previous
next



  ― 274 ―

Chapter XVII Sir William by his Fire that Night

And as to the speech about a villain, who ever saw one? Out of a novel or a play, I never saw a villain, and I don't know anybody who ever did.

Queen Titania, in “The Strange Adventures of a Phaeton.”

EXTRACT FROM AN ASSASSIN'S LETTER.

.…For, by the living God, if your honour will cause to be made there in England, a certain lingering poison, and send it hither by a trusty messenger to me, not letting him know what it is, but forge some other matter, and let me have commandment from your honour to whom I shall give it, and therewith you shall try me what I am…

Old Letter, Sept. 3 1574—MSS. Flanders.

WHEN Sir William made this discovery, and when—having somewhat got over his dismay—he had again gone through the rooms, he took his cap and stepped into the passage. At the intersection of the two passages he called the woman. The light by the kitchen was lit, and the place quiet but for two dropping voices beyond the stair and its half-open door. The comfortable noise of cooking came from the kitchen, but in answer to his call an opposite door drew open, and the woman came very quickly out. She paused between the two doors, looking forward, her expressionless composure somewhat invaded. She did not shut the low-lit door behind. Sir William wore his cotton gloves and carried his cane. He asked, coming a few steps into the main passage, “if Oughtryn was yet home?” His voice dragged unquietly. The woman instantly answered that he was not, and “she could not tell why he was so late.” Despite herself, as it were, a faint plaint was in her tone. She added, “He went for pasture for the horses for to-morrow and for the Friday,” a fact about which Heans knew something. Sir William said he wished to speak with Oughtryn as soon as he came in, and the woman, with a step towards the kitchen, agreed to give him the message. She had pushed open the door, which was on the latch, when she again paused and asked, “was the gentleman going over to the horses?” Sir William having replied in the affirmative, “Mr. Spafield,” she said, “had given them to know he would bed them and see them comfortable.” To this Sir William answered with an “Unheard of!” and a feverish tapping of his stick; finally he said he would step over and make certain. The woman gave a curious, deep laugh. “The young man's been over-jolly this


  ― 275 ―
evening,” she exclaimed with a sort of bitter amusement—and overloud in tone for her—and came somewhat heavily from the door. “He don't seem himself—not a sensible man. We thought—Miss Abelia and me—we thought he'd been doing a bit of drinking. We don't know.”

“You should have summoned me,” said Sir William, quietly. “Do you mean the man has been a trouble?”

“Oh, I don't know,” said the woman, with a cool laugh. “He keeps Miss and me a laughing—he does, but you, sir, mightn't think him so diverting like that. Miss has taken a queasy about something you said. Mr. Oughtryn being late, we were thinking he might bed the horses, and let well alone.”

“I see,” he said, and he looked very sharp in the face. “Oh no—oh no,” he said, “you can be quite easy in the house! I will avoid any talk with the man if it will quiet your minds.”

“Oh well, well!” ejaculated the woman, and she put up her hand and thrust open the door of the kitchen. She would have vanished from the passage only Heans called to her again. “I would like to ask,” he said, “if any one was about my rooms today, besides yourself and Mr. Daunt? I have an anxious wish to know if you saw any one in the passage outside either door?” The woman answered jealously that she had herself seen none other than Commandant Daunt, but that she had been engaged for some time in the Chamber, Mr. Daunt himself calling after her, one of the women acting giddy on a ladder. After a silence she enquired bluntly if he had missed anything from the rooms, and he made answer that as far as he knew he had lost something of trivial appearance but of very great importance. He concluded that she had not that day gone over the rooms, and she said that was so. She volunteered, after a minute's silence, that there was one during the afternoon about the house—but she had never known her touch anything—and that was Conapanny. “She was squatting under the front windows, as she is used to do when Miss is playing in her room. I told her Miss was away.”

Sir William did not enquire into the matter further, though he did not move. He seemed very sharp and uncertain. He was backing into the passage, saying as he did it, “Together with my loss, your master's failure to return is rather untimely”; when as he turned actually to the door he asked “if Oughtryn had been particular to say to what part of Hobarton he was going.” The question, innocent as it sounded, and asked with head half averted, was given so much louder and more unnatural, as to seem the voice of a different person, and whether the woman noticed it or not, she answered with a sort of slow reluctance: “Stully's, I did hear him say, and Cliesby's. I couldn't say, hasty, which was most in mind.”

Heans now lifted his glass to his eye and faced her stiffly. “Supposing I wished to send after him,” he said, “would you seek him at Stully's paddock?”




  ― 276 ―

“I would go to Cliesby's,” she said, rather coolly than surprised, “him being overdue. But you'd not think it necessary to send for Mr. Oughtryn?”

“No—not likely,” he replied; “but it is as well to know where he is. … Cliesby's paddock is next the Ship Inn, I think—a field with a long stone shed?”

At this instant a step fell in the quiet, and Abelia Oughtryn groped her way into the door from the half-lit room. She stood with her head down and her indecisive hand on the wooden framework. Her shadowy dress was grey and simple, but the light shone upon her collar, serene head and face, which was white and afraid, with a kind of nobleness and quizzical darkness under the unquiet eyes. She spoke in a trembling, precise way.

“Father must have gone to Leeworthy's, Sir William, being so tardy. He said he would try beyond Boundary if there was no loaning to be had from Mr. Stully.”

Sir William was frightened of something about the girl. He flushed, stuttered, and asked in a voice somewhat unctuously ceremonious, “Tell me, Miss Abelia, now through what gate would he go?”

She said so quietly, and her head so dark: “The gate to the Dalrymplenote Road, Sir William.”

“Indeed,” said Heans, turning away, but coming back again. “Would he go far on the way to Bridgewater?”

“No,” she said: “just beyond where there's the spring and the water-trough. There is a large gabled dwelling——”

“I remember,” said Heans, rather vehemently, “a brick house by the roadside.”

“Yes, and that lies empty, sir,” the girl said. “They live in the cottage called ‘The Hope’ above the paddock.”

“Egad, we are being too anxious!” cried Sir William, suddenly. “He will come in in a minute.” And there he stopped short as if he feared he was being too particular in his enquiries; and indeed the girl had raised her head, and was now looking towards him, as she stood by the woman, with pale, quizzical, fluttering eyes. Thus the two. So they watched him go out, the woman downcast and like a figure of uneasy Fate.

Outside the small door the night was still, the sea clangorous in the darkening yard. Sir William had forgotten a lantern, and was about to return for it, when he saw the cave door was open and bore a soft stationary glowing, showing that somewhere within was a remote light. There was no one between house and stable. He stopped not far from the house, but could hear no footsteps about the cave. He was in some trepidation, knowing that half his hold over the mad Spafield was gone, supposing


  ― 277 ―
the fellow to have been frightened sufficiently by his innuendo to have broken into his rooms, and in so doing discovered the dead man's message. Even if that was so, Heans had something in hand, and it was to secure this as much as to fulfil a duty that he hazarded so late an encounter with him.

Outside the cave he again stopped, but there was no sound within but the mutter of the sea. From the remoteness of the light, he took it that it was placed in the harness-room, and as he came near the door, the reflection upon the hinges and the left post told him he was right. Within, all was dim and quiet, the horses coated and at their food, and a great deal of tidy straw beneath their feet. For a while he remained near the door, hearing nothing from the harness-room, and waiting for any one to move in the gloomy reaches of the stalls. In the very pallid light, made blacker by the glow from the other cave, motionless forms seemed to people the wooden divisions, if steady lack of movement persuaded of inanition. There was no human sound. With that curious sense of the absence of man, Heans felt there was no one there. Eventually he stepped into the stable, and thence through the opening into the lighted cave.

It was silent, the lantern hidden behind the chain of sacks, the walls and roof in a strong light. With a glance about the shadowed portion, he stepped across to the chain. As far as he could see, the rest was empty also.

He started at once to put his purpose into effect. Surridge's document gone or mislaid, and the evidence it brought as to this ruffian's nature near gone with it, it might be difficult to convince an old hand of Oughtryn's kidney and cares of the burial and resurrection in his cave, or win him to the peculiar suggestion of the soldier's aim—and certainly any one to whom Oughtryn might appeal. He regretted he had not at first risked the calm of his escape. The loss of the chapeau, so sharp upon what he had been seeing and overhearing in his private room, was dismaying, but as a man wishing to rouse another to a nasty fact, he felt he had yet something to back the suspicions he detected in his master, and his personal narrative. It may be supposed there were moments when he himself hardly knew what he was trying to do or trying to prove—beyond some reasonable excuse for an unmanly nervousness. It is not pleasant to find oneself the single butt of a murderer (a matured malignant), however remote his crime, and whatever the reason of his lying in wait upon you. Yet—a few hours and he might be out of this peculiar danger. He could still leave it alone, but for the girl and the beggar's behaviour in the stall! He remembered how suspicious old Quaid had asked outright if the soldier was “after them for something?” Gracious G—d, with the fellow's crimes and singular way, he thought he had a reasonable answer for that! That was a word with Oughtryn—Captain Hyde-Shaxton—or some magistrate of the police.




  ― 278 ―

By this time, it is plain, Sir William, despite his decent way of putting it, was in a kind of nervous affright of the whole thing.

His purpose, as the reader may have guessed, was to sever and return with the bottle-neck and the running thongs. But most of all he was anxious to see whether they had been tampered with. We must mention here that when vehemently searching his rooms a few minutes previous, he had been surprised to find that volume of the Plutarch, which we know as “Surridge's,” there with the others on the small table. It was curious—and threw him presently into new exertions after the chapeau—that he had been left that piece of corroboration. (Was the thief too cunning to break into the volumes, or hurried into indecision?)

Now, in the cave, he was at first sight relieved to see the great chain hanging in its place, half hidden under sacks and old horse-coats. He had no sooner put his hand upon it and jerked it, however, than his heart sank; there was no answering ring from the crack. As he pushed his way along it, he shook it twice and then again. No, the wall-chain made no answering jingle.

Heans paused for an instant to collect himself, and as he did so there was a curious thudding—either a landslip in the hills, or thunder—which shook the caves, and to which the horses rattled out their chains. The quiet that followed seemed reflected by the motionless lantern, which was raised on two red band-boxes against the yard-wall. A rat or native cat made a scurrying behind the harness press, which drew Sir William's attention to the curtain by the south end, which had been drawn aside, showing the pommels of Abelia's side-saddle, and dangling from them the soldier's dirty white bandoliers and bayonet, and a large pair of leather shoes.

When he had again harkened, he continued his way along the chain to the end, where, above the row of sacks, he found that the bottle-neck had gone, while the leather thong had been freed of knots, or substituted by another having less, which was attached at the top end to something immovable, but which, on climbing up, he found to be a piece of forked wood, dead, and jambed into the narrows of the crack. The sharp disappointment induced by this discovery—the disgust—the loss of hope it meant—made Heans more shy of being under watch. He listened there another few seconds. Afterwards he stepped down and returned for the lantern, but, on searching, found beneath and behind the chaff-sacks only one or two minute fragments of brown bottle-glass. While drawing out the sacks' there was another loud scurry of rats—so heavy that he thought he observed a bag move bodily, and raised the lantern, staring among the spheres. One or two holed by rats were stacked loose upon the others, but he did not examine them, being satisfied no person of bulk and strength could be hidden between. As he replaced the light on the band-boxes, he was attracted by a glistening object behind them, and stooping down, he picked out


  ― 279 ―
a square bottle, three quarters full of rum, and a curious little object made of string and oiled wood, which it will be remembered the brutish fellow dropped from his pack on the Tuesday afternoon he arrived at the house.

There was little in the juxtaposition of these articles which made for Sir William's composure, though the menace which troubled the villain most seemed rather that from the dead than the living. He threw them down, feeling considerable heaviness of oppression, and went over to Abelia's saddle. He was about to cast the man's belongings to the ground, but remembering his promise, turned and took his way straight out of the caves into the yard. There he stopped for some time looking about. A number of little stars were out in the sky, shedding their pale beams upon the walls of the house; yet unable to lighten the dark squares of the windows. There was a flutter of lightning in the south-west. He had been there about twenty minutes, when he was attracted by a thumping and crashing on the top of the caves. Moving further out and looking up, he saw the red-coat himself, walking among the bushes not far from the old gateway in the wall, and making west upon the lane. As though he saw that he was seen, he stopped, eyeing him with a cold and careful stare. Eventually, as Sir William put up his glass for a better look, he dropped what he had in his hand—a long implement or log of wood—and rolled forward through the bushes down to the eaves of the caves. He wore no shako, and at first sight, in the murk, it seemed a feebler, older figure than Spafield's, but this was a mistake. It was the villain's own long head and hectoring cheek-bones that arrived upon the brink. As the shadows forsook him, half in drink as he was, there seemed a something flabbier about that cushion chin, and a sort of blenching recurrence in that angry stare.

Heans did not like the look of him in that place, as things were, but thought, with the height of the cave between them, he would see what he would say. He therefore stood quiet about the centre of the yard, his cane caught in the middle, his baleful eyes upon the other's. The details of each figure were clouded to the other, if Heans' person must, he knew, be outlined plainer by the kitchen candle than was Spars' upon the slope and studded cave. Though Heans had seen him drop something further up, he perceived that he still held a large, brown object in his right hand, which dangled like a garment. With this in hand, and slowly picking his way over the ground, he approached and stopped about the middle of the roof.

Sir William says that they were silent for about a minute, the hard villain shifting back a little as his trousers and coat-facing caught the one light of the house. “I declare it's you standing there so stiddy,” said he, with a deep, jabbering laugh, yet hanging darkly on him; “and a stern way you looks at me, just as if you 'ad the power of this earth and 'ell, and the


  ― 280 ―
Mahour'snote string was in your 'and—just for a moment in the liddle glove there which is on your show-cane. Oh, we've had our miff, we' ave, over the girl! I understands you well. Girls is for the protection of the gentlemen. It is a matter of trust from you to 'er. Ah, I follow you, honest, in what you want. Yet I remember you when you was a down peg only last night. That's all changed now, my noble! I was the whole pin then, by 'eaven! Something singler's been at Spafield since we met. Heaven deave you, here you a-dogging a bereaved man! It ain't a gentleman's act. A man's private in his ways when he's bereaved. Who'd think a gentleman of honour would 'ave his meanness! You'll raise my dander yet, you will! Why, I looks at you from these rocks and I says you're not so lively down in that there yard, yourself, with your hand upon your cane. So it is. Break your 'art, I know the world! I remember when I was young and admired. I use to be a smiling see-saw for the children to crow on. Now I'se a rotted board for the histing of the quick and dead. Do you see what I mean? At any rate, I face it stiddy.”

Heans, who welcomed the groan of uncertainty he detected amidst the vacancies of the threatening villain, made a harsh clearing of his throat, and enquired what he was doing up upon the caves? Privately, as he looked upon the bold, old face and narrow angered stare, the gloves upon his cane were quivering with chill disgust and nausea.

The man gave him a long, unquiet look, swinging the object in his bandaged hand.

“If I'm laid out for it, sir,” said he, with a quick step forward, and a faithless pretence of reassurance that was a poisonous threat, “I've only been a-hunting of the bettongnote in these liddle rocks, as you can see by what I 'old here in my fingers!” (He snatched the object he held to his right hand, and elevated it a little, though his eyes were never on it.) “A good night's work,” laughed he. “He spoke up for 'is 'andsome life, he did, but I ruined it for him, and then I followed him at my ease. Bless the little pimp, he thought to chouse me off with his inner-cent dodging. Plague it, gentleman, you don't believe me! Here, break your 'art, I'll cast him down for you, and you can carry it in to them amiable women! A singler, curious animal! Mind, sir, there's a weight in him to make him fall fair.”

While still speaking, Sir William saw him swing the object against the sky and hurl it knowingly up into the air over the yard, whence it straddled over, and fell with a dull leap and a loud rattle close in front of his feet. Sir William, amazed at the accuracy of its direction, had raised his cane to ward it off, and


  ― 281 ―
after it had fallen, did not at once take his eyes off the thrower, who regained his balance after his effort, with a troubled stagger. When he took a look at the little kangaroo with the grim head of a rat, which lay gleaming upon its face with its long legs spread upon the flags, he was sufficiently attracted by it to overturn it with his stick. Its bosom was transfixed beneath the arms by a long, flat knife, whose rounded blade projected three inches from the fur of its right side. The pressure of the blade and handle—which shone like a bit of pine—kept the animal's front paws crossed one upon the other.

“Look at him for an old one, my lord,” gabbled the redcoat, folding his arms under a chill, aged laugh; “I've pinned him up so nice he can't do much—can he?—but supplicate Shebna with them little brown 'ands?” Heans, however, did not answer nor again give him countenance, and presently after he heard a soft but very sickening oath, and realised the fellow had cocked his dangerous back at him and gone muttering off. Heans himself, true to his promise to the women, had turned over to the house, but when he heard the man going, he turned about and watched his long, lank hair and Tartar face descend into the night over the escarp of the lane.

When he had gone, Heans returned to the animal, and removing a glove, bent down and felt its body. It was very stiff and cold. He rose again and was about to go, when, struck by a thought of his defenceless condition, and what he was about to attempt, he drew the knife from the animal, wiping it upon the pretty brown fur. He notes—with apparent irrelevance—when he withdrew the blade, the small wrenched hands of the rat fell apart “with quite a human gesture of release.”

As for the poor weapon which Sir William Heans had found for his defence, it was laughable and crude enough, and apart from serving as a sign of the rascal's enmity, it was understandable why it had been discarded. The blade, about six inches long and slightly curved, had a gully or groove along the centre as in that of a sabre, and might have been a part of one, though now so blunt and ill rubbed as to be just recognisable as steel. The bit of wood into which it was fixed, and which served for a handle, seemed the section of the root of some bush-plant, which had been barked, and upon which Heans' fingers felt an uneven grooving. When Heans, quite shaken with the beastly encounter, at length reached his room, and had drunken a good draught of Oughtryn's “ale,” and eaten sparingly and long of his “export” pig and pumpkin-pie, he drew out his “knife” again and imagined in the grooving upon the handle a rough carving of a human face, with a wisp of long hair behind, and a kind of ecclesiastical mitre upon its head. He became much interested in the supposition when, later in the night, he made some effort to sharpen the long blade with the aid of his toilet-scissors.




  ― 282 ―

Before Sir William re-entered the house, he waited a few moments in the small entrance-door, till he heard the yard gate shut, and suddenly saw Spafield flutter like some huge moth into the light of the stable, and the gleam go out as he went in and stood a while looking about in the inner way. There was little sound of his feet on the flags. Presently the gleam of the light again shone, and did not go out, though Heans watched it for some minutes. Three times he rose from the supper-table, and groped his way through his bedroom furniture to the back window. On the third of these occasions he found the face of the stables dark, but for the spent rays of the light from the house. So it remained while he was there. On his way back to the sitting-room, he went again to the door, into the yard, and stood within, with it a little open, listening; and once again he opened it and stood looking up at the pallid and changeless cliff.

He heard the women move in the kitchen as he went from back to front, and noted that the opposite room was still open. He saw by the gleam on the panels that the stair-door had been shut. The noise of the sea was not in the house, which struck very quiet. The woman seemed her indifferent self when she came in to clear the table, and he thought it possible she and Abelia had found some comforting counsel. When he asked, “No sign yet of Mr. Oughtryn?” she answered, in a low voice, “No, but he may have gone with Leeworthy to ‘Fraser's,’ though it's against his custom to eat from home.” She enquired, on the heels of this remark, “if the horses had had attention?” and he replied that “they had, and that he had had some words with the soldier,” though privately he thought the woman was aware of that. He added that he had found the man's manner “wild and unsatisfactory,” and he said it would add sensibly to his quiet of mind, if, till Oughtryn came in, the keys were turned in the communication and kitchen doors, and she and Miss Abelia stopped below. Madame Fate replied unconcernedly with “her and Miss's thanks, and they had turned the keys, and Miss had shut her room.”

She was not, however, so composed as she appeared, for as her statuesque, bechignoned head was vanishing into the passage, she took affright at nothing, stopping, and plunging on again so sudden that the articles upon the tray she bore collided sharply, and one fell to the floor. In the stillness in which she stooped and groped after the fragments, Heans heard the voice of the soldier, not very high (rather low and harsh) singing in his room over the Chamber, and knew, and concluded the fellow intended it, that he had come into the house. As he sat listening to that intrusive booming and lowing, he wondered, above the menacing of himself, how the ruffian's wicked assurance


  ― 283 ―
would stand him, locked alone above another's hearth—the old hearth stained by his young malice.

Murruda, yerrabá, tundy kin ara,
Murruda, yerrabá, min yin guiny wite ma lá.

Would he low and drink himself to sleep upon his squab? Would he remain vigilantly awake? Heans considered he could not trust for that night to a period of oblivion in his mind.

Sir William, though he endeavoured to compose his mind with an Almanac, hardly read a sentence. He put his door wide, and lay back or sat forward in the bed-chair, no sound in the hushed place escaping him. At nine o'clock, he rose and opened one of the windows, hoping, by standing there, to hasten the sound of Oughtryn's approaching steps. Among the ghosts of plants a cricket was crying, “Eve.” He turned and again searched his rooms, but could not be certain of a single sign of intrusion or strange handling. Despite this conviction, he for a long while haunted both rooms in search for the dead carver's palimpsest.

During all this time he kept his ear on the large passage, along which, at intervals, came the man's voice. If the interval was overlong, Heans would rise in his chair, or pause in what he was engaged upon. As the minutes grew on, the man's lowing became sharper and more assertive, and the intervals between each outbreak longer. In his rooms Sir William Heans' pauses and ruminatings became proportionately more lengthy. After the half-hour, there was one lengthy silence in which the house was like a grave, and like earth into it he heard the ashes fall in the grate of one of the passage rooms. He thought, at the same instant, that he distinctly caught the tread of a shoe, and its creaking, in a room above him; but dismissed it as gratuitous. Not many moments after, an uproar of angry laughter and singing came in high and distant by his window, and, hanging near, he supposed the cut-throat fellow had moved from his pallet, and was either standing before a front window above the Chamber, or at work in one of the front rooms. It sounded to his ears that there was bravado and shaken assertion in the noise the man was making, yet that the villain was endeavouring (like a whistling urchin) to make an impression of ease, calmness and power on any one who might be listening. Eventually that became plainly his policy, whether the intrusion were directed at some growth of his bottle or the occupants of the house. He could be heard marching along the passages, and into one or more of the rooms, his shoes making a deep sound, and colliding more than once into furniture or door, the last perhaps intentional, as they were accompanied by a malignant laughing. If he was intruding, he was far from concealing it. He would suddenly begin to whistle or hum; sometimes bursting for an instant into a loud bawling;


  ― 284 ―
but stifling it or dropping it as out of character and uncomforting; again giving a loud, angry, and taunting laugh, or a jeering monosyllable dragged out upon a silence. He carried a candle at first, but put it down about the centre of the house, as Heans saw by the bushes. Sir William fancied him with folded arms, and malcontent, stern face. Vanity, and threatening assertion, and a little fear: Sir William thought he could detect these. Were they the whole meaning of his disturbance? He seemed to know that he was alone upon the floor; he knew that those below could hear him.

Some time after, the man retreated along the passage, and took the light to his room. Heans, who rose to listen after the steps, heard them go over the hall, hesitate, and suddenly the stairs rang heavily with his descent. He made a loud indistinct shout as he advanced, and another as he retreated. Heans imagined from the careless noise that he was going out, but at the stair-bottom he came round, and suddenly he was at the handle of the door.

When it would not open to him, he seemed to stand there for a long while, and presently his slow, heavy steps thumped their way back up the stairs. Heans, who had come into the women's passage, saw, by the moving reflection, he had a candle. The women's door remained lit and open, but there was no noise from either that or the kitchen. At the top of the stairs the villain seemed to go into his room. The deep rumour of a door announced silence.

Some minutes after ten, Heans heard him again out in the landing, but with a scatter of jeering talk rather than singing. Sir William had been sitting with a Plutarch in his hand, but from the uneasiness he felt, he went over to the window. Spafield, by the reflection of the light, was for a time in the west rooms, and in one of these—though his footsteps were seldom quiet—was the stationary candle. Heans supposes that he must have left the light in one of the rooms and come very quiet along the front passage (there was a front passage along the upper story), for, happening to glance at the Roman figure, he noticed that it was trembling, and the next thing, he was conscious of the creak and thump of the man's shoes above his head. He could not say if he was there bent on some disturbing of himself, but he remained in the room for a considerable time, the sound rising and falling as he stumped in and out from there to the passage. All the while his voice, not high, was grumbling in a horrible rapidity of threatening. Heans rose angrily. He, however, heard some one speak at that instant in one of the lower rooms. He instantly calmed and filled and lit his tobacco-pipe, and stood smoking for a little in the passage-window. He felt, while there, there was a sort of bad oppression over the house, and even as he peered out past the sentry-box, the man's footsteps were blotted out by a rattle and shiver of thunder, while


  ― 285 ―
almost as if that had been its herald, the moon topped the wall and made a shining in the garden. How black were the trees, how shiny was the long grass! The wretched Spafield must have been at the window above, for he stopped his walk. A little after, his feet went away down the passage with a peculiar tapping, and with the weight at the finish of the step. He then turned—if he was walking backwards—and made a hulking step or two which shook the floor. Suddenly his flight was stopped, and Heans heard him come slowly back. Again there was not a sound. Into that there fell a muttering, and, from somewhere muffled, there pealed out a dry harsh cry, like an infant's, but full of volume and hatefully daunted. Right upon it there was a heavy tumult and banging, then a great cry, and then a sudden ‘clashing’ of glass. Again a renewed uproar, and a space in which nothing could be distinguished. And last came a deep knocking and cries of “Your honour,” and “Sir William Heans,” and “Help, sir,” and “Help for the officer, ladies,” with a deadly mixture of cursing and groaning, half of which was lost in a banging and tumult that made the house ring.

When Heans came into the main passage, the woman was walking towards the stair door, with her candlestick and a heavy pistol. She turned the key, and opened it. Spafield seemed to hear the key and his hoarse groan became lower. Sir William followed the woman through, passed her, and waited an instant. He took the candle at the woman's offering, but as she clung to the weapon, he left her at the bottom, and began to go up. Abelia's calm but twinkling face came into the door, but he heard her rapid breathing, and told them both not to move. The woman suddenly thrust the pistol to him over the banisters, and he took it, and went up. At the top he went across the bare landing to the corner of the passage. He stopped at the corner, cleared his throat, and said, “I am here.” There was no answer, but a harsh oath from near the bottom, so he spoke again in his fine, ceremonious way, asking “where he was?” and “what had come upon him?” There was no answer while Sir William waited very stern and patient. He held up the candle. Some fragments of glass lay in the moon, some two-thirds along the passage floor. Suddenly there was a renewed knocking, and a low voice rose from somewhere complaining: “This here's the door!”

Heans advanced along towards the broken glass. Spafield's appeal came from a closed door opposite these fragments. “Come out, sir,” said Heans, “and let me see what you are doing.” There was again a low groan. Then swift and harsh: “The door's closed. I'm caught, I am. I'm in the woman's press here.”

“Where is that?” said Sir William, coldly. “Speak in a distinct voice. Why don't you come out?” He put the candle down behind him and advanced nearer the door. At that


  ― 286 ―
moment, he was annoyed to find that the women had followed him, for from the top of the stairs, a voice as stern as his own directed him to “the linen-closet: the door with the glass window.”

The man mumbled a chill something, and Heans drew nearer. The door behind which he spoke was like the eight others in the passage, but had a window at the top, in which was a cross-piece: the nearer pane in which was broken out. The panes were placed high, but, in a little, he had a clear sight of the man's face, sunken, sly, and sallow against the glass.

“Ah, my lord,” he cried out, “you'd never 'ave thought this of me! You'll turn it quick and let me out. Faith, I'm distressed! I'm the worse for my being in here!”

Sir William stared in great distaste at him for a while. “Well indeed, my man,” he said at last, “if you can get in, you can get out! Now, what is it? You had better give an account of your behaviour.”

“It's my mind, squire, my troubled mind,” said the other, keeping his eyes on him; “ah, I never dreamed of this! Come, I trust in you, sir! I've 'ad enough. You can 'ave too much cold man. I tell you I got to drinking a bit and spiting round! And I takes to worriting about them old days, and walks in and out a-bravin' my sorrows, and a-singing them off me. But afterwards I goes off my level over a certain sound I heard, and I lays quiet. Then I rouses and goes after that, and goes a-braving nothing. And something spites me against going where I would, and especially into this 'ere old Punishment Closet, as it used to be. And being full of vinegar, I open the door and come in. And I was standing with my back to her, when “sough” she falls slap into the lock, and when I comes to open her, there was no handle. And I swear to you, I hears his Honour's old voice, like it was yistiddy, out there, bidding me “take my punishment.” By my body, I tell you when I wrestle with her she wouldn't come for me, and when I smash away the glass, I couldn't reach her with my useless 'and! There, Squire, it was my unfortunate mind that dealt against me, and here I come against the butt-end of my life!”

Heans, after a considerable pause, said (and coldly), “That may be,” and advanced, and put his hand on the handle. Before he turned it, he looked back once to the candle, and forward along the passage, and once, fixedly and long, through the front windows, where the moon lay in the wooden garden—but, eventually, he reversed the hasp, and when the door gave, turned his back and walked off slowly up the passage. His situation was not easy. He would have taken upon himself to keep the man shut in at his peril, and seemingly somewhat at Joseph Spafield's. For other reasons he could hardly leave the man. Yet he succoured the shaken wretch to what end—but a quiet house—to what end of private difficulty. For the service he


  ― 287 ―
knew the man's nature well enough to conceive that he would rip the hand that loosed him. The temptation could not have been small. As he found by her enquiry, when, having taken the candle, he turned into the landing, the woman did not seem to entertain anything but the expectation of his release, and as usual she did not seek his opinion.

We know little more of this passage, than that he went instantly down, locking the door behind Abelia and the woman, whom he had found standing together in the landing. He passed back to his room after returning the pistol and informing them what had occurred. So hushed was the house that they heard, no doubt, as much as he. He told them the man was in a strange state of mind, and seemed to have become caught in the linen closet, where he had shut himself in fear of the wraith of Governor Collins, whom he had known in his youth. He added, in lighter pretence, that he thought him bad, ill, and “a drunken booby,” but what he said did not change the fixed regard of the others. For the rest, he had conceived it beneath him to look behind him, or was fearful lest the frightened villain should run after them. He, however, heard the man come out, and pause outside the press door.

We can see the soldier standing by the broken door, with his tall, black head and tag of hair, and large long sallow face.

Sir William regrets, and so also does the writer, that some freer weapon than his is not in the breach to delineate the last incident of that Wednesday night. It seemed to him such a curious and plausible occurrence that happened under his eyes, and partially through him, that he would have wished to make a souvenir of it with some beautiful, monumental prose. The motionless witch of night, with its grey moon and streaky clouds, its occasional alarms, the ugly and fateful things which it had brought to life, the house yet wanting a master, the pair of boding women, the sly wretch above, and the uncanny shock he had put upon them (even if his panics were Heans' strange ally), these were but the brooding beginning to the singular end.

When he left Abelia and the woman, the time by his clock had not reached the half-hour. For a few minutes there was movement and steady discussion in the lower rooms, but not a sound above except, shortly after, one dull report immediately over the stairs: from the man's door it seemed. When he looked to see, the light was gone. Beyond this though he was often on his feet, and kept his door open, and though the silence made a vault of the house, he never heard the man move. It occurred to him to consider with what sort of gait he had gone westward for his light, and across over the stairs. He was very quiet. He was not satisfied that his fright—sallow with fear as he looked—


  ― 288 ―
would keep him still. He did not know whether to wish most for drunken disturbance or a silence which had too little reassurance in it.

At a little past the half-hour, he went down the way to the bedroom, and opened the yard door. A dull glow was on the flags and told of a kept fire in the kitchen, and then, along, the brick wall was dark, till up under the roof—greatly to his relief—on the left upright of the window next to that above the hall, there was a dull candle-light just quicker than the moon which fought it. Here too it was still; not a sound from the closed stable, the foliage of the yard and cave lit and sounding with a few drops of rain, the sea rising to an occasional belling. He gathered that his composure was still somewhat disturbed from the fact that for an instant he thought he saw a figure standing just within the old gateway up on the cliff; but a lighter greying of moonshine dispelled the illusion. A scrub-oak was growing on the moon side. As he turned, his mind hung on the grim character of the stone-mason, a daily witness of that opening, and not able to get by it to a word with his Moicrime. He returned somewhat easier through the hollow house after turning the key.

He set himself again to wait for Oughtryn. This he did restlessly enough for an hour and a half. For the warmth he put on his plaid jacket, and sat with his window open so that he might hear the least sound or the groan of the gate. He stood also for long periods at the window, and tried to penetrate the bushes below the fountain. He was almost afraid of the old platted place after what had occurred. Since he could not allow himself to drop his vigilance of mind sufficiently to read his book, he kept the volume in his hand and fell as he sat—or walked—to completing his last plans. He would escape on the Friday morning. It was his intention—perhaps a little resentfully—to use the fact of his assignment into servitude. And its success—indeed the application of this plan—would depend on whether Oughtryn paddocked the horses with Leeworthy or what other acquaintance. Were the man one he knew to be acquainted with his master—and himself—and could he learn the whereabouts of his dwelling without rousing the old convict's surprise—he would carry his saddle there on the morning after next and inform the fellow that he was bidden by Oughtryn to take two horses to the farm at Bagdad. If all well, he would ride off, passing the Ferry and the Brighton police post on Oughtryn's well-known nag in its usual direction. He would afterwards drop the horses in the bush, and wait for the night coach near some wayside dwelling Till dusk Oughtryn would think him at Fraser's or Six's. After that, Oughtryn would wait, perhaps an hour, before going to the latter place. He would then visit other places, but hardly make a fuss earlier than twelve or one. This not considering his pre-occupation. Should the fellow, for some reason, refuse him the horses, he would throw away the saddle and return here, or


  ― 289 ―
better, to some near-by lurking-place. At 6.30 the carriage with Carnt.

It would serve his turn, thought Sir William Heans. True—as we think may have occurred to him the while he was seated over the fire, for he speaks of a feeling of despondency—no very creditable arrangement to satisfy the mind of an English gentleman. Alas, too little good-faith with these people who had been agreeable to him! Entailing a plaguey double part and a treading on the good nature of the family and the manes of the enseamed old dwelling which had given him roof. He must have felt he was in his way (like the rascal Spars) making a sort of troubling and wounding of privacy, alas, a little wounding of faith! He who would fain have left a decent memory of himself in this room.

Happening to be in his bedroom about twelve o'clock, and being heavy with the day's chances, he composed himself to lie and listen awhile upon his bed. The fires in the breakfast-room and kitchen were the only sound, and the only light the soft window-shine from the cliffs upon the heavy furniture. If somewhat troubled about Oughtryn, he knew that he was a “punter” at Fraser's, and might have been persuaded to a late stay against habit and punctuality. He did not propose to approach the women, and increase anxiety, by an offer to go after him, till an hour and a half after Fraser's closing time. Even after that he felt a reluctance about leaving them. Despite, however, of his endeavour to rest, he lay vigilant and stiff. More than once, he sat up and drew aside the curtain of his “tent-bed,” thinking this or that creaking of cabinet or fall of incinerated wood was the lock of the hall door, never to be summoned upon his feet by a succeeding thumping of footsteps nor the stirring of Abelia and the woman, whom he knew must be lying awake. He sat there alarmed by many a voice of dumb wood and speechless walls, yet sinking back to consider how he might most prudently drag from the old man the whereabouts of the paddock, and convey to him the dangers of a day marked with blood, and with it that of the lost stain upon the Chamber boards.

He was not certain whether he had fallen asleep, or was so deeply immersed in his thoughts as to be startled out of a species of repose, but he was awake suddenly to the motionless night, and to the distinct and insistent “clanking” of a chain. The sound was remote yet clear, and it would pause, begin again, cease for a minute, and then once more resume. Sir William, even while he sat up and attempted to locate it to some particular portion of the house, was reminded of the ghost stories of his youth, and when, failing this, he had followed it in his mind's eye to some position more removed or outside the walls, was inclined to consign it to the stable and a restless horse, but was not satisfied that it was made by a moving animal, nor that the chain


  ― 290 ―
of any one of them had such a sound. It was not a heavy chain, and it rang against the stone as though the horse had broken its fastening or lay upon the floor. There was no drumming of the manger. He could barely picture the beast lying prone, yet seized with such continual strange alarms. Some misgiving made him move with great care to his window. The wooden shade was still drawn. The moon was nearly overhead, and showed the stable closed and quiet. All seemed breathless, the top of the gum silvered and twinkling faint.

We have said the three tarred doors were shut, but as he held by the window stone, Heans put his face closer to the glass, for he had become convinced there was a gleam on the right side of the square of the furthest air-hole—that between the first door and the gate—in fact, he had a fancy there was a light lit and covered within.

His hand sought the leprous divisions of the glass and pushed the sash up. It seemed two or three minutes before he caught anything (not even the sea was audible), when there rose as from nowhere a faint “clanking,” and a little “jingle” of a chain. Both were very low, but he believed they came from the cave, and again his mind misgave him at the stony clatter of it. He endeavoured to descry through the pane whether the bolt in the first door was shot, but the moon was too dim. He stuck, however, to his fancy about a glimmering in the throat of the port-hole. He drew back. He decided to satisfy himself about the light. If he was mistaken, a horse might be loose and at the straw.

His “weapon,” which he had christened mockingly his “poniard,” he had hid in the sitting-room, and he did not go after it, not wishing to rouse the house to his departure. He took, however, a riding-cane from the twisted nob of his toilette. He at once moved with care into the passage, opened the door, and went out. The flags were wet and there was a slight sprinkling upon his cap. In the kitchen the fire yet shuddered on the window, and the soldier's light still cut the window-frame in the upper part of the house. Sir William eventually released the handle, and went very slowly across the yard. He distinctly heard the chain ring, stopped, and tried steadily to place it. Again he moved across. As he went he watched the throat of the port-hole deepen to a steely glare. About ten yards off, he again paused as he became aware that the hasp of the bolt was padlocked down, and the padlock empty. Something peculiar in the outline of the door itself attracting him, he put up his glass. He saw presently that the bolt had been shot outside the slot, and that the door was ajar to that extent.

At the same instant a heavy “slither” of a chain came from inside, as though a horse had broke from his fastening and was pulling his chain about after him.

Heans drew softly to the door. He perceived by the shimmer in the hole there was a kind of a light, and when he had put his


  ― 291 ―
face to the crack, and had accustomed his eyes to the semi-dark, he saw what seemed like a lantern in the second of the mangers, covered by a coat towards the door. This was the stall next to that in which was his own beast (which was half asleep upon its feet), and in strange juxtaposition, perched right up on a partition, he made out a figure which he knew must be that of Spafield, leaning against the back wall of the cave. The silent place rang with his breathing. He had raised in his hands a pole to which was fixed the hilt and single rusty prong of a hay-fork, and this he would poise slowly up and insert in the crack above. When Heans first made him out, he was hanging to the pole, resting his lowered head against it. But presently he raised that tall black head, and curving his shoulders upon the wall, felt for something with his prong above, and when he found it—with sounds either of great exertion or heavy suppression of excitement—pushed it downward a few inches or a yard, to the accompaniment of a heavy rattling, and that sound which had brought Sir William from the house.

He wore no coat, but his accoutrements swung on his shoulders, and he gripped the top of the partitions as he went along with skin slippers.

It was evident that he was somewhat retarded in his work by a wish to keep the chain as quiet as he could. He had a white eye also to the horses. He looked once fair in Sir William's face with eyes that had a sly and deadly drag, before which he caught his breath. So Sir William Heans found the fellow at his work. Indeed, the stable held a curious figure—a new and deadly effigy—balancing upon slow, sly limbs, muttering and waving with its pole along the cobwebbed wall, as if it would conjure to light, rather than drag from it, the bloody secret among the half-finished scrawls and wooden effigies so deeply graven there. There he panted, spoke, strove, and stared behind him; singularly silent for so large a figure; visible as a wraith is visible; every instant fading a little more out of linement as the prong searched lower along the lip, and the chain answered and fell protesting over the stalls.

Thus was explained the noise Heans heard.

It may be wondered—with so much at stake—that Sir William did not at once fling open the door and confront him. Perhaps you and I would have been chary of interfering with him! Heans gives the impression that in the disgust of the instant (all the terrible facts being so apparent) he could not determine for his own interests and the interests of the roof under which he sheltered which course to take. Whether to stop him, whether to be a witness to his hateful struggles till he had brought to light the poor remnants of a man, whether to interfere before he could gain possession of them, whether and whence to summon some eye beside his own (a prisoner's) in evidence—such a quandary seems to have kept for some minutes the smell of the tarred door in his


  ― 292 ―
nostrils. It seems he had made up his mind, throwing compunction aside, to leave the villain at his work and summon the woman—but time prevented him. In the agitation of the moment, he ran three steps towards the kitchen, slipping down on the flags. He then turned back, being fearful that the persuasion of the woman, or Oughtryn, if he was now in the house, would require time. When he did regain the door, and got the glisten of the yard from his eyes, he missed the villain from the wall, and presently, there was the silent fellow beyond the horses, climbing without the pole over the mangers, and in an instant he saw him leap and land upon the stack.

It seems that Sir William's emotion mastered his anger and agitation, and for some while further he withdrew his eyes and waited in the dropping rain. When presently, preparatory to entering, he was endeavouring to follow the movements of the man—that is, the indistinct place of them, for a space, if his slow and careful movements were audible, they were uncertain to the eye (in point of fact he had lowered his body behind the stack of straw) when Heans had actually pulled the door back a fraction, he was immeasurably startled to see something like a second human form passing between himself and the moon of the lantern on the wall. It was without sound. It came out of the harness-cave, and went along halting and feeling at the partition of each stall. After there came a violent jerk and jangling from the stack, it did not move beyond that partition that was beyond Abelia's grey.

He saw dimly who it was, as its head, bound in a white handkerchief, passed opposite the reflection. Gracious G—d, it was Conapanny, the native woman! As the shadow passed from stall to stall, Heans saw her lift her left hand and deftly pull the handkerchief from her head, thrusting it in her dress. She shook a singular bush of fine stiff hair about her face. She carried, strapped upon her back, something resembling a red Government blanket, the which, when presently she stopped and drew it about her shoulders, Sir William saw to be not a blanket, but a shawl of great beauty. (It was ever after an idiosyncrasy of Sir William's to asseverate that it was a shawl. Was it in verity any more than the scarlet covering allotted the blacks, and pardonably mistaken by one enthralled with the elevation of her history?)

After there came the noise from the corner, she did not move beyond the grey's stall. But she stood upright, as with an effort, beside the stone partition. It was extraordinary how youthful, yet how threatening she seemed. Who was she? Did she make a passable shade for yonder cold deserter? However she came by the secret, she was making a bold attempt to frighten the frenzied miscreant from the stack—perhaps to snatch from him her own? Yet Conapanny, old campaigner, illimitable mimic that she was, breathed audibly, as though her body was obsessed with groaning anguish.

Heans, in a few seconds, heard the hay give, and the man


  ― 293 ―
jump upon the stones in the stall next to that which had the stack. He could not see him move, but heard him panting over some work over which he stooped. Suddenly Sir William saw the sallow and black of his long head above the stall. It was then that Conapanny gave a kind of whimper, and he in answer a low gabble of surprise, but where he was he could hardly see her for the end-post. He moved about that sallow patch that was his face, once upon Sir William, and once flashed it upon the wall, where over the light, and lined blackly in it, the carving of Governor Collins stared grotesquely on the ceiling. He then swung something upon his shoulder and came quick and quiet out of the stall, into the post of which he staggered with his burden with a noise that rattled and tumbled a horse upon its feet. After lingering there till all was quiet, he appeared, nodding silently along, his head down, in the passage before the stalls. He seemed to bear a kind of tarpaulin sack upon his shoulders, its mouth bound with a rope, which frisked with his gait like the tail of a lamb. He must have again heard the blackwoman, for Heans, the watcher, saw him sharply throw up his pale nose and eyes; and there he saw her, almost, but not quite, a part of the stones of the grey's stall.

He drew aside, stopped, and gave a low sound like a shuddering bray. As Sir William Heans pushed inside, he saw the man dart to the wall, and the tarpaulin jerk up and fall from his hands, as he clutched and whipped out his bayonet. The mass fell with a heavy echo against the end door, and as it did so, Spafield shuddered into and along the wall for a few feet, his bold head turned back. Heans knew that he moved from the scrape of his bandolier against the stone. For the contrary reason he knew that presently he had stopped.

Conapanny's shadow did not move, but there was a slight rustle in the straw about her bare feet. The man turned round, rose, and scraped a few steps back. He stopped before he reached the stall, rose upright, and went nearer to the figure of the black. He seemed to sway before her, yet try to make her out. He seemed to debate for a wicked instant what he might do with this. His attitude, with the steel nursed against his stomach, was blandly fatal to her, curbed yet with some old nausea of the veins. Then, thinking better of it, he staggered away and caught the rope of the tarpaulin—eyed her a little—swung it with a crash to his shoulder—eyed her yet a little—and then, with his right hand feeling the wall, stepped dangerous and reviling along the stable to the last opening.

Just in the door, dark with the light behind, Sir William Heans stood. He remained there, pale and baleful, with his cane quivering in his hand. Spafield saw him, and stopped not far from the door, leaning with his hand upon the wall. The surprise drove a moan or a grunt from him, but with a flash behind, he came on saying, “Stand aside. I don't like your looks.”




  ― 294 ―

“Drop what you have,” said Sir William Heans, “and you may go out.”

“Why should I drop what I have?” he gabbled, pausing again. “Why should I drop what I have?”

Sir William told him once more to drop what he had.

“A fine man, you, to interfere with a man's recreation,” said he. “Out o' doors and a prisoner; By b——you'll get into heavy trouble under orders!”

“Joseph Spars,” said Heans, in a calm voice, “drop what I will never allow you to take away from these caves.”

“By ‘eaven, you won't!” cried Spafield, huskily, “then for the love of G—d, let me away!” and he flung aside the rope, staggering to the door. He came feeling before him with his hands. Sir William whipped aside to go out into the yard, and at the instant he was in that position, with his eyes yet inside upon his face, Spafield cried out, “I'll spoil your beast's powle,”note and making a spring, flung himself bodily upon the doorway, so that though Heans was agile, and all but cleared the post, the miscreant caught his right foot in his hand, and brought him by that, and a dislocating wrench, to the ground. Here, despite his struggles to free his foot, and though Heans rained blow after blow upon his fleshy gyve with the knob of his cane, it pulled him closer and yet closer inward, till as Sir William attempted to rise for his succour upon his left foot, he was stunned by a covert blow about the post—he supposes “from a skin moccasin—” and fell back upon the flags.

Oughtryn, however, who was in the kitchen, scolding across the hollow passage, heard a curious sound, and ran to the window. He saw the cave door ajar, and thought there seemed something like a human figure on the ground. He did not know Heans had gone out, but was instantly frightened by the fancy that it was his “speckled clothes.” Even while he made them out, a man came out of the stable, staggering over the obstruction, and walked, with something hanging on his back, through the yard gate. He thought, by his white breeches, it was Spafield, of whose doings he had been informed, and he threw up the window, and sent his name after him. The shout had but left his tongue, thrown shrilly on the stone chamber of the yard, when yet another figure rushed from the stable, following Spafield out of the gate. He saw that she had bare, grey feet.

previous
next