A Small Precaution
My delight in the society of this young Squire Rattray (as I soon was to hear him styled) had been such as to make me almost forget the sinister incident which had brought us together. When I returned to my room, however, there were the open window and the litter on the floor to remind me of what had happened earlier in the night. Yet I was less disconcerted than you might suppose. A common housebreaker can have few terrors for one who has braved those of mid-ocean single-handed; my would-be visitor had no longer any for me; for it had not yet occurred to me to connect him with the voices and the footsteps to which, indeed, I had been unable to swear before the doctor. On the other hand, these morbid imaginings (as I was far from unwilling to consider them) had one and all deserted me in the sane, clean company of the capital young fellow in the next room.
I have confessed my condition up to the time of this queer meeting. I have tried to bring young Rattray before you with some hint of his freshness and his boyish charm; and though the sense of failure is heavy upon me there, I who knew the man knew also that I must fail to do him justice. Enough may have been said, however, to impart some faint idea of what this youth was to me in the bitter and embittering anti-climax of my life. Conventional figures spring to my pen, but every one of them is true; he was flowers in spring, he was sunshine after rain, he was rain following long months of drought. I slept admirably after all; and I awoke to see the overturned toilet-table, and to thrill as I remembered there was one fellow-creature with whom I could fraternize without fear of a rude reopening of my every wound.
I hurried my dressing in the hope of our breakfasting together. I knocked at the next door, and, receiving no answer, even ventured to enter, with the same idea. He was not there. He was not in the coffee-room. He was not in the hotel.
I broke my fast in disappointed solitude, and I hung about disconsolate all the morning, looking wistfully for my new-made friend. Towards mid-day he drove up in a cab which he kept waiting at the curb.
"It's all right!" he cried out in his hearty way. "I sent my telegram first thing, and I've had the answer at my club. The rooms are vacant, and I'll see that Jane Braithwaite has all ready for you by to-morrow night."
I thanked him from my heart. "You seem in a hurry!" I added, as I followed him up the stairs.
"I am," said he. "It's a near thing for the train. I've just time to stick in my things."
"Then I'll stick in mine," said I impulsively, "and I'll come with you, and doss down in any corner for the night."
He stopped and turned on the stairs.
"You mustn't do that," said he; "they won't have anything ready. I'm going to make it my privilege to see that everything is as cosey as possible when you arrive. I simply can't allow you to come to-day, Mr. Cole!" He smiled, but I saw that he was in earnest, and of course I gave in.
"All right," said I; "then I must content myself with seeing you off at the station."
To my surprise his smile faded, and a flush of undisguised annoyance made him, if anything, better-looking than ever. It brought out a certain strength of mouth and jaw which I had not observed there hitherto. It gave him an ugliness of expression which only emphasized his perfection of feature.
"You mustn't do that either," said he, shortly. "I have an appointment at the station. I shall be talking business all the time."
He was gone to his room, and I went to mine feeling duly snubbed; yet I deserved it; for I had exhibited a characteristic (though not chronic) want of taste, of which I am sometimes guilty to this day. Not to show ill-feeling on the head of it, I nevertheless followed him down again in four or five minutes. And I was rewarded by his brightest smile as he grasped my hand.
"Come to-morrow by the same train," said he, naming station, line, and hour; "unless I telegraph, all will be ready and you shall be met. You may rely on reasonable charges. As to the fishing, go up-stream - to the right when you strike the beck - and you'll find a good pool or two. I may have to go to Lancaster the day after to-morrow, but I shall give you a call when I get back."
With that we parted, as good friends as ever. I observed that my regret at losing him was shared by the boots, who stood beside me on the steps as his hansom rattled off.
"I suppose Mr. Rattray stays here always when he comes to town?" said I.
"No, sir," said the man, "we've never had him before, not in my time; but I shouldn't mind if he came again." And he looked twice at the coin in his hand before pocketing it with evident satisfaction.
Lonely as I was, and wished to be, I think that I never felt my loneliness as I did during the twenty-four hours which intervened between Rattray's departure and my own. They dragged like wet days by the sea, and the effect was as depressing. I have seldom been at such a loss for something to do; and in my idleness I behaved like a child, wishing my new friend back again, or myself on the railway with my new friend, until I blushed for the beanstalk growth of my regard for him, an utter stranger, and a younger man. I am less ashamed of it now: he had come into my dark life like a lamp, and his going left a darkness deeper than before.
In my dejection I took a new view of the night's outrage. It was no common burglar's work, for what had I worth stealing? It was the work of my unseen enemies, who dogged me in the street; they alone knew why; the doctor had called these hallucinations, and I had forced myself to agree with the doctor; but I could not deceive myself in my present mood. I remembered the steps, the steps - the stopping when I stopped - the drawing away in the crowded streets
- the closing up in quieter places. Why had I never looked round? Why? Because till to-day I had thought it mere vulgar curiosity; because a few had bored me, I had imagined the many at my heels; but now I knew - I knew! It was the few again: a few who hated me even unto death.
The idea took such a hold upon me that I did not trouble my head with reasons and motives. Certain persons had designs upon my life; that was enough for me. On the whole, the thought was stimulating; it set a new value on existence, and it roused a certain amount of spirit even in me. I would give the fellows another chance before I left town. They should follow me once more, and this time to some purpose. Last night they had left a knife on me; to-night I would have a keepsake ready for them.
Hitherto I had gone unarmed since my landing, which, perhaps, was no more than my duty as a civilized citizen. On Black Hill Flats, however, I had formed another habit, of which I should never have broken myself so easily, but for the fact that all the firearms I ever had were reddening and rotting at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. I now went out and bought me such a one as I had never possessed before.
The revolver was then in its infancy; but it did exist; and by dusk I was owner of as fine a specimen as could be procured in the city of London. It had but five chambers, but the barrel was ten inches long; one had to cap it, and to put in the powder and the wadded bullet separately; but the last-named would have killed an elephant. The oak case that I bought with it cumbers my desk as I write, and, shut, you would think that it had never contained anything more lethal than fruit-knives. I open it, and there are the green-baize compartments, one with a box of percussion caps, still apparently full, another that could not contain many more wadded-bullets, and a third with a powder-horn which can never have been much lighter. Within the lid is a label bearing the makers' names; the gentlemen themselves are unknown to me, even if they are still alive; nevertheless, after five-and-forty years, let me dip my pen to Messrs. Deane, Adams and Deane!
That night I left this case in my room, locked, and the key in my waistcoat pocket; in the right-hand side-pocket of my overcoat I carried my Deane and Adams, loaded in every chamber; also my right hand, as innocently as you could wish. And just that night I was not followed! I walked across Regent's Park, and I dawdled on Primrose Hill, without the least result. Down I turned into the Avenue Road, and presently was strolling between green fields towards Finchley. The moon was up, but nicely shaded by a thin coating of clouds which extended across the sky: it was an ideal night for it. It was also my last night in town, and I did want to give the beggars their last chance. But they did not even attempt to avail themselves of it: never once did they follow me: my ears were in too good training to make any mistake. And the reason only dawned on me as I drove back disappointed: they had followed me already to the gunsmith's!
Convinced of this, I entertained but little hope of another midnight visitor. Nevertheless, I put my light out early, and sat a long time peeping through my blind; but only an inevitable Tom, with back hunched up and tail erect, broke the moonlit profile of the back-garden wall; and once more that disreputable music (which none the less had saved my life) was the only near sound all night.
I felt very reluctant to pack Deane and Adams away in his case next morning, and the case in my portmanteau, where I could not get at it in case my unknown friends took it into their heads to accompany me out of town. In the hope that they would, I kept him loaded, and in the same overcoat pocket, until late in the afternoon, when, being very near my northern destination, and having the compartment to myself, I locked the toy away with considerable remorse for the price I had paid for it. All down the line I had kept an eye for suspicious characters with an eye upon me; but even my self-consciousness failed to discover one; and I reached my haven of peace, and of fresh fell air, feeling, I suppose, much like any other fool who has spent his money upon a white elephant.Next