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Hunted Down (4)

2006-09-07 20:55

    IV. For six or seven months I saw no more of Mr. Slinkton. He called once at my house, but I was not at home; and he once asked me to dine with him in the Temple, but I was engaged. His friend's assurance was effected in March. Late in September or early in October I was down at Scarborough for a breath of sea-air, where I met him on the beach. It was a hot evening; he came toward me with his hat in his hand; and there was the walk I had felt so strongly disinclined to take in perfect order again, exactly in front of the bridge of my nose.

    He was not alone, but had a young lady on his arm.

    She was dressed in mourning, and I looked at her with great interest. She had the appearance of being extremely delicate, and her face was remarkably pale and melancholy; but she was very pretty. He introduced her as his niece, Miss Niner.

    'Are you strolling, Mr. Sampson? Is it possible you can be idle?'

    It WAS possible, and I WAS strolling.

    'Shall we stroll together?'

    'With pleasure.'

    The young lady walked between us, and we walked on the cool sea sand, in the direction of Filey.

    'There have been wheels here,' said Mr. Slinkton. 'And now I look again, the wheels of a hand-carriage! Margaret, my love, your shadow without doubt!'

    'Miss Niner's shadow?' I repeated, looking down at it on the sand.

    'Not that one,' Mr. Slinkton returned, laughing. 'Margaret, my dear, tell Mr. Sampson.'

    'Indeed,' said the young lady, turning to me, 'there is nothing to tell except that I constantly see the same invalid old gentleman at all times, wherever I go. I have mentioned it to my uncle, and he calls the

    gentleman my shadow.'

    'Does he live in Scarborough?' I asked.

    'He is staying here.'

    'Do you live in Scarborough?'

    'No, I am staying here. My uncle has placed me with a family here, for my health.'

    'And your shadow?' said I, smiling.

    'My shadow,' she answered, smiling too, 'is - like myself - not very robust, I fear; for I lose my shadow sometimes, as my shadow loses me at other times. We both seem liable to confinement to the house. I have not seen my shadow for days and days; but it does oddly happen, occasionally, that wherever I go, for many days together, this gentleman goes. We have come together in the most unfrequented nooks on this shore.'

    'Is this he?' said I, pointing before us.

    The wheels had swept down to the water's edge, and described a great loop on the sand in turning. Bringing the loop back towards us, and spinning it out as it came, was a hand-carriage, drawn by a man.

    'Yes,' said Miss Niner, 'this really is my shadow, uncle.'

    As the carriage approached us and we approached the carriage, I saw within it an old man, whose head was sunk on his breast, and who was enveloped in a variety of wrappers. He was drawn by a very quiet but very keen-looking man, with iron-gray hair, who was slightly lame. They had passed us, when the carriage stopped, and the old gentleman within, putting out his arm, called to me by my name. I went back, and was absent from Mr. Slinkton and his niece for about five minutes.

    When I rejoined them, Mr. Slinkton was the first to speak. Indeed, he said to me in a raised voice before I came up with him:

    'It is well you have not been longer, or my niece might have died of curiosity to know who her shadow is, Mr. Sampson.' 'An old East India Director,' said I. 'An intimate friend of our friend's, at whose house I first had the pleasure of meeting you. A certain Major Banks. You have heard of him?'

    'Never.'

    'Very rich, Miss Niner; but very old, and very crippled. An amiable man, sensible - much interested in you. He has just been expatiating on the affection that he has observed to exist between you and your uncle.'

    Mr. Slinkton was holding his hat again, and he passed his hand up the straight walk, as if he himself went up it serenely, after me.

    'Mr. Sampson,' he said, tenderly pressing his niece's arm in his, 'our affection was always a strong one, for we have had but few near ties. We have still fewer now. We have associations to bring us together, that are not of this world, Margaret.'

    'Dear uncle!' murmured the young lady, and turned her face aside to hide her tears.

    'My niece and I have such remembrances and regrets in common, Mr. Sampson,' he feelingly pursued, 'that it would be strange indeed if the relations between us were cold or indifferent. If I remember a conversation we once had together, you will understand the reference I make. Cheer up, dear Margaret. Don't droop, don't droop. My Margaret! I cannot bear to see you droop!'

    The poor young lady was very much affected, but controlled herself. His feelings, too, were very acute. In a word, he found himself under such great need of a restorative, that he presently went away, to take a bath of sea-water, leaving the young lady and me sitting by a point of rock, and probably presuming - but that you will say was a pardonable indulgence in a luxury - that she would praise him with all her heart.

    She did, poor thing! With all her confiding heart, she praised him to me, for his care of her dead sister, and for his untiring devotion in her last illness. The sister had wasted away very slowly, and wild and terrible fantasies had come over her toward the end, but he had never been impatient with her, or at a loss; had always been gentle, watchful, and self-possessed. The sister had known him, as she had known him, to be the best of men, the kindest of men, and yet a man of such admirable strength of character, as to be a very tower for the support of their weak natures while their poor lives endured.

    'I shall leave him, Mr. Sampson, very soon,' said the young lady; 'I know my life is drawing to an end; and when I am gone, I hope he will marry and be happy. I am sure he has lived single so long, only for my sake, and for my poor, poor sister's.'

    The little hand-carriage had made another great loop on the damp sand, and was coming back again, gradually spinning out a slim figure of eight, half a mile long.

    'Young lady,' said I, looking around, laying my hand upon her arm, and speaking in a low voice, 'time presses. You hear the gentle murmur of that sea?'

    She looked at me with the utmost wonder and alarm, saying, 'Yes!'

    'And you know what a voice is in it when the storm comes?'

    'Yes!'

    'You see how quiet and peaceful it lies before us, and you know what an awful sight of power without pity it might be, this very night!'

    'Yes!'

    'But if you had never heard or seen it, or heard of it in its cruelty, could you believe that it beats every inanimate thing in its way to pieces, without mercy, and destroys life without remorse?'

    'You terrify me, sir, by these questions!'

    'To save you, young lady, to save you! For God's sake, collect your strength and collect your firmness! If you were here alone, and hemmed in by the rising tide on the flow to fifty feet above your head, you could not be in greater danger than the danger you are now to be saved from.'

    The figure on the sand was spun out, and straggled off into a crooked little jerk that ended at the cliff very near us. 'As I am, before Heaven and the Judge of all mankind, your friend, and your dead sister's friend, I solemnly entreat you, Miss Niner, without one moment's loss of time, to come to this gentleman with me!'

    If the little carriage had been less near to us, I doubt if I could have got her away; but it was so near that we were there before she had recovered the hurry of being urged from the rock. I did not remain there with her two minutes. Certainly within five, I had the inexpressible satisfaction of seeing her - from the point we had sat on, and to which I had returned half supported and half carried up some rude steps notched in the cliff, by the figure of an active man. With that figure beside her, I knew she was safe anywhere.

    I sat alone on the rock, awaiting Mr. Slinkton's return. The twilight was deepening and the shadows were heavy, when he came round the point, with his hat hanging at his button-hole, smoothing his wet hair with one of his hands, and picking out the old path with the other and a pocket-comb.

    'My niece not here, Mr. Sampson?' he said, looking about.

    'Miss Niner seemed to feel a chill in the air after the sun was down, and has gone home.'

    He looked surprised, as though she were not accustomed to do anything without him; even to originate so slight a proceeding.

    'I persuaded Miss Niner,' I explained.

    'Ah!' said he. 'She is easily persuaded - for her good. Thank you, Mr. Sampson; she is better within doors. The bathing-place was farther than I thought, to say the truth.'

    'Miss Niner is very delicate,' I observed.

    He shook his head and drew a deep sigh. 'Very, very, very. You may recollect my saying so. The time that has since intervened has not strengthened her. The gloomy shadow that fell upon her sister so early in life seems, in my anxious eyes, to gather over her, ever darker, ever darker. Dear Margaret, dear Margaret! But we must hope.' The hand-carriage was spinning away before us at a most indecorous pace for an invalid vehicle, and was making most irregular curves upon the sand. Mr. Slinkton, noticing it after he had put his handkerchief to his eyes, said;

    'If I may judge from appearances, your friend will be upset, Mr.

    Sampson.'

    'It looks probable, certainly,' said I.

    'The servant must be drunk.'

    'The servants of old gentlemen will get drunk sometimes,' said I.

    'The major draws very light, Mr. Sampson.'

    'The major does draw light,' said I.

    By this time the carriage, much to my relief, was lost in the darkness.

    We walked on for a little, side by side over the sand, in silence. After a short while he said, in a voice still affected by the emotion that his niece's state of health had awakened in him,

    'Do you stay here long, Mr. Sampson?'

    'Why, no. I am going away to-night.'

    'So soon? But business always holds you in request. Men like Mr. Sampson are too important to others, to be spared to their own need of

    relaxation and enjoyment.'

    'I don't know about that,' said I. 'However, I am going back.'

    'To London?'

    'To London.'

    'I shall be there too, soon after you.'

    I knew that as well as he did. But I did not tell him so. Any more

    than I told him what defensive weapon my right hand rested on in my pocket, as I walked by his side. Any more than I told him why I did not walk on the sea side of him with the night closing in.

    We left the beach, and our ways diverged. We exchanged goodnight, and had parted indeed, when he said, returning,

    'Mr. Sampson, MAY I ask? Poor Meltham, whom we spoke of, dead yet?'

    'Not when I last heard of him; but too broken a man to live long, and hopelessly lost to his old calling.'

    'Dear, dear, dear!' said he, with great feeling. 'Sad, sad, sad! The world is a grave!' And so went his way.

    It was not his fault if the world were not a grave; but I did not call that observation after him, any more than I had mentioned those other things just now enumerated. He went his way, and I went mine with all expedition. This happened, as I have said, either at the end of September or beginning of October. The next time I saw him, and the last time, was late in November.

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