St. Ives (Stevenson and Quiller-Couch)/Chapter 32
EVENTS OF FRIDAY MORNING: THE CUTTING OF THE GORDIAN KNOT
I pulled out my watch. A fickle ray—the merest filtration of moonlight—glimmered on the dial. Fourteen minutes past one! "Past yin o'clock, and a dark, haary moarnin." I recalled the bull voice of the watchman as he had called it on the night of our escape from the Castle—its very tones: and this echo of memory seemed to strike and reverberate the hour closing a long day of fate. Truly since that night the hands had run full circle, and were back at the old starting-point. I had seen dawn, day: I had basked in the sunshine of men's respect; I was back in the Stygian night—back in the shadow of that infernal Castle—still hunted by the law—with possibly a smaller chance than ever of escape—the cockshy of the elements—with no shelter for my head but a Paisley shawl of violent pattern. It occurred to me that I had travelled much in the interval, and run many risks, to exchange a suit of mustard yellow for a Paisley shawl and a ball dress that matched neither it nor the climate of the Pentlands. The exhilaration of the ball, the fighting spirit, the last communicated thrill of Flora's hand, died out of me. In the thickening envelope of sea fog I felt like a squirrel in a rotatory cage. That was a lugubrious hour.
To speak precisely, those were seven lugubrious hours, since Flora would not be due before eight o'clock, if, indeed, I might count on her eluding her double cordon of spies. The question was, whither to turn in the meantime? Certainly not back to the town. In the near neighbourhood I knew of no roof but The Hunters' Tryst, by Alexander Hendry. Suppose that I found it (and the chances in that fog were perhaps against me), would Alexander Hendry, aroused from his bed, be likely to extend his hospitality to a traveller with no more luggage than a Paisley shawl? He might think I had stolen it. I had borne it down the staircase under the eyes of the runners, and the pattern was bitten upon my brain. It was doubtless unique in the district, and familiar: an oriflamme of battle over the barter of dairy produce and malt liquors. Alexander Hendry must recognise it, and with an instinct of antagonism. Patently it formed no part of my proper wardrobe: hardly could it be explained as a gage d'amour. Eccentric hunters trysted under Hendry's roof: the Six-Foot Club, for instance. But a hunter in a frilled shirt and waistcoat sprigged with forget-me-nots! And the house would be watched, perhaps. Every house around would be watched.
The end was that I wore through the remaining hours of darkness upon the sodden hillside. Superlative Miss Gilchrist! Folded in the mantle of that Spartan dame; huddled upon a boulder, while the rain descended upon my bare head, and coursed down my nose, and filled my shoes, and insinuated a playful trickle down the ridge of my spine; I hugged the lacerating fox of self-reproach, and hugged it again, and set my teeth as it bit upon my vitals. Once, indeed, I lifted an accusing arm to heaven. It was as if I had pulled the string of a douche-bath. Heaven flooded the fool with gratuitous tears; and the fool sat in the puddle of them and knew his folly. But heaven at the same time mercifully veiled that figure of abasement; and I will lift but a corner of the sheet.
Wind in hidden gullies, and the talk of lapsing waters on the hillside, filled all the spaces of the night. The high road lay at my feet, fifty yards or so below my boulder. Soon after two o'clock (as I made it) lamps appeared in the direction of Swanston, and drew nearer; and two hackney coaches passed me at a jog-trot, towards the opaline haze into which the fog had subdued the lights of Edinburgh. I heard one of the drivers curse as he went by, and inferred that my open-handed cousin had shirked the weather and gone comfortably from the Assembly Rooms to Dumbreck's Hotel and bed, leaving the chase to his mercenaries.
After this you are to believe that I dozed and woke by snatches. I watched the moon descending in her foggy circle; but I saw also the mulberry face and minatory forefinger of Mr. Romaine, and caught myself explaining to him and Mr. Robbie that their joint proposal to mortgage my inheritance for a flying broomstick took no account of the working model of the whole Rock and Castle of Edinburgh, which I dragged about by an ankle-chain. Anon I was pelting with Rowley in a claret-coloured chaise through a cloud of robin-redbreasts; and with that I awoke to the veritable chatter of birds and the white light of dawn upon the hills.
The truth is, I had come very near to the end of my endurance. Cold and rain together, supervening in that hour of the spirit's default, may well have made me light-headed; nor was it easy to distinguish the tooth of self-reproach from that of genuine hunger. Stiff, qualmish, vacant of body, heart and brain, I left my penitential boulder and crawled down to the road. Glancing along it for sight or warning of the runners, I spied, at two gun-shots' distance or less, a milestone with a splash of white upon it—a draggled placard. Abhorrent thought! Did it announce the price upon the head of Champdivers! "At least I will see how they describe him"—this I told myself; but that which tugged at my feet was the baser fascination of fright. I had thought my spine inured by the night's experiences to anything in the way of cold shivers. I discovered my mistake while approaching that scrap of paper.
"AERIAL ASCENSION EXTRAORDINARY!!!
THE MONSTRE BALLOON,
Professor Byfield (By Diploma), the World-Renowned
Exponent of Aerostatics and Aeronautics,
Has the Honour to inform the Nobility and Gentry of Edinburgh and
The shock of it—the sudden descent upon sublimity according to Byfield—took me in the face. I put up my hands. I broke into elfish laughter, and ended with a sob. Sobs and laughter together shook my fasting body like a leaf; and I zigzagged across the fields, buffeted this side and that by a mirth as uncontrollable as it was idiotic. Once I pulled up in the middle of a spasm to marvel irresponsibly at the sound of my own voice. You may wonder that I had will and wit to be drifted towards Flora's trysting-place. But in truth there was no missing it—the low chine looming through the weather, the line of firs topping it, and, towards the west, diminishing like a fish's dorsal fin. I had conned it often enough from the other side; had looked right across it on the day when she stood beside me on the bastion and pointed out the smoke of Swanston Cottage. Only on this side the fish-tail (so to speak) had a nick in it; and through that nick ran the path to the old quarry.
I reached it a little before eight. The quarry lay to the left of the path, which passed on and out upon the hill's northern slope. Upon that slope there was no need to show myself. I measured out some fifty yards of the path, and paced it to and fro, idly counting my steps; for the chill crept back into my bones if I halted for a minute. Once or twice I turned aside into the quarry, and stood there tracing the veins in the hewn rock: then back to my quarterdeck tramp and the study of my watch. Ten minutes past eight! Fool—to expect her to cheat so many spies. This hunger of mine was becoming serious. . . .
A stone dislodged—a light footfall on the path—and my heart leapt. It was she! She came, and earth flowered again, as beneath the feet of the goddess, her namesake. I declare it for a fact that from the moment of her coming the weather began to mend.
"My poor Anne!"
"The shawl has been useful," said I.
"You are starving."
"That is unpleasantly near the truth."
"I knew it. See, dear." A shawl of hodden grey covered her head and shoulders, and from beneath it she produced a small basket and held it up. "The scones will be hot yet, for they went straight from the hearth into the napkin."
She led the way to the quarry. I praised her forethought; having in those days still to learn that woman's first instinct, when a man is dear to her and in trouble, is to feed him. We spread the napkin on a big stone of the quarry, and set out the feast: scones, oat-cake, hard-boiled eggs, a bottle of milk, and a small flask of usquebaugh. Our hands met as we prepared the table. This was our first housekeeping; the first breakfast of our honeymoon I called it, rallying her. "Starving I may be; but starve I will in sight of food, unless you share it," and, "It escapes me for the moment, madam, if you take sugar." We leaned to each other across the rock, and our faces touched. Her cold cheek with the rain upon it, and one small damp curl—for many days I had to feed upon the memory of that kiss, and I feed upon it yet.
"But it beats me how you escaped them," said I.
She laid down the bannock she had been making pretence to nibble. "Janet,—that is our dairy girl—lent me her frock and shawl: her shoes too. She goes out to the milking at six, and I took her place. The fog helped me. They are hateful."
"They are, my dear. Chevenix——"
"I mean these clothes. And I am thinking, too, of the poor cows."
"The instinct of animals——" I lifted my glass, "Let us trust it to find means to attract the notice of two paid detectives and two volunteers."
"I had rather count on Aunt," said Flora, with one of her rare and adorable smiles, which fleeted as it came. "But, Anne, we must not waste time. They are so many against you, and so near. O, be serious!"
"Now you are talking like Mr. Romaine."
"For my sake, dear!" she clasped her hands. I took them in mine across the table, and, unclasping them, kissed the palms.
"Sweetheart," I said, "before this weather clears——"
"It is clearing."
"We will give it time. Before this weather clears, I must be across the valley and fetching a circuit for the drovers' road, if you can teach me when to hit it."
She withdrew one of her hands. It went up to the throat of her bodice, and came forth with my packet of notes.
"Good Lord!" said I: "if I hadn't forgotten the money!"
"I think nothing teaches you," sighed she.
She had sewn them tightly in a little bag of yellow oiled silk; and as I held it, warm from her young bosom, and turned it over in my hand, I saw that it was embroidered in scarlet thread with the one word "Anne" beneath the Lion Rampant of Scotland, in imitation of the poor toy I had carved for her—it seemed, so long ago!
"I wear the original," she murmured.
I crushed the parcel into my breast pocket, and, taking both hands again, fell on my knees before her on the stones.
"Flora—my angel I my heart's bride!"
"Hush!" She sprang away. Heavy footsteps were coming up the path. I had just time enough to fling Miss Gilchrist's shawl over my head and resume my seat, when a couple of buxom country wives bustled past the mouth of the quarry. They saw us, beyond a doubt: indeed, they stared hard at us, and muttered some comment as they went by and left us gazing at each other.
"They took us for a picnic," I whispered.
"The queer thing." said Flora, "is that they were not surprised. The sight of you——"
"Seen sideways in this shawl, and with my legs hidden by the stone here, I might pass for an elderly female junketer."
"This is scarcely the hour for a picnic," answered my wise girl, "and decidedly not the weather."
The sound of another footstep prevented my reply. This time the wayfarer was an old farmer-looking fellow in a shepherd's plaid and bonnet powdered with mist. He halted before us and nodded, leaning rheumatically on his staff.
"A coarse moarnin'. Ye'll be from Leadburn, I'm thinkin'?"
"Put it at Peebles," said I, making shift to pull the shawl close about my damning finery.
"Peebles!" he said reflectively. "I've ne'er ventured so far as Peebles. I've contemplated it! But I was none sure whether I would like it when I got there. See here: I recommend ye no to be lazin' ower the meat, gin ye'd drap in for the fun. A'm full late, mysel'?"
He passed on. What could it mean? We hearkened after his tread. Before it died away, I sprang and caught Flora by the hand.
"Listen ! Heavens above us, what is that?"
"It sounds to me like Gow's version of The Caledonian Hunt's Delight,on a brass band."
Jealous powers! Had Olympus conspired to ridicule our love, that we must exchange our parting vows to the public strains of The Caledonian Hunt's Delight, in Gow's version and a semitone flat? For three seconds Flora and I (in the words of a later British bard) looked at each other with a wild surmise, silent. Then she darted to the path, and gazed along it down the hill.
"We must run, Anne. There are more coming!"
We left the scattered relics of breakfast, and, taking hands, scurried along the path northwards. A few yards, and with a sharp turn it led us out of the cutting and upon the open hillside. And here we pulled up together with a gasp.
Right beneath us lay a green meadow, dotted with a crowd of two or three hundred people; and over the nucleus of this gathering, where it condensed into a black swarm, as of bees, there floated, not only the dispiriting music of The Caledonian Hunt's Delight, but an object of size and shape suggesting the Genie escaped from the Fisherman's Bottle as described in M. Galland's ingenious Thousand and One Nights. It was Byfield's balloon—the monster Lunardi—in process of inflation.
"Confound Byfield!" I ejaculated in my haste.
"Who is Byfield?"
"An aeronaut, my dear, of bilious humour; which no doubt accounts for his owning a balloon striped alternately with liver-colour and pale blue, and for his arranging it and a brass band in the very line of my escape. That man dogs me like fate." I broke off sharply. "And after all, why not?" I cried.
The next instant I swung round, as Flora uttered a piteous little cry; and there, behind us, in the outlet of the cutting, stood Major Chevenix and Ronald.
The boy stepped forward, and, ignoring my bow, laid a hand on Flora's arm.
"You will come home at once."
I touched his shoulder. "Surely not," I said, "seeing that the spectacle apparently wants but ten minutes of its climax."
He swung on me in a passion. "For God's sake, St. Yves, don't force a quarrel now, of all moments! Man, haven't you compromised my sister enough?"
"It seems to me that, having set a watch on your sister at the suggestion and with the help of a casual Major of Foot, you might in decency reserve the word 'compromise' for home consumption; and further, that against adversaries so poorly sensitive to her feelings, your sister may be pardoned for putting her resentment into action."
"Major Chevenix is a friend of the family." But the lad blushed as he said it.
"The family?" I echoed. "So? Pray did your aunt invite his help? No, no, my dear Ronald; you cannot answer that. And while you play the game of insult to your sister, sir, I will see that you eat the discredit of it."
"Excuse me," interposed the Major, stepping forward. "As Ronald said, this is not the moment for quarrelling; and as you observed sir, the climax is not so far off. The runner and his men are even now coming round the hill. We saw them mounting the slope, and (I may add) your cousin's carriage drawn up on the road below. The fact is, Miss Gilchrist has been traced to the hill; and as it secretly occurred to us that the quarry might be her objective, we arranged to take the ascent on this side. See there!" he cried, and flung out a hand.
I looked up. Sure enough, at that instant a grey-coated figure appeared on the summit of the hill, not five hundred yards away to the left. He was followed closely by my friend of the moleskin waistcoat; and the pair came sidling down the slope towards us.
"Gentlemen," said I, "it appears that I owe you my thanks. Your stratagem in any case was kindly meant."
"There was Miss Gilchrist to consider," said the Major stiffly.
But Ronald cried, "Quick, St. Ives! Make a dash back by the quarry path. I warrant we don't hinder."
"Thank you, my friend: I have another notion. Flora," I said, and took her hand, "here is our parting. The next five minutes will decide much. Be brave, dearest; and your thoughts go with me till I come again."
"Wherever you go, I'll think of you. Whatever happens, I'll love you. Go, and God defend you, Anne!" Her breast heaved, as she faced the Major, red and shame-fast, indeed, but gloriously defiant.
"Quick!" cried she and her brother together. I kissed her hand and sprang down the hill.
I heard a shout behind me; and, glancing back, saw my pursuers—three now, with my full-bodied cousin for whipper-in—change their course as I leapt a brook and headed for the crowded inclosure. A somnolent fat man, bulging, like a feather-bed, on a three-legged stool, dozed at the receipt of custom, with a deal table and a bowl of sixpences before him. I dashed on him with a crown-piece.
"No change given," he objected, waking up and fumbling with a bundle of pink tickets.
"None required." I snatched the ticket and ran through the gateway.
I gave myself time for another look before mingling with the crowd. The moleskin waistcoat was leading now, and had reached the brook; with red-head a yard or two behind, and my cousin a very bad third, panting—it pleased me to imagine how sorely—across the lower slopes to the eastward. The janitor leaned against his toll-bar and still followed me with a stare. Doubtless by my uncovered head and gala dress he judged me an all-night reveller—a strayed Bacchanal fooling in the morrow's eye.
Prompt upon the inference came inspiration. I must win to the centre of the crowd, and a crowd is invariably indulgent to a drunkard. I hung out the glaring sign-board of crapulous glee. Lurching, hiccoughing, jostling, apologising to all and sundry with spacious incoherence, I plunged my way through the sightseers, and they gave me passage with all the good-humour in life.
I believe that I descended upon that crowd as a godsend, a dancing rivulet of laughter. They needed entertainment. A damper, less enthusiastic company never gathered to a public show. Though the rain had ceased, and the sun shone, those who possessed umbrellas were not to be coaxed, but held them aloft with a settled air of gloom which defied the lenitives of nature and the spasmodic cajolery of the worst band in Edinburgh. "It'll be near full, Jock?" "It wull." "He'll be startin' m a meenit?" "Aiblins he wull." "Wull this be the sixt time ye've seen him?" "I shudna wonder." It occurred to me that, had we come to bury Byfield, not to praise him, we might have displayed a blither interest.
Byfield himself, bending from the car beneath his gently swaying canopy of liver-colour and pale blue, directed the proceedings with a mien of saturnine preoccupation. He may have been calculating the receipts. As I squeezed to the front, his underlings were shifting the pipe which conveyed the hydrogen gas, and the Lunardi strained gently at its ropes. Somebody with a playful thrust sent me staggering into the clear space beneath.
And here a voice hailed and fetched me up with around turn.
"Ducie, by all that's friendly! Playmate of my youth and prop of my declining years, how goes it?"
It was the egregious Dalmahoy. He clung and steadied himself by one of the dozen ropes binding the car to earth; and with an air of doing it all by his unaided cleverness—an air so indescribably, so majestically drunken, that I could have blushed for the poor expedients which had carried me through the throng.
"You'll excuse me if I don't let go. Fact is, we've been keeping it up a bit all night. Byfield leaves us—to expatiate in realms untrodden by the foot of man—
"The feathered tribes on pinions cleave the air;
Not so the mackerel, and, still less, the bear."
But Byfield does it—Byfield in his Monster Foolardi. One stroke of this knife (always supposing I miss my own hand), and the rope is severed: our common friend scales the empyrean. But he'll come back—oh, never doubt, he'll come back!—and begin the dam business over again. Tha's the law 'gravity 'cording to Byfield."
Mr. Dalmahoy concluded inconsequently with a vocal imitation of a post-horn; and, looking up, I saw the head and shoulders of Byfield projected over the rim of the car.
He drew the natural inference from my dress and demeanour, and groaned aloud.
"O, go away—get out of it, Ducie! Isn't one natural born ass enough for me to deal with? You fellows are guying the whole show!"
"Byfield!" I called up eagerly, "I'm not drunk. Reach me down a ladder, quick! A hundred guineas if you'll take me with you!" I saw over the crowd, not ten deep behind me, the red head of the man in grey.
"That proves it," said Byfield. "Go away; or at least keep quiet. I'm going to make a speech." He cleared his throat. "Ladies and gentlemen——"
I held up my packet of notes. "Here's the money,—for pity's sake, man! There are bailiffs after me, in the crowd!"
"——the spectacle which you have honoured with your enlightened patronage——I tell you I can't." He cast a glance behind him into the car——"with your enlightened patronage, needs but few words of introduction or commendation."
"Hear, hear!" from Dalmahoy.
"Your attendance proves the sincerity of your interest——"
I spread out the notes under his eyes. He blinked, but resolutely lifted his voice.
"The spectacle of a solitary voyager——"
"Two hundred!" I called up.
The spectacle of two hundred solitary voyagers—cradled in the brain of a Montgolfier and a Charles——O, stop it! I'm no public speaker! How the deuce——?"
There was a lurch and a heave in the crowd. "Pitch oot the drunken loon!" cried a voice. On top of it I heard my cousin bawling for a clear passage. With the tail of my eye I caught a glimpse of his plethoric perspiring face as he came charging past the barrels of the hydrogen-apparatus; and, with that, Byfield had shaken down a rope-ladder and fixed it, and I was scrambling up like a cat.
"Cut the ropes!"
"Stop him!" my cousin bawled. "Stop the balloon! It's Champdivers, the murderer!"
"Cut the ropes!" vociferated Byfield; and to my infinite relief I saw that Dalmahoy was doing his best. A hand clutched at my heel. I let out viciously, amid a roar of the crowd; felt the kick reach and rattle home on somebody's teeth; and, as the crowd made a rush and the balloon swayed and shot upwards, heaved myself over the rim into the car.
Recovering myself on the instant, I bent over. I had on my tongue a neat farewell for Alain, but the sight of a hundred upturned and contorted faces silenced me as a blow might. There had lain my real peril, in the sudden wild-beast rage now suddenly baffled. I read it, as clear as print, and sickened. Nor was Alain in a posture to listen. My kick had sent Moleskin flying on top of him; and borne to earth, prone beneath the superincumbent bulk of his retainer he lay with hands outspread like a swimmer's and nose buried in the plashy soil.