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Chapter XX Mr. Daunt's Carelessness

WITH regard to the little play alone—who will ever forget the evening who was present; or the strange, simple old house; or the garden with its broken stonework? Sir John remarked that the “room” had certainly “been built for speakers.” The advancing echo of the violins with their “Campbells are coming” was charming. While, when the violet curtains were withdrawn from before the western end, and the “Hall of Halbert's Tower” was disclosed, Lady Franklin was heard to inquire whether the “carved ram's-horn mantel-piece” was “actual stone.” The ladies and gentlemen voted the play most striking and noble, though many condemned the fair Helen for loving the wrong gentleman—handsome as he was in his majestic villainy, full of haughty triumph as were his sinister words: “Our regiment mean to teach your clan the finest of all lessons: the art of spending life.” As for Halbert Macdonald, the generous and unfortunate young chief, he seemed to exult in his noble sacrifice, and who will forget his plaided figure as he stood at the little window beside the chimney, and apostrophised, in fact, the mountain luminary:

O, blessed star
Of morning, do you wait upon that cone
Whose whiteness mocks our marble, to renew
The calm cerulean distance can impart
To thoughts of earth's brief struggles? Linger yet!
It sinks; 'tis gone; its peace is in my soul.

It was excellently portrayed, the acting of old and young vying with the realities of the room; the pretty sorrows of the participants with the sound of the drums and fifes outside in the garden. The actual tragedy in the caves had been carefully hidden from the guests. Those who knew of an affray had been cautioned, while, that an actual death had occurred, close by, a few hours previous, was known only to one or two of the men. A small conclave of gentlemen, awaiting Sir John Franklin in the little room off the entrance, had gravely discussed the tragedy, and the master of the house had been summoned. Oughtryn's

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story, and that of Dr. Wardshaw, who was watching his daughter, had created distinct sympathy for Sir William Heans, who still lay in his rooms. The case was remarkable. The soldier had been stabbed to death, but there had been a long pursuit, while a peculiar instrument and marks of attempted strangulation had been found on the prisoner's person. The old master of the house played his part pretty well, facing Sir John Franklin, and revealing nothing, as he was bid. Few heard tell of the terrible affray, and those who remembered to enquire after the shy child, Abelia, were told anything than that she had been taken away between life and death.

It is no use pretending the company was anything but most amused and gratified. When The Fate of the Macdonalds had been settled, and tea had been toyed with, the green chairs were whisked under the walls, the violet hangings tucked away, and those staid, bewhiskered gentlemen circled the floor. The girls soon lost their playgoer's pensiveness, for there was dead “Halbert” in his rough plaid, and traitor “Henry” in his black periwig, polking in line with them against the chalky old paintings on the walls. Aye, and “Mac Ian” and “Lindsay,” a pair of too-portly enemies, at their wine; and wilful “Helen Campbell,” her bridal veil thrown off, attitudinising beside her pretty, imperious Excellency before the mantel—on her right, in clawhammer and white breeks, Sir John Franklin himself, grinning away with his tragic, obstinate, round English face. Indeed, “Mr. Daunt's discovery” was a success. The novelty and freshness of partings and meetings in such a place appealed to nearly all—weighed upon but a few. The innovation of the police Commandant was much praised.

We may imagine the decoration, the pauses of the piano, the loud and level conversation, the candles, the black silks, the curls. Mr. Daunt was his efficient self—with a steady-eyed word with this one, and a hard smiling patience for that. His not obtrusive figure shared a short of mild notoriety with those of Captain and Mrs. Hyde-Shaxton, because of something “prejudicial” he had said of that beautiful woman, and the reconciliation that had been come to between them. All had heard, and many besides old Chedsey had seen the “lavender pad”—with the leather pocket in which the prisoner had hidden his notes; and many besides her amusing husband had expressed grave anger, all of which had been happily terminated by her clever unselfishness, and (quickly meeting Mr. Daunt) her determination the bal paré should not be jeopardised for a private quarrel.

If people will only keep their tempers, so much may be forgiven! Besides, it was said Captain Shaxton's wife had been in grave fault with the law, and invited her vexation, from her romantic action. A good woman cannot afford to be indiscreet!

There was a general interest in this lady, so erect and frail, her staring eyes so uplifting, ardent, and good. While old Captain

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Shaxton, with his fun and his subdued giggles, was made quite a favourite. Many had scented the attachment to his wife, the agony of mind, and the endurance of purpose, which had been hidden under his amusing threats. They felt it was deeper than if he had expressed himself “open and dangerous.” Here he was mildly laughing away the instinctive stares of curiosity, and here and there, perhaps, a mild look of wonder. What a power is a little moral courage!

Yet we press too much on the passing curiosity about these people. The interest of the hour and the night was in devoted Lady Franklin, in whose honour the company was assembled, and who had the daring to accompany her veteran discoverer across the untrodden peaks to Macquarie Harbour.note Still we must not forget to chronicle old Miss Lecale's remark: “Who but the Commandant,” she said, “could have engineered it so that if he lost he won.” Again, Mrs. McKevin of Isnaleara—the promoter of the “farewell soiree”—had her little defence, so it was told. To the gentleman who remarked that, “he was not such a very dangerous fellow after all,” she replied, “Beware how you are severe with my Commandant. He does not often boast.” While there was old Captain Shaxton's joke about the “exploring party.” Some one remarking that “Lady Franklin would set a new fashion in chignons and white silk slippers at Macquarie Harbour,” Shaxton had prophesied delightfully, it would be “a bold front and snow-shoes!” Yes, we may fancy, amid the whirling throng, the jests—the courteous fears—the steady-spoken congratulations! There they went! And of course there were matters between people whose united ages would not have reached that of their handsome hostess, as important to them as these we have told.

In the midst of all this pleasure and amusement, we may imagine how the news fell on the guests that “Captain Shaxton had just shot Mr. Daunt in an empty garret above the ball-chamber.”

Luckily, poor Mrs. Shaxton, who had been up at gun-fire with some scenic arrangement, had made her adieus and slipped away. It came out afterwards that Shaxton had been standing under the stairs talking into the actors' green-room, when Daunt, coming behind, and calling over his shoulder for Tipton, Shaxton turned, looked at him for a moment, and asked him off-hand, “why their friend H. was locked up?” It seems he had some information. How he had come by it is inexplicable, since by strict request the fatal affray had been kept from him and his wife. He had heard sufficient, however, of some half truth to know that Sir William Heans had been caught in a scuffle

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about a woman during that day and some one had been hurt; and being depressed about it, had gone along to see if he could speak with the prisoner, in whose debt he was, but had been turned back by the police. He had just returned up the passage. Few knew there to what he was referring, except Captain Karne, who had been with him in the stable on the night of the inspection, and, knowing both men, was restless in the matter. Daunt looked at Shaxton quite amazed, saying, “You needn't pump me, Shaxton! I'm worked to death! Go to Gold or Magruder,” and immediately left the door: going back under the stairs, and after calling for Tipton, turning and mounting them. Captain Shaxton, muttering something about “pocket-handkerchief in the cloak-room,” after an instant went off and was heard to go after him up the stairs. Karne, not quite easy in his mind, waited in the green-room for five minutes, when growing more uneasy, and fancying he heard a pistol-shot over the piano, he beckoned his friend Kent from the ballroom and together they mounted to the upper floor. There was a ladies' waiting-room to the left at the end of the front passage, and there were two for the gentlemen along the passage to the right. Karne had met Shaxton with the arrivals in the first room of the two—a small square cabinet—the second room three doors along, had, in fact, hardly been entered. The passage was not well lit. The two young men paused in the first door, and seeing nobody there, passed on to the other. They smelt a faint smell of gunpowder. The room contained a few turkey-worked chairs and a round table on which was one candle only. There was nobody here either, but across the end of the passage a door stood open before an unlit room. The alarmed Karne beckoned onward the half incredulous Kent. As they came up a door within slammed. This chamber was furnished as a bedroom, as the moon showed, but a door at the back was lit beneath. Though all was silent, Karne pushed across. Listening a moment, he suddenly flung the door open and ran in. This was a small, longish room, quite bare, and a candle stood by the skirting opposite the door. The shutters were closed behind the broken glass, which had been stuffed with bits of cloth and mended with paper. The two gentlemen stood against the wall in opposite corners—Shaxton by the east window, with his coat off and a stained handkerchief bound on his shirt-sleeve, which was raised in the very act of aiming a little flint-lock pistol at Daunt. The Superintendent stood in a curious, bowed position beside a door in the corner. He was looking sternly at Shaxton, with one small hand spread on the gilded panels, and a similar weapon hanging in the right.

What happened between the two since they ascended the stairs is not known. Had they disputed in the second cloak room and

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gone together to this remote chamber? Or did Captain Shaxton, not finding Daunt in the first rooms, follow him with a candle through the two rooms at the end? Old Captain Shaxton never told the story—except that they fought upon an old matter in dispute between them.

Captain Karne immediately sprang between them, crying out, “Stop, sir—stop! The Commandant is not shooting!”

Shaxton lowered his trembling weapon, saying, “Be hanged to you, I let him shoot first! I was in his debt.”

“Is that so, sir?” asked Karne, looking at Daunt.

Daunt gave a little nod.

Karne drew back beside Kent, who was in the doorway behind.

Hyde-Shaxton again put up his weapon. He had lost a good deal of blood. There were spots of red on his black cravat, white waistcoat and trousers. His trembling mouth had a determined drag.

At that instant Mr. Daunt said, “One moment—I—one moment——” He had not moved, but his sharp, implacable eyes dropped in a strange way to the floor. Shaxton tossed his chin and just lifted his pistol above the other's head. He looked very grave. Both Captain Karne and Kent moved forward a step.

Thus Commandant Daunt stood for a matter of twenty seconds, none of the three gentlemen knowing quite what to do or what to make of this unfair demand upon his opponent's patience. Then quite briskly and collectedly he remarked, “Your pardon, gentlemen, there is something wrong with my sight. I see two of every one here.” (As he spoke he raised his dark, immaculate face and looked at each in turn). “The floor,” he continued, “the floor sways there in front of me. A moment, sir—I have a strange fever in my stomach——”

None of the men moved, neither Shaxton to lower his weapon, nor those standing by to interfere.

Hardly had he spoken when he sank with a jerk to one knee, and his pistol fell rattling out of his grasp. He then fell sideways upon his hand, and Kent approached and stood beside him. He began to breathe hard and terribly. Several times he seemed about to fall his length, and Kent knelt down and unbuckled the spotless cravat inside the velvet collar. Captain Shaxton let his pistol-arm fall and turned to the little window. Thus they waited—the distant music the only sound—the stricken man leaning upon his arm and breathing terribly, his face and eyes directed on the floor with an ashen vacuity of look.

Karne suddenly remarked he had seen the Government Surgeon in the ballroom. He addressed Daunt in a hoarse, formal voice, asking should he fetch him up. Daunt raised his keen eyes, trying to fix them upon the speaker, and complaining he was blinded. “The place falls under me,” he gasped swiftly

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out. “I am extremely ill, sir! Yes—yes—fetch him, if you must be running up and down. You youngsters—pah, this is death!” With this he dropped his head sourly, and seemed as if he would have sunk face-down upon the floor had Captain Kent not snatched at his shoulders and raised him with his left arm over his knee. Thus hung the stern Commandant of the foot police, his old eyes on those bare boards, with his sharp, ashen face framed in its short side-whiskers and greying hair.

Captain Karne hurried away, returning in a few minutes across the bedroom with the brisk old surgeon, bitter Mr. Craye in a tall bitter cravat, and Captain Garion, of the police. Shortly after these gentlemen, old Magruder entered, with a couple of decanters, followed by Sir John Franklin himself; and last the old forgotten master of the house emerged from darkness and stood holding open the door, with blind, obsequious eyes.

In the ball-chamber, Karne's shorn air, and the object of his enquiry, aroused some notice; and by the time he had found the doctor, and in whispering his information, delayed a quadrille, people were asking had something occurred. A substitute for the doctor was found, but the latter, after hurried consultation, thought the news should be further circulated, and in a little Franklin and others were observed to go out. Either by inference, or leakage, the news flew that the doctor had been summoned to the scene of a quarrel. How unseemly! On an occasion so perfectly angelic! Captain Shaxton's name was mentioned. The Captain and Mr. Daunt were missed from the room. They would not dare do it! As from nowhere, shot the hydra-headed legend that the two gentlemen had been pitching into one another in a room above. Had the Commandant of the foot police wounded sprightly Captain Shaxton? Why, no sir! No, madam! I protest I can hardly believe it! It was t'other way! I take my oath, it is Mr. Daunt ha' been winged! What! Hush! Handsomely, gentlemen! 'Pon my life, sir, I can assure you on my word of honour, the Commandant, poor man, is——”

A young girl fainted under the south windows.

Old Mr. Duterreau, standing between her Ladyship and Miss Crackcroft, stopped the music, and requested a hearing from the ladies and gentlemen. Heaven knew, he said, what fantasia would next be swimming into fair or handsome heads! He implored them not to mar by misconception or romantic tittle-tattle so happy and so noteworthy, so ingenious and so agreeable an occasion. He wished to make it clear to everyone that the Commandant of the foot police, Captain Daunt, had not been wounded, but seized by an illness, somewhat severe. In a few moments he hoped they might be reassured. So saying, he smiled and signalled to the violins.

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The Government Surgeon rose to his feet; stood looking at the patient as he pocketed his instrument—lightly, ponderingly; and turning on the others with a little smile, shook his head. He left on the floor before Daunt a wine-glass half-filled with a muddy liquid. There was no wound. The old sulking fellow with the pistol and the guilty mouth, by the east window, was safe. It was the heart and stomach-fever, to attacks of which the Superintendent had been addicted. It was about to end.

The surgeon whispered some instructions to the clergyman who was behind him; and very definitely answered some questions from the group at the door; proceeding thence to Captain Shaxton, somewhat short of sight, and with a “Come, sir, have you the bullet in you?”

The reader may picture to himself the room, the candle, the once-gilded woodwork, the once fanciful decoration, the gentlemen in their clean cravats and broadcloth, bland and not quite free of the gentle association they have but left—Magruder offering his snuff-box to Captain Karne behind Sir John, who stood a trifle advanced, with his sad, round face somewhat blanched, and his hands folded in a peculiar manner over his waistcoat, as if he were nursing a telescope.

He also had not been in strict agreement with the gentleman breathing out his life before them.

Over near the other door, Mr. Daunt yet hung upon the knee of Kent; beside him, kneeling with folded arms, the downcast Commandant of the mounted police; and behind, standing as it were in guard upon them, the Rev. Mr. Craye, with a sort of precise, determined, unobtrusive air, as of one unmoved among the faithfulnesses of death.

Without lifting his head, Mr. Daunt suddenly said: “How indeed should the dying exact respect!”

There was a calm silence in the room.

“Who are all these gentlemen come to my grave-side,” gasped he again: “Magruder, Karne, Garion, Shaxton? By my word, Shaxton, you near pistolled me, you unfortunate man!”

Captain Shaxton pulled restlessly in the surgeon's clutch, but he said nothing, fiddling at a shirt-button, and looking at the other fixed and depressed.

“We are all here, Mr. Daunt, brotherly men,” said the Governor, gently, “come to learn how to take and face the end of it. God give us all a brave station or a quiet anchorage.”

“In the calm eye of heaven,” said Mr. Craye.

Daunt beckoned for the glass of medicine, and Captain Garion lifted it to his mouth.

“Ah,” gasped he, nodding his white face slowly up at Franklin's, “and half the nobility too, it seems. Quite a memorable scene for Hobarton. I breathe, sir, with trouble.… The old rat-hole sways like a tar-boat!”

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The medicine seemed to act soothingly upon him. He breathed with less agitation and less harshly.

“What a pretty speech, gentlemen,” he gasped, speaking more otiose, his chin sinking into his cravat, “that about the ‘calm eye of Heaven’—as pretty a thing as ever I heard! I suppose our friend Craye says these pretty things by kindly practice. … Sir John Franklin” (swaying for an instant upright), “Commandant Daunt wishes to speak. He makes an urgent request—an urgent—a very urgent request——”

The Governor immediately advanced, stooping beside the dying man in his free, sad, athletic way. He waited thus in silence, and then as Daunt, with his sunken head, seemed unable to do more than make his breath, he pressed him with the quiet question: “Come, Mr. Daunt, will you not convey to me your wish?”

There the Commandant leant on Kent's knee, his grave eyes downward, trying as it were to stay his sight upon some point—to steady and regulate his breath sufficiently to pass his words. He gave a faint nod of his head, saying at last: “I have, sir—I have a something on my mind—something urgent—urgent—something which should be known to some one … to …”

His labouring breath again mastered his speech, and he began again his stern struggle for utterance. “Who is this person, Mr. Daunt?” asked Sir John Franklin. “Is it woman or man? Is the man present among these men?”

The Commandant shook his head. He raised his impressive face (in which the determined spirit seemed to rule even the might of death), rolling his eyes for one sharp instant over the half-distinct figures before window and door. “I wish,” he said, in a low voice, “I request that the prisoner—Sir William Heans—now under police guard below—be quickly brought before me—that I may inform him of something—before all—something deeply to his advantage.”

So speaking, the gentleman's lips shaped a little racked smile, and he sank fully back upon the breast of Kent, his head sunk, his sharp face staring down. All in the little room heard what he said, and there was no need for Sir John's repetition to Garion of the Baronet's name. Those who knew of the fatal struggle in the caves were considerably startled and surprised at the announcement that poor Daunt wished to communicate some knowledge to Heans' advantage, naturally connecting it with that affair, and waiting with amazement for some revelation containing new evidence. Mr. Daunt was a close man. He had kept this matter to himself during the earlier deliberations in the reception-room. Death had surprised him, or Death made things seem more important. Now that he was dying, he was made uneasy by the possession of some private knowledge.

Of course there was the other affair. The prisoner had been a sort of fourth party in the Daunt-Shaxton quarrel. Was Mr.

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Daunt about to make some public reparation to Shaxton and Heans? If this was so, Shaxton himself did not seem to welcome it. Those who looked at Shaxton noted that the other's words had filled his depressed stare with a sort of wild protest. Captain Shaxton was plainly uneasy. He stood staring over; and wincing as the surgeon worked on his arm. Had he heard from Mr. Daunt the full tale of the red-coat's end? Of what, then, was he jealous in such a generous announcement—containing a promise of yet better testimony for the character and motive of the prisoner? It was natural that few took open notice of him or seemed to observe his unsatisfactory air. His position was invidious. He was overhung with the disgrace of his act. His opinion—if he had one—was not encouraged beyond his trembling lips.

Magruder and Charles Oughtryn, on the contrary, may have thought Mr. Daunt felt he had been careless in arranging for the appointment of the file (if it was his), and was about to make some confession to that effect.

Oughtryn's demeanour, could we have watched it, would not have been the least interesting in the room. In the background of the picture, as he was, he was in the foreground in knowledge. His house had been the scene of strange relationships. He had seen, in prudence, his fears materialize—till he himself took up his weapon. To what purpose! His ‘gentleman’ and the soldier had come to ends from which he and his ‘poor shrinkable miss’ had tried to guard them. We can see the old master—in his best to his jack-boots—his eyes on the breathless Commandant with a pale, blind, feyly apprehensive air. All night, his inward thoughts had been paining his private heart, but he had erected a sort of stunned and even mildness, which would pass for geniality in a person of wide and somewhat hazy duties. Upon this fixed and daunted surface, the dying request of the Superintendent had fallen like a pallid thunderstroke. What was this he must tell the prisoner to his face?

As the gentlemen hurried the matter through, Oughtryn backed open the door and stood waiting in the bedroom. A whisper passed from those in the doorway against warning Sir John of Heans' fatal violence, and Magruder, drawing Garion aside, bade him specially apprise the prisoner that the Governor—though he might address him—as yet knew nothing of the occurrence. Daunt's words might reveal nothing to disturb his Honour further with. Garion and Karne were despatched downstairs, and Oughtryn, the old master, to guide them.

Sir John Franklin remained in earnest counsel with Magruder, their backs to the light. Here, as they waited, the Governor pressed several questions concerning Sir William Heans' post in the household upon the other, who answered them with a grave particularity. There they were, at once watching Mr. Daunt's condition and whispering in concert, when steps were heard in

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the passage. Sir John moved a few feet east of the door, drawing the other with him by the arm. It was a solemn moment, and the faces of the six gentlemen, in their pleasant, conventional attire, were shadowed with a troubled expectation.

Garion entered first, and then Oughtryn, and after him Sir William Heans. The latter leant upon a cane, holding himself pretty well, if somewhat sad. He was neatly groomed and carried one hand behind him. His slow, fixed eye met Shaxton's ruffling, unquiet stare, and then travelled to the figure of Daunt.

Sir John Franklin, touched by something changed in the man's face, moved back and whispered, “Go forward, sir. There is good news in it, so we are promised. This poor gentleman is passing, and perhaps we may look for new and fresh opportunity for Mr. Heans in his farewell words.” Sir William looked fixedly at his humane face, saying, “I would, sir, that what you outline for my fate could be.”

He then went forward and stood beside Daunt, his hand upon his cane.

Sir William Heans has confessed to us that his chief fear was that he should hear from Daunt that Carnt had been captured, and that all was known. He was haunted by his friend's jeopardy. His face was afraid.

It was some minutes before Captain Daunt raised his eyes. Mr. Craye, who stood at his right shoulder, stooped and whispered a word in his ear, but though his iron chin lifted a little as with his breathing, he yet stared upon the floor. At last, as if by keen struggle he had arranged the matter, he raised a wavering and dizzy stare, till it met and held upon Heans' agitated face. An instinctive look of disbelief and cynical annoyance disfigured it, into which sprang something stern and complaining; and then, as with a better thought, and as if he would have washed the ill-feeling from his face before he made his revelation, he slightly shook his head and lowered his eyelids upon a strange, sharp smile. His breath rose, became louder, quietened till it became regular. At last Mr. Craye, suspecting his calm, put a hand upon his shoulder, and found the Commandant dead.

With the gentlemen gathered in that remote room, we can but wonder what was his intention. We may choose to think with his Honour and Captain Garion that Mr. Daunt meant to act as became his station, and acknowledge to Captain Shaxton before he died that he had mistakenly traduced his wife, and credited the prisoner with the lowest of all thefts. We may think with Magruder, and possibly old Oughtryn, that Daunt was ashamed of the character of the billeted soldier, and would even have cleared Sir William Heans of his own carelessness; or go to Shaxton's extreme, unquiet and suspecting of the dead man after two engagements with him; or even feel relief with poor, sad Heans that those yet smiling lips had been unable to

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announce the capture of his friends. Nay (for how could he know Carnt was in the coach at that moment?), he has as much as expressed a doubt whether Daunt knew something of their plot, and, in love with his “lightning and sunshine” to the end, would have thus authoritatively disclosed and stopped them. To these fevered accusations let us add our private contribution: that if he knew their plans, it were the better revenge upon the one to have permitted the two other parties to go free. … Indeed, that he expired with a look of hate upon his face may seem to some that he died according to his will and intention at the end, even in the manner of his silent death.

We may think with any one of these. Or we may think with the Government Surgeon that Commandant Daunt must have been painfully ignorant of his interior. Or with Karne and Kent—here was a fine bitter man caught by Death.

Or, with Mr. Craye, we may pray unmoved above the pretty murmur of the music.

So we see the night ended rather tragically. Yet it was a beautiful morning: the sea death-silent, without a sound of wave or wind. A cool watery moon and stars. The cup of the sky so remote over the clear dark it could hardly be seen. … Some appointed guardian, we are told, walking early about the empty house—for even Oughtryn and the woman were elsewhere—was touched at the sight of the native woman, Conapanny, seated, with her rush-bags round her, under a window near the door.

She seemed to know the old house was empty.