The Great Shadow/Chapter 8

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Chapter VIII: The Coming of the Cutter[edit]

Never felt quite the same to our lodger after that little business at the Peel Castle. It was always in my mind that he was holding a secret from me -- indeed, that he was all a secret together, seeing that he always hung a veil over his past. And when by chance that veil was for an instant whisked away, we always caught just a glimpse of something bloody and violent and dreadful upon the other side. The very look of his body was terrible. I bathed with him once in the summer, and I saw then that he was haggled with wounds all over. Besides seven or eight scars and slashes, his ribs on one side were all twisted out of shape, and a part of one of his calves had been torn away. He laughed in his merry way when he saw my face of wonder.

"Cossacks! Cossacks!" said he, running his hand over his scars. "And the ribs were broke by an artillery tumbril. It is very bad to have the guns pass over one. Now with cavalry it is nothing. A horse will pick its steps however fast it may go. I have been ridden over by fifteen hundred cuirassiers and by the Russian hussars of Grodno, and I had no harm from that. But guns are very bad."

"And the calf?" I asked.

"Pouf! It is only a wolf bite," said he. "You would not think how I came by it! You will understand that my horse and I had been struck, the horse killed, and I with my ribs broken by the tumbril. Well, it was cold -- oh, bitter, bitter! -- the ground like iron, and no one to help the wounded, so that they froze into such shapes as would make you smile. I too felt that I was freezing, so what did I do? I took my sword, and I opened my dead horse, so well as I could, and I made space in him for me to lie, with one little hole for my mouth. Sapristi! It was warm enough there. But there was not room for the entire of me, so my feet and part of my legs stuck out. Then in the night, when I slept, there came the wolves to eat the horse, and they had a little pinch of me also, as you can see; but after that I was on guard with my pistols, and they had no more of me. There I lived, very warm and nice, for ten days?"

"Ten days I cried. "What did you eat?"

"Why, I ate the horse. It was what you call board and lodging to me. But of course I have sense to eat the legs, and live in the body. There were many dead about who had all their water bottles, so I had all I could wish. And on the eleventh day there came a patrol of light cavalry, and all was well."

It was by such chance chats as these -- hardly worth repeating in themselves -- that there came light upon himself and his past. But the day was coming when we should know all and how it came I shall try now to tell you.

The winter had been a dreary one, but with March came the first signs of spring, and for a week on end we had sunshine and winds from the south. On the 7th Jim Horscroft was to come back from Edinburgh; for though the session ended with the 1st, his examination would take him a week. Edie and I were out walking on the sea beach on the 6th, and I could talk of nothing but my old friend -- for, indeed, he was the only friend of my own age that I had at that time. Edie was very silent, which was a rare thing with her; but she listened smiling to all that I had to say.

"Poor old Jim!" said she once or twice under her breath. "Poor old Jim!"

"And if he has passed," said I, "why, then of course he will put up his plate and have his own house, and we shall be losing our Edie."

I tried to make a jest of it and to speak lightly, but the words still stuck in my throat.

"Poor old Jim!" said she again, and there were tears in her eyes as she said it. "And poor old Jock!" she added, slipping her hand into mine as we walked. "You cared for me a little bit once also, didn't you, Jock? Oh, is not that a sweet little ship out yonder!"

It was a dainty cutter of about thirty tons, very swift by the rake of her masts and the lines of her bow. She was coming up from the south under jib, foresail, and mainsail; but even as we watched her all her white canvas shut suddenly in, like a kittiewake closing her wings, and we saw the splash of her, anchor just under her bowsprit. She may have been rather less than a quarter of a mile from the shore-so near that I could see a tall man with a peaked cap, who stood at the quarter with a telescope to his eye, sweeping it backwards and forwards along the coast.

"What can they want here?" asked Edie.

"They are rich English from London," said I; for that was how we explained everything that was above our comprehension in the border counties. We stood for the best part of an hour watching the bonny craft, and then, as the sun was lying low on a cloudbank and there was a nip in the evening air, we turned back to West Inch.

As you come to the farmhouse from the front, you pass up a garden, with little enough in it, which leads out by a wicket-gate to the road; the same gate at which we stood on the night when the beacons were lit, the night that we saw Walter Scott ride past on his way to Edinburgh. On the right of this gate, on the garden side, was a bit of a rockery which was said to have been made by my father's mother many years before. She had fashioned it out of water-worn stones and sea shells, with mosses and ferns in the chinks. Well, as we came in through the gates my eyes fell upon this stone heap, and there was a letter stuck in a cleft stick upon the top of it. I took a step forward to see what it was, but Edie sprang in front of me, and plucking it off she thrust it into her pocket.

"That's for me," said she, laughing.

But I stood looking at her with a face which drove the laugh from her lips.

"Who is it from, Edie?" I asked.

She pouted, but made no answer.

"Who is it from, woman?" I cried. "Is it possible that you have been as false to Jim as you were to me?"

"How rude you are, Jock!" she cried. "I do wish that you would mind your own business."

"There is only one person that it could be from," I cried. "It is from this man de Lapp!"

"And suppose that you are right, Jock?"

The coolness of the woman amazed and enraged me.

"You confess it!" I cried. "Have you, then, no shame left?"

"Why should I not receive letters from this gentleman?"

"Because it is infamous."

"And why?"

"Because he is a stranger."

"On the contrary," said she, "he is my husband!"