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The Great Shadow

The Great Shadow

Arthur Conan Doyle

Update: 2020-04-22

Chapter 1 The Night of the Beacons

  • It is strange to me, Jock Calder of West Inch, to feel that though now, in th_ery centre of the nineteenth century, I am but five-and-fifty years of age,
  • and though it is only once in a week perhaps that my wife can pluck out _ittle grey bristle from over my ear, yet I have lived in a time when th_houghts and the ways of men were as different as though it were anothe_lanet from this. For when I walk in my fields I can see, down Berwick way,
  • the little fluffs of white smoke which tell me of this strange new hundred-
  • legged beast, with coals for food and a thousand men in its belly, for eve_rawling over the border. On a shiny day I can see the glint of the brass wor_s it takes the curve near Corriemuir; and then, as I look out to sea, ther_s the same beast again, or a dozen of them maybe, leaving a trail of black i_he air and of white in the water, and swimming in the face of the wind a_asily as a salmon up the Tweed. Such a sight as that would have struck m_ood old father speechless with wrath as well as surprise; for he was s_tricken with the fear of offending the Creator that he was chary o_ontradicting Nature, and always held the new thing to be nearly akin to th_lasphemous. As long as God made the horse, and a man down Birmingham way th_ngine, my good old dad would have stuck by the saddle and the spurs.
  • But he would have been still more surprised had he seen the peace an_indliness which reigns now in the hearts of men, and the talk in the paper_nd at the meetings that there is to be no more war — save, of course, wit_lacks and such like. For when he died we had been fighting with scarce _reak, save only during two short years, for very nearly a quarter of _entury. Think of it, you who live so quietly and peacefully now! Babies wh_ere born in the war grew to be bearded men with babies of their own, an_till the war continued. Those who had served and fought in their stalwar_rime grew stiff and bent, and yet the ships and the armies were struggling.
  • it was no wonder that folk came at last to look upon it as the natural state,
  • and thought how queer it must seem to be at peace. During that long time w_ought the Dutch, we fought the Danes, we fought the Spanish, we fought th_urks, we fought the Americans, we fought the Monte-Videans, until it seeme_hat in this universal struggle no race was too near of kin, or too far away,
  • to be drawn into the quarrel. But most of all it was the French whom w_ought, and the man whom of all others we loathed and feared and admired wa_he great Captain who ruled them.
  • It was very well to draw pictures of him, and sing songs about him, and mak_s though he were an impostor; but I can tell you that the fear of that ma_ung like a black shadow over all Europe, and that there was a time when th_lint of a fire at night upon the coast would set every woman upon her knee_nd every man gripping for his musket. He had always won: that was the terro_f it. The Fates seemed to be behind him. And now we knew that he lay upon th_orthern coast with a hundred and fifty thousand veterans, and the boats fo_heir passage. But it is an old story, how a third of the grown folk of ou_ountry took up arms, and how our little one-eyed, one-armed man crushed thei_leet. There was still to be a land of free thinking and free speaking i_urope.
  • There was a great beacon ready on the hill by Tweedmouth, built up of logs an_ar-barrels; and I can well remember how, night after night, I strained m_yes to see if it were ablaze. I was only eight at the time, but it is an ag_hen one takes a grief to heart, and I felt as though the fate of the countr_ung in some fashion upon me and my vigilance. And then one night as I looke_ suddenly saw a little flicker on the beacon hill — a single red tongue o_lame in the darkness. I remember how I rubbed my eyes, and pinched myself,
  • and rapped my knuckles against the stone window-sill, to make sure that I wa_ndeed awake. And then the flame shot higher, and I saw the red quivering lin_pon the water between; and I dashed into the kitchen, screeching to my fathe_hat the French had crossed and the Tweedmouth light was aflame. He had bee_alking to Mr. Mitchell, the law student from Edinburgh; and I can see him no_s he knocked his pipe out at the side of the fire and looked at me from ove_he top of his horn spectacles.
  • "Are you sure, Jock?" says he.
  • "Sure as death!" I gasped.
  • He reached out his hand for the Bible upon the table, and opened it upon hi_nee as though he meant to read to us; but he shut it again in silence, an_urried out. We went too, the law student and I, and followed him down to th_ate which opens out upon the highway. From there we could see the red ligh_f the big beacon, and the glimmer of a smaller one to the north of us a_yton. My mother came down with two plaids to keep the chill from us, and w_ll stood there until, morning, speaking little to each other, and that littl_n a whisper. The road had more folk on it than ever passed along it at nigh_efore; for many of the yeomen up our way had enrolled themselves in th_erwick volunteer regiments, and were riding now as fast as hoof could carr_hem for the muster. Some had a stirrup cup or two before parting, and _annot forget one who tore past on a huge white horse, brandishing a grea_usty sword in the moonlight. They shouted to us as they passed that the Nort_erwick Law fire was blazing, and that it was thought that the alarm had com_rom Edinburgh Castle. There were a few who galloped the other way, courier_or Edinburgh, and the laird's son, and Master Clayton, the deputy sheriff,
  • and such like. And among others there was one a fine built, heavy man on _oan horse, who pulled up at our, gate and asked some question about the road.
  • He took off his hat to ease himself, and I saw that he had a kindly long-draw_ace, and a great high brow that shot away up into tufts of sandy hair.
  • "I doubt it's a false alarm," said he. "Maybe I'd ha' done well to bide wher_ was; but now I 've come so far, I 'll break my fast with the regiment."
  • He clapped spurs to his horse, and away he went down the brae.
  • "I ken him weel," said our student, nodding after him. "He's a lawyer i_dinburgh, and a braw hand at the stringin' of verses. Wattie Scott is hi_ame."
  • None of us had heard of it then; but it was not long before it was the bes_nown name in Scotland, and many a time we thought of how he speered his wa_f us on the night of the terror.
  • But early in the morning we had our minds set at ease. It was grey and cold,
  • and my mother had gone up to the house to mask a pot of tea for us, when ther_ame a gig down the road with Dr. Horscroft of Ayton in it and his son Jim.
  • The collar of the doctor's brown coat came over his ears, and he looked in _eadly black humour; for Jim, who was but fifteen years of age, had troope_ff to Berwick at the first alarm with his father's new fowling piece. Al_ight his dad had chased him, and now there he was, a prisoner, with th_arrel of the stolen gun sticking out from behind the seat. He looked as sulk_s his father, with his hands thrust into his sidepockets, his brows draw_own, and his lower lip thrusting out.
  • "It 's all a lie!" shouted the doctor as he passed. "There has been n_anding, and all the fools in Scotland have been gadding about the roads fo_othing."
  • His son Jim snarled something up at him on this, and his father struck him _low with his clenched fist on the side of his head, which sent the boy's chi_orward upon his breast as though he had been stunned. My father shook hi_ead, for he had a liking for Jim; but we all walked up to the house again,
  • nodding and blinking, and hardly able to keep our eyes open now that we kne_hat all was safe, but with a thrill of joy at our hearts such as I have onl_atched once or twice in my lifetime.
  • Now all this has little enough to do with what I took my pen up to tell about;
  • but when a man has a good memory and little skill, he cannot draw one though_rom his mind without a dozen others trailing out behind it. And yet, now tha_ come to think of it, this had something to do with it after all; for Ji_orscroft had so deadly a quarrel with his father, that he was packed off t_he Berwick Academy, and as my father had long wished me to go there, he too_dvantage of this chance to send me also.
  • But before I say a word about this school, I shall go back to where I shoul_ave begun, and give you a hint as to who I am; for it may be that these word_f mine may be read by some folk beyond the border country who never heard o_he Calders of West Inch.
  • It has a brave sound, West Inch, but it is not a fine estate with a braw hous_pon it, but only a great hard-bitten, wind-swept sheep run, fringing off int_inks along the sea-shore, where a frugal man might with hard work just pa_is rent and have butter instead of treacle on Sundays. In the centre there i_ grey-stoned slate-roofed house with a byre behind it, and "1703" scrawled i_tonework over the lintel of the door. There for more than a hundred years ou_olk have lived, until, for all their poverty, they came to take a good plac_mong the people; for in the country parts the old yeoman is often bette_hought of than the new laird.
  • There was one queer thing about the house of West Inch. It has been reckone_y engineers and other knowing folk that the boundary line between the tw_ountries ran right through the middle of it, splitting our second-bes_edroom into an English half and a Scotch half. Now the cot in which I alway_lept was so placed that my head was to the north of the line and my feet t_he south of it. My friends say that if I had chanced to lie the other way m_air might not have been so sandy, nor my mind of so solemn a cast. This _now, that more than once in my life, when my Scotch head could see no way ou_f a danger, my good thick English legs have come to my help, and carried m_lear away. But at school I never heard the end of this, for they would cal_e "Half-and-half" and "The Great Britain," and sometimes "Union Jack." Whe_here was a battle between the Scotch and English boys, one side would kick m_hins and the other cuff my ears, and then they would both stop and laugh a_hough it were something funny.
  • At first I was very miserable at the Berwick Academy. Birtwhistle was th_irst master, and Adams the second, and I had no love for either of them. _as shy and backward by nature, and slow at making a friend either amon_asters or boys. It was nine miles as the crow flies, and eleven and a half b_oad, from Berwick to West Inch, and my heart grew heavy at the weary distanc_hat separated me from my mother; for, mark you, a lad of that age pretend_hat he has no need of his mother's caresses, but ah, how sad he is when he i_aken at his word! At last I could stand it no longer, and I determined to ru_way from school and make my way home as fast as I might. At the very las_oment, however, I had the good fortune to win the praise and admiration o_very one, from the headmaster downwards, and to find my school life made ver_leasant and easy to me. And all this came of my falling by accident out of _econd-floor window.
  • This was how it happened. One evening I had been kicked by Ned Barton, who wa_he bully of the school; and this injury coming on the top of all my othe_rievances, caused my little cup to overflow. I vowed that night, as I burie_y tear-stained face beneath the blankets, that the next morning would eithe_ind me at West Inch or well on the way to it. Our dormitory was on the secon_loor, but I was a famous climber, and had a fine head for heights. I used t_hink little, young as I was, of swinging myself with a rope round my thig_ff the West Inch gable, and that stood three-and-fifty feet above the ground.
  • There was not much fear then but that I could make my way out of Birtwhistle'_ormitory. I waited a weary while until the coughing and tossing had die_way, and there was no sound of wakefulness from the long line of wooden cots;
  • then I very softly rose, slipped on my clothes, took my shoes in my hand, an_alked tiptoe to the window. I opened the casement and looked out. Underneat_e lay the garden, and close by my hand was the stout branch of a pear tree.
  • An active lad could ask no better ladder. Once in the garden I had but a five-
  • foot wall to get over, and then there was nothing but distance between me an_ome. I took a firm grip of a branch with one hand, placed my knee upo_nother one, and was about to swing myself out of the window, when in a momen_ was as silent and as still as though I had been turned to stone.
  • There was a face looking at me from over the coping of the wall. A chill o_ear struck to my heart at its whiteness and its stillness. The moon shimmere_pon it, and the eye-balls moved slowly from side to side, though I was hi_rom them behind the screen of the pear tree. Then in a jerky fashion thi_hite face ascended, until the neck, shoulders, waist, and knees of a ma_ecame visible. He sat himself down on the top of the wall, and with a grea_eave he pulled up after him a boy about my own size, who caught his breat_rom time to time as though to choke down a sob. The man gave him a shake,
  • with a few-rough whispered words, and then the two dropped together down int_he garden. I was still standing balanced with one foot upon the bough and on_pon the casement, not daring to budge for fear of attracting their attention,
  • for I could hear them moving stealthily about in the shadow of the house.
  • Suddenly, from immediately beneath my feet, I heard a low grating noise an_he sharp tinkle of falling glass.
  • "That's done it," said the man's eager whisper. "There is room for you."
  • "But the edge is all jagged!" cried the other in a weak quaver.
  • The fellow burst out into an oath that made my skin pringle.
  • "In with you, you cub," he snarled, "or ——"
  • I could not see what he did, but there was a short, quick gasp of pain.
  • "I'll go! I 'll go!" cried the little lad.
  • But I heard no more, for my head suddenly swam. My heel shot off the branch, _ave a dreadful yell, and came down, with my ninety-five pounds of weight,
  • right upon the bent back of the burglar. If you ask me, I can only say that t_his day I am not quite certain whether it was an accident or whether _esigned it. It may be that while I was thinking of doing it Chance settle_he matter for me. The fellow was stooping with his head forward thrusting th_oy through a tiny window, when I came down upon him just where the neck join_he spine. He gave a kind of whistling cry, dropped upon his face, and rolle_hree times over, drumming on the grass with his heels. His little companio_lashed off in the moonlight, and was over the wall in a trice. As for me, _at yelling at the pitch of my lungs and nursing one of my legs, which felt a_f a red-hot ring were welded round it.
  • It was not long, as may be imagined, before the whole household, from th_eadmaster to the stable boy, were out in the garden with lamps and lanterns.
  • The matter was soon cleared: the man carried off upon a shutter, and I born_n much state and solemnity to a special bedroom, where the small bone of m_eg was set by Surgeon Purdie, the younger of the two brothers of that name.
  • As to the robber, it was found that his legs were palsied, and the doctor_ere of two minds as to whether he would recover the use of them or no; bu_he Law never gave them a chance of settling the matter, for he was hange_fter Carlyle assizes, some six weeks later. It was proved that he was th_ost desperate rogue in the North of England, for he had done three murders a_he least, and there were charges enough against him upon the sheet to hav_anged him ten times over.
  • Well now, I could not pass over my boyhood without telling you about this,
  • which was the most important thing that happened to me. But I will go off o_o more side tracks; for when I think of all that is coming, I can see ver_ell that I shall have more than enough to do before I have finished. For whe_ man has only his own little private tale to tell, it often takes him all hi_ime but when he gets mixed up in such great matters as I shall have to spea_bout, then it is hard on him, if he has not been brought up to it, to get i_ll set down to his liking. But my memory is as good as ever, thank God, and _hall try to get it all straight before I finish.
  • It was this business of the burglar that first made a friendship between Ji_orscroft, the doctor's son, and me. He was cock boy of the school from th_ay he came; for within the hour he had thrown Barton, who had been coc_efore him, right through the big black-board in the class-room. Jim alway_an to muscle and bone, and even then he was square and tall, short of speec_nd long in the arm, much given to lounging with his broad back against walls,
  • and his hands deep in his breeches pockets. I can even recall that he had _rick of keeping a straw in the corner of his mouth, just where he use_fterwards to hold his pipe. Jim was always the same for good and for ba_ince first I knew him.
  • Heavens, how we all looked up to him! We were but young savages, and had _avage's respect for power. There was Tom Carndale of Appleby, who could writ_lcaics as well as mere pentameters and hexameters, yet nobody would give _nap for Tom and there was Willie Earnshaw, who had every date, from th_illing of Abel, on the tip of his tongue, so that the masters themselve_ould turn to him if they were in doubt, yet he was but a narrow-chested lad,
  • over long for his breadth; and what did his dates help him when Jack Simons o_he lower third chivied him down the passage with the buckle end of a strap?
  • But you didn't do things like that with Jim Horscroft. What tales we used t_hisper about his strength! How he put his fist through the oak-panel of th_ame-room door; how, when Long Merridew was carrying the ball, he caught u_erridew, ball and all, and ran swiftly past every opponent to the goal. I_id not seem fit to us that such a one as he should trouble his head abou_pondees and dactyls, or care to know who signed Magna Charta. When he said i_pen class that King Alfred was the man, we little boys all felt that ver_ikely it was so, and that perhaps Jim knew more about it than the man wh_rote the book.
  • Well, it was this business of the burglar that drew his attention to me; fo_e patted me on my head, and said that I was a spunky little devil, which ble_e out with pride for a week on end. For two years we were close friends, fo_ll the gap that the years had made between us, and though in passion or i_ant of thought he did many a thing that galled me, yet I loved him like _rother, and wept as much as would have filled an ink bottle when at last h_ent off to Edinburgh to study his father's profession. Five years after tha_id I bide at Birtwhistle's, and when I left I had become cock myself, for _as as wiry and as tough as whalebone, though I never ran to weight and sine_ike my great predecessor. It was in Jubilee Year that I left Birtwhistle's,
  • and then for three years I stayed at home learning the ways of the cattle; bu_till the ships and the armies were wrestling, and still the great shadow o_onaparte lay across the country. How could I guess that I too should have _and in lifting that shadow for ever from our people?