Story type: Literature
‘In all his life he never engaged in a law suit. Reader, try if you can go so far and be so good a man.’
Thus concludes the epitaph of Doctor Unonius, upon a modest stone in the churchyard of Polpeor, in Cornwall, of which parish he was, during his life, the general friend, as his scientific reputation now abides its boast.
To those who knew him in life there is a gentle irony in the thought that while, during life, his scientific attainments earned him nothing but neglect, their recognition grows now proportionately as the man himself, his face and habit, the spruce black suit he wore, and the thousand small acts of kindness he did, fade out of memory. ‘Your late eminent fellow-parishioner, now these forty years with God,’–so the Bishop of the Diocese spoke the other day before unveiling a stained-glass window to that memory in Polpeor Church. The Bishop, you see, spoke of eternal life in terms of time–a habit with us all. If anything could be more certain than that, in whatever bliss Doctor Unonius now inherits, forty years–or a thousand for that matter–count as one day, it is that throughout his life he detested stained-glass. Through this very window, indeed, now obscured ad majorem gloriam Dei et in memoriam Johannis Unonii medicinae doctoris, he loved–for it faced his pew–to watch during sermon-time the blue sky, the clouds, the rooks at their business in the churchyard elms. He has even recorded (in an essay on ‘Visions’ read before the Tregantick Literary and Scientific Society in the winter session of 1856) that once, awaking with a start in the middle of Parson Grylls’s sermon, he distinctly saw suspended in these same elm-tops the image of an abnormally long pilot-fish (naucretes ductor) he had received from a fishing-boat overnight and left at home in his surgery mounted upon an apparatus of his own invention, ready to be sketched before dissection. Piscium et summa genus haesit ulmo . . . for twenty seconds, rubbing his eyes, he stared at the apparition as it very slowly faded.
It is on his researches in ichthyology, his list (no short one) of discoveries, his patient classification of British Fishes, that his fame rests. ‘Why “British”?’ the reader may ask. ‘Have fishes, then, our nationalities?’ The doctor liked to think so. He was a lover of his country, and for three years, while Napoleon threatened us with invasion, he had served as a second-lieutenant in that famous company, the East and West Looe Volunteer Artillery, better known as the Looe Die-hards. Now, in times of peace, with Britain supreme upon the seas, he boldly claimed for her every fish found off these shores. A sturgeon, even, might not visit our coastal waters, however casual the occasion, without receiving the compliment of citizenship for himself and his tribe. Yet Doctor Unonius patiently tracked these creatures in their most distant migrations–‘motus et migrationes diligentissime indagavit,’ says the mural tablet beneath the window. The three lights of the window represent (1) Jonah vomited by the Whale, (2) the Miraculous Draught of Fishes, and (3) St Peter, John Dory and the stater.
Polpeor, you must know, is a fishing-haven on the south coast of Cornwall, famous during the Napoleonic Wars for its privateering, and for its smuggling scarcely less notorious down to the middle of the last century. The doctor’s parents, though of small estate, had earned by these and more legitimate arts enough money to set them dreaming of eminence for their only child, and sent him up to London to Guy’s Hospital, where he studied surgery under the renowned Mr Astley Cooper. Having qualified himself in this and in medicine, he returned to his native home, which he never again left–save now and then for a holiday–until the day of his death.
Assiduous in visiting the sick, he found the real happiness of his life (one might almost say its real business) in his scientific and literary recreations. The range and diversity of these may be gathered from a list of his published writings: ‘The Efficacy of Digitalis Applied to Scrofula,’ ‘On the Carpenter Bee (Apis Centuncularis),’ ‘Domestic Usage and Economy in the Reign of Elizabeth,’ ‘A Reply to a Query on Singular Fishes,’ ‘The Fabulous Foundation of the Popedom’ (abridged from Bernard), ‘Migratory Birds of the West of England,’ ‘God’s Arrow against Atheism and Irreligion,’ ‘A Dissertation on the Mermaid,’ ‘Observations on the Natural History of the Chameleon,’ ‘Ditto on the Jewish and Christian Sabbath Days,’ ‘Ditto on Cider-making and the Cultivation of Apple Trees,’ ‘Contributions to a Classification of British Crustacea,’ ‘On Man as the Image of the Deity,’ ‘Daulias Advena; or, the Migrations of the Swallow Tribe.’ We select these from the output of one decade only. A little later the activity grows less miscellaneous, and he is drifting upon his magnum opus, as the titles indicate, ‘Some Particulars of Rare Fishes found in Cornwall,’ ‘An Account of a Fish nearly allied to Hemiranphus,’ ‘On the Occurrence of the Crustacean Scyllurus Arctus.’
He would announce these strange visitors–sepia biserialis, for an instance–with no less eagerness than a journalist hails the advent of a foreign potentate. He had invented, as we have said, an apparatus on which he mounted them, with a jet of salt water that played over their scales and kept fresh, as he maintained, the delicate hues he copied from his water-colour box; with what success let anybody judge who has studied the four great volumes wherein these drawings survive, reproduced by lithography, and published by subscription.
Immersed in these studies, Doctor Unonius found no leisure to think of matrimony; and his friends and neighbours often took occasion to deplore it, for he was an extremely personable man, fresh-coloured and hale, of clean and regular habits, and, moreover, kind-hearted to a fault. All Polpeor agreed that he needed a wife to look after him, to protect him from being robbed; and Polpeor (to do it justice) did not say this without knowledge. The good man could never be persuaded that Polpeor folk–his folk–were capable of doing him a wrong; but certain it is that learnedly as he wrote ‘On the Cultivation of Apple Trees,’ the fruit of his carefully tended standards and espaliers seldom arrived at his own table. They burgeoned, they bloomed; the blossom ‘pitched,’ as we say in the West; the fruit swelled, ripened, and then–
Garden shows were rarities in those days: but Tregarrick (Polpeor’s nearest market town) boasted a Horticultural Society and an annual Exhibition. Whether from indolence or modesty Doctor Unonius never competed, but he seldom missed to visit the show and to con the exhibits. The date was then, and is to this day, the Feast of St Matthew, which falls on the twenty-first of September: and one year, on the morrow of St Matthew’s Feast, the doctor, gazing pensively over his orchard gate at a noble tree of fruit, remarked to his friend and next-door neighbour, Captain Minards, late of the merchant service–
‘Do you know, Minards, I was at Tregarrick yesterday; and I think– yes, without vaunting, I really think that the best of my pearmains yonder would have stood a fair chance of the prize for Table Varieties.’
‘The prize?’ grunted Captain Minards. ‘Don’t you fret about that: you won it all right.’
‘Eh?’ queried Doctor Unonius, wiping his spectacles.
‘Ay,’ said Captain Minards, filling a pipe; ‘you won it, right enough.’
‘There’s no “but” about it. And what vexes me,’ pursued Captain Minards, ‘is that the rascals don’t even trouble to rob you neatly. See that branch broken, yonder.’
‘That’s with the weight of the crop.’
‘Weight o’ my fiddlestick! And the ground all strewed with short twigs!’
‘The wind’s doing.’
‘When you know the weather has been flat calm for a week past!’
‘There’s an extraordinary eddy just here, at the turn of the valley; I have often observed a puff of wind–you might almost call it a gust–spring up with no apparent reason.’
‘Well, you’re a man of science,’ Captain Minards replied doggedly, ‘and if you tell me this puff o’ wind carried your pearmains all the way to Tregarrick and entered ’em at the show under some other body’s name, I’m bound to believe you. But I wonder you don’t put it into a book. It’s interestin’ enough.’
With this Parthian shot he departed. But two nights later he was awakened in his bedroom, which overlooked the doctor’s orchard, by a strange rustling among the apple trees. Thud–thud!–there as he lay he listened for half a minute to the sounds of the dropping fruit.
The night was calm. . . . On the wall facing the bed’s foot there hung an old gun. Captain Minards arose, reached it down, loaded it with a charge of powder, and, stepping to the window, let bang at the trees. . . . After listening awhile he replaced the gun and retired to rest.
Next morning Doctor Unonius was called away from his breakfast to visit Sarah Puckey, an aged market woman or ‘regrater,’ whom he found in a state of prostration following (it was alleged) upon a severe nervous shock. He attended the old woman for the remainder of her days, which were few; and while they lasted she remained–in the language of Polpeor–a ‘bedrider.’ She never confided to him the nature of the shock which had laid her low; but at the last, satisfied of her own salvation, she worried herself sadly over the doctor and his defenceless life.
‘I’m a saved woman,’ she declared, ‘and a dyin’ old woman, and these things be clear to my eyes. A wife–that’s what you want. Your laudanums and your doldadums and your nummy-dummies may be all very well–‘
‘What are they?’ asked the doctor.
‘Latin,’ she answered promptly. ‘I be a dyin’ woman, I tell ‘ee, an’ got the gift o’ tongues. . . . And your ‘natomies and fishes’ innards may be all very well, but you want a wife to look after the money an’ tell the men to wipe their sea-boots ‘pon the front mat. When it comes to their unpickin’ a trawl in your very drawin’-room, an’ fish scales all over the best Brussels, as I’ve a-see’d ’em before now–‘ Mrs Puckey paused for breath.
‘Have ‘ee ever had a mind to the widow Tresize?’ she asked.
‘Certainly not,’ the doctor answered.
‘That’s a pity, too: for Landeweddy Farm’s her own freehold, an’ I’ve heard her say more’n once how sorry she feels for you, livin’ alone as you do. I don’t everyways like Missus Tresize, but she’s a bowerly woman an’ nimble for her age–which can’t be forty, not by a year or two. Old Tresize married her for her looks. I mind goin’ to the weddin’, an’ she brought en no more’n her clothes an’ herself inside of ’em: an’ now she’ve a-buried th’ old doter, an’ sits up at Landeweddy in her own parlour a-playin’ the pianner with both hands. What d’ee reckon a woman does that for?’
‘Maybe because she is fond of music,’ said Doctor Unonius dryly.
The invalid chuckled, until her old head in its white mob-cap nodded against the white pillow propping it.
‘I married three men mysel’ in my time, as you d’ know; an’ if either wan had been rich enough to leave me a pianner, I’d ha’ married three more. . . . What tickles me is you men with your talk o’ spoort. Catchin’ fish for a business I can understand: you got to do that for money, which is the first thing in life; an’ when you’re married, the woman sees that you don’t shirk it. But you make me laugh, puttin’ on airs an’ pretendin’ to do it for spoort–“Wimmen ha’n’t got no sense o’ spoort,” says you, all solemn as owls. Soon as a boy turns fourteen he takes up the trick. “Wimmen ha’n’t got no sense o’ spoort,” says he, sticking his hands in his breeches pockets; an’ off he goes to hook fish, an’ comes swaggerin’ back to be taken, catch an’ all, by a young ‘ooman that has been sayin’ naught but markin’ him down all the time. Spoort? This world, doctor, is made up of hooks an’ eyes: an’ you reckon–do ‘ee–the best spoort goes to the hooks? Ask the eyes and the maidens that make ’em.’
The doctor, who had risen and picked up his hat when Mrs Puckey linked his name with the widow Tresize’s, came back and re-seated himself by the bedside. The old woman enjoyed her chat–it did her more good than medicine, she said–and so long as she steered it clear of himself and his private affairs he was willing enough to indulge her. Nay, he too–being no prude–enjoyed her general disquisitions on matrimony and the sexes. Homo sum, etc., . . . He was a great reader of Montaigne, and like Montaigne he loved listening to folks, however humble, who (as he put it) knew their subject. Mrs Puckey certainly knew her subject, and if in experience she fell a little short of Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath,’ she handled it with something of that lady’s freedom, and, in detail, with a plainness of speech worthy of Panurge.
She knew very well that by further reference to Mrs Tresize she risked cutting short the doctor’s visit. Yet, woman-like, she could not forbear from just one more word.
‘She keeps it under the bed.’
‘Keeps what?’ asked Doctor Unonius.
The old woman chuckled again. ‘Why, her money, to be sure–hundreds an’ hundreds o’ pounds–in a great iron chest. I wonder she can sleep o’ nights with it, up in that g’e’rt lonely house, an’ not a man within call–Aw, doctor, dear, don’t tell me you’re goin’!‘
 Quaere. Was this some faint inherited memory of ‘the old profession’?–In nomine domini, etc.
A year passed; a year and three months. Old Mrs Puckey was dead and laid in churchyard, and the doctor remained a bachelor. Christmas found him busy upon two papers written almost concurrently: the one ‘A Description of a Kind of Trigla vulgarly confounded with Trigla Blochii,’ intended for Loudon’s ‘Magazine of Natural History,’ the other, ‘On Savagery in Dogs and Methods of Meeting their Attacks,’ for the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall.
On the morning of St Stephen’s (or Boxing) Day, his professional visits over, he devoted an hour to the second of these treatises. He had reached this striking passage,–
‘Homer informs us that the fury of a dog in attacking an approaching stranger is appeased by the man’s sitting down:–
‘”Soon as Ulysses near th’ enclosure drew,
With open mouths the furious mastiffs flew:
Down sat the sage and, cautious to withstand,
Let fall th’ offensive truncheon from his hand.”
‘Even at the present day this is a well-understood mode of defence, as will be seen from the following:–
‘At Argos one evening, at the table of General Gordon, then commander-in-chief in the Morea, the conversation happened to turn on the number and fierceness of Greek dogs, when one of the company remarked that he knew a very simple expedient for appeasing their fury. Happening on a journey to miss his road, and being overtaken with darkness, he sought refuge for the night at a pastoral settlement by the wayside. As he approached, the dogs rushed out upon him, and the consequences might have been serious had he not been rescued by an old shepherd, the Eumaeus of the fold, who sallied forth and, finding that the intruder was but a frightened traveller, after pelting off his assailants, gave him a hospitable reception in his hut. His guest made some remark on the watchfulness and zeal of his dogs, and on the danger to which he had been exposed in their attack. The old man replied that it was his own fault for not taking the customary precaution in such an emergency, that he ought to have stopped and sat down, until some person whom the animals knew came to protect him.
‘As this expedient was new to the traveller he made some further inquiries, and was assured that if any person in such a predicament will simply seat himself on the ground, laying aside his weapons of defence, the dogs will also squat around in a circle; that as long as he remains quiet they will follow his example, but as soon as he rises and moves forward they will renew the attack.’
At this point the doctor laid down his pen, arose, and went to the book-case for his Homer, with purpose to copy the original lines into a footnote–for, to tell the truth, he had never quite mastered the methods of the Greek accents. He found the passage in Odyssey 14. Yes, it was all right–
Ezeto kerdosune, skeptrou de oi ekpese cheiros . . .
But–hallo! what was this next line?–
Eutha kev o para stathmo aeikelion pathen algos . . .
–‘There by his own steading,’ the poet went on, ‘would Odysseus have suffered foul hurt, had not the swineherd hurried out and scolded the dogs and pelted them off with stones.’ It would seem then, according to Homer, that this device of squatting upon the ground could not be trusted save as a diversion, a temporary check. Doctor Unonius bit his nether lip. Strange that he had overlooked this. . . .
He had a scholar’s conscience. He could not endure to garble a quotation or suppress a material point for the sake of illustrating an argument more vividly. . . . Besides, it might delude some unfortunate person into sitting down where self-preservation demanded a more alert posture. Somebody–dreadful thought!–might get himself severely bitten, mauled, mangled perhaps to death, merely by obeying a piece of pseudo-scientific advice. That he, Doctor Unonius, might never be reproached with the disaster, might never even hear of it, in no degree mitigated his responsibility.
While he stood by the bookcase, balancing his spectacles on his forefinger and Homer’s words in his mind, Jenifer, his one small maid-servant, entered with word that Roger Olver was at the door with a message from Penalune.
‘Show him in,’ said Doctor Unonius.
So Roger Olver, huntsman and handy-man to Sir John Penalune of Penalune, squire of Polpeor, hitched his horse’s bridle on the staple by the doctor’s front door–it would be hard to compute how many farmers, husbands, riding down at dead of night with news of wives in labour, had tethered their horses to that well-worn staple–and was conducted by Jenifer to the doctor’s study.
‘Ah! Good morning, Roger!’
‘Mornin’, y’r honour. Sir John bade me ride down an’ ask ‘ee–‘
‘To be sure–to be sure. As it happens, no man could have come at a happier moment. Accustomed, as you are, to dogs–‘
‘Hounds,’ corrected Roger.
‘It makes no difference.’ The doctor translated the passage, and explained his difficulty.
‘I reckon,’ said Roger, after scratching his head, ‘the gentleman acted right in settin’ down–though I’ve never had occasion to try it, dogs bein’ fond o’ me by natur’. I’ve heard, too, that a very good way, when a dog goes for you, is to squatty ‘pon your heels with your coat-tails breshin’ the ground an’ bust out laffin’ in his face. I tell that for what ’tis worth.’
‘Thank you,’ said the doctor. ‘I will make a note of it.’
‘It wants nerve, seemin’ to me.’ Roger Olver rubbed his chin.
‘That is understood.’
‘For my part, if it happened I had a stick, I’d slash out at the beggar’s forelegs–so–an’ keep slashin’ same as if I was mowin’ grass. Or, if I hadn’ a stick, I’d kick straight for his forelegs an’ chest; he’s easy to cripple there, an’ he knows it. Settin’ down may be all right for the time, only the difficulty is you’ve got to get up again sooner or later–onless help arrives.’
‘Eureka!’ exclaimed Doctor Unonius, rushing to his notes.
‘I beg y’r honour’s pardon?’
‘The modern instance says that the dogs would remain seated in a circle round the man; that so long as he remained seated they would do the same; but that, if he attempted to rise, they would renew the attack. That vindicates me, and explains Homer.’
‘Do it?’ said Roger Olver. ‘But, beggin’ your pardon, sir, if it’s about dogs you want to know, why not have a look in at the kennels– ay, an’ follow the hounds now an’ then? I’ve often wondered, makin’ so bold, how a gentleman like yourself, an’ knowin’ what’s good for health, can go wastin’ time on dead fishes, with a pack o’ hounds, so to speak, at your door.’
‘There’s no sport more healthful, I verily believe,’ agreed the doctor.
‘And as for nat’ral history, what can a man want that he can’t larn off a fox? Five-an’-twenty years I’ve been at it, an’ the varmints be teachin’ me yet. But I’m forgettin’ my message, sir, which is that Sir John sends his compliments and would be happy to see you at dinner this evenin’, he havin’ a few friends.’
Doctor Unonius sighed. He had designed to spend the evening on his treatise. But he cherished a real regard for Sir John, whom all the countryside esteemed for a sportsman and an upright English gentleman; and Sir John, who, without learning of his own, held learning in exaggerated respect, cherished an equal regard for the doctor.
‘My compliments to your master. I will come with pleasure,’ said Doctor Unonius, thrusting Homer back in his shelf.
‘Wunnerful brandy, Sir John!’ said old Squire Morshead.
He said this regularly as he dined at Penalune when, after dinner and wine and songs, the hour came for the ‘brandy-mixing’ before the guests dispersed. Sir John was a widower and confined his hospitality to men. He had adored his wife and lost her young; and thereafter, though exquisitely courteous to ladies when he met them– on the hunting-field, for example–he could not endure one within the walls of Penalune. As he put it to himself, quoting an old by-word, ‘What the eye don’t see the heart don’t grieve.’ It scarcely needs to be added that the heart did grieve; but this was his way, albeit a strange one, of worshipping what he had lost.
For the rest, he was a hale, cheerful, even jovial gentleman, now well past fifty; clear of eye, sound of wind and limb, standing six feet two in his stockings; fearing no man, on good terms with all, but liking his neighbours best, and no more eccentric than a country squire has the right, if not even the obligation to be. Unless it were in the saddle, you could scarcely see him to better advantage than at this ceremony of brandy-mixing–for a ceremony it was; no pushing of a decanter, but a slow solemn ladling by the host himself from an ample bowl. Moreover, the Penalune brandy was famous.
‘It has lain,’ said he–‘let me see–thirty-five years in cellar, to my own knowledge. My father never told me how or when he came by it. Smuggled, you may be sure.’
The talk ran on smuggling and its decline. A Mr St Aubyn, of Clowance, lamented this decline as symptomatic–‘the national fibre’s deteriorating, mark my words.’ A Mr Trelawny was disposed to agree with him. ‘And, after all,’ he said, ‘the game was a venial one; a kind of sport. Hang it, a Briton must be allowed his sporting instincts!’ ‘By the same argument, no doubt, you would justify poaching?’ put in Sir John, with a twinkle. Mr Trelawny would by no means allow this. ‘It would interest me, sir, to hear you define the moral difference between smuggling and poaching,’ said Doctor Unonius. ‘I don’t go in for definitions, sir,’ Mr Trelawny answered. ‘I’m a practical man and judge things by their results. Look at your Polpeor folk–smugglers all, or the sons of smugglers–a fine upstanding, independent lot as you would wish to see; whereas your poacher nine times out of ten is a sneak, and looks it.’ ‘Because,’ retorted the doctor, but gently, ‘your smuggler lives in his own cottage, serves no master, and has public opinion–by which I mean the only public opinion he knows, that of his neighbours–to back him; whereas your poacher lives by day in affected subservience to the landowner he robs by night, and because you take good care that public opinion is against him.’ ‘To be sure I do,’ affirmed Mr Trelawny, and would have continued the argument, but here old Squire Morshead struck in and damned the Government for its new coastguard service. ‘I don’t deny,’ he said, ‘it’s an improvement on anything we’ve seen yet under the Customs, or would be, if there was any real smuggling left to grapple with. But the “trade” has been dwindling now for these thirty years, and to invent this fire-new service to suppress what’s dying of its own accord is an infernal waste of public money.’ ‘I doubt,’ Sir John demurred, ‘if smuggling be quite so near death’s door as you fancy. Hey, doctor–in Polpeor now?’ The doctor opined that very little smuggling survived nowadays; the profits were not worth the risk. ‘Though, to be sure,’ he added, ‘public opinion in Polpeor is still with the trade. For an illustration, not a soul in the town will let the new coast-guardsmen a house to live in, and I hear the Government intends to send down a hulk from Plymouth Dock and moor it alongside the quay.’ He paused. ‘But,’ he went on, with a glance over his spectacles at Sir John, ‘our host, who owns two-thirds of the cottages in Polpeor, may correct me and say that Government never offered a fair rent?’ Sir John threw back his head and laughed. ‘My heir, when he succeeds me,’ he said, ‘may start new industries in Polpeor; but I’ll not build new houses to worry my sitting tenants.’
It was now eleven o’clock, and by-and-by the company dispersed–which they did almost simultaneously and from the stable-yard, amid a tremendous clattering of hoofs, rumbling of wheels, calls of stablemen, ‘gee’s’ and ‘woa’s,’ buttoning of overcoats, wrapping of throats in comforters, ‘good-nights,’ and invitations to meet again. Sir John himself moved up and down in the throng, speeding his parting guests, criticising their horseflesh, offering an extra wrap to one, assuring himself that another had his pocket-flask charged for a long night ride.
In the press Doctor Unonius–whether because he never stinted a vail to the grooms, or because they felt a natural kindness for one who had brought their wives through confinement and ushered their children into the world; and anyway there was sense in standing well with a man who might at any time in this transitory world have to decide the important question of your living or dying–managed to get old Dapple harnessed in the gig, and the lamps lit, and to jog off with the earliest. The drive of Penalune extends for a mile, and along it, ahead of him and behind him, the voices of his fellow-guests challenged one another in song, rising clear on the frosty air,–
‘In the month of November, in the year ‘fifty-two,
Three jolly fox-hunters, all sons of the Blue,
Sing fol-de-rol, lol-de-rol–‘
Beyond the lodge gates came the high-road, and here half a dozen of the chorusers shouted goodnight, and rode away northward and by east in the teeth of the wind; but the greater number bowled along with the doctor south-west to the cross-roads under Barrow Down. There the Polpeor road struck off to the left, and, swinging into it, he found himself alone.
The night was moonless but strewn with stars. A tonic north-east wind hummed over the high moors, and seemed to prick old Dapple, prescient of his own straw and rack, to his very best trot. It was a penetrating wind, too; but Doctor Unonius, wrapped in his frieze coat, with the famous Penalune brandy playing about the cockles of his heart, defied its chill. At this rate half an hour would bring him to the gate of Landeweddy Farm, under the lee of Four Barrows; and beyond Landeweddy, where the road plunged straight to Polpeor and the coast, he would reach complete shelter. Let the wind blow from this quarter never so fiercely, in the steep lanes under the seaward edge of the moor a man could hear it screaming overhead and laugh at it, lighting his pipe.
The sound of hoofs and wheels died away down the westward road. Doctor Unonius, with face set for home, pursed his mouth and inaudibly whistled a tune,–
‘In the month of November, in the year ‘fifty-two.’
‘Whoa there, Dapple! Steady! Why, what ails the horse?’ For Dapple, as the gig turned a corner of road, on a sudden had shied violently, half reared, and come to a halt with a jerk that set the gig quivering, and had almost broken its shafts.
‘Why, hallo!’ exclaimed the doctor, peering forward.
To the right of the road, a little ahead of him, stood a woman. She had drawn aside, close to the hedge, doubtless to let them pass. The rays of the gig lamp fell full on her–a broad-shouldered woman of more than ordinary height. Over her head was flung a dark shawl, and her left hand held its edges tightly together at the throat. In her right she carried a leathern bag. This was as much as the doctor could see, for the shawl concealed her features. He could not recognise her at all, though he knew, or believed that he knew, everybody–man, woman, or child–within a radius of ten miles. But Doctor Unonius was ever polite.
‘Hey? Good-evening, ma’am!’ he sang out. ‘You startled the old horse a bit. I hope he has not frightened you?’
There was no answer.
‘Can I offer you a lift, ma’am, if you’re going my way? The hour is late, and the weather none too pleasant for tramping these high moors.’
Still there was no answer.
‘You needn’t be afraid of Dapple,’ he assured her. ‘He’ll stand still as a rock now, if you’ll climb up.’
‘Thank you,’ she answered at last, with a hesitating step forward, and the voice was hoarse and constrained.
‘Come round to the other side then. Here, give me your bag.’
The woman crossed in front of Dapple–who backed a foot or so uneasily–came around to the step, and handed up her bag. It was a two-handled bag, of japanned leather, and Doctor Unonius, as he took it from her and rested it against the splashboard, noted also that it was exceedingly heavy. He held out his hand. The woman grasped it, and clambered up beside him.
He gave a sharp look at her and called to Dapple. The horse pulled himself together and broke into a brisk trot, which continued for hard upon half a mile before either occupant of the gig broke silence.
For Doctor Unonius was considering. Though a student he was a man of considerable courage and cool-headed in emergency, as he was now not a little pleased to prove, for hitherto life had provided few emergencies to test him. But here was an emergency, and–at this time of night, and in this place–it looked to be an ugly one. He had to deal with a discovery, and the discovery was this.
The hand he had just gripped was no woman’s at all, but the hand of a man.
He stole another glance at his companion. She, or he, was leaning forward in a huddled attitude to meet the wind which now, as they rounded an edge of the down, blew crosswise athwart the gig and a little ahead. Nothing of face could be seen, only–and this dimly by the starshine–the hand that grasped the shawl. But it was enough; a man’s hand, the doctor could almost swear. He recognised this with a slight thrill. He was not afraid, but he was undeniably excited.
What on earth should a man be doing in woman’s clothes, on this road and at this hour? The road led no whither but to Polpeor and the coast, and passed on its way no human habitation but Landeweddy Farm and a couple of cottages half a mile beyond it, close under the dip of the hill. . . .
‘You are shivering,’ said Doctor Unonius, after a pause.
The crouching figure nodded, but did not speak.
‘Are you cold? Here, take some more of the rug.’
For a moment there was no answer, then a shake of the head.
‘Ill, then? Feverish? I am a doctor: let me feel your pulse.’
His companion made a quick gesture as if to hide the hand grasping the gig-rail: but after another pause, and as if reluctantly, it was reached across. The other still clutched the shawl.
Doctor Unonius, drawing off his right-hand glove with his teeth, reached across also and laid his fingers in professional fashion on the wrist. Yes; he was right. The wrist was a man’s wrist, large and bony. He screwed up his eyes and peered down as well as he might at the upturned hand. He could see that the finger-tips were square, and the palm, if he mistook not, showed a row of callosities at the base of the fingers. Something in the pulse’s beat caught his attention, and almost at the same moment his nostrils expanded suspiciously. Doctor Unonius had a delicate sense of smell.
‘This man,’ he thought, ‘is in a blue fright; and moreover, and although he smokes a deal of rank tobacco, I am open to bet he is a butcher by trade.’
He relaxed the pressure of his fingers very slightly, and the hand was sharply withdrawn.
Almost at the same moment the doctor’s own hand went swiftly to his head. There was a tug at the reins, and it fetched old Dapple up with a sprawl.
‘My hat is gone!’ exclaimed the doctor.
Sure enough it was: and as he leaned and peered after it, he could just discern it for a moment before it dropped like a sable bird against a dark furze bush a few yards away to the left.
‘My hat is gone,’ he repeated.
His companion did not budge, hardly so much as turned a glance, but sat as before, shivering and dumb.
‘I am very sorry to trouble you, ma’am,’ ventured the doctor politely. ‘But would it inconvenience you very much to climb down and recover my hat? It lies yonder, against the furze. With one of the lamps you will find it easily.’
‘Can’t you climb down yourself and fetch it? I’ll hold the reins.’ The voice was husky, the tone ungracious.
‘No, ma’am. Dapple is restive to-night, and I prefer–if you’ll forgive me–not to trust him to a lady and a stranger. If you refuse, my hat must e’en remain where it lies.’
The figure rose, as if upon a sudden resolve, and set one foot on the step.
‘I’ll fetch it for you. But being driven to-night is cold work, and I won’t trouble you any further. Hand me down my bag, please.’
The stranger climbed out and stood beside the step, with one hand holding on to the edge of the footboard.
‘Come, hand me down my bag.’
For answer Doctor Unonius lifted his foot and brought it down suddenly on the hand, grinding his heel into the fingers. At the same moment the whiplash fell over Dapple’s haunches. There was a yell of pain, a wild curse, a scuttering of hoofs, and the old horse, unaccustomed to the whip and well-nigh scared out of his senses, plunged forward into the night.
For a minute or so Doctor Unonius, as he called to Dapple and plied the whip, fancied that in the intervals of these encouragements he caught the sound of footsteps pursuing him down the hard road. But the chase, if chase were given, was vain from the first: for Dapple tore along as though the devil himself sat behind the splashboard.
But while the gig swayed and rocked, and while the wind sung past his ears, Doctor Unonius thrust a foot out, and steadying it against the hard bag, enjoyed some crowded moments of glorious life. After all these sedentary years adventure had swooped on him out of the night and was wafting him along in a sort of ecstasy. If the hand were, after all, a woman’s, he could never forgive himself. . . . But it was not: of that he felt sure. Complete success had crowned his simple manoeuvre. He felt all the exhilaration of a born student who suddenly discovers he can be practical–the sort of exhilaration Cicero felt, to his surprise, in dealing with the conspiracy of Catiline, and never during the rest of his life forgot.
It was hard on Dapple, but the doctor urged him for a mile before his natural kind-heartedness reasserted itself and he reined up the good old horse, to breathe him.
Now was his time to have a look at the bag. He reached down and lifted it to his knees, and again its weight surprised him. ‘It will be locked, no doubt,’ said the doctor to himself, as he drew the off gig-lamp from its socket to light his inspection.
But no: the bag was fastened by an ordinary spring-catch, and, when he pressed this, fell open easily. He listened for a second or two, with a glance over his shoulder into the darkness behind. But nothing could be heard–nothing but the night-call of a curlew somewhere on the moor, far to his right. Holding the lamp a little higher in his left, he thrust his right hand into the bag, groped, and drew out–
First of all, a pistol, and whether loaded or not he deferred for the moment to examine.
Next, four small but heavy canvas bags, each tied about the neck with a leathern thong. By the weight and the look, and also by the sound of them when shaken, they contained money.
Next, a pair of rubber-soled Blucher boots.
Next, a small square case, which he opened and found to contain a pocket-compass.
Next, a pair of night-glasses.
Next, a neck-comforter of knitted gray worsted
And, lastly, a folded map.
While he made this inventory, Doctor Unonius kept Dapple at a standstill; for thus only was he secure of hearing the smallest sound on the road behind. But now he judged it prudent to put another half a mile at least between him and pursuit, and so, replacing the lamp and hastily repacking the bag–with all but the pistol, which he kept handy on the seat beside him, and the map, which he thrust into the breast of his greatcoat–he urged the old horse into a fresh trot, nor pulled up again until he came to the glimmering white gate of Landeweddy Farm.
The courtlege of Landeweddy was hedged with tamarisks, now leafless, and through these, above the wall’s coping, the upper part of the house loomed an indistinct mass against the indigo-gray night. No light showed anywhere–as why should the widow Tresize or her maid Tryphena be awake at such an hour? The doctor would have required sharp eyes indeed to note, as he drew rein, that the blind of an upper window at the south-east corner had been drawn aside an inch or so out of the perpendicular. Had he detected this, indeed, it would have meant no more than that the widow, awakened from her slumbers by the sound of wheels, had arisen to satisfy the curiosity natural to women.
But Doctor Unonius, noting it not, drew forth the map from the breast of his greatcoat, unfolded it, and was proceeding to study it, again by help of the lamp. He recognised it at first glance for a map of the coast and country about Polpeor, and for this he was prepared; but the same glance showed him a slip of paper pinned to the map’s left upper corner. The paper bore a scrawl in pencil, ill-written, but decipherable–
‘Mrs Tresize at Landeweddy. 48. White gate, entrance
back. By Celler. Mem. I large chest. To be handled
quick and hidn in orchd if necessry. Reported good
money, but near. No help here but 1 servt maid.’
Doctor Unonius stared at the paper, and from the paper lifted his eyes to stare at the black bulk of the farm-house buildings, the stretch of roof, the tall chimneys looming above the tamarisks. But the close rays of the lamp dazzled his eyes, and he saw nothing– nothing but the white gate glimmering at the end of the courtlege wall. While he peered and blinked, memory recalled to him old Mrs Puckey’s tale of the money-chest kept by the widow Tresize beneath her bed.
Mischief was brewing, beyond a doubt. Precisely what that mischief might be he could not determine. But somewhere behind him was a man–a stranger, dressed in woman’s clothes–making at dead of night for a house occupied by two women only; for a house that held money. And this man had been carrying a bag which contained among other things a pistol, probably loaded, a pair of boots with rubber soles, a map, and a memorandum which said (and almost certainly with truth) that the house was unprotected save by one servant maid.
It was clear that he must call at once and give warning; that he must awaken the widow, at whatever cost to her nerves, and offer his protection. It might be that he had checkmated the ruffian and thrown him off his game. Very likely he had. A man with this evidence against him, and minus the pistol with which he had intended to do his infernal work, would–ten to one–be heading away from justice, and for dear life. Still, where so much was mystery, the doctor decided to take no risks. Whatever the event, his course of action–his only possible course–lay plain before him. Here of a sudden it occurred to Doctor Unonius that the man, though travelling alone, might be travelling to meet accomplices; and these accomplices might be hiding around and waiting, even at this moment.
He remembered that beyond the white gate a short farm-road led around to the back entrance of the building. With this new suspicion of a conspiracy in his mind, it cost him no small effort of courage to dismount, pistol in hand, from the gig and push the white gate open.
It fell back, as he remembered later, on a well-oiled hinge, and he stood aside while old Dapple, doubtless greatly wondering, obeyed his call and dragged the gig through. This was a nervous moment, for now the doctor could not rid himself of the apprehension that eyes might be watching him from behind the hedge. He remembered, too, that the widow Tresize kept a couple of sheep dogs, notoriously savage ones. It was strange that they did not awake and give tongue.
On the thought of this, as Dapple drew the gig through the gateway, Doctor Unonius edged up close to the step. . . . It might be all very well for Odysseus to squat on the ground when attacked by the hounds of Eumaeus, but Odysseus had not the resource (perhaps better) of springing into a gig.
Idle precaution! The widow Tresize’s dogs were peradventure caught napping. At all events, neither one nor the other uttered a sound. Doctor Unonius, wrenching a lamp from its socket, walked boldly forward at Dapple’s bit and, coming to the back entrance by the midden-yard, knocked boldly.
To his surprise, within a few seconds a faint light shone through the chink by the door-jamb, and he heard a footstep coming down the passage. A bolt was withdrawn, very softly–the door opened–and Mrs Tresize herself confronted him.
She stood just within the threshold, holding a lamp high: and its rays, while they fell full on the doctor, causing him to blink, crossed the rays of his gig-lamp which showed him that, late though the hour was, she had as yet made no preparations for going to bed, even to the extent of taking off her jewellery. The base of the lamp, as its flames flickered in the draught, cast a waving shadow over the widow’s cap perched on her neatly coiled black tresses, and the same shadow danced across her jet-black eyes and left them staring at him, very bright and inquisitive. She wore a dress of stiff black silk with a somewhat coquettish apron; and about her neck a solid gold chain, thrice coiled, with a massive locket pendant at her bosom. Above the locket was fastened a large memorial brooch with a framework of gold, a face of crystal and, behind the crystal, a weeping willow designed in somebody’s hair. Altogether the widow’s attire and array suggested that she had recently dismissed, or was even now expecting, company.
‘You may well be surprised, madam–at this hour–‘
‘I did not send for you.’
‘No, madam; and you will be surprised when you learn the reason of this call–surprised but not (I beg) alarmed. To begin with, I have a pistol here and can, at the worst, protect you.’
‘I had best tell you my story, which is a sufficiently extraordinary one. I have been dining at Penalune–nay, madam, do not misunderstand me: I am as sober as a judge. On my homeward road I overtook a suspicious character, and certain evidence I managed to wrest from him leaves little doubt that robbery is intended here to-night, as it has actually been achieved elsewhere. The man, I should tell you–a powerful fellow–was dressed in woman’s apparel.’
‘Oh!’ said Mrs Tresize shortly, and called down the passage behind her–‘Tryphena, come here!’
Without delay a middle-aged maid-servant appeared from a doorway that (as the doctor knew) led out of an inner kitchen. Two sheep dogs followed her growling, but at her command grew tractable and made no demonstration beyond running around the doctor and sniffing at his legs.
Tryphena, too–who, like her mistress, was fully dressed–betrayed no surprise. She had, in fact, been sent upstairs at the sound of wheels, and from behind a curtain had recognised Doctor Unonius as he examined the paper by the light of his gig-lamp.
‘Tryphena, here’s Doctor Unonius, and he brings word we’re to be robbed and murdered in our beds.’
‘The Lord preserve us!’ said Tryphena.
‘Amen,’ said Mrs Tresize; ‘and meanwhile you’d best go and stable the horse while I hear particulars.’
Tryphena slipped out into the yard, the sheep dogs following. The doctor would have helped her, but she took the lamp from his hand, replaced it in its socket and set about unharnessing without further to-do, coaxing Dapple the while to stand steady.
‘Tryphena understands horses,’ said Mrs Tresize. ‘Come indoors, please, and tell me all about it.’
Doctor Unonius lifted out the incriminating bag and followed her along the passage. She paused at the door of the best kitchen and pushed it wide. He looked in upon a bare but not uncheerful room, where a clean wood fire blazed on an open hearth and over the fire a kettle sang cosily. Gun-racks lined the walls, and dressers laden with valuable china, and these were seasonably adorned with sprigs of holly, ivy, and fir. A kissing-bush, even, hung from the bacon-rack that crossed the ceiling, with many hams wrapped in bracken, a brace of pheasants, and a ‘neck’ of harvest corn elaborately plaited: and almost directly beneath it stood a circular table with a lamp and a set of dominoes, the half of them laid out in an unfinished game. The floor was of slate but strewn with rugs, some of rag-work others of badgers’ skins. A tall clock ticked sedately in a corner. On one side of the chimney a weather-glass depended, on the other a warming-pan–symbols, as it were, of conjugal interests, male and female, drawing together by the hearth.
Doctor Unonius felt an unwonted glow at the sight of this interior. He could not but admire, too, the widow’s self-possession. Instead of trembling and demanding explanations she suggested that a glass of hot brandy and water would do him no possible harm after his drive, and stepped to the corner cupboard without waiting for an answer. It was a piece of furniture of some value, lacquered over with Chinese figures in dusky gold. But the doctor’s gaze travelled rather to the gun-racks. He counted a dozen firearms, antique but serviceable, and suggested that, with powder and shot, Landeweddy was capable of standing a pretty stiff siege.
‘I keep but two of them loaded,’ said the widow, and indicated them– a large blunderbuss and a fowling-piece with an immensely long barrel; ‘but there’s powder and three sizes of shot in the right-hand drawer, there, below the dresser. You can charge the others, if you’ve a mind.’
‘My warning would hardly seem to have impressed you, madam.’
‘Oh yes, it has,’ answered Mrs Tresize, measuring out the brandy. ‘But you see, doctor, one gets accustomed to fears, living in this lonely place; and with a man as protector one feels as safe as with a regiment.’
‘You flatter my ability, I fear,’ said the doctor. ‘I will do my best, of course: but I ought to warn you that I am no expert with firearms.’
‘I can help you with the loading,’ said Mrs Tresize. ‘But tell me the worst of the danger, please.’
Doctor Unonius set the bag on the table, and unloaded its contents one by one while he told his story. The sight of the money-bags did not produce quite the thrill he had looked for, but she evinced a lively interest in the paper pinned to the map.
‘Mrs Tresize at Landeweddy, 48,’ she read, holding it under the lamp, and slightly puckering her handsome brows.
‘That doesn’t flatter you, ma’am.’
‘Hey?’ Mrs Tresize looked up sharply. ‘You don’t suppose that means my age?‘
‘I–er–fancied it might. It would be a guess, of course.’
‘Nonsense,’ said Mrs Tresize.
‘It is nonsense,’ the doctor agreed. ‘The man was obviously misinformed.’
‘It doesn’t refer to my age at all,’ said Mrs Tresize, positively. ‘It–it alludes to something quite different. I was barely nineteen when I married.’
‘If you can guess to what it alludes–‘
‘Reported good money, but near–‘ read the widow, paused, and uttered a liquid laugh. ‘Oh, I am glad you showed me this. We’ll punish him for that, doctor, if he dares to turn up.’
‘If,’ echoed the doctor, with a glance at the gun-racks.
‘I ought to go and warn Tryphena.’
‘Every moment may be precious,’ he agreed again, while she went to the chimney-place and fetched the now boiling kettle.
She mixed the drink and set it close before him, where he leaned pondering a pile of gold he had poured upon the table from one of the canvas bags. The steam mounting from the glass bedimmed his spectacles. He took them off to wipe them, and perceived that she was smiling. She bit her lip at being thus caught.
‘I was thinking,’ she made haste to explain, ‘what a funny situation ‘twould be if by any chance the man was innocent, and you’d driven off with money that honestly belonged to him.’
‘Honest men don’t put on women’s clothes to tramp the moors at night,’ Doctor Unonius objected.
‘Well, I don’t see that it mightn’t happen. A man having this money to carry, and afraid of being robbed, might put it to himself that rough characters–specially gipsies–often let a woman pass where they’d attack a man. Or suppose, now, the man was a gipsy?–he’d sold three horses, we’ll say, at Tregarrick Christmas Fair, and was trudging it back to his camp somewhere on the moors. A gipsy would be the very man to hit on that kind of disguise, it being against his own principles to hurt any woman but his wife.’
‘This man was a butcher, ma’am, and no gipsy.’
‘O–oh!’ cried the widow, with a little gasp. ‘How do you know?’
‘Never mind how I know, ma’am. He was a butcher, right enough; and, on your hypothesis that I’ve committed highway robbery upon an innocent man, I’d like you to explain how he comes to be carrying about this paper. “One large chest” he credits you with possessing; it is to be handled quickly and hidden in the orchard, if necessary– that is, I suppose, if he should be surprised; and to resist him you have nobody on the premises but your servant maid Tryphena. For what innocent purpose, pray, does he carry about this memorandum?’
”Myes, I suppose you are right,’ Mrs Tresize assented with a little sigh, and forthwith shifted the conversation. ‘But taste your brandy, please, and tell me how you like it–though, to be sure, it won’t compare with Squire Peneluna’s.’
It was, nevertheless, good sound brandy, genuine juice of the grape, soft and well-matured. The doctor after a sip nodded his approval.
‘I dare say, now,’ she went on, ‘you’re accustomed to this sort of thing? I mean, you must pass a good many nights, year’s end to year’s end, in other folk’s parlours. . . .’ She broke off, and this time with a genuine sigh. ‘I used to wonder in days gone by, if ever you’d be sitting here. I used to picture you . . . and now it’s for a robber you’re waiting!’ She ended with a laugh, yet turned her face away.
But either the doctor was nettled or his mind refused to be diverted by small talk from the business in hand. He somewhat curtly commanded Mrs Tresize to indicate on the gun-rack the weapons her late husband had commonly used, and to find him powder and shot. For a moment she pouted her lips mutinously, but ended by obeying him, with a shrug of her handsome shoulders.
She stood watching him while he carefully loaded the weapons and rammed home the wads. It is possible that she had a mind to relent, and suggest his whiling the time away with a game of dominoes. At any rate she went so far as to hazard–with a glance at the ivory tablets, and another at the hearth and the elbow-chairs–that he would find the waiting tedious.
‘Not if you can supply me with a book, ma’am,’ he answered, laying the two guns on the table, after sweeping the dominoes aside to make room for them.
Mrs Tresize left the room and returned bearing a volume–Blair’s Grave. She understood (she said) that the doctor preferred serious reading.
‘Among all the poets that ever wrote,’ said Doctor Unonius blandly, ‘with the possible exception of Young, I have the greatest contempt for Blair. He has the one unpardonable fault (not the one mentioned by Horace, though he has that, too): he is dishonest. The finest passage in the Grave is impudently stolen from Dryden, and marred in the stealing. But I thank Heaven, ma’am, that I can read any printed matter; and when Blair disgusts me I can always take a satisfactory revenge by turning him into Latin Elegiacs; by turning him, so to speak, in his Grave,’ concluded the doctor grimly.
This routed the lady, but she managed to get in the last word. ‘Well, I can’t pretend to understand you and your learning,’ she answered tartly; ‘but since we seem to be thanking Heaven, I’ll thank it that I have a fire lit in my bedroom. It’s the room just overhead, and I’m going to ask Tryphena to sleep with me when she has put up the bolts. Or, maybe, we shall sit up there for a while and talk. But anyhow, we are light sleepers, the both of us, and if there’s any trouble you have only to call. Good-night.’
‘Good-night, ma’am!’ said Doctor Unonius, and opened the door for her. Left alone, he went back to the table and began to turn the pages of Blair.
Doctor Unonius had drawn the table close beside an elbow-chair to the right of the fireplace. The excuse he made to himself was that, with a bright fire burning, he could the better see to read by blending its blaze with the light of the lamp. But it may be conjectured that, having disposed himself thus comfortably, he indulged in a nap. A strange sound fetched him out of it with a bounce. He leapt to his feet, and stood for a moment stupidly rubbing his eyes. The fire had burnt itself low. Blair’s Grave lay face-downward on the hearth-rug, whither it had slipped from his knee. The clock in the corner ticked at its same deliberate pace, but its hands pointed to twenty minutes past two.
What was the sound? Or, rather–since it no longer continued–what had it been? As it seemed to him, it had resembled the beat of horses’ hoofs at a gallop; a stampede almost. It could not have gone past on the high-road, for the noise had never been loud: yet it seemed to come from the high-road for a while, and then to drop suddenly and be drawn out in a series of faint thudded echoes.
Doctor Unonius went to the window, drew the curtains, unbarred a shutter, and stared out into the night. A newly risen moon hung low in the south-east, just above the coping of the courtlage wall, but the wall with its shrubs and clumps of ivy, massed in blackest shadow, excluded all view of the terrestrial world. The sound, whatever it had been, was not repeated.
Doctor Unonius stood for half a minute or so and gazed out with his forehead pressed to the pane. Then he closed the shutter again, let fall the curtain, and with a slight shiver went back to the fireplace.
He had picked up a pair of tongs and was stooping to pick up the charred ends of wood and pile them to revive the blaze, when another sound fetched him upright again. This also was the sound of a horse at a gallop, but now it drew nearer and nearer up the road. It clattered past the courtlage wall, and with that came to a sudden sprawling halt. A man’s voice, the rider’s, shouted some two or three words the doctor could not catch; but a moment later he heard the latch of the yard gate clink and horse and man lunge through, and had scarcely time to arm himself with one of the guns before three sharp strokes rattled on the back door.
Doctor Unonius hurried out to the passage. There he all but ran into Mrs Tresize, who came downstairs, lamp in hand and fully dressed as before. As before, too, she was entirely composed in manner.
‘I will open,’ she said. ‘Go back and put the other gun away quickly, the pistol too. Keep the one in your hand if you will, and come back to me while I pretend to draw the bolts. No, please don’t argue. It will be all right if you do as I say.’
She appeared so very sure of herself that, against his will, the doctor obeyed.
‘Pretend to draw the bolts?’ he kept muttering. Had the door been unbarred, then, all this while?
She was opening it, at any rate, when he returned to the passage. But before lifting the latch she demanded, as if upon second thought,–
‘Who is there? And what is your business?’
‘Mr Rattenbury,’ answered a loud voice. ‘You shall know my business fast enough if you will kindly open.’
Without more ado she flung the door wide, and the ray of her lamp fell upon Mr Rattenbury, the young riding-officer, cloaked, high-booted, and spurred.
‘A strange business it must be, sir,’ said the widow, ‘that brings you hammering up sick folk at this time of night!’
‘Sick folk, eh?’ said the riding-master, with a brusque laugh. ‘Sick folk don’t usually sit up till past two in the morning ready dressed. Hadn’t we better stow that kind of talk, ma’am?’
‘You had better,’ Mrs Tresize answered composedly, ‘hitch your horse’s bridle to the staple you’ll find on the left, and step inside–that is, if you are not in too great a hurry.’ Here she turned for a look behind her. ‘My goodness!’ she cried with a well-feigned start, ‘if you haven’t scared the doctor into fetching a gun!’
Mr Rattenbury stared past her into the passage. ‘Doctor Unonius?’ he exclaimed, catching his breath in surprise.
‘At your good service, Mr Rattenbury, though you have given us a shock, sir. May I ask what keeps you afoot to-night? Not a run of goods, I hope?’
Mr Rattenbury stared at him. If any one man in the whole countryside bore a reputation of simple probity, it was Doctor Unonius. Impossible to connect him with tricks to defraud the Revenue! And yet had not the young riding-officer distinctly seen Landaveddy show and anon eclipse a light, and in such a fashion that it could only be interpreted as a signal.
‘There has been a run, and an infernally daring one,’ said Mr Rattenbury; ‘in Lealand Cove, not half an hour ago. And the deuce of it is we had warning of it all along.’
‘Warning?’ echoed Mrs Tresize, with a touch of anxiety in her voice.
‘Yes, ma’am. It was known to us–though I’ll not tell you how–that Truman, the Grampound butcher, was acting freighter for a pretty large run, and for a week now two of my fellows have been at Grampound keeping an eye on him. I sent over a relief this very afternoon, and the relieved men brought back the report that Truman had scarcely quitted his house for a week. They left at four o’clock. It was dusk, and he’d lit a couple of candles in his shop, and was seated there reading a newspaper. Another thing put us off. The boat chartered was the Bold Venture, with Cornelius Roose on board. Cornelius–as I dare say you have heard, doctor–is the cleverest spotsman on this coast; but he was never yet known to risk a run unless he had his brother John to help ashore. So we kept a sharp eye on John Roose, and unbeknown to him, as we thought. Well, to-night he attends a prayer-meeting at Polruan, that’s five miles east of home, and starts back at ten o’clock, our men shadowing him all the way. Goes quietly to bed he does, and just as I’m thinking to do the same, be shot if Cornelius hasn’t beaten up with a foul wind, dodged the cutter, and nipped into Lealand Cove, where somebody has two score of pack horses waiting–‘
‘Yes, the old game. It hasn’t been played before in my time, and my men had almost forgotten the trick of it. The horses need training, you see, and we reckoned the trained ones had all died out.’
‘Horses?’ repeated Doctor Unonius. ‘Then that accounts for the noise I heard–‘
‘Eh?’ queried Mr Rattenbury sharply.
‘A sound of galloping, as it were. I opened the window to look, but could see nothing.
Mrs Tresize caught her breath. ‘Yes, yes,’ she put in, ‘Doctor Unonius opened the window. You wouldn’t charge him with making signals, I hope?’
‘But–‘ began Doctor Unonius and Mr Rattenbury together. The doctor was about to say that, the road being hidden from this downstairs window, it followed that the window could not be seen from the road. But the riding-officer had the louder voice and bore him down.
‘But,’ he objected, ‘the light was shown from an upstairs window, ma’am.’
‘To be sure,’ the widow squared her chin and glanced at Doctor Unonius defiantly–‘and what should the doctor be doing here except attending on the sick? And where should my poor maid Tryphena be lying at this moment but upstairs and in bed with the colic?’
The doctor, on a sudden confronted with this amazing lie, cast up his hands a little way, and so, averting his eyes, turned slowly round to the fireplace. His brain swam. For the moment he could scarcely have been more helpless had some one dealt him a blow in the wind. His nature so abhorred falsehood that he blushed even to suspect it. To have it flung at him thus brazenly–
As he recovered his wits a little he heard the widow say,–
‘And as for the horses, they never came this way.’
‘Is that so?’ Mr Rattenbury swung round upon the doctor.
‘They–they certainly did not pass along the road outside,’ said Doctor Unonius, speaking as in a dream. ‘The noise of galloping turned off at some distance below the house, and seemed to die away to the northward.’
‘Then I’ve made a cursed mess of this,’ said the riding-officer, snatching up his hat. ‘Your pardon, ma’am! and if you won’t forgive me to-night, I’ll call and apologise to-morrow.’
He was gone. They heard the clatter of his horse’s hoofs down the road, and listened as it died away.
Neither spoke. Mrs Tresize stood by the table, and so that, glancing sideways across her left shoulder, her eyes studied the doctor’s back, which he kept obstinately turned upon her. He had put up a hand to the chimney-shelf and leaned forward with his gaze bent on the embers.
‘Ma’am?’ after a long pause.
‘Do you really reckon smuggling so very sinful?’
‘It is not a question of smuggling, ma’am.’
‘Oh, yes, it is!’ she insisted. ‘Once you get mixed up in that business you have to deceive at times–if ’tis only to protect others.’
‘I can understand, ma’am,’ said the doctor, after another pause, ‘that to dabble in smuggling is to court many awkward situations. You need not remind me of that, who am fresh from misleading that young man. It was–if you will pardon my saying so–by reason of his trust in my good faith that you escaped cross-questioning.’
‘I’ll grant that, and with all my heart. But, since deceiving him goes so hard against the grain with you, he shall know the truth to-morrow, when he comes to apologise. Will that content you?’
‘It will be some atonement, ma’am. As for contenting me–‘
‘You mean that I have given you a shock? And that to recover your esteem will not be easy?’
She asked it with a small, pathetic sigh, and took a step towards the fireplace, as if to entreat his pardon. But before he could be aware of this his attention was claimed by a sound without. The latch of the back door was lifted with a click, and, almost before he could face about, steps were heard in the passage. The door of the best kitchen opened a foot or so, and through the aperture was thrust the head of Tryphena–of Tryphena, who by rights should be lying upstairs, victim of a colic.
‘Missus!’ announced Tryphena, in a hoarse whisper. ‘The kegs be stowed all right in the orchet–all the four dozen. But here’s Butcher Truman, teasy as fire. Says he’s been robbed o’ fifty pounds on the way an’ can’t pay the carriers! An’ the carriers be tappin’ the stuff an’ drinkin’ what’s left, an’ neither to hold nor to bind but threat’nin’ to cut the inside of en out–an’ he’s here, if you plaze, to know if so be you could lend a few pounds to satisfy ’em. I told en–‘
‘Show him in,’ commanded Mrs Tresize, with a creditable hold on her voice; for, to tell the truth, she was half hysterical.
Tryphena withdrew, and pushed the strangest of figures through the doorway. Butcher Truman had discarded the shawl from his head and shoulders, or perchance it had been snatched away by the infuriated carriers. For expedition, too, he had caught up his feminine skirt and petticoat and twisted them and caught them about his waist with a leathern belt, over which they hung in careless indecorous festoons, draping a pair of corduroy breeches. But he still wore a woman’s bodice, though half the buttons were burst; and a sun-bonnet, with strings still knotted about his throat, dangled at the back of his shoulders like a hood. He was a full-blooded man, slightly obese, with a villainous pair of eyes that blinked in the sudden lamp-light. He was dangerous, too, between anger and terror. But Mrs Tresize gave him no time.
‘Ah, good-evening, Mr Truman! There has been some mistake, I hear; but it’s by the greatest good luck you came to me. Here is your missing property, eh?’ She smiled and held out the bag.
Butcher Truman stared at it. ‘Send I may never–‘ he began; and with that his gaze, travelling past the bag, fell on Doctor Unonius. ‘You?‘ he stuttered, clenching his thick fists. ‘You? . . . Oh, by–, let me get at ‘im!’
But Mrs Tresize very deftly stepped in front of him as he came on menacing.
‘If you are not a fool,’ she said sharply, ‘you will waste no time, but hurry along and pay the carriers. They, for their part, won’t waste any time with neat brandy. In ten minutes or so they’ll be wanting your blood in a bottle–and, if it’s all the same to you, Mr Truman, I’d rather they didn’t start hunting you through these premises. What’s more,’ she added, as he hesitated, ‘the riding-officer was close on your track just now. You owe it to Doctor Unonius here, that he has overrun it.’
The butcher clutched at his bag, and made as if to open it.
‘You needn’t trouble,’ Mrs Tresize assured him sweetly. ‘Your money’s good–and so will be mine when it comes to settling, for all that I’m reported “near.” Good-night!’
‘Good-night!’ growled Butcher Truman, and lurched forth with his bag. The widow, staring after him, broke into a laugh.
‘Tryphena,’ she said, ‘fetch the doctor’s horse and harness him quick! We must get him out of this, good man. Are the tubs stowed?’
‘All of ’em, missus. I counted the four dozen.’
‘Four dozen is forty-eight; and that doctor’–she turned to him– ‘is not my age, by a very long way.’
But when Dapple had been harnessed, and the doctor drove off (after looking at his watch and finding that it indicated ten minutes to four), Mrs Tresize lingered at the back door a moment before ordering Tryphena to shut and bolt it.
‘There was nothing else to do but lie,’ she said to herself, meditatively. ‘But, all the same, it’s lost him for me.’
So indeed it had. Doctor Unonius could not overlook a falsehood, and from that hour his thoughts never rested upon the widow Tresize as a desirable woman to wed.
But he had grave searchings of conscience on the part he had been made to play. Undoubtedly he had misled Mr Rattenbury, and–all question of public honesty apart–had perhaps injured that young officer’s chances of promotion.
The thought of it disturbed his sleep for weeks. In the end he decided to make a clean breast to Mr Rattenbury, as between man and man; and encountering him one afternoon on the Lealand road, drew up old Dapple and made sign that he wished to speak.
It’s about Mrs Tresize–‘ he began.
‘You’ve heard, then?’ said Mr Rattenbury.
‘Why, that I’m going to marry her.’
‘Oh!’ said the doctor; and added after a pause, ‘My dear sir, I wish you joy.’
‘I don’t feel that I deserve her,’ said Mr Rattenbury, somewhat fatuously.
‘Oh!’ said the doctor again. ‘As for that–‘
He did not conclude the sentence, but drove on in meditation.
It is to be supposed that with marriage the widow mended her ways. Certainly she can have dabbled no more in smuggling, and as certainly she had told the truth about her age. Thrice in the years that followed Doctor Unonius spent some hours of the night, waiting, in the best kitchen at Landeweddy; and Mrs Rattenbury on neither of these occasions–so critical for herself–forgot to have him provided with a decanter of excellent brandy.
The doctor sipping at it and gazing over the rim of the glass at Mr Rattenbury–nervous and distraught, as a good husband should be–on each occasion wondered how much he knew.