The slave of the lamp, p.13
The Slave of the Lamp,
As Christian walked rapidly across the uneven turf towards the sea atmidnight, his thoughts were divided between a schoolboy delight in theadventurous nature of his expedition and an uncomfortable sensation ofsurreptitiousness. He was not accustomed to this sort of work, and feltremarkably like a thief. If by some mischance his absence was discoveredat the Hall, it would be difficult to account for it unless he playedthe part of a temporary lunatic. Fortunately his window communicatedeasily enough with the garden by means of a few stone steps, butvisitors are not usually in the habit of leaving their bedrooms in orderto take the air at midnight. Thinking over these things in his rapid andrather superficial way, he unconsciously quickened his pace.
The night was clear and starlit; the air soft and very pleasant, with afaint breath of freshness from the south-west. The moon, being well uponthe wane, would not rise for an hour or more, but the heavens wereglowing with the gentler light of stars, and on earth the darkness wasof that transparent description which sailors prefer to the brightestmoonlight.
Christian Vellacott had worked out most problems in life for himself.Taken as a whole, his solutions had been fairly successful--assuccessful as those of most men. If his views upon things in generalwere rather photographic--that is to say, hard, with clearly definedshadows--it was owing to his father's somewhat cynical training and tothe absence of a mother's influence. Elderly maiden ladies, withsufficient time upon their hands to manage other people's affairs inaddition to their own, complained of his want of sympathy, which may beread in the sense of stating that he neither sought theirs nor askedadvice upon questions connected with himself. This self-reliance was theinevitable outcome of his life at home and at the office of the_Beacon_. Admirable as it may be, independence can undoubtedly becarried to an unpleasant excess--unpleasant that is for home life. Womenlove to see their men-folk a trifle dependent upon them.
Christian was in the midst of a problem as he walked across thetableland that stretched from St. Mary Western to the sea. That problemabsorbed more of his attention than the home politics of France; itrequired a more careful study than any article he had ever penned forthe _Beacon_. It gave him greater anxiety than Aunt Judy and Aunt Hestercombined. Yet it was comprised in a single word. A single arm couldencompass the whole of it. The single word--Hilda.
Leaving the narrow road, he presently struck the little pathway leadingto the Cove. Suddenly he stopped, and stood motionless. There--nottwenty yards from him--was the still figure of a man. Behind Christianthe land rose gradually to some considerable height, so that he stood indarkness, while against the glowing sky the figure of this watcher wasclearly defined in hard outline. Instinctively crouching down andseeking the covert of a few low bushes, Christian decreased theintervening distance by a few yards. The faint hope that it might proveto be a coastguard was soon dispelled. The heavy clothing and loosethigh-boots were those of a fisherman. The huge "cache-nez" which lay incoils upon his shoulders and completely protected the neck and throat,was such as is worn by the natives of the Cotes-du-Nord.
The sea boomed forth its melancholy song, far down in the black depthsbeyond. The tide was high, and the breeze freshening every moment.Christian could have crept up to the man's very feet without beingdetected. Lying still upon the short, dry grass, he watched for somemoments.
From the man's clumsy attitude it was almost possible to divine hisslow, mindless nature--for there is expression in the very turn of aman's leg as he stands--and it was easy to see that he was guarding thelittle path down the cliff to the Cove.
He had been posted there, and evidently meant to stay till called away.
There was only one way, now, to the Cove, and that was down the face ofthe cliff: the way that Christian had that very afternoon pronounced sohazardous. By day it was dangerous enough; by night it was almost animpossibility.
He crept noiselessly along to the eastward, so that the watcher stoodupon the windward side of him, and reaching the brink he peered overinto the darkness. Of course he could discern nothing. The sea rose andfell with a monotonous roar; overhead the stars twinkled as merrily asthey have twinkled over the strifes of men from century to century.
Quietly he knelt upright and buttoned his coat with some care. Thenwithout a moment's hesitation he crept to the edge and cautiouslydisappeared into the grim abyss of darkness. Slowly and laboriously heworked his way down, feeling for each foothold in advance. Occasionallyhe muttered impatiently to himself at the slowness of his progress. Heknew that the strata of soft sandstone trended downwards at an easyangle, and with consummate skill took full advantage of his knowledge.Occasionally he was forced to progress sideways with his face to therock and hands outstretched till his fingers were cramped, and thefeeling known as "pins and needles" assailed his arms. Then he wouldrest for some moments, peering into the darkness below him all thewhile. Once or twice he dropped a small stone cautiously, holding it atarm's length. When the tiny messenger touched earth soon after leavinghis hand, he continued his downward progress. Once, no sound followedfor some seconds, and then it was only a distant concussion far downbeside the sea. With an involuntary shudder, the climber turned and madehis way upwards and sideways again, before venturing to descend oncemore.
For half an hour he continued his perilous struggle, till his strongarms were stiff and his fingers almost powerless. With marvelloustenacity he held to his purpose. Never since leaving the summit had hebeen able to rest both hands at once. With a dogged, mechanicalendurance which is essentially characteristic of climbers andmountaineers, he lowered himself, inch by inch, foot by foot. Louder andlouder sang the sea, as if in derision at his petty efforts, but throughhis head there rushed another sound infinitely more terrible: apainful, continuous buzz, which seemed to press upon his temples. A dullpain was slowly creeping up the muscles of his neck towards his head.All these symptoms the climber knew. The buzzing in his ears would nevercease until he could lie down and breathe freely with every musclerelaxed, every sinew slack. The dull ache would creep up until itreached his brain, and then nothing could save him--no strength of willcould prevent his fingers from relaxing their hold.
"Sish--sish, sish--sish!" laughed the waves below. Placidly the starsheld on their stately course--each perhaps peopled by millions of itsown--young and old, tame and fiery--all pursuing shadows as we do here.
"This is getting serious," muttered Christian, with a pitiful laugh. Theperspiration was running down his face, burning his eyes, and drippingfrom his chin. With straining eyes he peered into the night. Closebeneath him there was a ledge of some breadth. It was not flat, butinclined upwards from the face of the cliff, thus forming a shelf ofsolid stone. For some seconds he stared continuously at this, so as toreduce to a minimum the chance of being mistaken. Then with greatcaution he slid down the steep incline of smooth stone and landedsafely. The glissade lasted but a moment, nevertheless it recalled tohis mind a picture which was indelibly stamped in his memory. Yearsbefore he had seen a man slide like this, unintentionally, after a falsestep. Again that picture came to him--unimpressionable as his life hadrendered him. Again he saw the glittering expanse of snow, and on it thebroad, strong figure of the Vaudois guide sliding down and down, withmadly increasing speed--feet foremost, skilful to the last. Again hefelt the thrill which men cannot but experience at the sight of a man,or even of a dumb beast, fighting bravely for life. Again he saw thedull gleam of the uplifted ice-axe as the man dealt scientific blowafter blow on the frozen snow, attempting to arrest his terrible career.And again in his mind's eye the pure expanse of spotless white laybefore him, scarred by one straight streak, marking where the taciturnmountaineer had vanished over the edge of the precipice to his certaindoom.
Christian lay like a half-drowned man upon the shelving ledge, slowlyrealising his position. He calculated that he could not yet be half-waydown, and his strength was almost exhausted. Yet, as he lay there, nothought of waiting for daylight, no question of
Suddenly--within the softer sound of the sea below--a harsh, gratingnoise struck his ears. It was to him like the sound made by a nailedboot upon rock. It was as if another were following him down the face ofthe cliff. In a second he was upon his feet, his weariness a thingforgotten. Overhead, against the starlit sky, he could define the lineof rock with its sharp, broken angles and uncouth turns. Not thirty feetabove him something was moving. His first feeling was one of intensefear. Every climber knows that it is easier to pass a difficult cornerthan to stand idle, watching another do it. Slowly the dark form camedownwards, and suddenly, with a quick sense of unutterable relief,Christian saw the black line of a tightened rope. When it was barely tenfeet above him he saw that the object was no man, but a square case. Ina flash of thought he divined what the box contained, and unhesitatinglyran along the ledge towards it. As it descended he seized it with bothhands and swung it in towards himself. With pendulum-like motion itdescended, and at last touched the rock at his feet. As this took placehe grasped the rope with both hands and threw his entire weight upon it,hauling slowly in, hand over hand. So quickly and deftly was thiscarried out that those lowering overhead were deceived, and continued topay out the rope slowly. Steadily Christian hauled in, the slack fallingin snake-like coils at his feet. Only being able to guess at hisposition on the cliff, it was no easy matter to calculate how much ropeit was necessary to take in in order to carry out the deception.
At length he ceased abruptly, and proceeded to untie the knots round thebale. Then, after the manner of a sailor who is working out of sightwith a life-line, he jerked the rope, which immediately began to ascendrapidly and with irregularity. Coil after coil ran easily away, and atlast the frayed end passed into the darkness above Christian's head. Hestood there watching it, and when it had disappeared he burst into a lowhoarse laugh which suddenly broke off into a sickening gurgle, and hefell sideways and backwards on to the box, clutching at it with hisnerveless fingers.
When he recovered his faculties his first sensation was one of greatcold. The breeze had freshened with the approach of dawn, and blowingfull upon him as he lay bathed in perspiration, the effect was like thatof a refrigerator. He moved uneasily, and found that he was lying on thestone ledge _outside_ the box, from which he had fallen. After a moment,he rose rapidly to his feet as if desirous of dismissing the memory ofhis own collapse, and turned his attention to the bundle. Beneath therough covering of canvas, which was not sewn but merely lashed round, itwas easy enough to detect the shape of the case.
"What luck--what wonderful luck," he muttered, as he groped round thesurface of the bundle.
Indeed it seemed as if everything had arranged itself for his specialbenefit and advantage.
The three men whose duty it had been to lower the case coiled up theirrope and started off on foot inland, after telling the sentinelstationed at the head of the little path to rejoin his boat. This theman was only too willing to do at once. He was a semi-superstitiousBreton of no great intelligence, who vastly preferred being afloat inhis unsavoury yawl to climbing about unknown rocks in the dark. On thebeach, he found his two comrades, to whom he gruffly imparted theinformation that they were to go on board.
"Had the 'monsieur' said nothing else?"
"No, the 'monsieur' said nothing else."
The Breton intellect is not, as a rule, acute. Like sheep the three menproceeded to carry up from the water's edge Stanley's boat, which wasrequired to carry the heavy case, their own dinghy being too small. Thisdone, they rowed off silently to the yawl, which was rolling lazily inthe trough of the sea, a quarter of a mile from the shore. Once on boardthey were regaled with some choice French profanity from the lips of alarge man in a sealskin cap and a dirty woollen muffler. This gentlemanthey addressed as the "patron," and, with clumsy awe, informed him thatthey had waited at the same spot as before, but nothing had come, untilat length Hoel Grall arrived with instructions from the "monsieur" to goon board. Whereupon further French profanity, followed by unintelligibleorders, freely interlarded with embellishments of a forcible tenor.
As the yawl swung slowly round and stood out to sea, Christian turned toclimb up Bury Bluff. He found that he had in reality made very littleprogress in descending. Before leaving the case, he edged it by degreesnearer to the base of the ledge, which would render it invisible fromthe beach. The ascent was soon accomplished, and after a cautious searchhe concluded that no one was about, so set off home at a rapid pace.
Before he reached the Hall the light of coming day was already creepingup into the eastern sky. All nature was stirring, refreshed with thebalmy dew and coolness of the night. Far up in the higher branches ofthe Weymouth pines, the wrens were awake, calling to each other withtentative twitter, and pluming themselves the while for another day ofsunshine and song.
Like a thief Christian hurried on, and creeping into his bedroom window,was soon sleeping the dreamless, forgetful sleep of youth.
By seven o'clock he was awake with all the quick realisation of aLondoner. In the country men wake up slowly, and slowly gather togethertheir senses after an all-sufficing sleep of ten hours. In cities, five,four, or even three are sufficient for the unfatigued body and therestless mind. Men wake up quickly, and are at once in full possessionof their faculties. It is, after all, a mere matter of habit.
Christian had slept sufficiently. He rose quite fresh and strong, andpresently sat down, coatless to write.
Page after page he wrote, turning each leaf over upon its face as it wascompleted--never referring back, never hesitating, and only occasionallyraising his pen from the paper. Line after line of neat, small writing,quite different from what his friends knew in letters or on envelopes,flowed from his pen. It was his "press" handwriting, plain, rapid, andas legible as print. The punctuation was attended to with singular care:the commas broad and heavy, the colons like the kisses in a child'sletter, round and black. Once or twice he smiled as he wrote, andoccasionally jerked his head to one side critically as he re-read asentence.
In less than two hours it was finished. He rose from his seat, andwalked slowly to the window. Standing there he gazed thoughtfully acrossthe bare, unlovely tableland towards the sea. He had written manyhundreds of pages, all more or less masterly; he had read criticismsupon his own work saying that it was good; and yet he knew that thebest--the best he had ever written--lay upon the table behind him. Thenhe turned and shook the loose leaves together symmetrically. Pensivelyhe counted them. He was young and strong; the world and life lay beforehim, with their infinite possibilities--their countless opportunities tobe seized or left. He looked curiously at the written pages. The writingwas his own; the form of every letter was familiar; the heavypunctuation and clean, closely written lines such as the compositorloved to deal with; and while he turned the leaves over he wondered ifever he would do better, for he knew that it was good.
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