Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XL

The Man at Last

This new alliance with Mrs. Busk not only refreshed my courage, but helped me forward most importantly. In truth, if it had not been for this I never could have borne what I had to bear, and met the perils which I had to meet. For I had the confidence of feeling now that here was some one close at hand, an intelligent person, and well acquainted with the place and neighborhood, upon whom I could rely for warning, succor, and, if the worst should come to the very worst, revenge. It is true that already I had Jacob Rigg, and perhaps the protector promised by my cousin; but the former was as ignorant as he was honest, and of the latter, as he made no sign, how could I tell any thing?

Above all things, Mrs. Busk’s position, as mistress of the letters, gave me very great advantage both for offense and defense. For without the smallest breach of duty or of loyal honor she could see that my letters passed direct to me or from me, as the case might be, at the same time that she was bound to observe all epistles addressed to strangers or new-comers in her district, which extended throughout the valley. And by putting my letters in the Portsmouth bag, instead of that for Winchester, I could freely correspond with any of my friends without any one seeing name or postmark in the neighboring villages.

It is needless to say that I had long since explored and examined with great diligence that lonely spot where my grandfather met his terrible and mysterious fate. Not that there seemed to be any hope now, after almost nineteen years, of finding even any token of the crime committed there. Only that it was natural for me, feeling great horror of this place, to seek to know it thoroughly.

For this I had good opportunity, because the timid people of the valley, toward the close of day, would rather trudge another half mile of the homeward road than save brave legs at the thumping cost of hearts not so courageous. For the planks were now called “Murder-bridge;” and every body knew that the red spots on it, which could never be seen by daylight, began to gleam toward the hour of the deed, and glowed (as if they would burn the wood) when the church clock struck eleven.

This phenomenon was beyond my gifts of observation; and knowing that my poor grandfather had scarcely set foot on the bridge, if ever he set foot there at all — which at present was very doubtful — also that he had fallen backward, and only bled internally, I could not reconcile tradition (however recent) with proven truth. And sure of no disturbance from the step of any native, here I often sat in a little bowered shelter of my own, well established up the rise, down which the path made zigzag, and screened from that and the bridge as well by sheaf of twigs and lop of leaves. It was a little forward thicket, quite detached from the upland copse, to which perhaps it had once belonged, and crusted up from the meadow slope with sod and mould in alternate steps. And being quite the elbow of a foreland of the meadow-reach, it yielded almost a “bird’s-eye view” of the beautiful glade and the wandering brook.

One evening when I was sitting here, neither drawing, nor working, nor even thinking with any set purpose, but idly allowing my mind to rove, like the rivulet, without any heed, I became aware of a moving figure in the valley. At first it did not appear to me as a thing at all worth notice; it might be a very straightforward cow, or a horse, coming on like a stalking-horse, keeping hind-legs strictly behind, in direct desire of water. I had often seen those sweet things that enjoy four legs walking in the line of distance as if they were no better off than we are, kindly desiring, perhaps, to make the biped spectator content with himself. And I was content to admire this cow or horse, or whatever it might be, without any more than could be helped of that invidious feeling which has driven the human race now to establish its right to a tail, and its hope of four legs. So little, indeed, did I think of what I saw, that when among the hazel twigs, parted carelessly by my hand, a cluster of nuts hung manifest, I gathered it, and began to crack and eat, although they were scarcely ripe yet.

But while employed in this pleasant way, I happened to glance again through my leafy screen, and then I distinguished the figure in the distance as that of a man walking rapidly. He was coming down the mill-stream meadow toward the wooden bridge, carrying a fishing rod, but clearly not intent on angling. For instead of following the course of the stream, he was keeping quite away from it, avoiding also the footpath, or, at any rate, seeming to prefer the long shadows of the trees and the tufted places. This made me look at him, and very soon I shrank into my nest and watched him.

As he came nearer any one could tell that he was no village workman, bolder than the rest, and venturesome to cross the “Murder-bridge” in his haste to be at home. The fishing rod alone was enough to show this when it came into clearer view; for our good people, though they fished sometimes, only used rough rods of their own making, without any varnish or brass thing for the line. And the man was of different height and walk and dress from any of our natives.

“Who can he be?” I whispered to myself, as my heart began to beat heavily, and then seemed almost to stop, as it answered, “This is the man who was in the churchyard.” Ignoble as it was, and contemptible, and vile, and traitorous to all duty, my first thought was about my own escape; for I felt that if this man saw me there he would rush up the hill and murder me. Within pistol-shot of the very place where my grandfather had been murdered — a lonely place, an unholy spot, and I was looking at the hand that did it.

The thought of this made me tremble so, though well aware that my death might ensue from a twig on the rustle, or a leaf upon the flutter, that my chance of making off unseen was gone ere I could seize it. For now the man was taking long strides over the worn-out planks of the bridge, disdaining the hand-rail, and looking upward, as if to shun sight of the footing. Advancing thus, he must have had his gaze point-blank upon my lair of leafage; but, luckily for me, there was gorse upon the ridge, and bracken and rag-thistles, so that none could spy up and through the footing of my lurking-place. But if any person could have spied me, this man was the one to do it. So carefully did he scan the distance and inspect the foreground, as if he were resolved that no eye should be upon him while he was doing what he came to do. And he even drew forth a little double telescope, such as are called “binoculars,” and fixed it on the thicket which hid me from him, and then on some other dark places.

No effort would compose or hush the heavy beating of my heart; my lips were stiffened with dread of loud breath, and all power of motion left me. For even a puff of wind might betray me, the ruffle of a spray, or the lifting of a leaf, or the random bounce of a beetle. Great peril had encompassed me ere now, but never had it grasped me as this did, and paralyzed all the powers of my body. Rather would I have stood in the midst of a score of Mexican rovers than thus in the presence of that one man. And yet was not this the very thing for which I had waited, longed, and labored? I scorned myself for this craven loss of nerve, but that did not enable me to help it. In this benumbed horror I durst not even peep at the doings of my enemy; but presently I became aware that he had moved from the end of the planks (where he stood for some time as calmly as if he had done nothing there), and had passed round the back of the hawthorn-tree, and gone down to the place where the body was found, and was making most narrow and minute search there. And now I could watch him without much danger, standing as I did well above him, while his eyes were steadfastly bent downward. And, not content with eyesight only, he seemed to be feeling every blade of grass or weed, every single stick or stone, craning into each cranny of the ground, and probing every clod with his hands. Then, after vainly searching with the very utmost care all the space from the hawthorn trunk to the meadow-leet (which was dry as usual), he ran, in a fury of impatience, to his rod, which he had stuck into the bank, as now I saw, and drew off the butt end, and removed the wheel, or whatever it is that holds the fishing line; and this butt had a long spike to it, shining like a halberd in a picture.

This made me shudder; but my spirit was returning, and therewith my power of reasoning, and a deep stir of curiosity. After so many years and such a quantity of searching, what could there still be left to seek for in this haunted and horrible place? And who was the man that was looking for it?

The latter question partly solved itself. It must be the murderer, and no other, whoever he might be among the many black spots of humanity. But as to the other point, no light could be thrown upon it, unless the search should be successful, and perhaps not even then. But now this anxiety, and shame of terror, made me so bold — for I can not call it brave — that I could not rest satisfied where I was, and instead of blessing every leaf and twig that hid me from the enemy, nothing would do for me but to creep nearer, in spite of that truculent long bright spike.

I thought of my father, and each fibre of my frame seemed to harden with vigor and fleetness. Every muscle of my body could be trusted now. I had always been remarkably light of foot. Could a man of that age catch me? It was almost as much as Firm Gundry could do, as in childish days I had proved to him. And this man, although his hair was not gray, must be on the slow side of fifty now, and perhaps getting short of his very wicked breath. Then I thought of poor Firm, and of good Uncle Sam, and how they scorned poltroonery; and, better still, I thought of that great Power which always had protected me: in a word, I resolved to risk it.

But I had not reckoned upon fire-arms, which such a scoundrel was pretty sure to have; and that idea struck cold upon my valor. Nevertheless, I would not turn back. With no more sound than a field-mouse makes in the building of its silken nest, and feet as light as the step of the wind upon the scarcely ruffled grass, I quitted my screen, and went gliding down a hedge, or rather the residue of some old hedge, which would shelter me a little toward the hollow of the banks. I passed low places, where the man must have seen me if he had happened to look up; but he was stooping with his back to me, and working in the hollow of the dry water trough. He was digging with the long spike of his rod, and I heard the rattle of each pebble that he struck.

Before he stood up again, to ease his back and to look at the ground which he still had to turn, I was kneeling behind a short, close-branched holly, the very last bush of the hedge-row, scarcely fifteen yards from the hawthorn-tree. It was quite impossible to get nearer without coming face to face with him. And now I began again to tremble, but with a great effort conquered it.

The man was panting with his labor, and seemed to be in a vile temper too. He did not swear, but made low noises full of disappointment. And then he caught up his tool, with a savage self-control, and fell to again.

Now was my time to see what he was like, and engrave him on my memory. But, lo! in a moment I need not do that. The face was the bad image of my father’s. A lowered, and vicious, and ill-bred image of a noble countenance — such as it was just possible to dream that my dear father’s might have fallen to, if his mind and soul had plunged away from the good inborn and implanted in them. The figure was that of a tall strong man, with shoulders rather slouching, and a habit of keeping his head thrown back, which made a long chin look longer. Altogether he seemed a perilous foe, and perhaps a friend still more perilous.

Be he what he might, he was working very hard. Not one of all Uncle Sam’s men, to my knowledge, least of all Martin, would have worked so hard. With his narrow and ill-adapted tool he contrived to turn over, in less than twenty minutes, the entire bed of the meadow-leet, or trough, for a length of about ten yards. Then he came to the mouth, where the water of the main stream lapped back into it, and he turned up the bottom as far as he could reach, and waited for the mud he had raised to clear away. When this had flowed down with the stream, he walked in for some little distance till the pool grew deep; but in spite of all his labor, there was nothing.

Meanwhile the sunset glow was failing, and a gray autumnal haze crept up the tranquil valley. Shadows waned and faded into dimness more diffuse, and light grew soft and vague and vaporous. The gleam of water, and the gloss of grass, and deep relief of trees, began to lose their several phase and mingle into one large twilight blend. And cattle, from their milking sheds, came lowing for more pasture; and the bark of a shepherd’s dog rang quick, as if his sheep were drowsy.

In the midst of innocent sights and sounds that murderer’s heart misgave him. He left his vain quest off, and gazed, with fear and hate of nature’s beauty, at the change from day to night which had not waited for him. Some touch of his childhood moved him perhaps, some thought of times when he played “I spy,” or listened to twilight ghost tales; at any rate, as he rose and faced the evening, he sighed heavily.

Then he strode away; and although he passed me almost within length of his rod, there was little fear of his discovering me, because his mind was elsewhere.

It will, perhaps, be confessed by all who are not as brave as lions that so far I had acquitted myself pretty well in this trying matter. Horribly scared as I was at first, I had not allowed this to conquer me, but had even rushed into new jeopardy. But now the best part of my courage was spent; and when the tall stranger refixed his rod and calmly recrossed those ominous planks, I durst not set forth on the perilous errand of spying out his ways and tracking him. A glance was enough to show the impossibility in those long meadows of following without being seen in this stage of the twilight. Moreover, my nerves had been tried too long, and presence of mind could not last forever. All I could do, therefore, was to creep as far as the trunk of the hawthorn-tree, and thence observe that my enemy did not return by the way he had come, but hastened down the dusky valley.

One part of his labors has not been described, though doubtless a highly needful one. To erase the traces of his work, or at least obscure them to a careless eye, when he had turned as much ground as he thought it worth his while to meddle with, he trod it back again to its level as nearly as might be, and then (with a can out of his fishing basket) sluiced the place well with the water of the stream. This made it look to any heedless person, who would not descend to examine it, as if there had been nothing more than a little reflux from the river, caused by a flush from the mill-pond. This little stratagem increased my fear of a cunning and active villain.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50