The Bell-Ringer of Angel's and Other Stories by Bret Harte - HTML preview
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Young Robin Gray
The good American barque Skyscraper was swinging at her moorings in the Clyde, off Bannock, ready for sea. But that good American barque—although owned in Baltimore—had not a plank of American timber in her hulk, nor a native American in her crew, and even her nautical "goodness" had been called into serious question by divers of that crew during her voyage, and answered more or less inconclusively with belayingpins, marlin-spikes, and ropes' ends at the hands of an Irish-American captain and a Dutch and Danish mate. So much so, that the mysterious powers of the American consul at St. Kentigern had been evoked to punish mutiny on the one hand, and battery and starvation on the other; both equally attested by manifestly false witness and subornation on each side. In the exercise of his functions the consul had opened and shut some jail doors, and otherwise effected the usual sullen and deceitful compromise, and his flag was now flying, on a final visit, from the stern sheets of a smart boat alongside. It was with a feeling of relief at the end of the interview that he at last lifted his head above an atmosphere of perjury and bilge-water and came on deck. The sun and wind were ruffling and glinting on the broadening river beyond the "measured mile"; a few gulls were wavering and dipping near the lee scuppers, and the sound of Sabbath bells, mellowed by a distance that secured immunity of conscience, came peacefully to his ear."Now that job's over ye'll be takin' a partin' dhrink," suggested the captain. The consul thought not. Certain incidents of "the job" were fresh in his memory, and he proposed to limit himself to his strict duty. "You have some passengers, I see," he said, pointing to a group of two men and a young girl, who had apparently just come aboard. "Only wan; an engineer going out to Rio. Them's just his friends seein' him off, I'm thinkin'," returned the captain, surveying them somewhat contemptuously.
The consul was a little disturbed. He wondered if the passenger knew anything of the quality and reputation of the ship to which he was entrusting his fortunes. But he was only a PASSENGER, and the consul's functions—like those of the aloft-sitting cherub of nautical song—were restricted exclusively to looking after "Poor Jack." However, he asked a few further questions, eliciting the fact that the stranger had already visited the ship with letters from the eminently respectable consignees at St. Kentigern, and contented himself with lingering near them. The young girl was accompanied by her father, a respectably rigid-looking middle-class tradesman, who, however, seemed to be more interested in the novelty of his surroundings than in the movements of his daughter and their departing friend. So it chanced that the consul re-entered the cabin—ostensibly in search of a missing glove, but really with the intention of seeing how the passenger was bestowed—just behind them. But to his great embarrassment he at once perceived that, owing to the obscurity of the apartment, they had not noticed him, and before he could withdraw, the man had passed his arm around the young girl's half stiffened, yet half yielding figure.
"Only one, Ailsa," he pleaded in a slow, serious voice, pathetic from the very absence of any youthful passion in it; "just one now. It'll be gey lang before we meet again. Ye'll not refuse me now."The young girl's lips seemed to murmur some protest that, however, was lost in the beginning of a long and silent kiss.
The consul slipped out softly. His smile had died away. That unlooked-for touch of human weakness seemed to purify the stuffy and evil-reeking cabin, and the recollection of its brutal past to drop with a deck-load of iniquity behind him to the bottom of the Clyde. It is to be feared that in his unofficial moments he was inclined to be sentimental, and it seemed to him that the good ship Skyscraper henceforward carried an innocent freight not mentioned in her manifest, and that a gentle, ever-smiling figure, not entered on her books, had invisibly taken a place at her wheel.
But he was recalled to himself by a slight altercation on deck. The young girl and the passenger had just returned from the cabin. The consul, after a discreetly careless pause, had lifted his eyes to the young girl's face, and saw that it was singularly pretty in color and outline, but perfectly self-composed and serenely unconscious. And he was a little troubled to observe that the passenger was a middle-aged man, whose hard features were already considerably worn with trial and experience.
Both he and the girl were listening with sympathizing but cautious interest to her father's contention with the boatman who had brought them from shore, and who was now inclined to demand an extra fee for returning with them. The boatman alleged that he had been detained beyond "kirk time," and that this imperiling of his salvation could only be compensated by another shilling. To the consul's surprise, this extraordinary argument was recognized by the father, who, however, contented himself by simply contending that it had not been stipulated in the bargain. The issue was, therefore, limited, and the discussion progressed slowly and deliberately, with a certain calm dignity and argumentative satisfaction on both sides that exalted the subject, though it irritated the captain."If ye accept the premisses that I've just laid down, that it's a contract"—-began the boatman. "Dry up! and haul off," said the captain.
"One moment," interposed the consul, with a rapid glance at the slight trouble in the young girl's face. Turning to the father, he went on: "Will you allow me to offer you and your daughter a seat in my boat?"
It was an unlooked-for and tempting proposal. The boatman was lazily lying on his oars, secure in self-righteousness and the conscious possession of the only available boat to shore; on the other hand, the smart gig of the consul, with its four oars, was not only a providential escape from a difficulty, but even to some extent a quasi-official endorsement of his contention. Yet he hesitated.
He proceeded to help his daughter into the boat without any further leave-taking of the passenger, to the consul's great surprise, and with only a parting nod from the young girl. It was as if this momentous incident were a sufficient reason for the absence of any further trivial sentiment.Unfortunately the father chose to add an exordium for the benefit of the astonished boatsman still lying on his oars. "Let this be a lesson to ye, ma frien', when ye're ower sure! Ye'll ne'er say a herrin' is dry until it be reestit an' reekit." "Ay," said the boatman, with a lazy, significant glance at the consul, "it wull be a lesson to me not to trust to a lassie's GANGIN' jo, when thair's anither yin comin'." "Give way," said the consul sharply.
Yet his was the only irritated face in the boat as the men bent over their oars. The young girl and her father looked placidly at the receding ship, and waved their hands to the grave, resigned face over the taffrail. The consul examined them more attentively. The father's face showed intelligence and a certain probity in its otherwise commonplace features. The young girl had more distinction, with, perhaps, more delicacy of outline than of texture. Her hair was dark, with a burnished copper tint at its roots, and eyes that had the same burnished metallic lustre in their brown pupils. Both sat respectfully erect, as if anxious to record the fact that the boat was not their own to take their ease in; and both were silently reserved, answering briefly to the consul's remarks as if to indicate the formality of their presence there. But a distant railway whistle startled them into emotion.
"We've lost the train, father!" said the young girl. The consul followed the direction of her anxious eyes; the train was just quitting the station at Bannock."If ye had not lingered below with Jamie, we'd have been away in time, ay, and in our own boat," said the father, with marked severity. The consul glanced quickly at the girl. But her face betrayed no consciousness, except of their present disappointment.
"There's an excursion boat coming round the Point," he said, pointing to the black smoke trail of a steamer at the entrance of a loch, "and it will be returning to St. Kentigern shortly. If you like, we'll pull over and put you aboard.""Eh! but it's the Sabbath-breaker!" said the old man harshly.
The consul suddenly remembered that that was the name which the righteous St. Kentigerners had given to the solitary bold, bad pleasure-boat that defied their Sabbatical observances.
"Perhaps you won't find very pleasant company on board," said the consul smiling; "but, then, you're not seeking THAT. And as you would be only using the boat to get back to your home, and not for Sunday recreation, I don't think your conscience should trouble you."
"Ay, that's a fine argument, Mr. Consul, but I'm thinkin' it's none the less sopheestry for a' that," said the father grimly. "No; if ye'll just land us yonder at Bannock pier, we'll be ay thankin' ye the same.""But what will you do there? There's no other train to-day." "Ay, we'll walk on a bit."
The consul was silent. After a pause the young girl lifted her clear eyes, and with a half pathetic, half childish politeness, said: "We'll be doing very well—my father and me. You're far too kind."
Nothing further was said as they began to thread their way between a few large ships and an ocean steamer at anchor, from whose decks a few Sunday-clothed mariners gazed down admiringly on the smart gig and the pretty girl in a Tam o' Shanter in its stern sheets. But here a new idea struck the consul. A cable's length ahead lay a yacht, owned by an American friend, and at her stern a steam launch swung to its painter. Without intimating his intention to his passengers he steered for it. "Bow!—way enough," he called out as the boat glided under the yacht's counter, and, grasping the companionladder ropes, he leaped aboard. In a few hurried words he explained the situation to Mr. Robert Gray, her owner, and suggested that he should send the belated passengers to St. Kentigern by the launch. Gray assented with the easy good-nature of youth, wealth, and indolence, and lounged from his cabin to the side. The consul followed. Looking down upon the boat he could not help observing that his fair young passenger, sitting in her demure stillness at her father's side, made a very pretty picture. It was possible that "Bob Gray" had made the same observation, for he presently swung himself over the gangway into the gig, hat in hand. The launch could easily take them; in fact, he added unblushingly, it was even then getting up steam to go to St. Kentigern. Would they kindly come on board until it was ready? At an added word or two of explanation from the consul, the father accepted, preserving the same formal pride and stiffness, and the transfer was made. The consul, looking back as his gig swept round again towards Bannock pier, received their parting salutations, and the first smile he had seen on the face of his grave little passenger. He thought it very sweet and sad.
He did not return to the Consulate at St. Kentigern until the next day. But he was somewhat surprised to find Mr. Robert Gray awaiting him, and upon some business which the young millionaire could have easily deputed to his captain or steward. As he still lingered, the consul pleasantly referred to his generosity on the previous day, and hoped the passengers had given him no trouble."No," said Gray with a slight simulation of carelessness. "In fact I came up with them myself. I had nothing to do; it was Sunday, you know." The consul lifted his eyebrows slightly.
"Yes, I saw them home," continued Gray lightly. "In one of those by-streets not far from here; neat-looking house outside; inside, corkscrew stone staircase like a lighthouse; fourth floor, no lift, but SHE circled up like a swallow! Flat—sitting-room, two bedrooms, and a kitchen—mighty snug and shipshape and pretty as a pink. They OWN it too—fancy OWNING part of a house! Seems to be a way they have here in St. Kentigern." He paused and then added: "Stayed there to a kind of high tea!""Indeed," said the consul.
"Why not? The old man wanted to return my 'hospitality' and square the account! He wasn't going to lie under any obligation to a stranger, and, by Jove! he made it a special point of honor! A Spanish grandee couldn't have been more punctilious. And with an accent, Jerusalem! like a northeaster off the Banks! But the feed was in good taste, and he only a mathematical instrument maker, on about twelve hundred dollars a year!""You seem to know all about him," said the consul smilingly.
"Not so much as he does about me," returned Gray, with a half perplexed face; "for he saw enough to admonish me about my extravagance, and even to intimate that that rascal Saunderson, my steward, was imposing on me. SHE took me to task, too, for not laying the yacht up on Sunday that the men could go 'to kirk,' and for swearing at a bargeman who ran across our bows. It's their perfect simplicity and sincerity in all this that gets me! You'd have thought that the old man was my guardian, and the daughter my aunt." After a pause he uttered a reminiscent laugh. "She thought we ate and drank too much on the yacht, and wondered what we could find to do all day. All this, you know, in the gentlest, caressing sort of voice, as if she was really concerned, like one's own sister. Well, not exactly like mine"—he interrupted himself grimly—"but, hang it all, you know what I mean. You know that our girls over there haven't got THAT trick of voice. Too much self-assertion, I reckon; things made too easy for them by us men. Habit of race, I dare say." He laughed a little. "Why, I mislaid my glove when I was coming away, and it was as good as a play to hear her commiserating and sympathizing, and hunting for it as if it were a lost baby.""But you've seen Scotch girls before this," said the consul. "There were Lady Glairn's daughters, whom you took on a cruise."
"Yes, but the swell Scotch all imitate the English, as everybody else does, for the matter of that, our girls included; and they're all alike. Society makes 'em fit in together like tongued and grooved planks that will take any amount of holy-stoning and polish. It's like dropping into a dead calm, with every rope and spar that you know already reflected back from the smooth water upon you. It's mighty pretty, but it isn't getting on, you know." After a pause he added: "I asked them to take a little holiday cruise with me.""And they declined," interrupted the consul. Gray glanced at him quickly.
"Well, yes; that's all right enough. They don't know me, you see, but they do know you; and the fact is, I was thinking that as you're our consul here, don't you see, and sort of responsible for me, you might say that it was all right, you know. Quite the customary thing with us over there. And you might say, generally, who I am."
"I see," said the consul deliberately. "Tell them you're Bob Gray, with more money and time than you know what to do with; that you have a fine taste for yachting and shooting and racing, and amusing yourself generally; that you find that THEY amuse you, and you would like your luxury and your dollars to stand as an equivalent to their independence and originality; that, being a good republican yourself, and recognizing no distinction of class, you don't care what this may mean to them, who are brought up differently; that after their cruise with you you don't care what life, what friends, or what jealousies they return to; that you know no ties, no responsibilities beyond the present, and that you are not a marrying man.""Look here, I say, aren't you making a little too much of this?" said Gray stiffly. The consul laughed. "I should be glad to know that I am."
Gray rose. "We'll be dropping down the river to-morrow," he said, with a return of his usual lightness, "and I reckon I'll be toddling down to the wharf. Good-bye, if I don't see you again."
He passed out. As the consul glanced from the window he observed, however, that Mr. Gray was "toddling" in quite another direction than the wharf. For an instant he half regretted that he had not suggested, in some discreet way, the conclusion he had arrived at after witnessing the girl's parting with the middle-aged passenger the day before. But he reflected that this was something he had only accidentally overseen, and was the girl's own secret.
When the summer had so waxed in its fullness that the smoke of factory chimneys drifted high, permitting glimpses of fairly blue sky; when the grass in St. Kentigern's proudest park took on a less sober green in the comfortable sun, and even in the thickest shade there was no chilliness, the good St. Kentigerners recognized that the season had arrived to go "down the river," and that it was time for them to betake themselves, with rugs, mackintoshes, and umbrellas, to the breezy lochs and misty hillsides for which the neighborhood of St. Kentigern is justly famous. So when it came to pass that the blinds were down in the highest places, and the most exclusive pavements of St. Kentigern were echoless and desolate, the consul heroically tore himself from the weak delight of basking in the sunshine, and followed the others.
He soon found himself settled at the furthest end of a long narrow loch, made longer and narrower by the steep hillside of rock and heather which flanked its chilly surface on either side, and whose inequalities were lost in the firs and larches that filled ravine and chasm. The fragrant road which ran sinuously through their shadowy depths was invisible from the loch; no protuberance broke the seemingly sheer declivity; the even sky-line was indented in two places—one where it was cracked into a fanciful resemblance to a human profile, the other where it was curved like a bowl. Need it be said that one was distinctly recognized as the silhouette of a prehistoric giant, and that the other was his drinking-cup; need it be added that neither lent the slightest human suggestion to the solitude? A toy-like pier extending into the loch, midway from the barren shore, only heightened the desolation. And when the little steamboat that occasionally entered the loch took away a solitary passenger from the pier-head, the simplest parting was invested with a dreary loneliness that might have brought tears to the most hardened eye.
Still, when the shadow of either hillside was not reaching across the loch, the meridian sun, chancing upon this coy mirror, made the most of it. Then it was that, seen from above, it flashed like a falchion lying between the hills; then its reflected glory, striking up, transfigured the two acclivities, tipped the cold heather with fire, gladdened the funereal pines, and warmed the ascetic rocks. And it was in one of those rare, passionate intervals that the consul, riding along the wooded track and turning his eyes from their splendors, came upon a little house.
It had once been a sturdy cottage, with a grim endurance and inflexibility which even some later and lighter additions had softened rather than changed. On either side of the door, against the bleak whitewashed wall, two tall fuchsias relieved the rigid blankness with a show of color. The windows were prettily draped with curtains caught up with gay ribbons. In a stony pound-like enclosure there was some attempt at floral cultivation, but all quite recent. So, too, were a wicker garden seat, a bright Japanese umbrella, and a tropical hammock suspended between two arctic-looking bushes, which the rude and rigid forefathers of the hamlet would have probably resented.
He had just passed the house when a charming figure slipped across the road before him. To his surprise it was the young girl he had met a few months before on the Skyscraper. But the Tam o' Shanter was replaced by a little straw hat; and a light dress, summery in color and texture, but more in keeping with her rustic surroundings, seemed as grateful and rare as the sunshine. Without knowing why, he had an impression that it was of her own making—a gentle plagiarism of the style of her more fortunate sisters, but with a demure restraint all her own. As she recognized him a faint color came to her cheek, partly from surprise, partly from some association. To his delighted greeting she responded by informing him that her father had taken the cottage he had just passed, where they were spending a three weeks' vacation from his business. It was not so far from St. Kentigern but that he could run up for a day to look after the shop. Did the consul not think it was wise?Quite ready to assent to any sagacity in those clear brown eyes, the consul thought it was. But was it not, like wisdom, sometimes lonely?
Ah! no. There was the loch and the hills and the heather; there were her flowers; did he not think they were growing well? and at the head of the loch there was the old tomb of the McHulishes, and some of the coffins were still to be seen.
Perhaps emboldened by the consul's smile, she added, with a more serious precision which was, however, lost in the sympathizing caress of her voice, "And would you not be getting off and coming in and resting a wee bit before you go further? It would be so good of you, and father would think it so kind. And he will be there now, if you're looking."
The consul looked. The old man was standing in the doorway of the cottage, as respectably uncompromising as ever, with the slight concession to his rural surroundings of wearing a Tam o' Shanter and easy slippers. The consul dismounted and entered. The interior was simply, but tastefully furnished. It struck him that the Scotch prudence and economy, which practically excluded display and meretricious glitter, had reached the simplicity of the truest art and the most refined wealth. He felt he could understand Gray's enthusiasm, and by an odd association of ideas he found himself thinking of the resigned face of the lonely passenger on the Skyscraper."Have you heard any news of your friend who went to Rio?" he asked pleasantly, but without addressing himself particularly to either.
There was a perceptible pause; doubtless of deference to her father on the part of the young girl, and of the usual native conscientious caution on the part of the father, but neither betrayed any embarrassment or emotion. "No; he would not be writing yet," she at length said simply, "he would be waiting until he was settled to his business. Jamie would be waiting until he could say how he was doing, father?" she appealed interrogatively to the old man.
"Ay, James Gow would not fash himself to write compliments and gossip till he knew his position and work," corroborated the old man. "He'll not be going two thousand miles to send us what we can read in the 'St. Kentigern Herald.' But," he added, suddenly, with a recall of cautiousness, "perhaps YOU will be hearing of the ship?"
"The consul will not be remembering what he hears of all the ships," interposed the young girl, with the same gentle affectation of superior worldly knowledge which had before amused him. "We'll be wearying him, father," and the subject dropped.
The consul, glancing around the room again, but always returning to the sweet and patient seriousness of the young girl's face and the grave decorum of her father, would have liked to ask another question, but it was presently anticipated; for when he had exhausted the current topics, in which both father and daughter displayed a quiet sagacity, and he had gathered a sufficient knowledge of their character to seem to justify Gray's enthusiasm, and was rising to take his leave, the young girl said timidly:—
"Would ye not let Bessie take your horse to the grass field over yonder, and yourself stay with us to dinner? It would be most kind, and you would meet a great friend of yours who will be here.""Mr. Gray?" suggested the consul audaciously. Yet he was greatly surprised when the young girl said quietly, "Ay."
"He'll be coming in the loch with his yacht," said the old man. "It's not so expensive lying here as at Bannock, I'm thinking; and the men cannot gang ashore for drink. Eh, but it's an awful waste o' pounds, shillings, and pence, keeping these gowks in idleness with no feeshin' nor carrying of passengers."
"Ay, but it's better Mr. Gray should pay them for being decent and well-behaved on board his ship, than that they should be out of work and rioting in taverns and lodging-houses. And you yourself, father, remember the herrin' fishers that come ashore at Ardie, and the deck hands of the excursion boat, and the language they'll be using.""Have you had a cruise in the yacht?" asked the consul quickly.
"Ay," said the father, "we have been up and down the loch, and around the far point, but not for boardin' or lodgin' the night, nor otherwise conteenuing or parteecipating. I have explained to Mr. Gray that we must return to our own home and our own porridge at evening, and he has agreed, and even come with us. He's a decent enough lad, and not above instructin', but extraordinar' extravagant."
"Ye know, father," interposed the young girl, "he talks of fitting up the yacht for the fishing, and taking some of his most decent men on shares. He says he was very fond of fishing off the Massachusetts coast, in America. It will be, I'm thinking," she said, suddenly turning to the consul with an almost pathetic appeal in her voice, "a great occupation for the rich young men over there."
The consul, desperately struggling with a fanciful picture of Mr. Robert Gray as a herring fisher, thought gravely that it "might be." But he thought still more gravely, though silently, of this singular companion ship, and was somewhat anxious to confront his friend with his new acquaintances. He had not long to wait. The sun was just dipping behind the hill when the yacht glided into the lonely loch. A boat was put off, and in a few moments Robert Gray was climbing the little path from the loch.
Had the consul expected any embarrassment or lover-like consciousness on the face of Mr. Gray at their unexpected meeting, he would have been disappointed. Nor was the young man's greeting of father and daughter, whom he addressed as Mr. and Miss Callender, marked by any tenderness or hesitation. On the contrary, a certain seriousness and quiet reticence, unlike Gray, which might have been borrowed from his new friends, characterized his speech and demeanor. Beyond this freemasonry of sad repression there was no significance of look or word passed between these two young people. The girl's voice retained its even pathos. Gray's grave politeness was equally divided between her and her father. He corroborated what Callender had said of his previous visits without affectation or demonstration; he spoke of the possibilities of his fitting up the yacht for the fishing season with a practical detail and economy that left the consul's raillery ineffective. Even when, after dinner, the consul purposely walked out in the garden with the father, Gray and Ailsa presently followed them without lingering or undue precipitation, and with no change of voice or manner. The consul was perplexed. Had the girl already told Gray of her lover across the sea, and was this singular restraint their joint acceptance of their fate; or was he mistaken in supposing that their relations were anything more than the simple friendship of patron and protegee? Gray was rich enough to indulge in such a fancy, and the father and daughter were too proud to ever allow it to influence their own independence. In any event the consul's right to divulge the secret he was accidentally possessed of seemed more questionable than ever. Nor did there appear to be any opportunity for a confidential talk with Gray, since it was proposed that the whole party should return to the yacht for supper, after which the consul should be dropped at the pier-head, distant only a few minutes from his hotel, and his horse sent to him the next day.
A faint moon was shimmering along the surface of Loch Dour in icy little ripples when they pulled out from the shadows of the hillside. By the accident of position, Gray, who was steering, sat beside Ailsa in the stern, while the consul and Mr. Callender were further forward, although within hearing. The faces of the young people were turned towards each other, yet in the cold moonlight the consul fancied they looked as impassive and unemotional as statues. The few distant, far-spaced lights that trembled on the fading shore, the lonely glitter of the water, the blackness of the pine-clad ravines seemed to be a part of this repression, until the vast melancholy of the lake appeared to meet and overflow them like an advancing tide. Added to this, there came from time to time the faint sound and smell of the distant, desolate sea.The consul, struggling manfully to keep up a spasmodic discussion on Scotch diminutives in names, found himself mechanically saying: "And James you call Jamie?" "Ay; but ye would say, to be pure Scotch, 'Hamish,'" said Mr. Callender precisely. The girl, however, had not spoken; but Gray turned to her with something of his old gayety. "And I suppose you would call me 'Robbie'?" "Ah, no!" "What then?" "Robin."
Her voice was low yet distinct, but she had thrown into the two syllables such infinite tenderness, that the consul was for an instant struck with an embarrassment akin to that he had felt in the cabin of the Skyscraper, and half expected the father to utter a shocked protest. And to save what he thought would be an appalling silence, he said with a quiet laugh:—"That's the fellow who 'made the assembly shine' in the song, isn't it?" "That was Robin Adair," said Gray quietly; "unfortunately I would only be 'Robin Gray,' and that's quite another song." "AULD Robin Gray, sir, deestinctly 'auld' in the song," interrupted Mr. Callender with stern precision; "and I'm thinking he was not so very unfortunate either."
The discussion of Scotch diminutives halting here, the boat sped on silently to the yacht. But although Robert Gray, as host, recovered some of his usual lightheartedness, the consul failed to discover anything in his manner to indicate the lover, nor did Miss Ailsa after her single lapse of tender accent exhibit the least consciousness. It was true that their occasional frank allusions to previous conversations seemed to show that their opportunities had not been restricted, but nothing more. He began again to think he was mistaken.
As he wished to return early, and yet not hasten the Callenders, he prevailed upon Gray to send him to the pier-head first, and not disturb the party. As he stepped into the boat, something in the appearance of the coxswain awoke an old association in his mind. The man at first seemed to avoid his scrutiny, but when they were well away from the yacht, he said hesitatingly:—
"I see you remember me, sir. But if it's all the same to you, I've got a good berth here and would like to keep it."
The consul had a flash of memory. It was the boatswain of the Skyscraper, one of the least objectionable of the crew. "But what are you doing here? you shipped for the voyage," he said sharply."Yes, but I got away at Key West, when I knew what was coming. I wasn't on her when she was abandoned." "Abandoned!" repeated the consul. "What the d—-l! Do you mean to say she was wrecked?"
"Well, yes—you know what I mean, sir. It was an understood thing. She was overinsured and scuttled in the Bahamas. It was a put-up job, and I reckoned I was well out of it.""But there was a passenger! What of him?" demanded the consul anxiously.
"Dnnno! But I reckon he got away. There wasn't any of the crew lost that I know of. Let's see, he was an engineer, wasn't he? I reckon he had to take a hand at the pumps, and his chances with the rest.""Does Mr. Gray know of this?" asked the consul after a pause. The man stared. "Not from me, sir. You see it was nothin' to him, and I didn't care talking much about the Skyscraper. It was hushed up in the papers. You won't go back on me, sir?" "You don't know what became of the passenger?" "No! But he was a Scotchman, and they're bound to fall on their feet somehow!" III.
The December fog that overhung St. Kentigern had thinned sufficiently to permit the passage of a few large snowflakes, soiled in their descent, until in color and consistency they spotted the steps of the Consulate and the umbrellas of the passers-by like sprinklings of gray mortar. Nevertheless the consul thought the streets preferable to the persistent gloom of his office, and sallied out. Youthful mercantile St. Kentigern strode sturdily past him in the lightest covert coats; collegiate St. Kentigern fluttered by in the scantiest of red gowns, shaming the furs that defended his more exotic blood; and the bare red feet of a few factory girls, albeit their heads and shoulders were draped and hooded in thick shawls, filled him with a keen sense of his effeminacy. Everything of earth, air, and sky, and even the faces of those he looked upon, seemed to be set in the hard, patient endurance of the race. Everywhere on that dismal day, he fancied he could see this energy without restlessness, this earnestness without geniality, all grimly set against the hard environment of circumstance and weather.
The consul turned into one of the main arteries of St. Kentigern, a wide street that, however, began and ended inconsequently, and with half a dozen social phases in as many blocks. Here the snow ceased, the fog thickened suddenly with the waning day, and the consul found himself isolated and cut off on a block which he did not remember, with the clatter of an invisible tramway in his ears. It was a block of small houses with smaller shop-fronts. The one immediately before him seemed to be an optician's, but the dimly lighted windows also displayed the pathetic reinforcement of a few watches, cheap jewelry on cards, and several cairngorm brooches and pins set in silver. It occurred to him that he wanted a new watch crystal, and that he would procure it here and inquire his way. Opening the door he perceived that there was no one in the shop, but from behind the counter another open door disclosed a neat sitting-room, so close to the street that it gave the casual customer the sensation of having intruded upon domestic privacy. The consul's entrance tinkled a small bell which brought a figure to the door. It was Ailsa Callender.
The consul was startled. He had not seen her since he had brought to their cottage the news of the shipwreck with a precaution and delicacy that their calm self-control and patient resignation, however, seemed to make almost an impertinence. But this was no longer the handsome shop in the chief thoroughfare with its two shopmen, which he previously knew as "Callender's." And Ailsa here! What misfortune had befallen them?
Whatever it was, there was no shadow of it in her clear eyes and frank yet timid recognition of him. Falling in with her stoical and reticent acceptance of it, he nevertheless gathered that the Callenders had lost money in some invention which James Gow had taken with him to Rio, but which was sunk in the ship. With this revelation of a business interest in what he had believed was only a sentimental relation, the consul ventured to continue his inquiries. Mr. Gow had escaped with his life and had reached Honduras, where he expected to try his fortunes anew. It might be a year or two longer before there were any results. Did the consul know anything of Honduras? There was coffee there—so she and her father understood. All this with little hopefulness, no irritation, but a divine patience in her eyes. The consul, who found that his watch required extensive repairing, and had suddenly developed an inordinate passion for cairngorms, watched her as she opened the show-case with no affectation of unfamiliarity with her occupation, but with all her old serious concern. Surely she would have made as thorough a shop-girl as she would—His half-formulated thought took the shape of a question."Have you seen Mr. Gray since his return from the Mediterranean?"
Ah! one of the brooches had slipped from her fingers to the bottom of the case. There was an interval or two of pathetic murmuring, with her fair head under the glass, before she could find it; then she lifted her eyes to the consul. They were still slightly suffused with her sympathetic concern. The stone, which was set in a thistle—the national emblem— did he not know it?—had dropped out. But she could put it in. It was pretty and not expensive. It was marked twelve shillings on the card, but he could have it for ten shillings. No, she had not seen Mr. Gray since they had lost their fortune. (It struck the consul as none the less pathetic that she seemed really to believe in their former opulence.) They could not be seeing him there in a small shop, and they could not see him elsewhere. It was far better as it was. Yet she paused a moment when she had wrapped up the brooch. "You'd be seeing him yourself some time?" she added gently."Perhaps."
"Then you'll not mind saying how my father and myself are sometimes thinking of his goodness and kindness," she went on, in a voice whose tenderness seemed to increase with the formal precision of her speech."Certainly." "And you'll say we're not forgetting him." "I promise." As she handed him the parcel her lips softly parted in what might have been equally a smile or a sigh.
He was able to keep his promise sooner than he had imagined. It was only a few weeks later that, arriving in London, he found Gray's hatbox and bag in the vestibule of his club, and that gentleman himself in the smoking-room. He looked tanned and older."I only came from Southampton an hour ago, where I left the yacht. And," shaking the consul's hand cordially, "how's everything and everybody up at old St. Kentigern?"
The consul thought fit to include his news of the Callenders in reference to that query, and with his eyes fixed on Gray dwelt at some length on their change of fortune. Gray took his cigar from his mouth, but did not lift his eyes from the fire. Presently he said, "I suppose that's why Callender declined to take the shares I offered him in the fishing scheme. You know I meant it, and would have done it.""Perhaps he had other reasons." "What do you mean?" said Gray, facing the consul suddenly. "Look here, Gray," said the consul, "did Miss Callender or her father ever tell you she was engaged?"
"Yes; but what's that to do with it?" "A good deal. Engagements, you know, are sometimes forced, unsuitable, or unequal, and are broken by circumstances. Callender is proud."
Gray turned upon the consul the same look of gravity that he had worn on the yacht—the same look that the consul even fancied he had seen in Ailsa's eyes. "That's exactly where you're mistaken in her," he said slowly. "A girl like that gives her word and keeps it. She waits, hopes, accepts what may come—breaks her heart, if you will, but not her word. Come, let's talk of something else. How did he—that man Gow—lose Callender's money?"
The consul did not see the Callenders again on his return, and perhaps did not think it necessary to report the meeting. But one morning he was delighted to find an official document from New York upon his desk, asking him to communicate with David Callender of St. Kentigern, and, on proof of his identity, giving him authority to draw the sum of five thousand dollars damages awarded for the loss of certain property on the Skyscraper, at the request of James Gow. Yet it was with mixed sensations that the consul sought the little shop of the optician with this convincing proof of Gow's faithfulness and the indissolubility of Ailsa's engagement. That there was some sad understanding between the girl and Gray he did not doubt, and perhaps it was not strange that he felt a slight partisanship for his friend, whose nature had so strangely changed. Miss Ailsa was not there. Her father explained that her health had required a change, and she was visiting some friends on the river.
"I'm thinkin' that the atmosphere is not so pure here. It is deficient in ozone. I noticed it myself in the early morning. No! it was not the confinement of the shop, for she never cared to go out."
He received the announcement of his good fortune with unshaken calm and great practical consideration of detail. He would guarantee his identity to the consul. As for James Gow, it was no more than fair; and what he had expected of him. As to its being an equivalent of his loss, he could not tell until the facts were before him."Miss Ailsa," suggested the consul venturously, "will be pleased to hear again from her old friend, and know that he is succeeding."
"I'm not so sure that ye could call it 'succeeding,'" returned the old man, carefully wiping the glasses of a pair of spectacles that he held critically to the light, "when ye consider that, saying nothing of the waste of valuable time, it only puts James Gow back where he was when he went away."
"But any man who has had the pleasure of knowing Mr. and Miss Callender would be glad to be on that footing," said the consul, with polite significance.
"I'm not agreeing with you there," said Mr. Callender quietly; "and I'm observing in ye of late a tendency to combine business wi' compleement. But it was kind of ye to call; and I'll be sending ye the authorization."
Which he did. But the consul, passing through the locality a few weeks later, was somewhat concerned to find the shop closed, with others on the same block, behind a hoarding that indicated rebuilding and improvement. Further inquiry elicited the fact that the small leases had been bought up by some capitalist, and that Mr. Callender, with the others, had benefited thereby. But there was no trace nor clew to his present locality. He and his daughter seemed to have again vanished with this second change in their fortunes.
It was a late March morning when the streets were dumb with snow, and the air was filled with flying granulations that tinkled against the windows of the Consulate like fairy sleigh-bells, when there was the stamping of snow-clogged feet in the outer hall, and the door was opened to Mr. and Miss Callender. For an instant the consul was startled. The old man appeared as usual—erect, and as frigidly respectable as one of the icicles that fringed the window, but Miss Ailsa was, to his astonishment, brilliant with a new-found color, and sparkling with health and only half-repressed animation. The snow-flakes, scarcely melting on the brown head of this true daughter of the North, still crowned her hood; and, as she threw back her brown cloak and disclosed a plump little scarlet jacket and brown skirt, the consul could not resist her suggested likeness to some bright-eyed robin redbreast, to whom the inclement weather had given a charming audacity. And shy and demure as she still was, it was evident that some change had been wrought in her other than that evoked by the stimulus of her native sky and air.
To his eager questioning, the old man replied briefly that he had bought the old cottage at Loch Dour, where they were living, and where he had erected a small manufactory and laboratory for the making of his inventions, which had become profitable. The consul reiterated his delight at meeting them again.
"I'm not so sure of that, sir, when you know the business on which I come," said Mr. Callender, dropping rigidly into a chair, and clasping his hands over the crutch of a shepherd-like staff. "Ye mind, perhaps, that ye conveyed to me, osteensibly at the request of James Gow, a certain sum of money, for which I gave ye a good and sufficient guarantee. I thought at the time that it was a most feckless and unbusiness-like proceeding on the part of James, as it was without corroboration or advice by letter; but I took the money."
"Do you mean to say that he made no allusion to it in his other letters?" interrupted the consul, glancing at Ailsa.
"There were no other letters at the time," said Callender dryly. "But about a month afterwards we DID receive a letter from him enclosing a draft and a full return of the profits of the invention, which HE HAD SOLD IN HONDURAS. Ye'll observe the deescrepancy! I then wrote to the bank on which I had drawn as you authorized me, and I found that they knew nothing of any damages awarded, but that the sum I had drawn had been placed to my credit by Mr. Robert Gray."
In a flash the consul recalled the one or two questions that Gray had asked him, and saw it all. For an instant he felt the whole bitterness of Gray's misplaced generosity—its exposure and defeat. He glanced again hopelessly at Ailsa. In the eye of that fresh, glowing, yet demure, young goddess, unhallowed as the thought might be, there was certainly a distinctly tremulous wink.
The consul took heart. "I believe I need not say, Mr. Callender," he began with some stiffness, "that this is as great a surprise to me as to you. I had no reason to believe the transaction other than bona fide, and acted accordingly. If my friend, deeply sympathizing with your previous misfortune, has hit upon a delicate, but unbusiness-like way of assisting you temporarily—I say TEMPORARILY, because it must have been as patent to him as to you, that you would eventually find out his generous deceit—you surely can forgive him for the sake of his kind intention. Nay, more; may I point out to you that you have no right to assume that this benefaction was intended exclusively for you; if Mr. Gray, in his broader sympathy with you and your daughter, has in this way chosen to assist and strengthen the position of a gentleman so closely connected with you, but still struggling with hard fortune"—
"I'd have ye know, sir," interrupted the old man, rising to his feet, "that ma frien' Mr. James Gow is as independent of yours as he is of me and mine. He has married, sir, a Mrs. Hernandez, the rich widow of a coffee-planter, and now is the owner of the whole estate, minus the encumbrance of three children. And now, sir, you'll take this,"—he drew from his pocket an envelope. "It's a draft for five thousand dollars, with the ruling rate of interest computed from the day I received it till this day, and ye'll give it to your frien' when ye see him. And ye'll just say to him from me"—
But Miss Ailsa, with a spirit and independence that challenged her father's, here suddenly fluttered between them with sparkling eyes and outstretched hands.
"And ye'll say to him from ME that a more honorable, noble, and generous man, and a kinder, truer, and better friend than he, cannot be found anywhere! And that the foolishest and most extravagant thing he ever did is better than the wisest and most prudent thing that anybody else ever did, could, or would do! And if he was a bit overproud—it was only because those about him were overproud and foolish. And you'll tell him that we're wearying for him! And when you give him that daft letter from father you'll give him this bit line from me," she went on rapidly as she laid a tiny note in his hand. "And," with wicked dancing eyes that seemed to snap the last bond of repression, "ye'll give him THAT too, and say I sent it!"
There was a stir in the official apartment! The portraits of Lincoln and Washington rattled uneasily in their frames; but it was no doubt only a discreet blast of the north wind that drowned the echo of a kiss."Ailsa!" gasped the shocked Mr. Callender. "Ah! but, father, if it had not been for HIM we would not have known Robin." It was the last that the consul saw of Ailsa Callender; for the next summer when he called at Loch Dour she was Mrs. Gray.
The Sheriff Of SiskyouI.
On the fifteenth of August, 1854, what seemed to be the entire population of Wynyard's Bar was collected upon a little bluff which overlooked the rude wagon road that was the only approach to the settlement. In general appearance the men differed but little from ordinary miners, although the foreign element, shown in certain Spanish peculiarities of dress and color, predominated, and some of the men were further distinguished by the delicacy of education and sedentary pursuits. Yet Wynyard's Bar was a city of refuge, comprised among its inhabitants a number who were "wanted" by the State authorities, and its actual attitude at that moment was one of open rebellion against the legal power, and of particular resistance to the apprehension by warrant of one of its prominent members. This gentleman, Major Overstone, then astride of a gray mustang, and directing the movements of the crowd, had, a few days before, killed the sheriff of Siskyou county, who had attempted to arrest him for the double offense of misappropriating certain corporate funds of the State and the shooting of the editor who had imprudently exposed him. The lesser crime of homicide might have been overlooked by the authorities, but its repetition upon the body of their own over-zealous and misguided official could not pass unchallenged if they expected to arrest Overstone for the more serious offense against property. So it was known that a new sheriff had been appointed and was coming to Wynyard's Bar with an armed posse. But it was also understood that this invasion would be resisted by the Bar to its last man.
All eyes were turned upon a fringe of laurel and butternut that encroached upon the road half a mile away, where it seemed that such of the inhabitants who were missing from the bluff were hidden to give warning or retard the approach of the posse. A gray haze, slowly rising between the fringe and the distant hillside, was recognized as the dust of a cavalcade passing along the invisible highway. In the hush of expectancy that followed, the irregular clatter of hoofs, the sharp crack of a rifle, and a sudden halt were faintly audible. The men, scattered in groups on the bluff, exchanged a smile of grim satisfaction.
Not so their leader! A quick start and an oath attracted attention to him. To their surprise he was looking in another direction, but as they looked too they saw and understood the cause. A file of horsemen, hitherto undetected, were slowly passing along the little ridge on their right. Their compact accoutrements and the yellow braid on their blue jackets, distinctly seen at that distance, showed them to be a detachment of United States cavalry.
Before the assemblage could realize this new invasion, a nearer clatter of hoofs was heard along the high road, and one of the ambuscading party dashed up from the fringe of woods below. His face was flushed, but triumphant.
"A reg'lar skunk—by the living hokey!" he panted, pointing to the faint haze that was again slowly rising above the invisible road. "They backed down as soon as they saw our hand, and got a hole through their new sheriff's hat. But what are you lookin' at? What's up?"The leader impatiently pointed with a darkening face to the distant file. "Reg'lars, by gum!" ejaculated the other. "But Uncle Sam ain't in this game. Wot right have THEY"— "Dry up!" said the leader.
The detachment was now moving at right angles with the camp, but suddenly halted, almost doubling upon itself in some evident commotion. A dismounted figure was seen momentarily flying down the hillside dodging from bush to bush until lost in the underbrush. A dozen shots were fired over its head, and then the whole detachment wheeled and came clattering down the trail in the direction of the camp. A single riderless horse, evidently that of the fugitive, followed."Spread yourselves along the ridge, every man of you, and cover them as they enter the gulch!" shouted the leader. "But not a shot until I give the word. Scatter!"
The assemblage dispersed like a startled village of prairie dogs, squatting behind every available bush and rock along the line of bluff. The leader alone trotted quietly to the head of the gulch.
The nine cavalrymen came smartly up in twos, a young officer leading. The single figure of Major Overstone opposed them with a command to halt. Looking up, the young officer drew rein, said a word to his file leader, and the four files closed in a compact square motionless on the road. The young officer's unsworded hand hung quietly at his thigh, the men's unslung carbines rested easily on their saddles. Yet at that moment every man of them knew that they were covered by a hundred rifles and shot guns leveled from every bush, and that they were caught helplessly in a trap.
"Since when," said Major Overstone with an affectation of tone and manner different from that in which he had addressed his previous companions, "have the Ninth United States Cavalry helped to serve a State court's pettifogging process?"
"We are hunting a deserter—a half-breed agent—who has just escaped us," returned the officer. His voice was boyish—so, too, was his figure in its slim, cadet-like smartness of belted tunic—but very quiet and level, although his face was still flushed with the shock and shame of his surprise.
The relaxation of relief went through the wrought and waiting camp. The soldiers were not seeking THEM. Ready as these desperate men had been to do their leader's bidding, they were well aware that a momentary victory over the troopers would not pass unpunished, and meant the ultimate dispersion of the camp. And quiet as these innocent invaders seemed to be they would no doubt sell their lives dearly. The embattled desperadoes glanced anxiously at their leader; the soldiers, on the contrary, looked straight before them.
"Process or no process," said Major Overstone with a sneer, "you've come to the last place to recover your deserter. We don't give up men in Wynyard's Bar. And they didn't teach you at the Academy, sir, to stop to take prisoners when you were outflanked and outnumbered."
"Bedad! They didn't teach YOU, Captain Overstone, to engage a battery at Cerro Gordo with a half company, but you did it; more shame to you now, sorr, commandin' the thayves and ruffians you do.""Silence!" said the young officer.
The sleeve of the sergeant who had spoken—with the chevrons of long service upon it— went up to a salute, and dropped again over his carbine as he stared stolidly before him. But his shot had told. A flush of mingled pride and shame passed over Overstone's face."Oh! it's YOU, Murphy," he said with an affected laugh, "and you haven't improved with your stripes." The young officer turned his head slightly. "Attention!"
"One moment more," said Overstone coming forward. "I have told you that we don't give up any man who seeks our protection. But," he added with a half-careless, halfcontemptuous wave of his hand, and a significant glance at his followers, "we don't prevent you from seeking him. The road is clear; the camp is before you."The young officer continued without looking at him. "Forward—in two files—open order. Ma-arch!"
The little troop moved forward, passed Major Overstone at the head of the gully, and spread out on the hillside. The assembled camp, still armed, lounging out of ambush here and there, ironically made way for them to pass. A few moments of this farcical quest, and a glance at the impenetrably wooded heights around, apparently satisfied the young officer, and he turned his files again into the gully. Major Overstone was still lingering there.
"I hope you are satisfied," he said grimly. He then paused, and in a changed and more hesitating voice added: "I am an older soldier than you, sir, but I am always glad to make the acquaintance of West Point." He paused and held out his hand.
West Point, still red and rigid, glanced at him with bright clear eyes under light lashes and the peak of a smartly cocked cap, looked coolly at the proffered hand, raised his own to a stiff salute, said, "Good afternoon, sir," and rode away.
The cabin of Major Overstone differed outwardly but little from those of his companions. It was the usual structure of logs, laid lengthwise, and rudely plastered at each point of contact with adobe, the material from which the chimney, which entirely occupied one gable, was built. It was pierced with two windows and a door, roofed with smaller logs, and thatched with long half cylinders of spruce bark. But the interior gave certain indications of the distinction as well as the peculiar experiences of its occupant. In place of the usual bunk or berth built against the wall stood a small folding camp bedstead, and upon a rude deal table that held a tin wash-basin and pail lay two ivory-handled brushes, combs, and other elegant toilet articles, evidently the contents of the major's dressingbag. A handsome leather trunk occupied one corner, with a richly caparisoned silvermounted Mexican saddle, a mahogany case of dueling pistols, a leather hat-box, locked and strapped, and a gorgeous gold and quartz handled ebony "presentation" walking stick. There was a certain dramatic suggestion in this revelation of the sudden and hurried transition from a life of ostentatious luxury to one of hidden toil and privation, and a further significance in the slow and gradual distribution and degradation of these elegant souvenirs. A pair of silver boot-hooks had been used for raking the hearth and lifting the coffee kettle; the ivory of the brushes was stained with coffee; the cut-glass bottles had lost their stoppers, and had been utilized for vinegar and salt; a silver-framed hand mirror hung against the blackened wall. For the major's occupancy was the sequel of a hurried flight from his luxurious hotel at Sacramento—a transfer that he believed was only temporary until the affair blew over, and he could return in safety to brow-beat his accusers, as was his wont. But this had not been so easy as he had imagined; his prosecutors were bitter, and his enforced seclusion had been prolonged week by week until the fracas which ended in the shooting of the sheriff had apparently closed the door upon his return to civilization forever. Only here was his life and person secure. For Wynyard's Bar had quickly succumbed to the domination of his reckless courage, and the eminence of his double crime had made him respected among spendthrifts, gamblers, and gentlemen whose performances had never risen above a stage-coach robbery or a single assassination. Even criticism of his faded luxuries had been delicately withheld.
He was leaning over his open trunk—which the camp popularly supposed to contain State bonds and securities of fabulous amount—and had taken some letters from it, when a figure darkened the doorway. He looked up, laying his papers carelessly aside. WITHIN Wynyard's Bar property was sacred.
It was the late fugitive. Although some hours had already elapsed since his arrival in camp, and he had presumably refreshed himself inwardly, his outward appearance was still disheveled and dusty. Brier and milkweed clung to his frayed blouse and trousers. What could be seen of the skin of his face and hands under its stains and begriming was of a dull yellow. His light eyes had all the brightness without the restlessness of the mongrel race. They leisurely took in the whole cabin, the still open trunk before the major, and then rested deliberately on the major himself."Well," said Major Overstone abruptly, "what brought you here?" "Same as brought you, I reckon," responded the man almost as abruptly. The major knew something of the half-breed temper, and neither the retort nor its tone affected him. "You didn't come here just because you deserted," said the major coolly. "You've been up to something else." "I have," said the man with equal coolness. "I thought so. Now, you understand you can't try anything of that kind HERE. If you do, up you go on the first tree. That's Rule 1." "I see you ain't pertickler about waiting for the sheriff here, you fellers." The major glanced at him quickly. He seemed to be quite unconscious of any irony in his remark, and continued grimly, "And what's Rule 2?"
"I reckon you needn't trouble yourself beyond No. 1," returned the major with dry significance. Nevertheless, he opened a rude cupboard in the corner and brought out a rich silver-mounted cut-glass drinking-flask, which he handed to the stranger."I say," said the half-breed, admiringly, "yours?" "Certainly." "Certainly NOW, but BEFORE, eh?" Rule No. 2 may have indicated that references to the past held no dishonor. The major, although accustomed to these pleasantries, laughed a little harshly. "Mine always," he said. "But you don't drink?" The half-breed's face darkened under its grime. "Wot you're givin' us? I've been filled chock up by Simpson over thar. I reckon I know when I've got a load on." "Were you ever in Sacramento?" "Yes." "When?" "Last week." "Did you hear anything about me?" The half-breed glanced through his tangled hair at the major in some wonder, not only at the question, but at the almost childish eagerness with which it was asked. "I didn't hear much of anything else," he answered grimly. "And—what did they SAY?" "Said you'd got to be TOOK anyhow! They allowed the new sheriff would do it too."
The major laughed. "Well, you heard HOW the new sheriff did it—skunked away with his whole posse before one-eighth of my men! You saw how the rest of this camp held up your nine troopers, and that sap-headed cub of a lieutenant—didn't you? You wouldn't have been standing here if you hadn't. No; there isn't the civil process nor the civil power in all California that can take me out of this camp."
But neither his previous curiosity nor present bravado seemed to impress the ragged stranger with much favor. He glanced sulkily around the cabin and began to shuffle towards the door.
"Stop! Where are you going to? Sit down. I want to talk to you." The fugitive hesitated for a moment, and then dropped ungraciously on the edge of a camp-stool near the door. The major looked at him."I may have to remind you that I run this camp, and the boys hereabouts do pretty much as I say. What's your name?" "Tom." "Tom? Well, look here, Tom! D—n it all! Can't you see that when a man is stuck here alone, as I am, he wants to know what's going on outside, and hear a little fresh talk?"
The singular weakness of this blended command and appeal apparently struck the fugitive curiously. He fixed his lowering eyes on the major as if in gloomy doubt if he were really the reckless desperado he had been represented. That this man—twice an assassin and the ruler of outlaws as reckless as himself—should approach him in this half-confidential way evidently puzzled him."Wot you wanter know?" he asked gruffly. "Well, what's my party saying or doing about me?" said the major impatiently. "What's the 'Express' saying about me?" "I reckon they're throwing off on you all round; they allow you never represented the party, but worked for yourself," said the man shortly.
Here the major lashed out. A set of traitors and hirelings! He had bought and paid for them all! He had sunk two thousand dollars in the "Express" and saved the editor from being horsewhipped and jailed for libel! Half the cursed bonds that they were making such a blanked fuss about were handled by these hypocrites—blank them! They were a low-lived crew of thieves and deserters! It is presumed that the major had forgotten himself in this infelicitous selection of epithets, but the stranger's face only relaxed into a grim smile. More than that, the major had apparently forgotten his desire to hear his guest talk, for he himself at once launched into an elaborate exposition of his own affairs and a specious and equally elaborate defense and justification of himself and denunciation of his accusers. For nearly half an hour he reviewed step by step and detail by detail the charges against him—with plausible explanation and sophistical argument, but always with a singular prolixity and reiteration that spoke of incessant self-consciousness and self-abstraction. Of that dashing self-sufficiency which had dazzled his friends and awed his enemies there was no trace! At last, even the set smile of the degraded recipient of these confidences darkened with a dull, bewildered disgust. Then, to his relief, a step was heard without. The major's manner instantly changed."Well?" he demanded impatiently, as Dawson entered. "I came to know what you want done with HIM," said Dawson, indicating the fugitive with a contemptuous finger. "Take him to your cabin!" "My cabin! HIM?" ejaculated Dawson, turning sharply on his chief.
The major's light eyes contracted and his thin lips became a straight line. "I don't think you understand me, Dawson, and another time you'd better wait until I'm done. I want you to take him to your cabin—and then CLEAR OUT OF IT YOURSELF. You understand? I want him NEAR ME AND ALONE!"III.
Dawson was not astonished the next morning to see Major Overstone and the half-breed walking together down the gully road, for he had already come to the conclusion that the major was planning some extraordinary reprisals against the invaders, that would ensure the perpetual security of the camp. That he should use so insignificant and unimportant a tool now appeared to him to be quite natural, particularly as the service was probably one in which the man would be sacrificed. "The major," he suggested to his companions, "ain't going to risk a white man's skin, when he can get an Injun's hide handy."
The reluctant hesitating step of the half-breed as they walked along seemed to give some color to this hypothesis. He listened sullenly to the major as he pointed out the strategic position of the Bar. "That wagon road is the only approach to Wynyard's, and a dozen men along the rocks could hold it against a hundred. The trail that you came by, over the ridge, drops straight into this gully, and you saw what that would mean to any blanked fools who might try it. Of course we could be shelled from that ridge if the sheriff had a howitzer, or the men who knew how to work one, but even then we could occupy the ridge before them." He paused a moment and then added: "I used to be in the army, Tom; I saw service in Mexico before that cub you got away from had his first trousers. I was brought up as a gentleman—blank it all—and HERE I am!"
The man slouched on by his side, casting his surly, furtive glances from left to right, as if seeking to escape from these confidences. Nevertheless, the major kept on through the gully, until reaching the wagon road they crossed it, and began to ascend the opposite slope, half hidden by the underbrush and larches. Here the major paused again and faced about. The cabins of the settlement were already behind the bluff; the little stream which indicated the "bar"—on which some perfunctory mining was still continued—now and then rang out quite clearly at their feet, although the bar itself had disappeared. The sounds of occupation and labor had at last died away in the distance. They were quite alone. The major sat down on a boulder, and pointed to another. The man, however, remained sullenly standing where he was, as if to accent as strongly as possible the enforced companionship. Either the major was too self-absorbed to notice it, or accepted it as a satisfactory characteristic of the half-breed's race. He continued confidently:—
"Now look here, Tom. I want to leave this cursed hole, and get clear out of the State! Anywhere; over the Oregon line into British Columbia, or to the coast, where I can get a coasting vessel down to Mexico. It will cost money, but I've got it. It will cost a lot of risks, but I'll take them. I want somebody to help me, some one to share risks with me, and some one to share my luck if I succeed. Help to put me on the other side of the border line, by sea or land, and I'll give you a thousand dollars down BEFORE WE START and a thousand dollars when I'm safe."
The half-breed had changed his slouching attitude. It seemed more indolent on account of the loosely hanging strap that had once held his haversack, which was still worn in a slovenly fashion over his shoulder as a kind of lazy sling for his shiftless hand.
"Well, Tom, is it a go? You can trust ME, for you'll have the thousand in your pocket before you start. I can trust YOU, for I'll kill you quicker than lightning if you say a word of this to any one before I go, or play a single trick on me afterwards."
Suddenly the two men were rolling over and over in the underbrush. The half-breed had thrown himself upon the major, bearing him down to the ground. The haversack strap for an instant whirled like the loop of a lasso in the air, and descended over the major's shoulders, pinioning his arms to his side. Then the half-breed, tearing open his ragged blouse, stripped off his waist-belt, and as dexterously slipped it over the ankles of the struggling man.It was all over in a moment. Neither had spoken a word. Only their rapid panting broke the profound silence. Each probably knew that no outcry would be overheard.
For the first time the half-breed sat down. But there was no trace of triumph or satisfaction in his face, which wore the same lowering look of disgust, as he gazed upon the prostrate man.
"I want to tell you first," he said, slowly wiping his face, "that I didn't kalkilate upon doin' this in this yer kind o' way. I expected more of a stan' up fight from you—more risk in gettin' you out o' that hole—and a different kind of a man to tackle. I never expected you to play into my hand like this—and it goes against me to hev to take advantage of it.""Who are you?" said the major, pantingly. "I'm the new sheriff of Siskyou!" He drew from beneath his begrimed shirt a paper wrapping, from which he gingerly extracted with the ends of his dirty fingers a clean, legal-looking folded paper. "That's my warrant! I've kept it fresh for you. I reckon you don't care to read it—you've seen it afore. It's just the same as t'other sheriff had—what you shot." "Then this was a plant of yours, and that whelp's troopers?" said the major.
"Neither him nor the sojers knows any more about it than you," returned the sheriff slowly. "I enlisted as Injin guide or scout ten days ago. I deserted just as reg'lar and nat'ral like when we passed that ridge yesterday. I could be took to-morrow by the sojers if they caught sight o' me and court-martialed—it's as reg'lar as THAT! But I timed to have my posse, under a deputy, draw you off by an attack just as the escort reached the ridge. And here I am.""And you're no half-breed?"
"There's nothin' Injin about me that water won't wash off. I kalkilated you wouldn't suspect anything so insignificant as an INJIN, when I fixed myself up. You saw Dawson didn't hanker after me much. But I didn't reckon on YOUR tumbling to me so quick. That's what gets me! You must hev been pretty low down for kempany when you took a man like me inter your confidence. I don't see it yet."
He looked inquiringly at his captive—with the same wondering surliness. Nor could he understand another thing which was evident. After the first shock of resistance the major had exhibited none of the indignation of a betrayed man, but actually seemed to accept the situation with a calmness that his captor lacked. His voice was quite unemotional as he said:"And how are you going to get me away from here?"
"That's MY look out, and needn't trouble you, major; but, seein' as how confidential you've been to me, I don't mind tellin' you. Last night that posse of mine that you 'skunked,' you know, halted at the cross roads till them sojers went by. They has only to SEE THEM to know that I had got away. They'll hang round the cross roads till they see my signal on top of the ridge, and then they'll make another show against that pass. Your men will have their hands full, I reckon, without huntin' for YOU, or noticin' the three men o' mine that will come along this ridge where the sojers come yesterday—to help me get you down in the same way. You see, major, your little trap in that gully ain't in this fight—WE'RE THE OTHER SIDE OF IT. I ain't much of a sojer, but I reckon I've got you there! And it's all owing to YOU. I ain't," he added gloomily, "takin' much pride in it MYSELF."
"I shouldn't think you would," said the major, "and look here! I'll double that offer I made you just now. Set me down just as I am on the deck of some coasting vessel, and I'll pay you four thousand dollars. You may have all the glory of having captured me, HERE, and of making your word good before your posse. But you can arrange afterwards on the way to let me give you the slip somewhere near Sacramento."
The sheriff's face actually brightened. "Thanks for that, major. I was gettin' a little sick of my share in this job, but, by God, you've put some sand in me. Well, then! there ain't gold enough in all Californy to make me let you go. You hear me; so drop that. I've TOOK you, and TOOK ye'll remain until I land you in Sacramento jail. I don't want to kill you, though your life's forfeit a dozen times over, and I reckon you don't care for it either way, but if you try any tricks on me I may have to MAIM ye to make you come along comf'able and easy. I ain't hankerin' arter THAT either, but come you shall!" "Give your signal and have an end of this," said the major curtly.
The sheriff looked at him again curiously. "I never had my hands in another man's pockets before, major, but I reckon I'll have to take your derringers from yours." He slipped his hand into the major's waistcoat and secured the weapons. "I'll have to trouble you for your sash, too," he said, unwinding the knitted silken girdle from the captive's waist. "You won't want it, for you ain't walking, and it'll come in handy to me just now."
He bent over, and, passing it across the major's breast with more gentleness and solicitude than he had yet shown, secured him in an easy sitting posture against the tree. Then, after carefully trying the knots and straps that held his prisoner, he turned and lightly bounded up the hill.
He was absent scarcely ten minutes, yet when he returned the major's eyes were half closed. But not his lips. "If you expect to hold me until your posse comes you had better take me to some less exposed position," he said dryly. "There's a man just crossed the gully, coming into the brush below in the wood.""None of your tricks, major!" "Look for yourself."
The sheriff glanced quickly below him. A man with an axe on his shoulder could be seen plainly making his way through the underbrush not a hundred yards away. The sheriff instantly clapped his hand upon his captive's mouth, but at a look from his eyes took it away again."I see," he said grimly, "you don't want to lure that man within reach of my revolver by calling to him." "I could have called him while you were away," returned the major quietly.
The sheriff with a darkened face loosened the sash that bound his prisoner to the tree, and then, lifting him in his arms, began to ascend the hill cautiously, dipping into the heavier shadows. But the ascent was difficult, the load a heavy one, and the sheriff was agile rather than muscular. After a few minutes' climbing he was forced to pause and rest his burden at the foot of a tree. But the valley and the man in the underbrush were no longer in view."Come," said the major quietly, "unstrap my ankles and I'll WALK up. We'll never get there at this rate." The sheriff paused, wiped his grimy face with his grimier blouse, and stood looking at his prisoner. Then he said slowly:—
"Look yer! Wot's your little game? Blessed if I kin follow suit." For the first time the major burst into a rage. "Blast it all! Don't you see that if I'm discovered HERE, in this way, there's not a man on the Bar who would believe that I walked into your trap, not a man, by God, who wouldn't think it was a trick of yours and mine together?""Or," interrupted the sheriff slowly, fixing his eyes on his prisoner, "not a man who would ever trust Major Overstone for a leader again?" "Perhaps," said the major, unmovedly again, "I don't think EITHER OF US would ever get a chance of being trusted again by any one."
The sheriff still kept his eyes fixed on his prisoner, his gloomy face growing darker under its grime. "THAT ain't the reason, major. Life and death don't mean much more to you than they do to me in this yer game. I know that you'd kill me quicker nor lightning if you got the chance; YOU know that I'm takin' you to the gallows.""The reason is that I want to leave Wynyard's Bar," said the major coolly; "and even this way out of it will suit me."
The sheriff took his revolver from his pocket and deliberately cocked it. Then, leaning down, he unbuckled the strap from the major's ankles. A wild hope that his incomprehensible captive might seize that moment to develop his real intent—that he might fly, fight, or in some way act up to his reckless reputation—sustained him for a moment, but in the next proved futile. The major only said, "Thank you, Tom," and stretched his cramped legs."Get up and go on," said the sheriff roughly.
The major began to slowly ascend the hill, the sheriff close on his heels, alert, tingling, and watchful of every movement. For a few moments this strain upon his faculties seemed to invigorate him, and his gloom relaxed, but presently it became too evident that the prisoner's pinioned arms made it impossible for him to balance or help himself on that steep trail, and once or twice he stumbled and reeled dangerously to one side. With an oath the sheriff caught him, and tore from his arms the only remaining bonds that fettered him. "There!" he said savagely; "go on; we're equal!"
Without replying, the major continued his ascent; it became steeper as they neared the crest, and at last they were both obliged to drag themselves up by clutching the vines and underbrush. Suddenly the major stopped with a listening gesture. A strange roaring—as of wind or water—was distinctly audible."How did you signal?" asked the major abruptly. "Made a smoke," said the sheriff as abruptly.
"I thought so—well! you've set the woods on fire." They both plunged upwards again, now quite abreast, vying with each other to reach the summit as if with the one thought only. Already the sting and smart of acrid fumes were in their eyes and nostrils; when they at last stood on level ground again, it was hidden by a thin film of grayish blue haze that seemed to be creeping along it. But above was the clear sky, seen through the interlacing boughs, and to their surprise—they who had just come from the breathless, stagnant hillside—a fierce wind was blowing! But the roaring was louder than before.
"Unless your three men are already here, your game is up," said the major calmly. "The wind blows dead along the ridge where they should come, and they can't get through the smoke and fire."
It was indeed true! In the scarce twenty minutes that had elapsed since the sheriff's return the dry and brittle underbrush for half a mile on either side had been converted into a sheet of flame, which at times rose to a furnace blast through the tall chimney-like conductors of tree shafts, from whose shriveled sides bark was crackling, and lighted dead limbs falling in all directions. The whole valley, the gully, the Bar, the very hillside they had just left, were blotted out by a creeping, stifling smoke-fog that scarcely rose breast high, but was beaten down or cut off cleanly by the violent wind that swept the higher level of the forest. At times this gale became a sirocco in temperature, concentrating its heat in withering blasts which they could not face, or focusing its intensity upon some mass of foliage that seemed to shrink at its touch and open a scathed and quivering aisle to its approach. The enormous skeleton of a dead and rotten redwood, not a hundred yards to their right, broke suddenly like a gigantic firework into sparks and flame.
The sheriff had grasped the full meaning of their situation. In spite of his first error—the very carelessness of familiarity—his knowledge of woodcraft was greater than his companion's, and he saw their danger. "Come," he said quickly, "we must make for an opening or we shall be caught."The major smiled in misapprehension. "Who could catch us here?" The sheriff pointed to the blazing tree. "THAT," he said. "In five minutes IT will have a posse that will wipe us both out."
He caught the major by the arm and rushed him into the smoke, apparently in the direction of the greatest mass of flame. The heat was suffocating, but it struck the major that the more they approached the actual scene of conflagration the heat and smoke became less, until he saw that the fire was retreating before them and the following wind. In a few moments their haven of safety—the expanse already burnt over—came in sight. Here and there, seen dimly through the drifting smoke, the scattered embers that still strewed the forest floor glowed in weird nebulous spots like will-o'-the-wisps. For an instant the major hesitated; the sheriff cast a significant glance behind them."Go on; it's our only chance," he said imperatively.
They darted on, skimming the blackened or smouldering surface, which at times struck out sparks and flame from their heavier footprints as they passed. Their boots crackled and scorched beneath them; their shreds of clothing were on fire; their breathing became more difficult, until, providentially, they fell upon an abrupt, fissure-like depression of the soil, which the fire had leaped, and into which they blindly plunged and rolled together. A moment of relief and coolness followed, as they crept along the fissure, filled with damp and rotting leaves."Why not stay here?" said the exhausted prisoner.
"And be roasted like sweet potatoes when these trees catch," returned the sheriff grimly. "No." Even as he spoke, a dropping rain of fire spattered through the leaves from a splintered redwood, before overlooked, that was now blazing fiercely in the upper wind. A vague and indefinable terror was in the air. The conflagration no longer seemed to obey any rule of direction. The incendiary torch had passed invisibly everywhere. They scrambled out of the hollow, and again dashed desperately forward.
Beaten, bruised, blackened, and smoke-grimed—looking less human than the animals who had long since deserted the crest—they at last limped into a "wind opening" in the woods that the fire had skirted. The major sank exhaustedly to the ground; the sheriff threw himself beside him. Their strange relations to each other seemed to have been forgotten; they looked and acted as if they no longer thought of anything beyond the present. And when the sheriff finally arose and, disappearing for several minutes, brought his hat full of water for his prisoner from a distant spring that they had passed in their flight, he found him where he had left him—unchanged and unmoved.
He took the water gratefully, and after a pause fixed his eyes earnestly upon his captor. "I want you to do a favor to me," he said slowly. "I'm not going to offer you a bribe to do it either, nor ask you anything that isn't in a line with your duty. I think I understand you now, if I didn't before. Do you know Briggs's restaurant in Sacramento?"The sheriff nodded.
"Well! over the restaurant are my private rooms, the finest in Sacramento. Nobody knows it but Briggs, and he has never told. They've been locked ever since I left; I've got the key still in my pocket. Now when we get to Sacramento, instead of taking me straight to jail, I want you to hold me THERE as your prisoner for a day and a night. I don't want to get away; you can take what precautions you like—surround the house with policemen, and sleep yourself in the ante-room. I don't want to destroy any papers or evidence; you can go through the rooms and examine everything before and after; I only want to stay there a day and a night; I want to be in my old rooms, have my meals from the restaurant as I used to, and sleep in my own bed once more. I want to live for one day like a gentleman, as I used to live before I came here. That's all! It isn't much, Tom. You can do it and say you require to do it to get evidence against me, or that you want to search the rooms."
The expression of wonder which had come into the sheriff's face at the beginning of this speech deepened into his old look of surly dissatisfaction. "And that's all ye want?" he said gloomily. "Ye don't want no friends—no lawyer? For I tell you, straight out, major, there ain't no hope for ye, when the law once gets hold of ye in Sacramento.""That's all. Will you do it?"
The sheriff's face grew still darker. After a pause he said: "I don't say 'no,' and I don't say 'yes.' But," he added grimly, "it strikes me we'd better wait till we get clear o' these woods afore you think o' your Sacramento lodgings."
The major did not reply. The day had worn on, but the fire, now completely encircling them, opposed any passage in or out of that fateful barrier. The smoke of the burning underbrush hung low around them in a bank equally impenetrable to vision. They were as alone as shipwrecked sailors on an island, girded by a horizon of clouds."I'm going to try to sleep," said the major; "if your men come you can waken me." "And if YOUR men come?" said the sheriff dryly. "Shoot me."
He lay down, closed his eyes, and to the sheriff's astonishment presently fell asleep. The sheriff, with his chin in his grimy hands, sat and watched him as the day slowly darkened around them and the distant fires came out in more lurid intensity. The face of the captive and outlawed murderer was singularly peaceful; that of the captor and man of duty was haggard, wild, and perplexed.But even this changed soon. The sleeping man stirred restlessly and uneasily; his face began to work, his lips to move. "Tom," he gasped suddenly, "Tom!"
The sheriff bent over him eagerly. The sleeping man's eyes were still closed; beads of sweat stood upon his forehead. He was dreaming.
"Tom," he whispered, "take me out of this place—take me out from these dogs and pimps and beggars! Listen, Tom!—they're Sydney ducks, ticket-of-leave men, short card sharps, and sneak thieves! There isn't a gentleman among 'em! There isn't one I don't loathe and hate—and would grind under my heel, elsewhere. I'm a gentleman, Tom—yes, by God— an officer and a gentleman! I've served my country in the 9th Cavalry. That cub of West Point knows it and despises me, seeing me here in such company. That sergeant knows it—I recommended him for his first stripes for all he taunts me,—d—n him!"
The prisoner did not heed him; the sheriff shook him roughly, so roughly that the major's waistcoat and shirt dragged open, disclosing his fine silk undershirt, delicately worked and embroidered with golden thread. At the sight of this abased and faded magnificence the sheriff's hand was stayed; his eye wandered over the sleeping form before him. Yes, the hair was dyed too; near the roots it was quite white and grizzled; the pomatum was coming off the pointed moustache and imperial; the face in the light was very haggard; the lines from the angles of the nostril and mouth were like deep, half-healed gashes. The major was, without doubt, prematurely worn and played out.The sheriff's persistent eyes, however, seemed to effect what his ruder hand could not. The sleeping man stirred, awoke to full consciousness, and sat up. "Are they here? I'm ready," he said calmly.
"No," said the sheriff deliberately; "I only woke ye to say that I've been thinkin' over what ye asked me, and if we get to Sacramento all right, why, I'll do it and give ye that day and night at your old lodgings.""Thank you." The major reached out his hand; the sheriff hesitated, and then extended his own. The hands of the two men clasped for the first, and it would seem, the last time.
For the "cub of West Point" was, like most cubs, irritable when thwarted. And having been balked of his prey, the deserter, and possibly chaffed by his comrades for his profitless invasion of Wynyard's Bar, he had persuaded his commanding officer to give him permission to effect a recapture. Thus it came about that at dawn, filing along the ridge, on the outskirts of the fire, his heart was gladdened by the sight of the half-breed— with his hanging haversack belt and tattered army tunic—evidently still a fugitive, not a hundred yards away on the other side of the belt of fire, running down the hill with another ragged figure at his side. The command to "halt" was enforced by a single rifle shot over the fugitives' heads—but they still kept on their flight. Then the boy-officer snatched a carbine from one of his men, a volley rang out from the little troop—the shots of the privates mercifully high, those of the officer and sergeant leveled with wounded pride and full of deliberate purpose. The half-breed fell; so did his companion, and, rolling over together, both lay still.
But between the hunters and their fallen quarry reared a cheval de frise of flame and fallen timber impossible to cross. The young officer hesitated, shrugged his shoulders, wheeled his men about, and left the fire to correct any irregularity in his action.
It did not, however, change contemporaneous history, for a week later, when Wynyard's Bar discovered Major Overstone lying beside the man now recognized by them as the disguised sheriff of Siskyou, they rejoiced at this unfailing evidence of their lost leader's unequaled prowess. That he had again killed a sheriff and fought a whole posse, yielding only with his life, was never once doubted, and kept his memory green in Sierran chronicles long after Wynyard's Bar had itself become a memory.
A Rose Of Glenbogie
The American consul at St. Kentigern stepped gloomily from the train at Whistlecrankie station. For the last twenty minutes his spirits had been slowly sinking before the drifting procession past the carriage windows of dull gray and brown hills—mammiform in shape, but so cold and sterile in expression that the swathes of yellow mist which lay in their hollows, like soiled guipure, seemed a gratuitous affectation of modesty. And when the train moved away, mingling its escaping steam with the slower mists of the mountain, he found himself alone on the platform—the only passenger and apparently the sole occupant of the station. He was gazing disconsolately at his trunk, which had taken upon itself a human loneliness in the emptiness of the place, when a railway porter stepped out of the solitary signal-box, where he had evidently been performing a double function, and lounged with exasperating deliberation towards him. He was a hard-featured man, with a thin fringe of yellow-gray whiskers that met under his chin like dirty strings to tie his cap on with."Ye'll be goin' to Glenbogie House, I'm thinkin'?" he said moodily. The consul said that he was.
"I kenned it. Ye'll no be gettin' any machine to tak' ye there. They'll be sending a carriage for ye—if ye're EXPECTED." He glanced half doubtfully at the consul as if he was not quite so sure of it.But the consul believed he WAS expected, and felt relieved at the certain prospect of a conveyance. The porter meanwhile surveyed him moodily. "Ye'll be seein' Mistress MacSpadden there!"
The consul was surprised into a little over-consciousness. Mrs. MacSpadden was a vivacious acquaintance at St. Kentigern, whom he certainly—and not without some satisfaction—expected to meet at Glenbogie House. He raised his eyes inquiringly to the porter's.
"Ye'll no be rememberin' me. I had a machine in St. Kentigern and drove ye to MacSpadden's ferry often. Far, far too often! She's a strange flagrantitious creature; her husband's but a puir fule, I'm thinkin', and ye did yersel' nae guid gaunin' there."
It was a besetting weakness of the consul's that his sense of the ludicrous was too often reached before his more serious perceptions. The absurd combination of the bleak, inhospitable desolation before him, and the sepulchral complacency of his self-elected monitor, quite upset his gravity.
"Ay, ye'll be laughin' THE NOO," returned the porter with gloomy significance. The consul wiped his eyes. "Still," he said demurely, "I trust you won't object to my giving you sixpence to carry my box to the carriage when it comes, and let the morality of this transaction devolve entirely upon me. Unless," he continued, even more gravely, as a spick and span brougham, drawn by two thoroughbreds, dashed out of the mist up to the platform, "unless you prefer to state the case to those two gentlemen"—pointing to the smart coachman and footman on the box—"and take THEIR opinion as to the propriety of my proceeding any further. It seems to me that their consciences ought to be consulted as well as yours. I'm only a stranger here, and am willing to do anything to conform to the local custom.""It's a saxpence ye'll be payin' anyway," said the porter, grimly shouldering the trunk, "but I'll be no takin' any other mon's opinion on matters of my am dooty and conscience." "Ah," said the consul gravely, "then you'll perhaps be allowing ME the same privilege." The porter's face relaxed, and a gleam of approval—purely intellectual, however,—came into his eyes. "Ye were always a smooth deevel wi' your tongue, Mr. Consul," he said, shouldering the box and walking off to the carriage.
Nevertheless, as soon as he was fairly seated and rattling away from the station, the consul had a flashing conviction that he had not only been grievously insulted but also that he had allowed the wife of an acquaintance to be spoken of disrespectfully in his presence. And he had done nothing! Yes—it was like him!—he had LAUGHED at the absurdity of the impertinence without resenting it! Another man would have slapped the porter's face! For an instant he hung out of the carriage window, intent upon ordering the coachman to drive back to the station, but the reflection—again a ludicrous one—that he would now be only bringing witnesses to a scene which might provoke a scandal more invidious to his acquaintance, checked him in time. But his spirits, momentarily diverted by the porter's effrontery, sunk to a lower ebb than before.
The clattering of his horses' hoofs echoed back from the rocky walls that occasionally hemmed in the road was not enlivening, but was less depressing than the recurring monotony of the open. The scenery did not suggest wildness to his alien eyes so much as it affected him with a vague sense of scorbutic impoverishment. It was not the loneliness of unfrequented nature, for there was a well-kept carriage road traversing its dreariness; and even when the hillside was clothed with scanty verdure, there were "outcrops" of smooth glistening weather-worn rocks showing like bare brown knees under the all too imperfectly kilted slopes. And at a little distance, lifting above a black drift of firs, were the square rigid sky lines of Glenbogie House, standing starkly against the cold, lingering northern twilight. As the vehicle turned, and rolled between two square stone gate-posts, the long avenue before him, though as well kept as the road, was but a slight improvement upon the outer sterility, and the dark iron-gray rectangular mansion beyond, guiltless of external decoration, even to the outlines of its small lustreless windows, opposed the grim inhospitable prospect with an equally grim inhospitable front. There were a few moments more of rapid driving, a swift swishing over soft gravel, the opening of a heavy door into a narrow vestibule, and then—a sudden sense of exquisitely diffused light and warmth from an arched and galleried central hall, the sounds of light laughter and subdued voices half lost in the airy space between the lofty pictured walls; the luxury of color in trophies, armor, and hangings; one or two careless groups before the recessed hearth or at the centre table, and the halted figure of a pretty woman on the broad, slow staircase. The contrast was sharp, ironical, and bewildering.
So much so that the consul, when he had followed the servant to his room, was impelled to draw aside the heavy window-curtains and look out again upon the bleak prospect it had half obliterated. The wing in which he was placed overhung a dark ravine or gully choked with shrubs and brambles that grew in a new luxuriance. As he gazed a large black bird floated upwards slowly from its depths, circled around the house with a few quick strokes of its wing, and then sped away—a black bolt—in one straight undeviating line towards the paling north. He still gazed into the abyss—half expecting another, even fancying he heard the occasional stir and flutter of obscure life below, and the melancholy call of nightfowl. A long-forgotten fragment of old English verse began to haunt him—
Hark! the raven flaps hys wing In the briered dell belowe,
Hark! the dethe owl loude doth synge To the night maers as thaie goe.
"Now, what put that stuff in my head?" he said as he turned impatiently from the window. "And why does this house, with all its interior luxury, hypocritically oppose such a forbidding front to its neighbors?" Then it occurred to him that perhaps the architect instinctively felt that a more opulent and elaborate exterior would only bring the poverty of surrounding nature into greater relief. But he was not in the habit of troubling himself with abstruse problems. A nearer recollection of the pretty frock he had seen on the staircase—in whose wearer he had just recognized his vivacious friend—turned his thoughts to her. He remembered how at their first meeting he had been interested in her bright audacity, unconventionality, and high spirits, which did not, however, amuse him as greatly as his later suspicion that she was playing a self-elected role, often with difficulty, opposition, and feverishness, rather than spontaneity. He remembered how he had watched her in the obtrusive assumption of a new fashion, in some reckless departure from an old one, or in some ostentatious disregard of certain hard and set rules of St. Kentigern; but that it never seemed to him that she was the happier for it. He even fancied that her mirth at such times had an undue nervousness; that her pluck—which was undoubted—had something of the defiance of despair, and that her persistence often had the grimness of duty rather than the thoughtlessness of pure amusement. What was she trying to do?—what was she trying to UNDO or forget? Her married life was apparently happy and even congenial. Her young husband was clever, complaisant, yet honestly devoted to her, even to the extension of a certain camaraderie to her admirers and a chivalrous protection by half-participation in her maddest freaks. Nor could he honestly say that her attitude towards his own sex—although marked by a freedom that often reached the verge of indiscretion—conveyed the least suggestion of passion or sentiment. The consul, more perceptive than analytical, found her a puzzle—who was, perhaps, the least mystifying to others who were content to sum up her eccentricities under the single vague epithet, "fast." Most women disliked her: she had a few associates among them, but no confidante, and even these were so unlike her, again, as to puzzle him still more. And yet he believed himself strictly impartial.
He walked to the window again, and looked down upon the ravine from which the darkness now seemed to be slowly welling up and obliterating the landscape, and then, taking a book from his valise, settled himself in the easy-chair by the fire. He was in no hurry to join the party below, whom he had duly recognized and greeted as he passed through. They or their prototypes were familiar friends. There was the recently created baronet, whose "bloody hand" had apparently wiped out the stains of his earlier Radicalism, and whose former provincial self-righteousness had been supplanted by an equally provincial skepticism; there was his wife, who through all the difficulties of her changed position had kept the stalwart virtues of the Scotch bourgeoisie, and was— "decent"; there were the two native lairds that reminded him of "parts of speech," one being distinctly alluded to as a definite article, and the other being "of" something, and apparently governed always by that possessive case. There were two or three "workers"—men of power and ability in their several vocations; indeed, there was the general over-proportion of intellect, characteristic of such Scotch gatherings, and often in excess of minor social qualities. There was the usual foreigner, with Latin quickness, eagerness, and misapprehending adaptability. And there was the solitary Englishman— perhaps less generously equipped than the others—whom everybody differed from, ridiculed, and then looked up to and imitated. There were the half-dozen smartly frocked women, who, far from being the females of the foregoing species, were quite indistinctive, with the single exception of an American wife, who was infinitely more Scotch than her Scotch husband.
Suddenly he became aware of a faint rustling at his door, and what seemed to be a slight tap on the panel. He rose and opened it—the long passage was dark and apparently empty, but he fancied he could detect the quick swish of a skirt in the distance. As he reentered his room, his eye fell for the first time on a rose whose stalk was thrust through the keyhole of his door. The consul smiled at this amiable solution of a mystery. It was undoubtedly the playful mischievousness of the vivacious MacSpadden. He placed it in water—intending to wear it in his coat at dinner as a gentle recognition of the fair donor's courtesy.
Night had thickened suddenly as from a passing cloud. He lit the two candles on his dressing-table, gave a glance into the now scarcely distinguishable abyss below his window, as he drew the curtains, and by the more diffused light for the first time surveyed his room critically. It was a larger apartment than that usually set aside for bachelors; the heavy four-poster had a conjugal reserve about it, and a tall cheval glass and certain minor details of the furniture suggested that it had been used for a married couple. He knew that the guest-rooms in country houses, as in hotels, carried no suggestion or flavor of the last tenant, and therefore lacked color and originality, and he was consequently surprised to find himself impressed with some distinctly novel atmosphere. He was puzzling himself to discover what it might be, when he again became aware of cautious footsteps apparently halting outside his door. This time he was prepared. With a half smile he stepped softly to the door and opened it suddenly. To his intense surprise he was face to face with a man.
But his discomfiture was as nothing compared to that of the stranger—whom he at once recognized as one of his fellow-guests—the youthful Laird of Whistlecrankie. The young fellow's healthy color at once paled, then flushed a deep crimson, and a forced smile stiffened his mouth."I—beg your par-r-rdon," he said with a nervous brusqueness that brought out his accent. "I couldna find ma room. It'll be changed, and I—" "Perhaps I have got it," interrupted the consul smilingly. "I've only just come, and they've put me in here." "Nae! Nae!" said the young man hurriedly, "it's no' thiss. That is, it's no' mine noo." "Won't you come in?" suggested the consul politely, holding open the door.
The young man entered the room with the quick strides but the mechanical purposelessness of embarrassment. Then he stiffened and stood erect. Yet in spite of all this he was strikingly picturesque and unconventional in his Highland dress, worn with the freedom of long custom and a certain lithe, barbaric grace. As the consul continued to gaze at him encouragingly, the quick resentful pride of a shy man suddenly mantled his high cheekbones, and with an abrupt "I'll not deesturb ye longer," he strode out of the room.
The consul watched the easy swing of his figure down the passage, and then closed the door. "Delightful creature," he said musingly, "and not so very unlike an Apache chief either! But what was he doing outside my door? And was it HE who left that rose—not as a delicate Highland attention to an utter stranger, but"—the consul's mouth suddenly expanded—"to some fair previous occupant? Or was it really HIS room—he looked as if he were lying—and"—here the consul's mouth expanded even more wickedly—"and Mrs. MacSpadden had put the flower there for him." This implied snub to his vanity was, however, more than compensated by his wicked anticipation of the pretty perplexity of his fair friend when HE should appear at dinner with the flower in his own buttonhole. It would serve her right, the arrant flirt! But here he was interrupted by the entrance of a tall housemaid with his hot water."I am afraid I've dispossessed Mr.—Mr.—Kilcraithie rather prematurely," said the consul lightly.
To his infinite surprise the girl answered with grim decision, "Nane too soon." The consul stared. "I mean," he explained, "that I found him hesitating here in the passage, looking for his room."
"Ay, he's always hoaverin' and glowerin' in the passages—but it's no' for his ROOM! And it's a deesgrace to decent Christian folk his carryin' on wi' married weemen—mebbee they're nae better than he!""That will do," said the consul curtly. He had no desire to encourage a repetition of the railway porter's freedom.
"Ye'll no fash yoursel' aboot HIM," continued the girl, without heeding the rebuff. "It's no' the meestreess' wish that he's keepit here in the wing reserved for married folk, and she's no' sorry for the excuse to pit ye in his place. Ye'll be married yoursel', I'm hearin'. But, I ken ye's nae mair to be lippened tae for THAT."
This was too much for the consul's gravity. "I'm afraid," he said with diplomatic gayety, "that although I am married, as I haven't my wife with me, I've no right to this superior accommodation and comfort. But you can assure your mistress that I'll try to deserve them.""Ay," said the girl, but with no great confidence in her voice as she grimly quitted the room.
"When our foot's upon our native heath, whether our name's Macgregor or Kilcraithie, it would seem that we must tread warily," mused the consul as he began to dress. "But I'm glad she didn't see that rose, or MY reputation would have been ruined." Here another knock at the door arrested him. He opened it impatiently to a tall gillie, who instantly strode into the room. There was such another suggestion of Kilcraithie in the man and his manner that the consul instantly divined that he was Kilcraithie's servant."I'll be takin' some bit things that yon Whistlecrankie left," said the gillie gravely, with a stolid glance around the room.
"Certainly," said the consul; "help yourself." He continued his dressing as the man began to rummage in the empty drawers. The consul had his back towards him, but, looking in the glass of the dressing-table, he saw that the gillie was stealthily watching him. Suddenly he passed before the mantelpiece and quickly slipped the rose from its glass into his hand.
"I'll trouble you to put that back," said the consul quietly, without turning round. The gillie slid a quick glance towards the door, but the consul was before him. "I don't think THAT was left by your master," he said in an ostentatiously calm voice, for he was conscious of an absurd and inexplicable tumult in his blood, "and perhaps you'd better put it back."
The man looked at the flower with an attention that might have been merely ostentatious, and replaced it in the glass.
Yet when the man had passed out he was by no means certain that the flower was not Kilcraithie's. He was even conscious that if the young Laird had approached him with a reasonable explanation or appeal he would have yielded it up. Yet here he was—looking angrily pale in the glass, his eyes darker than they should be, and with an unmistakable instinct to do battle for this idiotic gage! Was there some morbid disturbance in the air that was affecting him as it had Kilcraithie? He tried to laugh, but catching sight of its sardonic reflection in the glass became grave again. He wondered if the gillie had been really looking for anything his master had left—he had certainly TAKEN nothing. He opened one or two of the drawers, and found only a woman's tortoiseshell hairpin— overlooked by the footman when he had emptied them for the consul's clothes. It had been probably forgotten by some fair and previous tenant to Kilcraithie. The consul looked at his watch—it was time to go down. He grimly pinned the fateful flower in his buttonhole, and half-defiantly descended to the drawing-room.
Here, however, he was inclined to relax when, from a group of pretty women, the bright gray eyes of Mrs. MacSpadden caught his, were suddenly diverted to the lapel of his coat, and then leaped up to his again with a sparkle of mischief. But the guests were already pairing off in dinner couples, and as they passed out of the room, he saw that she was on the arm of Kilcraithie. Yet, as she passed him, she audaciously turned her head, and in a mischievous affectation of jealous reproach, murmured:—"So soon!"
At dinner she was too far removed for any conversation with him, although from his seat by his hostess he could plainly see her saucy profile midway up the table. But, to his surprise, her companion, Kilcraithie, did not seem to be responding to her gayety. By turns abstracted and feverish, his glances occasionally wandered towards the end of the table where the consul was sitting. For a few moments he believed that the affair of the flower, combined, perhaps, with the overhearing of Mrs. MacSpadden's mischievous sentence, rankled in the Laird's barbaric soul. But he became presently aware that Kilcraithie's eyes eventually rested upon a quiet-looking blonde near the hostess. Yet the lady not only did not seem to be aware of it, but her face was more often turned towards the consul, and their eyes had once or twice met. He had been struck by the fact that they were half-veiled but singularly unimpassioned eyes, with a certain expression of cold wonderment and criticism quite inconsistent with their veiling. Nor was he surprised when, after a preliminary whispering over the plates, his hostess presented him. The lady was the young wife of the middle-aged dignitary who, seated further down the table, opposite Mrs. MacSpadden, was apparently enjoying that lady's wildest levities. The consul bowed, the lady leaned a little forward.
"We were saying what a lovely rose you had."
Disengaging the flower from his buttonhole he handed it to her. Oddly enough, it seemed to him that half the table was watching and listening to them. Suddenly the lady uttered a little cry. "Dear me! it's full of thorns; of course you picked and arranged it yourself, for any lady would have wrapped something around the stalk!"
But here there was a burlesque outcry and a good-humored protest from the gentlemen around her against this manifestly leading question. "It's no fair! Ye'll not answer her— for the dignity of our sex." Yet in the midst of it, it suddenly occurred to the consul that there HAD been a slip of paper wrapped around it, which had come off and remained in the keyhole. The blue eyes of the lady were meanwhile sounding his, but he only smiled and said:—"Then it seems it IS peculiar?"
When the conversation became more general he had time to observe other features of the lady than her placid eyes. Her light hair was very long, and grew low down the base of her neck. Her mouth was firm, the upper lip slightly compressed in a thin red line, but the lower one, although equally precise at the corners, became fuller in the centre and turned over like a scarlet leaf, or, as it struck him suddenly, like the tell-tale drop of blood on the mouth of a vampire. Yet she was very composed, practical, and decorous, and as the talk grew more animated—and in the vicinity of Mrs. MacSpadden, more audacious—she kept a smiling reserve of expression,—which did not, however, prevent her from following that lively lady, whom she evidently knew, with a kind of encouraging attention.
"Kate is in full fling to-night," she said to the hostess. Lady Macquoich smiled ambiguously—so ambiguously that the consul thought it necessary to interfere for his friend. "She seems to say what most of us think, but I am afraid very few of us could voice as innocently," he smilingly suggested."She is a great friend of yours," returned the lady, looking at him through her half-veiled lids. "She has made us quite envy her."
"And I am afraid made it impossible for ME to either sufficiently thank her or justify her taste," he said quietly. Yet he was vexed at an unaccountable resentment which had taken possession of him—who but a few hours before had only laughed at the porter's criticism. After the ladies had risen, the consul with an instinct of sympathy was moving up towards "Jock" MacSpadden, who sat nearer the host, when he was stopped midway of the table by the dignitary who had sat opposite to Mrs. MacSpadden. "Your frien' is maist amusing wi' her audacious tongue—ay, and her audacious ways," he said with large official patronage; "and we've enjoyed her here immensely, but I hae mae doots if mae Leddy Macquoich taks as kindly to them. You and I—men of the wurrld, I may say—we understand them for a' their worth; ay!—ma wife too, with whom I observed ye speakin'—is maist tolerant of her, but man! it's extraordinar'"—he lowered his voice slightly—"that yon husband of hers does na' check her freedoms with Kilcraithie. I wadna' say anythin' was wrong, ye ken, but is he no' over confident and conceited aboot his wife?"
"I see you don't know him," said the consul smilingly, "and I'd be delighted to make you acquainted. Jock," he continued, raising his voice as he turned towards MacSpadden, "let me introduce you to Sir Alan Deeside, who don't know YOU, although he's a great admirer of your wife;" and unheeding the embarrassed protestations of Sir Alan and the laughing assertions of Jock that they were already acquainted, he moved on beside his host. That hospitable knight, who had been airing his knowledge of London smart society to his English guest with a singular mixture of assertion and obsequiousness, here stopped short. "Ay, sit down, laddie, it was so guid of ye to come, but I'm thinkin' at your end of the table ye lost the bit fun of Mistress MacSpadden. Eh, but she was unco' lively to-night. 'Twas all Kilcraithie could do to keep her from proposin' your health with Hieland honors, and offerin' to lead off with her ain foot on the table! Ay, and she'd ha' done it. And that's a braw rose she's been givin' ye—and ye got out of it claverly wi' Lady Deeside."
When he left the table with the others to join the ladies, the same unaccountable feeling of mingled shyness and nervous irascibility still kept possession of him. He felt that in his present mood he could not listen to any further criticisms of his friend without betraying some unwonted heat, and as his companions filed into the drawing-room he slipped aside in the hope of recovering his equanimity by a few moments' reflection in his own room. He glided quickly up the staircase and entered the corridor. The passage that led to his apartment was quite dark, especially before his door, which was in a bay that really ended the passage. He was consequently surprised and somewhat alarmed at seeing a shadowy female figure hovering before it. He instinctively halted; the figure became more distinct from some luminous halo that seemed to encompass it. It struck him that this was only the light of his fire thrown through his open door, and that the figure was probably that of a servant before it, who had been arranging his room. He started forward again, but at the sound of his advancing footsteps the figure and the luminous glow vanished, and he arrived blankly face to face with his own closed door. He looked around the dim bay; it was absolutely vacant. It was equally impossible for any one to have escaped without passing him. There was only his room left. A half-nervous, half-superstitious thrill crept over him as he suddenly grasped the handle of the door and threw it open. The leaping light of his fire revealed its emptiness: no one was there! He lit the candle and peered behind the curtains and furniture and under the bed; the room was as vacant and undisturbed as when he left it.
Had it been a trick of his senses or a bona-fide apparition? He had never heard of a ghost at Glenbogie—the house dated back some fifty years; Sir John Macquoich's tardy knighthood carried no such impedimenta. He looked down wonderingly on the flower in his buttonhole. Was there something uncanny in that innocent blossom? But here he was struck by another recollection, and examined the keyhole of his door. With the aid of the tortoiseshell hairpin he dislodged the paper he had forgotten. It was only a thin spiral strip, apparently the white outer edge of some newspaper, and it certainly seemed to be of little service as a protection against the thorns of the rose-stalk. He was holding it over the fire, about to drop it into the blaze, when the flame revealed some pencil-marks upon it. Taking it to the candle he read, deeply bitten into the paper by a hard pencil-point: "At half-past one." There was nothing else—no signature; but the handwriting was NOT Mrs. MacSpadden's!
Then whose? Was it that of the mysterious figure whom he had just seen? Had he been selected as the medium of some spiritual communication, and, perhaps, a ghostly visitation later on? Or was he the victim of some clever trick? He had once witnessed such dubious attempts to relieve the monotony of a country house. He again examined the room carefully, but without avail. Well! the mystery or trick would be revealed at half-past one. It was a somewhat inconvenient hour, certainly. He looked down at the baleful gift in his buttonhole, and for a moment felt inclined to toss it in the fire. But this was quickly followed by his former revulsion of resentment and defiance. No! he would wear it, no matter what happened, until its material or spiritual owner came for it. He closed the door and returned to the drawing-room.
Midway of the staircase he heard the droning of pipes. There was dancing in the drawingroom to the music of the gorgeous piper who had marshaled them to dinner. He was not sorry, as he had no inclination to talk, and the one confidence he had anticipated with Mrs. MacSpadden was out of the question now. He had no right to reveal his later discovery. He lingered a few moments in the hall. The buzzing of the piper's drones gave him that impression of confused and blindly aggressive intoxication which he had often before noticed in this barbaric instrument, and had always seemed to him as the origin of its martial inspiration. From this he was startled by voices and steps in the gallery he had just quitted, but which came from the opposite direction to his room. It was Kilcraithie and Mrs. MacSpadden. As she caught sight of him, he fancied she turned slightly and aggressively pale, with a certain hardening of her mischievous eyes. Nevertheless, she descended the staircase more deliberately than her companion, who brushed past him with an embarrassed self-consciousness, quite in advance of her. She lingered for an instant."You are not dancing?" she said. "No." "Perhaps you are more agreeably employed?" "At this exact moment, certainly." She cast a disdainful glance at him, crossed the hall, and followed Kilcraithie.
"Hang me, if I understand it all!" mused the consul, by no means good-humoredly. "Does she think I have been spying upon her and her noble chieftain? But it's just as well that I didn't tell her anything."
He turned to follow them. In the vestibule he came upon a figure which had halted before a large pier-glass. He recognized M. Delfosse, the French visitor, complacently twisting the peak of his Henri Quatre beard. He would have passed without speaking, but the Frenchman glanced smilingly at the consul and his buttonhole. Again the flower!"Monsieur is decore," he said gallantly.
The consul assented, but added, not so gallantly, that though they were not in France he might still be unworthy of it. The baleful flower had not improved his temper. Nor did the fact that, as he entered the room, he thought the people stared at him—until he saw that their attention was directed to Lady Deeside, who had entered almost behind him. From his hostess, who had offered him a seat beside her, he gathered that M. Delfosse and Kilcraithie had each temporarily occupied his room, but that they had been transferred to the other wing, apart from the married couples and young ladies, because when they came upstairs from the billiard and card room late, they sometimes disturbed the fair occupants. No!—there were no ghosts at Glenbogie. Mysterious footsteps had sometimes been heard in the ladies' corridor, but—with peculiar significance—she was AFRAID they could be easily accounted for. Sir Alan, whose room was next to the MacSpaddens', had been disturbed by them.
He was glad when it was time to escape to the billiard-room and tobacco. For a while he forgot the evening's adventure, but eventually found himself listening to a discussion— carried on over steaming tumblers of toddy—in regard to certain predispositions of the always debatable sex.
"Ye'll not always judge by appearances," said Sir Alan. "Ye'll mind the story o' the meenester's wife of Aiblinnoch. It was thocht that she was ower free wi' one o' the parishioners—ay! it was the claish o' the whole kirk, while none dare tell the meenester hisself—bein' a bookish, simple, unsuspectin' creeter. At last one o' the elders bethocht him of a bit plan of bringing it home to the wife, through the gospel lips of her ain husband! So he intimated to the meenester his suspicions of grievous laxity amang the female flock, and of the necessity of a special sermon on the Seventh Command. The puir man consented—although he dinna ken why and wherefore—and preached a gran' sermon! Ay, man! it was crammed wi' denunciation and an emptyin' o' the vials o' wrath! The congregation sat dumb as huddled sheep—when they were no' starin' and gowpin' at the meenester's wife settin' bolt upright in her place. And then, when the air was blue wi' sulphur frae tae pit, the meenester's wife up rises! Man! Ivry eye was spearin' her—ivry lug was prickt towards her! And she goes out in the aisle facin' the meenester, and—"Sir Alan paused. "And what?" demanded the eager auditory. "She pickit up the elder's wife, sobbin' and tearin' her hair in strong hysterics."
At the end of a relieved pause Sir Alan slowly concluded: "It was said that the elder removed frae Aiblinnoch wi' his wife, but no' till he had effected a change of meenesters."
It was already past midnight, and the party had dropped off one by one, with the exception of Deeside, Macquoich, the young Englishman, and a Scotch laird, who were playing poker—an amusement which he understood they frequently protracted until three in the morning. It was nearly time for him to expect his mysterious visitant. Before he went upstairs he thought he would take a breath of the outer evening air, and throwing a mackintosh over his shoulders, passed out of the garden door of the billiard-room. To his surprise it gave immediately upon the fringe of laurel that hung over the chasm.
It was quite dark; the few far-spread stars gave scarcely any light, and the slight auroral glow towards the north was all that outlined the fringe of the abyss, which might have proved dangerous to any unfamiliar wanderer. A damp breath of sodden leaves came from its depths. Beside him stretched the long dark facade of the wing he inhabited, his own window the only one that showed a faint light. A few paces beyond, a singular structure of rustic wood and glass, combining the peculiarities of a sentry-box, a summerhouse, and a shelter, was built against the blank wall of the wing. He imagined the monotonous prospect from its windows of the tufted chasm, the coldly profiled northern hills beyond,—and shivered. A little further on, sunk in the wall like a postern, was a small door that evidently gave easy egress to seekers of this stern retreat. In the still air a faint grating sound like the passage of a foot across gravel came to him as from the distance. He paused, thinking he had been followed by one of the card-players, but saw no one, and the sound was not repeated.
It was past one. He re-entered the billiard-room, passed the unchanged group of cardplayers, and taking a candlestick from the hall ascended the dark and silent staircase into the corridor. The light of his candle cast a flickering halo around him—but did not penetrate the gloomy distance. He at last halted before his door, gave a scrutinizing glance around the embayed recess, and opened the door half expectantly. But the room was empty as he had left it.
It was a quarter past one. He threw himself on the bed without undressing, and fixed his eyes alternately on the door and his watch. Perhaps the unwonted seriousness of his attitude struck him, but a sudden sense of the preposterousness of the whole situation, of his solemnly ridiculous acceptance of a series of mere coincidences as a foregone conclusion, overcame him, and he laughed. But in the same breath he stopped.
There WERE footsteps approaching—cautious footsteps—but not at his door! They were IN THE ROOM—no! in the WALL just behind him! They were descending some staircase at the back of his bed—he could hear the regular tap of a light slipper from step to step and the rustle of a skirt seemingly in his very ear. They were becoming less and less distinct—they were gone! He sprang to his feet, but almost at the same instant he was conscious of a sudden chill—that seemed to him as physical as it was mental. The room was slowly suffused with a cool sodden breath and the dank odor of rotten leaves. He looked at the candle—its flame was actually deflecting in this mysterious blast. It seemed to come from a recess for hanging clothes topped by a heavy cornice and curtain. He had examined it before, but he drew the curtain once more aside. The cold current certainly seemed to be more perceptible there. He felt the red-clothed backing of the interior, and his hand suddenly grasped a doorknob. It turned, and the whole structure— cornice and curtains—swung inwards towards him with THE DOOR ON WHICH IT WAS HUNG! Behind it was a dark staircase leading from the floor above to some outer door below, whose opening had given ingress to the chill humid current from the ravine. This was the staircase where he had just heard the footsteps—and this was, no doubt, the door through which the mysterious figure had vanished from his room a few hours before!
Taking his candle, he cautiously ascended the stairs until he found himself on the landing of the suites of the married couples and directly opposite to the rooms of the MacSpaddens and Deesides. He was about to descend again when he heard a far-off shout, a scuffling sound on the outer gravel, and the frenzied shaking of the handle of the lower door. He had hardly time to blow out his candle and flatten himself against the wall, when the door was flung open and a woman frantically flew up the staircase. His own door was still open; from within its depths the light of his fire projected a flickering beam across the steps. As she rushed past it the light revealed her face; it needed not the peculiar perfume of her garments as she swept by his concealed figure to make him recognize—Lady Deeside!
Amazed and confounded, he was about to descend, when he heard the lower door again open. But here a sudden instinct bade him pause, turn, and reascend to the upper landing. There he calmly relit his candle, and made his way down to the corridor that overlooked the central hall. The sound of suppressed voices—speaking with the exhausted pauses that come from spent excitement—made him cautious again, and he halted. It was the card party slowly passing from the billiard-room to the hall."Ye owe it yoursel'—to your wife—not to pit up with it a day longer," said the subdued voice of Sir Alan. "Man! ye war in an ace o' havin' a braw scandal." "Could ye no' get your wife to speak till her," responded Macquoich, "to gie her a hint that she's better awa' out of this? Lady Deeside has some influence wi' her."
The consul ostentatiously dropped the extinguisher from his candlestick. The party looked up quickly. Their faces were still flushed and agitated, but a new restraint seemed to come upon them on seeing him."I thought I heard a row outside," said the consul explanatorily. They each looked at their host without speaking. "Oh, ay," said Macquoich, with simulated heartiness, "a bit fuss between the Kilcraithie and yon Frenchman; but they're baith goin' in the mornin'." "I thought I heard MacSpadden's voice," said the consul quietly. There was a dead silence. Then Macquoich said hurriedly:— "Is he no' in his room—in bed—asleep,—man?" "I really don't know; I didn't inquire," said the consul with a slight yawn. "Good night!"
He turned, not without hearing them eagerly whispering again, and entered the passage leading to his own room. As he opened the door he was startled to find the subject of his inquiry—Jock MacSpadden—quietly seated in his armchair by his fire."Jock!"
"Don't be alarmed, old man; I came up by that staircase and saw the door open, and guessed you'd be returning soon. But it seemed you went ROUND BY THE CORRIDOR," he said, glancing curiously at the consul's face. "Did you meet the crowd?""Yes, Jock! WHAT does it all mean?"
MacSpadden laughed. "It means that I was just in time to keep Kilbraithie from chucking Delfosse down that ravine; but they both scooted when they saw me. By Jove! I don't know which was the most frightened.""But," said the consul slowly, "what was it all about, Jock?"
"Some gallantry of that d——d Frenchman, who's trying to do some woman-stalking up here, and jealousy of Kilcraithie's, who's just got enough of his forbears' blood in him to think nothing of sticking three inches of his dirk in the wame of the man that crosses him. But I say," continued Jock, leaning easily back in his chair, "YOU ought to know something of all this. This room, old man, was used as a sort of rendezvous, having two outlets, don't you see, when they couldn't get at the summer-house below. By Jove! they both had it in turns—Kilcraithie and the Frenchman—until Lady Macquoich got wind of something, swept them out, and put YOU in it."
The consul rose and approached his friend with a grave face. "Jock, I DO know something about it—more about it than any one thinks. You and I are old friends. Shall I tell you WHAT I know?"
Jock's handsome face became a trifle paler, but his frank, clear eyes rested steadily on the consul's.
"I know that this flower which I am wearing was the signal for the rendezvous this evening," said the consul slowly, "and this paper," taking it from his pocket, "contained the time of the meeting, written in the lady's own hand. I know who she was, for I saw her face as plainly as I see yours now, by the light of the same fire; it was as pale, but not as frank as yours, old man. That is what I know. But I know also what people THINK they know, and for that reason I put that paper in YOUR hand. It is yours—your vindication—your REVENGE, if you choose. Do with it what you like."Jock, with unchanged features and undimmed eyes, took the paper from the consul's hand, without looking at it. "I may do with it what I like?" he repeated. "Yes." He was about to drop it into the fire, but the consul stayed his hand. "Are you not going to LOOK at the handwriting first?" There was a moment of silence. Jock raised his eyes with a sudden flash of pride in them and said, "No!" The friends stood side by side, grasping each other's hands, as the burning paper leaped up the chimney in a vanishing flame. "Do you think you have done quite right, Jock, in view of any scandal you may hear?" "Quite! You see, old man, I know MY WIFE—but I don't think that Deeside KNOWS HIS."