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CHAPTER VI - TELLS OF MY INTRODUCTION TO THE TALL MAN
We were admitted to the pavilion by Clara, and I was surprised by the completeness and security of the defences. A barricade of great strength, and yet easy to displace, supported the door against Any violence from without; and the shutters of the diningroom, into which I was led directly, and which was feebly illuminated by a lamp, were even more elaborately fortified. The panels were strengthened by bars and cross-bars; and these, in their turn, were kept in position by a system of braces and struts, some abutting on the floor, some on the roof, and others, in fine, against the opposite wall of the apartment. It was at once a solid and well-designed piece of carpentry; and I did not seek to conceal my admiration.
"I am the engineer," said Northmour. "You remember the planks in the garden? Behold them?"
"I did not know you had so many talents," said I.
"Are you armed?" he continued, pointing to an array of guns and pistols, all in admirable order, which stood in line against the wall or were displayed upon the sideboard.
"Thank you," I returned; "I have gone armed since our last encounter. But, to tell you the truth, I have had nothing to eat since early yesterday evening."
Northmour produced some cold meat, to which I eagerly set myself, and a bottle of good Burgundy, by which, wet as I was, I did not scruple to profit. I have always been an extreme temperance man on principle; but it is useless to push principle to excess, and on this occasion I believe that I finished three-quarters of the bottle. As I ate, I still continued to admire the preparations for defence.
"We could stand a siege," I said at length.
"Ye-es," drawled Northmour; "a very little one, per-haps. It is not so much the strength of the pavilion I misdoubt; it is the doubled anger that kills me. If we get to shooting, wild as the country is some one is sure to hear it, and then - why then it's the same thing, only different, as they say: caged by law, or killed by CARBONARI. There's the choice. It is a devilish bad thing to have the law against you in this world, and so I tell the old gentleman upstairs. He is quite of my way of thinking."
"Speaking of that," said I, "what kind of person is he?"
"Oh, he!" cried the other; "he's a rancid fellow, as far as he goes. I should like to have his neck wrung to-morrow by all the devils in Italy. I am not in this affair for him. You take me? I made a bargain for Missy's hand, and I mean to have it too."
"That by the way," said I. "I understand. But how will Mr. Huddlestone take my intrusion?"
"Leave that to Clara," returned Northmour.
I could have struck him in the face for this coarse familiarity; but I respected the truce, as, I am bound to say, did Northmour, and so long as the danger continued not a cloud arose in our relation. I bear him this testimony with the most unfeigned satisfaction; nor am I without pride when I look back upon my own behaviour. For surely no two men were ever left in a position so invidious and irritating.
As soon as I had done eating, we proceeded to inspect the lower floor. Window by window we tried the different supports, now and then making an inconsiderable change; and the strokes of the hammer sounded with startling loudness through the house. I proposed, I remember, to make loop-holes; but he told me they were already made in the windows of the upper story. It was an anxious business this inspection, and left me down-hearted. There were two doors and five windows to protect, and, counting Clara, only four of us to defend them against an unknown number of foes. I communicated my doubts to Northmour, who assured me, with unmoved composure, that he entirely shared them.
"Before morning," said he, "we shall all be butchered and buried in Graden Floe. For me, that is written."
I could not help shuddering at the mention of the quicksand, but reminded Northmour that our enemies had spared me in the wood.
"Do not flatter yourself," said he. "Then you were not in the same boat with the old gentleman; now you are. It's the floe for all of us, mark my words."
I trembled for Clara; and just then her dear voice was heard calling us to come upstairs. Northmour showed me the way, and, when he had reached the landing, knocked at the door of what used to be called MY UNCLE'S BEDROOM, as the founder of the pavilion had designed it especially for himself.
"Come in, Northmour; come in, dear Mr. Cassilis," said a voice from within.
Pushing open the door, Northmour admitted me before him into the apartment. As I came in I could see the daughter slipping out by the side door into the study, which had been prepared as her bedroom. In the bed, which was drawn back against the wall, instead of standing, as I had last seen it, boldly across the window, sat Bernard Huddlestone, the defaulting banker. Little as I had seen of him by the shifting light of the lantern on the links, I had no difficulty in recognising him for the same. He had a long and sallow countenance, surrounded by a long red beard and side whiskers. His broken nose and high cheekbones gave him somewhat the air of a Kalmuck, and his light eyes shone with the excitement of a high fever. He wore a skull-cap of black silk; a huge Bible lay open before him on the bed, with a pair of gold spectacles in the place, and a pile of other books lay on the stand by his side. The green curtains lent a cadaverous shade to his cheek; and, as he sat propped on pillows, his great stature was painfully hunched, and his head protruded till it overhung his knees. I believe if he had not died otherwise, he must have fallen a victim to consumption in the course of but a very few weeks.
He held out to me a hand, long, thin, and disagreeably hairy.
"Come in, come in, Mr. Cassilis," said he. "Another protector ahem! - another protector. Always welcome as a friend of my daughter's, Mr. Cassilis. How they have rallied about me, my daughter's friends! May God in heaven bless and reward them for it!"
I gave him my hand, of course, because I could not help it; but the sympathy I had been prepared to feel for Clara's father was immediately soured by his appearance, and the wheedling, unreal tones in which he spoke.
"Cassilis is a good man," said Northmour; "worth ten."
"So I hear," cried Mr. Huddlestone eagerly "so my girl tells me. Ah, Mr. Cassilis, my sin has found me out, you see! I am very low, very low; but I hope equally penitent. We must all come to the throne of grace at last, Mr. Cassilis. For my part, I come late indeed; but with unfeigned humility, I trust."
"Fiddle-de-dee!" said Northmour roughly.
"No, no, dear Northmour!" cried the banker. "You must not say that; you must not try to shake me. You forget, my dear, good boy, you forget I may be called this very night before my Maker."
His excitement was pitiful to behold; and I felt myself grow indignant with Northmour, whose infidel opinions I well knew, and heartily derided, as he continued to taunt the poor sinner out of his humour of repentance.
"Pooh, my dear Huddlestone!" said he. "You do yourself injustice. You are a man of the world inside and out, and were up to all kinds of mischief before I was born. Your conscience is tanned like South American leather - only you forgot to tan your liver, and that, if you will believe me, is the seat of the annoyance."
"Rogue, rogue! bad boy!" said Mr. Huddlestone, shaking his finger. "I am no precisian, if you come to that; I always hated a precisian; but I never lost hold of something better through it all. I have been a bad boy, Mr. Cassilis; I do not seek to deny that; but it was after my wife's death, and you know, with a widower, it's a different thing: sinful - I won't say no; but there is a gradation, we shall hope. And talking of that - Hark!" he broke out suddenly, his hand raised, his fingers spread, his face racked with interest and terror. "Only the rain, bless God!" he added, after a pause, and with indescribable relief.
For some seconds he lay back among the pillows like a man near to fainting; then he gathered himself together, and, in somewhat tremulous tones, began once more to thank me for the share I was prepared to take in his defence.
"One question, sir," said I, when he had paused. "Is it true that you have money with you?"
He seemed annoyed by the question, but admitted with reluctance that he had a little.
"Well," I continued, "it is their money they are after, is it not? Why not give it up to them?"
"Ah!" replied he, shaking his head, "I have tried that already, Mr. Cassilis; and alas that it should be so! but it is blood they want."
"Huddlestone, that's a little less than fair," said Northmour. "You should mention that what you offered them was upwards of two hundred thousand short. The deficit is worth a reference; it is for what they call a cool sum, Frank. Then, you see, the fellows reason in their clear Italian way; and it seems to them, as indeed it seems to me, that they may just as well have both while they're about it - money and blood together, by George, and no more trouble for the extra pleasure."
"Is it in the pavilion?" I asked.
"It is; and I wish it were in the bottom of the sea instead," said Northmour; and then suddenly - "What are you making faces at me for?" he cried to Mr. Huddlestone, on whom I had unconsciously turned my back. "Do you think Cassilis would sell you?"
Mr. Huddlestone protested that nothing had been further from his mind.
"It is a good thing," retorted Northmour in his ugliest manner. "You might end by wearying us. What were you going to say?" he added, turning to me.
"I was going to propose an occupation for the afternoon,'' said I. "Let us carry that money out, piece by piece, and lay it down before the pavilion door. If the CARBONARI come, why, it's theirs at any rate."
"No, no," cried Mr. Huddlestone; "it does not, it cannot belong to them! It should be distributed PRO RATA among all my creditors."
"Come now, Huddlestone," said Northmour, "none of that."
"Well, but my daughter," moaned the wretched man.
"Your daughter will do well enough. Here are two suitors, Cassilis and I, neither of us beggars, between whom she has to choose. And as for yourself, to make an end of arguments, you have no right to a farthing, and, unless I'm much mistaken, you are going to die."
It was certainly very cruelly said; but Mr. Huddlestone was a man who attracted little sympathy; and, although I saw him wince and shudder, I mentally endorsed the rebuke; nay, I added a contribution of my own.
"Northmour and I," I said, "are willing enough to help you to save your life, but not to escape with stolen property."
He struggled for a while with himself, as though he were on the point of giving way to anger, but prudence had the best of the controversy.
"My dear boys," he said, "do with me or my money what you will. I leave all in your hands. Let me compose myself."
And so we left him, gladly enough I am sure. The last that I saw, he had once more taken up his great Bible, and with tremulous hands was adjusting his spectacles to read.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER VII - TELLS HOW A WORD WAS CRIED THROUGH THE PAVILION WINDOW