If the Red Slayer thinks he slays,|
Or if the slain thinks he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep and pass and turn again.
I told him all I knew, and very much that I did not. He was going to Plymouth to assist in a consultation upon a fellow-countryman who had retired to a place called The Hoe—was that up town or down town?—to recover from nervous dyspepsia. Yes, he himself was a doctor by profession, and how any one in England could retain any nervous disorder passed his comprehension. Never had he dreamed of an atmosphere so soothing. Even the deep rumble of London traffic was monastical by comparison with some cities he could name; and the country—why, it was Paradise. A continuance of it, he confessed, would drive him mad; but for a few months it was the most sumptuous rest cure in his knowledge.
‘I’ll come over every year after this,’ he said, in a burst of delight, as we ran between two ten foot hedges of pink and white may. ‘It’s seeing all the things I’ve ever read about. Of course it doesn’t strike you that way. I presume you belong here? What a finished land it is! It’s arrived. Must have been born this way. Now, where I used to live—Hello I what’s up?’
The train stopped in a blaze of sunshine at Framlynghame Admiral, which is made up entirely of the nameboard, two platforms, and an overhead bridge, without even the usual siding. I had never known the slowest of locals stop here before; but on Sunday all things are possible to the London and South-Western. One could hear the drone of conversation along the carriages, and, scarcely less loud, the drone of the bumblebees in the wallflowers up the bank. My companion thrust his head through the window and sniffed luxuriously.
‘Where are we now?’ said he.
‘In Wiltshire,’ said I.
‘Ah! A man ought to be able to write novels with his left hand in a country like this. Well, well! And so this is about Tess’s country, ain’t it? I feel just as if I were in a book. Say, the conduc—the guard has something on his mind. What’s he getting at? ‘
The splendid badged and belted guard was striding up the platform at the regulation official pace, and in the regulation official voice was saying at each door—
‘Has any gentleman here a bottle of medicine? A gentleman. has taken a bottle of poison (laudanum) by mistake.’
Between each five paces he looked at an official telegram in his hand, refreshed his memory, and said his say. The dreamy look on my companion’s face—he had gone far away with Tess—passed with the speed of a snap -shutter. After the manner of his countrymen, he had risen to the situation, jerked his bag down from the overhead rack, opened it, and I heard the click of bottles. ‘Find out where the man is,’ he said briefly. ‘I’ve got something here that will fix him—if he can swallow still.’
Swiftly I fled up the line of carriages in the wake of the guard. There was clamour in a rear compartment—the voice of one bellowing to be let out, and the feet of one who kicked. With the tail of my eye I saw the New York doctor hastening thither, bearing in his hand a blue and brimming glass from the lavatory compartment. The guard I found scratching his head unofficially, by the engine, and murmuring: ‘Well, I put a bottle of medicine off at Andover, I’m sure I did.’
‘Better say it again, any’ow,’ said the driver. ‘Orders is orders. Say it again.’
Once more the guard paced back, I, anxious to attract his attention, trotting at his heels.
‘In a minute—in a minute, sir,’ he said, waving an arm capable of starting all, the traffic on the London and South-Western Railway at a wave. ‘Has any gentleman here got a bottle of medicine? A gentleman has taken a bottle of poison (laudanum) by mistake.’
‘Where’s the man?’ I gasped.
‘Woking. ’Ere’s my orders.’ He showed me the telegram, on which were the words to be said. ‘’E must have left ’is bottle in the train, an’ took another by mistake. ’E’s been wirin’ from Woking awful, an’, now I come to think of it, I’m nearly sure I put a bottle of medicine off at Andover.’
‘Then the man that took the poison isn’t on the train?’
‘Lord, no, sir. No one didn’t take poison that way. ’E took it away with ’im, in ’is ’ands. ’E’s wirin’ from Wokin’. My orders was to ask everybody on the train, and I ’ave, an’ we’re four minutes late now. Are you comin’ on, sir? No? Right be’ind!’
There is nothing, unless, perhaps, the English language, more terrible than the workings of an English railway line. An instant before it seemed as though we were going to spend all eternity at Framlynghame Admiral, and now I was watching the tail of the train disappear round the curve of the cutting.
But I was not alone. On the one bench of the down platform sat the largest navvy I have ever seen in my life, softened and made affable (for he smiled generously) with liquor. In his huge hands he nursed an empty tumbler marked ‘L.S.W.R.’—marked also, internally, with streaks of blue-gray sediment. Before him, a hand on his shoulder, stood the doctor, and as I came within earshot this is what I heard him say: ‘Just you hold on to your patience for a minute or two longer, and you’ll be as right as ever you were in your life. I’ll stay with you till you’re better.’
‘Lord! I’m comfortable enough,’ said the navvy. ‘Never felt better in my life.’
Turning to me, the doctor lowered his voice. ‘He might have died while that fool conduct—guard was saying his piece. I’ve fixed him, though. The stuff’s due in about five minutes, but there’s a heap to him. I don’t see how we can make him take exercise.’
For the moment I felt as though seven pounds of crushed ice had been neatly applied in the form of a compress to my lower stomach.
‘How—how did you manage it?’ I gasped.
‘I asked him if he’d have a drink. He was knocking spots out of the car—strength of his constitution, I suppose. He said he’d go ’most anywhere for a drink, so I lured him on to the platform, and loaded him up. Cold-blooded people you Britishers are. That train’s gone, and no one seemed to care a cent.’
‘We’ve missed it,’ I said.
He looked at me curiously.
‘We’ll get another before sundown, if that’s your only trouble. Say, porter, when’s the next train down?’
‘Seven forty-five,’ said the one porter, and passed out through the wicket-gate into the landscape. It was then three-twenty of a hot and sleepy afternoon. The station was absolutely deserted. The navvy had closed his eyes, and now nodded.
‘That’s bad,’ said the doctor. ‘The man, I mean, not the train. We must make him walk somehow—walk up and down:’
Swiftly as might be, I explained the delicacy of the situation, and the doctor from New York turned a full bronze-green. Then he swore comprehensively at the entire fabric of our glorious Constitution, cursing the English language, root, branch, and paradigm, through its most obscure derivatives. His coat and bag lay on the bench next to the sleeper. Thither he edged cautiously, and I saw treachery in his eye.
What devil of delay possessed him to slip on his spring overcoat, I cannot tell. They say a slight noise arouses a sleeper more surely than a heavy one, and scarcely had the doctor settled himself in his sleeves when the giant waked and seized that silkfaced collar in a hot right hand. There was rage in his face—rage and the realisation of new emotions.
‘I’m—I’m not so comfortable as I were,’ he said from the deeps of his interior. ‘You’ll wait along o’ me, you will.’ He breathed heavily through shut lips.
Now, if there was one thing more than another upon which the doctor had dwelt in his conversation with me, it was upon the essential law-abidingness, not to say gentleness, of his much-misrepresented country. And yet (truly, it may have been no more than a button that irked him) I saw his hand travel backwards to his right hip, clutch at something, and come away empty.
‘He won’t kill you,’ I said. ‘He’ll probably sue you in court, if I know my own people. Better give him some money from time to time.’
‘If he keeps quiet till the stuff gets in its work,’ the doctor answered, ‘I’m all right. If he doesn’t . . . my name is Emory—Julian B. Emory—193 ’Steenth Street, corner of Madison and——’
‘I feel worse than I’ve ever felt,’ said the navvy, with suddenness. ‘What—did—you—give—me—the—drink—for?’
The matter seemed to be so purely personal that I withdrew to a strategic position on the overhead bridge, and, abiding in the exact centre, looked on from afar.
I could see the white road that ran across the shoulder of Salisbury Plain, unshaded for mile after mile, and a dot in the middle distance, the back of the one porter returning to Framlynghame Admiral, if such a place existed, till seven forty-five. The bell of a church invisible clanked softly. There was a rustle in the horse-chestnuts to the left of the line, and the sound of sheep cropping close.
The peace of Nirvana lay upon the land, and, brooding in it, my elbow on the warm iron girder of the footbridge (it is a forty-shilling fine to cross by any other means), I perceived, as never before, how the consequences of our acts run eternal through time and through space. If we impinge never so slightly upon the life of a fellow-mortal, the touch of our personality, like the ripple of a stone cast into a pond, widens and widens in unending circles across the aeons, till the far-off gods themselves cannot say where action ceases. Also, it was I who had silently set before the doctor the tumbler of the first-class lavatory compartment now speeding Plymouthward. Yet I was, in spirit at least, a million leagues removed from that unhappy man of another nationality, who had chosen to thrust an inexpert finger into the workings of an alien life. The machinery was dragging him up and down the sunlit platform. The two men seemed to be learning polkamazurkas together, and the burden of their song, borne by one deep voice, was: ‘What did you give me the drink for? ‘
I saw the flash of silver in the doctor’s hand. The navvy took it and pocketed it with his left; but never for an instant did his strong right leave the doctor’s coat-collar, and as the crisis approached louder and louder rose his bull-like roar: ‘What did you give me the drink for?’
They drifted under the great twelve-inch pinned timbers of the footbridge towards the bench, and, I gathered, the time was very near at hand. The stuff was getting in its work. Blue, white, and blue again, rolled over the navvy’s face in waves, till all settled to one rich clay-bank yellow and—that fell which fell.
I thought of the blowing-up of Hell Gate; of the geysers in the Yellowstone Park; of Jonah and his whale; but the lively original, as I watched it foreshortened from above, exceeded all these things. He staggered to the bench, the heavy wooden seat cramped with iron cramps into the enduring stone, and clung there with his left hand. It quivered and shook, as a breakwater-pile quivers to the rush of landward-racing seas; nor was there lacking when he caught his breath, the ‘scream of a maddened beach dragged down by the wave.’ His right hand was upon the doctor’s collar, so that the two shook to one paroxysm, pendulums vibrating together, while I, apart, shook with them.
It was colossal—immense; but of certain manifestations the English language stops short. French only, the caryatid French of Victor Hugo, would have described it; so I mourned while I laughed, hastily shuffling and discarding inadequate adjectives. The vehemence of the shock spent itself, and the sufferer half fell, half knelt, across the bench. He was calling now upon God and his wife, huskily, as the wounded bull calls upon the unscathed herd to stay. Curiously enough, he used no bad language: that had gone from him with the rest. The doctor exhibited gold. It was taken, and retained. So, too, was the grip on the coat-collar.
‘If I could stand,’ boomed the giant despairingly, ‘I’d smash you—you an’ your drinks. I’m dyin’—dyin’—dyin’!’
‘That’s what you think,’ said the doctor. ‘You’ll find it will do you a lot of good’; and, making a virtue of a somewhat imperative necessity, he added: ‘I’ll stay by you. If you’d let go of me a minute I’d give you something that would settle you.’
‘You’ve settled me now, you damned anarchist. Takin’ the bread out of the mouth of an English workin’ man! But I’ll keep ’old of you till I’m well or dead. I never did you no harm. S’pose I were a little full? They pumped me out once at Guy’s with a stummick-pump. I could see that, but I can’t see this ’ere, an’ it’s killin’ of me by slow degrees.’
‘You’ll be all right in half an hour. What do you suppose I’d want to kill you for?’ said the doctor, who came of a logical breed.
“Ow do I know? Tell ’em in court. You’ll get seven years for this, you body-snatcher. That’s what you are—a bloomin’ body-snatcher. There’s justice, I tell you, in England; and my Union’ll prosecute, too. We don’t stand no tricks with people’s insides ’ere. They gave a woman ten years for a sight less than this. An’ you’ll ’ave to pay ’undreds an’ ’undreds o’ pounds, besides a pension to the missus. You’ll see, you physickin’ furriner. Where’s your licence to do such? You’ll catch it, I tell you!’
Then I observed, what I had frequently observed before, that a man who is but reasonably afraid of an altercation with an alien has a most poignant dread of the operations of foreign law. The doctor’s voice was flute-like in its exquisite politeness, as he answered:
‘But I’ve given you a very great deal of money—fif—three pounds, I think.’
‘An’ what’s three pounds for poisonin’ the likes o’ me? They told me at Guy’s I’d fetch twenty—cold—on the slates. Ouh! It’s comin’ again.’
A second time he was cut down by the foot, as it were, and the straining bench rocked to and fro as I averted my eyes.
It was the very point of perfection in the heart of an English May-day. The unseen tides of the air had turned, and all nature was setting its face with the shadows of the horse-chestnuts towards the peace of the coming night. But there were hours yet, I knew—long, long hours of the eternal English twilight—to the ending of the day. I was well content to be alive—to abandon myself to the drift of Time and Fate; to absorb great peace through my skin, and to love my country with the devotion that three thousand miles of intervening sea bring to fullest flower. And what a garden of Eden it was, this fatted, clipped, and washen land! A man could camp in any open field with more sense of home and security than the stateliest buildings of foreign cities could afford. And the joy was that it was all mine inalienably—groomed hedgerow, spotless road, decent greystone cottage, serried spinney, tasselled copse, apple-bellied hawthorn, and well-grown tree. A light puff of wind—it scattered flakes of may over the gleaming rails—gave me a faint whiff as it might have been of fresh coconut, and I knew that the golden gorse was in bloom somewhere out of sight. Linnæus had thanked God on his bended knees. when he first saw a field of it; and, by the way, the navvy was on his knees too. But he was by no means praying. He was purely disgustful.
The doctor was compelled to bend over him, his face towards the back of the seat, and from what I had seen I supposed the navvy was now dead. If that were the case it would be time for me to go; but I knew that so long as a man trusts himself to the current of Circumstance, reaching out for and rejecting nothing that comes his way, no harm can overtake him. It is the contriver, the schemer, who is caught by the law, and never the philosopher. I knew that when the play was played, Destiny herself would move me on from the corpse; and I felt very sorry for the doctor.
In the-far distance, presumably upon the road that led to Framlynghame Admiral, there appeared a vehicle and a horse—the one ancient fly that almost every village can produce at need. This thing was advancing, unpaid by me, towards the station; would have to pass along the deep-cut lane, below the railway-bridge, and come out on the doctor’s side. I was in the centre of things, so all sides were alike to me. Here, then, was my machine from the machine. When it arrived, something would happen, or something else. For the rest, I owned my deeply interested soul.
The doctor, by the seat, turned so far as his cramped position allowed, his head over his left shoulder, and laid his right hand upon his lips. I threw back my hat and elevated my eyebrows in the form of a question. The doctor shut his eyes and nodded his head slowly twice or thrice, beckoning me to come. I descended cautiously, and it was as the signs had told. The navvy was asleep, empty to the lowest notch; yet his hand clutched still the doctor’s collar, and at the lightest movement (the doctor was really very cramped) tightened mechanically, as the hand of a sick woman tightens on that of the watcher. He had dropped, squatting almost upon his heels, and, falling lower, had dragged the doctor over to the left.
The doctor thrust his right hand, which was free, into his pocket, drew forth some keys, and shook his head. The navvy gurgled in his sleep. Silently I dived into my pocket, took out one sovereign, and held it up between finger and thumb Again the doctor shook his head. Money was not what was lacking to his peace. His bag had fallen from the’ seat to the ground. He looked towards it, and opened his mouth—O-shape. The catch was not a difficult one, and when I had mastered it, the doctor’s right forefinger was sawing the air. With an immense caution, I extracted from the bag such a knife as they use for cutting collops off legs. The doctor frowned, and with his first and second fingers imitated the action of scissors. Again I searched, and found a most diabolical pair of cocknosed shears, capable of vandyking the interiors of elephants. The doctor then slowly lowered his left shoulder till the navvy’s right wrist was supported by the bench, pausing a moment as the spent volcano rumbled anew. Lower and lower the doctor sank, kneeling now by the navvy’s side, till his head was on a level with, and just in front of, the great hairy fist, and—there was no tension on the coat-collar. Then light dawned on me.
Beginning a little to the right of the spinal column, I cut a huge demilune out of his new spring overcoat, bringing it round as far under his left side (which was the right side of the navvy) as I dared. Passing thence swiftly to the back of the seat, and reaching between the splines, I sawed through the silk-faced front on the left-hand side of the coat till the two cuts joined.
Cautiously as the box-turtle of his native heath, the doctor drew away sideways and to the right, with the air of a frustrated burglar coming out from under a bed, and stood up free, one black diagonal shoulder projecting through the gray of his ruined overcoat. I returned the scissors to the bag, snapped the catch, and held all out to him as the wheels of the fly rang hollow under the railway arch.
It came at a foot-pace past the wicket-gate of the station, and the doctor stopped it with a whisper. It was going some five miles across country to bring home from church some one—I could not catch the name—because his own carriage-horses were lame. Its destination happened to be the one place in all the world that the doctor was most burningly anxious to visit, and he promised the driver untold gold to drive to some ancient flame of his—Helen Blazes, she was called.
‘Aren’t you coming, too?’ he said, bundling his overcoat into his bag.
Now the fly had been so obviously sent to the doctor, and to no one else, that I had no concern with it. Our roads, I saw, divided, and there was, further, a need upon me to laugh.
‘I shall stay here,’ I said. ‘It’s a very pretty country.’
‘My God!’ he murmured, as softly as he shut the door, and I felt that it was a prayer.
Then he went out of my life, and I shaped my course for the railway-bridge. It was necessary to pass by the bench once more, but the wicket was between us. The departure of the fly had waked the navvy. He crawled on to the seat, and with malignant eyes watched the driver flog down the road.
‘The man inside o’ that,’ he called, ‘’as poisoned me. ’E’s a body-snatcher. ’E’s comin’ back again when I’m cold. ’Ere’s my evidence!’
He waved his share of the overcoat, and I went my way, because I was hungry. Framlynghame Admiral village is a good two miles from the station, and I waked the holy calm of the evening every step of that way with shouts and yells, casting myself down in the flank of the good green hedge when I was too weak to stand. There was an inn,—a blessed inn with a thatched roof, and peonies in the garden,—and I ordered myself an upper chamber in which the Foresters held their courts, for the laughter was not all out of me. A bewildered woman brought me ham and eggs, and I leaned out of the mullioned window, and laughed between mouthfuls. I sat long above the beer and the perfect smoke that followed, till the light changed in the quiet street, and I began to think of the seven forty-five down, and all that world of the Arabian Nights I had quitted.
Descending, I passed a giant in moleskins who filled the low-ceiled tap-room. Many empty plates stood before him, and beyond them a fringe of the Framlynghame Admiralty, to whom he was unfolding a wondrous tale of anarchy, of body-snatching, of bribery, and the Valley of the Shadow from the which he was but newly risen. And as he talked he ate, and as he ate he drank, for there was much room in him; and anon he paid royally, speaking of justice and the law, before whom all Englishmen are equal, and all foreigners and anarchists vermin and slime.
On my way to the station he passed me with great strides, his head high among the low-flying bats, his feet firm on the packed road metal, his fists clenched, and his breath coming sharply. There was a beautiful smell in the air—the smell of white dust, bruised nettles, and smoke, that brings tears to the throat of a man who sees his country but seldom—a smell like the echoes of the lost talk of lovers; the infinitely suggestive odour of an immemorial civilisation. It was a perfect walk; and, lingering on every step, I came to the station just as the one porter lighted the last of a truck-load of lamps, and set them back in the lamp-room, while he dealt tickets to four or five of the population, who, not contented with their own peace, thought fit to travel. It was no ticket that the navvy seemed to need. He was sitting on a bench wrathfully grinding a tumbler into fragments with his heel. I abode in obscurity at the end of the platform, interested as ever, thank heaven, in my surroundings. There was a jar of wheels on the road. The navvy rose as they approached, strode through the wicket, and laid a hand upon a horse’s bridle that brought the beast up on his hireling hind-legs. It was the providential fly coming back, and for a moment I wondered whether the doctor had been mad enough to revisit his practice.
‘Get away; you’re drunk,’ said the driver.
‘I’m not,’ said the navvy. ‘I’ve been waitin’ ’ere hours and hours. Come out, you beggar inside there.’
‘Go on, driver,’ said a voice I did not know—a crisp, clear, English voice.
‘All right,’ said the navvy. ‘You wouldn’t ’ear me when I was polite. Now will you come?’
There was a chasm in the side of the fly, for he had wrenched the door bodily off its hinges, and was feeling within purposefully. A well-booted leg rewarded him, and there came out, not with delight, hopping on one foot, a round and grayhaired Englishman, from whose armpits dropped hymn-books, but from his mouth an altogether different service of song.
‘Come on, you bloomin’ body-snatcher! You thought I was dead, did you?’ roared the navvy. And the respectable gentleman came accordingly, inarticulate with rage.
‘’Ere’s a man murderin’ the Squire,’ the driver shouted, and fell from his box upon the navvy’s neck.
To do them justice, the people of Framlynghame Admiral, so many as were on the platform, rallied to the call in the best spirit of feudalism. It was the one porter who beat the navvy on the nose with a ticket-punch, but it was the three third-class tickets who attached themselves to his legs and freed the captive.
‘Send for a constable! lock him up!’ said that man, adjusting his collar; and unitedly they cast him into the lamp-room, and turned the key, while the driver mourned over the wrecked fly.
Till then the navvy, whose only desire was justice, had kept his temper nobly. Then he went Berserk before our amazed eyes. The door of the lamp-room was generously constructed, and would not give an inch, but the window he tore from its fastenings and hurled outwards. The one porter counted the damage in a loud voice, and the others, arming themselves with agricultural implements from the station garden, kept up a ceaseless winnowing before the window, themselves backed close to the wall, and bade the prisoner think of the gaol. He answered little to the point, so far as they could understand; but seeing that his exit was impeded, he took a lamp and hurled it through the wrecked sash. It fell on the metals and went out. With inconceivable velocity, the others, fifteen in all, followed looking like rockets in the gloom, and with the last (he could have had no plan) the Berserk rage left him as the doctor’s deadly brewage waked up, under the stimulus of violent exercise and a very full meal, to one last cataclysmal exhibition, and—we heard the whistle of the seven forty-five down.
They were all acutely interested in as much of the wreck as they could see, for the station smelt to heaven of oil, and the engine skittered over broken glass like a terrier in a cucumber-frame. The guard had to hear of it, and the Squire had his version of the brutal assault, and heads were out all along the carriages as I found me a seat.
‘What is the row?’ said a young man, as I entered. ‘Man drunk?’
‘Well, the symptoms, so far as my observation has gone, more resemble those of Asiatic cholera than anything else,’ I answered, slowly and judicially, that every word might carry weight in the appointed scheme of things. Till then, you will observe, I had taken no part in that war.
He was an Englishman, but he collected his belongings as swiftly as had the American, ages before, and leaped upon the platform, crying, ‘Can I be of any service? I’m a doctor.’
From the lamp-room I heard a wearied voice wailing: ‘Another bloomin’ doctor!’
And the seven forty-five carried me on, a step nearer to Eternity, by the road that is worn and seamed and channelled with the passions, and weaknesses, and warring interests of man who is immortal and master of his fate.