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THE FATAL STEP
As Carne rode up the hill that night towards his ruined castle, the flush of fierce excitement and triumphant struggle died away, and self-reproach and miserable doubt struck into him like ague. For the death of Twemlow--as he supposed--he felt no remorse whatever. Him he had shot in furious combat, and as a last necessity; the fellow had twice insulted him, and then insolently collared him. And Faith, who had thwarted him with Dolly, and been from the first his enemy, now would have to weep and wail, and waste her youth in constancy. All that was good; but he could not regard with equal satisfaction the death of the ancient Admiral. The old man had brought it upon himself by his stupid stubbornness; and looking fairly upon that matter, Carne scarcely saw how to blame himself. Still, it was a most unlucky thing, and must lead to a quantity of mischief. To-morrow, or at the latest Monday, was to have crowned with grand success his years of toil and danger. There still might be the landing, and he would sail that night to hasten it, instead of arranging all ashore; but it could no longer be a triumph of crafty management. The country was up, the Admiral's death would spread the alarm and treble it; and worst of all, in the hot pursuit of himself, which was sure to follow when people's wits came back to them, all the stores and ammunition, brought together by so much skill and patience and hardihood, must of necessity be discovered and fall into the hands of the enemy. Farewell to his long-cherished hope of specially neat retribution, to wit, that the ruins of his family should be the ruin of the land which had rejected him! Then a fierce thought crossed his mind, and became at once a stern resolve. If he could never restore Carne Castle, and dwell there in prosperity, neither should any of his oppressors. The only trace of his ancestral home should be a vast black hole in earth.
For even if the landing still succeeded, and the country were subdued, he could never make his home there, after what he had done to-night. Dolly was lost to him for ever; and although he had loved her with all the ardor he could spare from his higher purposes, he must make up his mind to do without her, and perhaps it was all the better for him. If he had married her, no doubt he could soon have taught her her proper place; but no one could tell how she might fly out, through her self-will and long indulgence. He would marry a French woman; that would be the best; perhaps one connected with the Empress Josephine. As soon as he had made up his mind to this, his conscience ceased to trouble him.
From the crest of the hill at the eastern gate many a bend of shore was clear, and many a league of summer sea lay wavering in the moonlight. Along the beach red torches flared, as men of the Coast-Defence pushed forth, and yellow flash of cannon inland signalled for the Volunteers, while the lights gleamed (like windows opened from the depth) where sloop and gun-boat, frigate and ship of the line, were crowding sail to rescue England. For the semaphore, and when day was out the beacon-lights, had glowed along the backbone of the English hills, and England called every Englishman to show what he was made of.
"That will do. Enough of that, John Bull!" Defying his native land, Carne shook his fist in the native manner. "Stupid old savage, I shall live to make you howl. This country has become too hot to hold me, and I'll make it hotter before I have done. Here, Orso and Leo, good dogs, good dogs! You can kill a hundred British bull-dogs. Mount guard for an hour, till I call you down the hill. You can pull down a score of Volunteers apiece, if they dare to come after me. I have an hour to spare, and I know how to employ it. Jerry, old Jerry Bowles, stir your crooked shanks. What are you rubbing your blear eyes at?"
The huge boar-hounds, who obeyed no voice but his, took post upon the rugged road (which had never been repaired since the Carnes were a power in the land), and sat side by side beneath the crumbling arch, with their long fangs glistening and red eyes rolling in the silver moonlight, while their deep chests panted for the chance of good fresh human victuals. Then Carne gave his horse to ancient Jerry, saying, "Feed him, and take him with his saddle on to the old yew-tree in half an hour. Wait there for Captain Charron, and for me. You are not to go away till I come to you. Who is in the old place now? Think well before you answer me."
"No one now in the place but her"--the old man lifted his elbow, as a coachman does in passing--"and him down in the yellow jug. All the French sailors are at sea. Only she won't go away; and she moaneth worse than all the owls and ghosts. Ah, your honour should never 'a done that--respectable folk to Springhaven too!"
"It was a slight error of judgment, Jerry. What a mealy lot these English are, to make such a fuss about a trifle! But I am too soft-hearted to blow her up. Tell her to meet me in half an hour by the broken dial, and to bring the brat, and all her affairs in a bundle such as she can carry, or kick down the hill before her. In half an hour, do you understand? And if you care for your stiff old bones, get out of the way by that time."
In that half-hour Carne gathered in small compass, and strapped up in a little "mail"--as such light baggage then was called--all his important documents, despatches, letters, and papers of every kind, and the cash he was entrusted with, which he used to think safer at Springhaven. Then he took from a desk which was fixed to the wall a locket bright with diamonds, and kissed it, and fastened it beneath his neck-cloth. The wisp of hair inside it came not from any young or lovely head, but from the resolute brow of his mother, the woman who hated England. He should have put something better to his mouth; for instance, a good beef sandwich. But one great token of his perversion was that he never did feed well--a sure proof of the unrighteous man, as suggested by the holy Psalmist, and more distinctly put by Livy in the character he gives Hannibal.
Regarding as a light thing his poor unfurnished stomach, Carne mounted the broken staircase, in a style which might else have been difficult. He had made up his mind to have one last look at the broad lands of his ancestors, from the last that ever should be seen of the walls they had reared and ruined. He stood upon the highest vantage-point that he could attain with safety, where a shaggy gnarl of the all-pervading ivy served as a friendly stay. To the right and left and far behind him all had once been their domain--every tree, and meadow, and rock that faced the moon, had belonged to his ancestors. "Is it a wonder that I am fierce?" he cried, with unwonted self-inspection; "who, that has been robbed as I have, would not try to rob in turn? The only thing amazing is my patience and my justice. But I will come back yet, and have my revenge."
Descending to his hyena den--as Charron always called it--he caught up his packet, and took a lantern, and a coil of tow which had been prepared, and strode forth for the last time into the sloping court behind the walls. Passing towards the eastern vaults, he saw the form of some one by the broken dial, above the hedge of brambles, which had once been of roses and sweetbriar. "Oh, that woman! I had forgotten that affair!" he muttered, with annoyance, as he pushed through the thorns to meet her.
Polly Cheeseman, the former belle of Springhaven, was leaning against the wrecked dial, with a child in her arms and a bundle at her feet. Her pride and gaiety had left her now, and she looked very wan through frequent weeping, and very thin from nursing. Her beauty (like her friends) had proved unfaithful under shame and sorrow, and little of it now remained except the long brown tresses and the large blue eyes. Those eyes she fixed upon Carne with more of terror than of love in them; although the fear was such as turns with a very little kindness to adoring love.
Carne left her to begin, for he really was not without shame in this matter; and Polly was far better suited than Dolly for a scornful and arrogant will like his. Deeply despising all the female race--as the Greek tragedian calls them--save only the one who had given him to the world, he might have been a God to Polly if he had but behaved as a man to her. She looked at him now with an imploring gaze, from the gentleness of her ill-used heart.
Their child, a fine boy about ten months old, broke the silence by saying "booh, booh," very well, and holding out little hands to his father, who had often been scornfully kind to him.
"Oh, Caryl, Caryl, you will never forsake him!" cried the young mother, holding him up with rapture, and supporting his fat arms in that position; "he is the very image of you, and he seems to know it. Baby, say 'Da-da.' There, he has put his mouth up, and his memory is so wonderful! Oh, Caryl, what do you think of that--and the first time of trying it by moonlight?"
"There is no time for this nonsense, Polly. He is a wonderful baby, I dare say; and so is every baby, till he gets too old. You must obey orders, and be off with him."
"Oh no! You are come to take us with you. There, I have covered his face up, that he may not suppose you look cross at me. Oh, Caryl, you would never leave him behind, even if you could do that to me. We are not grand people, and you can put us anywhere, and now I am nearly as well as ever. I have put up all his little things; it does not matter about my own. I was never brought up to be idle, and I can earn my own living anywhere; and it might be a real comfort for you, with the great people going against you, to have somebody, not very grand, of course, but as true to you as yourself, and belonging altogether to you. I know many people who would give their eyes for such a baby."
"There is no time for this," Carne answered, sternly; "my arrangements are made, and I cannot take you. I have no fault to find with you, but argument is useless."
"Yes, I know that, Caryl; and I am sure that I never would attempt to argue with you. You should have everything your own way, and I could attend to so many things that no man ever does properly. I will be a slave to you, and this little darling love you, and then you will feel that you have two to love you, wherever you go, and whatever you do. And if I spoke crossly when first I found out that--that I went away for nothing with you, you must have forgiven me by this time, and I never will remind you again of it; if I do, send me back to the place I belong to. I belong to you now, Caryl, and so does he; and when we are away from the people who know me, I shall be pleasant and cheerful again. I was only two-and-twenty the day the boats came home last week, and they used to say the young men jumped into the water as soon as they caught sight of me. Try to be kind to me, and I shall be so happy that I shall look almost as I used to do, when you said that the great ladies might be grander, but none of them fit to look into my looking-glass. Dear Caryl, I am ready; I don't care where it is, or what I may have to put up with, so long as you will make room for your Polly, and your baby."
"I am not at all a hard man," said Carne, retreating as the impulsive Polly offered him the baby, "but once for all, no more of this. I have quite forgiven any strong expressions you may have made use of when your head was light; and if all goes well, I shall provide for you and the child, according to your rank in life. But now you must run down the hill, if you wish to save your life and his."
"I have run down the hill already. I care not a pin for my own life; and hard as you are you would never have the heart to destroy your own little Caryl. He may be called Caryl--you will not deny him that, although he has no right to be called Carne. Oh, Caryl, Caryl, you can be so good, when you think there is something to gain by it. Only be good to us now, and God will bless you for it, darling. I have given up all the world for you, and you cannot have the heart to cast me off."
"What a fool the woman is! Have you ever known me change my mind? If you scorn your own life, through your own folly, you must care for the brat's. If you stop here ten minutes, you will both be blown to pieces."
"Through my own folly! Oh, God in heaven, that you should speak so of my love for you! Squire Carne, you are the worst man that ever lived; and it serves me right for trusting you. But where am I to go? Who will take me and support me, and my poor abandoned child?"
"Your parents, of course, are your natural supporters. You are hurting your child by this low abuse of me. Now put aside excitement, and run home, like a sensible woman, before your good father goes to bed."
She had watched his face all the time, as if she could scarcely believe that he was in earnest, but he proved it by leaving her with a wave of his hat, and hastening back to his lantern. Then taking up that, and the coil of tow, but leaving his package against the wall, he disappeared in the narrow passage leading to the powder vaults. Polly stood still by the broken dial, with her eyes upon the moon, and her arms around the baby, and a pang in her heart which prevented her from speaking, or moving, or even knowing where she was.
Then Carne, stepping warily, unlocked the heavy oak door at the entrance of the cellarage, held down his lantern, and fixed with a wedge the top step of the ladder, which had been made to revolve with a pin and collar at either end, as before described. After trying the step with his hand, to be sure that it was now wedged safely, he flung his coil into the vault and followed. Some recollection made him smile as he was going down the steps: it was that of a stout man lying at the bottom, shaken in every bone, yet sound as a grape ensconced in jelly. As he touched the bottom he heard a little noise as of some small substance falling, but seeing a piece of old mortar dislodged, he did not turn round to examine the place. If he had done so he would have found behind the ladder the wedge he had just inserted to secure the level of the "Inspector's step."
Unwinding his coil of tow, which had been steeped in saltpetre to make a long fuse, with a toss of his long legs he crossed the barricade of solid oak rails about six feet high securely fastened across the vault, for the enclosure of the dangerous storage. Inside it was a passage, between chests of arms, dismounted cannon, and cases from every department of supply, to the explosive part of the magazine, the devourer of the human race, the pulp of the marrow of the Furies--gunpowder.
Of this there was now collected here, and stored in tiers that reached the roof, enough to blow up half the people of England, or lay them all low with a bullet before it; yet not enough, not a millionth part enough, to move for the breadth of a hair the barrier betwixt right and wrong, which a very few barrels are enough to do with a man who has sapped the foundations. Treading softly for fear of a spark from his boots, and guarding the lantern well, Carne approached one of the casks in the lower tier, and lifted the tarpaulin. Then he slipped the wooden slide in the groove, and allowed some five or six pounds to run out upon the floor, from which the cask was raised by timber baulks. Leaving the slide partly open, he spread one end of his coil like a broad lamp-wick in the pile of powder which had run out, and put a brick upon the tow to keep it from shifting. Then he paid out the rest of the coil on the floor like a snake some thirty feet long, with the tail about a yard inside the barricade. With a very steady hand he took the candle from inside the horn, and kindled that tail of the fuse; and then replacing his light, he recrossed the open timber-work, and swiftly remounted the ladder of escape. "Twenty minutes' or half an hour's grace," he thought, "and long before that I shall be at the yew-tree."
But, as he planted his right foot sharply upon the top step of the ladder, that step swung back, and cast him heavily backwards to the bottom. The wedge had dropped out, and the step revolved like the treadle of a fox-trap.
For a minute or two he lay stunned and senseless, with the lantern before him on its side, and the candle burning a hole in the bubbly horn. Slowly recovering his wits, he strove to rise, as the deadly peril was borne in upon him. But instead of rising, he fell back again with a curse, and then a long-drawn groan; for pain (like the thrills of a man on the rack) had got hold of him and meant to keep him. His right arm was snapped at the elbow, and his left leg just above the knee, and the jar of his spine made him feel as if his core had been split out of him. He had no fat, like Shargeloes, to protect him, and no sheath of hair like Twemlow's.
Writhing with anguish, he heard a sound which did not improve his condition. It was the spluttering of the fuse, eating its merry way towards the five hundred casks of gunpowder. In the fury of peril he contrived to rise, and stood on his right foot with the other hanging limp, while he stayed himself with his left hand upon the ladder. Even if he could crawl up this, it would benefit him nothing. Before he could drag himself ten yards, the explosion would overtake him. His only chance was to quench the fuse, or draw it away from the priming. With a hobble of agony he reached the barricade, and strove to lift his crippled frame over it. It was hopeless; the power of his back was gone, and his limbs were unable to obey his brain. Then he tried to crawl through at the bottom, but the opening of the rails would not admit his body, and the train of ductile fire had left only ash for him to grasp at.
Quivering with terror, and mad with pain, he returned to the foot of the steps, and clung till a gasp of breath came back. Then he shouted, with all his remaining power, "Polly, oh, Polly, my own Polly!"
Polly had been standing, like a statue of despair, beside the broken dial. To her it mattered little whether earth should open and swallow her, or fire cast her up to heaven. But his shout aroused her from this trance, and her heart leaped up with the fond belief that he had relented, and was calling her and the child to share his fortunes. There she stood in the archway and looked down, and the terror of the scene overwhelmed her. Through a broken arch beyond the barricade pale moonbeams crossed the darkness, like the bars of some soft melody; in the middle the serpent coil was hissing with the deadly nitre; at the foot of the steps was her false lover--husband he had called himself--with his hat off, and his white face turned in the last supplication towards her, as hers had been turned towards him just now. Should a woman be as pitiless as a man?
"Come down, for God's sake, and climb that cursed wood, and pull back the fuse, pull it back from the powder. Oh, Polly! and then we will go away together."
"It is too late. I will not risk my baby. You have made me so weak that I could never climb that fence. You are blowing up the castle which you promised to my baby; but you shall not blow up him. You told me to run away, and run I must. Good-bye; I am going to my natural supporters."
Carne heard her steps as she fled, and he fancied that he heard therewith a mocking laugh, but it was a sob, a hysterical sob. She would have helped him, if she dared; but her wits were gone in panic. She knew not of his shattered limbs and horrible plight; and it flashed across her that this was another trick of his--to destroy her and the baby, while he fled. She had proved that all his vows were lies.
Then Carne made his mind up to die like a man, for he saw that escape was impossible. Limping back to the fatal barrier, he raised himself to his full height, and stood proudly to see, as he put it, the last of himself. Not a quiver of his haughty features showed the bodily pain that racked him, nor a flinch of his deep eyes confessed the tumult moving in his mind and soul. He pulled out his watch and laid it on the top rail of the old oak fence: there was not enough light to read the time, but he could count the ticks he had to live. Suddenly hope flashed through his heart, like the crack of a gun, like a lightning fork--a big rat was biting an elbow of the yarn where some tallow had fallen upon it. Would he cut it, would he drag it away to his hole? would he pull it a little from its fatal end? He was strong enough to do it, if he only understood. The fizz of saltpetre disturbed the rat, and he hoisted his tail and skipped back to his home.
The last thoughts of this unhappy man went back upon his early days; and things, which he had passed without thinking of, stood before him like his tombstone. None of his recent crimes came now to his memory to disturb it--there was time enough after the body for them--but trifles which had first depraved the mind, and slips whose repetition had made slippery the soul, like the alphabet of death, grew plain to him. Then he thought of his mother, and crossed himself, and said a little prayer to the Virgin.
* * * * * * *
Charron was waiting by the old yew-tree, and Jerry sat trembling, with his eyes upon the castle, while the black horse, roped to a branch, was mourning the scarcity of oats and the abundance of gnats.
"Pest and the devil, but the coast is all alive!" cried the Frenchman, soothing anxiety with solid and liquid comforts. "Something has gone wrong behind the tail of everything. And there goes that big Stoobar, blazing with his sordid battery! Arouse thee, old Cheray! The time too late is over. Those lights thrice accursed will display our little boat, and John Bull is rushing with a thousand sails. The Commander is mad. They will have him, and us too. Shall I dance by a rope? It is the only dancing probable for me in England."
"I have never expected any good to come," the old man answered, without moving. "The curse of the house is upon the young Squire. I saw it in his eyes this morning, the same as I saw in his father's eyes, when the sun was going down the very night he died. I shall never see him more, sir, nor you either, nor any other man that bides to the right side of his coffin."
"Bah! what a set you are of funerals, you Englishmen! But if I thought he was in risk, I would stay to see the end of it."
"Here comes the end of it!" the old man cried, leaping up and catching at a rugged cord of trunk, with his other hand pointing up the hill. From the base of the castle a broad blaze rushed, showing window and battlement, arch and tower, as in a flicker of the Northern lights. Then up went all the length of fabric, as a wanton child tosses his Noah's ark. Keep and buttress, tower and arch, mullioned window and battlement, in a fiery furnace leaped on high, like the outburst of a volcano. Then, with a roar that rocked the earth, they broke into a storm of ruin, sweeping the heavens with a flood of fire, and spreading the sea with a mantle of blood. Following slowly in stately spires, and calmly swallowing everything, a fountain of dun smoke arose, and solemn silence filled the night.
"All over now, thank the angels and the saints! My faith, but I made up my mind to join them," cried Charron, who had fallen, or been felled by the concussion. "Cheray, art thou still alive? The smoke is in my neck. I cannot liberate my words, but the lumps must be all come down by this time, without adding to the weight of our poor brains. Something fell in this old tree, a long way up, as high as where the crows build. It was like a long body, with one leg and one arm. I hope it was not the Commander; but one thing is certain--he is gone to heaven. Let us pray that he may stop there, if St. Peter admits a man who was selling the keys of his country to the enemy. But we must do duty to ourselves, my Cheray. Let us hasten to the sea, and give the signal for the boat. La Torche will be a weak light after this."
"I will not go. I will abide my time." The old man staggered to a broken column of the ancient gateway which had fallen near them, and flung his arms around it. "I remember this since I first could toddle. The ways of the Lord are wonderful."
"Come away, you old fool," cried the Frenchman; "I hear the tramp of soldiers in the valley. If they catch you here, it will be drum-head work, and you will swing before morning in the ruins."
"I am very old. My time is short. I would liefer hang from an English beam than deal any more with your outlandish lot."
"Farewell to thee, then! Thou art a faithful clod. Here are five guineas for thee, of English stamp. I doubt if napoleons shall ever be coined in England."
He was off while he might--a gallant Frenchman, and an honest enemy; such as our country has respected always, and often endeavoured to turn into fast friends. But the old man stood and watched the long gap, where for centuries the castle of the Carnes had towered. And his sturdy faith was rewarded.
"I am starving"--these words came feebly from a gaunt, ragged figure that approached him. "For three days my food has been forgotten; and bad as it was, I missed it. There came a great rumble, and my walls fell down. Ancient Jerry, I can go no further. I am empty as a shank bone when the marrow-toast is serving. Your duty was to feed me, with inferior stuff at any rate."
"No, sir, no;" the old servitor was roused by the charge of neglected duty. "Sir Parsley, it was no fault of mine whatever. Squire undertook to see to all of it himself. Don't blame me, sir; don't blame me."
"Never mind the blame, but make it good," Mr. Shargeloes answered, meagrely, for he felt as if he could never be fat again. "What do I see there? It is like a crust of bread, but I am too weak to stoop for it."
"Come inside the tree, sir." The old man led him, as a grandsire leads a famished child. "What a shame to starve you, and you so hearty! But the Squire clean forgotten it, I doubt, with his foreign tricks coming to this great blow-up. Here, sir, here; please to sit down a moment, while I light a candle. They French chaps are so wasteful always, and always grumbling at good English victual. Here's enough to feed a family Captain Charron has throwed by--bread, and good mutton, and pretty near half a ham, and a bottle or so of thin nasty foreign wine. Eat away, Sir Parsley; why, it does me good to see you. You feeds something like an Englishman. But you know, sir, it were all your own fault at bottom, for coming among them foreigners a-meddling."
"You are a fine fellow. You shall be my head butler," Percival Shargeloes replied, while he made such a meal as he never made before, and never should make again, even when he came to be the Right Honourable the Lord Mayor of London.
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