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Title: Full Fathoms Deep Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1201071h.html Language: English Date first posted: February 2012 Date most recently updated: February 2012 This eBook was produced by: Roy Glashan Project Gutenberg 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 Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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HUGH LLANBERIS sat at the door of his hut, looking out over a stretch of sand and desert that was as hard and hopeless as his own horizon. For five years he had toiled and sweated there, making bricks without straw and coaxing a lean dividend from the elusive alluvial gold. He was the only Englishman—indeed, to all practical purposes, the only white man there. He had melted in the sun and shivered in the rain; he had known every illness that that poisonous peninsula specialised in, and the miracle was that he still lived. There was always a chance, however, of a nip from some poisonous snake, or a knife in his ribs at the hand of one of his "Greasers;" but there—he was as hard as whipcord and as fine as a star.
Five years! It seemed like five centuries since he had turned his back upon the old grey house at Cwmgwilt, had seen the last of the sheep and the grouse on the hillside, and the brown trout lying on the gravel amidst the weeds. It was all very well to be a Llanberis of Cwmgwilt, with twenty generations of ancestors behind him, very well to take pride in the doings of the race when it had been a power in the Welsh Marches, but there was no getting away from the fact that, when Hugh turned his back upon it all, there was very little left beyond the old house and some few thousand barren acres of sheep pasture and some miles of excellent trout-fishing. Had Hugh's uncle, Ronald Llanberis, been desirous to sell the place, he would have been lucky to see ten thousand pounds for it, and the mortgagees would have claimed the greater part of it then.
And that was not all. Some ten years ago, before Ronald Llanberis's father died, the then head of the house had executed a deed of trust whereby he charged the property with five thousand pounds and half the upset value in favour of his second son, Hugh's aforesaid father. Now, no one had known of this save the elder son, Griffith, and when his father died, Griffith had concealed the fact, and none was any the wiser, with the solitary exception of old Elspeth Morris, an ancient Scotch nurse and retainer of the family, who knew everything. She was a stern old Puritan enough, and her duty had been clear. But because she had loved and worshipped Gwendolen Llanberis, who was Hugh's cousin and the daughter of his uncle, she had forgotten her duty and her honour, and had meant to go down to her grave with the secret of this hidden in her heart. She had juggled with her soul and her conscience by assuring herself that Gwendolen and Hugh would marry some day, in which case no harm would be done. But, unhappily, Hugh turned out to be made of different stuff to the modern decadents of his house, who lived a life of semi-starvation, warming themselves at the ashes of the dead-and-gone glories of the house. True, he had come to some understanding with his cousin, but he had bound her to nothing and held her to no promise, though they had vowed to exchange letters regularly. Then the letters ceased, for the lovers could not know that the man who had been capable of robbing his own brother was not likely to stop at suppressing letters of which he did not approve. He had other views for Gwen—which came to nothing, by the way—but that is no part of the story.
Then, at the end of four years, the failing heart in old Elspeth's breast broke the bars of silence, and she wrote to Hugh telling him the truth. She knew nothing, of course, of the suppressed letters; she thought that Hugh had forgotten Gwen, and in the girl's proud silence she read an indifference which had grown mutual. But she did write freely and tell Hugh of the night that old Griffith had died and handed the deed of trust to his elder son. And she spoke freely of what happened before the old man was laid in his coffin—how the man who had betrayed his trust crept into the dead man's room in the blackness of the night and concealed the deed in the grave-clothes of the corpse. And there it lay now inside the leaden coffin in the family vault of the Llanberises, which was under the floor of the old chapel connected with the house.
This story Hugh had read ages ago outside the door of his hut, and he had smiled bitterly to himself as he tore the letter in pieces. What did it matter? What did anything matter now? Five years ago he might have raised money on that deed to sufficiently start him in some sound business. But by this time, no doubt, the old estate had gone from bad to worse, till in all probability there was not enough left to cover the mortgages. And Gwen had forgotten him. No, he would stay where he was and fight it out to the bitter end. He heard, a month or two afterwards, that old Elspeth was dead, and the secret of Ronald Llanberis's perfidy was his own entirely. And so, through the thin years and the lean, haggard months, he worked on till this very evening, when he sat outside his hut, as was his usual custom, smoking his pipe and turning over a month-old batch of English newspapers for the fiftieth time. It seemed to him that he had read them even to the last thing in the way of an advertisement. He reached for one now and turned it over listlessly. Then a familiar name caught his eye, and he bent to read. And this was what jumped to his gaze:—
SETTLEMENT OF CWMGWILT CASE
The Chief Arbitrator yesterday announced his decision with regard to the litigation which has existed for the past three years between the executors of the late Mr. Ronald Llanberis, of Cwmgwilt, and the Corporation and Citizens of Slagborough. It is now five years since the Slagborough Corporation obtained the necessary Parliamentary powers to purchase the whole of the Cwmgwilt watershed for the purpose of forming a series of reservoirs. Mr. Llanberis contested the case and lost it. All this time the work has been going on, and now the great water scheme has been practically completed at an outlay of some six millions.
It is rather strange that the completion of the work, and its formal opening in November by Royalty, should come just at the time when the arbitration claim has been settled. Their award is to the effect that the Slagborough Corporation pay Mr. Llanberis's executors the sum of a hundred and thirty thousand pounds and all costs."
Hugh laughed aloud as he dropped the paper. It seemed absurd, extravagant, and altogether outside the bounds of reason. At the most sanguine valuation the property at Cwmgwilt was not worth a tithe of the money. But there was the paragraph, gravely set out in a responsible London paper, and there was no more to be said.
No more to be said—yes, but a good deal more to be done; for if this amazing thing were true, then Hugh was the owner of sixty thousand pounds at least, and perhaps more. If that charge now lying on the breast of a dead man in a lonely vault meant anything, it meant that old Griffith Llanberis intended his two sons to share and share alike. There would be a scandal, of course, for it would be impossible to open that lead coffin without a faculty, and this would have to be applied for in open Court. It would be just the sort of case to appeal to the public imagination. It would be easily gripped by the talons of the popular press, and everybody would know that the last proud owner of Cwmgwilt was nothing less than a scoundrel and a thief. Hugh found himself wondering what Gwen would say when she knew everything. Still, he was not going to hesitate on that account. He told himself bitterly that all the finer feelings had been ground out of him between the millstones of adversity. Why should he stay here, walking arm-in-arm with malaria and manslaughter, when the bed of down and the dew of the dawn waited for him at home?
He sat there dreaming and picturing the old house as he had seen it last. He could see himself loitering on the bridge crossing the Gwilt, and lazily watching the trout as he waited for Gwen. And he could see the happy light in her eyes as she came towards him, could see a flush on her face and the smile on her lips. She had been a beautiful girl in those days, and Hugh idly wondered what she was like now. It struck him presently, with a kind of shock, that to-day she could not be more than twenty-three. Why had he regarded her as so much older? It was probably because his own five years of penal servitude had been too long, for there are years that pass and die with the bloom still on them, and years that hang till they are grey and haggard.
A week later, and Hugh came down to the coast. He thrust his way homeward in a filthy little tub of a steamer, reeking and smelling of the bottomless pit, but he took no heed of this. At any rate, he had the green sea under his foot, and his face was turned homewards. It was good to find himself once again in London, to taste the delights of a real bath in a real hotel, and find himself once more in the garb of civilisation. There was no need to worry about money for the moment, for the five years had been saving ones, and Hugh's bank manager was quite politely pleased to see him. It mattered nothing, either, that the month was October, that the skies were heavy and grey, and that the country had been swept for days by torrents of rain.
At the end of his first week Hugh hied himself away to Paddington, and thence by long and tortuous stages to the little fishing inn where the tourists came and stayed, at the top of the hill. But the tiny hostel, with its diamond-paned windows and black oak settles, was no more. It had given place to a modern, up-to-date hotel, boasting every convenience and making its own electric light. Where the silent valleys had been, and where the sheep had grazed on the hillside, were enormous masses of masonry, and down there in the hollow, where Hugh had caught his first trout, was a gargantuan dam of solid concrete and stone and steel, a mile long, and measuring two hundred feet at least at the apex.
The old grey house itself stood in the midst of a wild desolation, stripped of its foliage and given over entirely to offices, where the engineers with their staff of a thousand men were working. Over yonder, where the grouse used to lie, the hillside was dotted with hundreds of bungalows, street upon street of tiny houses, where the army of workmen lived. The streets were noisy with the clamour of children, and somewhere in the distance a brass band was playing, and playing remarkably well. Hugh rubbed his eyes as he tried to take all this in. It was as if the Geni of the Lamp had been here, had come as the presiding genius of labour and wrought this miracle in a single night.
One or two of the engineers had overflowed into the hotel, and after dinner—a six-course meal served by waiters in evening-dress— Hugh had forgathered with one of them.
"Oh, you are one of the family, are you?" the young man asked. "Been abroad, eh? Yes, I've had some myself. You'll pardon me, but I hope that you are going to benefit out of that tidy little lump of money our people had to shell out. Anyway, I'm glad it's settled, because we want to open in November."
"You found a lot of local prejudice?" Hugh asked.
"Good Heavens, yes! Anybody would think we were guilty of sacrilege! That uncle of yours fought us tooth and nail. And yet you won't mind my saying that the money would have been a perfect godsend to him. He would have been lucky with a fifth of it. Still, it's ratepayers' money, and nobody worries about that. Now we shall be able to get on. We have tried almost in vain to get the chapel removed and all the bodies of your ancestors taken away and buried elsewhere."
"I hadn't thought of that," Hugh exclaimed. "I suppose you are going to pull down the house as well?"
"Oh, dear, no! We shall submerge the whole thing. There's not a house in the valley that won't be a hundred feet under water by Christmas. We are making a chain of four big lakes, which will be fed by the Gwilt and its tributaries. I wonder if anybody realises how many billions of gallons of water run to waste every winter down this valley. Why, it drains about a third of the watershed of Plynlimmon! Slagborough will have a grand water-supply, and no one will be a penny the worse. We shall fill up the valley to the level of the forests and stock the lakes with trout. This will be a fine place for tourists some of these days. I dare say this sounds all very strange, and looks queer to you, who were born here, but we have done nothing to spoil the romantic beauty of the place. I pointed this out yesterday to Miss Llanberis, and she agreed with me."
"You are speaking of my cousin?" Hugh said in a dazed sort of way. "You will think it a strange question, but would you mind telling me where she's living? You see, I have been off the map so long that I am quite a stranger to my own people."
"I know the feeling," the other man said sympathetically. "I once spent a year myself practically alone in a Peruvian forest. There's a farmhouse over yonder, on the high ground, kept by a man named Price. I believe Miss Llanberis has had rooms there for two years."
It was still raining heavily when Hugh rose in the morning. Big clouds rolled down the hillsides, the great drops fell hissing on the dead heather. Down below, the river ran yellow and turbid, and high up amongst the big dams a swarm of gangs of men were at work like bees around a hive. Over it all there seemed to hang a tense atmosphere, which had behind it a suggestion of anxiety and presentiment of coming danger. As Llanberis toiled up the hillside, he began to find out for himself what this meant. The engineers were anxious about the temporary dams which they had erected to divert the current of the Gwilt until such time as it was possible to fill up the mighty lake, and the hands of Royalty should set the crystal waters flowing along the huge aqueducts to Slagborough.
And now those mighty stanks were brimming with the yellow flood, and if one of them gave way, then there would be a lurid story of death and disaster along the lower reaches of the Eland Valley. Human foresight had not made allowance for these record floods, and the temporary dams were beginning to rock and tremble ominously.
"I don't like it," one of the engineers whispered to Hugh. "If much more water comes down, we shall have to anticipate events and turn the Gwilt back into its proper channel. A few hundred pounds of dynamite would do that; in fact, the explosion of the dynamite by electricity is precisely what Royalty will have to do. Then the water flows into the valley, and yonder big dam forms the lake. It is quite simple, and, if you ask me, I should like to see it done now. We are taking pretty big risks, Mr. Llanberis."
But Hugh had only followed this vaguely. He looked away from the silent valley up the hillside, where the rain was beating heavily, and there he could see a solitary figure, hooded and clad in mackintosh.
There was something in the carriage of the woman standing there, a turn of her head and the swaying of her slender form, that was strangely familiar to Hugh. Well, he would have to meet her some time, he told himself. He came behind her presently and called on her by name. She started and turned, her pale face aflame, a great gladness in the wide, grey eyes. Impulsively she held out her hands to him, her lips unsteady yet smiling a welcome as she uttered his name. And just for a moment Hugh hesitated. He had not expected anything like this—he was startled and embarrassed. It was only for a fraction of time, but it was enough to freeze the smile on the girl's lips and wipe the gleam of welcome from her eyes. It almost seemed to Hugh as if he had imagined this welcome on the part of Gwendolen, but now she stood before him calmly, as cold and inhospitable as the wild, grey rain beating on the hillside.
"So you have come back," she said. "You are just in time to see the end of the old place. I suppose you know that the house yonder will be two hundred feet under water in a few weeks?"
"So I understand," Hugh replied. "And you—is it your intention to remain in the neighbourhood?"
"Only till I have seen the last of it. I don't know why I stay. I feel like a woman in a dream watching her own funeral. I suppose I shall get used to it in time—used to strangers and the knowledge that I am the last Llanberis left besides yourself. Yet people say I am fortunate. They say that I am rich despite myself. Ah, I would go back to the old life gladly—the life of five years ago!"
She was appealing to him again, unconsciously telling him secrets with her eyes which her lips would have scorned to utter. What did it mean? Hugh wondered. He had suffered at the hands of Gwendolen's father, he had suffered those lean years largely because she had turned her back upon him. And yet she was taking the situation for granted—she seemed to ignore the way in which she had treated him.
"Yes, I understand you are rich," Hugh said somewhat bitterly. "It will be a welcome change. It did not so much matter when we were children, but the pride of a race that did not mind the claims of poor creditors is a miserable thing at the best."
He had it on the tip of his tongue to say more. He restrained an impulse to tell Gwendolen the truth. It would be better, perhaps, that the case should be stated through his solicitors. Even as he stood there he could see, beyond the drifting curtains of rain, the old house and the little chapel beyond, where his claim to half Gwendolen's fortune lay concealed in a scabbard of lead. He would let things drift for the moment, even as those responsible had let drift the pressing question of the removal of the graves of Cwmgwilt. There was no time to say any more, either, for two of the engineers came and stood alongside them. Their faces were grave and anxious, and they spoke to one another almost in whispers.
"I must go now," Gwendolen said. "Perhaps you will come and see me before you leave the neighbourhood."
Hugh murmured something in response, and Gwendolen turned away and slowly climbed the hillside. It was only when Hugh was alone once more that Gvven's smile and the glad, warm welcome of her eyes came back to him. He wondered and he wondered. It was possible that the man who had stooped to rob him of his inheritance might have fallen low enough to tamper with correspondence. Yes, Gwendolen had been unfeignedly glad to see him. He might have known what that look in those proud grey eyes meant, for he had seen it there once before on a never-to-be-forgotten occasion. He would see her again and tell her plainly what for the last five years had been in his mind. He brooded over it; he came back to his hotel through the roaring night and wet to the skin, and yet hardly conscious of his condition. He was tired and worn, and anxious for a good night's rest. Not one of the engineers appeared at dinner-time, so that there was no excuse for staying up.
Hugh woke from uneasy dreams conscious of the fact that someone was hammering on his door. He could see by his watch that he had not been in bed more than an hour; he could hear the roar and fret of the rainstorm outside. He invited the disturber in.
"I thought you would like to get up and see it, sir," the waiter said. "They've decided to blow up the temporary dam, sir. If they don't bring the Gwilt down the old valley, she'll burst the stanks, and there will be a hundred lives lost before daylight. They're going to use twelve hundred pounds of dynamite."
Hugh stumbled out of bed without delay. There was something in the situation that gripped him. There was danger here—a livid peril in which a handful of men were fighting against the forces of Nature. Just for a moment it did not occur to Hugh exactly what this might mean to him. A few moments later, and he was speeeding up the hillside, fighting his way against the storm of wind and rain. There was no need for him to pick and choose his footsteps, for the valley below, where the grey house stood, and the slopes of the hills were vivid with great stabbing lanes of flame. The hills seemed to be girt about with the huge flarelights that turned night into a kind of infernal day. Down below you could see a crowd of men staggering away from the grey house, bearing burdens of all kinds, for the human rats were leaving the sinking ship, so to speak, and the engineers were carrying their precious plans and instruments with them. It seemed like chaos, but it was a chaos out of which system and order were being rapidly evolved. On the far side of the hill, beside the mounds and giant struts of timber that formed the temporary dam, a score of men were at work. The light was so powerful that Hugh could actually see the glint of flame on a copper wire that led to a battery far above his own head. It was impossible to hear anything for the roar and strife of the storm, but these men seemed to be working with perfect understanding, and comprehended exactly what those swaying lanterns were saying.
All this Hugh watched with the deepest interest and a fascination that made his breath come fast. It seemed impossible to believe that this scene, like some wild nightmare inspired by one of Doré's pictures of Dante's Inferno, should be taking place in that peaceful, slumberous valley, where a year or two ago the catching of four-pound trout was an event of importance. He stood there, beaten by the rain and buffeted by the storm, until the valley was as empty as a desert—stood there till he saw a rocket rise high in the sky and fall in streams of gold and pallid blue. Then there came a muffled roar, an upheaval of a portion of the hillside, and a concussion that sent the solitary watcher reeling backwards. As the smoke cleared away, there came another roar, longer and more deep-throated, as millions of gallons of turgid water rushed down the hillside in a headlong torrent. It seemed almost a matter of minutes before the yellow flood creamed about the foot of the old grey house, then rose upward steadily till only the tops of the chimneys could be seen. And then there flashed upon Hugh the full significance of this weird and midnight fight between man and the forces of Nature.
"Well, my bad luck has dogged me from the start," Hugh muttered. "There goes my last trail of evidence, and the secret must lie for ever in the graves of Cwmgwilt at the bottom of the lake. A fitting burial-place for the race, perhaps, whose curse has ever been pride and procrastination. Gwendolen can enjoy her fortune now undisturbed, and I will go back and serve out the rest of my sentence."
He spoke calmly and without the slightest trace of bitterness, and, strange to say, felt no anger in his hour of defeat. Indeed, he was glad. He knew in his heart of hearts that he had never meant to fight this defenceless girl or advance a single finger to set free the flood-gates of scandal and disgrace. It was all over now, anyway. The wild, grey dawn would see a brimming lake, flush to the summit of the great dam, and down there, under the fretting waters, the secret of the house and his own patrimony would lie for ever. He turned his face towards the downward path, and there, at the end of one of the fierce, white lanes of light, stood Gwendolen.
He could see that the tears had been streaming down her face, but her eyes were dry now, and filled with a sadness that touched him in spite of himself.
"It is very unfortniiate," he said. "It is ever the same old story, Gwendolen. But I would not grieve over that. It is a fitting end to the race. It matters little whether our ancestors are in the air or under the water, for they will sleep as peacefully in their lead coffins and rise as surely when the time comes."
"Oh, it isn't that," Gwendolen murmured. "It is the feeling of being so horribly alone. I feel like a delicate flower that has been taken from some congenial soil and planted in a desert. You can only grow heather in its proper place. And now there is no one left but myself. Was there ever anybody so helpless as I?"
"With a fortune like yours—"
"But it is not mine," Gwendolen cried. "Half of it is yours. I know that was the intention of our grandfather, because I was told so. And suppose I had it all? Suppose you refused to take your proper share? Oh, I know I can't compel you to—I know you'll say that there is not one scrap of evidence in existence."
"That would be no more than the truth," Hugh smiled.
"I cannot deny it. There was a time when you and I were friends and, perhaps, something more than friends."
"There is no perhaps about it. I went away to seek my fortune. I wrote to you of my hopes and fears, to tell you how I was getting on; but no reply came—not one word from the girl—"
"Hugh!" Gwendolen cried. "Hugh, how could you possibly believe that I could so soon forget? And all the time I was waiting and longing and pining for your letters. Then, when they did not come, I thought that you had gone out into the world and met someone you liked better. When I saw you this morning, I began to hope, but you were so cold and distant. Perhaps, in the course of time—"
She stopped and said no more. But her eyes were speaking to him again, and Hugh read in them the words that she could not utter. He, too, took a step towards her and laid his hands upon her shoulders.
"It is no question of the future," he said. "Gwen, I have never changed. I have grown harder and more callous, perhaps, but no one has taken your place. I came back —well, never mind what I came back for. That and the memory of it has been washed away to-night, and by daylight will be buried 'full fathoms deep,' as old Shakespeare says. We will divide the money, but not in the way you suggest. We will build the old house once more, high up on the hillside, and the Llanberis shall be a power in the land again. It shall be your home and mine, and the money shall be spent equally between us for the good of ourselves and those who, I hope, will come after us. And if people call me a fortune-hunter—"
"They would not dare," Gwendolen cried indignantly, "and it would be a vile falsehood if they did."
Hugh smiled as he kissed her tenderly on the lips.
"Yes," he said, "my conscience is quite free from that reproach."
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