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Title: According To The Statute
Author: FRed M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1200891h.html
Language: English
Date first posted: February 2012
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According To The Statute

by

Fred M White


ILLUSTRATED BY CYRUS CUNEO


Published in The Windsor Magazine, Vol. XL, Aug 1914, pp 278-284


COLONEL EREBURT swore by the graves of his ancestors that he would take the case to the Court of Appeal. The family solicitor, however, thought not. He confessed quite frankly that the gipsies had made out an exceedingly strong case for "scot and lot," so far as the common rights were concerned, and, indeed, he was strongly of opinion that his client would do well to leave matters as they were. He quoted the Statute of Mortmain and other obscure yet learned authorities, and Ereburt raged as he listened.

"But, my dear fellow," he protested, "this means that those poaching rascals have the right to range up and down by some of the finest salmon pools in the river. There won't be a fish left. I suppose you will tell me next that the verdict carries the right to fish. Anything might happen now."

"I shouldn't be at all surprised," the lawyer said coolly. "Be reasonable, Ereburt. You know perfectly well that if any of your tenants here, or a commoner, for the matter of that, likes to defy you, you can't prevent him from angling in the Swirl. Of course, we stand on that old deed which tradition says was granted you by some settler-adventurer two hundred years ago, but where is the charter? I have looked for it in vain. It is all more or less what you call 'swank,' and that's why I don't want you to push those gipsies too far, and you will have to make the best of it."

"Where the dickens did they get that money from?" Ereburt muttered. "Fancy three caravan loads of poachers and clothes-peg makers briefing a leading K.C. and two juniors! Why, it must have cost them a hundred pounds at least!"

"Yes, it is going to cost you six times the money," the lawyer said drily. "You are taking rather a parochial view of it. These people are real gipsies, as you know. They are a mysterious race, in touch with their fellow-Zingari all over the world, and some of them are exceedingly well-educated. You are proud of your old house and your ancient family, but the Ereburts are mere mushrooms by comparison with these Stanleys and the rest. Now, you take my advice—admit your defeat and take it like a sportsman. And remember that it might have been a great deal worse."

As a matter of fact, there was nothing else to be done. Ereburt turned his back on his lawyer's office, fuming and disappointed. It was a clear March day, with a little wind ruffling the surface of the river, and there was just the possible chance that a fish might be killed, though the water was low and rather fine. There had not been much in the way of sport lately; indeed, the run of spring fish had been small. In vain had Ereburt, in connection with his trusty keeper, Peter Locke, tried one gaudy lure after another, but the fish refused to rise, and they had perforce to come empty away.

At any rate, the gipsies had cleared out for the present. Apparently they had not waited to enjoy their triumph, for two of the caravans had gone, and a third was ready for the road. This meant that they would be seen no more till late in the autumn, and the reflection cheered Ereburt as he made his way towards the river. Dusk was beginning to fall now, but it would be possible to fish for another hour, and therefore there was no time to be lost. It was one of the traditions of the house that at this very pool a dead-and-gone Ereburt had killed twelve fish in one day with a lure of his own, the secret of which was unhappily lost. Ereburt and Peter had tried times without number to reduplicate that fatal fly, but always without success. Something was missing, some hackle or fur, the little airy trifle, and yet how much it was! Ereburt was thinking about this now as he began to put his rod together.

Then he stopped and stiffened with anger and amazement. Through the bare branches of the trees he could see a figure standing there in the stream on the very edge of the sacred pool. Moreover, it was the figure of a woman. She was tall and slim and young; a great rope of raven hair hung over her shoulders. Her legs were bare to the knees, and the rod that she wielded, beyond all question, was in the hands of a past-mistress of the craft. Angry as he was, Ereburt was bound to admit that. He could see the line thrown straight and far, cutting the water as with a razor edge. He could see the fly dropped within a fraction of an inch. He could see, too, the quick turn of the wrist and the play of the point as this amazing creature bent to her work. The sight fairly fascinated Ereburt, and he stood watching it for some little time. Then from the far side of the stream there came a roar like that of an angry bull, and Peter Locke appeared, literally foaming at the mouth.


In his righteous anger, Peter seemed to forget that he was addressing a woman, and just for the moment Ereburt blushed for him. And then something happened with a swiftness and agility that fairly made the onlooker gasp. For the lady with the rod had drawn herself up; her dark eyes flashed indignantly as she made a cast, not along the pool, but straight across the stream into Peter's red, angry face. The barbed hook caught him fairly in the cartilage of the nose, and almost before Ereburt realised what had happened, Peter, protesting and raving, was dragged across the stream as helpless as one of his own salmon. It had been a magnificent throw, viciously intentional, perhaps, but all the more deadly effective for that.

The line relaxed for the fraction of a second, then it was cleverly looped over the branch of a tree, and behold Peter Locke standing on tiptoe, with a fly in his nose and the taut line holding him absolutely helpless. There was no smile on the girl's dark face, no suggestion of amusement in her eyes as she approached her victim.

"You dare to speak to me like that," she said. "Here you stay till you apologise. Do you think that the running waters and all they contain belong to that arrogant master of yours?"

It was time for Ereburt to take a hand.

"You will pardon me," he said. "And, really, you must know that you are poaching. I am afraid my servant was a little bit hasty in the language he used, but he has his orders."

"Orders!" the girl echoed. "What are they? I do not know the word. You are Mr. Ereburt, I believe? Will you take this knife and release your servant? You think this was an accident, perhaps, but I could do it again and again."

Ereburt muttered incoherently to the effect that he was quite sure of it. There was something about the slim, dark beauty that appealed to him. For the moment he was busily engaged in looking after the discomfited Peter. With a little more than the touch of her firm hands, she released the hook and contemptuously announced that there was very little the matter. From her fly-book she produced a sovereign, which she tossed to her fallen foe.

"You had better go," she said. "There is no reason for you to stay any longer. Yet stop just a moment. In the gorse yonder, at the foot of those alders, you will find a fish. It is a clean-run thirty-pounder which I caught an hour ago. Take it up to the house and give it to Mr. Ereburt with my compliments."

Peter shuffled off, all broken up and wondering what had happened to a world which hitherto he had regarded as well-ordered. Ereburt turned to his companion with a grim smile.

"I am sure I am vastly obliged to you," he said. "I ought to be very much annoyed, and all that sort of thing, but I'm not. I am so lost in admiration of your skill as an angler that I can think of nothing else. Do you know that I have been fishing this pool for a fortnight and never had a rise? There are plenty of fish here, too. Now, what wonderful lure have you been using?"

With just the suggestion of a smile on her lips, the girl handed her big gaudy fly to Ereburt. It was a fairly familiar pattern of the "Butcher" family, but with a subtle difference. The hackles were longer and of a peculiar shade of red tipped with orange.

"This is quite new to me," Ereburt said. "It ought not to be a very difficult task—"

"To make a copy of it, you think? If you will come with me as far as my caravan, I shall be happy to give you the requisite materials. You see, I have the sporting blood in my veins. I am a Stanley, as they call us here, and ever since the Flood we have wandered about the world, living on the land and all that it breeds. And there are many things known to us which the rest of the world has forgotten. You think we wander from place to place aimlessly, but no. The migrating instinct is still in us, and wherever we go, our food awaits us. And you have traditions, too. There is one concerning a certain salmon lure, the art of making which you have lost. It was given to your people by an ancestor of mine over two hundred years ago, and many a time have you sought for it since. But you need not seek any longer, for you have it in your hand now."

Ereburt stammered something incoherent. He was feeling just a little dazed, just a little as if he had slipped back out of the twentieth century on to the fringe of the Dark Ages. It was not a lithe, breathing, palpitating gipsy beauty that he was talking to, but a witch in the guise of a lovely girl. And every word that she said was absolutely true. A couple of centuries ago a wandering Ereburt had come back from some foreign part, bringing a dusky bride with him and a frown on his face whenever the curious displayed a natural inclination to hear something of the pedigree of the new mistress of the house. There had been one or two swarthy visitors, but not for long, for the dark-eyed beauty seemed to fade like a bird in a cage, and died within three years of her marriage. And all that remained of her in the annals of the house to mark her memory was the salmon fly, which had been subsequently lost and was now almost miraculously restored. All these things were rapidly passing through Ereburt's mind as he dwelt on the dark beauty of his companion.

"I feel almost afraid of you," he said. "I wonder if you would mind being a little more explicit? Of course, it is most awfully good of you to give me that fly, and to offer to show me the correct way to make it up. There is nothing that I wanted more. I suppose you know that you are heaping coals of fire upon my head, so to speak? That business—"

"We bear no malice," the girl said. "We are only sorry that you should force us to defend our rights. Ah, we could have gone a great deal further had we liked. We could have asked you to prove that the fishing here is your property."

"You think that would be impossible, perhaps?"

"I am absolutely certain of it," the girl said calmly. "It is over two hundred years ago before the fish came here at all, and a Stanley came and settled down by this very spot and started to make baskets from the osiers along the river's bank. And none interfered with him, because it was not worth while. And so, little by little, the land on both banks belonged to the Stanley I speak of. He did not stay for very many years, because the wandering blood was in his veins, and the call came for him presently. But he had remained quite long enough to give the free right of fishing in this river of yours to anyone he chose. The salmon had come by this time, and a certain ancestor of yours saw that it was good. He gave to Rupert Stanley, the father of one Carmencita Ereburt, one hundred guineas for all his rights and easements, and there was a deed drawn up."

"Upon which I base my claim," Ereburt said eagerly.

"Ah, but can you find it? Without it your claim is worthless. I ask you if you could look me in the face and tell me that you could put your hand upon the deed at this moment? And you are a gentleman who would not tell me a lie. And now, if you will come with me as far as my caravan, I will carry out my promise."

With the same dazed feeling, Ereburt strode along by his companion. They came presently to a dainty little house on wheels, a motor caravan, the door of which was open. Ereburt caught a glimpse of gold-and-white fittings, a picture or two, and rows upon rows of books, diamond editions of the classics bound in green leather. It was only for a moment, then the gipsy was by his side again with a mass of silk and feathers in her hand.

"I think you will be able to manage with these," she said.

"I should do much better with a lesson," Ereburt said audaciously, "Now, I wonder if you will be offended at a suggestion that I have to make? Would you care to come up to the house this evening and dine with my sister and myself?"

Ereburt put the question with more diffidence than appeared on the surface. There was just a suspicion of healthy red on his cheeks, and in his heart the fear of a curt refusal. But he had judged this beautiful girl correctly, for she accepted the situation without the slightest demur. There was something about her that hinted at a mind above the usual conventions.

"I shall be most pleased," she said. "To tell you the truth, I am curious to see the inside of that beautiful house of yours. No, there is no reason to send any conveyance for me. I want nothing but a pair of goloshes and a wrap. At half-past seven, I suppose?"

She turned away without waiting for a reply, and disappeared within the caravan.

Ereburt wondered if she was alone there, and, as a matter of fact, she was. But there was no fear in the heart of a woman who called herself Carmena and answered to no other name.

There was just the chance, perhaps, that Miss Diana Ereburt might resent this unconventional invitation; but, after all, she was no more than a daughter of Eve, and before Ereburt had finished his strange story, Diana was just as anxious to welcome this amazing guest as he was himself.

She came presently, quiet, unassuming, and absolutely self-possessed, into the great hall where Ereburt and his guests generally sat during the half-hour preceding dinner. There was no stiffness or formality here, and no suggestion of coldness in the great wood fire and the shaded lamps casting pools of light on china and silver and the damascened armour of dead-and-gone Ereburts. On the brown-panelled wall were portraits of bygone heads and chatelaines of the family, and Diana Ereburt fairly gasped as her guest came forward, looking, in a black silk dress and lace ruffles, strangely like one of those pictures—as if it had stepped down from its frame. With her hands half outstretched, she paused.

"Oh, look!" she cried. "Can't you see the likeness, Lionel? Carmencita, wife of Nicholas Ereburt—he who married the gipsy. The likeness is something marvellous."

Carmena stood there with a faint suggestion of a smile upon her lips and no air of embarrassment about her. It was as if she had come prepared for this effect, as if she had looked forward to a dramatic situation. She might have been standing there at a fancy dress ball, waiting for the judge's approval of her costume. Ereburt glanced from the slim figure, all glowing white behind the diaphanous suggestion of her clinging garments, to the portrait of a woman hanging on the wall opposite the fireplace. It certainly was a marvellous likeness, he thought, the living facing the dead, the living that might have sat for the painted features smiling down upon her. Carmena took it all for granted.

"It is not so very strange," she said. "The women of my family have always been much the same. You see, we are like the Jews; it is only once in a generation or so that we marry out of our own people. And, when we do, the result is always a tragedy."

"Won't you sit down?" Diana contrived to say. "I am exceedingly glad to meet you. You won't mind the conventional remark? And so you are actually a descendant of the Hungarian lady whom Nicholas Ereburt married two centuries ago? But why do you say she was unhappy? It is true that she died very young, but according to the family archives Nicholas Ereburt was a devoted husband, and Dame Carmencita was very fond of him."

Carmena lay back in her chair and swept a calm, approving glance over all the warm luxury and refinement around her.

"So she would had she been an ordinary woman," she said. "Even I envy you a home like this. But it is not in our blood to settle down and be happy anywhere. When the sap rises and Nature turns over in her sleep, there comes the irresistible call which we all have to follow. Some follow on foot, and others in a motor caravan, as I do. But we cannot resist it any more than a migrating bird can turn its back on the west wind. And that was the trouble with your ancestor, Carmencita. She had her duty to her husband, and the obeying of it killed her. Oh, you think you know something about the story. To a limited extent, perhaps, you do. But it is woven into our traditions, and one of our songsters made it the theme of a noble poem. Do you know that I have never been in this house before, but I believe I could find my way to the bedroom in which Carmencita died? You think that she was the daughter of a common poacher who made baskets for a living. Well, it does not in the least matter. It was she who brought, as part of her dowry, the right to kill salmon in the river. And that right will be challenged before long."

"Is that in the nature of a threat?" Ereburt asked.

"Oh, no," Carmena went on. "I wonder how many of the people's privileges have been filched by you country gentry from time to time, and how many of them could be restored to the people if they would only consult the despised Zingari? Why, your people here have allowed you to steal that beautiful common from them bit by bit, and it would have gone for ever had we not fought and beaten you."

"There is a good deal in what you say." Ereburt admitted. "But I am afraid the predatory instinct is as strong within us as it ever was. But the fishing rights are another and a different matter altogether."

"Yes, because you have documentary evidence, and the thing you call the law is supreme. But the point is, can you put your hand upon that document when you need it?"

Diana Ereburt smiled as she saw the frown upon her brother's face. She knew well enough how slender was the tenure on which the claim to the salmon rights were based. And the Ereburt estate was famous for its stretch of river and the lordly fish that died there year by year. It only needed something like the truth to be known, and every poacher within twenty miles could snap his fingers at Peter Locke and defy him.

"But the document is actually in existence," Ereburt said eagerly. "I don't mind admitting to you that I cannot find it—indeed, it is nowhere to be found. I never saw it, nor my father before me. But, all the same, it is bound to be somewhere in the house."

A gong droned somewhere in the distance, an ancient white-haired butler drew back the heavy curtains from the dining-room door, and, with a solemnity worthy of the occasion, proclaimed the fact that dinner was served. Ereburt rose and offered his arm to his guest; her long slim fingers rested gently as a snowflake on his coat-sleeve. He watched her presently with a curiosity which was slightly impertinent. And yet she did nothing wrong, nothing outside the narrow track of convention, except, perhaps, that she was just a little puzzled by the array of glasses and the gleaming silver and cutlery before her. Still, she was perfectly at home; she accepted the ministering attentions of the white-haired butler and his assistants as if to the manner born. She enjoyed her dinner, with the healthy appetite of a clean, beautiful animal, but she partook only of the simplest and plainest dishes, and it was water only with which the old retainer filled her glass. She turned her back with a smile presently at the suggestion of a cigarette. She preferred to eat a little fruit instead. And she talked well of many things. She had travelled far and wide; she spoke of books and their authors as one speaks of intimate friends. But she never spoke of men or cities, of the great commercial hives where money is made, but always of the open road and the fields and the forests and the birds and beasts thereof. Ereburt flattered himself that he was something of a naturalist, but he had learnt more in the last hour than he had done for years. He touched lightly upon what science had done of late in regard to the habits of the trout and the lordly salmon, only to find that these secrets had been common knowledge to the Zingari for generations. Quite reluctantly he rose at length and held open the door for his guest. For once in a way, he discarded his after-dinner cigar for a cigarette, and then followed with the eagerness of a schoolboy to the drawing-room.

"Just listen to this, Lionel," Diana cried. "Miss Carmena is perfectly certain that she knows where the missing deed is to be found. She says that it is in the house."

"I am exceedingly glad to hear it," Ereburt said. "Is second sight amongst your many extraordinary gifts. Miss Carmena?"

"It is not that at all," Carmena said. "Did not I tell you how my people always cling together? You must have imagined that, because the woman called Dame Carmencita married outside her station, she ceased to take all interest in the clan. You may be surprised to know that she wrote regularly to her relations. Ah, those letters would make an interesting volume! I have read them again and again, and I know them by heart. Some day, perhaps, our head medicine-man—but that is not what we call him—may give his permission for them to be published. And it is because you have been kind and courteous to me that I tell you these things. Yesterday I should have laughed at the idea of doing anything of the kind. Now, I know that the paper we are speaking of was highly valued by Nicholas Ereburt, because his wife says so in her letters. He allowed her to keep it amongst other things, and after her death it could not be found. The truth is, that it never has been found. Now, let me see if I can help you in this grave matter. Please correct me if I make any mistakes. You have a wing which you call the Bishop's. At one time it formed part of a monastery. It was in this wing that Carmencita had her own suite of rooms. Am I correct in saying that leading out of the chief bedroom is a priests' hiding-hole? Ah, I see by your faces that I am not far wrong. The hiding-hole is lined with panels, and on one of the panels is the coat-of-arms of the bishop who founded the monastery. If you will touch a spring in the centre of that coat-of-arms, the panel will fly back, and you will find a small cupboard, where Carmencita had a fancy for hiding a few of her most intimate treasures. Am I right?"

"Absolutely," Ereburt cried. "This is exceedingly interesting. Miss Carmena, positively you are an angel unawares!"

"I never felt so excited," Diana cried.

"On the contrary, I am not excited in the least," Ereburt said, "because I know we are going to find the missing deed."

And it was exactly as he had anticipated. Here was the priests' hiding-place and the deep carving on the wall. The spring was just a little rusty, but it gave presently, disclosing a shallow cupboard containing a few articles of simple jewellery, together with a mass of faded letters and a crabbed old parchment inscribed with quaint characters, which proved to be nothing else but the missing deed. With a smile in her, dark, inscrutable eyes, Carmena placed it in Ereburt's hands.

"Permit me," she said, "and allow me to congratulate you. At the same time, I feel that I am in conspiracy to deprive the common people of their rights. I suppose I do this because I am more or less connected with the family of Ereburt. But that is the way that civilisation corrupts the children of the field and the heatherside. So long as I am here, I am aristocrat like yourself; but directly I find the sky and the stars above me, I am the rebellious radical that I was born to be. Yet I am glad that I came, because this is an evening to remember. And now, as it is getting late, permit me to thank you for your kindness and let me say good-bye."

"You are not going altogether?" Ereburt protested. "You will come and see us again?"

Carmena shook her head almost sorrowfully as she slipped into her over-shoes and drew the cloak about her head.

"Some day, perhaps," she said—" a year, a decade, perhaps a century, and, again, perhaps never. I am the creature of circumstance, an animal wandering in the wild just as instinct moves me. It does not follow, because I am beyond the reach of poverty, that I can defy the instincts of my class and be happy. I might have stayed a little longer, but the wind has gone round to the west, and I have already told you what that means to us. No, you are not to come with me one yard of the way. Do you think I fear the darkness? I love it. I have slept out under the stars many a time, and shall again. Ah, you will never civilise me!"

She smiled as she held out her hand to each of them in turn, then the door closed behind her, and she was alone in the darkness. Some day, perhaps—but who can say?


THE END

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