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CHAPTER IX - TELLS HOW NORTHMOUR CARRIED OUT HIS THREAT
I should have the greatest difficulty to tell you what followed next after this tragic circumstance. It is all to me, as I look back upon it, mixed, strenuous, and ineffectual, like the struggles of a sleeper in a nightmare. Clara, I remember, uttered a broken sigh and would have fallen forward to earth, had not Northmour and I supported her insensible body. I do not think we were attacked; I do not remember even to have seen an assailant; and I believe we deserted Mr. Huddlestone without a glance. I only remember running like a man in a panic, now carrying Clara altogether in my own arms, now sharing her weight with Northmour, now scuffling confusedly for the possession of that dear burden. Why we should have made for my camp in the Hemlock Den, or how we reached it, are points lost for ever to my recollection. The first moment at which I became definitely sure, Clara had been suffered to fall against the outside of my little tent, Northmour and I were tumbling together on the ground, and he, with contained ferocity, was striking for my head with the butt of his revolver. He had already twice wounded me on the scalp; and it is to the consequent loss of blood that I am tempted to attribute the sudden clearness of my mind.
I caught him by the wrist.
"Northmour," I remember saying, "you can kill me afterwards. Let us first attend to Clara."
He was at that moment uppermost. Scarcely had the words passed my lips, when he had leaped to his feet and ran towards the tent; and the next moment, he was straining Clara to his heart and covering her unconscious hands and face with his caresses.
"Shame!" I cried. "Shame to you, Northmour!"
And, giddy though I still was, I struck him repeatedly upon the head and shoulders.
He relinquished his grasp, and faced me in the broken moonlight.
"I had you under, and I let you go," said he; "and now you strike me! Coward!"
"You are the coward," I retorted. "Did she wish your kisses while she was still sensible of what she wanted? Not she! And now she may be dying; and you waste this precious time, and abuse her helplessness. Stand aside, and let me help her."
He confronted me for a moment, white and menacing; then suddenly he stepped aside.
"Help her then," said he.
I threw myself on my knees beside her, and loosened, as well as I was able, her dress and corset; but while I was thus engaged, a grasp descended on my shoulder.
"Keep your hands of her," said Northmour fiercely. "Do you think I have no blood in my veins?"
"Northmour," I cried, "if you will neither help her yourself, nor let me do so, do you know that I shall have to kill you?"
"That is better!" he cried. "Let her die also, where's the harm? Step aside from that girl! and stand up to fight"
"You will observe," said I, half rising, "that I have not kissed her yet."
"I dare you to," he cried.
I do not know what possessed me; it was one of the things I am most ashamed of in my life, though, as my wife used to say, I knew that my kisses would be always welcome were she dead or living; down I fell again upon my knees, parted the hair from her forehead, and, with the dearest respect, laid my lips for a moment on that cold brow. It was such a caress as a father might have given; it was such a one as was not unbecoming from a man soon to die to a woman already dead.
"And now," said I, "I am at your service, Mr. Northmour."
But I saw, to my surprise, that he had turned his back upon me.
"Do you hear?" I asked.
"Yes," said he, "I do. If you wish to fight, I am ready. If not, go on and save Clara. All is one to me."
I did not wait to be twice bidden; but, stooping again over Clara, continued my efforts to revive her. She still lay white and lifeless; I began to fear that her sweet spirit had indeed fled beyond recall, and horror and a sense of utter desolation seized upon my heart. I called her by name with the most endearing inflections; I chafed and beat her hands; now I laid her head low, now supported it against my knee; but all seemed to be in vain, and the lids still lay heavy on her eyes.
"Northmour," I said, "there is my hat. For God's sake bring some water from the spring."
Almost in a moment he was by my side with the water. "I have brought it in my own," he said. "You do not grudge me the privilege?"
"Northmour," I was beginning to say, as I laved her head and breast; but he interrupted me savagely.
"Oh, you hush up!" he said. "The best thing you can do is to say nothing."
I had certainly no desire to talk, my mind being swallowed up in concern for my dear love and her condition; so I continued in silence to do my best towards her recovery, and, when the hat was empty, returned it to him, with one word - "More." He had, perhaps, gone several times upon this errand, when Clara reopened her eyes.
"Now," said he, "since she is better, you can spare me, can you not? I wish you a good night, Mr. Cassilis."
And with that he was gone among the thicket. I made a fire, for I had now no fear of the Italians, who had even spared all the little possessions left in my encampment; and, broken as she was by the excitement and the hideous catastrophe of the evening, I managed, in one way or another - by persuasion, encouragement, warmth, and such simple remedies as I could lay my hand on - to bring her back to some composure of mind and strength of body.
Day had already come, when a sharp "Hist!" sounded from the thicket. I started from the ground; but the voice of Northmour was heard adding, in the most tranquil tones: "Come here, Cassilis, and alone; I want to show you something."
I consulted Clara with my eyes, and, receiving her tacit permission, left her alone, and clambered out of the den. At some distance of I saw Northmour leaning against an elder; and, as soon as he perceived me, he began walking seaward. I had almost overtaken him as he reached the outskirts of the wood.
"Look," said he, pausing.
A couple of steps more brought me out of the foliage. The light of the morning lay cold and clear over that well-known scene. The pavilion was but a blackened wreck; the roof had fallen in, one of the gables had fallen out; and, far and near, the face of the links was cicatrised with little patches of burnt furze. Thick smoke still went straight upwards in the windless air of the morning, and a great pile of ardent cinders filled the bare walls of the house, like coals in an open grate. Close by the islet a schooner yacht lay to, and a well-manned boat was pulling vigorously for the shore.
"The RED EARL!" I cried. "The RED EARL twelve hours too late!"
"Feel in your pocket, Frank. Are you armed?" asked Northmour.
I obeyed him, and I think I must have become deadly pale. My revolver had been taken from me.
"You see I have you in my power," he continued. "I disarmed you last night while you were nursing Clara; but this morning - here take your pistol. No thanks!" he cried, holding up his hand. "I do not like them; that is the only way you can annoy me now."
He began to walk forward across the links to meet the boat, and I followed a step or two behind. In front of the pavilion I paused to see where Mr. Huddlestone had fallen; but there was no sign of him, nor so much as a trace of blood.
"Graden Floe," said Northmour.
He continued to advance till we had come to the head of the beach.
"No farther, please," said he. "Would you like to take her to Graden House?"
"Thank you," replied I; "I shall try to get her to the minister's at Graden Wester."
The prow of the boat here grated on the beach, and a sailor jumped ashore with a line in his hand.
"Wait a minute, lads!" cried Northmour; and then lower and to my private ear: "You had better say nothing of all this to her," he added.
"On the contrary!" I broke out, "she shall know everything that I can tell."
"You do not understand," he returned, with an air of great dignity. "It will be nothing to her; she expects it of me. Good-bye!" he added, with a nod.
I offered him my hand.
"Excuse me," said he. "It's small, I know; but I can't push things quite so far as that. I don't wish any sentimental business, to sit by your hearth a white-haired wanderer, and all that. Quite the contrary: I hope to God I shall never again clap eyes on either one of you."
"Well, God bless you, Northmour!" I said heartily.
"Oh, yes," he returned.
He walked down the beach; and the man who was ashore gave him an arm on board, and then shoved off and leaped into the bows himself. Northmour took the tiller; the boat rose to the waves, and the oars between the thole-pins sounded crisp and measured in the morning air.
They were not yet half-way to the RED EARL, and I was still watching their progress, when the sun rose out of the sea.
One word more, and my story is done. Years after, Northmour was killed fighting under the colours of Garibaldi for the liberation of the Tyrol.
Turn to the next chapter: A LODGING FOR THE NIGHT - A STORY OF FRANCIS VILLON