The Longest Day of My Life
The boy looked so blithe and buoyant, so gallant and still so frank, that even now I could not think as meanly of him as poor Eva did. A rogue he must be, but surely not the petty rogue that she had made him out. Yet it was dirty work that he had done by me; and there I had to lie and take his kind, false, felon's hand in mine.
"My poor dear fellow," he cried, "I'm most sorry to find you like this. But I was afraid of it last night. It's all this infernally strong air!"
How I longed to tell him what it was, and to see his face! The thought of Eva alone restrained me, and I retorted as before, in a tone I strove to make as friendly, that it was his admirable wine and nothing else.
"But you took hardly any."
"I shouldn't have touched a drop. I can't stand it. Instead of soothing me it excites me to the verge of madness. I'm almost over the verge - for want of sleep - my trouble ever since the trouble."
Again I was speaking the literal truth, and again congratulating myself as though it were a lie: the fellow looked so distressed at my state; indeed I believe that his distress was as genuine as mine, and his sentiments as involved. He took my hand again, and his brow wrinkled at its heat. He asked for the other hand to feel my pulse. I had to drop my letter to comply.
"I wish to goodness there was something I could do for you," he said. "Would you - would you care to see a doctor?"
I shook my head, and could have smiled at his visible relief.
"Then I'm going to prescribe for you," he said with decision. "It's the place that doesn't agree with you, and it was I who brought you to the place; therefore it's for me to get you out of it as quick as possible. Up you get, and I'll drive you to the station myself!"
I had another work to keep from smiling: he was so ingenuously disingenuous. There was less to smile at in his really nervous anxiety to get me away. I lay there reading him like a book: it was not my health that concerned him, of course: was it my safety? I told him he little knew how ill I was - an inglorious speech that came hard, though not by any means untrue. "Move me with this fever on me?" said I; "it would be as much as my miserable life is worth."
"I'm afraid," said he, "that it may be as much as your life's worth to stay on here!" And there was such real fear, in his voice and eyes, that it reconciled me there and then to the discomfort of a big revolyer between the mattress and the small of my back. "We must get you out of it," he continued, "the moment you feel fit to stir. Shall we say to-morrow?"
"If you like," I said, advisedly; "and if I can get some sleep to-day."
"Then to-morrow it is! You see I know it's the climate," he added, jumping from tone to tone; "it couldn't have been those two or three glasses of sound wine."
"Shall I tell you what it is?" I said, looking him full in the face, with eyes that I dare say were wild enough with fever and insomnia. "It's the burning of the Lady Jermyn!" I cried. "It's the faces and the shrieks of the women; it's the cursing and the fighting of the men; it's boat-loads struggling in an oily sea; it's husbands and wives jumping overboard together; it's men turned into devils, it's hell-fire afloat - "
"Stop! stop! " he whispered, hoarse as a crow. I was sitting up with my hot eyes upon him. He was white as the quilt, and the bed shook with his trembling. I had gone as far as was prudent, and I lay back with a glow of secret satisfaction.
"Yes, I will stop," said I, "and I wouldn't have begun if you hadn't found it so difficult to understand my trouble. Now you know what it is. It's the old trouble. I came up here to forget it; instead of that I drink too much and tell you all about it; and the two things together have bowled me over. But I'll go to-morrow; only give me something to put me asleep till then."
"I will!" he vowed. "I'll go myself to the nearest chemist, and he shall give me the very strongest stuff he's got. Good-by, and don't you stir till I come back - for your own sake. I'll go this minute, and I'll ride like hell!" And if ever two men were glad to be rid of each other, they were this young villain and myself.
But what was his villany? It was little enough that I had overheard at the window, and still less that poor Eva had told me in her hurried lines. All I saw clearly was that the Lady Jermyn and some hundred souls had perished by the foulest of foul play; that, besides Eva and myself, only the incendiaries had escaped; that somehow these wretches had made a second escape from the gig, leaving dead men and word of their own death behind them in the boat. And here the motive was as much a mystery to me as the means; but, in my present state, both were also matters of supreme indifference. My one desire was to rescue my love from her loathsome captors; of little else did I pause to think. Yet Rattray's visit left its own mark on my mind; and long after he was gone I lay puzzling over the connection between a young Lancastrian, of good name, of ancient property, of great personal charm, and a crime of unparalleled atrocity committed in cold blood on the high seas. That his complicity was flagrant I had no room to doubt, after Eva's own indictment of him, uttered to his face and in my hearing. Was it then the usual fraud on the underwriters, and was Rattray the inevitable accomplice on dry land? I could think of none but the conventional motive for destroying a vessel. Yet I knew there must be another and a subtler one, to account not only for the magnitude of the crime, but for the pains which the actual perpetrators had taken to conceal the fact of their survival, and for the union of so diverse a trinity as Senhor Santos, Captain Harris, and the young squire.
It must have been about mid-day when Rattray reappeared, ruddy, spurred, and splashed with mud; a comfort to sick eyes, I declare, in spite of all. He brought me two little vials, put one on the chimney-piece, poured the other into my tumbler, and added a little water.
"There, old fellow," said he; "swallow that, and if you don't get some sleep the chemist who made it up is the greatest liar unhung."
"What is it?' I asked, the glass in my hand, and my eyes on those of my companion.
"I don't know," said he. "I just told them to make up the strongest sleeping-draught that was safe, and I mentioned something about your case. Toss it off, man; it's sure to be all right."
Yes, I could trust him; he was not that sort of villain, for all that Eva Denison had said. I liked his face as well as ever. I liked his eye, and could have sworn to its honesty as I drained the glass. Even had it been otherwise, I must have taken my chance or shown him all; as it was, when he had pulled down my blind, and shaken my pillow, and he gave me his hand once more, I took it with involuntary cordiality. I only grieved that so fine a young fellow should have involved himself in so villainous a business; yet for Eva's sake I was glad that he had; for my mind failed (rather than refused) to believe him so black as she had painted him.
The long, long afternoon that followed I never shall forget. The opiate racked my head; it did not do its work; and I longed to sleep till evening with a longing I have never known before or since. Everything seemed to depend upon it; I should be a man again, if only I could first be a log for a few hours. But no; my troubles never left me for an instant; and there I must lie, pretending that they had! For the other draught was for the night; and if they but thought the first one had taken due effect, so much the less would they trouble their heads about me when they believed that I had swallowed the second.
Oh, but it was cruel! I lay and wept with weakness and want of sleep; ere night fell I knew that it would find me useless, if indeed my reason lingered on. To lie there helpless when Eva was expecting me, that would be the finishing touch. I should rise a maniac if ever I rose at all. More probably I would put one of my five big bullets into my own splitting head; it was no small temptation, lying there in a double agony, with the loaded weapon by my side.
Then sometimes I thought it was coming; and perhaps for an instant would be tossing in my hen-coop; then back once more. And I swear that my physical and mental torments, here in my bed, would have been incomparably greater than anything I had endured on the sea, but for the saving grace of one sweet thought. She lived! She lived! And the God who had taken care o me, a castaway, would surely deliver her also from the hands of murderers and thieves. But not through me - I lay weak and helpless - and my tears ran again and yet again as I felt myself growing hourly weaker.
I remember what a bright fine day it was, with the grand open country all smiles beneath a clear, almost frosty sky, once when I got up on tip-toe and peeped out. A keen wind whistled about the cottage; I felt it on my feet as I stood; but never have I known a more perfect and invigorating autumn day. And there I must lie, with the manhood ebbing Out of me, the manhood that I needed so for the night! I crept back into bed. I swore that I would sleep. Yet there I lay, listening sometimes to that vile woman's tread below; sometimes to mysterious whispers, between whom I neither knew nor cared; anon to my watch ticking by my side, to the heart beating in my body, hour after hour - hour after hour. I prayed as I have seldom prayed. I wept as I have never wept. I railed and blasphemed - not with my lips, because the woman must think I was asleep - but so much the more viciously in my heart.
Suddenly it turned dark. There were no gradations - not even a tropical twilight. One minute I aw the sun upon the blind; the next - thank God! Oh, thank God! No light broke any longer through the blind; just a faint and narrow glimmer stole between it and the casement; and the light that had been bright golden was palest silver now.
It was the moon. I had been in dreamless sleep for hours.
The joy of that discovery! The transport of waking to it, and waking refreshed! The swift and sudden miracle that it seemed! I shall never, never forget it, still less the sickening thrill of fear which was cruelly quick to follow upon my joy. The cottage was still as the tomb. What if I had slept too long!
With trembling hand I found my watch.
Luckily I had wound it in the early morning. I now carried it to the window, drew back the blind, and held it in the moonlight. It was not quite ten o'clock. And yet the cottage was so still - so still.
I stole to the door, opened it by cautious degrees, and saw the reflection of a light below. Still not a sound could I hear, save the rapid drawing of my own breath, and the startled beating of my own heart.
I now felt certain that the Braithwaites were out, and dressed hastily, making as little noise as possible, and still hearing absolutely none from below. Then, feeling faint with hunger, though a new being after my sleep, I remembered a packet of sandwiches which I had not opened on my journey north. These I transferred from my travelling-bag (where they had lain forgotten to my jacket pocket, before drawing down the blind, leaving the room on tip-toe, and very gently fastening the door behind me. On the stairs, too, I trod with the utmost caution, feeling the wall with my left hand (my right was full), lest by any chance I might be mistaken in supposing I had the cottage to myself. In spite of my caution there came a creak at every step. And to my sudden horror I heard a chair move in the kitchen below.
My heart and I stood still together. But my right hand tightened on stout wood, my right forefinger trembled against thin steel. The sound was not repeated. And at length I continued on my way down, my teeth set, an excuse on my lips, but determination in every fibre of my frame.
A shadow lay across the kitchen floor; it was that of the deaf mute, as he stood on a chair before the fire, supporting himself on the chimney piece with one puny arm, while he reached overhead with the other. I stood by for an instant, glorying in the thought that he could not hear me; the next, I saw what it was he was reaching up for - a bell-mouthed blunderbuss - and I knew the little devil for the impostor that he was.
"You touch it," said I, "and you'll drop dead on that hearth."
He pretended not to hear me, but he heard the click of the splendid spring which Messrs. Deane and Adams had put into that early revolver of theirs, and he could not have come down much quicker with my bullet in his spine.
"Now, then," I said, "what the devil do you mean by shamming deaf and dumb?"
"I niver said I was owt o' t' sort," he whimpered, cowering behind the chair in a sullen ague.
"But you acted it, and I've a jolly good mind to shoot you dead!"
(Remember, I was so weak myself that I thought my arm would break from presenting my five chambers and my ten-inch barrel; otherwise I should be sorry to relate how I bullied that mouse of a man.) "I may let you off," I continued, "if you answer questions. Where's your wife?"
"Eh, she'll be back directly! " said Braithwaite, with some tact; but his look was too cunning to give the warning weight. "I've a bullet to spare for her," said I, cheerfully; "now, then, where is she?"
"Gone wi' the oothers, for owt I knaw."
"And where are the others gone?"
"Where they allus go, ower to t' say."
"Over to the sea, eh? We're getting on! What takes them there?"
"That's more than I can tell you, sir," said Braithwaite, with so much emphasis and so little reluctance as to convince me that for once at least he had spoken the truth. There was even a spice of malice in his tone. I began to see possibilities in the little beast.
"Well," I said, "you're a nice lot! I don't know what your game is, and don't want to. I've had enough of you without that. I'm off to-night."
"Before they get back?" asked Braithwaite, plainly in doubt about his duty, and yet as plainly relieved to learn the extent of my intention.
"Certainly," said I; "why not? I'm not particularly anxious to see your wife again, and you may ask Mr. Rattray from me why the devil he led me to suppose you were deaf and dumb? Or, if you like, you needn't say anything at all about it," I added, seeing his thin jaw fall; "tell him I never found you out, but just felt well enough to go, and went. When do you expect them back?"
"It won't be yet a bit," said he.
"Good! Now look here. What would you say to these?" And I showed him a couple of sovereigns: I longed to offer him twenty, but feared to excite his suspicions. "These are yours if you have a conveyance at the end of the lane - the lane we came up the night before last
- in an hour's time."
His dull eyes glistened; but a tremor took him from top to toe, and he shook his head.
"I'm ill, man!" I cried. "If I stay here I'll die! Mr. Rattray knows that, and he wanted me to go this morning; he'll be only too thankful to find me gone."
This argument appealed to him; indeed, I was proud of it.
"But I was to stop an' look after you," he mumbled; "it'll get me into trooble, it will that!"
I took out three more sovereigns; not a penny higher durst I go.
"Will five pounds repay you? No need to tell your wife it was five, you know! I should keep four of them all to myself."
The cupidity of the little wretch was at last overcoming his abject cowardice. I could see him making up his miserable mind. And I still flatter myself that I took only safe (and really cunning) steps to precipitate the process. To offer him more money would have been madness; instead, I poured it all back into my pocket.
"All right!" I cried; "you're a greedy, cowardly, old idiot, and I'll just save my money." And out I marched into the moonlight, very briskly, towards the lane; he was so quick to follow me that I had no fears of the blunderbuss, but quickened my step, and soon had him running at my heels.
"Stop, stop, sir! You're that hasty wi' a poor owd man." So he whimpered as he followed me like the little cur he was.
"I'm hanged if I stop," I answered without looking back; and had him almost in tears before I swung round on him so suddenly that he yelped with fear. "What are you bothering me for?" I blustered. "Do you want me to wring your neck?"
"Oh, I'll go, sir! I'll go, I'll go," he moaned.
"I've a good mind not to let you. I wouldn't if I was fit to walk five miles."
"But I'll roon 'em, sir! I will that! I'll go as fast as iver I can!"
"And have a conveyance at the road-end of the lane as near an hour hence as you possibly can?"
"Why, there, sir!" he cried, crassly inspired; "I could drive you in our own trap in half the time."
"Oh, no, you couldn't! I - I'm not fit to be out at all; it must be a closed conveyance; but I'll come to the end of the lane to save time, so let him wait there. You needn't wait yourself; here's a sovereign of your money, and I'll leave the rest in the jug in my bedroom. There! It's worth your while to trust me, I think. As for my luggage, I'll write to Mr. Rattray about that. But I'll be shot if I spend another night on his property."
I was rid of him at last; and there I stood, listening to his headlong steps, until they stumbled out of earshot down the lane; then back to the cottage, at a run myself, and up to my room to be no worse than my word. The sovereigns plopped into the water and rang together at the bottom of the jug. In another minute I was hastening through the plantation, in my hand the revolver that had served me well already, and was still loaded and capped in all five chambers.Next