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Title: The Phantom Coach and other stories Author: Amelia B. Edwards * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0605591h.html Language: English Date first posted: August 2006 Date most recently updated: August 2006 This eBook was produced by: Richard Scott Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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Table of Contensts
The circumstances I am about to relate to you have truth to recommend them. They happened to myself, and my recollection of them is as vivid as if they had taken place only yesterday. Twenty years, however, have gone by since that night. During those twenty years I have told the story to but one other person. I tell it now with a reluctance which I find it difficult to overcome. All I entreat, meanwhile, is that you will abstain from forcing your own conclusions upon me. I want nothing explained away. I desire no arguments. My mind on this subject is quite made up, and, having the testimony of my own senses to rely upon, I prefer to abide by it.
Well! It was just twenty years ago, and within a day or two of the end of the grouse season. I had been out all day with my gun, and had had no sport to speak of. The wind was due east; the month, December; the place, a bleak wide moor in the far north of England. And I had lost my way. It was not a pleasant place in which to lose one's way, with the first feathery flakes of a coming snowstorm just fluttering down upon the heather, and the leaden evening closing in all around. I shaded my eyes with my hand, and staled anxiously into the gathering darkness, where the purple moorland melted into a range of low hills, some ten or twelve miles distant. Not the faintest smoke-wreath, not the tiniest cultivated patch, or fence, or sheep-track, met my eyes in any direction. There was nothing for it but to walk on, and take my chance of finding what shelter I could, by the way. So I shouldered my gun again, and pushed wearily forward; for I had been on foot since an hour after daybreak, and had eaten nothing since breakfast.
Meanwhile, the snow began to come down with ominous steadiness, and the wind fell. After this, the cold became more intense, and the night came rapidly up. As for me, my prospects darkened with the darkening sky, and my heart grew heavy as I thought how my young wife was already watching for me through the window of our little inn parlour, and thought of all the suffering in store for her throughout this weary night. We had been married four months, and, having spent our autumn in the Highlands, were now lodging in a remote little village situated just on the verge of the great English moorlands. We were very much in love, and, of course, very happy. This morning, when we parted, she had implored me to return before dusk, and I had promised her that I would. What would I not have given to have kept my word!
Even now, weary as I was, I felt that with a supper, an hour's rest, and a guide, I might still get back to her before midnight, if only guide and shelter could be found.
And all this time, the snow fell and the night thickened. I stopped and shouted every now and then, but my shouts seemed only to make the silence deeper. Then a vague sense of uneasiness came upon me, and I began to remember stories of travellers who had walked on and on in the falling snow until, wearied out, they were fain to lie down and sleep their lives away. Would it be possible, I asked myself, to keep on thus through all the long dark night? Would there not come a time when my limbs must fail, and my resolution give way? When I, too, must sleep the sleep of death. Death! I shuddered. How hard to die just now, when life lay all so bright before me! How hard for my darling, whose whole loving heart but that thought was not to be borne! To banish it, I shouted again, louder and longer, and then listened eagerly. Was my shout answered, or did I only fancy that I heard a far-off cry? I halloed again, and again the echo followed. Then a wavering speck of light came suddenly out of the dark, shifting, disappearing, growing momentarily nearer and brighter. Running towards it at full speed, I found myself, to my great joy, face to face with an old man and a lantern.
"Thank God!" was the exclamation that burst involuntarily from my lips.
Blinking and frowning, he lifted his lantern and peered into my face.
"What for?" growled he, sulkily.
"Well--for you. I began to fear I should be lost in the snow."
"Eh, then, folks do get cast away hereabouts fra' time to time, an' what's to hinder you from bein' cast away likewise, if the Lord's so minded?"
"If the Lord is so minded that you and I shall be lost together, friend, we must submit," I replied; "but I don't mean to be lost without you. How far am I now from Dwolding?"
"A gude twenty mile, more or less."
"And the nearest village?"
"The nearest village is Wyke, an' that's twelve mile t'other side."
"Where do you live, then?"
"Out yonder," said he, with a vague jerk of the lantern.
"You're going home, I presume?"
"Maybe I am."
"Then I'm going with you."
The old man shook his head, and rubbed his nose reflectively with the handle of the lantern.
"It ain't o' no use," growled he. "He 'ont let you in--not he."
"We'll see about that," I replied, briskly. "Who is He?"
"Who is the master?"
"That's nowt to you," was the unceremonious reply.
"Well, well; you lead the way, and I'll engage that the master shall give me shelter and a supper to-night."
"Eh, you can try him!" muttered my reluctant guide; and, still shaking his head, he hobbled, gnome-like, away through the falling snow. A large mass loomed up presently out of the darkness, and a huge dog rushed out, barking furiously.
"Is this the house?" I asked.
"Ay, it's the house. Down, Bey!" And he fumbled in his pocket for the key.
I drew up close behind him, prepared to lose no chance of entrance, and saw in the little circle of light shed by the lantern that the door was heavily studded with iron nails, like the door of a prison. In another minute he had turned the key and I had pushed past him into the house.
Once inside, I looked round with curiosity, and found myself in a great raftered hall, which served, apparently, a variety of uses. One end was piled to the roof with corn, like a barn. The other was stored with flour-sacks, agricultural implements, casks, and all kinds of miscellaneous lumber; while from the beams overhead hung rows of hams, flitches, and bunches of dried herbs for winter use. In the centre of the floor stood some huge object gauntly dressed in a dingy wrapping-cloth, and reaching half way to the rafters. Lifting a corner of this cloth, I saw, to my surprise, a telescope of very considerable size, mounted on a rude movable platform, with four small wheels. The tube was made of painted wood, bound round with bands of metal rudely fashioned; the speculum, so far as I could estimate its size in the dim light, measured at least fifteen inches in diameter. While I was yet examining the instrument, and asking myself whether it was not the work of some self-taught optician, a bell rang sharply.
"That's for you," said my guide, with a malicious grin. "Yonder's his room."
He pointed to a low black door at the opposite side of the hall. I crossed over, rapped somewhat loudly, and went in, without waiting for an invitation. A huge, white-haired old man rose from a table covered with books and papers, and confronted me sternly.
"Who are you?" said he. "How came you here? What do you want?"
"James Murray, barrister-at-law. On foot across the moor. Meat, drink, and sleep."
He bent his bushy brows into a portentous frown.
"Mine is not a house of entertainment," he said, haughtily. "Jacob, how dared you admit this stranger?"
"I didn't admit him," grumbled the old man. "He followed me over the muir, and shouldered his way in before me. I'm no match for six foot two."
"And pray, sir, by what right have you forced an entrance into my house?"
"The same by which I should have clung to your boat, if I were drowning. The right of self-preservation."
"There's an inch of snow on the ground already," I replied, briefly; "and it would be deep enough to cover my body before daybreak."
He strode to the window, pulled aside a heavy black curtain, and looked out.
"It is true," he said. "You can stay, if you choose, till morning. Jacob, serve the supper."
With this he waved me to a seat, resumed his own, and became at once absorbed in the studies from which I had disturbed him.
I placed my gun in a corner, drew a chair to the hearth, and examined my quarters at leisure. Smaller and less incongruous in its arrangements than the hall, this room contained, nevertheless, much to awaken my curiosity. The floor was carpetless. The whitewashed walls were in parts scrawled over with strange diagrams, and in others covered with shelves crowded with philosophical instruments, the uses of many of which were unknown to me. On one side of the fireplace, stood a bookcase filled with dingy folios; on the other, a small organ, fantastically decorated with painted carvings of mediæval saints and devils. Through the half-opened door of a cupboard at the further end of the room, I saw a long array of geological specimens, surgical preparations, crucibles, retorts, and jars of chemicals; while on the mantelshelf beside me, amid a number of small objects, stood a model of the solar system, a small galvanic battery, and a microscope. Every chair had its burden. Every corner was heaped high with books. The very floor was littered over with maps, casts, papers, tracings, and learned lumber of all conceivable kinds.
I stared about me with an amazement increased by every fresh object upon which my eyes chanced to rest. So strange a room I had never seen; yet seemed it stranger still, to find such a room in a lone farmhouse amid those wild and solitary moors! Over and over again, I looked from my host to his surroundings, and from his surroundings back to my host, asking myself who and what he could be? His head was singularly fine; but it was more the head of a poet than of a philosopher. Broad in the temples, prominent over the eyes, and clothed with a rough profusion of perfectly white hair, it had all the ideality and much of the ruggedness that characterises the head of Louis von Beethoven. There were the same deep lines about the mouth, and the same stern furrows in the brow. There was the same concentration of expression. While I was yet observing him, the door opened, and Jacob brought in the supper. His master then closed his book, rose, and with more courtesy of manner than he had yet shown, invited me to the table.
A dish of ham and eggs, a loaf of brown bread, and a bottle of admirable sherry, were placed before me.
"I have but the homeliest farmhouse fare to offer you, sir," said my entertainer. "Your appetite, I trust, will make up for the deficiencies of our larder."
I had already fallen upon the viands, and now protested, with the enthusiasm of a starving sportsman, that I had never eaten anything so delicious.
He bowed stiffly, and sat down to his own supper, which consisted, primitively, of a jug of milk and a basin of porridge. We ate in silence, and, when we had done, Jacob removed the tray. I then drew my chair back to the fireside. My host, somewhat to my surprise, did the same, and turning abruptly towards me, said:
"Sir, I have lived here in strict retirement for three-and-twenty years. During that time, I have not seen as many strange faces, and I have not read a single newspaper. You are the first stranger who has crossed my threshold for more than four years. Will you favour me with a few words of information respecting that outer world from which I have parted company so long?"
"Pray interrogate me," I replied. "I am heartily at your service."
He bent his head in acknowledgment; leaned forward, with his elbows resting on his knees and his chin supported in the palms of his hands; stared fixedly into the fire; and proceeded to question me.
His inquiries related chiefly to scientific matters, with the later progress of which, as applied to the practical purposes of life, he was almost wholly unacquainted. No student of science myself, I replied as well as my slight information permitted; but the task was far from easy, and I was much relieved when, passing from interrogation to discussion, he began pouring forth his own conclusions upon the facts which I had been attempting to place before him. He talked, and I listened spellbound. He talked till I believe he almost forgot my presence, and only thought aloud. I had never heard anything like it then; I have never heard anything like it since. Familiar with all systems of all philosophies, subtle in analysis, bold in generalisation, he poured forth his thoughts in an uninterrupted stream, and, still leaning forward in the same moody attitude with his eyes fixed upon the fire, wandered from topic to topic, from speculation to speculation, like an inspired dreamer. From practical science to mental philosophy; from electricity in the wire to electricity in the nerve; from Watts to Mesmer, from Mesmer to Reichenbach, from Reichenbach to Swedenborg, Spinoza, Condillac, Descartes, Berkeley, Aristotle, Plato, and the Magi and mystics of the East, were transitions which, however bewildering in their variety and scope, seemed easy and harmonious upon his lips as sequences in music. By-and-by--I forget now by what link of conjecture or illustration--he passed on to that field which lies beyond the boundary line of even conjectural philosophy, and reaches no man knows whither. He spoke of the soul and its aspirations; of the spirit and its powers; of second sight; of prophecy; of those phenomena which, under the names of ghosts, spectres, and supernatural appearances, have been denied by the sceptics and attested by the credulous, of all ages.
"The world," he said, "grows hourly more and more sceptical of all that lies beyond its own narrow radius; and our men of science foster the fatal tendency. They condemn as fable all that resists experiment. They reject as false all that cannot be brought to the test of the laboratory or the dissecting-room. Against what superstition have they waged so long and obstinate a war, as against the belief in apparitions? And yet what superstition has maintained its hold upon the minds of men so long and so firmly? Show me any fact in physics, in history, in archæology, which is supported by testimony so wide and so various. Attested by all races of men, in all ages, and in all climates, by the soberest sages of antiquity, by the rudest savage of to-day, by the Christian, the Pagan, the Pantheist, the Materialist, this phenomenon is treated as a nursery tale by the philosophers of our century. Circumstantial evidence weighs with them as a feather in the balance. The comparison of causes with effects, however valuable in physical science, is put aside as worthless and unreliable. The evidence of competent witnesses, however conclusive in a court of justice, counts for nothing. He who pauses before he pronounces, is condemned as a trifler. He who believes, is a dreamer or a fool."
He spoke with bitterness, and, having said thus, relapsed for some minutes into silence. Presently he raised his head from his hands, and added, with an altered voice and manner, "I, sir, paused, investigated, believed, and was not ashamed to state my convictions to the world. I, too, was branded as a visionary, held up to ridicule by my contemporaries, and hooted from that field of science in which I had laboured with honour during all the best years of my life. These things happened just three-and-twenty years ago. Since then, I have lived as you see me living now, and the world has forgotten me, as I have forgot--ten the world. You have my history."
"It is a very sad one," I murmured, scarcely knowing what to answer.
"It is a very common one," he replied. "I have only suffered for the truth, as many a better and wiser man has suffered before me."
He rose, as if desirous of ending the conversation, and went over to the window.
"It has ceased snowing," he observed, as he dropped the curtain, and came back to the fireside.
"Ceased!" I exclaimed, starting eagerly to my feet. "Oh, if it were only possible--but no! it is hopeless. Even if I could find my way across the moor, I could not walk twenty miles to-night."
"Walk twenty miles to-night!" repeated my host. "What are you thinking of?"
"Of my wife," I replied, impatiently. "Of my young wife, who does not know that I have lost my way, and who is at this moment breaking her heart with suspense and terror."
"Where is she?"
"At Dwolding, twenty miles away."
"At Dwolding," he echoed, thoughtfully. "Yes, the distance, it is true, is twenty miles; but--are you so very anxious to save the next six or eight hours?"
"So very, very anxious, that I would give ten guineas at this moment for a guide and a horse."
"Your wish can be gratified at a less costly rate," said he, smiling. "The night mail from the north, which changes horses at Dwolding, passes within five miles of this spot, and will be due at a certain cross-road in about an hour and a quarter. If Jacob were to go with you across the moor, and put you into the old coach-road, you could find your way, I suppose, to where it joins the new one?"
He smiled again, rang the bell, gave the old servant his directions, and, taking a bottle of whisky and a wineglass from the cupboard in which he kept his chemicals, said:
"The snow lies deep, and it will be difficult walking to-night on the moor. A glass of usquebaugh before you start?"
I would have declined the spirit, but he pressed it on me, and I drank it. It went down my throat like liquid flame, and almost took my breath away.
"It is strong," he said; "but it will help to keep out the cold. And now you have no moments to spare. Good night!"
I thanked him for his hospitality, and would have shaken hands, but that he had turned away before I could finish my sentence. In another minute I had traversed the hall, Jacob had locked the outer door behind me, and we were out on the wide white moor.
Although the wind had fallen, it was still bitterly cold. Not a star glimmered in the black vault overhead. Not a sound, save the rapid crunching of the snow beneath our feet, disturbed the heavy stillness of the night. Jacob, not too well pleased with his mission, shambled on before in sullen silence, his lantern in his hand, and his shadow at his feet. I followed, with my gun over my shoulder, as little inclined for conversation as himself. My thoughts were full of my late host. His voice yet rang in my ears. His eloquence yet held my imagination captive. I remember to this day, with surprise, how my over-excited brain retained whole sentences and parts of sentences, troops of brilliant images, and fragments of splendid reasoning, in the very words in which he had uttered them. Musing thus over what I had heard, and striving to recall a lost link here and there, I strode on at the heels of my guide, absorbed and unobservant. Presently--at the end, as it seemed to me, of only a few minutes--he came to a sudden halt, and said:
"Yon's your road. Keep the stone fence to your right hand, and you can't fail of the way."
"This, then, is the old coach-road?"
"Ay, 'tis the old coach-road."
"And how far do I go, before I reach the cross-roads?"
"Nigh upon three mile."
I pulled out my purse, and he became more communicative.
"The road's a fair road enough," said he, "for foot passengers; but 'twas over steep and narrow for the northern traffic. You'll mind where the parapet's broken away, close again the sign-post. It's never been mended since the accident."
"Eh, the night mail pitched right over into the valley below--a gude fifty feet an' more--just at the worst bit o' road in the whole county."
"Horrible! Were many lives lost?"
"All. Four were found dead, and t'other two died next morning."
"How long is it since this happened?"
"Just nine year."
"Near the sign-post, you say? I will bear it in mind. Good night."
"Gude night, sir, and thankee." Jacob pocketed his half-crown, made a faint pretence of touching his hat, and trudged back by the way he had come.
I watched the light of his lantern till it quite disappeared, and then turned to pursue my way alone. This was no longer matter of the slightest difficulty, for, despite the dead darkness overhead, the line of stone fence showed distinctly enough against the pale gleam of the snow. How silent it seemed now, with only my footsteps to listen to; how silent and how solitary! A strange disagreeable sense of loneliness stole over me. I walked faster. I hummed a fragment of a tune. I cast up enormous sums in my head, and accumulated them at compound interest. I did my best, in short, to forget the startling speculations to which I had but just been listening, and, to some extent, I succeeded.
Meanwhile the night air seemed to become colder and colder, and though I walked fast I found it impossible to keep myself warm. My feet were like ice. I lost sensation in my hands, and grasped my gun mechanically. I even breathed with difficulty, as though, instead of traversing a quiet north country highway, I were scaling the uppermost heights of some gigantic Alp. This last symptom became presently so distressing, that I was forced to stop for a few minutes, and lean against the stone fence. As I did so, I chanced to look back up the road, and there, to my infinite relief, I saw a distant point of light, like the gleam of an approaching lantern. I at first concluded that Jacob had retraced his steps and followed me; but even as the conjecture presented itself, a second light flashed into sight--a light evidently parallel with the first, and approaching at the same rate of motion. It needed no second thought to show me that these must be the carriage-lamps of some private vehicle, though it seemed strange that any private vehicle should take a road professedly disused and dangerous.
There could be no doubt, however, of the fact, for the lamps grew larger and brighter every moment, and I even fancied I could already see the dark outline of the carriage between them. It was coming up very fast, and quite noiselessly, the snow being nearly a foot deep under the wheels.
And now the body of the vehicle became distinctly visible behind the lamps. It looked strangely lofty. A sudden suspicion flashed upon me. Was it possible that I had passed the cross-roads in the dark without observing the sign-post, and could this be the very coach which I had come to meet?
No need to ask myself that question a second time, for here it came round the bend of the road, guard and driver, one outside passenger, and four steaming greys, all wrapped in a soft haze of light, through which the lamps blazed out, like a pair of fiery meteors.
I jumped forward, waved my hat, and shouted. The mail came down at full speed, and passed me. For a moment I feared that I had not been seen or heard, but it was only for a moment. The coachman pulled up; the guard, muffled to the eyes in capes and comforters, and apparently sound asleep in the rumble, neither answered my hail nor made the slightest effort to dismount; the outside passenger did not even turn his head. I opened the door for myself, and looked in. There were but three travellers inside, so I stepped in, shut the door, slipped into the vacant corner, and congratulated myself on my good fortune.
The atmosphere of the coach seemed, if possible, colder than that of the outer air, and was pervaded by a singularly damp and disagreeable smell. I looked round at my fellow-passengers. They were all three, men, and all silent. They did not seem to be asleep, but each leaned back in his corner of the vehicle, as if absorbed in his own reflections. I attempted to open a conversation.
"How intensely cold it is to-night," I said, addressing my opposite neighbour.
He lifted his head, looked at me, but made no reply.
"The winter," I added, "seems to have begun in earnest."
Although the corner in which he sat was so dim that I could distinguish none of his features very clearly, I saw that his eyes were still turned full upon me. And yet he answered never a word.
At any other time I should have felt, and perhaps expressed, some annoyance, but at the moment I felt too ill to do either. The icy coldness of the night air had struck a chill to my very marrow, and the strange smell inside the coach was affecting me with an intolerable nausea. I shivered from head to foot, and, turning to my left-hand neighbour, asked if he had any objection to an open window?
He neither spoke nor stirred.
I repeated the question somewhat more loudly, but with the same result. Then I lost patience, and let the sash down. As I did so, the leather strap broke in my hand, and I observed that the glass was covered with a thick coat of mildew, the accumulation, apparently, of years. My attention being thus drawn to the condition of the coach, I examined it more narrowly, and saw by the uncertain light of the outer lamps that it was in the last stage of dilapidation. Every part of it was not only out of repair, but in a condition of decay. The sashes splintered at a touch. The leather fittings were crusted over with mould, and literally rotting from the woodwork. The floor was almost breaking away beneath my feet. The whole machine, in short, was foul with damp, and had evidently been dragged from some outhouse in which it had been mouldering away for years, to do another day or two of duty on the road.
I turned to the third passenger, whom I had not yet addressed, and hazarded one more remark.
"This coach," I said, "is in a deplorable condition. The regular mail, I suppose, is under repair?"
He moved his head slowly, and looked me in the face, without speaking a word. I shall never forget that look while I live. I turned cold at heart under it. I turn cold at heart even now when I recall it. His eyes glowed with a fiery unnatural lustre. His face was livid as the face of a corpse. His bloodless lips were drawn back as if in the agony of death, and showed the gleaming teeth between.
The words that I was about to utter died upon my lips, and a strange horror--a dreadful horror--came upon me. My sight had by this time become used to the gloom of the coach, and I could see with tolerable distinctness. I turned to my opposite neighbour. He, too, was looking at me, with the same startling pallor in his face, and the same stony glitter in his eyes. I passed my hand across my brow. I turned to the passenger on the seat beside my own, and saw--oh Heaven! how shall I describe what I saw? I saw that he was no living man--that none of them were living men, like myself! A pale phosphorescent light--the light of putrefaction--played upon their awful faces; upon their hair, dank with the dews of the grave; upon their clothes, earth-stained and dropping to pieces; upon their hands, which were as the hands of corpses long buried. Only their eyes, their terrible eyes, were living; and those eyes were all turned menacingly upon me!
A shriek of terror, a wild unintelligible cry for help and mercy; burst from my lips as I flung myself against the door, and strove in vain to open it.
In that single instant, brief and vivid as a landscape beheld in the flash of summer lightning, I saw the moon shining down through a rift of stormy cloud--the ghastly sign-post rearing its warning finger by the wayside--the broken parapet--the plunging horses--the black gulf below. Then, the coach reeled like a ship at sea. Then, came a mighty crash--a sense of crushing pain--and then, darkness.
It seemed as if years had gone by when I awoke one morning from a deep sleep, and found my wife watching by my bedside I will pass over the scene that ensued, and give you, in half a dozen words, the tale she told me with tears of thanksgiving. I had fallen over a precipice, close against the junction of the old coach-road and the new, and had only been saved from certain death by lighting upon a deep snowdrift that had accumulated at the foot of the rock beneath. In this snowdrift I was discovered at daybreak, by a couple of shepherds, who carried me to the nearest shelter, and brought a surgeon to my aid. The surgeon found me in a state of raving delirium, with a broken arm and a compound fracture of the skull. The letters in my pocket-book showed my name and address; my wife was summoned to nurse me; and, thanks to youth and a fine constitution, I came out of danger at last. The place of my fall, I need scarcely say, was precisely that at which a frightful accident had happened to the north mail nine years before.
I never told my wife the fearful events which I have just related to you. I told the surgeon who attended me; but he treated the whole adventure as a mere dream born of the fever in my brain. We discussed the question over and over again, until we found that we could discuss it with temper no longer, and then we dropped it. Others may form what conclusions they please--I know that twenty years ago I was the fourth inside passenger in that Phantom Coach.
His name, sir, was Matthew Price; mine is Benjamin Hardy. We were born within a few days of each other; bred up in the same village; taught at the same school. I cannot remember the time when we were not close friends. Even as boys, we never knew what it was to quarrel. We had not a thought, we had not a possession, that was not in common. We would have stood by each other, fearlessly, to the death. It was such a friendship as one reads about sometimes in books: fast and firm as the great Tors upon our native moorlands, true as the sun in the heavens.
The name of our village was Chadleigh. Lifted high above the pasture flats which stretched away at our feet like a measureless green lake and melted into mist on the furthest horizon, it nestled, a tiny stone-built hamlet, in a sheltered hollow about midway between the plain and the plateau. Above us, rising ridge beyond ridge, slope beyond slope, spread the mountainous moor-country, bare and bleak for the most part, with here and there a patch of cultivated field or hardy plantation, and crowned highest of all with masses of huge grey crag, abrupt, isolated, hoary, and older than the deluge. These were the Tors--Druids' Tor, King's Tor, Castle Tor, and the like; sacred places, as I have heard, in the ancient time, where crownings, burnings, human sacrifices, and all kinds of bloody heathen rites were performed. Bones, too, had been found there, and arrow-heads, and ornaments of gold and glass. I had a vague awe of the Tors in those boyish days, and would not have gone near them after dark for the heaviest bribe.
I have said that we were born in the same village. He was the son of a small farmer, named William Price, and the eldest of a family of seven; I was the only child of Ephraim Hardy, the Chadleigh blacksmith--a well-known man in those parts, whose memory is not forgotten to this day. Just so far as a farmer is supposed to be a bigger man than a blacksmith, Mat's father might be said to have a better standing than mine; but William Price with his small holding and his seven boys, was, in fact, as poor as many a day-labourer; whilst, the blacksmith, well-to-do, bustling, popular, and open-handed, was a person of some importance in the place. All this, however, had nothing to do with Mat and myself. It never occurred to either of us that his jacket was out at elbows, or that our mutual funds came altogether from my pocket. It was enough for us that we sat on the same school-bench, conned our tasks from the same primer, fought each other's battles, screened each other's faults, fished, nutted, played truant, robbed orchards and birds' nests together, and spent every half-hour, authorised or stolen, in each other's society. It was a happy time; but it could not go on for ever. My father, being prosperous, resolved to put me forward in the world. I must know more, and do better, than himself. The forge was not good enough, the little world of Chadleigh not wide enough, for me. Thus it happened that I was still swinging the satchel when Mat was whistling at the plough, and that at last, when my future course was shaped out, we were separated, as it then seemed to us, for life. For, blacksmith's son as I was, furnace and forge, in some form or other, pleased me best, and I chose to be a working engineer. So my father by-and-by apprenticed me to a Birmingham iron-master; and, having bidden farewell to Mat, and Chadleigh, and the grey old Tors in the shadow of which I had spent all the days of my life, I turned my face northward, and went over into "the Black Country."
I am not going to dwell on this part of my story. How I worked out the term of my apprenticeship; how, when I had served my full time and become a skilled workman, I took Mat from the plough and brought him over to the Black Country, sharing with him lodging, wages, experience--all, in short, that I had to give; how he, naturally quick to learn and brimful of quiet energy, worked his way up a step at a time, and came by-and-by to be a "first hand" in his own department; how, during all these years of change, and trial, and effort, the old boyish affection never wavered or weakened, but went on, growing with our growth and strengthening with our strength--are facts which I need do no more than outline in this place.
About this time--it will be remembered that I speak of the days when Mat and I were on the bright side of thirty--it happened that our firm contracted to supply six first-class locomotives to run on the new line, then in process of construction, between Turin and Genoa. It was the first Italian order we had taken. We had had dealings with France, Holland, Belgium, Germany; but never with Italy. The connection, therefore, was new and valuable--all the more valuable because our Transalpine neighbours had but lately begun to lay down the iron roads, and would be safe to need more of our good English work as they went on. So the Birmingham firm set themselves to the contract with a will, lengthened our working hours, increased our wages, took on fresh hands, and determined, if energy and promptitude could do it, to place themselves at the head of the Italian labour-market, and stay there. They deserved and achieved success. The six locomotives were not only turned out to time, but were shipped, despatched, and delivered with a promptitude that fairly amazed our Piedmontese consignee. I was not a little proud, you may be sure, when I found myself appointed to superintend the transport of the engines. Being allowed a couple of assistants, I contrived that Mat should be one of them; and thus we enjoyed together the first great holiday of our lives.
It was a wonderful change for two Birmingham operatives fresh from the Black Country. The fairy city, with its crescent background of Alps; the port crowded with strange shipping; the marvellous blue sky and the bluer sea; the painted houses on the quays; the quaint cathedral, faced with black and white marble; the street of jewellers, like an Arabian Nights' bazaar; the street of palaces, with its Moorish courtyards, its fountains and orange-trees; the women veiled like brides; the galley-slaves chained two and two; the processions of priests and friars; the everlasting clangour of bells; the babble of a strange tongue; the singular lightness and brightness of the climate--made, altogether, such a combination of wonders that we wandered about, the first day, in a kind of bewildered dream, like children at a fair. Before that week was ended, being tempted by the beauty of the place and the liberality of the pay, we had agreed to take service with the Turin and Genoa Railway Company, and to turn our backs upon Birmingham for ever.
Then began a new life--a life so active and healthy, so steeped in fresh air and sunshine, that we sometimes marvelled how we could have endured the gloom of the Black Country. We were constantly up and down the line: now at Genoa, now at Turin, taking trial trips with the locomotives, and placing our old experiences at the service of our new employers.
In the meanwhile we made Genoa our headquarters, and hired a couple of rooms over a small shop in a by-street sloping down to the quays. Such a busy little street--so steep and winding that no vehicles could pass through it, and so narrow that the sky looked like a mere strip of deep-blue ribbon overhead! Every house in it, however, was a shop, where the goods encroached on the footway, or were piled about the door, or hung like tapestry from the balconies; and all day long, from dawn to dusk, an incessant stream of passers-by poured up and down between the port and the upper quarter of the city.
Our landlady was the widow of a silver-worker, and lived by the sale of filigree ornaments, cheap jewellery, combs, fans, and toys in ivory and jet. She had an only daughter named Gianetta, who served in the shop, and was simply the most beautiful woman I ever beheld. Looking back across this weary chasm of years, and bringing her image before me (as I can and do) with all the vividness of life, I am unable, even now, to detect a flaw in her beauty. I do not attempt to describe her. I do not believe there is a poet living who could find the words to do it; but I once saw a picture that was somewhat like her (not half so lovely, but still like her), and, for aught I know, that picture is still hanging where I last looked at it--upon the walls of the Louvre. It represented a woman with brown eyes and golden hair, looking over her shoulder into a circular mirror held by a bearded man in the background. In this man, as I then understood, the artist had painted his own portrait; in her, the portrait of the woman he loved. No picture that I ever saw was half so beautiful, and yet it was not worthy to be named in the same breath with Gianetta Coneglia.
You may be certain the widow's shop did not want for customers. All Genoa knew how fair a face was to be seen behind that dingy little counter; and Gianetta, flirt as she was, had more lovers than she cared to remember, even by name. Gentle and simple, rich and poor, from the red-capped sailor buying his ear-rings or his amulet, to the nobleman carelessly purchasing half the filigrees in the window, she treated them all alike--encouraged them, laughed at them, led them on and turned them off at her pleasure. She had no more heart than a marble statue; as Mat and I discovered by-and-by, to our bitter cost.
I cannot tell to this day how it came about, or what first led me to suspect how things were going with us both; but long before the waning of that autumn a coldness had sprung up between my friend and myself. It was nothing that could have been put into words. It was nothing that either of us could have explained or justified, to save his life. We lodged together, ate together, worked together, exactly as before; we even took our long evening's walk together, when the day's labour was ended; and except, perhaps, that we were more silent than of old, no mere looker-on could have detected a shadow of change. Yet there it was, silent and subtle, widening the gulf between us every day.
It was not his fault. He was too true and gentle-hearted to have willingly brought about such a state of things between us. Neither do I believe--fiery as my nature is--that it was mine. It was all hers--hers from first to last--the sin, and the shame, and the sorrow.
If she had shown a fair and open preference for either of us, no real harm could have come of it. I would have put any constraint upon myself, and, Heaven knows! have borne any suffering, to see Mat really happy. I know that he would have done the same, and more if he could, for me. But Gianetta cared not one sou for either. She never meant to choose between us. It gratified her vanity to divide us; it amused her to play with us. It would pass my power to tell how, by a thousand imperceptible shades of coquetry--by the lingering of a glance, the substitution of a word, the flitting of a smile--she contrived to turn our heads, and torture our hearts, and lead us on to love her. She deceived us both. She buoyed us both up with hope; she maddened us with jealousy; she crushed us with despair. For my part, when I seemed to wake to a sudden sense of the ruin that was about our path and I saw how the truest friendship that ever bound two lives together was drifting on to wreck and ruin, I asked myself whether any woman in the world was worth what Mat had been to me and I to him. But this was not often. I was readier to shut my eyes upon the truth than to face it; and so lived on, wilfully, in a dream.
Thus the autumn passed away, and winter came--the strange, treacherous Genoese winter, green with olive and ilex, brilliant with sunshine, and bitter with storm. Still, rivals at heart and friends on the surface, Mat and I lingered on in our lodging in the Vicolo Balba. Still Gianetta held us with her fatal wiles and her still more fatal beauty. At length there came a day when I felt I could bear the horrible misery and suspense of it no longer. The sun, I vowed, should not go down before I knew my sentence. She must choose between us. She must either take me or let me go. I was reckless. I was desperate. I was determined to know the worst, or the best. If the worst, I would at once turn my back upon Genoa, upon her, upon all the pursuits and purposes of my past life, and begin the world anew. This I told her, passionately and sternly, standing before her in the little parlour at the back of the shop, one bleak December morning.
"If it's Mat whom you care for most," I said, "tell me so in one word, and I will never trouble you again. He is better worth your love. I am jealous and exacting; he is as trusting and unselfish as a woman. Speak, Gianetta; am I to bid you good-bye for ever and ever, or am I to write home to my mother in England, bidding her pray to God to bless the woman who has promised to be my wife?"
"You plead your friend's cause well," she replied, haughtily. "Matteo ought to be grateful. This is more than he ever did for you."
"Give me my answer, for pity's sake," I exclaimed, "and let me go!"
"You are free to go or stay, Signor Inglese," she replied. "I am not your jailor."
"Do you bid me leave you?"
"Beata Madre! not I."
"Will you marry me, if I stay?"
She laughed aloud--such a merry, mocking, musical laugh, like a chime of silver bells!
"You ask too much," she said.
"Only what you have led me to hope these five or six months past!"
"That is just what Matteo says. How tiresome you both are!"
"O, Gianetta," I said, passionately, "be serious for one moment! I am a rough fellow, it is true--not half good enough or clever enough for you; but I love you with my whole heart, and an Emperor could do no more."
"I am glad of it," she replied; "I do not want you to love me less."
"Then you cannot wish to make me wretched! Will you promise me?"
"I promise nothing," said she, with another burst of laughter; "except that I will not marry Matteo!"
Except that she would not marry Matteo! Only that. Not a word of hope for myself. Nothing but my friend's condemnation. I might get comfort, and selfish triumph, and some sort of base assurance out of that, if I could. And so, to my shame, I did. I grasped at the vain encouragement, and, fool that I was! let her put me off again unanswered. From that day, I gave up all effort at self-control, and let myself drift blindly on--to destruction.
At length things became so bad between Mat and myself that it seemed as if an open rupture must be at hand. We avoided each other, scarcely exchanged a dozen sentences in a day, and fell away from all our old familiar habits. At this time--I shudder to remember it!--there were moments when I felt that I hated him.
Thus, with the trouble deepening and widening between us day by day, another month or five weeks went by; and February came; and, with February, the Carnival. They said in Genoa that it was a particularly dull carnival; and so it must have been; for, save a flag or two hung out in some of the principal streets, and a sort of festa look about the women, there were no special indications of the season. It was, I think, the second day when, having been on the line all the morning, I returned to Genoa at dusk, and, to my surprise, found Mat Price on the platform. He came up to me, and laid his hand on my arm.
"You are in late," he said. "I have been waiting for you three-quarters of an hour. Shall we dine together to-day?"
Impulsive as I am, this evidence of returning goodwill at once called up my better feelings.
"With all my heart, Mat," I replied; "shall we go to Gozzoli's?"
"No, no," he said, hurriedly. "Some quieter place--some place where we can talk. I have something to say to you."
I noticed now that he looked pale and agitated, and an uneasy sense of apprehension stole upon me. We decided on the "Pescatore," a little out-of-the-way trattoria, down near the Molo Vecchio. There, in a dingy salon, frequented chiefly by seamen, and redolent of tobacco, we ordered our simple dinner. Mat scarcely swallowed a morsel; but, calling presently for a bottle of Sicilian wine, drank eagerly.
"Well, Mat," I said, as the last dish was placed on the table, "what news have you?"
"I guessed that from your face."
"Bad for you--bad for me. Gianetta."
"What of Gianetta?"
He passed his hand nervously across his lips.
"Gianetta is false--worse than false," he said, in a hoarse voice. "She values an honest man's heart just as she values a flower for her hair--wears it for a day, then throws it aside for ever. She has cruelly wronged us both."
"In what way? Good Heavens, speak out!"
"In the worst way that a woman can wrong those who love her. She has sold herself to the Marchese Loredano."
The blood rushed to my head and face in a burning torrent. I could scarcely see, and dared not trust myself to speak.
"I saw her going towards the cathedral," he went on, hurriedly. "It was about three hours ago. I thought she might be going to confession, so I hung back and followed her at a distance. When she got inside, however, she went straight to the back of the pulpit, where this man was waiting for her. You remember him--an old man who used to haunt the shop a month or two back. Well, seeing how deep in conversation they were, and how they stood close under the pulpit with their backs towards the church, I fell into a passion of anger and went straight up the aisle, intending to say or do something: I scarcely knew what; but, at all events, to draw her arm through mine, and take her home. When I came within a few feet, however, and found only a big pillar between myself and them, I paused. They could not see me, nor I them; but I could hear their voices distinctly, and--and I listened."
"Well, and you heard--"
"The terms of a shameful bargain--beauty on the one side, gold on the other; so many thousand francs a year; a villa near Naples----Pah! it makes me sick to repeat it."
And, with a shudder, he poured out another glass of wine and drank it at a draught.
"After that," he said, presently, "I made no effort to bring her away. The whole thing was so cold-blooded, so deliberate, so shameful, that I felt I had only to wipe her out of my memory, and leave her to her fate. I stole out of the cathedral, and walked about here by the sea for ever so long, trying to get my thoughts straight. Then I remembered you, Ben; and the recollection of how this wanton had come between us and broken up our lives drove me wild. So I went up to the station and waited for you. I felt you ought to know it all; and--and I thought, perhaps, that we might go back to England together."
"The Marchese Loredano!"
It was all that I could say; all that I could think. As Mat had just said of himself, I felt "like one stunned."
"There is one other thing I may as well tell you," he added, reluctantly, "if only to show you how false a woman can be. We--we were to have been married next month."
"We? Who? What do you mean?"
"I mean that we were to have been married--Gianetta and I."
A sudden storm of rage, of scorn, of incredulity, swept over me at this, and seemed to carry my senses away.
"You!" I cried. "Gianetta marry you! I don't believe it."
"I wish I had not believed it," he replied, looking up as if puzzled by my vehemence. "But she promised me; and I thought, when she promised it, she meant it."
"She told me, weeks ago, that she would never be your wife!"
His colour rose, his brow darkened; but when his answer came, it was as calm as the last.
"Indeed!" he said. "Then it is only one baseness more. She told me that she had refused you; and that was why we kept our engagement secret."
"Tell the truth, Mat Price," I said, well-nigh beside myself with suspicion. "Confess that every word of this is false! Confess that Gianetta will not listen to you, and that you are afraid I may succeed where you have failed. As perhaps I shall--as perhaps I shall, after all!"
"Are you mad?" he exclaimed. "What do you mean?"
"That I believe it's just a trick to get me away to England--that I don't credit a syllable of your story. You're a liar, and I hate you!"
He rose, and, laying one hand on the back of his chair, looked me sternly in the face.
"If you were not Benjamin Hardy," he said, deliberately, "I would thrash you within an inch of your life."
The words had no sooner passed his lips than I sprang at him. I have never been able distinctly to remember what followed. A curse--a blow--a struggle--a moment of blind fury--a cry--a confusion of tongues--a circle of strange faces. Then I see Mat lying back in the arms of a bystander; myself trembling and bewildered--the knife dropping from my grasp; blood upon the floor; blood upon my hands; blood upon his shirt. And then I hear those dreadful words:
"O, Ben, you have murdered me!"
He did not die--at least, not there and then. He was carried to the nearest hospital, and lay for some weeks between life and death. His case, they said, was difficult and dangerous. The knife had gone in just below the collar-bone, and pierced down into the lungs. He was not allowed to speak or turn--scarcely to breathe with freedom. He might not even lift his head to drink. I sat by him day and night all through that sorrowful time. I gave up my situation on the railway; I quitted my lodging in the Vicolo Balba; I tried to forget that such a woman as Gianetta Coneglia had ever drawn breath. I lived only for Mat; and he tried to live more, I believe, for my sake than his own. Thus, in the bitter silent hours of pain and penitence, when no hand but mine approached his lips or smoothed his pillow, the old friendship came back with even more than its old trust and faithfulness. He forgave me, fully and freely; and I would thankfully have given my life for him.
At length there came one bright spring morning, when, dismissed as convalescent, he tottered out through the hospital gates, leaning on my arm, and feeble as an infant. He was not cured; neither, as I then learned to my horror and anguish, was it possible that he ever could be cured. He might live, with care, for some years; but the lungs were injured beyond hope of remedy, and a strong or healthy man he could never be again. These, spoken aside to me, were the parting words of the chief physician, who advised me to take him further south without delay.
I took him to a little coast-town called Rocca, some thirty miles beyond Genoa--a sheltered lonely place along the Riviera, where the sea was even bluer than the sky, and the cliffs were green with strange tropical plants, cacti, and aloes, and Egyptian palms. Here we lodged in the house of a small tradesman; and Mat, to use his own words, "set to work at getting well in good earnest." But, alas! it was a work which no earnestness could forward. Day after day he went down to the beach, and sat for hours drinking the sea air and watching the sails that came and went in the offing. By-and-by he could go no further than the garden of the house in which we lived. A little later, and he spent his days on a couch beside the open window, waiting patiently for the end. Ay, for the end! It had come to that. He was fading fast, waning with the waning summer, and conscious that the Reaper was at hand. His whole aim now was to soften the agony of my remorse, and prepare me for what must shortly come.
"I would not live longer, if I could," he said, lying on his couch one summer evening, and looking up to the stars. "If I had my choice at this moment, I would ask to go. I should like Gianetta to know that I forgave her."
"She shall know it," I said, trembling suddenly from head to foot.
He pressed my hand.
"And you'll write to father?"
I had drawn a little back, that he might not see the tears raining down my cheeks; but he raised himself on his elbow, and looked round.
"Don't fret, Ben," he whispered; laid his head back wearily upon the pillow--and so died.
And this was the end of it. This was the end of all that made life life to me. I buried him there, in hearing of the wash of a strange sea on a strange shore. I stayed by the grave till the priest and the bystanders were gone. I saw the earth filled in to the last sod, and the gravedigger stamped it down with his feet. Then, and not till then, I felt that I had lost him for ever--the friend I had loved, and hated, and slain. Then, and not till then, I knew that all rest, and joy, and hope were over for me. From that moment my heart hardened within me, and my life was filled with loathing. Day and night, land and sea, labour and rest, food and sleep, were alike hateful to me. It was the curse of Cain, and that my brother had pardoned me made it lie none the lighter. Peace on earth was for me no more, and goodwill towards men was dead in my heart for ever. Remorse softens some natures; but it poisoned mine. I hated all mankind; but above all mankind I hated the woman who had come between us two, and ruined both our lives.
He had bidden me seek her out, and be the messenger of his forgiveness. I had sooner have gone down to the port of Genoa and taken upon me the serge cap and shotted chain of any galley-slave at his toil in the public works; but for all that I did my best to obey him. I went back, alone and on foot. I went back, intending to say to her, "Gianetta Coneglia, he forgave you; but God never will." But she was gone. The little shop was let to a fresh occupant; and the neighbours only knew that mother and daughter had left the place quite suddenly, and that Gianetta was supposed to be under the "protection" of the Marchese Loredano. How I made inquiries here and there--how I heard that they had gone to Naples--and how, being restless and reckless of my time, I worked my passage in a French steamer, and followed her--how, having found the sumptuous villa that was now hers, I learned that she had left there some ten days and gone to Paris, where the Marchese was ambassador for the Two Sicilies--how, working my passage back again to Marseilles, and thence, in part by the river and in part by the rail, I made my way to Paris--how, day after day, I paced the streets and the parks, watched at the ambassador's gates, followed his carriage, and at last, after weeks of waiting, discovered her address--how, having written to request an interview, her servants spurned me from her door and flung my letter in my face--how, looking up at her windows, I then, instead of forgiving, solemnly cursed her with the bitterest curses my tongue could devise--and how, this done, I shook the dust of Paris from my feet, and became a wanderer upon the face of the earth, are facts which I have now no space to tell.
The next six or eight years of my life were shifting and unsettled enough. A morose and restless man, I took employment here and there, as opportunity offered, turning my hand to many things, and caring little what I earned, so long as the work was hard and the change incessant. First of all I engaged myself as chief engineer in one of the French steamers plying between Marseilles and Constantinople. At Constantinople I changed to one of the Austrian Lloyd's boats, and worked for some time to and from Alexandria, Jaffa, and those parts After that, I fell in with a party of Mr. Layard's men at Cairo, and so went up the Nile and took a turn at the excavations of the mound of Nimroud. Then I became a working engineer on the new desert line between Alexandria and Suez; and by-and-by I worked my passage out to Bombay, and took service as an engine fitter on one of the great Indian railways. I stayed a long time in India; that is to say, I stayed nearly two years, which was a long time for me; and I might not even have left so soon, but for the war that was declared just then with Russia. That tempted me. For I loved danger and hardship as other men love safety and ease; and as for my life, I had sooner have parted from it than kept it, any day. So I came straight back to England; betook myself to Portsmouth, where my testimonials at once procured me the sort of berth I wanted. I went out to the Crimea in the engine-room of one of her Majesty's war steamers.
I served with the fleet, of course, while the war lasted; and when it was over, went wandering off again, rejoicing in my liberty. This time I went to Canada, and after working on a railway then in progress near the American frontier. I presently passed over into the States; journeyed from north to south; crossed the Rocky Mountains; tried a month or two of life in the gold country; and then, being seized with a sudden, aching, unaccountable longing to revisit that solitary grave so far away on the Italian coast, I turned my face once more towards Europe.
Poor little grave! I found it rank with weeds, the cross half shattered, the inscription half effaced. It was as if no one had loved him, or remembered him. I went back to the house in which we had lodged together. The same people were still living there, and made me kindly welcome. I stayed with them for some weeks. I weeded, and planted, and trimmed the grave with my own hands, and set up a fresh cross in pure white marble. It was the first season of rest that I had known since I laid him there; and when at last I shouldered my knapsack and set forth again to battle with the world, I promised myself that, God willing, I would creep back to Rocca, when my days drew near to ending, and be buried by his side.
From hence, being, perhaps, a little less inclined than formerly for very distant parts, and willing to keep within reach of that grave, I went no further than Mantua, where I engaged myself as an engine-driver on the line, then not long completed, between that city and Venice. Somehow, although I had been trained to the working engineering, I preferred in these days to earn my bread by driving. I liked the excitement of it, the sense of power, the rush of the air, the roar of the fire, the flitting of the landscape. Above all, I enjoyed to drive a night express. The worse the weather, the better it suited with my sullen temper. For I was as hard, and harder than ever. The years had done nothing to soften me. They had only confirmed all that was blackest and bitterest in my heart.
I continued pretty faithful to the Mantua line, and had been working on it steadily for more than seven months when that which I am now about to relate took place.
It was in the month of March. The weather had been unsettled for some days past, and the nights stormy; and at one point along the line, near Ponte di Brenta, the waters had risen and swept away some seventy yards of embankment. Since this accident, the trains had all been obliged to stop at a certain spot between Padua and Ponte di Brenta, and the passengers, with their luggage, had thence to be transported in all kinds of vehicles, by a circuitous country road, to the nearest station on the other side of the gap, where another train and engine awaited them. This, of course, caused great confusion and annoyance, put all our time-tables wrong, and subjected the public to a large amount of inconvenience. In the mean while an army of navvies was drafted to the spot, and worked day and night to repair the damage. At this time I was driving two through trains each day; namely, one from Mantua to Venice in the early morning, and a return train from Venice to Mantua in the afternoon--a tolerably full days' work, covering about one hundred and ninety miles of ground, and occupying between ten and eleven hours. I was therefore not best pleased when, on the third or fourth day after the accident, I was informed that, in addition to my regular allowance of work, I should that evening be required to drive a special train to Venice. This special train, consisting of an engine, a single carriage, and a break-van, was to leave the Mantua platform at eleven; at Padua the passengers were to alight and find post-chaises waiting to convey them to Ponte di Brenta; at Ponte di Brenta another engine, carriage, and break-van were to be in readiness, I was charged to accompany them throughout.
"Corpo di Bacco," said the clerk who gave me my orders, "you need not look so black, man. You are certain of a handsome gratuity. Do you know who goes with you?"
"Not you, indeed! Why, it's the Duca Loredano, the Neapolitan ambassador."
"Loredano!" I stammered. "What Loredano? There was a Marchese--"
"Certo. He was the Marchese Loredano some years ago; but he has come into his dukedom since then."
"He must be a very old man by this time."
"Yes, he is old; but what of that? He is as hale, and bright, and stately as ever. You have seen him before?"
"Yes," I said, turning away; "I have seen him--years ago."
"You have heard of his marriage?"
I shook my head.
The clerk chuckled, rubbed his hands, and shrugged his shoulders.
"An extraordinary affair," he said. "Made a tremendous esclandre at the time. He married his mistress--quite a common, vulgar girl--a Genoese--very handsome; but not received, of course. Nobody visits her."
"Married her!" I exclaimed. "Impossible."
"True, I assure you."
I put my hand to my head. I felt as if I had had a fall or a blow.
"Does she--does she go to-night?" I faltered.
"O dear, yes--goes everywhere with him--never lets him out of her sight. You'll see her--la bella Duchessa!"
With this my informant laughed, and rubbed his hands again, and went back to his office.
The day went by, I scarcely know how, except that my whole soul was in a tumult of rage and bitterness. I returned from my afternoon's work about 7.25, and at 10.30 I was once again at the station. I had examined the engine; given instructions to the Fochista, or stoker, about the fire; seen to the supply of oil; and got all in readiness, when, just as I was about to compare my watch with the clock in the ticket-office, a hand was laid upon my arm, and a voice in my ear said:
"Are you the engine-driver who is going on with this special train?"
I had never seen the speaker before. He was a small, dark man, muffled up about the throat, with blue glasses, a large black beard, and his hat drawn low upon his eyes.
"You are a poor man, I suppose," he said, in a quick, eager whisper, "and, like other poor men, would not object to be better off. Would you like to earn a couple of thousand florins?"
"In what way?"
"Hush! You are to stop at Padua, are you not, and to go on again at Ponte di Brenta?"
"Suppose you did nothing of the kind. Suppose, instead of turning off the steam, you jump off the engine, and let the train run on?"
"Impossible. There are seventy yards of embankment gone, and--"
"Basta! I know that. Save yourself, and let the train run on. It would be nothing but an accident."
I turned hot and cold; I trembled; my heart beat fast, and my breath failed.
"Why do you tempt me?" I faltered.
"For Italy's sake," he whispered; "for liberty's sake. I know you are no Italian; but, for all that, you may be a friend. This Loredano is one of his country's bitterest enemies. Stay, here are the two thousand florins."
I thrust his hand back fiercely.
"No--no," I said. "No blood-money. If I do it, I do it neither for Italy nor for money; but for vengeance."
"For vengeance!" he repeated.
At this moment the signal was given for backing up to the platform. I sprang to my place upon the engine without another word. When I again looked towards the spot where he had been standing, the stranger was gone.
I saw them take their places--Duke and Duchess, secretary and priest, valet and maid. I saw the station-master bow them into the carriage, and stand, bareheaded, beside the door. I could not distinguish their faces; the platform was too dusk, and the glare from the engine fire too strong; but I recognised her stately figure, and the poise of her head. Had I not been told who she was, I should have known her by those traits alone. Then the guard's whistle shrilled out, and the station-master made his last bow; I turned the steam on; and we started.
My blood was on fire. I no longer trembled or hesitated. I felt as if every nerve was iron, and every pulse instinct with deadly purpose. She was in my power, and I would be avenged. She should die--she, for whom I had stained my soul with my friend's blood! She should die, in the plenitude of her wealth and her beauty, and no power upon earth should save her!
The stations flew past. I put on more steam; I bade the fireman heap in the coke, and stir the blazing mass. I would have outstripped the wind, had it been possible. Faster and faster--hedges and trees, bridges, and stations, flashing past--villages no sooner seen than gone--telegraph wires twisting, and dipping, and twining themselves in one, with the awful swiftness of our pace! Faster and faster, till the fireman at my side looks white and scared, and refuses to add more fuel to the furnace. Faster and faster, till the wind rushes in our faces and drives the breath back upon our lips.
I would have scorned to save myself. I meant to die with the rest. Mad as I was--and I believe from my very soul that I was utterly mad for the time--I felt a passing pang of pity for the old man and his suite. I would have spared the poor fellow at my side, too, if I could; but the pace at which we were going made escape impossible.
Vicenza was passed--a mere confused vision of lights. Pojana flew by. At Padua, but nine miles distant, our passengers were to alight. I saw the fireman's face turned upon me in remonstrance; I saw his lips move, though I could not hear a word; I saw his expression change suddenly from remonstrance to a deadly terror, and then--merciful Heaven! then, for the first time, I saw that he and I were no longer alone upon the engine.
There was a third man--a third man standing on my right hand, as the fireman was standing on my left--a tall, stalwart man, with short curling hair, and a flat Scotch cap upon his head. As I fell back in the first shock of surprise, he stepped nearer; took my place at the engine, and turned the steam off. I opened my lips to speak to him; he turned his head slowly, and looked me in the face.
I uttered one long wild cry, flung my arms wildly up above my head, and fell as if I had been smitten with an axe.
I am prepared for the objections that may be made to my story. I expect, as a matter of course, to be told that this was an optical illusion, or that I was suffering from pressure on the brain, or even that I laboured under an attack of temporary insanity. I have heard all these arguments before, and, if I may be forgiven for saying so, I have no desire to hear them again. My own mind has been made up upon this subject for many a year. All that I can say--all that I know is--that Matthew Price came back from the dead, to save my soul and the lives of those whom I, in my guilty rage, would have hurried to destruction. I believe this as I believe in the mercy of Heaven and the forgiveness of repentant sinners.
I, FREDERICK GEORGE BYNG, who write this narrative with my own hand, without help of spectacles, am so old a man that I doubt if I now have a hundred living contemporaries in Europe. I was born in 1780, and I am eighty-nine years of age. My reminiscences date so far back that I almost feel, when I speak of them, as if I belonged to another world. I remember when news first reached England of the taking of the Bastille in 1789. I remember when people, meeting each other in the streets, talked of Danton and Robespierre, and the last victims of the guillotine. I remember how our whole household was put into black for the execution of Louis XVI., and how my mother who was a devout Roman Catholic, converted her oratory for several days into a chapelle ardente. That was in 1793, when I was just thirteen years of age.
Three years later, when the name of General Bonaparte was fast becoming a word of power in European history, I went abroad, and influenced by considerations which have nothing to do with my story, entered the Austrian army.
A younger son of a younger branch of an ancient and noble house, and distantly connected, moreover, with more than one great Austrian family, I presented myself at the Court of Vienna under peculiarly favourable auspices. The Archduke Charles, to whom I brought letters of recommendation, accorded me a gracious welcome, and presented me almost immediately upon my arrival with a commission in a cavalry corps commanded by a certain Colonel von Beust, than whom a more unpopular officer did not serve in the Imperial army.
Hence, I was glad to exchange, some months later, into Lichtenstein's Cuirassiers. In this famous corps which was commanded by his uncle the Prince of Lichtenstein, my far-off cousin, Gustav von Lichtenstein, had lately been promoted to a troop. Serving in the same corps, sharing the same hardships, incurring the same dangers, we soon became sworn friends and comrades. Together we went through the disastrous campaign of 1797, and together enjoyed the brief interval of peace that followed upon the treaty of Campo Formio and the cession of Venice. Having succeeded in getting our leave of absence at the same time, we then travelled through Styria and Hungary. Our tour ended, we came back together to winter quarters in Vienna.
When hostilities were renewed in 1800, we joyfully prepared to join the army of the Inn. In peace or war, at home or abroad, we two held fast by each other. Let the world go round as it might, we at least took life gaily, accepted events as they came, and went on becoming truer and stauncher friends with every passing day. Never were two men better suited. We understood each other perfectly. We were nearly of the same age; we enjoyed the same sports, read the same books, and liked the same people. Above all, we were both passionately desirous of military glory, and we both hated the French.
Gustav von Lichtenstein, however, was in many respects, both physically and mentally, my superior. He was taller than myself, a finer horseman, a swifter runner, a bolder swimmer, a more graceful dancer. He was unequivocally better-looking; and having to great natural gifts superadded a brilliant University career at both Göttingen and Leipzig, he was as unequivocally better educated. Fair-haired, blue-eyed, athletic--half dreamer and poet, half sportsman and soldier--now lost in mists of speculative philosophy--now given up with keen enthusiasm to military studies--the idol of his soldiers--the beau sabreur of his corps--Gustav von Lichtenstein was then, and has ever since remained, my ideal of a true and noble gentleman. An orphan since his early childhood, he owned large estates in Franconia, and was, moreover, his uncle's sole heir. He was just twenty when I first came to know him personally in Vienna in 1796; but his character was already formed, and he looked at least four years older than his age. When I say that he was even then, in accordance with a family arrangement of long standing, betrothed to his cousin, Constance von Adelheim, a rich and beautiful Franconian heiress, I think I shall have told all that need be told of my friend's private history.
I have said that we were rejoiced by the renewal of hostilities in 1800; and we had good reason to rejoice, he as an Austrian, I as an Englishman; for the French were our bitterest enemies, and we were burning to wipe out the memory of Marengo. It was in the month of November that Gustav and I received orders to join our regiment; and, commanded by Prince Lichtenstein in person, we at once proceeded, in great haste and very inclement weather, to fall in with the main body of the Imperial forces near Landshut on the Inn. The French, under Moreau, came up from the direction of Ampfing and Mühldorf; while the Austrians, sixty thousand strong, under the Archduke John, advanced upon them from Dorfen.
Coming upon the French by surprise in the close neighbourhood of Ampfing on the 30th, we fell upon them while in line of march, threw them into confusion, and put them to the rout. The next day they fell back upon that large plateau which lies between the Isar and the Inn, and took up their position in the forest of Hohenlinden. We ought never to have let them so fall back. We ought never to have let them entrench themselves in the natural fastnesses of that immense forest which has been truly described as "a great natural stockade between six and seven leagues long, and from a league to a league and a half broad."
We had already achieved a brilliant coup, and had our General known how to follow up his success, the whole fortune of the campaign would in all probability have been changed. But the Archduke John, though a young man of ability and sound military training, wanted that boldness which comes of experience, and erred on the side of over-caution.
All that day (the 2nd of December) it rained and sleeted in torrents. An icy wind chilled us to the bone. We could not keep our camp-fires alight. Our soldiers, however, despite the dreadful state of the weather, were in high spirits, full of yesterday's triumph, and longing for active work. Officers and men alike, we all confidently expected to be on the heels of the enemy soon after daybreak, and waited impatiently for the word of command. But we waited in vain. At midday the Archduke summoned a council of his generals. But the council by-and-by broke up; the afternoon wore on; the early Winter dusk closed in; and nothing was done.
That night there was discontent in the camp. The officers looked grave. The men murmured loudly, as they gathered round the sputtering embers and tried in vain to fence off the wind and rain. By-and-by the wind ceased blowing and the rain ceased falling, and it began to snow.
At midnight, my friend and I were sitting together in our little tent, trying to kindle some damp logs, and talking over the day's disappointment.
"It is a brilliant opportunity lost," said Gustav, bitterly. "We had separated them and thrown them into confusion; but what of that, when we have left them this whole day to reassemble their scattered forces and reform their broken battalions? The Archduke Charles would never have been guilty of such an oversight. He would have gone on forcing them back, column upon column, till soon they would have been unable to fly before us. They would have trampled upon each other, thrown down their arms, and been all cut to pieces or taken prisoners."
"Perhaps it is not yet too late," said I.
"Not yet too late!" he repeated. "Gott im Himmel! Not too late, perhaps to fight hard and get the worst of the fight; but too late to destroy the whole French army, as we should have destroyed it this morning. But, there! of what use is it to talk? They are all safe now in the woods of Hohenlinden."
"Well, then, we must rout them out of the woods of Hohenlinden, as we routed the wild boars last Winter in Franconia," I said, smiling.
But my friend shook his head.
"Look here," he said, tearing a leaf from his pocket-book, and, with a few bold strokes, sketching a rough plan of the plateau and the two rivers. "The forest is pierced by only two great roads--the road from Munich to Wasserburg, and the road from Munich to Mühldorf. Between the roads, some running transversely, some in parallel lines, are numbers of narrow footways, known only to the peasants, and impassable in Winter. If the French have had recourse to the great thoroughfares, they have passed through ere this, and taken up their position on some good ground beyond; but if they have thrown themselves into the forest on either side, they are either taking refuge in thickets whence it will be impossible to dislodge them, or they are lying in wait to fall upon our columns when we attempt to march through."
I was struck by the clearness of his insight and his perfect mastery of the situation.
"What a general you will make by-and-by, Lichtenstein!" I exclaimed.
"I shall never live to be a general, my dear fellow," he replied gloomily. "Have I not told you before now that I shall die young?"
"Pshaw!--a mere presentiment!"
"Ay--a mere presentiment; but a presentiment of which you will some day see the fulfilment."
I shook my head and smiled incredulously; but Lichtenstein, stooping over the fire, and absorbed in his own thoughts, went on, more, as it were, to himself than to me.
"Yes," he said, "I shall die before I have done anything for which it might be worth while to have lived. I am conscious of power--I feel there is the making of a commander in me--but what chance have I? The times are rich in great soldiers .... Ah, if I could but once distinguish myself--if I could but achieve one glorious deed before I die!.... My uncle could help me if he would. He could so easily appoint me to some service of danger; but he will not--it is in vain to ask him. There was last year's expedition--you remember how I implored him to let me lead the assaulting party at Mannheim. He refused me. Von Ranke got it, and covered himself with glory! Now if we do have a battle to-morrow"....
"Do you really think we shall have a battle to-morrow?" I said eagerly.
"I fancy so; but who can answer for what the Archduke may do? Were we not confident of fighting to-day?"
"Yes--but the Prince of Lichtenstein was at the council."
"My uncle tells me nothing," replied Gustav, drily.
And then he went to the door of the tent and looked out. The snow was still coming down in a dense drifting cloud, and notwithstanding the heavy rains of the last few days, was already beginning to lie upon the ground.
"Pleasant weather for a campaign!" said Gustav. "I vote we get a few hours' sleep while we can."
And with this he wrapped himself up in his cloak and lay down before the fire. I followed his example, and in a few moments we were both fast asleep.
Next day--the memorable 3rd of December A.D. 1800--was fought the famous battle of Hohenlinden; a day great and glorious in the annals of French military history, yet not inglorious for those who bravely suffered defeat and disaster.
I will not attempt to describe the conflict in detail--that has been done by abler pens than mine. It will be enough if I briefly tell what share we Lichtensteiners bore in the fray. The bugles sounded to arms before daylight, and by grey dawn the whole army was in motion. The snow was still falling heavily; but the men were in high spirits and confident of victory.
Divided into three great columns--the centre commanded by the Archduke, the right wing under Latour, and the left under Riesch--we plunged into the forest. The infantry marched first, followed by the artillery and caissons, and the cavalry brought up the rear. The morning, consequently, had far advanced, and our comrades in the van had already reached the farther extremity of the forest, when we, with the rest of the cavalry, crossed, if I may so express it, the threshold of those fatal woods.
The snow was now some fourteen inches deep upon the ground, and still falling in such thick flakes as made it impossible to see twenty yards ahead. The gloomy pine-trees closed round our steps in every direction, thick-set, uniform, endless. Except the broad chaussée, down which the artillery was lumbering slowly and noiselessly, no paths or side-tracks were distinguishable. Below, all was white and dazzling; above, where the wide-spreading pine-branches roofed out the leaden sky, all was dark and oppressive. Presently the Prince of Lichtenstein rode up, and bade us turn aside under the trees on either side of the road till Kollowrath's reserves had passed on. We did so; dismounted; lit our pipes; and waited till our turn should come to follow the rest.
Suddenly, without a moment's warning, as if they had sprung from the earth, an immense body of the enemy's foot poured in upon us from the very direction in which our left wing, under Riesch, had lately passed along. In an instant the air was filled with shouts, and smoke, and shots, and gleaming sabres--the snow was red with blood--men, horses, and artillery were massed together in inextricable confusion, and hundreds of our brave fellows were cut down before they could even draw their swords to strike a single blow.
"Call up the Bavarian reserve!" shouted the Prince, sitting his horse like a statue and pointing up the road with his sword.
The next instant I was rolling under my own horse's feet, with a murderous grip upon my throat, a pistol at my head, and in my ears a sound like the rushing of a mighty sea. After this I remember nothing more, till by-and-by I came to my senses, and found myself, with some five or six wounded cuirassiers, lying in an open cart, and being transported along a country road apparently skirting the forest. I thought at first that I also was wounded and that we were all prisoners, and so closed my eyes in despair.
But as the tide of consciousness continued to flow back, I discovered that we were in the care of our own people, and in the midst of a long string of ambulances bringing up the rear of the Imperial army. And I also found that, more fortunate than my companions, I had been stunned and badly bruised, but was otherwise unhurt.
Presently Gustav came riding up, and with a cry of joy exclaimed:--
"How now, lieber Freund! No broken bones? All well and safe this time?"
"All well and safe," I replied; "but sore from head to foot, and jolted almost to death. Where's my horse, I wonder?"
"Dead, no doubt; but if you can ride, take mine, and I'll secure the first I can get."
"Is the battle over?"
He shook his head.
"Ay," he said, gloomily. "The battle is over--and lost."
And then, still riding beside the cart and bending towards me as he rode, he told, in a few bitter sentences, all he knew of the day's disaster.
Moreau, the Generals Groucy and Grandjean, had, it seemed, lain in wait with the main body of his army at the farther end of the forest, where the great Munich and Wasserburg road debouches upon the open plain, in order to drive our forces back as soon as the heads of the first columns should emerge on that side; while Ney, prepared to execute a similar manoeuvre with his division, was stationed for the same purpose at the mouth of the other great chaussée.
Richepanse, meanwhile, separated by an accident from half his brigade, instead of retreating, advanced with great intrepidity, and fell upon us flank and rear, as I have said, when we least expected danger. Thus it was that the Imperial army was attacked and driven back upon itself from three points, and defeated with great slaughter.
"As for our losses," said Lichtenstein, "Heaven only knows what they are! It seems to me that we have scarcely a gun or a baggage-waggon left; while our men, herded together, trampled, cut down by thousands--Herr Gott! I cannot bear to think of it."
That night we retired across the Inn and halted upon the Tyrolean side, making some show of defence along the line of the river, in the direction of Saltzburg. Our men, however, had none of the spirit of resistance left in them. They seemed as if crushed by the magnitude of their defeat. Hundreds deserted daily. The rest clamoured impatiently for a retreat. The whole camp was in dismay and disorder.
Suddenly, none could exactly tell how, a rumour went about that Moreau was about to attempt the passage of the Lower Inn.
This rumour soon became more definite.
The point chosen was distant some three or four marches from that where we were now posted.
All the boats upon the Isar had been seized and sent down the river as far as Munich.
From Munich they were about to be transported overland to the nearest point upon the Inn.
Two bridges of boats were then to be thrown across the river, and the French battalions were to march over to our attack.
Such was the information which the peasantry brought to our camp, and which was confirmed by the scouts whom we sent out in every direction. The enemy's movements were open and undisguised. Confident of success and secure in our weakness, he disdained even the semblance of strategy.
On the 4th of December the Archduke called another council of war; and some hours before daybreak on the morning of the 5th, our whole right wing was despatched to the point at which we anticipated an attack.
At dawn, Gustav, who had been out all night on duty, came in wet and weary, and found me still asleep.
"Rouse up dreamer!" he said. "Our comrades are gone, and now we can sing 'De Profundis' for ourselves."
"Why for ourselves?" I asked, raising myself upon my elbow.
"Because Riesch is gone; and, if I am not very much mistaken, we shall have to fight the French without him."
"What do you mean? Riesch is gone to repulse the threatened attack down the river?"
"I mean that my mind misgives me about that attack. Moreau is not wont to show his cards so plainly. I have been thinking about it all night; and the more I think of it, the more I suspect that the French have laid a trap, and the Archduke has walked into it."
And then, while we lit our fire and breakfasted together off our modest rations of black bread and soup, my friend showed me, in a few words, how unlikely it was that Moreau should conduct any important operation in so ostentatious a fashion. His object, argued Lichtenstein, was either to mislead us with false rumours, and then, in the absence of Riesch's division, to pour across the river and attack us unexpectedly, or, more probably still, it was his design to force the passage of the Upper Inn and descend upon us from the hills to our rear.
I felt a sudden conviction that he was right.
"It is so--it must be so!" I exclaimed. "What is to be done?"
"Nothing--unless to die hard when the time comes."
"Will you not lay your suspicions before the Archduke?"
"The Archduke would not thank me, perhaps, for seeing farther than himself. Besides, suspicions are nothing. If I had proof--proof positive .... if my uncle would but grant me a party of reconnoissance .... By Heaven! I will ask him."
"Then ask him one thing more--get leave for me to go with you!"
At this moment three or four drums struck up the rappel--were answered by others--and again by others far and near, and in a few seconds the whole camp was alive and stirring. In the meanwhile, Lichtenstein snatched up his cap and rushed away, eager to catch the Prince before he left his tent.
In about half an hour he came back, radiant with success. His uncle had granted him a troop of twenty men, with permission to cross the Inn and reconnoitre the enemy's movements.
"But he will not consent to let thee join, mein Bruder," said Gustav, regretfully.
"Because it is a service of danger, and he will not risk the life of a second officer when one is enough."
"Pshaw! as if my life were worth anything! But there--it's just my luck. I might have been certain he would refuse. When do you go?"
"At midday. We are to keep on this side following the road to Neubevern till we find some point narrow enough to swim our horses over. After that, we shall go round by any unfrequented ways and bridle-paths we can find; get near the French camp as soon as it is dusk; and find out all we can."
"I'd have given my black mustang to be allowed to go with you."
"I don't half forgive the Prince for refusing," said Gustav. "But then, you see, not a man of us may come back; and after all, it's more satisfactory to get one's bullet on the open battle-field than to be caught and shot for a spy."
"I should prefer to take my chance of that."
"I am not quite sure that I should prefer it for you," said my friend. "I have gained my point--I am glad to go: but I have an impression of coming disaster."
"Ah! you know I don't believe in presentiments."
"I do know it, of old. But the sons of the house of Lichtenstein have reason to believe in them. I could tell you many a strange story if I had time..... But it is already ten, and I must write some letters and put my papers in order before I start."
With this he sat down to his desk, and I went out, in order to leave him alone while he wrote. When I came back, his charger was waiting outside in care of an orderly; the troop had already assembled in an open space behind the tent; and the men were busy tightening their horses' girths, looking to the locks of their pistols, and gaily preparing to be gone.
I found Lichtenstein booted and spurred and ready. A letter and a sealed packet lay upon the table, and he had just opened a locker to take a slice of bread and a glass of kirschwasser before starting.
"Thank heaven you are come!" he said. "In three minutes more I should have been gone. You see this letter and packet?--I entrust them to you. The packet contains my watch, which was my father's, given to him by the Empress Catherine of Russia; my hereditary star and badge as a Count of the early Roman Empire; my will; my commission; and my signet ring. If I fall to-day, the packet is to be given to my uncle. The letter is for Constance, bidding her farewell. I have enclosed in it my mother's portrait and a piece of my hair. You will forward it, lieber Freund...."
He took a locket from his bosom, opened it, kissed it, and gave it to me with a sigh.
"I would not have her portrait fall into rude and sacrilegious hands," he said; "if I never come back, destroy it. And now for a parting glass, and good bye!"
We then chinked our glasses together, drank to each other in silence, clasped hands, and parted.
Away they rode through the heavy mire and beating rain, twenty picked men, two and two, with their Captain at their head. I watched them as they trotted leisurely down the long line of tents, and when the last man had disappeared, I went in with a heavy heart, telling myself that I should perhaps never see Gustav von Lichtenstein again.
Throughout the rest of the day it continued to rain incessantly. It was my turn that night to be on duty for five hours; to go the round of the camp, and to visit all the outposts. I therefore made up the best fire I could, stopped indoors, and, following my friend's example, wrote letters all the afternoon.
About six in the evening the rain ceased, and it began to snow. It was just the Hohenlinden weather over again.
At eight, having cooked and eaten my solitary supper, I wrapped myself in my rug, lay down before the fire, and slept till midnight, when the orderly came, as usual, to wake me and accompany me on my rounds.
"Dreadful weather, I suppose, Fritz?" I said, getting up unwillingly, and preparing to face the storm.
"No, mein Herr; it is a beautiful night."
I could hardly believe him.
But so it was. The camp lay around us, one sheet of smooth dazzling snow; the clouds had parted, and were clearing off rapidly in every direction; and just over the Archduke's tent where the Imperial banner hung drooping and heavy, the full moon was rising in splendour.
A magnificent night--cold, but not piercing--pleasant to ride in--pleasant to smoke in as one rode. A superb night for trotting leisurely round about a peaceful camp; but a bad night for a reconnoitring party on hostile ground,--a fatal night for Austrian white-coats in danger of being seen by vigilant French sentries.
Where now were Gustav and his troop? What had they done? What had happened since they left? How soon would they come back? I asked myself these questions incessantly.
I could think of nothing else. I looked at my watch every few minutes. As the time wore on, the hours appeared to grow longer. At two o'clock, before I had gone half my round, it seemed to me that I had been all night in the saddle. From two to three, from three to four, the hours dragged by as if every minute were weighted with lead.
"The Graf von Lichtenstein will be coming back this way, mein Herr," said the orderly, spurring his horse up beside mine, and saluting with his hand to the side of his helmet as he spoke.
"Which way? Over the hill, or down in the hollow?"
"Through the hollow, mein Herr. That is the road by which the Herr Graf rode out; and the river is too wide for them to cross anywhere but upstream."
"Then they must come this way?"
"Yes, mein Herr."
We were riding along the ridge of a long hill, one side of which sloped down towards the river, while on the other side it terminated in an abrupt precipice overhanging a narrow road or ravine, some forty feet below. The opposite bank was also steep, though less steep than that on our side; and beyond it the eye travelled over a wide expanse of dusky pine-woods, now white and heavy with snow.
I reined in my horse the better to observe the scene. Yonder flowed the Inn, dark and silent, a river of ink winding through meadow flats of dazzling silver. Far away upon the horizon rose the mystic outlines of the Franconian Alps. A single sentry, pacing to and fro some four hundred yards ahead, was distinctly visible in the moonlight; and such was the perfect stillness of the night that, although the camp lay at least two miles and a half away, I could hear the neighing of the horses and the barking of the dogs.
Again I looked at my watch, again calculated how long my friend had been absent. It was now a quarter past four A.M., and he had left the camp at midday.
If he had not yet returned--and of course he might have done so at any moment since I had been out on duty--he had now been gone sixteen hours and a quarter.
Sixteen hours and quarter! Time enough to have ridden to Munich and back!
The orderly again brought his horse up abreast with mine.
"Pardon, mein Herr," he said, pointing up the ravine with his sabre; "but do you see nothing yonder--beyond the turn of the road--just where there is a gap in the trees?"
I looked; but I saw nothing.
"What do you think you see?" I asked him.
"I scarcely know, mein Herr;--something moving close against the trees, beyond the hollow way."
"Where the road emerges upon the plain and skirts the pine-woods?"
"Yes, mein Herr; several dark objects--Ah! they are horsemen!"
"It is the Graf von Lichtenstein and his troop!" I exclaimed.
"Nay, mein Herr; see how slowly they ride, and how they keep close under the shade of the woods! The Graf von Lichtenstein would not steal back so quietly."
I stood up in my stirrups, shaded my eyes with my hand, and stared eagerly at the approaching cavalcade.
They were perhaps half-a-mile away as the crow flies, and would not have been visible from this point but for a long gap in the trees on this side of the hill. I could see that they were soldiers. They might be French; but, somehow, I did not think they were. I fancied, I hoped, they were our own Lichtensteiners come back again.
"They are making for the hollow way, mein Herr," said the orderly.
They were evidently making for the hollow way. I watched them past the gap till the last man had gone by, and it seemed to me they were about twenty in number.
I dismounted, flung my reins to the orderly, and went to where the edge of the precipice overhung the road below. Hence, by means of such bushes and tree-stumps as were rooted in the bank, I clambered down a few feet lower, and there lay concealed till they should pass through.
It now seemed to me that they would never come. I do not know how long I waited. It might have been ten minutes--it might have been half an hour; but the time that elapsed between the moment when I dismounted and the moment when the first helmet came in sight seemed interminable.
The road, as I have already said, lay between a steep declivity on the one side and a less abrupt height, covered with pine-trees, on the other--a picturesque winding gorge or ravine, half dark as night, half bright as day; here deep in shadow, there flooded with moonlight; and carpeted a foot deep with fresh-fallen snow. After I had waited and watched till my eyes ached with staring in the gloom, I at last saw a single horseman coming round the turn of the road, about a hundred yards from the spot where I was lying. Slowly, and as it seemed to me, dejectedly, he rode in advance of his comrades. The rest followed, two and two.
At the first glance, while they were yet in deep shadow, and, as I have said, a hundred yards distant, I recognised the white cloaks and plumes and the black chargers of my own corps. I knew at once that it was Lichtenstein and his troop.
Then a sudden terror fell upon me. Why were they coming back so slowly? What evil tidings did they bring? How many were returning? How many were missing? I knew well, if there had been a skirmish, who was sure to have been foremost in the fight. I knew well, if but three or four had fallen, who was sure to be one of the fallen.
These thoughts flashed upon me in the first instant when I recognised the Lichtenstein uniform. I could not have uttered a word, or have done anything to attract the men's attention, if it had been to save my life. Dread paralyzed me.
Slowly, dejectedly, noiselessly, the first cuirassier emerged into the moonlight, passed on again into the gloom, and vanished in the next turn of the road. It was but for a moment that the moonlight streamed full upon him; yet in that moment I saw there had been a fray, and that the man had been badly wounded.
As slowly, as dejectedly, as noiselessly, with broken plumes and battered helmets, and cloaks torn and blood-stained, the rest came after, two and two; each pair, as they passed, shining out momentarily, distinctly, like the images projected for an instant upon the disc of a magic-lantern.
I held my breath and counted them as they went by--first one alone; then two and two, till I had counted eighteen riding in pairs. Then one alone, bringing up the rear. Then ....
I waited--I watched--I refused to believe that this could be all. I refused to believe that Gustav must not presently come galloping up to overtake them. At last, long after I knew it was in vain to wait and watch longer, I clambered up again--cramped, and cold, and sick at heart--and found the orderly walking the horses up and down on the brow of the hill. The man looked me in the face, as if he would fain have asked me what I had seen.
"It was the Graf von Lichtenstein's troop," I said, by an effort; "but--but the Graf von Lichtenstein is not with them."
And with this I sprang into the saddle, clapped spurs to my horse, and said no more.
I had still two outposts to visit before finishing my round; but from that moment to this I have never been able to remember any one incident of my homeward ride. I visited those outposts, without doubt; but I was an unconscious of the performance of my duty as a sleeper is unconscious of the act of breathing.
Gustav was the only man missing. Gustav was dead. I repeated it to myself over and over again. I felt that it was true. I had no hope that he was taken prisoner. No--he was dead. He had fallen, fighting to the last. He had died like a hero. But--he was dead.
At a few minutes after five, I returned to camp. The first person I met was von Blumenthal, the Prince of Lichtenstein's secretary. He was walking up and down outside my tent, waiting for me. He ran to me as I dismounted.
"Thank heaven you are come!" he said. "Go at once to the prince--the Graf von Lichtenstein is dying. He has fought a troop of French lancers three times as many as his own, and carried off a bundle of despatches. But he has paid for them with his life, and with the lives of all his men. He rode in, covered with wounds, a couple of hours ago, and had just breath enough left to tell the tale."
"His own life, and the lives of all his men!" I repeated hoarsely.
"Yes, he left every man on the field--himself the only survivor. He cut his way out with the captured despatches in one hand and his sword in the other--and there he lies in the Prince's tent--dying."
* * * *
He was unconscious--had been unconscious ever since he was laid upon his uncle's bed--and he died without again opening his eyes or uttering a word. I saw him breathe his last, and that was all. Even now, old man as I am, I cannot dwell upon that scene. He was my first friend, and I may say my best friend. I have known other friendships since then; but none so intimate--none so precious.
But now comes a question which I yet ask myself "many a time and oft," and which, throughout all the years that have gone by since that night, I have never yet been able to answer. Gustav von Lichtenstein met and fought a troop of French Lancers; saw his own twenty cuirassiers cut to pieces before his eyes; left them all for dead upon a certain hillside on the opposite bank of the Inn; and rode back into camp, covered with wounds--the only survivor!
What, then, was that silent cavalcade that I saw riding through the hollow way--twenty men without their leader? Were those the dead whom I met, and was it the one living man who was absent?
A few years ago, no matter how many, I, Harcourt Blunt, was travelling with my friend Coventry Turnour, and it was on the steps of our hotel that I received from him the announcement-he sent one to me-that he was again in love.
'I tell you, Blunt,' said my fellow-traveller, 'she's the loveliest creature I ever beheld in my life.'
I laughed outright.
'My dear fellow,' I replied, 'you've so often seen the loveliest creature you ever beheld in your life.'
'Ay, but I am in earnest now for the first time.'
'And you have so often been in earnest for the first time! Remember the innkeeper's daughter at Cologne.
'A pretty housemaid, whom no training could have made presentable.'
'Then there was the beautiful American at Interlachen.'
'And the Bella Marchesa at Prince Torlonia's ball.'
'Not one of them worthy to be named in the same breath with my imperial Venetian. Come with me to the Merceria and be convinced. By taking a gondola to St Mark's Place we shall be there in a quarter of an hour.'
I went, and he raved of his new flame all the way. She was a Jewess-he would convert her.
Her father kept a shop in the Merceria-what of that? He dealt only in costliest Oriental merchandise, and was as rich as a Rothschild. As for any probable injury to his own prospects, why need he hesitate on that account? What were 'prospects' when weighed against the happiness of one's whole life? Besides, he was not ambitious. He didn't care to go into Parliament. If his uncle Sir Geoffrey cut him off with a shilling, what then? He had a moderate independence of which no one living could deprive him, and what more could any reasonable man desire?
I listened, smiled, and was silent. I knew Coventry Turnour too well to attach the smallest degree of importance to anything that he might say or do in a matter of this kind. To be distractedly in love was his normal condition. We had been friends from boyhood; and since the time when he used to cherish a hopeless attachment to the young lady behind the counter of the tart-shop at Harrow, I had never known him 'fancy-free' for more than a few weeks at a time. He had gone through every phase of no less than three grandes passions during the five months that we had now been travelling together; and having left Rome about eleven weeks before with every hope laid waste, and a heart so broken that it could never by any possibility be put together again, he was now, according to the natural course of events, just ready to fall in love again.
We landed at the traghetto San Marco. It was a cloudless morning towards the middle of April, just ten years ago. The ducal palace glowed in the hot sunshine; the boatmen were clustered, gossiping, about the Mob; the orange-vendors were busy under the arches of the piazzetta; the flâneurs were already eating ices and smoking cigarettes outside the cafes. There was an Austrian military band, strapped, buckled, moustachioed, and white-coated, playing just in front of St Mark's; and the shadow of the great bell-tower slept all across the square..Passing under the low round archway leading to the Merceria, we plunged at once into that cool labyrinth of narrow, intricate, and picturesque streets, where the sun never penetrates--where no wheels are heard, and no beast of burden is seen-where every house is a shop, and every shop-front is open to the ground, as in an Oriental bazaar-where the upper balconies seem almost to meet overhead, and are separated by only a strip of burning sky-and where more than three people cannot march abreast in any part. Pushing our way as best we might through the motley crowd that here chatters, cheapens, buys, sells, and perpetually bustles to and fro, we came presently to a shop for the sale of Eastern goods. A few glass jars filled with spices, and some pieces of stuff, untidily strewed the counter next the street; but within, dark and narrow though it seemed, the place was crammed with costliest merchandise. Cases of gorgeous Oriental jewellery, embroideries and fringes of massive gold and silver bullion, precious drugs and spices, exquisite toys in filigree, miracles of carving in ivory, sandal-wood, and amber, jewelled yataghans, scimitars of state rich with 'barbaric pearl and gold', bales of Cashmere shawls, China silks, India muslins, gauzes, and the like, filled every inch of available space from floor to ceiling, leaving only a narrow lane from the door to the counter, and a still narrower passage to the rooms beyond the shop.
We went in. A young woman, who was sifting reading on a low seat behind the counter, laid aside her book, and rose slowly. She was dressed wholly in black. I cannot describe the fashion of her garments. I only know that they fell about her in long, soft, trailing folds, leaving a narrow band of fine cambric visible at the throat and wrists; and that, however graceful and unusual this dress may have been, I scarcely observed it, so entirely was I taken up with admiration of her beauty.
For she was indeed very beautiful-beautiful in a way that I had not anticipated. Coventry Turnour, with all his enthusiasm, had failed to do her justice. He had raved of her eyes-her large, lustrous, melancholy eyes-of the transparent paleness of her complexion, of the faultless delicacy of her features; but he had not prepared me for the unconscious dignity, the perfect nobleness and refinement, that informed her every look and gesture. My friend requested to see a bracelet at which he had been looking the day before. Proud, stately, silent, she unlocked the case in which it was kept, and laid it before him on the counter. He asked permission to take it over to the light. She bent her head, but answered not a word. It was like being waited upon by a young empress.
Turnour took the bracelet to the door and affected to examine it. It consisted of a double row of gold coins linked together at intervals by a bean-shaped ornament, studded with pink coral and diamonds. Coming back into the shop he asked me if I thought it would please his sister, to whom he had promised a remembrance of Venice.
'It is a pretty trifle,' I replied; 'but surely a remembrance of Venice should be of Venetian manufacture. This, I suppose, is Turkish.'
The beautiful Jewess looked up. We spoke in English; but she understood and replied:
'E Greco, signore,' she said coldly.
At this moment an old man came suddenly forward from some dark counting-house at the back-a grizzled, bearded, eager-eyed Shylock, with a pen behind his ear.
'Go in, Salome-go in, my daughter,' he said hurriedly. 'I will serve these gentlemen.'
She lifted her eyes to his for one moment-then moved silently away, and vanished in the gloom of the room beyond..We saw her no more. We lingered awhile, looking over the contents of the jewel-cases; but in vain. Then Turnour bought his bracelet, and we went out again into the narrow streets, and back to the open daylight of the Gran' Piazza.
'Well,' he said breathlessly, 'what do you think of her?'
'She is very lovely.'
'Lovelier than you expected?'
'Much lovelier. But-'
'The sooner you succeed in forgetting her, the better.'
He vowed, of course, that he never would and never could forget her. He would hear of no incompatibilities, listen to no objections, believe in no obstacles. That the beautiful Salome was herself not only unconscious of his passion and indifferent to his person, but ignorant of his very name and station, were facts not even to be admitted on the list of difficulties. Finding him thus deaf to reason, I said no more.
It was all over, however, before the week was out.
'Look here, Blunt,' he said, coming up to me one morning in the coffee-room of our hotel just as I was sitting down to answer a pile of home-letters; 'would you like to go on to Trieste tomorrow? There, don't look at me like that-you can guess how it is with me. I was a fool ever to suppose she would care for me-a stranger, a foreigner, a Christian. Well, I'm horribly out of sorts anyhow-and-and I wish I was a thousand miles off at this moment!'
We travelled on together to Athens, and there parted, Turnour being bound for England, and I for the East. My own tour lasted many months longer. I went first to Egypt and the Holy Land; then joined an exploring party on the Euphrates; and at length, after just twelve months of Oriental life, found myself back again at Trieste about the middle of April in the year following that during which occurred the events I have just narrated. There I found that batch of letters and papers to which I had been looking forward for many weeks past; and amongst the former, one from Coventry Turnour. This time he was not only irrecoverably in love, but on the eve of matrimony. The letter was rapturous and extravagant enough. The writer was the happiest of men; his destined bride the loveliest and most amiable of her sex; the future a paradise; the past a melancholy series of mistakes. As for love, he had never, of course, known what it was till now.
And what of the beautiful Salome?
Not one word of her from beginning to end. He had forgotten her as utterly as if she had never existed. And yet how desperately in love and how desperately in despair he was 'one little year ago'! Ah, yes; but then it was 'one little year ago'; and who that had ever known Coventry Turnour would expect him to remember la plus grande des grandes passions for even half that time?
I slept that night at Trieste, and went on next day to Venice. Somehow, I could not get Turnour and his love affairs out of my head. I remembered our visit to the Merceria. I was haunted by the image of the beautiful Jewess. Was she still so lovely? Did she still sit reading in her wonted seat by the open counter, with the gloomy shop reaching away behind, and the cases of rich robes and jewels all around?
An irresistible impulse prompted me to go to the Merceria and see her once again. I went. It had been a busy morning with me, and I did not get there till between three and four o'clock in the afternoon. The place was crowded. I passed up the well-remembered street, looking out on both sides for the gloomy little shop with its unattractive counter; but in vain. When I had gone so far that I thought I must have passed it, I turned back..House by house I retraced my steps to the very entrance, and still could not find it. Then, concluding that I had not gone far enough at first, I turned back again till I reached a spot where several streets diverged. Here I came to a standstill, for beyond this point I knew I had not passed before.
It was now only too evident that the Jew no longer occupied his former shop in the Merceria, and that my chance of discovering his whereabouts was exceedingly slender. I could not inquire of his successor, because I could not identify the house. I found it impossible even to remember what trades were carried on by his neighbours on either side. I was ignorant of his very name.
Convinced, therefore, of the inutility of making any further effort, I gave up the search, and comforted myself by reflecting that my own heart was not made of adamant, and that it was, perhaps, better for my peace not to see the beautiful Salome again. I was destined to see her again, however, and that ere many days had passed over my head.
A year of more than ordinarily fatiguing Eastern travel had left me in need of rest, and I had resolved to allow myself a month's sketching in Venice and its neighbourhood before turning my face homewards. As, therefore, it is manifestly the first object of a sketcher to select his points of view, and as no more luxurious machine than a Venetian gondola was ever invented for the use of man, I proceeded to employ the first days of my stay in endless boatings to and fro: now exploring all manner of canals and canaletti; rowing out in the direction of Murano; now making for the islands beyond San Pietro Castello, and in the course of these pilgrimages noting down an infinite number of picturesque sites, and smoking an infinite number of cigarettes. It was, I think, about the fourth or fifth day of this pleasant work, when my gondolier proposed to take me as far as the Lido. It wanted about two hours to sunset, and the great sandbank lay not more than three or four miles away; so I gave the word, and in another moment we had changed our route and were gliding farther and farther from Venice at each dip of the oar. Then the long dull distant ridge that had all day bounded the shallow horizon rose gradually above the placid level of the Lagune, assumed a more broken outline, resolved itself into hillocks and hollows of tawny sand, showed here and there a patch of parched grass and tangled brake, and looked like the coasts of some inhospitable desert beyond which no traveller might penetrate. My boatman made straight for a spot where some stakes at the water's edge gave token of a landing-place; and here, though with some difficulty, for the tide was low, ran the gondola aground. I landed. My first step was among graves.
'E'l cimeterio giudaico, signore,' said my gondolier, with a touch of his cap.
The Jewish cemetery! The ghetto of the dead! I remembered now to have read or heard long since how the Venetian Jews, cut off in death as in life from the neighbourhood of their Christian rulers, had been buried from immemorial time upon this desolate waste. I stooped to examine the headstone at my feet. It was but a shattered fragment, crusted over with yellow lichens, and eaten away by the salt sea air. I passed on to the next, and the next. Some were completely matted over with weeds and brambles; some were half-buried in the drifting sand; of some, only a corner remained above the surface. Here and there a name, a date, a fragment of heraldic carving, or part of a Hebrew inscription, was yet legible; but all were more or less broken and effaced.
Wandering on thus among graves and hillocks, ascending at every step, and passing some three or four glassy pools overgrown with gaunt-looking reeds, I presently found that I had reached the central and most elevated part of the Lido, and that I commanded an uninterrupted view on every side. On the one hand lay the broad, silent Lagune bounded by Venice and the Euganean hills--on the other, stealing up in long, lazy folds, and breaking noiselessly against the endless shore, Fthe blue Adriatic. An old man gathering shells on the seaward side, a distant gondola on the Lagune, were the only signs of life for miles around.
Standing on the upper ridge of this narrow barrier, looking upon both waters, and watching the gradual approach of what promised to be a gorgeous sunset, I fell into one of those wandering trams of thought in which the real and unreal succeed each other as capriciously as in a dream. I remembered how Goethe here conceived his vertebral theory of the skull-how Byron, too lame to walk, kept his horse on the Lido. and here rode daily to and fro-how Shelley loved the wild solitude of the place, wrote of it in Julian and Maddalo, listened, perhaps from this very spot, to the mad-house bell on the island of San Giorgio. Then I wondered if Titian had ever come hither from his gloomy house on the other side of Venice, to study the gold and purple of these western skies-if Othello had walked here with Desdemona-if Shylock was buried yonder, and Leah whom he loved 'when he was a bachelor'.
And then in the midst of my reverie, I came suddenly upon another Jewish cemetery.
Was it indeed another, or but an outlying portion of the first? It was evidently another, and a more modern one. The ground was better kept. The monuments were newer. Such dates as I had succeeded in deciphering on the broken sepulchres lower down were all of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; but the inscriptions upon these bore reference to quite recent interments.
I went on a few steps farther. I stopped to copy a quaint Italian couplet on one tomb-to gather a wild forget-me-not from the foot of another-to put aside a bramble that trailed across a third-and then I became aware for the first time of a lady sitting beside a grave not a dozen yards from the spot on which I stood.
I had believed myself so utterly alone, and was so taken by surprise, that for the first moment I could almost have persuaded myself that she also was 'of the stuff that dreams are made of'. She was dressed from head to foot in the deepest mourning; her face turned from me, looking towards the sunset; her cheek resting in the palm of her hand. The grave by which she sat was obviously recent. The scant herbage round about had been lately disturbed, and the marble headstone looked as if it had not yet undergone a week's exposure to wind and weather.
Persuaded that she had not observed me, I lingered for an instant looking at her. Something in the grace and sorrow of her attitude, something in the turn of her head and the flow of her sable draperies, arrested my attention. Was she young? I fancied so. Did she mourn a husband?-a lover?-a parent? I glanced towards the headstone. It was covered with Hebrew characters; so that, had I even been nearer, it could have told me nothing.
But I felt that I had no right to stand there, a spectator of her sorrow, an intruder on his privacy.
I proceeded to move noiselessly away. At that moment she turned and looked at me.
It was Salome.
Salome, pale and worn as from some deep and wasting grief, but more beautiful, if that could be, than ever. Beautiful, with a still more spiritual beauty than of old; with cheeks so wan and eyes so unutterably bright and solemn, that my very heart seemed to stand still as I looked upon them. For one second I paused, half fancying, half hoping that there was recognition in her glance; then, not daring to look or linger longer, turned away. When I had gone far enough to do so without discourtesy, I stopped and gazed back. She had resumed her former attitude, and was looking over towards Venice and the setting sun. The stone by which she watched was not more motionless.
The sun went down in glory. The last flush faded from the domes and bell-towers of Venice; the western peaks changed from rose to purple, from gold to grey; a scarcely perceptible film of mist became all at once visible upon the surface of the Lagune; and overhead, the first star trembled into light. I waited and watched till the shadows had so deepened that I could no longer distinguish one distant object from another. Was that the spot? Was she still there? Was she moving? Was she gone? I could not tell. The more I looked, the more uncertain I became. Then, fearing to miss my way in the fast-gathering twilight, I struck down towards the water's edge, and made for the point at which I had landed.
I found my gondolier fast asleep, with his head on a cushion, and his bit of gondola-carpet thrown over him for a counterpane. I asked if he had seen any other boat put off from the Lido since I left? He rubbed his eyes, started up, and was awake in a moment.
'Per Bacco, signore, I have been asleep,' he said apologetically: 'I have seen nothing.'
'Did you observe any other boat moored hereabouts when we landed?'
'And you have seen nothing of a lady in black?'
He laughed and shook his head.
'Consolatevi, signore,' he said archly. 'She will come tomorrow.'
Then, finding that I looked grave, he touched his cap, and with a gentle, 'Scusate, signore,' took his place at the stern, and there waited. I bade him row to my hotel; and then, leaning dreamily back in my little dark cabin, I folded my arms, closed my eyes, and thought of Salome.
How lovely she was! How infinitely more lovely than even my first remembrance of her! How was it that I had not admired her more that day in the Merceria? Was I blind, or had she become indeed more beautiful? It was a sad and strange place in which to meet her again. By whose grave was she watching? By her father's? Yes, surely by her father's. He was an old man when I saw him, and in the course of nature had not long to live. He was dead: hence my unavailing search in the Merceria. He was dead. His shop was let to another occupant. His stock-in-trade was sold and dispersed. And Salome-was she left alone? Had she no mother? no brother?-no lover? Would her eyes have had that look of speechless woe in them if she had any very near or dear tie left on earth? Then I thought of Coventry Turnour, and his approaching marriage. Did he ever really love her? I doubted it. 'True love,' saith an old song, 'can ne'er forget'; but he had forgotten, as though the past had been a dream. And yet he was in earnest while it lasted-would have risked all for her sake, if she would have listened to him. Ah, if she had listened to him!
And then I remembered that he had never told me the particulars of that affair. Did she herself reject him, or did he lay his suit before her father? And was he rejected only because he was a Christian? I had never cared to ask these things while we were together; but now I would have given the best hunter in my stables to know every minute detail connected with the matter.
Pondering thus, travelling over the same ground again and again, wondering whether she remembered me, whether she was poor, whether she was indeed alone in the world, how long the old man had been dead, and a hundred other things of the same kind-I scarcely noticed how the watery miles glided past, or how the night closed in. One question, however, recurred oftener than any other: How was I to see her again?
I arrived at my hotel; I dined at the table d'hôte; I strolled out, after dinner, to my favourite cafe in the piazza; I dropped in for half an hour at the Fenice, and heard one act of an extremely poor opera; I came home restless, uneasy, wakeful; and sitting for hours before my bedroom fire, asked myself the same perpetual question, How was I to see her again?
Fairly tired out at last, I fell asleep in my chair, and when I awoke the sun was shining upon my window.
I started to my feet. I had it now. It flashed upon me, as if it came with the sunlight. I had but to go again to the cemetery, copy the inscription upon the old man's tomb, ask my learned friend Professor Nicolai, of Padua, to translate it for me, and then, once in possession of names and dates, the rest would be easy.
In less than an hour, I was once more on my way to the Lido.
I took a rubbing of the stone. It was the quickest way, and the surest; for I knew that in Hebrew everything depended on the pointing of the characters, and I feared to trust my own untutored skill. This done, I hastened back, wrote my letter to the professor, and dispatched both letter and rubbing by the midday train.
The professor was not a prompt man. On the contrary he was a pre-eminently slow man; dreamy, indolent, buried in Oriental lore. From any other correspondent one might have looked for a reply in the course of the morrow; but from Nicolai of Padua it would have been folly to expect one under two or three days. And in the meanwhile? Well, in the meanwhile there were churches and palaces to be seen, sketches to be made, letters of introduction to be delivered. It was, at all events, of no use to be impatient.
And yet I was impatient-so impatient that I could neither sketch, nor read, nor sit still for ten minutes together. Possessed by an uncontrollable restlessness, I wandered from gallery to gallery, from palace to palace, from church to church. The imprisonment of even a gondola was irksome to me. I was, as it were, impelled to be moving and doing; and even so, the day seemed endless.
The next was even worse. There was just the possibility of a reply from Padua, and the knowledge of that possibility unsettled me for the day. Having watched and waited for every post from eight to four, I went down to the traghetto of St Mark's, and was there hailed by my accustomed gondolier.
He touched his cap and waited for orders.
'Where to, signore?' he asked, finding that I remained silent.
'To the Lido.'
It was an irresistible temptation, and I yielded to it; but I yielded in opposition to my judgment.
I knew that I ought not to haunt the place. I had resolved that I would not. And yet I went.
Going along, I told myself that I had only come to reconnoitre. It was not unlikely that she might be going to the same spot about the same hour as before; and in that case I might overtake her gondola by the way, or find it moored somewhere along the shore. At all events, I was determined not to land. But we met no gondola beyond San Pietro Castello; saw no sign of one along the shore. The afternoon was far advanced; the sun was near going down; we had the Lagune and the Lido to ourselves.
My boatman made for the same landing-place, and moored his gondola to the same stake as before. He took it for granted that I meant to land; and I landed. After all, however, it was evident that Salome could not be there, in which case I was guilty of no intrusion. I might stroll in the direction of the cemetery, taking care to avoid her, if she were anywhere about, and keeping well away from that part where I had last seen her. So I broke another resolve, and went up towards the top of the Lido. Again I came to the salt pools and the reeds; again stood with the sea upon my left hand and the Lagune upon my right, and the endless sandbank reaching on for miles between the two. Yonder lay the new cemetery. Standing thus I overlooked every foot of the ground. I could even distinguish the headstone of which I had taken the rubbing the morning before. There was no living thing in sight. I was, to all appearance, as utterly alone as Enoch Arden on his desert island..Then I strolled on, a little nearer, and a little nearer still; and then, contrary to all my determinations, I found myself standing upon the very spot, beside the very grave, which I had made my mind on no account to approach.
The sun was now just going down-had gone down, indeed, behind a bank of golden-edged cumuli-and was flooding earth, sea, and sky with crimson. It was at this hour that I saw her. It was upon this spot that she was sitting. A few scant blades of grass had sprung up here and there upon the grave. Her dress must have touched them as she sat there-her dress; perhaps her hand.
I gathered one, and laid it carefully between the leaves of my note-book.
At last I turned to go, and, turning, met her face to face!
She was distant about six yards, and advancing slowly towards the spot on which I was standing. Her head drooped slightly forward; her hands were clasped together; her eyes were fixed upon the ground. It was the attitude of a null. Startled, confused, scarcely knowing what I did, I took off my hat, and drew aside to let her pass.
She looked up-hesitated-stood still-gazed at me with a strange, without another glance, and resumed her former place and attitude beside her father's grave.
I turned away. I would have given worlds to speak to her; but I had not dared, and the opportunity was gone. Yet I might have spoken! She looked at me-looked at me with so strange and piteous an expression in her eyes-continued looking at me as long as one might have counted five...I might have spoken. I surely might have spoken! And now-ah! now it was impossible. She had fallen into the old thoughtful attitude with her cheek resting on her hand.
Her thoughts were far away. She had forgotten my very presence.
I went back to the shore, more disturbed and uneasy than ever. I spent all the remaining daylight in rowing up and down the margin of the Lido, looking for her gondola-hoping, at all events, to see her put off-to follow her, perhaps, across the waste of waters. But the dusk came quickly on, and then darkness, and I left at last without having seen any further sign or token of her presence.
Lying awake that night, tossing uneasily upon my bed, and thinking over the incidents of the last few days, I found myself perpetually recurring to that long, steady, sorrowful gaze which she fixed upon me in the cemetery. The more I thought of it, the more I seemed to feel that there was in it some deeper meaning than I, in my confusion, had observed at the time. It was such a strange look-a look almost of entreaty, I asking for help or sympathy; like the dumb appeal in the eyes of a sick animal. Could this really be? What, after all, more possible than that, left alone in the world-with, perhaps, not a single male relation to advise her-she found herself in some position of present difficulty, and knew not where to turn for help? All this might well be. She had even, perhaps, some instinctive feeling that she might trust me. Ah! if she would indeed trust me...
I had hoped to receive my Paduan letter by the morning delivery; but morning and afternoon went by as before, and still no letter came. As the day began to decline, I was again on my way to the Lido; this time for the purpose, and with the intention, of speaking to her. I landed, and went direct to the cemetery. It had been a dull day. Lagune and sky were both one leaden uniform grey, and a mist hung over Venice.
I saw her from the moment I reached the upper ridge. She was walking slowly to and fro among the graves, like a stately shadow. I had felt confident, somehow, that she would be there; and now, for some reason that I could not have defined for my life, I felt equally confident that she expected me..Trembling and eager, yet half dreading the moment when she should discover my presence, I hastened on, printing the loose sand at every noiseless step. A few moments more, and I should overtake her, speak to her, hear the music of her voice-that music which I remembered so well, though a year had gone by since I last heard it. But how should I address her? What had I to say?
I knew not. I had no time to think. I could only hurry on till within some ten feet of her trailing garments; stand still when she turned, and uncover before her as if she were a queen.
She paused and looked at me, just as she had paused and looked at me the evening before.
With the same sorrowful meaning in her eyes; with even more than the same entreating expression. But she waited for me to speak.
I did speak. I cannot recall what I said; I only know that I faltered something of an apology--mentioned that I had had the honour of meeting her before, many months ago; and, trying to say more-trying to express how thankfully and proudly I would devote myself to any service.
However humble, however laborious, I failed both in voice and words, and broke down utterly.
Having come to a stop, I looked up, and found her eyes still fixed upon me.
'You are a Christian,' she said.
A trembling came upon me at the first sound of her voice. It was the same voice; distinct, melodious, scarce louder than a whisper-and yet it was not quite the same. There was a melancholy in the music, and, if I may use a word which, after all, fails to express my meaning, a remoteness, that fell upon my ear like the plaintive cadence in an autumnal wind.
I bent my head, and answered that I was.
She pointed to the headstone of which I had taken a rubbing a day or two before.
'A Christian soul lies there,' she said, 'laid in earth without one Christian prayer-with Hebrew rites-in a Hebrew sanctuary. Will you, stranger, perform an act of piety towards the dead?'
'The Signora has but to speak,' I said. 'All that she wishes shall be done.'
'Read one prayer over this grave; trace a cross upon this stone.'
She thanked me with a gesture, slightly bowed her head, drew her outer garment more closely round her, and moved away to a rising ground at some little distance. I was dismissed. I had no excuse for lingering-no right to prolong the interview-no business to remain there one moment longer. So I left her there, nor once looked back till I reached the last point from which I knew I should be able to see her. But when I turned for that last look she was no longer in sight.
I had resolved to speak to her, and this was the result. A stranger interview never, surely, fell to the lot of man! I had said nothing that I meant to say-had learnt nothing that I sought to know.
With regard to her circumstances, her place of residence, her very name, I was no wiser than before. And yet I had, perhaps, no reason to be dissatisfied. She had honoured me with her confidence, and entrusted to me a task of some difficulty and importance. It now only remained for me to execute that task as thoroughly and as quickly as possible. That done, I might fairly hope to win some place in her remembrance-by and by, perhaps, in her esteem.
Meanwhile, the old question rose again-whose grave could it be? I had settled this matter so conclusively in my own mind from the first, that could scarcely believe even now that it was not her father's. Yet that he should have died a secret convert to Christianity was incredible. Whose grave could it be? A lover's? a Christian lover's? Alas! it might be. Or a sister's? In either of these cases it was more than probable that Salome was herself a convert. But I had no time to waste in conjecture. I must act, and act promptly..I hastened back to Venice as fast as my gondolier could row me; and as we went along I promised myself that all her wishes should be carried out before she visited the spot again. To at once secure the services of a clergyman who would go with me to the Lido at early dawn, and there read some portion, at least, of the burial-service! and at the same time to engage a stonemason to cut the cross-to have all done before she, or anyone, should have approached the place next day, was my especial object. And that object I was resolved to carry out, though I had to search Venice through before I laid my head upon the pillow.
I found my clergyman without difficulty. He was a young man occupying rooms in the same hotel, and on the same floor as myself. I had met him each day at the table d'hôte, and conversed with him once or twice in the reading-room. He was a North countryman, had not long since taken orders, and was both gentlemanly and obliging. He promised in the readiest manner to do all that I required, and to breakfast with me at six the next morning, in order that we might reach the cemetery by eight.
To find my stonemason, however, was not so easy; and yet I went to work methodically enough. I began with the Venetian Directory; then copied a list of stonemasons' names and addresses; then took a gondola a due rame, and started upon my voyage of discovery.
But a night's voyage of discovery among the intricate back canaletti of Venice is no very easy and no very safe enterprise. Narrow, tortuous, densely populated, often blocked by huge hay, wood, and provision barges, almost wholly unlighted, and so perplexingly alike that no mere novice in Venetian topography need ever hope to distinguish one from another, they baffle the very gondoliers, and are a terra incognita to all but the dwellers therein.
I succeeded, however, in finding three of the places entered on my list. At the first I was told that the workman of whom I was in quest was working by the week somewhere over by Murano, and would not be back again till Saturday night. At the second and third, I found the men at home, supping with their wives and children at the end of the day's work; but neither would consent to undertake my commission. One, after a whispered consultation with his son, declined reluctantly. The other told me plainly that he dared not do it, and that he did not believe I should find a stonemason in Venice who would be bolder than himself.
The Jews, he said, were rich and powerful; no longer an oppressed people; no longer to be insulted even in Venice with impunity. To cut a Christian cross upon a Jewish headstone in the Jewish cemetery, would be 'a sort of sacrilege', and punishable, no doubt, by the law. This sounded like truth; so finding that my rowers were by no means confident of their way, and that the canaletti were dark as the catacombs, I prevailed upon the stonemason to sell me a small mallet and a couple of chisels, and made up my mind to commit the sacrilege myself.
With this single exception, all was done next morning as I had planned to do. My new acquaintance breakfasted with me, accompanied me to the Lido, read such portions of the burial-service as seemed proper to him, and then, having business in Venice, left me to my task. It was by no means an easy one. To a skilled hand it would have been, perhaps, the work of half an hour; but it was my first effort, and rude as the thing was-a mere grooved attempt at a Latin cross, about two inches and a half in length, cut close at the bottom of the stone, where it could be easily concealed by a little piling of the sand-it took me nearly four hours to complete.
While I was at work, the dull grey morning grew duller and greyer; a thick sea fog drove up from the Adriatic, and a low moaning wind came and went like the echo of a distant requiem. More than once I started, believing that she had surprised me there-fancying I saw the passing of a shadow-heard the rustling of a garment-the breathing of a sigh. But no. The mists and the moaning wind deceived me. I was alone..When at length I got back to my hotel, it was just two o'clock. The hall-porter put a letter into my hand as I passed through. One glance at that crabbed superscription was enough. It was from Padua. I hastened to my room, tore open the envelope, and read these words:
'CARO SIGNORE,-The rubbing you send is neither ancient nor curious, as I fear you suppose it to be. Altro; it is of yesterday. It merely records that one Salome, the only and beloved child of a certain Isaac da Costa, died last autumn on the eighteenth of October, aged twenty-one years, and that by the said Isaac da Costa this monument is erected to the memory of her virtues and his grief.
'I pray you caro signore, to receive the assurance of my sincere esteem.
'Padua, April 27th, 1857.'
The letter dropped from my hand. I seemed to have read without understanding it. I picked it up; went through it again, word by word; sat down; rose up; took a turn across the room; felt confused, bewildered, incredulous.
Could there, then, be two Salomes? or was there some radical and extraordinary mistake?
I hesitated; I knew not what to do. Should I go down to the Merceria, and see whether the name of da Costa was known in the quartier? Or find out the registrar of births and deaths for the Jewish district? Or call upon the principal rabbi, and learn from him who this second Salome had been, and in what degree of relationship she stood towards the Salome whom I knew? I decided upon the last course. The chief rabbi's address was easily obtained. He lived in an ancient house on the Giudecca, and there I found him-a grave, stately old man, with a grizzled beard reaching nearly to his waist.
I introduced myself, and stated my business. I came to ask if he could give me any information respecting the late Salome da Costa, who died on the 18th of October last, and was buried on the Lido.
The rabbi replied that he had no doubt he could give me any information I desired, as he had known the lady personally, and was the intimate friend of her father.
'Can you tell me,' I asked, 'whether she had any dear friend or female relative of the same name-Salome?' The rabbi shook his head. 'I think not, he said. 'I remember no other maiden of that name.'
'Pardon me, but I know there was another,' I replied. 'There was a very beautiful Salome living in the Merceria when I was last in Venice, just this time last year.'
'Salome da Costa was very fair,' said the rabbi; 'and she dwelt with her father in the Merceria.
Since her death, he hath removed to the neighbourhood of the Rialto.'
'This Salome's father was a dealer in Oriental goods,' I said, hastily.
'Isaac da Costa is a dealer in Oriental goods,' replied the old man very gently. 'We are speaking, my son, of the same persons.'
He shook his head again.
'But she lives!' I exclaimed, becoming greatly agitated. 'She lives. I have seen her. I have spoken to her. I saw her only last evening.'
'Nay,' he said compassionately, 'this is some dream. She of whom you speak is indeed no more.'
'I saw her only last evening,' I repeated.
'Where did you suppose you beheld her?'
'On the Lido.'.'On the Lido?'
'And she spoke to me. I heard her voice-heard it as distinctly as I hear my own at this moment.'
The rabbi stroked his beard thoughtfully, and looked at me. 'You think you heard her voice!' he ejaculated. 'That is strange. What said she?'
I was about to answer. I checked myself-a sudden thought flashed upon me-I trembled from head to foot. 'Have you-have you any reason for supposing that she died a Christian?' I faltered.
The old man started, and changed colour.
'I-I-that is a strange question,' he stammered. 'Why do you ask it?'
'Yes or no?' I cried wildly. 'Yes or no?'
He frowned, looked down, hesitated. 'I admit,' he said, after a moment or two-'I admit that I may have heard something tending that way. It may be that the maiden cherished some secret doubt. Yet she was no professed Christian.'
'Laid in earth without one Christian prayer; with Hebrew rites; in a Hebrew sanctuary!' I repeated to myself.
'But I marvel how you come to have heard of this,' continued the rabbi. 'It was known only to her father and myself.'
'Sir,' I said solemnly, 'I know now that Salome da Costa is dead; I have seen her spirit thrice, haunting the spot where-'
My voice broke. I could not utter the words.
'Last evening, at sunset,' I resumed, 'was the third time. Never doubting that-that I indeed beheld her in the flesh, I spoke to her. She answered me. She-she told me this.'
The rabbi covered his face with his hands, and so remained for some time, lost in meditation.
Young man,' he said at length, 'your story is strange, and you bring strange evidence to bear upon it. It may be as you say; it may be that you are the dupe of some waking dream-I know not.'
He knew not; but I-ah! I knew, only too well. I knew now why she had appeared to me clothed with such unearthly beauty. I understood now that look of dumb entreaty in her eyes-that tone of strange remoteness in her voice. The sweet soul could not rest amid the dust of its kinsfolk, 'unhousel'd, unanointed, unaneal'd', lacking even 'one Christian prayer above its grave. And now-was it all over? Should I never see her more?
Never-ah! never. How I haunted the Lido at sunset for many a month, till spring had blossomed into autumn, and autumn had ripened into summer; how I wandered back to Venice year after year, at the same season, while yet any vestige of that wild hope remained alive; how my heart has never throbbed, my pulse never leaped, for love of mortal woman since that time--are details into which I need not enter here. Enough that I watched and waited but that her gracious spirit appeared to me no more. I wait still, but I watch no longer. I know now that our place of meeting will not be here.
The facts which I am about to relate happened to myself some sixteen or eighteen years ago, at which time I served Her Majesty as an Inspector of Schools. Now, the Provincial Inspector is perpetually on the move; and I was still young enough to enjoy a life of constant travelling.
There are, indeed, many less agreeable ways in which an unbeneficed parson may contrive to scorn delights and live laborious days. In remote places where strangers are scarce, his annual visit is an important event; and though at the close of a long day's work he would sometimes prefer the quiet of a country inn, he generally finds himself the destined guest of the rector or the squire. It rests with himself to turn these opportunities to account. If he makes himself pleasant, he forms agreeable friendships and sees English home-life under one of its most attractive aspects; and sometimes, even in these days of universal common-placeness, he may have the luck to meet with an adventure.
My first appointment was to a West of England district largely peopled with my personal friends and connections. It was, therefore, much to my annoyance that I found myself, after a couple of years of very pleasant work, transferred to what a policeman would call 'a new beat,' up in the North. Unfortunately for me, my new beat-a rambling, thinly populated area of something under 1,800 square miles-was three times as large as the old one, and more than pro-portionately unmanageable. Intersected at right angles by two ranges of barren hills and cut off to a large extent from the main lines of railway, itunited about every inconvenience that a district could possess. The villages lay wide apart, often separated by long tracts of moorland; and in place of the well-warmed railway compartment and the frequent manor-house, I now spent half my time in hired vehicles and lonely country inns.
I had been in possession of this district for some three months or so, and winter was near at hand, when I paid my first visit of inspection to Pit End, an outlying hamlet in the most northerly corner of my county, just twenty-two miles from the nearest station. Haying slept overnight at a place called Drumley, and inspected Drumley schools in the morning, I started for Pit End, with fourteen miles of railway and twenty-two of hilly cross-roads between myself and my journey's end. I made, of course, all the enquiries I could think of before leaving; but neither the Drumley schoolmaster nor the landlord of the Drumley 'Feathers' knew much more of Pit End than its name. My predecessor, it seemed, had been in the habit of taking Pit End 'from the other side', the roads, though longer, being less hilly that way. That the place boasted some kind of inn was certain; but it was an inn unknown to fame, and to mine host of the 'Feathers'. Be it good or bad, however, I should have to put up at it.
Upon this scant information I started. My fourteen miles of railway journey soon ended at a place called Bramsford Road, whence an omnibus conveyed passengers to a dull little town called Bramsford Market. Here I found a horse and 'trap' to carry me on to my destination; the horse being a rawboned grey with a profile like a camel, and the trap a ricketty high gig which had probably done commercial travelling in the days of its youth. From Bramsford Market the way lay over a succession of long hills, rising to a barren, high-level plateau. It was a dull, raw afternoon of mid-November, growing duller and more raw as the day waned and the east wind blew keener...'How much further now, driver?' I asked, as we alighted at the foot of a longer and a stiffer hill than any we had yet passed over.
He turned a straw in his mouth, and grunted something about 'fewer or foive mile by the rooad'.
And then I learned that by turning off at a point which he described as 't'owld tollus', and taking a certain footpath across the fields, this distance might be considerably shortened. I decided, therefore, to walk the rest of the way; and, setting off at a good pace, I soon left driver and trap behind. At the top of the hill I lost sight of them, and coming presently to a little road-side ruin which I at once recognized as the old toll-house, I found the footpath without difficulty.
It led me across a barren slope divided by stone fences, with here and there a group of shattered sheds, a tall chimney, and a blackened cinder-mound, marking the site of a deserted mine. A light fog, meanwhile, was creeping up from the east, and the dusk was gathering fast.
Now, to lose one's way in such a place and at such an hour would be disagreeable enough, and the footpath-a trodden track already half obliterated-would be indistinguishable in the course of another ten minutes. Looking anxiously ahead, therefore, in the hope of seeing some sign of habitation, I hastened on, scaling one stone stile after another, till I all at once found myself skirting a line of park-palings. Following these, with bare boughs branching out overhead and dead leaves rustling underfoot, I came presently to a point where the path divided; here continuing to skirt the enclosure, and striking off yonder across a space of open meadow.
Which should I take?
By following the fence, I should be sure to arrive at a lodge where I could enquire my way to Pit End; but then the park might be of any extent, and I might have a long distance to go before I came to the nearest lodge. Again, the meadow-path, instead of leading to Pit End, might take me in a totally opposite direction. But there was no time to be lost in hesitation; so I chose the meadow, the further end of which was lost to sight in a fleecy bank of fog.
Up to this moment I had not met a living soul of whom to ask my way; it was, therefore, with no little sense of relief that I saw a man emerging from the fog and coming along the path. As we neared each other-I advancing rapidly; he slowly-I observed that he dragged the left foot, limping as he walked. It was, however, so dark and so misty, thatt not till we were within half a dozen yards of each other could I see hat he wore a dark suit and an Anglican felt hat, and looked something like a dissenting minister. As soon as we were within speaking distance, I addressed him.
'Can you tell me', I said, 'if I am right for Pit End, and how far I have to go?'
He came on, looking straight before him; taking no notice of my question; apparently not hearing it.
'I beg your pardon,' I said, raising my voice; 'but will this path take me to Pit End, and if so'--He had passed on without pausing; without looking at me; I could almost have believed, without seeing me!
I stopped, with the words on my lips; then turned to look after-perhaps, to follow-him.
But instead of following, I stood bewildered.
What had become of him? And what lad was that going up the path by which I had just come-that tall lad, half-running, half-walking, with a fishing-rod over his shoulder? I could have taken my oath that I had neither met nor passed him. Where then had he come from? And where was the man to whom I had spoken not three seconds ago, and who, at his limping pace, could not have made more than a couple of yards in the time? My stupefaction was such that I stood quite still, looking after the lad with the fishing-rod till he disappeared in the gloom under the park-palings.
Was I dreaming?
Darkness, meanwhile, had closed in apace, and, dreaming or not dreaming, I must push on, or find myself benighted. So I hurried forward, turning my back on the last gleam of daylight, and plunging deeper into the fog at every step. I was, however, close upon my journey's end. The path ended at a turnstile; the turnstile opened upon a steep lane; and at the bottom of the lane, down which I stumbled among stones and ruts, I came in sight of the welcome glare of a blacksmith's forge.
Here, then, was Pit End. I found my trap standing at the door of the village inn; the rawboned grey stabled for the night; the landlord watching for my arrival.
The 'Greyhound' was a hostelry of modest pretensions, and I shared its little parlour with a couple of small farmers and a young man who informed me that he 'travelled in' Thorley's Food for Cattle. Here I dined, wrote my letters, chatted awhile with the landlord, and picked up such scraps of local news as fell in my way.
There was, it seemed, no resident parson at Pit End; the incumbent being a pluralist with three small livings, the duties of which, by the help of a rotatory curate, he discharged in a somewhat easy fashion. Pit End, as the smallest and furthest off, came in for but one service each Sunday, and was almost wholly relegated to the curate. The squire was a more confirmed absentee than even the vicar. He lived chiefly in Paris, spending abroad the wealth of his Pit End coal-fields.
He happened to be at home just now, the landlord said, after five years' absence; but he would be off again next week, and another five years might probably elapse before they should again see him at Blackwater Chase.
Blackwater Chase!-the name was not new to me; yet I could not remember where I had heard it. When, however, mine host went on to say that, despite his absenteeism, Mr Wolstenholme was 'a pleasant gentleman and a good landlord', and that, after all, Blackwater Chase was 'a lonesome sort of world-end place for a young man to bury himself in', then I at once remembered Phil Wolstenholme of Balliol, who, in his grand way, had once upon a time given me a general invitation to the shooting at Blackwater Chase. That was twelve years ago, when I was reading hard at Wadham, and Wolstenholme-the idol of a clique to which I did not belong-was boating, betting, writing poetry, and giving wine parties at Balliol.
Yes; I remembered all about him-his handsome face, his luxurious rooms, his boyish prodigality, his utter indolence, and the blind faith of his worshippers, who believed that he had only 'to pull himself together' in order to carry off every honour which the University had to bestow. He did take the Newdigate; but it was his first and last achievement, and he left college with the reputation of having narrowly escaped a plucking. How vividly it all came back upon my memory-the old college life, the college friendships, the pleasant time that could never come again! It was but twelve years ago; yet it seemed like half a century. And now, after these twelve years, here were Wolstenholme and I as near neighbours as in our Oxford days! I wondered if he was much changed, and whether, if changed, it were for the better or the worse.
Had his generous impulses developed into sterling virtues, or had his follies hardened into vices?
Should I let him know where I was, and so judge for myself? Nothing would be easier than to pencil a line upon a card tomorrow morning, and send it up to the big house. Yet, merely to satisfy a purposeless curiosity, was it worthwhile to reopen the acquaintanceship? Thus musing, I sat late over the fire, and by the time I went to bed, I had well nigh forgotten my adventure with the man who vanished so mysteriously and the boy who seemed to come from nowhere.
Next morning, finding I had abundant time at my disposal, I did pencil that line upon my card-a mere line, saving that I believed we had known each other at Oxford, and that I should be inspecting the National Schools from nine till about eleven. And then, having dispatched it by one of my landlord's sons, I went off to my work. The day was brilliantly fine. The wind had shifted round to the north, the sun shone clear and cold, and the smoke-grimed hamlet, and the gaunt buildings clustered at the mouths of the coalpits round about, looked as bright as they could look at any time of the year. The village was built up a long hill-side; the church and schools being at the top, and the 'Greyhound' at the bottom. Looking vainly for the lane by which I had come the night before, I climbed the one rambling street, followed a path that skirted the churchyard, and found myself at the schools. These, with the teachers' dwellings, formed three sides of a quadrangle; the fourth side consisting of an iron railing and a gate. An inscribed tablet over the main entrance-door recorded how 'These school-houses were re-built by Philip Wolstenholme, Esquire: AD 18-.'
Mr Wolstenholme, sir, is the Lord of the Manor,' said a soft, obsequious voice.
I turned, and found the speaker at my elbow, a square-built, sallow man, all in black, with a bundle of copy-books under his arm.
'You are the-the schoolmaster?' I said; unable to remember his name, and puzzled by a vague recollection of his face.
'Just so, sir. I conclude I have the honour of addressing Mr Frazer?'
It was a singular face, very pallid and anxious-looking. The eyes, too, had a watchful, almost a startled, look in them, which struck me as peculiarly unpleasant.
'Yes,' I replied, still wondering where and when I had seen him. 'My name is Frazer. Yours, I believe, is-is-,' and I put my hand into my pocket for my examination papers.
'Skelton-Ebenezer Skelton. Will you please to take the boys first, sir?'
The words were commonplace enough, but the man's manner was studiously, disagreeably deferential; his very name being given, as it were, under protest, as if too insignificant to be mentioned.
I said I would begin with the boys; and so moved on. Then, for we had stood still till now, I saw that the schoolmaster was lame. In that moment I remembered him. He was the man I met in the fog.
'I met you yesterday afternoon, Mr Skelton,' I said, as we went into the school-mom.
'Yesterday afternoon, sir?' he repeated.
'You did not seem to observe me,' I said, carelessly. 'I spoke to you, in fact; but you did not reply to me.'
'But-indeed, I beg your pardon, sir-it must have been someone else,' said the schoolmaster, 'I did not go out yesterday afternoon.'
How could this be anything but a falsehood? I might have been mistaken as to the man's face; though it was such a singular face, and I had seen it quite plainly. But how could I be mistaken as to his lameness? Besides, that curious trailing of the right foot, as if the ankle was broken, was not an ordinary lameness.
I suppose I looked incredulous, for he added, hastily:.'Even if I had not been preparing the boys for inspection, sir, I should not have gone out yesterday afternoon. It was too damp and foggy. I am obliged to be careful-I have a very delicate chest.'
My dislike to the man increased with every word he uttered. I did not ask myself with what motive he went on heaping lie upon lie; it was enough that, to serve his own ends, whatever those ends might be, he did lie with unparallelled audacity.
'We will proceed to the examination, Mr Skelton,' I said, contemptuously.
He turned, if possible, a shade paler than before, bent his head silently, and called up the scholars in their order.
I soon found that, whatever his shortcomings as to veracity, Mr Ebenezer Skelton was a capital schoolmaster. His boys were uncommonly well taught, and as regarded attendance, good conduct, and the like, left nothing to be desired. When, therefore, at the end of the examination, he said he hoped I would recommend the Pit End Boys' School for the Government grant, I at once assented. And now I thought I had done with Mr Skelton for, at all events, the space of one year. Not so, however. When I came out from the Girls' School, I found him waiting at the door.
Profusely apologizing, he begged leave to occupy five minutes of my valuable time. He wished, under correction, to suggest a little improvement. The boys, he said, were allowed to play in the quadrangle, which was too small, and in various ways inconvenient; but round at the back there was a piece of waste land, half an acre of which, if enclosed, would admirably answer the purpose. So saying, he led the way to the back of the building, and I followed him.
'To whom does this ground belong?' I asked.
'To Mr Wolstenholme, sir.'
'Then why not apply to Mr Wolstenholme? He gave the schools, and I dare say he would be equally willing to give the ground.'
'I beg your pardon, sir. Mr Wolstenholme has not been over here since his return, and it is quite possible that he may leave Pit End without honouring us with a visit. I could not take the liberty of writing to him, sir.'
'Neither could I in my report suggest that the Government should offer to purchase a portion of Mr Wolstenholme's land for a playground to schools of Mr Wolstenholme's own building.' I replied. 'Under other circumstances'.
I stopped and looked round.
The schoolmaster repeated my last words.
'You were saying, sir-under other circumstances?'
I looked round again.
'It seemed to me that there was someone here,' I said; 'some third person, not a moment ago.'
'I beg your pardon, sir-a third person?'
'I saw his shadow on the ground, between yours and mine.'
The schools faced due north, and we were standing immediately behind the buildings, with our backs to the sun. The place was bare, and open, and high; and our shadows, sharply defined, lay stretched before our feet.
'A-a shadow?' he faltered. 'Impossible.'
There was not a bush or a tree within half a mile. There was not a cloud in the sky. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, that could have cast a shadow.
I admitted that it was impossible, and that I must have fancied it; and so went back to the matter of the playground..'Should you see Mr Wolstenholme,' I said, 'you are at liberty to say that I thought it a desirable improvement.'
'I am much obliged to you, sir. Thank you-thank you very much,' he said, cringing at every word. 'But-but I had hoped that you might perhaps use your influence'-'Look there!' I interrupted. 'Is that fancy?'
We were now close under the blank wall of the boys' schoolroom. On this wall, lying to the full sunlight, our shadows-mine and the schoolmaster's-were projected. And there, too-no longer between his and mine, but a little way apart, as if the intruder were standing back-there, as sharply defined as if cast by lime-light on a prepared background, I again distinctly saw, though but for a moment, that third shadow. As I spoke, as I looked round, it was gone!
'Did you not see it?' I asked.
He shook his head.
'I-I saw nothing,' he said, faintly. 'What was it?'
His lips were white. He seemed scarcely able to stand.
'But you must have seen it!' I exclaimed. 'It fell just there-where that bit of ivy grows. There must be some boy hiding-it was a boy's shadow, I am confident.'
'A boy's shadow!' he echoed, looking round in a wild, frightened way. 'There is no place-for a boy-to hide.'
'Place or no place,' I said, angrily, 'if I catch him, he shall feel the weight of my cane!'
I searched backwards and forwards in event direction, the schoolmaster, with his scared face, limping at my heels; but, rough and irregular as the ground was, there was not a hole in it big enough to shelter a rabbit.
'But what was it?' I said, impatiently.
'An-an illusion. Begging your pardon, sir-an illusion.'
He looked so like a beaten hound, so frightened, so fawning, that I felt I could with lively satisfaction have transferred the threatened caning to his own shoulders.
'But you saw it?' I said again.
'No, sir. Upon my honour, no, sir. I saw nothing-nothing whatever.'
His looks belied his words. I felt positive that he had not only seen the shadow, but that he knew more about it than he chose to tell. I was by this time really angry. To be made the object of a boyish trick, and to be hoodwinked by the connivance of the schoolmaster, was too much. It was an insult to myself and my office.
I scarcely knew what I said; something short and stern at all events. Then, having said it, I turned my back upon Mr Skelton and the schools, and walked rapidly back to the village.
As I neared the bottom of the hill, a dog-cart drawn by a high-stepping chestnut dashed up to the door of the 'Greyhound', and the next moment I was shaking hands with Wolstenholme, of Balliol. Wolstenholme, of Balliol, as handsome as ever, dressed with the same careless dandyism, looking not a day older than when I last saw him at Oxford! He gripped me by both hands, vowed that I was his guest for the next three days, and insisted on carrying me off at once to Backwater Chase. In vain I urged that I had two schools to inspect tomorrow ten miles the other side of Drumley; that I had a horse and trap waiting; and that my room was ordered at the 'Feathers'. Wolstenholme laughed away my objections.
My dear fellow,' he said, 'you will simply send your horse and trap back with a message to the "Feathers", and a couple of telegrams to be dispatched to the two schools from Drumley station.
Unforeseen circumstances compel you to defer those inspections till next week!'.And with this, in his masterful way, he shouted to the landlord to send my portmanteau up to the manor-house, pushed me up before him into the dog-cart, gave the chestnut his head, and rattled me off to Backwater Chase.
It was a gloomy old barrack of a place, standing high in the midst of a sombre deer-park some six or seven miles in circumference. An avenue of oaks, now leafless, led up to the house; and a mournful heron-haunted tarn in the loneliest part of the park gave to the estate its name of Blackwater Chase. The place, in fact, was more like a border fastness than an English north-country mansion. Wolstenholme took me through the picture gallery and reception rooms after luncheon, and then for a canter round the park; and in the evening we dined at the upper end of a great oak hall hung with antlers, and armour, and antiquated weapons of warfare and sport.
'Now, tomorrow,' said my host, as we sat over our claret in front of a blazing log-fire; 'tomorrow, if we have decent weather, you shall have a day's shooting on the moors; and on Friday, if you will but be persuaded to stay a day longer, I will drive you over to Broomhead and give you a run with the Duke's hounds. Not hunt? My dear fellow, what nonsense! All our parsons hunt in this part of the world. By the way, have you ever been down a coal pit? No?
Then a new experience awaits you. I'll take you down Carshalton shaft, and show you the home of the gnomes and trolls.'
'Is Carshalton one of your own mines?' I asked.
'All these pits are mine,' he replied. 'I am king of Hades, and rule the under world as well as the upper. There is coal everywhere underlying these moors. The whole place is honeycombed with shafts and galleries. One of our richest seams runs under this house, and there are upwards of forty men at work in it a quarter of a mile below our feet here every day. Another leads right away under the park, heaven only knows how far! My father began working it five-and-twenty years ago, and we have gone on working it ever since; yet it shows no sign of failing.'
'You must be as rich as a prince with a fairy godmother!'
He shrugged his shoulders.
'Well,' he said, lightly, 'I am rich enough to commit what follies I please; and that is saying a good deal. But then, to be always squandering money-always rambling about the world--always gratifying the impulse of the moment-is that happiness? I have been trying the experiment for the last ten years; and with what result? Would you like to see?'
He snatched up a lamp and led the way through a long suite of unfurnished rooms, the floors of which were piled high with packing cases of all sizes and shapes, labelled with the names of various foreign ports and the addresses of foreign agents innumerable. What did they contain?
Precious marbles from Italy and Greece and Asia Minor; priceless paintings by old and modern masters; antiquities from the Nile, the Tigris, and the Euphrates; enamels from Persia, porcelain from China, bronzes from Japan, strange sculptures from Peru; arms, mosaics, ivories, wood-carvings, skins, tapestries, old Italian cabinets, painted bride-chests, Etruscan terracottas; treasures of all countries, of all ages, never even unpacked since they crossed that threshold which the master's foot had crossed but twice during the ten years it had taken to buy them!
Should he ever open them, ever arrange them, ever enjoy them? Perhaps-if he became weary of wandering-if he married-if he built a gallery to receive them. If not-well, he might found and endow a museum; or leave the things to the nation. What did it matter? Collecting was like fox-hunting; the pleasure was in the pursuit, and ended with it!
We sat up late that first night, I can hardly say conversing, for Wolstenholme did the talking, while I, willing to be amused, led him on to tell me something of his wanderings by land and sea.
So the time passed in stories of adventure, of perilous peaks ascended, of deserts traversed, of unknown ruins explored, of 'hairbreadth 'scapes' from icebergs and earthquakes and storms; and when at last he flung the end of his cigar into the fire and discovered that it was time to go to bed, the clock on the mantel-shelf pointed far on among the small hours of the morning.
Next day, according to the programme made out for my entertainment, we did some seven hours' partridge-shooting on the moors; and the day next following I was to go down Carshalton shaft before breakfast, and after breakfast ride over to a place some fifteen miles distant called Picts' Camp, there to see a stone circle and the ruins of a prehistoric fort.
Unused to field sports, I slept heavily after those seven hours with the guns, and was slow to wake when Wolstenholme's valet came next morning to my bedside with the waterproof suit in which I was to effect my descent into Hades.
'Mr Wolstenholme says, sir, that you had better not take your bath till you come back,' said this gentlemanly vassal, disposing the ungainly garments across the back of a chair as artistically as if he were laying out my best evening suit. 'And you will be pleased to dress warmly underneath the waterproofs, for it is very chilly in the mine.'
I surveyed the garments with reluctance. The morning was frosty, and the prospect of being lowered into the bowels of the earth, cold, tasting, and unwashed, was anything but attractive.
Should I send word that I would rather not go? I hesitated; but while I was hesitating, the gentlemanly valet vanished, and my opportunity was lost. Grumbling and shivering, I got up, donned the cold and shiny suit, and went downstairs.
A murmur of voices met my ear as I drew near the breakfast-room. Going in, I found some ten or a dozen stalwart colliers grouped near the door, and Wolstenholme, looking somewhat serious, standing with his back to the fire.
'Look here, Frazer,' he said, with a short laugh, 'here's a pleasant piece of news. A fissure has opened in the bed of Blackwater tarn; the lake has disappeared in the night; and the mine is flooded! No Carshalton shaft for you today!'
'Seven foot o' wayter in Jukes's seam, an' eight in th' owd north and south galleries,' growled a huge red-headed fellow, who seemed to be the spokesman.
'An' it's the Lord's own marcy a' happened o' noight-time, or we'd be dead men all,' added another.
'That's true, my man,' said Wolstenholme, answering the last speaker. 'It might have drowned you like rats in a trap; so we may thank our stars it's no worse. And now, to work with the pumps! Lucky for us that we know what to do, and how to do it.'
So saying, he dismissed the men with a good-humoured nod, and an order for unlimited ale.
I listened in blank amazement. The tarn vanished! I could not believe it. Wolstenholme assured me, however, that it was by no means a solitary phenomenon. Rivers had been known to disappear before now, in mining districts; and sometimes, instead of merely cracking, the ground would cave in, burying not merely houses, but whole hamlets in one common ruin. The foundations of such houses were, however, generally known to be insecure long enough before the crash came; and these accidents were not therefore often followed by loss of life.
'And now,' he said, lightly, 'you may doff your fancy costume; for I shall have time this morning for nothing but business. It is not every day that one loses a lake, and has to pump it up again!'
Breakfast over, we went round to the mouth of the pit, and saw the men fixing the pumps.
Later on, when the work was fairly in train, we started off across the park to view the scene of the catastrophe. Our way lay far from the house across a wooded upland, beyond which we followed a broad glade leading to the tarn. Just as we entered this glade-Wolstenholme rattling on and turning the whole affair into jest-a tall, slender lad, with a fishing-rod across his shoulder, came out from one of the side paths to the right, crossed the open at a long slant, and disappeared among the tree-trunks on the opposite side. I recognized him instantly. It was the boy whom I saw the other day, just after meeting the schoolmaster in the meadow.
'If that boy thinks he is going to fish in your tarn,' I said, 'he will find out his mistake.'
'What boy?' asked Wolstenholme, looking back.
'That boy who crossed over yonder, a minute ago.'
'Yonder!-in front of us?'
'Certainly. You must have seen him?'
'You did not see him?-a tall, thin boy, in a grey suit, with a fishing-rod over his shoulder. He disappeared behind those Scotch firs.'
Wolstenholme looked at me with surprise.
'You are dreaming!' he said. 'No living thing-not even a rabbit-has crossed our path since we entered the park gates.'
'I am not in the habit of dreaming with my eyes open,' I replied, quickly.
He laughed, and put his arm through mine.
'Eyes or no eyes,' he said, 'you are under an illusion this time!'
An illusion-the very word made use of by the schoolmaster! What did it mean? Could I, in truth, no longer rely upon the testimony of my senses? A thousand half-formed apprehensions flashed across me in a moment. I remembered the illusions of Nicolini, the bookseller, and other similar cases of visual hallucination, and I asked myself if I had suddenly become afflicted in like manner.
'By Jove! this is a queer sight!' exclaimed Wolstenholme. And then I found that we had emerged from the glade, and were looking down upon the bed of what yesterday was Blackwater Tarn.
It was indeed a queer sight-an oblong, irregular basin of blackest slime, with here and there a sullen pool, and round the margin an irregular fringe of bulrushes. At some little distance along the bank-less than a quarter of a mile from where we were standing-a gaping crowd had gathered. All Pit End, except the men at the pumps, seemed o have turned out to stare at the bed of the vanished tarn.
Hats were pulled off and curtsies dropped at Wolstenholme's approach. He, meanwhile, came up smiling, with a pleasant word for everyone.
'Well,' he said, 'are you looking for the lake, my friends? You'll have in go down Carshalton shaft to find it! It's an ugly sight you've come to sue, anyhow!'
'Tes an ugly soight, squoire,' replied a stalwart blacksmith in a leathern apron; 'but thar's summat uglier, mebbe, than the mud, ow'r yonder.'
'Something uglier than the mud?' Wolstenholme repeated.
'Wull yo be pleased to stan' this way, squoire, an' look strite across at yon little tump o' bulrashes-doan't yo see nothin'?'
I see a log of rotten timber sticking half in and half out of the mud,' said Wolstenholme; 'and something-a long reed, apparently...by love! I believe it's a fishing rod!'
'It is a fishin' rod, squoire,' said the blacksmith with rough carnesmess; 'an' if yon rotten timber bayn't an unburied corpse, mun I never stroike hammer on anvil agin!'
There was a buzz of acquiescence from the bystanders. 'Twas an unburied corpse, sure enough. Nobody doubted it..Wolstenholme made a funnel with his hands, and looked through it long and steadfastly.
'It must come out, whatever it is,' he said presently. 'Five feet of mud, do you say? Then here's a sovereign apiece for the first two fellows who wade through it and bring that object to land!'
The blacksmith and another pulled off their shoes and stockings, turned up their trousers, and went in at once.
They were over their ankles at the first plunge, and, sounding their way with sticks, went deeper at every tread. As they sank, our excitement rose. Presently they were visible from only the waist upwards. We could see their chests heaving, and the muscular efforts by which each step was gained. They were yet full twenty yards from the goal when the mud mounted to their armpits...a few feet more, and only their heads would remain above the surface!
An uneasy movement ran through the crowd.
'Call 'em back, for God's sake!' cried a woman's voice.
But at this moment-having reached a point where the ground gradually sloped upwards-they began to rise above the mud as rapidly as they had sunk into it. And now, black with clotted slime, they emerge waist-high...now they are within three or four yards of the spot...and now...now they are there!
They part the reeds-they stoop low above the shapeless object on which all eyes are turned--they half-lift it from its bed of mud-they hesitate-lay it down again-decide, apparently, to leave it there; and turn their faces shorewards. Having come a few paces, the blacksmith remembers the fishing-rod; turns back; disengages the tangled line with some difficulty, and brings it over his shoulder.
They had not much to tell-standing, all mud from head to heel, on dry land again-but that little was conclusive. It was, in truth, an unburied corpse; part of the trunk only above the surface. They tried to lift it; but it had been so long under water, and was in so advanced a stage of decomposition, that to bring it to shore without a shutter was impossible. Being cross-questioned, they thought, from the slenderness of the form, that it must be the body of a boy.
'Thar's the poor chap's rod, anyhow,' said the blacksmith, laying it gently down upon the turf.
I have thus far related events as I witnessed them. Here, however, my responsibility ceases. I give the rest of my story at second-hand, briefly, as I received it some weeks later, in the following letter from Philip Wolstenholme:
'Blackwater Chase, Dec. 20th, 18-.
Dear Frazer, My promised letter has been a long time on the road, but I did not see the use of writing till I had something definite to tell you. I think, however, we have now found out all that we are ever likely to know about the tragedy in the tarn; and it seems that-but, no; I will begin at the beginning. That is to say, with the day you left the Chase, which was the day following the discovery of the body.
You were but just gone when a police inspector arrived from Drumley (you will remember that I had immediately sent a man over to the sitting magistrate); but neither the inspector nor anyone else could do anything till the remains were brought to shore, and it took us the best part of a week to accomplish this difficult operation. We had to sink no end of big stones in order to make a rough and ready causeway across the mud. This done, the body was brought over decently upon a shutter. It proved to be the corpse of a boy of perhaps fourteen or fifteen years of age.
There was a fracture three inches long at the back of the skull, evidently fatal. This might, of course, have been an accidental injury; but when the body came to be raised from where it lay, it was found to be pinned down by a pitchfork, the handle of which had been afterwards whittled off, so as not to show above the water, a discovery tantamount to evidence of murder. The features of the victim were decomposed beyond recognition; but enough of the hair remained to show that it had been short and sandy As for the clothing, it was a mere mass of rotten shreds; but on being subjected to some chemical process, proved to have once been a suit of lightish grey cloth.
A crowd of witnesses came forward at this stage of the inquiry-for I am now giving you the main facts as they came out at the coroner's inquest-to prove that about a year or thirteen months ago, Skelton the schoolmaster had staying with him a lad whom he called his nephew, and to whom it was supposed that he was not particularly kind. This lad was described as tall, thin, mud sandy-haired. He habitually wore a suit corresponding in colour and texture to the shreds of clothing discovered on the body in the tarn; and he was much addicted to angling about the pools and streams, wherever he might have the chance of a nibble.
And now one thing led quickly on to another. Our Pit End shoemaker identified the boy's boots as being a pair of his own making and selling. Other witnesses testified to angry scenes between the uncle and nephew. Finally, Skelton gave himself up to justice, confessed the deed, and was duly committed to Drumley gaol for wilful murder.
And the motive? Well, the motive is the strangest part of my story. The wretched lad was, after all, not Skelton's nephew, but Skelton's own illegitimate son. The mother was dead, and the boy lived with his maternal grandmother in a remote part of Cumberland. The old woman was poor, and the schoolmaster made her an annual allowance for his son's keep and clothing. He had not seen the boy for some years, when he sent for him to come over on a visit to Pit End. Perhaps he was weary of the tax upon his purse. Perhaps, as he himself puts it in his confession, he was disappointed to find the boy, if not actually half-witted, stupid, wilful, and ill brought-up. He at all events took a dislike to the poor brute, which dislike by and by developed into positive hatred.
Some amount of provocation there would seem to have been. The boy was as backward as a child of five years old. That Skelton put him into the Boys' School, and could do nothing with him; that he defied discipline, had a passion for fishing, and was continually wandering about the country with his rod and line, are facts borne out by the independent testimony of various witnesses. Having hidden his fishing-tackle, he was in the habit of slipping away at school-hours, and showed himself the more cunning and obstinate the more he was punished.
At last there came a day when Skelton tracked him to the place where his rod was concealed, and thence across the meadows into the park, and as far as the tarn. His (Skelton's) account of what followed is wandering and confused. He owns to having beaten the miserable lad about the head and arms with a heavy stick that he had brought with him for the purpose; but denies that he intended to murder him. When his son fell insensible and ceased to breathe, he for the first time realized the force of the blows he had dealt. He admits that his first impulse was one, not of remorse for the deed, but of fear for his own safety. He dragged the body in among the bulrushes by the water's edge, and there concealed it as well as he could. At night, when the neighbours were in bed and asleep, he stole out by starlight, taking with him a pitchfork, a coil of rope, a couple of old iron-bars, and a knife. Thus laden, he struck out across the moor, and entered the park by a stile and footpath on the Stoneleigh side; so making a circuit of between three and four miles. A rotten old punt used at that time to be kept on the tarn. He loosed this punt from its moorings, brought it round, hauled in the body, and paddled his ghastly burden out into the middle of the lake as far as a certain clump of reeds which he had noted as a likely spot for his purpose. Here he weighted and sunk the corpse, and pinned it down by the neck with his pitchfork. He then cut away the handle of the fork; hid the fishing-rod among the reeds; and believed, as murderers always believe, that discovery was impossible. As regarded the Pit End folk, he simply gave out that his nephew had gone back to Cumberland; and no one doubted it.
Now, however, he says that accident has only anticipated him; and that he was on the point of voluntarily confessing his crime. His dreadful secret had of late become intolerable. He was haunted by an invisible Presence. That Presence sat with him at table, followed him in his walks stood behind him in the school-room, and watched by his bedside. He never saw it; but he felt that it was always there. Sometimes he raves of a shadow on the wall of his cell. The gaol authorities are of opinion that he is of unsound mind.
I have now told you all that there is at present to tell. The trial will not take place till the spring assizes. In the meanwhile I am off tomorrow to Paris, and thence, in about ten days, on to Nice, where letters will find me at the Hotel des Empereurs.
Always, dear Frazer.
Yours, e., c..
P.S.-Since writing the above, I have received a telegram from Drumley to say that Skelton has committed suicide. No particulars given. So ends this strange eventful history.
By the way, that was a curious illusion of yours the other day when we were crossing the park; and I have thought of it many times. Was it an illusion?-that is the question.'
Ay, indeed! that is the question; and it is a question which I have never yet been able to answer.
Certain things I undoubtedly saw-with my mind's eye, perhaps-and as I saw them, I have described them; withholding nothing, adding nothing, explaining nothing. Let those solve the mystery who can. For myself, I but echo Wolstenholme's question: Was it an illusion?
I am a plain man, Major, and you may not dislike to hear a plain statement of facts from me.
Some of those facts lie beyond my understanding. I do not pretend to explain them. I only know that they happened as I relate them, and that I pledge myself for the truth of every word of them.
I began life roughly enough, down among the Potteries. I was an orphan; and my earliest recollections are of a great porcelain manufactory in the country of the Potteries, where I helped about the yard, picked up what halfpence fell in my way, and slept in a harness-loft over the stable. Those were hard times; but things bettered themselves as I grew older and stronger, especially after George Barnard had come to be foreman of the yard.
George Barnard was a Wesleyan--we were mostly dissenters in the Potteries--sober, clear-headed, somewhat sulky and silent, but a good fellow every inch of him, and my best friend at the time when I most needed a good friend. He took me out of the yard, and set me to the furnace-work. He entered me on the books at a fixed rate of wages. He helped me to pay for a little cheap schooling four nights a week; and he led me to go with him on Sundays to the chapel down by the river-side, where I first saw Leah Payne. She was his sweetheart, and so pretty that I used to forget the preacher and everybody else, when I looked at her. When she joined in the singing, I heard no voice but hers. If she asked me for the hymn-book, I used to blush and tremble. I believe I worshipped her, in my stupid ignorant way; and I think I worshipped Barnard almost as blindly, though after a different fashion. I felt I owed him everything. I knew that he had saved rue, body and mind; and I looked up to him as a savage might look up to a missionary.
Leah was the daughter of a plumber, who lived close by the chapel. She was twenty, and George about seven or eight-and-thirty. Some captious folks said there was too much difference in their ages; but she was so serious-minded, and they loved each other so earnestly and quietly, that, if nothing had come between them during their courtship, I don't believe the question of disparity would ever have troubled the happiness of their married lives. Something did come, however; and that something was a Frenchman, called Louis Laroche. He was a painter on porcelain, from the famous works at Sèvres; and our master, it was said, had engaged him for three years certain, at such wages as none of our own people, however skilful, could hope to command. It was about the beginning or middle of September when he first came among us. He looked very young; was small, dark, and well made; had little white soft hands, and a silky moustache; and spoke English nearly as well as I do. None of us liked him; but that was only natural, seeing how he was put over the head of every Englishman in the place. Besides, though he was always smiling and civil, we couldn't help seeing that he thought himself ever so much better than the rest of us; and that was not pleasant. Neither was it pleasant to see him strolling about the town, dressed just like a gentleman, when working hours were over; smoking good cigars, when we were forced to be content with a pipe of common tobacco; hiring a horse on Sunday afternoons, when we were trudging a-foot; and taking his pleasure as if the world was made for him to enjoy, and us to work in.
"Ben, boy," said George, "there's something wrong about that Frenchman."
It was on a Saturday afternoon, and we were sitting on a pile of empty seggars against the door of my furnace-room, waiting till the men should all have cleared out of the yard. Seggars are deep earthen boxes in which the pottery is put, while being fired in the kiln. I looked up, inquiringly.
"About the Count?" said I, for that was the nickname by which he went in the pottery.
George nodded, and paused for a moment with his chin resting on his palms.
"He has an evil eye," said he; "and a false smile. Something wrong about him."
I drew nearer, and listened to George as if he had been an oracle. "Besides," added he, in his slow quiet way, with his eyes fixed straight before him as if he was thinking aloud, "there's a young look about him that isn't natural. Take him just at sight, and you'd think he was almost a boy; but look close at him--see the little fine wrinkles under his eyes, and the hard lines about his mouth, and then tell me his age, if you can! Why, Ben boy, he's as old as I am, pretty near; ay, and as strong, too. You stare; but I tell you that, slight as he looks, he could fling you over his shoulder as if you were a feather. And as for his hands, little and white as they are, there are muscles of iron inside them, take my word for it."
"But, George, how can you know?"
"Because I have a warning against him," replied George, very gravely. "Because, whenever he is by, I feel as if my eyes saw clearer, and my ears heard keener, than at other times. Maybe it's presumption, but I sometimes feel as if I had a call to guard myself and others against him. Look at the children, Ben, how they shrink away from him; and see there, now! Ask Captain what he thinks of him! Ben, that dog likes him no better than I do."
I looked, and saw Captain crouching by his kennel with his ears laid back, growling audibly, as the Frenchman came slowly down the steps leading from his own workshop at the upper end of the yard. On the last step he paused; lighted a cigar; glanced round, as if to see whether anyone was by; and then walked straight over to within a couple of yards of the kennel. Captain gave a short angry snarl, and laid his muzzle close clown upon his paws, ready for a spring. The Frenchman folded his arms deliberately, fixed his eyes on the dog, and stood calmly smoking.
He knew exactly how far he dared go, and kepi just that one foot out of harm's way. All at once he stooped, puffed a mouthful of smoke in the dog's eyes, burst into a mocking laugh, turned lightly on his heel, and walked away; leaving Captain straining at his chain, and barking after him like a mad creature.
Days went by, and I, at work in my own department, saw no more of the Count. Sunday came--the third, I think, after I had talked with George in the yard. Going with George to chapel, as usual, in the morning, I noticed that there was something strange and anxious in his voice, and that he scarcely opened his lips to me on the way. Still I said nothing. It was not my place to question him; and I remember thinking to myself that the cloud would all clear off as soon as he found himself by Leah's side, holding the same book, and joining in the same hymn.
It did not, however, for no Leah was there. I looked every moment to the door, expecting to see her sweet face coming in; but George never lifted his eyes from his book, or seemed to notice that her place was empty. Thus the whole service went by, and my thoughts wandered continually from the words of the preacher. As soon as the last blessing was spoken, and we were fairly across the threshold, I turned to George, and asked if Leah was ill?
"No," said he, gloomily. "She's not ill."
"Then why wasn't she--?"
"I'll tell you why," he interrupted, impatiently. "Because you've seen her here for the last time. She's never coming to chapel again."
"Never coming to the chapel again?" I faltered, laying my hand on his sleeve in the earnestness of my surprise. "Why, George, what is the matter?"
But he shook my hand off and stamped with his iron heel till the pavement rang again.
"Don't ask me," said he, roughly. "Let me alone. You'll know soon enough."
And with this he turned off down a by-lane leading towards the hills, and left me without another word.
I had had plenty of hard treatment in my time; but never, until that moment, an angry look or syllable from George. I did not know how to bear it. That day my dinner seemed as if it would choke me; and in the afternoon I went out and wandered restlessly about the fields till the hour for evening prayers came round. I then returned to the chapel, and sat down on a tomb outside, waiting for George. I saw the congregation go in by twos and threes; I heard the first psalm-tune echo solemnly through the evening stillness; but no George came. Then the service began, and I knew that, punctual as his habits were, it was of no use to expect him any longer. Where could he be? What could have happened? Why should Leah Payne never come to chapel again? Had she gone over to some other sect, and was that why George seemed so unhappy?
Sitting there in the little dreary churchyard with the darkness fast gathering around me, I asked myself these questions over and over again, till my brain ached; for I was not much used to thinking about anything in those times. At last, I could bear to sit quiet no longer. The sudden thought struck me that I would go to Leah, and learn what the matter was, from her own lips. I sprang to my feet, and set off at once towards her home.
It was quite dark, and a light rain was beginning to fall. I found the garden-gate open, and a quick hope flashed across me that George might be there. I drew back for a moment, hesitating whether to knock or ring, when a sound of voices in the passage, and the sudden gleaming of a bright line of light under the door, warned me that someone was coming out. Taken by surprise, and quite unprepared for the moment with anything to say, I shrank back behind the porch, and waited until those within should have passed out. The door opened, and the light streamed suddenly upon the roses and the wet gravel.
"It rains," said Leah, bending forward and shading the candle with her hand.
"And is as cold as Siberia," added another voice, which was not George's, and yet sounded strangely familiar. "Ugh! what a climate for such a flower as my darling to bloom in!"
"Is it so much finer in France?" asked Leah, softly.
"As much finer as blue skies and sunshine can make it. Why, my angel, even your bright eyes will be ten times brighter, and your rosy cheeks ten times rosier, when they are transplanted to Paris. Ah I I can give you no idea of the wonders of Paris--the broad streets planted with trees, the palaces, the shops, the gardens!--it is a city of enchantment."
"It must be, indeed!" said Leah. "And you will really take me to see all those beautiful shops?"
"Every Sunday, my darling--Bah! don't look so shocked. The shops in Paris are always open on Sunday, and everybody makes holiday. You will soon get over these prejudices."
"I fear it is very wrong to take so much pleasure in the things of this world," sighed Leah.
The Frenchman laughed, and answered her with a kiss.
"Good night, my sweet little saint!" and he ran lightly down the path, and disappeared in the darkness. Leah sighed again, lingered a moment, and then closed the door.
Stupefied and bewildered, I stood for some seconds like a stone statue, unable to move; scarcely able to think. At length, I roused myself, as it were mechanically, and went towards the gate. At that instant a heavy hand was laid upon my shoulder, and a hoarse voice close beside my ear, said:
"Who are you? What are you doing here?"
It was George. I knew him at once, in spite of the darkness, and stammered his name. He took his hand quickly from my shoulder.
"How long have you been here?" said he, fiercely. "What right have you to lurk about, like a spy in the dark? God help me, Ben--I'm half mad. I don't mean to be harsh to you."
"I'm sure you don't," I cried, earnestly.
"It's that cursed Frenchman," he went on, in a voice that sounded like the groan of one in pain.
"He's a villain. I know he's a villain; and I've had a warning against him ever since the first moment he came among us. He'll make her miserable, and break her heart some day--my pretty Leah--and I loved her so! But I'll be revenged--as sure as there's a sun in heaven, I'll be revenged!"
His vehemence terrified me. I tried to persuade him to go home; but he would not listen to me.
"No, no," he said. "Go home yourself, boy, and let me be. My blood is on fire: this rain is good for me, and I am better alone."
"If I could only do something to help you--"
"You can't," interrupted he. "Nobody can help me. I'm a ruined man, and I don't care what becomes of me. The Lord forgive me I my heart is full of wickedness, and my thoughts are the promptings of Satan. There go--for Heaven's sake, go. I don't know what I say, or what I do!"
I went, for I did not dare refuse any longer; but I lingered a while at the corner of the street, and watched him pacing to and fro, to and fro in the driving rain. At length I turned reluctantly away, and went home.
I lay awake that night for hours, thinking over the events of the day, and hating the Frenchman from my very soul. I could not hate Leah. I had worshipped her too long and too faithfully for that; but I looked upon her as a creature given over to destruction. I fell asleep towards morning, and woke again shortly after daybreak. When I reached the pottery, I found George there before me, looking very pale, but quite himself, and setting the men to their work the same as usual. I said nothing about what had happened the day before. Something in his face silenced me; but seeing him so steady and composed, I took heart, and began to hope he had fought through the worst of his trouble. By-and-by the Frenchman came through the yard, gay and off-hand, with his cigar in his mouth, and his hands in his pockets. George turned sharply away into one of the workshops, and shut the door. I drew a deep breath of relief. My dread was to see them come to an open quarrel; and I felt that as long as they kept clear of that, all would be well.
Thus the Monday went by, and the Tuesday; and still George kept aloof from mc. I had sense enough not to be hurt by this. I felt he had a good right to be silent, if silence helped him to bear his trial better; and I made up my mind never to breathe another syllable on the subject, unless he began.
Wednesday came. I had overslept myself that morning, and came to work a quarter after the hour, expecting to be fined; for George was very strict as foreman of the yard, and treated friends and enemies just the same. Instead of blaming me, however, he called me up, and said:
"Ben, whose turn is it this week to sit up?"
"Mine, sir," I replied. (I always called him "Sir" in working hours.)
"Well, then, you may go home to-day, and the same on Thursday and Friday; for there's a large batch of work for the ovens to-night, and there'll be the same to-morrow night and the night after."
"All right, sir," said I. "Then I'll be here by seven this evening."
"No, half-past nine will be soon enough. I've some accounts to make up, and I shall be here myself till then. Mind you are true to time, though."
"I'll be as true as the clock, sir," I replied, and was turning away when he called me back again.
"You're a good lad, Ben," said he. "Shake hands."
I seized his hand, and pressed it warmly.
"If I'm good for anything, George," I answered with all my heart, "it's you who have made me so. God bless you for it!"
"Amen!" said he, in a troubled voice, putting his hand to his hat.
And so we parted.
In general, I went to bed by day when I was attending to the firing by night; but this morning I had already slept longer than usual, and wanted exercise more than rest. So I ran home; put a bit of bread and meat in my pocket; snatched up my big thorn stick; and started off for a long day in the country. When I came home, it was quite dark and beginning to rain, just as it had begun to rain at about the same time that wretched Sunday evening: so I changed my wet boots, had an early supper and a nap in the chimney-corner, and went down to the works at a few minutes before half-past nine. Arriving at the factory-gate, I found it ajar, and so walked in and closed it after me. I remember thinking at the time that it was unlike George's usual caution to leave it so but it passed from my mind next moment. Having slipped in the bolt, I then went straight over to George's little counting-house, where the gas was shining cheerfully in the window. Here also, somewhat to my surprise, I found the door open, and the room empty. I went in. The threshold and part of the floor was wetted by the driving rain. The wages-book was open on the desk, George's pen stood in the ink, and his hat hung on its usual peg in the corner. I concluded, of course, that he had gone round to the ovens; so, following him, I took down his hat and carried it with me, for it was now raining fast.
The baking-houses lay just opposite, on the other side of the yard. There were three of them, opening one out of the other; and in each, the great furnace filled all the middle of the room.
These furnaces are, in fact, large kilns built of brick, with an oven closed in by an iron door in the centre of each, and a chimney going up through the roof. The pottery, enclosed in seggars, stands round inside on shelves, and has to be turned from time to time while the firing is going on. To turn these seggars, test the heat, and keep the fires up, was my work at the period of which I am now telling you, Major.
Well! I went through the baking-houses one after the other, and found all empty alike. Then a strange, vague, uneasy feeling came over me, and I began to wonder what could have become of George. It was possible that he might be in one of the workshops; so I ran over to the counting-house, lighted a lantern, and made a thorough survey of the yards. I tried the doors; they were all locked as usual. I peeped into the open sheds; they were all vacant. I called "George! George!" in every part of the outer premises; but the wind and rain drove back my voice, and no other voice replied to it. Forced at last to believe that he was really gone, I took his hat back to the counting-house, put away the wages-book, extinguished the gas, and prepared for my solitary watch.
The night was mild, and the heat in the baking-rooms intense. I knew, by experience, that the ovens had been overheated, and that none of the porcelain must go in at least for the next two hours; so I carried my stool to the door, settled myself in a sheltered corner where the air could reach me, but not the rain, and fell to wondering where George could have gone, and why he should not have waited till the time appointed. That he had left in haste was clear--not because his hat remained behind, for he might have had a cap with him--but because he had left the book open, and the gas lighted. Perhaps one of the workmen had met with some accident, and he had been summoned away so urgently that he had no time to think of anything; perhaps he would even now come back presently to see that all was right before he went home to his lodgings.
Turning these things over in my mind, I grew drowsy, my thoughts wandered, and I fell asleep.
I cannot tell how long my nap lasted. I had walked a great distance that day, and I slept heavily; but I awoke all in a moment, with a sort of terror upon me, and, looking up, saw George Barnard sitting on a stool before the oven door, with the firelight full upon his face.
Ashamed to be found sleeping, I started to my feet. At the same instant, he rose, turned away without even looking towards me, and went out into the next room.
"Don't be angry, George!" I cried, following him. "None of the seggars are in. I knew the fires were too strong, and--"
The words died on my lips. I had followed him from the first room to the second, from the second to the third, and in the third--I lost him!
I could not believe my eyes. I opened the end door leading into the yard, and looked out; but he was nowhere in sight. I went round to the back of the baking-houses, looked behind the furnaces, ran over to the counting-house, called him by his name over and over again; but all was dark, silent, lonely, as ever.
Then I remembered how I had bolted the outer gate, and how impossible it was that he should have come in without ringing. Then, too, I began again to doubt the evidence of my own senses, and to think I must have been dreaming.
I went back to my old post by the door of the first baking-house, and sat down for a moment to collect my thoughts.
"In the first place," said I to myself, "there is but one outer gate. That outer gate I bolted on the inside, and it is bolted still. In the next place, I searched the premises, and found all the sheds empty, and the workshop-doors padlocked as usual on the outside. I proved that George was nowhere about, when I came, and I know he could not have come in since, without my knowledge. Therefore it is a dream. It is certainly a dream, and there's an end of it."
And with this I trimmed my lantern and proceeded to test the temperature of the furnaces. We used to do this, I should tell you, by the introduction of little roughly-moulded lumps of common fire-clay. If the heat is too great, they crack; if too little, they remain damp and moist; if just right, they become firm and smooth all over, and pass into the biscuit stage. Well! I took my three little lumps of clay, put one in each oven, waited while I counted five hundred, and then went round again to see the results. The two first were in capital condition, the third had flown into a dozen pieces. This proved that the seggars might at once go into ovens One and Two, but that number Three had been overheated, and must be allowed to go on cooling for an hour or two longer.
I therefore stocked One and Two with nine rows of seggars, three deep on each shelf; left the rest waiting till number Three was in a condition to be trusted; and, fearful of falling asleep again, now that the firing was in progress, walked up and down the rooms to keep myself awake.
This was hot work, however, and I could not stand it very long; so I went back presently to my stool by the door, and fell to thinking about my dream. The more I thought of it, the more strangely real it seemed, and the more I felt convinced that I was actually on my feet, when I saw George get up and walk into the adjoining room. I was also certain that I had still continued to see him as he passed out of the second room into the third, and that at that time I was even following his very footsteps. Was it possible, I asked myself, that I could have been up and moving, and yet not quite awake? I had heard of people walking in their sleep. Could it be that I was walking in mine, and never waked till I reached the cool air of the yard? All this seemed likely enough, so I dismissed the matter from my mind, and passed the rest of the night in attending to the seggars, adding fresh fuel from time to time to the furnaces of the first and second ovens, and now and then taking a turn through the yards. As for number Three, it kept up its heat to such a degree that it was almost day before I dared trust the seggars to go in it.
Thus the hours went by; and at half-past seven on Thursday morning, the men came to their work. It was now my turn to go off duty, but I wanted to see George before I left, and so waited for him in the counting-house, while a lad named Steve Storr took my place at the ovens. But the clock went on from half-past seven to a quarter to eight; then to eight o'clock; then to a quarter-past eight--and still George never made his appearance. At length, when the hand got round to half-past eight, I grew weary of waiting, took up my hat, ran home, went to bed, and slept proloundly until past four in the afternoon.
That evening I went down to the factory quite early; for I had a restlessness upon me, and I wanted to sec George before he left for the night. This time, I found the gate bolted, and I rang for admittance.
"How early you are, Ben!" said Steve Storr, as he let me in.
"Mr. Barnard's not gone?" I asked, quickly; for I saw at the first glance that the gas was out in the counting-house.
"He's not gone," said Steve, "because he's never been."
"No and what's stranger still, he's not been home either, since dinner yesterday."
"But he was here last night."
"Oh yes, he was here last night, making up the books. John Parker was with him till past six; and you found him here, didn't you, at half-past nine?"
I shook my head.
"Well, he's gone, anyhow. Good night!"
I took the lantern from his hand, bolted him out mechanically, and made my way to the baking-houses like one in a stupor. George gone? Gone without a word of warning to his employer, or of farewell to his fellow-workmen? I could not understand it. I could not believe it. I sat down bewildered, incredulous, stunned. Then came hot tears, doubts, terrifying suspicions. I remembered the wild words he had spoken a few nights back; the strange calm by which they were followed; my dream of the evening before. I had heard of men who drowned themselves for love; and the turbid Severn ran close by--so close, that one might pitch a stone into it from some of the workshop windows.
These thoughts were too horrible. I dared not dwell upon them. I turned to work, to free myself from them, if I could; and began by examining the ovens. The temperature of all was much higher than on the previous night, the heat having been gradually increased during the last twelve hours. It was now my business to keep the heat on the increase for twelve more; after which it would be allowed, as gradually, to subside, until the pottery was cool enough for removal. To turn the seggars, and add fuel to the two first furnaces, was my first work. As before, I found number Three in advance of the others, and so left it for half an hour, or an hour. I then went round the yard; tried the doors; let the dog loose; and brought him back with me to the baking-houses, for company. After that, I set my lantern on a shelf beside the door, took a book from my pocket, and began to read.
I remember the title of the book as well as possible. It was called Bowlker's Art of Angling, and contained little rude cuts of all kinds of artificial flies, hooks, and other tackle. But I could not keep my mind to it for two minutes together; and at last I gave it up in despair, covered my face with my hands, and fell into a long absorbing painful train of thought. A considerable time had gone by thus--maybe an hour--when I was roused by a low whimpering howl from Captain, who was lying at my feet. I looked up with a start, just as I had started from sleep the night before, and with the same vague terror; and saw, exactly in the same place and in the same attitude, with the firelight full upon him--George Barnard!
At this sight, a fear heavier than the fear of death fell upon me, and my tongue seemed paralysed in my mouth. Then, just as last night, he rose, or seemed to rise, and went slowly out into the next room. A power stronger than myself appeared to compel me, reluctantly, to follow him. I saw him pass through the second room--cross the threshold of the third room--walk straight up to the oven--and there pause. He then turned, for the first time, with the glare of the red firelight pouring out upon him from the open door of the furnace, and looked at me, face to face. In the same instant, his whole frame and countenance seemed to glow and become transparent, as if the fire were all within him and around him--and in that glow he became, as it were, absorbed into the furnace, and disappeared I uttered a wild cry, tried to stagger from the room, and fell insensible before I reached the door.
When I next opened my eyes, the grey dawn was in the sky; the furnace-doors were all closed as I had left them when I last went round; the dog was quietly sleeping not far from my side; and the men were ringing at the gate, to be let in.
I told my tale from beginning to end, and was laughed at, as a matter of course, by all who heard it. When it was found, however, that my statements never varied, and, above all, that George Barnard continued absent, some few began to talk it over seriously, and among those few, the master of the works. He forbade the furnace to be cleared out, called in the aid of a celebrated naturalist, and had the ashes submitted to a scientific examination. The result was as follows:
The ashes were found to have been largely saturated with some kind of fatty animal matter. A considerable portion of those ashes consisted of charred bone. A semi-circular piece of iron, which evidently had once been the heel of a workman's heavy boot, was found, half fused, at one corner of the furnace. Near it, a tibia bone, which still retained sufficient of its original form and texture to render identification possible. This bone, however, was so much charred, that it fell into powder on being handled.
After this, not many doubted that George Barnard had been foully murdered, and that his body had been thrust into the furnace. Suspicion fell upon Louis Laroche. He was arrested, a coroner's inquest was held, and every circumstance connected with the night of the murder was as thoroughly sifted and investigated as possible. All the sifting in the world, however, failed either to clear or to condemn Louis Laroche. On the very night of his release, he left the place by the mail-train, and was never seen or heard of there, again. As for Leah, I know not what became of her. I went away myself before many weeks were over, and never have set foot among the Potteries from that hour to this.
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