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Thus at last--by no direct exertion of my own, but by turn after turn of things to which I blindly gave my little help--the mystery of my life was solved. Many things yet remained to be fetched up to focus and seen round; but the point of points was settled.
Of all concerned, my father alone stood blameless and heroic. What tears of shame and pride I shed, for ever having doubted him!--not doubting his innocence of the crime itself, but his motives for taking it upon him. I had been mean enough to dream that my dear father outraged justice to conceal his own base birth!
That ever such thought should have entered my mind may not make me charitable to the wicked thoughts of the world at large, but, at any rate, it ought to do so. And the man in question, my own father, who had starved himself to save me! Better had I been the most illegal child ever issued into this cold world, than dare to think so of my father, and then find him the model of every thing.
To hide the perjury, avarice, and cowardice of his father, and to appease the bitter wrong, he had even bowed to take the dark suspicion on himself, until his wronged and half-sane brother (to whom, moreover, he owed his life) should have time to fly from England. No doubt he blamed himself as much as he condemned the wretched criminal, because he had left his father so long unwarned and so unguarded, and had thoughtlessly used light words about him, which fell not lightly on a stern, distempered mind. Hence, perhaps, the exclamation which had told against him so.
And then when he broke jail--which also told against him terribly--to revisit his shattered home, it is likely enough that he meant after that to declare the truth, and stand his trial as a man should do. But his wife, perhaps, in her poor weak state, could not endure the thought of it, knowing how often jury is injury, and seeing all the weight against him. She naturally pledged him to pursue his flight, "for her sake," until she should be better able to endure his trial, and until he should have more than his own pure word and character to show. And probably if he had then been tried, with so many things against him, and no production of that poor brother, his tale would have seemed but a flimsy invention, and "Guilty" would have been the verdict. And they could not know that, in such case, the guilty man would have come forward, as we shall see that he meant to do.
When my father heard of his dear wife's death, and believed, no doubt, that I was buried with the rest, the gloom of a broken and fated man, like polar night, settled down on him. What matter to him about public opinion or any thing else in the world just now? The sins of his father were on his head; let them rest there, rather than be trumpeted by him. He had nothing to care for; let him wander about. And so he did for several years, until I became a treasure to him--for parental is not intrinsic value--and then, for my sake, as now appeared, he betook us both to a large kind land.
Revolving these things sadly, and a great many more which need not be told, I thought it my duty to go as soon as possible to Bruntsea, and tell my good and faithful friends what I was loath to write about. There, moreover, I could obtain what I wanted to confirm me--the opinion of an upright, law-abiding, honorable man about the course I proposed to take. And there I might hear something more as to a thing which had troubled me much in the deepest of my own troubles--the melancholy plight of dear Uncle Sam. Wild, and absurd as it may appear to people of no gratitude, my heart was set upon faring forth in search of the noble Sawyer, if only it could be reconciled with my duty here in England. That such a proceeding would avail but little, seemed now, alas! too manifest; but a plea of that kind generally means that we have no mind to do a thing.
Be that as it will, I made what my dear Yankees--to use the Major's impertinent phrase--call "straight tracks" for that ancient and obsolete town, rejuvenized now by its Signor. The cause of my good friend's silence--not to use that affected word "reticence"--was quite unknown to me, and disturbed my spirit with futile guesses.
Resolute, therefore, to pierce the bottom of every surviving mystery, I made claim upon "Mr. Stixon, junior"--as "Stixon's boy" had now vindicated his right to be called, up to supper-time--and he with high chivalry responded. Not yet was he wedded to Miss Polly Hopkins, the daughter of the pickled-pork man; otherwise would he or could he have made telegraphic blush at the word "Bruntsea?" And would he have been quite so eager to come?
Such things are trifling, compared to our own, which naturally fill the universe. I was bound to be a great lady now, and patronize and regulate and drill all the doings of nature. So I durst not even ask, though desiring much to do so, how young Mr. Stixon was getting on with his delightful Polly. And his father, as soon as he found me turned into the mistress, and "his lady" (as he would have me called thenceforth, whether or no on my part), not another word would he tell me of the household sentiments, politics, or romances. It would have been thought a thing beneath me to put any nice little questions now, and I was obliged to take up the tone which others used toward me. But all the while I longed for freedom, Uncle Sam, Suan Isco, and even Martin of the Mill.
Law business, however, and other hinderances, kept me from starting at once for Bruntsea, impatient as I was to do so. Indeed, it was not until the morning of the last Saturday in November that I was able to get away. The weather had turned to much rain, I remember, with two or three tempestuous nights, and the woods were almost bare of leaves, and the Thames looked brown and violent.
In the fly from Newport to Bruntsea I heard great rollers thundering heavily upon the steep bar of shingle, and such a lake of water shone in the old bed of the river that I quite believed at first that the Major had carried out his grand idea, and brought the river back again. But the flyman shook his head, and looked very serious, and told me that he feared bad times were coming. What I saw was the work of the Lord in heaven, and no man could prevail against it. He had always said, though no concern of his--for he belonged to Newport--that even a British officer could not fly in the face of the Almighty. He himself had a brother on the works, regular employed, and drawing good money, and proud enough about it; and the times he had told him across a pint of ale--howsomever, our place was to hope for the best; but the top of the springs was not come yet, and a pilot out of Newport told him the water was making uncommon strong; but he did hope the wind had nigh blowed itself out; if not, they would have to look blessed sharp tomorrow. He had heard say that in time of Queen Elizabeth sixscore of houses was washed clean away, and the river itself knocked right into the sea; and a thing as had been once might just come to pass again, though folk was all so clever now they thought they wor above it. But, for all that, their grandfathers' goggles might fit them. But here we was in Bruntsea town, and, bless his old eyes--yes! If I pleased to look along his whip, I might see ancient pilot come, he did believe, to warn of them!
Following his guidance, I descried a stout old man, in a sailor's dress, weather-proof hat, and long boots, standing on a low seawall, and holding vehement converse with some Bruntsea boatmen and fishermen who were sprawling on the stones as usual.
"Driver, you know him. Take the lower road," I said, "and ask what his opinion is."
"No need to ask him," the flyman answered; "old Banks would never be here, miss, if he was of two opinions. He hath come to fetch his daughter out of harm, I doubt, the wife of that there Bishop Jim, they call him--the chap with two nails to his thumb, you know. Would you like to hear how they all take it, miss?"
With these words he turned to the right, and drove into Major Hockin's "Sea Parade." There we stopped to hear what was going on, and it proved to be well worth our attention. The old pilot perhaps had exhausted reason, and now was beginning to give way to wrath. The afternoon was deepening fast, with heavy gray clouds lowering, showing no definite edge, but streaked with hazy lines, and spotted by some little murky blurs or blots, like tar pots, carried slowly.
"Hath Noah's Ark ever told a lie?" the ancient pilot shouted, pointing with one hand at these, and with a clinched fist at the sea, whence came puffs of sullen air, and turned his gray locks backward. "Mackerel sky when the sun got up, mermaiden's eggs at noon, and now afore sunset Noah's Arks! Any of them breweth a gale of wind, and the three of them bodes a tempest. And the top of the springs of the year to-morrow. Are ye daft, or all gone upon the spree, my men? Your fathers would 'a knowed what the new moon meant. Is this all that cometh out of larning to read?"
"Have a pinch of 'bacco, old man," said one, "to help you off with that stiff reel. What consarn can he be of yourn?"
"Don't you be put out, mate," cried another. "Never came sea as could top that bar, and never will in our time. Go and calk your old leaky craft, Master Banks."
"We have rode out a good many gales without seeking prophet from Newport--a place never heerd on when this old town was made."
"Come and wet your old whistle at the 'Hockin Arms,' Banks. You must want it, after that long pipe."
"'Hockin Arms,' indeed!" the pilot answered, turning away in a rage from them. "What Hockin Arms will there be this time to-morrow? Hockin legs wanted, more likely, and Hockin wings. And you poor grinning ninnies, as ought to have four legs, ye'll be praying that ye had them to-morrow. However, ye've had warning, and ye can't blame me. The power of the Lord is in the air and sea. Is this the sort of stuff ye trust in?"
He set one foot against our Major's wall--an action scarcely honest while it was so green--and, coming from a hale and very thickset man, the contemptuous push sent a fathom of it outward. Rattle, rattle went the new patent concrete, starting up the lazy-pated fellows down below.
"You'll try the walls of a jail," cried one. "You go to Noah's Ark," shouted another. The rest bade him go to a place much worse; but he buttoned his jacket in disdain, and marched away, without spoiling the effect by any more weak words.
"Right you are," cried my flyman--"right you are, Master Banks. Them lubbers will sing another song to-morrow. Gee up, old hoss, then!"
All this, and the ominous scowl of the sky and menacing roar of the sea (already crowding with black rollers), disturbed me so that I could say nothing, until, at the corner of the grand new hotel, we met Major Hockin himself, attired in a workman's loose jacket, and carrying a shovel. He was covered with mud and dried flakes of froth, and even his short white whiskers were incrusted with sparkles of brine; but his face was ruddy and smiling, and his manner as hearty as ever.
"You here, Erema! Oh, I beg pardon--Baroness Castlewood, if you please. My dear, again I congratulate you."
"You have as little cause to do that as I fear I can find in your case. You have no news for me from America? How sad! But what a poor plight you yourself are in!"
"Not a bit of it. At first sight you might think so; and we certainly have had a very busy time. Send back the fly. Leave your bag at our hotel. Porter, be quick with Lady Castlewood's luggage. One piece of luck befalls me--to receive so often this beautiful hand. What a lot of young fellows now would die of envy--"
"I am glad that you still can talk nonsense," I said; "for I truly was frightened at this great lake, and so many of your houses even standing in the water."
"It will do them good. It will settle the foundations and crystallize the mortar. They will look twice as well when they come out again, and never have rats or black beetles. We were foolish enough to be frightened at first; and there may have been danger a fortnight ago. But since that tide we have worked day and night, and every thing is now so stable that fear is simply ridiculous. On the whole, it has been a most excellent thing--quite the making, in fact, of Bruntsea."
"Then Bruntsea must be made of water," I replied, gazing sadly at the gulf which parted us from the Sea Parade, the Lyceum, and Baths, the Bastion Promenade, and so on; beyond all which the streaky turmoil and misty scud of the waves were seen.
"Made of beer, more likely," he retorted, with a laugh. "If my fellows worked like horses--which they did--they also drank like fishes. Their mouths were so dry with the pickle, they said. But the total abstainers were the worst, being out of practice with the can. However, let us make no complaints. We ought to be truly thankful; and I shall miss the exercise. That is why you have heard so little from me. You see the position at a glance. I have never been to Paris at all, Erema. I have not rubbed up my parleywoo, with a blast from Mr. Bellows. I was stopped by a telegram about this job--acrior illum. I had some Latin once, quite enough for the House of Commons, but it all oozed out at my elbows; and to ladies (by some superstition) it is rude--though they treat us to bad French enough. Never mind. What I want to say is this, that I have done nothing, but respected your sad trouble; for you took a wild fancy to that poor bedridden, who never did you a stroke of good except about Cosmopolitan Jack, and whose removal has come at the very nick of time. For what could you have done for money, with the Yankees cutting each other's throats, and your nugget quite sure to be annexed, or, at the very best, squared up in greenbacks?"
"You ought not to speak so, Major Hockin. If all your plans were not under water, I should be quite put out with you. My cousin was not bedridden; neither was he at all incapable, as you have called him once or twice. He was an infinitely superior man to--to what one generally sees; and when you have heard what I have to tell, in his place you would have done just as he did. And as for money, and 'happy release'--as the people who never want it for themselves express it--such words simply sicken me; at great times they are so sordid."
"What is there in this world that is not sordid--to the young in one sense, and to the old in another?"
Major Hockin so seldom spoke in this didactic way, and I was so unable to make it out, that, having expected some tiff on his part at my juvenile arrogance, I was just in the mould for a deep impression from sudden stamp of philosophy. I had nothing to say in reply, and he went up in my opinion greatly.
He knew it; and he said, with touching kindness, "Erema, come and see your dear aunt Mary. She has had an attack of rheumatic gout in her thimble-finger, and her maids have worried her out of her life, and by far the most brilliant of her cocks (worth 20 pounds they tell me) breathed his last on Sunday night, with gapes, or croup, or something. This is why you have not heard again from her. I have been in the trenches day and night, stoning out the sea with his own stones, by a new form of concrete discovered by myself. And unless I am very much mistaken--in fact, I do not hesitate to say--But such things are not in your line at all. Let us go up to the house. Our job is done, and I think Master Neptune may pound away in vain. I have got a new range in the kitchen now, partly of my own invention; you can roast, or bake, or steam, or stew, or frizzle kabobs--all by turning a screw. And not only that, but you can keep things hot, piping hot, and ripening, as it were, better than when they first were done. Instead of any burned iron taste, or scum on the gravy, or clottiness, they mellow by waiting, and make their own sauce. If I ever have time I shall patent this invention; why, you may burn brick-dust in it, Bath-brick, hearth-stone, or potsherds! At any hour of the day or night, while the sea is in this condition, I may want my dinner; and there we have it. We say grace immediately, and down we sit. Let us take it by surprise, if it can be taken so. Up through my chief drive, instanter! I think that I scarcely ever felt more hungry. The thought of that range always sets me off. And one of its countless beauties is the noble juicy fragrance."
Major Hockin certainly possessed the art--so meritorious in a host--of making people hungry; and we mounted the hill with alacrity, after passing his letter-box, which reminded me of the mysterious lady. He pointed to "Desolate Hole," as he called it, and said that he believed she was there still, though she never came out now to watch their house. And a man of dark and repelling aspect had been seen once or twice by his workmen, during the time of their night relays, rapidly walking toward Desolate Hole. How any one could live in such a place, with the roar and the spray of the sea, as it had been, at the very door, and through the windows, some people might understand, but not the Major.
Good Mrs. Hockin received me with her usual warmth and kindness, and scolded me for having failed to write more to her, as all people seem to do when conscious of having neglected that duty themselves. Then she showed me her thimble-finger, which certainly was a little swollen; and then she poured forth her gratitude for her many blessings, as she always did after any little piece of grumbling. And I told her that if at her age I were only a quarter as pleasant and sweet of temper, I should consider myself a blessing to any man.
After dinner my host produced the locket, which he had kept for the purpose of showing it to the artist's son in Paris, and which he admired so intensely that I wished it were mine to bestow on him. Then I told him that, through a thing wholly unexpected--the confession of the criminal himself--no journey to Paris was needful now. I repeated that strange and gloomy tale, to the loud accompaniment of a rising wind and roaring sea, while both my friends listened intently.
"Now what can have led him so to come to you?" they asked; "and what do you mean to do about it?"
"He came to me, no doubt, to propose some bargain, which could not be made in my cousin's lifetime. But the telling of his tale made him feel so strange that he really could not remember what it was. As to what I am to do, I must beg for your opinion; such a case is beyond my decision." Mrs. Hockin began to reply, but stopped, looking dutifully at her lord.
"There is no doubt what you are bound to do, at least in one way," the Major said. "You are a British subject, I suppose, and you must obey the laws of the country. A man has confessed to you a murder--no matter whether it was committed twenty years ago or two minutes; no matter whether it was a savage, cold-blooded, premeditated crime, or whether there were things to palliate it. Your course is the same; you must hand him over. In fact, you ought never to have let him go."
"How could I help it?" I pleaded, with surprise. "It was impossible for me to hold him."
"Then you should have shot him with his own pistol. He offered it to you. You should have grasped it, pointed it at his heart, and told him that he was a dead man if he stirred."
"Aunt Mary, would you have done that?" I asked. "It is so easy to talk of fine things! But in the first place, I had no wish to stop him; and in the next, I could not if I had."
"My dear," Mrs. Hockin replied, perceiving my distress at this view of the subject, "I should have done exactly what you did. If the laws of this country ordain that women are to carry them out against great strong men, who, after all, have been sadly injured, why, it proves that women ought to make the laws, which to my mind is simply ridiculous."
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