Ernest Hornung.

Denis Dent: A Novel



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What had Nan to say? She had long been utterly unable to understand it herself. Ralph had never seemed so nice; she herself had been wretched, reckless, wounded, numbed; nothing had seemed to matter any more, except to show that she did not care; and that was her wicked way of showing it. Oh! she had been wicked, wicked; but see her punishment! See the shipwreck of her whole life! He who understood so much – Denis – dear Denis – could he not forgive the mad sequel?

"Forgive!" He laughed out harshly. "Oh, yes, I can forgive you; but that's the end. We must never see each other again. This is good-bye; and the sooner it's said the better for one and all."

He was actually holding out his hand. Nan caught it and clung to it with both of hers.

"Good-bye?" she almost screamed. "You are not going away like this? You wouldn't leave me more desolate and desperate than I was before? You'll stay, or at least come back to see my father – to see me?"

Denis did not hesitate for a moment. "No," said he, firmly; "no, it's not a bit of use my staying to see anybody or any more of you; and the sooner you let me go the better and easier for us both."

"But where will you go?" she asked, partly to gain time; yet the desire to detain him was not greater than the dread of sending him she knew not whither.

"God knows!" he answered. "Not to my death, if I can help it, and if that's what you mean, but very likely back to Ballarat. I was making a small fortune there. I might go back and double it, or lose it all. What does it matter now?"

Even while he spoke, the vision of his mates on the claim in Rotten Gully rose warmly to his mind; and yet, even before he ceased speaking, he knew that he could never go back to them now.

"Don't go!" she urged piteously. "Denis, Denis, don't leave me so soon. You are always so ready to leave me, and see what came of it before! I never could forget it – I never could – it made all the difference in the end. But now you are the only one I have to look up to in the world; stay and help me; be my friend. Oh, Denis, you once saved me from the sea. Stay – do stay, for God's sake, Denis – and save me from myself!"

It needed heart of flint and will of adamant to resist so wild and touching an appeal; but Denis had soon formed his own conception of his duty, and every moment since he had been subconsciously hardening himself to its performance. All his character came into his resolve: strength, promptitude, unflinching courage, undeniable obstinacy, and withal a certain narrowness, a matter of upbringing and of inexperience, in questions of right and wrong. She had married another man; there was an end of it, and let the end come quickly. It would be wrong to see more of her, wrong even to remain her friend. So he had argued in his heart; so he answered her now, kindly, tenderly, with much emotion, but with more fixity of purpose and finality of decision.

"But it isn't the end!" cried Nan, wildly.

"It's only the beginning – because I was cheated into marrying him, and because … I love you, Denis, and only you!"

It was long before Denis remembered how he broke away from her; how and where he left her came back to him slowly after hours. It was in the house. He had carried her there. She loved him. He could not leave her out there to creep in through the dark alone, even if she could have crept half the way unaided. But the struggle came before all that. The rest made no immediate impression on his mind. He was a mile on his road before his brain began to clear, on the crest of a hill, where a sudden night wind searched his skull. Under his eyes, and a rising moon, the road he had to traverse fell almost from his feet, to glimmer away into a flat and open country, and to remind him of the ship's wake on a calm night; only it was no longer the wake; it was his course. On the horizon the faint glow of the metropolis was just discernible, and to ears fresh from the incessant noises of the ocean, the hum of the great human hive seemed not absolutely inaudible in the young night's stillness. Yet every now and then there was a rattle of parched leaves, as if the quiet earth stirred in its sleep; for some minutes Denis also heard his own heart beating from the speed with which he had come so far; and as this abated, somewhere in the nether distance, on the way to London, a clock struck seven.

CHAPTER XXVIII
NEWS OF BATTLE

There was a fascination in returning stride by stride to the rattle and roar of the metal tyres upon London's stones. Denis felt it through the depths of his blank misery and impotent rage; he only wondered that the noise had never struck him in the morning. Now he picked it up plain at Hendon, and it reminded him of its miniature – the first far sound of Ballarat – as it seemed to rise with each ringing step he took. His body was bathed in perspiration; never had he walked so many miles at such a rate. But a vague object had developed on the way. By half-past nine he was in London's throat; and now he might have been walking on cotton-wool.

Never had he heard such an uproar: it was Saturday night. Edgware Road was a vast trench of stalls and barrows, lurid with naked flames, strident with hoarse voices, only Denis was not Londoner enough to know that it was Edgware Road. He had the vaguest ideas as to where he was, until, on asking his way to the London Tavern, he was invited to take his choice between the glaring illuminations of several London taverns before his eyes. After that he applied to a constable, and next minute sat cooling in a hansom cab.

The hansom beat up into the east in a series of short tacks, grinding endless curbstones as she went about, but at last emerging into latitudes less unknown to Denis. There was St. Paul's Cathedral, perhaps his westernmost landmark, though he had once or twice threaded Temple Bar: so the London Tavern was somewhere in the city. The sailor began to feel at home. The offices of Merridew and Devenish were in one of these silent streets. How silent and deserted they were! What a change from the Edgware Road! And this was London's hub, that he had imagined deafening and congested at all hours of the twenty-four: that sleeping palace was the Royal Exchange: this black monolith the Bank. At the first oasis of light and life the cab drew up.

"London Tavern, sir," said a voice overhead.

Denis dismissed the cab and found himself confronted by an overpowering Cerberus, who desired to know what he could do for him, but Denis scarcely knew himself. His impressions in the cab had been acute but superficial. The mind's core was still stunned. He had to think hard in order to recall the resolve which had brought him hither; a burst of applause through the tall lighted windows came to his aid in the nick of time.

"I want to see a gentleman who is dining here."

"What, now?" sniffed Cerberus.

"Before he leaves."

"I could take in your card," condescended the other, who had probably heard the thanks which Denis had earned from his cabman, "when the Lord Mayor's said what he 'as to say, if it's anythink very important."

"To me it is," said Denis, "and I pray that it may prove equally so to him; but it will be time enough after the banquet, and I can take care of myself meanwhile."

He crossed the street slowly, pondering his resolve, which was simply to impress his daughter's despair upon John Merridew's mind; to implore him not to leave her too much alone, but to find her some bright companion without a day's delay, to keep watch and ward over her from that day forth.

That was the motive of which Denis found himself aware; if in the bottom of his heart he yearned for a word of unforeseen sympathy, of inconceivable comfort, of wildest hope, the thought never rose to the surface of his mind.

But he was distracted from all his thoughts by cheer upon frantic cheer from the great hall across the road. This was no ordinary after-dinner enthusiasm. The lighted windows rattled in their leads. A crowd was forming in the street. A whisper was running through the crowd.

"The Lord Mayor's there," said a voice near Denis. "He came on foot not five minutes ago. It's something worth hearing, you mark my words!"

Denis marked them with the listless interest of one who had realized neither his country's peril nor his countrymen's excitement. It was impossible that he should. He had forgotten that England was at war.

"Here he comes back again!" exclaimed the same excited voice. "That's his lordship, him in the gold chain. See the papers in his hand; see the face on him! It's a victory, boys, and he's going to give us the news!"

The Lord Mayor wore a frilled shirt-front behind the massive chain of office, and between its tufts of whisker his well-favoured face shone like the sun. But he did not deliver his message from the steps of the London Tavern; attended by one or two members of his household, he led the way on foot toward the Royal Exchange. A handful of diners were at his heels, and the gathering street-crowd at theirs; but Denis did not think of joining them until among the former he recognized John Merridew, himself brandishing some missive and gesticulating to his friends.

It was Merridew alone whom Denis wished to keep in view, yet as he slowly followed in the civic train he experienced a reawakening of that impersonal curiosity which had possessed him in the cab. What had happened? What was going to happen now? The answer came in the blare of a bugle, even as Denis reached the steps of the Royal Exchange.

The bugle sounded again and again, waking the echoes of the silent streets, filling them with answering cries and the shuffle of hastening feet. Meanwhile the Lord Mayor had climbed the few steps, and taken his stand under the grimy portico, behind the footlights improvised by half-a-dozen policemen with their bull's-eyes.

"Fellow-citizens and gentlemen," he cried, "I have to announce to you the intelligence of a splendid victory obtained by the Allied forces over the Russians in the Crimea!"

A wild roar rose into the night, and the speaker himself prolonged it by calling for cheers for the Queen before going any further. Heads were uncovered and hats waved madly. Cheer after cheer rang to its height and dropped like musketry in single shouts. The converging streets were alive with running men. The blood was draining back into the City's heart.

Denis wondered to find a moisture in his eyes; it brought back the heart-break which had occasioned him less outward emotion, and he was carried away no more. The Lord Mayor, indeed, was departing from the point; he had paused to enlarge upon the delightful character of his duty before completing its performance. Some few months since it had fallen to his lot to announce that war had been proclaimed between that country and Russia; he had now the great satisfaction of making known to them that the Allied forces had taken the first step toward reducing to reasonable limits the barbaric Power against which they were engaged. He could not help adding that he considered the interests of humanity, and the happiness of the whole human race, were all deeply concerned in the victory.

Denis did not join in the renewed cheering. His brow was contracted, but not from want of sympathy with the excellent sentiments expressed. He was himself engaged against the sudden onslaught of an impossible thought.

"I will now read to you," continued the Lord Mayor, "the letter with which I have been honoured by the Duke of Newcastle. 'My Lord,' he writes, 'I have the honour and high gratification of sending your lordship a proof copy of an extraordinary Gazette containing a telegraphic message from her Majesty's Ambassador at Constantinople, by which the glorious intelligence of the success of the Allied arms in a great battle in the Crimea has been received this morning. – I am, my lord, your lordship's obedient humble servant, Newcastle.' And this, fellow citizens," the Lord Mayor proceeded in higher key, "and this is the text of that message: 'The intrenched camp of the Russians, containing 50,000 men, with a numerous artillery and cavalry, on the heights of the Alma, was attacked on the 20th inst., at 1 P. M., by the Allied troops, and carried by the bayonet at half-past three, with the loss on our side of about 1,400 killed and wounded, and an equal loss on the side of the French. The Russian army was forced to put itself in full retreat.'"

There was perhaps one second of profound silence.

"Fourteen hundred!" said an awed voice.

And then arose such a storm of shouting and of cheering as Denis had never heard in all his life; and he was roaring with the lustiest, roaring as if to expel his thoughts in sound. But in the first pause another voice said, "Fourteen hundred!" and the figure passed below the breath from lip to lip till one exclaimed, "The poor Guards!" Thereat the creases cut deep across Denis's forehead – so deep you might have looked for them to fill with blood – and he asked the man next to him if the Guards were in it.

"In it?" cried the man next Denis. "In the thick and the front of it, you may depend!"

The Lord Mayor had not finished. He was thanking one and all for their attendance. He was expressing a pious belief that this victory of the Alma would promote the civilization and happiness of the world more than anything that had happened for the last fifty years. He was bowing to the cheers that echoed his remarks. He was proposing the cheers for our soldiers. He was leading the cheers for the French. He was descending with dignity from the portico, with the policemen's lanterns still playing upon his great gold chain and rubicund face, a hearty figure in spirited contrast to the dark colonnade at his back.

But Denis bent glowering at the flag on which he stood. His neighbour's answer to his query about the Guards was still rattling in his head; he had heard nothing since with that part of the ear which communicates with the brain.

The group of gentlemen from the London Tavern followed the Lord Mayor down the steps; one of them passed close to Denis, waving a telegram as if it were a flag.

"He must have got it off with the dispatches," said he. "It has been delivered at my office this evening, but fortunately the housekeeper knew where I was."

"And your son-in-law has come through safe and sound?"

"Safe and sound, thank God!"

It was Mr. Merridew, still flushed and flustered with sentiment and satisfaction; as he passed, Denis scanned the smug, well-meaning face; but he had withdrawn deliberately from the path of the man whom he had driven across London to see. Talk to him about Nan!

"Now, sir, move on, please!"

The swollen crowd was streaming down Cheapside, shouting, cheering, and singing "Partant pour la Syrie," as it bore the great news westward. Already the sounds came faintly to the steps of the Royal Exchange, where Denis was the last man left to blink in the rays of the last policeman's lantern.

"All right, constable; but I only landed from Australia this morning, and I wish you'd tell me a thing or two first."

"Indeed, sir?" said the policeman. Denis felt in the pocket that was full of notes and gold.

"About this war," he pursued: "you see I never heard of it before to-day. Can you tell me which of the Guards have gone?"

"Coldstream and Grenadiers, sir."

"But not all of them?"

"The first battalion of the Coldstream and the third of the Grenadiers."

The man's prompt answer drew Denis's attention to the man himself. He was over six feet in height, and not an inch of it thrown away. But still more noticeable was a peculiar pride of countenance – some secret enthusiasm which added a freshness to the patriotic emotion to be found in any other face.

"An old Guardsman?" inquired Denis.

"An old Grenadier, sir!" cried the policeman. "And I would give ten years of my life to be with them now!"

"Do you suppose they have lost very heavily?" Denis was searching the old soldier's face.

"If the losses altogether are fourteen hundred I'll back ours to run well into three figures!"

"But they'll keep the regiment up to strength, I take it?"

"No doubt they'll send out a draft as soon as possible."

"Of course there'd be no chance for a recruit in such a draft?"

Denis had hesitated, and then forced a grin. The old Grenadier shook his head.

"I doubt it, sir; but a very good man, who knew his drill, they might take him over the heads of others. They want all the good men they can get in time of war. Why, sir, that's a sovereign!"

"It was meant to be; it's not a night for less. And now can you tell me where the rest of the Grenadiers are?"

"Wellington Barracks, sir."

Denis fell into his natural smile.

"I don't know London very well. Will you do one more thing for me before I move on?"

"That I will, sir."

"Will you tell me how to find my way to Wellington Barracks?"

CHAPTER XXIX
GUY FAWKES DAY

A company officer was making his round of an outlying picket of Grenadiers; the black hour before a drizzling dawn effectually shrouded moist features and sodden whiskers, as bearskin and greatcoat served to modify an erect yet incorrigibly casual carriage. It was Ralph Devenish, however, and he was performing his duties with some punctilio. The sentries stood their twenty paces apart, all but invisible to each other, sundered links waiting for the dawn to complete the chain. And at each link the officer halted and beat his foot.

"All's well."

"Except your rifle, eh?" muttered Devenish to one or two; from a third he took the man's dripping piece, and from the nipple poured a tiny jet of water into the palm of his left hand. "Keep it covered if you can, or it will never go off," was his audible injunction to that sentry and the next. One who knew him would have marveled at such zeal and such initiative in Ralph Devenish.

One who knew him did.

"All's well."

"Except your musket, I expect. Let's see it. You know my voice?" It had dropped with the question.

"I do."

"I suppose you thought I didn't recognize you?"

"I didn't know."

"Well, I did, and had you put on this picket on purpose to get a word with you; but don't you raise your voice any more than I'm raising mine," whispered Devenish in one breath, with a louder comment on the condition of the rifle in his next. "What are you doing here?" he added in his strenuous undertone. "When did you land in England?"

"The last morning of September."

"So it made you enlist."

"The same night."

"Yet you got out in the draft."

"I knew my drill. It's a long story."

"It must be! You've been bribing the sergeants, or somebody; but I don't blame you for that. Try to keep the nipple covered," said the zealous officer, returning the piece. "Why the devil did you choose my regiment?" whispered Ralph.

"It was the night the news came of the Alma – and – I hoped you were killed!"

"No wonder." Ralph chuckled harshly.

"It was one to me; but I couldn't help it, and I felt in every other battle it would be the same. So I enlisted that night."

"To make sure, eh?" sneered Ralph.

"To run your risks!" said Denis through his teeth. "The chances are that one of us will go back. The chances are less that we both will!"

The rain took up the whispering for the next few seconds.

"I see!" said Ralph at length. "The latest thing in duels! Well, my congratulations must keep till next round." And he marched on nonchalantly enough, with a final chuckle for Denis's salute; but the note was neither so harsh nor so spontaneous as before; and Denis was left to glory in his last words, to regret them, and yet to glory in them again.

The rain sank into his bearskin, pattered on his shoulders, and made quite a report when it beat upon a boot; the next sentry was to be heard answering questions about his rifle, and Denis wondered if he himself could be the sole cause of the unusual inquisition. The officer passed on out of earshot; other noises of the waning night returned to recapture the attention. The dismal watches had long been redeemed by a series of exciting sounds from within the enemy's lines. The belfries of Sebastopol had first united in discordant peals; and from that hour the outposts had heard low rumblings, distant, intermittent, but now more distinct than ever, and something nearer to the ear. A dull gray light was beginning to weld the links in the chain of bearskins and greatcoats that stretched across the soaking upland. And by degrees the dark night lifted on a raw and dripping fog, almost as impenetrable as itself.

A patter of invisible musketry sounded in the direction of Inkerman heights, increased to a fusillade, but came no nearer; the Grenadier outposts were withdrawn, and in the misty dawn the company fell in with other two of the Guards Brigade. As they did so a level rainbow curved through the fog, and some one shouted "Shell!" Every man stood his ground upright, but as the shell skimmed over their heads, and sank spinning into the soft ground beyond, a number flung themselves upon their faces, and lay like ninepins until it burst without hitting one.



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