One stepping back under the dark shelter of the bulwark, and one standing out boldly in the yellow light of the moon, the two friends turned face to face on the deck of the timber-ship, and looked at each other in silence. The next moment Allan’s inveterate recklessness seized on the grotesque side of the situation by main force. He seated himself astride on the bulwark, and burst out boisterously into his loudest and heartiest laugh.
“All my fault,” he said; “but there’s no help for it now. Here we are, hard and fast in a trap of our own setting; and there goes the last of the doctor’s boat! Come out of the dark, Midwinter; I can’t half see you there, and I want to know what’s to be done next.”
Midwinter neither answered nor moved. Allan left the bulwark, and, mounting the forecastle, looked down attentively at the waters of the Sound.
“One thing is pretty certain,” he said. “With the current on that side, and the sunken rocks on this, we can’t find our way out of the scrape by swimming, at any rate. So much for the prospect at this end of the wreck. Let’s try how things look at the other. Rouse up, messmate!” he called out, cheerfully, as he passed Midwinter. “Come and see what the old tub of a timber-ship has got to show us astern.” He sauntered on, with his hands in his pockets, humming the chorus of a comic song.
His voice had produced no apparent effect on his friend; but, at the light touch of his hand in passing, Midwinter started, and moved out slowly from the shadow of the bulwark. “Come along!” cried Allan, suspending his singing for a moment, and glancing back. Still, without a word of answer, the other followed. Thrice he stopped before he reached the stern end of the wreck: the first time, to throw aside his hat, and push back his hair from his forehead and temples; the second time, reeling, giddy, to hold for a moment by a ring-bolt close at hand; the last time (though Allan was plainly visible a few yards ahead), to look stealthily behind him, with the furtive scrutiny of a man who believes that other footsteps are following him in the dark. “Not yet!” he whispered to himself, with eyes that searched the empty air. “I shall see him astern, with his hand on the lock of the cabin door.”
The stern end of the wreck was clear of the ship-breakers’ lumber, accumulated in the other parts of the vessel. Here, the one object that rose visible on the smooth surface of the deck was the low wooden structure which held the cabin door and roofed in the cabin stairs. The wheel-house had been removed, the binnacle had been removed, but the cabin entrance, and all that had belonged to it, had been left untouched. The scuttle was on, and the door was closed.
On gaining the after-part of the vessel, Allan walked straight to the stern, and looked out to sea over the taffrail. No such thing as a boat was in view anywhere on the quiet, moon-brightened waters. Knowing Midwinter’s sight to be better than his own, he called out, “Come up here, and see if there’s a fisherman within hail of us.” Hearing no reply, he looked back. Midwinter had followed him as far as the cabin, and had stopped there. He called again in a louder voice, and beckoned impatiently. Midwinter had heard the call, for he looked up, but still he never stirred from his place. There he stood, as if he had reached the utmost limits of the ship and could go no further.
Allan went back and joined him. It was not easy to discover what he was looking at, for he kept his face turned away from the moonlight; but it seemed as if his eyes were fixed, with a strange expression of inquiry, on the cabin door. “What is there to look at there?” Allan asked. “Let’s see if it’s locked.” As he took a step forward to open the door, Midwinter’s hand seized him suddenly by the coat collar and forced him back. The moment after, the hand relaxed without losing its grasp, and trembled violently, like the hand of a man completely unnerved.
“Am I to consider myself in custody?” asked Allan, half astonished and half amused. “Why in the name of wonder do you keep staring at the cabin door? Any suspicious noises below? It’s no use disturbing the rats — if that’s what you mean — we haven’t got a dog with us. Men? Living men they can’t be; for they would have heard us and come on deck. Dead men? Quite impossible! No ship’s crew could be drowned in a land-locked place like this, unless the vessel broke up under them — and here’s the vessel as steady as a church to speak for herself. Man alive, how your hand trembles! What is there to scare you in that rotten old cabin? What are you shaking and shivering about? Any company of the supernatural sort on board? Mercy preserve us! (as the old women say) do you see a ghost?”
“I see two!” answered the other, driven headlong into speech and action by a maddening temptation to reveal the truth. “Two!” he repeated, his breath bursting from him in deep, heavy gasps, as he tried vainly to force back the horrible words. “The ghost of a man like you, drowning in the cabin! And the ghost of a man like me, turning the lock of the door on him!”
Once more young Armadale’s hearty laughter rang out loud and long through the stillness of the night.
“Turning the lock of the door, is he?” said Allan, as soon as his merriment left him breath enough to speak. “That’s a devilish unhandsome action, Master Midwinter, on the part of your ghost. The least I can do, after that, is to let mine out of the cabin, and give him the run of the ship.”
With no more than a momentary exertion of his superior strength, he freed himself easily from Midwinter’s hold. “Below there!” he called out, gayly, as he laid his strong hand on the crazy lock, and tore open the cabin door. “Ghost of Allan Armadale, come on deck!” In his terrible ignorance of the truth, he put his head into the doorway and looked down, laughing, at the place where his murdered father had died. “Pah!” he exclaimed, stepping back suddenly, with a shudder of disgust. “The air is foul already; and the cabin is full of water.”
It was true. The sunken rocks on which the vessel lay wrecked had burst their way through her lower timbers astern, and the water had welled up through the rifted wood. Here, where the deed had been done, the fatal parallel between past and present was complete. What the cabin had been in the time of the fathers, that the cabin was now in the time of the sons.
Allan pushed the door to again with his foot, a little surprised at the sudden silence which appeared to have fallen on his friend from the moment when he had laid his hand on the cabin lock. When he turned to look, the reason of the silence was instantly revealed. Midwinter had dropped on the deck. He lay senseless before the cabin door; his face turned up, white and still, to the moonlight, like the face of a dead man.
In a moment Allan was at his side. He looked uselessly round the lonely limits of the wreck, as he lifted Midwinter’s head on his knee, for a chance of help, where all chance was ruthlessly cut off. “What am I to do?” he said to himself, in the first impulse of alarm. “Not a drop of water near, but the foul water in the cabin.” A sudden recollection crossed his memory, the florid color rushed back over his face, and he drew from his pocket a wicker-covered flask. “God bless the doctor for giving me this before we sailed!” he broke out, fervently, as he poured down Midwinter’s throat some drops of the raw whisky which the flask contained. The stimulant acted instantly on the sensitive system of the swooning man. He sighed faintly, and slowly opened his eyes. “Have I been dreaming?” he asked, looking up vacantly in Allan’s face. His eyes wandered higher, and encountered the dismantled masts of the wreck rising weird and black against the night sky. He shuddered at the sight of them, and hid his face on Allan’s knee. “No dream!” he murmured to himself, mournfully. “Oh me, no dream!”
“You have been overtired all day,” said Allan, “and this infernal adventure of ours has upset you. Take some more whisky, it’s sure to do you good. Can you sit by yourself, if I put you against the bulwark, so?”
“Why by myself? Why do you leave me?” asked Midwinter.
Allan pointed to the mizzen shrouds of the wreck, which were still left standing. “You are not well enough to rough it here till the workmen come off in the morning,” he said. “We must find our way on shore at once, if we can. I am going up to get a good view all round, and see if there’s a house within hail of us.”
Even in the moment that passed while those few words were spoken, Midwinter’s eyes wandered back distrustfully to the fatal cabin door. “Don’t go near it!” he whispered. “Don’t try to open it, for God’s sake!”
“No, no,” returned Allan, humoring him. “When I come down from the rigging, I’ll come back here.” He said the words a little constrainedly, noticing, for the first time while he now spoke, an underlying distress in Midwinter’s face, which grieved and perplexed him. “You’re not angry with me?” he said, in his simple, sweet-tempered way. “All this is my fault, I know; and I was a brute and a fool to laugh at you, when I ought to have seen you were ill. I am so sorry, Midwinter. Don’t be angry with me!”
Midwinter slowly raised his head. His eyes rested with a mournful interest, long and tender, on Allan’s anxious face.
“Angry?” he repeated, in his lowest, gentlest tones. “Angry with you? — Oh, my poor boy, were you to blame for being kind to me when I was ill in the old west-country inn? And was I to blame for feeling your kindness thankfully? Was it our fault that we never doubted each other, and never knew that we were traveling together blindfold on the way that was to lead us here? The cruel time is coming, Allan, when we shall rue the day we ever met. Shake hands, brother, on the edge of the precipice — shake hands while we are brothers still!”
Allan turned away quickly, convinced that his mind had not yet recovered the shock of the fainting fit. “Don’t forget the whisky!” he said, cheerfully, as he sprang into the rigging, and mounted to the mizzen-top.
It was past two, the moon was waning, and the darkness that comes before dawn was beginning to gather round the wreck. Behind Allan, as he now stood looking out from the elevation of the mizzen-top, spread the broad and lonely sea. Before him were the low, black, lurking rocks, and the broken waters of the channel, pouring white and angry into the vast calm of the westward ocean beyond. On the right hand, heaved back grandly from the water-side, were the rocks and precipices, with their little table-lands of grass between; the sloping downs, and upward-rolling heath solitudes of the Isle of Man. On the left hand rose the craggy sides of the Islet of the Calf, here rent wildly into deep black chasms, there lying low under long sweeping acclivities of grass and heath. No sound rose, no light was visible, on either shore. The black lines of the topmost masts of the wreck looked shadowy and faint in the darkening mystery of the sky; the land breeze had dropped; the small shoreward waves fell noiseless: far or near, no sound was audible but the cheerless bubbling of the broken water ahead, pouring through the awful hush of silence in which earth and ocean waited for the coming day.
Even Allan’s careless nature felt the solemn influence of the time. The sound of his own voice startled him when he looked down and hailed his friend on deck
“I think I see one house,” he said. “Here-away, on the mainland to the right.” He looked again, to make sure, at a dim little patch of white, with faint white lines behind it, nestling low in a grassy hollow, on the main island. “It looks like a stone house and inclosure,” he resumed. “I’ll hail it, on the chance.” He passed his arm round a rope to steady himself, made a speaking-trumpet of his hands, and suddenly dropped them again without uttering a sound. “It’s so awfully quiet,” he whispered to himself. “I’m half afraid to call out.” He looked down again on deck. “I shan’t startle you, Midwinter, shall I?” he said, with an uneasy laugh. He looked once more at the faint white object, in the grassy hollow. “It won’t do to have come up here for nothing,” he thought, and made a speaking-trumpet of his hands again. This time he gave the hail with the whole power of his lungs. “On shore there!” he shouted, turning his face to the main island. “Ahoy-hoy-hoy!”
The last echoes of his voice died away and were lost. No sound answered him but the cheerless bubbling of the broken water ahead.
He looked down again at his friend, and saw the dark figure of Midwinter rise erect, and pace the deck backward and forward, never disappearing out of sight of the cabin when it retired toward the bows of the wreck, and never passing beyond the cabin when it returned toward the stern. “He is impatient to get away,” thought Allan; “I’ll try again.” He hailed the land once more, and, taught by previous experience, pitched his voice in its highest key.
This time another sound than the sound of the bubbling water answered him. The lowing of frightened cattle rose from the building in the grassy hollow, and traveled far and drearily through the stillness of the morning air. Allan waited and listened. If the building was a farmhouse the disturbance among the beasts would rouse the men. If it was only a cattle-stable, nothing more would happen. The lowing of the frightened brutes rose and fell drearily, the minutes passed, and nothing happened.
“Once more!” said Allan, looking down at the restless figure pacing beneath him. For the third time he hailed the land. For the third time he waited and listened.
In a pause of silence among the cattle, he heard behind him, on the opposite shore of the channel, faint and far among the solitudes of the Islet of the Calf, a sharp, sudden sound, like the distant clash of a heavy door-bolt drawn back. Turning at once in the new direction, he strained his eyes to look for a house. The last faint rays of the waning moonlight trembled here and there on the higher rocks, and on the steeper pinnacles of ground, but great strips of darkness lay dense and black over all the land between; and in that darkness the house, if house there were, was lost to view.
“I have roused somebody at last,” Allan called out, encouragingly, to Midwinter, still walking to and fro on the deck, strangely indifferent to all that was passing above and beyond him. “Look out for the answering, hail!” And with his face set toward the islet, Allan shouted for help.
The shout was not answered, but mimicked with a shrill, shrieking derision, with wilder and wilder cries, rising out of the deep distant darkness, and mingling horribly the expression of a human voice with the sound of a brute’s. A sudden suspicion crossed Allan’s mind, which made his head swim and turned his hand cold as it held the rigging. In breathless silence he looked toward the quarter from which the first mimicry of his cry for help had come. After a moment’s pause the shrieks were renewed, and the sound of them came nearer. Suddenly a figure, which seemed the figure of a man, leaped up black on a pinnacle of rock, and capered and shrieked in the waning gleam of the moonlight. The screams of a terrified woman mingled with the cries of the capering creature on the rock. A red spark flashed out in the darkness from a light kindled in an invisible window. The hoarse shouting of a man’s voice in anger was heard through the noise. A second black figure leaped up on the rock, struggled with the first figure, and disappeared with it in the darkness. The cries grew fainter and fainter, the screams of the woman were stilled, the hoarse voice of the man was heard again for a moment, hailing the wreck in words made unintelligible by the distance, but in tones plainly expressive of rage and fear combined. Another moment, and the clang of the door-bolt was heard again, the red spark of light was quenched in darkness, and all the islet lay quiet in the shadows once more. The lowing of the cattle on the main-land ceased, rose again, stopped. Then, cold and cheerless as ever, the eternal bubbling of the broken water welled up through the great gap of silence — the one sound left, as the mysterious stillness of the hour fell like a mantle from the heavens, and closed over the wreck.
Allan descended from his place in the mizzen-top, and joined his friend again on deck.
“We must wait till the ship-breakers come off to their work,” he said, meeting Midwinter halfway in the course of his restless walk. “After what has happened, I don’t mind confessing that I’ve had enough of hailing the land. Only think of there being a madman in that house ashore, and of my waking him! Horrible, wasn’t it?”
Midwinter stood still for a moment, and looked at Allan, with the perplexed air of a man who hears circumstances familiarly mentioned to which he is himself a total stranger. He appeared, if such a thing had been possible, to have passed over entirely without notice all that had just happened on the Islet of the Calf.
“Nothing is horrible out of this ship,” he said. “Everything is horrible in it.”
Answering in those strange words, he turned away again, and went on with his walk.
Allan picked up the flask of whisky lying on the deck near him, and revived his spirits with a dram. “Here’s one thing on board that isn’t horrible,” he retorted briskly, as he screwed on the stopper of the flask; “and here’s another,” he added, as he took a cigar from his case and lit it. “Three o’clock!” he went on, looking at his watch, and settling himself comfortably on deck with his back against the bulwark. “Daybreak isn’t far off; we shall have the piping of the birds to cheer us up before long. I say, Midwinter, you seem to have quite got over that unlucky fainting fit. How you do keep walking! Come here and have a cigar, and make yourself comfortable. What’s the good of tramping backward and forward in that restless way?”
“I am waiting,” said Midwinter.
“Waiting! What for?”
“For what is to happen to you or to me — or to both of us — before we are out of this ship.”
“With submission to your superior judgment, my dear fellow, I think quite enough has happened already. The adventure will do very well as it stands now; more of it is more than I want.” He took another dram of whisky, and rambled on, between the puffs of his cigar, in his usual easy way. “I’ve not got your fine imagination, old boy; and I hope the next thing that happens will be the appearance of the workmen’s boat. I suspect that queer fancy of yours has been running away with you while you were down here all by yourself. Come, now, what were you thinking of while I was up in the mizzen-top frightening the cows?”
Midwinter suddenly stopped. “Suppose I tell you?” he said.
“Suppose you do?”
The torturing temptation to reveal the truth, roused once already by his companion’s merciless gayety of spirit, possessed itself of Midwinter for the second time. He leaned back in the dark against the high side of the ship, and looked down in silence at Allan’s figure, stretched comfortably on the deck. “Rouse him,” the fiend whispered, subtly, “from that ignorant self-possession and that pitiless repose. Show him the place where the deed was done; let him know it with your knowledge, and fear it with your dread. Tell him of the letter you burned, and of the words no fire can destroy which are living in your memory now. Let him see your mind as it was yesterday, when it roused your sinking faith in your own convictions, to look back on your life at sea, and to cherish the comforting remembrance that, in all your voyages, you had never fallen in with this ship. Let him see your mind as it is now, when the ship has got you at the turning-point of your new life, at the outset of your friendship with the one man of all men whom your father warned you to avoid. Think of those death-bed words, and whisper them in his ear, that he may think of them, too: ‘Hide yourself from him under an assumed name. Put the mountains and the seas between you; be ungrateful, be unforgiving; be all that is most repellent to your own gentler nature, rather than live under the same roof and breathe the same air with that man.’” So the tempter counseled. So, like a noisome exhalation from the father’s grave, the father’s influence rose and poisoned the mind of the son.
The sudden silence surprised Allan; he looked back drowsily over his shoulder. “Thinking again!” he exclaimed, with a weary yawn.
Midwinter stepped out from the shadow, and came nearer to Allan than he had come yet. “Yes,” he said, “thinking of the past and the future.”
“The past and the future?” repeated Allan, shifting himself comfortably into a new position. “For my part, I’m dumb about the past. It’s a sore subject with me: the past means the loss of the doctor’s boat. Let’s talk about the future. Have you been taking a practical view? as dear old Brock calls it. Have you been considering the next serious question that concerns us both when we get back to the hotel — the question of breakfast?”
After an instant’s hesitation, Midwinter took a step nearer. “I have been thinking of your future and mine,” he said; “I have been thinking of the time when your way in life and my way in life will be two ways instead of one.”
“Here’s the daybreak!” cried Allan. “Look up at the masts; they’re beginning to get clear again already. I beg your pardon. What were you saying?”
Midwinter made no reply. The struggle between the hereditary superstition that was driving him on, and the unconquerable affection for Allan that was holding him back, suspended the next words on his lips. He turned aside his face in speechless suffering. “Oh, my father!” he thought, “better have killed me on that day when I lay on your bosom, than have let me live for this.”
“What’s that about the future?” persisted Allan. “I was looking for the daylight; I didn’t hear.”
Midwinter controlled himself, and answered: “You have treated me with your usual kindness,” he said, “in planning to take me with you to Thorpe Ambrose. I think, on reflection, I had better not intrude myself where I am not known and not expected.” His voice faltered, and he stopped again. The more he shrank from it, the clearer the picture of the happy life that he was resigning rose on his mind.
Allan’s thoughts instantly reverted to the mystification about the new steward which he had practiced on his friend when they were consulting together in the cabin of the yacht. “Has he been turning it over in his mind?” wondered Allan; “and is he beginning at last to suspect the truth? I’ll try him. — Talk as much nonsense, my dear fellow, as you like,” he rejoined, “but don’t forget that you are engaged to see me established at Thorpe Ambrose, and to give me your opinion of the new steward.”
Midwinter suddenly stepped forward again, close to Allan.
“I am not talking about your steward or your estate,” he burst out passionately; “I am talking about myself. Do you hear? Myself! I am not a fit companion for you. You don’t know who I am.” He drew back into the shadowy shelter of the bulwark as suddenly as he had come out from it. “O God! I can’t tell him,” he said to himself, in a whisper.
For a moment, and for a moment only, Allan was surprised. “Not know who you are?” Even as he repeated the words, his easy goodhumor got the upper-hand again. He took up the whisky flask, and shook it significantly. “I say,” he resumed, “how much of the doctor’s medicine did you take while I was up in the mizzen-top?”
The light tone which he persisted in adopting stung Midwinter to the last pitch of exasperation. He came out again into the light, and stamped his foot angrily on the deck. “Listen to me!” he said. “You don’t know half the low things I have done in my lifetime. I have been a tradesman’s drudge; I have swept out the shop and put up the shutters; I have carried parcels through the street, and waited for my master’s money at his customers’ doors.”
“I have never done anything half as useful,” returned Allan, composedly. “Dear old boy, what an industrious fellow you have been in your time!”
“I’ve been a vagabond and a blackguard in my time,” returned the other, fiercely; “I’ve been a street tumbler, a tramp, a gypsy’s boy! I’ve sung for half-pence with dancing dogs on the high-road! I’ve worn a foot-boy’s livery, and waited at table! I’ve been a common sailors’ cook, and a starving fisherman’s Jack-of-all-trades! What has a gentleman in your position in common with a man in mine? Can you take me into the society at Thorpe Ambrose? Why, my very name would be a reproach to you. Fancy the faces of your new neighbors when their footmen announce Ozias Midwinter and Allan Armadale in the same breath!” He burst into a harsh laugh, and repeated the two names again, with a scornful bitterness of emphasis which insisted pitilessly on the marked contrast between them.
Something in the sound of his laughter jarred painfully even on Allan’s easy nature. He raised himself on the deck and spoke seriously for the first time. “A joke’s a joke, Midwinter,” he said, “as long as you don’t carry it too far. I remember your saying something of the same sort to me once before when I was nursing you in Somersetshire. You forced me to ask you if I deserved to be kept at arms-length by you of all the people in the world. Don’t force me to say so again. Make as much fun of me as you please, old fellow, in any other way. That way hurts me.”
Simple as the words were, and simply as they had been spoken, they appeared to work an instant revolution in Midwinter’s mind. His impressible nature recoiled as from some sudden shock. Without a word of reply, he walked away by himself to the forward part of the ship. He sat down on some piled planks between the masts, and passed his hand over his head in a vacant, bewildered way. Though his father’s belief in fatality was his own belief once more — though there was no longer the shadow of a doubt in his mind that the woman whom Mr. Brock had met in Somersetshire, and the woman who had tried to destroy herself in London, were one and the same — though all the horror that mastered him when he first read the letter from Wildbad had now mastered him again, Allan’s appeal to their past experience of each other had come home to his heart, with a force more irresistible than the force of his superstition itself. In the strength of that very superstition, he now sought the pretext which might encourage him to sacrifice every less generous feeling to the one predominant dread of wounding the sympathies of his friend. “Why distress him?” he whispered to himself. “We are not the end here: there is the Woman behind us in the dark. Why resist him when the mischief’s done, and the caution comes too late? What is to be will be. What have I to do with the future? and what has he?”
He went back to Allan, sat down by his side, and took his hand. “Forgive me,” he said, gently; “I have hurt you for the last time.” Before it was possible to reply, he snatched up the whisky flask from the deck. “Come!” he exclaimed, with a sudden effort to match his friend’s cheerfulness, “you have been trying the doctor’s medicine, why shouldn’t I?”
Allan was delighted. “This is something like a change for the better,” he said; “Midwinter is himself again. Hark! there are the birds. Hail, smiling morn! smiling morn!” He sang the words of the glee in his old, cheerful voice, and clapped Midwinter on the shoulder in his old, hearty way. “How did you manage to clear your head of those confounded megrims? Do you know you were quite alarming about something happening to one or other of us before we were out of this ship?”
“Sheer nonsense!” returned Midwinter, contemptuously. “I don’t think my head has ever been quite right since that fever; I’ve got a bee in my bonnet, as they say in the North. Let’s talk of something else. About those people you have let the cottage to? I wonder whether the agent’s account of Major Milroy’s family is to be depended on? There might be another lady in the household besides his wife and his daughter.”
“Oho!” cried Allan, “you’re beginning to think of nymphs among the trees, and flirtations in the fruit-garden, are you? Another lady, eh? Suppose the major’s family circle won’t supply another? We shall have to spin that half-crown again, and toss up for which is to have the first chance with Miss Milroy.”
For once Midwinter spoke as lightly and carelessly as Allan himself. “No, no,” he said, “the major’s landlord has the first claim to the notice of the major’s daughter. I’ll retire into the background, and wait for the next lady who makes her appearance at Thorpe Ambrose.”
“Very good. I’ll have an address to the women of Norfolk posted in the park to that effect,” said Allan. “Are you particular to a shade about size or complexion? What’s your favorite age?”
Midwinter trifled with his own superstition, as a man trifles with the loaded gun that may kill him, or with the savage animal that may maim him for life. He mentioned the age (as he had reckoned it himself) of the woman in the black gown and the red Paisley shawl.
“Five-and-thirty,” he said.
As the words passed his lips, his factitious spirits deserted him. He left his seat, impenetrably deaf to all Allan’s efforts at rallying him on his extraordinary answer, and resumed his restless pacing of the deck in dead silence. Once more the haunting thought which had gone to and fro with him in the hour of darkness went to and fro with him now in the hour of daylight.
Once more the conviction possessed itself of his mind that something was to happen to Allan or to himself before they left the wreck.
Minute by minute the light strengthened in the eastern sky; and the shadowy places on the deck of the timber-ship revealed their barren emptiness under the eye of day. As the breeze rose again, the sea began to murmur wakefully in the morning light. Even the cold bubbling of the broken water changed its cheerless note, and softened on the ear as the mellowing flood of daylight poured warm over it from the rising sun. Midwinter paused near the forward part of the ship, and recalled his wandering attention to the passing time. The cheering influences of the hour were round him, look where he might. The happy morning smile of the summer sky, so brightly merciful to the old and weary earth, lavished its all-embracing beauty even on the wreck. The dew that lay glittering on the inland fields lay glittering on the deck, and the worn and rusted rigging was gemmed as brightly as the fresh green leaves on shore. Insensibly, as he looked round, Midwinter’s thoughts reverted to the comrade who had shared with him the adventure of the night. He returned to the after-part of the ship, spoke to Allan as he advanced. Receiving no answer, he approached the recumbent figure and looked closer at it. Left to his own resources, Allan had let the fatigues of the night take their own way with him. His head had sunk back; his hat had fallen off; he lay stretched at full length on the deck of the timber-ship, deeply and peacefully asleep.
Midwinter resumed his walk; his mind lost in doubt; his own past thoughts seeming suddenly to have grown strange to him. How darkly his forebodings had distrusted the coming time, and how harmlessly that time had come! The sun was mounting in the heavens, the hour of release was drawing nearer and nearer, and of the two Armadales imprisoned in the fatal ship, one was sleeping away the weary time, and the other was quietly watching the growth of the new day.
The sun climbed higher; the hour wore on. With the latent distrust of the wreck which still clung to him, Midwinter looked inquiringly on either shore for signs of awakening human life. The land was still lonely. The smoke wreaths that were soon to rise from cottage chimneys had not risen yet.
After a moment’s thought he went back again to the after-part of the vessel, to see if there might be a fisherman’s boat within hail astern of them. Absorbed for the moment by the new idea, he passed Allan hastily, after barely noticing that he still lay asleep. One step more would have brought him to the taffrail, when that step was suspended by a sound behind him, a sound like a faint groan. He turned, and looked at the sleeper on the deck. He knelt softly, and looked closer.
“It has come!” he whispered to himself. “Not to me — but to him.”
It had come, in the bright freshness of the morning; it had come, in the mystery and terror of a Dream. The face which Midwinter had last seen in perfect repose was now the distorted face of a suffering man. The perspiration stood thick on Allan’s forehead, and matted his curling hair. His partially opened eyes showed nothing but the white of the eyeball gleaming blindly. His outstretched hands scratched and struggled on the deck. From moment to moment he moaned and muttered helplessly; but the words that escaped him were lost in the grinding and gnashing of his teeth. There he lay — so near in the body to the friend who bent over him; so far away in the spirit, that the two might have been in different worlds — there he lay, with the morning sunshine on his face, in the torture of his dream.
One question, and one only, rose in the mind of the man who was looking at him. What had the fatality which had imprisoned him in the wreck decreed that he should see?
Had the treachery of Sleep opened the gates of the grave to that one of the two Armadales whom the other had kept in ignorance of the truth? Was the murder of the father revealing itself to the son — there, on the very spot where the crime had been committed — in the vision of a dream?
With that question overshadowing all else in his mind, the son of the homicide knelt on the deck, and looked at the son of the man whom his father’s hand had slain.
The conflict between the sleeping body and the waking mind was strengthening every moment. The dreamer’s helpless groaning for deliverance grew louder; his hands raised themselves, and clutched at the empty air. Struggling with the all-mastering dread that still held him, Midwinter laid his hand gently on Allan’s forehead. Light as the touch was, there were mysterious sympathies in the dreaming man that answered it. His groaning ceased, and his hands dropped slowly. There was an instant of suspense and Midwinter looked closer. His breath just fluttered over the sleeper’s face. Before the next breath had risen to his lips, Allan suddenly sprang up on his knees — sprang up, as if the call of a trumpet had rung on his ear, awake in an instant.
“You have been dreaming,” said Midwinter, as the other looked at him wildly, in the first bewilderment of waking.
Allan’s eyes began to wander about the wreck, at first vacantly, then with a look of angry surprise. “Are we here still?” he said, as Midwinter helped him to his feet. “Whatever else I do on board this infernal ship,” he added, after a moment, “I won’t go to sleep again!”
As he said those words, his friend’s eyes searched his face in silent inquiry. They took a turn together on the deck.
“Tell me your dream,” said Midwinter, with a strange tone of suspicion in his voice, and a strange appearance of abruptness in his manner.
“I can’t tell it yet,” returned Allan. “Wait a little till I’m my own man again.”
They took another turn on the deck. Midwinter stopped, and spoke once more.
“Look at me for a moment, Allan,” he said.
There was something of the trouble left by the dream, and something of natural surprise at the strange request just addressed to him, in Allan’s face, as he turned it full on the speaker; but no shadow of ill-will, no lurking lines of distrust anywhere. Midwinter turned aside quickly, and hid, as he best might, an irrepressible outburst of relief.
“Do I look a little upset?” asked Allan, taking his arm, and leading him on again. “Don’t make yourself nervous about me if I do. My head feels wild and giddy, but I shall soon get over it.”
For the next few minutes they walked backward and forward in silence, the one bent on dismissing the terror of the dream from his thoughts, the other bent on discovering what the terror of the dream might be. Relieved of the dread that had oppressed it, the superstitious nature of Midwinter had leaped to its next conclusion at a bound. What if the sleeper had been visited by another revelation than the revelation of the Past? What if the dream had opened those unturned pages in the book of the Future which told the story of his life to come? The bare doubt that it might be so strengthened tenfold Midwinter’s longing to penetrate the mystery which Allan’s silence still kept a secret from him.
“Is your head more composed?” he asked. “Can you tell me your dream now?”
While he put the question, a last memorable moment in the Adventure of the Wreck was at hand.
They had reached the stern, and were just turning again when Midwinter spoke. As Allan opened his lips to answer, he looked out mechanically to sea. Instead of replying, he suddenly ran to the taffrail, and waved his hat over his head, with a shout of exultation.
Midwinter joined him, and saw a large six-oared boat pulling straight for the channel of the Sound. A figure, which they both thought they recognized, rose eagerly in the stern-sheets and returned the waving of Allan’s hat. The boat came nearer, the steersman called to them cheerfully, and they recognized the doctor’s voice.
“Thank God you’re both above water!” said Mr. Hawbury, as they met him on the deck of the timber-ship. “Of all the winds of heaven, which wind blew you here?”
He looked at Midwinter as he made the inquiry, but it was Allan who told him the story of the night, and Allan who asked the doctor for information in return. The one absorbing interest in Midwinter’s mind — the interest of penetrating the mystery of the dream — kept him silent throughout. Heedless of all that was said or done about him, he watched Allan, and followed Allan, like a dog, until the time came for getting down into the boat. Mr. Hawbury’s professional eye rested on him curiously, noting his varying color, and the incessant restlessness of his hands. “I wouldn’t change nervous systems with that man for the largest fortune that could be offered me,” thought the doctor as he took the boat’s tiller, and gave the oarsmen their order to push off from the wreck.
Having reserved all explanations on his side until they were on their way back to Port St. Mary, Mr. Hawbury next addressed himself to the gratification of Allan’s curiosity. The circumstances which had brought him to the rescue of his two guests of the previous evening were simple enough. The lost boat had been met with at sea by some fishermen of Port Erin, on the western side of the island, who at once recognized it as the doctor’s property, and at once sent a messenger to make inquiry, at the doctor’s house. The man’s statement of what had happened had naturally alarmed Mr. Hawbury for the safety of Allan and his friend. He had immediately secured assistance, and, guided by the boatman’s advice, had made first for the most dangerous place on the coast — the only place, in that calm weather, in which an accident could have happened to a boat sailed by experienced men — the channel of the Sound. After thus accounting for his welcome appearance on the scene, the doctor hospitably insisted that his guests of the evening should be his guests of the morning as well. It would still be too early when they got back for the people at the hotel to receive them, and they would find bed and breakfast at Mr. Hawbury’s house.
At the first pause in the conversation between Allan and the doctor, Midwinter, who had neither joined in the talk nor listened to the talk, touched his friend on the arm. “Are you better?” he asked, in a whisper. “Shall you soon be composed enough to tell me what I want to know?”
Allan’s eyebrows contracted impatiently; the subject of the dream, and Midwinter’s obstinacy in returning to it, seemed to be alike distasteful to him. He hardly answered with his usual good humor. “I suppose I shall have no peace till I tell you,” he said, “so I may as well get it over at once.”
“No!” returned Midwinter, with a look at the doctor and his oarsmen. “Not where other people can hear it — not till you and I are alone.”
“If you wish to see the last, gentlemen, of your quarters for the night,” interposed the doctor, “now is your time! The coast will shut the vessel out in a minute more.”
In silence on the one side and on the other, the two Armadales looked their last at the fatal ship. Lonely and lost they had found the wreck in the mystery of the summer night; lonely and lost they left the wreck in the radiant beauty of the summer morning.
An hour later the doctor had seen his guests established in their bedrooms, and had left them to take their rest until the breakfast hour arrived.
Almost as soon as his back was turned, the doors of both rooms opened softly, and Allan and Midwinter met in the passage.
“Can you sleep after what has happened?” asked Allan.
Midwinter shook his head. “You were coming to my room, were you not?” he said. “What for?”
“To ask you to keep me company. What were you coming to my room for?”
“To ask you to tell me your dream.”
“Damn the dream! I want to forget all about it.”
“And I want to know all about it.”
Both paused; both refrained instinctively from saying more. For the first time since the beginning of their friendship they were on the verge of a disagreement, and that on the subject of the dream. Allan’s good temper just stopped them on the brink.
“You are the most obstinate fellow alive,” he said; “but if you will know all about it, you must know all about it, I suppose. Come into my room, and I’ll tell you.”
He led the way, and Midwinter followed. The door closed and shut them in together.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06