A Rolling Stone Vol.III
‘To foster and ripen an evil thought
In a heart that is almost to madness wrought.’
For a long time Mr. Bailey lay awake, unable to sleep for the unusual activity of his mind. He had never been suspected of possessing very brilliant parts; he was usually spoken of as a harmless simple kind of man who had no more understanding than sufficed to guide him quietly along his own common way of life. But his moderate intelligence shone clear enough on one point; by its light he had been enabled to keep the two greatest of all the commandments. Now, since his simple heart must needs concern itself with each neighbour of his who suffered, he, thought of the Doctor and his patient with pity, and of Mr. Godfrey Palmer with a great fear and suspicion that would not have allowed his eyelids to close had he been twice as wearied. He had a strong belief that such a man was not spreading his nets for naught, nor practising his subterfuges merely for amusement. He had not understood all the conversation he had overheard; but he thought he saw, under Mr. Godfrey Palmer's disguises, the page 231 sign of some hidden purpose which, springing from such a heart, could no more be a good one than sweet water can gush from the ocean's bitter waves.
‘He's a wicked man, and he's after something, or he wouldn't be here,’ thought Mr. Bailey, as he simulated sleep, and occasionally opened an eye to see if Mr. Godfrey Palmer was yet in the only state of innocence he ever knew. ‘He's a man who wouldn't stick at murder. Now what has he to do with the man lying ill here, or what does he want with the Doctor? It's one or the other he's plotting against. It wasn't because of grief for his friend that he hung about the beach so long and looked at everybody that was brought up. I know one or two said at the time he was so very anxious to see his friend's dead body that it looked as if he'd much rather have it than the living one. And he appears to wish that this man should die; at least he's always talking about it, and saying it would be as well if he was put out of his pain. And it's plain enough he knows plenty about the Doctor, and could tell it if he didn't choose to keep it back, hanging above his head. You're up to something, Mr. Palmer; but I'll keep an eye on you, and cut in when I see your game.’
Reflections such as these soon proved too much for Mr. Bailey, and, in spite of all the strength of his will, he slumbered. He half awoke some while before day, and then he knew that the Doctor had come in again, and that Godfrey Palmer was talking to him. page 232 The power of sleep was too strong upon him to be altogether broken by this; but now and then a word or a sentence reached his dulled ear, which he remembered with horror, when he thought of them afterwards with an understanding which was wide awake. For a long time—and he fancied he was dreaming—he heard Godfrey Palmer's low, even-toned voice tempting the other man to something; what he could not tell, for they whispered. Once, quite plainly, the Doctor answered, ‘No, I don't think so now; he will recover; and was it the other who said (or did he dream those words?), ‘A thousand pounds, or what you like, if——’ If what? He tried to wake, but could not, and comforted himself with the idea that it was only a dream. A long while after, it seemed, but probably it was only a few seconds, the Doctor cried out something; but he could not tell what was said, though at the voice he started in his sleep, and he felt that they turned and were quiet, while they watched him for a moment. One of them—it was Godfrey Palmer—said, ‘He is asleep;’ and then they turned to look the other way, where the unconscious man lay upon the bed, and knew not that they bartered for his life.
He awoke. It was dawn, and there was Godfrey Palmer wrapped in a rug, sound asleep, and looking as if he had never moved or spoken since he had lain down in the same place hours before. The Doctor was giving his patient something to drink. Was it his guilty thoughts that made him avoid Bailey's page 233 glance? The colour had not yet come back to his face, his sunken eyes had a wild glare, and his hand shook so that he could scarcely hold the cup steadily. Mr. Bailey went out, and never had he been gladder of the pureness of the open air and the uncurtained heavens than when he closed the door of that hut upon the two other men.
He walked about and thought over the words which he had heard, till their meaning grew fearfully plain. At breakfast something prompted him to ask the Doctor whether his patient would recover. The Doctor held down his face while he answered, ‘No.’ Yet in that dream which had been no dream he had heard him say that he would.
He went out when he had eaten as much as he had appetite for; and the others, supposing he was going home, wished him good morning. He did indeed mount his horse; but he rode him to the back of the hut, where there was no window, and then, after letting him drink at the stream, led him into the very midst of the plantation of pines. Here, where there was a small open space, he tied him again, giving him a length of tether which allowed him to graze, and lay down beside him to wait. ‘Now, Mr. Godfrey Palmer,’ he said to himself, with an exultation in his own craft which the other more accomplished deceiver would have laughed to scorn, ‘I don't stir from here till I see the end of this. If you want to do anything, just begin, and I'll be ready for you.’page 234
He watched all day, sometimes stealing round the house and furtively peeping in at the window, to assure himself that all was as before. Godfrey Palmer did not go away, and Bailey almost made sure of one thing which surprised him much more than this—that not one word passed between the Doctor and his companion during the whole of the day. But, had he only known it, there was no need of words. What though the tempted man had cried out in abhorrence of the thing which had been hinted rather than proposed?—he had heard, and he could not forget. The other knew that the poison was working, and let him alone. But at nightfall he spoke again, because that which is evil rears its head highest and speaks loudest in the hour of darkness. In the morning, while they had shunned each other, he had read more of the Doctor's letters and of his diary, which, as diaries but seldom are, was a confession that never flinched from the truth, and followed the most inward windings of the writer's thoughts. That any eye but his should see those words was a sacrilege. The one who had read them by stealth held the key of a human heart in his hand, and when he pleased could force it to show him all its agony. And even through its best affections he purposed to ruin it.
He spoke, and the other listened, sullenly as despair itself.
‘What has the man done that you should hate him so?’ he asked.page 235
‘Nothing,’ said Godfrey Palmer; ‘and I don't hate him; but he is in my way,’
‘It would be murder,’ said the Doctor, with pallid lips.
‘Hush! that is a dangerous word. No one could call it that if it were not known.’
‘They say,’ said the Doctor, with his head sunk on his breast, and his hands working one inside the other, ‘that it always cries for vengeance, till it is brought to light.’
‘They say so because they only know what has been found out. If it had always cried, ever since the world began, there are places where every stream and tree and every foot of ground would have a voice. Why, don't you know that men have done it and have gone amongst other men as before, unsuspected, and have died in all the odour of sanctity at the last? Don't you know of some who have escaped vengeance—don't you know of one?’
‘Man!’ cried the other, bursting out of the apathy in which he had seemed to be wrapped, ‘what is it you want of me? You have found me out,—I do not know how—you have torn my secret from me, why do you madden me with always pointing at it, and bringing it up before me? Oh! was not once enough—enough for my ruin? Must I sell my soul a second time? You know the money tempts me for their sake—those who are not lost and beyond mercy as I am. But for them I had never listened to you. And you think I have escaped vengeance? page 236 Never, never! There can be no punishment greater than that I suffer—have suffered for years. It is here already’—he struck his hand upon his breast;—‘the fire that is never quenched; the worm that never dies.’
‘You are raving,’ said Godfrey Palmer, and before his coolness the other's passion subsided, exhausted with its own violence. ‘Yes, I know you are anxious on account of your wife and child,’ he continued in his low musical voice. ‘If he’—and he looked towards the lighted window of the hut—‘should not recover, they shall be well provided for. You are very tender over one life which is nothing to you, and will no more be missed than a bubble which bursts in the sea; you can see two other lives, dearer to you than your own (so you say), perish because you are afraid—afraid of what? of soiling your pure reputation, of lowering yourself, or afraid of things you have said you don't believe in? You say I tempt you; was it I who tempted you eight years ago?’
‘It was the same temptation. If you are a man, if you can feel like one, do you not understand it was for them I did that? They dragged at my heart then, and now again—I cannot tell whether you said it, or whether your words put it into my mind; but something whispers, whispers always, that, lost already, I must go down still deeper that they may be saved through my ruin. Will nothing deliver me from you? You have shown me your page 237 hand; are you not afraid to put yourself in my power?’
‘In your power!’ Godfrey Palmer smiled. ‘My friend, it is not yet too late for Dr. Barrington to suffer the extreme penalty of the law. Oh, no, I am not afraid of you, though we are alone, and you are a little violent in your temper sometimes, Doctor. I have a very useful friend here in my pocket. You are in my power, excuse me, and there you will remain, till I have no more need of you.’
It seemed like the last cry of despair that answered this. With a furious gesture the Doctor waved the other away from him. ‘Let me alone,’ he said in a changed voice, the voice of a man who has committed himself to a course from which there is no escape. ‘Leave me—out of my sight! I was bad enough before you found me; but you have made me like yourself.’
All this had been said outside. They dared not, even Mr. Godfrey Palmer dared not, say such words as these before the man whose life was at stake, though his eyes and ears seemed to be closed to all that was around. The blackness of that night, without a single star, without a gleam of heaven, was fittest for their work. They stood in the shelter of the pines as they talked; and close to them, so close that their faintest word did not escape him, listened Mr. Bailey. And sometimes he heard the beating of his own heart in the fearful silence between one voice and another, and sometimes it seemed to stand page 238 still, horror-stricken at the deed which one suggested and the other almost consented to.
They separated, but not to go inside. Now was his opportunity. Like an arrow he darted into the house. A light burnt low in the socket of the candlestick on the table, dangerously near to a pile of papers and a cloth which was hung from the wall so as to shade the light from the eyes of the invalid. Mr. Bailey saw with a quick glance that he was in the same state, no one had harmed him as yet.
‘Hush,’ he said, speaking as if it were some little child, when the large eyes turned to him out of the deep hollows which sickness had worn around them, with what was like a supplicating confession of helplessness in their gaze, ‘hush, I'm not going to hurt you.’
He knelt down on one knee, and putting his arms round the other, bedclothes and all, raised himself with an effort that took all his strength; he swathed the clothes more tightly round his burden, pushed the door open with his foot, and staggered out into the darkness.
It was no easy task, he found, to carry another man who was two or three inches taller than himself, and, besides, was wrapped in a good many pounds' weight of cumbrous and flapping bedclothes. It would have been perfectly impossible if the man had not been wasted by illness to a mere skeleton. As it was, Mr. Bailey struggled and gasped for breath before he had gone more than a few yards.page 239
‘Merciful goodness!’ he half ejaculated. ‘I won't leave him, not if it kills me; but I don't think I can get as far as my horse without putting him down. If I fall in with either of those two rascals, I'm done for; I can't run with this load. I don't know what he could have weighed when he had flesh on his bones, but he's mighty heavy now.’
More by accident than sight he made his way to the place where his horse was tied. If it had been dark outside the trees it was beyond all conception darker here. He could see nothing, and he only found the horse by the sound of his breathing.
‘I'll never get him on his back,’ groaned Mr. Bailey, ‘for if I could lift him up I couldn't keep him fixed there till I got on myself, and I can't hold him up and lead the horse as well.’
He rested his burden partly against a tree, and thought. Necessity, as usual, stimulated invention. He remembered that there was a fence round the plantation, and that near the slip panel by which he had brought his horse inside, a stunted pine had thrust its crooked branches between and close above the rails, forming a kind of cradle. He stumbled on with his burden to the place, and straining himself to the utmost, raised it high enough to get it into the cradle, partly propped up by the branches and partly by the top rail of the fence. Then he got on his horse, and rode him close to the fence. The horse was like his master, of a good, sober, steady disposition, as Mr. Bailey gratefully thought at the page 240 moment, ‘none of your high flyers for me,’ he said. ‘I should be in a nice quandary now with a spirited horse which wouldn't let himself be mounted. This shows the worth of one you can get on anywhere, and that'll stand like a rock when you're in such a pickle as this.’
He reached out his arms, now that he was on a level with the big bundle of clothes in the tree, for such it seemed, and took it before him, tucking the coverings about the form within as well as he could. ‘And now,’ he said, all in a hot glow from his exertions, and with a face bedewed with perspiration—‘now I have you, let them get you if they can!’
In the intense darkness of that night no living eye could have told where to draw the line between the earth and sky. All was one great cloud in which every landmark had vanished. Whichever way he turned it was all alike, so Mr. Bailey sensibly left the business of finding the road home to his horse, and dropping the reins upon his neck gave all his care to the form laid across the saddle bow.
‘I hope he won't go too fast,’ he thought, as the horse trotted on without hesitation, ‘if he gets into a quick canter it's all up or rather all down with us both. But it's growing lighter, I believe, and that can be neither sun nor moon.’
It was lighter. There was quite a red glow behind him, which of a truth was from neither sun nor moon. As he cautiously turned to look, a column of flame seemed to burst from the very page 241 ground, just where the hut ought to have been. He gave but one glance, and then in deadly fear urged his horse on. ‘Was that how they meant to do it?’ he thought in horror. The horse broke into a canter, but he would not have minded now if he had galloped. He clung to his seat somehow, and held to his burden with both arms, and the good horse, though he must have thought himself strangely caparisoned with a number of flowing garments, neither took heed of them nor slackened his pace until the station was reached.
The two men who had been left near the hut saw the flames break through the roof at about the same time as Mr. Bailey. As the sudden glow of red light startled them, they rushed against each other in the path to the house.
‘Is this your humanity, Doctor?’ cried Godfrey Palmer, giving utterance to his suspicions. ‘What are you after? Come back!’
‘You have done this!’ fiercely cried the Doctor. ‘Let me go; he shall not die like this!’
‘Are you a fool?’ said Godfrey Palmer, holding him. ‘Nothing can be living now in that flame. He is dead already; but you might have found a kinder way.’
‘I will go!’ the Doctor shouted, wrenching his hand away. ‘I don't care if I die too. I will bring him out. I did not do this; it is your work.’
‘You are not going;’—and his companion threw his arms round him and dragged him back. ‘You page 242 can do no good; his sufferings are over. This is clever acting, Doctor; this would make good evidence at an inquest.’
His taunt remained unanswered; but he quailed before the terrible face of the other man, who made no more attempts to rush into the burning house. The thatched roof burned as rapidly as any heap of straw, and in a few minutes the fire consumed everything, down to the bare ground. Godfrey Palmer leaned against the fence to watch it; the Doctor threw himself face downward on the earth, and lay there like a dead man, till the morning came.
A little while after dawn some one touched him with a cold smooth hand. He rose to his feet. Godfrey Palmer stood there. ‘I am going,’ he said, ‘and this is yours. You shall have the rest; I always keep my promises.’ He held a purse towards him, and as he did not speak or move, dropped it into his hand. The frenzied man looked at it for a second; then hurled it in the face of the other with all his might. There was a mark on the white smooth forehead to the last day of its owner's life, for the sharp-edged clasp of the purse cut through skin and flesh to the very bone. ‘As you will; it is all the same to me,’ said Godfrey Palmer, quietly wiping his forehead, and turning from the spot. He mounted his horse and rode away, for his business in that place was finished.
As he rode away towards the river and the hills the heavens flashed and glowed with the coming of page 243 another day, and the jewelled gateways of the east opened wide before the sun. But to him, throughout all the years, these witnesses have cried aloud in vain. It will be so to the end. Carelessly he passed out of sight, like a shadow moving from the place, and the day seemed brighter when he had gone.
The man whom he had left still lay in the same place. He had said that he did not believe, and yet the night had been but one prayer, and now that it was morning he felt unworthy to look upon the face of heaven. When at last he raised his head he saw a woman coming towards him, by the white-worn path across the ridge of land beyond which ran the stream. He did not go to meet her; but she came to him, and put the hand which he dared not touch into his; and her face, from which ineffable pity and forgiveness shone upon him, seemed as the face of an angel. It was his wife, and her black dress told him why she had come alone. A friend had found her in her distress, and had given her money; so that she had been able to join him. She had walked many miles that morning from the town; but she was not tired now she had found him. Why did he shrink away from her? why tell her she ought not to have come? To whom else should she come, now that, one by one, her children had been hidden in the grave?
Like a man brought from death into life he felt the darkness roll away. There was healing in the tears upon his face, and he knew that he was saved page 244 from himself. But they must leave that place; he could endure it no longer. There was room for a new life in the far country beyond the hills; he would work for her there amongst strangers who did not know their past, and she should lead him back to God. So, hand in hand, they took the path towards the purple hills, and went out from the shadow of mourning into the sweet peace of that Nature which has not lost the joy of innocence. There, on either side of the way, the lofty trees blossomed in their pride, and the streams gushed clear and pure as the tranquil happiness of a good life; and clearer, purer still, rose the song of birds, like the incense of praise, to the unclouded heaven.