Story type: Literature
Cleeve Court, known now as Cleeve Old Court, sits deep in a valley beside a brook and a level meadow, across which it looks southward upon climbing woods and glades descending here and there between them like broad green rivers. Above, the valley narrows almost to a gorge, with scarps of limestone, grey and red-streaked, jutting sheer over its alder beds and fern-screened waterfalls; and so zigzags up to the mill and hamlet of Ipplewell, beyond which spread the moors. Below, it bends southward and widens gradually for a mile to the market-town of Cleeve Abbots, where by a Norman bridge of ten arches its brook joins a large river, and their waters, scarcely mingled, are met by the sea tides, spent and warm with crawling over the sandbanks of a six-mile estuary.
Cleeve Old Court sees neither the limestone crags above nor the town below, but sits sequestered in its own bend of the valley, in its own clearing amid the heavy elms; so sheltered that, even in March and November, when the wind sings aloft on the ridges, the smoke mounts straight from its chimneys and the trees drip as steadily as though they were clocks and marked the seconds perfunctorily, with no real interest in the lapse of time. For the house, with its round-shouldered Jacobean gables, its stone-cropped roof, lichen-spotted plaster, and ill-kept yew hedge, has an air of resignation to decay, well-bred but spiritless, and communicates it to the whole of its small landscape. Our old builders chose their sites for shelter rather than for view; and this–and perhaps a well of exquisite water bubbling by the garden gate on the very lip of the brook–must explain the situation of the Old Court. Its present owner–being inordinately rich–had abandoned it to his bailiff, and built himself a lordly barrack on the ridge, commanding views that stretch from the moors to the sea. For this nine out of ten would commend him; but no true a Cleeve would ever have owned so much of audacity or disowned so much of tradition, and he has wasted a compliment on the perished family by assuming its name.
The last a Cleeve who should have inherited Cleeve Court returned to it for the last time on a grey and dripping afternoon in 1805–on the same day and at the same hour, in fact, when, hundreds of miles to the southward, our guns were banging to victory off Cape Trafalgar. Here, at home, on the edge of the Cleeve woods, the air hung heavy and soundless, its silence emphasised rather than broken now and again by the kuk-kuk of a pheasant in the undergrowth. Above the plantations, along the stubbled uplands, long inert banks of vapour hid the sky-line; and out of these Walter a Cleeve came limping across the ridge, his figure looming unnaturally.
He limped because he had walked all the way from Plymouth in a pair of French sabots–a penitential tramp for a youth who loathed walking at the best of times. He knew his way perfectly, although he followed no path; yet, coming to the fringe of the woodland, he turned aside and skirted the fence as if unexpectedly headed off by it. And this behaviour seemed highly suspicious to Jim Burdon, the under-keeper, who, not recognising his young master, decided that here was a stranger up to no good.
Jim’s mind ran on poachers this year. Indeed he had little else to brood over and very little else to discuss with Macklin, the head-keeper. The Cleeve coverts had come to a pretty pass, and, as things were going, could only end in worse. Here they were close on the third week in October, and not a gun had been fired. Last season it had been bad enough, and indeed ever since the black day which brought news that young Mr. Walter was a prisoner among the French. No more shooting-parties, no more big beats, no more handsome gratuities for Macklin and windfalls for Jim Burdon! Nevertheless, the Squire, with a friend or two, had shot the coverts after a fashion. The blow had shaken him: uncertainty, anxiety of this sort for his heir and only child, must prey upon any man’s mind. Still (his friends argued) the cure lay in his lifelong habits; these were the firm ground on which he would feel his footing again and recover himself–since, if so colourless a man could be said to nurse a passion, it was for his game. A strict Tory by breeding, and less by any process of intellectual conviction than from sheer inability to see himself in any other light, indolent and contemptuous of politics, in game-preserving alone he let his Toryism run into activity, even to a fine excess. The Cleeve coverts, for instance, harboured none but pheasants of the old pure breed, since extinct in England–the true Colchian–and the Squire was capable of maintaining that these not only gave honester sport (whatever he meant by this), but were better eating than any birds of later importation (which was absurd). The appearance–old Macklin declared–of a single green-plumed or white-ringed bird within a mile of Cleeve Court was enough to give him a fit: certainly it would irritate him more than any poacher could–though poachers, too, were poison.
When first the Squire took to neglecting his guns all set it down to a passing dejection of spirit. He alone knew that he nursed a wound incurable unless his son returned, and that this distaste was but an early stage in his ailing. Being a man of reserved and sensitive soul, into which no fellow-creature had been allowed to look, he told his secret to no one, not even to his wife. She–a Roman Catholic and devout–had lived for many years almost entirely apart from him, occupying her own rooms, divided between her books and the spiritual consolations of Father Halloran, who had a lodging at the Court and a board of his own. In spite of the priest’s demure eye and neat Irish wit, the three made a melancholy household.
“As melancholy as a nest of gib cats,” said old Macklin. “And I feel it coming over me at nights up at my cottage. How’s a man to sleep, knowing the whole place so scandalously overstocked–the birds that tame they run between your legs–and no leave to use a gun, even to club ’em into good manners?”
“Leave it to Charley Hannaford,” growled Jim bitterly. “He’ll soon weed us out neat and clean. I wonder the Squire don’t pay him for doing our work.”
The head-keeper looked up sharply. “Know anything?” he asked laconically.
Jim answered one question with another. “See Hannaford’s wife in church last Sunday?”
“Wasn’t there–had too much to employ me walking the coverts. I believe a man’s duty comes before his church-going at this time o’ year; but I suppose there’s no use to argue with a lad when he’s courting.”
“Courting or not, I was there; and, what’s more, I had it reckoned up for me how much money Bess Hannaford wore on her back. So even going to church may come in useful, Sam Macklin, if a man’s got eyes in his head.”
“Argyments!” sniffed the head-keeper. “You’ll be some time lagging Charley Hannaford with argyments. Coverts is coverts, my son, and Bow Street is Bow Street. Keep ’em separate.”
“Stop a minute. That long-legg’d boy of his is home from service at Exeter. Back in the summer I heard tell he was getting on famous as a footman, and liked his place. Seems to have changed his mind, or else the Hannafords are settin’ up a footman of their own.” (Jim, when put out, had a gift of sarcasm.)
“Bow Street again,” said Macklin stolidly, puffing at his pipe. “Anything more?”
“Well, yes,”–Jim at this point began to drawl his words–“you’ve cast an eye, no doubt, over the apple heaps in Hannaford’s back orchard?”
“Like the looks o’ them?”
“Not much. Anything more?”
Jim’s gaze wandered carelessly to the horizon, and his drawl grew slower yet as he led up to his triumph. “Not much–only I took a stroll down to town Saturday night, and dropped in upon Bearne, the chemist. Hannaford had been there that afternoon buying nux vomica.”
“No?” The elder man was startled, and showed it. “The gormed rascal! That was a clever stroke of yours, though, I will say.”
Jim managed to conceal his satisfaction with a frown. “If I don’t get a charge of buckshot somewhere into Charles Hannaford between this and Christmas I’m going to enlist!” he announced.
But Macklin did not hear, being occupied for the moment with this new evidence of Hannaford’s guile, which he contemplated, be it said, more dispassionately than did Jim. In Jim there rankled a venomous personal grudge, dating from the day when, having paid an Exeter taxidermist for a beautifully stuffed Phasianus colchicus, he had borne the bird home, cunningly affixed it to a roosting-bough, and left it there looking as natural as life. On arriving at the tree early next morning he found Macklin (to whom he had not imparted the secret) already there, and staring aloft with a puzzled grin. Someone had decorated the bird during the night with a thin collar of white linen. “Very curious,” explained Macklin; “I got a ‘nonamous letter last night, pushed under my door, and tellin’ me there was a scandalous ring-necked bird roosting hereabouts. The fellow went on to say he wouldn’t have troubled me but for knowing the Squire to be so particular set against this breed, and wound up by signing himself ‘Yours truly, A WELL WISHER.’”
The worse of it was that Macklin found the joke too good to keep it to himself: by this time the whole countryside knew of Jim’s visit to the “tackydermatist,” and maddening allusions to it had kept Jim’s temper raw and his fists pretty active.
So it was that, on the misty afternoon when young Mr. Walter a Cleeve passed him unawares, Jim had been standing for twenty minutes flat against a tree on the upper outskirts of the plantation, sunk in a brown study. The apparition startled him, for the thick air deadened the sound of footsteps; and the sound, when it fell on his ears, held something unfamiliar. (Jim was unacquainted with sabots.) He stood perfectly still, let it go by, and at once prepared to follow–not that his suspicions connected this stranger with Charley Hannaford, who habitually worked alone, but because the man’s gait (“He lopped like a hare,” said Jim afterwards) and peculiar slouch of the shoulders somehow aroused his misgivings. Who could this be? And what might be his business that he followed no path, yet seemed to be walking with a purpose?
A shallow ditch ran along the inner side of the fence, clear of undergrowth and half filled with rotted leaves. Along this Jim followed, gun in hand, keeping his quarry’s head-and shoulders well in sight over the coping. This was laborious work, for he plunged ankle-deep at every step; but the leaves, sodden with a week’s rain, made a noiseless carpet, whereas the brushwood might have crackled and betrayed him.
Walter a Cleeve limped forward, not once turning his head. These were his paternal acres, and he knew every inch of them, almost every spot of lichen along the fence. Abroad he had dreamed of them, night after night; but he did not pause to regreet them now, for his thoughts were busy ahead, in the Court now directly beneath him in the valley; and in his thoughts he was there already, announcing himself, facing his mother in her unchanged room, and his father in the library.
Amid these thoughts (and they were anxious ones) he reached the point for which he had been steering, a platform of rock and thin turf from which a limestone cliff, parting the woods, descended almost sheer to the valley. The White Rock it was called, and as a child Walter a Cleeve had climbed about it a score of times in search of madrepores; for a gully ran down beside it, half choked with fern and scree, and from the gully here and there a ledge ran out across the cliff-face, otherwise inaccessible. The gully itself, though daunting at first sight, gave, in fact, a short cut down to the meadows above Cleeve Court, easy and moderately safe. Walter a Cleeve plunged into it without hesitation.
Now it so happened that at this moment, some fifty yards down the gully, and well screened by the overhanging rock, Charley Hannaford was crouching with a wire in his hand. Even had you known his whereabouts and his business, it would have been hard to stalk Charley Hannaford single-handed on the face of the White Rock. But the wiliest poacher cannot provide against such an accident as this–that a young gentleman, supposed to be in France, should return by an unfrequented path, and by reason of an awkward French boot catch his toe and slide precipitately, without warning, down twenty feet of scree, to drop another six feet on to a grassy ledge. Yet this is just what happened. Charley Hannaford, already pricking up his ears at the unfamiliar footfall up the gully had scarcely time to rise on his knees in readiness for retreat, when Walter a Cleeve came sprawling almost on top of him.
“Hallo!” gasped Walter, scarcely more confused by his fall than by the singular meeting. “Clumsy of me–” His eyes fell on the wire which Hannaford was stealthily trying to pocket, and grew wide with understanding. Then they sought the ground by Hannaford’s feet, and glanced from that up to the fence of the plantation overhanging the far side of the gully.
“Well, Charles Hannaford, you don’t look overjoyed to see me home again!”
The poacher grinned awkwardly. He was caught, for certain: nevertheless, his wariness did not desert him.
“You took me rather sudden, Mister Walter.”
“That’s fairly evident. Maize, eh?” He scooped a few grains into his palm and sniffed at them. “Better maize than my father’s, no doubt. Where’s Macklin?”
“Somewhere’s about. I say, Mister Walter–“
“And Jim Burdon?”
“Near abouts, too. Be you goin’ to tell on me?”
“Why on earth shouldn’t I? It’s robbery, you know, and I don’t care any more than my father does for being robbed.”
“That was a nasty tumble of yours, sir.”
“Yes, I suppose it was something of a spill. But I’m not hurt, thank you.”
“It might ha’ been a sight worse,” said Charley Hannaford reflectively. “A foot or two more, now–and the rock, if I remember, sloping outwards just here below.” He leaned his head sideways and seemed to drop a casual glance over the ledge.
Walter knew that the drop just there was a very nasty one indeed. “Oh, but yon’s where I came over–I couldn’t have fallen quite so wide–” he began to explain, and checked himself, reading the queer strained smile on Hannaford’s face.
“I–I reckon we’ll call it Providence, all the same,” said the poacher.
Then Walter understood. The man was desperate, and he–he, Walter a Cleeve, was a coward.
Had he known it, across the gully a pair of eyes were watching. He had help within call. Jim Burdon had come to the upper end of the plantation a few seconds too late to witness the accident. By the time he reached the hedge there and peered over, Walter had disappeared; and Jim– considerably puzzled, half inclined to believe that the stranger had walked over the edge of the White Rock and broken his neck–worked his way down the lateral fence beside the gully, to be brought up standing by the sight of the man he sought, safe and sound, and apparently engaged in friendly chat with Charley Hannaford.
But Walter a Cleeve’s back was turned towards the fence, and again Jim failed to recognise him. And Jim peered over the fence through a gorse-whin, undetected even by the poacher’s clever eyes.
“It’s queer, too,” went on Charley Hannaford slowly, as if chewing each word. “I hadn’t even heard tell they was expectin’ you, down at the Court.”
“They are not,” Walter answered. He scarcely thought of the words, which indeed seemed to him to be spoken by somebody else. He was even astonished at the firmness of their sound; but he knew that his face was white, and all the while he was measuring Hannaford’s lithe figure, and calculating rapidly. Just here he stood at a disadvantage: a sidelong spring might save him: it would take but a second. On the other hand, if during that second or less . . . His eyes were averted from the verge, and yet he saw it, and his senses apprised every foot of the long fall beyond. While he thought it out, keeping tension on himself to meet Charley Hannaford’s gaze with a deceptive indifference, his heart swelled at the humiliation of it all. He had escaped from a two years’ captivity–and, Heavens! how he had suffered over there, in France! He had run risks: his adventures–bating one unhappy blot upon them, which surely did not infect the whole–might almost be called heroic. And here he was, within a few hundred yards of home, ignominiously trapped. The worst of it was that death refused to present itself to him as possible. He knew that he could save himself by a word: he foresaw quite clearly that he was going to utter it. What enraged him was the equal certainty that a courageous man–one with the tradition he ought to have inherited–would behave quite differently. It was not death, but his own shameful cowardice, that he looked in the face during those moments.
Into the poacher’s eyes there crept his habitual shifty smile. “You’ll have a lot to tell ’em down there, Mr. Walter, without troublin’ about me.”
The unhappy lad forced a laugh. “You might say so, if you knew what I’ve been through. One doesn’t escape out of France in these days without adventures, and mine would make pretty good reading.”
“But if I–if I overlook this affair, it’s not to be a precedent, you understand. I intend to live at home now and look after the estate. My father will wish it.”
“To be sure.”
“And stealing’s stealing. If I choose to keep my own counsel about this, you are not to suppose I shall forget it. The others suspect only, but I know; and henceforth I advise you to bear that in mind.”
“And much obliged to you, sir. I know a gentleman and can trust his word.”
“So the best advice I can give you is to turn over a new leaf.” Walter turned to go with an air of careless magnanimity, conscious of the sorry part he was playing, yet not wholly without hope that it imposed upon the other. “I want to be friends with all my neighbours, you understand. Good-bye.”
He nodded curtly and began to pick his way down the gully with a slowness almost ostentatious. And as he went he cursed his weakness, and broke off cursing to reconstruct the scene from the beginning and imagine himself carrying it off with contemptuous fearlessness, at hand-grips with Charley Hannaford and defying him. He would (he felt) give the world to see the look Charley Hannaford flung after him.
The poacher’s eyes did indeed follow him till he disappeared, but it would have taken a wise man to read them. After a meditative minute or so he coiled up his wire, pocketed it, and made off across the face of the rock by a giddy track which withdrew him at once from Jim Burdon’s sight.
And Jim Burdon, pondering what he had seen, withdrew himself from hiding and went off to report to Macklin that Charley Hannaford had an accomplice, that the pair were laying snares on the White Rock, and that a little caution would lay them both by the heels.
Walter a Cleeve did not arrive at the Court by the front entrance, but by a door which admitted to his mother’s wing of the house, through the eastern garden secluded and reserved for her use. This was his way. From childhood he and his mother had lived in a sort of conspiracy– intending no guile, be it understood. She was a Roman Catholic. Her husband, good easy man, held to the Church of England, in which he had been bred; but held to it without bigotry, and supposed heaven within the reach of all who went through life cleanly and honourably. By consequence the lady had her way, and reared the boy in her own faith. She had delicate health, too–a weapon which makes a woman all but invincible when pitted against a man of delicate feeling.
The Squire, though shy, was affectionate. He sincerely loved his boy, and there was really no good reason why he and Walter should not open their hearts to one another. But somehow the religious barrier, which he did his best to ignore, had gradually risen like an impalpable fence about him, and kept him a dignified exile in his own house. For years all the indoor servants, chosen by Mrs. a Cleeve, had been Roman Catholics. In his own sphere–in the management of the estate–he did as he wished; in hers he was less often consulted than Father Halloran, and had ceased to resent this, having stifled his first angry feelings and told himself that it did not become a man to wrangle with women and priests. He found it less tolerable that Walter and his mother laid their plans together before coming to him. Why? Good Heavens! (he reflected testily) the boy might come and ask for anything in reason, and welcome! To give, even after grumbling a bit, is one of a father’s dearest privileges. But no: when Walter wanted anything–which was seldom–he must go to his mother and tell her, and his mother promised to “manage it.” In his secret heart the Squire loathed this roundabout management, and tried to wean Walter by consulting him frankly on the daily business of the estate. But no again: Walter seemingly cared little for these confidences: and again, although he learned to shoot and was a fair horseman, he put no heart into his sports. His religion debarred him from a public school; or, rather–in Mrs. a Cleeve’s view–it made all the public schools undesirable. When she first suggested Dinan (and in a way which convinced the Squire that she and Father Halloran had made up their minds months before), for a moment he feared indignantly that they meant to make a priest of his boy. But Mrs. a Cleeve resigned that prospect with a sigh. Walter must marry and continue the family. Nevertheless, when Great Britain formally renounced the Peace of Amiens, and Master Walter found himself among the detenus, his mother sighed again to think that, had he been designed for the priesthood, he would have escaped molestation; while his father no less ruefully cursed the folly which had brought him within Bonaparte’s clutches.
Mrs. a Cleeve sat by her boudoir fire embroidering an altar frontal for the private chapel. At the sound of a footstep in the passage she stopped her work with a sharp contraction of the heart: even the clattering wooden shoes could not wholly disguise that footstep for her. She was rising from her deep chair as Walter opened the door; but sank back trembling, and put a hand over her white face.
It was he. He was kneeling: she felt his hands go about her waist and his head sink in her lap.
“Oh, Walter! Oh, my son!”
“Mother!” he repeated with a sob. She bent her face and kissed him.
“Those horrible clothes–you have suffered! But you have escaped! Tell me–“
In broken sentences he began to tell her.
“You have seen your father?” she asked, interrupting him.
“Not yet. I have seen nobody: I came straight to you.”
“He is greatly aged.”
There came a knock at the door, and Father Halloran stood on the threshold confounded.
The priest was a tall and handsome Irishman, white-haired, with a genial laughing eye, and a touch of grave wisdom behind his geniality.
“Walter, dear lad! For the love of the saints tell us–how does this happen?”
Walter began his story again. The mother gazed into his face in a rapture. But the priest’s brow, at first jolly, little by little contracted with a puzzled frown.
“I don’t altogether understand,” he said. “They scarcely watched you at all, it seems?”
“Thank God for their carelessness!” put in Mrs. a Cleeve fervently.
“And you escaped. There was nothing to prevent? They hadn’t exacted any sort of parole?”
“Well, there was a sort of promise,”–the boy flushed hotly–“not what you’d call a real promise. The fellow–a sort of prefect in a tricolour sash–had us up in a room before him, and gabbled through some form of words that not one of us rightly understood. I heard afterwards some pretty stories of this gentleman. He had been a contractor to the late Republic, in horse-forage, and had swindled the Government (people said) to the tune of some millions of francs. Marengo finished him: he had been speculating against it on the sly, which lost his plunder and the most of his credit. On the remains of it he had managed to scrape into this prefecture. A nice sort of man to administer oaths!”
Father Halloran turned impatiently to the window, and, leaning a hand on one of the stone mullions, gazed out upon the small garden. Daylight was failing, and the dusk out there on the few autumn flowers seemed one with the chill shadow touching his hopes and robbing them of colour. He shivered: and as with a small shiver men sometimes greet a deadly sickness, so Father Halloran’s shiver presaged the doom of a life’s hope. He had been Walter’s tutor, and had built much on the boy: he had read warnings from time to time, and tried at once to obey them and persuade himself that they were not serious–that his anxiety magnified them. If honour could be inherited, it surely ran in Walter’s blood; in honour–the priest could assert with a good conscience–he had been instructed. And yet–
The lad had turned to his mother, and went on with a kind of sullen eagerness: “There were sixteen of us, including an English clergyman, his wife and two young children, and a young couple travelling on their honeymoon. It wasn’t as if they had taken our word and let us go: they marched us off at once to special quarters–billeted us all in one house, over a greengrocer’s shop, with a Government concierge below stairs to keep watch on our going and coming. A roll was called every night at eight–you see, there was no liberty about it. The whole thing was a fraud. Father Halloran may say what he likes, but there are two sides to a bargain; and if one party breaks faith, what becomes of the other’s promise?”
Mrs. a Cleeve cast a pitiful glance at Father Halloran’s back. The priest neither answered nor turned.
“Besides, they stole my money. All that father sent passed through the prefect’s hands and again through the concierge’s; yes, and was handled by half a dozen other rascals, perhaps, before ever it reached me. They didn’t even trouble themselves to hide the cheat. One week I might be lucky and pick up a whole louis; the next I’d be handed five francs and an odd sou or two, with a grin.”
“And all the while your father was sending out your allowance as usual– twenty pounds to reach you on the first of every month–and Dickinson’s agents in Paris sending back assurances that it would be transmitted and reach you as surely as if France and England were at peace!”
Father Halloran caught the note of anxious justification in Mrs. a Cleeve’s voice, and knew that it was meant for him. He turned now with a half audible “Pish!” but controlled his features–superfluously, since he stood now with his back to the waning light.
“Have you seen him?” he asked abruptly.
“I came around by the east door, meaning to surprise mother. I only arrived here two minutes before you knocked.”
“For God’s sake answer me ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ like a man!” thundered Father Halloran, suddenly giving vent to his anger: as suddenly checking it with a tight curb, he addressed Mrs. a Cleeve. “Your pardon!” said he.
The woman almost whimpered. She could not use upon her confessor the card of weak nerves she would have played at once and unhesitatingly upon her husband. “I think you are horribly unjust,” she said. “God knows how I have looked forward to this moment: and you are spoiling all! One would say you are not glad to see our boy back!”
The priest ignored the querulous words. “You must see your father at once,” he said gravely. “At once,” he repeated, noting how Walter’s eyes sought his mother’s.
“Of course, if you think it wise–” she began.
“I cannot say if it be wise–in your meaning. It is his duty.”
“We can go with him–“
“But we might help to explain?”
Father Halloran looked at her with pity. “I think we have done that too often,” he answered; and to himself he added: “She is afraid of him. Upon my soul, I am half afraid of him myself.”
“You think his father will understand?” she asked, clutching at comfort.
“It depends upon what you mean by ‘understanding.’ It is better that Walter should go: afterwards I will speak to him.” The priest seemed to hesitate before adding, “He loves the boy. By the way, Walter, you might tell us exactly how you escaped.”
“The greengrocer’s wife helped me,” said Walter sullenly. “She had taken a sort of fancy to me, and–she understood the injustice of it better than Father Halloran seems to. She agreed that there was no wrong in escaping. She had a friend at Yvignac, and it was agreed that I should walk out there early one morning and find a change of clothes ready. The master of the house earned his living by travelling the country with a small waggon of earthenware, and that night he carried me, hidden in the hay among his pitchers and flower-pots, as far as Lamballe. I meant to strike the coast westward, for the road to St. Malo would be searched at once as soon as the concierge reported me missing. From Lamballe I trudged through St. Brisac to Guingamp, hiding by day and walking by night, and at Guingamp called at the house of an onion-merchant, to whom I had been directed. At this season he works his business by hiring gangs of boys of all ages from fourteen to twenty, marching them down to Pampol or Morlaix, and shipping them up the coast to sell his onions along the Seine valley, or by another route southward from Etaples and Boulogne. I joined a party of six bound for Morlaix, and tramped all the way in these shoes with a dozen strings of onions slung on a stick across my shoulders. At Morlaix I shipped on a small trader, or so the skipper called it: he was bound, in fact, for Guernsey, and laden down to the bulwarks with kegs of brandy, and at St. Peter’s Port he handed me over to the captain of a Cawsand boat, with whom he did business. I’m giving you just the outline, you understand. I have been through some rough adventures in the last two weeks,”–the lad paused and shivered–“but I don’t ask you to think of that. The Cawsand skipper sunk his cargo last night about a mile outside the Rame, and just before daybreak set me ashore in Cawsand village. I have been walking ever since.”
Father Halloran stepped to the bell-rope.
“Shall I ring? The boy should drink a glass of wine, I think, and then go to his father without delay.”
“So far as I understand your story, sir, it leaves me with but one course. You will go at once to your room for the night, where a meal shall be sent to you. At eight o’clock to-morrow morning you will be ready to drive with me to Plymouth, where doubtless I shall discover, from the Officer Commanding, the promptest way of returning you to Dinan.”
The Squire spoke slowly, resting his elbow on the library table and shading his eyes with his palm, under which, however, they looked out with fiery directness at Walter, standing upright before him.
The boy’s face went white before his brain grasped the sentence. His first sense was of utter helplessness, almost of betrayal. From the day of his escape he had been conscious of a weak spot in his story. To himself he could justify his conduct throughout; and by dint of rehearsing over and over again the pros and contras, always as an advocate for the defence, he had persuaded himself at times that every sensible person must agree with him. What consideration, to begin with, could any of the English detenus owe to Bonaparte, who by seizing them had broken the good faith between nations? Promises, again, are not unconditional; they hold so long as he to whom they are given abides by his counter-obligations, stated or implied. . . . Walter had a score of good arguments to satisfy himself. Nevertheless he had felt that to satisfy his father they would need to be well presented. He had counted on his mother’s help and Father Halloran’s. Why, for the first time in his life, had these two deserted him? Never in the same degree had he wanted their protection. His mind groped in a void. He felt horribly alone.
And yet, while he sought for reasons against this sentence, he knew the real reason to be that he could not face it. He hated suffering: a world which demanded suffering of him was wholly detestable, irrational, monstrous: he desired no more to do with it. What had he done to be used so? He knew himself for a harmless fellow, wishing hurt to no man. Then why on earth could he not be let alone? He had never asked to be born: he had no wish to live at all, if living involved all this misery. It had been bad enough in Dinan before his escape; but to tread back that weary road in proclaimed dishonour, exposed to contemptuous eyes at every halting-place, and to take up the burden again plus the shame–it was unthinkable, and he came near to a hysterical laugh at the command. He felt as a horse might feel when spurred up to a fence which it cannot face and foresees it must refuse at the last moment.
“Return–return to Dinan?” he echoed, his white lips shaking on each word.
“Certainly you will return to Dinan. For God’s sake–” The Squire checked himself, and his tenderness swelled suddenly above his scorn. He rose from the table, stepped to the boy, and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Walter,” he said, “we have somehow managed to make a mess of it. You have behaved disreputably; and if the blame of it, starting from somewhere in the past, lies at your mother’s door or mine, we must sorrowfully beg your pardon. The thing is done: it is reparable, but only through your suffering. You are the last a Cleeve, and with our faults we a Cleeves have lived cleanly and honourably. Be a man: take up this burden which I impose, and redeem your honour. For your mother’s sake and mine I could ask it: but how can we separate ourselves from you? Look in my face. Are there no traces in it of these last two years? Boy, boy, you have not been the only one to suffer! If further suffering of ours could help you, would it not be given? But a man’s honour lies ultimately in his own hands. Go, lad–endure what you must–and God support you with the thought that we are learning pride in you!”
“It will kill me!”
The lad blurted it out with a sob. His father’s hand dropped from his shoulder.
“Are you incapable of understanding that it might do worse?” he asked coldly, and turned his back in despair.
Walter went out unsteadily, fumbling his way.
The Squire dined alone that night, and after dinner sat long alone before his library fire–how long he scarcely knew; but Narracott, the butler, had put up the bolts and retired, leaving only the staircase-lantern burning, when Father Halloran knocked at the library door and was bidden to enter.
“I wished to speak with you about Walter–to learn your decision,” he explained.
“You have not seen him?”
“Not since he came to explain himself.”
“He is in his room, I believe. He is to be ready at eight to-morrow to start with me for Plymouth.”
“I looked for that decision,” said the priest, after a moment’s silence.
“Would you have suggested another?” The question came sharp and stern; but a moment later the Squire mollified it, turning to the priest and looking him straight in the eyes. “Excuse me; I am sure you would not.”
“I thank you,” was the answer. “No: since I have leave to say so, I think you have taken the only right course.”
The two men still faced one another. Fate had made them antagonists in this house, and the antagonism had lasted over many years. But no petulant word had ever broken down the barrier of courtesy between them: each knew the other to be a gentleman.
“Father Halloran,” said the Squire gravely, “I will confess to you that I have been tempted. If I could honestly have spared the lad–“
“I know,” said the priest, and nodded while Mr. a Cleeve seemed to search for a word. “If any sacrifice of your own could stand for payment, you could have offered it, sir.”
“What I fear most is that it may kill his mother.” The Squire said it musingly, but his voice held a question.
“She will suffer.” The priest pondered his opinion as he gave it, and his words came irregularly by twos and threes. “It may be hard–for some while–to make her see the–the necessity. Women fight for their own by instinct–right or wrong, they do not ask themselves. If you reason, they will seize upon any sophistry to confute you–to persuade themselves. Doubtless the instinct comes from God; but to men, sometimes, it makes them seem quite unscrupulous.”
“We have built much upon Walter. If our hopes have come down with a crash, we must rebuild, and build them better. I think that, for the future, you and I must consult one another and make allowances. The fact is, I am asking you–as it were–to make terms with me over the lad. ‘A house divided,’ you know. . . Let us have an end of divisions. I am feeling terribly old to-night.”
The priest met his gaze frankly, and had half extended his hand, when a sudden sound arrested him–a sound at which the eyes of both men widened with surprise and their lips were parted–the sharp report of a gun. Not until it shattered the silence of the woods around Cleeve Court could you have been aware how deep the silence had lain. Its echoes banged from side to side of the valley, and in the midst of their reverberation a second gun rang out.
“The mischief!” exclaimed the Squire. “That means poachers, or I’m a Dutchman. Macklin’s in trouble. Will you come?” He stepped quickly to the door. “Where did you fix the sound? Somewhere up the valley, near the White Rock, eh?”
Father Halloran’s face was white as a ghost’s. “It–it was outside the house,” he stammered.
“Outside? What the deuce–Of course it was outside!” He paused, and seemed to read the priest’s thought. “Oh, for God’s sake, man–” Hurrying into the passage, and along it to the hall, he called up, “Walter! Walter!” from the foot of the staircase. “There, you see!” he muttered, as Walter’s voice answered from above.
But almost on the instant a woman’s voice took up the cry. “Walter! What has happened to Walter?” and as her son stepped out upon the landing Mrs. a Cleeve came tottering through the corridor leading to her rooms–came in disarray, a dressing-gown hastily caught about her, and a wisp of grey hair straggling across her shoulder. Catching sight of Walter, she almost fell into his arms.
“Thank God! Thank God you are safe!”
“But what on earth is the matter?” demanded Walter, scarcely yet aroused from the torpor of his private misery.
“Poachers, no doubt.” his father answered. “Macklin has been warning me of this for some time. Take your mother back to her room. There is no cause for alarm, Lucetta–if the affair were serious, we should have heard more guns before this. You had best return to bed at once. When I learn what has happened I will bring you word.”
He strode away down the lower corridor, calling as he went to Narracott, the butler, to fetch a lantern and unbolt the hall-door, and entered the gunroom with Father Halloran at his heels.
“I cannot ask you to take a hand in this,” he said, finding his favourite gun and noiselessly disengaging it from the rack, pitch dark though the room was.
“I may carry a spare weapon for you, I hope?”
“Ah, you will go with me? Thank you: I shall be glad of someone to carry the lantern. We may have to do some scrambling: Narracott is infirm, and Roger,”–this was the footman–“is a chicken-hearted fellow, I suspect.”
The two men armed themselves and went back to the hall, where Father Halloran in silence took the lantern from the butler. Then they stepped out into the night.
Masses of cloud obscured the stars, and the two walked forward into a wall of darkness which the rays of the priest’s lantern pierced for a few yards ahead. Here in the valley the night air lay stagnant: scarcely a leaf rustled: their ears caught no sound but that of the brook alongside of which they mounted the coombe.
“Better set down the lantern and stand wide of it,” said the Squire, as they reached the foot of the White Rock gully. “If they are armed, and mean business, we are only offering them a shot.” He paused at the sound of a quick, light footstep behind him, not many paces away, and wheeled about. “Who’s there?” he challenged in a low, firm voice.
“It’s I, father.” Walter, also with a gun under his arm, came forward and halted in the outer ring of light.
“H’m,” the Squire muttered testily. “Better you were in bed, I should say. This may be a whole night’s business, and you have a long journey before you tomorrow.”
The boy’s face was white: he seemed to shiver at his father’s words, and Father Halloran, accustomed to read his face, saw, or thought he saw– years afterwards told himself that he saw–a hunted, desperate look in it, as of one who forces himself into the company he most dreads rather than remain alone with his own thoughts. And yet, whenever he remembered this look, always he remembered too that the lad’s jaw had closed obstinately, as though upon a resolve long in making but made at last.
But as the three stood there a soft whistle sounded from the bushes across the gully, and Jim Burdon pushed a ghostly face into the penumbra.
“Is that you, sir? Then we’ll have them for sure.”
“Who is it, Jim?”
“Hannaford and that long-legged boy of his. Macklin’s up a-top keeping watch, sir. I’ve winged one of ’em; can’t be sure which. If you and his Reverence–“
Jim paused suddenly, with his eyes on the half-lit figure of Walter a Cleeve, recognising him not only as his young master, supposed to be in France, but as the stranger he had seen that afternoon talking with Hannaford. For Walter had changed only his sabots.
The Squire saw and interpreted his dismay. “Go on, man,” he said hoarsely; “it’s no ghost.”
Jim’s face cleared. “Your servant, Mr. Walter! A rum mistake I made then, this afternoon; but it’s all right as things turn out. They’re both hereabout, sir, somewheres on the face of the rock, and the one of ’em hurt, I reckon. Macklin’ll keep the top: there’s no way off the west side; and if you and his Reverence’ll work up along the gully here while I try up the face, we’ll have the pair for a certainty. Better douse the light though; I’ve a bull’s-eye here that’ll search every foot of the way, and they haven’t a gun.”
“That’s right enough,” the Squire answered; “but it’s foolishness to douse the light. We’ll set it up on the stones here at the mouth of the gully while Walter and I work up to the left of the gully and you up the rock. It will light up their only bolt-hole; and if you, Father Halloran, will keep an eye on it from the bushes here you will have light enough to see their faces to swear by before they reach it. No need to shoot: only keep your eyes open before they come abreast of it; for they’ll make for it at once, to kick it over–if they risk a bolt this way, which I doubt.”
“Why not let me try up the gully between you and Jim?” Walter suggested.
His father considered a moment. “Very well, I’ll flank you on the left up the hedge, and Jim will take the rock. You’re pretty sure they’re there, Jim?”
“I’d put a year’s wages on it,” answered Jim.
So the three began their climb. At his post below Father Halloran judged from the pace at which Walter started that he would soon lead the others; for Jim had a climb to negotiate which was none too easy, even by daylight, and the Squire must fetch a considerable detour before he struck the hedge, along which, moreover, he would be impeded by brambles and undergrowth. He saw this, but it was too late to call a warning.
Walter, beyond reach of the lantern’s rays, ascended silently enough, but at a gathering pace. He forgot the necessity of keeping in line. It did not occur to him that his father must be dropping far behind: rather, his presence seemed beside him, inexorable, dogging him with the morrow’s unthinkable compulsion. What mad adventure was this? Here he was at home hunting Charley Hannaford. Well, but his father was close at hand, and Father Halloran just below, who had always protected him. At this game he could go on for ever, if only it would stave off tomorrow. To-morrow–
A couple of lithe arms went about him in the darkness. A voice spoke hoarse and quick in his ear–spoke, though for the moment he was chiefly aware of its hot breath.
“Broke your word, did ye? Set them on to us, you blasted young sprig! Look ‘ee here–I’ve a knife to your ribs, and you can’t use your gun. Stand still while my boy slips across, or I’ll cut your white heart out. . .”
Walter a Cleeve stood still. He felt, rather than heard, a figure limp by and steal across the gully. A slight sound of a little loose earth dribbling reached him a moment later from the opposite bank of the gully. Then, after a long pause, the arms about him relaxed. Charles Hannaford was gone.
Still Walter a Cleeve did not move. He stared up into the wall of darkness on his left, wondering stupidly why his father did not shoot.
Then he put out his hand: it encountered a bramble bush.
He drew a long spray of the bramble towards him, fingering it very carefully, following the spines of its curved prickles, and, having found its leafy end, drew it meditatively through the trigger-guard of his gun.
The countryside scoffed at the finding of the coroner’s jury that the last heir of the a Cleeves had met his death by misadventure. Shortly after the inquest Charley Hannaford disappeared with his family, and this lent colour to their gossip. But Jim Burdon, who had been the first to arrive on the scene, told his plain tale, and, for the rest, kept his counsel. And so did Father Halloran and the Squire.