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The Broad Highway(Book1,Chapter17)

2006-08-28 22:43

  Book One Chapter XVII. How I Talked with a Madman in a Wood by Moonlight

  "Good evening, sir!" he said, in a strange, hurried sort of way, "the moon, you will perceive, is very nearly at the full to-night." And his voice, immediately, struck me as being at odds with his clothes.

  "Why do you stand and peer at me?" said I sharply.

  "Peer at you, sir?"

  "Yes, from behind the tree, yonder." As I spoke, he craned his head towards me, and I saw his pale lips twitch suddenly. "And why have you dogged me; why have you followed me all the way from Tonbridge?"

  "Why, sir, surely there is nothing so strange in that. I am a shadow."

  "What do you mean by 'a shadow'?"

  "Sir, I am a shadow cast by neither sun, nor moon, nor star, that moves on unceasingly in dark as in light. Sir, it is my fate (in common with my kind), to be ever upon the move——a stranger everywhere without friends or kindred. I have been, during the past year, all over England, east, and west, and north, and south; within the past week, for instance, I have travelled from London to Epsom, from Epsom to Brighton, from Brighton back again to London, and from London here. And I peer at you, sir, because I wished to make certain what manner of man you were before I spoke, and though the moon is bright, yet your hat-brim left your face in shade."

  "Well, are you satisfied?"

  "So much so, sir, so very much so, that I should like to talk with you, to——to ask you a question," he answered, passing his hand——a thin, white hand——across his brow, and up over the fur cap that was so out of keeping with the pale face below.

  "A question?"

  "If you will be so obliging as to listen, sir; let us sit awhile, for I am very weary." And with the words he sank down upon the grass. After a momentary hesitation, I followed his example, for my curiosity was piqued by the fellow's strange manner; yet, when we were sitting opposite each other, I saw that his hand was still hidden in the pocket of his coat.

  "Perhaps, sir," said he, in his nervous, hurried manner, "perhaps you would be better able to answer my question were I first to tell you a story——an ordinary, a very commonplace one, I fear, but with the virtue that it is short, and soon told."

  "My time is entirely my own," said I, leaning with my shoulders against the tree behind me; "proceed with your story."

  "First, then, my name is Strickland——John Strickland!"

  Here he paused, and, though his head was bent, I saw him watching me beneath his brows.

  "Well?" said I.

  "I am a supercargo."

  Again he paused expectantly, but seeing I merely nodded, he continued:

  "Upon one of my voyages, our vessel was wrecked, and, so far as I know, all save myself and six others——four seamen and two passengers——were drowned. The passengers I speak of were an old merchant——and his daughter, a very beautiful girl; her name was ——Angela, sir."

  Once again he paused and again he eyed me narrowly.

  "Well?" said I.

  "Well, sir," he resumed, speaking in a low, repressed voice, "we seven, after two miserable days in a drifting boat, reached an island where, that same night, the old merchant died. Sir, the sailors were wild, rough men; the island was a desolate one from whence there was seemingly no chance of escape, it lying out of the usual track of ships, and this girl was, as I have said, very beautiful. Under such conditions her fate would have been unspeakable degradation, and probably death; but, sir, I fought and bled for her, not once but many times, and eventually I killed one of them with my sheath-knife, and I remember, to this hour, how his blood gushed over my hands and arms, and sickened me. After that they waited hourly to avenge his death, and get me out of their way once and for all, but I had my long knife, and they but such rude weapons as they could devise. Day after day, and night after night, I watched for an opportunity to escape with the boat, until at last, one day while they were all three gone inland, not dreaming of any such attempt, for the sea was very dangerous and high, with the girl's help I managed to launch the boat, and so stood out to sea. And I remember those three sailors came running with great shouts and cries, and flung themselves down upon the beach, and crawled upon their knees, praying to be taken off along with us, and begging us not to leave them to perish. After three days' buffeting at the mercy of the seas, we were picked up by a brig bound for Portsmouth, and, six months later, were in England. Sir, it is impossible for a man to have lived beside a beautiful woman day by day, to have fought for and suffered with her, not to love her also. Thus, seeing her friendless and penniless, I wooed and won her to wife. We came to London, and for a year our life was perfect, until, through stress of circumstances, I was forced to take another position aboard ship. Well, sir, I bade farewell to my wife, and we set sail. The voyage, which was to have lasted but three months, was lengthened out through one misadventure after another, so that it was a year before I saw my wife again, At first I noticed little difference in her save that she was paler, but, gradually, I came to see that she was unhappy. Often I have wakened in the night to find her weeping silently.

  "Oh, sir!" he broke out, "I do not think there is anything more terrible than to witness in one we love a sorrow we are unable to reach!" Here he paused, and I saw that the sweat stood out upon his brow, and that his hand was tight clenched as he drew it across his temples. "At last, sir," he went on, speaking once more in a low, repressed tone, "returning home one day, I found her——gone."

  "Gone?" said I.

  "Gone, sir."

  "And she left no trace——no letter?"

  "No, she left no letter, sir, but I did find something——a something that had rolled into a corner of the room."

  "And what was that?"

  "This, sir!" As he spoke, his burning eyes never leaving mine, he thrust a hand into his bosom——his left hand, for his right was where it had been all along, hidden in his pocket——and held out to me a gold seal such as gentlemen wear at their fobs.

  "Ah!" I exclaimed.

  "Take it!" said the man, thrusting it towards me; "look at it!" Obediently I took the trinket from him, and, examining it as well as I might, saw that a letter was engraved upon it, one of those ornamental initials surrounded by rococo scrolls and flourishes. "What letter does it bear?" asked the man in a strangled voice.

  "It looks very like the letter 'Y,'" I answered

  "The letter 'Y'!" cried the man, and then, with a gesture sudden and fierce, he snatched the seal from me, and, thrusting it back into his bosom, laughed strangely.

  "Why do you laugh?" said I.

  "To be sure," said he harshly, "the light might be better, and yet——well! well! my story is nearly done. I lived on in my lonely house from day to day, and month to month, hoping and waiting for her to come back to me. And one day she did come back to me——just about this hour it was, sir, and on just such another evening; and that same night——she died."

  "Good God!" I exclaimed. "Poor fellow!" And, leaning forward, I laid my hand upon his knee, but, at my touch, he drew back so quickly, and with a look so evil, that I was startled.

  "Hands off!" said he, and so sat staring at me with his smouldering eyes.

  "Are you mad?" said I, and sprang to my feet.

  "Not yet," he answered, and once again he passed his hand up, and over his face and brow; "no, not yet, sir." Here he rose, and stood facing me, and I noticed that one hand was still hidden in his pocket, and, thereafter, while I listened to him, I kept my eyes directed thither. "That night——before she——died, sir," he continued, "she told me the name of the man who had destroyed her, and killed my soul; and I have been searching for him ever since——east, and west, and north, and south. Now, sir, here is my question: If I should ever meet that man face to face, as I now see you, should I not be justified in——killing him?"

  For a moment I stood with bent head, yet conscious all the while of the burning eyes that scanned my face, then:

  "Yes," said I.

  The man stood utterly still, his mouth opened as if he would have spoken, but no word came. All at once he turned about, and walked unsteadily five or six paces. Now, as I looked, I saw him suddenly draw his hand from his pocket, then, as he wheeled, I knew, and hurled myself face downward as the pistol flashed.

  "Madman!" I cried, and next moment was on my feet; but, with a sound that was neither a groan nor a scream, and yet something of both, he leapt into the thickest part of the underbrush, and made off. And standing there, dazed by the suddenness of it all, I heard the snapping of twigs grow fainter and fainter as he crashed through in headlong flight.

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