Chapter 6 How I Came to Be Enlisted As One of the Garrison of Cloomber
"To your room, girl!" he cried in a hoarse, harsh voice, stepping in betwee_s and pointing authoritatively towards the house.
He waited until Gabriel, with a last frightened glance at me, had passe_hrough the gap, and then he turned upon me with an expression so murderou_hat I stepped back a pace or two, and tightened my grasp upon my oak stick.
"You-you—" he spluttered, with his hand twitching at his throat, as though hi_ury were choking him. "You have dared to intrude upon my privacy! Do yo_hink I built this fence that all the vermin in the country might congregat_ound it? Oh, you have been very near your death, my fine fellow! You wil_ever be nearer until your time comes. Look at this!" he pulled a squat, thic_istol out of his bosom. "If you had passed through that gap and set foot o_y land I'd have let daylight into you. I'll have no vagabonds here. I kno_ow to treat gentry of that sort, whether their faces are black or white."
"Sir," said I, "I meant no harm by coming here, and I do not know how I hav_eserved this extraordinary outburst. Allow me to observe, however, that yo_re still covering me with your pistol, and that, as your hand is rathe_remulous, it is more than possible that it may go off. If you don't turn th_uzzle down I shall be compelled in self-defence to strike you over the wris_ith my stick."
"What the deuce brought you here, then?" he asked, in a more composed voice,
putting his weapon back into his bosom. "Can't a gentleman live quietl_ithout your coming to peep and pry? Have you no business of your own to loo_fter, eh? And my daughter? how came you to know anything of her? and wha_ave you been trying to squeeze out of her? It wasn't chance that brought yo_ere."
"No," said I boldly, "it was not chance which brought me here. I have ha_everal opportunities of seeing your daughter and of appreciating her man_oble qualities. We are engaged to be married to each other, and I came u_ith the express intention of seeing her."
Instead of blazing into a fury, as I had expected, the general gave a lon_histle of astonishment, and then leant up against the railings, laughin_oftly to himself.
"English terriers are fond of nosing worms," he remarked at last. "When w_rought them out to India they used to trot off into the jungle and begi_niffing at what, they imagined to be worms there. But the worm turned out t_e a venomous snake, and so poor doggy played no more. I think you'll fin_ourself in a somewhat analogous position if you don't look out."
"You surely don't mean to cast an aspersion upon your own daughter?" I said,
flushing with indignation.
"Oh, Gabriel is all right," he answered carelessly. "Our family is not exactl_ne, however, which I should recommend a young fellow to marry into. And pra_ow is it that I was not informed of this snug little arrangement of yours?"
"We were afraid, sir, that you might separate us," I replied, feeling tha_erfect candour was the best policy under the circumstances. "It is possibl_hat we were mistaken. Before coming to any final decision, I implore you t_emember that the happiness of both of us is at stake. It is in your power t_ivide our bodies, but our souls shall be for ever united."
"My good fellow," said the general, in a not unkindly tone, "you don't kno_hat you are asking for. There is a gulf between you and any one of the bloo_f Heatherstone which can never be bridged over."
All trace of anger had vanished now from his manner, and given place to an ai_f somewhat contemptuous amusement.
My family pride took fire at his words. "The gulf may be less than yo_magine," I said coldly. "We are not clodhoppers because we live in this out-
of-the-way place. I am of noble descent on one side, and my mother was _uchan of Buchan, I assure you that there is no such disparity between us a_ou seem to imagine."
"You misunderstand me," the general answered. "It is on our side that th_isparity lies. There are reasons why my daughter Gabriel should live and di_ingle. It would not be to your advantage to marry her."
"But surely, sir," I persisted, "I am the best judge of my own interests an_dvantages. Since you take this ground all becomes easy, for I do assure yo_hat the one interest which overrides all others is that I should have th_oman I love for my wife. If this is your only objection to our match you ma_urely give us your consent, for any danger or trial which I may incur i_arrying Gabriel will not weigh with me one featherweight."
"Here's a young bantam!" exclaimed the old soldier, smiling at my warmth.
"It's easy to defy danger when you don't know what the danger is."
"What is it, then?" I asked, hotly. "There is no earthly peril which wil_rive me from Gabriel's side. Let me know what it is and test me."
"No, no. That would never do," he answered with a sigh, and then,
thoughtfully, as if speaking his mind aloud: "He has plenty of pluck and is _ell-grown lad, too. We might do worse than make use of him."
He went on mumbling to himself with a vacant stare in his eyes as if he ha_orgotten my presence.
"Look here, West," he said presently. "You'll excuse me if I spoke hastily _ittle time ago. It is the second time that I have had occasion to apologis_o you for the same offence. It shan't occur again. I am rather over-
particular, no doubt, in my desire for complete isolation, but I have goo_easons for insisting on the point. Rightly or wrongly, I have got it into m_ead that some day there might be an organised raid upon my grounds. I_nything of the sort should occur I suppose I might reckon upon you_ssistance?"
"With all my heart."
"So that if ever you got a message such as 'Come up,' or even 'Cloomber,' yo_ould know that it was an appeal for help, and would hurry up immediately,
even if it were in the dead of the night?"
"Most certainly I should," I answered. "But might I ask you what the nature o_he danger is which you apprehend?"
"There would be nothing gained by your knowing. Indeed, you would hardl_nderstand it if I told you. I must bid you good day now, for I have staye_ith you too long. Remember, I count upon you as one of the Cloomber garriso_ow."
"One other thing, sir," I said hurriedly, for he was turning away," I hop_hat you will not be angry with your daughter for anything which I have tol_ou. It was for my sake that she kept it all secret from you."
"All right," he said, with his cold, inscrutable smile. "I am not such an ogr_n the bosom of my family as you seem to think. As to this marriage question,
I should advise you as a friend to let it drop altogether, but if that i_mpossible I must insist that it stand over completely for the present. It i_mpossible to say what unexpected turn events may take. Good-bye."
He plunged into the wood and was quickly out of sight among the dens_lantation.
Thus ended this extraordinary interview, in which this strange man had begu_y pointing a loaded pistol at my breast and had ended, by partiall_cknowledging the possibility of my becoming his future son- in-law. I hardl_new whether to be cast down or elated over it.
On the one hand he was likely, by keeping a closer watch over his daughter, t_revent us from communicating as freely as we had done hitherto. Against thi_here was the advantage of having obtained an implied consent to the renewa_f my suit at some future date. On the whole, I came to the conclusion as _alked thoughtfully home that I had improved my position by the incident.
But this danger—this shadowy, unspeakable danger—which appeared to rise up a_very turn, and to hang day and night over the towers of Cloomber! Rack m_rain as I would, I could not conjure up any solution to the problem which wa_ot puerile and inadequate.
One fact struck me as being significant. Both the father and the son ha_ssured me, independently of each other, that if I were told what the peri_as, I would hardly realise its significance. How strange and bizarre must th_ear be which can scarcely be expressed in intelligible language!
I held up my hand in the darkness before I turned to sleep that night, and _wore that no power of man or devil should ever weaken my love for the woma_hose pure heart I had had the good fortune to win.