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Title: Old Offenders And A Few Old Scores Author: E. W. Hornung * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1800261h.html Language: English Date first posted: April 2018 Most recent update: April 2018 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore 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 Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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By the premature death of my brother-in-law, Mr. E. W. Hornung, British literature sustained a notable loss. He was but fifty-four when he passed over, and as his powers had steadily expanded with every year of his life, it is probable that they had not yet reached their full maturity. But even as it was, his output was considerable, for from the day that his “Bride from the Bush” attracted attention in the early ’nineties down to the period of the war he was always at work in his thorough conscientious way, and there was none of that work which could be called conventional, for he always brought to it a literary conscience, a fine artistic sense, and a remarkable power of vivid narrative. At his best there is no modern author who, by the sudden use of the right adjective and the right phrase, could make a scene spring more vividly to the eyes of the reader.
The Raffles stories are, of course, conspicuous examples of this, and one could not find any better example of clever plot and terse admirable narrative. But in a way they harmed Hornung, for they got between the public and his better work. Some of that work is ambitious, and fell little short of achieving the high mark at which it was aimed. “Peccavi,” for example, is a very outstanding novel, deep and serious, while “Fathers of Men” is one of the very best school tales in the language, taking the masters in as well as the boys, and thereby perhaps marring the book for the latter. But it was a remarkable achievement, and might well be so, for on the one hand the whole subject of public-school education, and on the other the national game of cricket, were two of Hornung’s chief hobbies. He was the best read man in cricket lore that I have ever met, and would I am sure have excelled in the game himself if he had not been hampered by short sight and a villainous asthma. To see him stand up behind the sticks with his big pebble glasses to a fast bowler was an object lesson in pluck if not in wicket-keeping.
His sympathies were intense, and his point of view clear, and when he focussed his powers upon anything which really appealed to him the effect was remarkable. He played the part of a man during the war, and after the death of his only son he went out to serve the troops in France as best he might. His little book, “Notes of a Camp-follower,” gives some of his impressions, and there are parts of it which are brilliant in their vivid portrayal. I am tempted to take a single passage lest the reader thinks I am too generous in diffuse commendation. It is the march of the Australians to mend the broken line at Amiens.
“They were marching in their own way—no strut or swing about it, but a more subtle jauntiness, a kind of mincing strut, perhaps not unconsciously sinister and unconventional, an aggressive part of themselves. But what men! What beetling chests, what muscle-swollen sleeves, what dark pugnacious clean-shaven faces! Here and there a pendulous moustache mourned the beard of some bushman of the old school, but no such adventitious aids could have improved upon the naked truculence of most of those mouths and chins. In their supercilious confidence they reminded me of the early Australian cricketers, taking the field to mow down the flower of English cricket in the days when those were our serious wars.” The part which the public schools played in the war was also a great joy to Hornung. “Only our public schools could have furnished off-hand an army of natural officers, trained to lead, old in responsibility, and afraid of nothing in the world but fear itself.”
It was a hard fate that when Hornung had come through it all, when he had seen peace dawn, and recovered from the first shock of his loss, with all his work lying in front of him and the prospect of quiet literary days before him, he should have met a sudden end while taking a short holiday in the South of France. It was aggravated influenza which carried him off, but he had always been delicate, and it was only his quiet courage which prevented his friends from constantly knowing it. He was loved by many, and as I dropped flowers upon his newly turned grave at St. Jean de Luz, where he lies with only a gravel path between him and George Gissing, I felt that the tribute was from many hearts besides my own.
Arthur Conan Doyle
The Saloon Passenger
The Lady Of The Lift
The Man At The Wheel
At the Pistol’s Point
The Murderer’s Double
The Voice of the Charmer
The Jackeroo On G-Block
The Larrikin Of Diamond Creek
The Poet Of Jumping Sandhills
The Power of the Game
A Bowler’s Innings
As the cable was hauled in, and the usual cheering passed between tug and ship, Skrimshire unclenched his teeth and gave tongue with a gusto as cynical as it was sincere. It had just come home to him that this was the last link with land, and he beheld it broken with ineffable relief. Tuskar Rock was already a little thing astern; the Australian coast lay the width of the world away; the captain did not expect even to sight any other, and had assured Skrimshire that the average passage was not less than ninety days. So, whatever was to happen in the end, he had three months more of life, and of such liberty as a sailing-ship affords.
He descended to his cabin, locked himself in, and lay down to read what the newspapers had to say about the murder. It seemed strange to Skrimshire that this was the first opportunity he had had of reading up his own crime; but the peculiar circumstances of his departure had forbidden him many a last pleasure ashore, and he was only too glad to have the papers to read now and a state-room to himself in which to read them. There was a heavy sea running, and Skrimshire was no sailor; but he would not have been without the motion, or even its effects upon himself. Both were an incessant reminder that his cabin was not a prison cell, and could not turn into one for three months at all events. Besides, he was not the man to surrender to a malady which is largely nervous. So he lay occupied in his berth; medium-sized, dark-skinned, neither young nor middle-aged; only respectably dressed, and with salient jaw unshaven since the thing of which he read without a flicker of the heavy eyelids or a tremor of the hairy hands.
He had five papers of that morning’s date; the crime was worthily reported in them all; one or two had leaders on its peculiar atrocity. Skrimshire sighed when he came to the end: it was hard that he could see no more papers for three months. The egotism of the criminal was excited within him. It was lucky he was no longer on land: he would have run any risk for the evening papers. His very anonymity as author of the tragedy—the thing to which he owed his temporary security—was a certain irritation to him. He was not ashamed of what he had done. It read wonderfully, and was already admitted to have shown that diabolical cleverness and audacity for which Skrimshire alone deserved the credit; yet it looked as though he would never get it. Thus far, at least, it was plain that there was not a shred of evidence against him, or against any person upon earth. He sighed again; smiled at himself for sighing; and, closing his eyes for the first time since the murder, slept like a baby for several hours.
Skrimshire was the only passenger in the saloon, of which he presently became the life and soul. At the first meal he yielded to the temptation of a casual allusion to the murder on the Caledonian Railway; but though they had heard of it, neither captain nor officers showed much interest in the subject, which Skrimshire dropped with a show of equal indifference. And this was his last weakness of the kind. He threw his newspapers overboard, and conquered the morbid vanity they had inspired by a superb effort of the will. Remorse he had none, and for three months certain he was absolutely safe. So he determined to enjoy himself meanwhile; and, in doing so, being a dominant personality, he managed to diffuse considerable enjoyment throughout the ship.
This man was not a gentleman in either the widest or the narrowest sense of that invidious term. He wore cheap jewellery, cheap tweeds as yellow as his boots, paper collars, and shirts of a brilliant blue. He spoke with a Cockney intonation which, in a Scottish vessel, grated more or less upon every ear. But he had funds of information and of anecdote as inexhaustible as his energy, and as entertaining as his rough good-humour. He took a lively interest in every incident of the voyage, and was as ready to go aloft in a gale of wind as to make up a rubber in any part of the ship. Within a month he was equally popular in the forecastle, the steerage, and the captain’s cabin. Then one morning Skrimshire awoke with a sense that something unusual was happening, followed by an instantaneous premonition of impending peril to himself.
There were too many boots and voices over his head; the ship was bowling sedately before the north-east trades, and otherwise as still as a ship could be. Skrimshire sat up and looked through his port-hole. A liner was passing them, also outward-bound, and some three or four miles to port. There was nothing alarming in that. Yet Skrimshire went straight on deck in his pyjamas; and, on the top rung of the poop-ladder, paused an instant, his now bearded jaw more salient than it had been for weeks.
Four little flags fluttered one above the other from the peak halliards, and at the weather-rail stood the captain, a powerful figure of a man, with his long legs planted well apart, and a marine binocular glued to his eyes. Near him was the second mate, a simple young fellow, who greeted Skrimshire with a nod.
“What’s up, McKendrick? What is she?”
“A Castle liner; one o’ Donal’ Currie’s Cape boats.”
“Why did you signal her?” whispered Skrimshire.
“ ‘Twas she signalled us.”
“Do you know what it’s all about?”
“No, but the captain does.”
The captain turned round as they were speaking, and Skrimshire read his secret at a glance. It was his own, discovered since his flight and flashed across the sea by the liner’s pennons. Meanwhile the captain was looking him up and down, his hitherto friendly face convulsed with hatred and horror; and Skrimshire realized the instant necessity of appearing absolutely unsuspicious of suspicion.
“Mornin’, captain,” said he, with all the cheerful familiarity which already existed between them; “and what’s all this bloomin’ signallin’ about?”
“Want to know?” thundered the captain, now looking him through and through.
“You bet I do.”
And Skrimshire held his breath upon an insinuating grin, parrying plain abhorrence with seeming unconcern, until the other merely stared.
“Then you can mind your own business,” roared the captain, at last, “and get off my poop—and speak to my officer of the watch again at your peril!”
“Well—I’m—hanged!” drawled Skrimshire, and turned on his heel with the raised eyebrows of bewildered innocence; but the drops stood thick upon his forehead when he saw himself next minute in his state-room mirror.
So he was found out; and the captain had been informed he had a murderer aboard; and detectives would meet the ship in Hobson’s Bay, and the murderer would be escorted back through the Suez Canal and duly hanged after nothing better than a run round the world for his money! The thing had happened before: it had been the fate of the first train murderer; but he had taken the wrong hat in his panic. What on earth had Skrimshire left behind him that was going to hang him after all?
He could not think, nor was that the thing to think about. The immediate necessity he had seen at once, with extraordinary quickness of perception, and he had already acted upon it with a nerve more extraordinary still. He must preserve such a front as should betray not the shadow of a dream that he could by any possibility be suspected, by any soul on board; absolute ease must be his watchword, absolute security his pose; then they might like to save themselves the inconvenience of keeping him in irons, knowing that detectives would be waiting to do all the dirty work at the other end. And in two months’ thinking a man should hit upon something, or he deserved to swing.
The opening day was not the worst. The captain’s rudeness was enough to account for a change in any man’s manner; and Skrimshire did both well and naturally to sulk for the remainder of that day. His unusual silence gave him unusual opportunities for secret observation, and he was thankful indeed that for the time being there was no necessity to live up to his popular reputation. The scene of the morning was all over the ship; yet, so far as the saloon passenger could see, the captain had not told anybody as yet. The chief mate invited him into his cabin for a smoke, spread the usual newspaper for a spittoon, and spun the inevitable yarns; but then the chief was a hard-bitten old dog with nerves of iron and a face of brass; he might know everything, or nothing at all; it was for Skrimshire to adapt his manner to the first hypothesis, and to impress the mate with the exuberance of his spirits and the utter lightness of his heart. Later in the morning he had some conversation with the second officer. It was but a word, and yet it confirmed the culprit in his conviction about the signals.
“What have I done,” he asked McKendrick, “to make the old man jump down my throat like that?”
“It wasna you,” replied the second; “it was the signals. But ye might have known not to bother him wi’ questions just then.”
“But what the deuce were the signals about?”
“That’s more than I ken, Bennett.”
This was Skrimshire’s alias on board.
“Can’t you find out?”
“Mebbee I might—after a bit.”
“Why not now?”
“The old man’s got the book in his cabin—the deectionary-book about the signalling, ye ken. It’s my place to keep you, but the old man’s carried it off, and there’s no’ another in the ship.”
“Ou, ay, it was somethin’ for hissel’, nae doot; but none of us kens what; an’ noo we never wull, for he’s as close as tar, is the old man.”
The “old man” was in point of fact no older than Skrimshire, but he had worked his way aft from ship’s boy, and a cruel boyhood followed by an early command had aged and hardened him.
A fine seaman, and a firm, though fiery, commander, Captain Neilson had also as kind a heart as one could wish to win, and a mind as simple as it was fair. It was on these qualities that Skrimshire determined to play, as he sulked in his deck-chair on the poop of the four-masted barque Lochwinnoch, while the captain thumped up and down in his rubber soles, his face black with thought, and a baleful eye upon the picture of offended oblivion behind the novel in the chair.
It was an interesting contest that was beginning between this pair, both of whom were strong, determined, wilful men; but one was as cunning as the other was kind, and he not only read his better like a book, but supplied in his turn a very legible and entirely plausible reading of himself. He never dreamt of impressing the captain as an innocent man; that would entail an alteration of pose inconsistent with the attitude of one who entertained no tittle of suspicion that the morning’s signalling had been about himself. On the contrary, what he had really been, and what he must now doubly appear, was the guilty man who had very little fear of ever being detected, and not the fleeting shadow of a notion that such detection had already taken place.
This was the obvious and the only rôle; he had played it instinctively thus far, and need only go on as he had begun. The reward was at best precarious. It depended entirely upon the character and temperament of Captain Neilson. Skrimshire credited him with sufficient strength and sufficient humanity to do nothing and to tell nobody until the Australian detectives came aboard. But that remained to be proved. Neilson might leave him a free man all the voyage, and yet put him in irons before the very end; it would be kinder to do so at once. However, he should not do so at all if Skrimshire could help it; and he was not long in letting fall an oblique and delicate, though an excessively audacious, hint upon the responsibility of such a course in his own particular case.
It was at the midday meal, while the smoke of the accursed liner was still a dirty cloud on the horizon. Neilson remained morose and silent, while the offended passenger would not give him word or look, but, on the other hand, talked more than ever, and with invidious gaiety, to the first and second officers. The captain glowered at his plate, searching his transparent soul for the ideal course, and catching very little of the conversation; how the topic of suicide arose he never knew.
“An’ I call it th’ act of a coward,” young McKendrick was declaring; “you can say what you like, but a man’s no’ a man that does the like o’ that.”
“Well, you think about it next time you’re havin’ a shave, old man,” retorted Skrimshire, pleasantly. “Think o’ buryin’ a razor in your neck, and the pain, and the blood comin’ over your fingers like as though you’d turned on the hot tap; and if you think long enough you’ll know whether it’s the act of a coward or whether it ain’t.”
“I’d blow my blessed head in,” said the chief officer. “It’d be quicker.”
“Oh, if it comes to that,” said Skrimshire, “I’d take prussic acid, for choice. It would take a lot to make me, I admit; but I’d do it like a shot to escape a worse death. I’ve often thought, for instance, what a rum thing it is, in these days, that a man of any sense or education whatever should let himself live to be hung!”
The captain looked up at this; so far he had merely listened. But Skrimshire was addressing himself to the chief mate at the other end of the table; neither look nor tone were intended to include Captain Neilson, the one being averted, and the other lowered, to a nice degree of insolent disregard. On the other hand, the manner of this theoretical suicide was all audacity and nonchalance, combined with a certain underlying sincerity which gave it a peculiar value in the mind of one listener. In a word, it was the manner of a man so convinced of his own security as to afford the luxury of telling the truth about himself in jest.
“They don’t give you a chance,” said the mate. “They watch you night and day. You’d be a good man, once you’d got to dance the hornpipe on nothing, if you went out any other way.”
“Nevertheless, I’d do it,” said Skrimshire, with cheery confidence.
“I’d back myself to do it, and before their eyes.”
“In a ring, eh?”
“A ring! Do you suppose they’d leave you your rings? No; it might be in a hollow tooth, and it might not. All I say is that I’d back myself to cheat the hangman.” Skrimshire said it through his black moustache. “And I’d do it, too,” he added, after a pause.
Then, at last, the captain put in his word. “You would do well,” said he, quietly. “I once saw a man swing, and I never want to see another. Ugh!”
His eyes met Skrimshire’s, which fell deliberately; and the talkative tongue wagged no more that meal.
Thereafter Neilson was civility itself, only observant civility. He had made up his mind in the knotty matter of the suspected murderer, and the latter read his determination as he had read the difficulty which it solved, if only for the present.
“So he means to let me go loose, only keeping an eye on me; so far, so good. But how long—how long? If I thought he was going to put me in irons as soon as he sights the land—”
He looked over the side, and a slight shudder shook even his frame. It was very blue water now, the depth unfathomable. A shark had been seen that morning. And, sharks or no sharks, Skrimshire could not swim! But he had two months of steady thought before him.
Meanwhile the captain showed some cunning in his turn. He evidently wished to convince himself that Skrimshire had not suspected the signalling. One day, at any rate, the passenger was invited into the captain’s cabin, in quite the old friendly fashion, for a pipe and a chat; in the middle of which Neilson left him for five minutes to speak to the officer of the watch. As the north-east trades blew as strong and true as ever, as the yards had not been touched for days, and as no sail was in sight, Skrimshire scented a trap, and presently beheld one set under his nose in the shape of the signalling-book. Skrimshire smiled. The captain found him buried in a magazine, and his little trap untouched. And the obvious deduction was also final to the sailor’s mind.
Six weeks produced no change in the outward situation; but brought the voyage so near its end that every soul but one waxed merry with the thought of shore—and that one seemed the merriest of them all. They had come from the longitude of the Cape to that of Kangaroo Island in twenty days, and in all probability would enter Port Phillip Heads in two days more. In one week the Lochwinnoch had logged close upon two thousand miles; boy and man, her commander had never made such an “easting” in his seagoing life. His pleasure and his pride were alike enormous, and Skrimshire conceived that his general goodwill towards men could scarcely have suffered by the experience. He determined, at all events, to feel his way to such compassion as an honest man could be expected to extend towards an unhung murderer; and he felt it with that mixture of cautious craft and sheer impudence which made him the formidable criminal he was.
It was the night that might prove the last of the voyage, and the last night of freedom for the unhappy Skrimshire. Unhappy he undoubtedly was, for the strain of continuing as he had begun, “the life and soul of the ship,” had told upon even his nerves in the end, though to the end it had been splendidly borne. To-night, however, as he paced the poop by the captain’s side, he exhibited, for the first time, a despondency which exactly fitted in with Neilson’s conception of his case.
“I shall never forget this voyage,” said Skrimshire, sighing. “You may not believe me, captain, but I’m sorry it’s over. I am, indeed; no doubt I’m the only man in the ship who is.”
“And why are you?” asked Neilson, eyeing his passenger for once with the curiosity which had so long consumed him, as also with the sympathy which had grown upon him, despite, or on account of, those sinister signals’ from the Castle liner. Skrimshire shrugged.
“Oh, that’s a long story. I’ve had a rum life of it, and not what you would call the life of a saint. This voyage will stand out as one of its happiest chapters, that’s all; and it may be one of the last.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Oh, one can never tell.”
“But what did you think of doing out there?”
Neilson was miserable. There was a ring in the hoarse voice that went straight to his heart. He longed to tell this man what was in store for him—what he himself knew—but he conquered the longing as he had conquered it before. Time enough when the detectives came on board; dirty work and all responsibility would very well keep for them.
So the good captain thought to himself, as the pair took turns in silence; so the dominant brain at his side willed and intended that he should think.
“Whatever you hear of me,” resumed Skrimshire, at last, “and however great a beast I may some day turn out, remember that I wasn’t one aboard your ship. Will you, captain? Remember the best of me and I’ll be grateful, wherever I am, and whatever happens.”
“I will,” said Neilson, hoarse in his turn; and he grasped the guilty hand. Skrimshire had some ado to keep from smiling, but there was another point upon which he required an assurance, and he sought it after a decent pause.
“So you expect to pass the Otway some time to-morrow?”
“By dinner time, if we’re lucky.”
“And there you signal?”
“Yes, they should hear of us in Melbourne early to-morrow afternoon.”
“And what about the pilot?”
“Oh, he’ll come aboard later—certainly not before evening. It’s easy as mid-ocean till you come to the Heads, and we can’t be there before nightfall, even if the wind holds fair.”
“Well, let’s hope it may. So long, captain, and a thousand thanks for all your kindness. Dark night, by the way?”
“Yes; let’s hope to-morrow won’t be like it.”
But the next night was darker still; there was neither moon nor star, and Skrimshire was thankful to have had speech with the captain while he could, for now he would speak to nobody, and to-morrow—
There was no to-morrow in Skrimshire’s mind, there was only to-night. There was the hour he had been living for these six long weeks. There was the plan that had come to him with the south-east trades, and rolled in his mind through the Southern Ocean, only to reach perfection within the last few hours. But it was perfect now. And all beyond lay dark.
“Isn’t that their boat, sir?”
It was the chief steward who wanted to know; he was dallying on the poop in the excitement of the occasion. The captain stood farther aft: an anxious face, a red cigar-end, and a blue Tam-o’-Shanter were all of him that showed in the intense darkness. The main-yard had just been backed, and the chief officer was now on the quarter-deck, seeing the rope-ladder over the side. It was through his glasses that Skrimshire was watching the pilot’s cutter, or rather her lights, and as well as he could, by their meagre rays, the little boat that now bobbed against the cutter’s side.
“It is the boat, ain’t it, sir?” persisted the steward.
“Yes, I think so,” said Skrimshire. “How many men come with the pilot, as a rule?”
“Only himself and a chap to row him.”
“Ah! You might give these to the chief officer, steward. I’m going to my cabin for a minute. Don’t forget to thank the mate for lending me his glasses: they’ve been exceedingly useful to me.”
And Skrimshire disappeared down the ladder; his tone had been strange, but the steward only remembered this afterwards: at the time he was too excited himself, and too glad of a glass to level at the boat, to note any such nicety as a mere tone.
“Four of them, by Jingo,” mused the steward. “I wonder what that’s for?”
But he did not wonder long: in a very few minutes the four were on board, and ascending the same ladder by which Skrimshire had gone below, the pilot at their head. Neilson received them at the break of the poop.
“I congratulate you, captain,” was the pilot’s greeting; “we didn’t expect you before next week. Now, first allow me,” and he lowered his voice, “to introduce Inspector Robins, of the Melbourne police; this gentleman is an officer he has brought with him; and my man has come aboard for a message for the shore. Mr. Robins would like a word with you before we let him go. There is no hurry, for I’m very much afraid I can’t take you in till daylight.”
Neilson took the inspector to the weather-rail.
“I know what’s coming,” he said. “The Garth Castle signaled—”
“I know, I know. Have you got him? Have you got him?” rapped out Robins.
“Safe and sound,” whispered the captain; “and thinks himself as right as the bank, poor devil!”
“Then you didn’t put him in irons?”
“No; I thought it better not to. He’d have committed suicide. I spotted that; sounded him without his knowing,” said the crafty captain. “I happened to read the signals myself, and I never let on to a soul in the ship.”
The good fellow looked delighted with himself behind his red cigar, but the acute face of the detective scarcely reflected his satisfaction.
“Well, that’s all right if he’s all right” said Robins. “If you don’t mind, captain, I’d like to be introduced to him. One or both of us will spend the night with him, by your leave.”
“As you like,” said Neilson; “but I can’t help feeling sorry for him. He’s no more idea of this than the man in the moon. That you, steward? Where’s Mr. Bennett? He was here a minute ago.”
“Yes, sir; only just gone below, sir.”
“Well, go and ask him to come up and drink with the pilot. I’ll introduce him to the pilot, and you can do what you like,” continued the captain, only wishing he could shirk a detestable duty altogether. “But I give you fair warning, this is a desperate man, or I’m much mistaken in him.”
“Desperate!” chuckled the inspector; “don’t we know it? It seems to have been as bad a murder as you’ve had in the old country for a long time. In a train. All planned. Victim in one carriage, our friend in the next; got along footboard in tunnel, shot him dead through window, and got back. Case of revenge, and other fellow no beauty, but this one’s got to swing. On his way to join your ship, too; passage booked beforehand. The most cold blooded plant—”
It was the chief steward, breathless and panic-stricken.
“His door’s locked—”
“He always does lock it,” exclaimed the captain, as Robins darted to the ladder with an oath.
“But now he won’t answer!” cried the steward.
And even with his words the answer came, in the terrific report of a revolver fired in a confined space. Next instant the inspector had hurled himself into the little saloon, the others at his heels, and half the ship’s company at theirs. There was no need to point out the culprit’s cabin. White smoke was streaming through the ventilated panels; all stood watching it, but for a time none spoke. Then Robins turned upon the captain.
“We have you to thank for this, Captain Neilson,” said he. “It is you who will have to answer for it.”
Neilson turned white, but it was white heat with him.
“And so I will,” he thundered, “but not to you! I don’t answer to any confounded Colonial policemen, and I don’t take cheek from one, either. By Heaven, sir, I’m master of this ship, and for two pins I’ll have you over the side again, detective or no detective. Do your business and break in that door, and you leave me to mind mine at the proper time and in the proper place.”
He was furious with the fury of a masterful mariner, whose word is law aboard his own vessel, and yet beneath this virile passion there lurked a certain secret satisfaction in the thought that the companion of so many weeks was at all events not to hang. But the tragedy which had occurred was the greater unpleasantness for himself; indeed it might well lead to something more, and Neilson stood in the grip of grim considerations; in his own doorway, while Robins sent for the carpenter without addressing another syllable to the captain.
The saloon had been invaded by steerage passengers, and even by members of the crew, but discipline was for once a secondary matter in the eyes of Captain Neilson, and their fire was all for the insolent intruder who had dared to blame him aboard his own ship. The carpenter had to fight his way through a small, but exceedingly dense, crowd, beginning on the quarter-deck outside, and at its thickest in the narrow passage terminating in the saloon. On his arrival, however, the lock was soon forced, and the door swung inwards in a sudden silence, broken as suddenly by the detective’s voice.
“Empty, by Heaven!” he shrieked. “Hunt him—he’s given us the slip!”
And the saloon emptied only less rapidly than it had filled, till Neilson had it to himself; he stepped over to the passenger’s cabin, half expecting to find him hiding in some corner after all. There he was wrong; nor did he at once grasp the full significance of what he did find.
A revolver was dangling from a peg on one side of the cabin—dangling by a yard of twine secured to the trigger. A few more inches of the twine, tied to the butt, had been severed by burning, as had another yard dangling from another peg at the opposite side of the cabin. An inch of candle lay upon the floor.
The twine had been passed through it: there was its mark in the wax. The whole had been strung across the cabin and the candle lighted before Skrimshire left; the revolver, hung by the trigger as a man is hanged by the neck, had been given a three-foot drop, and gone off duly as the flame burnt down to the string.
Such was the plan which an ingenious (if perverted) mind had taken several weeks to perfect.
Neilson rushed on deck, to find all hands at the rail, and a fresh sensation in the air.
The pilot met him on the poop.
“My boat’s gone!” he cried. “And the night like pitch!”
Neilson stood thunderstruck.
“Did you leave a man aboard?”
“No; he came up for a telegram for the police in town.”
“Then you can’t blame me there.”
And the captain leapt upon the rail at the break of the poop.
“Silence!” he roared. “Silence—every man of you! If we can’t see we must listen... that’s it... not a whisper... now...” At first there was nothing to be heard but the quick-drawn breath from half-a-hundred throats; then, out of the impenetrable darkness, came the thud, thud, thud of an oar in a rowlock, already some distance away; but in which direction it was impossible to tell on such a night.
It was the Man from Winchester who gave her that name: the Man who was Swiss godfather and godmother to half the hotel. Whiskers and the Suffragite, the Meenister and the Limit, were a few more of his baptismal efforts; but it is only fair to state that he called us these things behind our respective backs, whereas we called him Man to his impudent little laughing face. The one exception to a redeeming rule was the Lady of the Lift, who delighted in her nom d’hotel and made much of its inventor. The Man was in fact a sufficiently healthy and hearty specimen of the young barbarian; but though doubtless a very small molecule at Winchester, where he had but finished his first term, it must be confessed that there was a good deal of him at the Alpine haunt to which his people had brought him for the Christmas holidays.
It was one of those spots to which half one’s friends flock nowadays in the latter part of December, to return with the complexions of Choctaws all too early in the New Year. A group of gay hotels, with as many balconies as a pagoda, and an unpopular annex in the background, had broken out upon a plateau among the dazzling peaks. Snow of an almost incandescent purity and brilliance rose in huge uncouth chunks against a tropically blue sky; the softened shapes of mountains lay buried underneath; and snow clung in great gouts to the fir-trees, that bristled upon the lower slopes like darts from the blue. You had to freeze for hours on a sledge, skimming dizzy ledges, climbing all the time, to reach this fairy fastness from the nearest railway. But it was worth the freezing, even before the journey’s end, if you made it by moonlight, as just before Christmas one did. And the hotels when you reached them (if only they really had reserved those rooms) were quite wonderfully managed and equipped: surely there are volumes in the fact that there was a lift in even one of them, a lift with a crimson velvet seat, where a poor lady could sit and watch the fun at nights, of it but not in it, and so not in the way at all, though accessible to chivalry not otherwise engaged.
The poor lady! That was her life in the hotel; and everybody was sorry for her except herself. It seemed such a sad-case. The exact trouble was unknown—she never spoke of herself—but its outward sign was a crutch. And her face was so young, and her hair so gray! But younger than her face was the whole spirit of the Lady of the Lift: her humor, her courage, her breezy outlook on life, her keen interest in everybody and everything. And the cruel part of it was that nature had cast her in athletic mould, that in fact she had excelled at those very sports which she was now constrained to watch at a distance from the bedroom balcony where she took her modicum of open air.
Madame Faivre she was called to her face; and her English was just a little broken. But who she had been formerly, who or what her husband, or any other detail of her sad life, nobody knew or even pretended to know, with the possible exception of old Whiskers, and he was both vague in his ideas and chary of expressing them.
Old Whiskers, so dubbed by young Winchester on account of a somewhat feline or Teutonic moustache, was an Alpine veteran who climbed in summer and curled in winter. He was understood to improve the equinoxes in some scholastic capacity at Oxford. The personality of Madame Faivre quite worried Whiskers for a day or two after his arrival; he could have sworn that he had met her somewhere, and so he told her with the easy modest sociability which made him another favorite himself.
“It was before I gave up skating,” said Whiskers. “I can’t help feeling that we’ve skated together, somewhere or other.”
“It must have been many years ago,” said madame. “I also have given it up quite young. I have had a weak ankle. I have to thank that ankle also for this crutch.”
Whiskers felt embarrassed. He was in fact the first to be informed that the lady’s infirmity was originally due to an accident; but he kept the information to himself, and discussed Madame Faivre no more with his hotel acquaintances. He felt he had already committed a minor breach of tact and taste; he made amends with many little deferential attentions; but still the vague memory, the elusive association, would cause him a certain amount of mental exasperation whenever they met, as a riddle of no consequence that yet refused to be given up.
Then an old skating friend turned up, and was turned away, without so much as seeing the rooms he had engaged seven weeks before; but he did insist on having his lunch, and parenthetically he solved the mystery for Whiskers at a glance.
“Remember her! Why, of course I remember her; don’t you?” And he whispered the maiden name for which Whiskers had racked his brain in vain.
But Whiskers was getting to the age at which memory begins to fail; he was not immediately the wiser.
“I seem to remember the name at Davos one year,” he said. “Or was it St. Moritz?”
“Davos. I should think you did remember it!”
“Well, for one reason you used to skate with her every day; you were about the best pair there.”
“So I told her!” cried Whiskers.
“You don’t mean to say she denied it?”
“Certainly; no recollection whatever, so she said.”
The old skating friend came up to Whiskers’s good ear. They were waiting in the hall for lunch, and the lady as usual was waiting in the lift, had indeed gone up and down in it more than once rather than relinquish her favorite seat. But now she hung at anchor a few inches above the level of the hall, exchanging the sprightliest and kindest glances with all the hungry, bright red faces, just in from sun and snow.
“Of course you know why she denies it?” whispered the old skating friend.
“I suppose she’s forgotten me too.”
“How long is it ago?”
“Seven or eight years, I suppose.”
“That’s it, then; we’ve both aged.”
“She has, if you like!” said the skating friend. “She looks twenty years older—might be another woman altogether—but she isn’t, by Jove! Don’t look, but she’s got her eye on us now.”
She had, though she was rallying her young Man at the same time, and he her with perfectly unintelligible Winchester repartee. Whiskers begged his friend to refresh a treacherous memory.
“Well,” began the other, “it was such a terrific scandal at the time...”
Whiskers did remember the whole thing. It made him grave. His friend, about to be turned back through the snow, vowing an Englishman’s vengeance in the Times, and really only distracted from his grievance by seeing and hearing about the Lady of the Lift, now took a mordant satisfaction in pouring vitriolic comments on the forgotten scandal into the good ear that Whiskers was lending him perforce. That ripe gray scholar listened grudgingly; more than once he begged for a lower whisper; and it was through him that the pair stayed behind in the hall when all the rest had trooped off to luncheon.
“It’s a good many years ago,” the old boy said. “She must have married and settled down since then, and had a hard time of it at that, I’m afraid; it’s most awfully bad luck our crossing her path like this. She shall never know I spotted her. Women should always have another chance. And this one has been smashed up into the bargain: an accident, I gather: probably one of those infernal motors. I must look after her a bit more. Remember her? Do you remember her rocking turns and three-change-threes?”
Old Whiskers was as good as his word; at least he was as good to the poor lady as she would allow him to be. Now he remembered her better every time he saw her, and marvelled more and more at the change which a few short years had wrought in her. At sixty he himself looked to all intents and purposes as good a man as he had been at fifty-three; the salt had gained upon the pepper in his hair and moustache; his mirror advised him of no graver change. Yet here was a fine athletic girl transformed into a decrepit elderly lady in little more than a lustrum. Nemesis had handled her very roughly; her present case was sufficient punishment for any past, even for that which seemed incredible when one looked upon the bright young smile under the beautiful silver hair. Old Whiskers was not sure but that it was an improvement, that hair!
It was about all he saw of Madame Faivre for a day or two; she held her nightly court in the lift when the young people were dancing in the hall, but the next time her elderly admirer approached she seized the lever herself and shot straight into the upper stories. He was waiting for the lift, however, if not for her, when she came floating down again with a book, and by means of an adroit compliment he got her to take him up again for his pipe. Nor did he immediately desert the lift in favor of younger blood on their return to the hall level.
“My waltzing days are over,” said he, with a cunning sigh, as they looked out over the dancers, he loading his pipe particle by particle with pauses in between.
“So are mine,” said she, falling into the trap set for her sympathy.
He looked at her with a kindling eye.
“Ever waltz on the ice, Madame?”
“Very badly, half a century ago!”
He laughed politely. “Ah! that’s dancing,” he said; “it makes all this sort of thing look silly.”
The pipe got itself slowly, very slowly, loaded while he bragged about his own skating without asking any more questions about hers; until just as he was going, match in hand.
“Ever try a rocking turn?” he said.
“Never,” she smiled, confidently.
“Or a three-change-three?”
“No more have I,” he said, “for about a century by your reckoning, and I suppose I never shall again.”
It was all very wanton, and at first he could not think why he had done it; but a little intellectual probing transfixed the reason in due time. It was not the romance which the knowing Man detected with such glee, and reported with strange epithets to his particular friends.
Whiskers was not that kind of old fool; neither was he a crabbed bachelor with “no use for” the average woman. He could talk to her, on the contrary, with extreme cleverness and vivacity if she had any brains at all, with a hard sparkle in the worst of cases. He would even reason with the Suffragite. He liked talking to Madame Faivre; he would have loved madame to talk to him. He might have helped her. He heard himself sympathizing, advising, bracing her with advice. There was no woman in his life who had any need of his advice or sympathy. He had broad ideas, a generous judgment of all but intellectual shortcomings; he would have been glad to show himself in those colors, for they were his true ones, though he had seldom had a chance of running them up on the high seas of life.
That was all; it was a fairly frequent thought, never an obsession. Whiskers was out to enjoy himself, and he did that daily and hourly on the rink. He had given up skating, as he said, but he had taken to curling, and he loved the game; it appealed to his intellect and humor; he would caper like a boy, would “soop up” like a good Galloway Scot. His daily foe was the Meenister; the Meenister cur-r-r-r-r-led. Watching them in twinkling skates and grubby sweater, the volatile figure of the small Wykehamist might be seen a mile off; it was worth skating that way to note his impudent little nose creased up in delight at dialogue and antics alike; luckily the little devil wasn’t there on the dreadful day when the Meenister used a much worse word!
The one to spread that scandal was the Limit, a swarthy plutocrat blessed with the most olive of olive-branches, whom the Man nevertheless described as “a hectic crowd.” The Limit wore rings on his fingers and diamonds in the rings. The Limit had the most extensive wardrobe in the hotel, and Mrs. Limit glittered all over like a jeweller’s window at table-d’hote. These statements seem due to a natural talent for nomenclature which was usually apposite and often inoffensive.
The whole party, despite a capacity for internecine strife latent in several of the tithe who have now been mentioned, got on admirably together until the second week in January, when the weather played them false. It had been ideal up to then: hard blue skies, hard black frosts, and no more snow. Everybody slid everywhere on a luge, or dragged it cheerfully up the hill; bob-sleighs were in favor, but the place had not risen to the perilous luxury of an ice-run for true tobogganing. There was dancing every evening in all the hotels; there was even a combined fancy-dress ball, at which the Man—but enough of that valued contributor to the general gaiety. The thing was a success. The Lady of the Lift, who never left it all night, provided the only memorable instance of plain clothes; she made no change from the black crepon skirt which she wore day and night, with now one upper garment, now another; to-night it was merely the jet bodice of most nights, and yet Mrs. Limit in all her diamonds was often a lonely figure, but there was always a bevy about the lift.
That night the snow began. The next day it never stopped. The rink was covered, swept, covered deeper than ever, and finally deserted by disconsolate meenisters, scholars, and skating tag-rag. Because the London papers had never been so keenly desired, the afternoon sledge never came up with them; luckily there was a telephone to allay anxiety; luckily, indeed, for every reason. It was already the one remaining line of communication with the outer world. The mountain road was practically obliterated by the snow. The very contour of the mountains seemed more generous, less angular. The snow fell straight and thick as rain from a windless sky, in tiny flakes. It stuck everywhere, followed the minutest shape of everything, bent the slenderest twig under a coating three times its own thickness. It turned the telephone wires into thick white ropes that you lost against the roof from which they sprouted, but followed for miles against the darkling pines. The Limits played bridge, the Man was sadly spoiling for Winchester, the admirable Whiskers set about organizing an afternoon entertainment, and the Lady of the Lift told fortunes there for a local charity.
She was the life and soul of the place while things were at their worst, the witch who drew her children round her like the Pied Piper, only without piping, by just being herself and making play with a pack of cards and her own simple ready wit. Her hands, it was noted in this connection, were as smooth as her face; and the cruelty of the affliction that so aged her was more than ever emphasized by the splendid spirits which she not only maintained herself but infused into many of the most dejected sportsmen of both sexes.
But she grew paler under the strain; she had her very meals in the lift, despite draughts and cold; and after luncheon on the second day they found her there fast asleep.
“Why persevere in this extraordinary eccentricity?” asked old Whiskers in quite a fatherly fashion. “To sit in a chilly lift by the hour together! Where can the fun come in?”
“I do it not for fun,” she said.
“Then why do you do it?”
“Cannot you guess?”
“You used to say it was to see what was going on.”
“It was true.”
“But nothing has been going on to-day, except your own most philanthropic sideshow.”
“Then why conduct it here? Why not transfer your court to a warm room?”
She smiled faintly.
“Could you keep it to yourself if I told you?”
“I won’t give you away, Madame!” he exclaimed with some cordiality.
“It’s because—by remaining in the lift—I—I have only one walk—to and from my room!”
He was horrified; she saw that he was, and signalled to the lift-boy.
“I will take your advice,” she said, “and go to my room perhaps for the rest of the afternoon, if it has also finished to snow. Thank you very much for all your kindness.” And up she went out of his ken, smiling down upon his blank upturned face.
It really had “finished to snow”—for the time being. That was why poor old Whiskers had come to have the Lady of the Lift to himself even for five minutes. The young people had all trooped out to see what could be done. It was just thawing. The Man shot a snowball with deadly aim at a young Limit, who ran off yelping to papa over his cigar and cognac in their private sitting-room.
The missile had travelled like a cricket-ball till it went asunder on the nape of little Limit’s neck, which it ran down like a waterfall.
The snow was declared to be “absolutely plumb” by the expert author of this dastardly attack; but the sky was black with more snow that might begin falling any minute. If an attack was to be made upon any or all of the other hotels, or a pitched battle fought with them in the open (“an’ what for no?” cries the worthy Meenister), there’s no time to be lost in manufacturing a casus belli (as Whiskers puts it), but a bloodthirsty challenge must be despatched at once. Budding Winchester takes it on his skis; he is not a Man any longer, but a boy of boys, his face flushed and his eyes shining for the fray.
It comes on in incredibly few minutes. All are eager after it. A combat of the true Homeric type is soon raging in the snow; the aggressors become the defenders before they know where they are, or rather why they are back upon their hotel terrace. It is because the smaller hotels have converged upon them from three points of the compass. Hurrah! Three cheers for the Beau Site and Winchester! A bas Kurhaus—Belvedere—all the rotten lot!
Grand how the young boy hurls taunt and insult with his explosive cricket-balls; grander still to see “the old birds,” “the old pets,” “the stone-age gang,” as he has called them behind their backs, shying, shouting, ducking, dodging with the best. Old Whiskers has not loosened some muscles so freely since cricket gave him up.
The Suffragite is naturally to the front, and “Votes for Women!” becomes the bad boy’s cry. He may say what he likes to anybody now. He has wiped out all his sins by bringing about this glorious battle, by his own heroic bearing in the van.
“Good shot, Daddy!”
“Look out, Mummy!”
That’s the little dog both times; they will make something of him at Winchester yet. This is his show, remember! “I began it,” he may boast all his days; for the least likely, the meekest, the quietest, the most stay-at-home-by-the-fire, all were in it before the end. O that Meenister! There were those who vowed they heard him railing to himself against “you deevil,” a prominent opponent, as he squeezed the snow from his beard. Even the unworthy Limit gathered great handfuls on his sitting-room balcony, where he and his were impregnably ensconced, and hurled them down like rocks upon the foe....
And the whole thing has nothing whatever to do with the Lady of the Lift!
But the immediate sequel had.
In the first place they were asked not to make more noise than they could help, when they came in tramping and shouting, and some of the invaders with them for a drink. Madame Faivre had taken to her bed. She only begged not to be disturbed. But the good maître d’hotel would have taken upon himself to telephone down for a doctor; but there, what could you expect in such cold weather? The telephone had broken down. No; it was no use trying the other hotels; his was the main wire, of which they were mere extensions. The whole humming, glittering plateau was cut off from the world. As well cross the mountains on skis, and drop down into Innsbruck, as risk an avalanche on the precipitous pass down to the railway miles below; for the first exploit infinite knowledge and experience of the country would be requisite, for the second an infinity of good luck.
The entire crowd were in the fine big hall or lounge, their tanned and burnt faces glowing like lamps in the dusk, their voices hushed with one consent. It was sad to see the lift standing empty. None entered it, though many must have wished to sit down aloof, and more to be spirited upstairs. There was a consensus of vague feeling about it, and a well-known voice could be heard piping quite respectfully: “Poor old girl! She had her agony duck on all the morning!” Those who want to know what he meant had better apply to his alma mater.
Suddenly a bombshell burst on the assembly.
“Herr Breitstein! Herr Breitstein!” It was the Limit flying down the stairs. “We’ve been robbed, sir, robbed of everything in your confounded hotel, confound you!”
“ ‘Sh! ‘sh! ‘sh!” went Herr Breitstein, as sharply as the sound allowed. “There’s a lady ill upstairs.”
“Confound the lady!”
“Shame! Shame!” And a treble voice: “Didn’t I tell you he was the Limit?”
“Well, she’s probably been robbed as well,” said the Limit, finding himself an unpopular figure on the stairs. “I advise everybody with valuables to go and see to them; we’ve lost all ours, and they were worth something, as you know.”
This took three or four ladies upstairs apace, including the Winchester mamma.
A mechanic appeared with a little bag while they were gone, and began talking German to mine host.
“Herr Je!” cries the good man, excitedly. “Do you know what he tell me, shentlemen? Our telephone wires have been cut, mit some sharbp imblement, on ziss side of ze inzulador outside ze top bad-room vindow!”
Imagine the twin wires, thickened into ropes of snow, vanishing and reappearing against snow and trees for miles and miles, looking like live rails back to the world, yet being dead all the time!
The three or four anxious ladies were back upon the stairs behind the Limit before useful comment had emerged from the general consternation. They also had each lost something—a watch—a bracelet—a garnet necklace—whatever of any value they had left behind them in their rooms.
“But my little lot are worth about fifteen ‘undred quid,” cried the Limit, loudly.
Nobody bid against him; but the good landlord again very properly checked the vociferous tone employed, repeating his reason on poor Madame Faivre’s behalf. The name struck the lift-boy, struck a spark of memory that lit him up like a lamp. He struggled toward Herr Breitstein with roseate cheeks, and had his ears boxed for his pains the moment he ceased gabbling.
“Do you know what he tell me, ziss wretched poy? He zee a voman come out of ze room of Madame Faivre—fine young voman—ze tief, shentlemen, ze tief if she haf not also murdered madame!”
Up they rushed in a breathless bevy. There was no answer to their knocks, their hammering, their united shouts. The mechanic was called up to pick the lock; mine host was not going to send good money after bad blood. But no blood had been shed; no madame was there; but her crutch was, and her crepon skirt, and the jet bodice among others...
It was the Suffragite who put the whole case beyond doubt. She disappeared suddenly, was back in a minute, and broke in breathless:
“I know what else has gone—my skis—and she always told me they were the best in the hotel!”
There was a shocked pause, hardly broken by a really carefully whispered: “Votes for Women!” It was poor Whiskers who spoke the first word aloud.
“Good God!” said he. “And I’d quite forgotten she was as good on skis as on skates!”
They turned on him like one man.
“Did you know her before?”
“Where did you know her?”
“What do you know about her?”
“I met her once at Davos years ago.”
“Davos!” cried mine host. “Zey had such a case zere in ‘ninety-nine, shoost such a case, shentlemen!”
“Oh, did they?” says Whiskers without a blush; and that was all he ever did say on the subject.
But the Man from Winchester is fairly entitled to the last word; it took him some time to think it out, and his hearers come to see his point.
“On the whole,” said he, “I wasn’t so far wrong, was I, when I called her the lady of the lift?”
Oswald Alfred Smart had been christened, (by permission) after the suburban magnate to whom his father was coachman at the time of the urchin’s birth; and the two names went so well in double harness, as the coachman said, that they were never heard singly about the stables, although Mrs. Smart was very particular to say “our” Oswald Alfred, even when employing: the vocative case, in respectful contradistinction to the master. Both Mr and Mrs. Smart seem to have had their work cut out with the boy, who often had a stick about his back for his hot yet sullen temper, which was not cured by the treatment. He had, however, from his earliest years, when his better side was uppermost, a smile so sunny and so sudden as to transmute his leaden look to radiant gold. And it was largely this smile which got Oswald Alfred his engagements when, as a son of the house remarked, he “put the lid on” a consistently unfilial attitude by turning chauffeur at the first opportunity.
The old coachman, who knew the lad’s temperament, though his knowledge of motor-cars was confined to keeping his carriage out of their way, enjoyed a gloomy view of the venture from the first. His confident misgivings were amply realized. Oswald Alfred’s hot head lost him more than one situation in the first year, but not before he had cost successive employers large sums in fines and repairs, because they liked him for his eager alacrity and always hoped he would improve. His smile never failed to secure him a fresh start elsewhere; and as his sins were not due to lack of skill, but were purely a matter of nervous temperament, he went on better than he deserved until a really bad accident got into all the papers and ought clearly to have closed a dangerous career.
Old Smart was sanguine that it had, and made dogmatic computations as to what was not worth fifty bob a week; his attitude was one of chastened superiority on half that preposterous wage. But Oswald Alfred had not gone home after his other vicissitudes, and he was not going now to afford an object-lesson in accurate parental prophecy. He preferred to eat his heart out in his Shepherd’s Bush lodgings—as long as his savings lasted, and sometimes even to squander them in defiant jaunts involving a very high collar and a rakish cigarette. But his luck held good, by returning before his pockets were quite empty, in the shape of a promising reply to his own reply to an advertisement for a chauffeur who “must be young man.”
The young man invested in a higher collar than any in his now shabby stock, and slept on his best trousers before betaking himself to a Bloomsbury hotel to meet the gentleman with the funny name who had written to make the appointment. The gentleman had rather a funny face as well, dark and sallow, with eyes like chocolates; but there is never much light in Bloomsbury, at any rate in the month of February, and Oswald Alfred was not going to belie his stable upbringing in the matter of a gift-horse; for he had a shrewd suspicion that it was “all right,” from the first funny accents in keeping with the whole personality of the advertiser, and of a piece with the curious locution (which the applicant had not noticed) in his advertisement.
“So Smart is your name, young man! Smart of name and smart of nature, is it not? Mine, as you know, is Ghum; by Ghum it is, like you say in the classic! I am very glad of you to swear by me, young man.”
Oswald Alfred was merely embarrassed by these familiarities, for he had the instincts of a British servant in every vein, and had no desire to be treated otherwise in his new employ. His skin turned a dusky red, which deepened when Mr. Ghum displayed a startling knowledge of the accident which had cost him his last place.
“We spot it in the morning rag,” the dark gentleman explained, with a show of teeth and an increasing air of idiomatic mastery; “we remember your name, and have wonder if we might hear of you. How have come you to meet such serious accident, young man?”
Oswald Alfred leaned forward from the edge of his chair, and stated his case to the lining of his cap as even he had never stated it before.
“It was like this, sir: I’d been to meet my lady and gentleman at Victoria Station (London, Chatham and Dover, sir); and the boat was very late, you see, and they’d brought over a new French maid who’d never been in a car before; an’ that’s ‘ow the ‘ole affair come to ‘appen, sir. It was a limousine, sir, forty-’orse Feeut, an’ that piled up with luggage we was absolutely top-’eavy; but my gentleman, ‘e was always saying ‘is car cost ‘im quite enough without cab-fares over and above. I used to tell ‘im ‘ow it’d be some skiddy night, but he wouldn’t take a word, though he’d a rough enough side to ‘is own tongue, and I’d decided to give ‘im notice when it ‘appened in Sloane Street on the way ‘ome that night. I was coming along at a good pace, but not exceeding, an’ the only other thing in the street was a tradesman’s van same way; ‘im on the near side, sir, and me coming up on the crown, and blowing my horn. Suddenly he pulls right across me without ever ‘olding out ‘is ‘and; right across me into Pont Street, without showing a finger! There was only one thing to be done, and I done it; took the corner myself, instead o’ crashing into ‘im, an’ beat ‘im round it, too! But with all the grease on the road and all that luggage on top we skidded somethink cruel, and took the pavement and smashed our near door against one o’ them posts that are there to smash you. My lady and gentleman weren’t hurt, they can’t say they were, nor yet the worse off anyhow, being insured. But the girl, she’d never been in a car before, an’ there she set beside me in front; it wasn’t ‘ardly right, sir; she didn’t know enough even to ‘old on. Out she went an’ got concussion, and I lost my place for that!”
“A thing you could not help?”
“A thing I could no more help,” declared Oswald Alfred, “than the babe unborn.” The chocolate eyes regarded him with sleepy benevolence. “It was hard on as young a man like you,” said Mr. Ghum.
“It was very ‘ard, sir.”
“You deserve another opportunity.”
“I should be very grateful if you could give me one, sir.”
“And you would not find awful traffic our way,” Mr. Ghum added, as though the statement contained a joke; but the subject was no joke to Oswald Alfred.
“I’m not afraid of traffic,” he boasted with perfect truth; “but when ‘orse-van drivers don’t ‘old out their ‘ands they ought to be put in prison.”
“On the other end of the equation,” continued Ghum, soaring high over his hearer’s head, “you would have a very invaluable life committed to your keeping. I would not be your master, but your master would be mine. I am not interviewing with you on my own account, but as the representative of one of the native big-bugs of my country, who is spending a little holidays in your old one.”
Oswald Alfred had pricked up the ears of a keen and catholic sportsman; in fact, the newspaper of that name was even then folded carefully away in the pocket in which it was least likely to spoil the cut of a coat.
“Kind of Jam, or something?” he inquired with interest.
“Exactly! Quite! You hit it on the nail! His Highness the Jam Sahib of Boavista—my royal master and yours who is to be!”
An ill-concealed levity rather spoilt the effect of this descriptive mouthful on Oswald Alfred, but was soon forgotten in his joy over the terms that he succeeded in making for himself. It was wonderful how amenable Mr. Ghum proved to reason and Oswald Alfred’s best smile. The lad had been getting fifty shillings in his last place, but of course keeping himself; in the new one he was promised forty and all found. It was not perhaps quite the kind of arrangement that a more independent chauffeur would have been so ready to entertain, but the financial improvement was such that he would soon be in a position to pick and choose again, unless he went and got into fresh trouble through the criminal negligence of others on the road. He was determined it should be through no fault of his own; and the old coachman himself could not have excelled his son in distrust of other drivers on the day that Mr. Ghum called for him with the car in Shepherd’s Bush.
The car, a sound second-hand Cleland-Talboys, had been driven thus far by a chauffeur from the works in Notting Dale, where it had been some days undergoing repairs. Oswald Alfred very properly sought particulars, and the works’ chauffeur was saying that so far as he knew there had been nothing at all the matter with her, when Mr. Ghum closed a promising discussion by inquiring if Smart could find his way to the Portsmouth Road.
“Then the sooner the better we are on it,” he said curtly on getting an affirmative reply. “The car has been tune up for you, like they say in the classic; let me hear her melody without delay. Straight along the Portsmouth Road—but mind you traps—and when we arrive near Guildford I will give you direction.”
It was one of those bitter afternoons which make the early spring for, days together as cold as the depths of winter, and even colder to the eye. There was no sun in the bleak sky, and no rain in the clouds that flew there, but the trees looked black and brittle against both, and ploughed fields cold as new graves behind the trees. Telegraph posts stood along the side-strips of bleached grass, like sentinels frozen at attention, but here and there a live scout saluted with his reassuring grin. Mr. Ghum sat and shivered behind the windscreen in a coat like a dancing bear’s; and the warm young blood at his side did dance with the delight of rattling along an open road again, and that without interference or complaint. Mr. Ghum raised no objection to thirty-five miles on the speedometer, nor yet to taking a corner on the wrong side or bucketing over patches of new metal, all of which were old tricks of the new chauffeur. If the Jam himself was as sensible it might be a pleasant place both on and off the car.
And a pleasant place it proved, at all events in the way of creature comforts and letting a man alone at his job; but Oswald Alfred did speedily find himself lonelier at other times than suited his habit as he liked to live. This again was a mere effect of causes in themselves both strange and disagreeable. There wasn’t a female in the house, for instance; dusky heathen shuffled about the kitchen, and the newcomer’s was the one white skin on the premises. Dusky heathen jabbered and guzzled in drawing-room and dining-room, and fresh relays were always being taken to the station or met there by the car. So it all seemed to Oswald Alfred. There was room for any number of the savages, as he himself was savage enough to call them in his heart; for the house had been formerly a preparatory school, and there were beds still in the dormitories, whither and whence the chauffeur was too often prevailed upon to carry weird bits of baggage. There were empty class-rooms, too, that gave him a chill when he passed their neglected windows. Yet it was a pretty house when the sun shone on its red brick and tiles, and its modern leaded casements, all so racy of the Surrey soil that surrounded it with sombre cedars and with yew hedges no longer of rectangular cut. The chief drawback was that it was a long way down a lane, which was a longer way down another lane; in fact, a more precious-spoken Oswald Alfred might have characterized the place as an oasis of bricks and timber in a wilderness of bracken and gorse..
Our Oswald Alfred confined himself to phrases like “the back of beyond,” except on the subject of his never being allowed out anywhere alone, which moved him to the ruder eloquence of his old stable days. He never knew when his car might not be wanted, and was always expected to be on the spot himself in case of emergency. Of course he would never have stood it, had it not meant a steady saving of two pounds a week, and a “chit” (which was Mr. Ghum’s synonym for a “character”) whensoever he elected to leave of his own accord. But the youth was so well boarded and lodged (in what had been the sick-house of the departed school), and such was the consideration shown him in smaller matters, that he wisely resisted any inclination to make another change before the summer.
His Highness the Jam Sahib of Boa vista (a name painted, curiously enough, on the garden gate) was the only member of the strange establishment to whom the new chauffeur took a real dislike; and it was not justifiable, inasmuch as the Jam never vouchsafed a word to him in praise or blame. He had a lean, mean face and figure, in striking contrast to his courtier Ghum, who was gross and genial; but it was the subdued ferocity with which his Highness would let his followers have it, in their own lingo, that made Oswald Alfred bustle before the ruthless lips had time to open fire on him. He gathered from Ghum that the potentate was leading his present quiet and modest life under doctor’s orders and the sympathetic ægis of the Imperial Government.
Motoring was stated to be part of the treatment, and yet they did not motor daily, nor on the likeliest days, nor yet always when the chosen day was at its best. Often it would be the latter part of a dismal afternoon before Oswald Alfred went skidding through the muddy lanes with the burly Ghum beside him, his Highness and minor satellites abreast behind, and the acetylene head-lamps duly primed by order; for the Jam and his suite, did not dissemble a natural kindness for dusk and darkness. Neither did the white youth object to either, or even to the crew, he drove, when he was driving them; for they none of them interfered with him any more than Mr. Ghum had done, but let him go like the wind in the shortest of clear spaces, and cram on the brakes to his heart’s content at the corner; so refreshing was their freedom from the little knowledge which is the abominable thing from a chauffeur’s point of view. Ghum, however, was by way of acquiring some, but only from Oswald Alfred, who gave him indifferent driving lessons with little method and less regularity.
The party usually drove one way; but it was the most obvious way in the geographical circumstances. Guildford and Godalming ought to have been able to pick out the second-hand Cleland-Talboys even from the band of cars that flows over the flywheels of their main streets from dawn to dark; it was never quite dark when they clattered through to fly Hindhead like a hurdle; but they always lit up about the same place, just off the Portsmouth Road in the neighbourhood of Liphook. Here may be found, one of those impressively extravagant, because solid and interminable walls, which are by no means such a feature of the home counties as of the shires. Yet there was a point of this noble circle which was no great distance from the worthy pile within; the drive was not a long one; and a side gate, which came first, afforded a still shorter cut to the house.
It was through this gate that the motorists, on foot for the purpose, were peeping, one lighting-up-time at the beginning of March; and Oswald Alfred, attending to his own business with a box of matches, was taking as little interest as usual in theirs. He had gathered, from remarks dropped in Ghum’s English, that H.H. had his royal eye on the place as a more fitting English seat than the deserted school; but he had no idea to whom it belonged. Suddenly a bicycle bell rang out between him and the peeping gentry at the gate, startling them more than himself, and causing an obsequious pantomime on their part in honor of the elderly gentleman who had jumped off the bicycle. Oswald Alfred was particularly impressed to see the Jam Sahib-making as deep an obeisance as the youngest of his followers; he could only suppose they had been surprised by some very great personage indeed.
“Good evening, my friends!” cried the cyclist in a rich, kind voice. “Come to have another look at my kangaroo, have you?”
“Sir,” replied the Jam, bowing lower than before, “some of these gentlemen had not the felicity of being present on the occasion to which you graciously refer. I was therefore taking the audacious liberty—”
“Nonsense!” interposed the cyclist, heartily. “You take ‘em in and show ‘em anything you can by this light, and I’ll trundle on to the lodge and join you at the sub-tropical kennels with the keeper. My poor beasts have felt the winter as much as you and I have, I’m afraid; but we shall go back to the sun refreshed, and they never will, poor devils! Hurry up, or I’ll be there before you!”
This in a genial crescendo as the four forms debouched through the gate and melted fast into the gloaming. Meanwhile Oswald Alfred was marvelling to find that after all his Highness could speak better English, when it suited him, than any of his retinue, and yet that his tone did not sweeten with his words. His tone had been bitter and truculent in some curiously subtle degree, which incurred no snub yet could penetrate the patriotic hide of a British coachman’s son, and inject the virus of a vague resentment. Next moment the cyclist was giving his natural enemy the chauffeur a kindly word as well, and in the twin cones of acetylene gaslight the chauffeur recognized his great man at a glance.
“Good evening, my lord!” returned Oswald Alfred, with ready salute and the smile which had lain fallow at Boavista.
“Have we met before?” inquired the other in a tone both puzzled and amused.
“No, my lord, but I see it was Lord Amyott as soon as ever you come in front of, the lamps. I seen your lordship’s portrait many a time when you was out at the war.”
There was genuine enthusiasm in this speech, for Oswald Alfred had a nice capacity for discriminating respect, inherited from the parent who had insisted on so christening him after the master. Lord Amyott, however, did not seem particularly flattered, and his wiry white moustache looked closer-cropped than before on its granite pedestal of chin.
“Ah, well, I’m in another part of the empire now,” said he, “and only home for a few weeks, like our friends from the same place.” He jerked his head toward the gate through which they had gone, and then stared harder at Oswald Alfred. “You ain’t the chauffeur they had the other day?” he added.
“I’ve been in my situation a fortnight, my lord,” was the considered reply.
“Do you know what happened to the other fellow?”
“I never ‘eard, my lord.”
“No more did I, and I should like to know. Nice-lad, I thought him.” Lord Amyott stepped up nearer to the bonnet, and lowered his voice. “Do they ever let you out of their sight?” he asked, grimly, but as though it were rather a joke as well.
“Never off the premises, my lord,”
”They never let him! I suppose he couldn’t stand it. But I should like to know.”
Oswald Alfred was not to be outdone in dramatic undertones. “It’s all the Jam!” said he sepulchrally.
“All the what?”
“ ‘Im that spoke to your lordship; his Royal Highness the Jam Sahib,” explained Oswald Alfred, feeling that he was indeed moving in exalted circles, and unconsciously adding to the altitude. But Lord Amyott only burst out laughing under his breath, after catching it in sheer surprise.
“Does he really call himself that?”
“Only in fun, my lordship, only in fun!” urged a silky voice; and the oleaginous Ghum stood fawning between the speakers in the acetylene rays; how he had returned without a sound, or whether he had ever gone off with the rest, neither knew.
He was the man, however, for an awkward moment, with his sleek and supple tact, and his engaging idiosyncrasies of speech. Oswald Alfred, for one, was easily convinced that the whole concoction of the title, unwittingly suggested by himself, as he was bound to admit, had been all along an elaborate joke at his own expense. Perhaps, however, it was Lord Amyott’s laughter that carried most conviction, despite a grim note of its own; but when he really had mounted his bicycle, and disappeared round the bend in the direction of the main gates and the keeper’s lodge, the unhappy young man was quickly and quietly informed of the enormity he had committed in speaking of the Jam as such.
“Did you not know,” cried Ghum, “that he was in this country incogs? If I should tell him how you have given away, you go same way as last chauffeur without moment’s hesitation.”
“And what way was that?” asked Oswald Alfred, remembering Lord Amyott’s inquiries; but the question made Ghum angrier than anything else.
“Never mind you!” said he. “You know what happens to servants who do not take satisfaction; let him be a warning to you. I will not tell his Highness what you have done. I dare not. It is more than I am worth.”
“But is he ‘is ‘ighness?” demanded the young man. “First you say it’s all a cod, and then you talk as if it wasn’t.”
“Of course it isn’t!” the other declared in all solemnity. “He is exactly what I said him; the title is not invention or beastly lie. It is the whole truth, and nothing but the whole, only his Highness want it kept up the sleeve.”
This was not quite good enough for the young man; he had heard Lord Amyott’s first and loudest laugh; and his faith was shaken to its base. His imagination was stimulated, which was worse; it fastened on the last chauffeur and his fate, in which even a world’s hero like Lord Amyott V.C. (and ever so many less popular letters of the alphabet) had shown such interest. Oswald Alfred was in fact a good deal disturbed by his conversation with his lordship; but it was an experience that left him still more proud, and he was seriously thinking of drilling a hole through the sovereign a noble hand had slipped into his.
His imagination, however, was strengthened in its hold on a disagreeable subject by a little, circumstance which occurred on the way back that evening. On Hind-head a tire bumped heavily, and was discovered down; and the dark crew disembarked while the young white man jacked up his wheel and put on the Stepney. The spot was close to the famous Gibbet, and the quartette not only strolled on to the memorial stone by the roadside, but one of them returned for a side-lamp with which to illuminate the inscription. Now the chauffeur knew parts of this by heart, having bought picture post-cards of the stone “erected in detestation of a barbarous murder” when putting up at the Huts in his last employ. As he wrestled with his wheel he heard an uncouth clucking of alien tongues; but it was not this that made him look up, and left the bad impression on his mind; it was the sudden chorus of cacophonous merriment, and the spectacle of four human beings leaning back in a patch of lamp: light, on the grassy brink of a black abyss, and holding their sides before the record of the cruel deed once done there.
“They want tipping into it,” thought Oswald Alfred; “the Devil’s Punchbowl’s just about their mark.”
Their heathen behaviour might not have struck him without Lord Amyott’s previous inquiries after the last chauffeur, and those inquiries might not have stuck in his mind if the heathen had not behaved so that evening. The unfortunate sequence formed a vicious circle in a mind not used to coping with unpleasant fancies, and spoilt his night for as good a sleeper as a very young man should be. Nor was it quite nice to lie awake, wondering about one’s predecessor, in his very bed, and that the only one in a separate building containing several locked rooms or potential Bluebeard chambers.
That night he thought of giving notice in the morning, and perhaps making off before his week was up, but a series of fine spring days hardened the lad in his original determination to “stick it” till the summer. He was no coward, when all was said in his disfavour, and as a rule he showed your real road-hog’s plentiful lack of imagination. He was not going to be a fool and forfeit a clear two pounds a week, and no silly complaints. Even the now formidable Ghum made no further allusion to the indiscretion about the Jam, did not hold it over a fellow, but seemed to have forgotten all about it, and only redoubled the ardour of his own efforts to learn to drive the car.
But you may teach a man to drive like an arrow when there is nothing else on the Ripley Road, and yet never know when a wobble of the wheel or a foot on the wrong pedal may spell instantaneous disaster. It was only a wing and a step that Mr. Ghum damaged to the like detriment of a passing car; but he was seen no more at the wheel, and it was Smart Sahib (as the menials sometimes called him with rolling eyes) who took a select load in the favorite direction about a week after their last encounter with Lord Amyott. This time, however, it was the middle of the evening before they started. And no secret was made of their intention to see Lord Amyott again, and as it certainly appeared to Oswald Alfred, by appointment.
Over Hindhead hung a skyful of stars, and if there were fewer to be seen from the lane near Liphook, it was not the fault of stars or sky. This time no wistful peeping into Paradise, but confident entry at the side gate on the part of that powerful Peri Mr. Ghum and his serene master. The white youth scarcely noticed that a dark one quietly took the vacant seat beside him, that another leant as quietly against the Stepney wheel, or for that matter that there had been four of them seated behind instead of three. It was not a night on which you noticed all you ought; the stars were too beautiful, sparkling to the eyes as the keen air did in the mouth and lungs. And for long enough nothing was to be heard but those small noises of the country night, which can mean so little individually to a cockney soul like Oswald Alfred’s, yet perhaps so much in the mass. At all events he was not feeling frightened, or mean, or particularly anxious for further relations with Lord Amyott, or to give notice before he was given it, or to drive a six-cylinder at sixty miles an hour, when the new note of a lumbering gait and laboured breathing recalled him to his motor-self.
It was old Ghum blundering through the side gate. “They have sickness in there!” he called excitedly. “The lordship—the ladyship—I no breath tell you. The doctor—they want you! Straight on—hard you like!”
Oswald Alfred had heard of strokes and seizures, and naturally conceiving either Lord or Lady Amyott the victim of one, had leapt out and was winding up before these stertorous ejaculations had merged into native patter. Ghum was assisted into his old place, the driver climbed over him into his, and off they went with clanging gears and clashing lever.
“Wait till I let her out!” muttered the man at the wheel, and gave the second-hand Cleland-Talboys gas enough to drive a motor-bus. The gray lane wobbled under her lamps, plucked out of darkness in brilliant ovals, and the low wall wavered on the edge of the halo. Lane and wall bore continuously to the left, but Oswald Alfred took no heed of the obtuse corners, and only blew his horn when a couple of figures appeared like motes in the advancing gas-beam; they had plenty of time to get out of the way, but they both jumped for their lives in a style that made the heathen squeal with joy; and only at the last moment, which was the next moment, and the worst in all his life, did Oswald Alfred see who they were.
One was that villainous Jam, showing nothing but his teeth and the whites of his evil eyes; the other was a white shirt-front with pearl studs in it, a black tie, a collar, and a cropped mustache of which every silver bristle stood out as Lord Amyott reeled and stumbled in front of the car. There was a horrible impact, but no bumping over the mass of black and white that whirled out of the halo like a wounded magpie.
Meanwhile, at the ultimate or penultimate moment of recognition, Oswald Alfred had applied his brakes with such reckless violence that a less heavily-weighted car might have completed the tragedy by turning a somersault on the fatal spot; but the overcrowded Cleland-Talboys ground itself to a shivering standstill in its own length. And the white driver started to his feet behind the wheel.
“He done it! He’s murdered ‘is lordship! I saw the swine give ‘im a push with both ‘ands!”
So he began on the trio behind, flinging an accusing arm after the wretch who was already stooping over his mangled magpie in the bracken. A patch of white shirt showed through the fronds; and to his unspeakable indignation the chauffeur saw a kick dealt it, and the white roll over into black, before the brutal leader rejoined his grinning band.
“I saw you!” cried Oswald Alfred, in inadequate greeting; “I saw you give ‘is lordship a push at the last moment! You’ll swing for it yet, you dirty nigger!”
“On the contrary,” replied the Jam, with bestial suavity, “it is you who have taken this valuable life, and you who shall answer for it with your own!”
The young man could not tell whether the fiend meant then or thereafter—by violence or by perjury—but he believed his last moments had arrived when Ghum screwed the muzzle of an automatic pistol into the flesh under his left ear.
“Down on your seat,” hissed Ghum, “and drive like the devil where I say you to drive, or I blow in your brains this minute!”
Instantaneous surrender was the only answer to that. Yet the gibbering coward heard his own abject words but faintly, as at a distance, and not as his own words at all, only to grind his teeth when he knew they were, and what a coward he had lived to be! He sobbed to think he could have fallen so low, to be first hoodwinked by a lot of murdering niggers, and then to beg for his life at their dirty hands; and yet even while he sobbed he was out and busy with the starting-handle, and more than busy, with a zeal so ignoble that he felt its poison in every vein.
He a coward! He had never been such a thing in all his days; he would have struck the man or boy who had dared to call him one before to-night. Besides, it was absurd; a man who could drive as he could in the traffic, in and out with his eyes half-shut, or at his rate by night on a twisty road, was no coward whatever else he might be. He carried his life in his hands, that was what he did and had been doing ever since he learnt to drive a car. And yet he was driving one now at the absolute will and pleasure of a black fat fool with a pistol in his hand!
Right, left, right, and right again at that blackguard’s bidding; and now they were back on the bleak main road under a full company of stars; and those were the lights of Hindhead in the distance, and here were a pair of enormous white-hot eyes scorching down the hill to meet him. If only he had the pluck to run into them! They would not all be killed, some of these murderers would live to hang, and a turn of the hand would do it... would do it now... even now... no, now it was too late.
“And a good job, too!” said Oswald Alfred to himself. “Jolly hard on the other coves!”
But in his heart he knew it was not “the other coves” he was considering, but his own miserable skin. Well! Try again; the Hindhead lights were quite near now; why not dash into the middle of them and wreck the car against the stout old wall of the Huts? He could hear the crash, could see the débris, and himself picking himself up, to live and tell the tale if there was a God above! He would do it; this time he would; he got so far as lifting his right foot ever so little on the accelerator, as dropping a speed an instant later on the hill. But that spoilt it; nothing under thirty-five an hour would make a job of it; and after all that was impossible at the top of a long hill.
He caught himself breathing again.
Ghum came to his assistance at the same instant. “Faster! faster,” he hissed again, with his barrel against the young man’s ribs. “Come to stoppage this side Boa-vista, and you join the lordship this very night!”
The brute’s breath was on his cheek, deep-dyed with shame in the zone of light outside the Huts; a few loiterers were left idly gaping, neither more nor less interested in the carload of criminals than in the hundreds a day it was their fate to suffer from; and once more the oval searchlight danced ahead in the darkness.
There was light, too, in Oswald Alfred’s brain, where the sullen embers had been fanned to passionate flame by the vile breath on his cheek and the succulent threat in his ear. The wretches behind were keeping quiet in the silent company of their crime and its risks; he was glad Ghum had spoken, to remind him what wretches they all were. Was it likely that they would spare his life in any case after that which had been done before his eyes? What had happened to the last chauffeur?
His successor thought of him for the first time that night, and the wind in his face felt warmer than his blood; he thought of the locked doors in the deserted sick-house, and would his own be locked tomorrow? He saw certain death awaiting him under the sheltering cedars and the warm red tiles of Boavista; and simultaneously with the outward eye he saw the memorial stone marking the scene of that other “barbarous murder”—the one at which these hounds had laughed! No wonder, while they hatched its infinite superior in barbarity!
There stood the stone, over the crest of the hill and down the timely slope, on the edge of the oval halo; on the edge also of a wide abyss with lights twinkling only on the opposite rim, and in the sky that seemed somehow nearer at that moment. If that was the Devil’s Punchbowl, it looked full of boiling pitch as Oswald Alfred turned set teeth to his infamous companion, and shouted through them:
Ghum looked that way as intended; for the young man was curiously determined not to die by a bullet, and this time his hands did not fail him at the last. Round went the wheel, and round came the storied stone, clean across the headlamps; a fringe of limelit gorse rose vividly between them and the pitchy void; there was a whir of wheels in the air, a lurch into space, and so the chapter ended for the occupants of the second-hand Cleland-Talboys.
Yet not for all, because by day the place is not what a dark night paints it, and there are always some who fall clear of a car.
There was one great unscathed scoundrel who stood his trial at Guildford, who insisted on giving evidence in his own defence, and who nearly succeeded in getting the court cleared by reason of his strangely individual locutions. Fourteen years was his portion; but a young spectacled coffee-colored student, being crippled for life, was more leniently handled.
Between these extreme cases of survival came a third, which was treated for a long time, and with ultimate success, in a nursing home near the scene of the catastrophe. It was summer, however, before Lord Amyott was admitted there, on two sticks, and ushered into the patient’s presence, to be immediately rewarded by a wan but unmistakable edition of the very brilliant smile which had taken his fancy by night outside his own side gate.
“There are only two things I want to know,” said Lord Amyott, in his kind rich voice. “I know all about most of it, including what happened to myself, so please hold your tongue about that, my good fellow! What I want to know is whether the final thing was another accident, so far as you were concerned, or whether you went mad and did it on purpose as that rascal Ghum declared in the witness-box.”
Oswald Alfred did not hesitate long.
“I did it on purpose,” he muttered “but I never went mad.”
“In plain English, you absolutely meant to send the lot of them to hell—and to go with them so far?”
“That was it, my lord,” said Oswald Alfred, finding more voice under the encouragement of a look and tone that rather astonished him in Lord Amyott.
“You sat tight and turned your wheel as though you were going round an ordinary corner?”
“Yes, my lord,” replied our hero, as though he had never hesitated for a single unheroic moment; but a sharp twinge of remorse caused him to qualify the boast a little. “You see, my lord,” the lad explained, “I felt they’d send me the way of the last chauffeur—and now we know what that was—but I’d a pretty good idea then, and I preferred my own way.”
Lord Amyott hobbled between his two sticks into the balcony, and bent his brow over the darkling pines; perhaps he would have liked a little less complacency in the performer of the particular feat under discussion; and he thought that on the whole he would not put his skilled opinion of it into so many words.
“There’s only one other thing I want to ask,” said he, returning as far as the French windows. “We’re a pretty pair of cripples, but I’m assured that it’s only a matter of time in both cases, and I’ve booked my own passage for September. I’ve got a new car on order to go out in the same boat. Would you like to come out with me to take the wheel?”
And Oswald Alfred lay transfigured by a smile which, it is to be hoped, was not Lord Amyott’s only reward for being braver than he knew.
The church bells were ringing for evensong, croaking across the snow with short, harsh strokes, as though the frost had eaten into the metal and made it hoarse. Outside, the scene had all the cheery sparkle, all the peaceful glamour, of an old-fashioned Christmas card. There was the snow-covered village, there the church-spire coated all down one side, the chancel windows standing out like oil-paintings, the silver sickle of a moon, the ideal thatched cottage with the warm, red light breaking from the open door, and the peace of Heaven seemingly pervading and enveloping all. Yet on earth we know that this peace is not; and the door of the ideal cottage had been opened and was shut by a crushed woman, whose husband had but now refused her pennies for the plate, with a curse which followed her into the snow. And the odour prevailing beneath the thatched roof was one of hot brandy-and-water, mingled with the fumes of some rank tobacco.
Old Fitch was over sixty years of age, and the woman on her way to church was his third wife; she had borne him no child, nor had Fitch son or daughter living who would set foot inside his house. He was a singular old man, selfish and sly and dissolute, yet not greatly disliked beyond his own door, and withal a miracle of health and energy for his years. He drank to his heart’s content, but he was never drunk, nor was Sunday’s bottle ever known to lose him the soft side of Monday’s bargain. By trade he was game-dealer, corn-factor, money-lender, and mortgagee of half the village; in appearance, a man of medium height, with bow-legs and immense round shoulders, a hard mouth, shrewd eyes, and wiry hair as white as the snow outside.
The bells ceased, and for a moment there was no sound in the cottage but the song of the kettle on the hob. Then Fitch reached for the brandy-bottle, and brewed himself another steaming bumper. As he watched the sugar dissolve, a few notes from the organ reached his ears, and the old man smiled cynically as he sipped and smacked his lips. At his elbow his tobacco-pipe and the weekly newspaper were ranged with the brandy-bottle, and he was soon in enjoyment of all three. Over the paper Fitch had already fallen asleep after a particularly hearty mid-day meal, but he had not so much as glanced at the most entertaining pages, and he found them now more entertaining than usual. There was a scandal in high life running to several columns, and sub-divided into paragraphs labelled with the most pregnant headlines; the old man’s mouth watered as he determined to leave this item to the last. It was not the only one of interest; there were several suicides, an admirable execution, a burglary, and—what? Fitch frowned as his quick eye came tumbling down a paragraph; then all at once he gasped out an oath and sat very still. The pipe in his mouth went out, the brandy-and-water was cooling in his glass; you might have heard them singing the psalms in the church hard by; but the old man heard nothing, saw nothing, thought of nothing but the brief paragraph before his eyes.
ESCAPE FROM PORTLAND
ONE CONVICT KILLED, ANOTHER WOUNDED, BUT A THIRD GETS CLEAN AWAY
The greatest excitement was caused at Weymouth yesterday morning on the report being circulated that several convicts had effected their escape from the grounds of the Portland convict establishment. There appears to have been a regularly concerted plan on the part of the prisoners working in one of the outdoor gangs to attempt to regain their liberty, as yesterday morning three convicts bolted simultaneously from their party. They were instantly challenged to stop, but as the order was not complied with, the warders fired several shots. One of the runaways fell dead, and another was so badly wounded that he was immediately recaptured, and is now lying in a precarious condition. The third man, named Henry Cattermole, continued his course despite a succession of shots, and was soon beyond range of the rifles. He was pursued for some distance, but was ultimately lost to view in the thick fog which prevailed. A hue and cry was raised, and search parties continued to scour the neighbourhood long after dark, but up to a late hour his recapture had not been effected. Cattermole will be remembered as the man who was sentenced to death some years ago for the murder of Lord Wolborough’s game-keeper, near Bury St. Edmund’s, but who afterwards received the benefit of the doubt involved in the production of a wad which did not fit the convict’s gun. In spite of the successful efforts then made on his behalf, however, the authorities at Portland describe Cattermole as a most daring criminal, and one who is only too likely to prove a danger to the community as long as he remains at large.
Fitch stared stupidly at the words for several minutes after he had read them through; it was the last sentence which at length fell into focus with his seeing eye. Henry Cattermole at large! How long had he been at large? It was a Sunday paper, but the Saturday edition, and this was among the latest news. But it said “yesterday morning,” and that meant Friday morning last. So Henry Cattermole had been at large since then, and this was the Sunday evening, and that made nearly three days altogether. Another question now forced itself upon the old man’s mind: how far was it from Portland prison to this room?
Like most rustics of his generation, old Fitch had no spare knowledge of geography: he knew his own country-side and the road to London, but that was all. Portland he knew to be on the other side of London; it might be ten miles, might be two hundred; but this he felt in his shuddering heart and shaking bones, that near or far, deep snow or no snow, Henry Cattermole was either recaptured or else on his way to that cottage at that moment.
The feeling sucked the blood from the old man’s vessels, even as his lips drained the tumbler he had filled with so light a heart. Then for a little he had spurious courage. He leant back in his chair and laughed aloud, but it sounded strangely in the empty cottage; he looked up at the bell-mouthed gun above the chimney-piece, and that gave him greater confidence, for he kept it loaded. He got up and began to whistle, but stopped in the middle of a bar.
“Curse him!” he said aloud, “they should ha’ hanged him, and then I never should ha’ been held like this. That’ll be a good job if they take an’ hang him now, for I fare to feel afraid, I do, as long as Harry Cattermole’s alive.”
Old Fitch opened his door a moment, saw the thin moon shining on the snow, but no living soul abroad, and for once he was in want of a companion; however, the voices of the choir sounded nearer than ever in the frosty air, and heartened him a little as he shut the door again, turned the heavy key, and shot both bolts well home. He was still stooping over the bottom one, when his eyes fell upon a ragged trouser-leg and a stout stocking planted close behind him. It was instantly joined by another ragged leg and another stout stocking. Neither made a sound, for there were no shoes to the cat-like feet; and the stockings were remarkable for a most conspicuous stripe.
Then old Fitch knew that his enemy had found him out, and he could not stir. He was waiting for a knife to plunge into the centre of his broad, round back; and when a hand slapped him there instead, he thought for a moment he was stabbed indeed. When he knew that he was not, he turned round, still stooping, in a pitiable attitude, and a new shock greeted him. Could this be Henry Cattermole?
The poacher had been stout and thick-set; the convict was gaunt and lean. The one had been florid and youthful; the other was yellow as parchment, and the stubble on the cropped head and on the fleshless jaw was of a leaden grey.
“That—that ain’t Harry Cattermole?” the old man whimpered.
“No, that ain’t; but ‘twas once, and means to be again! Lead the way in beside the fire. I wish you’d sometimes use that front parlour of yours! I’ve had it to myself this half-hour, and that’s cold.”
Old Fitch led the way without a word, walked innocently up to the fire, and suddenly sprang for his gun. He never reached it. The barrel of a revolver, screwed round in his ear, drove him reeling across the floor.
“Silly old fool!” hissed Cattermole. “Did you think I’d come to you unarmed? Sit down on that chair before I blow your brains out.”
“I—I can’t make out,” he stuttered, “why you fare to come to me at all!”
“O’ course you can’t,” said Cattermole, ironically.
“If I’d been you, I’d ha’ run anywhere but where I was known so well.”
“You would, would you? Then you knew I’d got out, eh, old man?”
“Just been a-reading about it in this here paper.”
“I see—I see. I caught a bit o’ what you was a-saying to yourself, just as I was thinking it was a safe thing to come out o’ that cold parlour o’ yours. So that was me you was locking out, was it? Yet you pretend you don’t know why I come! You know well enough. You know—you know!”
The convict had seated himself on the kitchen table, and was glaring down on the trembling old man in the chair. He wore a long overcoat, and under it some pitiful rags. The cropped head and the legs swinging in the striped stockings were the only incriminating features, and old Fitch was glancing from the one to the other, wondering why neither had saved him from this horrible interview. Cattermole read his thoughts, and his eyes gleamed.
“So you think I’ve come all the way in these here, do you?” he cried, tapping one shin. “I tell you I’ve walked and walked till my bare legs were frozen, and then sat behind a hedge and slipped these on and rubbed them to life again! Where do you think I got these rotten old duds? Off of a scare-crow in a field, I did! I wasn’t going to break into no houses and leave my tracks all along the line. But yesterday I got a long lift in a goods train, or I shouldn’t be here now; and last night I did crack a crib for this here overcoat and a bit o’ supper, and another for the shooter. That didn’t so much matter then. I was within twenty mile of you! Of you, you old devil—do you hear?”
Fitch nodded with an ashen face.
“And now do you know why I’ve come?”
Fitch moistened his blue lips. “To—to murder me!” he whispered, like a dying man.
“That rests with you,” said the convict, fondling his weapon.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Confess what?” whispered Fitch.
“That you swore me away at the trial.”
The old man had been holding his breath; he now expelled it with a deep sigh, and taking out a huge red handkerchief, wiped the moisture from his face. Meanwhile, the convict had descried writing-materials on a chiffonnier, and placed them on the table beside the brandy-bottle and the tobacco-jar.
“Turn your chair round for writing.”
Fitch did so.
“Now take up your pen and write what I tell you. Don’t cock your head and look at me! I hear the psalm-singing as well as you do; they’ve only just got started, and nobody’ll come near us for another hour. Pity you didn’t go too, isn’t it? Now write what I tell you, word for word, or, so help me, you’re a stiff ‘un!”
Fitch dipped his pen in the ink. After all, what he was about to write would be written under dire intimidation, and nobody would attach any importance to statements so obtained. He squared his elbows to the task.
“ ‘I, Samuel Fitch,’ ” began Cattermole, “ ‘do hereby swear and declare before God Almighty’—before God Almighty, have you got that down?—‘that I, Samuel Fitch, did bear false witness against my neighbour, Henry Cattermole, at his trial at Bury Assizes, November 29th, 1887. It is true that I saw both Henry Cattermole and James Savage, his lordship’s gamekeeper, in the wood at Wolborough on the night of September 9th in the same year. It is true that I was there by appointment with Savage, as his wife stated in her evidence. It is not true that I heard a shot and heard Savage sing out, “Harry Cattermole!” as I came up and before ever I had a word with him. That statement was a deliberate fabrication on my part. The real truth is—’ but hold on! I’m likely going too fast for you—I’ve had it in my head that long! How much have you got down, eh?”
“ ‘Fabrication on my part,’ ” repeated old Fitch, in a trembling voice, as he waited for more.
“Good! Now pull yourself together,” said Cattermole, suddenly cocking his revolver. “ ‘The real truth is that I, Samuel Fitch, shot James Savage with my own hand!’ ”
Fitch threw down his pen.
“That’s a lie,” he gasped. “I never did! I won’t write it.”
The cocked revolver covered him.
“Prefer to die in your chair, eh?”
“I’ll give you one minute by your own watch.”
Still covering his man, the convict held out his other hand for the watch, and had momentary contact with a cold, damp one as it dropped into his palm. Cattermole placed the watch upon the table where both could see the dial.
“Your minute begins now,” said he; and all at once the watch was ticking like an eight-day clock.
Fitch rolled his head from side to side. “Fifteen seconds,” said Cattermole. The old man’s brow was white and spangled like the snow outside. “Half-time,” said Cattermole. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty seconds passed; then Fitch caught up the pen. “Go on!” he groaned. “I’ll write any lie you like; that’ll do you no good; no one will believe a word of it.” Yet the perspiration was streaming down his face; it splashed upon the paper as he proceeded to write, in trembling characters, at Cattermole’s dictation.
“ ‘The real truth is that I, Samuel Fitch, shot James Savage with my own hand. The circumstances that led to my shooting him I will confess and explain hereafter. When he had fallen I heard a shout and someone running up. I got behind a tree, but I saw Harry Cattermole, the poacher, trip clean over the body. His gun went off in the air, and when he tried to get up again, I saw he couldn’t because he’d twisted his ankle. He never saw me; I slipped away and gave my false evidence, and Harry Cattermole was caught escaping from the wood on his hands and knees, with blood upon his hands and clothes, and an empty gun. I gave evidence against him to stop him giving evidence against me. But this is the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God!’ ”
Cattermole paused, Fitch finished writing; again the eyes of the two men met; and those of the elder gleamed with a cunning curiosity.
“How—how did you know?” he asked, lowering his voice and leaning forward as he spoke.
“Two and two,” was the reply. “I put ‘em together as soon as ever I saw you in the box.”
“That’ll never be believed—got like this.”
“Will it not? Wait a bit; you’ve not done yet. ‘As a proof of what I say’—do you hear me?—‘as a proof of what I say, the gun which the wad will fit, that saved Henry Cattermole’s life, will be found—’ ”
Cattermole waited until the old man had caught him up.
“Now,” said he, “you finish the sentence for yourself!”
“What?” cried Fitch.
“Write where that gun’s to be found—you know—I don’t—and then sign your name!”
“But I don’t know—”
“I sold it!”
“You wouldn’t dare. You’ve got that somewhere, I see it in your face. Write down where, and then show me the place; and if you’ve told a lie—”
The revolver was within a foot of the old man’s head, which had fallen forward between his hands. The pen lay blotting the wet paper. Cattermole took the brandy-bottle, poured out a stiff dram, and pushed it under the other’s nose.
“Drink!” he cried. “Then write the truth, and sign your name. Maybe they won’t hang an old man like you; but, by God, I sha’n’t think twice about shooting you if you don’t write the truth!”
Fitch gulped down the brandy, took up the pen once more, and was near the end of his own death-warrant, when the convict sprang lightly from the table and stood listening in the centre of the room. Fitch saw him, and listened too. In the church they were singing another hymn; the old man saw by his watch, still lying on the table, that it must be the last hymn, and in a few minutes his wife would be back. But that was not all. There was another sound—a nearer sound—the sound of voices outside the door. The handle was turned—the door pushed—but Fitch himself had locked and bolted it. More whispers; then a loud rat-tat.
“Who is it?” cried Fitch, trembling with excitement, as he started to his feet.
“The police! Let us in, or we break in your door!”
There was no answer. Cattermole was watching the door; suddenly he turned, and there was Fitch in the act of dropping his written confession into the fire. The convict seized it before it caught, and with the other hand hurled the old man back into his chair.
“Finish it,” he said below his breath, “or you’re a dead man! One or other of us is going to swing! Now, then, under the floor of what room did you hide the gun? Let them hammer, the door is strong. What room was it? Ah, your bedroom! Now sign your name.”
A deafening crash; the lock had given; only the bolt held firm.
“Sign!” shrieked Cattermole. A cold ring pressed the old man’s temple. He signed his name, and fell forward on the table in a dead faint.
Cattermole blotted the confession, folded it up, strode over to the door, and smilingly flung it open to his pursuers.
It was on the non-stop midnight run between Euston and Crewe that I first perceived my appalling likeness to Rowland Chandler: and the calm horror of the discovery has left an even sharper impression than the truly horrifying sequel, probably because it was calm, and there was still time to think, nor any apparent ground for serious apprehension.
Yet the moment had its own uneasiness. This young man Chandler had startled London less by his vile, but, unhappily, commonplace crime than by the really remarkable manner in which the criminal had melted into thinnest air. The halfpenny evening press was in its element: the missing man’s guilt was beyond moral doubt: verbatim reports of the inquest were headlined by every damnatory epithet: inconsistent clue and improper commentary filled out the congenial columns; and I confess that I was settling myself to ten minutes sordid entertainment when my own portrait sprang upon me from the printed sheet. I started back: was this fame at last? I bent, and looked again. No; it was infamy—and Rowland Chandler! But, if I know myself in the glass, his newspaper presentment would have stood for mine.
I held my paper higher, but only to hide my dishonored face and to think. I was not alone, and now I knew that this horrid resemblance was no mere accident of the printing-house. It was a most disconcerting fact, patent at a glance to him who read and used his eyes. Already it had been patent to one or two, now that I recalled certain hitherto insignificant events of that very evening. I saw now why the cabman had looked at me so hard: guessed what he must have stopped to ask the policeman at the corner, who, fortunately, knew me as well as I knew him. Then there was the big man at Euston in the bowler and frieze overcoat. He must have dogged me from my cab to the booking-office. I even remembered his following me in the queue past the window, without booking anywhere, after all, an omission which caused me momentary wonder at the time, but none whatever now.
I could only suppose that my intonation had been enough for that palpable personage from Scotland Yard. Nor is it any great boast to add that socially at least there was a somewhat obvious difference between Howland Chandler and me.
That was all very well for the skilled detective intelligence: it could scarcely turn away the suspicious glances of the average newspaper reader; and there at the moment sat one behind his newspaper in the corner opposite mine. We had the third-class compartment to ourselves; we should have it to ourselves for three mortal hours! I glanced at the fellow’s legs; they looked muscular, and the feet were firmly planted in substantial boots. What if he should see the likeness, and pin me for the murderer where I sat? I might challenge him to pull the cord, might stop the train, and show my papers, but with this portrait and my face I saw myself a prisoner in the guard’s van from that to Crewe. And I trembled at the prospect as might my guilty double in my shoes. A preventive measure was to cast the incriminating sheet out of window into the rushing night. The window near us was open one hole of the strap; and I was about to obey this impulse when I saw to my horror that the act would be useless and something worse. It was the same wretched rag in which my companion sat absorbed! Nay, it was even folded the same wav: I could feel him gloating over the sensation of the hour, and under his nose my lineaments and the murderer’s name!
I say I saw all this to my horror. But I could still smile grimly to myself. After all, I had ample evidences of a decent identity upon my person: but there might well be an unpleasant scent ere I could establish it, and I hate and dread unpleasant scenes. They invariably make me tremble, and I was beginning even now to tremble while I smiled.
I recalled the little I had already seen of the man behind the other newspaper. He had got in after me and my casual impression was of an elderly man bearded to the waist like a missionary, but still abominably active and robust. The carpetbag above his head had been slung up there by his own hands. Yet it was manifestly heavy for the rack. The middle-aged men who come home merely bleached and bearded from the tropics, as a rule, come hard home. And my missionary (for so I labelled him from the start) had the makings of a sufficiently, formidable antagonist.
Could one keep the same newspaper before one’s face from Euston to Crewe? Could one not go to sleep behind one’s newspaper with perfect, propriety at dead of night? To be sure, and pull one’s cap over one’s eyes and one’s collar about one’s ears! I was proceeding to do both when my companion addressed me, lowering his guard, as my ears assured me.
“What a dreadful case!”
For an instant I was not going to answer, for another I would tell him he had woke me up yet in the very next I was acting in equal defiance of either impulse. How preposterous for an innocent man to entertain the fears of the guilty! I would take the bull by the horns, and did on the spot: at least I lowered my own paper and took my elderly companion by the eyes.
“It is, indeed.” said I.
“We mean the same thing, of course?” said he, smiling, but not with his hard, clear eyes, which already had a rather unpleasant grip of mine.
“I mean the Walham Green murder,” I returned, with a gruff candor, assumed subconsciously to meet suspicion half-way.
“And so do I,” said he smiling at my aggressive tone, as though he read me and misread me as it was. “A nice young man, that Chandler!”
“Very nice.” I echoed, ineffectually enough.
“But it’s his youth I think of.” went on my missionary, his metallic eyes on mine. “A youngster like that, ‘ardly out of his teens, to be married at all in the first instance—”
“But they all do marry young in that class,” I interrupted with some confidence, for I had not before reflected that, after all, I was eight-and-twenty (if I did not look it), while the murderer’s age was twenty-two.
“They do, do they?” said my companion, his bright eyes close together, but sound teeth showing in a smile between the bushy gray beard and mustache. “And what may they do in your class. Ain’t you married—eh?”
I considered my reply. I had already taken a rapid dislike to my impertinent interlocutor, and it was in my heart to snub him, as he deserved. His fixed stare, his familiar leer, his metropolitan accent, had between them soon dispelled my missionary theory, and I deduced instead a Cockney mechanic with a strong fancy for himself. It was the heyday of the bicycle: and here was just the type then floating into heady prosperity on the bicycle wave. But, apart from the fact that I shrank from avoidable quarrel with a glib Londoner whose company I must endure for over two hours more, there was still a doubt in my mind as to whether he had seen the likeness or not. If he had not, civility again might at least stave off the scene I dreaded. As it happened, I was married, and was leaving wife and child for the first time in our married life, on a visit to an old school in Scotland. I admitted the primary fact.
“But I’m nearly thirty,” said I.
“You don’t look it,” he replied, skewering me with his horrid eyes. “And where’s your wife?”
“I have left her in town.”
“Alive?” the brute asked; but I held myself in without difficulty, for now, of course, l knew that he had seen the likeness all the time.
“She was at ten o’clock,” I answered.
“And where did you leave her? Not Walham Green way, I hope?”
And he leered with vile good humor, but I saw his strong hands ready to spring and clutch my throat.
“Well, at Chelsea,” said I, in my determination to make no more bones.
“That’s pretty ‘ot!” he returned; and for the first time he let one eye fall. “So we bin rondin’ it outer the sime rag?”
“So it seems.”
“Looks a nice young man, don’t he?”
“You can’t judge by rough cuts in the papers,” said I, on the spur of a queer instinct, as though I really had been the flying felon.
My companion was much tickled, and showed it with a codfish grin.
“That you can’t,” said he, holding his paper out between us. “It’s impossible to tell from this whether he’s a toff like you or a young chap”—the sentence snapped between his parted teeth—” or whether he isn’t,” was its final form.
“Not much of the toff about him,” I remarked.
And his eyes gleamed again.
“Don’t you mike any mistike! He’s a smart one, you bet!”
“Perhaps, but he is a grocer’s assistant.”
“And what are you?”
“Oh, I write a bit, that’s all,” said I, no doubt with that which apes humility.
“And what’s the difference?”
“Well, I sell my own stuff, for one thing; and I don’t have to sell it across a counter, for another!”
I do not say my scorn was rightly placed; but there it was, and my manner as aggressive as you please; for I felt that, in some inexplicable way. I had pierced my adversary’s hide, and the sensation was to he enjoyed. We glared at each other, or, rather, he glared and I grinned, for a change, while the express charged noisily through the night. There was the fast train’s inevitable amount of motion, and we both swayed almost systematically where we sat while in my ears at least the jangling rhythm had long allied itself to a popular piano-organ tune of the day. The lamps burned as dimly as the lamps always do in those obsolete non-corridor third-class carriages. It was as well we had no more to read than a flesh-and-blood face apiece. There was enough light for that. But so fiercely offended about nothing did my companion seem—so indignant were the young wolf’s eyes above the old wolf’s muzzle—that I could afford at last a certain geniality.
“I grant you his smartness,” said I. “It was a foul deed, but marvellously smartly done!”
“Who said he did it?” the fellow almost thundered through his teeth.
“Isn’t it plain?”
“No one saw him any’ow, and in England a man’s innocent until he’s found guilty: don’t you forget it and I’ll try not to.” he went on, conquering his strange emotion with an output of native strength, and regaining his sinister geniality by the same effort. “You know, I’m treating you pretty well!” he added, as though I had treated him badly.
I was successful in repressing a provocative tone.
“Most men would have pulled the cord and stopped the train,” he replied. “And you know why!”
“Because of my likeness to this young wretch Chandler?”
His eyes flashed, but he nodded.
“He’s esciped, you see. He may be on his way to Scotland—there’s some one very like him in this ‘ere carriage!” Our four eyes had never been so close together.
“I suppose you think I think you’re ‘im?” he went on.
“My good fellow,” said I, “I have seen that all along! And, according to this paper, I admit the likeness is absurd.”
“Is it?” said he. “I wonder if I can’t show you an absurder!” He lifted his paper, and I thought he was scanning it afresh until I saw his bright eyes still on mine above the rim. The paper rustled as he fumbled behind it. The paper floated down between our knees, and it was as though a mirror had risen in its place: I was seated opposite my living image, with other eyes, and a huge false beard, and a plated revolver held on either thigh.
“Wrong again, you see,” he grinned. “I never thought you was Rowley Chandler, because—I am!”
There could be no doubt of it. For one instant, despite his looks, I had found a triple coincidence the easier explanation to accept, and had set him down as a detective on my tracks. Would suspected murderer travel deliberately with his double? Would he proceed to reveal himself of his own accord? I was far too bewildered by the sudden change of position to see for myself any conceivable object in such conduct. And yet I believed him on the spot, and only wondered that his young eyes and his young hands, alike so cruel and so strong, had not betrayed him long ago.
His youth in mere years was as apparent as his maturity in all evil. The jaw was powerful, salient: the full lips pouted grossly under the mere eyebrow of a mustache that might have been own fellow to mine. The small bright eyes gleamed close together. The forehead narrowed, but the depth of skull belied its frontage. A bad face, a face capable of any given evil, given also the jaundiced eye of one who knew beforehand the evil that lay behind. I confess that, despite this special knowledge (for, as I say, the case was as clear as crystal), I for one was amazed and distressed at its frank, its debonair, its incongruously boyish expression.
“I’ve bin arfter you ever since it ‘appened,” said the young murderer.
“You see, I knew about this before.” And with two long strong fingers he indicated our faces in turn.
“How did you know?” I asked. I was interested, in spite of all. I had never even seen a murderer before, and this one was all unlike my preconceptions. Interest in his personality had already borne me beyond the confines of fear, and now curiosity as to his motive overcame even a proper human abhorrence. The phase was fleeting, but while it lasted the young monster was no longer even objectionable in my eyes.
“Ever ‘eard of a piper called ‘Igh Thinkin’?” said he.
I had, and for my sins. My portrait had once split up its priggish columns in context galling to remember even in present company: nay when I thought of the High Thinking interviewer I was a murderer myself at heart. I must have changed color with my nod.
“That was what put me up to you.’ continued Chandler. “My friends arst if it was me, and I told one girl it was, and that your nime was the one I wrote under.” His eyes gloated wickedly. “You shouldn’t let those interviewing swine give your address away. I’ve fairly ‘minted that flat of yours ever since I’ve been in trouble; if I hadn’t ‘eard you were off to Scotland to-night, that’s where I should be talkin’ to you now. But this is better!”
His vile face lit with malevolent satisfaction; and I began at last to feel afraid.
“But what good can I do you?”
“Aha! You’ll see.”
“You don’t propose to murder me, too?”
Rowland Chandler had gripped his plated pistol. But it was only at my words that the devil broke loose in his fare.
“What do you mean?” he demanded, with shocking embroidery. “Who’s murdered anybody? You say that word agine, though, an’ some one will! Do you ‘ear? You say that agine, and you’ll be the first!... I never touched ‘er. It may look black agon me, but I never.... They can’t prove it. They didn’t see me. But I know them! I know their blasted circumstantial evidence! They’d tike an’ hang me on that, as they’ve took an’ hung many as good a man as me. They must hang some one; that’s their gime.”
He had worked himself into a white fury, standing over me with his pistol, but he shuddered through his bluster, and the narrow brow glistened under the lamp. “They don’t hang me!” he screamed. “I know too much; they don’t get the chance!”
He withdrew, covering me—not to the far end of the carriage, but half-way—and sat down muttering on his old side. His hand so trembled that I thought I should be a dead man before he had the revolver safely cocked. But it was the tremor still of brute rage.
“Now,” said he, “you start tikin’ off those clothes!’’
And I began to understand, as I obeyed.
“Every stitch, mind! And don’t you move a thing from the pockets!” he thundered. “How much money ‘ave you.”
“Between three and four pounds.’’
“Well, you leave it where it is and it’ll have to do me: and I’ll leave mine where it is and it’ll ‘ave to do you,” he added, with a grim chuckle.
“As many shillings?” I asked, in my shirt-sleeves to the elbows. I was philosophic enough so far. The situation demanded it. But already I began to feel a drain on my philosophy.
“About as many pence.” quoth Chandler, and was out of his own coat and waistcoat like lightning, while my hands were still tied in mine.
“Trousers?” I asked.
“Shirt and vest first,” said he. “Every blessed stitch! Let me see you stark in that corner, and every stitch on this seat next me.”
He removed some of his own clothes while I stripped, but sparingly, at his leisure, with his revolver and his eye never off me for a moment. And soon enough I stood stark naked to mine enemy, my back to the door, a hand on either rack, at one end of the carriage, while at the other, still watching me and always armed, the hell-born young criminal got deliberately into my clothes.
“I can shoot through them as well as not.” he would remind me, as hand and arm followed the cocked pistol slowly through a sleeve; and my terror was lest he should shoot when least intending.
And then I got me into his horrid garments, and so lost another opportunity of resisting him with effect, since he could neither have dressed nor undressed me, or even attempted either, without coming to quarters at which I should have stood some chance. But I had reasoned the whole thing out in my mind. It seemed madness to resist an armed man with one murder on his head already. The penalty for a second was absolutely nil. And yet, had I but plumbed the depth of his infamous design, it would have been Rowland Chandler or I for it ere this.
His clothes fitted me wonderfully, and were even quite as good as mine, for the dangerous fellow was above his class in ideas and tastes; but he had worn them; they were warm from a murderer’s skin, and they wrung fresh sweat from my reluctant members.
Had I but guessed his inhuman purpose! I was so far from doing so that even now the popular tune that I have mentioned ran rather pleasantly in my head with the strident allegretto of the train.
“Don’t turn out the pockets!” cried Chandler as I jettisoned respectable pipe and pouch. “This ain’t a robbery, remember; it’s a fair exchinge!”
“I don’t follow you.”
“No?” The wolfish twinkle was back in his eyes. “Well, you put the things where you found them.”
“They’re no use to me,” I said, obeying with a shrug. I might have said more, but in such a situation the only valor is its better
“No?” repeated Chandler, grinning outright like a fiend. “Well, they may be of some use to Madame Tussord’s, when you’ve done with them.”
“That,’’ said I, drawing a well-kept Waterbury from his waistcoat pocket, “will be another three-quarters of an hour if your watch is right. You make it five minutes past two; we are due at Crewe at 2.51.”
“Ah, due!” said he. “Due, I grant you!”
“You mean to leave the train, of course; and you mean me to be taken instead of you.”
The murderer nodded, but with a sly and sinister reservation that made me pause.
“Of course,” I continued, with less confidence, “they won’t believe my tale in a minute, if they do at all to-night; but they will to-morrow when they get me back to town. So all you will have gained will be that much start.”
Chandler looked at me. We were still where we had changed, at opposite ends of the carriage, and beyond arm’s length, or I had fallen on him, revolver and all, as the true significance of his look dawned on me in a flash. It was different; it was almost pitying.
But the full lips parted over tight-shut teeth; and in the cruel unrelenting eyes I read my death.
“Did you really think I would tike all this trouble to get a night’s start when I might have had a day and a night’s if I ‘adn’t’ve ‘ung round witing for you?” He gave a glance at his weapon, and came sidling nearer. “Did you really think that I was goin’ to let yer live to put a rope round my neck?”
“If I don’t, you will put a second rope round it yourself,” said I, calm as another at the last, but bitterly reckoning the chances a bolder man might have taken before it was too late. In the beginning I should have flung myself upon him. But was it not fascination as much as fear that had deterred me then? I did not want to die—a coward in my own eyes, not yet—dare I confess it?—even in the eyes of this accursed creature. And yet to make the slightest show of resistance now was but to precipitate my end; to argue with him, on the contrary, might at least postpone it; and it appeared that I had used the happiest argument as it was.
“They can’t hang you twice,” he had answered without thinking: but then came thought with the cunning angry flush I had drawn before. “They couldn’t hang me once, not yet,” he went on, defiantly. “They didn’t see me; they can’t bring it home. No, and this ain’t goin’ to be no cise o’ wunder, either. Buck up! I promise you that. It’s goin’ to be a cise o’ suicide. That’s it! Sounds better, don’t it? Suicide of Rowland Chandler, the alleged murderer, in the Scotch Express!”
His diabolical eyes could not stay my abnormal power of following clearly, of seeing even further than he saw; my own doom served but to stimulate my brain. Yes, it was the clever and audacious plot of a sufficiently clever and audacious criminal. Yet was I criminologist enough even then to see the weak point in both. It is the poorest type of criminal who makes your ready murderer.
He invariably lacks imagination. That may be the charitable explanation of his cruelty: it is the sure cause of those inconceivable mistakes which bring the most calculating assassin to the gallows.
He foresees his own course of escape. His heed is for the day and for his own skin. His mind’s eye will not stay behind upon his gruesome handiwork. Yet here Rowland Chandler was notably above the average of his inhuman kind. It was the body in the train that he most probably saw most clearly of all: the evidence of his own revolver, his own clothes, his own linen, at the inquest which should establish the murderer’s death and remove him from the minds of men.
But there was one thing he had forgotten, with all his cunning and I told him so with the studied deliberation of a man talking against time and eternity at once.
“And what’s that?” be scoffed.
“I was getting out at Beattoek Junction. They expect me to breakfast where I was going; they want me for a match all day to-morrow. When I don’t arrive they will wire; you (or I) will no longer provide the only subject of inquiry: there will still be two of us, living or dead, and, after all you will only get your start.”
“Then I’ll get it now!” he cried, with an oath: and my plotted death came nearer, nearer, with feeble flashes from the overhead lamp.
“Nearer still!” I urged with an inspiration that seemed to strike him as insane. “You must bring me down at an inch if you wish it even to look like a case of suicide!”
An oath answered me; the crafty hound had seen that all along, but he had not expected me to see it. I could read him raging with himself for ever having apprised me of his fell intent. He had done it to gloat over me, instinctively, I think, but none the less for the gratification of his murderous lust, and it was to cost him dear as he deserved. Had he resisted this refinement he might have clapped his barrel to my temple and shot me all but unawares; as it was he had to feint and jab at me, and I had ten spread fingers to keep him off, and of a sudden five of them had the barrel tight.
Heaven knows how it happened, or which of us was the more surprised! I only remember the sleek steel, hard to grip, and cold as ice one instant, but hot as a stove the next. Then I knew that he had fired twice, and I gave myself to the struggle as the express ran on with a rattle and a dash that no longer conveyed any tune.
It was as when the orchestra stops playing before the acobatic climacteric.
He was stronger than I. He bore me down; I slid from the seat; he fell upon me with both knees, striking me in the face with his free hand, and all without a syllable, but with wolfs eyes and ferret’s teeth. And all this time I kept that smoking pistol out of harm’s way, and when he got another hand to the butt, I got another to the barrel.
It was all I thought about, and I was still intent when the compartment filled with fresh night air. I had not seen the far door open as we ran rattling through the dark. I did not hear it shut as there towered above us a giant in a bowler and frieze overcoat.
“It’s Chandler! It’s the man they want for the murder!” the ready wretch yelped as he was dragged from my person and hurled upon the seat.
But there were our two faces, and the trained eye knew which was which.
“Don’t hurt him!” I remember saying, as I climbed into a corner with the revolver in my charge.
“Hurt him!” cried the big man over his shoulder, a bald man now, with great frieze elbows at work like pistons. “I wouldn’t hurt a hair of his head!”
And his tone was tender as an entomologist’s with a new moth in the net.
Old Duggan and Charlie Shand had been mates for years, in hut and tent, on foot and horseback, as overseer and storekeeper at the same Queensland station, but latterly as partners on a place of their own in the Lachlan backblocks. Duggan was the better bushman. Charlie Shand had brought in most of the capital. Charlie managed the business, Duggan the sheep and the men, and neither trenched upon the other’s province. The partnership might have been made in heaven, and seemed in no danger of being marred on earth; in four years there had been hardly a hot word or a black look between them. Then they had a really good season, and Charlie went home to England for a spell.
Old Duggan, who was not at all old really, saw him off with longing eyes, after vowing that nothing would induce him to go Home himself, though he also hailed from lesser Britain. If he lied, he was rewarded for his unselfishness. It rained that summer as he had never seen it rain before; and one good season on top of another is a Pelion of pure gold on a merely auriferous Ossa. Duggan saw sovereigns pouring from the sky, and more sovereigns growing where things were not even supposed to grow. The sandiest tracts were eaten up with a rank luxuriance in which sheep could not travel until the jungle of grass had been beaten down in front of them. Duggan stocked every acre, yet counted the months at first, and then the days, that must elapse before Charlie Shand’s return. Charlie’s communications he could have counted on the fingers of one hand; but at last came a cable of two welcome words, and some weeks later a long telegram from Melbourne. This telegram began in the first person plural, and ended with the hour at which Mr. and Mrs. Charles Shand expected to arrive by the coach and hoped to find the Shanghai at the township to meet them.
Duggan had to steady himself with a stiffish nobbler. It was the very first that he had heard of the interloping lady. He could only suppose that Charlie had been bewitched on the voyage, and married off the reel on landing. Some such marriages turned out a huge success. Charlie was no fool, either; he knew his own mind better than most, only wanted what was worth having, and saw that he got it nearly every time. He would make no mistake in a big thing like this: trust old Charlie to have done a good stroke for himself, and for the station. A woman would be the making of the whole place; they had always said so. Still, it was rather a sudden end to old times, rather like rushing the more civilised existence of their common dream. It would have kept a bit longer, Duggan thought—on the verandah where they had thrashed out everything of old. And on the last night of his loneliness he felt really lonely for the first time.
But he rose like a bird to the last day; every minute of it went in final preparations for the happy pair. There was much to be made as shipshape and as snug as possible; sprays of scrub to be stuck about the place by way of flowers, a native turkey to be shot for the evening banquet, champagne to be raised from a next-door neighbour fifteen miles away; furniture to furbish, including a grand piano of great antiquity; and then the bridal quarters to prepare as well as Duggan himself could prepare them in the time. This entailed his own migration to the bachelor barracks of which they had never as yet made any use. They had run the place between them, these two, without the aid of any of those young gentlemen who hang about most homesteads and are not worth their parlour rations. It might be as well to import one now, since four was at any rate better company than three. Yet there was no knowing; there were women and women, and Charlie was the very man to pick one in ten thousand. Charlie’s friend grew more and more sanguine as the busy day wore on.
He had not time to drive five miles to meet them, even if he had been quite sure it was the tactful thing to do. One of the men went in the Shanghai, while Duggan had his hair cut by the Chinaman, trimmed his own beard, and arrayed himself in a snowy suit hastily washed and ironed for the great occasion. It was dark when he stepped down from the verandah, shouting welcomes; but though it was dark, and also dinner-time, Duggan saw enough of the bride to require a nobbler with Charlie before they all met properly at the table.
“How long have we been married?” said that sinner as they touched glasses. “I feel as if it was all my life! So will you when your time comes, my son; everybody does if they pick a winner.”
“But how long really?”
“Oh, a few weeks before we sailed.”
“Then why on earth didn’t you write and tell me?”
Duggan was clearly holding himself in; his voice trembled as it was. But Charlie Shand had his answer pat: “My dear old Harry, I’d have sent a ten-pound cable rather than hurt your feelings; but, as a matter of fact, we thought we’d spare them. You see, you might have been in the devil’s own funk all this time, wondering what she’d be like; you might have imagined she’d go and spoil everything; and now you can see for yourself at a glance that it’ll be just the other way about. She’s a topper, Harry! It was partly her idea—not to make you anxious.”
“You’re not sick with us?”
“Of course I’m not.”
“You never will be, either. I feel twice the chap I ever was, and she’s . . . well, wait till you know her! You wait, old son. It’s not for me to sing her praises. I’ll give you a week to get to know her; then you won’t need me to tell you that she’s just about the greatest girl God ever made!”
She was perhaps not quite, quite a girl at all; otherwise even Duggan could not have cavilled at a word the happy idiot had said about his wife. She was a superb woman, if only she was not too good for the bush. That was the one criticism a stranger might have formulated at the beginning of dinner; by the end, he would probably have seen that she was really too good to be too good for any mere spot on earth. She talked capitally, and all the time to Duggan, to her groom’s intense delight. What was even more delightful, and certainly more surprising, was the way old Duggan chattered in his turn, on newspaper topics which he would simply never have mentioned in the old bachelor days. His solitude seemed to have done him good; it had driven him to his Australasian and the affairs of the outside world. Men do not really get to know each other by living alone together. It takes a woman to hold them up to one another. Charlie had always known his friend for a great gentleman; but he had never suspected that behind that bearded piece of mahogany there resided a society man as well. He felt deliciously out of it at the festal board. The other two talked away as though they had known each other all their lives. And Charlie only gloated over this final seal on his incredible bliss.
His turn came on the dear old verandah where he and Duggan had spent so many peaceful evenings in the past; this was worth them all put together, from Charlie’s point of view. To him it was a new verandah with a new world of stars outside. He began to babble; the others now seemed glad to listen. Mabel, for that was her dear name, found piquant enjoyment with a cigarette that showed the tip of her neat nose every few seconds; the men had prime cigars imported by the smuggler Shand. He was rather too full of their merits and his cunning; but there was so much that even he could not say before them both. At last he gave himself an opportunity; she must sing to them to round the evening off. No voice? What about the farewell concert on the ship! Piano out of tune? Well, Mab wouldn’t be; they’d never notice the piano when she got going.
“I’ve hardly ever been in the room since you went away. I shouldn’t wonder if some of the strings had perished,” said Duggan, still backing up the bride.
Charlie was inclined to be unreasonable. A lamp was carried into the room behind them, where the poor old Broadwood was found primed with French polish, to aggravate its other infirmities. Deft fingers took a hasty trial-trip over the neglected keys, while my lord and master stole back in triumph to unresponsive Duggan and his angry cigar.
“Isn’t she a topper?” he whispered. “But you wait till you hear her sing!”
And dour old Duggan waited without a word.
“What shall it be?” came from within in reckless tone.
“Anything you like, darling; you can’t go wrong. Have you any favourites, Harry?”
“You used to have, whenever I gave tongue, you old scoundrel!”
“I’m sure I should appreciate anything that Mrs. Shand chose to give us.”
Something in his old friend’s tone—something new and not friendly—made Charlie look down sharply. Duggan was seated on the edge of the back verandah, his feet in the heavy sand that had drifted like snow on that side of the house, his eyes on the jet and jewels of trees and stars. Yet up he jumped at the first bar of the bride’s first song.
Her groom was more than pacified. His proud eyes followed stealthy Duggan to the lighted room, and left him a silhouetted statue on the threshold.
“As the flight of a river
That flows to the sea,
My heart rushes ever
In tumult to thee!
A twofold existence
I have where thou art—
My heart in the distance
Beats close to thy heart.
Look up! I am near thee,
I gaze on thy face,
I see thee, I hear thee,
I feel thine embrace . . .”
So sang Mrs. Charlie at the old Broadwood grand, trusting to her memory for both words and music; the lamp burned behind her on a table, and behind the lamp stood Duggan, who had not heard one word. His entire being was in his eyes, which were starting out of his head with horror. They did not even see Mabel, her lamp-lit neck or hair; they were fixed upon a big black snake that her song had charmed out of the piano, that was even now poised to strike, perhaps the very second her song should cease.
And she did not know it, and must not! And her husband lolled contentedly in the verandah, blissfully assured of the effect of her voice on ears that heard not. Only Duggan was there to see and to act—to determine how to act before the singing ceased—to stoop and steal upon the piano under cover of the singer and her song. . . .
“And absence but brightens
The eyes that I miss.
And custom but heightens
The spell of thy kiss.
It is not from duty.
Though that may be owed,—
It is not from beauty.
Though that be bestowed;
But all that I care for
And all that I know—”
But the “know” ended in a scream as musician and music-stool were sent flying in a heap; and Shand rushed indoors to find Duggan thrashing the piano with a writhing lash that made dull thuds, and his wife still screaming as though the assault had begun on her. He was picking her up when the seeming madman turned round, and held the dead snake out at arm’s length, by the neck, as he had seized it, between finger and thumb. It was nearly five feet long, and black as night, except underneath near his hand, and where the lamplight picked out a red herring-bone pattern at the base of the shining scales.
Hardly a word escaped any of them as Duggan cast the carcase under the piano, then turned to Charlie and the lamp. Mrs. Charlie watched their backs as she might have watched the snake. Duggan had his knife out and was doing something that sent his shoulders up to his ears.
“Now something to stop the circulation,” she just heard him whisper through his teeth. “Piano-string’s the thing—have at ‘em with my knife!”
His voice was coming back, but the knife had slipped and stuck quivering in the floor. Charlie plucked it up, hurled the piano-lid off its hinges, and hacked at the strings till they went off like little rifles, and stung him in the face. But it was Duggan whom the bride was obliged to watch; he was letting something trickle on the floor, and at the same time puffing at his cigar. It had not gone out, wherever he had had it all this time; it glowed again as he puffed and blew at it like a smith at his forge. When it was so red that tiny sparks began to fly, he raised a red wrist to meet it—and the watcher fled.
At the back of the verandah there was one of those reclining deck-chairs with a socket for a tumbler at your elbow; it had not been in use that evening, but Mrs. Charlie was thankful to drop into it now. She put up her feet, and was no longer fully aware of what was happening. She heard steps and voices, but only those of her husband and his friend. So perhaps the worst was over . . . there had been marvellously little fuss. Now they seemed to have gone into an inner room; or could they have come out this way without her seeing or hearing them? She sat up, suddenly herself, and a woman who had made a fool of herself in the hour of need. The verandah shook under a jingling stride, and Charlie stood over her in his spurs.
“Here you are, little girl! It’s going to be all right—feel able to lend a hand?”
“Oh, if I may! I’ve disgraced you, Charlie. Do tell me what I can do.”
“Keep an eye on him. That’s about all. Keep him going—amused—talking, if he will! Don’t mind if he gets a bit screwed; it’s the best thing that can possibly happen. He might have that long chair, but don’t let him fall asleep.”
“And you, Charlie, where are you going?”
“To the township for permanganate of potash and one or two other things we haven’t got. I shan’t be much more than an hour.”
“You must go yourself?”
“Yes. I know what to get, and time’s an object. Besides, Duggan doesn’t want them to hear of it at the men’s hut; he’s frightfully set on that, and one must humour him.”
“But, Charlie, you said he was going to be all right?”
“So he is, I honestly believe, especially with you to keep him up. You might almost sing to him, darling; he was struck of a heap by your voice! You’re the one to save his life.”
“I ought to be.” Her brave voice shook. “He saved mine, didn’t he? We can save him between us, can’t we, Charlie? Oh, do tell me that we can!”
He told her that they could and would if he got off at once . . . the next she heard was the hoofs of the night-horse thundering into space. She lifted her hands to the winking stars, and prayed on her feet as she had never prayed kneeling down. And before her prayer was finished a forced laugh made her turn.
Duggan was back in the lighted doorway, still steady as a rock, only facing outwards this time, and with his right hand merely thrust out of sight between the buttons of his duck jacket. The hand seemed to take up a deal of room, and the sleeve looked tight. That was all she could see of the swelling, and the ligatures were out of sight. In his other hand he held a tall tumbler, very full and yellow with the light of the room striking through the liquor. It even cast its yellow double on the dusty boards at Mrs. Charlie’s feet; but both substance and shadow were thus far as steady as the statuesque man himself.
“Poor old Charlie!” he chuckled as the hoofs ceased throbbing, like the last beats of a pulse.
“Why ‘poor’?” she cried hoarsely.
“He’s such a new chum still! That wasn’t a black snake at all. It was a diamond snake—non-poisonous!”
“Then what were you doing to your hand—with your knife—with your cigar?”
“Oh, well, there’s nothing like being on the safe side.” He was coming up to her, very slowly, without spilling a drop from his brimming glass. “In any case it was worth it”—and he smiled—“for an hour of you all to myself! I shall clear out to-night, you see, or at latest in the morning.”
She had forced herself to stand and face him. But her eyes had fallen until the blood all down his ducks arrested them. “Don’t tell me that you deliberately tortured yourself—”
“I didn’t. Torture! You can only feel a certain amount. I’d had all I could feel before you started singing.” He swayed unexpectedly. “But I was a fool to lose so much blood. D’you mind coming over here?”
He almost staggered to the long chair at the back of the verandah; and the young wife, following automatically, drew a very deep breath. This was only what Charlie had prepared her for; no doubt he had forced quantities of spirit upon Duggan, who, for the reason given with such effrontery, could not very well refuse it. But that reason! It pulled her up, bitterly embarrassed and abased. Then she saw her old friend (for he was that) place his bumper in the wicker socket, still without a spill, and then lower himself into the chair with a sigh of simple weariness. That sigh took her to him.
“It was a dirty trick, I know,” he said. “Can you forgive me for it, Mabel?”
“If you’re sure it was a trick.”
“I’m afraid there’s no mistake about that. It was one thing on top of another, that’s what did it. That infernal snake—just then—it was enough to make one lose one’s head.”
“You saved my life first, Harry!”
“Not your life. The brute wasn’t poisonous, I tell you; but it might have given you an ugly nip for all that, to say nothing of the fright, and its beastly body round your neck.”
“To think that I never saw it!”
“The funny thing is that it didn’t deaden the notes.”
“It must have been lying on the long bass strings.”
“The piano must have been left open after polishing. That’s when it would get in.”
So they made talk about the concrete climax of events less easy to discuss. Had she never heard of the notorious partiality of snakes for music? No—how interesting! They might have been sitting out at a dance and trying to get to know each other. But Duggan was lying down, and lying none too still in the treacherous wickerwork. It was as though he was enduring bodily twinges. He was out of the lamplight, however, which came from the room in a clear-cut beam, and illumined Mrs. Charlie when she leant back in the chair beside him.
“Are you sure there’s nothing I can get you?”
“Certain, thanks very much. I’m all right. I only think I may have touched a vein or something.”
“But that’s dreadful, Harry!”
“Not with piano-wire ligatures. Old Charlie twisted ‘em with the pliers; we’d better leave ‘em till he comes back, then I’ll be as right as the mail.”
“You’re not touching your drink!”
“It’s not necessary, don’t you see? You keep forgetting that I’m all right, anyhow. But if it makes you happy, and you’ll join me, I wouldn’t mind one of those cigarettes of yours.”
She gave him one and tried to hold the match; he was quick to take it from her in his steadier hand. But in the matchlight their eyes met, and his looked big with trouble; their hands touched and his were cold.
“Why didn’t you let Charlie write and tell me he had married you?” said Duggan simply, as he smoked.
“I didn’t want to part you, if I could help it.”
“I see. Well, I’m going all the same.”
“He knows absolutely nothing, Harry!”
“But he will have to know. It’s nothing shameful, after all. You chucked me; you’ve done better. That happens every day. But the trio don’t live together.”
He laughed ironically to himself. But she had heard him only up to a certain point.
“I chucked you, Harry?”
“I’m sorry I put it in such a beastly way. I’m sorry I said it at all.’’
“Because you know it isn’t true!”
“When you came out here and never wrote a single word!”
Her bosom laboured, but not with the passion that had long been dead there; her voice broke, but only with undying indignation. That was the one emotion he might still call to life in her: a reflex spasm of humiliating pain, long past yet never to be forgotten, and the sharper for his callous bearing about it all. But this was modified, for the moment, by the way he passed his hand across his forehead, as though it ached.
“I believe there’s been some big mistake,” he said wearily. “Don’t let’s bother about it now. . . . It’s too late; and I didn’t get you to myself to rake up the past, at least not that part of it. It’s true I didn’t write for ages; I was so long in making a fair start. I think we’d better leave it at that, if you don’t mind.”
“But I do mind!” she burst out. “I’m not thinking of your explanation, but of mine. I haven’t come out just to hurt you and have my revenge. I never knew about you until—until Charlie and I—”
“I know—I know,” he soothed her, reaching for her hand. He only held it a second. “These flukes—these meetings—of course they aren’t really flukes at all—they’re our fate. Thank God you did meet. You couldn’t help loving him, or he you.”
“He was the first,” she whispered . . . “the very first I ever thought of again . . . after all those years without a word. I nearly broke it off when I did find out. Yet why should I? I had no reason to suppose you would mind. Charlie was quite certain you had never been in love in your life!”
“So my letter did go astray.” This more to himself than to her. “I often wondered if it had; but I never had the spirit to write again. It didn’t seem quite the game. The whole point was to leave you absolutely free. I promised your people that. They were never very keen about me . . . Mab!”
“You’re leaning too far forward. I like you near me, but now I just can’t see your face in the light from the door.”
“It’s not fit to be seen.”
“Never mind. It’s my last chance. I really am going, you know. And I did want to buck about old times!”
“Buck away,” she whispered. But she still leant forward. And that request was not renewed.
“What about the old place? How was it looking when you came away?”
“You mean ours? We haven’t lived there for ages, Harry.”
“I’m sorry. . . . Just live there again for a minute, and let me come across to see you. There!” She knew that he had closed his eyes. “Have I come to take you on the pond? I say, look out across those stepping-stones! You’d better let me give you a hand.” He held his good one out, and she took it without thinking. “That’s better, kiddie!” and they both laughed at the absurd name for her now. “Or is it a dance, and are we sitting out in the rockery? If so we may get into another row, by Jove!”
“It’s not a dance, Harry . . .” she whispered.
“I’m not so sure. Do you remember those coloured lights they played on the rockery fountain on state occasions? Emerald and pink and lavender, I can see ‘em now. I remember the night I found out how it was done, through that trap-door hidden in the ferns. That was only at a kids’ party, Mab, but if it’s going to upset you—”
“It’s all right. I’m all right,” she answered, drawing at a black cigarette. His had not gone out; he held it to hers, and then sipped his whisky for the first time. At once she remembered Charlie’s injunctions, but forgot Duggan’s cynical confession, and urged him to drink more.
“Not another drop,” he said, spilling a quantity as if on purpose. “I’ve had far too much as it is; otherwise I shouldn’t have upset you by talking a whole lot of rot.”
He closed his eyes again—and now it was that terror came upon her. He was fast asleep in an instant. It was the very thing she had been charged to prevent. Was it the whisky? Or was it—could it be—to her that he had lied? She shook him violently by the shoulder; and his eyes opened within a few inches of hers—opened in Paradise, judging from their smile.
“What is it, darling? You don’t mean to say I dropped off . . . sitting out . . . with you?”
His horror was horrible as he tried to sit up and failed.
“Of course not, Harry dear. Don’t you know where you are?”
“Rather . . . think I did . . . those lights!”
She turned round to look, her heart leaping at the thought of succour, company, anybody to share the strain. And all she saw was a frameful of twinkling stars and inky scrub between the posts and lintel of a bush verandah. Never, to be sure, were stars more brilliantly alive or in closer cluster. But those were the only lights.
“Now it’s emerald—no! Now it’s changed to lavender, and in another minute it’ll be pink. Fairyland, I call it . . . yet your under-gardener does it with a bit of coloured glass and a bull’s-eye lantern, somehow up there in the ferns. . . . I say, Mabel—Mrs. Shand!”
“Dear Harry, I’m so thankful!”
“Why? Have I been talking some more rot? I’m awfully sorry, Mrs.—”
“Don’t! I can’t bear you to call me that!”
“Well, but I ought to, oughtn’t I? It’s no use telling Charlie now.”
“You mustn’t go, Harry; you needn’t go, I’m sure you needn’t!”
He laughed funnily. “I believe I should have given the show away over that song, if it hadn’t been for our friend the blacky.”
“That diamond snake. No harm in ‘em, bless you, but good judges of music. I say, Mab!”
“What on earth did you go and sing that for?”
“Don’t ask me. I—I don’t know.”
“Funny thing is, I didn’t hear a word of it at the time. But now I do—every syllable. You’d got as far as ‘all that I care for and all that I know.’ If I’d let you finish, the beast might have struck. Ran it rather fine, didn’t I?”
“You were splendid, magnificent!”
“I keep on telling you there was no real danger.”
“It wouldn’t have made any difference if there had been.”
“Yet I was cheated out of the end; rather hard, that, wasn’t it? I wish you’d give it to me now, Mab!”
“I couldn’t, Harry.”
And he hummed, in laboured whispers:
“But all that I care for . .
And all that I know . . .
Is that without wherefore
I worship thee so!
“Which is absurd,” concluded Duggan, out of breath. “I mean . . . last line but one. I’d like to hear it, all same . . . if it doesn’t bore . . . if anything could rouse . . . that’s it, that’s it!”
And Charlie Shand, returning from the township at the nearest approach to a gallop that he could get out of the station night-horse, had the same thing running in his head all the way, to a muffled accompaniment of unshod hoofs on a sandy track. But in the home-paddock all that changed into the very voice of his charmer, charming never so wisely in the very song so sensationally interrupted an hour before. It augured well that this time it was sung to a finish. Yet Charlie neither drew rein nor spared spur in his relief, and was only a few lengths nearer home when the voice rang out again—but not in song . . .
Charlie Shand leapt from the saddle in the station yard, caught up a lamp in his wild rush through the house, and held it on high in the back verandah till the chimney cracked and tinkled at his feet. The naked flame lit up the bowed form of his wife—beside the long deck-chair—kneeling over the dead who had died in her arms.
Tahourdin went out to Australia for his health, but in his secret soul he cherished other projects. Cursed by a distressing delicacy, and neither physically nor mentally robust, he had nevertheless an incongruous and quite unsuspected hankering after violent experiences in wild places. In part this was due to much early reading in a well-worn groove, in part to a less worthy stimulus. Tahourdin had a big brother, who had once turned up at South Kensington in romantic rags, thereafter to thrill all callers with graphic accounts of his more respectable adventures by flood and field. This had fired Tahourdin with an ignoble ambition, not so much to do and see and suffer in his turn, as to lay in a stock of yarns which should one day compare creditably with those of his brother. An unerring arrival in Hobson’s Bay, after no more than eighty days under canvas, fell proportionately flat upon the bold spirit that had spent half the voyage in wistful day-dreams of coral islands and of pirates’ lairs. But there was one dream whose fulfilment nothing could prevent, and Tahourdin set foot on Australian soil with the fixed determination to plant it forthwith in the very heart of the Bush.
Tahourdin’s preconception of the Bush (the capital was his in all his letters) was a mental picture of singular detail and definition. He saw huge and sombre trees in the bowels of some vast ravine, with perpetual noon above and perpetual night below—in the cool bed of an ocean of unchanging leaves. He picked out the shadow’s with horsemen in jack-boots and red shirts (himself among them), now feasting round monster camp-fires, now caracoling behind orderly flocks and herds. Then there were the gold-diggings: you pegged out your claim and dug away until your pick harpooned a nugget. Then there were bushrangers and wild blacks, and Tahourdin had hopes and fears of an encounter with one or the other. Perhaps the hopes predominated; they certainly did in the case of the bushrangers. Tahourdin had read much of these gentry; he intended to go prepared for them, with very little worth stealing about his person at any one time. With their well-known magnanimity they would probably hand him that little back again, and he would have it to talk about for the term of his natural life.
It will be seen that this egoist did not fly too high. He did not aspire to astonish the world, but only his friends, and he kept his aspiration to himself. Moreover, there was one excuse for him. He was not quite eighteen when he landed at Williamstown.
His letters of introduction made him several friends, who did their best to deter the escaped schoolboy from plunging into a life for which he was obviously unfitted. They assured him that there were no wild blacks within a thousand miles; that bushranging had been stamped out years since with the Kellys: that the single digger was obsolete and his claim an anachronism. Tahourdin was sorry to hear all this, but was merely restrained from buying a horse and riding forth to seek adventures as he had originally proposed to himself. Instead, he pushed for introductions to squatters, and finally succeeded in discovering one who at length consented to feed him for his services, if he chose to present himself at the station at his own risk and expense, prepared to do anything he was told, and to pay his own way back if he could not do it well enough to be worth his rations. In other words, he was to be given a trial in the untranslatable capacity of “jackeroo.” Now, “G-Block” the station had no other name—was some six hundred miles from Scott’s Hotel in Melbourne, where this dazzling prospect was unfolded; and Tahourdin had broken into the last ten pounds of his last remittance from home. So he could afford the train no farther than Echuca, whence he travelled steerage by the river steamer to Balranald, which he reached with just enough in hand to coach it to Clare Corner. This was the real bush: it did not deserve a capital after all!
The trees were not a bit high. They were uncommonly low. Ranges and gullies there were none. The whole country was as flat and arid as a rusty frying-pan. It whistled with crickets at night. It quivered in the heat all day. Night and day, Tahourdin had to jump down every five miles or so to open a gate, for he was the only passenger. It seemed that the whole country was in squares like a chess-board: it was as though a vast wire net had been cast across it. Tahourdin was thankful to see some cockatoos and parrakeets, and once a snake, and more than once a kangaroo: they were the only points in common between the real and the ideal. In the end he was met by a lean and nasal lout in a “spring” cart, and jolted forty miles back from the so-called road to a few log huts on a sandy pine ridge. Such was the Riverina station of his dreams.
A bronzed man in leggings stepped down from a veranda and introduced himself as Mr. Clover, the manager. Tahourdin appreciated his friendly greeting, but lost no time in inquiring for the gentleman whom he had seen (and rather liked) in Melbourne.
“Oh, he doesn’t hang out on G-Block,” said Mr. Glover; “he lives at another of his stations down in Vic. He only comes up here for the lamb-marking and the shearing.”
“When’s that?” asked Tahourdin, feeling somewhat disappointed, but also desirous of obtaining such information for its own sake.
“That?” repeated the manager, cocking his eyebrows with a grin. “It’s not the same thing, you know: it’s two different things. We lamb-mark about June, and shear in August and September, so they’re both over for the year. You’re a pretty new chum, I take it, Mr. Tahourdin?”
“As new as they make them,” admitted Tahourdin, with a laugh.
“Well, were very glad of some fresh blood,” said Mr. Glover; “there are only three of us here at the homestead, and we get pretty sick of each other at times. No ladies for you, Tahourdin! I haven’t sighted a petticoat these six months. A Chinaman cooks for us, and we make our own beds. By the way, Symes and Hutchinson, my overseer and storekeeper, are camping out to-night, so you and I will be alone. Are you very hungry?”
“Not a bit,” said Tahourdin. “I had a square meal when I left the coach.”
“That’s all right. Do you happen to have a good knife on you?”
Tahourdin happened to have a very good one indeed, the kind of present one gets on going to the Colonies, and he produced it with alacrity. The manager found a blade among the other implements, and ran a practised thumb along the edge.
“Will you lend it to me to stick a sheep?”
Tahourdin was taken somewhat aback, but of course complied.
“You see, you run out of things in the back-blocks, and it isn’t worth sending for ‘em piecemeal. I’ve been using my own penknife lately: this is a great improvement. You may as well come and lend a hand, or we’ll never get any dinner to-night.”
“With pleasure,” said Tahourdin, sickening at the thought. “But—but you don’t kill and eat on the same day?”
“Don’t we! Wait till you know this climate; why, it’s still a hundred in the shade, and it must be getting on for six o’clock. This way, Tahourdin, and you can hold your knife till I’m ready for it.”
So the education of the jackeroo began with a baptism of blood, which turned him cold with sickness in the full glare of that sun. Yet he stood his ground manfully with set jaws; was even interested, once the breath was out of the mangled carcass, in its swift and cleanly reduction to the familiar and inoffensive joints; and marvelled later to find he could partake without a qualm. The barbarous repast was eked out with split-peas and a water-melon, the nearest approach to vegetables on the drought stricken run, and washed down with pints of boiling tea; what was incongruous, but the more charming on that account, they sat down to it in black coats and clean collars, the manager setting the example.
“We took to dining in our shirt-sleeves,” said he, “and then pyjamas. It was time to draw the line, so you find us at the opposite extreme.”
Tahourdin did not think it an extreme, but he was pleased, and his pleasure deepened with the night. The manager was very nice to him as they sat in the veranda and watched the stars. He was a man of thirty, hard-featured, square-jowled, brown skinned, a native Australian from wideawake to spurs; very positive in his opinions; not particular as to the language in which he aired them; but, upon the whole, and seeing he was the “boss,” decidedly amiable to the beardless and untried jackeroo.
In point of fact, he was greatly entertained by Tahourdin, who was an exceedingly ingenuous and confiding youth, susceptible to the least friendliness, and apt under its influence to divulge his own feelings and affairs with uncalled-for candour. Thus the jackeroo went to bed, in a chamber rude enough to satisfy even his requirements, with the feeling that he had made a valuable friend for life; and the manager, chuckling consumedly over a final pipe, foresaw infinite sport.
Next day they spent on the run together, shifting a few attenuated sheep from one paddock to another, and covering altogether some twenty miles on horseback in the heat. Tahourdin had not ridden since he became too big for the pony at home, and evening found him an ignominious cripple, driven to join insincerely in the laugh against himself. He was no longer in the highest spirits. He had shown great ineptitude in the saddle, and once at least, in the heat of a skirmish with the stupid sheep, his new friend had spoken to him in a way that rankled. But he had enlisted of his own free will; he was not such a fool as to resent a sharp word from a superior officer, and they rode home together the same good friends. Or so Tahourdin imagined; and Glover would have vowed that he was right; for there was no real malice in the man.
Nevertheless, his manner changed towards Tahourdin in the inspiring company of those tried comrades, Messrs. Hutchinson and Symes, station storekeeper and overseer respectively. Hitherto it had not been worth while to poke even legitimate fun at the jackeroo; there had been no audience; but the manager soon made up for lost time. Tahourdin had scarcely given a second thought to his conversational indiscretions of the night before; the other had treasured the whole series; and out they came at dinner for the delectation of the previous absentees, in bursts of oblique raillery that left its object red with rage, for all the smiles he deemed it prudent to assume.
“Mr. Tahourdin never mixed tea and mutton before. Where’s that champagne, Hutchinson? You’re not half a storekeeper; but cheer up! After all, we’re not such savages as Mr. Tahourdin expected to find us: he was quite astonished at our putting on black coats for dinner—my word!”
“I wasn’t a bit,” protested Tahourdin, stung to the quick by this subtle perfidy, but still all good-nature on the surface. “I thought it awfully jolly.”
“But not so jolly as dressing altogether, eh? He dresses every night of his life when he’s at home in the old country; don’t you, Tahourdin? You don’t happen to have brought your dress-clothes with you, eh?” Tahourdin, amid roars, confessed that he had. “I brought my whole kit,” he shouted in explanation. “I had nowhere to leave anything. Of course I wanted them in Melbourne.”
“Never mind, Tahourdin! You must make allowances for us; what can you expect of poor back-blockers? But, I say, it’s a thousand pities we’ve got no lady of the house! Tahourdin could tell her about the latest fashions. His sister’s been presented at Court!”
It was an undeniable fact, but how the fact had slipped out overnight Tahourdin could not now conceive. Had he fallen so low in unconscious boastfulness? He remembered now that he had been misled into talking about his people; and he was certainly very proud of that sister. Well, she would be the last to forgive him if this detestable conversation should ever come to her ears; meanwhile he deserved all he got.
“Which court?” inquired the overseer, a little man with a squeaky voice, but the roughest customer with whom Tahourdin had yet foregathered. “The police-court, of course,” replied Tahourdin, plunging into the joke in desperation. The manager’s face grew long at once.
“Oh, I wouldn’t give her away. His own sister, too! We’ll drop the subject, gentlemen, if you please.”
But another was soon forthcoming.
“Have we got any bushrangers kicking about, Hutchy? Because Tahourdin would rather like to meet one.”
“The deuce he would!” cried the storekeeper, a buffoon himself, who foresaw many a merry innings when his senior should have wearied of the game.
“The deuce indeed!” echoed Tahourdin, trying once more to laugh it off. “I never said that, Mr. Glover, I really didn’t. I only said I’d read about the bushrangers, and was a bit disappointed to find them extinct. I rather wanted to meet somebody who’s been stuck up by them—”
“Or be stuck up yourself, eh?”
“Well, I’m not even sure that I’d mind that so very much, if I hadn’t too much to lose, and they left me with a pretty whole skin. It would be an experience worth having, I’m blowed if it wouldn’t!”
“If you want real, warranted, cold-drawn pluck,” said the manager, sententiously, “you must go to the old country for it, after all!” It was not done in temper, or with at all an evil grace; but the meal was over, the chairs pushed back; and at this point the jackeroo, still red, but still grinning, managed to retreat in fair order.
“That was a nasty one,” chuckled the storekeeper.
“One agen’ his duck-house,” squeaked the overseer.
“Not a bit of it!” cried Glover, rounding upon his wise men like any potentate. “I happened to mean that. I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if that kid hadn’t some grit in him somewhere. But—my word! What did I tell you chaps? Isn’t he sport?”
He was more. He had come there of his own accord, for his own peculiar ends. He was willing to work for his bread, as a necessity of the situation, and disposed to enjoy that novelty with the rest. He was none the less, a dabbler and a dilettante among hard-working men. He was not only sport, therefore, but perfectly fair game.
Only the game was not pursued in a very sporting spirit. It was generally three to one; never less than two; for, individually, the trio could be nice enough to Tahourdin; but, collectively, and even in couples, they seemed to vie with one another to make bush life a burden to him. Of course, this was not their cold-blooded design; equally of course, Tahourdin had himself to thank for the excessive measure of his humiliation. He was sensitive and vain, though unconscious of his vanity. It was none the less easily wounded on that account. His skin was as thin as a sensitized film; he was ashamed to show his arms; yet he had deliberately put himself at the mercy of men of infinitely coarser fibre, who could have thrashed him as they thrashed their dogs.
The manager was right, however, and there was some salt in Tahourdin even here. Having taken up his false position, of his own free will, he was not to be chaffed out of it at theirs. He was not to be bullied out of it. He might suffer, but he would never fly from what after all was mere badinage, though of a peculiar brand. That much must be allowed. It was not the kind of chaff the jackeroo had come in for at school, though new boys at a public school plumb a very fair depth in this respect, and Tahourdin had been of the type to touch bottom. But in those days he had been freely kicked; an occasional blow would have been almost a comfort in these. They did not descend to that: he was so obviously a weakling; and their nice abstention from physical violence was an unconsciously cruel reminder of the fact. They did not visit him with the traditional torments reserved for the conventionally robust “new chum.” They did not put him on the dangerous horses. They merely mangled his somewhat peculiar patronymic whenever they addressed him. They merely discussed him in the third person as though he were not present, when he was; and that so freely and fully, amid so brisk a competition in insult, obscenity, and brutal wit, that blood and tears would rise together in the end, and the wretched youth rush choking from the room.
Once, however, he behaved differently; and the single instance must suffice to justify all generalities. If these be too strong—but the one little incident shall speak for itself.
It was a Sunday afternoon not three weeks after Tahourdin’s arrival. The heat was an outrage on man and beast. Half-naked and unkempt, with face and arms not merely sunburnt, but red raw and swollen from the burning, Tahourdin lay stretched upon his bed in the full tide of a hard-earned and duly grateful siesta. To him enter the highvoiced overseer and the big buffoon of a Hutchinson. They wake him up. He suffers this without complaint. They criticise his clothes, his trunks, his boots, his razor (a fruitful item, being in scarcely visible request), and, lastly, his home photographs upon the wall. All this he endeavours to take as he still half-believes that it is meant; but the photographs are different. At each word he winces; the more, because it is the one pretentious portrait, that of the favourite sister in her Court train, on which these vultures settle. Their vulgarity is intolerable: speak he must.
“I say, dry up!”
Not the slightest notice.
“Say what you like about anything else, but have some respect for a fellow’s people. Do you hear me? Do you hear, I say?”
They heard, but did not heed. The photograph was that of a fine young woman in compulsory white, with rounded arms and shapely neck, eyes bright from the day’s ordeal, yet not without a hint of tears, and in the upper lip contemptuous impatience of this last infliction at the photographer’s hands. Face and form appealed equally to the connoisseurs, whose insolent admiration was the final outrage. Comment capped comment, not gross exactly, not absolutely coarse, yet inconceivably boorish and underbred; until Tahourdin, his protests ignored, had torn the frame from the wall, and leapt afoot like a thin flame.
“You-cad!” he roared. “Take off your coat and come outside!”
It was the big storekeeper whom he faced, the fellow who had gone the further in clownish disrespect; and Ajax and the lightning were better matched. The absurdity of the thing silenced both aggressors. Yet at the second glance it did not look so very absurd. Tahourdin was rolling up his sleeves, and his arms were indeed like the pipe-stems to which this very enemy had often likened them. But his face, fiery enough before, was now literally blazing with present passion and long arrears of resentment combined.
“You’ll give me a hiding,” he continued. “I know that well enough. Do you think I care? I’ll mark you first! I’ll mark you for this! I’ll mark you—”
And he repeated his most opprobrious epithet, unpresentable adjective and all; and what would have become of him in the next five minutes it is happily unnecessary to speculate, for at this juncture the manager arrived upon the scene, demanding an explanation of the row, which was duly given in the overseer’s falsetto.
“You young fool,” said Glover, “what do you mean by calling Hutchy a name like that? Do you know what you deserve?”
“Yes, and I want it. Don’t stop him. I can take all he gives me. But, by Jove, I’ll mark him first!”
“My good little ass, he didn’t mean any harm. Did you, Hutchy?”
“Of course I didn’t,” said the burly storekeeper, looking hurt, for the evil word was rankling, and not the less because he had no desire to make Tahourdin swallow it with his teeth. Indeed, the man was less brute than boor; he also spoke the truth. He had not seriously exceeded the limits of legitimate “chiack.”
“You hear that, Tahourdin?” continued Glover, not unkindly. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, my word, to take a fellow up like that. Cad! That’s a nice word to chuck about! It may do in the old country, but it won’t do here.”
“I’m ready to pay for it, right or wrong!”
“But you sha’n’t. I won’t let you. No more would Hutchy. I’ve known him for years, and he’s one of the best. I thought you were a good sort, too, Tahourdin, until to-day! I thought we were all good pals! It isn’t my idea of being pals to fly at a chap like that, and call him a cad when he didn’t mean any harm. Is it yours? We’d better leave you to think it over.”
But Tahourdin was quite unable to think. He was dazed by the new light in which the manager had placed his conduct and Hutchinson’s side by side. Glover had spoken kindly; he might be right; at any rate, he had put Tahourdin pretty effectually in the wrong; and the sense of this, after such a scene and such humiliation, was more than he could bear. He could have borne it if he had bled for it. But to be put in the wrong, and yet let off, was as the very hand and seal to his dishonour; and flinging himself on the bed where they had found him, Tahourdin wept like the child he was.
The others were already laughing it off.
“But I believe he would have marked you, Hutchy! He meant having a jolly good try. By the way, what did I tell you about his grit? He’s got some, after all, you see; he’d have taken his hiding standing up.”
The overseer squeaked dissent.
“I don’t think it, Mr. Glover; he’s a fiddlin’ little fraud, if you ask me. He didn’t know what; he was doin’ of just now; he was in too much of a stink. You try him in cold blood, and he’ll back out every time.”
“You mean out of a fight?”
“Out of anything you like.”
“You don’t think he’ll ever show any more spunk than he did this afternoon?”
“He’ll take jolly good care never to show as much.”
“Oh; and what’s your opinion, Hutchy? Do you agree with George Symes?”
The storekeeper was in a somewhat delicate position.
“I do and I don’t,” said he. “Of course I wasn’t going for the cove; what’s more, he knew it. Still, I must say he ran his risk.”
“So you don’t think it was a genuine challenge?”
“I don’t know what to think of it.”
“But you also wouldn’t trust Tahourdin in a tight place?”
“No, I’m hanged if I would!”
The manager looked from one to the other of his friends, and shook his head.
“I’m sorry for you two chaps! You’re hopelessly wrong, both of you. That young ass has got the right stuff in the right place—not too much of it—but enough. He takes too much notice of himself; he’s got a lot of rot to be knocked out of him still. But if he stays here long enough he’ll turn up trumps, and when you least expect it, you bet!”
“Do you bet, old man?” inquired the cracked voice, slily.
“I’m perfectly willing to back my opinion.”
“How much for?”
“Done with you,” squeaked Symes.
“And with me?” said Hutchy.
“Done again,” cried the storekeeper. “But look here: how long are we to give him to play up in? He’s only here for the fun of the thing, and don’t you forget it. He may chuck it, after this.”
“Give him six months,” said Glover, “and I think he’ll stay them out. If he doesn’t make you change your opinion in that time—”
“The bet’s off?”
“Not it! I’ll pay up. But you must both play a bit lighter in the meantime; give the poor fellow a rest now and then, or you’ll spoil his nerve. I know it was me that started it, but I’m rather sorry now that I did. I don’t ask you to let him off altogether; he doesn’t deserve that; only don’t you two have quite such an almighty down on him. And I’ll win my money yet—five notes from each of you—let’s make another note of that.”
And Tahourdin thought it all came of his having shown fight at last; that was part of the comic little tragedy; but the really serious part was to follow soon enough.
It was just before Christmas that the news came in. Tahourdin first heard of it at dinner on the 23rd of December, and, in his growing confidence, was not ashamed to express his delight that there were bushrangers once more, after all these years (“for my benefit,” said Tahourdin), in New South Wales. His little aside was taken more seriously than he expected. The three sat looking at him. As a matter of fact, they had made their arrangements to nip across country to Ivanhoe races on Christmas Day; the jackeroo only was to be left behind; but this startling rumour threatened to upset all their plans.
It seemed that another station, within but fifty miles, had been stuck up in quite the old fashion: masters and men (to say nothing of some ladies) imprisoned in an underground dairy: and the place looted in a style worthy of bygone traditions. The miscreants had disappeared for the time being. None knew whence they had sprung; but they were hiding in the midst of stations, and were certain to descend upon another ere long; their choice a toss-up, so far as station-folk could judge.
“Of course I shall chuck the races,” said Glover, gloomily. “George and Hutchy can go; but I must stay here. Not that they’re the least likely to trouble us; that’s the nuisance of it.”
“Then why not leave me, as you intended?” asked Tahourdin, in a flutter. “If we’ve nothing worth robbing, what harm can they do?”
The trio looked at him.
“Rot!” said Glover.
“But I mean it. They’re not likely to come here. You say so yourself. If they did come, they’d have to go empty away.”
“There are always the horses.”
“They would need running up.”
There was a pause which left Glover looking at the other two.
“How about my bet?” said he.
Tahourdin took this to refer to the races.
“You don’t win it yet,” said Symes.
“But I will!” cried Glover. “I’ve a jolly good mind to take Tahourdin at his word, and leave him in sole charge.”
“Do!” pleaded Tahourdin.
And in the end he did.
But meanwhile no more had been heard of the bushrangers, and it was even doubted whether the original report was not a mere canard. Such things are peculiarly common in the bush, where most intelligence travels by word of mouth, and gains inevitably in the process. Either to soothe his conscience (as it seemed, indeed, to Tahourdin), or for both reasons, the commanding Glover was the first to express incredulity in the matter. Tahourdin was only too thankful to take his opinion for even more than it was worth; the other two, however, seemed doubtful. As for the rank and file of the station hands, they were never informed of the rumour; in old days it had been the rank and file of station hands who had shown a dangerous sympathy with such desperadoes.
So said Glover, and he seemed to know, though he was not the man to trust too implicitly to his own opinion. This was shown in the precautions which he took in the face of his own conviction. He helped Tahourdin to carry his bed into the store under cloud of the night of Christmas Eve. The store was a log-hut standing by itself. In it was a rack of shot-guns, and Tahourdin was given the key of a drawer full of cartridges. Before daylight the trio went off, with a led horse which the odious Symes, a magnificent horseman, was to mount in person for the Maiden Plate; before midnight, if their horseflesh could do it, they would all three be safe and sound again on G-Block.
There are many reasons why Tahourdin is never likely to forget his Christmas on that station. The day was unique in his short experience, first because he had it wholly to himself, and secondly by reason of the incredibly hot wind which blew from dawn to dewless eve. This wind had been blowing all the week, but it surpassed itself on Christmas Day. It came from the Equator in one steady burning blast, as from some fiery furnace of the gods or the gates of hell itself. It heated everything, indoors and out, with a heat independent of the sun. The water in the ewers might have come fresh from the hot tap, the bed-linen from the ironing-board. In the kitchen the Chinaman used his apron to lift a latch, and could have cooked the Christmas dinner on the four-hundred-gallon tank outside, without burning a stick. The men dozed in their hut; the crows hid in the pines; and on the homestead veranda, with the station to himself and the day his own, Tahourdin could almost feel the blood sparkling in his veins.
This is the surprising property of the hot north wind six hundred miles inland. It does not enervate like damp or sluggish heat. It scorches the nostrils and cracks the lips, but is almost bracing in its effect upon a healthy body and a sanguine soul.
Tahourdin, at all events, had never felt so well in his life, and seldom happier. He was getting on better with the others. That was much to him. But it was nothing to his excited pride in the present trust reposed in him. A chance of bushrangers, and his little self left in charge! So he put it in more than one letter that he wrote that day. It was such an opportunity for letter-writing, and such a situation to describe! There was no need to finish these letters at this sitting; it would never do to put them in suspense at South Kensington for a whole week; but he felt that he would thrill them more by writing of a present than of a past danger, and he deemed it legitimate to thrill his people when he was genuinely thrilled himself. And his mood was indeed one of suppressed but intense excitement, as even the Chinese cook might have seen when he showed himself on the veranda, and Tahourdin started to his feet like a guilty man. Then he would reconnoitre the premises at frequent intervals, while early in the morning he put a cartridge into every barrel in the store. But nothing happened, and the poor youth wrote in raptures to the end, while the perspiration ran down his nose and sometimes rattled on the crisp, hot paper, to leave blisters as of contradictory tears, and to dry before the leaf was turned. At the end of each letter a space was left, a space that Tahourdin thought to fill next day with comic lamentations on the anti-climax: so little was his heart of hearts prepared.
And yet he sat up for the others until two o’clock next morning, and only went to bed then because the wind flew round into the south, as the hot wind will at its worst, and he found himself shivering on the veranda before he realized the cause. It was a cloudy night; the change of temperature was sudden and extreme beyond belief; bed became the one place for a sane being, and even there Tahourdin required his rug. The Chinaman had retired hours earlier to his opium-reeking kennel off the kitchen; but at the men’s hut, which, however, was a quarter of a mile away, appropriate festivities had been sustained until past midnight, thereafter to sink from songs and wranglings to sudden silence with the lights still burning. Tahourdin in his innocence had been up to see the cause, and had left the scene in fitting darkness. He need not rely upon the men. It was a pity, because the bell which roused them each morning was slung from the wood-and-iron gable of the store, and, though the rope hung outside as a rule, Tahourdin had been at some pains to alter this arrangement for that night. Thus a temporary extension of the bell-rope hung ready to his hand when at length he lay down in the small hours. The store door was locked and bolted; the store window was high up and barred. Tahourdin smiled in premature judgment upon the folly and futility of it all; and, smiling, fell asleep.
He cannot have slept very long; what awoke him you will possibly guess. It was an unseen hand trying the locked and bolted door. Tahourdin was on his elbow in an instant, trembling horribly, yet exalted in that instant above his normal self.
“Who’s there?” he called, shrilly.
The answer was short and sharp:—
Tahourdin found the match-box, and lit the candle at his elbow.
“I’m hanged if I do,” he said. “Who are you?”
“You’ll know soon enough.”
“So will some others,” shouted Tahourdin, and straightway the station-bell rang out upon the night. Outside there fell a pause, a whisper, and a brutal laugh.
“You’re a silly fool, whoever you are. The hut’s baled up, and every man a prisoner; as it happens they’re as drunk as coots, but it’d make no odds if they wasn’t. Open up, curse you, or we’ll open you!”
The door shook and rattled in a horrible manner. Tahourdin was shaking, too, but he cocked one gun, laying two others upon the counter.
“You’re the bushrangers, are you?”
“You can call us what you like; we’ll pay you in a minute!”
“Then I call you a pack of infernal ruffians and cowards; and I tell you this—you may have nobbled the men, but you don’t nobble me! I’m bolted and barred, and jolly well armed—and I expect my bosses back any minute! They were to have been here by midnight; they’ll be here before morning, as sure as you’ll swing before you’ve done!”
A louder laugh—a fouler oath.
“You precious innocent! We brought ‘em in ourselves, trussed up like chickens, and they’re now in the hut with the others. So much for your blessed bosses!”
Tahourdin sickened. So he stood alone!
For an instant there seemed but one thing to be done, but for an instant only. If he stood alone, he would fall alone, and after his death the bush world—nay, the world at large—would know him for what he had really been.
The stimulus was odious—the resolve heroic.
And who knows how many heroes are no more heroically inspired?
“Break in the door!” yelled this one, beside himself with excitement. “The first man comes in dead!”
He had no idea how many men there were, for one did all the threatening, while the remnant egged him on in savage undertones which gave no clue to their number. The spokesman had a voice in accordance with the best bushranging traditions, as conned by Tahourdin with prophetic fascination. It might have been the voice of a gentleman, and was worthy of Captains Melville and Moonlite. Tahourdin actually thought of these worthies as he awaited their successors’ next move; but he need not have gone to Australia or to Australian criminals for what promptly followed. Some iron implement was hammered between door and door-post, just below the upper hinge. Tahourdin held up the candle, and saw to his horror that the hinge was rusty. He remembered once hearing, as a fact not generally known, that at their best hinges are more vulnerable points than bolts. And he suddenly recognised that he was beset not by bushrangers, who would have stuck him up in broad daylight, but by common cracksmen, come to break in and steal with no more gallantry than their fellow practitioners of South Kensington itself!
“You bale up the men!” he roared in scorn. “You stick up a station! Why, you’re nothing but a gang of common or garden thieves!” And out rang the station bell once more, in a frenzied peal exactly worthy of the poor ringer, who was indeed half mad with fear and excitement, and sudden and ill-founded hope. Yet justification was to follow, for that very instant the hammering stopped, and in its stead a thunderous voice promised nameless tortures if the ringing went on.
“That proves it!” shouted Tahourdin. “You never interfered with the men; but they’ll interfere with you; they’re not so drunk as all that! Do your worst to me, they’ll avenge me; and I’ll kill a couple of you first, and my bosses—”
The high hysterical voice was drowned in a deafening assault upon the hinge itself. A splinter flew; the hinge had started; a few more blows sent it flying over Tahourdin’s head, with strips of wood adhering. This was the beginning of the end. The door itself kept its place a little longer, held wonderfully fast by lock, bolts, and remaining hinge; when this went, all went; but Tahourdin had gained some minutes’ grace. He was discovered crouching behind the counter, his head only showing above a rampart mounted with three double-barrelled guns, one of which was at his shoulder. And to the end his left hand tugged the bell-rope, the last clang exactly coinciding with the first shot.
A couple of masked scoundrels had tumbled in over the ruin of the door, and it was upon the foremost of these that Tahourdin had emptied both barrels in his frenzy. The man clapped his hands to his face and went reeling back into the night His comrade meanwhile fired a revolver point-blank at Tahourdin, yet missed him, whereupon the defender discharged his second piece with the like result, having no time even to raise it from the counter. Never was worse shooting at such a range: four times in four seconds Tahourdin gave himself up for dead, and four times the flash was followed by no twinge of pain in any portion of his body. Not a word was spoken, but each time the masked man aimed deliberately, his eyes peering through round holes in the crape, and fixed steadily on Tahourdin, who returned their glare. It was all he could return; the wretch had seized the third pair of barrels, and held them firmly to one side. But Tahourdin had the stock with both hands, and when the revolver was empty he had another chance: for the one bad shot fled incontinent, followed without a moment’s hesitation by the other.
Through the yard they rushed, and out and in among the pine trees, dark as it was, though indeed there was a lantern burning somewhere, and by its rays Tahourdin had one glittering glimpse of a horse’s trappings. But the light was too little and the pace too great for effective firing, and this time it was not to his discredit that neither charge found flesh. In another instant Tahourdin had clubbed his piece, and in yet another he had struck his man senseless from behind. Drunk with battle, the clubbed gun whirling round his head, the now unrecognisable Jackeroo danced round in nick of time to meet poetic justice in his turn. He saw absolutely nothing: there was a single crash, a strangled cry, and he lay upon his back with closed eyes and a convulsive chin—a dead man with a living jaw.
He came to his full senses in Glover’s room. This was many hours afterwards. There had been an earlier but only partial return, when insensibility had merged into natural sleep, but Tahourdin had no recollection of it. He knew nothing until he awoke between the manager’s sheets. He was alone. It was evidently afternoon. He could not imagine what had happened; and this was the trouble when the manager entered somewhat later, though by that time he had recalled everything up to the moment of his eclipse.
“So you were in time! You must have been! I knew you would be—didn’t I tell them so?”
“Yes, I was in time,” said Glover, with dry kindliness; “but keep cool, old chap, or I shall have to clear out. I’m what we call a bush doctor, remember! And it was a deuce of a knock you got—poor old boy!” His voice was almost affectionate: he was feeling Tahourdin’s pulse; no woman could have done it more tenderly.
“Where was I hit?” asked Tahourdin. “I can’t find a bandage anywhere.”
“It was clean on the point,” said Glover, looking upon the stricken hero in sorrowful pride. “It wasn’t a bullet, though. I wouldn’t bother about it. You’ll knock yourself up if you do.”
But his look had reminded Tahourdin that he was a hero, after all, and the recollection disturbed his simplicity of mind.
“I did what I could,” he sighed, with self-conscious modesty.
“You did magnificently!” cried Glover, enthusiastically. “We’re all most awfully proud of you. And—you’ve put ten notes in my pocket!”
“I’m ashamed to tell you now.”
“It’ll knock me up if you don’t,” whined Tahourdin, slily.
“Well, then—after that row you had with Hutchy—do you remember the one I mean?”
“I wish I didn’t!”
“Well, after that we had an argument about you. They thought you hadn’t meant business. I swore you had. In the end we had a bet about it.”
“You bet about me?”
“On you, my boy! I backed you for five notes with each of them—to show your grit if you got a chance. And you have done it—my word! You’ve done what the three of us rolled together couldn’t have done better in your place.”
Tahourdin did not speak. He merely thrust a sunburnt hand and the thinnest of wrists over the single sheet that covered him. Glover crushed it in sympathetic silence.
“What happened after I was knocked out?” asked Tahourdin, at length.
“Oh, the very deuce of a row. I’ll tell you about that to-morrow.”
“But how many of them were there, and what happened to the two I tackled?”
Glover seemed embarrassed.
“Did I—kill one of them?” whispered the jackeroo.
“No, no, you didn’t do that.”
“I’d really rather tell you to-morrow! Upon my word, you’re not in a fit state tonight!”
“But you’re keeping something from me! I sha’n’t rest until I know what it is. Were any lives lost?”
“How many of them were there?”
“Three or four.’’
“Have you got them?”
“Got them? My word!”
“Then you ought to know whether it’s three or four. Never mind! I only hope you’re telling me the truth. What about that chap I shot? Will you swear he’s not dead or dying?”
“Till I’m blue in the face. And I’ll tell you why. There was evidently something wrong with those cartridges; er—the fact is, we used to get our last jackeroo to load ‘em, and it’s quite clear to me now that he must have put in double powder and no shot. Ha, ha! Nice sort of trick to play, wasn’t it?”
“It was worse than me,” chuckled Tahourdin; “but I’m jolly grateful to him, I can tell you. Still, I must have half-blinded the chap.”
“You did; and burnt off all his eyebrows and eyelashes; but he’ll be all right.”
Tahourdin dismissed all qualms.
“And what about the other one?”
“Oh, he’ll be all right, too; he’s wearing a sort of skull-cap of sticking-plaster at present; but his head’s pretty thick, and it’ll mend.”
Tahourdin said nothing. He felt very weak, and the glow that had come over him, from head to heels, was as a consuming fever. There were steps on the veranda outside.
“So he’s awake, is he?” said the storekeeper’s voice. “May we come in?”
“Not yet,” said Glover.
“Yes, do!” cried Tahourdin.
And they spoke in the same breath; but it was Tahourdin who raised his voice; and in marched the other two.
For a full minute there was silence in the room: the appearance of one new-comer was only less extraordinary than that of the other. Tahourdin himself altered strangely as he lay and looked at them.
“What’s the matter with you, Symes?” he asked, at length, and his voice was very low and hollow.
“Oh, nothing,” squeaked the overseer; “only got no wool on the lids of my eyes, in the place where the wool ought to grow. And I’m more than half blind. A little accident, that’s all.”
“And you, Hutchinson?”
“Can’t you see? Got my head broke in the rumpus last night. And I’m hanged if it didn’t serve me right!”
He had taken a forward step that did him honour, and was holding out his hand to the prostrate jackeroo. But Tahourdin did not see it He had turned a livid face towards the manager.
“Get them to go,” he begged, in whispers; “you were quite right! I can only stand—one at a time.”
When they were once more alone the manager was no longer seated on the bed. He was striding quickly up and down.
“I won’t say I’m sorry,” he blurted out; “it isn’t strong enough. I’m simply sorrier than I ever was for anything in these back-blocks—there! And it was all my fault. Not that I began it. But I took it up. I was so jolly sure of you. And I wanted to make them the same.”
There was a moment’s pause between the close-clipped sentences. Tahourdin took advantage of it. His voice was stronger.
“Wait a bit,” he said. “Tell me where the fraud began.”
“From the very start.”
“The report about the bushrangers?”
“There never were any.”
“And you doctored those cartridges?”
“With my own hands!”
There was a longer pause.
“And who was your spokesman? I didn’t recognise the voice.”
“You wouldn’t; you’ve never met him. It was a young chap on Quandong whom we roped in at the races.”
“And who knocked me out in the end?”
The manager interrupted his walk to come to the bedside and show Tahourdin his knuckles. They were slightly grazed; he looked terribly ashamed of them.
“My dear fellow, it was you or me for it then! I only wish it had been me—to go down. I deserved it; you didn’t; you’re the pluckiest little demon in New South Wales!”
Tahourdin took the offending hand outstretched to him, but his face had wrinkled with sudden pain.
“Oh, no, I’m not! It was a fraud—a fraud—a fraud!”
And there was all but tragedy in his tone.
“That makes no difference. It was just as plucky of you. It counts the same.”
“No,” said Tahourdin; “it doesn’t count. It’s not the same. Oh, to think—it was only a fraud—after all!”
He had closed his eyes very tight, but not tight enough. Glover turned away, but in a moment he was back.
“Will you forgive us, Tahourdin?”
“There’s nothing to forgive.”
“But there is—you know there is!”
“Then it’s forgiven.”
But he would not see the others. He wished to be alone: his wish was respected for the rest of that day. And the next, when Glover, who had merely visited him last thing at night, repeated his visit first thing in the morning, the jackeroo was gone!
Of course it was his wounded vanity, and everything else that was paltry and egoistical: the little note confessed it in so many and hard words. But he had taken the liberty of borrowing the night-horse, and he believed that both it and he were just good enough to catch the coach. It was lucky he had received his Christmas remittance by the last mail; this would enable him to pay, among other things, for the borrowed beast’s keep at the roadside inn until sent for, and he trusted Glover wouldn’t mind his inclosing enough also to defray the further cost of forwarding his trunks to some Melbourne shipping agents whose name he gave. The jackeroo wound up with very simple and hearty thanks for all the manager’s kindness, with markedly friendly messages to the other two, but with the equally emphatic assurance that they would never see him on G-Block again.
And they never did.
The Reverend Charles Caradoc was tramping in from Heidelberg: not the old-world German city, but that pleasant Melbourne suburb which was idyllic before it became a suburb at all. Then the line was only talked about, and you had to walk home if you missed the last ‘bus. Caradoc had missed it with his eyes open, and was revelling in the two hours’ penalty. Through the wintry starlight his face beamed pink with good-humour and enthusiasm; on the hard, undulating road his step was the tattoo of health and strength, of infinite confidence and complete youth.
Yet there were younger men, and even curates, as there were thousands more prepossessing in appearance. Caradoc was eight-and-twenty, and he wore a moustache, which is seldom in its place upon a barrister, a jockey, a man-servant, or a clergyman. This moustache was reddish and of the horse-shoe order, but not heavy enough to hide the wearer’s good, but rather prominent, front teeth. Caradoc had also very good blue eyes, but these again were a little prominent; altogether you will picture him no Apollo. He had, however, a deep chin, a man’s mouth, and one of the kindliest, most ingenuous, least self-conscious expressions ever worn between a clerical collar and a soft felt hat.
But he was a very new chum, having come out with Archdeacon Huntley, who had been home to England for a few months’ holiday after thirty years’ ministry in the colony. Greedy for honest work, and impatient of what went by that name in his country curacy, Caradoc had fallen in with the Archdeacon at a garden party, had confessed his discontent, and been promised his heart’s desire if he would come to Melbourne. He was getting it among the larrikins of Carlton and of Fitzroy; in the tide of riff-raff that flowed southward, with thickening scum, to the confines of Little Bourke Street itself.
So his head and his hands were full; so his heart and his step were light; and the quick music of his youth and energy had drummed through Ivanhoe and Alphington, and was ringing down the hill to Diamond Creek, when that happened which stopped it for the moment and changed it for the night. Curiously enough, Caradoc was thinking of a story told him that afternoon by the driver of the omnibus, the story of a man shot dead by a notorious bushranger at this same Diamond Creek—when history flattered itself with a weak repetition: a weedy figure flew out from the shadows, and a revolver was presented at the curate’s head.
“Bail up!” cried a nasal voice, hoarse with excitement.
Caradoc stepped back, marking the lethal barrel. This was agreeably short, and the starlight scarcely shimmered in its rust; moreover, it was not covering him.
“Bail up? What do you mean?”
“Yer money or yer life!” came in the still older formula and still thicker voice.
“My life,” said Caradoc, calmly, “if you can hit me from where you stand.”
“I will—my word!”
“I don’t think your barrel’s long enough.” The muzzle was spinning in circles like a midge. The curate laughed as he stepped towards it.
“I’ll come nearer. Now try.”
And he fixed his good blue eyes on the hungry brown ones of a pitiful stripling, seen more clearly every instant in the starlight, and every instant a more painful exhibition of insufficient effrontery and oozing courage. The end was in keeping with the rest: instead of being fired, the pistol was flung at Caradoc’s head, whizzed over it, and went off like a squib as it clattered in the road behind him. When he rose from ducking, two bare feet flashing under the stars was all he could see of his assailant. He gave chase in his well-soled boots, and for a time the music was very fast; it rattled over the bridge across the creek, and up-hill indomitably on the other side; but towards the top it stopped suddenly, and turned into a duet of gasps.
“Am I to hang on to you,” panted the curate, “or do you give in?”
“Oh, Lord! I give yer best—I give yer best!”
“Then we go back to Melbourne together. I can either twist your arm behind your back and force you along—”
“Or we can go arm-in-arm as though we were old friends. You prefer that, eh? Then come on!”
They went on without a word. Gradually their hard breathing subsided, and the parson took out his handkerchief and mopped his face; the captive did much the same with the back of his sleeve, only it was his eyes that required most attention.
“Whimpering at the thought of gaol,” mused Caradoc. “Let him whimper!”
On the outskirts of the city he hailed a cab, pushed his prisoner into it, and told the man where to drive in a voice inaudible within; not until they stopped at his lodgings in Carlton did he hear that nasal voice again. “Where are you bringin’ me?”
“Come out, and you’ll see.”
Caradoc’s supper was laid in his room, for he had only gone to Heidelberg to deliver a letter of introduction, and had said positively that he would be back; but he had reckoned without his kind colonial host, and had fared sumptuously before leaving the farm. Yet he rubbed his hands at sight of the cold sliced mutton, the loaf and butter, the pickles, and the cheese.
“Capital!” he cried. “I’ve had my supper, Mary, but here’s a fellow who I fancy has not. It just fits in.”
And Mary withdrew without comment; for this was not the first dilapidated visitor that the curate had introduced during his short tenancy; and he had given fair warning that there would be more.
“Now,” continued Caradoc, “sit down and have at it!”
Instead of doing so, the lad stood trembling like a frightened colt; his dark eyes big, and his brown skin blenched, with a deeper and a keener fear than even this coward had displayed on the road.
“What are you givin’ us?” he gasped, in yet another formula.
“Mutton and damper, I believe you call it,” replied the curate, looking for his pipe.
“Ain’t you goin’ to gimme to the coppers?”
“That remains to be seen. Not till you’ve had something to eat, at all events. Matches gone, as usual; got one about you, by any chance?”
“Ah! I’ve found ‘em. Mind if I smoke while you’re eating?”
“I ain’t agoin’ to eat.”
Caradoc took a single glance at the set and sullen face; then he struck a match, and answered as he lit his pipe, with his back turned:—
“Don’t be a young fool. (Puff, puff.) I know very well why you stuck me up tonight. (Puff, puff, puf-f-f.) Isn’t that the expression? Or is that only when you’re a bushranger? If you’re a bushranger (puff), I’m disappointed in ‘em; but I should be sorry to think you were one, for their sake as well as yours. All I believe you are is a half-starved larrikin—”
“That’s all, so help me!”
“Then there’s your supper. Stow it away! But, look here, if you turn on the waterworks, I will send for the police—like a shot.” An hour later, the curate and the larrikin were seated at opposite sides of the fire. The curate was in his third pipe; the larrikin would not smoke; and, though the pale, brown face was almost serene in its physical satisfaction, the dark brown eyes reached ever furtively for the door.
Caradoc took his pipe from his teeth, catching the glance.
“Must you go back to Diamond Creek to-night?”
“You could have that sofa if you’d stop.” The larrikin fidgeted, looked down in discomfort, looked up in blunt inquiry.
“But you was goin’ to get me run in?”
“Oh, no, I wasn’t.”
He must have known it; he only sighed relief.
“Then you’ll let me clear? The old man’d give me hell if I didn’t go home!”
Caradoc took no notice of the word.
“So there’s an old man, and a home, too, eh?”
“Not much of one,” laughed the larrikin. “Plucky home!”
“Do you know that you haven’t told me the old mans name, or yours?”
“Wots the good, when he has so many?”
“But he must call you something,” remarked the curate, smiling behind his red moustache.
“He calls me things wot’d make your hair curl!” replied the larrikin, and Caradoc showed those prominent white teeth of his as he laughed outright in his own despite. Next moment he was particularly grave; as shyness wore off on the other side, it was his habit to drop a certain familiarity which he had found indispensable for putting the Melbourne larrikin at his ease; so now he suddenly ceased smoking at two pipes and a half, and stood up stiffly on his hearthrug, with his long coat-tails to the fire.
“If you like it better,” said he, rather loftily, “what am I to call you?”
“I don’t see as you’ll have much chance of callin’ me anythink,” replied the other, with a snigger.
“Very good. Then you certainly sha’n’t clear out. Now, what’s your name?”
The reply was slow, sullen, and uncertain. “Willyum!”
“William, eh? Well, William, you shall clear out, as you call it, on certain hard-and-fast conditions which you’ll break at your peril. Refuse them, and I give you in charge.”
He felt it a mean threat, an ignoble coercion; but if any end could justify any means, surely it was the end which he had in view. Nevertheless, when William had accepted the inevitable, with a sudden desperation following upon a frank reluctance, and equally suggestive of sincerity, the master of the situation felt a genuine relief, and made haste to adopt a less terrible tone. “Know Lygon Street, William?”
“Know St. Cuthbert’s—half-way down?”
“Outside,” said William, with a fine ungodliness.
“You shall know the inside too before I’ve done with you,” the curate promised him. “But one thing at a time. There’s a mission-room a little lower down on the same side—a red-brick affair. You’ve got to know the inside of that first; you’re to let me see you there every Wednesday and Saturday evening, at eight o’clock, till further orders!” William sighed.
“To-day’s Tuesday,” continued Caradoc. “You begin to-morrow night—and I don’t think you’ll hate it half as much as you think. The other fellows don’t. Lots come—lots of greater villains than you. I shouldn’t care to be stuck up by some of them, William—they wouldn’t mean it for a joke!” he added, as the boy turned a warmer brown.
“But they aren’t such bad fellows either; they come and play bagatelle and draughts and dominos; we let them smoke, but kick them out if they swear!”
Caradoc was disappointed. He had hoped that the programme—the Wednesday and Saturday evening programme—the kindergarten class in elementary decency—would appeal to this larrikin in the mere prospect as it had done to others. He was mistaken. William did not brighten; he had been brighter before. All he did was to sit and stare into the fire, crass and unattracted.
“I forgot,” said Caradoc. “You don’t smoke, and you won’t swear. Perhaps you can read?”
“Then you can read there to your heart’s content. One end of the room’s for nothing else: magazines, books, papers, and no talking allowed.”
The effect was magical: it brought William to his feet.
“I’ll be there to-morrow night.”
“Then that’s a bargain; your hand on it, William.... And now there’s just one more thing I want to know, and you shall go. I want a plain answer to a plain question: you mustn’t be hurt. Supposing I’d given you my money on the road—its the last time I’ll speak of it—would the old man have got it or would he not?”
The look was enough; it was a look of swift, open-eyed amazement at Caradoc’s insight. He smiled and nodded, rather proud of it himself.
“I thought as much. So he sends you out to make money?”
“Day an’ night.”
“That’s my look-out.’
“He wouldn’t know, eh?”
“No, nor care!”
“I see,” said Caradoc, looking into the bright brown eyes, and disliking their moisture in a lad who was almost a man. “I quite understand; and there’s nothing to take to heart so much as all that, my good boy. It wasn’t your fault—I don’t blame you a bit. But, I say, you’d better take some money back, hadn’t you? Look here, you shall see what you’d have got.... Three-and-seven exactly—a noble haul! Take it, my dear fellow, it’ll be better than nothing; and one of these days you shall earn it honestly and pay me back. We must put you in the way of earning something, of course; but you shall come in to-morrow night and have another square meal to walk back on; and we’ll talk it over then if you won’t be such a baby!”
And Caradoc stood impatiently on the landing while the bare feet stumbled downstairs and over the linoleum; when the front-door slammed, he returned to his room and re-filled his pipe.
“If he wasn’t such an infernal baby!” he muttered, as he struck the match. Yet the baby grew on him as he sat and smoked and put up his feet on the empty chair opposite.
The site had been bought, the room built, the mission started, by Archdeacon Huntley’s sons—fine, hearty fellows, who did almost as much good in Melbourne as that dear divine himself. It was the young men who had gathered in the larrikins, and the young men who had taught them to appreciate their privileges by kicking them out again as often as necessary. At first the necessity had been almost nightly; the character of the place very nearly non-religious, as it still was on Wednesdays and Saturdays; but gradually it had become possible to establish a specific ideal, to accentuate this as time went on, until the mission-room could afford to avow its allegiance to the church hard by. So the enterprise flourished, until it grew beyond the surplus energies of mere laymen, and Caradoc on landing found his work cut out for him; what was better, he might himself have been cut out for the work. Good-humoured and yet firm—but his qualities need no bush. Of the highest order they were not; but for dealing with the Melbourne larrikin they proved a well-nigh perfect combination.
And yet a certain innate bluffness, which stood Caradoc in stead with the ruck, did not always serve him with the individual; certainly it did not answer with the half-hearted desperado, the incomplete adventurer, who had attempted to stick him up on the Heidelberg road. The lad came regularly to the room, but Caradoc never knew how long he would continue coming. He did not grow more manly on further acquaintance; yet the curate did not like him less. He was not popular with the other boys: he was shrinking and self-conscious in their midst; yet Caradoc liked him well enough to ask him sometimes to his rooms, to resent his invariable refusals, to lend him his own books instead, to see him on the way to Diamond Creek, to feed his mind as they walked. And he seldom laid himself out to feed the mere minds of the rest; all his time was taken up in purifying their hearts.
So the short winter ended, and the long summer began; but before the great heat a feast-day was fixed, and the date announced by Caradoc to his larrikins, amid astonishing enthusiasm; for some of them knew, though he did not, the kind of day that it would be.
Quite in the bush, down the Gippsland line, Archdeacon Huntley had a twenty-acre selection, and a wattle-and-dab hut to which he and his sons would repair, now for hard, solitary work, now for complete rest and change. It was only thirty miles by rail; then there was a drive; and in a couple of hours all told you were in the heart of the wilderness, amid huge boulders and forest ferns, and trees taller than any steeple in the Southern Hemisphere. Hither, once a summer, Archdeacon Huntley brought his choirboys for the day; and here the larrikins had their separate outing, with the Archdeacon and all his available sons to keep them in order.
There was a sound repast on the grass behind the hut; there were games, competitions, tree-climbing, stick-whittling, an organized exploration of the wilds; and before tea, a general and compulsory bathe in the big waterhole. The young fellows acted as whips, but their office was a sinecure: the difficulty was not to persuade the boys to go in, but to induce them to come out again. Caradoc suggested a strict time-limit, and stood watch in hand on an adjacent boulder, christened the Tarpeian Rock by the classical Archdeacon, who stood beside him smiling benignly upon the brown hands and faces and the white bodies of the boys, wet and flashing in the sun. But the curate did not smile; he frowned; and his frown was blackest when he closed his half-hunter with a vicious snap.
“There’s one fellow cut it, after all!”
“Indeed?” said the Archdeacon. “Which boy is that?”
“His name is William.”
“Nobody knows; he refused me his surname when I first got hold of him, and I have never pressed him for it.”
“So he is one of your boys?” said the Archdeacon, kindly. “I hear there are so many of them already! You are doing a very noble work, Caradoc; it was a good day for us all when I fell in with you.” Neither the Archdeacon nor his sons knew under what circumstances Caradoc had fallen in with the missing larrikin.
“I fancy his father is a great villain,” continued the curate, blushing at the praise. “The lad himself is all right—if only he were more of a sportsman. This is so characteristic of him! Goodness knows where he is! I am sorry,” he added, with less emphasis, and more to himself: “I have a soft corner for the fellow, in spite of it.”
Yes—in spite of the very faults he could least endure—it was a softer corner than the curate could understand. His own tolerance puzzled him. Another skulker he had lashed with his contempt; another muff he had tormented into manliness, long weeks before this. It was as though the very badness of this lad’s beginning, the abortive highway robbery, had imbued the object of that outrage with a special lenience towards him, less paradoxical than it might appear, since anything short of crime must in him henceforth assume a merit.
Not that Caradoc argued thus: he was one of the least introspective of mortals. His subtlest feeling was a slight impatience with himself, a naïve wonder that his day should be so easily spoilt. Yet he never hesitated as to what he should do: when the boys were finally in the brake, and the cheering at its height, it was the curate who ran up last and hottest.
“May I have one word, Mr. Archdeacon? I can’t find that boy anywhere!”
“God bless my soul!”
“I fear, something has happened to him; or he’s run away to avoid going back to town. But we can’t allow that; he must be found.”
“He must, indeed,” said the Archdeacon, looking at his watch; “but we must also catch our train. There is no other to-night. I think the best thing will be for one of my sons—”
“If you will permit me, sir, I would much rather stay myself. I know this lad; he has a peculiar disposition; but I believe I can manage him. I should deem it such a kindness if you could spare me to find him and to bring him back.”
So the brake waddled down the rough track, and Caradoc was left behind, waving back to the waving lads, and returning their cheers until the great trees swallowed them; then he ran back into the selection, and mounted the Tarpeian Rock, which was its highest point.
The sun had long been among the trees, but then the trees were so tall. It might be light for the better part of another hour. Caradoc stood on the rock, the golden glare showing the day’s dust upon his black clothes, the day’s own coat of red upon his heated face; the prominent white teeth were parted, the prominent blue eyes filled with anxiety and distress. And as he stood, the sounds of the bush, drowned all day long by those of a city, broke upon him for the first time: the whisper of leaves and grasses, the chitchat of parakeets, the guffaw of a laughing jackass, the chirrup of locusts invisible, innumerable. But of the sounds for which he listened—a timid hail—a swishing of the ferns—the breaking of a branch—not one fell upon his straining ear.
It was his very first day in the bush; but he had met old bushmen in Melbourne, had visited them in the parish, and got on terms by a genuine eagerness to hear of the wilderness and all its ways. Now something that he had heard came back to him; he was off the rock in an instant, and following the posts and rails that inclosed the Archdeacon’s twenty acres. If the fugitive had crossed the fence, he should find the place, the trail; but he never did; nor was there need.
From a brake of ferns two glittering eyes drew his; the green fronds rustled as in a sudden wind; the hapless William was run to earth.
“Thank God!” gasped Caradoc, but with that cry his tone changed. “Come out of it, you young idiot! What the mischief do you mean?”
William showed his face—very brown and sullen, and his shoulders—round with shame. But the brake was breast-high, and he evinced no disposition to come out.
“Why did you do it?” cried the curate. “Are you so frightened of cold water?”
The dark head hung lower, and in the red-gold glare there was a sudden glitter of tears, that fell like great diamonds upon the greater emeralds of the sunlit ferns.
“Is there no manhood in you?” pursued Caradoc; but even as he spoke the scorn fell out of his voice; and the question, that had broken from him as a harsh taunt, died away a whispered question and nothing more.
The answer was a wild covering of the hot, brown face by the tremulous, brown hands, a pitiful heaving of the high shoulders, and such a storm of sobbing as might have wrung a heart of stone. Caradoc stared and listened as though he had been stone all over. And the crimson killed the gold in the failing light; and it warmed the withering fingers, and what of the wet face they failed to hide, to the hue of burnished copper.
“So you have deceived me all these months!”
He was kept so long waiting that he was forced to repeat the question. He repeated it in a sterner tone, of which he felt instantly ashamed; but even this only elicited a whisper, inaudible, incoherent.
“I can’t hear,” said Caradoc, gently; “I’m sorry. I’ll come nearer.”
“It was all the old man,” the girl’s voice whispered. “He didn’t care so long’s I brought something home... there were worse ways... he didn’t care!”
“You shall never go back to him,” said Caradoc, a tremor in his own firm voice.
“That was what I meant. That’s why I bolted—that and—”
“I know. Know, by George? I understand—everything!”
“What do you think you understand?” And at last the brown eyes met his, drowned in their shame, but so keenly inquisitive, that, to the male mind, their look was a confirmation in itself.
“I understand,” he said, “why I’ve liked you so much in spite of your unmanliness. It was because of it—all the time!”
“But you won’t like me any more!”
“Won’t I?” And the bracken broke before his stride—broke louder than his hurried whispered words.
“What are you givin’ us?” There spoke the larrikin of old days. “It ain’t true!”
“But it is; it must have been true all along, without my knowing it. I swear it is now.”
“It’ll dish you up!”
“I don’t think it. The Archdeacon will forgive me; he’s a man himself, the most sympathetic of men. Besides, I needn’t go back to him; there are other fields. But—you? Is it—isn’t it—true of you?”
The answer came with the last red beams of the dying day, in the first hush of the twilight forest—
And now all that remains of that romance is a genial rector in the Old Country, with a wife who is not the less popular for being considered just a little colonial by the county.
Olive was not to know it from the outward character of her reception, which maintained the best traditions of bush hospitality, but there had been a fairly strong prejudice against her on the station. It was no fault of hers, but a vicarious reproach which a very little knowledge of the girl herself sufficed to remove. Yet the inauspicious fact remained that her brother had been there before her, not as a guest, but in a somewhat responsible position in which he had failed to give signal satisfaction. It was many years ago, in Olive’s childhood, but Philip Armitage had been writing bush stories ever since, with that station and its mighty paddocks for the unmistakable background of the often impudent picture. In the silly Old Country he was said to be taken quite seriously as a representative Australian writer. If so, as Mr. Pochin averred, “it was about time those colonies paddled their own canoe”; but he and his at any rate knew the fellow for what he had been as a beardless boy in their midst. It was like his nerve to write and tell them when his young sister was going out for her health, which he described as having broken down after the strain of working for her B. A. degree. Ladies with B. A. degrees, with or without brothers who put people into books, were not wanted on Meringul Station, N. S. W. But after such a letter some little attention was the geographical necessity of an irksome situation. And so it came that Olive Armitage penetrated to the Riverina, in response to a justifiably indefinite invitation, and in happy ignorance of the literary and scholastic shadow that she cast before her.
Indeed, she had never felt prouder of her brother than on the journey, to her a triumphal progress through scenes that seemed almost as much his handiwork as that of “nature learning how to write.” All through Victoria there were his forests of “weird” gum-trees, amply justifying their inseparable epithet, and in the Murray region the train put up a perfect cloud of sulphur-crested cockatoos. These were not Philip’s favorite scenes or properties, but he had written about them more than once. It was when she reached the coaching stage, from Denliquin to Hay and from Hay to Jumping Sandhills, that Miss Armitage felt like one of her brother’s heroines. To be sure, no dandy bushranger stuck up the coach; but that “vermilion vehicle” duly “panted” on its leather springs, as described by Philip with somewhat cynical iteration. And the road-side shanties were all that he had painted them; the Jumping Sandhills did shimmer and change places, like living things, on the brazen and blue horizon; and there at last was one of Philip’s own dilapidated horsemen, a figure of tantalizing interest, because there also was a tiresomely smart young man, come to meet her in an equally smart buggy, and introducing himself unconstrainedly as Godfrey Pochin.
“I remember your brother perfectly,” said the young man, smiling at the long tails of the pair he drove. “I was one of his pupils. He taught us Latin grammar and sentences, and a lot of extraordinary rhymes about Latin genders. I remember some of them still, but I can’t say they come in extra handy in the back-blocks.”
Olive laughed quite heartily.
“Poor old boy, he had only just escaped from school himself,” she urged in Philip’s defence; “he was obliged to teach you something he knew!”
But she was greatly tickled, and Godfrey Pochin as pleasantly surprised as he had been by her merry interesting face and sparkling eyes. She was dark, too, and he had an idea that all the girls from Home were pink and yellow; the only difference between this one and a bush brunette was that Olive had not been sunburnt from the cradle, but had turned the very color of her own name without losing her sweet English purity of skin. Neither was she quite blinded by the reflected lustre of her brother’s notoriety. She could see the humor of some of Godfrey’s reminiscences, the new point of view of Philip’s stories. The point of view was not obtruded, so her loyal reserves were not called out in defence of the stories, nor her lips sealed on the subject of their local color.
“It’s all exactly as I pictured it,” she declared at the station itself: “this red-brick veranda, these white posts, those other little buildings—the wire fences and the crows—the corrugated roofs—there! That’s the very noise he says they make in the heat! There’s only one thing he seems to me wrong about, but he should really be forgiven much for that—because I haven’t met a single one of his characters!”
This was when they were all at tea. There was a slightly chilling pause.
“I don’t think you’ll meet them here,” said Mr. Pochin, gazing into his cup. He was himself the fair-bearded and blue-eyed squatter of half the tales, but Olive did not see it till she had spoken, because the beard had grown gray and was close-cropped. But now she realized that Philip had never done justice to her courteous and attentive host.
“That wasn’t what I meant,” the girl colored up as she explained. “I was thinking of the picturesque people in red shirts and spurs, not of what he’s pleased to call the parlor folk.”
“That’s good!” said Godfrey, encouraging her tentative smile with a broad grin. “That’s one of the sayings that evidently sank into Mr. Armitage.”
“I was thinking,” insisted Olive, “of his little army of lost angels in the shape of gentlemanly whim-drivers, boundary-riders, and bushrangers.”
“My whim-drivers and boundary-riders don’t answer to that description,” replied the squatter, laughing. “And as for bushrangers, Miss Armitage, the Kellys were the last authentic gang, and that was some years before your brother was out here.”
“But surely you have the stockman and the tramp who have seen better days?”
“I’ve no doubt we have, but they don’t always give it away for our benefit.”
And the blue eyes twinkled merrily with the hit, at which Godfrey and Olive laughed outright.
“What about old Stafford?” asked Fred, an elder son of fewer words; and Mrs. Pochin and the girls, who began to wish they had been with Godfrey to meet, the coach, remarked that they had just been thinking of old Stafford.
“To be sure!” cried Mr. Pochin. “He’s the nearest thing of the kind we’ve got to show. I was forgetting Stafford. He’s a poet.”
“A poet?” queried Olive, politely sceptical. It was a word of which she thought she knew the value, and she could not help looking amused.
“When he isn’t riding my boundaries or minding my sheep,” said Mr. Pochin, chuckling consumedly. “Quite a character, Stafford; you must see him for yourself, and tell us what your brother would have made of him.”
“We did see him, at the sandhills,” Godfrey informed Miss Armitage and the company—“waiting for his Bulletin as usual.”
He had no need to remind their visitor of the dilapidated horseman who had met the coach on his own account. Her single glimpse of him had appealed to Olive more than she cared to say in such civilized company, yet now her interest would have been greater if she had not seen him. That a poet! They all laughed at the serio-comic face that she made at the thought; for of course she was right, and those of them who had seen any of the lucubrations encouraged her dismay, while the laconic Fred found words to denounce the best of them as a barefaced imitation of Harvey Devlin. Poor Devlin most mercurial of bush ballad-mongers, but a true singer in his own compass, still enjoyed a posthumous popularity in the bush itself, if not such universal fame as his indigenous admirers imagined; but it so happened that Olive Armitage, who thought she knew something about it, was a recent convert to their creed. She had bought the little selection of the real thing in Melbourne, and she wished to hear no more about the false. But here Godfrey had a word to say, and it was strangely in favor of the plagiarist and an early visit to his hut; in fact it so happened that Godfrey himself would have to be going out there next day, with some things the old man had been asking for that afternoon, and he seemed quite anxious to take Olive with him.
“You’ll really rather like the old chap, Miss Armitage,” said Godfrey. “He’s a bit mad, but perfectly harmless, and I believe myself that he’s only just missed being a genius. You should see all the extraordinary mad mottoes and things he’s got plastered about the place!”
Olive saw them. They were stuck all over a hut otherwise as familiar to her as though she had been brought up in such another. She looked at once for the wide log chimney, with the white ash of ages on the hearth, the billy-can in the ashes, the slush-lamp on the Robinson Crusoe table, the ration-bags dependent from the beams; and for none of these things did she look in vain. The only feature not on Philip’s list was the pencil jottings tacked like texts to the unbarked timbers, in place of the flyblown oddments from illustrated papers which had invariably garnished that author’s pet interior. The hut-keeper being out about his business, Olive lost no time in inspecting the scraps of dirty paper, to see what subjects the poor man was mad on; and Godfrey looked over her shoulder with a running chuckle.
“Poetry, of course!” said Godfrey.
And Olive read out below her breath:
“ ‘Hateful is the dark-blue sky,
Vaulted o’er the dark-blue sea.
Death is the end of life; then why
Should life all labor be?’
“Poor fellow!” was her only comment, with a side glance into the outer radiance.
“That isn’t Stafford’s!” exclaimed Godfrey, emphatically.
“No, indeed, it isn’t; and only one word wrong!”
Olive was looking about for books.
“I believe it’s a bit your brother once gave us for dictation. I seem to remember that about the sky.”
“Then he wasn’t here in vain,” said Olive, with a look of pleasure. It was a transitory look; the writing on the wall engrossed and troubled her. It was all of the same sort, remembered fragments of great verse, immortal images rescued practically intact from the ruins of ancient reading. The extracts ranged from a single line, as “In Tempe or the dales of Arcady,” or “One day when all days are one day to me,” to most of the second chorus in “Atalanta” and the opening couplets of “Locksley Hall.” Olive read them all, only muttering an occasional line aloud, and Godfrey danced attendance with his eyes seldom off her dark crisp hair and clear sunburnt skin. She was so absorbed that he could look his fill at her for the first time. She knew how to dress, he noted; her white linen frock was crisp like her hair, as though hot from the iron; and yet he had never seen anybody look so cool and trim in the heat, or striking picture more tellingly composed than that of Olive in the languorous gloom of the bushman’s hut, with a vertical sun still striking through stray holes in the roof, and breaking its lances on her snowy shoulders.
Godfrey was all the more disappointed and aggrieved when she turned to him in the end with glistening eyes.
“I must see something he’s written himself,” she whispered. “I can’t think it can be as bad as you all say. And I don’t believe in a man who remembers only the very best being such a slavish imitator of—Harvey Devlin!”
Godfrey rooted in a corner pink with copies of the Sydney Bulletin. In a few moments he unearthed a battered Shakepeare (who was not represented on the walls) and a quarto scribbling-book in debased American cloth.
“He keeps good company, you observe,” said Godfrey, turning over the blue-lined leaves without compunction. “No, he won’t mind, Miss Armitage. He’s often shown me them himself.”
“But that’s not quite the same thing as your showing them to me,” suggested Olive, whose eyebrows had already signified her qualms; but the protest went for nothing with the confident young man.
“Here’s a new one, by Jove!” cried he. “I say, this is rather good; he must have written this when he knocked down his last check, at the New Year.”
And there was no stopping him from reading every word of it aloud, with a marginal supply of his own remarks:
“ ‘There’s a hut in Riverina where a solitary hand
May weaken on himself and all that’s his;
There’s a pub in Riverina where they keep a smashing brand
Of every sort o’ liquor short o’ fizz.
And I’ve been and blued another fifty-pounder at the pub—
You’re very sorry for me, I’ll be bound!
But when a man is fit up free with hut an’ horse an’ grub,
What the blazes does he want with fifty pound?
Why the dickens should he hoard his fifty quid?
Who would be a bit the better if he did?
Though they slithered in a week
When I couldn’t see or speak,
Do you think I’m here to squeak?
So the thing began; but Godfrey had stopped to explain that this was obviously the hut, and Stafford himself the “solitary hand.” Olive seemed sorry to hear it; and quite contrary to expectation it was the reader who waxed enthusiastic as he proceeded, and the listener who grew lukewarm. In the next stanza it appeared that the reveller had been duly warned against the “pub in Riverina,” which Godfrey offered to show Miss Armitage any day she liked:
“ ‘The boss was in the homestead.
When he give me good advice
I took my oath, but took his check as well.
And to me the moonlit shanty looked a pocket Paradise,
Though the boss had just been calling it a Hell.’
“You’ll see which you think it,” said Godfrey, “and what you make of the publican and sinner who runs the sink! He’s hit him off to the life. Listen!” And he gabbled on to the titbit, only to give it with the greater unction:
“ ‘But the shanty-keeper smoked behind the bar.
Oh, his words were grave and few,
And he never looked at you,
And he just uncorked a new
“I can see him doing it!” cried Godfrey. “But I must say I’d no idea old Stafford could do anything as good as this—if it’s his own.”
Olive found herself keenly hoping it was not, and thinking of the snatches of Keats and Tennyson on the walls. So she was fortunate enough to miss a little of what followed:
“ ‘We fed, and then we started in the bar at nine o’clock;
At twelve we made a move into the cool;
The shanty-keeper he was just as steady as a rock,
And me as paralytic as a fool.
I remember the veranda like a sinking vessel’s deck,
And a brace of moons suspended in the sky—
And nothing more till waking and inquiring for my check—”
“Mr. Pochin!” interrupted Olive at this ultimate point.
“Well? What’s wrong?”
“The whole thing. It’s terrible!”
“It’s jolly clever, if you ask me. I only want to know who really wrote it.”
“I didn’t mean that—not the verses as verses—but the complacent degradation of the thing itself!”
“I’m afraid that’s just where it’s so true to life,” he answered, tuning his tone to hers. “I wish it wasn’t, but it’s only too true of nearly all our hands.”
Olive took her eyes from the scraps of pencilled paper. He resented their drowned sparkle.
“True of this one?” she asked.
“Old Stafford? Rather! He’s like all the rest; he’ll slave for months and months, and then knock down a check for all his earnings at the nearest bar.”
“Then I don’t want to hear any more.”
And she took herself to the open door, where she could turn her back without discourtesy, as though in sudden admiration of the yellow shimmering salt-bush plains, with their blobs of gray-green fodder and their smudges of bottle-green scrub. The long streak of desolate sandhills was picked out by telegraph posts running right and left into infinity, like an endless row of pins, against the loud blue sky so harped upon by her brother; and at her feet lay the shadow of the hut, sharp and dark as his standing simile of a sheet of new brown paper.
But at her elbow Godfrey was saying that she must just hear the end, and forcing her to realize the unmerited consolations of the debauchee’s return to the very threshold on which she stood.
* * * * * * * *
“Yet the gates have not come open that I shut,
I have seen no fences broken, and I’ve found no weak sheep bogged,
And my little cat is purring in the hut!
There’s tea, too, for the billy-can, there’s water in the tanks,
The ration bags hang heavy all around,
And my good old bunk and blanket beat the bare veranda planks
Of the shanty where I blued my fifty pound!
Here I stick until I’m worth fifty more,
When I’ll take another check from the store;
And with Riverina men
All the betting is that then—
I shall knock it down again
As before.’ ”
Olive was still standing in the doorway when a gaunt brown man rode up on his very counterpart in horse-flesh, and she could look upon yesterday’s tatterdemalion in the light of the verse he wrote and the poems he loved.
No; he was not the fine gentleman buried in the bush; it was hardly from social heights that he had fallen, of that she was quite certain, and knew not whether to be glad or sorry. But a starved lover of literature he was; the life-long passion beamed in his tanned and furrowed face, turning its oaken hue to a rich mahogany when Godfrey told him that Miss Armitage admired his taste. Olive filled out the statement with enthusiastic detail, and in a minute he and she were capping each other’s quotations while Godfrey remained mumchance on mere earth. Nor did all this sadden the battered creature, as it might have done if ever in the past he had been familiar with such as Olive; his joy in the moment was like a child’s; but he had a wild eye, with a tragic twinkle in it, that kept the author of his own lines ever before the girl.
Godfrey soon had enough of it. He must push on to the sandhills with the outgoing mail-bag; but he had to push on alone. Olive preferred to wait in the cool shelter of the hut. And there in another half-hour he found her somewhat hurriedly receiving a few sheets of MS., obviously torn from the old scribbling-book in the bushman’s hands, and giving in receipt some verbal undertaking that Godfrey failed to catch.
“Old Stafford and you seemed as thick as thieves,” said the young man, cutting his horses smartly on the way home. “Was that another poem of his that he was giving you?”.
“One of his own writing, for a change?”
“He wrote them all, Mr. Pochin.”
“So he’s cracking—as they once used to say about here, and still do in your brother’s books!”
“I don’t see why you should disbelieve it,” said Olive, warmly. “At any rate there’s no question about the verses I’ve borrowed.”
“Then we shall have a treat!”
Olive felt seriously aggrieved. All that was great in her had been touched and fired by the wild old fellow and his almost wonderful work; but she was not great enough to resist snubbing Godfrey as he deserved, even though she thought him a very nice young man, and had made a friend of him so far to the comparative exclusion of all the other members of his family. She let him have his chuckle in advance at the fun they would all have over the manuscript in her possession; then she informed him, cavalierly as she knew even at the time, that they were none of them to see a single line.
“Was that what he was getting you to promise him?” demanded Godfrey in his point-blank fashion.
“Well, of all the cheek!”
“On my part?”
“You know I mean on his. As if it were a pearl of price, and we the swine!”
“That’s not a very pretty way of putting it,” retorted Olive. “But it is a little gem, in my opinion, though I don’t suppose you would see its beauty even if you could!” That was obviously the last word, but Olive was not proud of it for a single instant. She felt hot and sore, and soon not least so with herself, for her own rudeness; but that only angered her the more with Godfrey, who had brought it on himself. It was too much that she should come out there to be told what was and what was not a genuine poem. That was not exactly what had happened, but her pride of intellect was wounded; it was a vulnerable point. Olive was the last person in the world to exploit her learning or to give herself conscious airs of scholarly superiority; but she considered her opinion entitled to some respect on matters of which she might be accounted a reasonably qualified judge. She did not realize that she had a rather decided opinion on most mundane matters, and often a tart way of expressing it under opposition. An expert on some subjects, she was inclined to extend her own province unduly, and to meet rather more than half-way the slightest attack upon her intellectual frontiers. But in this case her heart was involved as well, since into it she had taken the outcast poet and all his works. And matters were not mended by the only other remark that Godfrey ever volunteered on the subject.
“I’m sorry we got to logger-heads about poor old Stafford,” said the frank young man, as they exchanged good-nights on the veranda. “I’ve no doubt the poem you liked is all you think it. I’m no judge of that; but I know the man better than you possibly can. If it’s as good as all that, you bet he’s bagged the whole thing from Harvey Devlin or some other old poet!”
And this time Olive did succeed in curbing a natural pugnacity to which she had given only too much rein before; but her silence was more chilling than any words, and henceforward there was a studied coolness between two young people who had been drawn together, almost at sight, by a strong mutual attraction. Its very strength made their mutual resentment ail the stronger in its turn. In her ignorance of the world, Olive had not expected to meet a young man of Godfrey’s parts at its uttermost ends. He was quick-witted, capable, full of character as herself; her inferior in book-learning, but by no means in general knowledge or intelligence. Through him she gained some insight into the modern live Australian, clear thinker and plain speaker on social and industrial questions, sapper and miner in the world’s advance, as opposed to the hardy upstart with a nasal twang who seemed to have made such an impression on Philip in his early wanderings. Philip, she began to fear, had not been a very great character as a young man from the old country; but Godfrey Pochin, still so young, had every strong quality except breadth and charity of view.
In much the same fashion Godfrey revised his opinion of young Englishwomen in general, and of young women with degrees before all others; but it was at a distance that the pair came to appreciate each other to such a nicety. Their intimacy was a matter of the first twenty-four hours only. They were alike in nothing more than in their pride. They had come to blows about a matter of no importance to either of them, and each was too proud to refer to it again.
Not that it was so unimportant to Olive as she pretended on occasions when Stafford and his hobby became a table topic, and she would fight his battles with a forced levity, while Godfrey sat ostentatiously aloof from the discussion. Stafford himself she saw more than once, but never again alone in his hut. It was remarked in her presence that he had beaten all his records in the length of time which had elapsed since he last knocked down a check. That was as yet her only reward for the little she had done for him, and the much, the very much, she hoped to do.
Late summer cooled into an autumn in name only, and a winter unworthy even of that, despite a fire at nights and coats on horseback, and all the wraps that one could find for a long drive across the plains. Olive thought it the loveliest weather she had ever known; it was the safest subject that she still had in common with Godfrey, and they discussed it daily with animated courtesy. Olive was to stay till after shearing, if her people at home could spare her so long; it would only mean a six months’ visit then, her kind friends said. She was more than willing to stay; it was a glorious rest and change, and the girl was happy enough, and the cause of happiness to all save one. But after about three months she grew suddenly restless; the incoming mail excited her strangely; she was absurdly disappointed when there was nothing for her. And then one day her delight knew no bounds, and it was a little awkward, because Godfrey had been the one to empty out the mail-bag, and they happened to have the homestead to themselves. Olive had backed out of a ride for no other purpose than to see if her letter had not come at last; and it actually had.
“Godfrey!” she cried, as he was retreating into the store with the business correspondence. She had never addressed him so familiarly before, and did not know that she had done it now.
It brought him to her in a stride.
“Not bad news, I hope?”
“No, no, the very best! I don’t know how to tell you; it seems like raking up disagreeables, and I know I was very rude. But I was right, right, right all the time!”
“Right?” he repeated. “Right about what?”
“That poor man Stafford, of course.”
“Oh! I saw him this afternoon, when I got the mail,” remarked Godfrey, with forced inconsequence.
“I’m thinking of three months ago. I never told you what I did at the time. You were so dreadfully unsympathetic, but I know you won’t be now! I sent the poem he lent me home to Phil!”
“You said it couldn’t be original!”
“I only said what I thought on general grounds. You wouldn’t give me a chance of judging for myself.”
“Well, if it wasn’t original, they would hardly put it in the Scrutator, would they?”
“Not if they knew it.”
“They’d know it all right!” the girl assured him, with radiant confidence. “Yet they did put it in, word for word as I wrote it out, and the very week after Philip submitted it!” Godfrey found it good to look upon her triumph, even at his own expense. Never had he seen so keen a brain flashing through such sparkling eyes, or such a great heart flooding with its warmth a face so sweet and fine. But there was something fine about Godfrey, too; he was not the one to truckle in his discomfiture.
“Is that what Mr. Armitage says?” he inquired.
“I haven’t read what he says; but here’s the poem itself from the Scrutator!”
He read it while she read her letter. It was rough, but noble; even Godfrey could see the nobility; and there was nothing in the thought that might not have come to a rugged solitary over his hut fire, and found its way out in just such words. A broken cry from the wilderness, it had won a ready hearing on the other side of the earth, and now it had travelled all the way out again to wake an echo in the heart of Godfrey. And he looked back, and saw himself in the wrong.
But just as he was as near abasement as was possible to his nature, a real cry broke from Olive. And the change in her was past belief; she stood before him abashed, humiliated, demoralized by her letter.
“You were right—I was wrong—after all!” She spoke in jerks of passionate indignation. “The whole thing was a fraud! You always said so; you were absolutely right. You said it was probably taken from Harvey Devlin, and so it was, almost word for word! No sooner did it appear than some one wrote to say so—and—and there’s a fearful row about it!” She could not help smiling guiltily at what she had done. It had its humorous side, and to her credit Olive was the first to see it. She pictured poor Philip, sometimes a little self-important, always ready to do the striking thing and to boast of having done it—pictured him in person at the Scrutator office—taking the greatest and kindliest trouble, but also some little credit for her find. And then all the vials of editorial wrath on his devoted head, as his were poured on hers, and hers on the original culprit out at Jumping Sandhills!
“I’m glad there’s something original about him,” said Godfrey, grimly, when she used the phrase among harder sayings. And Olive laughed until she cried, which, however, was next moment, and quite bitterly. But Godfrey had not even smiled.
And then and there came the climax, with the uneven trailing of long spurs through the veranda, and the gaunt, uncouth figure of the pseudo-poet swaying in the doorway. His eyes were wilder than ever, but they steadied themselves in a long gaze upon the guilty girl, and his voice did not disgrace him when he spoke.
“Was it you, Miss Armitage, who sent my verses to a London paper?”
His speech was low and yet distinct; it afforded no excuse for immediate interference on Godfrey’s part. But Godfrey was not given a chance.
“They weren’t yours!” cried Olive, passionately.
“They were!” he thundered back. Godfrey sprang forward; the man stopped him with the masterful wave of his lean brown hand. “They were my property,” he resumed with his former self-control. “This young lady had no right to send them to any paper. I only lent them to her. It was a wrong thing to do.”
“What about foisting what you never wrote on a lady who showed you kindness, and swearing it was all your own?”
Godfrey was very severe, but he had not yet adopted the bullying tone into which the best masters fall under sufficient provocation.
“That may be worse,” returned Stafford, still slowly; “I don’t say it isn’t. But two wrongs never made a right, Mr. Godfrey, and it’s no wrong of mine that’s put all this fat in the fire.”
“Then you admit that the thing was lifted bodily out of Harvey Devlin?”
“Out of a suppressed edition of his poems,” supplemented Olive, quickly consulting her letter—“with hardly a single alteration!”
“Oh, all right! I’ll admit it if it makes you happy. Is that it in your hand, sir?”
And the man was actually holding out his own.
“What the devil do you want with it?” Godfrey so far forgot himself in his lady’s presence.
“Well, Mr. Godfrey, it’s only fair that a man should see what’s brought against him. I’ve only seen what the Bulletin’s got to say about it, so far. They’ve got their laugh o’ the old country again; but it’s not my fault, not altogether. Thanky, much obliged!”
His words now telescoped in a manner worthy of his gait. He had certainly been drinking, and had abandoned a fine effort to conceal the fact. No sober impostor would have carried himself so jauntily in the hour of exposure, or gloated with maudlin humor over so futile and impudent a fraud; but the last proof of poor Stafford’s condition was afforded by a sudden revulsion from fatuous fun to furious earnest.
“And you put my name to it!” he shouted, crumpling the cutting in his fist. “I’d forgotten that!”
“I didn’t do it,” said Olive, with unthinking penitence. “I never meant it to be done. I had to give his name,” she explained to Godfrey, “but it must have been the editor in London who put it to the poem.”
“Then damn the editor in London!” cried Stafford, and flung himself from the room with Godfrey at his heels.
It was his last appearance at the home station; within a very few minutes Godfrey had made out the man’s account, and sent him about his business with a check for the uttermost farthing standing to his credit in the station books.
Olive, flown in more tears from the scene, did not know this at the time; when she found out it incensed her afresh against the poor young man. Had he really no sense of justice? Could he not see that this preposterous reprisal made it all the worse for her, since the whole thing was her fault in the beginning? She could not even swear that Stafford had actually said the poem was his; the fact did not affect his grievance against her; and now, so far from undoing an atom of the harm she had done, she had got him discharged into the bargain! Godfrey was bidden to repair his share of the damage without delay; and apart from all other considerations whatsoever, he had the fairness of mind to recognize that of the girl’s demand.
But unfortunately a very serious delay had taken place before this scene between the two young people; and Stafford had spent a long night on frosty ground, heavily asleep in nothing more than his moleskins and his Crimean shirt. Olive had a note from Godfrey to say that the man had been reinstated in his hut; but Godfrey himself did not return, and old Mr. Pochin looked worried but said nothing.
And then next night Olive was awakened by a queer noise on the blind of her open window, and there was Godfrey just below, flogging it like a trout-stream with his buggy whip.
“It’s poor old Stafford,” he whispered. “He’s pretty bad and wants to see you. If you’d care to bring one of the girls—”
His sentence had to wait unfinished while she dressed.
“It’s only you he wants to see,” he went on under the stars; “but if you’d like one of the others—”
“I’d like to start this minute,”, said Olive, decidedly. “How long will it take us to drive?”.
It took them the best part of the hour before dawn, and the smoke from the horses’ backs was a visible pillar of cloud when they pulled up.
A tongue of orange light played in and out of the open door, and on and off the faded purple blanket spread like a canopy over four low uprights driven into the naked earth; but under the blanket ran the ridge of a great gaunt frame, and from one end a pair of cavernous eyes burnt like beacons as they entered. Olive stooped over the pinched and shrunken face, and could feel its heat as though it were a fire.
“It’s kind of you to come,” he whispered—but his eyes rolled uneasily. “And you’ve really come alone? That’s right, that’s right! I’ve something to tell you both, but no one else. You promise? Not another soul?”
They promised, and Godfrey gave him new life from a replenished flask. In another instant they were trying to talk the sick man down; for he had begun at once about those unlucky lines of Harvey Devlin’s. He had another confession to make. That was quite enough for them. Olive especially begged him to say no more. But he would go on; and they must hear the truth; for that was why he had got them there together, but no third person must ever know.
“Harvey Devlin! What a poet to steal from!”
There was the gallant twinkle in his fevered eyes; they seemed to have caught the scraps of paper on the walls.
“But he was a worse man,” he muttered. “You know the life he led, and how he was supposed to have finished himself in the bush? It wasn’t quite true, though very nearly. He was sick of life; dead sick of writing all he wrote, and yet being what he was! He hid his head in the bush, and was very near what he thought of doing, when he came across a man who’d done it weeks before. That was the man they found and buried as Harvey Devlin. I took good care they should!”
“You?” they cried.
“And I’ve lived to be accused of stealing from myself!”
A sovereign effort had given him a dear run of intelligible speech, and now it was as though his voice fell dead at the post. But the tragic eyes were still twinkling as they closed in the sudden sleep of sheer prostration. The two watchers exchanged long looks, but not a word, and presently one went and stood in the doorway as she had done that afternoon three months before.
The dawn was coming up in a coppery glow, straight ahead over the sandhills, and the stars going out like street lamps at the proper time. In a minute the copper turned to paler bronze, and the bronze to dead pink gold, with a last star blazing just above. The contour of the hills stood out, studded with telegraph posts that dwindled into nothing north and south. And the new day woke with a sigh that blew a puff of sand into the hut, and fluttered the captive scrap of paper nearest the door.
Olive peered at it between firelight and daylight, and for once even she could find no flaw in the quotation:
“The same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.”
Godfrey came very quietly and took her hand. One look told her why; for a magic casement had opened in the hut, and the young man and woman were there alone.
I really began in the pavilion up at Lord’s, since it was off Tuthill that most of the runs were made, and during an Eton and Harrow match that the little parson begged him to play. They had been in the same Harrow eleven some eighteen years before. The Rev. Gerald Osborne had afterwards touched the hem of first-class cricket, while Tuthill, who captained a minor county, was still the very finest second-class bowler in England.
“Who’s it against?” asked Tuthill, with a suspicious glint in his clear eye; for if he was not good enough for first-class cricket, third-class was not good enough for him.
“A man who’s made his pile and bought himself a place near Stangrove; they let him have a week in August on the school-ground, and I run the side against him for the last match.”
“Decent wicket, then?” said Tuthill, with a critical eye upon the Eton bowling.
“I shouldn’t wonder if you found it a bit fiery,” said the crafty priest, with a timely memory of Tuthill’s happiest hunting-ground. “And they’ll put you up and do you like a Coronation guest.”
“I don’t care twopence about the doing,” said Tuthill. “Will they keep my analysis?”
“I’ll guarantee it, Tuttles,” said the little parson. And Tuthill consulted the diary of a conscientious cricketer.
“I can,” said he, “and I don’t see why I shouldn’t. I was coming up for the Oval Test in any case. It will only mean taking another day or two while I am about it. You can put me down.”
“And rely on you?” added the other, as one whose fortune was too good to be true.
“My dear Jerry,” cried Tuttles, with characteristic emphasis, “I never chucked a match in all my life! It’s a promise, and I’ll be there if no one else is. But who is this sporting pal of yours? I suppose he has a name?”
Osborne went out of his way to applaud a somewhat inferior stroke by the Harrow boy who was making all the runs.
“As a matter of fact,” he finally confessed, “he was at school with us, though you probably don’t remember him. His name’s Chrystal.”
“Not old Ginger Chrystal?”
“I believe they did call him Ginger. I don’t remember him at school.”
“But I do! He was in our house, and super’d, poor beast! Ginger Chrystal! Why on earth didn’t you tell me who it was before?”
“You’ve named one of my reasons, Tuttles. He’s a bit shy about his Harrow days. Then he says himself that he was no more use at cricket than he was at work, and I thought it might put you off.”
“No more he was,” said Tuttles, reflectively. “Do you mean to say he’s any good now?”
“No earthly,” replied the little parson, with his cherub’s smile. “Only just about the keenest rabbit in the whole cricket-warren!”
The finest second-class bowler in England displayed a readiness of appreciation doubly refreshing in an obviously critical temperament.
“And yet you say he has done himself well!” he added, incredulously, as his mirth subsided.
“Only made a hundred thousand in South America, Tuttles.”
“It might be double by the way he does things.”
“That utter old all-round rabbit?”
“He’s not one now, Tuttles, at anything but cricket. That’s his only weak point. At everything else Chrystal’s one of the smartest chaps you ever met, though he does weigh you and me put together, and quite one of the best. But he’s so mad-keen on cricket that he keeps a pro for himself and his son of seven, and by practising more than any man in England he scores his ten runs in all matches every season. However, when this boy runs into three figures, or gets out, you must come and meet the modern Chrystal in the flesh; there’s plenty of it, though not too much for the heart inside, and at the present moment he’s spreading every ounce of himself in a coach he’s got here in my name.”
It was a fair enough picture that the parson drew, for Chrystal was really corpulent, though tall and finely built. He wore a stubby moustache of the hue which had earned him his school nickname, but underneath were the mouth of a strong man and the smile of a sweet woman. It was a beaming, honest, unassuming face; but the womanly quality reappeared in a pair of very shapely, well-kept hands, one of which could yet come down with virile force on Tuthill’s shoulder, while the other injured the most cunning bunch of fingers in second-class cricket. Then a shyness overcame the great fellow, and the others all saw that he was thinking of the one inglorious stage of his career. And his wife, a beautiful woman, took charge of little Osborne; and Tuthill, who had sense and tact, congratulated Chrystal point-blank and at once upon his great success in life. But for an instant Chrystal looked quite depressed, as though success at school was the only sort worth achieving; then his smile came out like the sun, and his big body began to shake.
“Yet,” he whispered, “they promised me a dog’s life and a felon’s death because I couldn’t make Latin verses! Do you remember my second half of a pentameter?”
“Laomedontiaden!” cried Tuthill, convulsed with laughter at the sudden reminiscence.
“I never could see where the laugh came in,” confessed Chrystal, like the man he was. “But I’ve no doubt that was what cooked my goose.”
Tuthill was much impressed.
“And the dear old chap never said it didn’t matter,” as he afterwards put it to the parson, “or changed the subject to the things he has done, or took out a big gold watch, or drowned us in champagne, or did or said a single thing that wouldn’t have done honour to the bluest blood on the ground. All he did say, at the end of the innings, was that he’d give half he’d got to have been in the eleven himself! Oh, yes, I’ve promised to play in his all right; who could refuse a chap like that? I’m going for the whole week; let’s only hope he won’t drop all his catches off my stuff.”
“You must forgive him his trespasses, Tuttles,” the clergyman said, with some gravity, and no irreverence at all.
“I can’t forgive that one,” replied the candid demon of second-class cricket “I never could and never shall.”
But it was not for Tuthill to forgive when the great week came, or, at all events, before the week was at an end. It is true that the catches followed the non-cricketer to every position in the field, as catches will, and equally true that a large majority of them were duly “put on the floor.” But as good luck and his own accuracy would have it, the great bowler was not usually the sufferer. Once, indeed, when it was otherwise, he did tell his host, with unpremeditated emphasis, that the ball wouldn’t bite him; but that was “He has such a good opinion of himself.”
“He has reason!” cried Chrystal, with hardly 10 per cent, of envy in his loyal tone.
“Then I do think he’s rather spiteful. To go and bowl you out first ball—if he did.”
“He’d bowl me out if I was his long-lost brother! He’s so keen; and quite right, too. You’ve got to play the game, dear.” If it had been the game of battle, murder, and sudden death, Chrystal’s manner could not possibly have been more serious.
But a silence had fallen on piano and billiard-room, and Chrystal hurried indoors, as he said, “to keep the ball rolling if I can’t hit it.” They were only talking about the final match, however, in which Chrystal played his gardeners and grooms, while little Osborne took the field against him with the like raw material from his own parish near Ware.
“It’s all very well,” said Chrystal, joining in the cricket talk, that was beginning to get on his nerves; “but I ought really to object to Tuttles, you know. He has neither the birth qualification nor the residential; he isn’t even your deputy-assistant secretary, Jerry!”
“I suppose you don’t really object?” said Tuttles himself, in the nicest way, the first time he and Chrystal were more or less alone.
“My dear fellow!” was all Chrystal said in reply. “I want to see you take all ten wickets,” he added. “I promise you mine.” Tuthill smiled at the superfluous concession.
“I’ll have to do my best,” said he, as the hangman might of his painful duty. “But, as a matter of fact, I’m not sure that my best will amount to much to-morrow. I’ve been bowling a bit too much and a bit too well. My off-day’s about due, and on my off-day I’m a penny treat. Full-pitches to leg and long-hops into the slips!”
Chrystal’s mouth watered; the second sort of ball was often fatal to him, but the first was the one delivery with which he was almost as much at home in practice as in theory. He had seldom run into double figures without the aid of the repeated full-pitch to leg.
It so happened that there was rain in the night, but only enough to improve a pitch which had quite fulfilled little Osborne’s promise of fire; and an absence of sun next day averted an even more insidious state of things. The last match was thus played on the worst day and the best wicket of the week. The ball came along stump high without any tricks at all. Yet Osborne’s side was out shortly after lunch for something under a hundred runs, of which Osborne himself made more than half. Tuthill, who did not take his batting seriously, but hit hard and clean as long as he was there, was beginning to look as though he never need get out when Chrystal, of all people, held him low down at point. It was a noble effort in a stout, slow man, but Tuthill walked away without a word. He was keen enough on his innings while it lasted; but at luncheon he was the first to compliment Chrystal, who had not been so happy all the week. Chrystal had written himself last in the order, but, thus encouraged, he was persuaded to give himself one more chance, and finally went in fourth wicket down.
It was then 3.20 by the clock on the little pavilion, and one of those grey, mild days which are neither close nor cold, and far from unpleasant on the cricket-field. The four wickets had fallen for fewer than forty runs, but Tuthill had only one victim, and it really did appear to be his off-day; but he looked grim and inexorable enough as he waited by the umpire while Chrystal took centre and noted that it was now 3.21; at 3.22 he would be safe back in the pavilion, and his cricket troubles would be over for the season, if not for his life.
But the first ball was that wide long-hop of which Tuthill himself had spoken. Down it skimmed, small as a racket-ball to Chrystal’s miserable eye; he felt for it with half his heart, but luckily heard nothing before the dull impact of the ball in the gloves of an agile wicket-keeper standing back.
“No!” cried the tall Quidnunc at the opposite end, and Chrystal began to feel that he was playing an innings.
The second ball was the other infallible sign of Tuthill’s off-day; it was a knee-high full-pitch just wide of Chrystal’s pads, and he succeeded in flicking it late and fine, so that it skimmed to the boundary at its own pace. For one wretched moment Chrystal watched the umpire, who happened to be the man who had advised him not to take his cricket so seriously, and who now read his anxiety in a flash.
“That was a hit!” the unorthodox official shouted towards the scorers’ table.
“And a jolly good one!” added the tall Quidnunc, while more distant applause reached the striker’s trembling ears, and the ardent Tuttles waited for the ball with the face of a handsome fiend. Yet his next was nothing deadlier than a slow half-volley outside the off-stump, which Chrystal played gently but firmly as a delicate stroke at billiards, but with the air of Greek meeting Greek. Already the ball was growing larger, and it was close on 3.25.
Osborne was bowling at the other end: he always was either batting, bowling, or keeping wicket, but the bowler’s was the only department of the game at which he exposed a definite inferiority. He was, however, very fond of bowling, and as he could claim two of the four wickets which had already fallen (one having been run out) it was extremely unlikely that he would rest himself until the tenth one fell. Osborne’s first over after Chrystal’s arrival was one of his least expensive. The Quid drove him for a languid single, while Chrystal, after keeping out of mischief for four bails, sent the fifth high and dry through the slips for three. The stroke was a possible chance to none other than Tuthill, but it was not off his own bowling, and the impression upon the observant spectator must have been a bad one.
“Don’t begin by running yourself off your legs,” Chrystal’s partner crossed over to advise him between the overs. “There’s the whole afternoon before us, and you won’t have many to run for me. I’m as limp as a wet rag, and my only chance of staying here is to sit on the splice while you punch ‘em. But don’t you be in any hurry; you play yourself in.”
If Chrystal had made a respectable score every day, the tone of the best batsman on the side could not have betrayed more confidence in him. He began to feel confident; the ball swelled to its usual size, and Tuttles’s next long-hop went to third man for another sharp single. Chrystal apologized, but his partner had called him in response to an appealing look; evidently he was not too limp to run his captain’s hits; it was only Chrystal himself who puffed and blew and leant upon his bat.
And even by the half-hour he was within a run of that two-figure rubicon which he had not passed for two seasons; his face showed the pale determination of a grave endeavour; it would hurt him more to get out now than to fall, as usual, to his only ball.
Yet what did happen? It was Tuthill’s slow yorker, and Chrystal was in many minds from the time it left the bowler’s hand; his good blade wagged irresolutely, and the odious projectile was under it in a twinkling. But at that instant the umpire threw up his arm with a yell, and Chrystal never heard the havoc behind him; he was only instinctively aware of it as he watched Tuthill turn upon a comrade who had donned the long white coat over his flannels.
“No what?” demanded the best bowler in second-class cricket.
“I said ‘No ball.’ ”
“You’re the first man who ever said it to me in my life,” remarked Tuttles, deadly calm, while he looked the other up and down as a new specimen of cricket curiosity. Then he held up his hands for the ball. “There’s a man still in,” he cried; and proceeded to send down a perfectly vicious full-pitcher upon Chrystal’s legs, which the captain, who had the single virtue of never running away, promptly dispatched for another four.
He had now made thirteen runs in less than thirteen minutes, and already the whole world was a different place, and that part of it a part of Paradise. He was emboldened to glance towards the seats; there was his dear wife, strolling restlessly with her parasol, and their tiny boy clapping his hands. Chrystal could see how excited they were at a hundred yards; it only had the effect of making him perversely calm. “I’m all right—I’ve got going at last!” he wanted to sing out to them; for he felt all right. He had even passed the stage of anticipating the imminent delivery, and playing at the ball he expected instead of at the ball that came along. This had been one of Chrystal’s many methods of getting rid of himself in the first over. And he had more suicidal strokes than an Indian Prince has scoring ones. But now he looked from his family in the long-field to the noble trees to square-leg, and from the trees downhill to the reservoir gleaming through third-man’s legs; it was hardly credible that he had wished to drown himself in its depths both yesterday and the day before.
The worst player in the world, with his eye in, may resist indefinitely the attack of the best bowler; after all, a ball is a ball and a bat is a bat, and if you once begin getting the one continually in the middle of the other, and keeping it out of harm’s way, there is no more to be said and but little to be done. Chrystal was soon meeting every ball in the middle of a bat which responded to the unparalleled experience by driving deliciously. The majority of his strokes were not ideal, though even a critical Cambridge Quid was able to add a stimulating “Good shot!” to not a few, while some were really quite hard and clean. Never before had this batsman felt the bat leap in his hands, and the ball spring from the blade beyond the confines of his wildest hopes, at an unimagined velocity, half so often as he experienced these great sensations now. Great! What is there in the sensual world to put on the same page with them? And let your real batsman bear in mind that these divine moments, and their blessed memory, are greatest of all where they are most rare, in his heart who never had the makings of a real batsman, but who once in his life has played a decent game.
Chrystal was in heaven. No small boy succeeding in his first little match, no international paragon compiling his cool hundred before fifty thousand eyes, was ever granted the joy of the game in fuller or in sweeter measure than was Robert Chrystal’s that afternoon. Think of his failures. Think of his years. Think of his unathletic figure. Think of ball after ball—big as a football to him now—yet banged to a bullet into thin air or down the hill or under the trees. “Thank Heaven, there’s a boundary,” murmured Chrystal, wiping his face while they fetched it. Yet he was cool enough in the way that mattered. His mind was entirely concentrated on the coming ball, but it was an open mind until the ball arrived.
If his thoughts wandered between the overs it was back to Harrow, and to the pleasing persuasion that he might have been in the eleven but for his infernal ineptitude for Latin verses. Meanwhile, every ball brought its own anxiety and delight, and for several overs there was really very little to criticise except the batsman’s style; then came an awful moment.
It was a half-volley on his legs, and Chrystal hit it even higher than he intended, but not quite so hard. One of those vigorous young schoolmasters was keeping himself hard and fit at deep-mid-on; he had to run like a greyhound, and to judge a cross-flight as he ran; but the apparent impossibility of the catch was simply a challenge to the young schoolmaster’s calibre as a field; the ground was just covered, and the ball just held with extended hand. It was a supreme effort—or would have been. There are those catches which are held almost, but not quite, long enough to count. This was an exaggerated instance. Unable to check himself, the young schoolmaster must have covered at least a yard with the ball in his hand. Then it rolled out, and he even kicked it far in front of him in his headlong stride.
“Got him! No, he hasn’t. Put him on the floor!” Chrystal heard the little parson say, as he himself charged down the pitch in his second run. He saw nothing. His partner was calling him for a third, and Tuttles was stamping and railing at the bowler’s end.
“Was that a chance?” gasped Chrystal, as he grounded his bat.
“A chance?” snorted Tuttles. “My dear fellow, he only held it about twenty minutes.”
“Am I out, then?” asked Chrystal of the umpire, his hot blood running cold.
“Not out!” declared that friendly functionary without an instant’s indecision.
The incident, however, had a disturbing effect upon Chrystal’s nerves. He shuddered to think of his escape. He became self-conscious, and began to think about his score. It was quite a long time since they clapped him for his fifty. He must be in the eighties at the very least. On his own ground he would have the public scoring apparatus that they have at Lord’s; then you would always know when you were near your century. Chrystal, however, was well aware that he must be pretty near his. He had hit another four, not one of his best, and had given a stumping chance to little Osborne, who had more than once exchanged the ball for the gloves during the past two hours.
Yes, and it was a quarter past five. Chrystal saw that, and pulled himself together, for his passive experience of the game reminded him that the average century is scored in a couple of hours. No doubt he must be somewhere about the nineties. Everybody seemed very still in the pavilion. The scorers table was certainly surrounded.
Chrystal set his teeth and smothered a half-volley in his earlier “no-you-don’t” manner. But the next ball could only have bowled him round the legs, and Tuttles hardly ever broke that way, besides which this one was too fast, and, in short, away it went skimming towards the trees. And there and then arose the sweetest uproar that Robert Chrystal had ever heard. They were shouting themselves hoarse in front of the little pavilion. The group about the scoring table was dispersing with much hat-waving. The scorer might have been seen leaning back in his chair like a man who had been given air at last. Mrs. Chrystal was embracing the boy, probably (and in fact) to hide her joyous tears. Chrystal himself felt almost overcome and quite abashed. Should he take his cap off or should he not? He would know better another time; meanwhile he meant to look modest, and did look depressed; and half the field closed in upon him, clapping their unselfish hands, while a pair of wicket-keeping gloves belaboured his back with ostentatious thuds.
More magnanimous than any, Tuttles had been the first to clap, but he was also the first to stop clapping, and there was a business air about the way in which he signalled for the ball. He carried it back to the spot where he started his run with as much deliberation as though measuring the distance for an opening over. There was a peculiar care also in the way in which he grasped the leather, rolling it affectionately in his hand, as though wiping off the sawdust which it had not been necessary to use since the morning. There was a grim light in his eye as he stood waiting to begin his run, a subtle something in the run itself, the whole reminding one, with a sudden and characteristic emphasis, that this really was the first bowler in second-class cricket. A few quick steps, firm and precise, a couple of long ones, a beautiful swing, a lovely length, and Chrystal’s middle stump lay stretched upon the grass.
It was a great end to a great innings, a magnificent finale to a week of weeks; but on the charming excesses on the field one need touch no more than on the inevitable speeches that night at dinner. Field and house alike were full of good hearts, of hearts good enough to appreciate a still better one. Tuthill’s was the least expansive; but he had the critical temperament, and he had been hit for many fours, and his week’s analysis had been ruined in an afternoon.
“I wasn’t worth a sick headache,” he told Chrystal himself, with his own delightful mixture of frankness and contempt. “I couldn’t have outed the biggest sitter in Christendom.”
“But you did send down some pretty good ones, you know!” replied Chrystal, with a rather wistful intonation.
“A few,” Tuttles allowed, charily. “The one that bowled you was all right. But it was a very good innings, and I congratulate you again.”
Now, Chrystal had some marvellous old brandy; how it had come into his possession and how much it was worth were respectively a very long and rather a tall story. He only broached a bottle upon very great occasions; but this was obviously one, even though the bottle had been the last in the cellar and its contents liquid gold. The only question was whether they should have it on the table with dessert or with their coffee in the library.
Chrystal debated the point with some verbosity; the fact was that he had been put to shame by hearing of nothing but his century from the soup to the speeches; and he resolutely introduced and conscientiously enlarged upon the topic of the brandy in order to throw a deliberate haze over his own lustre. His character shone the more brilliantly through it; but that could be said of each successive incident since his great achievement. He beamed more than ever. In a sudden silence you would have expected to catch him purring. And Mrs. Chrystal had at last agreed to his giving her those particular diamonds which she had over and over again dissuaded him from buying; if he must make some offering to his earthly gods it might as well be to the goddess on the hearth. But none but themselves knew of this, and it was of the Chrystal known to men as well that all sat talking when he had left the dining-room with his bunch of keys. Mrs. Chrystal felt the tears coming back into her eyes; they were every one so fond of him, and yet he was all and only hers! It was she who made the move, and for this reason, though she said she fancied he must be expecting them to follow him to the library, for he had been several minutes gone. But Mrs. Chrystal led the other ladies to the drawing-room, merely pausing to say generally to the men:—
“If you don’t find him there he must have gone to the cellar himself, and I’m afraid he’s having a hunt.”
Now the Chrystals, like a sensible couple, never meddled with each other’s definite departments in the house, and of course Mrs. Chrystal knew no more about her husband’s cellar arrangements than he did of the inside of her store-room. Otherwise she would have known that he very seldom entered his own cellar, and that he did not require to go there for his precious brandy.
Yet he did seem to have gone there now, for there was no sign of him in the library when the cricketers trooped in. Osborne was saying something in a lowered voice to Tuthill, who, looking round the empty room, replied as emphatically as usual:—
“I’m glad you think I did it well. Man and boy, I never took on such a job in all my days, and I never will another. The old sitter!”
And he chuckled good-humouredly enough.
“Steady!” said the major of the Indian regiment.
“It’s all right, he’s down in the cellar,” the cherubic clergyman explained. “Trust us not to give the show away.”
“And me,” added the scholastic hero of the all-but-gallery catch.
“You precious near did,” Osborne remonstrated. “You held it just one second too long.”
“But fancy holding it at all! I never thought I could get near the thing. I thought a bit of a dash would contribute to the general verisimilitude. Then to make the catch of a lifetime and to have to drop it like a hot potato!”
“It showed the promising quality of self-restraint,” the clerical humorist allowed. “You will be an upper usher yet.”
“Or a husher upper?” suggested a wag of baser mould—to wit, the sympathetic umpire of the afternoon. “But your side-show wasn’t a patch on mine. Even Osborne admits that you had a second to think about it. I hadn’t the fifth of one. I called that no-ball between the time the bat was beaten and the sticks were hit!
Tuttles, old man, I thought you were going to knock me down!”
“I very nearly did,” the candid bowler owned. “I never was no-balled in my life before, and for the moment I forgot.”
“Then it wasn’t all acting?”
“Half and half.”
“I thought it was too good to be untrue.”
“But,” continued Tuttles, with his virile vanity, “you fellows buck about what you did, as though you’d done a thousandth part of what I did between you. You had your moment apiece. I had one every ball of every over. Great Lord! if I’d known how hard it would be to serve up consistent tosh! Full-pitches on the pads! That’s a nice length to have to live up to through a summer afternoon. I wouldn’t do it again for five-and-twenty sovereigns!”
“And I,” put in the quiet Quidnunc—“it’s the first time I ever sat on the splice while the other man punched them, and I hope it’s the last.” He had been tried as a bat for an exceptionally strong Cambridge eleven.
“Come, come,” said the grave major. “I wasn’t in this myself. I distinctly disapproved. But he played quite well when he got his eye in. I don’t believe you could have bowled him then if you’d tried, Tuttles.”
If the irascible Tuthill had been a stout old man he would have turned purple in the face; being a lean young one, at least in effect, his complexion gained a glorious bronze.
“My good sir,” said he, “what about the ball after the one which ran him into three figures?”
“Where is the dear old rabbit?” the ex-umpire exclaimed.
“Well, not in the hutch,” said the little parson. “He’s come right out of that, and I shouldn’t be surprised if he stopped out. I only wish it was the beginning of the week.”
“I’m going to look for him,” the other rejoined, with the blank eye that has not seen a point He stepped through a French window out into the night. The young schoolmasters followed him. The Indian major detained Osborne.
“We ought all to make a rule not to speak of this again, either here or anywhere else. It would be too horrible if it leaked out.”
“I suppose it would.” The little parson had become more like one. Though full of cricket and of chaff, and gifted with a peculiarly lay vocabulary for the due ventilation of his favourite topic, he was yet no discredit to the cloth. A certain superficial insincerity was his worst fault. The conspiracy, indeed, had originated in his nimble mind, but its execution had far exceeded his conception. On the deeper issues the man was sound.
“Can there be any doubt?” the major pursued.
“About the momentary bitter disappointment, no, I’m afraid not; about the ultimate good all round, no again; but, there, I don’t fear, I hope.”
“I don’t quite follow you,” said the major.
“Old Bob Chrystal,” continued Osborne, “is absolutely the best sportsman in the world, and absolutely the dearest good chap. But until this afternoon I never thought he would get within a hundred miles of decent cricket; and now I almost think he might, even at his age. He has had the best practice he ever had in his life. His shots improved as he went on. You saw for yourself how he put on the wood. It is a liberal cricket education to make runs, even against the worst bowling in the world. Like most other feats, you find it’s not half so formidable as it looks once you get going; every ten runs come easier than the last. Chrystal got a hundred this afternoon because we let him. I said just now I wished it was the beginning of the week. Don’t you see my point?”
The major looked a brighter man.
“You think he might get another?”
“I don’t mind betting he does,” said the little parson, “if he sticks to country cricket long enough. Possunt quia posse videntur!”
They went out in their turn; and last of all Chrystal himself stole forth from the deep cupboard in which he kept his cigars and his priceless brandy. An aged bottle still trembled in his hand; but a little while ago his lip had been as tremulous, and now it was not. Of course he had not understood a word of the little clergyman’s classical tag, but all that immediately preceded it had made, or may make, nearly all the difference to the rest of even Robert Chrystal’s successful life.
His character had been in the balance during much of what had passed in his hearing and yet behind his back; whether it would have emerged triumphant, even without Gerald Osborne’s final pronouncement, is for others to judge from what they have seen of it in this little record.
“It was most awfully awkward,” so Chrystal told his wife. “I was in there getting at the brandy—I’d gone and crowded it up with all sorts of tackle—when you let all those fellows into the study and they began talking about me before I could give the alarm. Then it was too late. It would have made them so uncomfortable, and I should have looked so mean.”
“I hope they were saying nice things?”
“Oh, rather; that was just it; but don’t you let them know I overheard them, mind.”
Mrs. Chrystal seemed the least bit suspicious.
“About your century, darling?”
“Well, partly. It was little Osborne, you know. He knows more about cricket than any of them. Tuttles is only a bowler.”
“I don’t like Mr. Tuthill,” said Mrs. Chrystal. “I’ve quite made up my mind. He was trying to bowl you out the whole time!”
“Little Osborne,” her husband continued, rather hastily, “says I ought to make a hundred if I stick to it.”
Mrs. Chrystal opened her eyes.
“But you have!”
“I mean another hundred,” he added, in some confusion.
“Of course you will,” said Mrs. Chrystal, who just then would have taken her husband’s selection for England as a matter of course.
Chrystal was blushing a little, but glowing more. It was one of those moments when you would have understood his making so much money and winning such a wife. Never was a mouth so determined, and yet so good.
“I don’t know about that, dear,” he opened it to say. “But I mean to try!”
Chrystal had built himself a fine new house in Surrey, a ball’s flight from the most delicious cricket field in England. The proximity of this field was not merely a happy accident; for nothing else would Chrystal have given up a mellower home than his new one could possible become in time. But an old English garden was one thing, and good cricket over the hedge was quite another. Chrystal had a stile made before laying his foundations; and, with the approval of a wife who encouraged all his innocent excesses, took a lodging in Fairmead for the first season.
Now the Fairmead club is rightly famous, but just then it was under the cloud that overhung many another British Institution. The South African campaign was at its height, and the flower of Fairmead had gone out to try a season’s war instead of Cricket. It was very hard to raise a side, and to this alone, as none knew better, did Chrystal owe his first appearance on the ground he came afterwards to haunt. It was followed by many more in which he did his pathetic best at the wicket, and as little harm as might be in the field; for Chrystal was one of those cricketers whose lifelong passion for the game had seldom been requited by a moment’s personal success. But the bitterest of all his cricket disappointments was when his house was built, and the real cricketers had come back from the front, and there was no longer a place for Robert Chrystal in the Fairmead team.
He took it, however, like the man he was, and saw to the figures on the scoring-board when he could take no other part in the game. Then his reward came by degrees. First they wanted a new treasurer for the club, and Chrystal (who was successful enough in mere business) shyly proposed himself for the post, which he filled as it had never been filled before. Some shrewd mind saw that he would make an equally ideal secretary. Of course, he did, and has done now for years. Few cricketers bustle harder for a Saturday match, than does Chrystal to keep himself out of the Fairmead side. It is at full strength, or he knows the reason why. But sometimes the others induce him to fall back upon himself, and his rotund figure is seen again at point, with its very counterpart opposite his name in Monday’s “Sportsman.” It was so on a great occasion last season. Not that Chrystal distinguished himself in the game much more than usual; but he was responsible for those who did, and solely responsible for a daring policy that deserved to win the match.
It was a new match on the Fairmead card, the mere fixture an ambitious feather in the secretary’s cap. He had secured, however, on all but a legal contract, a side really worthy of a game on their own ground with the highest and mightiest of wandering clubs. It was a full side weeks in advance and for a long time there was a waiting list in case of accident; but towards the end the reserves made other engagements to a man; and then, of course, on the very eve of the match the best batsman proceeded to pile a motor car on top or himself and two of the tail.
Chrystal was furious. His men were not killed, or even as seriously injured as they deserved to be; but they were dead as herrings to next day’s match, and the thing had happened at night. Chrystal only heard of it as he was turning in betimes after a last loving look at the wicket. He sat up till dawn in his dismay, and the unlucky operator at the Fairmead exchange had a night of it, putting through his despairing calls.
He might have saved his pence, June was at its best, and every cricketer on the telephone had a match that Saturday. There was one forlorn hope. In his only experience of commercial litigation, Chrystal, as a loyal cricketer had commanded his solicitors to brief Peploe, K.C., that keenest and most renowned of Old Etonians. The case had been lost, but the behaviour of counsel, and client in adversity had endeared each to the other. Chrystal felt that Peploe might like to do him a good turn, and for that very reason would never have applied to him in his own emergency. But this was different; a desperate effort was due not only to all Fairmead but to the visiting club, of which Peploe himself was an old and honoured member. And there were limits to the favour which Chrystal thought of asking of the great man. Whether as a most popular leader at the bar, as member of the M.C.C. Committee, or inveterate adorer of his old school, he might well know of some young barrister or Eton Rambler who would be glad of a game. Chrystal never dreamed of asking Peploe to play himself, and did not know him well enough to ring him up at night. But he had decided on what was perhaps as great a liberty when he got into his motor car at seven in the morning.
By half-past ten he was back, self-conscious, but beaming like the summer morning, with Peploe himself at his side.
“I find I’ve not got to go into court,” the old first-class cricketer had said. “I was thinking of a round of golf, but I’m your man if you can do with a back-number. Of course, one’s not supposed to play against one’s own club, but as a matter of fact I belonged to yours about thirty years ago. I have the pleasantest recollections of the ground.
He was well over fifty now and his shaggy eyebrows were the terror of a wobbly witness on whom he would drop with the demoniac expression that old opponents associated with his ruthless cut behind point. But he told poor Chrystal that he weighed the same to an ounce as the day he left Eton, and that he “could still see them if he once got going.” So Chrystal informed his thankful team with bated breath. They remained one short, with Chrystal playing after all, and alternately very proud and still more nervous of turning out with G. B. Peploe. And when Fairmead took the field, having lost the toss, it was with one of the languid enemy as substitute.
Now play on this Elysian field begins at eleven sharp, for unless you catch the 9.32 from Waterloo you scarcely get down for lunch; but the enemy spoke as though they had risen in the small hours and the first few played as if they had. When the second wicket fell and the first substitute retired to put on his pads, one of the two spectators already on the ground was seen advancing towards the pitch. This was a powerful man of middle age, who had never been on the ground before and could not have looked more out of place. His beard was as black as his trousers and his face as white as his shirt, the sleeves of which he was already rolling up as well as the starched cuffs would permit. A pair of fine hairy arms were exposed in the process, which he interrupted to sweep a shabby Panama from his raven locks.
“If you want another man,” said he, simply, “I should like to play.”
And he rolled a rollicking eye from fieldsman to fieldsman, as though he had only to find the captain to clinch the matter. A second Peploe could not have seemed more certain of his own acceptability; and that is the attitude to command, at least a preliminary hearing. Comyns Gwilt was beckoned from the bowler’s end but before he arrived the stranger caught the ball neatly in its flight from an energetic deep fieldsman to another of the group. The deep fieldsman held up his hand for a country catch; and the man in the black trousers promptly flung if high over his head into the road
“I’m awfully sorry!” he shouted out, and repeated his apology to those at hand. “It’s so long since I threw a ball that I’ve forgotten my own strength; but if you let me go long-leg I’ll soon get into it.”
There was no denying this extraordinary creature, especially as he spoke like a gentleman, in spite of his wild locks and quaint attire. “Who’s your tramp cricketer?” inquired the incoming batsman of old Shooter, the ground man and umpire, who was enjoying a chat about other days with Mr. Peploe. “I never saw him before this minute, sir.” replied Shooter, “but he’s played cricket before to-day.”
Comyns Gwilt had meanwhile informed the applicant, with characteristic courtesy that he did not think he should require a long-leg, but that he might do with another man in the deep. Off went black trousers in the direction indicated, and Gwilt went on with his over. He was an almost ideal club cricketer, who captained Fairmead whenever his patients gave him a Saturday off, and could bowl all day without losing his length. It was rather slow stuff, which looked the more innocuous by reason of the bedside smile with which it was delivered, but there was a long head and an accurate hand behind every ball. Peploe, who could play any part in the game, had already stumped one contemporary hero off Comyns Gwilt, and he helped the doctor to cure a few more cases of undue temerity before luncheon. At the interval the visitors had made a bare hundred for seven wickets, and the most entertaining moments of the morning were those of the two separate occasions on which the tramp cricketer had distinguished himself in the long field.
At first; he had slipped and slithered in his smooth-soled boots; but borrowing a knife from Shooter, on the fall of the third wicket, he had squatted on the pitch and sliced vicious arabesques in sole and heel. The other’s held their breath and looked for blood, but the object of their solicitude achieved his end without disaster. Henceforth he hunted the leather with equal impunity and enthusiasm. He did much more. A tremendous “balloon” was hit off Comyns Gwilt; this time there was no need to test the mutilated soles. The tramp fieldsman moved a yard or so at his leisure, and so stood under the descending ball, clapping his hands in joyful anticipation of the catch, which he made with a contemptuous confidence that chilled poor Chrystal’s, blood.
“Catcher’s name?” they shouted from the pavilion.
“A. N. Other!” the catcher shouted back, with a gleaming grin through the wild black hair on his pallid face.
“We must find out who he really is,” said Peploe on the pitch. “He interests me more than any player I’ve struck for some time.
But Peploe’s interest was somewhat tempered by the other incident, in which he himself had an invidious hand. A risky second run had been attempted for a late cut which the substitute had misfielded at third-man; he atoned for the mistake by returning the ball like a round-shot over the stumps. Peploe failed to gather it, and a more excusable mistake was never seen, though the great man’s eyebrows bristled with his own mortification. But the nameless substitute, encircling his bearded lips with hirsute hands, roared “Butterfingers!” at the top of his voice. It was a roar of pure good humour, that ended in a genial guffaw; but Peploe, K.C., turned pale quicker than he had reddened, and the whole field held its breath. It was rewarded by a remark which could not have been made in court; but the ball was over, and third-man on his way to the boundary in innocent unconcern.
Chrystal positively trembled, and he went up to Comyns Gwilt before the new over.
“I’m a last batsman if ever there was one” said Chrystal, “but if that insolent hound has an innings I’m last but one to-day!”
The captain nodded; but he had one eye on the retreating study in black and white, and he seemed to be thinking of something else.
The enemy were not radiant in the luncheon tent. They had a variety of woes to ventilate. The wicket was good enough, but what was the use of a good wicket without a boundary? Fairmead had abolished the boundary system as the only means of dismissing a whole side, on such a wicket, in less than a whole day. But certain palings from which the ball rebounded had not been removed, and thus it was possible to get less for a superb stroke in that direction than for a half-hit over somebody’s head. The point was one on which the languid side felt strongly, “especially after getting up in the middle, of the night”; but at this renewed sally the Black-and-White Knight (as somebody dubbed the unknown fieldsman) woke up in his turn. He had marched into the tent as a matter of course, but had sobered down before the decidedly chilling attitude of his nearest neighbours.
“I shouldn’t grumble about what time I got up!” he exclaimed with his former confidence, “I never went to bed at all, and it wasn’t nearly such a warm night as you might think.”
Chrystal and the rest discussed him over their tobacco. Chrystal was for not suffering him to field again, but the doctor thought that would be a pity, and the great Peploe settled the question by speaking up emphatically for the man who had insulted him. He had been running about all morning “like a stag,” to say nothing of his catch; it would he inhuman not to let him have his knock. But he certainly was the coolest customer ever seen on a cricket field, and every other member of either eleven had a different theory as to his station and antecedents.
Particularly trenchant on the topic, and more amusing than most, was an old friend of Chrystal’s who had come down with the visiting side. His name was Truthilll, but Chrystal called him Tuttles, and told the doctor that they were in for trouble if his old friend bowled half as well as in the days when he captained a second-class county. Tuthill, however, looking as fit as a hawk, described himself as an old man of forty without a sound timber in his carcase. His length, pace, spin, break and “devil” had all deserted his derelict hulk like rats. So said Tuttles, looking the youngest man of forty in Europe; and then went to seventh wicket down to treat the doctor’s bowling as nobody had offered to treat it all the morning. He hit up sixty under an hour, and ran every run of them (except a sixer out of the ground) without a visible symptom of the muscular moth and rust with which he declared himself corrupt from head to heel.
It was true that a touch of pique had put him on his mettle; for the captain of the vagrant club had insisted on Tuthill’s turning out in its celebrated colours, and had produced a spare sash from his bag to prevent an irregularity which he refused to countenance. Tuttles spluttered an expostulation before deferring, as a comparatively recent member, to one of the fathers of the club. But these two were in together at the end, and then it was a sight to see Tuttles running the really elderly man off his legs.
The innings closed before four o’clock for a hundred and ninety odd, and tea was made and taken in a hurry to elude the modern curse of that superfluous interval. The languid gentleman characterized such haste as indecent; but Tuthill continued the good example he was showing them by fondling the new and blushing ball on the edge of the arena until they were tempted out to see what he could do.
They very soon saw. Dr. Comyns Gwilt, best as a bowler, but a very honest bat, was “b Tutthill 0” in the very first over. Three wickets, were down for under 20; and it was felt more strongly than ever that the motoring batsman deserved to be dead or mangled instead of able (and daring) to watch the game in a sling and bandages. Peploe, however, who had gone in first with the doctor, was playing with the wary gusto of his youth, as though he enjoyed once more coping with a bowler worthy of his blade at its best. It still met the ball full in the middle, even when Tuttles had inspired the projectile with one and all of his ancient wiles. And at the other end there was but a moderate left-hander who treated Peploe to a couple of very lucrative overs before he was taken off.
The left-hander retired to favour of a lob-bowler whom a good player could have punished in the dark; but the flower of Fairmead had few petals left, and when Chrystal came in tenth the score was under seventy. Chrystal, however, played what was for him a long innings of seven. He knew the rule for lobs; one off every ball and never hit it on the half-volley. But he broke the rule and his luck, and was badly missed at mid-on off the very first ball he received. Then, his old friend, Tuttles, either by accident or design, bowled all round Chrystal’s wicket, as a juggler throws knives round the intrepid person of his assistant. One or two from Tuttles hit the edge of Chrystal’s bat, and made a risky dash, through the slips. Meanwhile Peploe continued his classic display at the other end, and Chrystal at close quarters felt another Cassius in jealous awe of one less massive than himself, who yet bestrode the narrow pitch like a Colossus. But it was an honour to be in for three overs with such a cricketer who had played such cricket in his time, and whose kindly smile never degenerated into visible compassion for the mere enthusiast, while the little stand they made was at least as good as most that had gone before.
And now came the last hope of all, in his black trousers and his hard-boiled shirt. Peploe did not smile on him; quite apart from the insult of the morning, it was neither necessary nor desirable to encourage the substitute’s misplaced mirth. He swaggered in with the unwelcome gaiety of a friendly pirate; there was familiarity in the tone in which he asked for a guard, but positive contempt in the way he stood up to receive of Tuthill’s best. Shooter gave the required information with stiff severity, and Tuttles looked the javelin he was about to hurl. It was the ball that pitched outside the off-stump, hung in the air, fizzed off the pitch, and sometimes missed the leg-bail. It did all four on this occasion, and two byes were run, the new-comer insisting on the second in the teeth of counsel’s opinion.
“It was my call and my look-out,” said he, serenely. “I thought we wanted to get the runs?
Only a round hundred were required, and there was hardly an hour to go!
“You keep your end up, and don’t play the fool!” cried Poploe, with unprofessional heat.
The offender looked quite astonished; but fortunately his attention was distracted by a brief interchange between the bowler and a very young Etoman who was keeping wicket. The boy had apologized for the byes, explaining that he made sure the wicket had been hit.
“Better men have made the same mistake,” responded Tuttles, grimly. “There’s not a wicket-keeper in England who ever took that particular ball first time of asking.”
“I wish you’d bowl it again!” cried the new batsman as though he meant it.
Tuttles was bereft of speech, like Peploe at the same end. They exchanged a look that would not have born translating into speech. Then Tuttles did actually bowl the very same ball, and it went for three off the face of the bat, between the wicket and the batsman’s legs.
“Thank you,” he said, taking breath after the runs. “I was afraid I had forgotten that stroke.”
“It’s not often seen, nowadays,” rejoined Tuthill, with a dry ambiguity which exactly represented his doubt as to whether he was the victim of uncanny skill or uncanny fluke.
It was a doubt which was very soon set a rest. The tramp cricketer soon established his claim to the second substantive, whatever might be the facts as to the first. In his first few overs he was nearly bowled, and more than once, though playing late; a really fast bowler might have got him then; thereafter they were all grist to his mill. He had other old-fashioned shots besides the one which had opened his score. He hit a fast ball out of the ground to square-leg; others he played off his legs on the onside with the ease and precision of a stroke at billiards. The rule about lobs he broke as freely as Chrystal had done, but with happier results; after the second sixer in one over, the left-hander came back to his old end, and just afterwards Tuthill was given a rest.
Forty, of the hundred runs required of the last wicket had been knocked off in considerably less than half-an-hour; but the rate of scoring must not slacken for an over if the batting side were to win. The lordly enemy no longer resented the no-boundary rule. It was their best friend now. Peploe’s pink face was showing signs of distress, but none of lingering umbrage or resentment; he was too good a cricketer to regard his peer in any other light until the battle was lost or won. But then the tramp cricketer on his side, was behaving more and more like a cricketer and less and less like a tramp. He had no spare breath to waste on nonsense. He ran Peploe’s runs as furiously as his own. It was perceptible from the ring that the two players understood each other as such. But who in the wide world was this knight-errant of the game who prowled about in dress trousers, seeking whom he might for sixes with a borrowed bat?
“I believe its one of the next Australian team over here to get the measure of our wickets,” said Chrystal. “They’re cunning dogs, and deamon’s for a practical joke.”
But the doctor thought far otherwise.
“That pale face or his is not typically, Australian; besides, this is too old a man. Did you hear him ask if no one, had a bat without a rubber handle? That dates him as much as his leg-hitting. “It’s some old cricketer come out of his shell on the spur of the moment.”
“I wonder Peploe doesn’t know him,” rejoined Chrystal. “I wish I knew what he thought!”
He had an early opportunity of finding out. One of the hard square hits flew lower than the rest, and it sent poor shooter flying with a shin on which Dr. Gwilt would not let him stand another second. So Chrystal got into the long white coat, and had a word with Peploe between the overs.
“No I’ve no idea who he is,” said Peploe, all pearls of sweat upon a fiery face. “But I wouldn’t have missed him for a thousand pounds.”
Chrystal was greatly impressed with this remark. At his best Peploe had not been a particularly fast scorer; and now his own beautiful display was being inevitably discounted by the fireworks he was so enjoying. Chrystal felt he could have preached a sermon with Peploe’s last words for his text. His next, when another over had brought them within thirty runs of victory, fired another train of thought.
“No, his leg-hitting’s splendid; but it’s not the thing that impresses me most. That forward shot off his legs is his specialty. It was beyond me all my days, but half the Cambridge eleven had it when I was a Oxford; they all came from the same school and learnt it early.”
He looked curiously at Chrystal, who thought he was making a mental effort to recall their names, and knew it at the next pause.
“The only one of them it could possibly be,” resumed Peploe under his breath—and broke off as Tuthill joined them, fondling the battered ball.
“Well,” said Tuttles, “it’s a treat to old eyes, whoever wins; but I don’t despair of getting him yet.”
Two interruptions marked the closing stages. A motor car arrived upon the ground, by the gate near Shooter’s cottage, and looked like invading the field of play until Comyns Gwilt stopped it. Chrystal noted that he remained in conversation with the occupants; it was a little singular at this acute stage, in the captain especially; and then came the second interruption to aggravate curiosity in the first.
Peploe broke his bat and ran to the cottage for another; but Gwilt and one of the motorists interrupted and detained the batsman on his way back and this completely passed Chrystal’s comprehension. As short-leg umpire at the moment he could scarcely help overhearing two or three of the words that passed. “Any excitement,” he distinctly heard; and then, “If not murder.” Both expressions fell from the motorist who seemed to be suffering from suppressed excitement himself. Comyns Gwilt appeared to take a more reasonable view (as he would) of the matter at issue. The little Peploe had to say both looked and sounded more dogmatical than judicial; yet he had been palpably taken aback, and now he ran past Chrystal with the look of a man it would be rash to question. “Then you’ll be responsible!” was the audible remark sent after him by the motorist, who all along was at least pains to lower his voice.
Crystal looked instinctively towards the tramp-cricketer and there he stood a pillar of profoundity, his dark eyes fixed on Gwilt and his companion, his white teeth showing in an sardonic smile. A few moments later his borrowed blade carved the air, and the ball was soaring out of the field for the last time.
Ten to win! Peploe had to be content with two for a smashing cut to those infernal palings; the ball trickled back to cover point, who might almost have finished the match with a better return. Three to leg off the next, brought Tuttles and the tramp face to face once more. Tuttles was the only bowler he had not lifted out of the ground; would he seize the opportunity of doing so now with the winning hit? Tuttles gave him the chance, like the hero he was, but the big hitter played right back to the slow half-volley, and placed it for a couple, because it was not just a ready made half-volley, and the hitter was taking far fewer risks than earlier in his innings. There were no longer in any danger from the clock, but neither was he the desperado he had been.
Two to tie and three to win!
Tuthill had not tried his great ball, pitching outside the off-stump and whipping clean across, at twice its pace through the air, since his bad luck with it when the tramp cricketer first went in. To be more accurate he had tried it several times, but it was too fine a ball to bowl with complete precision. (“If I could,” said Tuttles, simply, “I’d settle some sides in one over and five balls!”) There was an element of uncertainty to the deadly delivery, which made cricket possible, but the time had come to try it again.
The specimen that emerged was certainly a beauty; but it would not have hit the wicket, and from the ring it appeared once more to beat the bat as well. But it did not beat the last Eton wicket-keeper, and his appeal rang out for all the parish to hear.
It was a tragic moment for poor Chrystal at the bowler’s end. He never forgot a single feature of the tableau. Tuthill had turned to him with an eager face, And Peploe with one darkened by an ulterior consternation, while the striker poised his bat in fierce suspense. Some lady on the seats cried distinctly, “He can’t be out!” But Chrystal had heard a tick like that of a clock before the appeal, and up went his hand; he could not have given his decision verbally if he had tried.
The tramp cricketer took a step towards his end—and smiled
“What an ass I am!” he cried. “O, Lord yes, I hit it as hard as I could, and you fellows need never forgive me, because I don’t deserve to be forgiven.”
He handed bat and pads to the other umpire, and walked quietly towards the motor without seeming to notice even the far from languid applause of the victorious side. But Peploe, whose beautiful 55 the other had beaten by a score, retained the hand with which Chrystal could not help grasping his.
“It was a sound and stout decision,” said the great old cricketer. “And he’s no more mad than I am,” he added under his breath, “or he never would have taken it as he did.”
“Mad!” whispered Chrystal. “Who says he ever was?”
“Those fellows in the motor; he escaped from their asylum last night. He is the man I played against in the Varsity match; they’ve had charge of him for years and years; but they admit that he’s been getting steadily better of late. We can bear them out, in all conscience, so far as our one day’s experience of him goes; he was a little eccentric this morning, you must admit. But I believe you’ll find that he’s played himself as sane as you or I, and if so it’ll be another feather in the cap of cricket.
And so it is, but it will be seen that something is also due to G. B. Peploe, K.C., and Dr. Comyns Gwilt—if not to Chrystal for a crucial test.
I was in search of some quiet spot to work in over the Christmas holidays, and here under my handle-bars was the very place: a sheltered hollow with a solitary house set close beside the frozen road. Transversely ran a Yorkshire beck, overfed with snow, and on the opposite bank the pinched trees rose intricate and brittle and black against the setting sun. But what pleased me more was the blue signboard hanging immovable in the windless frost. And the yellow legend on the same, when I had back-pedalled down the hill, and was near enough to read it, was to yield the keenest joy of all:
Dick Unthank! The old Yorkshire bowler! The most popular player of his day! It must be the same; the name was uncommon; and was not innkeeping the last state of most professional cricketers? I had never spoken to Unthank in my life; but I had kept his analysis when a small enthusiast, and had seen him bowl so often that the red good-humoured face, with the crafty hook-nose and the ginger moustache, was a very present vision as I entered the inn, where I made sure of finding it. A cold deserted passage led me to a taproom as empty and as cold. No sign of Dick could I discover; but in the taproom I was joined by a sour-looking slattern with a grimy baby in her arms.
‘Mrs Unthank, I presume?’
‘Yes, I’m Mrs Unthank,’ said the woman, with a sigh which offended me. Her voice was as peevish as her face.
‘Am I right in taking your husband to be the famous old cricketer, Dick Unthank?’
‘I don’t know, I’m sure; he’s not that old.’
‘But he is the cricketer?’
‘Ay; he used to play.’
‘Used to play!’ I echoed with some warmth. ‘Only for the County, and the Players, and England itself!’
‘So I’ve heard tell,’ returned Dick’s wife indifferently: ‘it was before my time, you see.’
‘Is your husband at home?’ cried I, out of patience with the woman.
‘Ay; he’s at home!’ was the meaning reply.
‘I wish he was! No such luck; he’s bad in bed.’
Dick Unthank ill in bed! I thought of that brick-red countenance and of the arm of gnarled oak which could bowl all day on a batsman’s wicket, and I felt sure it could be nothing serious. Meanwhile I was looking at the woman, who was either entirely ignorant or else wilfully unappreciative of her husband’s fame, and I also felt that the least indisposition would become aggravated in such hands. I said that I should like to see Mr Unthank, if I might, and if he would see me.
‘Are you a friend of his?’ inquired the wife.
‘I have known him for years—on the cricket-field.’
‘Well, t’ doctor said coompany was good for him; and dear knows I can’t be with him all day, with his work to do as well as my own. If you step this way, I’ll show you up. Mind your head as you come up-stairs. It’s the | ricketiest old house iver I was in, an’ no good for trade an’ all; but Mr Unthank took a fancy to it, and he wouldn’t listen to me. I doubt he’s sorry now. This is the room at t’ top o’ t’ stairs. Oh no, he won’t be asleep. Well, Unthank, here’s a gentleman come to see you.’
We had entered a square, low room, with no carpet upon its lumpy floor, and very little furniture within its dingy walls. There was one window, whose diamond panes scored the wintry glow across and across, and this was what first caught my eye. Then it rested on the fire, in which the coal had been allowed to cake until it gave out as little warmth as light. The bed was in the darkest corner of the room. I could make out little more than a confused mass of bed-clothes, and, lying back upon the pillows, the head and shoulders of a man.
‘He says he’s known you for years,’ added Mrs Unthank as I shut the door.
‘Why, who can it be?’ said a hollow voice from the comer. ‘Poke up the fire, missus, an’ let’s see each other.’
‘You won’t know me, Mr Unthank,’ I hastened to confess. ‘I have only seen you play, but you have given me many a happy hour, and I wanted to tell you so when I saw your name on the sign board. I am only sorry to find you like this. Nothing very serious, I hope?’
‘Not it!’ was the hoarse reply. ‘ ‘Tis nobbut a cold I caught last spring, an’ never properly throwed off. It serves me right for giving up the game! I’d have sweaten it off in half-an-hour at the nets. But I mean to give this up, an’ get a school or a club to coach next season; then I’ll be myself again. That’s better, missus! Now we can see to shake hands.’
And he gave me the cunning member which had been a county’s strength; but the Dick Unthank of old days was dead to me before I felt its slack and humid clasp. The man on the fire-lit bed seemed half Dick’s size, the lusty arms were gone to skin and bone, the weatherbeaten face shone whiter than the unclean pillow which was its frame. The large nose was wasted and unduly prominent, and a red stubble covered the sunken cheeks and the chin. Only the moustache was ruddy and unchanged; and it glistened with a baleful dew.
I was utterly amazed and shocked. How I looked I do not know, but Mrs Unthank paused at the door before leaving us together.
‘Ay,’ said she, ‘I thought you’d see a difference! He talks about playing next season, but he’ll be lucky if he sees another. I doubt he isn’t that long for this world!’
It was my first experience of the class which tells the truth to its sick and dying, and my blood was boiling; but Unthank smiled grimly as the door closed.
‘Poor lass,’ said he, ‘it would be hard on her if there was owt in what she says! But trust a woman to see black, an’ trust old Dick to put on flesh and muscle once he gets back into flannels. I never should ha’ chucked it up; that’s where I made the mistake. But spilt milk’s spilt milk, and I’m right glad to see you, sir! So you’ve watched me bowl, have you? Not at my best, I’m afraid, sir, unless you’re older than what I take you for!’ And Dick looked sorry for himself for the first time.
‘On the contrary,’ said I, ‘you never did much better than the very first time I saw you play.
‘When was that, sir?’
‘Eighteen years ago last July.’
‘Eighteen year? Why, you must have been a little lad, sir?’
‘I was twelve: but I knew my Lillywhite off by heart, and all that season I cut the matches out of the newspapers and pasted them in a book. I have it still.’
‘Mebbe it wasn’t a first-class match you saw me come off in?’
‘It was against the Gentlemen at Lord’s.’
‘Eighteen—year—ago. Hold on, sir! Did I take some wickets in the second innings?’
‘Seven for forty-three.’
‘An’ make some runs an’ all?’
‘Thirty-two not-out It was the fastest thing I ever saw!’
Dick shook his head.
‘It wasn’t good cricket, sir,’ said he. ‘But then I niver was owt of a bat It was a bowler’s innings was that—a short life but a merry one; ’twas a bowler’s wicket an’ all, I mind, an’ I was in a hurry to make use of it. Ay, ay, I remember it now as if it was yesterday!’
‘So do I: it was my first sight of Lord’s.’
‘Did you see the ball that took W. G.?’
‘I did. It nearly made me cry! It was my first sight of W. G. also!’
‘She came back nine inches,’ said the old bowler in a solemn voice. ‘Mr Grace he said eighteen inches, and the Sportsman it said six; but it wasn’t less than nine, as sure as I lie here. Ay, t’ wicket might ha’ been made for me that day; there’s no ground to bowl on like Lord’s on the mend. I got Mr Lucas too—an’ there wasn’t a finer batsman living at the time—an’ Mr Webbe was caught off me at cover. Them were the days, an’ no mistake, an’ yon day was one o’ my very best; it does me good to think about it. I may never play first-class cricket again, but mebbe I’ll coach them as will!’
The fire had died down again, the wintry glow was blotted out by early night, and once more the old professional’s face was invisible in the darkened room. I say ‘old’ because he had been very long before the public, but he was little worse than forty in mere years, and now in the dark it was difficult to believe that his cricket days were altogether over. His voice was fuller and heartier than when he greeted me, and if the belief that one will recover be half the battle against sickness, then Dick Unthank was already half-way to victory. But his gaunt face haunted me, and I was wondering whether such wasted limbs could ever fill out again, when there came a beating of hoofs like drumsticks on the frozen road, and wheels stopped beneath the window.
‘That’s the doctor,’ grumbled Dick. ‘I’m sure I don’t know what he wants to come every day for! Sit still, sir, sit still.’
‘No; I must go. But I shall want something to eat, and a bed for the night at least, and I shall come up later without fail.’
Already there were steps on the rickety stairs; and I made my escape as Mrs Unthank, with a streaming candle, ushered in a tall old gentleman in a greatcoat and creaking boots. I was detaching my impedimenta from the bicycle when the creaking boots came down again.
‘I should like one word with you, sir,’ said the doctor. ‘I gather that you are thinking of putting up here, and it will be a real charity if you do. You have done my patient more good in half-an-hour than I have in the last month!’
‘Oh, as to that,’ said I, ‘it is a treat to me to meet an old cricketer like Dick Unthank, but I hardly think I can stay beyond to-morrow. I want a quiet place to do some work in, but I must be reasonably comfortable too; and, to be frank, I doubt the comfort here.’
‘You may well!’ exclaimed the doctor, lowering his voice. ‘That woman is enough to scare anybody; yet for the money’s sake she would look after you in a way, and with it she might make her husband more comfortable than he is. I may frighten you away myself by saying so, but it would be an untold relief to me to feel that there was one responsible and humane person in the house!’
‘Is he then so very ill?’
‘So very ill? Have you seen him and can you ask? He is in a galloping consumption.’
‘But he is so full of hope; is there no hope for him?’
‘Not the shadow of a chance! They are always sanguine. That is part of the disease.’
‘And how long do you give him?’
The doctor shrugged.
‘It may be weeks, it may be days, it might be months,’ said he. ‘I can only say that in this weather and with such a nurse nothing would surprise me.’
‘That is enough for me,’ I replied. ‘I shall give the place a trial.’
And I did!....
Many nights I passed in a chamber as accessible to the four winds of heaven as to the companies of mice which broke each night’s sleep into so many naps. Many days I lived well enough on new-laid eggs and Yorkshire ham, and wrought at my book until for good or ill the stack of paper lay complete upon the table. And many a winter’s evening I spent at Dick’s bedside, chatting with him, listening to him, hearing a score of anecdotes to one that I can set down here, and admiring more and more the cheeriness and the charity of the dying man. In all our talks I cannot remember an unkind story or a word of spite, though Dick had contemporaries still in the County ranks, the thought of whom must have filled his soul with envy. Even his wife was all that was good in his eyes; in mine she was not actually bad, but merely useless, callous, and indifferent, from sheer want of intelligence and imagination.
In the early days I sent for my portmanteau and had my old cricket scrap-book put into it. Dick’s eyes glistened as he took up leaf after leaf. I had torn them out for his convenience, and for days they kept him amused while I was absent at my work. Towards the end I brought my work beside him, for he was weakening visibly though unconsciously, and it was a new interest to his simple mind.
‘I don’t know how you do it, sir,’ said he one afternoon as I gathered my papers together. ‘I’ve been watching you this half-hour, your pen’s hardly stopped—and it’s all out of your own head! It beats an’ bowls me, sir, does that. Dear knows how you do it!’
‘Well,’ I laughed, ‘and it’s a puzzle to me how you pitch a ball just where you like and make it break either way at will. Dear knows how you do that!’
Dick shook his head.
‘Sometimes you can’t,’ said he reflectively; ‘sometimes you’re off the spot altogether. I’ve heard you say you can’t write some days; and some days a man can’t bowl. Ay, you could write, and I could bowl, but they’d smack me to t’ boundary over after over.’
‘And what I wrote I should tear up next morning.’
He lay looking at the window. It was soft weather now, and a watery sun shone weakly into the room, slanting almost to the bed, so that a bleached and bony hand hung glistening in the rays. I knew that it was itching to hold a ball again—that Dick’s spirit was in flannels—even before he continued:
‘Now to-day’s a day when you could bowl. I’m glad it isn’t t’ season: it’d be my day, would this, wi’ a wet wicket drying from t’ top. By gum, but you can do summat wi’ a wicket like you! The ground fairly bites, an’ the ball’ll come in wi’ your arm, or break back or hang, just as it’s told; it’s the time a ball answers its helm, sir, is that! And it’s a rum thing, but it’ll drop where you ask it on a bowler’s wicket; but on a good ‘un it seems to know that they can make a half-volley of it ‘most wherever it drops, so it loses heart and pitches all over the shop. Ay, there’s a deal o’ human nature in a trebleseam, sir; it don’t like getting knocked about any more than we do.’
So we would chat by the hour together, and the present was our favourite tense, as though his cricket days were not nearly over. Nor did I see any sense or kindness in convincing him that they were, and a little persuasion brought Mrs Unthank to my way of thinking and acting in the matter. Clergymen, however, are bound by other considerations, and though Unthank was by no means an irreligious man, but had an open ear and mind for the manly young curate who came to see him from time to time, he did bitterly complain to me one evening when the curate was gone.
‘No game’s lost till it’s won, sir, and t’ parson has no right to shake his head till the Umpire gives me out. I don’t say I’m in for a long score, bowlers very seldom are, but I isn’t going out just yet a bit I’ll get better set by-and-by, and you’ll see me trouble the scorers yet!’
It was easy to tell that Dick was proud of his metaphor, and it recurred continually in his talk. His disease was the bowler, and each fit of coughing ‘a nasty one,’ but if only he could keep up his wicket till summer-time he felt confident of adding some years to his score. This confidence clung to him almost to the last. He would give up the inn and get back to Brammall Lane, and umpire for ‘t’ owd team’ as long as he had a leg to stand on.
I remember when he realised the truth.
In a corner of the best parlour, beneath an accumulation of old newspapers and the ruins of a glass shade, I found one day, when I had finished but was still polishing my book, a warworn cricket-ball with a tarnished silver plate let into the bruised leather. The inscription on the plate announced that this was the actual ball with which Richard Unthank had taken nine Nottingham wickets (the tenth being run out) for a matter of fifty runs, at Brammall Lane, in his palmy days. That was twenty years ago, but I knew from Dick that it remained the achievement of which he was proudest, and I took the ball up-stairs to him after cleaning the silver plate as well as I could with soap and water.
His hot eyes glistened.
‘Why, wherever did you find this, sir?’ he cried, with the joy of a child in his shallow voice.
‘I’d forgot I had it. How canny it feels! Ay, ay, yon was the happiest day in all my life!’
And rapidly and excitedly he gave me full particulars, explaining how and why the wicket had suited him to a nicety, and how he had known before he had finished an over that it was his day of days. Then he went through the Notts eleven, and told me with what ball and by what wile he had captured this wicket after that. Only one of the nine had fallen more by luck than good bowling; that was when Dick atoned for a half-volley by holding a terrific return, and so won the match for Yorkshire by the narrow margin of three runs.
‘It was my slow ball, and a bit too slow, I doubt, an’ he runs out of his ground an’ lets drive. There was almighty crack, and next thing I hears is a rush of air low down to the on; I goes for it wi ‘out seeing a thing, feels a smack on my hand, an’ there’s the beautiful ball stuck in it that tight that nobbut gunpowder could ha’ shifted her! She looked that sweet and peaceful sticking in my hand that what do you think I did? Took an’ kissed her instead o’ chuckin’ her up! You see, sir, I’d forgot that if I’d lost her we should ha’ lost t’ match instead o’ winning, for she was a dead-sure boundary; when owd Tom tell’d me it made me feel that bad, I’d got to have a big drink or faint; an’ I feel bad when I think of it yet.’
In his excitement he had raised himself on his left elbow; the effort had relaxed his muscles, and the historic ball had slipped from his fingers and was rolling across the floor. I picked it up, and was about to return it to him, but Dick Unthank waved me back.
‘Nay, nay I’ said he. ‘Give us a catch!’
So I tossed it gently into his outstretched hand, but the weak fingers closed too soon, and once more the ball rolled on the floor. Dick looked at me comically, yet with a spot of colour on either cheek-bone, as he shook his head.
‘I doubt I’m out o’ practice,’ he said. ‘Come, let’s try again.’
‘I wouldn’t, Dick.’
‘You wouldn’t? What do you mean? Do you think I’m that bad I can’t catch a cricket-ball, me that’s played for All England in my day? Chuck her in again and I’ll show you! Get to the other side o’ the room!’
He was sitting bolt upright now, with both hands ready, and in his altered tone there was such umbrage that I could not cross him. So again I threw; but two such hands were no better than one; the ball fell through them into the bed; and Dick Unthank sat looking at me with death dawning in his eyes.
‘It’s the light,’ I said gruffly, for it was the finest day of the New Year, and even now the sun was glinting on the silver-mounted ball.
‘Who could make catches in a light like this?’
‘No, sir,’ whispered Dick, ‘it’s not the light I see what it is. It’s—it’s what they call the beginning o’ the end!’
And he burst into tears. Yet was he sanguine even then, for the end was very near. It came that night.
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