Long Odds

Chapter LIII


Marcus Clarke

CYRIL CHATTERIS was not a brave man; he was at heart a coward, and he knew it. He had known it for years past, ever since the day when a boy struck him at school, and his clenched hand refused to strike back again. But he had buried the hideous knowledge deep in his own heart, had put it away and covered it over with all the heaped-up vanities of his youth. At college, the sang-froid he had cultivated so anxiously, had become almost a second nature with him. He had gone through the usual course of quarrels; but his coolness had stood him in good stead, and his affectation of indifference and ready sarcasm had carried him through many a wordy war with credit, if not with honour. But though many hinted that “Chatteris, of Christ’s,” was not remarkable for pluck or courage; many more, admiring his ready wit and sharp tongue, decided that he was of the dainty, French Abbé type, and was too indifferent to danger even to seek it. A blessed civilization had almost induced the young man himself to believe in this view of the case, and it was only when the old barbaric passions of hate and revenge broke the educational dykes, and flooded his soul with their black and swollen tide, that he knew how miserably deficient he was in the physical courage which should belong to a mind like his.

Cyril was utterly wanting in moral fear. He could plan out his baseness and treachery with ease and calmness. His reasoning was perfect, his criminal logic hard and unanswerable; he could think out the destruction of another’s hopes or the sudden wresting away of another’s life, with smooth brow and pulse unquickened; but when the imaginative portion of his mind came into play, he shuddered with terror—the scene which in the pure, cold light of reason seemed so ordinary and natural, the lurid glare of his imagination filled with hideous shadows, and steeped in a misty and terrible gloom, behind which moved indistinct shapes of vengeance, horror, and death. At the thought of putting his projects into practice, and acting the part he proposed for himself, these shifting and unstable phantoms of his brain rose up out of the depths of his coward heart and terrified him. There was something wanting, he thought, in his nature. He could have been a tyrant, remorseless and bloody. He could have heard the cries of the orphaned children of his victims without the quiver of an eyelid; but his blood would have chilled, and his hand refused to strike, had he been brought face to face with the doomed, despairing wretch, and bade plunge the knife into the bound throat himself. He had analysed his own feelings and motives, with that terrible power of analysis, which the unrestrained exercise of evil thought alone confers, and which becomes a very Familiar, at once aiding to sin and goading to despair. When first the full knowledge of his love for his cousin and his hatred to his wife had come upon him, he had sat down in the pride of his intellect and vanity, to examine into causes, to argue with virtue, to dissect, in fine, his whole soul, and analyse the poison ere he drank it. But as each succeeding day of this self examination showed him clearer and clearer how black his own heart had become; as each step into the awful boundary land that lies between reason and madness brought him nearer and nearer to a terrible abyss of blackest guilt, down which he feared even to think of looking, he found that his old faint scruples of honour and virtue had fled; that he grew each day more desperate, more despairing, at finding that his own soul was peopled with lurking shapes of infamy, crime, and guilt, ready to start into life at his bidding. How he had once longed to break from the power of the devil he had raised, and to go back again to such virtue as he had known before his marriage; but it was impossible, his self-torment drove him on until at last he found himself thrust to the very edge of that blackest abyss of murder, which is in the inmost soul of every one of us.

He had the courage that belongs to the worst form of cowardice; the savage recklessness which makes the hunted wolf turn upon the hounds he fears and rend them. His mind was put off its balance; the long months of misery and suspense which he had undergone during the early months of his marriage; the terrible struggle between shame and hate which had so nearly prostrated him; the sudden shock of the discovery and ruthless tearing off of that mask of honour which he had so long worn; the bitter shame of defeat by such an adversary; the scorn and contempt of the only creature he had ever loved in the world; the downfall of all his hopes and expectations, and utter destruction of all he held most dear, had maddened him. In his savage agony of wounded vanity and baffled sin, he had but one thought—revenge, sudden, decisive, complete, upon the man to whom the world would point as his wronger. He had hated Dacre always; hated him for his ability, his influence among men, his coolness, so superior to his own, and his mastership in all that intellectual sin, which he imagined the world rated so highly. He hated him for the authority which he possessed over him; hated him for his discovery of the marriage; hated him for his ready acquiescence in his own horrible plot; and hated him because that plot had been successful. The vanity of his nature rose up even here. He detested his wife, but the thought that she loved another was madness. He had purposely flung her in Dacre’s way, and studied, by all the means in his power, to make her yield to the temptation he offered her; and now she had yielded, he felt that he would have given the best years of his life to undo what he had done. But the pity was not for her, it was for himself. His remorse sprang, not from sorrow at the deed, but at shame of the knowledge of it.

Through the rain and steam, through the night, and through the fog, through the roar of the London streets, through the whole of his journey, jibes and laughter seemed ringing in his ears. He seemed to hear the muttered contempt, and see the looks of scorn which he knew would greet him. The last lustrous glance of Kate seemed to burn into his brain. He seemed to see his father’s outstretched hand, and to hear his high voice again. His head was hot, and his temples throbbed; but his feet were as cold as ice. His hands were clammy with a cold sweat, and shook with nervous excitement. His lips were parched and cracked. He could scarcely swallow. His heart leapt and fluttered and beat furiously; and he could not sit still for two minutes together. All sorts of wild visions tore through his bursting brain, like the wild hunt of German story. Visions the most incongruous. Reminiscences of the old playing fields at Eton, mixed with odds and ends of books that he had read. Strange stories of blood and lust and crime that made him shudder, and long-forgotten jokes, that made him laugh. The names on the shops suggested all sorts of grotesque ideas. The cries of the cabmen and omnibus drivers were distorted into weird and ominous sounds. The very letters of the railway company’s monogram in his carriage seemed to have become twisted into a sentence of terrible meaning. He had fallen asleep for a few seconds during the journey, and had lived a hideous lifetime of torment in some dream, that made him wake in a cold sweat of mortal terror. But all these things were indistinct, a moving panorama behind one picture which never shifted.

Something—some name, or cry, or what not—had called to his mind a grim story of how one Madame Mazel had a servant named Le Brun, and how Le Brun had murdered the old woman one windy night, cutting her throat and cutting her hands, and stabbing her. There had been a picture in the book where he had read it,—a picture of a tumbled bed, with the bell-rope hung up high out of reach, and a man going out at the door looking back fearfully. This picture was before him wherever he turned. He could not dismiss it. No matter what wild fancies crowded on his brain, in the midst of them all, steady and immovable, rose the picture of the mangled woman and the tumbled bed with the bell-rope flung up out of reach; and against this silent terror the flying shadows of his thoughts broke and divided, like mists against a ghastly moon.

As he was borne onward through the night and rain, this horror began to freeze into a thought. He had started with purposes all undefined—with some idea, perhaps, of saving his wife and redeeming his honour. But in the whirlwind of his passion of hate and rage, he had begun to lose all thoughts of affection or of happiness. His hopes had been blasted, his future hopelessly broken and blackened, he could never look the world in the face again, and all the emotions of his soul had merged into one savage greed of revenge upon his destroyer. He scarcely thought of his wife. She was to him now but a name; and the memory of all that had passed since that fatal marriage morning seemed as a story told to him of another, or at best, but as some dimly-remembered event which had happened to him years ago, and with which his present life had no concern whatever. His mind was attuned to one key, and was dumb to all chords but one—revenge. He felt that he must see Dacre, must meet him face to face, must speak to him, and tell him how he hated him. His nervous fingers itched to be at his enemy’s throat; and yet when his mind pictured the struggle, the muttered curses, the blows and the blood, he shuddered and grew sick; and then ever out of his fear grew up the hideous picture.

But outwardly he was calm enough. He spoke quite quietly, and though his voice sounded strange in his own ears, it was steady and natural enough. He remembered afterwards, that of all the faces—porters, ticket-takers, passengers, cabmen—which he saw that night, he did not remember one. He moved and spoke as if in a dream,—a dream in which all life was a dream—the streets, the houses, the carriages, cabs, and people, all dream-begotten, that through this terrible city of phantoms he—dreaming also—was driven by some relentless power towards a solitary figure that had the outward appearance of Rupert Dacre, but was lying on a tumbled bed, with a bell-rope flung high up out of reach.

Long Odds - Contents    |     Chapter LIV - Certa Funera et Luctus

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