Ernest Hornung.

Denis Dent: A Novel



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The voyage was quite uneventful, but of petty incident there was the usual supply. Denis himself incurred the displeasure of the captain by his professional interest in every move, but in a rough-and-tumble round the Horn he made certain amends, and won further favour in the tropics. There they were becalmed three weeks. The ship was full of returning diggers, mostly unsuccessful, and discontent in the steerage was fermented by the harsh treatment of offenders upon whom the thwarted skipper wreaked insensate vengeance with the irons which are a snare to so many of his kind. It was Denis who remonstrated in the captain's cabin and reasoned between decks, and it was Denis who forthwith initiated the various interests which redeemed the remainder of the voyage. Here, however, he received valuable aid from a hard-bitten old sergeant of the Black Watch, named Thrush, who had thus far been an unpopular advocate of steerage discipline. From organized games these two worked up to a daily drill, owing a plausible existence to the pirates with which the seas were still infested in those days, and a corporeal to the valuable money-prizes which Denis put up. This passed a lot of time. The captain looked on approvingly from the poop. Sergeant Thrush bellowed and swore in his old element. Denis drilled humbly with the rest. In the channel he was thanked by the captain in a public speech, and so cheered by every throat on board that he must have stepped ashore in a glow, even with no Nan Merridew in the world.

As it was he was naturally anxious, more nervous than he could have believed, yet full of simple-hearted faith and trust. God had been very good to him: disloyal and impious to anticipate aught but goodness at His hands. And yet – it was eleven long months and more! And yet – not a letter from his love in all that time!

This, however, was his own fault rather than hers; there had been no time for answers to the few letters he was justified in hoping she had received. No one therefore was to blame, except himself. But yet much, only too much, might happen in eleven months.

Denis went straight to Rothschilds' (for it was a Saturday morning), presented his draft, and was still wise enough in his excitement to open an account then and there. Fifty pounds he drew in cash, and the business was concluded in ten minutes. But it took Denis some hours, driving about in a cab, to render himself temporarily and approximately as presentable as he burned to be; and the afternoon was advancing when he stopped the cab on a country road, to jump out a new man, whose beard was trimmed beneath his changeless tan, but all else about him only too fresh from the shop.

In his heart he regretted his comfortable rags, his old hat, his easy boots, even his flowing beard; but he felt it would have been the greater affectation to go out to Hertfordshire just as he had left the diggings; and so you see him well upon the road, yet with a three-mile tramp still before him, deliberately chosen to calm his soul.

It happened to be the last day of September.

The countryside lay porous but peaceful under a delicate film of mist and chastened sunlight. Trees showed to less advantage in limp leaves of a lacklustre shade between living green and dying glory; but to Denis the hour was still worthy of his dreams; it was for him to prove worthy of the hour. The rich scent of decay was not only perfume in his nostrils; it braced the brain like strong salts; and the sharp touch of autumn in the air had the like effect upon his blood. He strode out with the greater gusto for his long confinement aboard ship; the day could not well have been more restful, more reassuring, more inspiriting withal.

Presently a village – a village so utterly English in its great length, its red roofs, and the signs and archways of its many inns, that Denis could have tarried there merely to gloat over his native land. But he only inquired the name of the place, and was off with a nod on hearing it was Edgware. It could only have been Edgware; he knew where he was to a mile and less, though he had never before been there in the flesh. The spirit had atoned. Was it not Nan herself who had taught him the road she knew so well? Had she not told him exactly how to come, the very next time he was in docks? Ah, that was in the early days, in tropic nights on the North Foreland, yet how well he remembered one and all! How he could see the fresh young girl, so far from her home, but so full of it! Not Nan to him then – only Miss Merridew! It seemed a great many years ago.

But she had told him how to know the house, by its plate-glass porch and its dear red bricks; she had prepared him for the first sight of the sacred spot, the line of trees to be seen against the sky from a certain dip and sudden bend in the road. Great heaven! Could those be they? Denis was standing in such a hollow at such a bend. A file of trees ran into the sky like a giant hedge: even so had Nan described the first prospect of that narrow avenue in which Denis had done everything but walk.

Somehow his legs carried him up the last hill, and so to the low wall which made no pretense of shielding the front of the house from the road. Of course it was the house; the old red brick glowed as softly as in his dreams; the distinctive porch reflected a gentle sunset with all the sharp fidelity of plate-glass. Denis was glad to lean on the low wall, to peer through the shallow shrubbery on its inner side; he felt as though the muscles had been drawn out of him.

But as he leaned the reflected sunset was momentarily disturbed, and the next moment a figure stood in the doorway, gazing toward the west itself. It was Nan. The sunset lit her ringlets to warmest gold. It gave her some colour, too, yet still her face was paler than of old, as it was certainly far thinner and older. Its appeal to Denis was all the more potent and instantaneous. His muscles tightened almost with a twang. No running round by the gate for him! He vaulted the wall, burst through the bushes, stood panting at her feet.

Nan's hands clutched post and door; the sunlight turned ghastly on her face; but she could look steadily down on him from the step, she was so much the calmer of the two.

"I have been expecting you so long!" she could say with but a break in her voice. "Oh, Denis … Denis!"

And her right hand lay cold in his.

"Come in!" she cried, wrenching it from his lips. Something rang on the flags of the porch as she pushed him before her. "No, no, through into the garden," she went on. "It's stifling in the house."

Yet firelight flickered in the rooms they passed, and it was really chilly on the lawn where Nan had walked with Ralph, also toward dusk, at the break of the leaf now floating back to earth.

"I found the house in a minute," he went on as they trod the soft turf together. "We only got ashore this morning, and I drove out nearly all the way; but I felt I must walk the part I seemed to know so well. This time yesterday we were off the Isle of Wight: such a voyage, a hundred and twenty-nine days from pilot to pilot! I'd have given a thousand pounds to knock off the twenty-nine!"

That was his only allusion to his success, and it was unintentional. She was sadly embarrassed; he saw it with some pain, but supposed it natural after so long a separation. After all, they scarcely knew each other; they only loved; but Denis was not going to force the love upon her all in a moment. His instincts did not fail him in his great hour. Yet the hour was not quite as he had foreseen it. He had foreseen two extremes: to be chatting in this fashion and ignoring all that mattered to him in life struck Denis at the time as scarcely credible in himself. Yet he kept it up for several minutes, in a tone light beyond his nature, with a heart cooling into solid lead. He would not even ask if she had got his letters; it was not for him to remind her of anything that had ever been, to take the continuance of anything for granted. He might have to begin all over again. That was nothing. In less than a minute he was resigned to that.

"And I seem to have found you alone," he remarked at last. It was his first wistful word.

"Papa is remaining in the city," replied the girl. "He has been asked to the Sheriffs' Dinner at the London Tavern. So I suppose I am alone."

She glanced over her shoulder at the firelit windows overlooking the lawn.

"That avenue!" exclaimed Denis standing still. "It was my first landmark, as you said it would be. You might let me see it before it's dark!"

Nan pointed to the screen of trees beyond the kitchen-garden.

"There it is. You do see it."

"But properly!"

"Very well."

She led the way. His voice had trembled; a deep compassion softened hers. In a minute they were in the avenue. It was narrower even than he had thought. The trees in their autumn tatters still met above their heads. But it was a place of premature twilight, where faces were already hard to see. Figures are often more eloquent. He stood in front of her with his arms unconsciously flung wide, and she stood drooping just beyond his reach.

"Nan!"

His voice choked with doubt and apprehension.

"Yes! I suppose you may call me that," she said, sadly.

"Call you that? Call you Nan?" His arm flew round her at last, but the bright bowed head forbade a kiss. "My darling, what in the world has happened?"

An alien voice came from the hidden lips.

"I am not your darling, Denis."

"No; that I have seen!" he cried bitterly, releasing her. "You don't love me any more. I saw it in a moment … is there anybody else?"

No answer.

"Are you engaged to some one else?"

"No – no."

"I must have the truth."

"I dare not tell you the whole truth."

And she drooped to break it to him.

"You have nothing to fear, Nan."

"I don't know how to tell you…"

"I am ready for the worst."

"Then … I am married."

CHAPTER XXVII
THE GREAT GULF

The words died away in the still air. They had been but faintly whispered, and now for many moments there was no sound at all in the quiet shelter of the trees. Then for a little the absolute silence was broken by short and laboured breathing through clenched teeth; then it became absolute as before. Denis was mastering himself as best he might; his whole being was as a knotted muscle; but by degrees that also relaxed, and he stood once more like a thing of flesh and blood, only swaying a little on his feet. But Nan had neither stirred nor made a sound. It was as though her dress supported her, as the dresses of those days almost might, yet there was never a rustle from its silken dome. And in the narrow avenue it was almost dark.

"Devenish, of course?" he said at last, but so hoarsely that he had to say it twice.

It was worth the effort. It made Nan look up; it brought her back to life.

"Yes," she whispered in simple horror. "Yes – I am married to that villain!"

Their eyes met through the dusk, as in a lane of light. His face reflected the unmixed horror so remarkable in hers. Yet already some bell was ringing in his heart.

"What do you mean by that?"

"I loathe him!"

"Yet you are married?"

She spread out her hands in a gesture that was no answer to his incredulity. Quick as thought he caught her left.

"Where's the ring?"

"Yours is quite safe."

"But the wedding-ring – your wedding-ring?"

"I took it off the moment we met. It dropped in the porch. I couldn't let you find out that way."

Her hand also dropped out of his. He turned heavily away from her. It was as though for a moment he had cherished some mad hope; now he stood broken and aloof, shaken with sobs that never reached his throat; oblivious alike to the rustle of the silk dress behind him, to the fluttering featherweight of her hand upon his arm.

"Oh, Denis, Denis, if I could die … if I could die! It is worse for me. You are not married; you are not tied for life. But I deserve it all, all, all… There's no excuse for me, none. Yet there is some explanation – poor enough, God knows! Won't you listen to that? Won't you listen to me at all?"

He turned slowly round, and looked upon Nan with the unseeing fixity of the blind. "Go on," he said. "I am listening, and will listen."

"He cheated me!" she cried, passionately. "He took your letters, and he told me lies. But I allowed myself to be cheated," she added, miserably, "and I believed the lies; so I deserved not to find him out till it was too late; and I deserve this, Denis, I deserve it all. If only, only I could die!"

He soothed her as best he could, taking her hand in one of his, and stroking it mechanically with the other. The action might have reminded them of something long past; but the present absorbed both their minds. It was all that they would ever have together. It was their life.

"Don't tell me unless it helps you," he said, gently. "I begin to understand. And it was my fault – mine – for leaving you as I did."

"Your fault! Yet if you had written – if you only had written!" she cried, loudly exonerating him in one breath, softly reproaching in the next.

"I know. That was pride," he said bitterly. "I was so desperately unsuccessful up to Christmas! I did write in November, but I was always afraid that letter never went."

"I never got it. Not a word of any sort, dear," she said, simply, "did I have from you till nearly May. And then – "

"And then?" he repeated as she paused.

"Have you no idea what I am going to tell you?" she asked, a new twinge in her tone. She could scarcely have explained her feeling, but the least inkling in him would have implied some slight excuse for her, would in any case have helped her to confess the climax of her late credulity.

"None whatever," said Denis.

"Yet it was your writing. I can show it you, for I have it still."

"What writing do you mean?" he inquired, quite in the dark.

"The address on the parcel."

"What sort of parcel?" he exclaimed, as the truth flashed across him. "Quite small? Brown paper? Quick! Quick! I want to know!"

"Yes – yes – and you don't know what was in it! Oh, Denis!"

"I know what should have been," he said, grimly: "my first nugget – according to promise. But it was stolen, and afterward found."

"And you don't know what was put in instead? Did you lose nothing else?"

Denis stood stock-still in the deepening dusk. No, he had never thought of that; even now his simplicity could not credit it until he had drawn every detail from Nan's lips. The ring had possessed intrinsic value. He had always looked upon that as an ordinary theft. The discovery of the stolen nugget on Jewson's body had puzzled him, but it was partially accounted for by another strange fact which had come to light after the man's death, namely, that the nugget had been purchased by Jewson in the first instance, elsewhere on the diggings, and deliberately planted at the bottom of the shaft where Denis found it. And not till this moment, months afterward, had Denis penetrated the dead man's design.

"You have indeed been cheated," he said, bitterly. "Yet to believe me capable of behaving like that without a word! To have known me as little as all that! Why, there was trickery on the face of it. But how can I talk? They took me in, too – decent people don't dream of such villainy – so I was fair game at one end, and you at the other. I begin to see the whole thing. Do you remember when we said good-bye on board your ship?"

"Do I remember!"

"It was then you gave me what I wore night and day until it was stolen and sent back to you."

"Oh, Denis!"

"And it was then you made me promise to send it back to you if ever – Oh, what a fool I was!"

"It was my doing – all. You didn't want to promise; it vexed you and hurt you, and it was all my fault."

"But I promised, and I was overheard, by the villain who is gone," said Denis. "He was in my cousin's cabin at the time, for I distinctly remember seeing him there as we went on deck. And he repeated every syllable to a ten times greater villain than himself, who is alive to answer for his crime!" and he ground his teeth, little dreaming that he had done the living criminal a double injustice in one breath.

"I am not sure that he is alive," faltered Nan, above her breath, but that was all.

"You are not sure?"

"I have not seen him since our wedding day!"

Denis was dumfoundered, but enlightened.

"So you found out just too late," he groaned.

"Yes; and the hard part was that I might have found out in time," she said sadly but only sadly, as if telling of some other person. "There were such a lot of letters for me that morning," she went on, "and there was so little time. I didn't even look at them; I said I would read them in the train; but after all I looked through the envelopes as they were dressing me to go away."

He heard her shuddering, and his lips moved. It was black night in the avenue now, and deepest twilight through the trees on either hand. So he never knew how meekly she stood before him in this bitter hour; even the striking humility of a voice so memorable for its spirit was lost upon a mind too absorbed in the sense to heed the sound.

"Your letter was among them," she went on. "Which letter I cannot say; it was the first that ever reached me, and I was in two minds whether to read a line of it or to tear it up unopened; but I could not bring myself to do that, nor yet resist just looking to see what you said. And there in the first few lines I saw it was but one of many letters that had gone astray! It was the letter in which you began by saying how often you had written lately, though you had never yet had a single word from me. But how could I write when I never had a line to tell me where you were?"

"I don't blame you for that," said Denis. "I never blamed you in my life before to-day; when I know all I may not blame you yet. I understand nearly everything as it is." There was a slight emphasis on one of the last words, but it was very slight: in their common misery he was now as unemphatic as she.

"It was the letter," continued Nan, "in which you told me how splendidly you were doing, and how soon you hoped to sail; I think it must have come in a much quicker ship than yours; but it was a long time before I read that part. I nearly fainted – not quite – but they sent downstairs for our doctor. It was a very small party – everything was hurried and quite private – but Dr. Stone has known me since I was born, and fortunately he was there. I told him everything, and what I suspected in a moment. He tried to talk me over, but I refused even to see my husband until my suspicions were set at rest, and appealed to him to stop a scandal. He did so – there is no public scandal to this day. He went downstairs and declared that the hurry and excitement had proved too much for me; that it was nothing serious, but I could not possibly go away that day. That emptied the house, and gave me time to think. But they all pressed me to see Captain Devenish, so at last I did see him. And in my misery I came down to his level, and pretended not to care if he would only tell the truth."

"And did he?"

"How can I tell? He told me a tale, and he brazened it out. I believe it was the truth. The fraud was not begun by him, but first he countenanced it and then he had to carry it on. He had taken your letters systematically for weeks; whenever a mail came in, here he was, on the spot, and ready for the worst. He boasted of it, gloried in it, said he would play the same game again for the same stake! That was the end. I never looked at him again, though he stayed in the house a week to save the appearances that were so dear to him and to my father; but it was I who saved them, little as I cared. Next day I was really ill, and before I came down again he was gone."

"Gone where?"

"To the Black Sea. You see, he had to go in a week, in any case."

"I don't understand."

"To the war – with a draft of the Grenadiers."

The war! Denis had never heard of it until the night before, when the pilot came aboard his ship, and since landing his own affairs and his own anxieties had filled his mind down to this cruel culmination. So Ralph Devenish, traitor and thief, had fled to fight his country's battles because he had not the pluck to stand and fight his own! Denis could not be fair for a moment to such an officer and such a gentleman; it was not in his allowance of very human nature.

"Now you have told me everything," he cried, "I can understand all but one thing. I can understand your disbelieving in me, your resentment of my silence, your failure to see that what you received without a line of explanation could never have been sent by me. It was your idea that I should send you back your ring if I changed – if I changed! You thought I would take you at your word without a word of my own to ask so much as your forgiveness. Well, you were at liberty to think what you liked of me; you little knew me, and it was a poor compliment to what you did know; but all that I can understand. What I cannot and never will understand is how you flew round the compass and married that fellow within two months!"



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