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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.