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Moonfleet/Chapter 9

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CHAPTER 9
A JUDGEMENT

Let them fight it out, friend. Things have gone too far,
God must judge the couple: leave them as they are—Browning


I made as if I would follow the others, not wishing to see what I must see if I stayed behind, and knowing that I was powerless to bend Elzevir from his purpose. But he called me back and bade me wait with him, for that I might be useful by and by. So I waited, but was only able to make a dreadful guess at how I might be of use, and feared the worst.

Maskew sat on the sward with his hands lashed tight behind his back, and his feet tied in front. They had set him with his shoulders against a great block of weather-worn stone that was half-buried and half-stuck up out of the turf. There he sat keeping his eyes on the ground, and was breathing less painfully than when he was first brought, but still very pale. Elzevir stood with the lanthorn in his hand, looking at Maskew with a fixed gaze, and we could hear the hoofs of the heavy-laden horses beating up the path, till they turned a corner, and all was still.

The silence was broken by Maskew: 'Unloose me, villain, and let me go. I am a magistrate of the county, and if you do not, I will have you gibbeted on this cliff-top.'

They were brave words enough, yet seemed to me but bad play-acting; and brought to my remembrance how, when I was a little fellow, Mr. Glennie once made me recite a battle-piece of Mr. Dryden before my betters; and how I could scarce get out the bloody threats for shyness and rising tears. So it was with Maskew's words; for he had much ado to gather breath to say them, and they came in a thin voice that had no sting of wrath or passion in it.

Then Elzevir spoke to him, not roughly, but resolved; and yet with melancholy, like a judge sentencing a prisoner:

'Talk not to me of gibbets, for thou wilt neither hang nor see men hanged again. A month ago thou satst under my roof, watching the flame burn down till the pin dropped and gave thee right to turn me out from my old home. And now this morning thou shalt watch that flame again, for I will give thee one inch more of candle, and when the pin drops, will put this thine own pistol to thy head, and kill thee with as little thought as I would kill a stoat or other vermin.'

Then he opened the lanthorn slide, took out from his neckcloth that same pin with the onyx head which he had used in the Why Not? and fixed it in the tallow a short inch from the top, setting the lanthorn down upon the sward in front of Maskew.

As for me, I was dismayed beyond telling at these words, and made giddy with the revulsion of feeling; for, whereas, but a few minutes ago, I would have thought nothing too bad for Maskew, now I was turned round to wish he might come off with his life, and to look with terror upon Elzevir.

It had grown much lighter, but not yet with the rosy flush of sunrise; only the stars had faded out, and the deep blue of the night given way to a misty grey. The light was strong enough to let all things be seen, but not to call the due tints back to them. So I could see cliffs and ground, bushes and stones and sea, and all were of one pearly grey colour, or rather they were colourless; but the most colourless and greyest thing of all was Maskew's face. His hair had got awry, and his head showed much balder than when it was well trimmed; his face, too, was drawn with heavy lines, and there were rings under his eyes. Beside all that, he had got an ugly fall in trying to escape, and one cheek was muddied, and down it trickled a blood-drop where a stone had cut him. He was a sorry sight enough, and looking at him, I remembered that day in the schoolroom when this very man had struck the parson, and how our master had sat patient under it, with a blood-drop trickling down his cheek too. Maskew kept his eyes fixed for a long time on the ground, but raised them at last, and looked at me with a vacant yet pity-seeking look. Now, till that moment I had never seen a trace of Grace in his features, nor of him in hers; and yet as he gazed at me then, there was something of her present in his face, even battered as it was, so that it seemed as if she looked at me behind his eyes. And that made me the sorrier for him, and at last I felt I could not stand by and see him done to death.

When Elzevir had stuck the pin into the candle he never shut the slide again; and though no wind blew, there was a light breath moving in the morning off the sea, that got inside the lanthorn and set the flame askew. And so the candle guttered down one side till but little tallow was left above the pin; for though the flame grew pale and paler to the view in the growing morning light, yet it burnt freely all the time. So at last there was left, as I judged, but a quarter of an hour to run before the pin should fall, and I saw that Maskew knew this as well as I, for his eyes were fixed on the lanthorn.

At last he spoke again, but the brave words were gone, and the thin voice was thinner. He had dropped threats, and was begging piteously for his life. 'Spare me,' he said; 'spare me, Mr. Block: I have an only daughter, a young girl with none but me to guard her. Would you rob a young girl of her only help and cast her on the world? Would you have them find me dead upon the cliff and bring me back to her a bloody corpse?'

Then Elzevir answered: 'And had I not an only son, and was he not brought back to me a bloody corpse? Whose pistol was it that flashed in his face and took his life away? Do you not know? It was this very same that shall flash in yours. So make what peace you may with God, for you have little time to make it.'

With that he took the pistol from the ground where it had lain, and turning his back on Maskew, walked slowly to and fro among the bramble-plumps.

Though Maskew's words about his daughter seemed but to feed Elzevir's anger, by leading him to think of David, they sank deep in my heart; and if it had seemed a fearful thing before to stand by and see a fellow-creature butchered, it seemed now ten thousand times more fearful. And when I thought of Grace, and what such a deed would mean to her, my pulse beat so fierce that I must needs spring to my feet and run to reason with Elzevir, and tell him this must not be.

He was still walking among the bushes when I found him, and let me say my say till I was out of breath, and bore with me if I talked fast, and if my tongue outran my judgement.

'Thou hast a warm heart, lad,' he said, 'and 'tis for that I like thee. And if thou hast a chief place in thy heart for me, I cannot grumble if thou find a little room there even for our enemies. Would I could set thy soul at ease, and do all that thou askest. In the first flush of wrath, when he was taken plotting against our lives, it seemed a little thing enough to take his evil life. But now these morning airs have cooled me, and it goes against my will to shoot a cowering hound tied hand and foot, even though he had murdered twenty sons of mine. I have thought if there be any way to spare his life, and leave this hour's agony to read a lesson not to be unlearned until the grave. For such poltroons dread death, and in one hour they die a hundred times. But there is no way out: his life lies in the scale against the lives of all our men, yes, and thy life too. They left him in my hands well knowing I should take account of him; and am I now to play them false and turn him loose again to hang them all? It cannot be.'

Still I pleaded hard for Maskew's life, hanging on Elzevir's arm, and using every argument that I could think of to soften his purpose; but he pushed me off; and though I saw that he was loth to do it, I had a terrible conviction that he was not a man to be turned back from his resolve, and would go through with it to the end.

We came back together from the brambles to the piece of sward, and there sat Maskew where we had left him with his back against the stone. Only, while we were away he had managed to wriggle his watch out of the fob, and it lay beside him on the turf, tied to him with a black silk riband. The face of it was turned upwards, and as I passed I saw the hand pointed to five. Sunrise was very near; for though the cliff shut out the east from us, the west over Portland was all aglow with copper-red and gold, and the candle burnt low. The head of the pin was drooping, though very slightly, but as I saw it droop a month before, and I knew that the final act was not far off.

Maskew knew it too, for he made his last appeal, using such passionate words as I cannot now relate, and wriggling with his body as if to get his hands from behind his back and hold them up in supplication. He offered money; a thousand, five thousand, ten thousand pounds to be set free; he would give back the Why Not?; he would leave Moonfleet; and all the while the sweat ran down his furrowed face, and at last his voice was choked with sobs, for he was crying for his life in craven fear.

He might have spoken to a deaf man for all he moved his judge; and Elzevir's answer was to cock the pistol and prime the powder in the pan.

Then I stuck my fingers in my ears and shut my eyes, that I might neither see nor hear what followed, but in a second changed my mind and opened them again, for I had made a great resolve to stop this matter, come what might.

Maskew was making a dreadful sound between a moan and strangled cry; it almost seemed as if he thought that there were others by him beside Elzevir and me, and was shouting to them for help. The sun had risen, and his first rays blazed on a window far away in the west on top of Portland Island, and then there was a tinkle in the inside of the lanthorn, and the pin fell.

Elzevir looked full at Maskew, and raised his pistol; but before he had time to take aim, I dashed upon him like a wild cat, springing on his right arm, and crying to him to stop. It was an unequal struggle, a lad, though full-grown and lusty, against one of the powerfullest of men, but indignation nerved my arms, and his were weak, because he doubted of his right. So 'twas with some effort that he shook me off, and in the struggle the pistol was fired into the air.

Then I let go of him, and stumbled for a moment, tired with that bout, but pleased withal, because I saw what peace even so short a respite had brought to Maskew. For at the pistol shot 'twas as if a mask of horror had fallen from his face, and left him his old countenance again; and then I saw he turned his eyes towards the cliff-top, and thought that he was looking up in thankfulness to heaven.

But now a new thing happened; for before the echoes of that pistol-shot had died on the keen morning air, I thought I heard a noise of distant shouting, and looked about to see whence it could come. Elzevir looked round too, but Maskew forgetting to upbraid me for making him miss his aim, still kept his face turned up towards the cliff. Then the voices came nearer, and there was a mingled sound as of men shouting to one another, and gathering in from different places. 'Twas from the cliff-top that the voices came, and thither Elzevir and I looked up, and there too Maskew kept his eyes fixed. And in a moment there were a score of men stood on the cliff's edge high above our heads. The sky behind them was pink flushed with the keenest light of the young day, and they stood out against it sharp cut and black as the silhouette of my mother that used to hang up by the parlour chimney. They were soldiers, and I knew the tall mitre-caps of the 13th, and saw the shafts of light from the sunrise come flashing round their bodies, and glance off the barrels of their matchlocks.

I knew it all now; it was the Posse who had lain in ambush. Elzevir saw it too, and then all shouted at once. 'Yield at the King's command: you are our prisoners!' calls the voice of one of those black silhouettes, far up on the cliff-top.

'We are lost,' cries Elzevir; 'it is the Posse; but if we die, this traitor shall go before us,' and he makes towards Maskew to brain him with the pistol.

'Shoot, shoot, in the Devil's name,' screams Maskew, 'or I am a dead man.'

Then there came a flash of fire along the black line of silhouettes, with a crackle like a near peal of thunder, and a fut, fut, fut, of bullets in the turf. And before Elzevir could get at him, Maskew had fallen over on the sward with a groan, and with a little red hole in the middle of his forehead.

'Run for the cliff-side,' cried Elzevir to me; 'get close in, and they cannot touch thee,' and he made for the chalk wall. But I had fallen on my knees like a bullock felled by a pole-axe, and had a scorching pain in my left foot. Elzevir looked back. 'What, have they hit thee too?' he said, and ran and picked me up like a child. And then there is another flash and fut, fut, in the turf; but the shots find no billet this time, and we are lying close against the cliff, panting but safe.