The Cripple at the Mill

The Cripple at the Mill  (1895) 
by Max Pemberton

Extracted from Strand magazine, v.10, 1895, pp. 243-250. Accompanying illustrations by Sidney Paget may be omitted.


The Cripple at the Mill

By Max Pemberton

THE thunderstorm, which had followed me all the afternoon, promised to burst about the hour of sunset. Away to the west, the rolling vapours steamed up in fantastic shapes; there were mountains of sullen black cloud lying low in the remoter valley. The river itself took the colour of ink; the distant woods upon which the sun still fell were all lit with rich and changing colours, in fine contrast to the black and gloomy picture so near to me. I began to hear that distinct throb of the little waves which is a prelude to storm; the wind whistled hauntingly in the willows; the grasses bent to the fitful blasts; even my canoe went careering onward, as though anxious to bring me to shelter.

Supper and bed! The words had a pleasant ring for a man who was ten miles from anywhere. I had been making a tour of the rivers of France, and having come down the Seine to my great content, had struck through the canals into the River Loire. Thence I was looking to reach the Saone, and ultimately the Rhone. Until this June day of which I write, my trip had been all that I had hoped. The perpetual sunshine, the perfect rest, the exhilaration of the exercise, the solitude, the sweetness of the rivers, had blotted London from my memory. My old canoe, bought years ago at Toronto, had been my best friend. My luggage would not have filled a decent trunk. Two suits of thick flannels served all purposes. My levée dress was a mackintosh; my morning toilet, a sweater and a pipe. And I was happy; happy, I think, beyond any oarsman that ever cut himself adrift from his fellows, and made holiday alone.

Supper and bed! They seemed far off, indeed. I was ten leagues from Nevers, and the surrounding country was as flat as the Fens. Not the vestige of a house could I see.

It was now near to being quite dark. Ugly flashes of forked lightning struck across the western sky; the wind moaned warningly; there was foam upon the wavelets. With the hope that I might yet come upon a haven, I dug my paddle into the water furiously, and the rush of waves from my bows was like music to my ears. The greater speed carried me swiftly to the point where the stream swung round sharply to the eastward. I passed a great clump of bushes, all covered with wild clematis, and then I saw the girl.

A prettier apparition never was. She sat upon the bank, weaving white moon-daisies into her hair, which fell over her shoulders almost to her waist. She wore no shoes or stockings, and, for the matter of that, her feet were in the water to her ankles. What her age was I make no pretence to tell. I remember only that her exceedingly well-shaped face and great dark eyes gave me the notion that she was very young, and her dress was fittingly picturesque, consisting only of a short skirt of scarlet, and an old black and gold bodice with white sleeves such as we look for with the typical gipsy of opera. Her feathers, however, had long since lost their fineness. The gold lace was wofully faded; the sleeves were scrupulously white, but much torn; there were buttons wanting. None the less was the effect singularly pleasing, and the face of the girl one to attract apart from her environment.

The moment she saw my canoe, this wild creature ceased to play with the daisies in her lap, and began to stare at me. Not a muscle did she move; not a word escaped her. But her eyes were a wonder to see, and the little hands were dainty enough to call for a painter’s admiration. I paused for a moment, silent in praise. Then I spoke to her with all the French I could muster.

“I am caught by the storm, little one; can you direct me to any shelter?”

She looked at me with increasing amazement, but gave me no answer. I might have been addressing a statue. I threw a franc to her. It fell almost upon her right hand, but she made no motion to pick it up; nor did she look at it, continuing instead to search me with those lustrous eyes of hers.

“There is no house here,” said she, speaking at last with a very pleasant voice.

“But where do you live?” I persisted, in surprise.

“I live at the White Mill,” she answered, unconcernedly.

“And where is the White Mill?”

“What eyes you have,” she now cried, gaily; “the White Mill is through the trees there.”

I must have been blind. When I looked for the spot she indicated, I saw the shape of a tumble-down structure showing through the trees of a scanty copse. It was not half a mile from where I was.

“Oh,” said I, at the discovery; “that’s where you live, is it? And is your mother there?”

[Illustration: “‘YOU WISH TO GO TO THE MILL?’ SHE ASKED.”]

She shook her head.

“Or your father?”

She answered me as before.

“Then who takes care of you?” I asked, angry at her obstinacy.

“My uncle, Maître Chalot.”

“Then he will give me a bed. Sapristi, the rain is coming down already. We shall be drenched, little one. Run on and tell your uncle I am about to make his acquaintance.”

She did not move; but the look of amused curiosity in her eyes passed to one of startled surprise.

“You wish to go to the mill?” she asked.

“Certainly, I wish to go; why should I not?”

“Because,” she answered, slowly, “because—no one goes to Maître Chalot.”

“Then all the more reason to give him company.”

“Oh! but—but——

“But what, pretty child?”

She had now started to her feet, and had snatched up the franc, which she slipped into the breast of the faded bodice. I thought for a moment that she was going to plead with me; but when she had stood for some time with the wild look in her eyes, of a sudden she ran away swiftly towards the old house, and I was alone.

“A pest on it,” said I, “the little witch is mad.”

Mad or sane, it was not a situation to call for serious debate. Wild gusts of wind now howled in the valley. A heavy darkness had come down with the storm. The rain and hail cut the face. The willows bent like whips. The lightning leaped from cloud to cloud in paths of blinding light. The rattle of the thunder was like the roar of unnumbered batteries. Determined to find a haven at any cost, and sublimely indifferent to the relations between Maître Chalot and his neighbours, I set down to my work, and, wet and weary as I was, the canoe flew onward to the mill.

The house proved on better acquaintance to be just as decrepit and decayed as I had thought when first I saw it. Scarce a pane in any lattice was uncracked. The thatch struggled raggedly over the eaves. One wing of the building had sunk upon its foundations and yawed away from its fellow. The high chimney above the mill had long since had a quarrel with the perpendicular. The walls were often bulging and split. The door of the parlour—for there was no such luxury as a hall—had lost a hinge. A mangy dog of all known breeds lay asleep on a heap of dirty straw in the yard. I saw that the place was built upon the bank of a little stream here flowing swiftly into the main river; and must once have been a prosperous mill. But that, I judged, was years ago.

I left my canoe in the mill-pool, then whipped into ripples by the storm; and, regardless of the fact that water streamed out of my flannels, I knocked upon the open door of the kitchen. There was a fire burning brightly in a stove, and stew-pans warming on the copper top. The whole interior was ridiculously clean for such an environment, and in spite of the warnings of the little witch, I began to congratulate myself upon the adventure. In the same moment I heard someone hobbling across the flags, and then was face to face with Maître Chalot. I was sure it was he, and at the first view of him I saw that he was a cripple, and went on crutches.

“Good evening,” said he. “You are an Englishman, I suppose, and you want shelter? Well, such as I have is at your disposal. Mon Dieu, listen to the thunder.”

He led the way into his cottage—you could not call it more—without another word; and I found myself sitting at the fire in a hopeless endeavour to dry my clothes. The witch of the river was not to be seen, however, and the storm now beat so violently without, and the darkness was so intense, that the old man hobbled to a cupboard and set a lamp upon his table. The light of it added to my surprise. It showed me the features of one who might well have been an abbé. Never had I seen such a gentle-looking old fellow. Silky white hair streamed upon his forehead; his face was the face of a Greek; his mouth like the mouth of a tender woman; his eyes kindly; his voice gentle. And this was the man of whom the neighbours made a hermit, and against whom my little friend had suggested cautions. What a farce!

When he had placed the lamp upon the table, Maître Chalot made haste to apologize for his shortcomings and to set supper.

“I have nothing but bread and wine to offer, monsieur,” said he, hobbling about upon his crutches with surprising agility; “but such as I have, I give with all my heart. It was different when my wife was alive—but she died ten years ago. And there is no woman’s hand in this house now. God be merciful to me, I am quite alone!”

“One moment,” said I, feeling myself moved to pity at his obvious distress. “I met a young girl on the river’s bank half a mile from here. She declared she was your niece!”

When I said this, a swift look of hatred passed over his striking face. He brought down his fist with a bang upon the table so that the glasses he had set danced again.

“My niece she is,” cried he, “and with such am I visited for my sins. Oh, she is a lazy creature, monsieur—she is a waif and stray who will come to mischief. Heaven forgive me for saying it. Never was good known of her. She will not go to school; she will not work at home. She is a plague to me. Even the clergy speak of her from the pulpit, saying, ‘Be warned by Fifine of the mill.’ What a misfortune for you to speak with her.”

I said nothing in answer to his appeal; but his words seemed to be confirmed by the absence of the girl when we sat down to his poor supper, and afterwards to pipes in the settle. The crisis of the storm had now passed, but the wind still howled dismally in the river valley, and roared under the eaves of the old house with a sound as of human moaning and distress. Yet not a sight of the girl had I seen, and I began to be anxious about her.

“Tell me,” said I, filling my glass with the revoltingly sour Bordeaux he offered to me, “where is Fifine now?”

“God knows,” cried he, “everywhere—anywhere. She is like a Will-o’-the-wisp. Do not trouble your head about her. I never do—she is not worth a thought.”

He turned the subject deftly, going on to tell me that others of my own countrymen had passed down the Loire recently, seeking to reach the Saone, and that two of them had stayed in his house.

“You English,” said he, “how gay you are. To row about in boats no bigger than that—oh, it is droll. And not to care if you have a pillow for your head or a dinner to eat! Ma foi! what a nation!”

He laughed at the humour of the thing, and poured me out another glass of the sour wine. He was just about to resume the subject when we both heard a heavy, dull sound as of hammering, a sound which appeared to come from a room next to our own; and at this he sprang up upon his crutches and hobbled away to listen. In the minute that I was alone I heard a sharp cry like the cry of a girl who had been struck, but it was not repeated, and when the old man came back to me he was still smiling.

“What a night,” said he, apparently in explanation; “what a wind! Did you hear the dog yelping? I have shut him in the cellar. Holy Mother, I would not turn a cur away in such a storm.”

“Then what about your niece?” asked I, beginning to feel some slight distrust of him in spite of myself.

“She is in bed,” said he, looking at me sharply. “Oh, never fear, she can take care of herself. If anyone suffers, it will not be Fifine.”

I knew not what to think, what to say in answer to him. I could have sworn that I had heard a child cry out; and yet here was this smiling old cripple appearing to be the spirit of all benevolence and good. The thing was becoming a mystery. I recalled again the pitiful, dazed look of the girl; I remembered her startled exclamation when I had proposed to go to the mill. And I could not drive it out of my mind that I was quite alone with this saintly cripple; that there was no other house within many miles of his. These things, I say, occurred to me, and yet it is not to be thought that I feared the man. After all, he was old and lame; I was young, and had the strength of perfect health. I knew that I could take him up with one hand, if need be, and pitch him out of his own window. Nevertheless, a certain indefinable sense of dread came upon me once or twice while I sat in that gloomy kitchen. The dim light casting bands of black shadow upon the damp-stained wall; the sob of the wind about the gables; the reddening fire glowing upon the face of my host; the tick of the clock so plainly to be heard; the know ledge of the loneliness of the marshes without, contributed to the impression. I began to feel that the very atmosphere of the room was oppressive; the company of the man unbearable. Talk as much as he might, I could not find it in me to reply to him; and nine o’clock had scarce been struck upon his crazy old clock when I said that I would go to bed.

He found the suggestion a good one.

“Without doubt, you have come far and are tired,” said he. “I am distressed to offer you such a poor bed, but it is my best. It was different when my wife lived. Oh, monsieur, what a woman she was. So clean, so neat—such an example. God rest her soul.”

As he said this, he produced a tiny brass lamp and lit it. Then he held it aloft and began, very dexterously, to pitch himself for ward upon his crutches, leading me down a dark passage towards the yawing gable; He went so fast that I was some paces behind him as he reached the angle of the passage, and in this moment I was conscious of a light step behind me. I turned quickly, and found myself almost touching the face of the girl Fifine. But the look in her eyes was one I shall never forget.

[Illustration: “HE POURED ME OUT ANOTHER GLASS OF THE SOUR WINE.”]

“Well, pretty child,” said I, in a whisper, “what do you want?”

“I—I want to tell you,” she said, gasping for her breath—“don’t go—don’t sleep—you were kind to me. Oh, don’t listen to him. He will——

What more she would have said I can’t for the life of me tell, for that moment the old man called out, and she vanished like a sunbeam.

The passage was now quite dark, save for a ray of moonlight which fell through a tiny lattice high above me; and with the girl’s words ringing unpleasantly in my ears, I began to grope my way back to the kitchen. There, at any rate, I could see the danger that menaced me. But in that dark place I knew not what might come. A hundred fears, a hundred possibilities, leapt into my mind. Uncertain, half-convinced, puzzling still upon the enigma, I had taken half-a-dozen steps towards the room I had left, when the light of the man’s lantern flashed again at the far end of the passage, and he called to me:—

“Your room is quite ready, monsieur.”

He stood waving the light, and I, in turn, paused and looked at him. For the thought had come to me suddenly: what if the girl should have been set to this work; what if it was her design to drag me back to the kitchen? I asked myself: were there other men in the house beside the cripple? What was the sound of hammering I had heard. Why had someone cried out? It seemed to me even in the face of the child’s warning that I should fare better if I kept my fears to myself and did not come openly to a statement of them. That would give me time at any rate, and I could look but to my own wits for the rest. As well might a man have cried out for help in the cellars of the Inquisition as in that lonely house.

“This way, monsieur; peste, how dark it is, but there are no steps. Permit me to go first with the lantern.”

With these words the cripple raised the light so high that its rays were cast upon my face. To have hesitated longer would have been to have brought the thing immediately to a head. Had I known what I know now, I would have taken this course; but in my uncertainty, I thought it better to follow him, and keeping at his heels, I turned the angle of the passage and came to my bedroom. It was a small panelled apartment, with so tiny a window that a dog scarce could have entered through it. A low and very plain iron bedstead, a worn and tattered mat, a tin washstand, and a big deal cupboard furnished it. The place was both bare and dirty, and smelt strongly of damp. A shudder ran through me when the man set down the lamp and again began to apologize for putting me in such a place. But I was anxious to be quit of him; and with a curt word, I sent him about his business.

Directly I was alone, I seemed able to breathe again. How it was I know not, but the very company of that lame man set all my nerves twitching. Now, however, I was rid of him, and scarce had his step died away in the passage before I was at work. Instinctively, I felt that my very life depended upon what I could do in the next ten minutes. As a first thought I turned to the door and examined it. It wanted both lock and key; in fact, it swung loose upon its hinges and was worth no more than a door of paper. The idea that I would bar it with the heavy wardrobe was entertained for a moment, only to be rejected as quickly. Two men could not have moved that cumbrous contrivance; and when I had assured myself of this, I bethought me of the bed. What if I drew the bed across the opening, and so slept with the knowledge that any one passing into the room must pass over me? It was a good notion, but I put it aside when I remembered what a cabined den I was in. Better far to creep out to the river again—better anything than the gloom and chill and silence of that reeking chamber. And this at last I resolved to do, coming to believe, as I reasoned it out again, that the girl was my friend, the cripple my enemy.

Firm in this purpose, I pushed a chair against the door and sat upon the bed. I had taken off my coat in my endeavours to move the wardrobe, and now I sat in my shirt-sleeves, having first got my pocket-book which contained my money and thrust it into my belt. My knapsack lay upon the chair at the door, but I did not open it; meaning, when half an hour had gone, to crawl down the passage and make a bolt for it. For the first time in the history of my travels, I began to curse my folly in refusing to carry a revolver. Until that time I had laughed at those who did so, but I laughed no more. Nay, as I sat there, starting at every whisper of the wind and creak of the boards, I remembered that a pistol might have saved my life—and for my life I knew that I must fight.

Ten minutes, perhaps, had passed of the half-hour which I had set myself, when the little lamp flickered and went out. The light that now came down from the lattice showed me that the storm had broken, and that the moon was struggling through the clouds. But for the most part, the room was in utter darkness. I could not see my hand before my face; I feared to move from my bed lest any trap should be set for me. Once I thought I heard the sound of dripping water; the howl of the dog in the yard struck up weird and chilling; but these done with, the old silence fell, a silence so profound that I could hear the ticking of my watch as it lay in the pocket of my coat. At last I determined to bear with it no longer, and, well or ill, to leave that dreadful vault. It was as if the whole place were filled with ugly shadows, with the spirits of the murdered dead who haunted it. The temptation to cry out was unbearable. I seemed to feel that a face looked into mine, that dead men come to life were breathing upon me with warm breath.

With my nerve thus shattered and my hands almost trembling, I snatched up my knapsack and my coat, and pulled the chair from the door. A stream of light flooded the room at the action, and I found myself, to my amazement, face to face with Maître Chalot. So great was the surprise of it, to see him standing there with his lantern raised and his smiling face, that the words I would have spoken stuck upon my lips. Nor was he at all abashed by my confusion.

“A thousand pardons, monsieur,” said he; “I am distressed beyond words to wake you, but I had forgotten to point out the other door in your room, which I beg you to avoid. It is an old affair, opening above the mill-wheel which once was the pride of this place. I beg of you let me show it, lest any mischance should befall you.”

He gave me no time to say aye or no, and quite put off my guard, I watched him hobble across the room, and open a panel in the wall. A rush of noxious air streamed into the apartment as he did so, and his lamp came near to being extinguished.

“Look for yourself, monsieur,” said he, resting back upon his crutches, and waving the lamp with his hand, “what a dirty place it is. Oh, that I must ask you to sleep above such a thing. But what would you? I have no other room.”

While he had been speaking I had taken two strides towards the hole. His words were fair; his attitude defied suspicion. A cripple, leaning back upon his crutches, with his hands above him: what harm could he do to me? I saw that he was helpless, but none the less I kept back from him, quelling the curiosity which would have led me to gaze into the pit.

“Will you not look, monsieur?” he asked again, when I hesitated. “It is the old mill-wheel, but the sluice runs no longer. Ah! what a place this was when the water made music all the day.”

He said this, and the words were hardly out of his lips when the crisis came. I suppose that I had taken another step towards him, led on by his chatter. Be that as it may, while I was beginning to assure myself once more that he was honest, and that the girl had lied, he astounded me by dropping back upon his crutches, and falling heavily to the floor. The lamp fell with him, extinguishing itself as it dropped. We were in utter darkness, and he lay at my feet, moaning most dismally.

Mon Dieu, monsieur,” he now cried, “help me up, for pity’s sake. I have broken my leg. Oh, what pain I suffer.”

His cries were horrible, and without a thought of any treachery, I put out my hand to help him. No sooner had he gripped it, however, than a shudder ran over my body, and the whole of the man’s purpose was revealed to me. For his grip was like a grip of iron; it crushed my hand until I thought that the fingers were broken; it threatened to pull my arm from its socket; the pain of it was agonizing. Struggle as I would, the cripple drew me down to him; I felt his breath warm upon my face; I could hear him gnashing his teeth in the struggle; the blows I rained upon his head might as well have been struck on a ball of stone; he had the strength of a maniac, the cruelty of a beast. And presently he had got both his arms around me, and I was pressed up against his chest, while his left hand fixed itself upon my throat and clutched me like a collar of steel.

Long minutes seemed to me in my agony to pass as the pair of us struggled on the floor of that horrible, vault-like chamber. Over and over we rolled; again and again he forced me towards the foul pit which the open door had revealed; again and again, with some terrible effort, I dragged him back ward. At one moment lying beneath him gasping for my breath, seeing strange lights before my eyes, hearing the sound as of heavy wheels rolling in my ears, in the next I was above him, striking him with all my force, beating his face until I could feel the blood upon my hands. But he had the strength of ten men; his arms were like wire ropes; I knew that he was wearing me out. At the last, when he had fixed his teeth in my arm, and had almost blinded me with his nails, I dropped limp in his arms, and I remember only that he rolled me over and over, and that I fell with a low cry upon my lips into the darkness of the pit.

Weak as I was, the fall did not stun me. I had looked in the terrors of imagination to go straight down until I struck the filthy water he had called me to see; but I fell no more than five feet, and lay, gasping for my breath, upon that which appeared to be board covered with slime and mud. But the dread of the place was no less horrible; the conviction that I had not many minutes to live no less strong. Stinking odours of weed and ooze almost stifled me; the intolerable darkness was broken only by one ray of light which struggled through a gap in the slates high above me; the patter of rats in the slimy gutter was very plainly audible; I felt that I should die in the place; that my grave was to be there. The thought was an agony beyond anything I could conceive.

To tell all that I suffered as I lay in the darkness of that well—my strength gone, my face cut and bruised, my fingers crushed, my head on fire—is beyond any art of mine. I know only that I would have preferred death in any shape to the inconceivably repulsive suggestions of the pit; would have ended my life there and then had it been in my power. Minutes passed, and I was afraid even to move a hand lest I should roll from the place whereon I rested to the unknown dangers of the dark water below. The trickle of the stream as it swelled slowly through the tunnel, the sport and splash of the rats, the patter of rain upon the roof, were the only sounds I heard. The light was so faint that even the shape of the well was hidden from me. The silence in the room above was absolute.

How long I lay wondering where my body would be when day broke I shall never know. Hours seemed to pass and find me still upon that refuge. A dreamy sense, coming of weakness and the desire to sleep, crept over me. The scampering rats no longer set my brain burning. I was content to rest and wait for death. And in this new mood of my exhaustion I heard the trap above me open of a sudden, and the pit was lighted with a very blaze of light. I looked up and saw the cripple poised there upon his crutches, a flaming torch in his hand. For a minute he stood like some human vulture; his eyes outstanding, his face still bloody. Then he closed the trap with a snap, and I was alone with the darkness. But his torch had shown me where I lay, and the mystery of my prison was no longer hid from me.

I had fallen, as it proved, upon a palette of the mill-wheel itself, a wheel now shattered and broken and firmly jammed upon its axle. High above me was the sluice-gate, through the cracks of which the water dribbled; before me was a tunnel, leading as I surmised to the river. But all the walls around bore the slime of centuries upon them; the water below me was like ink; fantastic masses of dirty weed hung from the wood of the wheel; the air was heavy with evil odours; and of possibility of escape I saw none. No acrobat could have scaled those slippery walls; or, scaling them, could have found any hole through which to drag his body. I had heard the cripple bolt and bar the trap; of other way, save the way of the tunnel, there was no sign. And I felt that sooner than face the horrors of that, I would die a hundred deaths.

It may be, if no other impulse had come, that I had carried out this intention of despair and remained lying upon the palette of the wheel until the end of it. It was only with a shudder that I could look down to the tunnel. The very suggestion that I should face it and risk all in an attempt to swim to the river chilled me to the marrow. And yet as the minutes went, the words, “That is your only hope,” kept ringing in my head and would not be denied. I answered them with a low cry of mental pain; I prayed to God that death might come to me in any shape but this.

There was now a little more light in the pit. I knew that the dawn had broken, and fell to watching a ray of the sunshine which shone upon the dark pool. For many minutes I watched it in the determination that, whatever should be, I would think no more of the tunnel. The process became interesting, as little things will when great dangers press upon us. I observed the line of the water and the angle at which the beam fell. I looked again and, with a sudden overwhelming despair, I marked a change.

The water was rising in the pit!

With what eagerness I watched that line in the next ten minutes no pen may tell. Inch by inch, from brick to brick, the stream mounted. I saw the dark mass begin to swirl in the tunnel; the sound of rushing water struck upon my ears; the splash of the rats ceased. While the light became stronger minute by minute, and searched more deeply the recesses of the pool below, I beheld the rising line of the river as a man might behold the sword which presently is to strike him.

The water rose. It had touched my feet now. I felt it swilling about my ankles, cold and chilling. The eddies of the pool had almost become rapids. A murmur as of a subterranean river thundering grew louder every instant. The wheel shook and trembled so that I could scarce hold to it. Despair, fear of death, more than all fear of the tunnel, searched my very bones. Though I knew that I must, die, that many minutes could not pass before the filthy water choked me, nevertheless I clung to the wheel as though it were my only haven; clung to it while all around the current foamed, and the eddies swirled, and the air was damp with the spray; clung to it until, with a great crash and sound of tearing, it flung me from my hold, and I was sucked down into the pit with the river roaring in my ears and the darkness of the tunnel upon me.

Until this moment I do not think that any word but one had escaped me during all the intense mental suffering of the night; but I remember that as I fell from the wheel, a second loud cry, in which all my overwhelming misery seemed to find expression, burst from my lips. After that I almost lost consciousness, while the current hurled me headlong into the utter darkness of the tunnel. Now gasping for my breath, now plunged deep down, with the waters foaming over my face, now cut by the jagged stones, I was swept onward to the river—onward until my body struck heavily upon some obstacle, and I found myself, I know not how, with my hands upon an iron bar and my head above the water. For a moment I welcomed the support, clung to it as to life itself. Then, as the nature of it and its meaning made itself plain to my burning drain, I thought that here, indeed, was the crisis, here in truth the place of my death.

The tunnel was barred by an iron grating!

For what cause this obstacle was so placed, unless it was to prevent the mud silting up into the pool above, I do not pretend to know. But I can never forget the moments I spent beating upon it with my hands, tearing at its bars, feeling myself crushed by the weight of water upon me, fighting in very despair as a man will fight for his life. All around me the current thundered, flowing over my shoulders, running from my face, streaming from my hair. The spray went near to choking me again and again. The darkness was intense; the air fetid. I knew that I was to die, and yet my whole soul revolted against the thought that my grave should be there in that unspeakable pit. The very confinement, the vault-like arch of bricks; the sense of the utter hopelessness of my situation, only drove me to new efforts. I fought at the grating as at some human opponent who stood in my path; I pressed upon it until my arms were torn and bruised; I felt my strength ebbing, a horrid dizziness coming upon me; and still I held myself above the waters.

This growing weakness, the knowledge that moments scarce could pass before the end must come, awakened me to my supreme effort. I got my foot upon the tunnel’s bed; and with both hands gripping one of the bars, I drew myself back, having the design to throw all my weight upon the grating. To my inexpressible amazement, the bar, which would yield to no pressure in the direction of the river, came away in my hands as I forced myself back from it. The whole grating, rotting in its frame of brick, fell with the bar. The stream, gathering new force with the removal of the obstacle, now carried me forward like a match. The waters seethed and roared around me; I was buried deep beneath them, dashed headlong against the slimy walls, hurled onward to the very depths of the vault. And then, in a moment, the scene passed. The inky blackness of the current changed to a golden green; the roar of the stream passed from my ears; I knew that the sun was shining above me; I raised my arms and, striking upward, I found myself in the mill-pool, with my own canoe not ten yards from my hand.

When I had strength enough to let my painter go—and an hour must have passed before such strength came to me—I paddled quickly to the main stream of the Loire, and fled the White Mill as a man flees a pestilence. Not a sign of the cripple or of the girl, Fifine, could I see. Even the cur no longer howled upon the heap of dirty straw. A suggestive stillness reigned in all the house. It were as if no human thing had entered it for centuries.

[Illustration: “I FOUND MYSELF IN THE MILL-POOL”]

Upon an island half a mile from the house I changed my flannels. Nothing, strange to say, had been touched of the few necessaries I carried in the canoe, but the cripple had seized my pocket-book as we struggled together upon the floor, and I concluded that he had also my watch, unless it was that I had left it in the pit. But no money would have tempted me back to that house. The very thought of it chilled my blood and made my nerves quake. I had paddled a couple of miles, perhaps, and had come near to a little village lying hid in a pretty wood, when to my great surprise I saw the girl Fifine sitting upon the river’s bank.

She was crying bitterly; but when I would have spoken to her, she fled to the woods and was instantly lost to sight. It was only when many months had passed that I learnt from a neighbouring abbé how much I owed to her. She had broken the cog-wheels of the mill-sluice with a hammer, while I supped with Maître Chalot, and so maimed them that the water but half-filled the tunnel. I owe it to her alone that I was not drowned like a dog. At Roanne, I wired to England for money, borrowing meanwhile of the priest, who heard my tale with little amazement.

“The man has long been suspected,” said he; “but what can we do? He is probably on his way to Paris by this time.”

Such an argument was quite unanswerable. The French police appreciated it—and did nothing.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.


The author died in 1950, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.