Chapter 7 Of Corporal Rufus Smith and His Coming to Cloomber
In making this statement I have purposely couched it in bald and simpl_anguage, for fear I should be accused of colouring my narrative for the sak_f effect. If, however, I have told my story with any approach to realism, th_eader will understand me when I say that by this time the succession o_ramatic incidents which had occurred had arrested my attention and excited m_magination to the exclusion of all minor topics.
How could I plod through the dull routine of an agent's work, or interes_yself in the thatch of this tenant's bothy or the sails of that one's boat, when my mind was taken up by the chain of events which I have described, an_as still busy seeking an explanation for them.
Go where I would over the countryside, I could see the square, white towe_hooting out from among the trees, and beneath that tower this ill-fate_amily were watching and waiting, waiting and watching—and for what? That wa_till the question which stood like an impassable barrier at the end of ever_rain of thought.
Regarded merely as an abstract problem, this mystery of the Heatherston_amily had a lurid fascination about it, but when the woman whom I loved _housandfold better than I did myself proved to be so deeply interested in th_olution, I felt that it was impossible to turn my thoughts to anything els_ntil it had been finally cleared up.
My good father had received a letter from the laird, dated from Naples, whic_old us that he had derived much benefit from the change, and that he had n_ntention of returning to Scotland for some time. This was satisfactory to al_f us, for my father had found Branksome such an excellent place for stud_hat it would have been a sore trial to him to return to the noise and tumul_f a city. As to my dear sister and myself, there were, as I have shown, stronger reasons still to make us love the Wigtownshire moors.
In spite of my interview with the general—or perhaps I might say on account o_t—I took occasion at least twice a day to walk towards Cloomber and satisf_yself that all was well there. He had begun by resenting my intrusion, but h_ad ended by taking me into a sort of half-confidence, and even by asking m_ssistance, so I felt that I stood upon a different footing with him than _ad done formerly, and that he was less likely to be annoyed by my presence.
Indeed, I met him pacing round the inclosure a few days afterwards, and hi_anner towards me was civil, though he made no allusion to our forme_onversation.
He appeared to be still in an extreme state of nervousness, starting from tim_o time, and gazing furtively about him, with little frightened, dartin_lances to the right and the left. I hoped that his daughter was right i_aming the fifth of October as the turning point of his complaint, for it wa_vident to me as I looked at his gleaming eyes and quivering hands, that a ma_ould not live long in such a state of nervous tension.
I found on examination that he had had the loose rails securely fastened so a_o block up our former trysting-place, and though I prowled round the whol_ong line of fencing, I was unable to find any other place where an entranc_ould be effected.
Here and there between the few chinks left in the barrier I could catc_limpses of the Hall, and once I saw a rough-looking, middle-aged man standin_t a window on the lower floor, whom I supposed to be Israel Stakes, th_oachman. There was no sign, however, of Gabriel or of Mordaunt, and thei_bsence alarmed me. I was convinced that, unless they were under som_estraint, they would have managed to communicate with my sister or myself. M_ears became more and more acute as day followed day without our seeing o_earing anything of them.
One morning—it was the second day of October—I was walking towards the Hall, hoping that I might be fortunate enough to learn some news of my darling, whe_ observed a man perched upon a stone at the side of the road.
As I came nearer to him I could see that he was a stranger, and from his dust_lothes and dilapidated appearance he seemed to have come from a distance. H_ad a great hunch of bread on his knee and a clasp-knife in his hand, but h_ad apparently just finished his breakfast, for he brushed the crumbs off hi_ap and rose to his feet when he perceived me.
Noticing the great height of the fellow and that he still held his weapon, _ept well to the other side of the road, for I knew that destitution makes me_esperate and that the chain that glittered on my waistcoat might be too grea_ temptation to him upon this lonely highway. I was confirmed in my fears whe_ saw him step out into the centre of the road and bar my progress.
"Well, my lad," I said, affecting an ease which I by no means felt, "what ca_ do for you this morning?"
The fellow's face was the colour of mahogany with exposure to the weather, an_e had a deep scar from the corner of his mouth to his ear, which by no mean_mproved his appearance. His hair was grizzled, but his figure was stalwart, and his fur cap was cocked on one side so as to give him a rakish, semi- military appearance. Altogether he gave me the impression of being one of th_ost dangerous types of tramp that I had ever fallen in with.
Instead of replying to my question, he eyed me for some time in silence wit_ullen, yellow-shot eyes, and then closed his knife with a loud snick.
"You're not a beak," he said, "too young for that, I guess. They had me i_hokey at Paisley and they had me in chokey at Wigtown, but by the livin_hunder if another of them lays a hand on me I'll make him remember Corpora_ufus Smith! It's a darned fine country this, where they won't give a ma_ork, and then lay him by the heels for having no visible means o_ubsistence."
"I am sorry to see an old soldier so reduced," said I. "What corps did yo_erve in?"
"H Battery, Royal Horse Artillery. Bad cess to the Service and every one i_t! Here I am nigh sixty years of age, with a beggarly pension of thirty-eigh_ound ten—not enough to keep me in beer and baccy."
"I should have thought thirty-eight pound ten a year would have been a nic_elp to you in your old age," I remarked.
"Would you, though?" he answered with a sneer, pushing his weather- beate_ace forward until it was within a foot of my own.
"How much d'ye think that slash with a tulwar is worth? And my foot with al_he bones rattling about like a bagful of dice where the trail of the gun wen_cross it. What's that worth, eh? And a liver like a sponge, and ague wheneve_he wind comes round to the east—what's the market value of that? Would yo_ake the lot for a dirty forty pound a year—would you now?"
"We are poor folk in this part of the country," I answered. "You would pas_or a rich man down here."
"They are fool folk and they have fool tastes," said he, drawing a black pip_rom his pocket and stuffing it with tobacco. "I know what good living is, and, by cripes! while I have a shilling in my pocket I like to spend it as _hilling should be spent. I've fought for my country and my country has don_arned little for me. I'll go to the Rooshians, so help me! I could show the_ow to cross the Himalayas so that it would puzzle either Afghans or Britis_o stop 'em. What's that secret worth in St. Petersburg, eh, mister?"
"I am ashamed to hear an old soldier speak so, even in jest," said I sternly.
"Jest, indeed!" He cried, with a great, roaring oath. "I'd have done it year_go if the Rooshians had been game to take it up. Skobeloff was the best o_he bunch, but he's been snuffed out. However, that's neither here nor there.
What I want to ask you is whether you've ever heard anything in this quarte_f a man called Heatherstone, the same who used to be colonel of the 41s_engalis? They told me at Wigtown that he lived somewhere down this way."
"He lives in that large house over yonder," said I, pointing to Cloombe_ower. "You'll find the avenue gate a little way down the road, but th_eneral isn't over fond of visitors."
The last part of my speech was lost upon Corporal Rufus Smith; for the instan_hat I pointed out the gate he set off hopping down the road.
His mode of progression was the most singular I have ever seen, for He woul_nly put his right foot to the ground once in every half-dozen strides, whil_e worked so hard and attained such a momentum with the other limb that he go_ver the ground at an astonishing speed.
I was so surprised that I stood in the roadway gazing after this hulkin_igure until the thought suddenly struck me that some serious result migh_ome from a meeting between a man of such blunt speech and the choleric, hot- headed general. I therefore followed him as he hopped along like some great, clumsy bird, and overtook him at the avenue gate, where he stood grasping th_ronwork and peering through at the dark carriage-drive beyond.
"He's a sly old jackal," he said, looking round at me and nodding his head i_he direction of the Hall. "He's a deep old dog. And that's his bungalow, i_t, among the trees?"
"That is his house," I answered; "but I should advise you to keep a more civi_ongue in your head if you intend to speak with the general. He is not a ma_o stand any nonsense."
"Right you are. He was always a hard nut to crack. But isn't this him comin_own the avenue?"
I looked through the gate and saw that it was indeed the general, who, havin_ither seen us or been attracted by our voices, was hurrying down towards us.
As he advanced he would stop from time to time and peer at us through the dar_hadow thrown by the trees, as if he were irresolute whether to come on or no.
"He's reconnoitering!" whispered my companion with a hoarse chuckle. "He'_fraid—and I know what he's afraid of. He won't be caught in a trap if he ca_elp it, the old 'un. He's about as fly as they make 'em, you bet!"
Then suddenly standing on his tip-toes and waving his hand through the bars o_he gate, he shouted at the top of his voice:
"Come on, my gallant commandant! Come on! The coast's clear, and no enemy i_ight."
This familiar address had the effect of reassuring the general, for he cam_ight for us, though I could tell by his heightened colour that his temper wa_t boiling point.
"What, you here, Mr. West?" he said, as his eye fell upon me. "What is it yo_ant, and why have you brought this fellow with you?"
"I have not brought him with me, sir," I answered, feeling rather disgusted a_eing made responsible for the presence of the disreputable-looking vagabon_eside me. "I found him on the road here, and he desired to be directed t_ou, so I showed him the way. I know nothing of him myself."
"What do you want with me, then?" the general asked sternly, turning to m_ompanion.
"If you please, sir," said the ex-corporal, speaking in a whining voice, an_ouching his moleskin cap with a humility which contrasted strangely with th_revious rough independence of his bearing, "I'm an old gunner in the Queen'_ervice, sir, and knowing your name by hearing it in India I thought tha_aybe you would take me as your groom or gardener, or give me any other plac_s happened to be vacant."
"I am sorry that I cannot do anything for you, my man," the old soldie_nswered impressively.
"Then you'll give me a little just to help me on my way, sir," said h_ringing mendicant. "You won't see an old comrade go to the bad for the sak_f a few rupees? I was with Sale's brigade in the Passes, sir, and I was a_he second taking of Cabul."
General Heatherstone looked keenly at the supplicant, but was silent
to his appeal.
"I was in Ghuznee with you when the walls were all shook down by a_arthquake, and when we found forty thousand Afghans within gunshot of us. Yo_sk me about it, and you'll see whether I'm lying or not. We went through al_his when we were young, and now that we are old you are to live in a fin_ungalow, and I am to starve by the roadside. It don't seem to me to be fair."
"You are an impertinent scoundrel," said the general. "If you had been a goo_oldier you would never need to ask for help. I shall not give you _arthing."
"One word more, sir," cried the tramp, for the other was turning away, "I'v_een in the Tarada Pass."
The old soldier sprang round as if the words had been a pistol-shot.
"What—what d'ye mean?" he stammered. "I've been in the Tarada Pass, sir, and _new a man there called Ghoolab Shah."
These last were hissed out in an undertone, and a malicious grin oversprea_he face of the speaker.
Their effect upon the general was extraordinary. He fairly staggered back fro_he gateway, and his yellow countenance blanched to a livid, mottled grey. Fo_ moment he was too overcome to speak. At last he gasped out:
"Ghoolab Shah' Who are you who know Ghoolab Shah?"
"Take another look," said the tramp, "your sight is not as keen as it wa_orty years ago."
The general took a long, earnest look at the unkempt wanderer in front of him, and as he gazed I saw the light of recognition spring up in his eyes.
"God bless my soul!" he cried. "Why, it's Corporal Rufus Smith."
"You've come on it at last," said the other, chuckling to himself. "I wa_ondering how long it would be before you knew me. And, first of all, jus_nlock this gate, will you? It's hard to talk through a grating. It's too muc_ike ten minutes with a visitor in the cells."
The general, whose face still bore evidences of his agitation, undid the bolt_ith nervous, trembling fingers. The recognition of Corporal Rufus Smith had, I fancied, been a relief to him, and yet he plainly showed by his manner tha_e regarded his presence as by no means an unmixed blessing.
"Why, Corporal," he said, as the gate swung open, "I have often wondere_hether you were dead or alive, but I never expected to see you again. Ho_ave you been all these long years?"
"How have I been?" the corporal answered gruffly. "Why, I have been drunk fo_he most part. When I draw my money I lay it out in liquor, and as long a_hat lasts I get some peace in life. When I'm cleaned out I go upon tramp, partly in the hope of picking up the price of a dram, and partly in order t_ook for you."
"You'll excuse us talking about these private matters, West," the genera_aid, looking round at me, for I was beginning to move away. "Don't leave us.
You know something of this matter already, and may find yourself entirely i_he swim with us some of these days."
Corporal Rufus Smith looked round at me in blank astonishment.
"In the swim with us?" he said. "However did he get there?"
"Voluntarily, voluntarily," the general explained, hurriedly sinking hi_oice. "He is a neighbour of mine, and he has volunteered his help in case _hould ever need it."
This explanation seemed, if anything, to increase the big stranger's surprise.
"Well, if that don't lick cock-fighting!" he exclaimed, contemplating me wit_dmiration. "I never heard tell of such a thing."
"And now you have found me, Corporal Smith," said the tenant of Cloomber,
"what is it that you want of me?"
"Why, everything. I want a roof to cover me, and clothes to wear, and food t_at, and, above all, brandy to drink."
"Well, I'll take you in and do what I can for you," said the general slowly.
"But look here, Smith, we must have discipline. I'm the general and you ar_he corporal; I am the master and you are the man. Now, don't let me have t_emind you of that again."
The tramp drew himself up to his full height and raised his right hand wit_he palm forward in a military salute.
"I can take you on as gardener and get rid of the fellow I have got. As t_randy, you shall have an allowance and no more. We are not deep drinkers a_he Hall."
"Don't you take opium, or brandy, or nothing yourself, sir?" asked Corpora_ufus Smith.
"Nothing," the general said firmly.
"Well, all I can say is, that you've got more nerve and pluck than I shal_ver have. I don't wonder now at your winning that Cross in the Mutiny. If _as to go on listening night after night to them things without ever taking _rop of something to cheer my heart—why, it would drive me silly."
General Heatherstone put his hand up, as though afraid that his companio_ight say too much.
"I must thank you, Mr. West," he said, "for having shown this man my door. _ould not willingly allow an old comrade, however humble, to go to the bad, and if I did not acknowledge his claim more readily it was simply because _ad my doubts as to whether he was really what he represented himself to be.
Just walk up to the Hall, Corporal, and I shall follow you in a minute."
"Poor fellow!" he continued, as he watched the newcomer hobbling up the avenu_n the ungainly manner which I have described. "He got a gun over his foot, and it crushed the bones, but the obstinate fool would not let the doctor_ake it off. I remember him now as a smart young soldier in Afghanistan. H_nd I were associated in some queer adventures, which I may tell you of som_ay, and I naturally feel sympathy towards him, and would befriend him. Did h_ell you anything about me before I came?"
"Not a word," I replied.
"Oh," said the general carelessly, but with an evident expression of relief,
"I thought perhaps he might have said something of old times. Well, I must g_nd look after him, or the servants will be frightened, for he isn't a beaut_o look at. Good-bye!"
With a wave of the hand the old man turned away from me and hurried up th_rive after this unexpected addition to his household, while I strolled o_ound the high, black paling, peering through every chink between the planks, but without seeing a trace either of Mordaunt or of his sister.
I have now brought this statement down to the coming of Corporal Rufus Smith, which will prove to be the beginning of the end.
I have set down soberly and in order the events which brought us t_igtownshire, the arrival of the Heatherstones at Cloomber, the many strang_ncidents which excited first our curiosity and finally our intense interes_n that family, and I have briefly touched upon the circumstances whic_rought my sister and myself into a closer and more personal relationship wit_hem. I think that there cannot be a better moment than this to hand th_arrative over to those who had means of knowing something of what was goin_n inside Cloomber during the months that I was observing it from without.
Israel Stakes, the coachman, proved to be unable to read or write, but Mr.
Mathew Clark, the Presbyterian Minister of Stoneykirk, has copied down hi_eposition, duly attested by the cross set opposite to his name. The goo_lergyman has, I fancy, put some slight polish upon the narrator's story, which I rather regret, as it might have been more interesting, if les_ntelligible, when reported verbatim. It still preserves, however, considerable traces of Israel's individuality, and may be regarded as an exac_ecord of what he saw and did while in General Heatherstone's service.