Infomotions, Inc.At a Winter's Fire / Capes, Bernard (Bernard Edward Joseph), 1854-1918



Author: Capes, Bernard (Bernard Edward Joseph), 1854-1918
Title: At a Winter's Fire
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Tag(s): exciseman jones; monsieur; king's cobb; william tyrwhitt; dark dignum; miss whiffle
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Size: 58,764 words (short) Grade range: 8-10 (high school) Readability score: 66 (easy)
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Title: At a Winter's Fire

Author: Bernard Edward J. Capes

Release Date: November 14, 2004  [eBook #14045]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ISO-646-US (US-ASCII)


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AT A WINTER'S FIRE

by

BERNARD CAPES

Author of _The Lake of Wine_, etc.

1899







All except three of the following Tales have already appeared in English
or American Magazines. The best thanks of the author are due to the
Editors of the "Cornhill," "Macmillan's," "Lippincott's" and "Pearson's"
Magazines, and to the Editor of the "Sketch," for permission to reprint
such of the stories as have been published in their pages.




Contents

THE MOON STRICKEN

JACK AND JILL

THE VANISHING HOUSE

DARK DIGNUM

WILLIAM TYRWHITT'S "COPY"

A LAZY ROMANCE

BLACK VENN

AN EDDY ON THE FLOOR

DINAH'S MAMMOTH

THE BLACK REAPER

A VOICE FROM THE PIT




THE MOON STRICKEN


It so fell that one dark evening in the month of June I was belated
in the Bernese Oberland. Dusk overtook me toiling along the great
Chamounix Road, and in the heart of a most desolate gorge, whose towering
snow-flung walls seemed--as the day sucked inwards to a point secret as a
leech's mouth--to close about me like a monstrous amphitheatre of ghosts.
The rutted road, dipping and climbing toilfully against the shouldering
of great tumbled boulders, or winning for itself but narrow foothold over
slippery ridges, was thawed clear of snow; but the cold soft peril yet
lay upon its flanks thick enough for a wintry plunge of ten feet, or may
be fifty where the edge of the causeway fell over to the lower furrows
of the ravine. It was a matter of policy to go with caution, and a thing
of some moment to hear the thud and splintering of little distant
icefalls about one in the darkness. Now and again a cold arrow of wind
would sing down from the frosty peaks above or jerk with a squiggle of
laughter among the fallen slabs in the valley. And these were the only
voices to prick me on through a dreariness lonely as death.

I knew the road, but not its night terrors. Passing along it some days
before in the glory of sunshine, broad paddocks and islands of green had
comforted the shattered white ruin of the place, and I had traversed it
merely as a magnificent episode in the indifferent history of my life.
Now, as it seemed, I became one with it--an awful waif of solemnity, a
thing apart from mankind and its warm intercourse and ruddy inn doors, a
spectral anomaly, whose austere epitaph was once writ upon the snow
coating some fallen slab of those glimmering about me. I thought the
whole gorge smelt of tombs, like the vault of a cathedral. I thought, in
the incomprehensible low moaning sound that ever and again seemed to eddy
about me when the wind had swooped and passed, that I recognised the
forlorn voices of brother spirits long since dead and forgotten of the
world.

Suddenly I felt the sweat cold under the knapsack that swung upon my
back; stopped, faced about and became human again. Ridge over ridge
to my right the mountain summits fell away against a fathomless sky; and
topping the furthermost was a little paring of silver light, the coronet
of the rising moon. But the glory of the full orb was in the retrospect;
for, closing the savage vista of the ravine, stood up far away a cluster
of jagged pinnacles--opal, translucent, lustrous as the peaks of icebergs
that are the frozen music of the sea.

It was the toothed summit of the Aiguille Verte, now prosaically bathed
in the light of the full moon; but to me, looking from that grim and
passionless hollow, it stood for the white hand of God lifted in menace
to the evil spirits of the glen.

I drank my fill of the good sight, and then turned me to my tramp again
with a freshness in my throat as though it had gulped a glass of
champagne. Presently I knew myself descending, leaving, as I felt rather
than saw, the stark horror of the gorge and its glimmering snow patches
above me. Puffs of a warmer air purred past my face with little friendly
sighs of welcome, and the hum of a far-off torrent struck like a wedge
into the indurated fibre of the night. As I dropped, however, the
mountain heads grew up against the moon, and withheld the comfort of her
radiance; and it was not until the whimper of the torrent had quickened
about me to a plunging roar, and my foot was on the striding bridge that
took its waters at a step, that her light broke through a topmost cleft
in the hills, and made glory of the leaping thunder that crashed beneath
my feet.

Thereafter all was peace. The road led downwards into a broadening
valley, where the smell of flowers came about me, and the mountain walls
withdrew and were no longer overwhelming. The slope eased off, dipping
and rising no more than a ground swell; and by-and-by I was on a level
track that ran straight as a stretched ribbon and was reasonable to my
tired feet.

Now the first dusky chalets of the hamlet of Bel-Oiseau straggled towards
me, and it was music in my ears to hear the cattle blow and rattle in
their stalls under the sleeping lofts as I passed outside in the
moonlight. Five minutes more, and the great zinc onion on the spire of
the church glistened towards me, and I was in the heart of the silent
village.

From the deep green shadow cast by the graveyard wall, heavily
buttressed against avalanches, a form wriggled out into the moonlight
and fell with a dusty thud at my feet, mowing and chopping at the air
with its aimless claws. I started back with a sudden jerk of my pulses.
The thing was horrible by reason of its inarticulate voice, which issued
from the shapeless folds of its writhings like the wet gutturizing of a
back-broken horse. Instinct with repulsion, I stood a moment dismayed,
when light flashed from an open doorway a dozen yards further down the
street, and a woman ran across to the prostrate form.

"Up, graceless one!" she cried; "and carry thy seven devils within
doors!"

The figure gathered itself together at her voice, and stood in an angle
of the buttresses quaking and shielding its eyes with two gaunt arms.

"Can I not exchange a word with Mere Pettit," scolded the woman, "but
thou must sneak from behind my back on thy crazed moon-hunting?"

"Pity, pity," moaned the figure; and then the woman noticed me, and
dropped a curtsy.

"Pardon," she said; "but he has been affronting Monsieur with his
antics?"

"He is stricken, Madame?"

"Ah, yes, Monsieur. Holy Mother, but how stricken!"

"It is sad."

"Monsieur knows not how sad. It is so always, but most a great deal when
the moon is full. He was a good lad once."

Monsieur puts his hand in his pocket. Madame hears the clink of coin and
touches the enclosed fingers with her own delicately. Monsieur withdraws
his hand empty.

"Pardon, Madame."

"Monsieur has the courage of a gentleman. Come, Camille, little fool! a
sweet good-night to Monsieur."

"Stay, Madame. I have walked far and am weary. Is there an hotel in
Bel-Oiseau?"

"Monsieur is jesting. We are but a hundred of poor chalets."

"An auberge, then--a cabaret--anything?"

"_Les Trois Chevres_. It is not for such as you."

"Is it, then, that I must toil onwards to Chatelard?"

"Monsieur does not know? The _Hotel Royal_ was burned to the walls six
months since."

"It follows that I must lie in the fields."

Madame hesitates, ponders, and makes up her mind.

"I keep Monsieur talking, and the night wind is sharp from the snow. It
is ill for a heated skin, and one should be indoors. I have a bedroom
that is at Monsieur's disposition, if Monsieur will condescend?"

Monsieur will condescend. Monsieur would condescend to a loft and a truss
of straw, in default of the neat little chilly chamber that is allotted
him, so sick are his very limbs with long tramping, and so uninviting
figures the further stretch in the moonlight to Chatelard, with its
burnt-out carcase of an hotel.

This is how I came to quarter myself on Madame Barbiere and her idiot
son, and how I ultimately learned from the lips of the latter the strange
story of his own immediate fall from reason and the dear light of
intellect.

       *       *       *       *       *

By day Camille Barbiere proved to be a young man, some five and twenty
years of age, of a handsome and impressive exterior. His dark hair
lay close about his well-shaped head; his features were regular and cut
bold as an Etruscan cameo; his limbs were elastic and moulded into the
supple finish of one whose life has not been set upon level roads. At a
speculative distance he appeared a straight specimen of a Burgundian
youth--sinewy, clean-formed, and graceful, though slender to gauntness;
and it was only on nearer contact that one marvelled to see the soul die
out of him, as a face set in the shadow of leafage resolves itself into
some accident of twisted branches as one approaches the billowing tree
that presented it.

The soul of Camille, the idiot, had warped long after its earthly
tabernacle had grown firm and fair to look upon. Cause and effect were
not one from birth in him; and the result was a most wistful expression,
as though the lost intellect were for ever struggling and failing to
recall its ancient mastery. Mostly he was a gentle young man, noteworthy
for nothing but the uncomplaining patience with which he daily observed
the monotonous routine of simple duties that were now all-sufficient for
the poor life that had "crept so long on a broken wing." He milked the
big, red, barrel-bodied cow, and churned industriously for butter; he
kept the little vegetable garden in order and nursed the Savoys into
fatness like plumping babies; he drove the goats to pasture on the
mountain slopes, and all day sat among the rhododendrons, the forgotten
soul behind his eyes conning the dead language of fate, as a foreigner
vainly interrogates the abstruse complexity of an idiom.

By-and-by I made it an irregular habit to accompany him on these
shepherdings; to join him in his simple midday meal of sour brown bread
and goat-milk cheese; to talk with him desultorily, and study him the
while, inasmuch as he wakened an interest in me that was full of
speculation. For his was not an imbecility either hereditary or
constitutional. From the first there had appeared to me something
abnormal in it--a suspension of intelligence only, a frost-bite in the
brain that presently some April breath of memory might thaw out. This was
not merely conjectural, of course. I had the story of his mental collapse
from his mother in the early days of my sojourn in Bel-Oiseau; for it
came to pass that a fitful caprice induced me to prolong my stay in the
swart little village far into the gracious Swiss summer.

The "story" I have called it; but it was none. He was out on the hills
one moonlight night, and came home in the early morning mad. That was
all.

This had happened some eight years before, when he was a lad of
seventeen--a strong, beautiful lad, his mother told me; and with a dreamy
"poet's corner" in his brain, she added, but in her own better way of
putting it. She had no shame that her shepherd should be an Endymion. In
Switzerland they still look upon Nature as a respectable pursuit for a
young man.

Well, they had thought him possessed of a devil; and his father had at
first sought to exorcise it with a chamois-hide thong, as Munchausen
flogged the black fox out of his skin. But the counter-irritant failed of
its purpose. The devil clung deep, and rent poor Camille with periodic
convulsions of insanity.

It was noted that his derangement waxed and waned with the monthly moon;
that it assumed a virulent character with the passing of the second
quarter, and culminated, as the orb reached its fulness, in a species of
delirium, during which it was necessary to carefully watch him; that it
diminished with the lessening crescent until it fell away into a quiet
abeyance of faculties that was but a step apart from the normal
intelligence of his kind. At his worst he was a stricken madman
acutely sensitive to impressions; at his best an inoffensive peasant who
said nothing foolish and nothing wise.

When he was twenty, his father died, and Camille and his mother had to
make out existence in company.

Now, the veil, in my first knowledge of him, was never rent; yet
occasionally it seemed to me to gape in a manner that let a little
momentary finger of light through, in the flashing of which a soul
kindled and shut in his eyes, like a hard-dying spark in ashes. I wished
to know what gave life to the spark, and I set to pondering the problem.

"He was not always thus?" I would say to Madame Barbiere.

"But no, Monsieur, truly. This place--bah! we are here imbeciles all to
the great world, without doubt; but Camille!--_he_ was by nature of those
who make the history of cities--a rose in the wilderness. Monsieur
smiles?"

"By no means. A scholar, Madame?"

"A scholar of nature, Monsieur; a dreamer of dreams such as they become
who walk much with the spirits on the lonely mountains."

"Torrents, and avalanches, and the good material forces of nature, Madame
means."

"Ah! Monsieur may talk, but he knows. He has heard the _foehn_ sweep down
from the hills and spin the great stones off the house-roofs. And one may
look and see nothing, yet the stones go. It is the wind that runs before
the avalanche that snaps the pine trees; and the wind is the spirit that
calls down the great snow-slips."

"But how may Madame who sees nothing; know then a spirit to be abroad?"

"My faith; one may know one's foot is on the wild mint without shifting
one's sole to look."

"Madame will pardon me. No doubt also one may know a spirit by the smell
of sulphur?"

"Monsieur is a sceptic. It comes with the knowledge of cities. There
are even such in little Bel-Oiseau, since the evil time when they took
to engrossing the contracts of good citizens on the skins of the poor
jew-beards that give us flesh and milk. It is horrible as the Tannery of
Meudon. In my young days, Monsieur, such agreements were inscribed upon
wood."

"Quite so, Madame, and entirely to the point. Also one may see from whom
Camille inherited his wandering propensities. But for his fall--it was
always unaccountable?"

"Monsieur, as one trips on the edge of a crevasse and disappears. His
soul dropped into the frozen cleft that one cannot fathom."

"Madame will forgive my curiosity."

"But surely. There was no dark secret in my Camille's life. If the little
head held pictures beyond the ken of us simple women, the angels painted
them of a certainty. Moreover, it is that I willingly recount this grief
to the wise friend that may know a solution."

"At least the little-wise can seek for one."

"Ah, if Monsieur would only find the remedy!"

"It is in the hands of fate."

Madame crossed herself.

"Of the _Bon Dieu_, Monsieur."

At another time Madame Barbiere said:--

"It was in such a parched summer as this threatens to be that my Camille
came home in the mists of the morning possessed. He was often out on the
sweet hills all night--that was nothing. It had been a full moon, and the
whiteness of it was on his face like leprosy, but his hands were hot with
fever. Ah, the dreadful summer! The milk turned sour in the cows' udders
and the tufts of the stone pines on the mountains fell into ashes like
Dead Sea fruit. The springs were dried, and the great cascade of Buet
fell to half its volume."

"This cascade; I have never seen it. Is it in the neighbourhood?"

"Of a surety. Monsieur must have passed the rocky ravine that vomits the
torrent, on his way hither."

"I remember. I will explore it. Camille shall be my guide."

"Never."

"And why?"

Madame shrugged her plump shoulders.

"Who may say? The ways of the afflicted are not our ways. Only I know
that Camille will never drive his flock to pasture near the lip of that
dark valley."

"That is strange. Can the place have associations for him connected with
his malady?"

"It is possible. Only the good God knows."

But _I_ was to know later on, with a little reeling of the reason also.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Camille, I want to see the Cascade de Buet."

The hunted eyes of the stricken looked into mine with a piercing glance
of fear.

"Monsieur must not," he said, in a low voice.

"And why not?"

"The waters are bad--bad--haunted!"

"I fear no ghosts. Wilt thou show me the way, Camille?"

"I!" The idiot fell upon the grass with a sort of gobbling cry. I thought
it the prelude to a fit of some sort, and was stepping towards him, when
he rose to his feet, waved me off and hurried away down the slope
homewards.

Here was food for reflection, which I mumbled in secret.

A day or two afterwards I joined Camille at midday on the heights where
he was pasturing his flocks. He had shifted his ground a little distance
westwards, and I could not find him at once. At last I spied him, his
back to a rock, his hand dabbled for coolness in a little runnel that
trickled at his side. He looked up and greeted me with a smile. He had
conceived an affection for me, this poor lost soul.

"It will go soon," he said, referring to the miniature streamlet. "It is
safe in the woods; but to-morrow or next day the sun will lap it up ere
it can reach the skirt of the shadow above there. A farewell kiss to you,
little stream!"

He bent and sipped a mouthful of the clear water. He was in a more
reasonable state than he had shown for long, though it was now close
on the moon's final quarter, a period that should have marked a more
general tenor of placidity in him. The summer solstice, was, however, at
hand, and the weather sultry to a degree--as it had been, I did not fail
to remember, the year of his seizure.

"Camille," I said, "why to-day hast thou shifted thy ground a little in
the direction of the Buet ravine?"

He sat up at once, with a curious, eager look in his face.

"Monsieur has asked it," he said. "It was to impel Monsieur to ask it
that I moved. Does Monsieur seek a guide?"

"Wilt thou lead me, Camille?"

"Monsieur, last night I dreamed and one came to me. Was it my father? I
know not, I know not. But he put my forehead to his breast, and the evil
left it, and I remembered without terror. 'Reveal the secret to the
stranger,' he said; 'that he may share thy burden and comfort thee; for
he is strong where thou art weak, and the vision shall not scare him.'
Monsieur, wilt thou come?"

He leaped to his feet, and I to mine.

"Lead on, Camille. I follow."

He called to the leader of his flock: "Petitjean! stray not, my little
one. I shall be back sooner than the daisies close." Then he turned to me
again. I noticed a pallid, desperate look in his face, as though he were
strung to great effort; but it was the face of a mindless one still.

"Do you not fear?" he said, in a whisper; and the apple in his throat
seemed all choking core.

"I fear nothing," I answered with a smile; yet the still sombreness of
the woods found a little tremor in my breast.

"It is good," he answered, regarding me. "The angel spoke truth. Follow,
Monsieur."

He went off through the trees of a sudden, and I had much ado to keep
pace with him. He ran as one urged on by a sure sense of doom, looking
neither to right nor left. His mountain instincts had remained with him
when memory itself had closed around like a fog, leaving him face to face
and isolated with his one unconfessed point of terror. Swiftly we made
our way, ever slightly climbing, along the rugged hillside, and soon
broke into country very wild and dismal. The pastoral character of the
scene lessened and altogether disappeared. The trees grew matted and
grotesquely gnarled, huddling together in menacing battalions--save
where some plunging rock had burst like a shell, forcing a clearing and
strewing the black moss with a jagged wreck of splinters. Here no
flowers crept for warmth, no sentinel marmot turned his little scut with
a whistle of alarm to vanish like a red shadow. All was melancholy and
silence and the massed defiance of ever-impending ruin. Storm, and
avalanche, and the bitter snap of frost had wrought their havoc year by
year, till an uncrippled branch was a rare distinction. The very
saplings, of stunted growth, bore the air of thieves reared in a rookery
of crime.

We strode with difficulty in an inhuman twilight through this great dark
quickset of Nature, and had paused a moment where the thronging trunks
thinned somewhat, when a little mouthing moan came towards us on the
crest of a ripple of wind. My companion stopped on the instant, and
clutched my arm, his face twisting with panic.

"The Cascade, Monsieur!" he shook out in a terrified whisper.

"Courage, my friend! It is that we come to seek."

"Ah! My God, yes--it is that! I dare not--I dare not!"

He drew back livid with fear, but I urged him on.

"Remember the dream, Camille!" I cried.

"Yes, yes--it was good. Help me, Monsieur, and I will try--yes, I will
try!"

I drew his arm within mine, and together we stumbled on. The undergrowth
grew denser and more fantastic; the murmur filled out, increased and
resolved itself into a sound of falling water that ever took shape, and
volume, and depth, till its crash shook the ground at our feet. Then in
a moment a white blaze of sky came at us through the trunks, and we burst
through the fringe of the wood to find ourselves facing the opposite side
of a long cleft in the mountain and the blade's edge of a roaring
cataract.

It shot out over the lip of the fall, twenty feet above us, in a curve
like a scimitar, passed in one sheet the spot where we stood, and dived
into a sunless pool thirty feet below with a thunderous boom. What it may
have been in full phases of the stream, I know not; yet even now it was
sufficiently magnificent to give pause to a dying soul eager to shake off
the restless horror of the world. The flat of its broad blade divided the
lofty black walls of a deep and savage ravine, on whose jagged shelves
some starved clumps of rhododendron shook in the wind of the torrent.
Far down the narrow gully we could see the passion of water tossing,
champed white with the ravening of its jaws, until it took a bend of the
cliffs at a leap and rushed from sight.

We stood upon a little platform of coarse grass and bramble, whose fringe
dipped and nodded fitfully as the sprinkle caught it. Beyond, the sliding
sheet of water looked like a great strap of steel, reeled ceaselessly off
a whirling drum pivoted between the hills. The midday sun shot like a
piston down the shaft of the valley, painting purple spears and angles
behind its abutting rocks, and hitting full upon the upper curve of the
fall; but half-way down the cataract slipped into shadow.

My brain sickened with the endless gliding and turmoil of descent, and I
turned aside to speak to my companion. He was kneeling upon the grass,
his eyes fixed and staring, his white lips mumbling some crippled memory
of a prayer. He started and cowered down as I touched him on the
shoulder.

"I cannot go, Monsieur; I shall die!"

"What next, Camille? I will go alone,"

"My God, Monsieur! the cave under the fall! It is there the horror is."

He pointed to a little gap in the fringing bushes with shaking finger.
I stole gingerly in the direction he indicated. With every step I
took the awful fascination of the descending water increased upon
me. It seemed hideous and abnormal to stand mid-way against a
perpendicularly-rushing torrent. Above or below the effect would have
been different; but here, to look up was to feel one's feet dragging
towards the unseen--to look down and pass from vision of the lip of the
fall was to become the waif of a force that was unaccountable.

I had a battle with my nerves, and triumphed. As I approached the opening
in the brambles I became conscious of a certain relief. At a little
distance the cataract had seemed to actually wash in its descent the edge
of the platform. Now I found it to be further away than I had imagined,
the ground dropping in a sharp slope to a sort of rocky buttress which
lay obliquely on the slant of the ravine, and was the true margin of the
torrent. Before I essayed the descent, I glanced back at my companion. He
was kneeling where I had left him, his hands pressed to his face, his
features hidden; but looking back once again, when I had with infinite
caution accomplished the downward climb, I saw that he had crept to
the edge of the slope, and was watching me with wide, terrified eyes. I
waved my hand to him and turned to the wonderful vision of water that
now passed almost within reach of my arm. I stood near the point where
the whole glassy breadth glided at once from sunlight into shadow. It
fell silently, without a break, for only its feet far below trod the
thunder.

Now, as I peered about, I noticed a little cleft in the rocky margin, a
minute's climb above me. I was attracted to this by an appearance of
smoke or steam that incessantly emerged from it, as though some witch's
caldron were simmering alongside the fall. Spray it might be, or the
condensing of water splashed on the granite; but of this I might not be
sure. Therefore I determined to investigate, and straightway began
climbing the rocks--with my heart in my mouth, it must be confessed, for
the foothold was undesirable and the way perilous. And all the time
I was conscious that the white face of Camille watched me from above. As
I reached the cleft I fancied I heard a queer sort of gasping sob issue
from his lips, but to this I could give no heed in the sudden wonder that
broke upon me. For, lo! it appeared that the cleft led straight to a
narrow platform or ledge of rock right underneath the fall itself, but
extending how far I could not see, by reason of the steam that filled the
passage, and for which I was unable to account. Footing it carefully and
groping my way, I set step in the little water-curtained chamber and
advanced a pace or two. Suddenly, light grew about me, and a beautiful
rose of fire appeared on the wall of the passage in the midst of what
seemed a vitrified scoop in the rock.

Marvelling, I put out my hand to touch it, and fell back on the narrow
floor with a scream of anguish. An inch farther, and these lines had
not been written. As it was, the fall caught me by the fingers with the
suck of a cat-fish, and it was only a gigantic wrench that saved me from
slipping off the ledge. The jerk brought my head against the rock with a
stunning blow, and for some moments I lay dizzy and confused, daring
hardly to breathe, and conscious only of a burning and blistering agony
in my right hand.

At length I summoned courage to gather my limbs together and crawl out
the way I had entered. The distance was but a few paces, yet to traverse
these seemed an interminable nightmare of swaying and stumbling. I know
only one other occasion upon which the liberal atmosphere of the open
earth seemed sweeter to my senses when I reached it than it did on this.

I tumbled somehow through the cleft, and sat down, shaking, upon the
grass of the slope beyond; but, happening to throw myself backwards in
the reeling faintness induced by my fright and the pain of my head, my
eyes encountered a sight that woke me at once to full activity.

Balanced upon the very verge of the slope, his face and neck craned
forward, his jaw dropped, a sick, tranced look upon his features, stood
Camille. I saw him topple, and shouted to him; but before my voice was
well out, he swayed, collapsed, and came down with a running thud that
shook the ground. Once he wheeled over, like a shot rabbit, and, bounding
thwack with his head against a flat boulder not a dozen yards from me,
lay stunned and motionless.

I scrambled to him, quaking all over. His breath came quick, and a spirt
of blood jerked from a sliced cut in his forehead at every pump of his
heart.

I kicked out a wad of cool moist turf, and clapped it in a pad over the
wound, my handkerchief under. For his body, he was shaken and bruised,
but otherwise not seriously hurt.

Presently he came to himself; to himself in the best sense of the
word--for Camille was sane.

I have no explanation to offer. Only I know that, as a fall will set a
long-stopped watch pulsing again, the blow here seemed to have restored
the misplaced intellect to its normal balance.

When he woke, there was a new soft light of sanity in his eyes that was
pathetic in the extreme.

"Monsieur," he whispered, "the terror has passed."

"God be thanked! Camille," I answered, much moved.

He jerked his poor battered head in reverence.

"A little while," he said, "and I shall know. The punishment was just."

"What punishment, my poor Camille?"

"Hush! The cloud has rolled away. I stand naked before _le bon Dieu_.
Monsieur, lift me up; I am strong."

I winced as I complied. The palm of my hand was scorched and blistered in
a dozen places. He noticed at once, and kissed and fondled the wounded
limb as softly as a woman might.

"Ah, the poor hand!" he murmured. "Monsieur has touched the disc of
fire."

"Camille," I whispered, "what is it?"

"Monsieur shall know--ah! yes, he shall know; but not now. Monsieur, my
mother."

"Thou art right, good son."

I bound up his bruised forehead and my own burnt hand as well as I was
able, and helped him to his feet. He stood upon them staggering; but
in a minute could essay to stumble on the homeward journey with
assistance. It was a long and toilsome progress; but in time we
accomplished it. Often we had to sit down in the blasted woods and rest
awhile; often moisten our parched mouths at the runnels of snow-water
that thridded the undergrowth. The shadows were slanting eastwards
as we reached the clearing we had quitted some hours earlier, and the
goats had disappeared. Petitjean was leading his charges homewards in
default of a human commander, and presently we overtook them browsingly
loitering and desirous of definite instructions.

I pass over Camille's meeting with his mother, and the wonder, and fear,
and pity of it all. Our hurts were attended to, and the battery of
questions met with the best armour of tact at command. For myself, I
said that I had scorched my hand against a red-hot rock, which was
strictly true; for Camille, that it were wisest to take no early
advantage of the reason that God had restored to him. She was voluble,
tearful, half-hysterical with joy and the ecstasy of gratitude.

"That a blow should effect the marvel! Monsieur, but it passes
comprehension."

All night long I heard her stirring and sobbing softly outside his door,
for I slept little, owing to pain and the wonder in my mind. But towards
morning I dozed, and my dreams were feverish and full of terror.

The next day Camille kept his bed and I my room. By this I at least
escaped the first onset of local curiosity, for the villagers naturally
made of Camille's restoration a nine-days' wonder. But towards evening
Madame Barbiere brought a message from him that he would like to see
Monsieur alone, if Monsieur would condescend to visit him in his room. I
went at once, and found him, as Haydon found Keats, lying in a white bed,
hectic, and on his back. He greeted me with a smile peculiarly sweet and
restful.

"Does Monsieur wish to know?" he said in a low voice.

"If it will not hurt thee, Camille."

"Not now--not now; the good God has made me sound. I remember, and am not
terrified."

I closed the door and took a seat by his bedside. There, with my hand
shading my eyes from the level glory of sunset that flamed into the room,
I listened to the strange tale of Camille's seizure.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Once, Monsieur, I lived in myself and was exultant with a loneliness of
fancied knowledge. My youth was my excuse; but God could not pardon me
all. I read where I could find books, and chance put an evil choice in my
way, for I learned to sneer at His name, His heaven, His hell. Each man
has his god in self-will, I thought in my pride, and through it alone he
accepts the responsibility of life and death. He is his own curse or
blessing here and hereafter, inheriting no sin and earning no doom but
such as he himself inflicts upon himself. I interpret this from the world
about me, and knowing it, I have no fear and own no tyrant but my own
passions. Monsieur, it was through fear the most terrible that God
asserted Himself to me."

The light was fading in the west, and a lance of shadow fell upon the
white bed, as though the hushed day were putting a finger to its lips as
it withdrew.

"I was no coward then, Monsieur--that at least I may say. I lived among
the mountains, and on their ledges the feet of my own goats were not
surer. Often, in summer, I spent the night among the woods and hills,
reading in them the story of the ages, and exploring, exploring till my
feet were wearier than my brain. Strangers came from far to see the great
cascade; but none but I--and you, too, Monsieur, now--know the track
through the thicket that leads to the cave under the waters. I found it
by chance, and, like you, was scorched by the fire, though not badly."

"Camille--the cause?"

"Monsieur, I will tell you a wonderful thing. The falling waters there
make a monstrous burning glass, when the hot sun is upon them, which has
melted the rock behind like wax."

"Can that be so?"

"It is true--dear Jesus, I have fearful reason to know it."

He half rose on his elbow, his face, crossed by the bandage, grey as
stone in the gathering dusk. Hereafter he spoke in an awed whisper.

"When the knowledge broke upon me, I grew great to myself in the
possession of a wonderful secret. Day after day I visited the cave and
examined this phenomenon--and yet another more marvellous in its
connection with the first. The huge lens was a simple accident of curved
rocks and convex water, planed smooth as crystal. In other than a
droughty summer it would probably not exist; the spouting torrent would
overwhelm it--but I know not. Was not this astonishing enough? Yet Nature
had worked a second miracle to mock in anticipation the self-sufficient
plagiarism of little man. I noticed that the rays of the sun concentrated
in the lens only during the half-hour of the orb's apparent crossing of
the ravine. Then the light smote upon a strange curved little fan of
water, that spouted from a high crevice at the mouth of the shallow
vitrified tunnel, and devoured it, and played upon the rocks behind, that
hissed and sputtered like pitch, and the place was blind with steam. But
when the tooth of fire was withdrawn, the tiny inner cascade fell again
and wrought coolness with its sprinkling.

"I did not discover this all at once, for at first fright took me, and it
was enough to watch for the moment of the light's appearance and then
flee with a little laughter. But one day I ventured back into the cave
after the sun had crossed the valley, and the steam had died away, and
the rock cooled behind the miniature cascade.

"I looked through the lens, and it seemed full of a great white light
that blazed into my eyes, so that I fell back through the inner fan of
water and was well soused by it; but my sight presently recovering, I
stood forward in the scoop of rock admiring the dainty hollow curve the
fan took in its fall. By-and-by I became aware that I was looking out
through a smaller lens upon the great one, and that strange whirling
mists seemed to be sweeping across a huge disc, within touch of my hand
almost.

"It was long before I grasped the meaning of this; but, in a flash, it
came upon me. The great lens formed the object glass, the small, the
eyeglass, of a natural telescope of tremendous power, that drew the high
summer clouds down within seeming touch and opened out the heavens before
my staring eyes.

"Monsieur, when this dawned upon me I was wild. That so astonishing a
discovery should have been reserved for a poor ignorant Swiss peasant
filled me with pride wicked in proportion with its absence of gratitude
to the mighty dispenser of good. I came even to think my individuality
part of the wonder and necessary to its existence. 'Were it not for my
courage and enterprise,' I cried, 'this phenomenon would have remained a
secret of the Nature that gave birth to it. She yields her treasures to
such only as fear not.'

"I had read in a book of Huyghens, Guinand, Newton, Herschel--the great
high-priests of science who had striven through patient years to read the
hieroglyphics of the heavens. 'The wise imbeciles,' I thought. 'They
toiled and died, and Nature held no mirror up to them. For me, the
poor Camille, she has worked in secret while they grew old and passed
unsatisfied.'

"Brilliant projects of astronomy whirled in my brain. The evening of my
last discovery I remained out on the hills, and entered the cave as it
grew dusk. A feeling of awe surged in me as dark fell over the valley,
and the first stars glistened faintly. I dipped under the fan of water
and took my stand in the hollow behind it. There was no moon, but my
telescope was inclined, as it were, at a generous angle, and a section of
the firmament was open before me. My heart beat fast as I looked through
the lens.

"Shall I tell you what I saw then and many nights after? Rings and
crosses in the heavens of golden mist, spangled, as it seemed, with
jewels; stars as big as cart-wheels, twinkling points no longer, but
round, like great bosses of molten fire; things shadowy, luminous, of
strange colours and stranger forms, that seemed to brush the waters
as they passed, but were in reality vast distances away.

"Sometimes the thrust of wind up the ravine would produce a tremulous
motion in the image at the focus of the mirror; but this was seldom.
For the most part the wonderful lenses presented a steady curvature, not
flawless, but of magnificent capacity.

"Now it flashed upon me that, when the moon was at the full, she would
top the valley in the direct path of my telescope's range of view. At
the thought I grew exultant. I--I, little Camille, should first read
aright the history of this strange satellite. The instrument that could
give shape to the stars would interpret to me the composition of that
lonely orb as clearly as though I stood upon her surface.

"As the time of her fulness drew near I grew feverish with excitement. I
was sickening, as it were, to my madness, for never more should I look
upon her willingly, with eyes either speculative or insane."

At this point Camille broke off for a little space, and lay back on his
pillow. When he spoke again it was out of the darkness, with his face
turned to the wall.

"Monsieur, I cannot dwell upon it--I must hasten. We have no right to
peer beyond the boundary God has drawn for us. I saw His hell--I saw His
hell, I tell you. It is peopled with the damned--silent, horrible,
distorted in the midst of ashes and desolation. It was a memory that,
like the snake of Aaron, devoured all others till yesterday--till
yesterday, by Christ's mercy."

       *       *       *       *       *

It seemed to me, as the days wore on, that Camille had but recovered his
reason at the expense of his life; that the long rest deemed necessary
for him after his bitter period of brain exhaustion might in the end
prove an everlasting one. Possibly the blow to his head had, in expelling
the seven devils, wounded beyond cure the vital function that had
fostered them. He lay white, patient, and sweet-tempered to all, but
moved by no inclination to rise and re-assume the many-coloured garment
of life.

His description of the dreadful desert in the sky I looked upon, merely,
as an abiding memory of the brain phantasm that had finally overthrown
a reason, already tottering under the tremendous excitement induced by
his discovery of the lenses, and the magnified images they had presented
to him. That there was truth in the asserted fact of the existence of
these, my own experience convinced me; and curiosity as to this alone
impelled me to the determination of investigating further, when my hand
should be sufficiently recovered to act as no hindrance to me in forcing
my way once more through the dense woods that bounded the waterfall.
Moreover, the dispassionate enquiry of a mind less sensitive to
impressions might, in the result, do more towards restoring the warped
imagination of my friend to its normal state than any amount of spoken
scepticism.

To Camille I said nothing of my resolve; but waited on, chafing at the
slow healing of my wounds. In the meantime the period of the full
moon approached, and I decided, at whatever cost, to make the venture on
the evening she topped her orbit, if circumstances at the worst should
prevent my doing so sooner--and thus it turned out.

On the eve of my enterprise, the first fair spring of rain in a drought
of two months fell, to my disappointment, among the hills; for I feared
an increase of the torrent and the effacement of the mighty lens. I set
off, however, on the afternoon of the following day, in hot sunshine,
mentally prognosticating a favourable termination to my expedition, and
telling Madame Barbiere not to expect me back till late.

In leisurely fashion I made my way along the track we had previously
traversed, risking no divergence through overhaste, and carefully
examining all landmarks before deciding on any direction. Thus slowly
proceeding, I had the good fortune to come within sound of the cataract
as the sun was sinking behind the mountain ridges to my front; and
presently emerged from the woods at the very spot we had struck in our
former journey together.

A chilly twilight reigned in the ravine, and the noise that came up from
the ruin of the torrent seemed doubly accented by reason of it. The
sound of water moving in darkness has always conveyed to me an impression
of something horrible and deadly, be it nothing of more moment than
the drip and hollow tinkle of a gutter pipe. But the crash in this
echoing gorge was appalling indeed.

For some moments I stood on the brink of the slope, looking across at the
great knife of the fall, with a little shiver of fear. Then I shook
myself, laughed, and without further ado took my courage in hand, and
scrambled down the declivity and up again towards the cleft in the rocks.

Here the chill of heart gripped me again--the watery sliding tunnel
looked so evil in the contracting gloom. A false step in that humid
chamber, and my bones would pound and crackle on the rocks forty feet
below. It must be gone through with now, however; and, taking a long
breath, I set foot in the passage under the curving downpour that seemed
taut as an arched muscle.

Reaching the burnt recess, a few moments sufficed to restore my
self-confidence; and without further hesitation I dived under the inner
little fan-shaped fall--which was there, indeed, as Camille had described
it--and recovered my balance with pulses drumming thicker than I could
have desired.

In a moment I became conscious that some great power was before me.
Across a vast, irregular disc filled with the ashy whiteness of the outer
twilight, strange, unaccountable forms, misty and undefined, passed, and
repassed, and vanished. Cirrus they might have been, or the shadows flung
by homing flights of birds; but of this I could not be certain. As the
dusk deepened they showed no more, and presently I gazed only into a
violet fathomless darkness.

My own excitement now was great; and I found some difficulty in keeping
it under control. But for the moment, it seemed to me, I pined greatly
for free commune with the liberal atmosphere of earth. Therefore, I
dipped under the little fall and made my cautious way to the margin of
the cataract.

I was surprised to find for how long a time the phenomenon had absorbed
me. The moon was already high in the heavens, and making towards
the ravine with rapid steps. Far below, the tumbling waters flashed in
her rays, and on all sides great tiers of solemn, trees stood up at
attention to salute her.

When her disc silvered the inner rim of the slope I had descended, I
returned to my post of observation with tingling nerves. The field of
the great object lens was already suffused with the radiance of her
approach.

Suddenly my pupils shrank before the apparition of a ghastly grey light,
and all in a moment I was face to face with a segment of desolation
more horrible than any desert. Monstrous growths of leprosy that had
bubbled up and stiffened; fields of ashen slime--the sloughing of a world
of corruption; hills of demon, fungus swollen with the fatness of
putrefaction; and, in the midst of all, dim, convulsed shapes wallowing,
protruding, or stumbling aimlessly onwards, till they sank and
disappeared.

       *       *       *       *       *

Madame Barbiere threw up her hands when she let me in at the door. My
appearance, no doubt, was ghastly. I knew not the hour nor the lapse
of time covered by my wanderings about the hills, my face hidden in my
palms, a drawn feeling about my heart, my lips muttering--muttering
fragments of prayers, and my throat jerking with horrible laughter.

For hours I lay face downwards on my bed.

"Monsieur has seen it?"

"I have seen it."

"I heard the rain on the hills. The lens will have been blurred. Monsieur
has been spared much."

"God, in His mercy, pity thee! And me--oh, Camille, and me too!"

"He has held out His white hand to me. I go, when I go, with a safe
conduct."

       *       *       *       *       *

He went before the week was out. The drought had broken and for five days
the thunder crashed and the wild rain swept the mountains. On the
morning of the sixth a drenched shepherd reported in the village that a
landslip had choked the fall of Buet, and completely altered its shape.
Madame Barbiere broke into the room where I was sitting with Camille, big
with the news. She little guessed how it affected her listeners.

"The _bon Dieu_" said Camille, when she had gone, "has thundered His
curse on Nature for revealing His secrets. I, who have penetrated into
the forbidden, must perish."

"And I, Camille?"

He turned to me with a melancholy sweet smile, and answered, paraphrasing
the dying words of certain noble lips,--

"Be good, Monsieur; be good."




JACK AND JILL


My friend, Monsieur ----, absolutely declines to append his name to these
pages, of which he is the virtual author. Nevertheless, he permits me to
publish them anonymously, being, indeed, a little curious to ascertain
what would have been the public verdict as to his sanity, had he given
his personal imprimatur to a narrative on the face of it so incredible.

"How!" he says. "Should I have believed it of another, when I have such
astonishing difficulty at this date in realizing that it was I--yes, I,
my friend--this same little callow _poupon_--that was an actual hero of
the adventure? Fidele" (by which term we cover the identity of his
wife)--"Fidele will laugh in my face sometimes, crying, 'Not thou, little
cabbage, nor yet thy faithful, was it that dived through half the world
and came up breathless! No, no--I cannot believe it. We folk, so
matter-of-fact and so comical. It was of Hansel and Gretel we had been
reading hand-in-hand, till we fell asleep in the twilight and fancied
this thing.' And then she will trill like a bird at the thought of how
solemn Herr Grabenstock, of the Hotel du Mont Blanc, would have stared
and edged apart, had we truly recounted to him that which had befallen us
between the rising and the setting of a sun. We go forth; it rains--my
faith! as it will in the Chamounix valley--and we return in the evening
sopped. Very natural. But, for a first cause of our wetting. Ah! there we
must be fastidious of an explanation, or we shall find ourselves in peril
of restraint.

"Now, write this for me, and believe it if you can. We are not in a
conspiracy of imagination--I and the dear courageous."

Therefore I _do_ write it, speaking in the person of Monsieur ----, and
largely from his dictation; and my friend shall amuse himself over the
nature of its reception.

       *       *       *       *       *

"One morning (it was in late May)," says Monsieur ----, "my Fidele and I
left the Hotel du Mont Blanc for a ramble amongst the hills. We were a
little adventurous, because we were innocent. We took no guide but our
commonsense; and that served us very ill--or very well, according to the
point of view. Ours was that of the birds, singing to the sky and
careless of the snake in the grass so long as they can pipe their tune.
Of a surety that is the only course. If one would make provision against
every chance of accident, one must dematerialize. To die is the only way
to secure oneself from fatality.

"Still, it is a wise precaution, I will admit, not to eat of all hedge
fruit because blackberries are sweet. Some day, after the fiftieth
stomach-ache, we shall learn wisdom, my Fidele and I.

"'Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.' That, I know, comes into the
English gospel.

"Well, I will tell you, I am content to be considered of the first; and
my Fidele is assuredly of the second. Yet did she fear, or I rush in? On
the contrary, I have a little laughing thought that it was the angel
inveighed against the dulness of caution when the fool would have
hesitated.

"Now, it was before the season of the Alps; and the mountain aubergistes
were, for the most part, not arrived at their desolate hill-taverns. Nor
were guides at all in evidence, being yet engaged, the sturdy souls, over
their winter occupations. One, no doubt, we could have procured, had we
wished it; but we did not. We would explore under the aegis of no
cicerone but our curiosity. That was native to us, if the district was
strange.

"Following, at first, the instructions of Herr Baedeker, we travelled and
climbed, chattering and singing as we went, in the direction of the
Montenvert, whence we were to descend upon the Mer de Glace, and enjoy
the spectacle of a stupendous glacier.

"'And that, I am convinced,' said Fidele, 'is nothing more nor less than
one of those many windows that give light to the monsters of the
under-earth.'

"'Little imbecile! In some places this window is six hundred feet thick.'

"'So?' she said. 'That is because their dim eyes could not endure the
full light of the sun.'

"We had brought a tin box of sandwiches with us; and this, with my large
pewter flask full of wine, was slung upon my back. For we had been told
the Hotel du Montenvert was yet closed; and, sure enough when we reached
it, the building stood black in a pool of snow, its shuttered windows
forlorn, and long icicles hung from the eaves.

"The depression induced by this sight was momentary. We turned from it to
the panorama of majestic loveliness that stretched below and around us.
The glacier--that rolling sea of glass--descended from the enormous gates
of the hills. Its source was the white furnace of the skies; its
substance the crystal refuse of the stars; and from its margins the
splintered peaks stood up in a thousand forms of beauty. Right and left,
in the hollows of the mountains, the mist lay like ponds, opal and
translucent; and the shafts of the pine trees standing in it looked like
the reflections of themselves.

"It made the eyes ache--this silence of greatness; and it became a relief
to shift one's gaze to the reality of one's near neighbourhood--the
grass, and the rhododendron bushes, and even the dull walls of the
deserted auberge.

"A narrow path dipped over the hill-side and fled into the very jaws of
the moraine. Down the first of this path we raced, hand in hand; but
soon, finding the impetus overmastering us, we pulled up with difficulty,
and descended the rest of the way circumspectly.

"At the foot of the steep slope we came upon the little wooden hutch
where, ordinarily, one may procure a guide (also rough socks to stretch
over one's boots) for the passage of the glacier. Now, however, the shed
was closed and tenantless; and we must e'en dispense with a conductor,
should we adventure further.

"Herr Baedeker says, 'Guide unnecessary for the experienced.'

"'Fidele, are we experienced?'

"'We shall be, _mon ami_, when we have crossed. A guide could not alter
that.'

"'But it is true, _ma petite_. Come, then!'

"We clambered down amongst huge stones. Fidele's little feet went in and
out of the crannies like sand-martins. Suddenly, before we realized it,
we were on the glacier.

"Fidele exclaimed.

"'_Mon Dieu_! Is this ice--these blocks of dirty alabaster?'

"Alas! she was justified. This torrent of majestic crystal--seen from
above so smooth and bountiful--a flood of the milk of Nature dispensed
from the white bosom of the hills! Now, near at hand, what do we find it?
A medley of opaque blocks, smeared with grit and rubbish; a vast ruin of
avalanches hurled together and consolidated, and of the colour of rock
salt.

"'_Peste!_' I cried. 'We must get to the opposite bank, for all that.

"_Mignonne, allons voir si la rose,
  Qui ce matin avoit desclose_....'"

"We clasped hands and set forth on our little traversee, our landmark an
odd-shaped needle of spar on the further side. My faith! it was simple.
The _paveurs_ of Nature had left the road a trifle rough, that was all.
Suddenly we came upon a wide fissure stretched obliquely like the mouth
of a sole. Going glibly, we learnt a small lesson of caution therefrom.
Six paces, and we should have tumbled in.

"We looked over fearfully. Here, in truth, was real ice at last--green as
bottle-glass at the edges, and melting into unfathomable deeps of glowing
blue.

"In a moment, with a shriek like that of escaping steam, a windy demon
leapt at us from the underneath. It was all of winter in a breath. It
seemed to shrivel the skin from our faces--the flesh from our bones. We
staggered backwards.

"'_Mon ami! mon ami_!' cried Fidele, 'my heart is a stone; my eyes are
two blisters of water!'

"We danced as the blood returned unwilling to our veins. It was minutes
before we could proceed.

"Afterwards I learned that these hellish eruptions of air betoken a
change of temperature. It was coming then shortly in a dense rainfall.

"When we were recovered, we sought about for a way to circumambulate the
crevasse. Then we remarked that up a huge boulder of ice that had
seemed to block our path recent steps, or toe-holes, had been cut. In a
twinkling we were over. Fidele--no, a woman never falls.

"'For all this,' she says, shaking her head, 'I maintain that a guide
here is a sinecurist.'

"Well, we made the passage safely, and toiled up the steep, loose moraine
beyond--to find the track over which was harder than crossing the
glacier. But we did it, and struck the path along the hillside, which
leads by the _Mauvais Pas_ (the _mauvais quart d'heure_) to the little
cabaret called the _Chapeau_. This tavern, too, was shut and dismal.
It did not matter. We sat like sparrows on a railing, and munched our
egg-sandwiches and drank our wine in a sort of glorious stupefaction. For
right opposite us was the vast glacier-fall, whose crashing foam was
towers and parapets of ice, that went over and rolled into the valley
below, a ruin of thunder.

"Far beyond, where the mouth of the gorge spread out littered with
monstrous destruction, we saw the hundred threads of the glacier streams
collect into a single rope of silver, that went drawn between the hills,
a highway of water. It was all a majestic panorama of grey and pearly
white--the sky, the torrents, the mountains; but the blue and rusty green
of the stone pines, flung abroad in hanging woods and coppices, broke up
and distributed the infinite serenity of the snow fields.

"Presently, having drunk deep of rich content, we rose to retrace our
steps. For, spurred by vanity, we must be returning the way we had come,
to show our confident experience of glaciers.

"All went well. Actually we had passed over near two-thirds of the
ice-bed, when a touch on my arm stayed me, and _ma mie_ looked into my
eyes, very comical and insolent.

"'Little cabbage,' she said; 'will you not put your new knowledge to
account?'

"'But how, my soul?'

"She laughed and pressed my arm to her side. Her heart fluttered like a
nestling after its first flight.

"'To rest on the little prowess of a small adventure! No, no! Shall he
who has learnt to swim be always content to bathe in shallow water?'

"I was speechless as I gazed on her.

"'Behold, then!' she cried. 'We have opposed ourselves to this problem of
the ice, and we have mastered it. See how it rears itself to the
inaccessible peaks, the which to reach the poor innocents expend
themselves over rocks and drifts. But why should one not climb the
mountain by way of the glacier?'

"'Fidele!' I gasped.

"'Ah!' she exclaimed, nodding her head; 'but poor men! They are mules.
They spill their blood on the scaling ladders when the town gate is
open.'

"Again I cried 'Fidele!'

"'But, yes,' she said, 'it needs a woman to see. It is but two o'clock.
Let us ascend the glacier, like a staircase; and presently we shall stand
upon the summit of the mountain. Those last little peaks above the ice
can be of no importance.'

"I was touched, astounded by the sublimity of her idea. Had no one, then,
ever thought of this before?

"We began the ascent.

"I swear we must have toiled upwards half a mile, when the catastrophe
took place.

"It was raining then--a dense small mist; and the ice was as if it
had been greased. We were proceeding with infinite care, arm in arm,
tucked close together. A little doubt, I think, was beginning to oppress
us. We could move only with much caution and difficulty; and there were
noises--sounds like the clapping of great hands in those rocky attics
above us. Then there would come a slamming report, as if the window of
the unknown had been burst open by demons; and the moans of the lost
would issue, surging down upon the world.

"These thunders, as we were afterwards told, are caused by the splitting
of the ice when there comes a fall in the barometer. Then the glacier
will yawn like a sliced junket.

"My faith! what a simile! But again the point of view, my friend.

"All in a moment I heard a little cluck. I looked down. Alas! the fine
spirit was obscured. Fidele was weeping.

"'_Chut! chut!_' I exclaimed in consternation. 'We will go back at once.'

"She struggled to smile, the poor _mignonne_.

"'It is only that my knees are sick,' she said piteously.

"I took her in my strong arms tenderly.

"We had paused on a ridge of hard snow.

"There came a tearing clang--an enormous sucking sound, as of wet lips
opening. The snow sank under our feet.

"'My God!' shrieked Fidele.

"I held her convulsively. It happened in an instant, before one could
leap aside. The bed of snow on which we were standing broke down into
the crevasse it had bridged, and let us through to the depths.

"Will you believe what follows? Pinch your nose and open your mouth. You
shall take the whole draught at a breath. _The ice at the point where we
entered was five hundred feet thick; and we fell to the very bottom of
it._

"Ha! ha! Is it difficult to swallow? But it is true--it is quite true.
Here I sit, sound and safe, and eminently sane, and that after a fall of
five hundred feet.

"Now, listen.

"We went down, welded together, with a rush and a buzz like a
cannon-ball. Thoughts? Ah! my friend, I had none. Who can think even
in a high wind? And here the wind of our going would have brained an ox.
Only one desperate instinct I had, one little forlorn remnant of
humanity--to shield the love of my heart. So my arms never left her; and
we fell together. I dreaded nothing, feared nothing, foresaw no terror
in the inevitable mangling crash of the end. For time, that is necessary
to emotion, was annihilated. We had outstripped it, and left sense and
reason sluggishly following in our wake.

"Sense, yes; but not altogether sensation. Flashingly I was conscious
here of incredibly swift transitions, from cold to deeper wells of frost;
thence down through a stratum of death and negation, between mere blind
walls of frigid inhumanity, to have been stayed a moment by which would
have pointed all our limbs as stiff as icicles, as stiff as those of
frogs plunged into boiling water. But we passed and fell, still crashing
upon no obstruction; and thought pursued us, tailing further behind.

"It was the passage of the eternal night--frozen, self-contained; awful
as any fancied darkness that is without one tradition of a star. Yet,
struggling hereafter to, in some shadowy sense, renew my feelings of the
moment, it seemed to me that I had not fallen through darkness at all;
but rather that the friction of descent had kindled an inner radiance in
me that was independent of the vision of the eyes, and full of promise of
a sudden illumination of the soul.

"Now, after falling what depths God knows, I become numbly aware of a
little griding sensation at my back, that communicated a whistling small
vibration to my whole frame. This intensified, became more pronounced.
Perceptibly, in that magnificent refinement of speed, our enormous pace I
felt to decrease ever so little. Still we had so far outstripped
intelligence as that I was incapable of considering the cause of the
change.

"Suddenly, for the first time, pain made itself known; and immediately
reason, plunging from above, overtook me, and I could think.

"Then it was I became conscious that, instead of falling, we were
rising, rising with immense swiftness, but at a pace that momently
slackened--rising, slipping over ice and in contact with it,

"The muscles of my arms, clasped still about Fidele, involuntarily
swelled to her. My God! there was a tiny answering pressure. I could have
screamed with joy; but physical anguish overmastered me. My back seemed
bursting into flame.

"The suffering was intolerable. When, at last, I thought I should go mad,
in a moment we took a surging swoop, shot down an easy incline, and
_stopped_.

"There had been noise in our descent, as only now I knew by its
cessation--a hissing sound as of wire whirring from a draw-plate. In the
profound enormous silence that, at last, enwrapped us, the bliss of
freedom from that metallic accompaniment fell on me like a balm. My
eyelids closed. Possibly I fainted.

"All in a moment I came to myself, to an undefinable sense of the
tremendous pressure of nothingness. Darkness! it was not that; yet it was
as little light. It was as if we lay in a dim, luminous chaos, ourselves
an integral part of its self-containment. I did not stir; but I spoke:
and my strange voice broke the enchantment. Surely never before or since
was speech exchanged under such conditions.

"'Fidele!'

"'I can speak, but I cannot look. If I hide so for ever I can die
bravely.'

"'_Ma petite!_ oh, my little one! Are you hurt?'

"'I don't know. I think not.'

"Her voice, her dear voice was so odd; but, _Mon Dieu_! how wonderful in
its courage! That, Heaven be praised! is no monopoly of intellect.
Indeed, it is imagination that makes men cowards; and to the lack of this
possibly we owed our salvation.

"Now, calm and freed of that haunting jar of descent, I became conscious
that a sound, that I had at first taken for the rush of my own arteries,
had an origin apart from us. It was like the wash and thunder of waters
in a deep sewer.

"'Fidele!' I said again.

"'I am listening.'

"'Hear, then! Canst thou free my right arm, that I may feel for the
lucifers in my pocket?'

"She moved at once, never raising her face from my breast. I groped for
the box, found it; and manipulating with one hand, succeeded in striking
a match. It flamed up--a long wax vesta.

"A glory of sleek fires sprang on the instant into life. We lay
imprisoned in a house of glass at the foot of a smooth incline rising
behind us to unknown heights. A wall of porous and opaque ice-rubbish,
into which our feet had plunged deep, had stayed our progress.

"I placed the box by my side ready for use. Our last moments should be
lavish of splendour. Stooping for another match, to kindle from the flame
of the near-expired one, a thought struck me. Why had we not been at once
frozen to death? Yet we lay where we had brought up, as snug and glowing
as if we were wrapped in bedclothes.

"The answer came to me in a flash. We had fallen sheer to the glacier
bed, which, warmed by subterraneous heat, was ever in process of melting.
Possibly, but a comparatively thin curtain of perforated ice separated us
from the under torrent.

"The enforced conclusion was astounding; but as yet it inspired no hope.
We were none the less doomed and buried.

"I lit a second match, turned about, and gave a start of terror. There,
imbedded in the transparent wall at my very shoulder, was something--the
body of a man.

"A horrible sight--a horrible, horrible sight--crushed, flattened--a
caricature; the very gouts of blood that had burst from him held poised
in the massed congelations of water.

"For how long ages had he been travelling to the valley, and from what
heights? He was of a bygone generation, by his huge coat cuffs, his metal
buttons, by his shoe buckles and the white stockings on his legs, which
were pressed thin and sharp, as if cut out of paper. Had he been a
climber, an explorer--a contemporary, perhaps, of Saussure and a rival?
And what had been his unrecorded fate? To slip into a crevasse, and so
for the parted ice to snap upon him again, like a hideous jaw? Its work
done, it might at least have opened and dropped him through--not held him
intact to jog us, out of all that world of despair, with his battered
elbow!

"Perhaps to witness in others the fate he had himself suffered!

"I dropped the match I was holding. I tightened my clasp convulsively
about Fidele. Thank God she, at any rate, was blind to this horror within
a horror!

"All at once--was it the start I had given, or the natural process of
dissolution beneath our feet?--we were moving again. Swift--swifter!
Fidele uttered a little moaning cry. The rubbish of ice crashed below us,
and we sank through.

"I knew nothing, then, but that we were in water--that we had fallen from
a little height, and were being hurried along. The torrent, now deep, now
so shallow that my feet scraped its bed, gushed in my ears and blinded my
eyes.

"Still I hugged Fidele, and I could feel by her returning grasp that she
lived. The water was not unbearably cold as yet. The air that came
through cracks and crevasses had not force to overcome the under warmth.

"I felt something slide against me--clutched and held on. It was a brave
pine log. Could I recover it at this date I would convert it into a
flagstaff for the tricolour. It was our raft, our refuge; and it carried
us to safety.

"I cannot give the extravagant processes of that long journey. It was all
a rushing, swirling dream--a mad race of mystery and sublimity, to
which the only conscious periods were wild, flitting glimpses of
wonderful ice arabesques, caught momentarily as we passed under fissures
that let the light of day through dimly.

"Gradually a ghostly radiance grew to encompass us; and by a like
gradation the water waxed intensely cold. Hope then was blazing in our
hearts; but this new deathliness went nigh to quench it altogether. Yet,
had we guessed the reason, we could have foregone the despair. For, in
truth, we were approaching that shallower terrace of the glacier beyond
the fall, through which the light could force some weak passage, and the
air make itself felt, blowing upon the beds of ice.

"Well, we survived; and still we survive. My faith, what a couple!
Sublimity would have none of us. The glacier rejected souls so
commonplace as not to be properly impressed by its inexorability.

"This, then, was the end. We swept into a huge cavern of ice--through
it--beyond it, into the green valley and the world that we love. And
there, where the torrent splits up into a score of insignificant streams,
we grounded and crawled to dry land and sat down and laughed.

"Yes, we could do it--we could laugh. Is that not bathos? But Fidele and
I have a theory that laughter is the chief earnest of immortality.

"To _dry_ land I have said. _Mon Dieu!_ the torrent was no wetter. It
rains in the Chamounix valley. We looked to see whence we had fallen, and
not even the _Chapeau_ was visible through the mist.

"But, as I turned, Fidele uttered a little cry.

"'The flask, and the sandwich-box, and your poor coat!'

"'_Comment?_' I said; and in a moment was in my shirt-sleeves.

"I stared, and I wondered, and I clucked in my throat.

"Holy saints! I was adorned with a breastplate on my back. The friction
of descent, first welding together these, the good ministers to our
appetite, had worn the metal down in the end to a mere skin or badge, the
heat generated from which had scorched and frizzled the cloth beneath it.

"I needed not to seek further explanation of the pain I had suffered--was
suffering then, indeed, as I had reason to know when ecstasy permitted a
return of sensation. My back bears the scars at this moment.

"'It shall remain there for ever!' I cried, 'like the badge of a _cocher
de fiacre_, who has made the fastest journey on record. 'Coachman! from
the glacier to the valley.' '_Mais oui, monsieur_. Down this crevasse, if
you please.'

"And that is the history of our adventure.

"Why we were not dashed to pieces? But that, as I accept it, is easy of
elucidation. Imagine a vast crescent moon, with a downward nick from the
end of the tail. This form the fissure took, in one enormous sweep and
drop towards the mouth of the valley. Now, as we rushed headlong, the
gentle curve received us from space to substance quite gradually, until
we were whirring forward wholly on the latter, my luggage suffering the
brunt of the friction. The upward sweep of the crescent diminished our
progress--more and yet more--until we switched over the lower point and
shot quietly down the incline beyond. And all this in ample room, and
without meeting with a single unfriendly obstacle.

"'_Voila, mes chers amis, ce qui me met en peine_.'

"Fidele laughs, the rogue!

"'Ta, ta, ta!' she says. 'But they will not believe a word of it all.'"




THE VANISHING HOUSE


"My grandfather," said the banjo, "drank 'dog's-nose,' my father drank
'dog's-nose,' and I drink 'dog's-nose.' If that ain't heredity, there's
no virtue in the board schools."

"Ah!" said the piccolo, "you're always a-boasting of your science. And
so, I suppose, your son'll drink 'dog's-nose,' too?"

"No," retorted the banjo, with a rumbling laugh, like wind in the
bung-hole of an empty cask; "for I ain't got none. The family ends with
me; which is a pity, for I'm a full-stop to be proud on."

He was an enormous, tun-bellied person--a mere mound of expressionless
flesh, whose size alone was an investment that paid a perpetual dividend
of laughter. When, as with the rest of his company, his face was
blackened, it looked like a specimen coal on a pedestal in a museum.

There was Christmas company in the Good Intent, and the sanded tap-room,
with its trestle tables and sprigs of holly stuck under sooty beams
reeked with smoke and the steam of hot gin and water.

"How much could you put down of a night, Jack?" said a little grinning
man by the door.

"Why," said the banjo, "enough to lay the dustiest ghost as ever walked."

"Could you, now?" said the little man.

"Ah!" said the banjo, chuckling. "There's nothing like settin' one sperit
to lay another; and there I could give you proof number two of heredity."

"What! Don't you go for to say you ever see'd a ghost!"

"Haven't I? What are you whisperin' about, you blushful chap there by the
winder?"

"I was only remarking sir, 'twere snawin' like the devil."

"_Is_ it? Then the devil has been misjudged these eighteen hundred and
ninety odd years."

"But _did_ you ever see a ghost?" said the little grinning man, pursuing
his subject.

"No, I didn't, sir," mimicked the banjo, "saving in coffee grounds. But
my grandfather in _his_ cups see'd one; which brings us to number three
in the matter of heredity."

"Give us the story, Jack," said the "bones," whose agued shins were
extemporizing a rattle on their own account before the fire.

"Well, I don't mind," said the fat man. "It's seasonable; and I'm
seasonable, like the blessed plum-pudden, I am; and the more burnt brandy
you set about me, the richer and headier I'll go down."

"You'd be a jolly old pudden to digest," said the piccolo.

"You blow your aggrawation into your pipe and sealing-wax the stops,"
said his friend.

He drew critically at his "churchwarden" a moment or so, leaned forward,
emptied his glass into his capacious receptacles, and, giving his
stomach a shift, as if to accommodate it to its new burden, proceeded as
follows:--

"Music and malt is my nat'ral inheritance. My grandfather blew his
'dog's-nose,' and drank his clarinet like a artist and my father--"

"What did you say your grandfather did?" asked the piccolo.

"He played the clarinet."

"You said he blew his 'dog's-nose.'"

"Don't be a ass, Fred!" said the banjo, aggrieved. "How the blazes could
a man blow his dog's nose, unless he muzzled it with a handkercher, and
then twisted its tail? He played the clarinet, I say; and my father
played the musical glasses, which was a form of harmony pertiklerly
genial to him. Amongst us we've piped out a good long century--ah! we
have, for all I look sich a babby bursting on sops and spoon meat."

"What!" said the little man by the door. "You don't include them cockt
hatses in your expeerunce?"

"My grandfather wore 'em, sir. He wore a play-actin' coat, too, and
buckles to his shoes, when he'd got any; and he and a friend or two made
a permanency of 'waits' (only they called 'em according to the season),
and got their profit goin' from house to house, principally in the
country, and discoursin' music at the low rate of whatever they could get
for it."

"Ain't you comin' to the ghost, Jack?" said the little man hungrily.

"All in course, sir. Well, gentlemen, it was hard times pretty often with
my grandfather and his friends, as you may suppose; and never so much
as when they had to trudge it across country, with the nor'-easter
buzzin' in their teeth and the snow piled on their cockt hats like lemon
sponge on entry dishes. The rewards, I've heard him say--for he lived to
be ninety, nevertheless--was poor compensation for the drifts, and the
inflienza, and the broken chilblains; but now and again they'd get a fair
skinful of liquor from a jolly squire, as 'd set 'em up like boggarts
mended wi' new broomsticks."

"Ho-haw!" broke in a hurdle-maker in a corner; and then, regretting the
publicity of his merriment, put his fingers bashfully to his stubble
lips.

"Now," said the banjo, "it's of a pertikler night and a pertikler skinful
that I'm a-going to tell you; and that night fell dark, and that skinful
were took a hundred years ago this December, as I'm a Jack-pudden!"

He paused a moment for effect, before he went on:--

"They were down in the sou'-west country, which they little knew; and
were anighing Winchester city, or should 'a' been. But they got muzzed on
the ungodly downs, and before they guessed, they was off the track. My
good hat! there they was, as lost in the snow as three nutshells
a-sinkin' into a hasty pudden. Well, they wandered round; pretty
confident at first, but getting madder and madder as every sense of their
bearings slipped from them. And the bitter cold took their vitals, so as
they saw nothing but a great winding sheet stretched abroad for to wrap
their dead carcasses in.

"At last my grandfather he stopt and pulled hisself together with an
awful face, and says he: 'We're Christmas pie for the carrying-on crows
if we don't prove ourselves human. Let's fetch out our pipes and blow our
trouble into 'em.' So they stood together, like as if they was before a
house, and they played 'Kate of Aberdare' mighty dismal and flat, for
their fingers froze to the keys.

"Now, I tell you, they hadn't climbed over the first stave, when there
come a skirl of wind and spindrift of snow as almost took them off of
their feet; and, on the going down of it, Jem Sloke, as played the
hautboy, dropped the reed from his mouth, and called out, 'Sakes alive!
if we fools ain't been standin' outside a gentleman's gate all the time,
and not knowin' it!'

"You might 'a' knocked the three of 'em down wi' a barley straw, as they
stared and stared, and then fell into a low, enjoyin' laugh. For they was
standin' not six fut from a tall iron gate in a stone wall, and behind
these was a great house showin' out dim, with the winders all lighted up.

"'Lord!' chuckled my grandfather, 'to think o' the tricks o' this
vagarious country! But, as we're here, we'll go on and give 'em a taste
of our quality.'

"They put new heart into the next movement, as you may guess; and they
hadn't fair started on it, when the door of the house swung open, and
down the shaft of light that shot out as far as the gate there come a
smiling young gal, with a tray of glasses in her hands.

"Now she come to the bars; and she took and put a glass through, not
sayin' nothin', but invitin' some one to drink with a silent laugh.

"Did any one take that glass? Of course he did, you'll be thinkin'; and
you'll be thinkin' wrong. Not a man of the three moved. They was struck
like as stone, and their lips was gone the colour of sloe berries. Not a
man took the glass. For why? The moment the gal presented it, each saw
the face of a thing lookin' out of the winder over the porch, and the
face was hidjus beyond words, and the shadder of it, with the light
behind, stretched out and reached to the gal, and made her hidjus, too.

"At last my grandfather give a groan and put out his hand; and, as he did
it, the face went, and the gal was beautiful to see agen.

"'Death and the devil!' said he. 'It's one or both, either way; and I
prefer 'em hot to cold!'

"He drank off half the glass, smacked his lips, and stood staring a
moment.

"'Dear, dear!' said the gal, in a voice like falling water, 'you've drunk
blood, sir!'

"My grandfather gave a yell, slapped the rest of the liquor in the faces
of his friends, and threw the cup agen the bars. It broke with a noise
like thunder, and at that he up'd with his hands and fell full length
into the snow."

There was a pause. The little man by the door was twisting nervously in
his chair.

"He came to--of course, he came to?" said he at length.

"He come to," said the banjo solemnly, "in the bitter break of dawn; that
is, he come to as much of hisself as he ever was after. He give a
squiggle and lifted his head; and there was he and his friends a-lyin' on
the snow of the high downs."

"And the house and the gal?"

"Narry a sign of either, sir, but just the sky and the white stretch; and
one other thing."

"And what was that?"

"A stain of red sunk in where the cup had spilt."

There was a second pause, and the banjo blew into the bowl of his pipe.

"They cleared out of that neighbourhood double quick, you'll bet," said
he. "But my grandfather was never the same man agen. His face took
purple, while his friends' only remained splashed with red, same as birth
marks; and, I tell you, if he ever ventur'd upon 'Kate of Aberdare,' his
cheeks swelled up to the reed of his clarinet, like as a blue plum on a
stalk. And forty year after, he died of what they call solution of blood
to the brain."

"And you can't have better proof than that," said the little man.

"That's what _I_ say," said the banjo. "Next player, gentlemen, please."




DARK DIGNUM


"I'd not go higher, sir," said my landlady's father. I made out his
warning through the shrill piping of the wind; and stopped and took in
the plunging seascape from where I stood. The boom of the waves came up
from a vast distance beneath; sky and the horizon of running water seemed
hurrying upon us over the lip of the rearing cliff.

"It crumbles!" he cried. "It crumbles near the edge like as frosted
mortar. I've seen a noble sheep, sir, eighty pound of mutton, browsing
here one moment, and seen it go down the next in a puff of white dust.
Hark to that! Do you hear it?"

Through the tumult of the wind in that high place came a liquid vibrant
sound, like the muffled stroke of iron on an anvil. I thought it the
gobble of water in clanging caves deep down below.

"It might be a bell," I said.

The old man chuckled joyously. He was my cicerone for the nonce; had
come out of his chair by the ingle-nook to taste a little the salt of
life. The north-easter flashed in the white cataracts of his eyes and
woke a feeble activity in his scrannel limbs. When the wind blew loud,
his daughter had told me, he was always restless, like an imprisoned
sea-gull. He would be up and out. He would rise and flap his old draggled
pinions, as if the great air fanned an expiring spark into flame.

"It is a bell!" he cried--"the bell of old St. Dunstan's, that was
swallowed by the waters in the dark times."

"Ah," I said. "That is the legend hereabouts."

"No legend, sir--no legend. Where be the tombstones of drownded mariners
to prove it such? Not one to forty that they has in other sea-board
parishes. For why? Dunstan bell sounds its warning, and not a craft will
put out."

"There is the storm cone," I suggested.

He did not hear me. He was punching with his staff at one of a number of
little green mounds that lay about us.

"I could tell you a story of these," he said. "Do you know where we
stand?"

"On the site of the old churchyard?"

"Ay, sir; though it still bore the name of the new yard in my first
memory of it."

"Is that so? And what is the story?"

He dwelt a minute, dense with introspection. Suddenly he sat himself down
upon a mossy bulge in the turf, and waved me imperiously to a place
beside him.

"The old order changeth," he said. "The only lasting foundations of men's
works shall be godliness and law-biding. Long ago they builded a new
church--here, high up on the cliffs, where the waters could not reach;
and, lo! the waters wrought beneath and sapped the foundations, and the
church fell into the sea."

"So I understand," I said.

"The godless are fools," he chattered knowingly. "Look here at these
bents--thirty of 'em, may be. Tombstones, sir; perished like man his
works, and the decayed stumps of them coated with salt grass."

He pointed to the ragged edge of the cliff a score paces away.

"They raised it out there," he said, "and further--a temple of bonded
stone. They thought to bribe the Lord to a partnership in their
corruption, and He answered by casting down the fair mansion into the
waves."

I said, "Who--who, my friend?"

"They that builded the church," he answered.

"Well," I said. "It seems a certain foolishness to set the edifice so
close to the margin."

Again he chuckled.

"It was close, close, as you say; yet none so close as you might think
nowadays. Time hath gnawed here like a rat on a cheese. But the
foolishness appeared in setting the brave mansion between the winds and
its own graveyard. Let the dead lie seawards, one had thought, and the
church inland where we stand. So had the bell rung to this day; and only
the charnel bones flaked piecemeal into the sea."

"Certainly, to have done so would show the better providence."

"Sir, I said the foolishness _appeared_. But, I tell you, there was
foresight in the disposition--in neighbouring the building to the cliff
path. _For so they could the easier enter unobserved, and store their
Tcegs of Nantes brandy in the belly of the organ_."

"They? Who were they?"

"Why, who--but two-thirds of all Dunburgh?"

"Smugglers?"'

"It was a nest of 'em--traffickers in the eternal fire o' weekdays, and
on the Sabbath, who so sanctimonious? But honesty comes not from the
washing, like a clean shirt, nor can the piety of one day purge the evil
of six. They built their church anigh the margin, forasmuch as it was
handy, and that they thought, 'Surely the Lord will not undermine His
own?' A rare community o' blasphemers, fro' the parson that took his
regular toll of the organ-loft, to him that sounded the keys and pulled
out the joyous stops as if they was so many spigots to what lay behind."

"Of when do you speak?"

"I speak of nigh a century and a half ago. I speak of the time o' the
Seven Years' War and of Exciseman Jones, that, twenty year after he were
buried, took his revenge on the cliff side of the man that done him to
death."

"And who was that?"

"They called him Dark Dignum, sir--a great feat smuggler, and as wicked
as he was bold,"

"Is your story about him?"

"Ay, it is; and of my grandfather, that were a boy when they laid, and
was glad to lay, the exciseman deep as they could dig; for the sight of
his sooty face in his coffin was worse than a bad dream."

"Why was that?"

The old man edged closer to me, and spoke in a sibilant voice.

"He were murdered, sir, foully and horribly, for all they could never
bring it home to the culprit."

"Will you tell me about it?"

He was nothing loth. The wind, the place of perished tombs, the very
wild-blown locks of this 'withered apple-john', were eerie accompaniments
to the tale he piped in my ear:--

"When my grandfather were a boy," he said, "there lighted in Dunburgh
Exciseman Jones. P'r'aps the village had gained an ill reputation.
P'r'aps Exciseman Jones's predecessor had failed to secure the confidence
o' the exekitive. At any rate, the new man was little to the fancy of the
village. He was a grim, sour-looking, brass-bound galloot; and
incorruptible--which was the worst. The keg o' brandy left on his
doorstep o' New Year's Eve had been better unspiled and run into the
gutter; for it led him somehow to the identification of the innocent that
done it, and he had him by the heels in a twinkling. The squire snorted
at the man, and the parson looked askance; but Dark Dignum, he swore he'd
be even with him, if he swung for it. They was hurt and surprised, that
was the truth, over the scrupulosity of certain people; and feelin'
ran high against Exciseman Jones.

"At that time Dark Dignum was a young man with a reputation above his
years for profaneness and audacity. Ugly things there were said about
him; and amongst many wicked he was feared for his wickedness. Exciseman
Jones had his eye on him; and that was bad for Exciseman Jones.

"Now one murk December night Exciseman Jones staggered home with a
bloody long slice down his scalp, and the red drip from it spotting the
cobble-stones.

"'Summut fell on him from a winder,' said Dark Dignum, a little later, as
he were drinkin' hisself hoarse in the Black Boy. 'Summut fell on him
retributive, as you might call it. For, would you believe it, the man had
at the moment been threatenin' me? He did. He said, "I know damn well
about you, Dignum; and for all your damn ingenuity, I'll bring you with a
crack to the ground yet."'

"What had happened? Nobody knew, sir. But Exciseman Jones was in his bed
for a fortnight; and when he got on his legs again, it was pretty evident
there was a hate between the two men that only blood-spillin' could
satisfy.

"So far as is known, they never spoke to one another again. They played
their game of death in silence--the lawful, cold and unfathomable; the
unlawful, swaggerin' and crool--and twenty year separated the first move
and the last.

"This were the first, sir--as Dark Dignum leaked it out long after in his
cups. This were the first; and it brought Exciseman Jones to his grave on
the cliff here.

"It were a deep soft summer night; and the young smuggler sat by hisself
in the long room of the Black Boy. Now, I tell you he were a fox-ship
intriguer--grand, I should call him, in the aloneness of his villainy. He
would play his dark games out of his own hand; and sure, of all his
wickedness, this game must have seemed the sum.

"I say he sat by hisself; and I hear the listening ghost of him call me a
liar. For there were another body present, though invisible to mortal
eye; and that second party were Exciseman Jones, who was hidden up the
chimney.

"How had he inveigled him there? Ah, they've met and worried that point
out since. No other will ever know the truth this side the grave. But
reports come to be whispered; and reports said as how Dignum had made an
appointment with a bodiless master of a smack as never floated, to meet
him in the Black Boy and arrange for to run a cargo as would never be
shipped; and that somehow he managed to acquent Exciseman Jones o' this
dissembling appointment, and to secure his presence in hidin' to witness
it.

"That's conjecture; for Dignum never let on so far. But what is known for
certain is that Exciseman Jones, who were as daring and determined as
his enemy--p'r'aps more so--for some reason was in the chimney, on to a
grating in which he had managed to lower hisself from the roof; and that
he could, if given time, have scrambled up again with difficulty, but was
debarred from going lower. And, further, this is known--that, as Dignum
sat on, pretendin' to yawn and huggin' his black intent, a little sut
plopped down the chimney and scattered on the coals of the laid fire
beneath.

"At that--'Curse this waitin'!' said he. 'The room's as chill as a
belfry'; and he got to his feet, with a secret grin, and strolled to the
hearthstone.

"'I wonder,' said he, 'will the landlord object if I ventur' upon a glint
of fire for comfort's sake?' and he pulled out his flint and steel,
struck a spark, and with no more feelin' than he'd express in lighting
a pipe, set the flame to the sticks.

"The trapt rat above never stirred or give tongue. My God! what a man!
Sich a nature could afford to bide and bide--ay, for twenty year, if need
be.

"Dignum would have enjoyed the sound of a cry; but he never got it. He
listened with the grin fixed on his face; and of a sudden he heard a
scrambling struggle, like as a dog with the colic jumping at a wall; and
presently, as the sticks blazed and the smoke rose denser, a thick
coughin', as of a consumptive man under bed-clothes. Still no cry, nor
any appeal for mercy; no, not from the time he lit the fire till a
horrible rattle come down, which was the last twitches of somethin' that
choked and died on the sooty gratin' above.

"When all was quiet, Dignum he knocks with his foot on the floor and sits
hisself down before the hearth, with a face like a pillow for innocence.

"'I were chilled and lit it,' says he to the landlord. 'You don't mind?'

"Mind? Who would have ventur'd to cross Dark Dignum's fancies?

"He give a boisterous laugh, and ordered in a double noggin of humming
stuff.

"'Here,' he says, when it comes, 'is to the health of Exciseman Jones,
that swore to bring me to the ground.'

"'To the ground,' mutters a thick voice from the chimney.

"'My God!' says the landlord--'there's something up there!'

"Something there was; and terrible to look upon when they brought it to
light. The creature's struggles had ground the sut into its face, and its
nails were black below the quick.

"Were those words the last of its death-throe, or an echo from beyond?
Ah! we may question; but they were heard by two men.

"Dignum went free. What could they prove agen him? Not that he knew there
was aught in the chimney when he lit the fire. The other would scarcely
have acquent him of his plans. And Exciseman Jones was hurried into his
grave alongside the church up here.

"And therein he lay for twenty year, despite that, not a twelvemonth
after his coming, the sacrilegious house itself sunk roaring into the
waters. For the Lord would have none of it, and, biding His time, struck
through a fortnight of deluge, and hurled church and cliff into ruin. But
the yard remained, and, nighest the seaward edge of it, Exciseman Jones
slept in his fearful winding sheet and bided _his_ time.

"It came when my grandfather were a young man of thirty, and mighty close
and confidential with Dark Dignum. God forgive him! Doubtless he were
led away by the older smuggler, that had a grace of villainy about him,
'tis said, and used Lord Chesterfield's printed letters for wadding to
his bullets.

"By then he was a ramping, roaring devil; but, for all his bold hands
were stained with crime, the memory of Exciseman Jones and of his promise
dwelled with him and darkened him ever more and more, and never left him.
So those that knew him said.

"Now all these years the cliff edge agen the graveyard, where it was
broke off, was scabbing into the sea below. But still they used this way
of ascent for their ungodly traffic; and over the ruin of the cliff they
had drove a new path for to carry up their kegs.

"It was a cloudy night in March, with scud and a fitful moon, and there
was a sloop in the offing, and under the shore a loaded boat that had
just pulled in with muffled rowlocks. Out of this Dark Dignum was the
first to sling hisself a brace of rundlets; and my grandfather followed
with two more. They made softly for the cliff path--began the ascent--was
half-way up.

"Whiz!--a stone of chalk went by them with a skirl, and slapped into the
rubble below.

"'Some more of St. Dunstan's gravel!' cried Dignum, pantin' out a
reckless laugh under his load; and on they went again.

"Hwish!--a bigger lump came like a thunderbolt, and the wind of it took
the bloody smuggler's hat and sent it swooping into the darkness like a
bird.

"'Thunder!' said Dignum; 'the cliff's breaking away!'

"The words was hardly out of his mouth, when there flew such a volley of
chalk stones as made my grandfather, though none had touched him, fall
upon the path where he stood, and begin to gabble out what he could call
to mind of the prayers for the dying. He was in the midst of it, when he
heard a scream come from his companion as froze the very marrow in his
bones. He looked up, thinkin' his hour had come.

"My God! What a sight he saw! The moon had shone out of a sudden, and the
light of it struck down on Dignum's face, and that was the colour of
dirty parchment. And he looked higher, and give a sort of sob.

"For there, stickin' out of the cliff side, was half the body of
Exciseman Jones, with its arms stretched abroad, _and it was clawin' out
lumps of chalk and hurling them down at Dignum_!

"And even as he took this in through his terror, a great ball of white
came hurtling, and went full on to the man's face with a splash--and he
were spun down into the deep night below, a nameless thing."

The old creature came to a stop, his eyes glinting with a febrile
excitement.

"And so," I said, "Exciseman Jones was true to his word?"

The tension of memory was giving--the spring slowly uncoiling itself.

"Ay," he said doubtfully. "The cliff had flaked away by degrees to his
very grave. They found his skelington stickin' out of the chalk."

"His _skeleton?"_ said I, with the emphasis of disappointment.

"The first, sir, the first. Ay, his was the first. There've been a many
exposed since. The work of decay goes on, and the bones they fall into
the sea. Sometimes, sailing off shore, you may see a shank or an arm
protrudin' like a pigeon's leg from a pie. But the wind or the weather
takes it and it goes. There's more to follow yet. Look at 'em! look at
these bents! Every one a grave, with a skelington in it. The wear and
tear from the edge will reach each one in turn, and then the last of the
ungodly will have ceased from the earth."

"And what became of your grandfather?"

"My grandfather? There were something happened made him renounce the
devil. He died one of the elect. His youth were heedless and
unregenerate; but, 'tis said, after he were turned thirty he never smiled
agen. There was a reason. Did I ever tell you the story of Dark Dignum
and Exciseman Jones?"




WILLIAM TYRWHITT'S "COPY"


This is the story of William Tyrwhitt, who went to King's Cobb for rest
and change, and, with the latter, at least, was so far accommodated
as for a time to get beyond himself and into regions foreign to his
experiences or his desires. And for this condition of his I hold myself
something responsible, inasmuch as it was my inquisitiveness was the
means of inducing him to an exploration, of which the result, with its
measure of weirdness, was for him alone. But, it seems, I was appointed
an agent of the unexplainable without my knowledge, and it was simply my
misfortune to find my first unwitting commission in the selling of a
friend.

I was for a few days, about the end of a particular July, lodged in that
little old seaboard town of Dorset that is called King's Cobb. Thither
there came to me one morning a letter from William Tyrwhitt, the
polemical journalist (a queer fish, like the cuttle, with an ink-bag for
the confusion of enemies), complaining that he was fagged and used up,
and desiring me to say that nowhere could complete rest be obtained as in
King's Cobb.

I wrote and assured him on this point. The town, I said, lay wrapped in
the hills as in blankets, its head only, winking a sleepy eye, projecting
from the top of the broad steep gully in which it was stretched at ease.
Thither few came to the droning coast; and such as did, looked up at the
High Street baking in the sun, and, thinking of Jacob's ladder, composed
them to slumber upon the sand and left the climbing to the angels. Here,
I said, the air and the sea were so still that one could hear the oysters
snoring in their beds; and the little frizzle of surf on the beach was
like to the sound to dreaming ears of bacon frying in the kitchens of the
blest.

William Tyrwhitt came, and I met him at the station, six or seven miles
away. He was all strained and springless, like a broken child's toy--"not
like that William who, with lance in rest, shot through the lists in
Fleet Street." A disputative galley-puller could have triumphed over
him morally; a child physically.

The drive in the inn brake, by undulating roads and scented valleys,
shamed his cheek to a little flush of self-assertion.

"I will sleep under the vines," he said, "and the grapes shall drop into
my mouth."

"Beware," I answered, "lest in King's Cobb your repose should be
everlasting. The air of that hamlet has matured like old port in the bin
of its hills, till to drink of it is to swoon."

We alighted at the crown of the High Street, purposing to descend on
foot the remaining distance to the shore.

"Behold," I exclaimed, "how the gulls float in the shimmer, like ashes
tossed aloft by the white draught of a fire! Behold these ancient
buildings nodding to the everlasting lullaby of the bay waters! The
cliffs are black with the heat apoplexy; the lobster is drawn scarlet to
the surface. You shall be like an addled egg put into an incubator."

"So," he said, "I shall rest and not hatch. The very thought is like
sweet oil on a burn."

He stayed with me a week, and his body waxed wondrous round and rosy,
while his eye acquired a foolish and vacant expression. So it was with
me. We rolled together, by shore and by road of this sluggard place, like
spent billiard balls; and if by chance we cannoned, we swerved sleepily
apart, until, perhaps, one would fall into a pocket of the sand, and the
other bring up against a cushion of sea-wall.

Yet, for all its enervating atmosphere, King's Cobb has its fine
traditions of a sturdy independence, and a slashing history withal; and
its aspect is as picturesque as that of an opera bouffe fishing-harbour.
Then, too, its High Street, as well as its meandering rivulets of low
streets, is rich in buildings, venerable and antique.

We took an irresponsible, smiling pleasure in noting these
advantages--particularly after lunch; and sometimes, where an old
house was empty, we would go over it, and stare at beams and
chimneypieces and hear the haunted tale of its fortunes, with a faint
half-memory in our breasts of that one-time bugbear we had known as
"copy." But though more than once a flaccid instinct would move us to
have out our pencils, we would only end by bunging our foolish mouths
with them, as if they were cigarettes, and then vaguely wondering
at them for that, being pencils, they would not draw.

By then we were so sinewless and demoralized that we could hear in the
distant strains of the European Concert nothing but an orchestra of
sweet sounds, and would have given ourselves away in any situation with a
pound of tea. Therefore, perhaps, it was well for us that, a peremptory
summons to town reaching me after seven days of comradeship with William,
I must make shift to collect my faculties with my effects, and return to
the more bracing climate of Fleet Street.

And here, you will note, begins the story of William Tyrwhitt, who would
linger yet a few days in that hanging garden of the south coast, and who
would pull himself together and collect matter for "copy."

He found a very good subject that first evening of his solitude.

I was to leave in the afternoon, and the morning we spent in aimlessly
rambling about the town. Towards mid-day, a slight shower drove us to
shelter under the green verandah of a house, standing up from the lower
fall of the High Street, that we had often observed in our wanderings.
This house--or rather houses, for it was a block of two--was very tall
and odd-looking, being all built of clean squares of a whitish granite;
and the double porch in the middle base--led up to by side-going steps
behind thin iron railings--roofed with green-painted zinc. In some of the
windows were jalousies, but the general aspect of the exterior was gaunt
and rigid; and the whole block bore a dismal, deserted look, as if it had
not been lived in for years.

Now we had taken refuge in the porch of that half that lay uppermost on
the slope; and here we noticed that, at a late date, the building was
seemingly in process of repair, painters' pots and brushes lying on a
window-sill, and a pair of steps showing within through the glass.

"They have gone to dinner," said I. "Supposing we seize the opportunity
to explore?"

We pushed at the door; it yielded. We entered, shut ourselves in, and
paused to the sound of our own footsteps echoing and laughing from
corners and high places. On the ground floor were two or three good-sized
rooms with modern grates, but cornices, chimney-pieces, embrasures finely
Jacobean. There were innumerable under-stair and over-head cupboards,
too, and pantries, and closets, and passages going off darkly into the
unknown.

We clomb the stairway--to the first floor--to the second. Here was all
pure Jacobean; but the walls were crumbling, the paper peeling, the
windows dim and foul with dirt.

I have never known a place with such echoes. They shook from a footstep
like nuts rattling out of a bag; a mouse behind the skirting led a whole
camp-following of them; to ask a question was, as in that other House, to
awaken the derisive shouts of an Opposition. Yet, in the intervals of
silence, there fell a deadliness of quiet that was quite appalling by
force of contrast.

"Let us go down," I said. "I am feeling creepy."

"Pooh!" said William Tyrwhitt; "I could take up my abode here with a
feather bed."

We descended, nevertheless. Arrived at the ground floor, "I am going to
the back," said William.

I followed him--a little reluctantly, I confess. Gloom and shadow had
fallen upon the town, and this old deserted hulk of an abode was ghostly
to a degree. There was no film of dust on its every shelf or sill that
did not seem to me to bear the impress of some phantom finger feeling its
way along. A glint of stealthy eyes would look from dark uncertain
corners; a thin evil vapour appear to rise through the cracks of the
boards from the unvisited cellars in the basement.

And here, too, we came suddenly upon an eccentricity of out-building that
wrought upon our souls with wonder. For, penetrating to the rear through
what might have been a cloak-closet or butler's pantry, we found a
supplementary wing, or rather tail of rooms, loosely knocked together, to
proceed from the back, forming a sort of skilling to the main building.
These rooms led direct into one another, and, consisting of little more
than timber and plaster, were in a woeful state of dilapidation.
Everywhere the laths grinned through torn gaps in the ceilings and walls;
everywhere the latter were blotched and mildewed with damp, and the
floor-boards rotting in their tracks. Fallen mortar, rusty tins, yellow
teeth of glass, whitened soot--all the decay and rubbish of a generation
of neglect littered the place and filled it with an acrid odour. From one
of the rooms we looked forth through a little discoloured window upon a
patch of forlorn weedy garden, where the very cats glowered in a
depression that no surfeit of mice could assuage.

We went on, our nervous feet apologetic to the grit they crunched; and,
when we were come to near the end of this dreary annexe, turned off to
the left into a short gloom of passage that led to a closed door.

Pushing this open, we found a drop of some half-dozen steps, and, going
gingerly down these, stopped with a common exclamation of surprise on our
lips.

Perhaps our wonder was justified, for we were in the stern cabin of an
ancient West Indiaman.

Some twenty feet long by twelve wide--there it all was, from the deck
transoms above, to the side lockers and great curved window, sloping
outwards to the floor and glazed with little panes in galleries, that
filled the whole end of the room. Thereout we looked, over the degraded
garden, to the lower quarters of the town--as if, indeed, we were perched
high up on waves--and even to a segment of the broad bay that swept by
them.

But the room itself! What phantasy of old sea-dog or master-mariner had
conceived it? What palsied spirit, condemned to rust in inactivity, had
found solace in this burlesque of shipcraft? To renew the past in such a
fixture, to work oneself up to the old glow of flight and action, and
then, while one stamped and rocked maniacally, to feel the refusal of so
much as a timber to respond to one's fervour of animation! It was a
grotesque picture.

Now, this cherished chamber had shared the fate of the rest. The paint
and gilding were all cracked and blistered away; much of the glass of
the stern-frame was gone or hung loose in its sashes; the elaborately
carved lockers mouldered on the walls.

These were but dummies when we came to examine them--mere slabs attached
to the brickwork, and decaying with it.

"There should be a case-bottle and rummers in one, at least," said
William Tyrwhitt.

"There are, sir, at your service," said a voice behind us.

We started and turned.

It had been such a little strained voice that it was with something
like astonishment I looked upon the speaker. Whence he had issued I could
not guess; but there he stood behind us, nodding and smiling--a squab,
thick-set old fellow with a great bald head, and, for all the hair on his
face, a tuft like a teasel sprouting from his under lip.

He was in his shirt-sleeves, without coat or vest; and I noticed that his
dirty lawn was oddly plaited in front, and that about his ample paunch
was buckled a broad belt of leather. Greased hip-boots encased his lower
limbs, and the heels of these were drawn together as he bowed.

William Tyrwhitt--a master of nervous English--muttered "Great Scott!"
under his breath.

"Permit me," said the stranger--and he held out to us a tin pannikin
(produced from Heaven knows where) that swam with fragrance.

I shook my head. William Tyrwhitt, that fated man, did otherwise. He
accepted the vessel and drained it.

"It smacks of all Castille," he said, handing it back with a sigh of
ecstasy. "Who the devil are you, sir?"

The stranger gave a little crow.

"Peregrine Iron, sir, at your service--Captain Penegrine Iron, of the
_Raven_ sloop amongst others. You are very welcome to the run of my poor
abode."

"Yours?" I murmured in confusion. "We owe you a thousand apologies."

"Not at all," he said, addressing all his courtesy to William. Me, since
my rejection of his beaker, he took pains to ignore.

"Not at all," he said. "Your intrusion was quite natural under the
circumstances. I take a pleasure in being your cicerone. This cabin (he
waved his hand pompously)--a fancy of mine, sir, a fancy of mine. The
actual material of the latest of my commands brought hither and adapted
to the exigencies of shore life. It enables me to live eternally in the
past--a most satisfying illusion. Come to-night and have a pipe and a
glass with me."

I thought William Tyrwhitt mad.

"I will come, by all means," he said.

The stranger bowed us out of the room.

"That is right," he exclaimed. "You will find me here. Good-bye for the
present."

As we plunged like dazed men into the street, now grown sunny, I turned
on my friend.

"William," I said, "did you happen to look back as we left the cabin?"

"No."

"I did."

"Well?"

"There was no stranger there at all. The place was empty."

"Well?"

"You will not go to-night?"

"You bet I do."

I shrugged my shoulders. We walked on a little way in silence. Suddenly
my companion turned on me, a most truculent expression on his face.

"For an independent thinker," he said, "you are rather a pusillanimous
jackass. A man of your convictions to shy at a shadow! Fie, sir, fie!
What if the room _were_ empty? The place was full enough of traps to
permit of Captain Iron's immediate withdrawal."

Much may be expressed in a sniff. I sniffed.

That afternoon I went back to town, and left the offensive William to his
fate.

       *       *       *       *       *

It found him at once.

The very day following that of my retreat, I was polishing phrases by
gaslight in the dull sitting-room of my lodgings in the Lambeth Road,
when he staggered in upon me. His face was like a sheep's, white and
vacant; his hands had caught a trick of groping blindly along the backs
of chairs.

"You have obtained your 'copy'?" I said.

I made him out to murmur "yes" in a shaking under-voice. He was so
patently nervous that I put him in a chair and poured him out a
wine-glassful of London brandy. This generally is a powerful emetic, but
it had no more effect upon him than water. Then I was about to lower the
gas, to save his eyes, but he stopped me with a thin shriek.

"Light, light!" he whispered. "It cannot be too light for me!"

"Now, William Tyrwhitt," I said, by-and-by, watchful of him, and marking
a faint effusion of colour soak to his cheek, "you would not accept my
warning, and you were extremely rude to me. Therefore you have had an
experience--"

"An awful one," he murmured.

"An awful one, no doubt; and to obtain surcease of the haunting memory of
it, you must confide its processes to me. But, first, I must put it to
you, which is the more pusillanimous--to refuse to submit one's manliness
to the tyranny of the unlawful, or to rush into situations you have not
the nerve to adapt yourself to?"

"I could not foresee, I could not foresee."

"Neither could I. And that was my very reason for declining the
invitation. Now proceed."

It was long before he could. But presently he essayed, and gathered voice
with the advance of his narrative, and even unconsciously threw it into
something the form of "copy." And here it is as he murmured it, but with
a gasp for every full-stop.

"I confess I was so far moved by the tone of your protest as, after your
departure, to make some cautious inquiries about the house we had
visited. I could discover nothing to satisfy my curiosity. It was known
to have been untenanted for a great number of years; but as to who was
the landlord, whether Captain Iron or another, no one could inform me;
and the agent for the property was of the adjacent town where you met me.
I was not fortunate, indeed, in finding that any one even knew of the
oddly appointed room; but considering that, owing to the time the house
had remained vacant, the existence of this eccentricity could be a
tradition only with some casual few, my failure did not strike me as
being at all bodeful. On the contrary, it only whetted my desire to
investigate further in person, and penetrate to the heart of a very
captivating little mystery. But probably, I thought, it is quite simple
of solution, and the fact of the repairers and the landlord being in
evidence at one time, a natural coincidence.

"I dined well, and sallied forth about nine o'clock. It was a night
pregnant with possibilities. The lower strata of air were calm, but
overhead the wind went down the sea with a noise of baggage-wagons, and
there was an ominous hurrying and gathering together of forces under
the bellying standards of the clouds.

"As I went up the steps of the lonely building, the High Street seemed to
turn all its staring eyes of lamps in my direction. 'What a droll
fellow!' they appeared to be saying; 'and how will he look when he
reissues?'

"'There ain't nubbudy in that house,' croaked a small boy, who had paused
below, squinting up at me.

"'How do you know?' said I. 'Move on, my little man.'

"He went; and at once it occurred to me that, as no notice was taken of
my repeated knockings, I might as well try the handle. I did, found the
door unlatched, as it had been in the morning, pushed it open, entered,
and swung it to behind me.

"I found myself in the most profound darkness--that darkness, if I may
use the paradox, of a peopled desolation that men of but little nerve or
resolution find insupportable. To me, trained to a serenity of stoicism,
it could make no demoralizing appeal. I had out my matchbox, opened it at
leisure, and, while the whole vaulting blackness seemed to tick and
rustle with secret movement, took a half-dozen vestas into my hand,
struck one alight, and, by its dim radiance, made my way through the
building by the passages we had penetrated in the morning. If at all I
shrank or perspired on my spectral journey, I swear I was not
conscious of doing so.

"I came to the door of the cabin. All was black and silent.

"'Ah!' I thought, 'the rogue has played me false.'

"Not to subscribe to an uncertainty, I pushed at the door, saw only
swimming dead vacancy before me, and tripping at the instant on the sill,
stumbled crashing into the room below and slid my length on the floor.

"Now, I must tell you, it was here my heart gave its first somersault. I
had fallen, as I say, into a black vault of emptiness; yet, as I rose,
bruised and dazed, to my feet, there was the cabin all alight from a
great lanthorn that swung from the ceiling, and our friend of the morning
seated at a table, with a case-bottle of rum and glasses before him.

"I stared incredulous. Yes, there could be no doubt it was he, and pretty
flushed with drink, too, by his appearance.

"'Incandescent light in a West Indiaman!' I muttered; for not otherwise
could I account for the sudden illumination. 'What the deuce!'

"'Belay that!' he growled. He seemed to observe me for the first time.

"'A handsome manner of boarding a craft you've got, sir,' said he,
glooming at me.

"I was hastening to apologize, but he stopped me coarsely.

"'Oh, curse the long jaw of him! Fill your cheek with that, you Barbary
ape, and wag your tail if you can, but burn your tongue.'

"He pointed to the case-bottle with a forefinger that was like a dirty
parsnip. What induced me to swallow the insult, and even some of the
pungent liquor of his rude offering? The itch for 'copy' was, no doubt,
at the bottom of it.

"I sat down opposite my host, filled and drained a bumper. The fire ran
to my brain, so that the whole room seemed to pitch and courtesy.

"'This is an odd fancy of yours,' I said.

"'What is?' said he.

"'This,' I answered, waving my hand around--'this freak of turning a back
room into a cabin.'

"He stared at me, and then burst into a malevolent laugh.

"'Back room, by thunder!' said he. 'Why, of course--just a step into the
garden where the roses and the buttercupses be agrowing.'

"Now I pricked my ears.

"'Has the night turned foul?' I muttered. 'What a noise the rain makes
beating on the window!'

"'It's like to be a foul one for you, at least,' said he. 'But, as for
the rain, it's blazing moonlight.'

"I turned to the broad casement in astonishment. My God! what did I see?
Oh, my friend, my friend! will you believe me? By the melancholy glow
that spread therethrough I saw that the whole room was rising and sinking
in rhythmical motion; that the lights of King's Cobb had disappeared, and
that in their place was revealed a world of pale and tossing water, the
pursuing waves of which leapt and clutched at the glass with innocuous
fingers.

"I started to my feet, mad in an instant.

"'Look, look!' I shrieked. 'They follow us--they struggle to get at you,
you bloody murderer!'

"They came rising on the crests of the billows; they hurried fast in our
wake, tumbling and swaying, their stretched, drowned faces now lifted to
the moonlight, now over-washed in the long trenches of water. They were
rolled against the galleries of glass, on which their hair slapped like
ribbons of seaweed--a score of ghastly white corpses, with strained black
eyes and pointed stiff elbows crookt up in vain for air.

"I was mad, but I knew it all now. This was no house, but the good,
ill-fated vessel _Rayo,_ once bound for Jamaica, but on the voyage fallen
into the hands of the bloody buccaneer, Paul Hardman, and her crew made
to walk the plank, and most of her passengers. I knew that the dark
scoundrel had boarded and mastered her, and--having first fired and sunk
his own sloop--had steered her straight for the Cuban coast, making
disposition of what remained of the passengers on the way, and I knew
that my great-grandfather had been one of these doomed survivors, and
that he had been shot and murdered under orders of the ruffian that now
sat before me. All this, as retailed by one who sailed for a season under
Hardman to save his skin, is matter of old private history; and of common
report was it that the monster buccaneer, after years of successful
trading in the ship he had stolen, went into secret and prosperous
retirement under an assumed name, and was never heard of more on the high
seas. But, it seemed, it was for the great-grandson of one of his victims
to play yet a sympathetic part in the grey old tragedy.

"How did this come to me in a moment--or, rather, what was that dream
buzzing in my brain of 'proof' and 'copy' and all the tame stagnation
of a long delirium of order? I had nothing in common with the latter. In
some telepathic way--influenced by these past-dated surroundings--dropped
into the very den of this Procrustes of the seas, I was there to re-enact
the fearful scene that had found its climax in the brain of my ancestor.

"I rushed to the window, thence back to within a yard of the glowering
buccaneer, before whom I stood, with tost arms, wild and menacing.

"'They follow you!' I screamed. 'Passive, relentless, and deadly, they
follow in your wake and will not be denied. The strong, the helpless,
the coarse and the beautiful--all you have killed and mutilated in your
wanton devilry--they are on your heels like a pack of spectre-hounds, and
sooner or later they will have you in their cold arms and hale you down
to the secret places of terror. Look at Beston, who leads, with a fearful
smile on his mouth! Look at that pale girl you tortured, whose hair
writhes and lengthens--a swarm of snakes nosing the hull for some open
port-hole to enter by! Dog and devil, you are betrayed by your own
hideous cruelty!'

"He rose and struck at me blindly; staggered, and found his filthy voice
in a shriek of rage.

"'Jorinder! make hell of the galley-fire! Heat some irons red and fetch
out a bucket of pitch. We'll learn this dandy galloot his manners!'

"Wrought to the snapping-point of desperation, I sprang at and closed
with him; and we went down on the floor together with a heavy crash.
I was weaponless, but I would choke and strangle him with my hands. I had
him under, my fingers crookt in his throat. His eyeballs slipped forward,
like banana ends squeezed from their skins; he could not speak or cry,
but he put up one feeble hand and flapped it aimlessly. At that, in the
midst of my fury, I glanced above me, and saw a press of dim faces
crowding a dusk hatch; and from them a shadowy arm came through, pointing
a weapon; and all my soul reeled sick, and I only longed to be left time
to destroy the venomous horror beneath me before I passed.

"It was not to be. Something, a physical sensation like the jerk of a
hiccup, shook my frame; and immediately the waters of being seemed to
burst their dam and flow out peaceably into a valley of rest."

William Tyrwhitt paused, and "Well?" said I.

"You see me here," he said. "I woke this morning, and found myself lying
on the floor of that shattered and battered closet, and a starved demon
of a cat licking up something from the boards. When I drove her away,
there was a patch there like ancient dried blood."

"And how about your head?"

"My head? Why, the bullet seemed stuck in it between the temples; and
there I am afraid it is still."

"Just so. Now, William Tyrwhitt, you must take a Turkish, bath and some
cooling salts, and then come and tell me all about it again."

"Ah! you don't believe me, I see. I never supposed you would.
Good-night!"

But, when he was gone, I sat ruminating.

"That Captain Iron," I thought, "walked over the great rent in the floor
without falling through. Well, well!"




A LAZY ROMANCE


I had slept but two nights at King's Cobb, when I saw distinctly that the
novel with which I was to revolutionize society and my own fortunes, and
with the purpose of writing which in an unvexed seclusion I had buried
myself in this expedient hamlet on the South Coast, was withered in the
bud beyond redemption. To this lamentable canker of a seedling hope the
eternal harmony of the sea was a principal contributor; but Miss Whiffle
confirmed the blight. I had fled from the jangle of a city, and the
worries incidental to a life of threepenny sociabilities; and the result
was--

I had rooms on the Parade--a suggestive mouthful. But then the Parade is
such a modest little affair. The town itself is flung down a steep hill,
at the mouth of a verdurous gorge; and lies pitched so far as the very
waterside, a picturesque jumble of wall and roof. Its banked edges
bristle and stand up in the bight of a vaster bay, with a crooked
breakwater, like a bent finger, beckoning passing sails to its
harbourage--an invitation which most are coy of accepting. For the
attractions of King's Cobb are--comparatively--limited, and its nearest
station is a full six miles distant along a switchback road.

Possibly this last fact may have militated against the popularity of
King's Cobb as a holiday resort. If so, all the better; and may
enterprise for ever languish in the matter. For vulgarity can claim
no commoner purpose with fashion than is shown in that destruction of
ancient landmarks and double gilding of new which follows the "opening
out" of some unsophisticated colony of simple souls.

King's Cobb, if "remote and unfriended," is neither "melancholy" nor
"slow"; but it is small, and all its fine little history--for it has had
a stirring one--has ruffled itself out on a liliputian platform.

Than this, its insignificance, I desired nothing better. I wished to feel
the comparative importance of the individual, which one cannot do in
crowded colonies. I coveted surroundings that should be primitive--an
atmosphere in which my thoughts could speak to me coherent. I would be
as one in a cave, looking forth on sea, and sky, and the buoyant glory of
Nature; unvexed of conventions; untrammelled by social observances;
building up my enchanted palace of the imagination against such a
background as only the unsullied majesty of sky and ocean could present.
For the result was to crown with my name an epoch in literature; and
hither in future ages should the pilgrim stand at gaze, murmuring to
himself, 'And here he wrote it!'

I laid my head on my pillow, that first night of my stay, with a brimming
brain and a heart of high resolve. The two little windows, under a
thatched roof, of my sleeping place (_that_ lay over my sitting-room, and
both looked oceanwards) were open to the inpour of sweet hot air; and
only the regular wash of the sea below broke the close stillness of the
night. I say this was all; and, with the memory upon me, I could easily,
at any time, break the second commandment.

I had thought myself fortunate in my lodgings. They were in a most
charming old-world cottage--as I have said on the Parade--and at high
tide I could have thrown a biscuit into the sea with merely a lazy jerk.
My sitting-room put forth a semi-circular window--like a lighthouse
lantern--upon the very pathway, and it had been soothing during the
afternoon to look from out this upon the little world of sea and sky and
striding cliff that was temporarily mine. From the Parade four feet of
stone wall dipped to a second narrow terrace, and this, in its turn, was
but a step above a slope of shingle that ran down to the water.

Veritably had I pitched my tent on the wide littoral of rest. So I
thought with a smile, as I composed myself for slumber.

I slept, and I woke, and I lay awake for hours. Every vext problem of my
life and of the hereafter presented itself to me, and had to be argued
out and puzzled over with maddening reiteration. The reason for this was
evident and flagrant. It had woven itself into the tissue of my brief
unconsciousness, and was now recognised as, ineradicably, part of myself.

The tide was incoming, that was all, and the waves currycombed the beach
with a swishing monotony that would have dehumanized an ostler.

This rings like the undue inflation of a little theme. I ask no pity for
it, nor do I make apology for my weakness. Men there may be, no doubt,
to whom the unceasing recurrent thump and scream of a coasting tide on
shingle speaks, even in sleep, of the bountiful rhythm of Nature. I am
not one of them--at least, since I visited King's Cobb. The noise of the
waters got into my brain and stayed there. It turned everything else
out--sleep, thought, faith, hope, and charity. From that first awakening
my skull was a mere globe of stagnant fluid, for any disease germs that
listed to propagate in.

Perhaps I was too near the coast-line. The highest appreciations of
Nature's thunderous forces are conceived, I believe, in the muffled
seclusion of the study. I had heard of still-rooms. I did not quite know
what they were; but they seemed to me an indispensable part of seaside
lodgings, and for the rest of that night I ardently and almost tearfully
longed to be in one.

I came down in the morning jaded and utterly unrefreshed. It was patent
that I was in no state to so much as outline the preliminaries of my
great undertaking. "Use shall accustom me," I groaned. "I shall scarcely
notice it to-night."

And it was at this point that Miss Whiffle walked like a banshee into the
disturbed chambers of my life, and completed my demoralization.

I must premise that I am an exquisitively nervous man--one who would
accept almost ridiculous impositions if the alternative were a "scene."
Strangers, I fancy, are quick to detect the signs of this weakness in me;
but none before had ever ventured to take such outrageous advantage of
it as did Miss Whiffle, with the completest success.

This lady had secured me for a month. My rights extended over the
lantern-windowed sitting-room and the bedroom above it. They were to
include, moreover, board of a select quality.

"Select" represented Miss Whiffle's brazen mean of morality; and, indeed,
it is an elastic and accommodating word. One, for instance, may select an
aged gander for its wisdom, knowing that the youthful gosling is
proverbially "green." Miss Whiffle selected the aged gander for me, and I
gnawed its sinewy limbs without a protest. On a similar principle she
appeared to ransack the town shops for prehistoric joints (the locality
was rich in fossils), and vegetables that, like eggs, only grew harder
the more they were boiled.

I submitted, of course; and should have done no less by a landlady not so
obstreperously constituted. But this terrible person gauged and took me
in hand from the very morning following my arrival.

She came to receive my _orders_ after breakfast (tepid chicory and an
omelette like a fragment of scorched blanket) with her head wrapped up in
a towel. Thus habited she had the effrontery to trust the meal had been
to my liking. I gave myself away at once by weakly answering, "Oh,
certainly!"

"As to dinner, sir," she said faintly, "it is agreed, no kitching fire in
the hevening. That is understood."

I said, "Oh, certainly!" again.

"What I should recommend," she said--and she winced obtrusively at every
sixth word--"is an 'arty meal at one, and a light supper at height."

"That will suit me admirably," I said.

She tapped her fingers together indulgently.

"So I thought," she murmured. "Now, what do you fancy, sir?"

"Dear me!" I exclaimed, for her face was horribly contorted. "Are you in
pain?"

"Agonies!" said Miss Whiffle.

"Toothache?"

"Neuralgia, sir, for my sins."

"Is there--is there no remedy?"

She was taken with a sharp spasm of laughter, mirthless, but consciously
expressive of all the familiar processes of self-effacement under
torture.

"I arks nothing but my duty, sir," she said. "That is the myrrh and
balsam to a racking 'ed. Not but what I owns to a shrinking like unto
death over the thought of what lays before me this very morning. Rest and
quiet is needful, but it's little I shall get of either out of a kitching
fire in the dog days. And what would you fancy for your dinner, sir?"

"I am sorry," I murmured, "that you should suffer on my account. I
suppose there is nothing cold--"

"Not enough, sir, in all the 'ouse to bait a mousetrap. Nor would I
inconvenience you, if not for your own kind suggestion. But potted meats
is 'andy and ever sweet, and if I might make bold to propose a tin--"

"Very well. Get me what you like, Miss Whiffle."

"I must arks your pardin, sir. But to walk out in this 'eat, and every
rolling pebble under my foot a knife through my 'ed--no, sir. I make bold
to claim that consideration for myself."

"Leave it to me, then. I will do my own catering this morning."

Then I added, in the forlorn hope of justifying my moral ineptitude to
myself, "If you take my advice, you will lie down."

"And where, sir?" she answered, with a particularly patient smile. "The
beds is unmade as yet, sir," she went on, in a suffering decline, "and
rumpled sheets is thorns to a bursting brain."

Then she looked meaningly at the sitting-room sofa.

"I made bold to think, if you _'ad_ 'appened to been a-going to bathe,
the only quiet place in the 'ouse--" she murmured, in semi-detached
sentences, and put her hand to her brow.

Five minutes later (I fear no one will credit it) I was outside the
house, and Miss Whiffle was installed, towel and all, upon my sofa.

For a moment I really think the outrageous absurdity of the situation did
goad me to the tottering point of rebellion. I had not the courage,
however, to let myself go, and, as usual, succumbed to the tyranny of
circumstances.

It was a blazing morning. The flat sea lay panting on its coasts, as if,
for all its liquid sparkle, it were athirst; and the town, under the oven
of its hills, burned red-hot, like pottery in a kiln.

I went and bought my tinned meat (a form of preserve quite odious to me)
and strolled back disconsolately to the Parade. Occasionally, flitting
past the lantern window, I would steal a side glance into the cool
luminosity of my own inaccessible parlour; and there always, reclining at
her ease upon my sofa, was the ineradicable presentment of Miss Whiffle.

At one o'clock I ventured to reclaim my own, and sat me down at table, a
scorched and glutinous wreck, too overcome with lassitude to tackle the
obnoxious meal of my own providing. And to the sofa, already made
familiar of that dishonoured towel, I was fain presently to confide the
empty problem of my own aching head.

All this was but the forerunner and earnest of a month's long martyrdom.
That night the sea had me by the nerves again, and for many nights
after; and, although I grew in time to a certain tolerance of the booming
monotony, it was the tolerance of a dully resigned, not an indifferent,
brain.

When it came to the second morning, not only the novel, but the mere idea
of my ever having contemplated writing one, was a thing with me to feebly
marvel over. And from that time I set myself down to exist and broil
only, doling out a languid interest to the locality, the shimmer of whose
baking hill-sides made all life a quivering, glaring phantom of itself.

Miss Whiffle tyrannized over me more or less according to her mood; but
she did not usurp my sitting-room again. I used to sit by the hour at
the lantern window, in a sort of greasy blankness, like a meat pudding,
and vacantly scrutinize the loiterers who passed by on the hot asphalt of
the Parade. Screened by the window curtains, I could see and hear without
endangering my own privacy; and many were the odd interchanges of speech
that fell from strangers unconscious of a listener.

One particularly festering day after dinner I had the excitement of quite
a pretty little quarrel for dessert. Miss Whiffle had stuffed me with
suet, in meat and pudding, to a point of stupefaction that stopped short
only of absolute insensibility; and in this state I took up my usual post
at the window, awaiting in swollen vacuity the possibilities of the
afternoon.

On the horizon violet-hot sea and sky showed scarce a line of demarcation
between them. Nearer in the waves snored stertorously from exhausted
lungs, as if the very tide were in extremis. Not a breath of air fanned
the pitiless Parade, and the sole accent on life came from a droning,
monotonous voice pitched from somewhere in querulous complaint.

"Frarsty!" it wailed, "Frarsty! I warnt thee!" and again, "I warnt thee,
Frarsty! Frarsty! Frar--r--r--rsty!" drawn out in an inconceivable
passionlessness of desire again and again, till I felt myself absorbing
the ridiculous yearning for an absurd person and inclined to weep
hysterical tears at his unresponsiveness.

Then through the suffocating miasma thridded another sound--the whine of
a loafing tramp slowly pleading along the house fronts--vainly, too, as
it appeared.

"Friends," went his formula, nasal and forcibly spasmodic in the best
gull-catcher style, "p'raps you will ask why I, a able-bodied man, are
asking for ass--ist--ance in your town. Friends, I answer, becorse I
cannot get work and becorse I cannot starve. Any honest work I would be
thankful for; but no one will give it to me."

Then followed an elaborate presentation, in singsong verse, of his own
undeserved indigence and the brutality of employers, and so the
recitation again:--

"Friends, the least ass--ist--ance would be welcome. I am a honest
British workman, and employ--ment I cannot ob--tain. You sit in your
com--for--ta--ble 'ouses, and I ask you to ass--ist a fellow creature,
driven to this for no fault of his own--for many can 'elp one where one
cannot 'elp many."

Then he hove into sight--a gastropodous tub of a fellow, with a rascally
red eye; and I shrank behind my curtains, for I never court parley with
such gentlemen.

He spotted me, of course,--rogues of his feather have a hawk's eye for
timid quarry,--and his bloated face appeared at the window.

"Sir--friend," he said, in a confidential, hoarse whisper, "won't you
'elp a starvin' British workman?"

I gave him sixpence, cursing inwardly this my concession to pure
timorousness, and the bestial mask of depravity vanished with a grin.

After that I was left to myself, heat and haze alone reigning without;
and presently, I think, I must have fallen into a suetty doze, for I was
semi-conscious of voices raised in dispute for a length of time, before I
roused to the fact that two people were quarrelling just outside my
window.

They were a young man--almost a boy--and a girl of about his own age; and
both evidently belonged to the labouring classes.

She was, I took occasion to notice, aggressively pretty in that hot red
and black style that finds its warmest admirers in a class cultivated
above that to which she belonged; and she was scorning and flouting her
slow, perplexed swain with that over-measure of vehemence characteristic
of a sex devoid of the sense of proportion.

"Aw!" she was saying, as I came into focus of their dispute. "That's the
moral of a mahn, it is. Yer ter work when ye like an' ter play when ye
like, and the girls hahs ter sit and dangle their heels fer yer honours'
convenience."

"I doan't arlays get my likes, Jenny, or I shud a' met you yesterday."

"Ay, as yer promused."

"We worked ower late pulling the lias, I tell yer. 'Twould 'a' meant half
a day's wages garn if I'd com', and theer, my dear, 'ud been reason
for another delay in oor getting spliced."

"You're fine and vulgar, upon my word! A little free, too, and a little
mistook. I've no mind ter get spliced, as yer carls it, wi' a chap as
cannot see's way ter keep tryst."

"Yer doan't mean thart?"

"Doan't I? Yer'll answer fer me in everything, 't seems. But yer've got
enough ter answer fer yerself, Jack Curtice. I'm none of the sort ter go
or stay at anny mahn's pleasure. There's kerps and dabs in the sea yet,
Jack Curtice; and fatter ones ter fish fer, too."

"But yer doan't understand."

"I understand my own vally; and that isn't ter be kep' drarging my toes
on the Parade half an a'rtenoon fer a chap as thinks he be better
engaged summer else."

"And yer gone ter break wi' me fer thart?"

"Good-bye, Mr. Curtice," she said, and jerked her nose high and walked
off.

Now here was an inconsistent jade, and I felt sorry and relieved for the
sake of the young fellow.

He stood, after the manner of his kind, amazed and speechless. Man's
saving faculty of logic was in him, but tongue-tied; and he could not
express his intuitive recognition of the self-contradictory. Such natures
frequently make reason articulate through a blow--a rough way of knocking
her into shape, but commonly effectual. Jack, however, was evidently a
large gentle swain of the dumb-suffering type--one of those unresisting
leviathans of good-humour, upon whom a woman loves to vent that passion
of the illogical which an antipathetic sex has vainly tried to laugh her
out of conceit with.

I peered a little longer, and presently saw Mr. Curtice walk off in a
state compound of bewilderment and abject depression.

This was the beginning to me of an interest apart from that which had
brought me to King's Cobb. A real nutshell drama had usurped the place of
that fictitious one that had as yet failed to mark an epoch by so much as
a scratch. I accepted the former as some solace for the intolerable
wrong inflicted upon me by the sea and Miss Whiffle.

I happened across my unconscious friends fairly frequently after that my
first introduction to them; so often, indeed, that, judged by what
followed, it would almost seem as if Fate, desiring record of an incident
in the lives of these two, had intentionally worked to discomfit me from
a task more engrossing.

Apart, and judged on their natural merits, I took Jack for a good stolid
fellow, innately and a little aggravatingly virtuous, and perhaps a
trifle more just than generous.

Jenny, I felt, had the spurious brilliancy of that division of her sex
that claims as intuition an inability to master the processes of thought,
and attributes to this faculty all fortunate conclusions, but none that
is faulty. I thought, with some commiseration for him, that at bottom her
manner showed some real leaning towards the lover she had discarded--that
she felt the need of a pincushion, as it were, into which to stick the
little points of her malevolence. I think I was inclined to be hard on
her. I have felt the same antagonism many times towards beauty that was
unattainable by me. For she was richly pretty, without doubt.

When in the neighbourhood of one another, however, they were wont to
assume an elaborate artificiality of speech and manner in communion with
their friends, that was designed with each to point the moral of a
complete indifference and forgetfulness. But the girl was by far the
better actor; and not only did she play her own part convincingly, but
she generally managed to show up in her rival that sense of mortification
that it was his fond hope he was effectually concealing.

A fortnight passed; and, lo! there came the end of the lovers' quarrel in
all dramatic appropriateness.

By that time the doings of Jack and Jenny had come to be my mind's only
refuge from such a vacancy of outlook as I had never before experienced.
"All down the coast," that summer, "the languid air did swoon." The earth
broiled, and very thought perspired; and Miss Whiffle's voice was like a
steam-whistle.

One day, as I was exhaustedly trifling with my meridian meal, and
balancing the gratification against the trouble of eating lumpy tapioca
pudding, a muffled, rolling thud broke upon my ears, making the window
and floor vibrate slightly. It seemed so distant and unimportant that I
took no notice of it; and it was only when, ten minutes later, I became
aware that certain excited townsfolk were scurrying past outside that I
roused slowly to the thought that here was something unusual toward.
Then, indeed, a sort of insane _abandon_ flashed into life in me, and I
leapt to my feet with maniac eyes. Something stirring in King's Cobb! I
should have thought nothing less than the last trump could have pricked
it out of its accustomed grooves; and that even then it would have
slipped back into them with a sluggish sense of grievance after the first
flourish.

I left my congealing dish, snatched up my hat, and joined the attenuated
chase. It was making in one direction--a point, apparently, to the east
of the town. As I sped excited through the narrow and tortuous streets, a
great bulge of acrid dust bellied upon me suddenly at a corner; and,
turning the latter, I plunged into a perfect fog of the same gritty
smoke. In this, phantom figures moved, appeared, and vanished; hoarse
cries resounded, and a general air of wild confusion and alarm prevailed.
For the moment, I felt as if some history of the town's past were
re-enacting, as if a sudden swoop of Frank or Dutchman upon the coast had
called forth all the defensive ardour of its people. There was nothing of
gunpowder in the stringent opacity, however; but, rather, a strong
suggestion of ancient and disintegrated mortar.

A shape sped by me in the fog, and I managed to stay and question it.

"What is it all?" I asked.

"House fell down," was the breathless answer; "and a poor chap left aloft
on the ruins."

Then I grew as insane as the rest of the company. I strode aimlessly to
and fro, striving at every coign to pierce with my eyesight the white
drift. I pushed back my hat; I gnawed my knuckles; I felt that I could
not stay still, yet knew not for what point to make. Almost I felt that
in another moment I should screech out--when a breath of sea air caught
the skirt of the cloud, and rolled the bulk of it up and away over
the house-tops.

Then, at once, was revealed to me the cause and object of all this
gaggle, and confusion, and outcry. It was revealed to the crowd, too,
that stood about me, and, in the revelation, the noise of its mouthing
went off and faded, till a tense silence reigned and the murmur of one's
breathing seemed a sacrilege.

I saw before me a ruinous space--a great ragged gap in a lofty block of
brick and mortar. This block had evidently, at one time, consisted of two
high semi-detached houses, and of these, one lay a monstrous heap of
tumbled and shattered _debris_. A ruin, but not quite; for, as the course
of a landslip will often tower with great spires and pinnacles of rock
and ragged earth that have withstood the pull and onset of the moving
hill-side, so here a high sheet of shattered wall, crowned with a cluster
of toppling chimneys, stood up stark in the midst of the general
overthrow. And there aloft, clinging to the crumbling stack, that might
at any moment part, and fling and crush him into the savage ruin below,
stood the figure of a solitary man. And the man was my friend of the
Parade, Jack Curtice.

I could see and recognise him plainly--even the frantic clutch of his
hands and the deadly pallor of his face.

The block--an ancient one--had been, as I afterwards learned, in course
of demolition when the catastrophe took place. At the moment the poor
fellow had been alone at his work, and now his destruction seemed a mere
matter of seconds.

White dust rose from the heap, like smoke from an extinguished fire; and
ever, as we looked, spars and splinters of brick tore away from the high
fragment yet standing, and plunged with a thud into the wrack underneath.

It was glaringly evident that not long could elapse before wall and man
would come down with a hideous, shattering run. A slip, a wilder clutch
at his frail support, might in an instant precipitate the calamity.

Then from the upturned faces of the women cries of pity and anguish broke
forth, and men nipped one another's arms and gasped, and knew not what
counsel to offer.

"Do summut! do summut!" cried the women; and their mates only shook off
their pleadings with a peevish show of callousness, that was merely the
dumb anguish of undemonstrativeness. For, while their throats were thick,
their practical brains were busy.

Some one suggested a ladder, and in a moment there was an aimless
scurrying and turning amongst the women.

"Why don't 'ee stir theeself and hunt for un, Jarge?" panted one that
stood near me, twisting hysterically upon a slow youth at her side.

"Shut up, 'Liza!" he answered gruffly; then, with a sort of indrawn
gasp--"Look art the wall, lass--look art the wall!"

It was obvious to the least knowing what he meant. To lean so much as a
broomstick, it seemed, against that tottering ruin would infallibly
complete its destruction.

One foot of the clinging figure high up was seen to move slightly, and a
little bomb of mortar span out into the air and burst into dust on a
projecting brick. A long shrill sigh broke from the crowd.

Then the male wiseheads came together, and, desperate to snap the chord
of impotent suspense, mooted and rejected plan after plan that their sane
judgment knew from the first to be impracticable.

At the outset it was plainly impossible for a soul to approach the ruins.
Apart from the almost certain mangling such a venture would entail upon
the explorer, the least stirring or shifting of the great heap of rubbish
flung about the base of the wall would certainly risk the immediate
collapse of the latter.

Success, it was evident, must come, if at all, from a distance--but how?

One suggested slinging a rope from window to window of adjacent houses
across the path of the broken chimney-stack--a good method of rescue had
circumstances lent themselves to it. They did not. On the ruin side a
wide space intervened; on the other, the sister house to that which had
fallen, and which was also included in the order of demolition, was
itself affected by the loss of its support, and leaned in a sinister
manner, its party walls bulged and rent towards the scene of devastation.

Nothing short of the great Roc itself could, it seemed, snatch the poor
fellow from his death perch.

There came suddenly an ominous silence. Then strode out in front of his
fellows--and he moved so close to the ruin that the women whimpered and
held one another--an old, rough-bearded chap in stained corduroy.

"Whart's he gone to do?" gasped the sibilant voices.

He hollowed his hands to his mouth, he cleared his hoarse throat two or
three times. Only a little trailing screech came from it at first. Then
he cursed his weakness, and pulled himself together.

"Jark! Jark Curtus!" he hailed, in an explosive voice.

"Hullo!"

The weak, small response floated down.

"My lard! my poor lard! we've thought oor best, arnd we can do nothun
fower 'ee."

Instantly a shrill protest of horror went up from the women. This was not
what they had expected.

"What! leave the mis'rable boy to his fate!"

There followed a storm of hisses from them--absolutely unreasonable, of
course. The old fellow turned to retire, with hanging head.

At the moment a girl, flushed, blowzed, breathless, broke through the
skirt of the mob and barred his retreat.

"Oh!" she panted, shaking her jet-black noddle at him--"here's a parcel
o' gor-crows for discussin' help to a Christian marn! What! a score o'
wiselings, and not one to hit oot the means and the way?"

She had only just heard, and had run a mile to the rescue of her old lad.

The women caught her enthusiasm, and jeered and cheered formlessly, as
their manner is; for each desired for her own voice a separate
recognition.

Jenny pushed rudely past the abashed gaffer. She was hatless, and her
hair had tumbled abroad. She raised her face, with the eyes shining.

"Jack!" she cried, in a shrill voice--"Jack!"

The little weak response wailed down again.

"Jenny! I'm anigh done."

"Hold on a bit longer, Jack!" she screamed. "Don't move till I tell 'ee.
I'm agone to save thee, Jack!"

Again from the women a rapturous cry broke out. What incompetent noodles
appeared their masters in juxtaposition with this fearless, defiant
creature.

The man up aloft seemed to shiver in the shock of the outcry; and once
more some fragments of mortar rolled from under his feet and bounded into
the depths. The girl rounded upon the voicers.

"Hold thee blazing tongues!" she cried in fury. "D'ee warnt to shake un
from his perch?"

She turned to the foremost group of men.

"A couple o' long scaffold poles fro' yonder!" she cried hurriedly, "and
twenty fathom o' rope!"

Her quick eyes and intelligence had found what she wanted in a builder's
yard no great distance away.

"Follow, a dozen o' you!" she cried; and sped off in the direction she
had indicated.

Just twelve men, and no more, obeyed her. She was mistress of the
situation, and the crowd felt it. They made room for the dominant
intellect, and awaited developments, watching, in suppressed excitement
and trepidation, the figure--whom exhaustion was slowly mastering--high
up above them.

Suddenly a sort of huge L-shaped structure moved down the street, until
it stood opposite the ruined house. Then, twisting and rearing itself
aloft, it took to itself the form of a lofty, slender gallows.

It was formed of a couple of forty-foot scaffolding poles, stoutly bound
and corded together, the base of one to the top of the other, so that
they stood at right angles. Five or six feet of the butt of the
horizontal one was projected beyond its lashings, and to this three
lengths of rope were fastened, and trailed long ends in the dust as the
structure was held aloft and pushed and dragged into position.

"Now!" shrieked the girl, red-hot, reliant, never still for a moment; "as
marny as can hold to each end there, and swing the blessed boom out
towards him!"

Fifty may have responded. They swarmed like ants about the upraised pole,
and she drove them into position--a black knot of men hauling on the
triple cordage--left, right, and middle, like the ribs of a tent.

They saw her meaning and fell into place with a shout. To hold the
projecting pole levered up at that height was a test of weight and
muscle, even without their man on the end of it; but there were plenty
more to help pull, did their united force waver.

"Jack!" screamed the girl again, in a wildness of excitement. "Only a
second longer, Jack! Hold on by your eyelids, and snatch the stick
the moment it comes agen thee!"

The horizontal spar pointed down the street. Slowly the men worked round
with the ropes, and slowly the point of the pole turned in the direction
of the chimney-stack and its forlorn burden. There was room and to spare
for the process in the wide gap made by the tumbled house.

The crowd held its breath. Here and there a strangled sob was rent from
overstrained lungs; here and there the wailing voice of a baby whined
up and subsided.

The pole swung round with the toiling men--neared him on the ruin. He
turned his head and saw, shifted his position and staggered. Jenny gave a
piercing screech. The men, thinking something was wrong, paused a moment.

On the instant there came a crackling, tearing sound--a heaving roll--a
splintering crash and uproar. The man aloft was seen to make a flying
leap--or was it only a hurled fragment of the falling chimney?--and white
dust rose in a fog once more and blotted out all the tragedy that
might be enacting behind it.

A horrible silence succeeded, then a single woman yelled, and her cry was
echoed by fifty hoarse voices.

The noise came from those at the ropes. They were straining and tugging,
and some of them bobbed up and down like peas on a drum.

"More on ye! more on ye! We've hooked un, and he's got the pull of a sea
sarpint!"

The ropes became thick with striving men. The whole street resounded with
a medley of cries.

Then the point of the boom swung slowly out of the fog, and there was the
rescued man swinging and swaying at the end of it.

They lowered him gradually into the street. But the strain upon them was
awful, and he came down with a run the last few yards.

Then they let the angle of the gallows wheel over as it listed, and stood
and mopped their hot foreheads, while the crowd rushed for the poor shaky
subject of all its turmoil.

I could not get within fifty feet of him; or, I think, I should have
given him and Jenny then and there all my fortune.

Later, I made their acquaintance in a casual way, and compromised with my
conscience by presenting them with a very pretty tea-service to help them
set up house with.




BLACK VENN

I


"George," said Plancine.

"Please say it again," said George.

She dimpled at him and obeyed, with the soft suggestion of accent that
was like a tender confidence. Her feet were sunk in Devonshire grass;
her name was on the birth register of a little Devonshire sea-town; yet
the sun of France was in her veins as surely as his caress was on her
lips.

Therefore she said "George" with a sweet dragging sound that greatly
fluttered the sensibilities of the person addressed, and not infrequently
led them to alight, like Prince Dummling's queen bee, on the very mouth
of that honeyed flower of speech.

Now Plancine put her cheek on her George's rough sleeve, and said she,--

"I have a confession to make--about something a little silly.
Consequently I have postponed it till now, when it is too dark for
you to see my face."

"Never!" he murmured fervently. "A double cataract could not deprive me
of that vision. It is printed here, Plancine."

He smacked his chest hard on the left side.

"Yet it sounds hollow, George?"

"Yes," he said. "It is a sandwich-box, an empty one. I would not consign
your image to such a deplorable casket. My heart was what I meant. How I
hate sandwiches--misers shivering between sheets--a vile gastronomic
economy!"

"Poor boy! I will make you little dough-cakes when you go apainting."

"Plancine! Your image here, yes. But your dough-cakes--!"

"Then keep to your sandwiches, sir."

"I must. But the person who invented them was no gentleman!"

"Papa would like to hear you say that."

"Say what?"

"Admit the possibility of any social distinction."

"It is only a question of sandwiches."

"George, must you be a Chartist and believe in Feargus O'Connor?"

"My soul, I cannot go back on my principles, for all that the violets of
your eyes have sprouted under the shadow of a venerable family-tree."

"That is very prettily said. You may kiss my thumb-nail with the white
spot in it for luck. No, sir. That is presuming. Now I am snug, and you
may talk."

"Plancine, I am a son of the people. I hold by my own. No doubt, if I had
blue blood to boast of, I should keep a vial of it in a prominent place
on the drawing-room mantelpiece. As it is, I confess my desire is to
carve for myself a name in art that shall be independent of all
adventitious support; to answer to my vocation straight, upright, and
manly."

"That is better than nobility--though I have pride in my own. I wish papa
thought so. Yet he has both himself."

"The fine soul! For fifty years he has stood square to adversity with a
smile on his face. Could I ever achieve that? Already I cry out on
poverty; because I want an unencumbered field for work, and--yes, one
other trifle."

"One other trifle, George?"

He took Plancine's face between his hands and looked very lovingly into
her eyes.

"I think I did the old man too much honour," he said. "You nestling of
eighteen--what credit to scout misfortune with such a bird at one's
side!"

"Ah! but papa is sixty-nine and the bird but eighteen."

"And eighteen years of heaven are a good education in happiness."

So they coo'd, these two. The June scents of the little garden were
wafted all about them. The moon had come up out of the sea, and, finding
a trellis of branches over their heads, hung their young brows with
coronals of shadowy leaves, like the old dame she was, rummaging in her
trinket box for something for her favourites.

In the dimly-luminous parlour (that smelt of folios and warm coffee) of
the little dark house in the background, the figure of papa, poring at
the table over geological maps, was visible.

Fifty years ago an _emigre_, denounced, proscribed, and escaped from the
ruin of a shattered society: here, in '49, a stately, large-boned man,
placidly enjoying the consciousness of a serene dignity maintained at the
expense of much and prolonged self-effacement--this was papa.

Grey hair, thinning but slightly near the temples; grey moustache and
beard pointed _de bouc_; flowered dressing-gown girdled about a heart
as simple as a child's--this was papa, papa who grubbed over his ordnance
surveys while the young folks outside whispered of the stars.

Right beneath them--the latter--a broad gully of the hills went plunging
precipitously, all rolled with leaf and flower, to the undercliff of soft
blue lias and the very roof ridges of King's Cobb, whose walls and
chimneys, now snowed with light, fretted a scallop of the striding bay
that swept the land here like a scythe.

Plancine's village, a lofty appanage or suburb of this little seaboard
town at the hill-foot, seemed rather the parent stock from which the
other had emancipated itself. For all down the steep slope that fled
from Upper to King's Cobb was flung a _debris_ of houses that, like the
ice-fall of a glacier, would appear to have broken from the main body
and gone careering into the valley below.

It was in point of fact, however, but a subordinate hamlet--a hanging
garden for the jaded tourist in the dog days, when his soul stifled in
the oven of the sea-level cliffs--an eyrie for Plancine, and for George,
the earnest painter, a Paradise before the fall.

And now says George, "We have talked all round your confession, and still
I wait to give you absolution."

"I will confess. I read it in one of papa's books that is called the
_Talmud_."

"Gracious me! you should be careful. What did you read?"

"That whoever wants to see the souls of the dead--"

"Plancine!"

"--must take finely sifted ashes, and strew them round his bed; and in
the morning he will see their foot-tracks, as a cock's. I did it."

"You did?"

"Last night, yes. And what a business I had afterwards sweeping them up!"

"And did you see anything?"

"Something--yes--I think so. But it might have been mice. There are
plenty up there."

"Now you are an odd Plancine! What did you want with the ghosts of the
dead?"

"I will tell you, you tall man; and you will not abuse my confidence.
George, for all your gay independence, you must allow me a little
family pride and a little pathetic interest in the fortunes of the dead
and gone De Jussacs."

"It is Mademoiselle De Jussac that speaks."

"It is Plancine, who knows so little:--that 'The Terror' would have
guillotined her father, a boy of fourteen: that he escaped to Prussia, to
Belgium, to England; for six years always a wanderer and a fugitive: that
he was wrecked on this dear coast and, penniless, started life anew
here on his little accomplishments: that he made out a meagre existence,
and late in the order of years (he was fifty) married an expatriated
countrywoman, who died--George, my mother died when I was seventeen
months old--and that is where I stop. My good, big father--so lonely, so
poor, and so silent! He tells me little. He speaks scantily of the past.
But he was a Vicomte and is the last of his line; and I wanted the ghosts
to explain to me so much that I have never learned."

The moonlight fell upon her sweet, pale, uplifted face. There were tears
in her eyes that glittered like frost.

But George, for all his love, showed a little masculine impatience.

"Reserve is very good," he said; "but we can't all be Lord Burleighs by
holding our tongues. There is a sort of silence that is pregnant with
nothing."

"George, you cannot mean to insult my father?"

"No, dear. But why does he make such a mystery of his past? I would have
mine as clear as a window, for all to look through. Why does he treat me
with such suave and courteous opposition--permitting my suit, yet
withholding his consent?"

"If you could be less democratic, dear--"

"It is a religion with me--not a brutal indulgence."

"Perhaps he cannot dissociate the two. Then, he admires your genius and
commends your courage; but your poor purse hungers, my lover, and he
desires riches for his Plancine."

"And Plancine?"

"She will die a grey-haired maid for thee, 'O Richard! O my king!'"

"My sweet--my bird--my wife! Oh, that you could be that now and kiss me
on to fortune! I should be double-souled and inspired. A few months, and
Madame la Vicomtesse should 'walk in silk attire.' I flame at the
picture. Why will your father not yield you gracefully, instead of plying
us with that eternal enigma of Black Venn?"

"Because enthusiasm alone may not command wealth," said a deep voice near
them.

Papa had come upon them unobserved. The young man wheeled and charged
while his blood was hot.

"Mr. De Jussac, it is a shame to hold me in this unending suspense."

"Is it not better than decided rejection?"

"I have served like Jacob. You cannot doubt my single-hearted devotion?"

"I doubt nothing, my George" (about _his_ accent there was no tender
compromise)--"I doubt nothing, but that the balance at your bankers' is
excessive."

"You would not value Plancine at so much bullion?"

"But yes, my friend; for bullion is the algebraic formula that represents
comfort. When Black Venn slips his apron--"

George made a gesture of impatience.

"When Black Venn slips his apron," repeated the father quietly, "I shall
be in a position to consider your suit."

"That is tantamount to putting me off altogether. It is ungenerous. It is
preposterous. You may or may not be right; but it is simply farcical
(Plancine cried, "George!"--but he went on warmly, nevertheless) to make
our happiness contingent on the possible tumbling down of a bit of old
cliff--an accident that, after all, may never happen."

"Ah!" the quiet, strong voice went on; and in the old eyes turned
moonwards one might have fancied one could read a certain pathos of
abnegation, or approaching self-sacrifice; "but it will, and shortly, for
I prophesy. It was no idle cruelty of mine that first suggested this
condition, but a natural reluctance to sign myself back to utter
loneliness."

Plancine cried, "Papa! papa!" and sprang into his arms.

"A little patience," said De Jussac, pressing his moustache to the round
head, "and you will honour this weary prophet, I think. I was up on the
cliff to-day. The great crack is ever widening. A bowling wind, a loud
thunderstorm, and that apron of the hill will tear from its bondage and
sink sweltering down the slopes."

In the moment of speaking a tremor seized all his limbs, his eyes glared
maniacal, his outstretched arm pointed seawards.

"The guillotine!" he shrieked, "the guillotine!"

In the offing of the bay was a vessel making for the unseen harbour
below. It stood up black against the moonlight, its sails and yards
presenting some fantastic resemblance to that engine of blood.

George stepped back and hung his head embarrassed. He had more than once
been witness of a like seizure. It was the guillotine fright--the fright
that had smitten the boy of fourteen, and had pursued the man ever since
with periodic attacks of illusion. Anything--a branch, a door-post, a
window, would suggest the hateful form during those periods--happily
brief--when the poor mind was temporarily unhinged. No doubt, in earlier
years, the fits had occurred frequently. Now they were rare, and
generally, it seemed, attributable to some strong excitement or emotion.

Plancine knew how to act. She put her hand over the frantic eyes, and led
the old man stumbling up the garden path. She was going to sing to him
from the little sweet folk-ballads of the old gay France before the
trouble came--

_"The king would wed his daughter
  Over the English sea;
But never across the water
  Shall a husband come to me."_

Love floated on the freshet of her voice straight into the heart of the
young man who stood without.




II


Perhaps at first it had not been the least of the bitterness in M. De
Jussac's cup of calamity that his mere pride of name must adjust itself
to its altered conditions. That the Vicomte De Jussac should have been
expatriated because he declined when called upon to contribute his
heart's blood to the red conduit in the Faubourg St. Antoine was
certainly an infamy, but one of which the very essence was that
unquestioning acknowledgment of his rank. That the land of his adoption
should have dubbed him Mr. Jussuks--in stolid unconsciousness, too, of
the solecism--was an outrage of a totally different order--an outrage
only to be condoned on the score that an impenetrable insular
_gaucherie_, and not a malicious impertinence, was responsible for it.

Mr. Jussuks had, however, outlived his sense of the injurious
appellation; had outlived much prejudice, the wear of poverty, his memory
of many things, and, very early, his scorn of the plebeian processes that
to the impecunious are a condition of living at all. He was certainly a
man of courageous independence, inasmuch as from the hour of his setting
foot in England--and that was at the outset of the century--he had
controlled his own little fortunes without a hand to help him over the
deep places.

Of his first struggles little is known but this--that for years, turning
to account some small knowledge of draughtsmanship he had acquired, he
found employment in ladies' academies, of which there was a plenitude at
that date in King's Cobb.

That, however, which brought him eventually into a modest prominence--not
only in that same beautiful but indifferently known watering-place (upon
which he had happened, it would appear, fortuitously), but elsewhere and
amongst men of a certain mark--was a discovery--or the practical
application of one--which in its result procured him a definite object in
life, together with the means to pursue it.

Ammonites, and such small geological fry, were to be found by the
thousand in the petrified mud beds of the Cobb region; but it was left to
the ingenuity, aided by good fortune, of the foreigner to unearth from
the flaking and perishing cliffs of lias some of the earliest and finest
specimens of the ichthyo- and plesio-saurus that a past world has yielded
to the naturalists.

Out of these the _emigre_ made money, and so was enabled to pursue and
enlarge upon his researches. Presently he prospered into a competence,
married (poor Mademoiselle Belleville, of the Silver Street Academy, who
died of typhoid at the end of a couple of summers), and so grew into the
kindly old age of the absorbed and gentle naturalist, with his Plancine
budding at his side.

What in all these fifty years had he forgotten? His name, his rank, his
very origin? Much, no doubt. But that there was one haunting memory that
had dwelt with him throughout, his child and her lover were to learn--one
memory, and that dreadful recurring illusion of the guillotine.

"When Black Venn slips his apron, I shall be in a position to consider
your suit."

Surely that was an odd and enigmatical condition, entirely remote from
the subject at issue? Yet from the moment of the first impassioned
pleadings of the stricken George, De Jussac had insisted upon it as one
from which there should be no appeal.

Now the Black Venn referred to was a great mound of lias that rolled up
and inland, in the far sweep of the bay, from the giddy margin of the
lower ruin of cliffs. These--mere compressed mountains of mud, blown by
the winds and battered by the sea--were in a constant state of yawn and
collapse. Yard by yard they yielded to the scourge of Time, and
landslides were of common occurrence.

All along the middle slope of Black Venn itself, a wide, deep fissure,
dark and impenetrable, had stretched from ages unrecorded. But the
eventual opening-out of this crevasse, and the consequent subsidence of
the incline, or apron, below it, had been foretold by Mr. De Jussac; and
this, in fact, was the condition to which he had alluded.




III


"Mr. De Jussac! do you hear me?"

"I am coming, my friend."

The light shining steadily through a front window of the cottage
flickered and shifted. The young man in the rain and storm outside danced
with impatience.

Suddenly the door opened, and Plancine's father stood there, candle in
hand.

"What is it, my George?"

"The hill, sir--the hill! It's fallen! You were right. You must stand by
your word. Black Venn has slipped his apron!"

"My God, no!"

There were despair and exultation in his voice.

"My God, no!" he whispered again, and dived into a cupboard under the
stair.

Thence he reappeared with a horn lantern and his old blue cloak.

"Come, then!" he cried. "My hour is upon me!"

"Mr. De Jussac, it will wait till the morning."

"No, no, no! Do you trifle with your destiny? It has happened
opportunely, while all are within doors and we have a clear field. How do
you know? have you seen? Is it possible to descend to it from above?"

"I passed there less than an hour ago. It is possible, I am sure."

They set off hurriedly through the rain-beaten night. Not a word passed
between them as they left the village and struck into the high-valley
road that ran past, at a moderate distance, the head of the bay. De
Jussac strode rapidly in advance of his companion. His long cloak whirled
in the blast; it flogged his gaunt limbs all set to intense action. He
seemed uplifted, translated--like one in whom the very article of a
life-long faith, or monomania, is about to be justified.

Toiling onward, like driven cattle, they swerved from the road presently
and breasted a sharp incline. Their boots squelched on the sodden turf;
the wind bore on them heavily.

George saw the dancing lanthorn go up the slope in front of him like a
will-o'-the-wisp--stop, and swing steady, heard the loud cry of
jubilation that issued from the withered throat.

"It is true! The moment is realized!"

They stood together on the verge of the upper lip of the fissure. It was
a cliff now, twenty, thirty feet to its base. The lower ground had
fallen like a dead jaw; had slipped--none so great a distance--down the
slope leading to the under-cliff, and lay a billowing mass subsided upon
itself.

De Jussac would stand not an instant.

"We must climb down--somehow, anyhow!" he cried feverishly. "We must
search all along what was once the bottom of the cleft."

"It is a risk, sir. Why not wait till the morning?"

"No, no! now! My God! I demand it. Others may forestall us if we delay.
See, my friend, I wish but my own; and what proof of right have I if
another should snatch the treasure?"

"The treasure?"

"It is our fortune that lies there--yours, and mine, and the little
Plancine's. Do I know what I say? Hurry, hurry, hurry! while my heart
does not burst."

He forced the lanthorn into the young man's hands. He was panting and
sobbing like a child. Before the other realized his intention, he had
flung himself upon his hands and knees, had slipped over the edge, and
was scrambling down the broken wall of lias.

There was nothing for George but to take his own life in hand and humour
his venerated elder. He followed with the lanthorn, thinking of Plancine
a little, and hoping he should fall on a soft place.

But they got down in safety, breathing hard and extremely dirty. Caution,
it is true, reacts very commonly upon itself.

The moment his companion's feet touched bottom, De Jussac snatched the
light from his hand, roughly enough to send him off his balance, and went
scurrying to and fro along the face of the cliff like a mad thing.

"I cannot find it!" he cried, rushing back after an interval--nervous, in
an agony of restlessness--a very pitiable old man.

George spoke up from the ground.

"Find what?" said he, feeling all sopped and dazed.

"The box--the casket! It could never perish. It was of sheet-iron. Look,
look, my friend! Your eyes are younger than mine--a box, a foot long, of
hard iron!"

"I am sitting upon something hard," said George.

He sprang to his feet and took the lanthorn.

"Bones," said he, peering down. "Some old mastodon, I expect. Is this
your treasure?"

De Jussac was glaring. His head drooped lower and lower. His lips were
parted, and the line of strong white teeth showed between them. His
voice, when he spoke, was quite fearful in its low intensity.

"Bones--yes, and human. Where they lie, the other must be near. Ah,
Lacombe, Lacombe; you will yield me my own at last!"

He was shaking a slow finger at the poor remnants--a rib or two, the half
of a yellow skull.

Suddenly he was down on his knees, tearing at the black, thick soil,
diving into it, tossing it hither and thither.

A pause, a rending exclamation, and he was on his feet again with a
scream of ecstasy. An oblong casket, rusty, corroded, but unbroken, was
in his hand.

"Now," he whispered, sibilant through the wind, controlling himself,
though he was shaking from head to foot, "now to return as we have come.
Not a word, not a word till we have this safe in the cottage!"

They found, after some search, a difficult way up. By-and-by they stood
once more on the lip of the fall, and paused for breath.

It was at this very instant that De Jussac dropped the box beside him and
threw up his hands.

"The guillotine!" he shrieked, and fell headlong into the pit he had just
issued from.




IV


The poor bandaged figure; the approaching death; the dog whining softly
in the yard.

"I am dying, my little Plancine?"

The girl's forehead was bowed on the homely quilt.

"Nay, cry not, little one! I go very happy. That (he indicated by a
motion of his eyelids the fatal box, which, yet unopened, lay on a table
by the sunny window) shall repay thee for thy long devotion, for thy
poverty, and for thy brave sweetness with the old papa."

"No, no, no!"

"But they are diamonds, Plancine--such diamonds, my bird. They have
flashed at Versailles, at the little Trianon. They were honoured to lie
on the breast of a beautiful and courageous woman--thine aunt, Plancine;
the most noble the Comtesse de la Morne. She gave her wealth, almost
her life, for her king--all but her diamonds. It was at Brussels, whither
I had escaped from The Terror--I, a weak and desolate boy of but
fourteen. I lived with her, in her common, cheap lodging. For five years
we made out our friendless and deserted existence in company. In truth,
we were an embarrassment, and they looked at us askance. Long after her
mind failed her, the memory of her own former beauty dwelt with her; yet
she could not comprehend but that it was still a talisman to conjure
with. Even to the end she would deck herself and coquet to her glass. But
she was good and faithful, Plancine; and, at the last, when she was
dying, she gave me this box. 'It contains all that is left to me of my
former condition,' she said. 'It shall make thy fortune for thee in
England, my nephew, whither thou must journey when poor Dorine is
underground.' By that I knew it was her cherished diamonds she bequeathed
me. 'They do not want thee here,' she said. 'Thou must take boat for
England when I am gone.'

"But George, my friend!"

The young man was standing sorrowful by the open window. He could have
seen the sailing-boats in the bay, the sailing clouds in the sky placidly
floating over a world of serene and verdurous loveliness. But his vision
was all inward, of the piteous calm, following storm and disaster, in
which the dying voice from the bed was like the lapping of little waves.

He came at once and stood over Plancine, not daring to touch her.

"It was not wilfulness, but my great love," said the broken, gentle
voice, "that made the condition. All of you I cannot extol, knowing what
I have known. But you are an honest gentleman and a true, my brave; and
you shall make this dearest a noble husband."

Waveringly George stole his hand towards the bowed head and let it rest
there.

From the battered face a smile broke like flowers from a blasted soil.

"Withholding my countenance only as I foresaw the means to enrich you
both were approaching my grasp, I waited for the hill to break away that
I might recover my casket. It was there--it is here; and now my Plancine
shall never know poverty more, or her husband restrict the scope of his
so admirable art on the score of necessity."

He saw the eyes questioning what the lips would not ask.

"But how I lost it?" he said. "I took the box; I obeyed her behests. The
moment was acute; the times peremptory. I sailed for England, hurriedly
and secretly, never to this day having feasted my eyes on what lies
within there. With me went Lacombe, Madame's 'runner' in the old days--a
stolid Berrichon, who had lived upon her bounty to the end. The rogue!
the ingrate! We were wrecked upon this coast; we plunged and came ashore.
I know not who were lost or saved; but Lacombe and I clung together and
were thrown upon the land, the box still in my grasp. We climbed the
cliffs where a stair had been cut; we broke eastwards from the upper
slopes and staggered on through the blown darkness. Suddenly Lacombe
stopped. The day was faint then on the watery horizon; and in the
ghostly light I saw his face and read the murder in it. We were standing
on the verge of the cleft under Black Venn. 'No further!' he whispered.
'You must go down there!' He snatched the box from my hand. In the
instant of his doing so, stricken by the death terror, the affection to
which I was then much subject seized me. I screamed, 'My God! the
guillotine!' Taken by surprise, he started back, staggered, and went down
crashing to the fate he had designed for me. I seemed to lie prostrate
for hours, while his moans came up fainter and fainter till they ceased.
Then I rose and faced life, lonely, friendless, and a beggar."

The restless wandering of his eyes travelled over his daughter's head to
the rusty casket by the window.

"It was very well," he whispered. "I thank my God that He has permitted
me at the perfect moment to realize my investment in that dead rascal's
dishonesty. Have I ever desired wealth save for my little _pouponne_
here? And I have sorely tried thee, my George. But the old naturalist
had such faith in his prediction. Now--"

His vision was glazing; the muscles of his face were quietly settling to
the repose that death only can command.

"Now, I would see the fruit of my prophecy; would see it all hung on the
neck, in the hair of my child, that I may die rejoicing. Canst thou force
the casket, George?"

The young man turned with a stifled groan. Some tools lay on a shelf hard
by. He grasped a chisel and went to his task with shaking hands.

The box was all eaten and corroded. It was a matter of but a few seconds
to prise it open. The lid fell back on the table with a rusty clang.

"Ah!" cried the dying man. "What now? Dost thou see them? Quick! quick!
to glorify this little head! Are they not exquisite?"

George was gazing down with a dull, vacant feeling at his heart.

"Are they not?" repeated the voice, in terrible excitement.

"They--Mr. De Jussac, they are loveliness itself. Plancine, I will not
touch them. You must be the first."

He strode to the kneeling girl; lifted, almost roughly dragged her to her
feet.

"Come!" he said; and, supporting her across the room, whispered madly in
her ear: "Pretend! For God's sake, pretend!"

Plancine's swimming eyes looked down, looked upon a litter of perished
rags of paper, and, lying in the midst of the rubbish, an ancient stained
and cockled miniature of a powdered Louis _Seize_ coquette.

This was all. This was the treasure the old crazed vanity had thought
sufficient to build her nephew his fortune.

The diamonds! Probably these had long before been sacrificed to the
armies ineffectively manoeuvring for the destruction of Monsieur "Veto's"
enemies.

Plancine lifted her head. Thereafter George never ceased to recall with a
glad pride the nobility that had shone in her eyes.

"My papa!" she cried softly, going swiftly to the bed; "they are
beautiful as the stars that glittered over the old untroubled France!"

De Jussac sprang up on his pillow.

"The guillotine!" he cried. "The beams break into flowers! The axe is a
shaft of light!"

And so the glowing blade descended.




AN EDDY ON THE FLOOR


PART I

OF POLYHISTOR'S NARRATIVE

WRITTEN FOR, BUT NEVER INSERTED IN, THE ----- FAMILY MAGAZINE


The eyes of Polyhistor--as he sat before the fire at night--took in the
tawdry surroundings of his lodging-house room with nothing of that apathy
of resignation to his personal [Greek: ananke] which of all moods is to
Fortune, the goddess of spontaneity, the most antipathetic. Indeed,
he felt his wit, like Romeo's, to be of cheveril; and his conviction that
it needed only the pull of circumstance to stretch it "from an inch
narrow to an ell broad" expressed but the very wooing quality of a
constitutional optimism.

Now this inherent optimism is at least a serviceable weapon when it takes
the form of self-reliance. It is always at hand in an emergency--a guard
of honour to the soul. The loneliness of individual life must learn
self-respect from within, not without; and were all creeds to be mixed,
that truism should be found their precipitate.

Therefore Polyhistor was content to draw grass-green rep curtains
across window-panes sloughed with wintry sleet; to place his feet upon a
rug flayed of colour to it dusty sinews; to admit to his close
fellowship--and find a familiar comfort in them, too--three separate
lithographs of affected babies inviting any canine confidences but the
bite one desired for them, and a dismal daguerreotype of his landlady's
deceased husband, slowly perishing in pegtops and a yellow fog of
despondency, out of which only his boots and a very tall hat frowned
insistent, the tabernacles of enduring respectability:--he was content,
because he knew these were only incidents in his career--the slums to be
first traversed on a journey before the rounding breadths of open country
were reached,--and the station in life he purposed stopping at eventually
was the terminus of prosperity, intellectual and material.

With no present good fortune but the capacity for desiring it; with the
right to affix a letter or so--like grace after skilly--to his name; with
the consciousness that, having overcome theoretical pharmaceutics
masterfully, he was now combatting practical dispensing slavishly; with
full confidence in his social position (he stood under the shadow of
"high connections," like the little winged "Victory" in a conqueror's
hand, he chose to think) to help him to eventual distinction, he toasted
his toes that sour winter evening and reviewed in comfort an army of
prospects.

Also his thoughts reverted indulgently to the incidents and experiences
of the previous night.

He had had the pleasure of an invitation to one of those reunions or
seances at the house, in a fashionable quarter, of his distant
connection, Lady Barbara Grille, whereat it was his hostess's humour
to gather together those many birds of alien feather and incongruous
habit that will flock from the hedgerows to the least little flattering
crumb of attention. And scarce one of them but thinks the simple feast is
spread for him alone. And with so cheap a bait may a title lure.

Lady Barbara, to do her justice, trades upon her position only in so far
as it shapes itself the straight road to her desires. She is a carpet
adventurer--an explorer amongst the nerves of moral sensation, to whom
the discovery of an untrodden mental tract is a pure delight, and the
more delightful the more ephemeral. She flits from guest to guest,
shooting out to each a little proboscis, as it were, and happy if its
point touches a speck of honey. She gathers from all, and stores the
sweet agglomerate, let us hope, to feed upon it in the winter of her
life, when the hive of her busy brain shall be thatched with snow.

That reference to so charming a personality should be in this place a
digression is Polyhistor's unhappiness. She affects his narrative only
inasmuch as he happened to meet at her house a gentleman who for a time
exerted a considerable influence over his fortunes.

       *       *       *       *       *

Here Polyhistor's narrative must give place to certain editorial
marginalia by Miss Lucy ----, who "runs" the ---- Family Magazine:--

"Polyhistor, indeed!" she writes. "The conceit of some people! He seems
to take himself for a sort of _Admirable Crichton_, and all because his
chance meeting with the gentleman referred to (a very _interesting_
person, who is, I understand, reforming our prisons) brought him the
offer of an appointment quite beyond his deserts. I was very glad to hear
of it, however, and I asked the creature to contribute a paper recording
his first impressions of _this notable man_; instead of which he begins
with an opinionated rigmarole about himself, and goes on from bad to
worse by describing a long conversation he had about prison reform with
that horrid, masculine Mrs. C----, whom all the officers call 'Charlie,'
and who thinks that for men to grow humane is a sign of their
_decadence_. _Of course_ I shall 'cut' the whole of their talk together
(it is a blessed privilege to be an editor), and jump to the part where
_Polyhistor_ (!) describes the _notable person's_ visit to him, which was
due to his (the N.P.'s) having the night before overheard some of the
conversation _between those two_."

       *       *       *       *       *

POLYHISTOR'S NARRATIVE (_continued_).


Now as Polyhistor sat, he humoured his recollection (in the intervals of
scribbling verses to the _beaux yeux_ of a certain Miss L----) with some
of "Charlie's" characteristic last-night utterances.

She had dated man's decadence from the moment when he began to
"poor-fellow" irreclaimable savagery on the score of heredity.

She had repudiated the old humbug of sex superiority because she had seen
it fall on its face to howl over a trodden worm, with the result that
it discovered itself hollow behind, like the elf-maiden.

She had said: "Once you taught us divinely--_argumentum baculinum_," said
she; "(for you are the sons of God, you know). But you have since so
insisted upon the Rights of Humanity that we have learned ourselves in
the phrase, and that the earthy have the best right to precedence on the
earth."

And thereupon Charlie had launched into abuse of what she called the
latest masculine fad--prison reform, to wit--and a heated discussion
between her and Polyhistor had ensued, in the midst of which she had
happened to glance behind her, to find that very notable person who is
the subject of this narrative vouchsafing a silent attention to her
diatribe. And then--

But at this period to his cogitations Polyhistor's landlady entered with
a card, which she presented to his consideration:--

MAJOR JAMES SHRIKE,
H.M. PRISON, D----.

All astonishment, Polyhistor bade his visitor up.

He entered briskly, fur-collared, hat in hand, and bowed as he stood on
the threshold. He was a very short man--snub-nosed; rusty-whiskered;
indubitably and unimpressively a cockney in appearance. He might have
walked out of a Cruikshank etching.

Polyhistor was beginning, "May I inquire--" when the other took him up
with a vehement frankness that he found engaging at once.

"This is a great intrusion. Will you pardon me? I heard some remarks of
yours last night that deeply interested me. I obtained your name and
address of our hostess, and took the liberty of--"

"Oh! pray be seated. Say no more. My kinswoman's introduction is
all-sufficient. I am happy in having caught your attention in so motley
a crowd."

"She doesn't--forgive the impertinence--take herself seriously enough."

"Lady Barbara? Then you've found her out?"

"Ah!--you're not offended?"

"Not in the least."

"Good. It was a motley assemblage, as you say. Yet I'm inclined to think
I found my pearl in the oyster. I'm afraid I interrupted--eh?"

"No, no, not at all. Only some idle scribbling. I'd finished."

"You are a poet?"

"Only a lunatic. I haven't taken my degree."

"Ah! it's a noble gift--the gift of song; precious through its rarity."

Polyhistor caught a note of emotion in his visitor's voice, and glanced
at him curiously.

"Surely," he thought, "that vulgar, ruddy little face is transfigured."

"But," said the stranger, coming to earth, "I am lingering beside the
mark. I must try to justify my solecism in manners by a straight
reference to the object of my visit. That is, in the first instance, a
matter of business."

"Business!"

"I am a man with a purpose, seeking the hopefullest means to an
end. Plainly: if I could procure you the post of resident doctor at
D---- gaol, would you be disposed to accept it?"

Polyhistor looked his utter astonishment.

"I can affect no surprise at yours," said the visitor, attentively
regarding Polyhistor. "It is perfectly natural. Let me forestall some
unnecessary expression of it. My offer seems unaccountable to you, seeing
that we never met until last night. But I don't move entirely in the
dark. I have ventured in the interval to inform myself as to the details
of your career. I was entirely one with much of your expression of
opinion as to the treatment of criminals, in which you controverted the
crude and unpleasant scepticism of the lady you talked with." (Poor New
Charlie!) "Combining the two, I come to the immediate conclusion that you
are the man for my purpose."

"You have dumbfounded me. I don't know what to answer. You have views, I
know, as to prison treatment. Will you sketch them? Will you talk on,
while I try to bring my scattered wits to a focus?"

"Certainly I will. Let me, in the first instance, recall to you a few
words of your own. They ran somewhat in this fashion: Is not the man of
practical genius the man who is most apt at solving the little problems
of resourcefulness in life? Do you remember them?"

"Perhaps I do, in a cruder form."

"They attracted me at once. It is upon such a postulate I base my
practice. Their moral is this: To know the antidote the moment the snake
bites. That is to have the intuition of divinity. We shall rise to it
some day, no doubt, and climb the hither side of the new Olympus. Who
knows? Over the crest the spirit of creation may be ours."

Polyhistor nodded, still at sea, and the other went on with a smile:--

"I once knew a world-famous engineer with whom I used to breakfast
occasionally. He had a patent egg-boiler on the table, with a little
double-sided ladle underneath to hold the spirit. He complained that his
egg was always undercooked. I said, 'Why not reverse the ladle so as
to bring the deeper cup uppermost?' He was charmed with my perspicacity.
The solution had never occurred to him. You remember, too, no doubt, the
story of Coleridge and the horse collar. We aim too much at great
developments. If we cultivate resourcefulness, the rest will follow.
Shall I state my system _in nuce_? It is to encourage this spirit of
resourcefulness."

"Surely the habitual criminal has it in a marked degree?"

"Yes; but abnormally developed in a single direction. His one object is
to out-manoeuvre in a game of desperate and immoral chances. The tactical
spirit in him has none of the higher ambition. It has felt itself in the
degree only that stops at defiance."

"That is perfectly true."

"It is half self-conscious of an individuality that instinctively assumes
the hopelessness of a recognition by duller intellects. Leaning to
resentment through misguided vanity, it falls 'all oblique.' What is the
cure for this? I answer, the teaching of a divine egotism. The subject
must be led to a pure devotion to self. What he wishes to respect he must
be taught to make beautiful and interesting. The policy of sacrifice to
others has so long stunted his moral nature because it is an hypocritical
policy. We are responsible to ourselves in the first instance; and to
argue an eternal system of blind self-sacrifice is to undervalue the
fine gift of individuality. In such he sees but an indefensible policy
of force applied to the advantage of the community. He is told to be
good--not that he may morally profit, but that others may not suffer
inconvenience."

Polyhistor was beginning to grasp, through his confusion, a certain clue
of meaning in his visitor's rapid utterance. The stranger spoke fluently,
but in the dry, positive voice that characterizes men of will.

"Pray go on," Polyhistor said; "I am digesting in silence."

"We must endeavour to lead him to respect of self by showing him what his
mind is capable of. I argue on no sectarian, no religious grounds even.
Is it possible to make a man's self his most precious possession? Anyhow,
I work to that end. A doctor purges before building up with a tonic. I
eliminate cant and hypocrisy, and then introduce self-respect. It isn't
enough to employ a man's hands only. Initiation in some labour that
should prove wholesome and remunerative is a redeeming factor, but it
isn't all. His mind must work also, and awaken to its capacities. If it
rusts, the body reverts to inhuman instincts."

"May I ask how you--?"

"By intercourse--in my own person or through my officials. I wish to have
only those about me who are willing to contribute to my designs, and
with whom I can work in absolute harmony. All my officers are chosen to
that end. No doubt a dash of constitutional sentimentalism gives colour
to my theories. I get it from a human tract in me that circumstances have
obliged me to put a hoarding round."

"I begin to gather daylight."

"Quite so. My patients are invited to exchange views with their guardians
in a spirit of perfect friendliness; to solve little problems of
practical moment; to acquire the pride of self-reliance. We have
competitions, such as certain newspapers open to their readers, in a
simple form. I draw up the questions myself. The answers give me insight
into the mental conditions of the competitors. Upon insight I proceed. I
am fortunate in private means, and I am in a position to offer modest
prizes to the winners. Whenever such an one is discharged, he finds
awaiting him the tools most handy to his vocation. I bid him go forth
in no pharisaical spirit, and invite him to communicate with me. I wish
the shadow of the gaol to extend no further than the road whereon it
lies. Henceforth, we are acquaintances with a common interest at heart.
Isn't it monstrous that a state-fixed degree of misconduct should earn a
man social ostracism? Parents are generally inclined to rule extra
tenderness towards a child whose peccadilloes have brought him a
whipping. For myself, I have no faith in police supervision. Give a
culprit his term and have done with it. I find the majority who come back
to me are ticket-of-leave men.

"Have I said enough? I offer you the reversion of the post. The present
holder of it leaves in a month's time. Please to determine here and at
once."

"Very good. I have decided."

"You will accept?"

"Yes."

       *       *       *       *       *

So far wrote Polyhistor in the bonny days of early manhood--an attempt
made in a spasm of enthusiasm inspired in him and humoured by his most
engaging Mentor, to record his first impressions of a notable personality
not many days after its introduction to him. He has never taken up the
tale again until now, when an insistent sense, as of a task left
unfinished, compels him to the effort. Over his sweet Mentor the grass
lies thick, and flowers of aged stalk bloom perennially, and "Oh, the
difference to me!"

To _me_, for it is time to drop the poor conceit, the pseudonym that once
served its little purpose to awaken tender derision.

I take up the old and stained manuscript, with its marginalia, that are
like the dim call from a far-away voice, and I know that, so I am driven
to record the sequel to that gay introduction, it must be in a spirit of
sombreness most deadly by contrast. I look at the faded opening words.
The fire of the first line of the narrative is long out; the grate is
cold some forty years--forty years!--and I think I have been a little
chill during all that time. But, though the room rustle with phantoms and
menace stalk in the retrospect, I shall acquit my conscience of its
burden, refusing to be bullied by the counsel of a destiny that
subpoena'd me entirely against my will.




PART II

OF POLYHISTOR'S NARRATIVE

CONTINUED AND FINISHED AFTER A LAPSE OF FORTY YEARS


With my unexpected appointment as doctor to D---- gaol, I seemed to
have put on the seven-league boots of success. No doubt it was an
extraordinary degree of good fortune, even to one who had looked forward
with a broad view of confidence; yet, I think, perhaps on account of the
very casual nature of my promotion, I never took the post entirely
seriously.

At the same time I was fully bent on justifying my little cockney
patron's choice by a resolute subscription to his theories of prison
management.

Major James Shrike inspired me with a curious conceit of impertinent
respect. In person the very embodiment of that insignificant vulgarity,
without extenuating circumstances, which is the type in caricature of the
ultimate cockney, he possessed a force of mind and an earnestness of
purpose that absolutely redeemed him on close acquaintanceship. I found
him all he had stated himself to be, and something more.

He had a noble object always in view--the employment of sane and
humanitarian methods in the treatment of redeemable criminals, and he
strove towards it with completely untiring devotion. He was of those who
never insist beyond the limits of their own understanding, clear-sighted
in discipline, frank in relaxation, an altruist in the larger sense.

His undaunted persistence, as I learned, received ample illustration some
few years prior to my acquaintance with him, when--his system being
experimental rather than mature--a devastating endemic of typhoid in the
prison had for the time stultified his efforts. He stuck to his post; but
so virulent was the outbreak that the prison commissioners judged a
complete evacuation of the building and overhauling of the drainage to
be necessary. As a consequence, for some eighteen months--during thirteen
of which the Governor and his household remained sole inmates of the
solitary pile (so sluggishly do we redeem our condemned social
bog-lands)--the "system" stood still for lack of material to mould. At
the end of over a year of stagnation, a contract was accepted and
workmen put in, and another five months saw the prison reordered for
practical purposes.

The interval of forced inactivity must have sorely tried the patience of
the Governor. Practical theorists condemned to rust too often eat out
their own hearts. Major Shrike never referred to this period, and,
indeed, laboriously snubbed any allusion to it.

He was, I have a shrewd notion, something of an officially petted
reformer. Anyhow, to his abolition of the insensate barbarism of crank
and treadmill in favour of civilizing methods no opposition was offered.
Solitary confinement--a punishment outside all nature to a gregarious
race--found no advocate in him. "A man's own suffering mind," he argued,
"must be, of all moral food, the most poisonous for him to feed on.
Surround a scorpion with fire and he stings himself to death, they say.
Throw a diseased soul entirely upon its own resources and moral suicide
results."

To sum up: his nature embodied humanity without sentimentalism, firmness
without obstinacy, individuality without selfishness; his activity was
boundless, his devotion to his system so real as to admit no utilitarian
sophistries into his scheme of personal benevolence. Before I had been
with him a week, I respected him as I had never respected man before.

       *       *       *       *       *

One evening (it was during the second month of my appointment) we were
sitting in his private study--a dark, comfortable room lined with books.
It was an occasion on which a new characteristic of the man was offered
to my inspection.

A prisoner of a somewhat unusual type had come in that day--a
spiritualistic medium, convicted of imposture. To this person I casually
referred.

"May I ask how you propose dealing with the new-comer?"

"On the familiar lines."

"But, surely--here we have a man of superior education, of imagination
even?"

"No, no, no! A hawker's opportuneness; that describes it. These fellows
would make death itself a vulgarity."

"You've no faith in their--"

"Not a tittle. Heaven forfend! A sheet and a turnip are poetry to their
manifestations. It's as crude and sour soil for us to work on as any I
know. We'll cart it wholesale."

"I take you--excuse my saying so--for a supremely sceptical man."

"As to what?"

"The supernatural."

There was no answer during a considerable interval. Presently it came,
with deliberate insistence:--

"It is a principle with me to oppose bullying. We are here for a definite
purpose--his duty plain to any man who wills to read it. There may be
disembodied spirits who seek to distress or annoy where they can no
longer control. If there are, mine, which is not yet divorced from its
means to material action, declines to be influenced by any irresponsible
whimsey, emanating from a place whose denizens appear to be actuated by a
mere frivolous antagonism to all human order and progress."

"But supposing you, a murderer, to be haunted by the presentment of your
victim?"

"I will imagine that to be my case. Well, it makes no difference. My
interest is with the great human system, in one of whose veins I am a
circulating drop. It is my business to help to keep the system sound,
to do my duty without fear or favour. If disease--say a fouled
conscience--contaminates me, it is for me to throw off the incubus,
not accept it, and transmit the poison. Whatever my lapses of nature, I
owe it to the entire system to work for purity in my allotted sphere, and
not to allow any microbe bugbear to ride me roughshod, to the detriment
of my fellow drops."

I laughed.

"It should be for you," I said, "to learn to shiver, like the boy in the
fairy tale."

"I cannot", he answered, with a peculiar quiet smile; "and yet prisons,
above all places, should be haunted."

      *       *       *       *       *

Very shortly after his arrival I was called to the cell of the medium,
F----. He suffered, by his own statement, from severe pains in the head.

I found the man to be nervous, anemic; his manner characterized by a sort
of hysterical effrontery.

"Send me to the infirmary", he begged. "This isn't punishment, but
torture."

"What are your symptoms?"

"I see things; my case has no comparison with others. To a man of my
super-sensitiveness close confinement is mere cruelty."

I made a short examination. He was restless under my hands.

"You'll stay where you are", I said.

He broke out into violent abuse, and I left him.

Later in the day I visited him again. He was then white and sullen; but
under his mood I could read real excitement of some sort.

"Now, confess to me, my man", I said, "what do you see?"

He eyed me narrowly, with his lips a little shaky.

"Will you have me moved if I tell you?"

"I can give no promise till I know."

He made up his mind after an interval of silence.

"There's something uncanny in my neighbourhood. Who's confined in the
next cell--there, to the left?"

"To my knowledge it's empty."

He shook his head incredulously.

"Very well," I said, "I don't mean to bandy words with you"; and I turned
to go.

At that he came after me with a frightened choke.

"Doctor, your mission's a merciful one. I'm not trying to sauce you. For
God's sake have me moved! I can see further than most, I tell you!"

The fellow's manner gave me pause. He was patently and beyond the pride
of concealment terrified.

"What do you see?" I repeated stubbornly.

"It isn't that I see, but I know. The cell's not empty!"

I stared at him in considerable wonderment.

"I will make inquiries," I said. "You may take that for a promise. If the
cell proves empty, you stop where you are."

I noticed that he dropped his hands with a lost gesture as I left him. I
was sufficiently moved to accost the warder who awaited me on the spot.

"Johnson," I said, "is that cell--"

"Empty, sir," answered the man sharply and at once.

Before I could respond, F---- came suddenly to the door, which I still
held open.

"You lying cur!" he shouted. "You damned lying cur!"

The warder thrust the man back with violence.

"Now you, 49," he said, "dry up, and none of your sauce!" and he banged
to the door with a sounding slap, and turned to me with a lowering face.
The prisoner inside yelped and stormed at the studded panels.

"That cell's empty, sir," repeated Johnson.

"Will you, as a matter of conscience, let me convince myself? I promised
the man."

"No, I can't."

"You can't?"

"No, sir."

"This is a piece of stupid discourtesy. You can have no reason, of
course?"

"I can't open it--that's all."

"Oh, Johnson! Then I must go to the fountain-head."

"Very well, sir."

Quite baffled by the man's obstinacy, I said no more, but walked off. If
my anger was roused, my curiosity was piqued in proportion.

       *       *       *       *       *

I had no opportunity of interviewing the Governor all day, but at night I
visited him by invitation to play a game of piquet.

He was a man without "incumbrances"--as a severe conservatism designates
the _lares_ of the cottage--and, at home, lived at his ease and indulged
his amusements without comment.

I found him "tasting" his books, with which the room was well lined, and
drawing with relish at an excellent cigar in the intervals of the
courses.

He nodded to me, and held out an open volume in his left hand.

"Listen to this fellow," he said, tapping the page with his fingers:--

"'The most tolerable sort of Revenge, is for those wrongs which there is
no Law to remedy: But then, let a man take heed, the Revenge be such, as
there is no law to punish: Else, a man's Enemy, is still before hand, and
it is two for one. Some, when they take Revenge, are Desirous the party
should know, whence it cometh. This is the more Generous. For the Delight
seemeth to be, not so much in doing the Hurt, as in making the Party
repent: But Base and Crafty _Cowards are like the Arrow that flyeth in
the Dark. Cosmus, Duke of Florence, had a Desperate Saying against
Perfidious or Neglecting Friends, as if these wrongs were unpardonable.
You shall reade (saith he) that we are commanded to forgive our Enemies:
But you never read, that we are commanded, to forgive our Friends_.'

"Is he not a rare fellow?"

"Who?" said I.

"Francis Bacon, who screwed his wit to his philosophy, like a hammer-head
to its handle, and knocked a nail in at every blow. How many of our
friends round about here would be picking oakum now if they had made a
gospel of that quotation?"

"You mean they take no heed that the Law may punish for that for which it
gives no remedy?"

"Precisely; and specifically as to revenge. The criminal, from the
murderer to the petty pilferer, is actuated solely by the spirit of
vengeance--vengeance blind and speechless--towards a system that forces
him into a position quite outside his natural instincts."

"As to that, we have left Nature in the thicket. It is hopeless hunting
for her now."

"We hear her breathing sometimes, my friend. Otherwise Her Majesty's
prison locks would rust. But, I grant you, we have grown so unfamiliar
with her that we call her simplest manifestations _super_natural
nowadays."

"That reminds me. I visited F---- this afternoon. The man was in a queer
way--not foxing, in my opinion. Hysteria, probably."

"Oh! What was the matter with him?"

"The form it took was some absurd prejudice about the next cell--number
47, He swore it was not empty--was quite upset about it--said there
was some infernal influence at work in his neighbourhood. Nerves, he
finds, I suppose, may revenge themselves on one who has made a habit of
playing tricks with them. To satisfy him, I asked Johnson to open the
door of the next cell--"

"Well?"

"He refused."

"It is closed by my orders."

"That settles it, of course. The manner of Johnson's refusal was a bit
uncivil, but--"

He had been looking at me intently all this time--so intently that I was
conscious of a little embarrassment and confusion. His mouth was set like
a dash between brackets, and his eyes glistened. Now his features
relaxed, and he gave a short high neigh of a laugh.

"My dear fellow, you must make allowances for the rough old lurcher. He
was a soldier. He is all cut and measured out to the regimental pattern.
With him Major Shrike, like the king, can do no wrong. Did I ever tell
you he served under me in India? He did; and, moreover, I saved his life
there."

"In an engagement?"

"Worse--from the bite of a snake. It was a mere question of will. I told
him to wake and walk, and he did. They had thought him already in rigor
mortis; and, as for him--well, his devotion to me since has been single
to the last degree."

"That's as it should be."

"To be sure. And he's quite in my confidence. You must pass over the old
beggar's churlishness."

I laughed an assent. And then an odd thing happened. As I spoke, I had
walked over to a bookcase on the opposite side of the room to that on
which my host stood. Near this bookcase hung a mirror--an oblong affair,
set in brass _repousse_ work--on the wall; and, happening to glance into
it as I approached, I caught sight of the Major's reflection as he turned
his face to follow my movement.

I say "turned his face"--a formal description only. What met my startled
gaze was an image of some nameless horror--of features grooved, and
battered, and shapeless, as if they had been torn by a wild beast.

I gave a little indrawn gasp and turned about. There stood the Major,
plainly himself, with a pleasant smile on his face.

"What's up?" said he.

He spoke abstractedly, pulling at his cigar; and I answered rudely,
"That's a damned bad looking-glass of yours!"

"I didn't know there was anything wrong with it," he said, still
abstracted and apart. And, indeed, when by sheer mental effort I forced
myself to look again, there stood my companion as he stood in the room.

I gave a tremulous laugh, muttered something or nothing, and fell to
examining the books in the case. But my fingers shook a trifle as I
aimlessly pulled out one volume after another.

"Am I getting fanciful?" I thought--"I whose business it is to give
practical account of every bugbear of the nerves. Bah! My liver must be
out of order. A speck of bile in one's eye may look a flying dragon."

I dismissed the folly from my mind, and set myself resolutely to
inspecting the books marshalled before me. Roving amongst them, I pulled
out, entirely at random, a thin, worn duodecimo, that was thrust well
back at a shelf end, as if it shrank from comparison with its prosperous
and portly neighbours. Nothing but chance impelled me to the choice; and
I don't know to this day what the ragged volume was about. It opened
naturally at a marker that lay in it--a folded slip of paper, yellow with
age; and glancing at this, a printed name caught my eye.

With some stir of curiosity, I spread the slip out. It was a title-page
to a volume, of poems, presumably; and the author was James Shrike.

I uttered an exclamation, and turned, book in hand.

"An author!" I said. "You an author, Major Shrike!"

To my surprise, he snapped round upon me with something like a glare of
fury on his face. This the more startled me as I believed I had reason to
regard him as a man whose principles of conduct had long disciplined a
temper that was naturally hasty enough.

Before I could speak to explain, he had come hurriedly across the room
and had rudely snatched the paper out of my hand.

"How did this get--" he began; then in a moment came to himself, and
apologized for his ill manners.

"I thought every scrap of the stuff had been destroyed", he said, and
tore the page into fragments. "It is an ancient effusion, doctor--perhaps
the greatest folly of my life; but it's something of a sore subject with
me, and I shall be obliged if you'll not refer to it again."

He courted my forgiveness so frankly that the matter passed without
embarrassment; and we had our game and spent a genial evening together.
But memory of the queer little scene stuck in my mind, and I could not
forbear pondering it fitfully.

Surely here was a new side-light that played upon my friend and superior
a little fantastically.

       *       *       *       *       *

Conscious of a certain vague wonder in my mind, I was traversing the
prison, lost in thought, after my sociable evening with the Governor,
when the fact that dim light was issuing from the open door of cell
number 49 brought me to myself and to a pause in the corridor outside.

Then I saw that something was wrong with the cell's inmate, and that my
services were required.

The medium was struggling on the floor, in what looked like an epileptic
fit, and Johnson and another warder were holding him from doing an injury
to himself.

The younger man welcomed my appearance with relief.

"Heerd him guggling," he said, "and thought as something were up. You
come timely, sir."

More assistance was procured, and I ordered the prisoner's removal to the
infirmary. For a minute, before following him, I was left alone with
Johnson.

"It came to a climax, then?" I said, looking the man steadily in the
face.

"He may be subject to 'em, sir", he replied, evasively.

I walked deliberately up to the closed door of the adjoining cell, which
was the last on that side of the corridor. Huddled against the massive
end wall, and half imbedded in it, as it seemed, it lay in a certain
shadow, and bore every sign of dust and disuse. Looking closely, I saw
that the trap in the door was not only firmly bolted, but _screwed into
its socket_.

I turned and said to the warder quietly,--

"Is it long since this cell was in use?"

"You're very fond of asking questions", he answered doggedly.

It was evident he would baffle me by impertinence rather than yield a
confidence. A queer insistence had seized me--a strange desire to know
more about this mysterious chamber. But, for all my curiosity, I flushed
at the man's tone.

"You have your orders", I said sternly, "and do well to hold by them. I
doubt, nevertheless, if they include impertinence to your superiors."

"I look straight on my duty, sir," he said, a little abashed. "I don't
wish to give offence."

He did not, I feel sure. He followed his instinct to throw me off the
scent, that was all.

I strode off in a fume, and after attending F---- in the infirmary, went
promptly to my own quarters.

I was in an odd frame of mind, and for long tramped my sitting-room to
and fro, too restless to go to bed, or, as an alternative, to settle down
to a book. There was a welling up in my heart of some emotion that I
could neither trace nor define. It seemed neighbour to terror, neighbour
to an intense fainting pity, yet was not distinctly either of these.
Indeed, where was cause for one, or the subject of the other? F---- might
have endured mental sufferings which it was only human to help to end,
yet F---- was a swindling rogue, who, once relieved, merited no further
consideration.

It was not on him my sentiments were wasted. Who, then, was responsible
for them?

There is a very plain line of demarcation between the legitimate spirit
of inquiry and mere apish curiosity. I could recognise it, I have no
doubt, as a rule, yet in my then mood, under the influence of a kind of
morbid seizure, inquisitiveness took me by the throat. I could not
whistle my mind from the chase of a certain graveyard will-o'-the-wisp;
and on it went stumbling and floundering through bog and mire, until it
fell into a state of collapse, and was useful for nothing else.

I went to bed and to sleep without difficulty, but I was conscious of
myself all the time, and of a shadowless horror that seemed to come
stealthily out of corners and to bend over and look at me, and to be
nothing but a curtain or a hanging coat when I started and stared.

Over and over again this happened, and my temperature rose by leaps, and
suddenly I saw that if I failed to assert myself, and promptly, fever
would lap me in a consuming fire. Then in a moment I broke into a profuse
perspiration, and sank exhausted into delicious unconsciousness.

Morning found me restored to vigour, but still with the maggot of
curiosity boring in my brain. It worked there all day, and for many
subsequent days, and at last it seemed as if my every faculty were
honeycombed with its ramifications. Then "this will not do", I thought,
but still the tunnelling process went on.

At first I would not acknowledge to myself what all this mental to-do was
about. I was ashamed of my new development, in fact, and nervous, too,
in a degree of what it might reveal in the matter of moral degeneration;
but gradually, as the curious devil mastered me, I grew into such harmony
with it that I could shut my eyes no longer to the true purpose of its
insistence. It was the _closed cell_ about which my thoughts hovered like
crows circling round carrion.

       *       *       *       *       *

"In the dead waste and middle" of a certain night I awoke with a strange,
quick recovery of consciousness. There was the passing of a single
expiration, and I had been asleep and was awake. I had gone to bed with
no sense of premonition or of resolve in a particular direction; I sat up
a monomaniac. It was as if, swelling in the silent hours, the tumour of
curiosity had come to a head, and in a moment it was necessary to operate
upon it.

I make no excuse for my then condition. I am convinced I was the victim
of some undistinguishable force, that I was an agent under the control of
the supernatural, if you like. Some thought had been in my mind of late
that in my position it was my duty to unriddle the mystery of the closed
cell. This was a sop timidly held out to and rejected by my better
reason. I sought--and I knew it in my heart--solution of the puzzle,
because it was a puzzle with an atmosphere that vitiated my moral fibre.
Now, suddenly, I knew I must act, or, by forcing self-control, imperil
my mind's stability.

All strung to a sort of exaltation, I rose noiselessly and dressed myself
with rapid, nervous hands. My every faculty was focussed upon a
solitary point. Without and around there was nothing but shadow and
uncertainty. I seemed conscious only of a shaft of light, as it were,
traversing the darkness and globing itself in a steady disc of radiance
on a lonely door.

Slipping out into the great echoing vault of the prison in stockinged
feet, I sped with no hesitation of purpose in the direction of the
corridor that was my goal. Surely some resolute Providence guided and
encompassed me, for no meeting with the night patrol occurred at any
point to embarrass or deter me. Like a ghost myself, I flitted along
the stone flags of the passages, hardly waking a murmur from them in my
progress.

Without, I knew, a wild and stormy wind thundered on the walls of the
prison. Within, where the very atmosphere was self-contained, a cold and
solemn peace held like an irrevocable judgment.

I found myself as if in a dream before the sealed door that had for days
harassed my waking thoughts. Dim light from a distant gas jet made a
patch of yellow upon one of its panels; the rest was buttressed with
shadow.

A sense of fear and constriction was upon me as I drew softly from my
pocket a screwdriver I had brought with me. It never occurred to me, I
swear, that the quest was no business of mine, and that even now I could
withdraw from it, and no one be the wiser. But I was afraid--I was
afraid. And there was not even the negative comfort of knowing that the
neighbouring cell was tenanted. It gaped like a ghostly garret next
door to a deserted house.

What reason had I to be there at all, or, being there, to fear? I can no
more explain than tell how it was that I, an impartial follower of my
vocation, had allowed myself to be tricked by that in the nerves I had
made it my interest to study and combat in others.

My hand that held the tool was cold and wet. The stiff little shriek of
the first screw, as it turned at first uneasily in its socket, sent a
jarring thrill through me. But I persevered, and it came out readily
by-and-by, as did the four or five others that held the trap secure.

Then I paused a moment; and, I confess, the quick pant of fear seemed to
come grey from my lips. There were sounds about me--the deep breathing of
imprisoned men; and I envied the sleepers their hard-wrung repose.

At last, in one access of determination, I put out my hand, and sliding
back the bolt, hurriedly flung open the trap. An acrid whiff of dust
assailed my nostrils as I stepped back a pace and stood expectant of
anything--or nothing. What did I wish, or dread, or foresee? The complete
absurdity of my behaviour was revealed to me in a moment. I could shake
off the incubus here and now, and be a sane man again.

I giggled, with an actual ring of self-contempt in my voice, as I made a
forward movement to close the aperture. I advanced my face to it, and
inhaled the sluggish air that stole forth, and--God in heaven!

I had staggered back with that cry in my throat, when I felt fingers like
iron clamps close on my arm and hold it. The grip, more than the face
I turned to look upon in my surging terror, was forcibly human.

It was the warder Johnson who had seized me, and my heart bounded as I
met the cold fury of his eyes.

"Prying!" he said, in a hoarse, savage whisper. "So you will, will you?
And now let the devil help you!"

It was not this fellow I feared, though his white face was set like a
demon's; and in the thick of my terror I made a feeble attempt to assert
my authority.

"Let me go!" I muttered. "What! you dare?"

In his frenzy he shook my arm as a terrier shakes a rat, and, like a dog,
he held on, daring me to release myself.

For the moment an instinct half-murderous leapt in me. It sank and was
overwhelmed in a slough of some more secret emotion.

"Oh!" I whispered, collapsing, as it were, to the man's fury,
even pitifully deprecating it. "What is it? What's there? It drew
me--something unnameable".

He gave a snapping laugh like a cough. His rage waxed second by second.
There was a maniacal suggestiveness in it; and not much longer, it was
evident, could he have it under control. I saw it run and congest in his
eyes; and, on the instant of its accumulation, he tore at me with a
sudden wild strength, and drove me up against the very door of the secret
cell.

The action, the necessity of self-defence, restored me to some measure of
dignity and sanity.

"Let me go, you ruffian!" I cried, struggling to free myself from his
grasp.

It was useless. He held me madly. There was no beating him off: and, so
holding me, he managed to produce a single key from one of his pockets,
and to slip it with a rusty clang into the lock of the door.

"You dirty, prying civilian!" he panted at me, as he swayed this way and
that with the pull of my body. "You shall have your wish, by G--! You
want to see inside, do you? Look, then!"

He dashed open the door as he spoke, and pulled me violently into
the opening. A great waft of the cold, dank air came at us, and with
it--what?

The warder had jerked his dark lantern from his belt, and now--an arm of
his still clasped about one of mine--snapped the slide open.

"Where is it?" he muttered, directing the disc of light round and about
the floor of the cell. I ceased struggling. Some counter influence was
raising an odd curiosity in me.

"Ah!" he cried, in a stifled voice, "there you are, my friend!"

He was setting the light slowly travelling along the stone flags close by
the wall over against us, and now, so guiding it, looked askance at me
with a small, greedy smile.

"Follow the light, sir," he whispered jeeringly.

I looked, and saw twirling on the floor, in the patch of radiance cast by
the lamp, _a little eddy of dust_, it seemed. This eddy was never still,
but went circling in that stagnant place without apparent cause or
influence; and, as it circled, it moved slowly on by wall and corner, so
that presently in its progress it must reach us where we stood.

Now, draughts will play queer freaks in quiet places, and of this
trifling phenomenon I should have taken little note ordinarily. But, I
must say at once, that as I gazed upon the odd moving thing my heart
seemed to fall in upon itself like a drained artery.

"Johnson!" I cried, "I must get out of this. I don't know what's the
matter, or--Why do you hold me? D--n it! man, let me go; let me go, I
say!"

As I grappled with him he dropped the lantern with a crash and flung his
arms violently about me.

"You don't!" he panted, the muscles of his bent and rigid neck seeming
actually to cut into my shoulder-blade. "You don't, by G--! You came
of your own accord, and now you shall take your bellyful!"

It was a struggle for life or death, or, worse, for life and reason. But
I was young and wiry, and held my own, if I could do little more. Yet
there was something to combat beyond the mere brute strength of the man I
struggled with, for I fought in an atmosphere of horror unexplainable,
and I knew that inch by inch the _thing_ on the floor was circling round
in our direction.

Suddenly in the breathing darkness I felt it close upon us, gave one
mortal yell of fear, and, with a last despairing fury, tore myself from
the encircling arms, and sprang into the corridor without. As I plunged
and leapt, the warder clutched at me, missed, caught a foot on the edge
of the door, and, as the latter whirled to with a clap, fell heavily at
my feet in a fit. Then, as I stood staring down upon him, steps sounded
along the corridor and the voices of scared men hurrying up.

       *       *       *       *       *

Ill and shaken, and, for the time, little in love with life, yet fearing
death as I had never dreaded it before, I spent the rest of that horrible
night huddled between my crumpled sheets, fearing to look forth, fearing
to think, wild only to be far away, to be housed in some green and
innocent hamlet, where I might forget the madness and the terror in
learning to walk the unvext paths of placid souls. I had not fairly
knocked under until alone with my new dread familiar. That unction I
could lay to my heart, at least. I had done the manly part by the
stricken warder, whom I had attended to his own home, in a row of little
tenements that stood south of the prison walls. I had replied to all
inquiries with some dignity and spirit, attributing my ruffled condition
to an assault on the part of Johnson, when he was already under the
shadow of his seizure. I had directed his removal, and grudged him no
professional attention that it was in my power to bestow. But afterwards,
locked into my room, my whole nervous system broke up like a trodden
ant-hill, leaving me conscious of nothing but an aimless scurrying terror
and the black swarm of thoughts, so that I verily fancied my reason would
give under the strain.

Yet I had more to endure and to triumph over.

Near morning I fell into a troubled sleep, throughout which the drawn
twitch of muscle seemed an accent on every word of ill-omen I had ever
spelt out of the alphabet of fear. If my body rested, my brain was an
open chamber for any toad of ugliness that listed to "sit at squat" in.

Suddenly I woke to the fact that there was a knocking at my door--that
there had been for some little time.

I cried, "Come in!" finding a weak restorative in the mere sound of my
own human voice; then, remembering the key was turned, bade the visitor
wait until I could come to him.

Scrambling, feeling dazed and white-livered, out of bed, I opened the
door, and met one of the warders on the threshold. The man looked scared,
and his lips, I noticed, were set in a somewhat boding fashion.

"Can you come at once, sir?" he said. "There's summat wrong with the
Governor."

"Wrong? What's the matter with him?"

"Why,"--he looked down, rubbed an imaginary protuberance smooth with his
foot, and glanced up at me again with a quick, furtive expression,--"he's
got his face set in the grating of 47, and danged if a man Jack of us can
get him to move or speak."

I turned away, feeling sick. I hurriedly pulled on coat and trousers, and
hurriedly went off with my summoner. Reason was all absorbed in a wildest
phantasy of apprehension.

"Who found him?" I muttered, as we sped on.

"Vokins see him go down the corridor about half after eight, sir, and see
him give a start like when he noticed the trap open. It's never been so
before in my time. Johnson must ha' done it last night, before he were
took."

"Yes, yes."

"The man said the Governor went to shut it, it seemed, and to draw his
face to'ards the bars in so doin'. Then he see him a-lookin' through, as
he thought; but nat'rally it weren't no business of his'n, and he went
off about his work. But when he come anigh agen, fifteen minutes later,
there were the Governor in the same position; and he got scared over it,
and called out to one or two of us."

"Why didn't one of you ask the Major if anything was wrong?"

"Bless you! we did; and no answer. And we pulled him, compatible with
discipline, but--"

"But what?"

"He's stuck."

"Stuck!"

"See for yourself, sir. That's all I ask."

I did, a moment later. A little group was collected about the door of
cell 47, and the members of it spoke together in whispers, as if they
were frightened men. One young fellow, with a face white in patches, as
if it had been floured, slid from them as I approached, and accosted me
tremulously.

"Don't go anigh, sir. There's something wrong about the place."

I pulled myself together, forcibly beating down the excitement reawakened
by the associations of the spot. In the discomfiture of others' nerves I
found my own restoration.

"Don't be an ass!" I said, in a determined voice, "There's nothing here
that can't be explained. Make way for me, please!"

They parted and let me through, and I saw him. He stood, spruce,
frock-coated, dapper, as he always was, with his face pressed against
and _into_ the grill, and either hand raised and clenched tightly round a
bar of the trap. His posture was as of one caught and striving
frantically to release himself; yet the narrowness of the interval
between the rails precluded so extravagant an idea. He stood quite
motionless--taut and on the strain, as it were--and nothing of his face
was visible but the back ridges of his jaw-bones, showing white through a
bush of red whiskers.

"Major Shrike!" I rapped out, and, allowing myself no hesitation, reached
forth my hand and grasped his shoulder. The body vibrated under my touch,
but he neither answered nor made sign of hearing me. Then I pulled at him
forcibly, and ever with increasing strength. His fingers held like steel
braces. He seemed glued to the trap, like Theseus to the rock.

Hastily I peered round, to see if I could get glimpse of his face. I
noticed enough to send me back with a little stagger.

"Has none of you got a key to this door?" I asked, reviewing the scared
faces about me, than which my own was no less troubled, I feel sure.

"Only the Governor, sir," said the warder who had fetched me. "There's
not a man but him amongst us that ever seen this opened."

He was wrong there, I could have told him; but held my tongue, for
obvious reasons.

"I want it opened. Will one of you feel in his pockets?"

Not a soul stirred. Even had not sense of discipline precluded, that of a
certain inhuman atmosphere made fearful creatures of them all.

"Then," said I, "I must do it myself."

I turned once more to the stiff-strung figure, had actually put hand on
it, when an exclamation from Vokins arrested me.

"There's a key--there, sir!" he said--"stickin' out yonder between its
feet."

Sure enough there was--Johnson's, no doubt, that had been shot from its
socket by the clapping to of the door, and afterwards kicked aside by the
warder in his convulsive struggles.

I stooped, only too thankful for the respite, and drew it forth. I had
seen it but once before, yet I recognised it at a glance.

Now, I confess, my heart felt ill as I slipped the key into the wards,
and a sickness of resentment at the tyranny of Fate in making me its
helpless minister surged up in my veins. Once, with my fingers on the
iron loop, I paused, and ventured a fearful side glance at the figure
whose crookt elbow almost touched my face; then, strung to the high
pitch of inevitability, I shot the lock, pushed at the door, and in the
act, made a back leap into the corridor.

Scarcely, in doing so, did I look for the totter and collapse outwards of
the rigid form. I had expected to see it fall away, face down, into the
cell, as its support swung from it. Yet it was, I swear, as if something
from within had relaxed its grasp and given the fearful dead man a
swingeing push outwards as the door opened.

It went on its back, with a dusty slap on the stone flags, and from all
its spectators--me included--came a sudden drawn sound, like wind in a
keyhole.

What can I say, or how describe it? A dead thing it was--but the face!

Barred with livid scars where the grating rails had crossed it, the rest
seemed to have been worked and kneaded into a mere featureless plate of
yellow and expressionless flesh.

And it was this I had seen in the glass!

       *       *       *       *       *

There was an interval following the experience above narrated, during
which a certain personality that had once been mine was effaced or
suspended, and I seemed a passive creature, innocent of the least desire
of independence. It was not that I was actually ill or actually insane. A
merciful Providence set my finer wits slumbering, that was all, leaving
me a sufficiency of the grosser faculties that were necessary to the
right ordering of my behaviour.

I kept to my room, it is true, and even lay a good deal in bed; but this
was more to satisfy the busy scruples of a _locum tenens_--a practitioner
of the neighbourhood, who came daily to the prison to officiate in my
absence--than to cosset a complaint that in its inactivity was purely
negative. I could review what had happened with a calmness as profound
as if I had read of it in a book. I could have wished to continue my
duties, indeed, had the power of insistence remained to me. But the saner
medicus was acute where I had gone blunt, and bade me to the restful
course. He was right. I was mentally stunned, and had I not slept off my
lethargy, I should have gone mad in an hour--leapt at a bound, probably,
from inertia to flaming lunacy.

I remembered everything, but through a fluffy atmosphere, so to speak. It
was as if I looked on bygone pictures through ground glass that softened
the ugly outlines.

Sometimes I referred to these to my substitute, who was wise to answer me
according to my mood; for the truth left me unruffled, whereas an obvious
evasion of it would have distressed me.

"Hammond," I said one day, "I have never yet asked you. How did I give my
evidence at the inquest?"

"Like a doctor and a sane man."

"That's good. But it was a difficult course to steer. You conducted the
post-mortem. Did any peculiarity in the dead man's face strike you?"

"Nothing but this: that the excessive contraction of the bicipital
muscles had brought the features into such forcible contact with the bars
as to cause bruising and actual abrasion. He must have been dead some
little time when you found him."

"And nothing else? You noticed nothing else in his face--a sort of
obliteration of what makes one human, I mean?"

"Oh, dear, no! nothing but the painful constriction that marks any
ordinary fatal attack of _angina pectoris_.--There's a rum breach of
promise case in the paper to-day. You should read it; it'll make you
laugh."

I had no more inclination to laugh than to sigh; but I accepted the
change of subject with an equanimity now habitual to me.

       *       *       *       *       *

One morning I sat up in bed, and knew that consciousness was wide awake
in me once more. It had slept, and now rose refreshed, but trembling.
Looking back, all in a flutter of new responsibility, along the misty
path by way of which I had recently loitered, I shook with an awful
thankfulness at sight of the pitfalls I had skirted and escaped--of
the demons my witlessness had baffled.

The joy of life was in my heart again, but chastened and made pitiful by
experience.

Hammond noticed the change in me directly he entered, and congratulated
me upon it.

"Go slow at first, old man," he said. "You've fairly sloughed the old
skin; but give the sun time to toughen the new one. Walk in it at
present, and be content."

I was, in great measure, and I followed his advice. I got leave of
absence, and ran down for a month in the country to a certain house we
wot of, where kindly ministration to my convalescence was only one of the
many blisses to be put to an account of rosy days.

"_Then did my love awake,
  Most like a lily-flower,
And as the lovely queene of heaven,
  So shone shee in her bower._"

Ah, me! ah, me! when was it? A year ago, or two-thirds of a lifetime?
Alas! "Age with stealing steps hath clawde me with his crowch." And will
the yews root in _my_ heart, I wonder?

I was well, sane, recovered, when one morning, towards the end of my
visit, I received a letter from Hammond, enclosing a packet addressed to
me, and jealously sealed and fastened. My friend's communication ran as
follows:--

"There died here yesterday afternoon a warder, Johnson--he who had that
apoplectic seizure, you will remember, the night before poor Shrike's
exit. I attended him to the end, and, being alone with him an hour before
the finish, he took the enclosed from under his pillow, and a solemn oath
from me that I would forward it direct to you, sealed as you will find
it, and permit no other soul to examine or even touch it. I acquit myself
of the charge, but, my dear fellow, with an uneasy sense of the
responsibility I incur in thus possibly suggesting to you a retrospect of
events which you had much best consign to the limbo of the--not
unexplainable, but not worth trying to explain. It was patent from what
I have gathered that you were in an overstrung and excitable condition at
that time, and that your temporary collapse was purely nervous in its
character. It seems there was some nonsense abroad in the prison about a
certain cell, and that there were fools who thought fit to associate
Johnson's attack and the other's death with the opening of that cell's
door. I have given the new Governor a tip, and he has stopped all that.
We have examined the cell in company, and found it, as one might suppose,
a very ordinary chamber. The two men died perfectly natural deaths, and
there is the last to be said on the subject. I mention it only from the
fear that enclosed may contain some allusion to the rubbish, a perusal of
which might check the wholesome convalescence of your thoughts. If you
take my advice, you will throw the packet into the fire unread. At least,
if you do examine it, postpone the duty till you feel yourself absolutely
impervious to any mental trickery, and--bear in mind that you are a
worthy member of a particularly matter-of-fact and unemotional
profession."

       *       *       *       *       *

I smiled at the last clause, for I was now in a condition to feel a
rather warm shame over my erst weak-knee'd collapse before a sheet and an
illuminated turnip. I took the packet to my bedroom, shut the door, and
sat myself down by the open window. The garden lay below me, and the dewy
meadows beyond. In the one, bees were busy ruffling the ruddy
gillyflowers and April stocks; in the other, the hedge twigs were all
frosted with Mary buds, as if Spring had brushed them with the fleece of
her wings in passing.

I fetched a sigh of content as I broke the seal of the packet and brought
out the enclosure. Somewhere in the garden a little sardonic laugh was
clipt to silence. It came from groom or maid, no doubt; yet it thrilled
me with an odd feeling of uncanniness, and I shivered slightly.

"Bah!" I said to myself determinedly. "There is a shrewd nip in the wind,
for all the show of sunlight;" and I rose, pulled down the window, and
resumed my seat.

Then in the closed room, that had become deathly quiet by contrast, I
opened and read the dead man's letter.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Sir,--I hope you will read what I here put down. I lay it on you as a
solemn injunction, for I am a dying man, and I know it. And to who is
my death due, and the Governor's death, if not to you, for your pryin'
and curiosity, as surely as if you had drove a nife through our harts?
Therefore, I say, Read this, and take my burden from me, for it has been
a burden; and now it is right that you that interfered should have it on
your own mortal shoulders. The Major is dead and I am dying, and in the
first of my fit it went on in my head like cimbells that the trap was
left open, and that if he passed he would look in and _it_ would get him.
For he knew not fear, neither would he submit to bullying by God or
devil.

"Now I will tell you the truth, and Heaven quit you of your
responsibility in our destruction.

"There wasn't another man to me like the Governor in all the countries of
the world. Once he brought me to life after doctors had given me up for
dead; but he willed it, and I lived; and ever afterwards I loved him as a
dog loves its master. That was in the Punjab; and I came home to England
with him, and was his servant when he got his appointment to the jail
here. I tell you he was a proud and fierce man, but under control and
tender to those he favoured; and I will tell you also a strange thing
about him. Though he was a soldier and an officer, and strict in
discipline as made men fear and admire him, his heart at bottom was all
for books, and literature, and such-like gentle crafts. I had his
confidence, as a man gives his confidence to his dog, and before me
sometimes he unbent as he never would before others. In this way I learnt
the bitter sorrow of his life. He had once hoped to be a poet,
acknowledged as such before the world. He was by natur' an idelist, as
they call it, and God knows what it meant to him to come out of the
woods, so to speak, and sweat in the dust of cities; but he did it, for
his will was of tempered steel. He buried his dreams in the clouds and
came down to earth greatly resolved, but with one undying hate. It is not
good to hate as he could, and worse to be hated by such as him; and I
will tell you the story, and what it led to.

"It was when he was a subaltern that he made up his mind to the plunge.
For years he had placed all his hopes and confidents in a book of verses
he had wrote, and added to, and improved during that time. A little
encouragement, a little word of praise, was all he looked for, and then
he was ready to buckle to again, profitin' by advice, and do better. He
put all the love and beauty of his heart into that book, and at last,
after doubt, and anguish, and much diffidents, he published it and give
it to the world. Sir, it fell what they call still-born from the press.
It was like a green leaf flutterin' down in a dead wood. To a proud
and hopeful man, bubblin' with music, the pain of neglect, when he come
to realize it, was terrible. But nothing was said, and there was nothing
to say. In silence he had to endure and suffer.

"But one day, during maneuvers, there came to the camp a grey-faced man,
a newspaper correspondent, and young Shrike knocked up a friendship
with him. Now how it come about I cannot tell, but so it did that this
skip-kennel wormed the lad's sorrow out of him, and his confidents,
swore he'd been damnabilly used, and that when he got back he'd crack up
the book himself in his own paper. He was a fool for his pains, and a
serpent in his cruelty. The notice come out as promised, and, my God! the
author was laughed and mocked at from beginning to end. Even confidentses
he had given to the creature was twisted to his ridicule, and his very
appearance joked over. And the mess got wind of it, and made a rare story
for the dog days.

"He bore it like a soldier, and that he became heart and liver from the
moment. But he put something to the account of the grey-faced man and
locked it up in his breast.

"He come across him again years afterwards in India, and told him very
politely that he hadn't forgotten him, and didn't intend to. But he was
anigh losin' sight of him there for ever and a day, for the creature took
cholera, or what looked like it, and rubbed shoulders with death and the
devil before he pulled through. And he come across him again over here,
and that was the last of him, as you shall see presently.

"Once, after I knew the Major (he were Captain then), I was a-brushin'
his coat, and he stood a long while before the glass. Then he twisted
upon me, with a smile on his mouth, and says he,--

"'The dog was right, Johnson: this isn't the face of a poet. I was a
presumtious ass, and born to cast up figgers with a pen behind my ear.'

"'Captain,' I says, 'if you was skinned, you'd look like any other man
without his. The quality of a soul isn't expressed by a coat.'

"'Well,' he answers, 'my soul's pretty clean-swept, I think, save for one
Bluebeard chamber in it that's been kep' locked ever so many years.
It's nice and dirty by this time, I expect,' he says. Then the grin comes
on his mouth again. 'I'll open it some day,' he says, 'and look. There's
something in it about comparing me to a dancing dervish, with the wind in
my petticuts. Perhaps I'll get the chance to set somebody else dancing
by-and-by.'

"He did, and took it, and the Bluebeard chamber come to be opened in this
very jail.

"It was when the system was lying fallow, so to speak, and the prison was
deserted. Nobody was there but him and me and the echoes from the empty
courts. The contract for restoration hadn't been signed, and for months,
and more than a year, we lay idle, nothing bein' done.

"Near the beginnin' of this period, one day comes, for the third time of
the Major's seein' him, the grey-faced man. 'Let bygones be bygones,'
he says. 'I was a good friend to you, though you didn't know it; and now,
I expect, you're in the way to thank me.'

"'I am,' says the Major.

"'Of course,' he answers. 'Where would be your fame and reputation as one
of the leadin' prison reformers of the day if you had kep' on in that
riming nonsense?'

"'Have you come for my thanks?' says the Governor.

"'I've come,' says the grey-faced man, 'to examine and report upon your
system.'

"'For your paper?'

"'Possibly; but to satisfy myself of its efficacy, in the first
instance.'

"'You aren't commissioned, then?'

"'No; I come on my own responsibility.'

"'Without consultation with any one?'

"'Absolutely without. I haven't even a wife to advise me,' he says, with
a yellow grin. What once passed for cholera had set the bile on his skin
like paint, and he had caught a manner of coughing behind his hand like a
toast-master.

"'I know,' says the Major, looking him steady in the face, 'that what you
say about me and my affairs is sure to be actuated by conscientious
motives.'

"'Ah,' he answers. 'You're sore about that review still, I see.'

"'Not at all,' says the Major; 'and, in proof, I invite you to be my
guest for the night, and to-morrow I'll show you over the prison and
explain my system.'

"The creature cried, 'Done!' and they set to and discussed jail matters
in great earnestness. I couldn't guess the Governor's intentions, but,
somehow, his manner troubled me. And yet I can remember only one point of
his talk. He were always dead against making public show of his
birds. 'They're there for reformation, not ignimony,' he'd say. Prisons
in the old days were often, with the asylum and the work'us, made the
holiday show-places of towns. I've heard of one Justice of the Peace, up
North, who, to save himself trouble, used to sign a lot of blank orders
for leave to view, so that applicants needn't bother him when they wanted
to go over. They've changed all that, and the Governor were instrumental
in the change.

"'It's against my rule,' he said that night, 'to exhibit to a stranger
without a Government permit; but, seein' the place is empty, and for old
remembrance' sake, I'll make an exception in your favour, and you shall
learn all I can show you of the inside of a prison.'

"Now this was natural enough; but I was uneasy.

"He treated his guest royally; so much that when we assembled the next
mornin' for the inspection, the grey-faced man were shaky as a wet dog.
But the Major were all set prim and dry, like the soldier he was.

"We went straight away down corridor B, and at cell 47 we stopped.

"'We will begin our inspection here,' said the Governor. 'Johnson, open
the door.'

"I had the keys of the row; fitted in the right one, and pushed open the
door.

"'After you, sir,' said the Major; and the creature walked in, and he
shut the door on him.

"I think he smelt a rat at once, for he began beating on the wood and
calling out to us. But the Major only turned round to me with his face
like a stone.

"'Take that key from the bunch,' he said, 'and give it to me.'

"I obeyed, all in a tremble, and he took and put it in his pocket.

"'My God, Major!' I whispered, 'what are you going to do with him?'

"'Silence, sir!' he said. 'How dare you question your superior officer!'

"And the noise inside grew louder.

"The Governor, he listened to it a moment like music; then he unbolted
and flung open the trap, and the creature's face came at it like a wild
beast's.

"'Sir,' said the Major to it, 'you can't better understand my system than
by experiencing it. What an article for your paper you could write
already--almost as pungint a one as that in which you ruined the hopes
and prospects of a young cockney poet.'

"The man mouthed at the bars. He was half-mad, I think, in that one
minute.

"'Let me out!' he screamed. 'This is a hideous joke! Let me out!'

"'When you are quite quiet--deathly quiet,' said the Major, 'you shall
come out. Not before;' and he shut the trap in its face very softly.

"'Come, Johnson, march!' he said, and took the lead, and we walked out of
the prison.

"I was like to faint, but I dared not disobey, and the man's screeching
followed us all down the empty corridors and halls, until we shut the
first great door on it.

"It may have gone on for hours, alone in that awful emptiness. The
creature was a reptile, but the thought sickened my heart.

"And from that hour till his death, five months later, he rotted and
maddened in his dreadful tomb."

       *       *       *       *       *

There was more, but I pushed the ghastly confession from me at this point
in uncontrollable loathing and terror. Was it possible--possible, that
injured vanity could so falsify its victim's every tradition of decency?

"Oh!" I muttered, "what a disease is ambition! Who takes one step towards
it puts his foot on Alsirat!"

It was minutes before my shocked nerves were equal to a resumption of the
task; but at last I took it up again, with a groan.

       *       *       *       *       *

"I don't think at first I realized the full mischief the Governor
intended to do. At least, I hoped he only meant to give the man a good
fright and then let him go. I might have known better. How could he ever
release him without ruining himself?

"The next morning he summoned me to attend him. There was a strange
new look of triumph in his face, and in his hand he held a heavy
hunting-crop. I pray to God he acted in madness, but my duty and
obedience was to him.

"'There is sport toward, Johnson,' he said. 'My dervish has got to
dance.'

"I followed him quiet. We listened when I opened the jail door, but the
place was silent as the grave. But from the cell, when we reached it,
came a low, whispering sound.

"The Governor slipped the trap and looked through.

"'All right,' he said, and put the key in the door and flung it open.

"He were sittin' crouched on the ground, and he looked up at us
vacant-like. His face were all fallen down, as it were, and his mouth
never ceased to shake and whisper.

"The Major shut the door and posted me in a corner. Then he moved to the
creature with his whip.

"'Up!' he cried. 'Up, you dervish, and dance to us!' and he brought the
thong with a smack across his shoulders.

"The creature leapt under the blow, and then to his feet with a cry, and
the Major whipped him till he danced. All round the cell he drove him,
lashing and cutting--and again, and many times again, until the poor
thing rolled on the floor whimpering and sobbing. I shall have to give an
account of this some day. I shall have to whip my master with a red-hot
serpent round the blazing furnace of the pit, and I shall do it with
agony, because here my love and my obedience was to him.

"When it was finished, he bade me put down food and drink that I had
brought with me, and come away with him; and we went, leaving him
rolling on the floor of the cell, and shut him alone in the empty prison
until we should come again at the same time to-morrow.

"So day by day this went on, and the dancing three or four times a week,
until at last the whip could be left behind, for the man would scream and
begin to dance at the mere turning of the key in the lock. And he danced
for four months, but not the fifth.

"Nobody official came near us all this time. The prison stood lonely as a
deserted ruin where dark things have been done.

"Once, with fear and trembling, I asked my master how he would account
for the inmate of 47 if he was suddenly called upon by authority to
open the cell; and he answered, smiling,--

"I should say it was my mad brother. By his own account, he showed me a
brother's love, you know. It would be thought a liberty; but the
authorities, I think, would stretch a point for me. But if I got
sufficient notice, I should clear out the cell.'

"I asked him how, with my eyes rather than my lips, and he answered me
only with a look.

"And all this time he was, outside the prison, living the life of a good
man--helping the needy, ministering to the poor. He even entertained
occasionally, and had more than one noisy party in his house.

"But the fifth month the creature danced no more. He was a dumb, silent
animal then, with matted hair and beard; and when one entered he would
only look up at one pitifully, as if he said, 'My long punishment is
nearly ended'. How it came that no inquiry was ever made about him I
know not, but none ever was. Perhaps he was one of the wandering gentry
that nobody ever knows where they are next. He was unmarried, and had
apparently not told of his intended journey to a soul.

"And at the last he died in the night. We found him lying stiff and
stark in the morning, and scratched with a piece of black crust on a
stone of the wall these strange words: 'An Eddy on the Floor'. Just
that--nothing else.

"Then the Governor came and looked down, and was silent. Suddenly he
caught me by the shoulder.

"'Johnson', he cried, 'if it was to do again, I would do it! I repent of
nothing. But he has paid the penalty, and we call quits. May he rest
in peace!'

"'Amen!' I answered low. Yet I knew our turn must come for this.

"We buried him in quicklime under the wall where the murderers lie, and I
made the cell trim and rubbed out the writing, and the Governor locked
all up and took away the key. But he locked in more than he bargained
for.

"For months the place was left to itself, and neither of us went anigh
47. Then one day the workmen was to be put in, and the Major he took
me round with him for a last examination of the place before they come.

"He hesitated a bit outside a particular cell; but at last he drove in
the key and kicked open the door.

"'My God!' he says, 'he's dancing still!'

"My heart was thumpin', I tell you, as I looked over his shoulder. What
did we see? What you well understand, sir; but, for all it was no more
than that, we knew as well as if it was shouted in our ears that it was
him, dancin'. It went round by the walls and drew towards us, and as it
stole near I screamed out, 'An Eddy on the Floor!' and seized and dragged
the Major out and clapped to the door behind us.

"'Oh!' I said, 'in another moment it would have had us'.

"He looked at me gloomily.

"'Johnson', he said, 'I'm not to be frighted or coerced. He may dance,
but he shall dance alone. Get a screwdriver and some screws and fasten up
this trap. No one from this time looks into this cell.'

"I did as he bid me, sweatin'; and I swear all the time I wrought I
dreaded a hand would come through the trap and clutch mine.

"On one pretex' or another, from that day till the night you meddled with
it, he kep' that cell as close shut as a tomb. And he went his ways,
discardin' the past from that time forth. Now and again a over-sensitive
prisoner in the next cell would complain of feelin' uncomfortable. If
possible, he would be removed to another; if not, he was damd for his
fancies. And so it might be goin' on to now, if you hadn't pried and
interfered. I don't blame you at this moment, sir. Likely you were an
instrument in the hands of Providence; only, as the instrument, you must
now take the burden of the truth on your own shoulders. I am a dying man,
but I cannot die till I have confessed. Per'aps you may find it in your
hart some day to give up a prayer for me--but it must be for the Major as
well.

"Your obedient servant,

"J. JOHNSON."

       *       *       *       *       *

What comment of my own can I append to this wild narrative?
Professionally, and apart from personal experiences, I should rule it the
composition of an epileptic. That a noted journalist, nameless as he was
and is to me, however nomadic in habit, could disappear from human ken,
and his fellows rest content to leave him unaccounted for, seems a tax
upon credulity so stupendous that I cannot seriously endorse the
statement.

Yet, also--there _is_ that little matter of my personal experience.




DINAH'S MAMMOTH


On a day early in the summer of the present year Miss Dinah Groom was
found lying dead off a field-path of the little obscure Wiltshire village
which she had named her "rest and be thankful." At the date of her
decease she was not an old woman, though any one marking her white hair
and much-furrowed features might have supposed her one. The hair,
however, was ample in quantity, the wrinkles rather so many under-scores
of energy than evidences of senility; and until the blinds were down over
her soul, she had looked into and across the world with a pair of eyes
that seemed to reflect the very blue and white of a June sky. No doubt
she had thought to breast the hills and sail the seas again in some
renaissance of vigour. No doubt her "retreat," like a Roman Catholic's,
was designed to be merely temporary. She aped the hermit for the sake of
a sojourn in the hermitage. She came to her island of Avalon to be
restored of her weary limbs and her blistered feet, so to speak; and
there her heart, too weak for her spirit, failed her, and she fell
amongst the young budding poppies, and died.

I use the word "heart" literally, and in no sentimental sense. To talk of
associations of sentiment in connection with this lady would be
misleading. She herself would not have repudiated any responsibility for
the term as applied to her; she would have simply failed to understand
the term itself. There was no least affectation in this. Throughout her
life of sixty years, as I gather, she acted never once upon principle.
Impulse and inclination dominated her, and she would indulge many
primitive instincts without a thought of conventions. Yet she was not
selfish; or, at least, only in the self-contained and self-protective
meaning of the word. She was a perfect animal, conscious of her supreme
brute caste, shrewd, resourceful, and the plain embodiment of truth.

Miss Groom had, I think, a boundless feeling of fellowship with beauty of
whatever description; but no least touch of that sorrow of affection
which, in its very humanity, is divine. Her unswerving creed was that
woman was the inheritrix of the earth, the reversion of which she had
wilfully mortgaged to an alien race, and that she had bartered her
material immortality for a sensation. For man she had no vulgar and
jealous contempt; but she feared and shrank from him as something moved
by scruples with which she had no sympathy. She understood the world of
Nature, and could respond to its bloodless caresses and passions. She
could _not_ understand the moodiness that dwells upon a grievance, or
that would sell its birthright of joy for a pitiful memory.

Yet (and here I must speak with discretion, for I have no sufficient data
to go upon) there was that of contradictoriness in her character that, I
have reason to believe, she had borne children, and had even been right
and particular as to their temporal welfare until such time as, in the
nature of things, they were of an age to make shift for themselves. This,
virtually, I know to be the case; and that, once quit of the primitive
maternal responsibility, she gave no more thought to them than a thrush
gives to its fledglings when she has educated them to their first
flights, and to the useful knack of cracking a snail on a stone.

My own feeling about Dinah Groom was that she had "thrown back" a long
way over the heads of heredity, and that, in her fearlessness, in her
undegenerate physique, in the animal regularity of her face and form, she
presented to modern days a startling aboriginal type.

Beautiful--save in the sense of symmetry--she can never have been to the
ordinary man; inasmuch as she would subscribe to no arbitrary standard of
his dictating. She had a high, rich colour; but her complexion must
always have been rough, and a pronounced little moustache crossed her
upper lip, like an accent to the speech that was too distinct and
uncompromising to be melodious. Her every limb and feature, however, was
instinct with capability, and, in her presence, one must always be moved
to marvel over that indescribable worship of disproportion that has grown
to be the religion of a shapely race.

       *       *       *       *       *

How I first became acquainted with Miss Groom it is unnecessary to
explain. During the last three years of her life I was fortunate to be
her guest in the Wiltshire retreat for an aggregate of many months. She
took a fancy to me--to my solitariness and moroseness, perhaps--and she
not only liked to have me with her, but, after a time, she fell into
something of a habit of recalling for my benefit certain passages and
experiences of her past life. In doing this, there was no suggestion of
confidence; and I am breaking no faith in alluding to them. She was a
fine talker--rugged, unpicturesque, but with an instinctive capacity of
selection in words. If I quote her, as I wish to do, I cannot reproduce
her style; and that, no doubt, would appear bald on paper. But, at least,
the matter is all her own.

Now, I must premise that I arrogate to myself no exhibitory rights in
this lady. She was familiar with and to many from the foremost ranks of
those who "follow knowledge like a sinking star"; those great and
restless spirits to whom inaction reads stagnation. To such, in all
probability, I tell, in speaking of Dinah Groom, a twice-told tale; and,
therefore--inasmuch as I make it my business only to print what is
hitherto unrecorded--to them I give the assurance that I do not claim to
have "discovered" their friend.

       *       *       *       *       *

On a wall of the little embowered sitting-room hung a queer picture, by
Ernest Griset, of the "Overwhelming of the Mammoths in the Ice." From the
first this odd conception had engaged my curiosity,--purely for its
fanciful side,--and one evening, in alluding to it, I made the not very
profound remark that Imagination had no anatomy.

"They are true beasts," said Dinah.

"They are the mastodons of Cuvier, no doubt; but, then, Cuvier never saw
a mastodon, you know."

"But I have; and I tell you Griset and Cuvier are very nearly right."

I expressed no surprise.

"In what were they astray?" I asked.

"The mammoth, as I saw it, had a huge hump--like the steam-chest of an
enormous engine--over its shoulders."

"And where did you see it, and when?"

"You are curious to know?"

"Yes, I think I am; and there is a quiet of expectancy abroad. I hear the
ghost of my dead brother walking in the corridor, Dinah; and we are all
waiting for you to speak."

She smiled, and said, "Push me over the cigarettes."

She struck a match, kindled the little crackling tube, and threw the
light out into the shrubbery. It traced a tiny arc of flame and vanished.
The sky was full of the mewing of lost kittens, it seemed. The sound came
from innumerable peewits, that fled and circled above the slopes of the
darkening meadows below.

"What an uncomfortable seer you are!" she said, "to people this dear
human night with your fancies. No doubt, now, you will read between
the lines of that bird speech down there?" (She looked at me curiously,
but with none of the mournful speculativeness of a soul struggling
against the dimness of its own vision.) "To me it is articulate
happiness--nothing more abstruse. Yes, I have seen a mastodon; and I was
as glad to happen on the beast as a naturalist is glad to find a missing
link in a chain of evidence. From the moment, I knew myself quite clearly
to be the recovered heir to this abused planet."

She paused a moment, and contracted her brows, as if regretfully and in
anger. "If I had only seen it sooner!" she cried, low; "before I had, in
my pride of strength, tested the poison that has bewildered the brains of
my sisters!"

Her general reserve was her self-armour against the bolts of the
Philistines. What worldling would not have read mania in much that was
spoken by this sane woman? Yet, indeed, if we were all to find the power
to give expression to our inmost thoughts, madness and sanity would have
to change places in the order of affairs.

"Once," said Dinah--"and it was when I was a young woman--a man in whom I
was interested shipped as passenger on a whaling vessel. This friend was
what is called a degenerate. Physically and morally he had yielded his
claim to any share in that province of the sun, that his race had
conquered and annexed only to find it antipathetic to its needs.
Combative effort was grown impossible to him, as in time it will grow to
you all. You drop from the world like dead flies from a wall. He could
not physic his soul with woods, and groves, and waters. To his
perceptions, life was become an abnormality--a disease of which he
sickened, as you all must when the last of the fever of aggression has
been diluted out of your veins. You die of your triumph, as the bee dies
of his own weapon of offence; and you can find no antidote to the poison
in the nature you have inoculated with your own virus.

"This man contemplated self-destruction as the only escape. He had sought
distraction of his moral torments in travel long and varied. Many of the
most beautiful, of the historically interesting places of the world, he
had visited and sojourned in--without avail. His haunting feeling, he
said, was that he did not belong to himself. Pursued by this Nemesis, he
came home to end it all. He still proclaimed his spiritual independence;
but it was immeshed, and he must tear the strands. This was wonderfully
perplexing to me, and, out of my curiosity, I must persuade him to make
one more attempt. His late efforts, I assured him, were nothing but an
endeavour to cure nausea with sweet syrups. He would not get his change
out of nature by such pitiful wooing. Let him, rather, emulate, if he
could not feel, the spirit of his remote forbears, and rally his nerves
to an expedition into the harsh and awful places of the earth. I would
accompany him, and watch with and for him, and supply that of the fibre
he lacked.

"He consented, and, after some difficulty (for there is an economy of
room in whalers), we obtained passage in a vessel and sailed into the
unknown. Our life and our food were simple and rugged; but the keen air,
the relief from luxury, the novelty and the wonder, wrought upon my
companion and renewed him, so that presently I was amused to note in him
signs of a moral preening--some smug resumption of that arrogant air of
superiority that is a tradition with your race."

Miss Groom here puckered her lips, and breathed a little destructive
laugh upon her cigarette ash.

"It did not last long," she said. "We encountered very bad weather, and
his nerves again went by the board. That was in the 60th longitude, I
think (where whales were still to be found in those years), and seven
hundred miles or so to the east of Spitzbergen. On the day--it was in
August--that the storm first overtook us, the boats were out in pursuit
of a 'right' whale, as, I believe, the men called it--a great bull
creature, and piebald like a horse; and I saw the spouting of his breath
as if a water main had burst in a London fog. The wind came in a sudden
charge from the northwest, and the whale dived with a harpoon in its
back; and in the confusion a reel fouled, and one of the boats was whipt
under in a moment--half a mile down, perhaps--and its crew drawn with
it, and their lungs, full of air, burst like bubbles. We had no time to
think of them. We got the other boat-load on board, and then the gale
sent us crashing down the slopes of the sea. I have no knowledge of how
long we were curst of the tempest and the sport of its ravings. I only
know that when it released us at last, we had been hurled a thousand
miles eastwards. The long interval was all a hellish jangle in which time
seemed obliterated. Sometimes we saw the sun--a furious red globe; and we
seemed to stand still while it raced down the sky and ricocheted over the
furthermost waves like a red-hot cannon ball. Sometimes in pitch darkness
the wild sense of flight and expectation was an ecstasy. But through all
my friend lay in a half-delirious stupor.

"At length a morning broke, full of icy scud, but the sea panting and
exhausted of its rage. As a child catches its breath after a storm of
tears, so it would heave up suddenly, and vibrate, and sink; and we
rocked upon it, a ruined hulk. We were off a flat, vacant shore--if shore
you could call it--whose margin, for miles inland, it seemed, undulated
with the lifting of the swell. It was treeless desolation manifest; and
on our sea side, as far as the eye could reach, the water bobbed and
winked with countless spars of ice.

"I will tell you at once, my friend,--we were brought to opposite an
inhuman swamp on the coast of Siberia, fifty miles or more to the west
of North-east Cape; and there what remained of the crew made shift to
cast anchor; and for a day and night the ragged ship curtsied to the
land, like a blind beggar to an empty street, and we only dozed in our
corners and wondered at the silence.

"By-and-by the men made a raft, and that took us all ashore. There was
something like a definite coast-line, then; but for long before we
touched it the undersides of the planks were scraping and hissing over
vegetation. This was the winter fur of the land--thick, coarse tundra
moss; and on that we pitched a camp, and on that we remained for long
weeks while the ship was mending. It was a weird, lonely time. Once
or twice strange, wandering creatures came our way--little, belted men,
with hairless faces, who rode up on strong horses, and liked to exhibit
their skilful management of them. They talked to us in their chirpy
jargon (Toongus, I think it was called); but jargon it must needs remain
to us.

"Well, we made a patch of the hulk, and we shipped in her again. We were
fortunate to be able to do that, for, with every stiffish wind blowing
inshore, we had feared she would drag her moorings and ground immovably
on the swamps. The land, indeed, was so flat and low that, whenever the
sea rose at all, it threshed the very plains and crackled in the moss;
and we were glad, despite the risk, to leave so lifeless a place."

Dinah paused to light another cigarette, and to inhale the ecstasy of the
first puff or so before she continued. Up through the still evening, from
a curve of the main road that crooked an elbow to her front garden, came
what sounded like the purring of a great cat--the wind in the telegraph
wires.

"And I am now to tell you," she said, "about the mastodon?"

"As you please," I answered.

"I do please; for why should I keep it to myself? It makes no difference;
only I warn you, if you quote me, you will be writ down a fool or a
maniac. This relation lacks witnesses, for the whaler--that I
subsequently quitted for another homing vessel--was never heard of in
port any more."

She looked at me with some serious scrutiny before she went on.

"For these regions, it had been an extraordinarily hot
summer--phenomenally hot, I understand; and to this--to the melting and
breaking away of the ice from hitherto century-locked fastnesses, the
captain attributed the wonderful experience that befell us. The sea was
strewn with blocks and bergs, all hurrying onwards in the strong
currents, as if in haste to escape the pursuing demon of frost that
should re-fetter them; and their multitude kept the steersman's arms
spinning till the man would fall half-fainting over the spoke-handles.

"Now, one morning early in September, a dense bright fog dropped suddenly
upon the waters. We were making what sail we could--with our crippled
spars and stunted trees of masts--and this it were useless to shorten,
and so invite a rearward bombardment from the chasing hummocks. So we
kept our course by the compass, and trailed on through a blind mist while
fear drummed in our throats. The demoralization of my friend was by this
time complete. For myself, I seldom had a thought but that Nature would
sheathe her claws when she played with me.

"'This cannot last long!' said the captain.

"The words were on his lips when we struck with a noise like the
splintering of glass. We were all thrown down, and my companion screamed
like a mad thing. The captain rose and ran to the bows; and in a moment
he came back and his beard was shaking.

"'God save us!' he cried, 'and fetch aft the rum!'

"There you have man in his invincible moods. They drank till they were in
a condition to face death; and then they found that our situation was
rather improved than otherwise by the collision. For--so it appeared--we
had run full tilt for a perpendicular fissure in a huge block, and
into that our bows were firmly wedged, the nature of the impact
distributing the shock, and the berg itself carrying us along with it and
protecting us.

"Now the dipping motion of the vessel was exchanged for a heavy regular
wash along its stern quarters; for the bows were so much raised as that I
felt a little strain on my knees as I went forward to satisfy my
curiosity with a view of the icy mass into which we were penetrated. I
waited, indeed, until the crew were come aft again from looking, and my
friend crept timidly at my shoulder; but when we reached the stem, there
was one of the hands, a little soberer than his fellows, sprawled over
the bulwarks, and staring with all his eyes into the green lift of the
wall against him.

"'Is it a mermaid you see, Killigrew?' I asked.

"The man shifted his gaze to me slowly and solemnly.

"'Nowt, nowt,' said he; 'but a turble monster, like a pram stuck in
jelly.'

"I laughed, and went to his side. The fog, as I have said, was dense and
bright, and one could see into it a little way, as into a milky white
agate. But now and again a film of it would pull thin, and then sunlight
came through and made a dim radiance of the ice.

"'I can make out nothing,' I said.

"He cocked an eye and leered up at me. 'Look steady and sober,' he said,
'and you'll make en owut like as in a glass darkly.'

"I gave a little gasp and my friend a cry before the words were issued
from the man's mouth. Drawn by some current of air, the fog at the
moment blew out of the cleft, like smoke from a chimney; and there,
before our gaze, was a great curved tusk coming up through the ice and
inside it.

"Now I clapped my hands in an agony, lest the fog should close in again,
and the vision fade before my eyes; for, following the sweep of the tusk,
I was aware of the phantom presentment of some monster creature lying
imbedded within the ice, its mighty carcase prostrate as it had fallen;
the conformation of its enormous forehead presented directly to our
gaze. Its little toffee-ball eyes--little proportionately, that is to
say--squinted at us, it seemed, through half-closed lids, and a huge,
hairy trunk lay curled, like the proboscis of a dead moth, between its
tree-like fore-legs. Away beyond, the great red-brown drum of its hide
bellied upward on ribs as thick as a Dutch galliot's, and sprouting from
its shoulders was the hump I have mentioned, but here, from its position,
sprawled abroad and lying over in a shapeless mass.

"There was something else--horribly nauseating but for its strangeness.
The brute had been partly disembowelled, as there was ample evidence to
show, for the ice had preserved all.

"Suddenly my companion gave a high nervous shriek.

"'Look!' he cried--'the hand! the hand sticking out of the side!'

"I saw in a moment; turned, and called excitedly to the captain. He--all
the crew--came tumbling forward up the slippery deck. I seized him by the
shoulder.

"'Do you see?' I screamed--'the human hand beckoning to us from that
great body!'

"He gazed stupidly, swaying where he stood.

"'One o' them bloomin' pre-hadymite cows!' he muttered; 'caught in the
cold nip, by thunder! and some unfortnit crept into her for warmth.'

"I believed the creature's rude intuition had flown true.

"'Cannot you get at it?' I gasped.

"He stared at me. All in an instant a little paltry demon of avarice
blinked out of his eye-holes.

"'Why,' he said slowly, 'who knows but it mayn't be a gal a-jingling from
top to toe with gold curtain rings!'

"He was a furious dare-devil immediately, and quick, and savage, and
peremptory. His spirit entered into his men. They went over the side
with pikes and axes, and, scrambling for any foothold, set to work on the
ice like maniacs. In the lust of cupidity they did not even think how
they wrought against their own safety and that of the ship.

"The point of the uppermost tusk came to within a foot of the
ice-surface. This they soon reached, and, prising frantically with
crowbars, flaked off and rolled away half-ton blocks of the
superincumbent mass. I need not detail the fierce process. In half an
hour they had laid bare a great segment of that part of the trunk whence
the hand protruded, and then they paused, and at a word flung down their
tools.

"I was leaning over the bulwarks watching them. I could contain my
excitement no longer.

"'Come,' I said to my friend, 'help me down, for I must go.'

"He climbed over, trembling, and assisted me to a standing on the ice. We
scrambled along the track of _debris_ left by the crew. At the moment
half a dozen of the latter were rolling back a broad flap of the hide, in
which they had found a long L-shaped rent revealed. Then a hoarse cry
broke from them, and I stumbled forward and looked down, and saw.

"They lay beneath the mighty ribs as in a cage, of which the intercostal
spaces were a foot in width, and the bars of a strength to maintain the
enormous pressure of that which had surrounded and entombed them; they
lay in one close group, their naked limbs smeared with the stain of their
prison--a man, a woman, and a tiny child. From their faces, and their
unfallen flesh, they might have been sleeping; but they were not; they
were come down to us, a transfixture of death--prehistoric people in a
prehistoric brute, and their eyes--their eyes!"

Dinah's voice trailed off into silence. Some expression that I could not
interpret was on her face. There was regret in it, but nothing of pathos
or mysticism. Suddenly she breathed out a great sigh and resumed her
narrative.

"You will want to know how they looked, these lifeless survivors of a
remote race from a remote time? I will try to tell you. The men hacked
away the ribs with their axes, and laid bare the group lying in the
hollow scooped out of the fallen beast. They were little people, and the
man, according to your modern canons of taste, was by far the most
beautiful of the three. He sat erect, with one uplifted arm projected
through the ribs; as if, surprised by the frost-stroke, he had started to
escape, and had been petrified in the act. His face, wondering and
delicate as a baby's, was hairless; and his head only a pretty infantile
down covered--a curling floss as radiant as spun glass. His wide-open
eyes glinted yet with a hyacinth blue, and it was difficult to realize
that they were dead and vacant.

"The woman was of coarser mould, ruddy, vigorous, brown-haired and eyed.
She looked the very hamadryad of some blossoming tree, a sweet capricious
daughter of the blameless earth. Everything luxuriated in her--colour,
hair, and lusty flesh; and the child she held to her bosom with a manner
that indescribably commingled contempt, and resentment, and a passion of
proprietorship.

"This baby--joining the prominent characteristics of the two--was the
oddest little mortal I have ever seen. What did its expression convey to
me? 'I am fairly caught, and must brazen out the situation!' There! that
was what it was; I cannot put it more lucidly. Only the thing's wee face
was animal conscious for the first time of itself, and inclined to
rejoice in that primitive energy of knowledge.

"Now, my friend, I must tell you how the sight operated upon me and upon
my companion. For myself, I can only say that, looking upon that fine,
independent fore-mother of my race, I felt the sun in my veins and the
winy fragrance of antique woods and pastures. I laughed; I clapped my
hands; I danced on the ice-rubbish, so that they thought me mad. But, for
the other--the man--he was in a different plight. He was transfigured;
his nervousness was gone in a flash. He cast himself down upon his knees,
and gazed and gazed, his hands clasped, upon that sleek, mild progenitor
of his, that pure image of gentle self-containment, whose very meekness
suggested an indomitable will.

"Suddenly he, my friend, cried out: 'This is one caught in the process of
materialization! It is not flesh; my God, no!'

"It seemed, indeed, as if it were as he said. I stopped in my capering
and looked down. The tarry hinds standing by grinned and jeered.

"On the instant there came a splintering snap, and the floe rocked and
curtsied.

"'Back!' yelled the captain. 'She's breaking through by the head!'

"He shrieked of the ship. She was clearing herself, had already shaken
her prow free of the ice.

"There was a wild scamper for safety. I was carried with the throng. It
was not until I was hauled on board once more that I thought of my
friend. He still knelt where we had fled from him, a wrapt, strange
expression on his face.

"'Come back!' I screamed. 'You will be lost!'

"Now at that he turned his head and looked at me; but he never moved, and
his voice came to me quiet and exultant.

"'Lost!' he said, 'ay, for forty-three years: and here, here I find
myself!'

"We dipped, and the wash of the water came about our bows. The block of
ice swerved, made a sluggish half-pirouette and dropped astern.

"'Come!' I shrieked again faintly.

"With the echo of my cry he was a phantom, a blot, had vanished in the
rearward fog; and thereout a little joyous laugh came to me.

"And that was a queer good-bye for ever, wasn't it?"




THE BLACK REAPER


PROEM

Heaven's Nursery


"Sinner, sinner, whence do you come?"
  "From the bitter earth they called my home."

"Sinner, sinner, why do you wait?"
  "I fear to knock at the golden gate:

"My crimes were heavy; my doom is sure,
  And I dread the anguish I must endure."

"Had you ever a child down there?"
  "One--but it died, and I learnt despair."

"Here you will find it, behind the gate."
  "God forbid! for it felt my hate--

"Shrunk in the frost of my cruelties.
  More than the Judge's I fear its eyes."

"Hist! At the keyhole place your ear.
  Sinner, what is the sound you hear?

"Is it ten thousand babes at play?
  Heaven's nursery lies that way.

"Through it to judgment all must fare
  It was God's pity placed it there."

The gate swung open; the sinner past;
  Little hands caught and held him fast.

"While you wait the call of the Nameless One,
  There's time for a game at 'Touch-and-Run'!"

He played with them there in that shining place,
  With the hot tears scorching his furrowed face--

Played, till the voice rang dread and clear:
  "Where is the sinner? I wait him here!"

Then shouting with laughter one and all
  They pushed him on to the Judgment Hall;

Stood by him; swarmed to the dais steps,
  A jumble of gleeful eyes and lips.

The Judge leaned stern from His Judgment Throne:
  _"I gave thee--where is thy littte one?"_

Wildly the culprit caught his breath:
  "Lord, I have sinned. My doom be death."

He hung his head with a broken sob.
  There sprang a child from the rosy mob--

"Daddy!" it cried, with a joyful shriek;
  Leapt to his arms and kissed his cheek.

But he put it from him with bursting sighs,
  And looked on the Judge with swimming eyes;

Stood abashed in his bitter shame,
  Waiting the sentence that never came.

From the Throne spoke out the thundered Word:
  _"This be thy doom!"_ No more he heard,

For a chime of laughter from baby throats
  Took up those crashing organ notes,

Mixed with; silenced them; made them void--
  And the children's laughter was unalloyed,

"This be thy doom," came a little squeak,
  "To play with us here at 'hide-and-seek'!"

Thrice did the Judge essay to frown;
  Thrice did the children laugh Him down--

Till at the last, He caught and kissed
  The maddest of all and the merriest;

Turned to the sinner, with smiling face:
  "These render futile the Judgment Place.

"Sunniest rascals, imp and elf,
  Who think they can better the Judge Himself.

"Sinner--whatever thy sins may be,
  Theirs is the sentence--go from Me!"




THE BLACK REAPER

TAKEN FROM THE Q---- REGISTER OF LOCAL EVENTS, AS COMPILED FROM AUTHENTIC
NARRATIVES

I


Now I am to tell you of a thing that befell in the year 1665 of the Great
Plague, when the hearts of certain amongst men, grown callous in
wickedness upon that rebound from an inhuman austerity, were opened to
the vision of a terror that moved and spoke not in the silent places of
the fields. Forasmuch as, however, in the recovery from delirium a
patient may marvel over the incredulity of neighbours who refuse to give
credence to the presentments that have been _ipso facto_ to him, so, the
nation being sound again, and its constitution hale, I expect little but
a laugh for my piety in relating of the following incident; which,
nevertheless, is as essential true as that he who shall look through the
knot-hole in the plank of a coffin shall acquire the evil eye.

For, indeed, in those days of a wild fear and confusion, when every
condition that maketh for reason was set wandering by a devious path, and
all men sitting as in a theatre of death looked to see the curtain rise
upon God knows what horrors, it was vouchsafed to many to witness sights
and sounds beyond the compass of Nature, and that as if the devil and his
minions had profited by the anarchy to slip unobserved into the world.
And I know that this is so, for all the insolence of a recovered
scepticism; and, as to the unseen, we are like one that traverseth the
dark with a lanthorn, himself the skipper of a little moving blot of
light, but a positive mark for any secret foe without the circumference
of its radiance.

Be that as it may, and whether it was our particular ill-fortune, or, as
some asserted, our particular wickedness, that made of our village an
inviting back-door of entrance to the Prince of Darkness, I know not; but
so it is that disease and contagion are ever inclined to penetrate by way
of flaws or humours where the veil of the flesh is already perforated,
as a kite circleth round its quarry, looking for the weak place to
strike: and, without doubt, in that land of corruption we were a very
foul blot indeed.

How this came about it were idle to speculate; yet no man shall have the
hardihood to affirm that it was otherwise. Nor do I seek to extenuate
myself, who was in truth no better than my neighbours in most that made
us a community of drunkards and forswearers both lewd and abominable.
For in that village a depravity that was like madness had come to possess
the heads of the people, and no man durst take his stand on honesty or
even common decency, for fear he should be set upon by his comrades and
drummed out of his government on a pint pot. Yet for myself I will say
was one only redeeming quality, and that was the pure love I bore to my
solitary orphaned child, the little Margery.

Now, our Vicar--a patient and God-fearing man, for all his predial tithes
were impropriated by his lord, that was an absentee and a sheriff in
London--did little to stem that current of lewdness that had set in
strong with the Restoration. And this was from no lack of virtue in
himself, but rather from a natural invertebracy, as one may say, and an
order of mind that, yet being no order, is made the sport of any
sophister with a wit for paragram. Thus it always is that mere example is
of little avail without precept,--of which, however, it is an important
condition,--and that the successful directors of men be not those who go
to the van and lead, unconscious of the gibes and mockery in their rear,
but such rather as drive the mob before them with a smiting hand and no
infirmity of purpose. So, if a certain affection for our pastor dwelt in
our hearts, no title of respect was there to leaven it and justify his
high office before Him that consigned the trust; and ever deeper and
deeper we sank in the slough of corruption, until was brought about this
pass--that naught but some scourging despotism of the Church should
acquit us of the fate of Sodom. That such, at the eleventh hour, was
vouchsafed us of God's mercy, it is my purpose to show; and, doubtless,
this offering of a loop-hole was to account by reason of the devil's
having debarked his reserves, as it were, in our port; and so quartering
upon us a soldiery that we were, at no invitation of our own, to
maintain, stood us a certain extenuation.

It was late in the order of things before in our village so much as a
rumour of the plague reached us. Newspapers were not in those days, and
reports, being by word of mouth, travelled slowly, and were often spent
bullets by the time they fell amongst us. Yet, by May, some gossip there
was of the distemper having gotten a hold in certain quarters of London
and increasing, and this alarmed our people, though it made no abatement
of their profligacy. But presently the reports coming thicker, with
confirmation of the terror and panic that was enlarging on all sides, we
must take measures for our safety; though into June and July, when the
pestilence was raging, none infected had come our way, and that from our
remote and isolated position. Yet it needs but fear for the crown to that
wickedness that is self-indulgence; and forasmuch as this fear fattens
like a toadstool on the decomposition it springs from, it grew with us to
the proportions that we were set to kill or destroy any that should
approach us from the stricken districts.

And then suddenly there appeared in our midst _he_ that was appointed to
be our scourge and our cautery.

Whence he came, or how, no man of us could say. Only one day we were a
community of roysterers and scoffers, impious and abominable, and the
next he was amongst us smiting and thundering.

Some would have it that he was an old collegiate of our Vicar's, but at
last one of those wandering Dissenters that found never as now the times
opportune to their teachings--a theory to which our minister's treatment
of the stranger gave colour. For from the moment of his appearance he
took the reins of government, as it were, appropriating the pulpit and
launching his bolts therefrom, with the full consent and encouragement of
the other. There were those, again, who were resolved that his commission
was from a high place, whither news of our infamy had reached, and that
we had best give him a respectful hearing, lest we should run a chance of
having our hearing stopped altogether. A few were convinced he was no man
at all, but rather a fiend sent to thresh us with the scourge of our own
contriving, that we might be tender, like steak, for the cooking; and yet
other few regarded him with terror, as an actual figure or embodiment of
the distemper.

But, generally, after the first surprise, the feeling of resentment at
his intrusion woke and gained ground, and we were much put about that he
should have thus assumed the pastorship without invitation, quartering
with our Vicar; who kept himself aloof and was little seen, and seeking
to drive us by terror, and amazement, and a great menace of retribution.
For, in truth, this was not the method to which we were wont, and it both
angered and disturbed us.

This feeling would have enlarged the sooner, perhaps, were it not for a
certain restraining influence possessed of the new-comer, which
neighboured him with darkness and mystery. For he was above the common
tall, and ever appeared in public with a slouched hat, that concealed all
the upper part of his face and showed little otherwise but the dense
black beard that dropped upon his breast like a shadow.

Now with August came a fresh burst of panic, how the desolation increased
and the land was overrun with swarms of infected persons seeking an
asylum from the city; and our anger rose high against the stranger, who
yet dwelt with us and encouraged the distemper of our minds by furious
denunciations of our guilt.

Thus far, for all the corruption of our hearts, we had maintained the
practice of church-going, thinking, maybe, poor fools! to hoodwink the
Almighty with a show of reverence; but now, as by a common consent, we
neglected the observances and loitered of a Sabbath in the fields, and
thither at the last the strange man pursued us and ended the matter.

For so it fell that at the time of the harvest's ripening a goodish body
of us males was gathered one Sunday for coolness about the neighbourhood
of the dripping well, whose waters were a tradition, for they had long
gone dry. This well was situate in a sort of cave or deep scoop at the
foot of a cliff of limestone, to which the cultivated ground that led up
to it fell somewhat. High above, the cliff broke away into a wide stretch
of pasture land, but the face of the rock itself was all patched with
bramble and little starved birch-trees clutching for foothold; and in
like manner the excavation beneath was half-stifled and gloomed over with
undergrowth, so that it looked a place very dismal and uninviting, save
in the ardour of the dog-days.

Within, where had been the basin, was a great shattered hole going down
to unknown depths; and this no man had thought to explore, for a mystery
held about the spot that was doubtless the foster-child of ignorance.

But to the front of the well and of the cliff stretched a noble field of
corn, and this field was of an uncommon shape, being, roughly, a vast
circle and a little one joined by a neck and in suggestion not unlike an
hour-glass; and into the crop thereof, which was of goodly weight and
condition, were the first sickles to be put on the morrow.

Now as we stood or lay around, idly discussing of the news, and
congratulating ourselves that we were featly quit of our incubus, to us
along the meadow path, his shadow jumping on the corn, came the very
subject of our gossip.

He strode up, looking neither to right nor left, and with the first word
that fell, low and damnatory, from his lips, we knew that the moment had
come when, whether for good or evil, he intended to cast us from him and
acquit himself of further responsibility in our direction.

"Behold!" he cried, pausing over against us, "I go from among ye! Behold,
ye that have not obeyed nor inclined your ear, but have walked every one
in the imagination of his evil heart! Saith the Lord, 'I will bring evil
upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall
cry unto Me, I will not hearken unto them.'"

His voice rang out, and a dark silence fell among us. It was pregnant,
but with little of humility. We had had enough of this interloper and his
abuse. Then, like Jeremiah, he went to prophesy:--

"I read ye, men of Anathoth, and the murder in your hearts. Ye that have
worshipped the shameful thing and burned incense to Baal--shall I cringe
that ye devise against me, or not rather pray to the Lord of Hosts, 'Let
me see Thy vengeance on them'? And He answereth, 'I will bring evil upon
the men of Anathoth, even the year of their visitation.'"

Now, though I was no participator in that direful thing that followed, I
stood by, nor interfered, and so must share the blame. For there were men
risen all about, and their faces lowering, and it seemed that it would go
hard with the stranger were he not more particular.

But he moved forward, with a stately and commanding gesture, and stood
with his back to the well-scoop and threatened us and spoke.

"Lo!" he shrieked, "your hour is upon you! Ye shall be mowed down like
ripe corn, and the shadow of your name shall be swept from the earth! The
glass of your iniquity is turned, and when its sand is run through, not a
man of ye shall be!"

He raised his arm aloft, and in a moment he was overborne. Even then, as
all say, none got sight of his face; but he fought with lowered head, and
his black beard flapped like a wounded crow. But suddenly a boy-child ran
forward of the bystanders, crying and screaming,--

"Hurt him not! They are hurting him--oh, me! oh, me!"

And from the sweat and struggle came his voice, gasping, "I spare the
little children!"

Then only I know of the surge and the crash towards the well-mouth, of an
instant cessation of motion, and immediately of men toiling hither and
thither with boulders and huge blocks, which they piled over the rent,
and so sealed it with a cromlech of stone.




II


That, in the heat of rage and of terror, we had gone farther than we had
at first designed, our gloom and our silence on the morrow attested. True
we were quit of our incubus, but on such terms as not even the severity
of the times could excuse. For the man had but chastised us to our
improvement; and to destroy the scourge is not to condone the offence.
For myself, as I bore up the little Margery to my shoulder on my way to
the reaping, I felt the burden of guilt so great as that I found myself
muttering of an apology to the Lord that I durst put myself into touch
with innocence. "But the walk would fatigue her otherwise," I murmured;
and, when we were come to the field, I took and carried her into the
upper or little meadow, out of reach of the scythes, and placed her to
sleep amongst the corn, and so left her with a groan.

But when I was come anew to my comrades, who stood at the lower extremity
of the field--and this was the bottom of the hour-glass, so to speak--I
was aware of a stir amongst them, and, advancing closer, that they were
all intent upon the neighbourhood of the field I had left, staring like
distraught creatures, and holding well together, as if in a panic.
Therefore, following the direction of their eyes, and of one that pointed
with rigid finger, I turned me about, and looked whence I had come; and
my heart went with a somersault, and in a moment I was all sick and
dazed.

For I saw, at the upper curve of the meadow, where the well lay in gloom,
that a man had sprung out of the earth, as it seemed, and was started
reaping; and the face of this man was all in shadow, from which his beard
ran out and down like a stream of gall.

He reaped swiftly and steadily, swinging like a pendulum; but, though the
sheaves fell to him right and left, no swish of the scythe came to us,
nor any sound but the beating of our own hearts.

Now, from the first moment of my looking, no doubt was in my lost soul
but that this was him we had destroyed come back to verify his prophecy
in ministering to the vengeance of the Lord of Hosts; and at the thought
a deep groan rent my bosom, and was echoed by those about me. But
scarcely was it issued when a second terror smote me as that I near
reeled. Margery--my babe! put to sleep there in the path of the Black
Reaper!

At that, though they called to me, I sprang forward like a madman, and
running along the meadow, through the neck of the glass, reached the
little thing, and stooped and snatched her into my arms. She was sound
and unfrighted, as I felt with a burst of thankfulness; but, looking
about me, as I turned again to fly, I had near dropped in my tracks for
the sickness and horror I experienced in the nearer neighbourhood of the
apparition. For, though it never raised its head, or changed the steady
swing of its shoulders, I knew that it was aware of and was reaping at
me. Now, I tell you, it was ten yards away, yet the point of the scythe
came gliding upon me silently, like a snake, through the stalks, and at
that I screamed out and ran for my life.

I escaped, sweating with terror; but when I was sped back to the men,
there was all the village collected, and our Vicar to the front, praying
from a throat that rattled like a dead leaf in a draught. I know not what
he said, for the low cries of the women filled the air; but his face was
white as a smock, and his fingers writhed in one another like a knot of
worms.

"The plague is upon us!" they wailed. "We shall be mowed down like ripe
corn!"

And even as they shrieked the Black Reaper paused, and, putting away his
scythe, stooped and gathered up a sheaf in his arms and stood it on end.
And, with the very act, a man--one that had been forward in yesterday's
business--fell down amongst us yelling and foaming; and he rent his
breast in his frenzy, revealing the purple blot thereon, and he passed
blaspheming. And the reaper stooped and stooped again, and with every
sheaf he gathered together one of us fell stricken and rolled in his
agony, while the rest stood by palsied.

But, when at length all that was cut was accounted for, and a dozen of us
were gone each to his judgment, and he had taken up his scythe to reap
anew, a wild fury woke in the breasts of some of the more abandoned and
reckless amongst us.

"It is not to be tolerated!" they cried. "Let us at once fire the corn
and burn this sorcerer!"

And with that, some fire or six of them, emboldened by despair, ran up
into the little field, and, separating, had out each his flint and fired
the crop in his own place, and retreated to the narrow part for safety.

Now the reaper rested on his scythe, as if unexpectedly acquitted of a
part of his labour; but the corn flamed up in these five or six
directions, and was consumed in each to the compass of a single sheaf:
whereat the fire died away. And with its dying the faces of those that
had ventured went black as coal; and they flung up their arms, screaming,
and fell prone where they stood, and were hidden from our view.

Then, indeed, despair seized upon all of us that survived, and we made no
doubt but that we were to be exterminated and wiped from the earth for
our sins, as were the men of Anathoth. And for an hour the Black Reaper
mowed and trussed, till he had cut all from the little upper field and
was approached to the neck of juncture with the lower and larger. And
before us that remained, and who were drawn back amongst the trees,
weeping and praying, a fifth of our comrades lay foul, and dead, and
sweltering, and all blotched over with the dreadful mark of the
pestilence.

Now, as I say, the reaper was nearing the neck of juncture; and so we
knew that if he should once pass into the great field towards us and
continue his mowing, not one of us should be left to give earnest of our
repentance.

Then, as it seemed, our Vicar came to a resolution, moving forward with a
face all wrapt and entranced; and he strode up the meadow path and
approached the apparition, and stretched out his arms to it entreating.
And we saw the other pause, awaiting him; and, as he came near, put
forth his hand, and so, gently, on the good old head. But as we looked,
catching at our breaths with a little pathos of hope, the priestly face
was thrown back radiant, and the figure of him that would give his life
for us sank amongst the yet standing corn and disappeared from our sight.

So at last we yielded ourselves fully to our despair; for if our pastor
should find no mercy, what possibility of it could be for us!

It was in this moment of an uttermost grief and horror, when each stood
apart from his neighbour, fearing the contamination of his presence, that
there was vouchsafed to me, of God's pity, a wild and sudden inspiration.
Still to my neck fastened the little Margery--not frighted, it seemed,
but mazed--and other babes there were in plenty, that clung to their
mothers' skirts and peeped out, wondering at the strange show.

I ran to the front and shrieked: "The children! the children! He will not
touch the little children! Bring them and set them in his path!" And so
crying I sped to the neck of meadow, and loosened the soft arms from my
throat, and put the little one down within the corn.

Now at once the women saw what I would be at, and full a score of them
snatched up their babes and followed me. And here we were reckless for
ourselves; but we knelt the innocents in one close line across the neck
of land, so that the Black Reaper should not find space between any of
them to swing his scythe. And having done this, we fell back with our
hearts bubbling in our breasts, and we stood panting and watched.

He had paused over that one full sheaf of his reaping; but now, with the
sound of the women's running, he seized his weapon again and set to upon
the narrow belt of corn that yet separated him from the children. But
presently, coming out upon the tender array, his scythe stopped and
trailed in his hand, and for a full minute he stood like a figure of
stone. Then thrice he walked slowly backwards and forwards along the
line, seeking for an interval whereby he might pass; and the children
laughed at him like silver bells, showing no fear, and perchance meeting
that of love in his eyes that was hidden from us.

Then of a sudden he came to before the midmost of the line, and, while we
drew our breath like dying souls, stooped and snapped his blade across
his knee, and, holding the two parts in his hand, turned and strode back
into the shadow of the dripping well. There arrived, he paused once more,
and, twisting him about, waved his hand once to us and vanished into the
blackness. But there were those who affirmed that in that instant of his
turning, his face was revealed, and that it was a face radiant and
beautiful as an angel's.

Such is the history of the wild judgment that befell us, and by grace of
the little children was foregone; and such was the stranger whose name
no man ever heard tell, but whom many have since sought to identify with
that spirit of the pestilence that entered into men's hearts and
confounded them, so that they saw visions and were afterwards confused in
their memories.

But this I may say, that when at last our courage would fetch us to that
little field of death, we found it to be all blackened and blasted, so as
nothing would take root there then or ever since; and it was as if, after
all the golden sand of the hour-glass was run away and the lives of the
most impious with it, the destroyer saw fit to stay his hand for sake of
the babes that he had pronounced innocent, and for such as were spared to
witness to His judgment. And this I do here, with a heart as contrite as
if it were the morrow of the visitation, the which with me it ever has
remained.




A VOICE FROM THE PIT


"Signor, we are arrived," whispered the old man in my ear; and he put out
a sudden cold hand, corded like melon rind, to stay me in the stumbling
darkness.

We were on a tilted table-land of the mountain; and, looking forth and
below, the far indigo crescent of the bay, where it swept towards
Castellamare, seemed to rise up at me, as if it were a perpendicular
wall, across which the white crests of the waves flew like ghost moths.

We skirted a boulder, and came upon a field of sleek purple lava sown all
over with little lemon jets of silent smoke, which in their wan and
melancholy glow might have been the corpse lights of those innumerable
dead whose tombstone was the mountain itself.

Far away to the right the great projecting socket of the crater flickered
intermittently with a nerve of fire. It was like the glinting of the
watchful eye of some vast Crustacean, and in that harsh and stupendous
desolation seemed the final crown and expression of utter inhumanity.

I started upon hearing the low whisper of my companion at my ear.

"In the bay yesterday the Signor saved my life. I give the Signor, in
return, my life's secret."

He seized my right hand in his left with a sinewy clutch, and pointed a
stiff finger at the luminous blots.

"See there, and there, and there," he shrilled. "One floats and wavers
like a spineless ribbon of seaweed in the water; another burns with a
steady radiance; a third blares from its fissure like a flame driven by
the blowpipe. It is all a question of the under-draught, and some may
feel it a little, and some a little more or a little less. Ah! but I will
show you one that feels it not at all--a hole, a narrow shaft that goes
straight down into the pit of the great hell, and is cold as the mouth of
a barbel."

The bones of his face stood out like rocks against sand, and the pupils
of his maniac eyes were glazed or fell into shadow as the volcano
lightnings fluttered.

Suddenly he drew me to a broken pile of sulphur rock lying tumbled
against a ridge of the mountain that ran towards the crater. It lay
heaped, a fused and fantastic ruin; and in a moment the old man leapt
from me, and was tugging by main strength a vast fragment from its place.

I leaned over his shoulder, and looked down upon the hollow revealed by
the displaced boulder. It was like the bell of a mighty trumpet, and in
the middle a puckered opening seemed to suck inwards, as it were the
mouth of some subterranean monster risen to the surface of the world for
air.

"Quick! quick!" muttered Paolo. "The Signor must place his ear to the
hole."

With a little odd stir at my heart, I dropped upon my knees and leaned my
head deep into the cup. I must have stayed thus for a full minute before
I drew myself back and looked up at the old mountaineer. His eyes gazed
down into mine with mad intensity.

"_Si! si!_" he whispered. "What didst thou hear?"

"I heard a long surging thunder, Paolo, and the deep shrill screaming of
many gas jets."

He bent down, with livid face.

"Signor, it is the booming of the everlasting fire, and thou hast heard
the voices of the damned."

"No, my friend, no. But it is a marvellous transmission of the uproar of
hidden forces."

He leapt to the shallow pit.

"Listen and believe!" he cried; and funnelling his hands about his lips,
he stooped over the central hole.

"Marco! Marco!" he screeched, in a piercing voice.

Something answered back. What was it? A malformed and twisted echo? A
whistle of imprisoned steam tricked into some horrible caricature of a
human voice?

"Paolo!" it seemed to wail, weak and faint with agony. "_L'arqua,
l'arqua_, Paolo!"

The old man sprang to his feet and, looking down upon me in a sort of
terrible triumph, unslung a water-flask from his belt, and, pulling out
the cork, poured the cold liquid down into the puckered orifice. Then I
felt his clutch on my arm again.

"He drinks!" he cried. "Listen and thou wilt understand."

I rose with a ghost of a laugh, and once more addressed my ear to the
opening.

From unthinkable depths came up a strange, gloating sound, as from a
ravenous throat made vibrant with ecstasy.

"Paolo," I cried, as I rose and stood before him--and there was an
admonitory note in my voice--"a feather may decide the balance. Beware
meddling with hidden thunders, or thou mayst set rolling such another
tombstone as that on which these corpse fires are yet flaming."

And he only answered me, set and deathly,--

"We of the mountains, Signor, know more things than we may tell of."



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