Long Odds

Chapter LIV

Certa Funera et Luctus

Marcus Clarke

BLAND, sitting by the sinking fire some half-hour, thinking of the future fate of the poor girl upstairs, who, ignorant of the battle fought in her behalf, and conscious only of the blessed sense of safety, had sobbed herself to sleep in her mother’s arms, was aroused by a violent knocking. He opened the door himself, and started when he saw the figure of Cyril standing on the step, as though it had risen suddenly out of the black bleak night.

Cyril came into the hall.

“Bland!” he said, in a tone of surprise.

“All is safe!” cries Bland, prompted by some wild hope that Cyril might be innocent after all, and unconscious of his friend’s villany.

Cyril, with eyes wandering from side to side, as if seeking for something, said, in an indifferent voice, “Where is Rupert Dacre?”

“Gone—thank God!” cries poor honest Bland.

Cyril passed his hand over his face. The tone was enough. He comprehended at once that by some chance Dacre had been stopped from carrying out his design—that he was not in the house—that he had escaped him.

“I want to see him,” he said, with that affectation of a distinct utterance which belongs to a man conscious of partial intoxication. “Do you know where he is?”

Bland blushed with anger.

“To see him! Do you know why he came here to-night? Good God, can men have become such scoundrels!”

Cyril did not seem to understand what was meant.

“Can you tell me where Dacre is?” he asked again, with a sort of dim consciousness in his own mind that he must not say too much, or stop too long, lest some imperceptible difference in his speech or manner should betray the secret purpose he clutched close in his breast.

The sight of him, calm, quiet, with hat pulled down over his brows, and arms pendant and motionless, suggested to the simple Bland no suspicion. It seemed to him that the inquiry was made in the most friendly spirit, and his whole gorge rose against it.

“Your accomplice is gone,” said he. “You had better follow him. Your wife—God help her!—is here, and where she is can be no fit place for you.”

He flung open the door again, and pointed out into the dismal night.

Cyril, going out into the darkness without a word, seemed at that moment to see high up in the watery ray of light—which the hall lamp of the house he turned his back on for ever, flung into the air before him—the figure of Le Brun with the knife in his hand—waiting.

At Oxford-street he dismissed the cab that had brought him from the station, and set out walking through the rain. It seemed to him that he would reach his destination quicker on foot; that the cab could not go fast enough, and that he must not shriek or shout to urge the driver to greater exertion. When he was by himself he could get on faster, and the exercise would tend to compose his mind. He was quite calm now. He seemed to be endowed with a sort of supernatural lucidity of intellect upon one point. As, by dint of constant staring at some bright object, the eye can recall its form and shape at will with startling distinctness, but can attentively examine nothing else before which the shadow of the form so imprinted in the brain does not fall and flicker; so, by dint of dwelling upon the one thought, Cyril had achieved a sort of abnormal power of grasping all its details, of tracing it through all its ramifications, of multiplying himself, so to speak, so that he could look at it at once from all its different points of vision; but that thought occupied his mind to the exclusion of all other thoughts, and the image which had suggested it grew out of his strained vision into as palpable a form as did the air-drawn dagger of the murderous Thane.

Fast over the wet and shining pavement he walked, and heeded not the sharp sleet and bursts of driving hail. The stream of human life passed on each side of him, and he heeded it not; for all he felt of human sympathy, he might have been the only human soul in all those roaring streets. He remembered afterwards some few events of that night. He remembered that he was asked for alms by a beggar crouching round the corner of some street; that, in turning, he had pushed her into the kennel, and that, with a sudden, bitter impatience of cold and wet, and starvation and hustling, she had cursed him. He remembered how he had stopped at one place—a boarding, behind which some street repairs were going on—and reading some advertisement, in blue and white (he remembered the colours distinctly), about a clipper ship to sail for Melbourne direct, on April the 15th, it had struck him dimly that the newspaper he had read that morning bore date of the 14th. He remembered wondering if he could purchase a passage sufficiently early on the morrow, and if he had enough money. Still moving, as it seemed to him, through a land of shadows, he went down to the Pegasus Club, and, hurrying into a writing-room, drew a cheque for fifty pounds, which he sent with a private note to the steward requesting cash, and for which a waiter brought him five crisp notes. Then, still moving through shadows, and hearing all voices indistinctly, he went out into the wet streets again, swiftly on to his destination.

With one pause. The hideous bed, with its bloody burden and tumbled sheets, was still present before him; and he thought, with a shudder, how Madame Mazel had clutched at the knife of the assassin in her death agony, and was found with hands hacked to the bone. He shuddered as he thought of the clean, dry steel sucking into the flesh of the old woman’s fingers, and realised the savage struggle in the dark, the wild reaching for the flung-up bell rope, the quick, desperate stabbing at the soft, wrinkled throat, and the gasping cries, that were choked in blood and gore. Le Brun was a clumsy fellow; why did he not strike suddenly, and without notice? One blow would have ended all. And the terrible picture of the Murderer looking round affrightedly, with the knife in his hand, rose up distinct and clear before him.

He stopped at a cutler’s shop in Holborn, and asked to see some pruning knives. The shop was bright and glittering. He remembered afterwards that a door opening into a room beyond, revealed the cutler’s wife, well-dressed and smiling, sitting by the fire, and that the cutler’s little daughter, rosy-cheeked and golden-haired, had been disturbed by his entry in ‘a good-night kiss. He liked none of the knives; they were too crooked. A curved blade was not so convenient. He saw some straight ones, and out of them picked a stout, buck-handled weapon, with a spring at the back to prevent its closing on the fingers. The cutler—with glances towards the little rosy face waiting to be kissed—wrapped it up, with some remark about the weather; but when Cyril got into the street he tore off the paper, and thrust his purchase into his breast. Looking up about this time, as he neared Brook-street, he saw, with some sort of terror, that all the lights were surrounded by a red ring, and that the wet pavement was the colour of blood.

The house was silent and dark. He rang and knocked quietly. After some delay, Harris appeared.

“Mr. Dacre in?”

Mr. Dacre had been in, but had gone out again. Might, perhaps, be back in an hour or so. It was now eleven o’clock. There was a letter come for him an hour ago from the ’Ouse. Any particular business? perhaps Mr. Chatteris would wait?

Mr. Chatteris, speaking in an automaton distinct way—Harris said afterwards that he thought he had been drinking—would wait; would go up stairs, he thought, and amuse himself with a book until Mr. Dacre returned. He knew the room—oh, yes—Harris could go to bed if he liked.

So Harris, who had got wet through in keeping his appointment with the milliner, conducted his master’s friend to his master’s room, put some more coal on the fire, placed the spirit case on the table, suggested that the water in the little bronze bull could be made hot in a moment by a hint of the spirit lamp, produced some of his master’s best cigars, and, with a gentle cough, retired, nothing loth, to his couch.

When he had gone, Cyril sat silent and motionless. He was incapable of reasoning farther. He had arrived at the end of his journey at last. He had come with but one object, and, until that object was achieved, he could do nothing. He seemed to possess a dual existence; to have two minds as it were. The one told him that he was about to commit a crime, the punishment of which was death, that he could not escape, that by his visits to St. John’s Wood, the club, the cutler’s shop, he had established a train of evidence that would infallibly lead to his capture. But he felt powerless to resist. It was as though some power, stronger than his own reason, was urging him on, as if he was the instrument of some terrible avenging Fate that whipped him along the bloody track of murder. From thinking upon the thing so long, it had driven him mad. He was mad for the time being; he knew it. His other mind, reasoning, reflecting, albeit dully and with difficulty, told him so. But he could not break the spell that was on him. His brain was burning. He seemed to feel it throb, not merely at his temples, but at the crown of his head. It seemed to be a sort of living creature, that leapt and gasped for breath, and swelled itself as if it would burst his skull. His hands were hot now, and dry, and quivering with a sort of electric sensitiveness. His heart beat slowly, with great, sullen pulsations that throbbed to the very extremity of his body. His eyesight was failing him, and everything he looked at was crimson. Pushing aside a large official letter addressed to the man whom he had come to seek, he drew the knife from his breast, laid it down ready to his hand; then, sitting amid the books and pictures and statues, the official despatch-boxes, the pink notes of compliment, the thousand elegancies, luxuries, and marks of worldly glorification and honour, which made up the sum of that happiness, to secure which the astute man of the world had plotted and schemed so assiduously; sitting with the letter which would give to Dacre the intelligence he had long hoped to hear, lying side by side with the shining knife, he waited. Waited with his head sunk on his breast, with one hand clenched on his knee, and the other playing nervously with the coarse, cruel hilt of the knife. Waited, with all the events of the past rolling past him like some wild phantasmagoria, with a weight on his brain, and the red mist ever before his eyes.

He remembered afterwards how the shutters had been left half open, and one cold, sullen ray of struggling moonlight pointed in at him like a finger, and glittered on the bright blade of the murderous steel. Long afterwards, in the dismal grey shadow of gum-tree trunks; in the bleak night, when the cry of the plover rose and fell dismally over long reaches of barren scrub and black morass; in the glare and heat of noon, when the blazing sun beat down through the shadowless waste of the Australian forest, he remembered that room and that night. In the murky silence that reigned around the dull swinging lamp of the outward-bound ship—labouring with creakings and groanings through the pitiless seas of the Cape—the ticking of that pretty clock-bauble would sound again in his ears and make him shudder. Amid the rough, delirious gaiety of the low dancing-halls and drinking-shops of the golden capital of the South, some casual sight or sound would bring back to him the luxurious splendour of that dainty chamber, and strike his brandy-heated blood cold with sudden terror. In the squalid misery of the “men’s hut” in some far away station, locked in ghastly reaches of mallee, or belted round with sandy deserts, grim and dangerous; sitting, perhaps, round the blazing wood-fire, while savage oath and hideous jest and mocking laugh went round; he would recall the appearance of that room as he had seen it last; would picture the soft curtains and the delicate colours, the gleaming statuettes, the rich books, all the wealth of luxe and splendour that belonged to that world from which he was for ever banished. But now he felt nothing, saw nothing, heard nothing. In the heart of that luxury, lapped in the soft glow of the fire, smiled at by the sweet faces of painter’s dreams, surrounded by all that could make life pleasurable, he waited with the horn handle of the murderous knife close to his hand.

At last, long past midnight, his quick ears heard the click of the opened latch. He noiselessly turned out the gas and, clutching the knife, drew himself up in the darkness ready to strike. In that awful interval, as he counted the ascending footsteps, he saw the hideous picture which had haunted him grow up again out of the darkness. The tumbled bed, the murderer with the knife, and over all, sharp, clear, distinct, close to his face, the flung-up bell rope dangling—like a Noose.

Mr. Rupert Dacre had driven off to his club. Once there, in the shining light, and among the old familiar faces, the bitter rage and shame of his humiliation wore off. He had felt it though at first. It was as though some master of fence, prepared to take his stand against all comers, had been disarmed and defeated by some stripling on whose chin the beard had not yet grown. He felt, as some brilliant wit of the salons might have felt, when an unknown provincial abbé or despised butt of the court had suddenly flashed out upon him with unanswerable sarcasm. He felt degraded in his own eyes, lowered in his own self-esteem. He had failed. With all the advantages of position and intellect, he had failed; he had been beaten in fair fight by a despised adversary, but this was all. There was no remorse for what he had done, no pity for the girl whom he had so nearly brought to shame, or the man whom his insidious plots and selfish scheming had urged to ruin. True to his creed, he cast away all thought of retribution, and, confident in himself, moved steadily onward towards his fate, whatever his fate might be. At the club, he found the old circle brimful of congratulation, ready with jest and compliment. The Chester Cup was all the theme, and Randon, who had expressly come down to give the most accurate information, was revelling in particulars.

“W-w-wonderful! B-b-b-bob’s horse! T-t-t-t-tre-m-mendous odds! I kn-kn-knew it! I p-preep-pre-d-dicted it! I own, I fuf-fufwankly own, I am a judge of h-horse flesh,” etc.

But over and above this Chester Cup, was the all absorbing topic of the Ministerial Crisis. The Nantwichian scheme had ripened into something like fruit at last. That night the blow was to be struck, and all well-informed London was on tiptoe of expectation. Moral Millington coming in, wrapped in a multitude of great coats, brought the first tidings. The Ministry had resigned! Dacre forgot all his losses. His creed was right after all. Self-interest had carried the day. To-morrow his patron would be Prime Minister of England, and a glorious vision of place and power rose before him. What did he care now for Carry’s love or Bland’s threats? What did he care for the fulminations of the righteous? He had chosen that good worldly part, and defied the sentimentality of canting religionists who averred that it could be taken from him. So he sat, and smoked, and chatted, unconscious of the figure waiting in his silent house, listening to the ticking of the dainty pendule.

Late at night he rose, and, with a last jest on his lips, rose to go. The smoking-room was laughing with well-bred delight at some last daring pleasantry—they got a little free in their jesting after midnight—as he nodded his good night. As he closed the heavy door he heard Grosmith say, in whispered answer to some question of some novus homo, “The most rising man in England, sir,—will be Under-Secretary within a week, sir,— Nantwich’s right-hand man;”—and as he heard, the old cynical smile came back to his lips again.

All the way home he thought of nothing but of his future greatness. He had won, after all—despite the little crosses and drawbacks. To-morrow he would be at the summit of his hopes. Not a shadow of coming evil fell on him, as he gaily mounted the stairs to where the man he had wronged was waiting. He would see if there were any letters for him. Perhaps fame and fortune awaited him behind that stained inch of panelled deal! Striking a match, he opened the door. The first thing that caught his eye was the large letter on the table. He could distinguish the well-known character of his chief, even at that distance. His appointment, beyond doubt! He had won, after all; and here was the stake he had played for. He stepped into the room with hand outstretched, eager to grasp the prize. But ere his fingers could close upon it, a sudden, terrible instinct of a strange presence in the room seized him, and, without knowing why, he wheeled round to the door. At that instant—with a low, hoarse cry and knife upraised—the waiting assassin leapt out upon him, and as the expiring match dropped from his hand, its blue flickering flame showed him for one single second the white face and blood-shot eyes of Cyril Chatteris.

Mr. Harris, in the room above, awoke from some pleasant dream of a West End hotel, of which he was owner—awoke with a start, and in a cold sweat of deadliest terror. Something had happened, he knew not what. He had some memory of a cry and a crash as of an overturned table; but sitting up, listening aghast in the darkness, he heard nothing save the house-door bang suddenly, and then remembering that Mr. Chatteris had waited for his master, he rolled the bed-clothes round him, with a muttered curse at his former fears, and went to sleep again.

Long Odds - Contents    |     Chapter LV - Smoke

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