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FOR LIFE, DEATH
Upon my return, I saw nothing for a time but fans and feathers of browning fern, dark shags of ling, and podded spurs of broom and furze, and wisps of grass. With great relief (of which I felt ashamed while even breathing it), I thought that the man was afraid to tell the rest of his story, and had fled; but ere my cowardice had much time for self-congratulation a tall figure rose from the ground, and fear compelled me into courage. For throughout this long interview more and more I felt an extremely unpleasant conviction. That stranger might not be a downright madman, nor even what is called a lunatic; but still it was clear that upon certain points--the laws of this country, for instance, and the value of rank and station--his opinions were so outrageous that his reason must be affected. And, even without such proofs as these, his eyes and his manner were quite enough. Therefore I had need of no small caution, not only concerning my words and gestures, but as to my looks and even thoughts, for he seemed to divine these last as quickly as they flashed across me. I never had learned to conceal my thoughts, and this first lesson was an awkward one.
"I hope you are better," he said, as kindly as it was possible for him to speak. "Now have no fear of me, once more I tell you. I will not sham any admiration, affection, or any thing of that kind; but as for harming you--why, your father was almost the only kind heart I ever met!"
"Then why did you send a most vile man to fetch me, when my father was dead in the desert?"
"I never did any thing of the sort. It was done in my name, but not by me; I never even heard of it until long after, and I have a score to settle with the man who did it."
"But Mr. Goad told me himself that you came and said you were the true Lord Castlewood, and ordered him at once to America. I never saw truth more plainly stamped on a new situation--the face of a rogue--than I saw it then on the face of Mr. Goad."
"You are quite right; he spoke the truth--to the utmost of his knowledge. I never saw Goad, and he never saw me. I never even dreamed of pretending to the title. I was personated by a mean, low friend of Sir Montague Hockin; base-born as I am, I would never stoop to such a trick. You will find out the meaning of that by-and-by. I have taken the law into my own hands--it is the only way to work such laws--I have committed what is called a crime. But, compared with Sir Montague Hockin, I am whiter than yonder shearling on his way to the river for his evening drink."
I gazed at his face, and could well believe it. The setting sun shone upon his chin and forehead--good, resolute, well-marked features; his nose and mouth were keen and clear, his cheeks curt and pale (though they would have been better for being a trifle cleaner). There was nothing suggestive of falsehood or fraud, and but for the wildness of the eyes and flashes of cold ferocity, it might have been called a handsome face.
"Very well," he began again, with one of those jerks which had frightened me, "your father was kind to me, very kind indeed; but he knew the old lord too well to attempt to interpose on my behalf. On the other hand, he gave no warning of my manifest resolve; perhaps he thought it a woman's threat, and me no better than a woman! And partly for his sake, no doubt, though mainly for my mother's, I made the short work which I made; for he was horribly straitened--and in his free, light way he told me so--by his hard curmudgeon of a father.
"To that man, hopeless as he was, I gave fair grace, however, and plenty of openings for repentance. None of them would he embrace, and he thought scorn of my lenity. And I might have gone on with such weakness longer, if I had not heard that his coach-and-four was ordered for the Moonstock Inn.
"That he should dare thus to pollute the spot where he had so forsworn himself! I resolved that there he should pay justice, either with his life or death. And I went to your father's place to tell him to prepare for disturbances; but he was gone to see his wife, and I simply borrowed a pistol.
"Now you need not be at all afraid nor shrink away from me like that. I was bound upon stricter justice than any judge that sets forth on circuit; and I meant to give, and did give, what no judge affords to the guilty--the chance of leading a better life. I had brought my mother to England, and she was in a poor place in London; her mind was failing more and more, and reverting to her love-time, the one short happiness of her life. 'If I could but see him, if I could but see him, and show him his tall and clever son, he would forgive me all my sin in thinking ever to be his wife. Oh, Thomas! I was too young to know it. If I could but see him once, just once!'
"How all this drove me no tongue can tell. But I never let her know it; I only said, 'Mother, he shall come and see you if he ever sees any body more!' And she trusted me and was satisfied. She only said, 'Take my picture, Thomas, to remind him of the happy time, and his pledge to me inside of it.' And she gave me what she had kept for years in a bag of chamois leather, the case of which I spoke before, which even in our hardest times she would never send to the pawn-shop.
"The rest is simple enough. I swore by the God, or the Devil, who made me, that this black-hearted man should yield either his arrogance or his life. I followed him to the Moon valley, and fate ordained that I should meet him where he forswore himself to my mother; on that very plank where he had breathed his deadly lies he breathed his last. Would you like to hear all about it?"
For answer I only bowed my head. His calm, methodical way of telling his tale, like a common adventure with a dog, was more shocking than any fury.
"Then it was this. I watched him from the Moonstock Inn to a house in the village, where he dined with company; and I did not even know that it was the house of his son, your father--so great a gulf is fixed between the legitimate and the bastard! He had crossed the wooden bridge in going, and was sure to cross it in coming back. How he could tread those planks without contrition and horror--but never mind. I resolved to bring him to a quiet parley there, and I waited in the valley.
"The night was soft, and dark in patches where the land or wood closed in; and the stream was brown and threw no light, though the moon was on the uplands. Time and place alike were fit for our little explanation. The path wound down the meadow toward me, and I knew that he must come. My firm intention was to spare him, if he gave me a chance of it; but he never had the manners to do that.
"Here I waited, with the cold leaves fluttering around me, until I heard a firm, slow step coming down the narrow path. Then a figure appeared in a stripe of moonlight, and stopped, and rested on a staff. Perhaps his lordship's mind went back some five-and-thirty years, to times when he told pretty stories here; and perhaps he laughed to himself to think how well he had got out of it. Whatever his meditations were, I let him have them out, and waited.
"If he had even sighed, I might have felt more kindness toward him; but he only gave something between a cough and a grunt, and I clearly heard him say, 'Gout to-morrow morning! what the devil did I drink port-wine for!' He struck the ground with his stick and came onward, thinking far more of his feet than heart.
"Then, as he planted one foot gingerly on the timber and stayed himself, I leaped along the bridge and met him, and without a word looked at him. The moon was topping the crest of the hills and threw my shadow upon him, the last that ever fell upon his body to its knowledge.
"'Fellow, out of the way!' he cried, with a most commanding voice and air, though only too well he knew me; and my wrath against him began to rise.
"'You pass not here, and you never make another live step on this earth,' I said, as calmly as now I speak, 'unless you obey my orders.'
"He saw his peril, but he had courage--perhaps his only virtue. 'Fool! whoever you are,' he shouted, that his voice might fetch him help; 'none of these moon-struck ways with me! If you want to rob me, try it!'
"'You know too well who I am,' I answered, as he made to push me back. 'Lord Castlewood, here you have the choice--to lick the dust, or be dust! Here you forswore yourself; here you pay for perjury. On this plank you knelt to poor Winifred Hoyle, whom you ruined and cast by; and now on this plank you shall kneel to her son and swear to obey him--or else you die!'
"In spite of all his pride, he trembled as if I had been Death himself, instead of his own dear eldest son.
"'What do you want!' As he asked, he laid one hand on the rickety rail and shook it, and the dark old tree behind him shook. 'How much will satisfy you?'
"'Miser, none of your money for us! it is too late for your half crowns! We must have a little of what you have grudged--having none to spare--your honor. My demands are simple, and only two. My mother is fool enough to yearn for one more sight of your false face; you will come with me and see her.'
"'And if I yield to that, what next?'
"'The next thing is a trifle to a nobleman like you. Here I have, in this blue trinket (false gems and false gold, of course), your solemn signature to a lie. At the foot of that you will have the truth to write, "I am a perjured liar!" and proudly sign it "Castlewood," in the presence of two witnesses. This can not hurt your feelings much, and it need not be expensive.'
"Fury flashed in his bright old eyes, but he strove to check its outbreak. The gleaning of life, after threescore years, was better, in such lordly fields, than the whole of the harvest we got. He knew that I had him all to myself, to indulge my filial affection.
"'You have been misled; you have never heard the truth; you have only heard your mother's story. Allow me to go back and to sit in a dry place; I am tired, and no longer young; you are bound to hear my tale as well. I passed a dry stump just now; I will go back: there is no fear of interruption.' My lord was talking against time.
"'From this bridge you do not budge until you have gone on your knees and sworn what I shall dictate to you; this time it shall be no perjury. Here I hold your cursed pledge--'
"He struck at me, or at the locket--no matter which--but it flew away. My right arm was crippled by his heavy stick; but I am left-handed, as a bastard should be. From my left hand he took his death, and I threw the pistol after him: such love had he earned from his love-child!"
Thomas Castlewood, or Hoyle, or whatever else his name was, here broke off from his miserable words, and, forgetting all about my presence, set his gloomy eyes on the ground. Lightly he might try to speak, but there was no lightness in his mind, and no spark of light in his poor dead soul. Being so young, and unacquainted with the turns of life-worn mind, I was afraid to say a word except to myself, and to myself I only said, "The man is mad, poor fellow; and no wonder!"
The sun was setting, not upon the vast Pacific from desert heights, but over the quiet hills and through the soft valleys of tame England; and, different as the whole scene was, a certain other sad and fearful sunset lay before me: the fall of night upon my dying father and his helpless child, the hour of anguish and despair! Here at last was the cause of all laid horribly before me; and the pity deeply moving me passed into cold abhorrence. But the man was lost in his own visions.
"So in your savage wrath," I said, "you killed your own father, and in your fright left mine to bear the brunt of it."
He raised his dark eyes heavily, and his thoughts were far astray from mine. He did not know what I had said, though he knew that I had spoken. The labor of calling to mind and telling his treatment of his father had worked upon him so much that he could not freely shift attention.
"I came for something, something that can be only had from you," he said, "and only since your cousin's death, and something most important. But will you believe me? it is wholly gone, gone from mind and memory!"
"I am not surprised at that," I answered, looking at his large wan face, and while I did so, losing half my horror in strange sadness. "Whatever it is, I will do it for you; only let me know by post."
"I see what you mean--not to come any more. You are right about that, for certain. But your father was good to me, and I loved him, though I had no right to love any one. My letter will show that I wronged him never. The weight of the world is off my mind since I have told you every thing; you can send me to the gallows, if you think fit, but leave it till my mother dies. Good-by, poor child. I have spoiled your life, but only by chance consequence, not in murder-birth--as I was born."
Before I could answer or call him back, if I even wished to do so, he was far away, with his long, quiet stride; and, like his life, his shadow fell, chilling, sombre, cast away.
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