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Laurence Pinckney was a hopeless sportsman. When he realised this for himself he laid down his gun, and presently took up with Miss Bristo's camera as a weapon better suited to him.
Alice had made no use of the apparatus for weeks and weeks; it was sent down with other luggage without her knowledge, and she never thought of unpacking it until Mr. Pinckney pleaded for instruction; when—perhaps because Alice felt that without an occupation this visitor would be on her hands all day—he did not plead in vain. He did not, however, require many lessons. He knew something about it already, having given the subject some attention (in the reading room of the British Museum) before writing one of his rollicking articles. Nor were the lessons she did give him much of a nuisance to Alice, for when he forgot to talk about his work, and refrained from coruscation, there was no more sensible and polite companion than Laurence Pinckney.
When, therefore, he set out on that Friday's ramble, which produced one really good negative, and a number of quaint little Arcadian observations jotted down in his notebook, it was with the entire photographic impedimenta slung about his person, and some idea in his head of an article on "The North Yorkshire Dales," to be illustrated by the writer's own photographs.
His destination was a certain ancient abbey, set in gorgeous scenery, eight long miles from Gateby. But long before he got there a hollow of the plain country road tempted him, and he fell.
It was quite an ordinary bit of road; a tall hazel-hedge, and a pathway high above the road on the left; on the right, a fence with trees beyond it, one of them, an oak of perfect form, that stood in the foreground, being of far greater size than most of the trees in this district, and in strong contrast to its neighbours. That was really all. It never would have been picturesque, nor have taken our artist's fancy, but for the sunlight on the wet road and the fleecy pallor of the sky where it met the sharp line of distant dark blue hills far away over the hazel-hedge, to the left. But the sunlight was the thing. It came, as though expressly ordered, from, so to say, the left wing. It rested lightly on the hedge-tops. It fell in a million golden sparks on the shivering leaves of the old oak. But it cleared the deep-cut road at a bound, leaving it dark. Only a long way further on, where the bend to the right began, did his majesty deign to step down upon the road; and just there, because everything was wet from last night's rain, it was a road of silver.
No sooner, however, was the picture focussed than the sun, which made it what it was, disappeared behind a cloud—a favourite and mischievous dodge of his for the mortification of the amateur photographer.
Now, while Pinckney waited for the sun to come out again, which he saw was going to happen immediately, and while he held in his fingers the pneumatic ball connected with the instantaneous shutter, two figures appeared at the bend of the road that had been silver track a moment before. They were a man and a woman, trudging along with the width of the road between them. Pinckney watched them with painful interest. If the cloud cleared the sun at that moment they would be horribly in the way, for worse clouds were following on the heels of this one, and the opportunity must be seized. There was nothing, of course, to prevent his taking the tramps as they walked—no, it would spoil the picture. Stay, though; it would add human interest. But the cloud did not pass so rapidly after all, and the man and woman drew near the camera.
There was something peculiar in the appearance of the man that struck Pinckney at once as un-English. This peculiarity was difficult to localise. It was not in his clothes, which indeed looked new, but it was partly in his heavy face, smooth-shaven and suntanned, partly in his slow, slouching, methodical walk, and very much in his fashion of carrying his belongings. Instead of the pudding-like bundle of the English tramp he carried across his shoulders a long, neatly-strapped cylinder, the outer coating of which was a blanket. About the woman, on the other hand, there was nothing to strike the attention. Pinckney's first glance took in, perhaps, the fact that her black skirt was torn and draggled, and her black bodice in startling contrast to her white face; but that could have been all.
Back came the sun, in a hurry, to the hedge-top and the oak-tree, and the distant curve of the road. Pinckney had decided in favour of the tramps in his picture, but they were come too near. He requested them in his blandest tones to retrace a few steps. To his immense surprise he was interrupted by a sullen oath from the man, who at once quickened his steps forward, motioning to the woman to do the same.
"Thankee for nothing, and be hanged to you! Wait till we pass, will you?"
If Pinckney had wanted further assurance that the man was a foreign element, these sentences should have satisfied him; for your honest British rustic is not the man to reject the favours of the camera, be they never so promiscuous and his chance of beholding the result never so remote.
Pinckney's answer, however, was a prompt pressure of the pneumatic ball in his hand—a snap-shot at short range, the click of which did not escape the sharp ears of the strange-looking, heavily-built old man.
"Have you took us?" asked he fiercely.
"Oh no," replied the photographer, without a blush, "I'm waiting till you pass; look sharp, or I'll lose the sun again!"
The man scowled, but said no more. Next moment he passed by on one side of the camera, and the woman on the other. Pinckney looked swiftly from one to the other, and marked well the face of each. That of the man repelled him, as bull-dog jaws upon a thick, short neck and small, cruel-looking glittering eyes would repel most of us, even without this man's vile expression. The man was tall and broad, but bent, and he looked twenty years older at close quarters than at a distance. The woman, on the other hand, was young, but so worn, and pinched, and soured, and wearied that you had to look closely to find a trace of youth. She never raised her eyes from the ground as she walked; but Pinckney made sure they were dark eyes, for the well-formed eyebrows were blue-black, like a raven's feather. Her wrist-bone showed prominently—seeming to be covered by little more than skin—as she caught together the shawl at her bosom with her left hand; a plain gold hoop was on its third finger.
Pinckney watched the pair out of sight, still walking with the whole road between them.
"That brute," muttered Pinckney, "beats his wife!"
And then he exposed another plate from the same position, packed up the apparatus, and went his way.
Some hours later—towards evening, in fact—as Pinckney returned from his ruined abbey and came in sight of Gateby, the rain—which had gathered during the afternoon—came down from the leaden twilit sky in earnest. It rains violently in the dales; and the photographer, hungry though he was, and more than ready for dinner, saw no reason for getting wet to the skin when the village was within a stone's-throw, and the shooting-box half-a-mile further on. He burst into the inn for shelter; and honest Robert Rutter conducted him to the private parlour with peculiar satisfaction, having been intimate with Gateby rain many years, and knowing also a thing or two about the appetites of gentlemen from the south.
Pinckney, left alone, examined the room. It was gaudily carpeted, uncomfortably furnished, stuffy for want of use and air, and crowded with gimcracks. Foxes and birds, in huge cases, were perilously balanced on absurd little tables. The walls were covered with inflamed-looking prints, the place of honour being occupied by portraits of mine host and hostess unrecognisable. The large square centre-table was laid out in parterres of books never opened. In fact, the parlour was not what you would have expected of the remote dales. For this very reason, perhaps, that realist Pinckney took particular pains over the description which was promptly set down in his note-book. The landlord coming in during the writing, moreover, the poor man's words were taken out of his mouth and set down red-hot, and on the phonetic principle, in a parenthesis.
This visit of Rutter's resulted subsequently in a heavy supper of ham and eggs and beer, and a fire in the parlour, before which Pinckney contentedly smoked, listening to the rain, which was coming down indeed in torrents.
It was while this easy-going youth was in the most comfortable post-prandial condition that the voices in a room, separated from the parlour only by a narrow passage, grew loud enough to be distinctly audible in it. Up to this point the conversation had been low and indistinct, occasional laughter alone rising above an undertone; now the laughter was frequent and hearty. The reasons were that the room in question was the tap-room, and the fourth round of beer was already imbibed. One voice—in which the local accents were missed—led the talk; the rest interjaculated.
Mr. Pinckney pricked up his ears, and of course whipped out the insatiable note-book. Simultaneously, in the kitchen, connected with the tap-room on the opposite side, the landlord and his wife, with the schoolmaster and his, were bending forward, and solemnly listening to the stranger's wild stories, with the door ajar. Thus the glib-tongued personage had more listeners, and more sober listeners, than he was aware of.
"Sharks?" he was saying. "Seen sharks? You bet I have! Why, when I was or'nary seaman—betwixt Noocastle, Noo South Wales and 'Frisco it was; with coals—we counted twenty-seven of 'em around the ship the morning we was becalmed in three south. And that afternoon young Billy Bunting—the darling of our crew he was—he fell overboard, and was took. Took, my lads, I say! Nothin' left on'y a patch of red in the blue water and a whole set of metal buttons when we landed Mister John Shark next morning." (Sensation.) "And that's gospel. But the next shark as we got—and we was becalmed three weeks that go—the skipper he strung him up to the spanker-boom, an' shot his blessed eyes out with a revolver; 'cause little Billy had been pet of the ship, d'ye see? And then we let him back into the briny; and a young devil of an apprentice dived over and swam rings round him, 'cause he couldn't see; and it was the best game o' blindman's buff ever you seed in your born days." (Merriment.) "What! Have ye never heard tell o' the shark in Corio Bay, an' what he done? Oh, but I'll spin that yarn."
And spin it he did; though before he had got far the landlady exchanged glances with the schoolmaster's lady, and both good women evinced premonitory symptoms of sickness, so that the worthy schoolmaster hastily took "his missis" home, and hurried back himself to hear the end.
"A sailor," said Pinckney, listening in the parlour; "and even at that an admirable liar."
He went out into the passage, and peeped through the chink of the door into the tap-room. In the middle of the long and narrow table, on which the dominoes for once lay idle, stood one solitary tallow candle, and all around were the shadowy forms of rustics in various attitudes of breathless attention—it was a snake-story they were listening to now; and the face of the narrator, thrust forward close to the sputtering wick, was the smooth, heavy, flexible face of the man whom Pinckney had photographed unawares on the road.
Pinckney went softly back to the parlour, whistling a low note of surprise.
"No wonder I didn't recognise the voice! That voice is put on. The surly growl he gave me this morning in his natural tone. He's making up to the natives; or else the fellow's less of a brute when he's drunk, and if that's so, some philanthropist ought to keep him drunk for his natural life. The terms might be mutual. 'I keep you in drink, in return for which you conduct yourself like a Christian,—though an intoxicated one, to me and all men.'"
"Who is that customer?" Pinckney asked of Bob Rutter, as they settled up outside on the shining flags—shining in the starlight; for the heavy rain had suddenly stopped, and the sky as suddenly cleared, and the stars shone out, and a drip, drip, drip fell upon the ear from all around, and at each breath the nostril drew in a fragrance sweeter than flowers.
"He's a sailor," said honest Rutter; "that's all I know; I don't ask no questions. He says his last voyage was to—Australia, I think they call it—and back."
"I saw he was a sailor," said Pinckney.
"He asked," continued Rutter, "if there was anybody from them parts hereabout; and I said not as I knowed on, till I remembered waddycallum, your crack shot, up there, and tould him; and he seemed pleased."
"Has he nobody with him?" asked Pinckney, remembering the wan-faced woman.
"Yes—a wife or sumthink."
"Where is she?"
"In t'blacksmith's shed."
Rutter pointed to a low shed that might have been a cow-house, but in point of fact contained a forge and some broken ploughshares.
"Landlord," said Pinckney, severely, "you ought to turn that low blackguard out, and not take another farthing of his money until he finds the woman a fit place to sleep in!"
And with that young Pinckney splashed indignantly out into the darkness, and along the watery road to the shooting-box. There he found everyone on the point of going to bed. He was obliged, for that night, to keep to himself the details of his adventures; but, long after the rest of the premises were in darkness, a ruby-coloured light burned in Mr. Pinckney's room; he had actually the energy to turn his dry-plates into finished negatives before getting into bed, though he had tramped sixteen miles with accoutrements! Not only that, but he got up early, and had obtained a sun-print of each negative before going over to breakfast. His impatience came of his newness to photography; it has probably been experienced by every beginner in this most fascinating of crafts.
These prints he stowed carefully in his pocket, closely buttoning his coat to shield them from the light. At breakfast he produced them one by one, and handed them round the table on the strict understanding that each person should glance at each print for one second only. They were in their raw and perishable state; but a few seconds' exposure to the light of the room, said the perpetrator, would not affect them. In truth, no one wished to look at them longer; they were poor productions: the light had got in here, the focus was wrong in that one. But Mr. Pinckney knew their faults, and he produced the last print, and the best, with the more satisfaction.
"This one," said he, "will astonish you. It's a success, though I say it. Moreover, it's the one I most wanted to come out well—a couple of tramps taken unawares. This print you must look at only half-a-second each."
He handed it to Alice, who pronounced it a triumph—as it was—and glanced curiously at the downcast face of the woman in the foreground. She handed it to the doctor, sitting next her. The doctor put the print in his uncle's hand, at the head of the table. The Colonel's comment was good-natured. He held out the print to Miles, who took it carelessly from him, and leant back in his chair.
Now as Miles leant back, the sunlight fell full upon him. It streamed through a narrow slit of a window at the end of the room—the big windows faced southwest—and its rays just missed the curve of table-cloth between the Colonel and Miles. But on Miles the rays fell: on his curly light-brown hair, clear dark skin, blond beard and moustache; and his blue eyes twinkled pleasantly under their touch. As he idly raised the print, leaning back in the loose rough jacket that became him so well, the others there had never seen him more handsome, tranquil, and unconcerned.
Miles raised the print with slow indifference, glanced at it, jerked it suddenly upward, and held it with both hands close before his eyes. They could not see his face. But the sunlight fell upon the print, and Pinckney cried out an excited protest:
"Look out, I say! Hold it out of the sun, please! Give it here, you'll spoil the print!"
But Miles did not heed, even if he heard. The square of paper was quivering, though held by two great strong hands. All that they could see of Miles's face behind it was the brow: it was deeply scored across and across—it was pale as ashes.
A minute passed; then the print was slowly dropped upon the table. No print now: only a sheet of glossy reddish-brown paper.
Miles burst into a low, harsh laugh.
"A good likeness!" he said slowly. "But it has vanished, clean gone, and, I fear, through my fault. Forgive me, Pinckney, I didn't understand you. I thought the thing was finished. I know nothing about such things—I'm an ignorant bushman"—with a ghastly smile—"but I thought—I couldn't help thinking, when it vanished like that—that it was all a hoax!"
He pushed back his chair, and stalked to the door. No one spoke—no one knew what to say—one and all, they were mystified. On the threshold Miles turned, and looked pleadingly towards the Colonel and Alice.
"Pray forgive me, I am covered with shame; but—but it was strangely like some one—some one long dead," said Miles, hoarsely—and slowly, with the exception of the last four words, which were low and hurried. And with that he went from the room, and cannoned in the passage against Dick Edmonstone, who was late for breakfast.
That day, the champion from Australia shot execrably, which was inexplicable; and he kept for ever casting sudden glances over his shoulders, and on all sides of him, which was absurd.
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