The Beckoning Hand, and Other Stories
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At last, by a great effort, he forced the rusty lock open, and looked eagerly into the strong oak chest. How his heart beat with slow, deep throbs at that supreme moment, not with suspense, for he knew he should find the money, but with the final realization of a great hope long deferred! Yes, there it lay, in very truth, all before him – great shining coins of old Spanish gold – gold, gold, gold, arranged in long rows, one coin after another, over the whole surface of the broad oak box. He had found it, he had found it, he had really found it! After so much toilsome hunting, after so much vain endeavour, after so many heart-breaking disappointments, John Cann's treasure in very truth lay open there actually before him!
For a few minutes, eager and frightened as he was, Cecil Mitford did not dare even to touch the precious pieces. In the greatness of his joy, in the fierce rush of his overpowering emotions, he had no time to think of mere base everyday gold and silver. It was the future and the ideal that he beheld, not the piled-up heaps of filthy lucre. Ethel was his, wealth was his, honour was his! He would be a rich man and a great man now and henceforth for ever! Oh, how he hugged himself in his heart on the wise successful fraud by which he had induced Ethel to advance him the few wretched hundreds he needed for his ever-memorable Jamaican journey! How he praised to himself his own courage, and ingenuity, and determination, and inexhaustible patience! How he laughed down that foolish conscience of his that would fain have dissuaded him from his master-stroke of genius. He deserved it all, he deserved it all! Other men would have flinched before the risk and expense of the voyage to Jamaica, would have given up the scent for a fool's errand in the cemetery at Port Royal, would have shrunk from ransacking John Cann's grave at dead of night in the Cathedral precincts at Spanish Town, would have feared to buy the high-priced corner of land at Bovey Tracy on a pure imaginative speculation. But he, Cecil Mitford, had had the boldness and the cleverness to do it every bit, and now, wisdom was justified of all her children. He sat for five minutes in profound meditation on the edge of the little pit he had dug, gloating dreamily over the broad gold pieces, and inwardly admiring his own bravery and foresight and indomitable resolution. What a magnificent man he really was – a worthy successor of those great freebooting, buccaneering, filibustering Devonians of the grand Elizabethan era! To think that the worky-day modern world should ever have tried to doom him, Cecil Mitford, with his splendid enterprise and glorious potentialities, to a hundred and eighty a year and a routine clerkship at the Colonial Office!
After a while, however, mere numerical cupidity began to get the better of this heroic mood, and Cecil Mitford turned somewhat languidly to the vulgar task of counting the rows of doubloons. He counted up the foremost row carefully, and then for the first time perceived, to his intense surprise, that the row behind was not gold, but mere silver Mexican pistoles.He rubbed his eyes and looked again, but the fact was unmistakable; there was only one row of yellow gold in the top layer, and all the rest was merely bright and glittering silver. Strange that John Cann should have put coins of such small value near the top of his box: the rest of the gold must certainly be in successive layers down further. He lifted up the big gold doubloons in the first row, and then, to his blank horror and amazement, came to – not more gold, not more silver, but – but – but – ay, incredible as it seemed, appalling, horrifying – a wooden bottom!
Had John Cann, in his care and anxiety, put a layer of solid oak between each layer of gold and silver? Hardly that, the oak was too thick. In a moment Cecil Mitford had taken out all the coins of the first tier, and laid bare the oaken bottom. A few blows of the pick loosened the earth around, and then, oh horror, oh ghastly disappointment, oh unspeakable heart-sickening revelation, the whole box came out entire. It was only two inches deep altogether, including the cover – it was, in fact, a mere shallow tray or saucer, something like the sort of thin wooden boxes in which sets of dessert-knives or fish-knives are usually sold for wedding presents!
For the space of three seconds Cecil Mitford could not believe his eyes, and then, with a sudden flash of awful vividness, the whole terrible truth flashed at once across his staggering brain. He had found John Cann's treasure indeed – the John Cann's treasure of base actual reality; but the John Cann's treasure of his fervid imagination, the John Cann's treasure he had dreamt of from his boyhood upward, the John Cann's treasure he had risked all to find and to win, did not exist, could not exist, and never had existed at all anywhere! It was all a horrible, incredible, unthinkable delusion! The hideous fictions he had told would every one be now discovered; Ethel would be ruined; Aunt Emily would be ruined; and they would both know him, not only for a fool, a dreamer, and a visionary, but also for a gambler, a thief, and a liar.
In his black despair he jumped down into the shallow hole once more, and began a second time to count slowly over the accursed dollars. The whole miserable sum – the untold wealth of John Cann's treasure – would amount altogether to about two hundred and twenty pounds of modern sterling English money. Cecil Mitford tore his hair as he counted it in impotent self punishment; two hundred and twenty pounds, and he had expected at least as many thousands! He saw it all in a moment. His wild fancy had mistaken the poor outcast hunted-down pirate for a sort of ideal criminal millionaire; he had erected the ignorant, persecuted John Cann of real life, who fled from the king's justice to a nest of chartered outlaws in Jamaica, into a great successful naval commander, like the Drake or Hawkins of actual history. The whole truth about the wretched solitary old robber burst in upon him now with startling vividness; he saw him hugging his paltry two hundred pounds to his miserly old bosom, crossing the sea with it stealthily from Jamaica, burying it secretly in a hole in the ground at Bovey, quarrelling about it with his peasant relations in England, as the poor will often quarrel about mere trifles of money, and dying at last with the secret of that wretched sum hidden in the snuff-box that he clutched with fierce energy even in his lifeless skeleton fingers. It was all clear, horribly, irretrievably, unmistakably clear to him now; and the John Cann that he had once followed through so many chances and changes had faded away at once into absolute nothingness, now and for ever!
If Cecil Mitford had known a little less about John Cann's life and exploits he might still perhaps have buoyed himself up with the vain hope that all the treasure was not yet unearthed – that there were more boxes still buried in the ground, more doubloons still hidden further down in the unexplored bosom of the little three-cornered field. But the words of John Cann's own dying directions were too explicit and clear to admit of any such gloss or false interpretation. "In a strong oaken chest, bound round with iron, and buried at four feet of depth in the south-western angle of the Home Croft, at Bovey," said the document, plainly; there was no possibility of making two out of it in any way. Indeed, in that single minute, Cecil Mitford's mind had undergone a total revolution, and he saw the John Cann myth for the first time in his life now in its true colours. The bubble had burst, the halo had vanished, the phantom had faded away, and the miserable squalid miserly reality stood before him with all its vulgar nakedness in their place. The whole panorama of John Cann's life, as he knew it intimately in all its details, passed before his mind's eye like a vivid picture, no longer in the brilliant hues of boyish romance, but in the dingy sordid tones of sober fact. He had given up all that was worth having in this world for the sake of a poor gipsy pirate's penny-saving hoard.
A weaker man would have swallowed the disappointment or kept the delusion still to his dying day. Cecil Mitford was made of stronger mould. The ideal John Cann's treasure had taken possession of him, body and soul; and now that John Cann's treasure had faded into utter nonentity – a paltry two hundred pounds – the whole solid earth had failed beneath his feet, and nothing was left before him but a mighty blank. A mighty blank. Blank, blank, blank. Cecil Mitford sat there on the edge of the pit, with his legs dangling over into the hollow where John Cann's treasure had never been, gazing blankly out into a blank sky, with staring blank eyeballs that looked straight ahead into infinite space and saw utterly nothing.
How long he sat there no one knows; but late at night, when the people at the Red Lion began to miss their guest, and turned out in a body to hunt for him in the corner field, they found him sitting still on the edge of the pit he had dug for the grave of his own hopes, and gazing still with listless eyes into blank vacancy. A box of loose coin lay idly scattered on the ground beside him. The poor gentleman had been struck crazy, they whispered to one another; and so indeed he had: not raving mad with acute insanity, but blankly, hopelessly, and helplessly imbecile. With the loss of John Cann's treasure the whole universe had faded out for him into abject nihilism. They carried him home to the inn between them on their arms, and put him to bed carefully in the old bedroom, as one might put a new-born baby.
The Lord of the Manor, when he came to hear the whole pitiful story, would have nothing to do with the wretched doubloons; the curse of blood was upon them, he said, and worse than that; so the Treasury, which has no sentiments and no conscience, came in at the end for what little there was of John Cann's unholy treasure.
In the County Pauper Lunatic Asylum for Devon there was one quiet impassive patient, who was always pointed out to horror-loving visitors, because he had once been a gentleman, and had a strange romance hanging to him still, even in that dreary refuge of the destitute insane. The lady whom he had loved and robbed – all for her own good – had followed him down from London to Devonshire; and she and her aunt kept a small school, after some struggling fashion, in the town close by, where many kind-hearted squires of the neighbourhood sent their little girls, while they were still very little, for the sake of charity, and for pity of the sad, sad story. One day a week there was a whole holiday – Wednesday it was – for that was visiting day at the County Asylum; and then Ethel Sutherland, dressed in deep mourning, walked round with her aunt to the gloomy gateway at ten o'clock, and sat as long as she was allowed with the faded image of Cecil Mitford, holding his listless hand clasped hard in her pale white fingers, and looking with sad eager anxious eyes for any gleam of passing recognition in his. Alas, the gleam never came (perhaps it was better so), Cecil Mitford looked always straight before him at the blank whitewashed walls, and saw nothing, heard nothing, thought of nothing, from week's end to week's end.
Ethel had forgiven him all; what will not a loving woman forgive? Nay, more, had found excuses and palliations for him, which quite glossed over his crime and his folly. He must have been losing his reason long before he ever went to Jamaica, she said; for in his right mind he would never have tried to deceive her or himself in the way he had done. Did he not fancy he was sent out by the Colonial Office, when he had really gone without leave or mission? And did he not persuade her to give up her money to him for investment, and after all never invest it? What greater proofs of insanity could you have than those? And then that dreadful fever at Spanish Town, and the shock of losing his kind entertainer, worn out with nursing him, had quite completed the downfall of his reason. So Ethel Sutherland, in her pure beautiful woman's soul, went on believing, as steadfastly as ever, in the faith and the goodness of that Cecil Mitford that had never been. His ideal had faded out before the first touch of disillusioning fact; hers persisted still, in spite of all the rudest assaults that the plainest facts could make upon it. Thank heaven for that wonderful idealising power of a good woman, which enables her to walk unsullied through this sordid world, unknowing and unseeing.
At last one night, one terrible windy night in December, Ethel Sutherland was wakened from her sleep in the quiet little school-house by a fearful glare falling fiercely upon her bedroom window. She jumped up hastily and rushed to the little casement to look out towards the place whence the glare came. One thought alone rose instinctively in her white little mind – Could it be at Cecil's Asylum? Oh, horror, yes; the whole building was in flames, and if Cecil were taken – even poor mad imbecile Cecil – what, what on earth would then be left her?
Huddling on a few things hastily, anyhow, Ethel rushed out wildly into the street, and ran with incredible speed where all the crowd of the town was running together, towards the blazing Asylum. The mob knew her at once, and recognized her sad claim; they made a little lane down the surging mass for her to pass through, till she stood beside the very firemen at the base of the gateway. It was an awful sight – poor mad wretches raving and imploring at the windows, while the firemen plied their hose and brought their escapes to bear as best they were able on one menaced tier after another. But Ethel saw or heard nothing, save in one third floor window of the right wing, where Cecil Mitford stood, no longer speechless and imbecile, but calling loudly for help, and flinging his eager arms wildly about him. The shock had brought him back his reason, for the moment at least: oh, thank God, thank God, he saw her, he saw her!
With a sudden wild cry Ethel burst from the firemen who tried to hold her back, leaped into the burning building and tore up the blazing stairs, blinded and scorched, but by some miracle not quite suffocated, till she reached the stone landing on the third story. Turning along the well-known corridor, now filled with black wreaths of stifling smoke, she reached at last Cecil's ward, and flung herself madly, wildly into his circling arms. For a moment they both forgot the awful death that girt them round on every side, and Cecil, rising one second superior to himself, cried only "Ethel, Ethel, Ethel, I love you; forgive me!" Ethel pressed his hand in hers gently, and answered in an agony of joy, "There is nothing to forgive, Cecil; I can die happy now, now that I have once more heard you say you love me, you love me."
Hand in hand they turned back towards the blazing staircase, and reached the window at the end where the firemen were now bringing their escape-ladder to bear on the third story. The men below beckoned them to come near and climb out on to the ladder, but just at that moment something behind seemed incomprehensibly to fascinate and delay Cecil, so that he would not move a step nearer, though Ethel led him on with all her might. She looked back to see what could be the reason, and beheld the floor behind them rent by the flames, and a great gap spreading downward to the treasurer's room. On the tiled floor a few dozen pence and shillings and other coins lay, white with heat, among the glowing rubbish; and the whole mass, glittering like gold in the fierce glare, seemed some fiery cave filled to the brim with fabulous wealth. Cecil's eye was riveted upon the yawning gap, and the corners of his mouth twitched horribly as he gazed with intense interest upon the red cinders and white hot coin beneath him. Instinctively Ethel felt at once that all was lost, and that the old mania was once more upon him. Clasping her arm tight round his waist, while the firemen below shouted to her to leave him and come down as she valued her life, she made one desperate effort to drag him by main force to the head of the ladder. But Cecil, strong man that he was, threw her weak little arm impetuously away, as he might have thrown a two-year-old baby's, and cried to her in a voice trembling with excitement, "See, see, Ethel, at last, at last; there it is, there it is in good earnest. John Cann's Treasure!"
Ethel seized his arm imploringly once more. "This way, darling," she cried, in a voice choked by sobs and half stifled with the smoke. "This way to the ladder."
But Cecil broke from her fiercely, with a wild light in his big blue eyes, and shouting aloud, "The treasure, the treasure!" leaped with awful energy into the very centre of the seething fiery abyss. Ethel fell, fainting with terror and choked by the flames, on to the burning floor of the third story. The firemen, watching from below, declared next day that that crazy madman must have died stifled before he touched the heap of white hot ruins in the central shell, and the poor lady was insensible or dead with asphyxia full ten minutes before the flames swept past the spot where her lifeless body was lying immovable.
ISALINE AND I
"Well, Mademoiselle Isaline," I said, strolling out into the garden, "and who is the young cavalier with the black moustache?"
"What, monsieur," answered Isaline; "you have seen him? You have been watching from your window? We did not know you had returned from the Aiguille."
"Oh, yes, I've been back for more than an hour," I replied; "the snow was so deep on the Col that I gave it up at last, and made up my mind not to try it without a guide."
"I am so glad," Isaline said demurely. "I had such fears for monsieur. The Aiguille is dangerous, though it isn't very high, and I had been very distractedly anxious till monsieur returned."
"Thanks, mademoiselle," I answered, with a little bow. "Your solicitude for my safety flatters me immensely. But you haven't told me yet who is the gentleman with the black moustache."
Isaline smiled. "His name is M. Claude," she said; "M. Claude Tirard, you know; but we don't use surnames much among ourselves in the Pays de Vaud. He is the schoolmaster of the commune."
"M. Claude is a very happy man, then," I put in. "I envy his good fortune."
Isaline blushed a pretty blush. "On the contrary," she answered, "he has just been declaring himself the most miserable of all mankind. He says his life is not worth having."
"They always say that under those peculiar circumstances," I said. "Believe me, mademoiselle, there are a great many men who would be glad to exchange their own indifferently tolerable lot for M. Claude's unendurable misery."
Isaline said nothing, but she looked at me with a peculiar inquiring look, as if she would very much like to know exactly what I meant by it, and how much I meant it.
And what did I mean by it? Not very much after all, I imagine; for when it comes to retrospect, which one of us is any good at analyzing his own motives? The fact is, Isaline was a very pretty little girl, and I had nothing else to do, and I might just as well make myself agreeable to her as gain the reputation of being a bear of an Englishman. Besides, if there was the safeguard of M. Claude, a real indigenous suitor, in the background, there wasn't much danger of my polite attentions being misunderstood.
However, I haven't yet told you how I came to find myself on the farm at Les Pentes at all. This, then, is how it all came about. I was sick of the Temple; I had spent four or five briefless years in lounging about Brick Court and dropping in casually at important cases, just to let the world see I was the proud possessor of a well-curled wig; but even a wig (which suits my complexion admirably) palls after five years, and I said to myself that I would really cut London altogether, and live upon my means somewhere on the Continent. Very small means, to be sure, but still enough to pull through upon in Switzerland or the Black Forest. So, just by way of experiment as to how I liked it, I packed up my fishing-rod and my portmanteau (the first the most important), took the 7.18 express from the Gare de Lyon for Geneva, and found myself next afternoon comfortably seated on the verandah of my favourite hotel at Vevay. The lake is delightful, that we all know; but I wanted to get somewhere where there was a little fishing; so I struck back at once into the mountain country round Ch?teau d'Oex and Les Avants, and came soon upon the exact thing I wanted at Les Pentes.
Picture to yourself a great amphitheatre of open alp or mountain pasture in the foreground, with peaks covered by vivid green pines in the middle distance, and a background of pretty aiguilles, naked at their base, but clad near the summit with frozen masses of sparkling ice. Put into the midst of the amphitheatre a clear green-and-white torrent, with a church surrounded by a few wooden farmhouses on its slope, and there you have the commune of Les Pentes. But what was most delightful of all was this, that there was no hotel, no pension, not even a regular lodging-house. I was the first stranger to discover the capabilities of the village, and I was free to exploit them for my own private advantage. By a stroke of luck, it so happened that M. Clairon, the richest farmer of the place, with a pretty old-fashioned Vaudois farmhouse, and a pretty, dainty little Vaudoise daughter, was actually willing to take me in for a mere song per week. I jumped at the chance; and the same day saw me duly installed in a pretty little room, under the eaves of the pretty little farmhouse, and with the pretty little daughter politely attending to all my wants.
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