent prefiguration of events, the captain posted towards the house with his head down.
"Hands up! Halt!" cried the voice of Attwater.
And the captain, before he knew what he was doing, had obeyed. The surprise was complete and irremediable. Coming on the top crest of his murderous intentions, he had walked straight into an ambuscade, and now stood, with his hands impotently lifted, staring at the verandah.
The party was now broken up. Attwater leaned on a post, and kept Davis covered with a Winchester. One of the servants was hard by with a second at the port arms, leaning a little forward, round-eyed with eager expectancy. In the open space at the head of the stair, Huish was partly supported by the other native; his face wreathed in meaningless smiles, his mind seemingly sunk in the contemplation of an unlighted cigar.
"Well," said Attwater, "you seem to me to be a very twopenny pirate!"
The captain uttered a sound in his throat for which we have no name; rage choked him.
"I am going to give you Mr. Whish—or the wine-sop that remains of him," continued Attwater. "He talks a great deal when he drinks, Captain Davis of the Sea Ranger. But I have quite done with him—and return the article with thanks. Now," he cried sharply; "another false movement like that, and your family will have to deplore the loss of an invaluable parent; keep strictly still, Davis."
Attwater said a word in the native, his eye still undeviatingly fixed on the captain; and the servant thrust Huish smartly forward from the brink of the stair. With an extraordinary simultaneous dispersion of his members, that gentleman bounded forth into space, struck the earth, ricocheted, and brought up with his arms about a palm. His mind was quite a stranger to these events; the expression of anguish that deformed his countenance at the moment of the leap was probably mechanical; and he suffered these convulsions in silence; clung to the tree like an infant; and seemed, by his dips, to suppose himself engaged in the pastime of bobbing for apples. A more finely sympathetic mind or a more observant eye might have remarked, a little in front of him on the sand and still quite beyond reach, the unlighted cigar.
"There is your Whitechapel carrion!" said Attwater. "And now you might very well ask me why I do not put a period to you at once, as you deserve. I will tell you why, Davis. It is because I have nothing to do with the Sea Ranger and the people you drowned, or the Farallone and the champagne that you stole. That is your account with God; He keeps it, and He will settle it when the clock strikes. In my own case, I have nothing to go on but suspicion, and I do not kill on suspicion, not even vermin like you. But understand: if ever I see any of you again, it is another matter, and you shall eat a bullet. And now take yourself off. March! and as you value what you call your life, keep your hands up as you go!"
The captain remained as he was, his hands up, his mouth open: mesmerised with fury.
"March!" said Attwater. "One—two—three!"
And Davis turned and passed slowly away. But even as he went, he was meditating a prompt, offensive return. In the twinkling of an eye he had leaped behind a tree; and was crouching there, pistol in hand, peering from either side of his place of ambush with bared teeth; a serpent already poised to strike. And already he was too late. Attwater and his servants had disappeared; and only the lamps shone on the deserted table and the bright sand about the house, and threw into the night in all directions the strong and tall shadows of the palms.
Davis ground his teeth. Where were they gone, the cowards? to what hole had they retreated beyond reach? It was in vain he should try anything, he, single and with a second-hand revolver, against three persons, armed with Winchesters, and who did not show an ear out of any of the apertures of that lighted and silent house? Some of them might have already ducked below it from the rear, and be drawing a bead upon him at that moment from the low-browed crypt, the receptacle of empty bottles and broken crockery. No, there was nothing to be done but to bring away (if it were still possible) his shattered and demoralised forces.
"Huish," he said, "come along."
"'S lose my ciga'," said Huish, reaching vaguely forward.
The captain let out a rasping oath. "Come right along here," said he.
"'S all righ'. Sleep here 'th Atty-Attwa. Go boar' t'morr'," replied the festive one.
"If you don't come, and come now, by the living God, I'll shoot you!" cried the captain.
It is not to be supposed that the sense of these words in any way penetrated to the mind of Huish; rather that, in a fresh attempt upon the cigar, he overbalanced himself and came flying erratically forward: a course which brought him within reach of Davis.
"Now you walk straight," said the captain, clutching him, "or I'll know why not!"
"'S lose my ciga'," replied Huish.
The captain's contained fury blazed up for a moment. He twisted Huish round, grasped him by the neck of the coat, ran him in front of him to the pier-end, and flung him savagely forward on his face.
"Look for your cigar then, you swine!" said he, and blew his boat-call till the pea in it ceased to rattle.
An immediate activity responded on board the Farallone; far-away voices, and soon the sound of oars, floated along the surface of the lagoon; and at the same time, from nearer hand, Herrick aroused himself and strolled languidly up. He bent over the insignificant figure of Huish, where it grovelled, apparently insensible, at the base of the figure-head.
"Dead?" he asked.
"No, he's not dead," said Davis.
"And Attwater?" asked Herrick.
"Now you just shut your head!" replied Davis. "You can do that, I fancy, and by God, I'll show you how! I'll stand no more of your drivel."
They waited accordingly in silence till the boat bumped on the farthest piers; then raised Huish, head and heels, carried him down the gangway, and flung him summarily in the bottom. On the way out he was heard murmuring of the loss of his cigar; and after he had been handed up the side like baggage, and cast down in the alleyway to slumber, his last audible expression was: "Splen'l fl' Attwa'!" This the expert construed into "Splendid fellow, Attwater"; with so much innocence had this great spirit issued from the adventures of the evening.
The captain went and walked in the waist with brief irate turns; Herrick leaned his arms on the taffrail; the crew had all turned in. The ship had a gentle, cradling motion; at times a block piped like a bird. On shore, through the colonnade of palm stems, Attwater's house was to be seen shining steadily with many lamps. And there was nothing else visible, whether in the heaven above or in the lagoon below, but the stars and their reflections. It might have been minutes, or it might have been hours, that Herrick leaned there, looking in the glorified water and drinking peace. "A bath of stars," he was thinking; when a hand was laid at last on his shoulder.
"Herrick," said the captain, "I've been walking off my trouble."
A sharp jar passed through the young man, but he neither answered nor so much as turned his head.
"I guess I spoke a little rough to you on shore," pursued the captain; "the fact is, I was real mad; but now it's over, and you and me have to turn to and think."
"I will not think," said Herrick.
"Here, old man!" said Davis kindly; "this won't fight, you know! You've got to brace up and help me get things straight. You're not going back on a friend? That's not like you, Herrick!"
"O yes, it is," said Herrick.
"Come, come!" said the captain, and paused as if quite at a loss. "Look here," he cried, "you have a glass of champagne. I won't touch it, so that'll show you if I'm in earnest. But it's just the pick-me-up for you; it'll put an edge on you at once."
"O, you leave me alone!" said Herrick, and turned away.
The captain caught him by the sleeve; and he shook him off and turned on him, for the moment like a demoniac.
"Go to hell in your own way!" he cried.
And he turned away again, this time unchecked, and stepped forward to where the boat rocked alongside and ground occasionally against the schooner. He looked about him. A corner of the house was interposed between the captain and himself; all was well; no eye must see him in that last act. He slid silently into the boat; thence, silently, into the starry water. Instinctively he swam a little; it would be time enough to stop by and by.
The shock of the immersion brightened his mind immediately. The events of the ignoble day passed before him in a frieze of pictures, and he thanked "whatever Gods there be" for that open door of suicide. In such a little while he would be done with it, the random business at an end, the prodigal son come home. A very bright planet shone before him and drew a trenchant wake along the water. He took that for his line and followed it.
That was the last earthly thing that he should look upon; that radiant speck, which he had soon magnified into a City of Laputa, along whose terraces there walked men and women of awful and benignant features, who viewed him with distant commiseration. These imaginary spectators consoled him; he told himself their talk, one to another; it was of himself and his sad destiny.
From such flights of fancy he was aroused by the growing coldness of the water. Why should he delay? Here, where he was now, let him drop the curtain, let him seek the ineffable refuge, let him lie down with all races and generations of men in the house of sleep. It was easy to say, easy to do. To stop swimming: there was no mystery in that, if he could do it. Could he? And he could not. He knew it instantly. He was aware instantly of an opposition in his members, unanimous and invincible, clinging to life with a single and fixed resolve, finger by finger, sinew by sinew; something that was at once he and not he—at once within and without him; the shutting of some miniature valve in his brain, which a single manly thought should suffice to open—and the grasp of an external fate ineluctable as gravity. To any man there may come at times a consciousness that there blows, through all the articulations of his body, the wind of a spirit not wholly his; that his mind rebels; that another girds him and carries him whither he would not. It came now to Herrick, with the authority of a revelation. There was no escape possible. The open door was closed in his recreant face. He must go back into the world and amongst men without illusion. He must stagger on to the end with the pack of his responsibility and his disgrace, until a cold, a blow, a merciful chance ball, or the more merciful hangman, should dismiss him from his infamy. There were men who could commit suicide; there were men who could not; and he was one who could not.
For perhaps a minute there raged in his mind the coil of this discovery; then cheerless certitude followed; and, with an incredible simplicity of submission to ascertained fact, he turned round and struck out for shore. There was a courage in this which he could not appreciate; the ignobility of his cowardice wholly occupying him. A strong current set against him like a wind in his face; he contended with it heavily, wearily, without enthusiasm, but with substantial advantage; marking his progress the while, without pleasure, by the outline of the trees. Once he had a moment of hope. He heard to the southward of him, towards the centre of the lagoon, the wallowing of some great fish, doubtless a shark, and paused for a little, treading water. Might not this be the hangman? he thought. But the wallowing died away; mere silence succeeded; and Herrick pushed on again for the shore, raging as he went at his own nature. Ay, he would wait for the shark; but if he had heard him coming!... His smile was tragic. He could have spat upon himself.
About three in the morning, chance, and the set of the current, and the bias of his own right-handed body so decided it between them that he came to shore upon the beach in front of Attwater's. There he sat down, and looked forth into a world without any of the lights of hope. The poor diving-dress of self-conceit was sadly tattered! With the fairy tale of suicide, of a refuge always open to him, he had hitherto beguiled and supported himself in the trials of life; and behold! that also was only a fairy tale, that also was folk-lore. With the consequences of his acts he saw himself implacably confronted for the duration of life: stretched upon a cross, and nailed there with the iron bolts of his own cowardice. He had no tears; he told himself no stories. His disgust with himself was so complete, that even the process of apologetic mythology had ceased. He was like a man cast down from a pillar, and every bone broken. He lay there, and admitted the facts, and did not attempt to rise.
Dawn began to break over the far side of the atoll, the sky brightened, the clouds became dyed with gorgeous colours, the shadows of the night lifted. And, suddenly, Herrick was aware that the lagoon and the trees wore again their daylight livery; and he saw, on board the Farallone, Davis extinguishing the lantern, and smoke rising from the galley.
Davis, without doubt, remarked and recognised the figure on the beach; or perhaps hesitated to recognise it; for after he had gazed a long while from under his hand, he went into the house and fetched a glass. It was very powerful; Herrick had often used it. With an instinct of shame he hid his face in his hands.
"And what brings you here, Mr. Herrick-Hay, or Mr. Hay-Herrick?" asked the voice of Attwater. "Your back view from my present position is remarkably fine, and I would continue to present it. We can get on very nicely as we are, and if you were to turn round, do you know? I think it would be awkward."
Herrick slowly rose to his feet; his heart throbbed hard, a hideous excitement shook him, but he was master of himself. Slowly he turned and faced Attwater and the muzzle of a pointed rifle. "Why could I not do that last night?" he thought.
"Well, why don't you fire?" he said aloud, in a voice that trembled.
Attwater slowly put his gun under his arm, then his hands in his pockets.
"What brings you here?" he repeated.
"I don't know," said Herrick; and then, with a cry: "Can you do anything with me?"
"Are you armed?" said Attwater. "I ask for the form's sake."
"Armed? No!" said Herrick. "O yes, I am, too!"
And he flung upon the beach a dripping pistol.
"You are wet," said Attwater.
"Yes, I am wet," said Herrick. "Can you do anything with me?"
Attwater read his face attentively.
"It would depend a good deal upon what you are," said he.
"What I am? A coward!" said Herrick.
"There is very little to be done with that," said Attwater. "And yet the description hardly strikes one as exhaustive."
"O, what does it matter?" cried Herrick. "Here I am. I am broken crockery; I am a burst drum; the whole of my life is gone to water; I have nothing left that I believe in, except my living horror of myself. Why do I come to you? I don't know; you are cold, cruel, hateful; and I hate you, or I think I hate you. But you are an honest man, an honest gentleman. I put myself, helpless, in your hands. What must I do? If I can't do anything, be merciful and put a bullet through me; it's only a puppy with a broken leg!"
"If I were you, I would pick up that pistol, come up to the house, and put on some dry clothes," said Attwater.
"If you really mean it?" said Herrick. "You know they—we—they.... But you know all."
"I know quite enough," said Attwater. "Come up to the house."
And the captain, from the deck of the Farallone, saw the two men pass together under the shadow of the grove.
DAVID AND GOLIATH
Huish had bundled himself up from the glare of the day—his face to the house, his knees retracted. The frail bones in the thin tropical raiment seemed scarce more considerable than a fowl's; and Davis, sitting on the rail with his arm about a stay, contemplated him with gloom, wondering what manner of counsel that insignificant figure should contain. For since Herrick had thrown him off and deserted to the enemy, Huish, alone of mankind, remained to him to be a helper and oracle.
He considered their position with a sinking heart. The ship was a stolen ship; the stores, whether from initial carelessness or ill administration during the voyage, were insufficient to carry them to any port except back to Papeete; and there retribution waited in the shape of a gendarme, a judge with a queer-shaped hat, and the horror of distant Noumea. Upon that side there was no glimmer of hope. Here, at the island, the dragon was roused; Attwater with his men and his Winchesters watched and patrolled the house; let him who dare approach it. What else was then left but to sit there, inactive, pacing the decks, until the Trinity Hall arrived and they were cast into irons, or until the food came to an end, and the pangs of famine succeeded? For the Trinity Hall Davis was prepared; he would barricade the house, and die there defending it, like a rat in a crevice. But for the other? The cruise of the Farallone, into which he had plunged, only a fortnight before, with such golden expectations, could this be the nightmare end of it? The ship rotting at anchor, the crew stumbling and dying in the scuppers? It seemed as if any extreme of hazard were to be preferred to so grisly a certainty; as if it would be better to up-anchor after all, put to sea at a venture, and, perhaps, perish at the hands of cannibals on one of the more obscure Paumotus. His eye roved swiftly over sea and sky in quest of any promise of wind, but the fountains of the Trade were empty. Where it had run yesterday and for weeks before, a roaring blue river charioting clouds, silence now reigned; and the whole height of the atmosphere stood balanced. On the endless ribbon of island that stretched out to either hand of him its array of golden and green and silvery palms, not the most volatile frond was to be seen stirring; they drooped to their stable images in the lagoon like things carved of metal, and already their long line began to reverberate heat. There was no escape possible that day, none probable on the morrow. And still the stores were running out!
Then came over Davis, from deep down in the roots of his being, or at least from far back among his memories of childhood and innocence, a wave of superstition. This run of ill-luck was something beyond natural; the chances of the game were in themselves more various: it seemed as if the devil must serve the pieces. The devil? He heard again the clear note of Attwater's bell ringing abroad into the night, and dying away. How if God...?
Briskly he averted his mind. Attwater: that was the point. Attwater had food and a treasure of pearls; escape made possible in the present, riches in the future. They must come to grips with Attwater; the man must die. A smoky heat went over his face, as he recalled the impotent figure he had made last night, and the contemptuous speeches he must bear in silence. Rage, shame, and the love of life, all pointed the one way; and only invention halted: how to reach him? had he strength enough? was there any help in that misbegotten packet of bones against the house?
His eyes dwelled upon him with a strange avidity, as though he would read into his soul; and presently the sleeper moved, stirred uneasily, turned suddenly round, and threw him a blinking look. Davis maintained the same dark stare, and Huish looked away again and sat up.
"Lord, I've an 'eadache on me!" said he. "I believe I was a bit swipey last night. W'ere's that cry-byby 'Errick?"
"Gone," said the captain.
"Ashore?" cried Huish. "O, I say! I'd 'a gone too."
"Would you?" said the captain.
"Yes, I would," replied Huish. "I like Attwater. 'E's all right; we got on like one o'clock when you were gone. And ain't his sherry in it, rather? It's like Spiers and Pond's Amontillado! I wish I 'ad a drain of it now." He sighed.
"Well, you'll never get no more of it—that's one thing," said Davis gravely.
"'Ere, wot's wrong with you, Dyvis? Coppers 'ot? Well, look at me! I ain't grumpy," said Huish; "I'm as plyful as a canary-bird, I am."
"Yes," said Davis, "you're playful; I own that; and you were playful last night, I believe, and a damned fine performance you made of it."
"'Allo!" said Huish. "'Ow's this? Wot performance?"
"Well, I'll tell you," said the captain, getting slowly off the rail.
And he did: at full length, with every wounding epithet and absurd detail repeated and emphasised; he had his own vanity and Huish's upon the grill, and roasted them; and as he spoke he inflicted and endured agonies of humiliation. It was a plain man's masterpiece of the sardonic.
"What do you think of it?" said he, when he had done, and looked down at Huish, flushed and serious, and yet jeering.
"I'll tell you wot it is," was the reply: "you and me cut a pretty dicky figure."
"That's so," said Davis, "a pretty measly figure, by God! And, by God, I want to see that man at my knees."
"Ah!" said Huish. "'Ow to get him there?"
"That's it!" cried Davis. "How to get hold of him! They're four to two; though there's only one man among them to count, and that's Attwater. Get a bead on Attwater, and the others would cut and run and sing out like frightened poultry—and old man Herrick would come round with his hat for a share of the pearls. No, sir! it's how to get hold of Attwater! And we daren't even go ashore; he would shoot us in the boat like dogs."
"Are you particular about having him dead or alive?" asked Huish.
"I want to see him dead," said the captain.
"Ah, well!" said Huish, "then I believe I'll do a bit of breakfast."
And he turned into the house.
The captain doggedly followed him.
"What's this?" he asked. "What's your idea, anyway?"
"O, you let me alone, will you?" said Huish, opening a bottle of champagne. "You'll 'ear my idea soon enough. Wyte till I pour some cham on my 'ot coppers." He drank a glass off, and affected to listen. "'Ark!" said he, "'ear it fizz. Like 'am frying, I declyre. 'Ave a glass, do, and look sociable."
"No!" said the captain, with emphasis; "no, I will not! there's business."
"You p'ys your money and you tykes your choice, my little man," returned Huish. "Seems rather a shyme to me to spoil your breakfast for wot's really ancient 'istory."
He finished three parts of a bottle of champagne, and nibbled a corner of biscuit, with extreme deliberation; the captain sitting opposite and champing the bit like an impatient horse. Then Huish leaned his arms on the table and looked Davis in the face.
"W'en you're ready!" said he.
"Well, now, what's your idea?" said Davis, with a sigh.
"Fair play!" said Huish. "What's yours?"
"The trouble is that I've got none," replied Davis; and wandered for some time in aimless discussion of the difficulties of their path, and useless explanations of his own fiasco.
"About done?" said Huish.
"I'll dry up right here," replied Davis.
"Well, then," said Huish, "you give me your 'and across the table, and say, 'Gawd strike me dead if I don't back you up.'"
His voice was hardly raised, yet it thrilled the hearer. His face seemed the epitome of cunning, and the captain recoiled from it as from a blow.
"What for?" said he.
"Luck," said Huish. "Substantial guarantee demanded."
And he continued to hold out his hand.
"I don't see the good of any such tomfoolery," said the other.
"I do, though," returned Huish. "Gimme your 'and and say the words; then you'll 'ear my view of it. Don't, and you don't."
The captain went through the required form, breathing short, and gazing on the clerk with anguish. What to fear he knew not, yet he feared slavishly what was to fall from the pale lips.
"Now, if you'll excuse me 'alf a second," said Huish, "I'll go and fetch the byby."
"The baby?" said Davis. "What's that?"
"Fragile. With care. This side up," replied the clerk with a wink, as he disappeared.
He returned, smiling to himself, and carrying in his hand a silk handkerchief. The long stupid wrinkles ran up Davis's brow as he saw it. What should it contain? He could think of nothing more recondite than a revolver.
Huish resumed his seat.
"Now," said he, "are you man enough to take charge of 'Errick and the niggers? Because I'll take care of Hattwater."
"How?" cried Davis. "You can't!"
"Tut, tut!" said the clerk. "You gimme time. Wot's the first point? The first point is that we can't get ashore, and I'll make you a present of that for a 'ard one. But 'ow about a flag of truce? Would that do the trick, d'ye think? or would Attwater simply blyze aw'y at us in the bloomin' boat like dawgs?"
"No," said Davis, "I don't believe he would."
"No more do I," said Huish; "I don't believe he would either; and I'm sure I 'ope he won't! So then you can call us ashore. Next point is to get near the managin' direction. And for that I'm going to 'ave you write a letter, in w'ich you s'y you're ashymed to meet his eye, and that the bearer, Mr. J. L. 'Uish, is empowered to represent you. Armed with w'ich seemin'ly simple expedient, Mr. J. L. 'Uish will proceed to business."
He paused, like one who had finished, but still held Davis with his eye.
"How?" said Davis. "Why?"
"Well, you see, you're big," returned Huish; "'e knows you 'ave a gun in your pocket, and anybody can see with 'alf an eye that you ain't the man to 'esitate about usin' it. So it's no go with you, and never was; you're out of the runnin', Dyvis. But he won't be afryde of me, I'm such a little 'un! I'm unarmed—no kid about that—and I'll hold my 'ands up right enough." He paused. "If I can manage to sneak up nearer to him as we talk," he resumed, "you look out and back me up smart. If I don't, we go aw'y again, and nothink to 'urt. See?"
The captain's face was contorted by the frenzied effort to comprehend.
"No, I don't see," he cried; "I can't see. What do you mean?"
"I mean to do for the beast!" cried Huish, in a burst of venomous triumph. "I'll bring the 'ulkin' bully to grass. He's 'ad his larks out of me; I'm goin' to 'ave my lark out of 'im, and a good lark too!"
"What is it?" said the captain, almost in a whisper.
"Sure you want to know?" asked Huish.
Davis rose and took a turn in the house.
"Yes, I want to know," he said at last with an effort.
"W'en your back's at the wall, you do the best you can, don't you?" began the clerk. "I s'y that, because I 'appen to know there's a prejudice against it; it's considered vulgar, awf'ly vulgar." He unrolled the handkerchief and showed a four-ounce jar. "This 'ere's vitriol, this is," said he.
The captain stared upon him with a whitening face.
"This is the stuff!" he pursued, holding it up. "This'll burn to the bone; you'll see it smoke upon 'im like 'ell-fire! One drop upon 'is bloomin' heyesight, and I'll trouble you for Attwater!"
"No, no, by God!" exclaimed the captain.
"Now, see 'ere, ducky," said Huish, "this is my bean-feast, I believe? I'm goin' up to that man single-'anded, I am. 'E's about seven foot high, and I'm five foot one. 'E's a rifle in his 'and, 'e's on the look-out, 'e wasn't born yesterday. This is Dyvid and Goliar, I tell you! If I'd ast you to walk up and face the music I could understand. But I don't. I on'y ast you to stand by and spifflicate the niggers. It'll all come in quite natural; you'll see, else! Fust thing, you know, you'll see him running round and 'owling like a good 'un...."
"Don't!" said Davis. "Don't talk of it!"
"Well, you are a juggins!" exclaimed Huish. "What did you want? You wanted to kill him, and tried to last night. You wanted to kill the 'ole lot of them, and tried to, and 'ere I show you 'ow; and because there's some medicine in a bottle you kick up this fuss!"
"I suppose that's so," said Davis. "It don't seem someways reasonable, only there it is."
"It's the happlication of science, I suppose?" sneered Huish.
"I don't know what it is," cried Davis, pacing the floor; "it's there! I draw the line at it. I can't put a finger to no such piggishness. It's too damned hateful!"
"And I suppose it's all your fancy pynted it," said Huish, "w'en you take a pistol and a bit o' lead, and copse a man's brains all over him? No accountin' for tystes."
"I'm not denying it," said Davis; "it's something here, inside of me. It's foolishness; I daresay it's dam foolishness. I don't argue; I just draw the line. Isn't there no other way?"
"Look for yourself," said Huish. "I ain't wedded to this, if you think I am; I ain't ambitious; I don't make a point of playin' the lead; I offer to, that's all, and if you can't show me better, by Gawd, I'm goin' to!"
"Then the risk!" cried Davis.
"If you ast me straight, I should say it was a case of seven to one, and no takers," said Huish. "But that's my look-out, ducky, and I'm gyme. Look at me, Dyvis, there ain't any shilly-shally about me. I'm gyme, that's wot I am: gyme all through."
The captain looked at him. Huish sat there preening his sinister vanity, glorying in his precedency in evil; and the villainous courage and readiness of the creature shone out of him like a candle from a lantern. Dismay and a kind of respect seized hold on Davis in his own despite. Until that moment he had seen the clerk always hanging back, always listless, uninterested, and openly grumbling at a word of anything to do; and now, by the touch of an enchanter's wand, he beheld him sitting girt and resolved, and his face radiant. He had raised the devil, he thought; and asked who was to control him, and his spirits quailed.
"Look as long as you like," Huish was going on. "You don't see any green in my eye! I ain't afryde of Attwater, I ain't afryde of you, and I ain't afryde of words. You want to kill people, that's wot you want; but you want to do it in kid gloves, and it can't be done that w'y. Murder ain't genteel, it ain't easy, it ain't safe, and it tykes a man to do it. 'Ere's the man."
"Huish!" began the captain with energy; and then stopped, and remained staring at him with corrugated brows.
"Well, hout with it!" said Huish. "'Ave you anythink else to put up? Is there any other chanst to try?"
The captain held his peace.
"There you are then!" said Huish, with a shrug.
Davis fell again to his pacing.
"O, you may do sentry-go till you're blue in the mug, you won't find anythink else," said Huish.
There was a little silence; the captain, like a man launched on a swing, flying dizzily among extremes of conjecture and refusal.
"But see," he said, suddenly pausing. "Can you? Can the thing be done? It—it can't be easy."
"If I get within twenty foot of 'im it'll be done; so you look out," said Huish, and his tone of certainty was absolute.
"How can you know that?" broke from the captain in a choked cry. "You beast, I believe you've done it before!"
"O, that's private affyres," returned Huish; "I ain't a talking man."
A shock of repulsion struck and shook the captain; a scream rose almost to his lips; had he uttered it, he might have cast himself at the same moment on the body of Huish, might have picked him up, and flung him down, and wiped the cabin with him, in a frenzy of cruelty that seemed half moral. But the moment passed; and the abortive crisis left the man weaker. The stakes were so high—the pearls on the one hand—starvation and shame on the other. Ten years of pearls! the imagination of Davis translated them into a new, glorified existence for himself and his family. The seat of this new life must be in London; there were deadly reasons against Portland, Maine; and the pictures that came to him were of English manners. He saw his boys marching in the procession of a school, with gowns on, an usher marshalling them and reading as he walked in a great book. He was installed in a villa, semi-detached; the name, "Rosemore," on the gateposts. In a chair on the gravel walk he seemed to sit smoking a cigar, a blue ribbon in his buttonhole, victor over himself and circumstances and the malignity of bankers. He saw the parlour, with red curtains, and shells on the mantelpiece—and, with the fine inconsistency of visions, mixed a grog at the mahogany table ere he turned in. With that the Farallone gave one of the aimless and nameless movements which (even in an anchored ship, and even in the most profound calm) remind one of the mobility of fluids; and he was back again under the cover of the house, the fierce daylight besieging it all round and glaring in the chinks, and the clerk in a rather airy attitude, awaiting his decision.
He began to walk again. He aspired after the realisation of these dreams, like a horse nickering for water; the lust of them burned in his inside. And the only obstacle was Attwater, who had insulted him from the first. He gave Herrick a full share of the pearls, he insisted on it; Huish opposed him, and he trod the opposition down; and praised himself exceedingly. He was not going to use vitriol himself; was he Huish's keeper? It was a pity he had asked, but after all! ... he saw the boys again in the school procession, with the gowns he had thought to be so "tony" long since.... And at the same time the incomparable shame of the last evening blazed up in his mind.
"Have it your own way!" he said hoarsely.
"O, I knew you would walk up," said Huish. "Now for the letter. There's paper, pens, and ink. Sit down and I'll dictyte."
The captain took a seat and the pen, looked a while helplessly at the paper, then at Huish. The swing had gone the other way; there was a blur upon his eyes. "It's a dreadful business," he said, with a strong twitch of his shoulders.
"It's rather a start, no doubt," said Huish. "Tyke a dip of ink. That's it. William John Hattwater, Esq. Sir:" he dictated.
"How do you know his name is William John?" asked Davis.
"Saw it on a packing-case," said Huish. "Got that?"
"No," said Davis. "But there's another thing. What are we to write?"
"O my golly!" cried the exasperated Huish. "Wot kind of man do you call yourself? I'm goin' to tell you wot to write; that's my pitch; if you'll just be so bloomin' condescendin' as to write it down! William John Attwater, Esq., Sir:" he reiterated. And, the captain at last beginning half mechanically to move his pen, the dictation proceeded: "It is with feelings of shyme and 'artfelt contrition that I approach you after the yumiliatin' events of last night. Our Mr. 'Errick has left the ship, and will have doubtless communicated to you the nature of our 'opes. Needless to s'y, these are no longer possible: Fate 'as declyred against us, and we bow the 'ead. Well awyre as I am of the just suspicions with w'ich I am regarded, I do not venture to solicit the fyvour of an interview for myself, but in order to put an end to a situytion w'ich must be equally pyneful to all, I 'ave deputed my friend and partner, Mr. J. L. Huish, to l'y before you my proposals, and w'ich by their moderytion, will, I trust, be found to merit your attention. Mr. J. L. Huish is entirely unarmed, I swear to Gawd! and will 'old 'is 'ands over 'is 'ead from the moment he begins to approach you. I am your fytheful servant, John Dyvis."
Huish read the letter with the innocent joy of amateurs, chuckled gustfully to himself, and reopened it more than once after it was folded, to repeat the pleasure, Davis meanwhile sitting inert and heavily frowning.
Of a sudden he rose; he seemed all abroad. "No!" he cried. "No! it can't be! It's too much; it's damnation. God would never forgive it."
"Well, and 'oo wants Him to?" returned Huish, shrill with fury. "You were damned years ago for the Sea Rynger, and said so yourself. Well then, be damned for something else, and 'old your tongue."
The captain looked at him mistily. "No," he pleaded, "no, old man! don't do it."
"'Ere now," said Huish, "I'll give you my ultimytum. Go or st'y w'ere you are; I don't mind; I'm goin' to see that man and chuck this vitriol in his eyes. If you st'y I'll go alone; the niggers will likely knock me on the 'ead, and a fat lot you'll be the better! But there's one thing sure: I'll 'ear no more of your moonin' mullygrubbin' rot, and tyke it stryte."
The captain took it with a blink and a gulp. Memory, with phantom voices, repeated in his ears something similar, something he had once said to Herrick—years ago it seemed.
"Now, gimme over your pistol," said Huish. "I 'ave to see all clear. Six shots, and mind you don't wyste them."
The captain, like a man in a nightmare, laid down his revolver on the table, and Huish wiped the cartridges and oiled the works.
It was close on noon, there was no breath of wind, and the heat was scarce bearable, when the two men came on deck, had the boat manned, and passed down, one after another, into the stern-sheets. A white shirt at the end of an oar served as flag of truce; and the men, by direction, and to give it the better chance to be observed, pulled with extreme slowness. The isle shook before them like a place incandescent; on the face of the lagoon blinding copper suns, no bigger than sixpences, danced and stabbed them in the eyeballs: there went up from sand and sea, and even from the boat, a glare of scathing brightness; and as they could only peer abroad from between closed lashes, the excess of light seemed to be changed into a sinister darkness, comparable to that of a thundercloud before it bursts.
The captain had come upon this errand for any one of a dozen reasons, the last of which was desire for its success. Superstition rules all men; semi-ignorant and gross natures, like that of Davis, it rules utterly. For murder he had been prepared; but this horror of the medicine in the bottle went beyond him, and he seemed to himself to be parting the last strands that united him to God. The boat carried him on to reprobation, to damnation; and he suffered himself to be carried passively consenting, silently bidding farewell to his better self and his hopes.
Huish sat by his side in towering spirits that were not wholly genuine. Perhaps as brave a man as ever lived, brave as a weasel, he must still reassure himself with the tones of his own voice; he must play his part to exaggeration, he must out-Herod Herod, insult all that was respectable, and brave all that was formidable, in a kind of desperate wager with himself.
"Golly, but it's 'ot!" said he. "Cruel 'ot, I call it. Nice d'y to get your gruel in! I s'y, you know, it must feel awf'ly peculiar to get bowled over on a d'y like this. I'd rather 'ave it on a cowld and frosty morning, wouldn't you? (Singing) ''Ere we go round the mulberry bush on a cowld and frosty mornin'.' (Spoken) Give you my word, I 'aven't thought o' that in ten year; used to sing it at a hinfant school in 'Ackney, 'Ackney Wick it was. (Singing) 'This is the way the tyler does, the tyler does.' (Spoken) Bloomin' 'umbug.—'Ow are you off now, for the notion of a future styte? Do you cotton to the tea-fight views, or the old red-'ot bogey business?"
"O, dry up!" said the captain.
"No, but I want to know," said Huish. "It's within the sp'ere of practical politics for you and me, my boy; we may both be bowled over, one up, t'other down, within the next ten minutes. It would be rather a lark, now, if you only skipped across, came up smilin' t'other side, and a hangel met you with a B. and S. under his wing. 'Ullo, you'd s'y: come, I tyke this kind."
The captain groaned. While Huish was thus airing and exercising his bravado, the man at his side was actually engaged in prayer. Prayer, what for? God knows. But out of his inconsistent, illogical, and agitated spirit, a stream of supplication was poured forth, inarticulate as himself, earnest as death and judgment.
"Thou Gawd seest me!" continued Huish. "I remember I had that written in my Bible. I remember the Bible too, all about Abinadab and parties.—Well, Gawd!" apostrophising the meridian, "you're goin' to see a rum start presently, I promise you that!"
The captain bounded.
"I'll have no blasphemy!" he cried, "no blasphemy in my boat."
"All right, cap'," said Huish. "Anythink to oblige. Any other topic you would like to sudgest, the ryne-gyge, the lightnin'-rod, Shykespeare, or the musical glasses? 'Ere's conversation on tap. Put a penny in the slot, and ... 'ullo! 'ere they are!" he cried. "Now or never! is 'e goin' to shoot?"
And the little man straightened himself into an alert and dashing attitude, and looked steadily at the enemy.
But the captain rose half up in the boat with eyes protruding.
"What's that?" he cried.
"Wot's wot?" said Huish.
"Those—blamed things," said the captain.
And indeed it was something strange. Herrick and Attwater, both armed with Winchesters, had appeared out of the grove behind the figure-head; and to either hand of them, the sun glistened upon two metallic objects, locomotory like men, and occupying in the economy of these creatures the places of heads—only the heads were faceless. To Davis, between wind and water, his mythology appeared to have come alive and Tophet to be vomiting demons. But Huish was not mystified a moment.
"Divers' 'elmets, you ninny. Can't you see?" he said.
"So they are," said Davis, with a gasp. "And why? O, I see, it's for armour."
"Wot did I tell you?" said Huish. "Dyvid and Goliar all the w'y and back."
The two natives (for they it was that were equipped in this unusual panoply of war) spread out to right and left, and at last lay down in the shade, on the extreme flank of the position. Even now that the mystery was explained, Davis was hatefully preoccupied, stared at the flame on their crests, and forgot, and then remembered with a smile, the explanation.
Attwater withdrew again into the grove, and Herrick, with his gun under his arm, came down the pier alone.
About halfway down he halted and hailed the boat.
"What do you want?" he cried.
"I'll tell that to Mr. Attwater," replied Huish, stepping briskly on the ladder. "I don't tell it to you, because you played the trucklin' sneak. Here's a letter for him: tyke it, and give it, and be 'anged to you!"
"Davis, is this all right?" said Herrick.
Davis raised his chin, glanced swiftly at Herrick and away again, and held his peace. The glance was charged with some deep emotion, but whether of hatred or of fear, it was beyond Herrick to divine.
"Well," he said, "I'll give the letter." He drew a score with his foot on the boards of the gangway. "Till I bring the answer, don't move a step past this."
And he returned to where Attwater leaned against a tree, and gave him the letter. Attwater glanced it through.
"What does that mean?" he asked, passing it to Herrick. "Treachery?"
"O, I suppose so!" said Herrick.
"Well, tell him to come on," said Attwater. "One isn't a fatalist for nothing. Tell him to come on and to look out."
Herrick returned to the figure-head. Half-way down the pier the clerk was waiting, with Davis by his side.
"You are to come along, Huish," said Herrick. "He bids you to look out—no tricks."
Huish walked briskly up the pier, and paused face to face with the young man.
"W'ere is 'e?" said he, and to Herrick's surprise, the low-bred, insignificant face before him flushed suddenly crimson and went white again.
"Right forward," said Herrick, pointing. "Now, your hands above your head."
The clerk turned away from him and towards the figure-head, as though he were about to address to it his devotions; he was seen to heave a deep breath; and raised his arms. In common with many men of his unhappy physical endowments, Huish's hands were disproportionately long and broad, and the palms in particular enormous; a four-ounce jar was nothing in that capacious fist. The next moment he was plodding steadily forward on his mission.
Herrick at first followed. Then a noise in his rear startled him, and he turned about to find Davis already advanced as far as the figure-head. He came, crouching and open-mouthed, as the mesmerised may follow the mesmeriser; all human considerations, and even the care of his own life, swallowed up in one abominable and burning curiosity.
"Halt!" cried Herrick, covering him with his rifle. "Davis, what are you doing, man? You are not to come."
Davis instinctively paused, and regarded him with a dreadful vacancy of eye.
"Put your back to that figure-head—do you hear me?—and stand fast!" said Herrick.
The captain fetched a breath, stepped back against the figure-head, and instantly redirected his glances after Huish.
There was a hollow place of the sand in that part, and, as it were, a glade among the coco-palms in which the direct noonday sun blazed intolerably. At the far end, in the shadow, the tall figure of Attwater was to be seen leaning on a tree; towards him, with his hands over his head, and his steps smothered in the sand, the clerk painfully waded. The surrounding glare threw out and exaggerated the man's smallness; it seemed no less perilous an enterprise, this that he was gone upon, than for a whelp to besiege a citadel.
"There, Mr. Whish. That will do," cried Attwater. "From that distance, and keeping your hands up, like a good boy, you can very well put me in possession of the skipper's views."
The interval betwixt them was perhaps forty feet; and Huish measured it with his eye, and breathed a curse. He was already distressed with labouring in the loose sand, and his arms ached bitterly from their unnatural position. In the palm of his right hand the jar was ready; and his heart thrilled, and his voice choked, as he began to speak.
"Mr. Hattwater," said he, "I don't know if ever you 'ad a mother...."
"I can set your mind at rest: I had," returned Attwater; "and henceforth, if I may venture to suggest it, her name need not recur in our communications. I should perhaps tell you that I am not amenable to the pathetic."
"I am sorry, sir, if I 'ave seemed to tresparse on your private feelin's," said the clerk, cringing and stealing a step. "At least, sir, you will never pe'suade me that you are not a perfec' gentleman; I know a gentleman when I see him; and as such, I 'ave no 'esitation in throwin' myself on your merciful consideration. It is 'ard lines, no doubt; it's 'ard lines to have to hown yourself beat; it's 'ard lines to 'ave to come and beg to you for charity."
"When, if things had only gone right, the whole place was as good as your own?" suggested Attwater. "I can understand the feeling."
"You are judging me, Mr. Attwater," said the clerk, "and God knows how unjustly! Thou Gawd seest me, was the tex' I 'ad in my Bible, w'ich my father wrote it in with 'is own 'and upon the fly-leaft."
"I am sorry I have to beg your pardon once more," said Attwater; "but, do you know, you seem to me to be a trifle nearer, which is entirely outside of our bargain. And I would venture to suggest that you take one—two—three—steps back; and stay there."
The devil, at this staggering disappointment, looked out of Huish's face, and Attwater was swift to suspect. He frowned, he stared on the little man, and considered. Why should he be creeping nearer? The next moment his gun was at his shoulder.
"Kindly oblige me by opening your hands. Open your hands wide—let me see the fingers spread, you dog—throw down that thing you're holding!" he roared, his rage and certitude increasing together.
And then, at almost the same moment, the indomitable Huish decided to throw, and Attwater pulled a trigger. There was scarce the difference of a second between the two resolves, but it was in favour of the man with the rifle; and the jar had not yet left the clerk's hand, before the ball shattered both. For the twinkling of an eye the wretch was in hell's agonies, bathed in liquid flames, a screaming bedlamite; and then a second and more merciful bullet stretched him dead.
The whole thing was come and gone in a breath. Before Herrick could turn about, before Davis could complete his cry of horror, the clerk lay in the sand, sprawling and convulsed.
Attwater ran to the body; he stooped and viewed it; he put his finger in the vitriol, and his face whitened and hardened with anger.
Davis had not yet moved; he stood astonished, with his back to the figure-head, his hands clutching it behind him, his body inclined forward from the waist.
Attwater turned deliberately and covered him with his rifle.
"Davis," he cried, in a voice like a trumpet, "I give you sixty seconds to make your peace with God!"
Davis looked, and his mind awoke. He did not dream of self-defence, he did not reach for his pistol. He drew himself up instead to face death, with a quivering nostril.
"I guess I'll not trouble the Old Man," he said; "considering the job I was on, I guess it's better business to just shut my face."
Attwater fired; there came a spasmodic movement of the victim, and immediately above the middle of his forehead a black hole marred the whiteness of the figure-head. A dreadful pause; then again the report, and the solid sound and jar of the bullet in the wood; and this time the captain had felt the wind of it along his cheek. A third shot, and he was bleeding from one ear; and along the levelled rifle Attwater smiled like a red Indian.
The cruel game of which he was the puppet was now clear to Davis; three times he had drunk of death, and he must look to drink of it seven times more before he was despatched. He held up his hand.
"Steady!" he cried; "I'll take your sixty seconds."
"Good!" said Attwater.
The captain shut his eyes tight like a child: he held his hands up at last with a tragic and ridiculous gesture.
"My God, for Christ's sake, look after my two kids," he said; and then, after a pause and a falter, "for Christ's sake. Amen."
And he opened his eyes and looked down the rifle with a quivering mouth.
"But don't keep fooling me long!" he pleaded.
"That's all your prayer?" asked Attwater, with a singular ring in his voice.
"Guess so," said Davis.
"So?" said Attwater, resting the butt of his rifle on the ground, "is that done? Is your peace made with Heaven? Because it is with me. Go, and sin no more, sinful father. And remember that whatever you do to others, God shall visit it again a thousandfold upon your innocents."
The wretched Davis came staggering forward from his place against the figure-head, fell upon his knees, and waved his hands, and fainted.
When he came to himself again, his head was on Attwater's arm, and close by stood one of the men in diver's helmets, holding a bucket of water, from which his late executioner now laved his face. The memory of that dreadful passage returned upon him in a clap; again he saw Huish lying dead, again he seemed to himself to totter on the brink of an unplumbed eternity. With trembling hands he seized hold of the man whom he had come to slay; and his voice broke from him like that of a child among the nightmares of fever: "O! isn't there no mercy? O! what must I do to be saved?"
"Ah!" thought Attwater, "here is the true penitent."
On a very bright, hot, lusty, strongly-blowing noon, a fortnight after the events recorded, and a month since the curtain rose upon this episode, a man might have been spied praying on the sand by the lagoon beach. A point of palm-trees isolated him from the settlement; and from the place where he knelt, the only work of man's hand that interrupted the expanse was the schooner Farallone, her berth quite changed, and rocking at anchor some two miles to windward in the midst of the lagoon. The noise of the Trade ran very boisterous in all parts of the island; the nearer palm-trees crashed and whistled in the gusts, those farther off contributed a humming bass like the roar of cities; and yet, to any man less absorbed, there must have risen at times over this turmoil of the winds the sharper note of the human voice from the settlement. There all was activity. Attwater, stripped to his trousers, and lending a strong hand of help, was directing and encouraging five Kanakas; from his lively voice, and their more lively efforts, it was to be gathered that some sudden and joyful emergency had set them in this bustle; and the Union Jack floated once more on its staff. But the suppliant on the beach, unconscious of their voices, prayed on with instancy and fervour, and the sound of his voice rose and fell again, and his countenance brightened and was deformed with changing moods of piety and terror.
Before his closed eyes the skiff had been for some time tacking towards the distant and deserted Farallone; and presently the figure of Herrick might have been observed to board her, to pass for a while into the house, thence forward to the forecastle, and at last to plunge into the main hatch. In all these quarters his visit was followed by a coil of smoke; and he had scarce entered his boat again and shoved off, before flames broke forth upon the schooner. They burned gaily; kerosene had not been spared, and the bellows of the Trade incited the conflagration. About half-way on the return voyage, when Herrick looked back, he beheld the Farallone wrapped to the topmasts in leaping arms of fire, and the voluminous smoke pursuing him along the face of the lagoon. In one hour's time, he computed, the waters would have closed over the stolen ship.
It so chanced that, as his boat flew before the wind with much vivacity, and his eyes were continually busy in the wake, measuring the progress of the flames, he found himself embayed to the northward of the point of palms, and here became aware at the same time of the figure of Davis immersed in his devotion. An exclamation, part of annoyance, part of amusement, broke from him: and he touched the helm and ran the prow upon the beach not twenty feet from the unconscious devotee. Taking the painter in his hand, he landed, and drew near, and stood over him. And still the voluble and incoherent stream of prayer continued unabated. It was not possible for him to overhear the suppliant's petitions, which he listened to some while in a very mingled mood of humour and pity: and it was only when his own name began to occur and to be conjoined with epithets, that he at last laid his hand on the captain's shoulder.
"Sorry to interrupt the exercise," said he; "but I want you to look at the Farallone."
The captain scrambled to his feet, and stood gasping and staring. "Mr. Herrick, don't startle a man like that!" he said. "I don't seem someways rightly myself since...." He broke off. "What did you say anyway? O, the Farallone," and he looked languidly out.
"Yes," said Herrick. "There she burns! and you may guess from that what the news is."
"The Trinity Hall, I guess," said the captain.
"The same," said Herrick; "sighted half an hour ago, and coming up hand over fist."
"Well, it don't amount to a hill of beans," said the captain, with a sigh.
"O, come, that's rank ingratitude!" cries Herrick.
"Well," replied the captain meditatively, "you mayn't just see the way that I view it in, but I'd 'most rather stay here upon this island. I found peace here, peace in believing. Yes, I guess this island is about good enough for John Davis."
"I never heard such nonsense!" cried Herrick. "What! with all turning out in your favour the way it does, the Farallone wiped out, the crew disposed of, a sure thing for your wife and family, and you, yourself, Attwater's spoiled darling and pet penitent!"
"Now, Mr. Herrick, don't say that," said the captain gently; "when you know he don't make no difference between us. But, O! why not be one of us? why not come to Jesus right away, and let's meet in yon beautiful land? That's just the one thing wanted; just say, 'Lord, I believe, help Thou mine unbelief!' and He'll fold you in His arms. You see, I know! I been a sinner myself!"
WEIR OF HERMISTON
TO MY WIFE
I saw rain falling and the rainbow drawn On Lammermuir. Hearkening I heard again In my precipitous city beaten bells Winnow the keen sea wind. And here afar, Intent on my own race and place, I wrote. Take thou the writing: thine it is. For who Burnished the sword, blew on the drowsy coal, Held still the target higher, chary of praise And prodigal of counsel—who but thou? So now, in the end, if this the least be good, If any deed be done, if any fire Burn in the imperfect page, the praise be thine.
R. L. S.
WEIR OF HERMISTON
In the wild end of a moorland parish, far out of the sight of any house, there stands a cairn among the heather, and a little by east of it, in the going down of the braeside, a monument with some verses half defaced. It was here that Claverhouse shot with his own hand the Praying Weaver of Balweary, and the chisel of Old Mortality has clinked on that lonely gravestone. Public and domestic history have thus marked with a bloody finger this hollow among the hills; and since the Cameronian gave his life there, two hundred years ago, in a glorious folly, and without comprehension or regret, the silence of the moss has been broken once again by the report of firearms and the cry of the dying.
The Deil's Hags was the old name. But the place is now called Francie's Cairn. For a while it was told that Francie walked. Aggie Hogg met him in the gloaming by the cairnside, and he spoke to her, with chattering teeth, so that his words were lost. He pursued Rob Todd (if any one could have believed Robbie) for the space of half a mile with pitiful entreaties. But the age is one of incredulity; these superstitious decorations speedily fell off; and the facts of the story itself, like the bones of a giant buried there and half dug up, survived, naked and imperfect, in the memory of the scattered neighbours. To this day, of winter nights, when the sleet is on the window and the cattle are quiet in the byre, there will be told again, amid the silence of the young and the additions and corrections of the old, the tale of the Justice-Clerk and of his son, young Hermiston, that vanished from men's knowledge; of the two Kirsties and the four Black Brothers of the Cauldstaneslap; and of Frank Innes, "the young fool advocate," that came into these moorland parts to find his destiny.
LIFE AND DEATH OF MRS. WEIR
The Lord Justice-Clerk was a stranger in that part of the country; but his lady wife was known there from a child, as her race had been before her. The old "riding Rutherfords of Hermiston," of whom she was the last descendant, had been famous men of yore, ill neighbours, ill subjects, and ill husbands to their wives, though not their properties. Tales of them were rife for twenty miles about; and their name was even printed in the page of our Scots histories, not always to their credit. One bit the dust at Flodden; one was hanged at his peel door by James the Fifth; another fell dead in a carouse with Tom Dalyell; while a fourth (and that was Jean's own father) died presiding at a Hell-Fire Club, of which he was the founder. There were many heads shaken in Crossmichael at that judgment; the more so as the man had a villainous reputation among high and low, and both with the godly and the worldly. At that very hour of his demise he had ten going pleas before the Session, eight of them oppressive. And the same doom extended even to his agents; his grieve, that had been his right hand in many a left-hand business, being cast from his horse one night and drowned in a peat-hag on the Kye-skairs; and his very doer (although lawyers have long spoons) surviving him not long, and dying on a sudden in a bloody flux.
In all these generations, while a male Rutherford was in the saddle with his lads, or brawling in a change-house, there would be always a white-faced wife immured at home in the old peel or the later mansion-house. It seemed this succession of martyrs bided long, but took their vengeance in the end, and that was in the person of the last descendant, Jean. She bore the name of the Rutherfords, but she was the daughter of their trembling wives. At the first she was not wholly without charm. Neighbours recalled in her, as a child, a strain of elfin wilfulness, gentle little mutinies, sad little gaieties, even a morning gleam of beauty that was not to be fulfilled. She withered in the growing, and (whether it was the sins of her sires or the sorrows of her mothers) came to her maturity depressed, and, as it were, defaced; no blood of life in her, no grasp or gaiety; pious, anxious, tender, tearful, and incompetent.
It was a wonder to many that she had married—seeming so wholly of the stuff that makes old maids. But chance cast her in the path of Adam Weir, then the new Lord Advocate, a recognised, risen man, the conqueror of many obstacles, and thus late in the day beginning to think upon a wife. He was one who looked rather to obedience than beauty, yet it would seem he was struck with her at the first look. "Wha's she?" he said, turning to his host; and, when he had been told, "Ay," says he, "she looks menseful. She minds me——"; and then, after a pause (which some have been daring enough to set down to sentimental recollections), "Is she releegious?" he asked, and was shortly after, at his own request, presented. The acquaintance, which it seems profane to call a courtship, was pursued with Mr. Weir's accustomed industry, and was long a legend, or rather a source of legends, in the Parliament House. He was described coming, rosy with much port, into the drawing-room, walking direct up to the lady, and assailing her with pleasantries to which the embarrassed fair one responded, in what seemed a kind of agony, "Eh, Mr. Weir!" or "O, Mr. Weir!" or "Keep me, Mr. Weir!" On the very eve of their engagement, it was related that one had drawn near to the tender couple, and had overheard the lady cry out, with the tones of one who talked for the sake of talking, "Keep me, Mr. Weir, and what became of him?" and the profound accents of the suitor reply, "Haangit, mem, haangit." The motives upon either side were much debated. Mr. Weir must have supposed his bride to be somewhat suitable; perhaps he belonged to that class of men who think a weak head the ornament of women—an opinion invariably punished in this life. Her descent and her estate were beyond question. Her wayfaring ancestors and her litigious father had done well by Jean. There was ready money and there were broad acres, ready to fall wholly to the husband, to lend dignity to his descendants, and to himself a title, when he should be called upon the Bench. On the side of Jean, there was perhaps some fascination of curiosity as to this unknown male animal that approached her with the roughness of a ploughman and the aplomb of an advocate. Being so trenchantly opposed to all she knew, loved, or understood, he may well have seemed to her the extreme, if scarcely the ideal, of his sex. And besides, he was an ill man to refuse. A little over forty at the period of his marriage, he looked already older, and to the force of manhood added the senatorial dignity of years; it was, perhaps, with an unreverend awe, but he was awful. The Bench, the Bar, and the most experienced and reluctant witness, bowed to his authority—and why not Jeannie Rutherford?