The morning hours had passed; the noon had come and gone; and Mr. Brock had started on the first stage of his journey home.
After parting from the rector in Douglas Harbor, the two young men had returned to Castletown, and had there separated at the hotel door, Allan walking down to the waterside to look after his yacht, and Midwinter entering the house to get the rest that he needed after a sleepless night.
He darkened his room; he closed his eyes, but no sleep came to him. On this first day of the rector’s absence, his sensitive nature extravagantly exaggerated the responsibility which he now held in trust for Mr. Brock. A nervous dread of leaving Allan by himself, even for a few hours only, kept him waking and doubting, until it became a relief rather than a hardship to rise from the bed again, and, following in Allan’s footsteps, to take the way to the waterside which led to the yacht.
The repairs of the little vessel were nearly completed. It was a breezy, cheerful day; the land was bright, the water was blue, the quick waves leaped crisply in the sunshine, the men were singing at their work. Descending to the cabin, Midwinter discovered his friend busily occupied in attempting to set the place to rights. Habitually the least systematic of mortals, Allan now and then awoke to an overwhelming sense of the advantages of order, and on such occasions a perfect frenzy of tidiness possessed him. He was down on his knees, hotly and wildly at work, when Midwinter looked in on him; and was fast reducing the neat little world of the cabin to its original elements of chaos, with a misdirected energy wonderful to see.
“Here’s a mess!” said Allan, rising composedly on the horizon of his own accumulated litter. “Do you know, my dear fellow, I begin to wish I had let well alone!”
Midwinter smiled, and came to his friend’s assistance with the natural neat-handedness of a sailor.
The first object that he encountered was Allan’s dressing-case, turned upside down, with half the contents scattered on the floor, and with a duster and a hearth-broom lying among them. Replacing the various objects which formed the furniture of the dressing-case one by one, Midwinter lighted unexpectedly on a miniature portrait, of the old-fashioned oval form, primly framed in a setting of small diamonds.
“You don’t seem to set much value on this,” he said. “What is it?”
Allan bent over him, and looked at the miniature. “It belonged to my mother,” he answered; “and I set the greatest value on it. It is a portrait of my father.”
Midwinter put the miniature abruptly, into Allan’s hands, and withdrew to the opposite side of the cabin.
“You know best where the things ought to be put in your own dressing-case,” he said, keeping his back turned on Allan. “I’ll make the place tidy on this side of the cabin, and you shall make the place tidy on the other.”
He began setting in order the litter scattered about him on the cabin table and on the floor. But it seemed as if fate had decided that his friend’s personal possessions should fall into his hands that morning, employ them where he might. One among the first objects which he took up was Allan’s tobacco jar, with the stopper missing, and with a letter (which appeared by the bulk of it to contain inclosures) crumpled into the mouth of the jar in the stopper’s place.
“Did you know that you had put this here?” he asked. “Is the letter of any importance?”
Allan recognized it instantly. It was the first of the little series of letters which had followed the cruising party to the Isle of Man — the letter which young Armadale had briefly referred to as bringing him “more worries from those everlasting lawyers,” and had then dismissed from further notice as recklessly as usual.
“This is what comes of being particularly careful,” said Allan; “here is an instance of my extreme thoughtfulness. You may not think it but I put the letter there on purpose. Every time I went to the jar, you know, I was sure to see the letter; and every time I saw the letter, I was sure to say to myself, ‘This must be answered.’ There’s nothing to laugh at; it was a perfectly sensible arrangement, if I could only have remembered where I put the jar. Suppose I tie a knot in my pocket-handkerchief this time? You have a wonderful memory, my dear fellow. Perhaps you’ll remind me in the course of the day, in case I forget the knot next.”
Midwinter saw his first chance, since Mr. Brock’s departure, of usefully filling Mr. Brock’s place.
“Here is your writing-case,” he said; “why not answer the letter at once? If you put it away again, you may forget it again.”
“Very true,” returned Allan. “But the worst of it is, I can’t quite make up my mind what answer to write. I want a word of advice. Come and sit down here, and I’ll tell you all about it.”
With his loud boyish laugh — echoed by Midwinter, who caught the infection of his gayety — he swept a heap of miscellaneous incumbrances off the cabin sofa, and made room for his friend and himself to take their places. In the high flow of youthful spirits, the two sat down to their trifling consultation over a letter lost in a tobacco jar. It was a memorable moment to both of them, lightly as they thought of it at the time. Before they had risen again from their places, they had taken the first irrevocable step together on the dark and tortuous road of their future lives.
Reduced to plain facts, the question on which Allan now required his friend’s advice may be stated as follows:
While the various arrangements connected with the succession to Thorpe Ambrose were in progress of settlement, and while the new possessor of the estate was still in London, a question had necessarily arisen relating to the person who should be appointed to manage the property. The steward employed by the Blanchard family had written, without loss of time, to offer his services. Although a perfectly competent and trustworthy man, he failed to find favor in the eyes of the new proprietor. Acting, as usual, on his first impulses, and resolved, at all hazards, to install Midwinter as a permanent inmate at Thorpe Ambrose, Allan had determined that the steward’s place was the place exactly fitted for his friend, for the simple reason that it would necessarily oblige his friend to live with him on the estate. He had accordingly written to decline the proposal made to him without consulting Mr. Brock, whose disapproval he had good reason to fear; and without telling Midwinter, who would probably (if a chance were allowed him of choosing) have declined taking a situation which his previous training had by no means fitted him to fill.
Further correspondence had followed this decision, and had raised two new difficulties which looked a little embarrassing on the face of them, but which Allan, with the assistance of his lawyer, easily contrived to solve. The first difficulty, of examining the outgoing steward’s books, was settled by sending a professional accountant to Thorpe Ambrose; and the second difficulty, of putting the steward’s empty cottage to some profitable use (Allan’s plans for his friend comprehending Midwinter’s residence under his own roof), was met by placing the cottage on the list of an active house agent in the neighboring county town. In this state the arrangements had been left when Allan quitted London. He had heard and thought nothing more of the matter, until a letter from his lawyers had followed him to the Isle of Man, inclosing two proposals to occupy the cottage, both received on the same day, and requesting to hear, at his earliest convenience, which of the two he was prepared to accept.
Finding himself, after having conveniently forgotten the subject for some days past, placed face to face once more with the necessity for decision, Allan now put the two proposals into his friend’s hands, and, after a rambling explanation of the circumstances of the case, requested to be favored with a word of advice. Instead of examining the proposals, Midwinter unceremoniously put them aside, and asked the two very natural and very awkward questions of who the new steward was to be, and why he was to live in Allan’s house?
“I’ll tell you who, and I’ll tell you why, when we get to Thorpe Ambrose,” said Allan. “In the meantime we’ll call the steward X. Y. Z., and we’ll say he lives with me, because I’m devilish sharp, and I mean to keep him under my own eye. You needn’t look surprised. I know the man thoroughly well; he requires a good deal of management. If I offered him the steward’s place beforehand, his modesty would get in his way, and he would say ‘No.’ If I pitch him into it neck and crop, without a word of warning and with nobody at hand to relieve him of the situation, he’ll have nothing for it but to consult my interests, and say ‘Yes.’ X. Y. Z. is not at all a bad fellow, I can tell you. You’ll see him when we go to Thorpe Ambrose; and I rather think you and he will get on uncommonly well together.”
The humorous twinkle in Allan’s eye, the sly significance in Allan’s voice, would have betrayed his secret to a prosperous man. Midwinter was as far from suspecting it as the carpenters who were at work above them on the deck of the yacht.
“Is there no steward now on the estate?” he asked, his face showing plainly that he was far from feeling satisfied with Allan’s answer. “Is the business neglected all this time?”
“Nothing of the sort!” returned Allan. “The business is going with ‘a wet sheet and a flowing sea, and a wind that follows free.’ I’m not joking; I’m only metaphorical. A regular accountant has poked his nose into the books, and a steady-going lawyer’s clerk attends at the office once a week. That doesn’t look like neglect, does it? Leave the new steward alone for the present, and just tell me which of those two tenants you would take, if you were in my place.”
Midwinter opened the proposals, and read them attentively.
The first proposal was from no less a person than the solicitor at Thorpe Ambrose, who had first informed Allan at Paris of the large fortune that had fallen into his hands. This gentleman wrote personally to say that he had long admired the cottage, which was charmingly situated within the limits of the Thorpe Ambrose grounds. He was a bachelor, of studious habits, desirous of retiring to a country seclusion after the wear and tear of his business hours; and he ventured to say that Mr. Armadale, in accepting him as a tenant, might count on securing an unobtrusive neighbor, and on putting the cottage into responsible and careful hands.
The second proposal came through the house agent, and proceeded from a total stranger. The tenant who offered for the cottage, in this case, was a retired officer in the army — one Major Milroy. His family merely consisted of an invalid wife and an only child — a young lady. His references were unexceptionable; and he, too, was especially anxious to secure the cottage, as the perfect quiet of the situation was exactly what was required by Mrs. Milroy in her feeble state of health.
“Well, which profession shall I favor?” asked Allan. “The army or the law?”
“There seems to me to be no doubt about it,” said Midwinter. “The lawyer has been already in correspondence with you; and the lawyer’s claim is, therefore, the claim to be preferred.”
“I knew you would say that. In all the thousands of times I have asked other people for advice, I never yet got the advice I wanted. Here’s this business of letting the cottage as an instance. I’m all on the other side myself. I want to have the major.”
Young Armadale laid his forefinger on that part of the agent’s letter which enumerated Major Milroy’s family, and which contained the three words —“a young lady.”
“A bachelor of studious habits walking about my grounds,” said Allan, “is not an interesting object; a young lady is. I have not the least doubt Miss Milroy is a charming girl. Ozias Midwinter of the serious countenance! think of her pretty muslin dress flitting about among your trees and committing trespasses on your property; think of her adorable feet trotting into your fruit-garden, and her delicious fresh lips kissing your ripe peaches; think of her dimpled hands among your early violets, and her little cream-colored nose buried in your blush-roses. What does the studious bachelor offer me in exchange for the loss of all this? He offers me a rheumatic brown object in gaiters and a wig. No! no! Justice is good, my dear friend; but, believe me, Miss Milroy is better.”
“Can you be serious about any mortal thing, Allan?”
“I’ll try to be, if you like. I know I ought to take the lawyer; but what can I do if the major’s daughter keeps running in my head?”
Midwinter returned resolutely to the just and sensible view of the matter, and pressed it on his friend’s attention with all the persuasion of which he was master. After listening with exemplary patience until he had done, Allan swept a supplementary accumulation of litter off the cabin table, and produced from his waistcoat pocket a half-crown coin.
“I’ve got an entirely new idea,” he said. “Let’s leave it to chance.”
The absurdity of the proposal — as coming from a landlord — was irresistible. Midwinter’s gravity deserted him.
“I’ll spin,” continued Allan, “and you shall call. We must give precedence to the army, of course; so we’ll say Heads, the major; Tails, the lawyer. One spin to decide. Now, then, look out!”
He spun the half-crown on the cabin table.
“Tails!” cried Midwinter, humoring what he believed to be one of Allan’s boyish jokes.
The coin fell on the table with the Head uppermost.
“You don’t mean to say you are really in earnest!” said Midwinter, as the other opened his writing-case and dipped his pen in the ink.
“Oh, but I am, though!” replied Allan. “Chance is on my side, and Miss Milroy’s; and you’re outvoted, two to one. It’s no use arguing. The major has fallen uppermost, and the major shall have the cottage. I won’t leave it to the lawyers; they’ll only be worrying me with more letters. I’ll write myself.”
He wrote his answers to the two proposals, literally in two minutes. One to the house agent: “Dear sir, I accept Major Milroy’s offer; let him come in when he pleases. Yours truly, Allan Armadale.” And one to the lawyer: “Dear sir, I regret that circumstances prevent me from accepting your proposal. Yours truly,” etc. “People make a fuss about letter-writing,” Allan remarked, when he had done. “I find it easy enough.”
He wrote the addresses on his two notes, and stamped them for the post, whistling gayly. While he had been writing, he had not noticed how his friend was occupied. When he had done, it struck him that a sudden silence had fallen on the cabin; and, looking up, he observed that Midwinter’s whole attention was strangely concentrated on the half crown as it lay head uppermost on the table. Allan suspended his whistling in astonishment.
“What on earth are you doing?” he asked.
“I was only wondering,” replied Midwinter.
“What about?” persisted Allan.
“I was wondering,” said the other, handing him back the half-crown, “whether there is such a thing as chance.”
Half an hour later the two notes were posted; and Allan, whose close superintendence of the repairs of the yacht had hitherto allowed him but little leisure time on shore, had proposed to while away the idle hours by taking a walk in Castletown. Even Midwinter’s nervous anxiety to deserve Mr. Brock’s confidence in him could detect nothing objectionable in this harmless proposal, and the young men set forth together to see what they could make of the metropolis of the Isle of Man.
It is doubtful if there is a place on the habitable globe which, regarded as a sight-seeing investment offering itself to the spare attention of strangers, yields so small a percentage of interest in return as Castletown. Beginning with the waterside, there was an inner harbor to see, with a drawbridge to let vessels through; an outer harbor, ending in a dwarf lighthouse; a view of a flat coast to the right, and a view of a flat coast to the left. In the central solitudes of the city, there was a squat gray building called “the castle”; also a memorial pillar dedicated to one Governor Smelt, with a flat top for a statue, and no statue standing on it; also a barrack, holding the half-company of soldiers allotted to the island, and exhibiting one spirit-broken sentry at its lonely door. The prevalent color of the town was faint gray. The few shops open were parted at frequent intervals by other shops closed and deserted in despair. The weary lounging of boatmen on shore was trebly weary here; the youth of the district smoked together in speechless depression under the lee of a dead wall; the ragged children said mechanically: “Give us a penny,” and before the charitable hand could search the merciful pocket, lapsed away again in misanthropic doubt of the human nature they addressed. The silence of the grave overflowed the churchyard, and filled this miserable town. But one edifice, prosperous to look at, rose consolatory in the desolation of these dreadful streets. Frequented by the students of the neighboring “College of King William,” this building was naturally dedicated to the uses of a pastry-cook’s shop. Here, at least (viewed through the friendly medium of the window), there was something going on for a stranger to see; for here, on high stools, the pupils of the college sat, with swinging legs and slowly moving jaws, and, hushed in the horrid stillness of Castletown, gorged their pastry gravely, in an atmosphere of awful silence.
“Hang me if I can look any longer at the boys and the tarts!” said Allan, dragging his friend away from the pastry-cook’s shop. “Let’s try if we can’t find something else to amuse us in the next street.”
The first amusing object which the next street presented was a carver-and-gilder’s shop, expiring feebly in the last stage of commercial decay. The counter inside displayed nothing to view but the recumbent head of a boy, peacefully asleep in the unbroken solitude of the place. In the window were exhibited to the passing stranger three forlorn little fly-spotted frames; a small posting-bill, dusty with long-continued neglect, announcing that the premises were to let; and one colored print, the last of a series illustrating the horrors of drunkenness, on the fiercest temperance principles. The composition — representing an empty bottle of gin, an immensely spacious garret, a perpendicular Scripture reader, and a horizontal expiring family — appealed to public favor, under the entirely unobjectionable title of “The Hand of Death.” Allan’s resolution to extract amusement from Castletown by main force had resisted a great deal, but it failed him at this stage of the investigations. He suggested trying an excursion to some other place. Midwinter readily agreeing, they went back to the hotel to make inquiries.
Thanks to the mixed influence of Allan’s ready gift of familiarity, and total want of method in putting his questions, a perfect deluge of information flowed in on the two strangers, relating to every subject but the subject which had actually brought them to the hotel. They made various interesting discoveries in connection with the laws and constitution of the Isle of Man, and the manners and customs of the natives. To Allan’s delight, the Manxmen spoke of England as of a well-known adjacent island, situated at a certain distance from the central empire of the Isle of Man. It was further revealed to the two Englishmen that this happy little nation rejoiced in laws of its own, publicly proclaimed once a year by the governor and the two head judges, grouped together on the top of an ancient mound, in fancy costumes appropriate to the occasion. Possessing this enviable institution, the island added to it the inestimable blessing of a local parliament, called the House of Keys, an assembly far in advance of the other parliament belonging to the neighboring island, in this respect — that the members dispensed with the people, and solemnly elected each other. With these and many more local particulars, extracted from all sorts and conditions of men in and about the hotel, Allan whiled away the weary time in his own essentially desultory manner, until the gossip died out of itself, and Midwinter (who had been speaking apart with the landlord) quietly recalled him to the matter in hand. The finest coast scenery in the island was said to be to the westward and the southward, and there was a fishing town in those regions called Port St. Mary, with a hotel at which travelers could sleep. If Allan’s impressions of Castletown still inclined him to try an excursion to some other place, he had only to say so, and a carriage would be produced immediately. Allan jumped at the proposal, and in ten minutes more he and Midwinter were on their way to the western wilds of the island.
With trifling incidents, the day of Mr. Brock’s departure had worn on thus far. With trifling incidents, in which not even Midwinter’s nervous watchfulness could see anything to distrust, it was still to proceed, until the night came — a night which one at least of the two companions was destined to remember to the end of his life.
Before the travelers had advanced two miles on their road, an accident happened. The horse fell, and the driver reported that the animal had seriously injured himself. There was no alternative but to send for another carriage to Castletown, or to get on to Port St. Mary on foot.
Deciding to walk, Midwinter and Allan had not gone far before they were overtaken by a gentleman driving alone in an open chaise. He civilly introduced himself as a medical man, living close to Port St. Mary, and offered seats in his carriage. Always ready to make new acquaintances, Allan at once accepted the proposal. He and the doctor (whose name was ascertained to be Hawbury) became friendly and familiar before they had been five minutes in the chaise together; Midwinter, sitting behind them, reserved and silent, on the back seat. They separated just outside Port St. Mary, before Mr. Hawbury’s house, Allan boisterously admiring the doctor’s neat French windows and pretty flower-garden and lawn, and wringing his hand at parting as if they had known each other from boyhood upward. Arrived in Port St. Mary, the two friends found themselves in a second Castletown on a smaller scale. But the country round, wild, open, and hilly, deserved its reputation. A walk brought them well enough on with the day — still the harmless, idle day that it had been from the first — to see the evening near at hand. After waiting a little to admire the sun, setting grandly over hill, and heath, and crag, and talking, while they waited, of Mr. Brock and his long journey home, they returned to the hotel to order their early supper. Nearer and nearer the night, and the adventure which the night was to bring with it, came to the two friends; and still the only incidents that happened were incidents to be laughed at, if they were noticed at all. The supper was badly cooked; the waiting-maid was impenetrably stupid; the old-fashioned bell-rope in the coffee-room had come down in Allan’s hands, and, striking in its descent a painted china shepherdess on the chimney-piece, had laid the figure in fragments on the floor. Events as trifling as these were still the only events that had happened, when the twilight faded, and the lighted candles were brought into the room.
Finding Midwinter, after the double fatigue of a sleepless night and a restless day, but little inclined for conversation, Allan left him resting on the sofa, and lounged into the passage of the hotel, on the chance of discovering somebody to talk to. Here another of the trivial incidents of the day brought Allan and Mr. Hawbury together again, and helped — whether happily or not, yet remained to be seen — to strengthen the acquaintance between them on either side.
The “bar” of the hotel was situated at one end of the passage, and the landlady was in attendance there, mixing a glass of liquor for the doctor, who had just looked in for a little gossip. On Allan’s asking permission to make a third in the drinking and the gossiping, Mr. Hawbury civilly handed him the glass which the landlady had just filled. It contained cold brandy-and-water. A marked change in Allan’s face, as he suddenly drew back and asked for whisky instead, caught the doctor’s medical eye. “A case of nervous antipathy,” said Mr. Hawbury, quietly taking the glass away again. The remark obliged Allan to acknowledge that he had an insurmountable loathing (which he was foolish enough to be a little ashamed of mentioning) to the smell and taste of brandy. No matter with what diluting liquid the spirit was mixed, the presence of it, instantly detected by his organs of taste and smell, turned him sick and faint if the drink touched his lips. Starting from this personal confession, the talk turned on antipathies in general; and the doctor acknowledged, on his side, that he took a professional interest in the subject, and that he possessed a collection of curious cases at home, which his new acquaintance was welcome to look at, if Allan had nothing else to do that evening, and if he would call, when the medical work of the day was over, in an hour’s time.
Cordially accepting the invitation (which was extended to Midwinter also, if he cared to profit by it), Allan returned to the coffee-room to look after his friend. Half asleep and half awake, Midwinter was still stretched on the sofa, with the local newspaper just dropping out of his languid hand.
“I heard your voice in the passage,” he said, drowsily. “Whom were you talking to?”
“The doctor,” replied Allan. “I am going to smoke a cigar with him, in an hour’s time. Will you come too?”
Midwinter assented with a weary sigh. Always shyly unwilling to make new acquaintances, fatigue increased the reluctance he now felt to become Mr. Hawbury’s guest. As matters stood, however, there was no alternative but to go; for, with Allan’s constitutional imprudence, there was no safely trusting him alone anywhere, and more especially in a stranger’s house. Mr. Brock would certainly not have left his pupil to visit the doctor alone; and Midwinter was still nervously conscious that he occupied Mr. Brock’s place.
“What shall we do till it’s time to go?” asked Allan, looking about him. “Anything in this?” he added, observing the fallen newspaper, and picking it up from the floor.
“I’m too tired to look. If you find anything interesting, read it out,” said Midwinter, thinking that the reading might help to keep him awake.
Part of the newspaper, and no small part of it, was devoted to extracts from books recently published in London. One of the works most largely laid under contribution in this manner was of the sort to interest Allan: it was a highly spiced narrative of Traveling Adventures in the wilds of Australia. Pouncing on an extract which described the sufferings of the traveling-party, lost in a trackless wilderness, and in danger of dying by thirst, Allan announced that he had found something to make his friend’s flesh creep, and began eagerly to read the passage aloud.
Resolute not to sleep, Midwinter followed the progress of the adventure, sentence by sentence, without missing a word. The consultation of the lost travelers, with death by thirst staring them in the face; the resolution to press on while their strength lasted; the fall of a heavy shower, the vain efforts made to catch the rainwater, the transient relief experienced by sucking their wet clothes; the sufferings renewed a few hours after; the night advance of the strongest of the party, leaving the weakest behind; the following a flight of birds when morning dawned; the discovery by the lost men of the broad pool of water that saved their lives — all this Midwinter’s fast-failing attention mastered painfully, Allan’s voice growing fainter and fainter on his ear with every sentence that was read. Soon the next words seemed to drop away gently, and nothing but the slowly sinking sound of the voice was left. Then the light in the room darkened gradually, the sound dwindled into delicious silence, and the last waking impressions of the weary Midwinter came peacefully to an end.
The next event of which he was conscious was a sharp ringing at the closed door of the hotel. He started to his feet, with the ready alacrity of a man whose life has accustomed him to wake at the shortest notice. An instant’s look round showed him that the room was empty, and a glance at his watch told him that it was close on midnight. The noise made by the sleepy servant in opening the door, and the tread the next moment of quick footsteps in the passage, filled him with a sudden foreboding of something wrong. As he hurriedly stepped forward to go out and make inquiry, the door of the coffee-room opened, and the doctor stood before him.
“I am sorry to disturb you,” said Mr. Hawbury. “Don’t be alarmed; there’s nothing wrong.”
“Where is my friend?” asked Midwinter.
“At the pier head,” answered the doctor. “I am, to a certain extent, responsible for what he is doing now; and I think some careful person, like yourself, ought to be with him.”
The hint was enough for Midwinter. He and the doctor set out for the pier immediately, Mr. Hawbury mentioning on the way the circumstances under which he had come to the hotel.
Punctual to the appointed hour Allan had made his appearance at the doctor’s house, explaining that he had left his weary friend so fast asleep on the sofa that he had not had the heart to wake him. The evening had passed pleasantly, and the conversation had turned on many subjects, until, in an evil hour, Mr. Hawbury had dropped a hint which showed that he was fond of sailing, and that he possessed a pleasure-boat of his own in the harbor. Excited on the instant by his favorite topic, Allan had left his host no hospitable alternative but to take him to the pier head and show him the boat. The beauty of the night and the softness of the breeze had done the rest of the mischief; they had filled Allan with irresistible longings for a sail by moonlight. Prevented from accompanying his guest by professional hindrances which obliged him to remain on shore, the doctor, not knowing what else to do, had ventured on disturbing Midwinter, rather than take the responsibility of allowing Mr. Armadale (no matter how well he might be accustomed to the sea) to set off on a sailing trip at midnight entirely by himself.
The time taken to make this explanation brought Midwinter and the doctor to the pier head. There, sure enough, was young Armadale in the boat, hoisting the sail, and singing the sailor’s “Yo-heave-ho!” at the top of his voice.
“Come along, old boy!” cried Allan. “You’re just in time for a frolic by moonlight!”
Midwinter suggested a frolic by daylight, and an adjournment to bed in the meantime.
“Bed!” cried Allan, on whose harum-scarum high spirits Mr. Hawbury’s hospitality had certainly not produced a sedative effect. “Hear him, doctor! one would think he was ninety! Bed, you drowsy old dormouse! Look at that, and think of bed if you can!”
He pointed to the sea. The moon was shining in the cloudless heaven; the night-breeze blew soft and steady from the land; the peaceful waters rippled joyfully in the silence and the glory of the night. Midwinter turned to the doctor with a wise resignation to circumstances: he had seen enough to satisfy him that all words of remonstrance would be words simply thrown away.
“How is the tide?” he asked.
Mr. Hawbury told him.
“Are there oars in the boat?”
“I am well used to the sea,” said Midwinter, descending the pier steps. “You may trust me to take care of my friend, and to take care of the boat.”
“Good-night, doctor!” shouted Allan. “Your whisky-and-water is delicious — your boat’s a little beauty — and you’re the best fellow I ever met in my life!”
The doctor laughed and waved his hand, and the boat glided out from the harbor, with Midwinter at the helm.
As the breeze then blew, they were soon abreast of the westward headland, bounding the Bay of Poolvash, and the question was started whether they should run out to sea or keep along the shore. The wisest proceeding, in the event of the wind failing them, was to keep by the land. Midwinter altered the course of the boat, and they sailed on smoothly in a south-westerly direction, abreast of the coast.
Little by little the cliffs rose in height, and the rocks, massed wild and jagged, showed rifted black chasms yawning deep in their seaward sides. Off the bold promontory called Spanish Head, Midwinter looked ominously at his watch. But Allan pleaded hard for half an hour more, and for a glance at the famous channel of the Sound, which they were now fast nearing, and of which he had heard some startling stories from the workmen employed on his yacht. The new change which Midwinter’s compliance with this request rendered it necessary to make in the course of the boat brought her close to the wind; and revealed, on one side, the grand view of the southernmost shores of the Isle of Man, and, on the other, the black precipices of the islet called the Calf, separated from the mainland by the dark and dangerous channel of the Sound.
Once more Midwinter looked at his watch. “We have gone far enough,” he said. “Stand by the sheet!”
“Stop!” cried Allan, from the bows of the boat. “Good God! here’s a wrecked ship right ahead of us!”
Midwinter let the boat fall off a little, and looked where the other pointed.
There, stranded midway between the rocky boundaries on either side of the Sound — there, never again to rise on the living waters from her grave on the sunken rock; lost and lonely in the quiet night; high, and dark, and ghostly in the yellow moonshine, lay the Wrecked Ship.
“I know the vessel,” said Allan, in great excitement. “I heard my workmen talking of her yesterday. She drifted in here, on a pitch-dark night, when they couldn’t see the lights; a poor old worn-out merchantman, Midwinter, that the ship-brokers have bought to break up. Let’s run in and have a look at her.”
Midwinter hesitated. All the old sympathies of his sea-life strongly inclined him to follow Allan’s suggestion; but the wind was falling light, and he distrusted the broken water and the swirling currents of the channel ahead. “This is an ugly place to take a boat into when you know nothing about it,” he said.
“Nonsense!” returned Allan. “It’s as light as day, and we float in two feet of water.”
Before Midwinter could answer, the current caught the boat, and swept them onward through the channel straight toward the wreck.
“Lower the sail,” said Midwinter, quietly, “and ship the oars. We are running down on her fast enough now, whether we like it or not.”
Both well accustomed to the use of the oar, they brought the course of the boat under sufficient control to keep her on the smoothest side of the channel — the side which was nearest to the Islet of the Calf. As they came swiftly up with the wreck, Midwinter resigned his oar to Allan; and, watching his opportunity, caught a hold with the boat-hook on the fore-chains of the vessel. The next moment they had the boat safely in hand, under the lee of the wreck.
The ship’s ladder used by the workmen hung over the fore-chains. Mounting it, with the boat’s rope in his teeth, Midwinter secured one end, and lowered the other to Allan in the boat. “Make that fast,” he said, “and wait till I see if it’s all safe on board.” With those words, he disappeared behind the bulwark.
“Wait?” repeated Allan, in the blankest astonishment at his friend’s excessive caution. “What on earth does he mean? I’ll be hanged if I wait. Where one of us goes, the other goes too!”
He hitched the loose end of the rope round the forward thwart of the boat, and, swinging himself up the ladder, stood the next moment on the deck. “Anything very dreadful on board?” he inquired sarcastically, as he and his friend met.
Midwinter smiled. “Nothing whatever,” he replied. “But I couldn’t be sure that we were to have the whole ship to ourselves till I got over the bulwark and looked about me.”
Allan took a turn on the deck, and surveyed the wreck critically from stem to stern.
“Not much of a vessel,” he said; “the Frenchmen generally build better ships than this.”
Midwinter crossed the deck, and eyed Allan in a momentary silence.
“Frenchmen?” he repeated, after an interval. “Is this vessel French?”
“How do you know?”
“The men I have got at work on the yacht told me. They know all about her.”
Midwinter came a little nearer. His swarthy face began to look, to Allan’s eyes, unaccountably pale in the moonlight.
“Did they mention what trade she was engaged in?”
“Yes; the timber trade.”
As Allan gave that answer, Midwinter’s lean brown hand clutched him fast by the shoulder, and Midwinter’s teeth chattered in his head like the teeth of a man struck by a sudden chill.
“Did they tell you her name?” he asked, in a voice that dropped suddenly to a whisper.
“They did, I think. But it has slipped my memory. — Gently, old fellow; these long claws of yours are rather tight on my shoulder.”
“Was the name —?” He stopped, removed his hand, and dashed away the great drops that were gathering on his forehead. “Was the name La Grace de Dieu?”
“How the deuce did you come to know it? That’s the name, sure enough. La Grace de Dieu.”
At one bound, Midwinter leaped on the bulwark of the wreck.
“The boat!” he cried, with a scream of horror that rang far and wide through the stillness of the night, and brought Allan instantly to his side.
The lower end of the carelessly hitched rope was loose on the water, and ahead, in the track of the moonlight, a small black object was floating out of view. The boat was adrift.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06