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Chapter V Another Black String

OUTSIDE the stable, Daunt, despite Sir William's request for polite reading, took a piece of yellow chalk from his uniform, and marked round the bolt of the upper door with it. Inside, there was Heans, satisfied, no doubt, that he had capped an impression of resignation to stables, and Mr. Oughtryn's service, by his mild fever for the lost classic, which the cynical officer seems to have treated rather as if a proud and incorrigible prisoner, having handed over all his belongings to those about him, now demanded only, for a more perfect peace, one little bunch of violets to sniff.

One of the gentlemen, moving across the yard, rather urgently hailed the Commandant, and catching up his sword, he departed, brushing and flipping the chalk from his fingers. It was Captain Sturt.

“Hope there was nothing wrong in my offering the poor fellow tobacco,” said he; ranging up and eyeing his preoccupied face.

“No, you did quite right,” said Daunt; “they get little enough of that kind. In any case I am like enough to have trouble with him after this—bless his mercurial ecstasies!”

“Most interesting. I'm afraid you mean you're sceptical about his gentility!”

“Not of its endurance, but of its honesty. That man will fight me with it as long as he can scrape a satin stock together. I leave a visitor like you, sir, to allow himself the luxury of being moved by him—to offer him your kindness—while I observe how much he is keeping as a hostage for a future life of gentility here, what sort of a practical notion he has of settling down on the tags and tatters he's clinging to—as against those he's lavish with as he's been to-night.”

“Pitching too much ballast overboard for a prisoner, eh?”

“Most fine and magnanimous, isn't that the word? It's wonderful how long they keep it up—almost as if it were part of the blood. But piecing together his careless manner about the

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lady, and himself, and to me, I am about to keep my eye, for a week or so, about the back gate here. These are technical horrors, Captain Sturt—pray forget them!”

To retrace our steps, a second and no less curious accident had happened to Sir William when hiding in the harness-cave. When, to avoid the officers, he had returned in among the chaff-sacks, in feeling about him, his shoulder had struck a heavy chain pendant from the two smaller ends of the place, used for suspending the spare sacks and horse-rugs, and in thrusting up his hand to stay the rattle of the slack, it had encountered, not the chain only, but a place of juncture where it ceased, and its last link was upheld by a double greasy leather thong (resembling those used by prisoners for tricing up their anklets) to some moving substance against the back wall. Now what brought Sir William to return to this again, even after his tragic encounter with the gentlemen, was this, that while he sat upon an upright sack near the wall, with his hand still upon the thong, stilling the swinging chain, his arm beginning to tremble in agitation as he heard what was said, he was confused by the sudden “jingle” of a lighter chain, inside the wall, and somewhere above his head. More than once, while the chain still swung, and he durst not remove his hand, he heard distinctly the steady “tinkling” of this other in some crevice of the wall. But what had specially roused his curiosity, was that it had the iron “jangle” of the ankle-chains of the road-gangs, known to his ear,note and for one foolish moment—before he realised that it was connected with the thongs on which he had his hand—he had a fancy there was a convict up there concealed in a hole. It gave him quite a turn.

We have said the horses were attached by running-chains to the mangers, and the occasional rattle, no doubt, prevented the gentlemen from being attracted by the other. When Heans had forgotten all this, and jerked himself up by the thong to go out and meet the gentlemen, the whole erection whipped up, the chain in the cave rattling, and the gyve—if that it were—lashing the stones in its prison in the wall.

It was some time after the yard had ceased to echo with the visitors' swords and wellingtons, that he came out and took in the lantern. Having coated the beasts, he returned, and with the lantern in his hand, was about to leave, when, being interested in the extraordinary way the sack-chain was secured, he once more shook it into voice, holding up the light, and eyeing the wall with it. He saw that it was split by two heavy cracks, each about the width of an elephant's leg, and running obliquely to the roof like those in the stable. While one crossed the corner of the wall high up, the other began about five feet from

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the floor, making at a sharp angle for the other side. Strolling inward, he ran his glove along the chain, and, where it ended, the black thongs, pressing in till he came under the higher of the two cracks, out of which, as he now saw, they hung. He became very curious. Pulling himself up upon a sack, he stared up the crack after the strings, but could not see the end of them. He now lifted and held up the lantern. The strings ran, it seemed, to the very socket of a narrowing fissure, but he could see no chain or sign of one. Again he pulled them sharply and heard the hidden iron ring in some stony crevice. There was plainly a second chain hidden up in the wall; and, fetter or what not, how had it come there?

He could make little of it, and at the moment, as it happened, cared not enough to enquire further. It seemed out of the question that a man, even with the arm of an Ourang, could have jammed a pair of irons so far within the wall. Nay, an urchin could not have swarmed up the crack far enough to fix them. Heans climbed down and examined the thongs. They were of leather, black with age or dust, and carefully knotted—the knots being flattened as with friction and somewhat greasy and evil-smelling. Where they met the cable-chain, they were not attached, but passed through an end link and upward without a knot. Once more—this time with both hands—Heans had given the chain a heavy pull, and harkened till the noise ceased. On a sudden he stilled the quivering thongs. It had occurred to him that they might still be attached to dead legs.

His mind, as we have seen, was only half in that matter, and at length he left the lantern in the place and went and stood at the door into the yard. Other things were exercising his thoughts. The two windows of the large room were still candle-lit, and he saw someone standing alone there with head bent, and hands on a table. He knew from the hang of her back and head it was Abelia. From a reflected glow in his bedroom window, he saw there was unwonted light in his passage. He listened. There was a muffled “gurr” of conversation. They had not yet departed. The visitors were still somewhere in the house—possibly on a search for waiting-rooms. As if in answer to his query, a military cloak moved in the end window of the chamber, while a shrill volume of conversation told that some persons were still congregated in its doors into the main passage. The latter was disclosed to him, both back and front doors being now open. It was broad and roomy and lit half-way down by a double oil-lamp not much brighter than the moonlit garden at the other end. He made out, or thought he made out, a man standing in the garden in a cocked hat. But this might have been a bush or tree.

That restless officer in the window kept snatching at his cloak, and the hum of conversation proved it was no breeze that did it by bursting into a high laugh. Blind Abelia might have been

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reading alone from a book on the table. Two fingers of moonlight had shot into the yard over the eastern roof. Now that the moon had reached the yard, the figure by the front door was not so easily to be made out. Had the motionless fellow left the garden!

Oughtryn's shrill voice is heard suddenly in the great room, and the windy rumours of conversation break into a ripple. All at once Abelia's constrained figure curtsies, and her shy head is smiling, nodding, and blinking. Heans sees her grope across the room, and out across the dim passage. By the light in the hall she has left open the opposite door. Now a piano tinkles shrill and dim, and suddenly the great room has people laughing and dancing in it. “Tang—tang—tinkle—tang, tang—tang—tinkle—tang.” The old house lit and peopled after many years—the old deserted, dumb, black place—where once the King's representative had court, and died with a secret on his widening lips! Only yesterday, Oughtryn was asking: “Where are the notables and little ladies, now!”

Something had frightened them all away. And here they were back again, tripping over what grim stain—sporting with what new-old tragedy! Was the old place clean? Those years of emptiness and obscurity—had they served to cleanse it?

Bring your silken dusters, little ladies!

With a sigh, Heans put on an old cloak, and taking up the lantern, walked sadly along past the horses, and held it over against the carving of the prison lock, and the largest of the two great fissures in the stable wall. This mammoth crack, springing in the last or ninth stall, was wider than those in the other cave, and split the back wall almost in half, vanishing into the rocks of the ceiling about a fathom from the harness-room. Had some maddened, and care-nothing old-timer wriggled up for a wager—or a crime—or some insane hope—or injury—up the great fissure, and got stuck in some cul-de-sac above the harness-room, where the great crack junctured with that of the strings! Who had fed him? Who had kept his trap a secret? Who had tied his fetter-strings to the chain? Who had forsaken him at last in his crack of doom? Had no one heard the whispers begging in the stones?

Why? It was a singular place for a chain to be!

Awful to think some tide of human flotsam had wrestled up those cold rocks and fallen away—all but its iron and bones!

Heans swung the lantern down, arresting it for an instant on the hewn image in the cocked hat, and the letters “Stone him to death.” For whom was this dooming? Him they found in the chair in the ball-room there? Or another whose sepulchre these rocks became? Strange if the doomer cut his own: “Stone him to death.”

Hark! Music! “Tang—tang—tinkle—tang,” and the soft thunder of boots, swords, and voices! The old house sounds

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hoarse! Grim old house! not clean yet—not clean yet! Who is it has started the music here? Who brings poor man and woman together? Who is the new dance-master—whose stern swift fingers are on those keys? Who will arrange a meeting for two who were old lovers once—or a hand-fast with her husband, once your friend! Is it another cutting wicked dooms, and this time as a grace to his own image! Is it good will or ill will? Is it a good spirit or a practiser? Is Fate dragging him reluctant, or has he put out his knife and carved another boding on her stony face?

Sir William spat and blew out the lantern.

He picked his way back to the entrance. When near the door, he started back into the dark, but staring. Mrs. Shaxton was in the hall—Matilda Shaxton, beautiful as a lily, but a flushed lily, and a much thinner woman. There was a man there listening to the music with her, a man with black-grey hair. He had his back to the yard and seemed to be pointing out the beauty of the entablement, and widening his arms to the width of the doorway. She did not seem happy in his company, for he said a smiling something in answer to her, from which she shrank with an evasive feminine shrinking. Suddenly he bowed and strode out of the front door. He wore a cocked hat. Heans saw that it was Daunt. Sir William was not certain whether Daunt had taken his leave, or waited crying back some polite cry from the garden.

Poor Mrs. Shaxton seemed uneasy, and looked out at the front and back into the yard. Heans had the horrid thought that she was still under the gossip of that man who was growing older and—for so stern a man—loose. Sir William knew from two spirit-stilling interviews how ugly this playful mood of Daunt could be. He was troubled for Matilda Shaxton.

There was something threatening in the ennui of this stern and bitter man. Sir William, in his exaggerating, over-angry mood, had likened him, to-night, to some fine reptile, which had stung its way to supremacy, and languid with success, was half-inclined to put its fang aside—yet could not refrain from stinging the boobies, and wanting yet some drawing-room weapon for common defence. Perhaps Sir William knew him better than those gentlemen. Yet Sir William, from the moment of their first meeting, had nursed a dislike for Daunt, and with a mind unhinged by real or fancied wrongs, had not undermagnified the change in his warder. The prisoner—it may be told—had imagined his jailer's mood of tolerance unpleasantly mischievous, and as wide for himself as for the world. Now that he had got there, this man, said Heans, is not really interested in a position of eminence. It crosses him to aim fine and kindly, without change, praise, or cessation; and if he must put a sheath on that venomed instrument, his tongue (always phonetically right), the good folk, to whose level he had won, must permit him, for sheer

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boredom, to wear it in his cheek. “Surely,” he could see him say, “that will be sufficient homage to stupidity!” That seemed his half-weary, half-laughing attitude. Yes, the man is dropping his guard (still speaks Sir William's hate and anguish), and while doing so, is letting go his stern self-discipline. There he lies, wallowing in the trough, an ugly and sly craft, shockingly efficient, and unable yet to discard his sinister excess.

It was told that two young ladies, polking together, had been relating how gallant had been the conduct of a prisoner out in the stable in behalf of a certain unknown woman, and poor Matilda, dancing by, had overheard the title, “Sir Somebody Lane.” Being curious, she asked her partner if that was the name of the prisoner; and he corrected her, putting her right.

She had at length excused herself and crept into the hall alone; and there, moving out too, was the Commandant of foot-police, who, perhaps seeing her disquiet, or because, as we understand, there had been already some slight coolness between them, had very coldly and briefly pointed out the beauty of the architrave and the doorway. She had not seen him for a matter of months, and she looked as keenly as she could at him to discover if it was the same Mr. Daunt, who had made, it seems, some mistake—quite an old story between them. After a second's scrutiny, she said, in a rather silly, laughing way—her voice sharp: “How clever of you, sir, to have discovered a house with a ghost in it!”

But he kept his face away, himself laughing half-ruefully and shrugging his shoulders. “Oh, you've heard of the ghost?” he said, rather indirectly. “Would you like to see it, madam? Shall we resurrect it for you? I never know whether you ladies are serious or laughing!” (He looked tired, and smothered a little, involuntary yawn.) “Little to be frightened of,” he assured her, “after a period in these obscurities! You will not see it, madam! Ignore it, in your sternest style—look the other way, if it come! Do not let their tales trouble you!”

He bows again in a steady, polite, mirthless, disillusioned way; puts on his hat; and takes his leave. Very abstractedly, and almost a little goutily, he hurries over the threshold.

Presently, alone there, in the hall, she falls on her knees, and presses her two hands into her bonnet. Heans saw her sway, and then roll over and lie there. And the music!

He was hesitating at the hall door, when it filled with fluttering women. There was a sharp scream, and a long, little moan. Sir William moved back into the yard. They had removed her bonnet, and her hair was upon the floor. Captain Shaxton, who, like Mr. Daunt, was just departing, ran back and knelt over her, chuckling her fears away and gently smoothing her face and forehead. And the music ran like a little maiden about the frowning yard—“Tang—tang—tinkle—tang, tang—tang—tinkle—tang,

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tang—tang—tinkle—tang, tang—tang—tinkle—tang, tinkle—tang, tinkle—tang, tinkle—tang, tang—tang—tinkle—tang, tinkle—tinkle—tang——”