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Title: A Message from the Flood
Author: Fred M. White
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1402701h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Oct 2014
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A Message from the Flood

by

Fred M. White

Cover Image

First published in Chambers's Journal, May 7, 1892
This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2014



BIBLIOGRAPHIC NOTE

Chambers's Journal often published stories and other contributions without attribution to an author. This was the case with "A Message from the Flood." However on page 57 of Indexes to Fiction in Chambers's Journal..., compiled by Sue Thomas, Victorian Fiction Research Unit, Department of English, University of Queensland, 1989, the story is attributed to "White, F.M." with a reference ([341/370]) to a note on page 10 of the Indexes stating "Notebook giving details of work published in the Journal and payments made for it, 1871-1879," from which it may be assumed that Fred M. White received payment for this story.



IT was a curious sight to Portside eyes, such a sight as the younger generation had never seen before. Three miles below lay Portside itself, the cathedral tower looming misty through the hazy January afternoon, while black cold night crept up from the stern frosty east. For five weeks the earth had lain under a canopy of snow; for five weeks work had been at a standstill; and now the river Swirle had frozen over, and for three miles a solid sheet of ice stretched away, and the ring of steel blades echoed in the bare woods. For thirty-seven years the Swirl had defied the grip of King Frost, and even in the terrible winter of 1854 there had only been some few hundred yards of firm ice; whilst now the river seemed to be frozen solid. Where the current ran a little more freely, the ice had been tested at fourteen inches, so that the thousands of skaters passed over the swift flood in perfect safety. The darkness commenced to fall, and the moon grew brighter in the clear sky, while on either bank, lights began to flash in the windows of the cloth-mills along the valley; there was some little work in progress, though even the vale folks were feeling the terrible weather. For ten miles the Swirle Valley was a curious mixture of town and country, rural enough but for the clusters of workmen's cottages, and the smoke from tall chimneys drifting over the cornfields.

Watching the skaters, now fast disappearing in the misty gloom, like jovial demons skimming noiselessly along the frozen stretch, were two countrymen, Swirle Valleymen, as their slow speech and broad keen faces denoted. They were both comfortably clad, and each after the manner of his kind smoked his pipe with the solid grave silence often observed between old friends, when lack of speech does not necessarily mean embarrassment from lack of ideas.

'I mind no such sight as this, and, man and boy, I've worked in Swirle Valley for nigh on fifty year,' remarked the elder at length. 'Fifty-four was pretty hard, but then the ice only bore from Portside Stone Bridge up to the old boat-house. That was half a mile as near as no matter. And when the flood came down, it carried part of the bridge away. A sudden thaw now, with all that snow on the hills, would sweep all the bridges away as if they were made of cardboard.'

Jacob Strahan nodded solemnly. All the cottages and the mills whereat Jacob and his companion, Benjamin Attwood, acted as foremen, were situated far above range of any flood, and the notion of disaster for those below was not without a comfortable sense of personal satisfaction.

'I went up last week as far as Maindee,' Strahan replied deliberately; 'and there's ice, ice, nothing but ice, 'ceptin' on the streams, for close on thirty mile. If Portside Stone Bridge should stand the break-up, there'11 be a flood along the upper valley such as no man ever see before.'

Like the one I mind my grandfather speak of in '97,' said Attwood. 'The ice formed a dam at Portside, and the water burst the embankment at Wareham close by Foljambe's mill, and made a new course down the valley. Right behind us it ran in a stream bigger 'n the Swirle is now, as you can see by looking behind you at these ruined cottages.'

The speaker indicated the course of the disastrous flood, the memory of which still lives in the Portside district. A few hundred yards above them the Swirle turned suddenly to the right, the bank being strengthened artificially; and below this bank was a broad ravine, running for some miles in the direction of Portside, the roadway from that place to Maindee traversing the gorge half-way up its side. It was a wild and desolate spot, filled with bracken and brambles and large boulder-stones washed up by that terrible flood; while at the head of it stood Foljambe's factory, almost within rifle-shot of the house of the great manufacturer in question. Very few people passed that way at night, since it was a place of evil repute, though Attwood traversed it frequently, as the ravine was a shortcut from the factory to his own house on the other side of the dip.

We should be safe enough, if anything was to happen,' Strahan remarked with the same comfortable assurance. 'I never liked that valley, Ben, especially this time of year when the snow lies so deep in places. I don't know why I should think so, but I feel main certain that when the frost goes, we shall find your old master somewhere in the ravine.'

'I wish we could find him,' Attwood replied with an impatient sigh. 'He left my house that night just as it was coming on thick, and laughed at me when I warned him against crossing the gorge. When morning came, he was nowhere to be found, and the snow lying twenty feet deep in some places down there. And when he is found, my George's name will be cleared.'

'Let's hope so,' Strahan replied more cheerfully. 'He's a good lad; and though appearances are against him, I firmly believe he'll come out right yet.--And now, unless we're going to stay here all night, it's time to think about a cup of tea. Another hard frost, I see.'

The two old men turned away together, parting finally on the brow of the bill. With the confidence of one who knows his locality, Attwood crossed the ravine, and slowly climbed upwards to the summit, where the cheerful lights shone out from his own comfortable cottage. A weird feeling came upon him as he carefully skirted the great heaps of snow, below one of which, for all he knew, lay the body of his missing employer, Godfrey Foljambe, concerning whose disappearance every Portside individual was still talking, though the mysterious event was five weeks old.

If there was trouble at the great house on the hill, there were equally sore hearts in the foreman's more humble abode. The missing manufacturer was a just and kind employer, with a keen eye for merit; and that keen eye had looked favourably upon young George Attwood, with the result that six years with Foljambe & Co. saw him cashier to the firm. At this time, however, certain strange defalcations had taken place; there had been a series of investigations, with the result that the younger Attwood had lost his situation. It was a keen blow to employer and employed alike; but the evidence was terribly clear, and the manufacturer had no alternative, though he declined to prosecute.

So things had drifted on till the night before the great snow, when Mr Foljambe had presented himself at Attwood's cottage in a state of great excitement. George was away from home; hearing which, his late employer refused to disclose his, business, contenting himself with leaving a message for his quondam cashier to call upon him on urgent business the following morning. It was dark, with a heavy snow falling, as he departed homewards, laughing to scorn the advice tendered by his foreman as to avoiding the treacherous ravine. By morning the snow lay to the depth of three feet; while, in the gorge below, the white wrack had drifted into huge banks and valleys till even the ruined cottages had disappeared. But worst of all, Mr Foljambe was missing. The last person to see him was George Attwood, who, returning home along the road, was cheerfully accosted by his late employer with the information that good news awaited him on the morrow, with which he plunged into the darkness, to be seen no more of men.

'A bitter night,' Attwood cried, as he stamped across the flagged kitchen and warmed his numbed hands at the grateful blaze. 'A night as makes us thankful to know as we've a roof over our heads.--Come, lass, let us have some tea, for I've been standing by the mere till I'm nigh frozen.'

An extremely pretty girl, seated knitting in the ingle nook, rose from her seat and placed a metal teapot on the white tablecloth. Rose Attwood was, after George, the apple of her father's eye--a cottage Venus, clear-eyed and ruddy of complexion, as most of the hands in the valley knew, to the confusion of their peace of mind. But Rose was no coquette; and, moreover, the handsome, taciturn head-clerk at Foljambe's appeared to have monopolised the belle of the district, though, be it said, the course of true love had not hitherto run with the smoothness Rupert Vaughan could have wished.

He rose up from the other side of the fireplace, where he had been contemplating Rose in his usually moody fashion, and joined the party at their evening meal. Latterly, his presence seemed to be an understood thing, though a grim watchful silence, his natural manner, seemed to check all attempts at cheerfulness. Who he was and whence he came were mysteries to the Swirle. Valley people, who resented his cool dogged appropriation of the prettiest and most popular of their maidens.

It was a more than usually silent party as George Attwood sat moodily in the most secluded corner, and Vaughan was more watchful and cat-like than usual. Rose, demurely knitting, listened to her father's well-meant attempts at conversation, interpolating a few remarks now and then.

'Heard nothing of Mr Foljambe, I suppose?' He addressed Vaughan. 'I hear that the Portside Chronicle says something about foul-play.'

'Just like those newspaper fellows,' Vaughan sneered. 'Never mind what lies you invent so long as you sell your papers, is their motto.'

George Attwood looked up with sudden interest, and with far more attention than he had hitherto paid to the desultory conversation. 'I don't know so much about that,' said' he. 'The night before Mr Foljambe disappeared, he came here specially to see me. And what did he tell me when I met him afterwards I That he had some good news for me in the morning; and the only good news I could hear was that my name was cleared. Suppose the real culprit had discovered that his crime had come out, and followed my employer across the ravine. He was an old man and feeble. I don't suggest anything, but the task would have been easy.'

'Why not have done it yourself!' Vaughan returned, with a deeper scowl. 'You were the last man, on your own confession, who saw him alive; you met him in a lonely spot; and, for all we know to the contrary, he might have come here that night with fresh proofs against you. Goodness knows, I believe you innocent; but the theory of foul-play is a dangerous one--for you.'

'How rapidly you draw your deductions,' George replied, striving in vain to speak calmly. 'It would be equally sensible to point to you as the murderer. You have the place I held, the place you coveted. Before Smithson went to America, you and he laid your heads together to convict me. By some means or other, Mr Foljambe discovers the truth, and, by some means also, you know that he has done so. Then you follow him, and--Well, the rest is easy. Circumstances soon multiply themselves, suspicion once aroused. Here is one ready made: Why did you miss coming here for the first time in three months on the very night that my late employer had disappeared?'

'This is a poor jest,' Vaughan said hoarsely. 'I did come.'

'Yes, close on eleven o'clock. Still, I do but jest, though you take it so seriously. Still, you insulted me first, and'--

With an authoritative wave of his pipe-stem, Benjamin Attwood put an end to the argument. 'It is a sore subject, and gains nothing by discussion,' he observed sententiously. 'You are both talking nonsense, and dangerous nonsense, too. Change the subject.'

But with this expiring effort, the flickering conversation went out altogether. Vaughan rose, and taking up his hat, wished his friends an early good-night as he passed out, Rose rising to open the door for his departure. In his own masterly way he took her by the shoulder and led her out into the moonlight. 'You will forget all that,' he said fiercely. 'This pain I get at my heart makes me almost mad at times.--Rose, how much longer are you going to keep me waiting I' He bent down as if to kiss her; but the girl drew hastily away. A thin haze crossed the moon, and a puff of wind from the west brushed her cheek. It was as well that she did not see the lurid light in her companion's eyes.

'Very well,' he said. 'Good-night; and remember that the time will come when I shall make you love me.'

Rose felt an almost wild sense of relief as her impetuous lover disappeared. She did not care for him; her heart told her that, though she shrank from giving pain by a direct refusal. She lingered a moment in the open, conscious of a milder breath in the air, and listening to the sough of the wind in the woods. Presently, as the clouds seemed to thicken, she felt the rain-spray on her cheeks.

'There is heavy weather on the hills,' Attwood said, as he drew his chair nearer to the wood-fire. 'I thought it seemed warmer.--Bless me, is that rain?' A burst of wind dashed the sheeted water against the casement, and caused the feathery ashes to dance and swirl on the hearthstone. 'A sudden change,' the old man continued. 'There will be no skating on the Swirle to-morrow. A night of rain with all this snow, and before morning we shall see a flood the like of which Portside people have never witnessed before.'

As the cottage lay still and silent, with the heavy downpour roaring on the roof, the groaning and creaking ice on the river rose higher and higher. Morning was still struggling with night as a crash louder than the rest roused Benjamin Attwood, who hastily assumed his clothes, and wrapping himself in a heavy mackintosh, walked towards the river. The vast sheet of ice like a thing of life trembled and vibrated, and then, with a report like the roar of artillery, broke into a million pieces. Suddenly released, the rushing flood-water rose with marvellous speed, creeping up the banks, till within the hour the erstwhile solid plain was a creamy seething mass of green foam and floating ice-floes.

'Eight feet in an hour,' exclaimed Strahan, who had also come out to watch the wonderful sight, and thirty miles of ice to come down yet. No chance of that getting through the Portside Stone Bridge. What with the rain in the night and the snow on the Black Mountains, there'll be twenty feet of flood-water, not reckoning the ice at all.'

As the day went on, it seemed probable that Strahan's prophecy would be fulfilled. With alarming rapidity it rose, bearing great fields of ice, until, almost imperceptibly at first, the current began to slacken, while the water itself rose with still more alarming rapidity. The most sinister prophecies had been fulfilled, and the ice had jammed about Portside Bridge.

Along the embankment by Foljambe's factory the immense mass began to collect, pressing in an inclined plane against the bank, over which presently the water commenced to flow into the ravine below. Almost instantly the serried masses moved with irresistible force against the crumbling embankment; and before the astonished eyes of the spectators, it seemed to meet and disappear as, a few moments later, the swollen waters of the Swirle were thundering down the new channel of the ravine.

'Thank Heaven there are no houses there!' Attwood said fervently, his voice utterly drowned in the fearsome din. 'The flood will just waste itself on the broad meadows below Portside without doing much harm. Surely it is a wonderful eight, if a terrible one.'

The sullen waters rolled away, and by the end of three days a few huge boulders and uprooted trees only remained as evidence of the great flood. The sandy floor of the ravine was firm and hard when Attwood and Strahan, under the direction of Frank Foljambe, commenced to thoroughly search that wave-washed region for the missing manufacturer. The whole face of the gorge was changed; the brambles and bracken had disappeared; while the huge rocky boulders alone remained. The great stones were piled up in fantastic confusion, forming pyramids and caverns into which half-a-dozen men could creep. Vaughan, looking moodily on at the work, seemed uneasy as Strahan turned over the sand under an overhanging rock where some soft substance occupied his attention.

'Why waste your time' he asked impatiently. 'I tell you there is nothing here.'

Strahan did not reply, as he hurriedly scraped the sand away under the ledge with his spade. There was something yielding there--a scrap of sodden cloth, the toe of a boot, and presently the cold clammy semblance of a human hand came in view. An exclamation of horror and surprise broke from him, hearing which, the rest of the search-party turned to the spot, and carefully assisted the old man in his melancholy task.

The corpse was that of Mr Foljambe, without a doubt. Preserved by the frost and snow, and protected from the violence of the beating waters by the great rock, the body was singularly free from marks of violence, save that there was a livid mark on the neck, and the hands were clenched as if in a convulsion of pain.

'There has been something more than misadventure here,' the dead man's son said with a shuddering respiration. 'And I thought my father was without an enemy in the world.--See, some of you, what is clasped in the right hand, for I dare not look.'

With some difficulty, Attwood opened the stiff fingers, and drew from their clasp a fragment of torn silk. The pattern was dull and faded, but as the searcher laid it on his open palm, he gave a cry of astonishment.

'Great heavens, this is Vaughan's!' he cried. 'He was wearing a scarf of similar pattern when he came to my house on the evening of my poor master's disappearance. It was all pulled-up and disarranged, and Vaughan was always ridiculously neat in his dress. I remember Rose asking him how it happened, and he made some excuse, I forget what.'

All eyes were turned in search of Vaughan, but he had disappeared. There was an ominous silence as the little group bore the body away up to the great house on the hill, where they found the police inspector for the district waiting to hear the result of their search. Another body had been found far down the ravine, and the police had come over for the sake of identification. With a curt gesture of dismissal, the inspector signified that lie would be alone with Mr Foljambe, and with a few stern words as to the necessity of perfect silence, the searchers gradually dispersed.

The afternoon wore on slowly, and the factory clock gave out the hour of three before Rupert Vaughan found himself standing in Mr Frank Foljambe's office, confronting that gentleman, who was supported by the police inspector and the two Attwoods. There was, despite the young employer's marked distress, a stern expression of features, which seemed to paralyse the newcomer's faculties, and to set his heart beating with alarming palpitations.

'I have sent for you,' Foljambe said distinctly, 'on a very painful errand. You are aware perhaps that the body of my unhappy father has been found. That he died by violence there is no possible reason to doubt. We are not without a clue to the murderer, since, in the right hand of the body, we found a fragment of a scarf which has been identified as yours.'

Vaughan suddenly raised his hand to his throat with a choking cry.

'We have discovered in your rooms the missing article to which the torn fragment fits exactly. In my father's pocket-book we have also discovered a letter from America, in the handwriting of your accomplice Smithson, in which he confesses the plot between you, whereby your defalcations and robberies were artfully traced to young Mr Attwood. This information he was probably conveying to the injured young man, who, unfortunately, was not at home, when he met you in the ravine or near it and taxed you with your crime. The letter from America only arrived by the afternoon post, or probably you might have heard of it earlier. We do not ask you to say anything in reply, only I thought it right that you should know of what you are accused.'

'And of what am I accused?' Vaughan asked unsteadily.

'Of the murder of Mr Foljambe on the night of December 28th last,' the inspector put in quietly. 'You will consider yourself my prisoner.'

Vaughan bowed helplessly; he saw no hope in the ring of faces, felt no consciousness save the fluttering pain at his heart. A strange sensation of coming death was strong upon him; he knew too well the terrible consequences to a hopelessly diseased heart likely to arise from the excitement of such a moment. 'I did it,' he said in a faint low voice--'yes, I killed him. I followed him up to Attwood's house, and directly I heard him speak, I knew what he had heard. But I did not care for myself. I might have been beyond arrest before morning, had it not been for my love for that old man's daughter. I am half a Spaniard, and only they know what love means. Blind and mad, I followed my employer. I heard his conversation with George Attwood; and I--I killed him. I strangled him in the ravine, and hid the body under a great flat stone, piling others upon it till the snow drove me away. I dared not keep away from Attwood's, though I had forgotten my torn scarf, which has betrayed me. I did not intend to wrong George here; but we--Smithson and I--had been speculating, and some one had to suffer.--Bah! you are wondering why I am so foolish as to make such a full confession. I know, because'--He paused, as a horrible pain, keen as a knife, shot through his heart. Presently, with white ashy face and pallid lips, he continued painfully: 'I am not afraid. I shall never leave this room alive. I have been solemnly warned against any sudden shock, and this has overpowered me. I killed Foljambe; ay, I would have killed him twenty times, and suffered all the agony I have gone through a hundred times, rather than lose the love on which I had set my life. And when you think you have me in your grasp I cheat you--thus.' With a gesture of despair and defiance, he threw up his hands, falling prostrate upon the floor with a resounding crash.

Forgetful of his wrongs, Benjamin Attwood raised the motionless form, so still and silent. 'He has fainted,' he said. 'The excitement has been too much.'

'He is dead,' said the inspector solemnly, as he laid his hand upon the pulseless wrist. 'The prisoner has gone before a higher tribunal than ours.'

There is a new partner in the house of Foljambe & Co. now, whose name is Attwood; and a new resident in the great house on the hill, whose name is Rose. Society and her equals were disposed at first to envy the social promotion of the valley beauty; but as she bears her honours so meekly and sweetly, the sore feeling is rapidly subsiding. But however long they remain there, four actors in the drama are never likely to forget the great flood and its dramatic sequel. For had it not been so ordained, the secret of Godfrey Foljambe's disappearance might have remained a mystery to the end of time.


THE END

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