Wine and Weakness
Sporting old parson who knows how to swear?" laughed Rattray. "Never saw him in my life before; wondered who the deuce he was."
"Really?" said I. "He professed to know something of you."
"Against me, you mean? My dear Cole, don't trouble to perjure yourself. I don't mind, believe me. They're easily shocked, these country clergy, and no doubt I'm a bugbear to 'em. Yet, I could have sworn I'd never seen this one before. Let's have another look."
We were walking away together. We turned on the top of the bank. And there the old clergyman was planted on the moorside, and watching us intently from under his hollowed hands.
"Well, I'm hanged!" exclaimed Rattray, as the hands fell and their owner beat a hasty retreat. My companion said no more; indeed, for some minutes we pursued our way in silence. And I thought that it was with an effort that he broke into sudden inquiries concerning my journey and my comfort at the cottage.
This gave me an opportunity of thanking him for his little attentions. "It was awfully good of you," said I, taking his arm as though I had known him all my life; nor do I think there was another living man with whom I would have linked arms at that time.
"Good?" cried he. "Nonsense, my dear sir! I'm only afraid you find it devilish rough. But, at all events, you're coming to dine with me to-night."
"Am I?" I asked, smiling.
"Rather!" said he. "My time here is short enough. I don't lose sight of you again between this and midnight."
"It's most awfully good of you," said I again.
"Wait till you see! You'll find it rough enough at my place; all my retainers are out for the day at a local show."
"Then I certainly shall not give you the trouble "
He interrupted me with his jovial laugh.
"My good fellow," he cried, "that's the fun of it! How do you suppose I've been spending the day? Told you I was going to Lancaster, did I? Well, I've been cooking our dinner instead - laying the table - getting up the wines - never had such a joke! Give you my word, I almost forgot I was in the wilderness!"
"So you're quite alone, are you?"
"Yes; as much so as that other beggar who was monarch of all he surveyed, his right there was none to dispute, from the what-is-it down to the glade -"
"I'll come," said I, as we reached the cottage. "Only first you must let me make myself decent."
"You're decent enough!"
"My boots are wet; my hands -"
"All serene! I'll give you five minutes."
And I left him outside, flourishing a handsome watch, while, on my way upstairs, I paused to tell Mrs. Braithwaite that I was dining at the hall. She was busy cooking, and I felt prepared for her unpleasant expression; but she showed no annoyance at my news. I formed the impression that it was no news to her. And next minute I heard a whispering below; it was unmistakable in that silent cottage, where not a word had reached me yet, save in conversation to which I was myself a party.
I looked out of window. Rattray I could no longer see. And I confess that I felt both puzzied and annoyed until we walked away together, when it was his arm which was immediately thrust through mine.
"A good soul, Jane," said he; "though she made an idiotic marriage, and leads a life which might spoil the temper of an archangel. She was my nurse when I was a youngster, Cole, and we never meet without a yarn." Which seemed natural enough; still I failed to perceive why they need yarn in whispers.
Kirby Hall proved startlingly near at hand. We descended the bare valley to the right, we crossed the beck upon a plank, were in the oak-plantation about a minute, and there was the hall upon the farther side.
And a queer old place it seemed, half farm, half feudal castle: fowls strutting at large about the back premises (which we were compelled to skirt), and then a front door of ponderous oak, deep-set between walls fully six feet thick, and studded all over with wooden pegs. The facade, indeed, was wholly grim, with a castellated tower at one end, and a number of narrow, sunken windows looking askance on the wreck and ruin of a once prim, old-fashioned, high-walled garden. I thought that Rattray might have shown more respect for the house of his ancestors. It put me in mind of a neglected grave. And yet I could forgive a bright young fellow for never coming near so desolate a domain.
We dined delightfully in a large and lofty hall, formerly used (said Rattray) as a court-room. The old judgment seat stood back against the wall, and our table was the one at which the justices had been wont to sit. Then the chamber had been low-ceiled; now it ran to the roof, and we ate our dinner beneath a square of fading autumn sky, with I wondered how many ghosts looking down on us from the oaken gallery! I was interested, impressed, awed not a little, and yet all in a way which afforded my mind the most welcome distraction from itself and from the past. To Rattray, on the other hand, it was rather sadly plain that the place was both a burden and a bore; in fact he vowed it was the dampest and the dullest old ruin under the sun, and that he would sell it to-morrow if he could find a lunatic to buy. His want of sentiment struck me as his one deplorable trait. Yet even this displayed his characteristic merit of frankness. Nor was it at all unpleasant to hear his merry, boyish laughter ringing round hall and gallery, ere it died away against a dozen closed doors.
And there were other elements of good cheer: a log fire blazing heartily in the old dog-grate, casting a glow over the stone flags, a reassuring flicker into the darkest corner: cold viands of the very best: and the finest old Madeira that has ever passed my lips.
"Now, all my life I have been a "moderate drinker" in the most literal sense of that slightly elastic term. But at the sad time of which I am trying to write, I was almost an abstainer, from the fear, the temptation - of seeking oblivion in strong waters. To give way then was to go on giving way. I realized the danger, and I took stern measures. Not stern enough, however; for what I did not realize was my weak and nervous state, in which a glass would have the same effect on me as three or four upon a healthy man.
Heaven knows how much or how little I took that evening! I can swear it was the smaller half of either bottle - and the second we never finished - but. the amount matters nothing. Even me it did not make grossly tipsy. But it warmed my blood, it cheered my heart, it excited my brain, and - it loosened my tongue. It set me talking with a freedom of which I should have been incapable in my normal moments, on a subject whereof I had never before spoken of my own free will. And yet the will to - speak - to my present companion - was no novelty. I had felt it at our first meeting in the private hotel. His tact, his sympathy, his handsome face, his personal charm, his frank friendliness, had one and all tempted me to bore this complete stranger with unsolicited confidences for which an inquisitive relative might have angled in vain. And the temptation was the stronger because I knew in my heart that I should not bore the young squire at all; that he was anxious enough to hear my story from my own lips, but too good a gentleman intentionally to betray such anxiety. Vanity was also in the impulse. A vulgar newspaper prominence had been my final (and very genuine) tribulation; but to please and to interest one so pleasing and so interesting to me, was another and a subtler thing. And then there was his sympathy - shall I add his admiration? - for my reward.
I do not pretend that I argued thus deliberately in my heated and excited brain. I merely hold that all these small reasons and motives were there, fused and exaggerated by the liquor which was there as well. Nor can I say positively that Rattray put no leading questions; only that I remember none which had that sound; and that, once started, I am afraid I needed only too little encouragement to run on and on.
Well, I was set going before we got up from the table. I continued in an armchair that my host dragged from a little book-lined room adjoining the hall. I finished on my legs, my back to the fire, my hands beating wildly together. I had told my dear Rattray of my own accord more than living man had extracted from me yet. He interrupted me very little; never once until I came to the murderous attack by Santos on the drunken steward.
"The brute!" cried Rattray. "The cowardly, cruel, foreign devil! And you never let out one word of that!"
"What was the good?" said I. "They are all gone now - all gone to their account. Every man of us was a brute at the last. There was nothing to be gained by telling the public that."
He let me go on until I came to another point which I had hitherto kept to myself: the condition of the dead mate's fingers: the cries that the sight of them had recalled.
"That Portuguese villain again!" cried my companion, fairly leaping from the chair which I had left and he had taken. "It was the work of the same cane that killed the steward. Don't tell me an Englishman would have done it; and yet you said nothing about that either!"
It was my first glimpse of this side of my young host's character. Nor did I admire him the less, in his spirited indignation, because much of this was clearly against myself. His eyes flashed. His face was white. I suddenly found myself the cooler man of the two.
"My dear fellow, do consider!" said I. "What possible end could have been served by my stating what I couldn't prove against a man who could never be brought to book in this world? Santos was punished as he deserved; his punishment was death, and there's an end on't."
"You might be right," said Rattray, "but it makes my blood boil to hear such a story. Forgive me if I have spoken strongly;" and he paced his hall for a little in an agitation which made me like him better and better. "The cold-blooded villain!" he kept muttering; "the infernal, foreign, blood-thirsty rascal! Perhaps you were right; it couldn't have done any good, I know; but - I only wish he'd lived for us to hang him, Cole! Why, a beast like that is capable of anything: I wonder if you've told me the worst even now?" And he stood before me, with candid suspicion in his fine, frank eyes.
"What makes you say that?" said I, rather nettled.
I shan't tell you if it's going to rile you, old fellow," was his reply. And with it reappeared the charming youth whom I found it impossibile to resist. "Heaven knows you have had enough to worry you!" he added, in his kindly, sympathetic voice.
"So much," said I, "that you cannot add to it, my dear Rattray. Now, then! Why do you think there was something worse?"
"You hinted as much in town: rightly or wrongly I gathered there was something you would never speak about to living man."
I turned from him with a groan.
"Ah! but that had nothing to do with Santos."
"Are you sure?" he cried.
"No," I murmured; "it had something to do with him, in a sense; but don't ask me any more." And I leaned my forehead on the high oak mantel-piece, and groaned again.
His hand was upon my shoulder.
"Do tell me," he urged. I was silent. He pressed me further. In my fancy, both hand and voice shook with his sympathy.
"He had a step-daughter," said I at last.
"I loved her. That was all."
His hand dropped from my shoulder. I remained standing, stooping, thinking only of her whom I had lost for ever. The silence was intense. I could hear the wind sighing in the oaks without, the logs burning softly away at my feet And so we stood until the voice of Rattray recalled me from the deck of the Lady Jermyn and my lost love's side.
"So that was all!"
I turned and met a face I could not read.
"Was it not enough?" cried I. "What more would you have?"
"I expected some more-foul play!"
"Ah!" I exclaimed bitterly. "So that was all that interested you! No, there was no more foul play that I know of; and if there was, I don't care. Nothing matters to me but one thing. Now that you know what that is, I hope you're satisfied."
It was no way to speak to one's host. Yet I felt that he had pressed me unduly. I hated myself for my final confidence, and his want of sympathy made me hate him too. In my weakness, however, I was the natural prey of violent extremes. His hand flew out to me. He was about to speak. A moment more and I had doubtless forgiven him. But another sound came instead and made the pair of us start and stare. It was the soft shutting of some upstairs door.
"I thought we had the house to ourselves?" cried I, my miserable nerves on edge in an instant.
"So did I," he answered, very pale. "My servants must have come back. By the Lord Harry, they shall hear of this!"
He sprang to a door, I heard his feet clattering up some stone stairs, and in a trice he was running along the gallery overhead; in another I heard him railing behind some upper door that he had flung open and banged behind him; then his voice dropped, and finally died away. I was left some minutes in the oppressively silent hall, shaken, startled, ashamed of my garrulity, aching to get away. When he returned it was by another of the many closed doors, and he found me awaiting him, hat in hand. He was wearing his happiest look until he saw my hat.
"Not going?" he cried. "My dear Cole, I can't apologize sufficiently for my abrupt desertion of you, much less for the cause. It was my man, just come in from the show, and gone up the back way. I accused him of listening to our conversation. Of course he denies it; but it really doesn't matter, as I'm sorry to say he's much too 'fresh' (as they call it down here) to remember anything to-morrow morning. I let him have it, I can tell you. Varlet! Caitiff! But if you bolt off on the head of it, I shall go back and sack him into the bargain!"
I assured him I had my own reasons for wishing to retire early. He could have no conception of my weakness, my low and nervous condition of body and mind; much as I had enjoyed myself, he must really let me go. Another glass of wine, then? Just one more? No, I had drunk too much already. I was in no state to stand it. And I held out my hand with decision.
Instead of taking it he looked at me very hard.
"The place doesn't suit you," said he. "I see it doesn't, and I'm devilish sorry! Take my advice and try something milder; now do, to-morrow; for I should never forgive myself if it made you worse instead of better; and the air is too strong for lots of people."
I was neither too ill nor too vexed to laugh outright in his face.
"It's not the air," said I; "it's that splendid old Madeira of yours, that was too strong for me, if you like! No, no, Rattray, you don't get rid of me so cheaply-much as you seem to want to!"
"I was only thinking of you," he rejoined, with a touch of pique that convinced me of his sincerity. "Of course I want you to stop, though I shan't be here many days; but I feel responsible for you, Cole, and that's the fact. Think you can find your way?" he continued, accompanying me to the gate, a postern in the high garden wall. "Hadn't you better have a lantern?"
No; it was unnecessary. I could see splendidly, had the bump of locality and as many more lies as would come to my tongue. I was indeed burning to be gone.
A moment later I feared that I had shown this too plainly. For his final handshake was hearty enough to send me away something ashamed of my precipitancy, and with a further sense of having shown him small gratitude for his kindly anxiety on my behalf. I would behave differently to-morrow. Meanwhile I had new regrets.
At first it was comparatively easy to see, for the lights of the house shone faintly among the nearer oaks. But the moon was hidden behind heavy clouds, and I soon found myself at a loss in a terribly dark zone of timber. Already I had left the path. I felt in my pocket for matches. I had none.
My head was now clear enough, only deservedly heavy. I was still quarrelling with myself for my indiscretions and my incivilities, one and all the result of his wine and my weakness, and this new predicament (another and yet more vulgar result) was the final mortification. I swore aloud. I simply could not see a foot in front of my face. Once I proved it by running my head hard against a branch. I was hopelessly and ridiculously lost within a hundred yards of the hall!
Some minutes I floundered, ashamed to go back, unable to proceed for the trees and the darkness. I heard the heck running over its stones. I could still see an occasional glimmer from the windows I had left. But the light was now on this side, now on that; the running water chuckled in one ear after the other; there was nothing for it but to return in all humility for the lantern which I had been so foolish as to refuse.
And as I resigned myself to this imperative though inglorious course, my heart warmed once more to the jovial young squire. He would laugh, but not unkindly, at my grotesque dilemma; at the thought of his laughter I began to smile myself. If he gave me another chance I would smoke that cigar with him before starting home afresh, and remove, front my own mind no less than from his, all ill impressions. After all it was not his fault that I had taken too much of his wine; but a far worse offence was to be sulky in one s cups. I would show him that I was myself again in all respects. I have admitted that I was temporarily, at all events, a creature of extreme moods. It was in this one that I retraced my steps towards the lights, and at length let myself into the garden by the postern at which I had shaken Rattray's hand not ten minutes before.
Taking heart of grace, I stepped up jauntily to the porch. The weeds muffled my steps. I myself had never thought of doing so, when all at once I halted in a vague terror. Through the deep lattice windows I had seen into the lighted hall. And Rattray was once more seated at his table, a little company of men around him.
I crept nearer, and my heart stopped. Was I delirious, or raving mad with wine? Or had the sea given up its dead?Next