An Andean Romance
A quaint old Essex village of single-storied cottages, some ivy mantled, with dormer windows, thatched roofs, and miniature gardens, strewed with picturesque irregularity round as fine a green as you will find in the county. Its normal condition is rustic peace and sleepy beatitude; and it pursues the even tenor of its way undisturbed by anything more exciting than a meeting of the vestry, the parish dinner, the advent of a new curate, or the exit of one of the fathers of the hamlet.
But this morning the place is all agog, and so transformed that it hardly knows itself. The entire population, from the oldest gaffer to the last-born baby, is out-of-doors; the two inns are thronged with guests, and the road is lined with all sorts and conditions of carriages, from the four-in-hand of the wealthy swell to the donkey-cart of the local coster-monger. From every point of the compass are trooping horsemen, some resplendent in scarlet coats, their nether limbs clothed in immaculate white breeches and shining top-boots, others in pan hats and brown leggings; and all in high spirits and eager for the fray; for to-day, according to old custom, the Essex Hunt hold the first regular meet of the season on Matching's matchless Green.
The master is already to the fore, and now comes Tom Cuffe, the huntsman, followed by his hounds, whose sleek skins and bright coats show that they are "fit to go," and whose eager looks bode ill to the long-tailed denizens of copse and covert.
It still wants a few minutes to eleven, and the interval is occupied in the interchange of greetings between old companions of the chase, in desultory talk about horses and hounds; and while some of the older votaries of Diana fight their battles o'er again, and describe thrice-told historic runs, which grow longer with every repetition, others discuss the prospects of the coming season, and indulge in hopes of which, let us hope, neither Jack Frost, bad scent, nor accident by flood or field will mar the fruition.
Nearly all are talking, for there is a feeling of camaraderie in the hunting-field which dispenses with the formality of introductions, its frequenters sometimes becoming familiar friends before they have learned each other's names.
Yet there are exceptions; and one cavalier in particular appears to hold himself aloof, neither speaking to his neighbors nor mixing in the throng. As he does not look like a "sulky swell," rendered taciturn by an overweening sense of his own importance, he is probably either a new resident in the county or a "stranger from a distance"—which, none whom I ask seems to know. There is something about this man that especially attracts my attention; and not mine alone, for I perceive that he is being curiously regarded by several of my neighbors. His get-up is faultless, and he sits with the easy grace of a practiced horseman an animal of exceptional symmetry and strength. His well-knit figure is slim and almost youthful, and he holds himself as erect on his saddle as a dragoon on parade. But his closely cropped hair is turning gray, and his face that of a man far advanced in the fifties, if not past sixty. And a striking face it is—long and oval, with a straight nose and fine nostrils, a broad forehead, and a firm, resolute mouth. His complexion, though it bears traces of age, is clear, healthy, and deeply bronzed. Save for a heavy gray mustache, he is clean shaved; his dark, keenly observant eyes are overshadowed by black and all but straight brows, terminating in two little tufts, which give his countenance a strange and, as some might think, an almost sardonic expression. Altogether, it strikes me as being the face of a cynical yet not ill-natured or malicious Mephistopheles.
Behind him are two grooms in livery, nearly as well mounted as himself, and, greatly to my surprise, he is presently joined by Jim Rawlings, who last season held the post of first whipper-in.
What manner of man is this who brings out four horses on the same day, and what does he want with them all? Such horses, too! There is not one of them that has not the look of a two hundred-guinea hunter.
I was about to put the question to Keyworth, the hunt secretary, who had just come within speaking distance, and was likely to know if anybody did, when the master gave the signal for a move, and huntsman and hounds, followed by the entire field, went off at a sharp trot.
We had a rather long ride to covert, but a quick find, a fox being viewed away almost as soon as the hounds began to draw. It was a fast thing while it lasted, but, unfortunately, it did not last long; for, after a twenty minutes' gallop, the hounds threw up their heads, and cast as Cuffe might, he was unable to recover the line.
The country we had gone over was difficult and dangerous, full of blind fences and yawning ditches, deep enough and wide enough to swallow up any horse and his rider who might fail to clear them. Fortunately, however, I escaped disaster, and for the greater part of the run I was close to the gentleman with the Mephistophelian face and Tom Rawlings, who acted as his pilot. Tom rode well, of course—it was his business—but no better than his master, whose horse, besides being a big jumper, was as clever as a cat, flying the ditches like a bird, and clearing the blindest fences without making a single mistake.
After the first run we drew two coverts blank, but eventually found a second fox, which gave us a slow hunting run of about an hour, interrupted by several checks, and saved his brush by taking refuge in an unstopped earth.
By this time it was nearly three o'clock, and being a long way from home, and thinking no more good would be done, I deemed it expedient to leave off. I went away as Mephistopheles and his man were mounting their second horses, which had just been brought up by the two grooms in livery.
My way lay by Matching Green, and as I stopped at the village inn to refresh my horse with a pail of gruel and myself with a glass of ale, who should come up but old Tawney, Tom Cuffe's second horseman! Besides being an adept at his calling, familiar with every cross-road and almost every field in the county, he knew nearly as well as a hunted fox himself which way the creature meant to run. Tawney was a great gossip, and quite a mine of curious information about things equine and human—especially about things equine. Here was a chance not to be neglected of learning something about Mephistopheles; so after warming Tawney's heart and opening his lips with a glass of hot whiskey punch, I began:
"You've got a new first whip, I see."
"Yes, sir, name of Cobbe—Paul Cobbe. He comes from the Berkshire country, he do, sir."
"But how is it that Rawlings has left? and who is that gentleman he was with to-day?"
"What! haven't you heard!" exclaimed Tawney, as surprised at my ignorance as if I had asked him the name of the reigning sovereign.
"I have not heard, which, seeing that I spent the greater part of the summer at sea and returned only the other day, is perhaps not greatly to be wondered at."
"Well, the gentleman as Rawlings has gone to and as he was with to-day is Mr. Fortescue; him as has taken Kingscote."
Kingscote was a country-house of no extraordinary size, but with so large a park and gardens, conservatories and stables so extensive as to render its keeping up very costly; and the owner or mortgagee, I know not which, had for several years been vainly trying to let it at a nominal rent.
"He must be rich, then. Kingscote will want a lot of keeping up."
"Rich is not the word, sir. He has more money than he knows what to do with. Why, he has twenty horses now, and is building loose-boxes for ten more, and he won't look at one under a hundred pounds. Rawlings has got a fine place, he has that."
"I am surprised he should have left the kennels, though. He loses his chance of ever becoming huntsman."
"He is as good as that now, sir. He had a present of fifty pounds to start with, gets as many shillings a week and all found, and has the entire management of the stables, and with a gentleman like Mr. Fortescue there'll be some nice pickings."
"Very likely. But why does Mr. Fortescue want a pilot? He rides well, and his horses seem to know their business."
"He won't have any as doesn't. Yes, he rides uncommon well for an aged man, does Mr. Fortescue. I suppose he wants somebody to show him the way and keep him from getting ridden over. It isn't nice to get ridden over when you're getting into years."
"It isn't nice whether you are getting into years or not. But you cannot call Mr. Fortescue an old man."
"You cannot call him a young 'un. He has a good many gray hairs, and them puckers under his eyes hasn't come in a day. But he has a young heart, I will say that for him. Did you see how he did that 'double' as pounded half the field?"
"Yes, it was a very sporting jump. But who is Mr. Fortescue, and where does he come from?"
"That is what nobody seems to know. Mr. Keyworth—he was at the kennels only yesterday—asked me the very same question. He thought Jim Rawlings might ha' told me something. But bless you, Jim knows no more than anybody else. All as he can tell is as Mr. Fortescue sometimes goes to London, that he is uncommon fond of hosses, and either rides or drives tandem nearly every day, and has ordered a slap-up four-in-hand drag. And he has got a 'boratory and no end o' chemicals and stuff, and electric machines, and all sorts o' gimcracks."
"Is there a Mrs. Fortescue?"
"Not as I knows on. There is not a woman in the house, except servants."
"Who looks after things, then?"
"Well, there's a housekeeper. But the head bottle-washer is a chap they call major-domo—a German he is. He looks after everything, and an uncommon sharp domo he is, too, Jim says. Nobody can do him a penny piece. And then there is Mr. Fortescue's body-servant; he's a dark man, with a big scar on one cheek, and rings in his ears. They call him Rumun."
"Nonsense! There's no such name as Rumun."
"That's what I told Jim. He said it was a rum 'un, but his name was Rumun, and no mistake."
"Dark, and rings in his ears! The man is probably a Spaniard. You mean Ramon."
"No, I don't; I mean Rumun," returned Tawney, doggedly. "I thought it was an uncommon rum name, and I asked Jim twice—he calls at the kennels sometimes—I asked him twice, and he said he was cock sure it was Rumun."
"Rumun let it be then. Altogether, this Mr. Fortescue seems to be rather a mysterious personage."
"You are right there, Mr. Bacon, he is. I only wish I was half as mysterious. Why, he must be worth thousands upon thousands. And he spends his money like a gentleman, he does—thinks less of a sovereign than you think of a bob. He sent Mr. Keyworth a hundred pounds for his hunt subscription, and said if they were any ways short at the end of the season they had only to tell him and he would send as much more."
Having now got all the information out of Tawney he was able to give me, I stood him another whiskey, and after lighting a cigar I mounted my horse and jogged slowly homeward, thinking much about Mr. Fortescue, and wondering who he could be. The study of physiognomy is one of my fads, and his face had deeply impressed me; in great wealth, moreover, there is always something that strikes the imagination, and this man was evidently very rich, and the mystery that surrounded him piqued my curiosity.
Being naturally of a retiring disposition, and in no sense the hero of the tale which I am about to tell, I shall say no more concerning myself than is absolutely necessary. At the same time, it is essential to a right comprehension of what follows that I say something about myself, and better that I should say it now than interrupt the even flow of my narrative later on.
My name is Geoffrey Bacon, and I have reason to believe that I was born at a place in Essex called (appropriately enough) Dedham. My family is one of the oldest in the county, and (of course) highly respectable; but as the question is often put to me by friends, and will naturally suggest itself to my readers, I may as well observe, once for all, that I am not a descendent of the Lord Keeper Bacon, albeit, if he had had any children, I have no doubt I should have been.
My poor mother died in giving me birth; my father followed her when I was ten years old, leaving me with his blessing (nothing else), to the care of his aunt, Miss Ophelia Bacon, by whom I was brought up and educated. She was very good to me, but though I was far from being intentionally ungrateful, I fear that I did not repay her goodness as it deserved. The dear old lady had made up her mind that I should be a doctor, and though I would rather have been a farmer or a country gentleman (the latter for choice), I made no objection; and so long as I remained at school she had no reason to complain of my conduct. I satisfied my masters and passed my preliminary examination creditably and without difficulty, to my aunt's great delight. She protested that she was proud of me, and rewarded my diligence and cleverness with a five-pound note. But after I became a student at Guy's I gave her much trouble, and got myself into some sad scrapes. I spent her present, and something more, in hiring mounts, for I was passionately fond of riding, especially to hounds, and ran into debt with a neighboring livery-stable keeper to the tune of twenty pounds. I would sometimes borrow the greengrocer's pony, for I was not particular what I rode, so long as it had four legs. When I could obtain a mount neither for love nor on credit, I went after the harriers on foot. The result, as touching my health and growth, was all that could be desired. As touching my studies, however, it was less satisfactory. I was spun twice, both in my anatomy and physiology. Miss Ophelia, though sorely grieved, was very indulgent, and had she lived, I am afraid that I should never have got my diploma. But when I was twenty-one and she seventy-five, my dear aunt died, leaving me all her property (which made an income of about four hundred a year), with the proviso that unless, within three years of her death, I obtained the double qualification, the whole of her estate was to pass to Guy's Hospital. In the mean time the trustees were empowered to make me an allowance of two guineas a week and defray all my hospital expenses.
On this, partly because I was loath to lose so goodly a heritage, partly, I hope, from worthier motives, I buckled-to in real earnest, and before I was four-and-twenty I could write after my name the much coveted capitals M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P. All this while I had not once crossed a horse or looked at a hound, yet the ruling passion was still strong, and being very much of Mr. Jorrock's opinion that all time not spent in hunting is lost, I resolved, before "settling down" or taking up any position which might be incompatible with indulgence in my favorite amusement, to devote a few years of my life to fox-hunting. At twenty-four a man does not give much thought to the future—at any rate I did not.
The next question was how to hunt three or four days a week on four hundred a year, for though I was quite willing to spend my income, I was resolved not to touch my capital. To begin with, I sold my aunt's cottage and furniture and took a couple of rooms for the winter at Red Chimneys, a roomy farm-house in the neighborhood of Treydon. Then, acting on the great principle of co-operation, I joined at horse-keeping with my good friend and old school-fellow, Bertie Alston, a London solicitor. Being both of us light-weights, we could mount ourselves cheaply; the average cost of our stud of four horses did not exceed forty pounds apiece. Moreover, when opportunities offered, we did not disdain to turn an honest penny by buying an animal cheap and selling him dear, and as I looked after things myself, bought my own forage, and saw that I had full measure, our stable expenses were kept within moderate limits. Except when the weather was bad, or a horse hors de combat, I generally contrived to get four days' hunting a week—three with the fox-hounds and one with Mr. Vigne's harriers—for, owing to his professional engagements, Alston could not go out as often as I did. But as I took all the trouble and responsibility, it was only fair that I should have the lion's share of the riding.
At the end of the season we either sold the horses off or turned them into a straw-yard, and I went to sea as ship's surgeon. In this capacity I made voyages to Australia, to the Cape, and to the West Indies; and the summer before I first saw Mr. Fortescue I had been to the Arctic Ocean in a whaler. True, the pay did not amount to much, but it found me in pocket-money and clothes, and I saved my keep.
Having now, as I hope, done with digressions and placed myself en rapport with my readers, I will return to the principal personage of my story.
The next time I met Mr. Fortescue was at Harlow Bush. He was quite as well mounted as before, and accompanied, as usual, by Rawlings and two grooms with their second horses. On this occasion Mr. Fortescue did not hold himself nearly so much aloof as he had done at Matching Green, perhaps because he was more noticed; and he was doubtless more noticed because the fame of his wealth and the lavish use he made of it were becoming more widely known. The master gave him a friendly nod and a gracious smile, and expressed a hope that we should have good sport; the secretary engaged him in a lively conversation; the hunt servants touched their caps to him with profound respect, and he received greetings from most of the swells.
We drew Latton, found in a few minutes, and had a "real good thing," a grand run of nearly two hours, with only one or two trifling checks, which, as I am not writing a hunting story, I need not describe any further than to remark that we had plenty of fencing, a good deal of hard galloping, a kill in the open, and that of the sixty or seventy who were present at the start only about a score were up at the finish. Among the fortunate few were Mr. Fortescue and his pilot. During the latter part of the run we rode side by side, and pulled up at the same instant, just as the fox was rolled over.
"A very fine run," I took the liberty to observe, as I stepped from my saddle and slackened my horse's girths. "It will be a long time before we have a better."
"Two hours and two minutes," shouted the secretary, looking at his watch, "and straight. We are in the heart of the Puckeridge country."
"Yes," said Mr. Fortescue, quietly, "it was a very enjoyable run. You like hunting, I think?"
"Like it! I should rather think I do. I regard fox-hunting as the very prince of sports. It is manly, health-giving, and exhilarating. There is no sport in which so many participate and so heartily enjoy. We enjoy it, the horses enjoy it, and the hounds enjoy it."
"How about the fox?"
"Oh, the fox! Well, the fox is allowed to exist on condition of being occasionally hunted. If there were no hunting there would be no foxes. On the whole, I regard him as a fortunate and rather pampered individual; and I have even heard it said that he rather likes being hunted than otherwise."
"As for the general question, I dare say you are right. But I don't think the fox likes it much. It once happened to me to be hunted, and I know I did not like it."
This was rather startling, and had Mr. Fortescue spoken less gravely and not been so obviously in earnest, I should have thought he was joking.
"You don't mean—Was it a paper-chase?" I said, rather foolishly.
"No; it was not a paper-chase," he answered, grimly. "There were no paper-chases in my time. I mean that I was once hunted, just as we have been hunting that fox."
"With a pack of hounds?"
"Yes, with a pack of hounds."
I was about to ask what sort of a chase it was, and how and where he was hunted, when Cuffe came up, and, on behalf of the master, offered Mr. Fortescue the brush.
"Thank you," said Mr. Fortescue, taking the brush and handing it to Rawlings. "Here is something for you"—tipping the huntsman a sovereign, which he put in his pocket with a "Thank you kindly, sir," and a gratified smile.
And then flasks were uncorked, sandwich-cases opened, cigars lighted, and the conversation becoming general, I had no other opportunity—at that time—of making further inquiry of Mr. Fortescue touching the singular episode in his career which he had just mentioned. A few minutes later a move was made for our own country, and as we were jogging along I found myself near Jim Rawlings.
"That's a fresh hoss you've got, I think, sir," he said.
"Yes, I have ridden him two or three times with the harriers; but this is the first time I have had him out with fox-hounds."
"He carried you very well in the run, sir."
"You are quite right; he did. Very well."
"Does he lay hold on you at all, Mr. Bacon?"
"Not a bit."
"Light in the mouth, a clever jumper, and a free goer."
"Yes, he's the right sort, he is, sir; and if ever you feel disposed to sell him, I could, may be, find you a customer."
Accepting this as a delicate intimation that Mr. Fortescue had taken a fancy to the horse and would like to buy him, I told Jim that I was quite willing to sell at a fair price.
"And what might you consider a fair price, if it is a fair question?" asked the man.
"A hundred guineas," I answered; for, as I knew that Mr. Fortescue would not "look at a horse," as Tawney put it, under that figure, it would have been useless to ask less.
"Very well, sir. I will speak to my master, and let you know."
Ranger, as I called the horse, was a purchase of Alston's. Liking his looks (though Bertie was really a very indifferent judge), he had bought him out of a hansom-cab for forty pounds, and after a little "schooling," the creature took to jumping as naturally as a duck takes to water. Sixty pounds may seem rather an unconscionable profit, but considering that Ranger was quite sound and up to weight, I don't think a hundred guineas was too much. A dealer would have asked a hundred and fifty.
At any rate, Mr. Fortescue did not think it too much, for Rawlings presently brought me word that his master would take the horse at the price I had named, if I could warrant him sound.
"In that case it is a bargain," I said, "for I can warrant him sound."
"All right, sir. I'll send one of the grooms over to your place for him to-morrow."
Shortly afterward I fell in with Keyworth, and as a matter of course we talked about Mr. Fortescue.
"Do you know anything about him?" I asked.
"Not much. I believe he is rich—and respectable."
"That is pretty evident, I think."
"I am not sure. A man who spends a good deal of money is presumably rich; but it by no means follows that he is respectable. There are such people in the world as successful rogues and wealthy swindlers. Not that I think Mr. Fortescue is either one or the other. I learned, from the check he sent me for his subscription, who his bankers are, and through a friend of mine, who is intimate with one of the directors, I got a confidential report about him. It does not amount to much; but it is satisfactory so far as it goes. They say he is a man of large fortune, and, as they believe, highly respectable."
"Is that all?"
"All there was in the report. But Tomlinson—that's my friend—has heard that he has spent the greater part of his life abroad, and that he made his money in South America."
The mention of South America interested me, for I had made voyages both to Rio de Janeiro and several places on the Spanish Main.
"South America is rather vague," I observed. "You might almost as well say 'Southern Asia.' Have you any idea in what part of it?"
"Not the least. I have told you all I know. I should be glad to know more; but for the present it is quite enough for my purpose. I intend to call upon Mr. Fortescue."
It is hardly necessary to say that I had no such intention, for having neither a "position in the county," as the phrase goes, a house of my own, nor any official connection with the hunt, a call from me would probably have been regarded, and rightly so, as a piece of presumption. As it happened, however, I not only called on Mr. Fortescue before the secretary, but became his guest, greatly to my surprise, and, I have no doubt, to his, although he was the indirect cause; for had he not bought Ranger, it is very unlikely that I should have become an inmate of his house.
It came about in this way. Bertie was so pleased with the result of his first speculation in horseflesh (though so far as he was concerned it was a pure fluke) that he must needs make another. If he had picked up a second cab-horse at thirty or forty pounds he could not have gone far wrong; but instead of that he must needs go to Tattersall's and give nearly fifty for a blood mare rejoicing in the name of "Tickle-me-Quick," described as being "the property of a gentleman," and said to have won several country steeple-chases.
The moment I set eyes on the beast I saw she was a screw, "and vicious at that," as an American would have said. But as she had been bought (without warranty) and paid for, I had to make the best of her. Within an hour of the mare's arrival at Red Chimneys, I was on her back, trying her paces. She galloped well and jumped splendidly, but I feared from her ways that she would be hot with hounds, and perhaps, kick in a crowd, one of the worst faults that a hunter can possess.
On the next non-hunting day I took Tickle-me-Quick out for a long ride in the country, to see how she shaped as a hack. I little thought, as we set off, that it would prove to be her last journey, and one of the most memorable events of my life.
For a while all went well. The mare wanted riding, yet she behaved no worse than I expected, although from the way she laid her ears back and the angry tossing of her head when I made her feel the bit, she was clearly not in the best of tempers. But I kept her going; and an hour after leaving Red Chimneys we turned into a narrow deep lane between high banks, which led to Kingscote entering the road on the west side of the park at right angles, and very near Mr. Fortescue's lodge-gates.
In the field to my right several colts were grazing, and when they caught sight of Tickle-me-Quick trotting up the lane they took it into their heads to have an impromptu race among themselves. Neighing loudly, they set off at full gallop. Without asking my leave, Tickle-me-Quick followed suit. I tried to stop her. I might as well have tried to stop an avalanche. So, making a virtue of necessity, I let her go, thinking that before she reached the top of the lane she would have had quite enough, and I should be able to pull her up without difficulty.
The colts are soon left behind; but we can hear them galloping behind us, and on goes the mare like the wind. I can now see the end of the lane, and as the great park wall, twelve feet high, looms in sight, the horrible thought flashes on my mind that unless I pull her up we shall both be dashed to pieces; for to turn a sharp corner at the speed we are going is quite out of the question.
I make another effort, sawing the mare's mouth till it bleeds, and tightening the reins till they are fit to break.
All in vain; she puts her head down and gallops on, if possible more madly than before. Still larger looms that terrible wall; death stares me in the face, and for the first time in my life I undergo the intense agony of mortal terror.
We are now at the end of the lane. There is one chance only, and that the most desperate, of saving my life. I slip my feet from the stirrups, and when Tickle-me-Quick is within two or three strides of the wall, I drop the reins and throw myself from her back. Then all is darkness.
MR. FORTESCUE'S PROPOSAL.
"Where am I?"
I feel as if I were in a strait-jacket. One of my arms is immovable, my head is bandaged, and when I try to turn I suffer excruciating pain.
"Where am I?"
"Oh, you have wakened up!" says somebody with a foreign accent, and a dark face bends over me. The light is dim and my sight weak, and but for his grizzled mustache I might have taken the speaker for a woman, his ears being adorned with large gold rings.
"Where are you? You are in the house of Senor Fortescue."
"And the mare?"
"The mare broke her wicked head against the park wall, and she has gone to the kennels to be eaten by the dogs."
"Already? How long is it since?"
"It was the day before yesterday zat it happened."
"God bless me! I must have been insensible ever since. That means concussion of the brain. Am I much damaged otherwise, do you know?"
"Pretty well. Your left shoulder is dislocated, one of your fingers and two of your ribs broken, and one of your ankles severely contused. But it might have been worse. If you had not thrown yourself from your horse, as you did, you would just now be in a coffin instead of in this comfortable bed."
"Somebody saw me, then?"
"Yes, the lodge-keeper. He thought you were dead, and came up and told us; and we brought you here on a stretcher, and the Senor Coronel sent for a doctor—"
"The Senor Coronel! Do you mean Mr. Fortescue?"
"Yes, sir, I mean Mr. Fortescue."
"Then you are Ramon?"
"Hijo de Dios! You know my name."
"Yes, you are Mr. Fortescue's body-servant."
"Caramba! Somebody must have told you."
"You might have made a worse guess, Senor Ramon. Will you please tell Mr. Fortescue that I thank him with all my heart for his great kindness, and that I will not trespass on it more than I can possibly help. As soon as I can be moved I shall go to my own place."
"That will not be for a long time, and I do not think the Senor Coronel would like—But when he returns he will see you, and then you can tell him yourself."
"He is away from home, then?"
"The Senor Coronel has gone to London. He will be back to-morrow."
"Well, if I cannot thank him to-day, I can thank you. You are my nurse, are you not?"
"A little—Geist and I, and Mees Tomleenson, we relieve each other. But those two don't know much about wounds."
"And you do, I suppose?"
"Hijo de Dios! Do I know much about wounds? I have nursed men who have been cut to pieces. I have been cut to pieces myself. Look!"
And with that Ramon pointed to his neck, which was seamed all the way down with a tremendous scar; then to his left hand, which was minus two fingers; next to one of his arms, which appeared to have been plowed from wrist to elbow with a bullet; and lastly to his head, which was almost covered with cicatrices, great and small.
"And I have many more marks in other parts of my body, which it would not be convenient to show you just now," he said, quietly.
"You are an old soldier, then, Ramon?"
"Very. And now I will light myself a cigarette, and you will no more talk. As an old soldier, I know that it is bad for a caballero with a broken head to talk so much as you are doing."
"As a surgeon, I know you are right, and I will talk no more for the present."
And then, feeling rather drowsy, I composed myself to sleep. The last thing I remembered before closing my eyes was the long, swarthy, quixotic-looking face of my singular nurse, veiled in a blue cloud of cigarette-smoke, which, as it rolled from the nostrils of his big, aquiline nose, made those orifices look like the twin craters of an active volcano, upside down.
When, after a short snooze, I woke a second time, my first sensation was one of intense surprise, and being unable, without considerable inconvenience, to rub my eyes, I winked several times in succession to make sure that I was not dreaming; for while I slept the swart visage, black eyes, and grizzled mustache of my nurse had, to all appearance, been turned into a fair countenance, with blue eyes and a tawny head, while the tiny cigarette had become a big meerschaum pipe.
"God bless me! You are surely not Ramon?" I exclaimed.
"No; I am Geist. It is my turn of duty as your nurse. Can I get you anything?"
"Thank you very much; you are all very kind. I feel rather faint, and perhaps if I had something to eat it might do me good."
"Certainly. There is some beef-tea ready. Here it is. Shall I feed you?"
"Thank you. My left arm is tied up, and this broken finger is very painful. Bat I am giving you no end of trouble. I don't know how I shall be able to repay you and Mr. Fortescue for all your kindness."
"Ach Gott! Don't mention it, my dear sir. Mr. Fortescue said you were to have every attention; and when a fellow-man has been broken all to pieces it is our duty to do for him what we can. Who knows? Perhaps some time I may be broken all to pieces myself. But I will not ride your fiery horses. My weight is seventeen stone, and if I was to throw myself off a galloping horse as you did, ach Gott! I should be broken past mending."
Mr. Geist made an attentive and genial nurse, discoursing so pleasantly and fluently that, greatly to my satisfaction (for I was very weak), my part in the conversation was limited to an occasional monosyllable; but he said nothing on the subject as to which I was most anxious for information—Mr. Fortescue—and, as he clearly desired to avoid it, I refrained from asking questions that might have put him in a difficulty and exposed me to a rebuff.
I found out afterward that neither he nor Ramon ever discussed their master, and though Mrs. Tomlinson, my third nurse (a buxom, healthy, middle-aged widow, whose position seemed to be something between that of housekeeper and upper servant), was less reticent, it was probably because she had so little to tell.
I learned, among other things, that the habits of the household were almost as regular as those of a regiment, and that the servants, albeit kindly treated and well paid, were strictly ruled, even comparatively slight breaches of discipline being punished with instant dismissal. At half-past ten everybody was supposed to be in bed, and up at six; for at seven Mr. Fortescue took his first breakfast of fruit and dry toast. According to Mrs. Tomlinson (and this I confess rather surprised me) he was an essentially busy man. His only idle time was that which he gave to sleep. During his waking hours he was always either working in his study, his laboratory, or his conservatories, riding and driving being his sole recreations.
"He is the most active man I ever knew, young or old," said Mrs. Tomlinson, "and a good master—I will say that for him. But I cannot make him out at all. He seems to have neither kith nor kin, and yet—This is quite between ourselves, Mr. Bacon—"
"Of course, Mrs. Tomlinson, quite."
"Well, there is a picture in his room as he keeps veiled and locked up in a sort of shrine; but one day he forgot to turn the key, and I—I looked."
"Naturally. And what did you see?"
"The picture of a woman, dark, but, oh, so beautiful—as beautiful as an angel.... I thought it was, may be, a sweetheart or something, but she is too young for the likes of him."
"Portraits are always the same; that picture may have been painted ages ago. Always veiled is it? That seems very mysterious, does it not?"
"It does; and I am just dying to know what the mystery is. If you should happen to find out, and it's no secret, would you mind telling me?"
At this point Herr Geist appeared, whereupon Mrs. Tomlinson, with true feminine tact, changed the subject without waiting for a reply.
During the time I was laid up Mr. Fortescue came into my room almost every day, but never stayed more than a few minutes. When I expressed my sense of his kindness and talked about going home, he would smile gravely, and say:
"Patience! You must be my guest until you have the full use of your limbs and are able to go about without help."
After this I protested no more, for there was an indescribable something about Mr. Fortescue which would have made it difficult to contradict him, even had I been disposed to take so ungrateful and ungracious a part.
At length, after a weary interval of inaction and pain, came a time when I could get up and move about without discomfort, and one fine frosty day, which seemed the brightest of my life, Geist and Ramon helped me down-stairs and led me into a pretty little morning-room, opening into one of the conservatories, where the plants and flowers had been so arranged as to look like a sort of tropical forest, in the midst of which was an aviary filled with parrots, cockatoos, and other birds of brilliant plumage.
Geist brought me an easy-chair, Ramon a box of cigarettes and the "Times," and I was just settling down to a comfortable read and smoke, when Mr. Fortescue entered from the conservatory. He wore a Norfolk jacket and a broad-brimmed hat, and his step was so elastic, and his bearing so upright, and he seemed so strong and vigorous withal, that I began to think that in estimating his age at sixty I had made a mistake. He looked more like fifty or fifty-five.
"I am glad to see you down-stairs," he said, helping himself to a cigarette. "How do you feel?"
"Very much better, thank you, and to-morrow or the next day I must really—"
"No, no, I cannot let you go yet. I shall keep you, at any rate, a few days longer. And while this frost lasts you can do no hunting. How is the shoulder?"
"Better. In a fortnight or so I shall be able to dispense with the sling, but my ankle is the worst. The contusion was very severe. I fear that I shall feel the effects of it for a long time."
"That is very likely, I think. I would any time rather have a clean flesh wound than a severe contusion. I have had experience of both. At Salamanca my shoulder was laid open with a sabre-stroke at the very moment my horse was shot under me; and my leg, which was terribly bruised in the fall, was much longer in getting better than my shoulder."
"At Salamanca! You surely don't mean the battle of Salamanca?"
"Yes, the battle of Salamanca."
"But, God bless me, that is ages ago! At the beginning of the century—1810 or 1812, or something like that."
"The battle of Salamanca was fought on the 21st of July, 1812," said my host, with a matter-of-fact air.
"But—why—how?" I stammered, staring at him in supreme surprise. "That is sixty years since, and you don't look much more than fifty now."
"All the same I am nearly fourscore," said Mr. Fortescue, smiling as if the compliment pleased him.
"Fourscore, and so hale and strong! I have known men half your age not half so vigorous and alert. Why, you may live to be a hundred."
"I think I shall, probably longer. Of course barring accidents, and if I continue to avoid a peril which has been hanging over me for half a century or so, and from which I have several times escaped only by the skin of my teeth."
"And what is the peril, Mr. Fortescue?"
"Yes, assassination. I told you a short time ago that I was once hunted by a pack of hounds. I am hunted now—have been hunted for two generations—by a family of murderers."
The thought occurred to me—and not for the first time—that Mr. Fortescue was either mad or a Munchausen, and I looked at him curiously; but neither in that calm, powerful, self-possessed face, nor in the steady gaze of those keen dark eyes, could I detect the least sign of incipient insanity or a boastful spirit.
"You are quite mistaken," he said, with one of his enigmatic smiles. "I am not mad; and I have lived too long either to cherish illusions or conjure up imaginary dangers."
"I—I beg your pardon, Mr. Fortescue—I had no intention," I stammered, quite taken aback by the accuracy with which he had read, or guessed, my thoughts—"I had no intention to cast a doubt on what you said. But who are these people that seek your life? and why don't you inform the police?"
"The police! How could the police help me?" exclaimed Mr. Fortescue, with a gesture of disdain, "Besides, life would not be worth having at the price of being always under police protection, like an evicting Irish landlord. But let us change the subject; we have talked quite enough about myself. I want to talk about you."
A very few minutes sufficed to put Mr. Fortescue in possession of all the information he desired. He already knew something about me, and as I had nothing to conceal, I answered all his questions without reserve.
"Don't you think you are rather wasting your life?" he asked, after I had answered the last of them.
"I am enjoying it."
"Very likely. People generally do enjoy life when they are young. Hunting is all very well as an amusement, but to have no other object in life seems—what shall we say?—just a little frivolous, don't you think?"
"Well, perhaps it does; but I mean, after a while, to buy a practice and settle down."
"But in the mean time your medical knowledge must be growing rather rusty. I have heard physicians say that it is only after they have obtained their degree that they begin to learn their profession. And the practice you get on board these ships cannot amount to much."
"You are quite right," I said, frankly, for my conscience was touched. "I am, as you say, living too much for the present. I know less than I knew when I left Guy's. I could not pass my 'final' over again to save my life. You are quite right: I must turn over a new leaf."
"I am glad to hear you say so, the more especially as I have a proposal to make; and as I make it quite as much in my own interest as in yours, you will incur no obligation in accepting it. I want you to become an inmate of my house, help me in my laboratory, and act as my secretary and domestic physician, and when I am away from home, as my representative. You will have free quarters, of course; my stable will be at your disposal for hunting purposes, and you may go sometimes to London to attend lectures and do practical work at your hospital. As for salary—you can fix it yourself, when you have ascertained by actual experience the character of your work. What do you say?"
Mr. Fortescue put this question as if he had no doubt about my answer, and I fulfilled his expectation by answering promptly in the affirmative. The proposal seemed in every way to my advantage, and was altogether to my liking; and even had it been less so I should have accepted it, for what I had just heard greatly whetted my curiosity, and made me more desirous than ever to know the history of the extraordinary man with whom I had so strangely come in contact, and ascertain the secret of his wealth.
The same day I wrote to Alston announcing the dissolution of our partnership, and leaving him to deal with the horses at Red Chimneys as he might think fit.
My curiosity was rather long in being gratified, and but for a very strange occurrence, which I shall presently describe, probably never would have been gratified. Even after I had been a member of Mr. Fortescue's household for several months, I knew little more of his antecedents and circumstances than on the day when he made me the proposal which I have just mentioned. If I attempted to lead up to the subject, he would either cleverly evade it or say bluntly that he preferred to talk about something else. Save as to matters that did not particularly interest me, Ramon was as reticent as his master; and as Geist had only been with Mr. Fortescue during the latter's residence at Kingscote, his knowledge, or, rather, his ignorance was on a par with my own.
Mr. Fortescue's character was as enigmatic as his history was obscure. He seemed to be destitute both of kinsfolk and friends, never made any allusion to his family, neither noticed women nor discussed them. Politics and religion he equally ignored, and, so far as might appear, had neither foibles nor fads. On the other hand, he had three passions—science, horses, and horticulture, and his knowledge was almost encyclopaedic. He was a great reader, master of many languages, and seemed to have been everywhere and seen all in the world that was worth seeing. His wealth appeared to be unlimited, but how he made it or where he kept it I had no idea. All I knew was that whenever money was wanted it was forthcoming, and that he signed a check for ten pounds and ten thousand with equal indifference. As he conducted his private correspondence himself, my position as secretary gave me no insight into his affairs. My duties consisted chiefly in corresponding with tradesmen, horse-dealers, and nursery gardeners, and noting the results of chemical experiments.
Mr. Fortescue was very abstemious, and took great care of his health, and if he was really verging on eighty (which I very much doubted), I thought he might not improbably live to be a hundred and ten and even a hundred and twenty. He drank nothing, whatever, neither tea, coffee, cocoa, nor any other beverage, neither water nor wine, always quenching his thirst with fruit, of which he ate largely. So far as I knew, the only liquid that ever passed his lips was an occasional liquor-glass of a mysterious decoction which he prepared himself and kept always under lock and key. His breakfast, which he took every morning at seven, consisted of bread and fruit.
He ate very little animal food, limiting himself for the most part to fish and fowl, and invariably spent eight or nine hours of the twenty-four in bed. We often discussed physiology, therapeutics, and kindred subjects, of which his knowledge was so extensive as to make me suspect that some time in his life he had belonged to the medical profession.
"The best physicians I ever met," he once observed, "are the Callavayas of the Andes—if the preservation and prolongation of human life is the test of medical skill. Among the Callavayas the period of youth is thirty years; a man is not held to be a man until he reaches fifty, and he only begins to be old at a hundred."
"Was it among the Callavayas that you learned the secret of long life, Mr. Fortescue?" I asked.
"Perhaps," he answered, with one of his peculiar smiles; and then he started me by saying that he would never be a "lean and slippered pantaloon." When health and strength failed him he should cease to live.
"You surely don't mean that you will commit suicide?" I exclaimed, in dismay.
"You may call it what you like. I shall do as the Fiji Islanders and some tribes of Indians do, in similar circumstances—retire to a corner and still the beatings of my heart by an effort of will."
"But is that possible?"
"I have seen it done, and I have done it myself—not, of course, to the point of death, but so far as to simulate death. I once saved my life in that way."
"Was that when you were hunted, Mr. Fortescue?"
"No, it was not. Let us go to the stables. I want to see you ride Regina over the jumps."
Mr. Fortescue had caused to be arranged in the park a miniature steeple-chase course about a mile round, on which newly-acquired hunters were always tried, and the old ones regularly exercised. He generally made a point of being present on these occasions, sometimes riding over the course himself. If a horse, bought as a hunter, failed to justify its character by its performance it was invariably returned.
Sometimes Ramon gave us an exhibition of his skill as a gaucho. One of the wildest of the horses would be let loose in the park, and the old soldier, armed with a lasso and mounted on an animal trained by himself, and equipped with a South American saddle, would follow and try to "rope" the runaway, Mr. Fortescue, Rawlings, and myself riding after him. It was "good fun," but I fancy Mr. Fortescue regarded this sport, as he regarded hunting, less as an amusement than as a means of keeping him in good health and condition.
Regina (a recent purchase) was tried and, I think, found wanting. I recall the instance merely because it is associated in my mind with an event which, besides affecting a momentous change in my relations with Mr. Fortescue and greatly influencing my own fortune, rendered possible the writing of this book.
The trial over, Mr. Fortescue told me, somewhat abruptly, that he intended to leave home in an hour, and should be away for several days. As he walked toward the house, I inquired if there was anything he would like me to look after during his absence, whereupon he mentioned several chemical and electrical experiments, which he wished me to continue and note the results. He requested me, further, to open all letters—save such as were marked private or bore foreign postmarks—and answer so many of them as, without his instructions, I might be able to do. For the rest, I was to exercise a general supervision, especially over the stables and gardens. As for purely domestic concerns, Geist was so excellent a manager that his master trusted him without reserve.
When Mr. Fortescue came down-stairs, equipped for his journey, I inquired when he expected to return, and on what day he would like the carriage to meet him at the station. I thought he might tell me where he was going; but he did not take the hint.
"If it rains I will telegraph," he said; "if fine, I shall probably walk; it is only a couple of miles."
Mr. Fortescue, as he always did when he went outside his park (unless he was mounted), took with him a sword-stick, a habit which I thought rather ridiculous, for, though he was an essentially sane man, I had quite made up my mind that his fear of assassination was either a fancy or a fad.
After my patron's departure I worked for a while in the laboratory; and an hour before dinner I went for a stroll in the park, making, for no reason in particular, toward the principal entrance. As I neared it I heard voices in dispute, and on reaching the gates I found the lodge-keeper engaged in a somewhat warm altercation with an Italian organ-grinder and another fellow of the same kidney, who seemed to be his companion.
The lodge-keepers had strict orders to exclude from the park all beggars without exception, and all and sundry who produced music by turning a handle. Real musicians, however, were freely admitted, and often generously rewarded.
The lodge-keeper in question (an old fellow with a wooden leg) had not been able to make the two vagabonds in question understand this. They insisted on coming in, and the lodge-keeper said that if I had not appeared he verily believed they would have entered in spite of him. They seemed to know very little English; but as I knew a little Italian, which I eked out with a few significant gestures, I speedily enlightened them, and they sheered off, looking daggers, and muttering what sounded like curses.
The man who carried the organ was of the usual type—short, thick-set, hairy, and unwashed. His companion, rather to my surprise, was just the reverse—tall, shapely, well set up, and comparatively well clad; and with his dark eyes, black mustache, broad-brimmed hat, and red tie loosely knotted round his brawny throat, he looked decidedly picturesque.
On the following day, as I was going to the stables (which were a few hundred yards below the house) I found my picturesque Italian in the back garden, singing a barcarole to the accompaniment of a guitar. But as he had complied with the condition of which I had informed him, I made no objection. So far from that I gave him a shilling, and as the maids (who were greatly taken with his appearance) got up a collection for him and gave him a feed, he did not do badly.
A few days later, while out riding, I called at the station for an evening paper, and there he was again, "touching his guitar," and singing something that sounded very sentimental.
"That fellow is like a bad shilling," I said to one of the porters—"always turning up."
"He is never away. I think he must have taken it into his head to live here."
"What does he do?"
"Oh, he just hangs about, and watches the trains, as if he had never seen any before. I suppose there are none in the country he comes from. Between whiles he sometimes plays on his banjo and sings a bit for us. I cannot quite make him out; but as he is very quiet and well-behaved, and never interferes with nobody, it is no business of mine."
Neither was it any business of mine; so after buying my paper I dismissed the subject from my mind and rode on to Kingscote.
As a rule, I found the morning papers quite as much as I could struggle with; but at this time a poisoning case was being tried which interested me so much that while it lasted I sent for or fetched an evening paper every afternoon. The day after my conversation with the porter I adopted the former course, the day after that I adopted the latter, and, contrary to my usual practice, I walked.
There were two ways from Kingscote to the station; one by the road, the other by a little-used footpath. I went by the road, and as I was buying my paper at Smith's bookstall the station-master told me that Mr. Fortescue had returned by a train which came in about ten minutes previously.
"He must be walking home by the fields, then, or we should have met," I said; and pocketing my paper, I set off with the intention of overtaking him.
As I have already observed, the field way was little frequented, most people preferring the high-road as being equally direct and, except in the height of summer, both dryer and less lonesome.
After traversing two or three fields the foot-path ran through a thick wood, once part of the great forest of Essex, then descending into a deep hollow, it made a sudden bend and crossed a rambling old brook by a dilapidated bridge.
As I reached the bend I heard a shout, and looking down I saw what at first sight (the day being on the wane and the wood gloomy) I took to be three men amusing themselves with a little cudgel-play. But a second glance showed me that something much more like murder than cudgel-play was going on; and shortening my Irish blackthorn, I rushed at breakneck speed down the hollow.
I was just in time. Mr. Fortescue, with his back against the tree, was defending himself with his sword-stick against the two Italians, each of whom, armed with a long dagger, was doing his best to get at him without falling foul of the sword.
The rascals were so intent on their murderous business that they neither heard nor saw me, and, taking them in the rear, I fetched the guitar-player a crack on his skull that stretched him senseless on the ground, whereupon the other villain, without more ado, took to his heels.
"Thank you," said Mr. Fortescue, quietly, as he put up his weapon. "I don't think I could have kept the brigands at bay much longer. A sword-stick is no match for a pair of Corsican daggers. The next time I take a walk I must have a revolver. Is that fellow dead, do you think? If he is, I shall be still more in your debt."
I looked at the prostrate man's face, then at his head. "No," I said, "there is no fracture. He is only stunned." My diagnosis was verified almost as soon as it was spoken. The next moment the Italian opened his eyes and sat up, and had I not threatened him with my blackthorn would have sprung to his feet.
"You have to thank this gentleman for saving your life," said Mr. Fortescue, in French.
"How?" asked the fellow in the same language.
"If you had killed me you would have been hanged. If I hand you over to the police you will get twenty years at the hulks for attempted murder, and unless you answer my questions truly I shall hand you over to the police. You are a Griscelli."
"Which of them?"
"I am Giuseppe, the son of Giuseppe."
"In that case you are his grandson. How did you find me out?"
"You were at Paris last summer."
"But you did not see me there."
"No, but Giacomo did; and from your name and appearance we felt sure you were the same."
"Who is Giacomo—your brother?"
"No, my cousin, the son of Luigi."
"What is he?"
"He belongs to the secret police."
"So Giacomo put you on the scent?"
"Yes, sir. He ascertained that you were living in England. The rest was easy."
"Oh, it was, was it? You don't find yourself very much at ease just now, I fancy. And now, my young friend, I am going to treat you better than you deserve. I can afford to do so, for, as you see, and, as your grandfather and your father discovered to their cost, I bear a charmed life. You cannot kill me. You may go. And I advise you to return to France or Corsica, or wherever may be your home, with all speed, for to-morrow I shall denounce you to the police, and if you are caught you know what to expect. Who is your accomplice—a kinsman?"
"No, only compatriot, whose acquaintance I made in London. He is a coward."
"Evidently. One more question and I have done. Have you any brothers?"
"Yes, sir; two."
"And about a dozen cousins, I suppose, all of whom would be delighted to murder me—if they could. Now, give that gentleman your dagger, and march, au pas gymnastique."
With a very ill grace, Giuseppe Griscelli did as he was bid, and then, rising to his feet, he marched, not, however, at the pas gymnastique, but slowly and deliberately; and as he reached a bend in the path a few yards farther on, he turned round and cast at Mr. Fortescue the most diabolically ferocious glance I ever saw on a human countenance.
THEREBY HANGS A TALE.
"You believe now, I hope," said Mr. Fortescue, as we walked homeward.
"Believe what, sir?"
"That I have relentless enemies who seek my life. When I first told you of this you did not believe me. You thought I was the victim of an hallucination, else had I been more frank with you."
"I am really very sorry."
"Don't protest! I cannot blame you. It is hard for people who have led uneventful lives and seen little of the seamy side of human nature to believe that under the veneer of civilization and the mask of convention, hatreds are still as fierce, men still as revengeful as ever they were in olden times.... I hope I did not make a mistake in sparing young Griscelli's life."
"Sparing his life! How?"
"He sought my life, and I had a perfect right to take his."
"That is not a very Christian sentiment, Mr. Fortescue."
"I did not say it was. Do you always repay good for evil and turn your check to the smiter, Mr. Bacon?"
"If you put it in that way, I fear I don't."
"Do you know anybody who does?"
After a moment's reflection I was again compelled to answer in the negative. I could not call to mind a single individual of my acquaintance who acted on the principle of returning good for evil.
"Well, then, if I am no better than other people, I am no worse. Yet, after all, I think I did well to let him go. Had I killed the brigand, there would have been a coroner's inquest, and questions asked which might have been troublesome to answer, and he has brothers and cousins. If I could destroy the entire brood! Did you see the look he gave me as he went away? It meant murder. We have not seen the last of Giuseppe Griscelli, Mr. Bacon."
"I am afraid we have not. I never saw such an expression of intense hatred in my life! Has he cause for it?"
"I dare say he thinks so. I killed his father and his grand-father."
This, uttered as indifferently as if it were a question of killing hares and foxes, was more than I could stand. I am not strait-laced, but I draw the line at murder.
"You did what?" I exclaimed, as, horror-struck and indignant, I stopped in the path and looked him full in the face.
I thought I had never seen him so Mephistopheles-like. A sinister smile parted his lips, showing his small white teeth gleaming under his gray mustache, and he regarded me with a look of cynical amusement, in which there was perhaps a slight touch of contempt.
"You are a young man, Mr. Bacon," he observed, gently, "and, like most young men, and a great many old men, you make false deductions. Killing is not always murder. If it were, we should consign our conquerors to everlasting infamy, instead of crowning them with laurels and erecting statues to their memory. I am no murderer, Mr. Bacon. At the same time I do not cherish illusions. Unpremeditated murder is by no means the worst of crimes. Taking a life is only anticipating the inevitable; and of all murderers, Nature is the greatest and the cruellest. I have—if I could only tell you—make you see what I have seen—Even now, O God! though half a century has run its course—"
Here Mr. Fortescue's voice failed him; he turned deadly pale, and his countenance took an expression of the keenest anguish. But the signs of emotion passed away as quickly as they had appeared. Another moment and he had fully regained his composure, and he added, in his usual self-possessed manner:
"All this must seem very strange to you, Mr. Bacon. I suppose you consider me somewhat of a mystery."
"Not somewhat, but very much."
Mr. Fortescue smiled (he never laughed) and reflected a moment.
"I am thinking," he said, "how strangely things come about, and, so to speak, hang together. The greatest of all mysteries is fate. If that horse had not run away with you, these rascals would almost certainly have made away with me; and the incident of to-day is one of the consequences of that which I mentioned at our first interview."
"When we had that good run from Latton. I remember it very well. You said you had been hunted yourself."
"How was it, Mr. Fortescue?"
"Ah! Thereby hangs a tale."
"Tell it me, Mr. Fortescue," I said, eagerly.
"And a very long tale."
"So much the better; it is sure to be interesting."
"Ah, yes, I dare say you would find it interesting. My life has been stirring and stormy enough, in all conscience—except for the ten years I spent in heaven," said Mr. Fortescue, in a voice and with a look of intense sadness.
"Ten years in heaven!" I exclaimed, as much astonished as I had just been horrified. Was the man mad, after all, or did he speak in paradoxes? "Ten years in heaven!"
Mr. Fortescue smiled again, and then it occurred to me that his ten years of heaven might have some connection with the veiled portrait and the shrine in his room up-stairs.
"You take me too literally," he said. "I spoke metaphorically. I did not mean that, like Swedenborg and Mohammed, I have made excursions to Paradise. I merely meant that I once spent ten years of such serene happiness as it seldom falls to the lot of man to enjoy. But to return to our subject. You would like to know more of my past; but as it would not be satisfactory to tell you an incomplete history, and to tell you all—Yet why not? I have done nothing that I am ashamed of; and it is well you should know something of the man whose life you have saved once, and may possibly save again. You are trustworthy, straightforward, and vigilant, and albeit you are not overburdened with intelligence—"
Here Mr. Fortescue paused, as if to reflect; and, though the observation was not very flattering—hardly civil, indeed—I was so anxious to hear this story that I took it in good part, and waited patiently for his decision.
"To relate it viva voce" he went on, thoughtfully, "would be troublesome to both of us."
"I am sure I should find it anything but troublesome."
"Well, I should. It would take too much time, and I hate travelling over old ground. But that is a difficulty which I think we can get over. For many years I have made a record of the principal events of my life, in the form of a personal narrative; and though I have sometimes let it run behind for a while, I have always written it up."
"That is exactly the thing. As you say, telling a long story is troublesome. I can read it."
"I am afraid not. It is written in a sort of stenographic cipher of my own invention."
"That is very awkward," I said, despondently. "I know no more of shorthand than of Sanskrit, and though I once tried to make out a cipher, the only tangible result was a splitting headache."
"With the key, which I will give you, a little instruction and practice, you should have no difficulty in making out my cipher. It will be an exercise for your intelligence"—smiling. "Will you try?"
"My very best."
"And now for the conditions. In the first place, you must, in stenographic phrase, 'extend' my notes, write out the narrative in a legible hand and good English. If there be any blanks, I will fill them up; if you require explanations, I will give them. Do you agree?"
"The second condition is that you neither make use of the narrative for any purpose of your own, nor disclose the whole or any part of it to anybody until and unless I give you leave. What say you?"
"I say yes."
"The third and last condition is, that you engage to stay with me in your present capacity until it pleases me to give you your conge. Again what say you?"
This was rather a "big order," and very one-sided. It bound me to remain with Mr. Fortescue for an indefinite period, yet left him at liberty to dismiss me at a moment's notice; and if he went on living, I might have to stay at Kingscote till I was old and gray. All the same, the position was a good one. I had four hundred a year (the price at which I had modestly appraised my services), free quarters, a pleasant life, and lots of hunting—all I could wish for, in fact; and what can a man have more? So again I said, "Yes."
"We are agreed in all points, then. If you will come into my room "—we were by this time arrived at the house—"you shall have your first lesson in cryptography."
I assented with eagerness, for I was burning to begin, and, from what Mr. Fortescue had said, I did not anticipate any great difficulty in making out the cipher.
But when he produced a specimen page of his manuscript, my confidence, like Bob Acre's courage, oozed out at my finger-ends, or rather, all over me, for I broke out into a cold sweat.
The first few lines resembled a confused array of algebraic formula. (I detest algebra.) Then came several lines that seemed to have been made by the crawlings of tipsy flies with inky legs, followed by half a dozen or so that looked like the ravings of a lunatic done into Welsh, while the remainder consisted of Roman numerals and ordinary figures mixed up, higgledy-piggledy.
"This is nothing less than appalling," I almost groaned. "It will take me longer to learn than two or three languages."
"Oh, no! When you have got the clew, and learned the signs, you will read the cipher with ease."
"Very likely; but when will that be?"
"Soon. The system is not nearly so complicated as it looks, and the language being English—"
"English! It looks like a mixture of ancient Mexican and modern Chinese."
"The language being English, nothing could be easier for a man of ordinary intelligence. If I had expected that my manuscript would fall into the hands of a cryptographist, I should have contrived something much more complicated and written it in several languages; and you have the key ready to your hand. Come, let us begin."
After half an hour's instruction I began to see daylight, and to feel that with patience and practice I should be able to write out the story in legible English. The little I had read with Mr. Fortescue made me keen to know more; but as the cryptographic narrative did not begin at the beginning, he proposed that I should write this, as also any other missing parts, to his dictation.
"Who knows that you may not make a book of it?" he said.
"Do you think I am intelligent Enough?" I asked, resentfully; for his uncomplimentary references to my mental capacity were still rankling in my mind.
"I should hope so. Everybody writes in these days. Don't worry yourself on that score, my dear Mr. Bacon. Even though you may write a book, nobody will accuse you of being exceptionally intelligent."
"But I cannot make a book of your narrative without your leave," I observed, with a painful sense of having gained nothing by my motion.
"And that leave may be sooner or later forthcoming, on conditions."
As the reader will find in the sequel, the leave has been given and the conditions have been fulfilled, and Mr. Fortescue's personal narrative—partly taken down from his own dictation, but for the most part extended from his manuscript—begins with the following chapter.
THE TALE BEGINS.
The morning after the battle of Salamanca (through which I passed unscathed) the regiment of dragoons to which I belonged (forming part of Anson's brigade), together with Bock's Germans, was ordered to follow on the traces of the flying French, who had retired across the River Tormes. Though we started at daylight, we did not come up with their rear-guard until noon. It consisted of a strong force of horse and foot, and made a stand near La Serna; but the cavalry, who had received a severe lesson on the previous day, bolted before we could cross swords with them. The infantry, however, remained firm, and forming square, faced us like men. The order was then given to charge; and when the two brigades broke into a gallop and thundered down the slope, they raised so thick a cloud of dust that all we could see of the enemy was the glitter of their bayonets and the flash of their musket-fire. Saddles were emptied both to the right and left of me, and one of the riderless horses, maddened by a wound in the head, dashed wildly forward, and leaping among the bayonets and lashing out furiously with his hind-legs, opened a way into the square. I was the first man through the gap, and engaged the French colonel in a hand-to-hand combat. At the very moment just as I gave him the point in his throat he cut open my shoulder, my horse, mortally hurt by a bayonet thrust, fell, half rolling over me and crushing my leg.
As I lay on the ground, faint with the loss of blood and unable to rise, some of our fellows rode over me, and being hit on the head by one of their horses, I lost consciousness. When I came to myself the skirmish was over, nearly the whole of the French rear-guard had been taken prisoners or cut to pieces, and a surgeon was dressing my wounds. This done, I was removed in an ambulance to Salamanca.
The historic old city, with its steep, narrow streets, numerous convents, and famous university, had been well-nigh ruined by the French, who had pulled down half the convents and nearly all the colleges, and used the stones for the building of forts, which, a few weeks previously, Wellington had bombarded with red-hot shot.
The hospitals being crowded with sick and wounded, I was billeted in the house of a certain Senor Don Alberto Zamorra, which (probably owing to the fact of its having been the quarters of a French colonel) had not taken much harm, either during the French occupation of the town or the subsequent siege of the forts.
Don Alberto gave me a hearty, albeit a dignified welcome, and being a Spanish gentleman of the old school, he naturally placed his house, and all that it contained, at my disposal. I did not, of course, take this assurance literally, and had I not been on the right side, I should doubtless have met with a very different reception. All the same, he made a very agreeable host, and before I had been his guest many days we became fast friends.
Don Zamorra was old, nearly as old as I am now; and as I speedily discovered, he had passed the greater part of his life in Spanish America, where he had held high office under the crown. He could hardly talk about anything else, in fact, and once he began to discourse about his former greatness and the marvels of the Indies (as South and Central America were then sometimes called) he never knew when to stop. He had crossed the Andes and seen the Amazon, sailed down the Orinoco and visited the mines of Potosi and Guanajuata, beheld the fiery summit of Cotopaxi, and peeped down the smoky crater of Acatenango. He told of fights with Indians and wild animals, of being lost in the forest, and of perilous expeditions in search of gold and precious stones. When Zamorra spoke of gold his whole attitude changed, the fires of his youth blazed up afresh, his face glowed with excitement, and his eyes sparkled with greed. At these times I saw in him a true type of the old Spanish Conquestadores, who would baptize a cacique to save him from hell one day, and kill him and loot his treasure the next.
Don Alberto had, moreover, a firm belief in the existence of the fabled El Dorado, and of the city of Manoa, with its resplendent house of the sun, its hoards of silver and gold, and its gilded king. Thousands of adventurers had gone forth in search of these wonders, and thousands had perished in the attempt to find them. Senor Zamorra had sought El Dorado on the banks of the Orinoco and the Rio Negro; others, near the source of the Rio Grande and the Maranon; others, again, among the volcanoes of Salvador and the canons of the Cordilleras. Zamorra believed that it lay either in the wilds of Guiana, or the unexplored confines of Peru and the Brazils.
He had heard of and believed even greater wonders—of a stream on the Pacific coast of Mexico, whose pebbles were silver, and whose sand was gold; of a volcano in the Peruvian Cordillera, whose crater was lined with the noblest of metals, and which once in every hundred years ejected, for days together, diamonds, and rubies, and dust of gold.
"If that volcano could only be found," said the don, with a convulsive clutching of his bony fingers, and a greedy glare in his aged eyes. "If that volcano could only be found! Why, it must be made of gold, and covered with precious stones! The man who found it would be the richest in all the world—richer than all the people in the world put together!"
"Did you ever see it, Don Alberto?" I asked.
"Did I ever see it?" he cried, uplifting his withered hands. "If I had seen that volcano you would never have seen me, but you would have heard of me. I had it from an Indio whose father once saw it with his own eyes; but I was too old, too old"—sighing—"to go on the quest. To undertake such an enterprise a man should be in the prime of life and go alone. A single companion, even though he were your own brother, might be fatal; for what virtue could be proof against so great a temptation—millions of diamonds and a mountain of gold?"
All this roused my curiosity and fired my imagination—not that I believed it all, for Zamorra was evidently a visionary with a fixed idea, and as touching his craze, credulous as a child; but in those days South America had been very little written about and not half explored; for me it had all the charm and fascination of the unknown—a land of romance and adventure, abounding in grand scenery, peopled by strange races, and containing the mightiest rivers, the greatest forests, and highest mountains in the world.
When my host dismounted from his hobby he was an intelligent talker, and told me much that was interesting about Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, and the Spanish Main. He had several books on the subject which I greedily devoured. The expedition of Piedro de Ursua and Lope de Aguirre in search of El Dorado and Omagua; "History of the Conquest of Mexico," by Don Antonio de Solis; Piedrolieta's "General History of the Conquest of the New Kingdom of Grenada," and others; and before we parted I had resolved that, so soon as the war was over, I would make a voyage to the land of the setting sun, and see for myself the wonders of which I had heard.
"You are right," said Senor Zamorra, when I told him of my intention. "America is the country of the future. Ah, if I were only fifty years younger! You will, of course, visit Venezuela; and if you visit Venezuela you are sure to go to Caracas. I will give you a letter of introduction to a friend of mine there. He is a man in authority, and may be of use to you. I should much like you to see him and greet him on my behalf."
I thanked my host, and promised to see his friend and present the letter. It was addressed to Don Simon de Ulloa. Little did I think how much trouble that letter would give me, and how near it would come to being my death-warrant.
Zamorra then besought me, with tears in his eyes, to go in search of the Golden Volcano.
"If you could give me a more definite idea of its whereabouts I might possibly make the attempt," I answered, with intentional vagueness; for though I no more believed in the objective existence of the Golden Volcano than in Aladdin's lamp, I did not wish to hurt the old man's feelings by an avowal of my skepticism.
"Ah, my dear sir," he said, with a gesture of despair, "if I knew the whereabouts of the Golden Volcano, I should go thither myself, old as I am. I should have gone long ago, and returned with a hoard of wealth that would make me the master of Europe—wealth that would buy kingdoms. I can tell you no more than that it is somewhere in the region of the Peruvian Andes. It may be that by cautious inquiry you may light on an Indio who will lead you to the very spot. It is worth the attempt, and if by the help of St. Peter and the Holy Virgin you succeed, and I am still alive, send me out of your abundance a few arrobas (twenty-five pounds) of gold and a handful of diamonds. It is all I ask."
It was all he asked.
"When I find that volcano, Don Alberto," I said, "not a mere handful of diamonds, but a bucketful."
This was almost our last talk, for the very same day news was brought that Lord Wellington, having been forced to raise the siege of Burgos, was retreating toward the Portuguese frontier, and that Salamanca would almost inevitably be recaptured by the French. Orders were given for the removal of the wounded to the Coa, where the army was to take up its winter quarters, and Zamorra and I had to part. We parted with mutual expressions of good-will, and in the hope, destined never to be realized, that we might soon meet again. I had seen Don Alberto for the last time.
A few weeks later I was sufficiently recovered from my hurts to use my bridle-arm, and before the opening of the next campaign I was fit for the field and eager for the fray. It was the campaign of Vittoria, one of the most brilliant episodes in the military history of England. Even now my heart beats faster and the blood tingles in my veins when I think of that time, so full of excitement, adventure, and glory—the forcing of the Pyrenees, the invasion of France, the battles of Bayonne, Orthes, and Toulouse, and the march to Paris.
But as I am not relating a history of the war, I shall mention only one incident in which I was concerned at this period—an incident that brought me in contact with a man who was destined to exercise a fateful influence on my career.
It occurred after the battle of Vittoria. The French were making for the Pyrenees, laden with the loot of a kingdom and encumbered with a motley crowd of non-combatants—the wives and families of French officers, fair senoritas flying with their lovers, and traitorous Spaniards, who, by taking sides with the invaders, had exposed themselves to the vengeance of the patriots. So overwhelming was the defeat of the French, that they were forced to abandon nearly the whole of their plunder and the greater part of their baggage, and leave the fugitives and camp-followers to their fate.
Never was witnessed so strange a sight as the valley of Vittoria presented at the close of that eventful day. The broken remains of the French army hurrying toward the Pamplona road, eighty pieces of artillery, served with frantic haste, covering their retreat; thousands of wagons and carriages jammed together and unable to move; the red-coated infantry of England, marching steadily across the plain; the boom of the cannon, the rattle of musketry, the scream of women as the bullets whistled through the air and shells burst over their heads—all this made up a scene, dramatic and picturesque, it is true, yet full of dire confusion and Dantesque horror; for death had reaped a rich harvest, and thousands of wounded lay writhing on the blood-stained field.
Owing to the bursting of packages, the overturning of wagons, and the havoc wrought by shot and shell, valuable effects, coin, gems, gold and silver candlesticks and vessels, priceless paintings, the spoil of Spanish churches and convents, were strewed over the ground. There was no need to plunder; our men picked up money as they matched, and it was computed that a sum equal to a million sterling found its way into their knapsacks and pockets.
Our Spanish allies, officers as well as privates, were less scrupulous. They robbed like highwaymen, and protested that they were only taking their own.
While riding toward Vittoria to execute an order of the colonel's, I passed a carriage which a moment or two previously had been overtaken by several of Longa's dragoons, with the evident intention of overhauling it. In the carriage were two ladies, one young and pretty the other good-looking and mature; and, as I judged from their appearance, both being well dressed, the daughter and wife of a French officer of rank. They appealed to me for help.
"You are an English officer," said the elder in French; "all the world knows that your nation is as chivalrous as it is brave. Protect us, I pray you, from these ruffians."
I bowed, and turning to the Spaniards, one of whom was an officer, spoke them fair; for my business was pressing, and I had no wish to be mixed up in a quarrel.
"Caballeros," I said, "we do not make war on women. You will let these ladies go."
"Carambo! We shall do nothing of the sort," returned the officer, insolently. "These ladies are our prisoners, and their carriage and all it contains our prize."
"I beg your pardon, Senor Capitan, but you are, perhaps not aware that Lord Wellington has given strict orders that private property is to be respected; and no true caballero molests women."
"Hijo de Dios! Dare you say that I am no true caballero? Begone this instant, or—"
The Spaniard drew his sword; I drew mine; his men began to look to the priming of their pistols, and had General Anson not chanced to come by just in the nick of time, it might have gone ill with me. On learning what had happened, he said I had acted very properly and told the Spaniards that if they did not promptly depart he would hand them over to the provost-marshal.
"We shall meet again, I hope, you and I," said the officer, defiantly, as he gathered up his reins.
"So do I, if only that I may have an opportunity of chastising you for your insolence," was my equally defiant answer.
"A thousand thanks, monsieur! You have done me and my daughter a great service," said the elder of the ladies. "Do me the pleasure to accept this ring as a slight souvenir of our gratitude, and I trust that in happier times we may meet again."
I accepted the souvenir without looking at it; reciprocated the wish in my best French, made my best bow, and rode off on my errand. By the same act I had made one enemy and two friends; therefore, as I thought, the balance was in my favor. But I was wrong, for a wider experience of the world than I then possessed has taught me that it is better to miss making a hundred ordinary friends than to make one inveterate enemy.
IN QUEST OF FORTUNE.
When the war came to an end my occupation was gone, for both circumstances and my own will compelled me to leave the army. My allowance could no longer be continued. At the best, the life of a lieutenant of dragoons in peace time would have been little to my liking; with no other resource than my pay, it would have been intolerable. So I sent in my papers, and resolved to seek my fortune in South America. After the payment of my debts (incurred partly in the purchase of my first commission) and the provision of my outfit, the sum left at my disposal was comparatively trifling. But I possessed a valuable asset in the ring given me by the French lady on the field of Vittoria. It was heavy, of antique make, curiously wrought, and set with a large sapphire of incomparable beauty. A jeweler, to whom I showed it, said he had never seen a finer. I could have sold it for a hundred guineas. But as the gem was property in a portable shape and more convertible than a bill of exchange, I preferred to keep it, taking, however, the precaution to have the sapphire covered with a composition, in order that its value might not be too readily apparent to covetous eyes.
At this time the Spanish colonies of Colombia (including the countries now known as Venezuela, New Granada, and Ecuador, as also the present republic of southern Central America) were in full revolt against the mother country. The war had been going on for several years with varying fortunes; but latterly the Spaniards had been getting decidedly the best of it. Caracas and all the seaport towns were in their possession, and the patriot cause was only maintained by a few bands of irregulars, who were waging a desperate and almost hopeless contest in the forests and on the llanos of the interior.
My sympathies were on the popular side, and I might have joined the volunteer force which was being raised in England for service with the insurgents. But this did not suit my purpose. If I accepted a commission in the Legion I should have to go where I was ordered. I preferred to go where I listed. I had no objection to fighting, but I wanted to do it in my own way and at my own time, and rather in the ranks of the rebels themselves than as officer in a foreign force.
This view of the case I represented to Senor Morena, one of the "patriot" agents in London, and asked his advice.
"Why not go to Caracas?" he said.
"What would be the use of that? Caracas is in the hands of the Spaniards."
"You could get from Caracas into the interior, and do the cause an important service."
Senor Morena explained that the patriots of the capital, being sorely oppressed by the Spaniards, were losing courage, and he wished greatly to send them a message of hope and the assurance that help was at hand. It was also most desirable that the insurgent leaders on the field should be informed of the organization of a British liberating Legion, and of other measures which were being taken to afford them relief and turn the tide of victory in their favor.
But to communicate these tidings to the parties concerned was by no means easy. The post was obviously quite out of the question, and no Spanish creole could land at any port held by the Royalists without the almost certainty of being promptly strangled or shot. "An Englishman, however—especially an Englishman who had fought under Wellington in Spain—might undertake the mission with comparative impunity," said Senor Morena.
"I understand perfectly," I answered. "I have to go in the character of an ordinary travelling Englishman, and act as an emissary of the insurgent junta. But if my true character is detected, what then?"
"That is not at all likely, Mr. Fortescue."
"Yet the unlikely happens sometimes—happens generally, in fact. Suppose it does in the present instance?"
"In that case I am very much afraid that you would be shot."
"I have not a doubt of it. Nevertheless, your proposal pleases me, and I shall do my best to carry out your wishes."
Whereupon Senor Morena expressed his thanks in sonorous Castilian, protested that my courage and devotion would earn me the eternal gratitude of every patriot, and promised to have everything ready for me in the course of the week, a promise which he faithfully kept.
Three days later Morena brought me a packet of letters and a memorandum containing minute instructions for my guidance. Nothing could be more harmless looking than the letters. They contained merely a few items of general news and the recommendation of the bearer to the good offices of the recipient. But this was only a blind; the real letters were written in cipher, with sympathetic ink. They were, moreover, addressed to secret friends of the revolutionary cause, who, as Senor Morena believed and hoped, were, as yet, unsuspected by the Spanish authorities, and at large.
"To give you letters to known patriots would be simply to insure your destruction," said the senor, "even if you were to find them alive and at liberty."
I had also Don Alberto's letter, and as the old gentleman had once been president of the Audiencia Real (Royal Council), Morena thought it would be of great use to me, and serve to ward off suspicion, even though some of the friends to whom he had himself written should have meanwhile got into trouble.