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Chapter VI Fidus Achates

ONE evening in the month before these happenings, Heans, returning frozen in mind and heart from a lonely vigil upon the terrace at Pitt's Villa, had unlocked his little cabin chest of drawers, and taken from a pigeon-hole at the back of the desk £20 in gold and notes. Hitherto, in his precarious respectability, he had solaced his evenings with a little wine, a tobacco-pipe, and those more congenial inhabitants of the “jail”: the green-marbled volumes of Langhorne's Plutarch. Of the latter, the shrewd worldly sense, truth, and determination to be interesting amazed him, and with a little more ease in his day-lit life, he might have passed his evenings in this quiet way. Now his pipe and his wine, together with a volume of Plutarch open at the life of Themistocles, lay set for him on the gilt-legged table beside the bare chimney. A silver pocket-comb lay across the page below the following remarkable passage: “For when elected Admiral by the Athenians, he would not despatch any business, whether public or private, singly, but put off affairs to the day he was to embark, that having a great deal to do, he might appear with the greater dignity and importance.”

In connection with these books, Sir William had discovered a curious old Colonial manuscript, which had given him considerable food for thought, and for some time highly, and almost entirely, engrossed his mind. In turning over, one evening, the second book of the set, he came upon an MS. letter, written across the white paper which covered the inside of the back. The caligraphy was strange and not readily decipherable—part of it, if not all, written in agitation—the ink, or whatever the pigment, faded to faint sepia. But if the ink was old, the passion and agonised bereavement in which the lines were steeped were as fresh as when written. Their sublime force, seemingly, would last as long as the writing could be read.

It was written in a species of loose print, closely resembling the letters we see cut on tombstones, known as Old English; and done rather from habit, one would say, than with idea of elaboration. In that style, therefore, we reproduce it, though giving a somewhat colder and far less intimate impression than the grim and untrammelled original. Here follows, then, the letter which


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Sir William found of such engrossing interest, and the romantic “directions” written above it:—

           
Gully-hole.  Nov. 23rd. Walk here 11 on 1st. Famine Assembly 5 after 10. Hope you not hungry. 
Gully-hole.  Dec. 7th. Wander by here 11th. 25 after 2. 
Gully-hole.  Dec. 16th. Wander here 23rd. Foot-boy J.S. sharpening eyes on me. Don't give him more of your coins. 
Gully-hole.  Dec. 30th. You sadden me. Don't forsake me. Did you give Spars money? Muster Roll Jan. 5th, 4. 
Gully-hole.  Jan. 20th. If no answer, don't hang about the hole. For answer I will hammer three times thrice. Alarum Assembly 5 after 4. 27th. 
In the Cave.  Jan. 29th. 

My angel Moicrime,

I hear you are to be punished, and sent away to camp-life with the black, Ondia. This you have never known, you so dainty reared, so much petted by the grand folk. Oh, my darling, I can't consider of it! I am so terrible sad. The agony this causes me, I cannot tell you! I am in Hell. My heart is swelling with fury. You, my darling Moicrime, degraded to camp-life, what will happen to you, what shall I do! I am to be whipped and confined for the while—perhaps for ever—out of the garden. They have shut me in the cave. Damnation seize them—if they put me to my chisel again, I will do something awful! His Honour shall know of me. I will carve something awful out of these men-stones.

Oh Moicrime, my poor, my dear Moicrime, I shall win after you or die! Peter Naut will pass this to Joe, for Joe to put in the Gully-hole, in case you wander by once more.

Your despairing

WALTER SURRIDGE.

P.S.—When Spars reads this, if he do not put it in your hands by my oath, he'll know of me.

W. SURRIDGE.

Here was an interesting relic, the date and mystery of which much occupied Sir William. A grim romance, the place, date, and meaning of which were obscure, of the secret attachment of a prisoner artificer for a young native girl, and its attendant tragedy, seemed clear. Sir William, being of an elegant turn, thought of Pyramus and Thisbe: “Wall, that vile Wall, which did these lovers sunder.” “Did he escape?” he would ask-somewhat ruefully puffing his new tobacco-pipe among the web,


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hung chairs: “did he escape, or did he weep away his wild and angry heart in his cavern?” And she, was her love equal to his (Indeed, God forfend!), or did she soon forget the white man's petting, and find a charm in the way of her blood and people? Such passion interested Sir William—interested and indeed, if it did more than entertain, perhaps enlightened him. Poor love's young dream! Those were grimmer days! Well, well—how long may a man live in the romance of another?

At about eight o'clock Sir William drank two glasses of wine, and descended the rickety stairs as decorously as the height of the ceiling, his dignity, and the darkness would permit. His grey top-hat bumps against a beam, falls, and must be groped for. With a knocking upon the street door, the tragic landlady comes up from the nether regions with a key in her hand. She opens the door and looks after her lodger. Her rough hand, which rests on the post, shakes a little. Heans turned down the street a few yards, and then hurried along a series of back lanes towards the sea. The rain was pattering chillily, and he put up his umbrella. Just where the waves began to lash at the bottom of the road, and a chemist's red light was dipping, he turned to his left into a sort of court-yard, and approached the door of an out-house built against the hill. A man was hovering near the door, and he came in front of it with a sweeping quietness as Heans arrived. With his hand on the handle, he opened the door a little so that a bright light fell on Sir William's hat and plaid neck-cloth.

Heans passed a few pence into his hand, asking if these were “Fraser's Rooms.” There was a subdued noise of nasal voices within, and a sudden shrill laugh; a soft grating as of metal spoons, and the sharp ringing of a little bell. The door was opened and shut behind Heans. Within there was a smell of damp broadcloth. He found himself in a vestibule boarded-off to the width of the building, in which some Benjamins and cloaks were hanging upon pegs. Inside, in a long, squarish room, whose walls were shabbily if ingeniously covered with green baize picked out with framings of pink tape, he found many tragically grave flushed men, sitting or standing round a green table, on which was a splash of cards, and roughly drawn in red and yellow chalk, the compartments and four diamonds of Trente-et-quarante. Across from this table two others swam in the smoke, upon the nearest of which a chalk line about the cloth edge told that Faro was in play. The farthest had a plain wooden surface and was haunted by a grim and shabby crew. Here was being whirled, by individuals in turn, a large wooden top, having four corners marked T (totem), A (all), N (none), and P (pay), the stakes being coppers, sleeve-buttons, snuff-boxes, sham seals, sham neck-chains, and even squares of Caporal or Cavendish tobacco. There was a bar beside the first table, where an attendant in brownish knee-breeches and a white


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frock-coat was opening a bottle: the while keeping an eye on the game. At the top of the room were two loo tables, at one of which a silent party of five was seated. A sort of tragic and polite sternness was the more general fashion of this place of entertainment. The dark, shabby-grand room was a House of Hideous Risk, and the men who walked in it had the faces, many of them, and the brave diplomacy of men besieged in a hopeless hold.

Sir William changed some money at the bar, drank a glass of wine, and strolled over to the table. He presently took his seat on the form nearest the “taillier,” shouldering along a young wild man with black whiskers who was sprawling on his elbow.

“Have a care,” the fellow growled, in a flashing mutter.

“I must have room,” said Sir William, seating himself not very gently. The other with a sour snarl gave his back to him, subsiding again a little further down with his elbow on the table. There was an air of character and individuality about the inmates of this gaming-room which a general sameness of napless top-hat and shabby short frock or surtout could not wholly subdue. There seemed a predominance of charming people with quick strong smiles and flashing teeth; so many seemed to touch, but yet fall short of, the status of an accomplished gentleman. The bow and the smile would be a trace too low and too wide; the air a little too sharp. Even the most forlorn and tragic loser seemed yet to possess the faculty of suddenly and brilliantly smiling.

A fine, tall, pale man, dark, with a handsome countenance creased by tragic worry, rose angrily on the other side, crying: “You are surly, Jarvis; give Sir William room.”

The other sat down again without a glance at Heans. It was Henry S——, a well-known gentleman of Bristol, here a writer in one of the public departments, transported for life for forgery, deserted by his wife, and predestined to undergo the second sentence of Port Arthur and die there in the hospital.

Among others punting at the Faro table were several officers in military cloaks and shakoes, very much the worse for liquor. These young men kept jesting among themselves, and staking wildly. The web was evidently yet a joke and a pleasure to them.

The dealer was a plump, dark Jew, very handsome and sleepy-looking. This was “Fraser,” the owner of the place, so drowsy, so ready to be blind when necessary, such a manager of men. His was one of those personalities, cited by a great statesman, in the category of “diplomats, women and crabs,” as always going when coming, always coming when going. When he beamed, things were all over with you; when he frowned, you were not yet his. He was one of the few people in his grim rooms whose meteoric history had not formed the theme (and


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was not still) of some wild crime or scandal. Fraser's history was mysteriously untragic.

Sir William's shepherd-plaid trousers commanded something of a sensation. Eyes shot glances at him, and shot back to play again. There was a groan in some of them; in others a curious birdlike interest; in some yet a black, angry look; in others a sticky and obsequious welcome. The “banker” made a heavy inclination towards him, and then proceeded to deal the cards.

Heans staked alternately on Couleur and Inverse, but lost as persistently. The man beside him, who had been addressed as “Jarvis,” changed his cheek for his chin as the game went on, and watched Sir William's play with a sort of sulky and despairing cynicism. By slow graduations his face, with its respectable little black whiskers and die-away air, changed a little. His expression of snarling dislike dropped gradually to a snarling blasé tolerance. This did not seem designed altogether to put Sir William off his play. Though the man was visibly younger than the new-comer, there was a worldly fatherliness in his cynical demeanour.

“You bore me with your play, sir,” he said at last, in a hissing undertone. “There are the red and black. Why lose with such monotony?” Sir William pushed along to him a half-crown bit. “Put that on the red or black, if you wish it,” he said.

The other, not moving his cheek from his hand, took the coin and tossed it on the black. Heans, meanwhile, continued staking as before. The man named Carnt won another half-crown. Throwing the two coins on the red he won four. Then with the four, eight. With the eight, sixteen. With sixteen (staked with the same appearance of tolerant cynicism) £4. He then pushed back a half-crown to Heans, who staked it, with a nod of thanks, upon the Inverse, and lost it.

At this moment S—— rose and asked Heans by name if he would make one for a game of loo. Heans, with a glare through his eyeglass at S——, bowed and began to gather up what change remained to him. S—— then asked Carnt if he would join them, but Carnt; who was playing with his wins on the table-edge, shook his head, stating that he had a whimsy to start a charitable institution. At this the other stepped backward over the form, and beckoning to a man with a fixed grim stare of enquiring disapproval—probably a natural feature helped by art and practice—and to a little pale fellow with a tremendous air, led the way to one of the tables at the top of the room. The gentlemen so summoned rose and followed with deprecatory coughs of acquiescence. Heans sat at play with these three and another (a silent man who through the evening stared for long periods at every one in turn with strange fixed eyes) till a late hour.

At about eleven there was a scattering of men about Sir


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William's table. The four were playing still, and there was spirit beside them. The new-comer had been loo-ed constantly, but in the last quarter of an hour the tide had turned and Heans was not so far from making good. About this time there was an attempt on the part of a little clique of men behind S—— to hustle Heans with several careful but, of course, impalpable rudenesses. A funny fellow with a strange, unsmiling face had placed a paper eyeglass in his eye, and was cutting a jocose caper in the shadow of a friend. They would ponder with a burlesque heaviness when Sir William pondered, and nearly collapse in their ecstasies of wild anticipation when Sir William elected to play. A lank, black Jew, who was standing at S——'s elbow, made a false signal to Sir William as to the number of that gentleman's trumps by holding up four fingers against his chin and slowly spreading them up his cheek. When the luck was with him they were careful to show their tolerant acquiescence; when against him, their sudden antagonism and unveiled contempt. Heans became conscious, presently, that an old decrepit man was seated in a chair a little way back and outward from his elbow. A glance at him showed high aristocratic if dissipated features and an impressive dignity. He was too far from the table to admit an objection to his presence, and yet near enough to make it difficult for Heans to conceal his cards. As if to himself, Heans heard him murmur: “Rowdyism, eh?” and presently, in an angry whisper: “Too much intoxication here tonight.” On several occasions he spoke a critical word upon the game, but always heavily and impersonally, if with a touch of age's privilege. A small eruption from S——'s backers screwed from him the indignant mutter that “the place was rapidly being made uncongenial for the older men.” Unfortunately for his bona-fides, he pronounced uncongenial as “uncongenni-al;” and this mistake rioted in Heans' ears.

Heans was much embarassed by the presence of this friendly, quiet-speaking, yet, he was certain, evil-intentioned man. Beyond the flurry of an actual protest, he could, however, think of no way of ridding himself of it. Meanwhile the unrelieved antagonism was beginning to tell upon his play; he made several slips, though his cards were good.

Every faculty he possessed was now engaged in his play. His luck holding, he won on the next two deals; and he was conscious of a private chuckle in his ear, and a secret pat from the old man upon his chair-back. On the next round—which was “unlimited” and all players playing—he lost remarkably and of course heavily.

Earlier in the game Sir William's tranquillity had been a little steadied by the approach of Carnt, the gambler to whom he had lent money. He had caught his figure among the others round S——, his arms folded, his rusty top-hat cocked over a morose eye. Now, as he played, he had a strange vision. Once and again, in the course of that disastrous deal, he fancied he had caught a fresh glimpse of Carnt, but with his face yellow with anger, and


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standing close in to the right of the table, his eyes bent with a curious intentness on some spot on a level with Heans' shoulder. Sir William, fierce as was the game, several times shrugged his right shoulder under the influence of this strange impression.

Suddenly, during a fresh deal, when Heans, being elder hand, holding back two trumps in sequence, nine and seven (S——, sitting opposite, having taken the first trick with the eight of trumps), and winning the second, finessing with his seven—at that moment, there was a sharp scream like a sheep's bleat, and his chair was violently pushed forward. Springing round in it, with anger and promptitude, he discovered Carnt with one hand holding the old man's hand against the chair, with its index finger waving over Hean's back, while with the other he threatened to impale it with an open penknife. There was an outcry of anger about the table, but whether for the liver-coloured, chattering old man, or against him, was not clear. Carnt's triumphant, angry, yet amused face, was calm and pale. “You know me, Rudstone,” he hissed. “Keep it still or by Heaven I'll split it! Here S——, here's a trump, look! Egad, a big one! See it wriggle!”

“Who's a cheat in his liquor?” someone called from the Totem-table.

“Begad, Mr. Jarvis is the Christian when he's sober!”

“A—h—twitch away, would you!” said Carnt. “You scandalous blackguard! Take that, then!” There was a horrid scream, and the old man, suddenly released, hobbled out of the room, holding a maimed hand.

S—— had risen, tall and noble, beside his chair.

“I hope,” he said, turning huskily on the rowdies, “that you will understand, gentlemen, how great a service has been done to this room by Mr. Jarvis Carnt. The treachery on our visitor, to-night, was no greater than the detestable insult offered to me.” He graciously bent forward over the table.

“Your hand, Carnt—a very noble service, sir.”

Carnt was glooming at his knife. “You know my practice, S——,” said he. “I never shake hands in this place.”

Sir William, still turned in his chair, was eyeing Carnt with his rather queer eyeglass. Slowly he drew out and proffered him a fine chequered silk handkerchief. “Take my handkerchief,” he said, “and clean your knife.” Carnt took the article; drew the knife through it; pondered over it a moment; and then threw it under the chairs. Sir William laid down his cards, and bowing to S——, the little important man, the disapproving gentleman, and the man with the silent examining eyes who was at the moment examining S—— (all of whom returned his bow not much disturbed), gathered up his change, and rose. Carnt was moving away down the room, and Sir William pushed after him through pale faces and charming teeth. Fraser, standing near the bar, bowed with a sort of deference in his grave smile.




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“Mr. Carnt, it is barely the half hour,” said Heans. “A word and a glass of wine.”

The back of the other's clawhammer seemed inclined to move on without answer, but suddenly turning, disclosed a pair of dark harassed eyes and a slow pale smile. “What's this?” he said. “Wine?”

“What have they got?” said Sir William, drawing his arm through his in his stately way.

“All sorts,” said Carnt, rubbing his blue hands over the counter. “There's an old brandy somewhere. Fraser, here's a specially bad case! This gentleman honours us by treading the inclined plane in our company. Let us fittingly celebrate his first step. What about French Sally! Is she extant?”

That giddy party known as Fraser, with a moment's stern glare at Heans, suddenly bowed and came with a simpering ceremony into the bar, where he procured from a back cupboard a green coloured flask. From this, with care and mystery, he filled two glasses with a liquid the colour of bronze—putting these before the two “gentlemen” as from one who regretfully but finally confers. Carnt was still grey of face from what he had done, and Sir William, with a grave if somewhat voluble tact, discussed with him the intricacies of a certain game of “Patience,” in the moves of which the other made an effort to become engrossed. S—— brought his friends to the bar, and owing to Sir William's increasing volubility, the conversation soon became general. Half an hour later the bar was thronged, and a low ship's-captain named Stifft, with a tiny mouth and a beautiful silvery voice, was singing a French song. Sir William Heans was (with little difficulty) induced to follow this friendly gentleman—a luckless skipper of wrecks and suborner of absconders—with a ballad given in a very small formal pipe. Carnt alone did not seem happy in these amenities. He stood with his arms folded against the bar, white and bored. At Sir William's invitation not only Carnt and Captain Stifft, but a pawnbroker and bric-à-brac man, of the curious name of Six, accompanied him to his room.

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