Tourmalin's Time Cheques
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"Sophia?" he cried hoarsely, "why keep this up any longer? Surely it is gone far enough – you can't pretend you don't know!"
But while he spoke the words, he saw suddenly that his attempt to force her hand was hopeless: she was quite sincere in her surprise; she was the Sophia of six months ago, and no amount of explanation could ever make her comprehend what had happened since that time!
And here Alfred broke his silence.
"What you have just confessed," he said, "removes my last scruple. I might, for all I can tell, have stayed my hand and spared your life upon your promise to make Maud happy; for, in spite of her treatment of me, her happiness is still my first consideration. But now you have declared that impossible, – why, as soon as I can get this revolver out of my pocket – for it has stuck in the confounded lining – I will shoot you like a rabbit!"
"Sir William," cried Peter, "I appeal to you! You are the representative of Law and Order here. He is threatening a breach of the Peace – the Queen's Peace! I call upon you to interfere!"
"I am no advocate," said Sir William, with judicial calm, "for taking the law into one's own hands. I even express a hope that this gentleman will not carry out his avowed intention, at least until I have had time to withdraw, and I must not be understood to approve his action in any way. At the same time, I am distinctly of opinion that he has received sufficient provocation to excuse even such extreme measures, and that the fate he threatens will, if summary, at least be richly deserved."
"I think so too," said Sophia, "though it would be painful to be compelled to witness it!"
"Terrible!" agreed Miss Tyrrell. "Let us hide our eyes, dear!"
"Stay, Alfred!" Miss Davenport implored, "have some pity! Think – with all your faults, you are a keen sportsman – you would not shoot even a rabbit sitting! Give Mr. Tourmalin a start of a few seconds – let him have a run before you fire!"
All this time Alfred was still fumbling for and execrating the obstinate weapon.
"I decline to run!" Peter cried from his seat; he knew too well that he could not stir a limb. "Shoot me sitting, or not at all, but don't keep me waiting any longer!"
His prayer seemed likely to be granted, for Alfred had at last succeeded in extricating the revolver; but before he could take aim, the Bank Manager and the Melbourne man ran in and interposed.
"Hold on one minute, sir," they said; "we, too, have business with the gentleman on the seat there, and you will admit that it must be concluded before yours, if it is to be settled at all. We must really ask you to postpone your little affair until we have finished. We will not keep you waiting any longer than we can help."
The Judge, with an ostentatious indifference, had strolled away to the smoking-room, probably to avoid being called upon to decide so nice a point as this disputed precedence; his daughter, Miss Davenport, and Sophia had turned their backs, and, stopping their ears, were begging to be told when all was over.
Alfred was struggling to free his pistol-arm, which was firmly held by the other two men, and all three were talking at once in hot and argumentative support of their claims.As for Peter, he sat and looked on, glued to his seat by terror: if he had any preference among the disputants, he rather hoped that Alfred would be the person to gain his point.
All at once he saw Sophia turn round and, with her fingers still pressed to her ears, make energetic contortions of her lips, evidently for his benefit. After one or two repetitions, he made out the words she was voicelessly framing.
"Run for it!" he interpreted. "Quick … while you can!"
With his habitual respect for her advice, he rose and, finding that the power of motion had suddenly returned, he did run for it; he slipped quietly round the corner and down the passage to the other side of the ship, where he hoped to reach the saloon-entrance, and eventually regain his cabin.
Unhappily for him, the grim lady from Melbourne had noted his flight and anticipated its object. Long before he got to the open doors, he saw her step out and bar the way; she had an open sunshade in her hand, which she was preparing to use as a butterfly net.
He turned and fled abruptly in the opposite direction, intending to cross the bridge which led aft to the second-class saloon deck, where he might find cover: but as he saw, on turning the corner, the Manager had already occupied the passage, Peter turned again and doubled back across the ship, making for the forecastle; but he was too late, for the Melbourne man was there before him, and cut off all hope of retreat in that quarter.
There was only one thing left now: he must take to the rigging, and accordingly the next moment, scarcely knowing how he came there, he was clambering up the shrouds for dear life!
Higher and higher he climbed, slipping and stumbling, and catching his unaccustomed feet in the ratlins at every step; and all the way he had a dismal conviction that as yet he had not nearly exhausted the cheque he had drawn. He must have at least another couple of hours to get through, not to mention the compound interest, which the Bank seemed characteristically enough to be paying first.
Still, if he could only stay quietly up aloft till his time was up, he might escape the worst yet. Surely it was a sufficient penalty for his folly to have embroiled himself with every creature he knew; to have been chivied about the deck of an ocean steamer by three violent men, each thirsting for his blood; and to be reduced to mount the rigging like an escaped monkey!
A few more steps and he was safe at last! Just above was a huge yard, flattened on the upper surface, with a partially furled sail, behind which he could crouch unseen; his hands were almost upon it, when a bronzed and bearded face appeared above the canvas – it was one of the English crew.
"Beg your pardon, sir," said the man, civilly enough, "but I shall 'ave fur to trouble you to go down agin, please. Capt'in's strick orders, sir. Passengers ain't allowed to amuse theirselves climbing the rigging!"
"My good man!" said Peter, between his pants, "do I look as if I was amusing myself? I am pursued, I tell you. As an honest, good-hearted British seaman – which I am sure you are, – I entreat you to give me a hand up, and hide me: it – it may be life or death for me!"
The man wavered; the desperate plight Peter was in seemed to arouse his compassion, as it well might.
"I could 'ide yer, I suppose, come to that," he said slowly; "but it's too late to think o' that now. Look below, sir!"
Peter glanced down between his feet, and saw two swarthy Lascars climbing the rigging like cats. Lower still, he had a bird's-eye view of the deck, about which his enemies were posted in readiness for his arrival: the Manager exhibiting his spiked boots to Sir William, who shook his head in mild deprecation; the old lady brandishing her sunshade in angry denunciation, while her brother flourished his horsewhip; and Alfred stood covering him with his revolver, prepared to pick him off the instant he came within range!
And Peter hung there by his hands – for his feet had slipped out of the ratlins – as helpless a target as any innocent bottle in a shooting-gallery, and the Lascars were getting nearer and nearer!
He could see their bilious eyeballs, and their teeth gleaming in their dusky faces. He felt a bony hand reaching for his ankles, and then a dizziness came over him: his grip upon the coarse, tarry cordage relaxed, and, shutting his eyes, he fell – down – down – down. Would the fall never come to an end? Would he never arrive?..