Ernest Hornung.

Denis Dent: A Novel



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Jewson held the bucket, as near as he could judge, within a few inches of the bottom of the shaft; when it lightened he went to the handle of the windlass and turned it slowly, so slowly that it came up without a creak, but also so slowly that minutes passed in the operation. When it was up he flung out the wash-dirt, replaced the bucket on its hook, and craned his neck over the lip of the shaft, to listen, and to peer.

A very faint light came from the single candle which Denis took with him along the drive; it just glimmered upon the floor of the shaft, and on the wall opposite the drive; but in the glimmer nothing moved, and nothing shone.

The steward closed his eyes and put a hand to either ear. The chip-chipping had ceased. There was no sound at all. And then, but not till then, did the criminal realize his crime.

He drew himself up with an uncontrollable shudder, and looked quickly on all sides of him. The sun was high in the deep blue heavens. The white tents in the gully shimmered in its glare. No one was about on the next claim; all were underground, or at the creek; no human eye had seen the deed.

Yet the skin tightened on the murderer's skull, a baleful dew broke out upon it, and the little eyes for once grew large with horror.

CHAPTER XXII
ATRA CURA

There are few more attractive houses near London than one that shall be nameless in these pages: enough that it lends the beauty of mellow brick and sunken tile to a hill-top already picturesquely wooded, but a dozen miles from the Marble Arch, yet in the country's very heart, on a main road where the inquisitive may still discover it for themselves. They will have to choose, it is true, between several old houses of rosy brick, all of them overrun with the rose itself, and all standing rather too near the road. The house in question is the one that has no other fault. It is the house with the plate-glass porch, the wide bay on either side, the luniform bay behind; at the back also are a noble lawn, several meadows, and a singular avenue, so narrow that the tall trees meet overhead as one. Other features are a rose garden, enclosed in the ripest of all the old red walls, and a model farm.

To this pleasant English home Mr. Merridew and his daughter returned in the month of February, after a wearisome but uneventful voyage and a week or two at the St. George's Hotel as a corrective. A distinguished physician had prescribed a month; but in ten days Nan had all the new clothes she needed, had seen all the plays she cared to see, and went in such fear of a certain topic of conversation, forced upon her by the heedless, that it was anguish to her to go about. So one of the carriages came up from Hertfordshire, and on a clear but chilly afternoon father and daughter drove home together.

It was not a hearty homecoming. John Merridew had been many years a widower, whose only other child had died in infancy. But the old red house looked warm and kindly; the servants stood weeping through their smiles; the firelit rooms were all unchanged, save in their new promise of perfect privacy; and in her home it was grasped from the first that Miss Merridew could not bear to speak about the wreck of the North Foreland and her own romantic rescue by one of the officers.

Thus she had no occasion to explain that she was engaged to him; and Mr. Merridew left the announcement to Nan.

"She has nothing on her mind, has she?" inquired old Dr. Stone after an early call as physician and friend.

"She has the wreck on her mind," replied Mr. Merridew promptly. "She can't even speak of it, as you may have noticed."

"I did notice, and that's why I ask. I saw the child into this world, my dear Merridew, and I want to dance at her wedding before I move on to the next. She didn't give her heart for her life, I suppose?"

"You must ask her that yourself, doctor," the discreet father replied, meeting a penetrating look with a laugh. And a firm old friend retired dissatisfied and rather hurt. But so the engagement was kept a secret from the first.

It is none the less safe to assert that there was not a waking hour of these early days in which the girl was oblivious of her new estate. It weighed on her mind far more than it had done at sea, though there she had missed Denis dreadfully, and sometimes with a resentment which she could not help. She had formed a habit of thinking in these moods of her last conversation with Ralph Devenish; it was the only cure. But fresh cause for displeasure awaited her in London. The voyage had been so long that certain Australian packets had given the Memnon a start and a beating; when Nan learned this she counted on a letter, but there was none. She studied the shipping news in the Times. More vessels arrived from Melbourne, but from Denis never a word. Sometimes the disappointment made her positively ill; always it left her tossing between the Scylla and Charybdis of terrible alternatives. Either he was indifferent, or else he was dead. And when she deemed him indifferent, there were things unforgettable that made her almost wish him dead; but when the terror of his death came over her in its turn, then she prayed less for his love than for his life.

So the days passed, and the sea-bronze soon faded from the piquant face, leaving it pale but petulant. Nan had not lost her spirit; she was one to chafe rather than to fret, but to do neither more openly than she could help. She kept herself up by exercise and fresh air. It was hard, bright weather, a little wintry still, yet with that promise of spring inseparable from the longer day and the lighter sky. There were even twigs with green tips to them, and the chestnut branches ended in sticky cones. But Nan thought of the spring before, when she had met with no adventures and had not become engaged; her obsession followed her to all her favourite places; and in her daily ride along the hard, clean roads, the black imp kept its perch.

Mr. Merridew was not the man to note all this and hold his peace, for he had small tact where his feelings were engaged; but he was so little at home that it was easy to deceive him; and his first conversation with Nan on the subject was really started in the city, where his partner, Ralph's father, had been inveighing against the Dents with the unbridled bitterness begotten of a family feud.

"To think of the son of that marriage sneaking into our line, under his own accursed name! It's so common; and I had no idea the fellow was at sea; but now I know how we lost our ship. You may shake your head, Merridew; wasn't she lost in his watch? You don't know the breed as I know it, and I suppose you're grateful to the fellow. But what good object could he have had in choosing our line of all others?"

"To rise in it," replied Merridew with some warmth: "to be revenged on you that way, not the other. And I happen to know, because he told Nan."

"Told her that, did he? After the wreck, I take it, when decency obliged you all to listen to the fellow? By the Lord, but you were lucky if that's all he told her! His father would have taken advantage of the situation, and married himself into the family before you knew where you were!"

It was no mere lack of moral courage that deterred John Merridew from the admission which rose naturally to his lips. He no longer regarded as inevitable the marriage to which he had consented in his agitation after the wreck, and to mention it to Ralph's father, when Ralph himself had evidently not done so in his letters, seemed an altogether needless indiscretion. He was, however, a peculiarly conscientious man, who would have much preferred to have stated the fact; not having done so, he had a curious desire to alter the fact to suit his silence; and so struck his first blow at Denis, more heavily than he intended, that very night.

"No," said Nan in answer to his question. "No, I have not heard from him yet."

"Not a word?"

"Not yet, papa. Surely you knew? You may be certain I shall not keep it to myself when I do hear."

There was a double reproach, of which her father felt his share, in the sudden bitterness with which the girl spoke. But John Merridew had now convinced himself that he had a parental duty to perform, that cruelty was the only kindness, and some little exaggeration justifiable to that end.

"It is most extraordinary," he murmured. "I never heard of a more extraordinary thing!"

"I don't see that at all," replied Nan, hotly. "You know what he is doing, and I know he is doing it with all his might. What time can he have for letters – digging all day – and what opportunity – living in a hut?"

"But that's what is so extraordinary," pursued Mr. Merridew. "That he should have elected to stay behind to do all that!"

"You know it was for my sake!" exclaimed the girl, tears in her eyes. "Oh, you are unkind to us both! He would not marry until he had something to marry on, something of his own; and there he was where people were making fortunes in a day! Whatever I may feel, you ought to respect him for doing what he has done. But it shouldn't have been necessary for him to do it, and you were the one to make it unnecessary."

"I?" cried Mr. Merridew, quite taken aback. "Why, my dear child, what more could I have done?"

"You might have taken him into the office; you might have promised him a partnership one day. If he doesn't deserve well of you, I don't know who does; and you know how clever he is, and how he would have worked to deserve all the more! It might have been an unusual thing to do," Nan added, with a sudden sense that she was talking wildly. "Nevertheless, I have always thought it a thing you might have done."

She had, indeed, thought it for some time; but, after all, the notion had first occurred to Mr. Merridew himself; and in all the circumstances he was not disposed to suppress the fact another moment.

"My dearest Nan," said he, gently, "it is the very thing I did!"

She looked at him with blank, unseeing eyes.

"What do you mean, papa?"

"I actually offered him that very opening, with every prospect of partnership that single partner could hold out."

"When?" asked Nan after a further pause. Her voice had changed.

"The first time I saw him after the wreck. It was too late. He had heard of the diggings, and he would hear of nothing else."

"Why did you never tell me before?"

"My dear child, need you ask? I thought it would hurt you," said Mr. Merridew; and the tender compassion in his voice was not unmingled with remorse, for Nan had turned very pale, and her lip quivered.

"It does," she said, simply. "No doubt that was why he did not tell me either," she added, and the quivering lip curled. In a minute she crossed over to her father's chair and kissed him without emotion. "I am afraid I have been very rude, besides misjudging you so strangely. But – but don't let us misjudge anybody else until we must – or speak of him again until we hear."

But it was harder now to believe the best, harder yet to look back without a passionate shame and indignation which in their intensity surpassed all that the girl had yet endured. She came down paler and paler in the mornings. It was because she had lain such a fiery red half the night – in the ti-tree thicket of her waking nightmare. She could not know how her feelings had been foreseen, nay, endured from the first on her behalf. She only knew that never in the morning was there the letter for which she looked – and almost loathed herself for looking – nor yet ever toward evening, when the postman came again, and Nan watched for him, openly or in hiding as pride or passion might prevail.

All this time, but now more than ever, the girl filled her life with a resolution which declared her calibre. She regained touch with her friends throughout the countryside. She visited the villagers, managed her father's house with increased capability, and no longer discouraged him from entertaining, as her inclination had been for a time. People who stayed in the house found its young mistress brighter in a way than they had ever known her. But that was the form of hospitality Nan relished least. As spring advanced she was more and more out of doors, on horseback or afoot; but in the open air she still preferred to be alone, and would advertise the fact by carrying a book on all her walks. She had taken to reading as she had never read before, in a way at once desultory and omnivorous. And it was in a tome from her father's shelves, to wit Southey's "Early British Poets," that a sudden beam of comfort and enlightenment shot into her soul from the immortal lines of Lovelace to Lucasta: —

 
"Yet this inconstancy is such,
As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee, dear, so much,
Lov'd I not honour more."
 

Nan knew the lines as a quotation. Why, why had she ever forgotten them? Why had she never once thought of them in all these weeks of doubt and pain? They put the case for Denis in a nutshell; and the quatrains before the quotation were hardly less poignant in their appeal, though Denis's "new mistress" was not war but wealth. Ah, if it had been war! And war was already in the whole air of England; but on the gold-fields there was no reason to think him other than safe and sound.

So powerfully was she affected and inspired that Nan showed the lines to her father that night. It had often troubled her that he must think ill of Denis; that was a more hurtful thing than thinking ill of him herself – who had the right. So she showed the open book to Mr. Merridew, counting unconsciously on his sentimental side, and not in vain.

"There," she said, "that is what I have been wanting to say for him all these weeks. There speaks Denis himself. He has called to me from the other end of the world. I was thinking of him when I went for a book, and I put my hand on this one, and I opened it at this place!"

Mr. Merridew was full of sympathy – a quality in which he was rarely deficient when there was trouble in the air; besides, he cherished the most genuine desire for his daughter's happiness. If she could be happy believing in Dent, well and good, and it might all come right yet. The great thing was that despite her energies she had been pensive and wan for many a day, but that now she was flushed and bright.

"Believe in him, dear!" she whispered in her father's ear, her arm round his neck.

"I always did, Nan," he answered, stroking her hair.

"No, not always; but you did once, and you will again."

"Very well, Nan."

"From this moment!"

"No; not from this moment," said Mr. Merridew, characteristically seeking to justify his former asseveration, "when not for a single moment have I ceased to bless him for preserving my darling's life. How could I disbelieve in him in my heart after that? If I have ever done so it has been when I have seen you sad and sorry. But when I think of all he did for you – "

"Don't; please don't!"

Her face was hidden against him. He might have felt its heat. But it was in the plain troubles only that he was a sympathetic man.

"But I must," he rejoined cheerily. "We must not forget all he did, and I am afraid we have. Why, Nan, what is it?"

"I am going."

"But why? What have I said?"

"Nothing – nothing – only I wish he had let me drown – I wish that!"

And with this hard saying the girl was gone, with tears that puzzled John Merridew to his dying day, and flaming cheeks that dried them as they ran.

CHAPTER XXIII
BROKEN OFF

One afternoon Mr. Merridew came home in a state of suppressed excitement which was none the less manifest to Nan's first glance. It was late in April, and he found her on the lawn behind the house. Cuckoos were calling in the narrow avenue, now faintly dusted with palest gold; lesser trees had reached the stage of emeralds, and a horse-chestnut on the lawn was parading a thousand pairs of light-green gloves. The radiant afternoon sky changed into that of a serene evening as father and daughter stood face to face.

"Who do you think arrived in London this morning? Ralph Devenish!" he said, speaking the name in haste as her colour went.

"Indeed!" she remarked, and bit her lip to hide the hope that she had cherished for one instant.

"Poor fellow," continued Mr. Merridew, with his facile sympathy for the luckless, "he is terribly upset! The last English news he had on sailing was not later than last October; of course they touched nowhere, so he had no idea there was war with Russia until this morning. It is his battalion of the Grenadiers that went to the Black Sea with the rest of the Guards two months ago; and here he has been cooling his heels in perfect innocence at sea! Of course he reported himself without a minute's delay to the authorities, and now awaits their pleasure in a perfect fever of disappointment and professional ardour. He says he has been in the service all these years without hearing an angry shot, and now after all he may miss the fun! A gallant soldier, Nan, whatever else he may be!"

"I should hope so," the girl said, simply and without scorn. Her mind had not crossed the seas with Ralph. "Did he really go to the diggings?" she asked in a constrained voice.

"Yes, and did very fairly there; what is more, my dear, he saw something of Denis Dent."

The girl was galvanized. "Was he well?" she whispered in a breath.

"Perfectly, when Ralph left, which was only in January."

Nan filled her lungs, and for the moment her soul sang praises; but for a moment only. If he was well, why had he never written? Her indignation had free play for the first time in all these months; she could better have borne to hear he had been ill, if only he were well again; for then she could have understood, then there would have been nothing to forgive.

"He was not only well," continued Mr. Merridew, with outward reluctance, not altogether an affectation, "but he was doing uncommonly well – far better than poor Ralph!"

Doing uncommonly well! And yet he could not write.

"And where is Ralph?" asked Nan, in a hard voice, and with that old hard light in her hazel eyes.

Mr. Merridew stood covered with a guilty confusion.

"Nan, would you see him if he came to see you?"

"Of course I would. Why not? I should like to see Ralph particularly."

"My dear, he didn't know; he was greatly afraid it would be just the other way. But since you say that, I must tell you he is within a hundred yards of where you stand, waiting in the road to know whether you would see him or not."

Nan was annoyed at this; it was giving romantic colour to a meeting which should have been perfectly natural and dispassionate on both sides; and on hers it was too dispassionate, and not natural enough, in consequence. Yet she wore a flush which might have flattered a less vain man than Ralph Devenish; and as for him he looked nicer than she had ever known him, in the shabby suit which was the best that remained of his Australian outfit, with the deep bronze upon his sallow face, and with inches added to his splendid whiskers. There was also, in him, a strange absence of arri?re-pens?e, psychologically more interesting than she dreamed; it was he who told her of Denis, unasked, in perhaps his second breath.

"Oh, I did decently," said Ralph, "and might have done really well had I stuck to it. But that cousin of mine – that's the man! He had some luck, though no more than he deserved; but when I came away he was the talk of his gully, to say the least. If he has realized half the prophecies I heard before I left he must be a wealthy man by this time."

"Do you mean to say he has been lucky from the beginning?" asked Nan, her incredulity strangely tinctured with disgust; and she brightened as perversely when she heard the truth. For it was the truth about Denis, so far as he knew it, that Ralph told Nan this April evening. He was cast for he knew not what part of bold duplicity; all he saw clearly was the end, and to that he was prepared to plough his way through all dishonour, as a traveler steels himself against every obstacle between him and the one light twinkling through the trees. The light was very brilliant in this sweet spring dusk, before his eyes yet not within his reach. It dazzled him, the light of the face he loved; and love he did, the more passionately, not the less, for the sacrifice of his honour that he had made already in his heart. To look through the sweet English dusk into her eyes, to hear her voice through the evensong of the dear old English birds, was to feel a final hardening of every unscrupulous resolve. And yet honour dies hard in the type to which Ralph Devenish belonged; it was dying so hard in Ralph that he was glad to tell the truth while he might, glad to speak well and kindly of the man he was to thwart in life by fair means or by foul.

So Nan heard of Denis's early unsuccess, and was thankful; a proud silence she could understand and might learn to forgive. And she was only less grateful for the way Ralph spoke of him; yet be it remembered to Ralph's credit, or what was left of it, that his tone, if assumed, was no device to win Nan's gratitude as it actually did.



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