Old Fires and Profitable Ghosts , by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

The Mystery of Joseph Laquedem

A Jew, unfortunately slain on the sands of Sheba Cove, in the parish of Ruan Lanihale, August 15, 1810: or so much of it as is hereby related by the Rev. Endymion Trist, B.D., then vicar of that parish, in a letter to a friend.

My dear J— — You are right, to be sure, in supposing that I know more than my neighbours in Ruan Lanihale concerning the unfortunate young man, Joseph Laquedem, and more than I care to divulge; in particular concerning his tragical relations with the girl Julia Constantine, or July, as she was commonly called. The vulgar knowledge amounts to little more than this — that Laquedem, a young Hebrew of extraordinary commercial gifts, first came to our parish in 1807 and settled here as managing secretary of a privateering company at Porthlooe; that by his aptitude and daring in this and the illicit trade he amassed a respectable fortune, and at length opened a private bank at Porthlooe and issued his own notes; that on August 15, 1810, a forced “run” which, against his custom, he was personally supervising, miscarried, and he met his death by a carbine-shot on the sands of Sheba Cove; and, lastly, that his body was taken up and conveyed away by the girl Julia Constantine, under the fire of the preventive men.

The story has even in our time received what I may call some fireside embellishments; but these are the facts, and the parish knows little beyond them. I (as you conjecture) know a great deal more; and yet there is a sense in which I know nothing more. You and I, my old friend, have come to an age when men do not care to juggle with the mysteries of another world, but knowing that the time is near when all accounts must be rendered, desire to take stock honestly of what they believe and what they do not. And here lies my difficulty. On the one hand I would not make public an experience which, however honestly set down, might mislead others, and especially the young, into rash and mischievous speculations. On the other, I doubt if it be right to keep total silence and withhold from devout and initiated minds any glimpse of truth, or possible truth, vouchsafed to me. As the Greek said, “Plenty are the thyrsus-bearers, but few the illuminate”; and among these few I may surely count my old friend.

It was in January 1807 — the year of the abominable business of Tilsit — that my churchwarden, the late Mr. Ephraim Pollard, and I, in cleaning the south wall of Lanihale Church for a fresh coat of whitewash, discovered the frescoes and charcoal drawings, as well as the brass plaque of which I sent you a tracing; and I think not above a fortnight later that, on your suggestion, I set to work to decipher and copy out the old churchwardens’ accounts. On the Monday after Easter, at about nine o’clock P.M., I was seated in the Vicarage parlour, busily transcribing, with a couple of candles before me, when my housekeeper Frances came in with a visiting-card, and the news that a stranger desired to speak with me. I took the card and read “Mr. Joseph Laquedem.”

“Show the gentleman in,” said I.

Now the fact is, I had just then a few guineas in my chest, and you know what a price gold fetched in 1807. I dare say that for twelve months together the most of my parishioners never set eyes on a piece, and any that came along quickly found its way to the Jews. People said that Government was buying up gold, through the Jews, to send to the armies. I know not the degree of truth in this, but I had some five and twenty guineas to dispose of, and had been put into correspondence with a Mr. Isaac Laquedem, a Jew residing by Plymouth Dock, whom I understood to be offering 25s. 6d. per guinea, or a trifle above the price then current.

I was fingering the card when the door opened again and admitted a young man in a caped overcoat and tall boots bemired high above the ankles. He halted on the threshold and bowed.

“Mr. —?”

“Joseph Laquedem,” said he in a pleasant voice.

“I guess your errand,” said I, “though it was a Mr. Isaac Laquedem whom I expected. — Your father, perhaps?”

He bowed again, and I left the room to fetch my bag of guineas. “You have had a dirty ride,” I began on my return.

“I have walked,” he answered, lifting a muddy boot. “I beg you to pardon these.”

“What, from Torpoint Ferry? And in this weather? My faith, sir, you must be a famous pedestrian!”

He made no reply to this, but bent over the guineas, fingering them, holding them up to the candlelight, testing their edges with his thumbnail, and finally poising them one by one on the tip of his forefinger.

“I have a pair of scales,” suggested I.

“Thank you, I too have a pair in my pocket. But I do not need them. The guineas are good weight, all but this one, which is possibly a couple of grains short.”

“Surely you cannot rely on your hand to tell you that?”

His eyebrows went up as he felt in his pocket and produced a small velvet-lined case containing a pair of scales. He was a decidedly handsome young man, with dark intelligent eyes and a slightly scornful — or shall I say ironical? — smile. I took particular note of the steadiness of his hand as he adjusted the scales and weighed my guinea.

“To be precise,” he announced, “1.898, or practically one and nine-tenths short.”

“I should have thought,” said I, fairly astounded, “a lifetime too little for acquiring such delicacy of sense!”

He seemed to ponder. “I dare say you are right, sir,” he answered, and was silent again until the business of payment was concluded. While folding the receipt he added, “I am a connoisseur of coins, sir, and not of their weight alone.”

“Antique, as well as modern?”

“Certainly.”

“In that case,” said I, “you may be able to tell me something about this”: and going to my bureau I took out the brass plaque which Mr. Pollard had detached from the planks of the church wall. “To be sure, it scarcely comes within the province of numismatics.”

He took the plaque. His brows contracted, and presently he laid it on the table, drew my chair towards him in an absent-minded fashion, and, sitting down, rested his brow on his open palms. I can recall the attitude plainly, and his bent head, and the rain still glistening in the waves of his black hair.

“Where did you find this?” he asked, but without looking up.

I told him. “The engraving upon it is singular. I thought that possibly —”

“Oh, that,” said he, “is simplicity itself. An eagle displayed, with two heads, the legs resting on two gates, a crescent between, an imperial crown surmounting — these are the arms of the Greek Empire, the two gates are Rome and Constantinople. The question is, how it came where you found it? It was covered with plaster, you say, and the plaster whitewashed? Did you discover anything near it?”

Upon this I told him of the frescoes and charcoal drawings, and roughly described them.

His fingers began to drum upon the table.

“Have you any documents which might tell us when the wall was first plastered?”

“The parish accounts go back to 1594 — here they are: the Registers to 1663 only. I keep them in the vestry. I can find no mention of plastering, but the entries of expenditure on whitewashing occur periodically, the first under the year 1633.” I turned the old pages and pointed to the entry “Ite paide to George mason for a dayes work about the churche after the Jew had been, and white wassche is vjd.”

“A Jew? But a Jew had no business in England in those days. I wonder how and why he came.” My visitor took the old volume and ran his finger down the leaf, then up, then turned back a page. “Perhaps this may explain it,” said he. “Ite deliued Mr. Beuill to make puision for the companie of a fforeste barke yt came ashoare iiis ivd.” He broke off, with a finger on the entry, and rose. “Pray forgive me, sir; I had taken your chair.”

“Don’t mention it,” said I. “Indeed I was about to suggest that you draw it to the fire while Frances brings in some supper.”

To be short, although he protested he must push on to the inn at Porthlooe, I persuaded him to stay the night; not so much, I confess, from desire of his company, as in the hope that if I took him to see the frescoes next morning he might help me to elucidate their history.

I remember now that during supper and afterwards my guest allowed me more than my share of the conversation. He made an admirable listener, quick, courteous, adaptable, yet with something in reserve (you may call it a facile tolerance, if you will) which ended by irritating me. Young men should be eager, fervid, sublimis cupidusque, as I was before my beard grew stiff. But this young man had the air of a spectator at a play, composing himself to be amused. There was too much wisdom in him and too little emotion. We did not, of course, touch upon any religious question — indeed, of his own opinions on any subject he disclosed extraordinarily little: and yet as I reached my bedroom that night I told myself that here, behind a mask of good manners, was one of those perniciously modern young men who have run through all beliefs by the age of twenty, and settled down to a polite but weary atheism.

I fancy that under the shadow of this suspicion my own manner may have been cold to him next morning. Almost immediately after breakfast we set out for the church. The day was sunny and warm; the atmosphere brilliant after the night’s rain. The hedges exhaled a scent of spring. And, as we entered the churchyard, I saw the girl Julia Constantine seated in her favourite angle between the porch and the south wall, threading a chain of daisies.

“What an amazingly handsome girl!” my guest exclaimed.

“Why, yes,” said I, “she has her good looks, poor soul!”

“Why ‘poor soul’?”

“She is an imbecile, or nearly so,” said I, fitting the key in the lock.

We entered the church. And here let me say that, although I furnished you at the time of their discovery with a description of the frescoes and the ruder drawings which overlay them, you can scarcely imagine the grotesque and astonishing coup d’oeil presented by the two series. To begin with the frescoes, or original series. One, as you know, represented the Crucifixion. The head of the Saviour bore a large crown of gilded thorns, and from the wound in His left side flowed a continuous stream of red gouts of blood, extraordinarily intense in colour (and intensity of colour is no common quality in fresco-painting). At the foot of the cross stood a Roman soldier, with two female figures in dark-coloured drapery a little to the right, and in the background a man clad in a loose dark upper coat, which reached a little below the knees.

The same man reappeared in the second picture, alone, but carrying a tall staff or hunting spear, and advancing up a road, at the top of which stood a circular building with an arched doorway and, within the doorway, the head of a lion. The jaws of this beast were open and depicted with the same intense red as the Saviour’s blood.

Close beside this, but further to the east, was a large ship, under sail, which from her slanting position appeared to be mounting over a long swell of sea. This vessel had four masts; the two foremost furnished with yards and square sails, the others with lateen-shaped sails, after the Greek fashion; her sides were decorated with six gaily painted bands or streaks, each separately charged with devices — a golden saltire on a green ground, a white crescent on a blue, and so on; and each masthead bore a crown with a flag or streamer fluttering beneath.

Of the frescoes these alone were perfect, but fragments of others were scattered over the wall, and in particular I must mention a group of detached human limbs lying near the ship — a group rendered conspicuous by an isolated right hand and arm drawn on a larger scale than the rest. A gilded circlet adorned the arm, which was flexed at the elbow, the hand horizontally placed, the forefinger extended towards the west in the direction of the picture of the Crucifixion, and the thumb shut within the palm beneath the other three fingers.

So much for the frescoes. A thin coat of plaster had been laid over them to receive the second series, which consisted of the most disgusting and fantastic images, traced in black. One of these drawings represented Satan himself — an erect figure, with hairy paws clasped in a supplicating posture, thick black horns, and eyes which (for additional horror) the artist had painted red and edged with a circle of white. At his feet crawled the hindmost limb of a peculiarly loathsome monster with claws stuck in the soil. Close by a nun was figured, sitting in a pensive attitude, her cheek resting on the back of her hand, her elbow supported by a hideous dwarf, and at some distance a small house, or prison, with barred windows and a small doorway crossed with heavy bolts.

As I said, this upper series had been but partially scraped away, and as my guest and I stood at a little distance, I leave you to imagine, if you can, the incongruous tableau; the Prince of Darkness almost touching the mourners beside the cross; the sorrowful nun and grinning dwarf side by side with a ship in full sail, which again seemed to be forcing her way into a square and forbidding prison, etc.

Mr. Laquedem conned all this for some while in silence, holding his chin with finger and thumb.

“And it was here you discovered the plaque?” he asked at length.

I pointed to the exact spot.

“H’m!” he mused, “and that ship must be Greek or Levantine by its rig. Compare the crowns on her masts, too, with that on the plaque . . .” He stepped to the wall and peered into the frescoes. “Now this hand and arm —”

“They belong to me,” said a voice immediately behind me, and turning, I saw that the poor girl had followed us into the church.

The young Jew had turned also. “What do you mean by that?” he asked sharply.

“She means nothing,” I began, and made as if to tap my forehead significantly.

“Yes, I do mean something,” she persisted. “They belong to me. I remember —”

“What do you remember?”

Her expression, which for a moment had been thoughtful, wavered and changed into a vague foolish smile. “I can’t tell . . . something . . . it was sand, I think . . .”

“Who is she?” asked Mr. Laquedem.

“Her name is Julia Constantine. Her parents are dead; an aunt looks after her — a sister of her mother’s.”

He turned and appeared to be studying the frescoes. “Julia Constantine — an odd name,” he muttered. “Do you know anything of her parentage?”

“Nothing except that her father was a labourer at Sheba, the manor-farm. The family has belonged to this parish for generations. I believe July is the last of them.”

He faced round upon her again. “Sand, did you say? That’s a strange thing to remember. How does sand come into your mind? Think, now.”

She cast down her eyes; her fingers plucked at the daisy-chain. After a while she shook her head. “I can’t think,” she answered, glancing up timidly and pitifully.

“Surely we are wasting time,” I suggested. To tell the truth I disapproved of his worrying the poor girl.

He took the daisy-chain from her, looking at me the while with something between a “by-your-leave” and a challenge. A smile played about the corners of his mouth.

“Let us waste a little more.” He held up the chain before her and began to sway it gently to and fro. “Look at it, please, and stretch out your arm; look steadily. Now your name is Julia Constantine, and you say that the arm on the wall belongs to you. Why?”

“Because . . . if you please, sir, because of the mark.”

“What mark?”

“The mark on my arm.”

This answer seemed to discompose as well as to surprise him. He snatched at her wrist and rolled back her sleeve, somewhat roughly, as I thought. “Look here, sir!” he exclaimed, pointing to a thin red line encircling the flesh of the girl’s upper arm, and from that to the arm and armlet in the fresco.

“She has been copying it,” said I, “with a string or ribbon, which no doubt she tied too tightly.”

“You are mistaken, sir; this is a birthmark. You have had it always?” he asked the girl.

She nodded. Her eyes were fixed on his face with the gaze of one at the same time startled and confiding; and for the moment he too seemed to be startled. But his smile came back as he picked up the daisy-chain and began once more to sway it to and fro before her.

“And when that arm belonged to you, there was sand around you — eh! Tell us, how did the sand come there?”

She was silent, staring at the pendulum-swing of the chain. “Tell us,” he repeated in a low coaxing tone.

And in a tone just as low she began, “There was sand . . . red sand . . . it was below me . . . and something above . . . something like a great tent.” She faltered, paused and went on, “There were thousands of people . . . .” She stopped.

“Yes, yes — there were thousands of people on the sand —”

“No, they were not on the sand. There were only two on the sand . . . the rest were around . . . under the tent . . . my arm was out . . . just like this . . . .”

The young man put a hand to his forehead. “Good Lord!” I heard him say, “the amphitheatre!”

“Come, sir,” I interrupted, “I think we have had enough of this jugglery.”

But the girl’s voice went on steadily as if repeating a lesson:—

“And then you came —”

I!” His voice rang sharply, and I saw a horror dawn in his eyes, and grow. “I!

“And then you came,” she repeated, and broke off, her mind suddenly at fault. Automatically he began to sway the daisy-chain afresh. “We were on board a ship . . . a funny ship . . . with a great high stern . . . .”

“Is this the same story?” he asked, lowering his voice almost to a whisper; and I could hear his breath going and coming.

“I don’t know . . . one minute I see clear, and then it all gets mixed up again . . . we were up there, stretched on deck, near the tiller . . . another ship was chasing us . . . the men began to row, with long sweeps . . . .”

“But the sand,” he insisted, “is the sand there?”

“The sand? . . . Yes, I see the sand again . . . we are standing upon it . . . we and the crew . . . the sea is close behind us . . . some men have hold of me . . . they are trying to pull me away from you. . . . Ah! —”

And I declare to you that with a sob the poor girl dropped on her knees, there in the aisle, and clasped the young man about the ankles, bowing her forehead upon the insteps of his high boots. As for him, I cannot hope to describe his face to you. There was something more in it than wonder — something more than dismay, even — at the success of his unhallowed experiment. It was as though, having prepared himself light-heartedly to witness a play, he was seized and terrified to find himself the principal actor. I never saw ghastlier fear on human cheeks.

“For God’s sake, sir,” I cried, stamping my foot, “relax your cursed spells! Relax them and leave us! This is a house of prayer.”

He put a hand under the girl’s chin, and, raising her face, made a pass or two, still with the daisy-chain in his hand. She looked about her, shivered and stood erect. “Where am I?” she asked. “Did I fall? What are you doing with my chain?” She had relapsed into her habitual childishness of look and speech.

I hurried them from the church, resolutely locked the door, and marched up the path without deigning a glance at the young man. But I had not gone fifty yards when he came running after.

“I entreat you, sir, to pardon me. I should have stopped the experiment before. But I was startled — thrown off my balance. I am telling you the truth, sir!”

“Very likely,” said I. “The like has happened to other rash meddlers before you.”

“I declare to you I had no thought —” he began. But I interrupted him:

“‘No thought,’ indeed! I bring you here to resolve me, if you can, a curious puzzle in archaeology, and you fall to playing devil’s pranks upon a half-witted child. ‘No thought!’— I believe you, sir.”

“And yet,” he muttered, “it is an amazing business: the sand — the velarium— the outstretched arm and hand —pollice compresso— the exact gesture of the gladiatorial shows —”

“Are you telling me, pray, of gladiatorial shows under the Eastern Empire?” I demanded scornfully.

“Certainly not: and that,” he mused, “only makes it the more amazing.”

“Now, look here,” said I, halting in the middle of the road, “I’ll hear no more of it. Here is my gate, and there lies the highroad, on to Porthlooe or back to Plymouth, as you please. I wish you good morning, sir; and if it be any consolation to you, you have spoiled my digestion for a week.”

I am bound to say the young man took his dismissal with grace. He halted then and there and raised his hat; stood for a moment pondering; and, turning on his heel, walked quickly off towards Porthlooe.

It must have been a week before I learnt casually that he had obtained employment there as secretary to a small company owning the Lord Nelson and the Hand-inhand privateers. His success, as you know, was rapid; and naturally in a gossiping parish I heard about it — a little here, a little there — in all a great deal. He had bought the Providence schooner; he had acted as freighter for Minards’ men in their last run with the Morning Star; he had slipped over to Cork and brought home a Porthlooe prize illegally detained there; he was in London, fighting a salvage case in the Admiralty Court; . . . Within twelve months he was accountant of every trading company in Porthlooe, and agent for receiving the moneys due to the Guernsey merchants. In 1809, as you know, he opened his bank and issued notes of his own. And a year later he acquired two of the best farms in the parish, Tresawl and Killifreeth, and held the fee simple of the harbour and quays.

During the first two years of his prosperity I saw little of the man. We passed each other from time to time in the street of Porthlooe, and he accosted me with a politeness to which, though distrusting him, I felt bound to respond. But he never offered conversation, and our next interview was wholly of my seeking.

One evening towards the close of his second year at Porthlooe, and about the date of his purchase of the Providence schooner, I happened to be walking homewards from a visit to a sick parishioner, when at Cove Bottom, by the miller’s footbridge, I passed two figures — a man and a woman standing there and conversing in the dusk. I could not help recognising them; and halfway up the hill I came to a sudden resolution and turned back.

“Mr. Laquedem,” said I, approaching them, “I put it to you, as a man of education and decent feeling, is this quite honourable?”

“I believe, sir,” he answered courteously enough, “I can convince you that it is. But clearly this is neither the time nor the place.”

“You must excuse me,” I went on, “but I have known Julia since she was a child.”

To this he made an extraordinary answer. “No longer?” he asked; and added, with a change of tone, “Had you not forbidden me the vicarage, sir, I might have something to say to you.”

“If it concern the girl’s spiritual welfare — or yours — I shall be happy to hear it.”

“In that case,” said he, “I will do myself the pleasure of calling upon you — shall we say tomorrow evening?”

He was as good as his word. At nine o’clock next evening — about the hour of his former visit — Frances ushered him into my parlour. The similarity of circumstance may have suggested to me to draw the comparison; at any rate I observed then for the first time that rapid ageing of his features which afterwards became a matter of common remark. The face was no longer that of the young man who had entered my parlour two years before; already some streaks of grey showed in his black locks, and he seemed even to move wearily.

“I fear you are unwell,” said I, offering a chair.

“I have reason to believe,” he answered, “that I am dying.” And then, as I uttered some expression of dismay and concern, he cut me short. “Oh, there will be no hurry about it! I mean, perhaps, no more than that all men carry about with them the seeds of their mortality — so why not I? But I came to talk of Julia Constantine, not of myself.”

“You may guess, Mr. Laquedem, that as her vicar, and having known her and her affliction all her life, I take something of a fatherly interest in the girl.”

“And having known her so long, do you not begin to observe some change in her, of late?”

“Why, to be sure,” said I, “she seems brighter.”

He nodded. “I have done that; or rather, love has done it.”

“Be careful, sir!” I cried. “Be careful of what you are going to tell me! If you have intended or wrought any harm to that girl, I tell you solemnly —”

But he held up a hand. “Ah, sir, be charitable! I tell you solemnly our love is not of that kind. We who have loved, and lost, and sought each other, and loved again through centuries, have outlearned that rougher passion. When she was a princess of Rome and I a Christian Jew led forth to the lions —”

I stood up, grasping the back of my chair and staring. At last I knew. This young man was stark mad.

He read my conviction at once. “I think, sir,” he went on, changing his tone, “the learned antiquary to whom, as you told me, you were sending your tracing of the plaque, has by this time replied with some information about it.”

Relieved at this change of subject, I answered quietly (while considering how best to get him out of the house), “My friend tells me that a similar design is found in Landulph Church, on the tomb of Theodore Paleologus, who died in 1636.”

“Precisely; of Theodore Paleologus, descendant of the Constantines.”

I began to grasp his insane meaning. “The race, so far as we know, is extinct,” said I.

“The race of the Constantines,” said he slowly and composedly, “is never extinct; and while it lasts, the soul of Julia Constantine will come to birth again and know the soul of the Jew, until —”

I waited.

“— Until their love lifts the curse, and the Jew can die.”

“This is mere madness,” said I, my tongue blurting it out at length.

“I expected you to say no less. Now look you, sir — in a few minutes I leave you, I walk home and spend an hour or two before bedtime in adding figures, balancing accounts; tomorrow I rise and go about my daily business cheerfully, methodically, always successfully. I am the long-headed man, making money because I know how to make it, respected by all, with no trace of madness in me. You, if you meet me tomorrow, shall recognise none. Just now you are forced to believe me mad. Believe it then; but listen while I tell you this:— When Rome was, I was; when Constantinople was, I was. I was that Jew rescued from the lions. It was I who sailed from the Bosphorus in that ship, with Julia beside me; I from whom the Moorish pirates tore her, on the beach beside Tetuan; I who, centuries after, drew those obscene figures on the wall of your church — the devil, the nun, and the barred convent — when Julia, another Julia but the same soul, was denied to me and forced into a nunnery. For the frescoes, too, tell my history. I was that figure in the dark habit, standing a little back from the cross. Tell me, sir, did you never hear of Joseph Kartophilus, Pilate’s porter?”

I saw that I must humour him. “I have heard his legend,” said I;4 “and have understood that in time he became a Christian.”

He smiled wearily. “He has travelled through many creeds; but he has never travelled beyond Love. And if that love can be purified of all passion such as you suspect, he has not travelled beyond forgiveness. Many times I have known her who shall save me in the end; and now in the end I have found her and shall be able, at length, to die; have found her, and with her all my dead loves, in the body of a girl whom you call half-witted — and shall be able, at length, to die.”

And with this he bent over the table, and, resting his face on his arms, sobbed aloud. I let him sob there for a while, and then touched his shoulder gently.

He raised his head. “Ah,” said he, in a voice which answered the gentleness of my touch, “you remind me!” And with that he deliberately slipped his coat off his left arm and, rolling up the shirt sleeve, bared the arm almost to the shoulder. “I want you close,” he added with half a smile; for I have to confess that during the process I had backed a couple of paces towards the door. He took up a candle, and held it while I bent and examined the thin red line which ran like a circlet around the flesh of the upper arm just below the apex of the deltoid muscle. When I looked up I met his eyes challenging mine across the flame.

“Mr. Laquedem,” I said, “my conviction is that you are possessed and are being misled by a grievous hallucination. At the same time I am not fool enough to deny that the union of flesh and spirit, so passing mysterious in everyday life (when we pause to think of it), may easily hold mysteries deeper yet. The Church Catholic, whose servant I am, has never to my knowledge denied this; yet has providentially made a rule of St. Paul’s advice to the Colossians against intruding into those things which she hath not seen. In the matter of this extraordinary belief of yours I can give you no such comfort as one honest man should offer to another: for I do not share it. But in the more practical matter of your conduct towards July Constantine, it may help you to know that I have accepted your word and propose henceforward to trust you as a gentleman.”

“I thank you, sir,” he said, as he slipped on his coat. “May I have your hand on that?”

“With pleasure,” I answered, and, having shaken hands, conducted him to the door.

From that day the affection between Joseph Laquedem and July Constantine, and their frequent companionship, were open and avowed. Scandal there was, to be sure; but as it blazed up like straw, so it died down. Even the women feared to sharpen their tongues openly on Laquedem, who by this time held the purse of the district, and to offend whom might mean an empty skivet on Saturday night. July, to be sure, was more tempting game; and one day her lover found her in the centre of a knot of women fringed by a dozen children with open mouths and ears. He stepped forward. “Ladies,” said he, “the difficulty which vexes you cannot, I feel sure, be altogether good for your small sons and daughters. Let me put an end to it.” He bent forward and reverently took July’s hand. “My dear, it appears that the depth of my respect for you will not be credited by these ladies unless I offer you marriage. And as I am proud of it, so forgive me if I put it beyond their doubt. Will you marry me?” July, blushing scarlet, covered her face with her hands, but shook her head. There was no mistaking the gesture: all the women saw it. “Condole with me, ladies!” said Laquedem, lifting his hat and including them in an ironical bow; and placing July’s arm in his, escorted her away.

I need not follow the history of their intimacy, of which I saw, indeed, no more than my neighbours. On two points all accounts of it agree: the rapid ageing of the man during this period and the improvement in the poor girl’s intellect. Some profess to have remarked an equally vehement heightening of her beauty; but, as my recollection serves me, she had always been a handsome maid; and I set down the transfiguration — if such it was — entirely to the dawn and growth of her reason. To this I can add a curious scrap of evidence. I was walking along the cliff track, one afternoon, between Porthlooe and Lanihale church-town, when, a few yards ahead, I heard a man’s voice declaiming in monotone some sentences which I could not catch; and rounding the corner, came upon Laquedem and July. She was seated on a rock; and he, on a patch of turf at her feet, held open a small volume which he laid face downwards as he rose to greet me. I glanced at the back of the book and saw it was a volume of Euripides. I made no comment, however, on this small discovery; and whether he had indeed taught the girl some Greek, or whether she merely listened for the sake of hearing his voice, I am unable to say.

Let me come then to the last scene, of which I was one among many spectators.

On the morning of August 15th, 1810, and just about daybreak, I was awakened by the sound of horses’ hoofs coming down the road beyond the vicarage gate. My ear told me at once that they were many riders and moving at a trot; and a minute later the jingle of metal gave me an inkling of the truth. I hurried to the window and pulled up the blind. Day was breaking on a grey drizzle of fog which drove up from seaward, and through this drizzle I caught sight of the last five or six scarlet plumes of a troop of dragoons jogging down the hill past my bank of laurels.

Now our parish had stood for some weeks in apprehension of a visit from these gentry. The riding-officer, Mr. Luke, had threatened us with them more than once. I knew, moreover, that a run of goods was contemplated: and without questions of mine — it did not become a parish priest in those days to know too much — it had reached my ears that Laquedem was himself in Roscoff bargaining for the freight. But we had all learnt confidence in him by this time — his increasing bodily weakness never seemed to affect his cleverness and resource — and no doubt occurred to me that he would contrive to checkmate this new move of the riding-officer’s. Nevertheless, and partly I dare say out of curiosity, to have a good look at the soldiers, I slipped on my clothes and hurried downstairs and across the garden.

My hand was on the gate when I heard footsteps, and July Constantine came running down the hill, her red cloak flapping and her hair powdered with mist.

“Hullo!” said I, “nothing wrong, I hope?” She turned a white, distraught face to me in the dawn.

“Yes, yes! All is wrong! I saw the soldiers coming — I heard them a mile away, and sent up the rocket from the church-tower. But the lugger stood in-they must have seen! — she stood in, and is right under Sheba Point now — and he—”

I whistled. “This is serious. Let us run out towards the point; we — you, I mean — may be in time to warn them yet.”

So we set off running together. The morning breeze had a cold edge on it, but already the sun had begun to wrestle with the bank of sea-fog. While we hurried along the cliffs the shoreward fringe of it was ripped and rolled back like a tent-cloth, and through the rent I saw a broad patch of the cove below; the sands (for the tide was at low ebb) shining like silver; the dragoons with their greatcoats thrown back from their scarlet breasts and their accoutrements flashing against the level rays. Seaward, the lugger loomed through the weather; but there was a crowd of men and black boats — half a score of them — by the water’s edge, and it was clear to me at once that a forced run had been at least attempted.

I had pulled up, panting, on the verge of the cliff, when July caught me by the arm.

The sand!

She pointed; and well I remember the gesture — the very gesture of the hand in the fresco — the forefinger extended, the thumb shut within the palm. “The sand . . . he told me . . .”

Her eyes were wide and fixed. She spoke, not excitedly at all, but rather as one musing, much as she had answered Laquedem on the morning when he waved the daisy-chain before her.

I heard an order shouted, high up the beach, and the dragoons came charging down across the sand. There was a scuffle close by the water’s edge; then, as the soldiers broke through the mob of free-traders and wheeled their horses round, fetlock deep in the tide, I saw a figure break from the crowd and run, but presently check himself and walk composedly towards the cliff up which climbed the footpath leading to Porthlooe. And above the hubbub of oaths and shouting, I heard a voice crying distinctly, “Run, man! Tis after thee they are! Man, go faster!

Even then, had he gained the cliff-track, he might have escaped; for up there no horseman could follow. But as a trooper came galloping in pursuit, he turned deliberately. There was no defiance in his attitude; of that I am sure. What followed must have been mere blundering ferocity. I saw a jet of smoke, heard the sharp crack of a firearm, and Joseph Laquedem flung up his arms and pitched forward at full length on the sand.

The report woke the girl as with the stab of a knife. Her cry — it pierces through my dreams at times — rang back with the echoes from the rocks, and before they ceased she was halfway down the cliffside, springing as surely as a goat, and, where she found no foothold, clutching the grass, the rooted samphires and sea pinks, and sliding. While my head swam with the sight of it, she was running across the sands, was kneeling beside the body, had risen, and was staggering under the weight of it down to the water’s edge.

“Stop her!” shouted Luke, the riding-officer. “We must have the man! Dead or alive, we must have’n!”

She gained the nearest boat, the free-traders forming up around her, and hustling the dragoons. It was old Solomon Tweedy’s boat, and he, prudent man, had taken advantage of the skirmish to ease her off, so that a push would set her afloat. He asserts that as July came up to him she never uttered a word, but the look on her face said “Push me off,” and though he was at that moment meditating his own escape, he obeyed and pushed the boat off “like a mazed man.” I may add that he spent three months in Bodmin Gaol for it.

She dropped with her burden against the stern sheets, but leapt up instantly and had the oars between the thole-pins almost as the boat floated. She pulled a dozen strokes, and hoisted the main-sail, pulled a hundred or so, sprang forward and ran up the jib. All this while the preventive men were straining to get off two boats in pursuit; but, as you may guess, the free-traders did nothing to help and a great deal to impede. And first the crews tumbled in too hurriedly, and had to climb out again (looking very foolish) and push afresh, and then one of the boats had mysteriously lost her plug and sank in half a fathom of water. July had gained a full hundred yards’ offing before the pursuit began in earnest, and this meant a good deal. Once clear of the point the small cutter could defy their rowing and reach away to the eastward with the wind just behind her beam. The riding-officer saw this, and ordered his men to fire. They assert, and we must believe, that their object was merely to disable the boat by cutting up her canvas.

Their first desultory volley did no damage. I stood there, high on the cliff, and watched the boat, making a spy-glass of my hands. She had fetched in close under the point, and gone about on the port tack — the next would clear — when the first shot struck her, cutting a hole through her jib, and I expected the wind to rip the sail up immediately; yet it stood. The breeze being dead on-shore, the little boat heeled towards us, her mainsail hiding the steerswoman.

It was a minute later, perhaps, that I began to suspect that July was hit, for she allowed the jib to shake and seemed to be running right up into the wind. The stern swung round and I strained my eyes to catch a glimpse of her. At that moment a third volley rattled out, a bullet shore through the peak halliards, and the mainsail came down with a run. It was all over.

The preventive men cheered and pulled with a will. I saw them run alongside, clamber into the cutter, and lift the fallen sail.

And that was all. There was no one on board, alive or dead. Whilst the canvas hid her, in the swift two minutes between the boat’s putting about and her running up into the wind, July Constantine must have lifted her lover’s body overboard and followed it to the bottom of the sea, There is no other explanation; and of the bond that knit these two together there is, when I ask myself candidly, no explanation at all, unless I give more credence than I have any wish to give to the wild tale which Joseph Laquedem told me. I have told you the facts, my friend, and leave them to your judgment.

4 The legend is that as Christ left the judgment hall on His way to Calvary, Kartophilus smote Him, saying, “Man, go quicker!” and was answered, “I indeed go quickly; but thou shalt tarry till I come again.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/q/quiller-couch/arthur_thomas/old-fires-and-profitable-ghosts/chapter8.html

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:15