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A Romance of Wastdale By A. E. W. Mason Characters: 15536

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Austen Hawke strolled down from Yewbarrow an hour later. He was a man of a tall figure, spare of limb and lithe of movement, with a keen, narrow face, which fitted itself into one's memory. Inside his sitting-room it was already dark, and he rang for lights and stretched himself complacently in an arm-chair before the fire. The mistress of the Inn answered the bell and informed him, with intervals between the words as she scratched off the heads of refractory matches, that a gentleman had called to see him during the afternoon. Hawke swung round towards her, a look of annoyance showing in his face. He hastily ran over in his mind the names of his friends.

"Did he leave no message?" he asked in perplexity.

The card was produced, and Hawke took it, and stooping over the grate read Gordon's name and invitation by the light of the fire. The look of annoyance changed to one of utter incredulity. He read the card again, peering at it as if he expected each moment to see the letters dance from their order and group themselves afresh. By this time, however, the gas was lit, and as he rose erect, his eyes fell upon an envelope addressed to him in a clear, bold hand, which stood plain to view against the clock on the mantelpiece.

"Mr. Gordon, of course, wrote his message in here?" he asked, and a note of anxiety struggled through the indifference of his tone.

He was assured, however, that his visitor had come no further than the doorway of the hall.

"You should have asked him in," he said carelessly, and slipped the envelope into his pocket.

After dinner he smoked his pipe in his chair until the clock struck nine. Then he took out his watch, adjusted the hands exactly to the hour, and walked up the lane to the farm. The door stood on the latch and he flung it open noisily.

The sound roused Gordon from a doze, and he started suddenly to his feet. On the instant Hawke stepped backwards to the threshold and stood in the doorway, eyeing him searchingly. For a moment the two men measured one another in silence, and Gordon fancied, with some wonderment, that there was an expression of more than mere antagonism, an expression of actual fear, in his visitor's attitude.

"Well?" said Hawke at last, and there was a ring of defiance in his voice.

"Austen!" the other replied simply, and he held out his hand.

There was no doubting the wistful sincerity of his appeal; and yet Hawke came forward but slowly, and took the outstretched hand with a watchful suspicion.

"You are a stranger here," he said.

Gordon answered the implied question.

"Well, I was only in the way at Keswick." He stopped abruptly, mindful that he trod delicate ground.

Hawke shot a rapid glance at him. "Why?" he asked.

"Bridesmaids, you know. I was a flounder in a shoal of mermaids," and Gordon laughed apologetically.

But Hawke joined in the laugh, and said--"Yes; the bridegroom is of no value until the wedding-day;" and he added softly, "and sometimes he is of no value after it."

Gordon smiled confidently and observed--"At all events, you have not changed."

"My dear fellow, we are not all----" He cast about for an epithet less offensive than that ready to his tongue. "We are not all versatile."

"The adjective hardly explains my case; for I don't seem to have existed at all before."

"Don't," Hawke broke in. "Please don't. I will take your sentiment for granted."

Gordon appreciated that he had brought the rejoinder upon himself by a misplaced egotism, and relapsed into his chair. Hawke came and stood immediately above him, leaning against the edge of the table.

"And so," said he, "you came to Wastdale just to see me." He laid his hand on Gordon's arm with a show of cordiality, but he spoke slowly and with a faint flavour of irony about the words.

"What made you think that?" Gordon asked in surprise.

"Your message, of course."

"You misunderstood it. I had no idea you were here until I arrived myself. I meant to spend the week at Ravenglass, but my uncle was summoned to town yesterday. So I thought that I would come over to the old place again."

"Oh! Is that all?"

Hawke's voice told of relief. Gordon noticed the change, and turned inquiring eyes on him sharply. Just for the second their glances crossed; Hawke was off his guard; and it appeared to his companion that the very spirit of malice was blazing triumphantly in his eyes. Hawke rose hastily from the table, and Gordon cried out--

"Take care! You will have the whisky on the floor."

"I didn't notice it. Shall I help you?"

"Thanks!"

Hawke measured out the whisky into the glasses and filled them from the kettle which sang on the fire.

"It's quite like old times," he said genially.

"Not quite!"

"You mean Arkwright? Yes, poor devil! I had forgotten him. Tell me how it happened." And he lay down on the sofa.

"Why, didn't you hear!"

"Only vaguely."

He hesitated, shot a furtive look at Gordon, and added, tentatively--

"I was in India at the time."

"Were you in India, too?" Gordon exclaimed.

Hawke turned his head to the wall to conceal the smile on his face, and answered--

"Yes, I was there. But why 'too'?"

"Well, because----"

"Yes?"

"Well, Miss Nugent happened to be at Poonah."

"Really? But tell me about Arkwright."

For the second time that day Gordon related the story of the accident.

"Here's to better luck next time!" Hawke yawned when he had finished. "By the way, you are not drinking. That is one of the signs of impending matrimony, I suppose."

"Oh, no!" Gordon laughed. "Only you have made it so confoundedly strong."

"It will help you to sleep."

"I shan't need help."

"Ah! You look tired, and I am keeping you up."

Hawke drew his watch from his pocket.

"By Jove, it's past eleven!"

He rose from the sofa and took his hat.

"Are you going?" asked Gordon.

"Yes. Good night!"

Gordon went to the door.

"Don't you bother to come out!" cried Hawke quickly.

But Gordon lifted the latch and stepped out into the porch. Instantly Hawke slipped by him and hurried across the little garden to the gate. He looked eagerly up and down the lane, but there was nothing to be seen. The night was moonless and cloudy, with a cold wind blowing from the north.

"Good night!" he repeated as Gordon joined him. "It's cold out here."

"What is the matter?" Gordon inquired.

"What do you mean?" Hawke turned sharply to the speaker.

"You looked as if you expected to see some one."

"Here? At this time? Why, I suppose you and I are the only living beings awake for ten miles round," and he laughed, uneasily to Gordon's thinking.

"I shall see you to-morrow, I suppose?"

"I doubt it," Hawke replied. "I mean to cross into Eskdale, if it is fine, and come back over Mickledoor. So I shall probably not reach home till late."

And he started off down the lane.

Gordon returned to the room, latched the door, and came thoughtfully back to the fire. "Why was Hawke afraid?" he asked himself. Of the fact of his alarm there could be no doubt. His sudden recoil when Gordon rose to greet him was evidence enough by itself. But, besides, there was the betrayal of relief when he ascertained the absence of design in Gordon's visit to the valley. And, beyond these particular proofs, throughout the interview suspicion had been visibly alert in the man, showing in his face, in his words, in his very posture. It must have been fear, Gordon argued, which had prompted him to pretend acceptance of the proffered reconciliation. For that he did but pretend was plain from the irrepressible irony in his voice, and, above all, from that flash of malice which just for a second had, as it were, lit up the face o

f his mind. But the reason of it all? Why was Hawke afraid of him?

Gordon's thoughts circled blankly about the question. Finally he tried to forget it, lit his candle, and went upstairs to bed. Sleep, however, had now become impossible to him. He had flogged his wits out of their drowsiness, and he tossed from side to side in a fever of tired unrest until his speculations lost shape and form, and loomed vaguely into premonitions of evil. The very muscles of his limbs seemed braced like an athlete's, with the sense of a coming contest.

Of a sudden, however, as he lay ransacking his memory for the least detail of the conversation, it occurred to him that he had left the lamp burning in the parlour. He felt for the matches at his bedside, and as he opened the box he heard a light sound as of a cautious step rise through the open window. He struck a match, it flared up into a flame and the sound was repeated more distinctly--a hurried shuffle of the pebbles.

Gordon remained quite still in his bed, and the match burned down to his fingers. But there was no further movement. Then he rose and crept to the window. The night was like a bandage before his eyes. But after a while it thinned to a veil, and he made out the barn wall facing him (for his room lay at the side of the house), and as he watched something moved from the shadow of it, stood for a second in the open opposite the window, and then slipped round the corner of the barn and disappeared down the lane.

It could be no one but Hawke, Gordon thought. The man's own remark flashed into his mind. "I suppose that you and I are the only living beings awake for ten miles round." For some reason he had been waiting until all was quiet in the house. Gordon flung on his clothes hurriedly, lit the candle, and went downstairs. But as he pushed open the door of the parlour a sudden gust of wind extinguished the light in his hand. The room was in darkness; only facing where he stood there was a panel of twilight, and through it he could see the boughs of trees rising and falling.

The door into the lane stood open, and the lamp had been turned out.

Gordon stood fixed there in a panic, listening. But no sound menaced him. Inside, the beat of the clock merely emphasized the silence; outside, the wind moaned among the hills with a dreary lift and drop, like surf upon a distant beach. He walked through the garden and strained his eyes up and down the road. No moving thing was visible, but he remembered that Hawke had scanned the surroundings too, and he hung on the gate, charged with expectancy.

After a time he noticed a white speck in the black of the opposite field. He observed it casually at first, but it grew larger and approached him, and shaped itself into the figure of a woman. She climbed over a stile in the boundary wall facing the gate and brushed quickly by without noticing his presence. She was closely muffled in a large shawl, so that Gordon could see nothing of her face. But it struck him, from the momentary glimpse of her which he caught as she swung past him, that there was something familiar in her gait and bearing. The perception was a spark to the train of his fears. They flashed into one monstrous conjecture. Gordon thrust it down; it sprang up again and clutched at his throat, stifling him.

Beyond that field, the track from Styhead--the track which he had watched that afternoon--ran towards the lake. If you came from the Pass to the upper part of Wastdale--say to the Inn--you crossed the field, you joined the lane at the very spot where Gordon stood. And over the Pass the woman had come--must have come. For Gordon's farm was the outpost of the village. The next house was built in Borrowdale.

In the stillness he could hear the footsteps rattling on the loose stones. Then all at once they stopped, and Gordon felt his heart stop with them. The silence, however, pointed to the necessity of speed, and he followed the woman cautiously down the lane, creeping close under cover of the wall.

But there was no one outside the Inn, and no sign of life within it. The front stared blindly into the night. He stole up to the door and laid his ear to the panel. A second after the bolt grated with an almost imperceptible jar as it was eased into its socket. He just heard a faint rustling sound as of feet stealthily receding along a flagged passage, and all was quiet again.

He raised his hand to the bell, but a sudden thought checked his impulse. Suppose that his conjecture was false! And yet another thought came to second the first. Suppose that his conjecture was true! His arm dropped nervously to his side. For the girl's sake he dared not rouse the inmates.

And yet what action should he take? He stood paralysed, feeling the question beat into his brain like a hammer, until a yellow beam of light leaped out on to the trees at the west corner of the house. Gordon hurried round to the spot and perceived that it came from a window on the first floor in the end of the building. He looked eagerly about for a means of reaching it. Immediately under the window the space was clear, but a little farther towards the back of the Inn an outhouse with a thatched sloping roof jutted forth at a right angle. From the extreme point of that roof Gordon believed that he could command a view of the room. In this way he would at all events ascertain the truth.

A short examination showed him a tree which leaned against the far side of the building. Scaling the trunk, he crept out along a bough, dropped lightly on the thatch, and crept up to its apex. Over the edge he looked into the room, as from the opposite point at the base of a triangle. Three-fourths of its area were within his view, and this was what he saw.

Hawke sat almost facing him in front of a table with his back towards a blazing fire. A number of letters lay before him, and he was evidently reading them aloud, for now and again he looked up with narrowed eyes and a crafty smile, much as Gordon remembered him when he held a winning hand at whist.

The sex of his visitor was revealed by a shawl trailing on the hearthrug. But of her person, Gordon caught not so much as a glimpse. For she stood on the near side of the room, concealed from him.

Hawke, as he finished each letter, placed it methodically on a file which lay by his side. One, however, seemed longer than the rest and afforded him peculiar interest. He turned back to the first page and read it a second time, pointing here and there to passages with his finger. All at once the slender figure of a girl moved into the light. She passed round the table and stood behind Hawke's shoulder, her face gleaming pale as ivory from a cloud of tumbled hair. Gordon recognized her on the instant. It was Kate Nugent. She bent over Hawke as if to follow him more closely, and with a sudden clutch tore the paper from his hand and flung it into the fire. Hawke started to his feet, transfigured. Some such flame as was shrivelling the letter seemed to leap across his face. He pinned Kate's wrist to the table and thrust his head close down upon hers. What he said Gordon could not distinguish for the closed window, but he noticed a savage incisiveness about the movement of his lips, and saw the veins swell upon his forehead and along his throat.

For a moment the girl confronted him, returning glance for glance, but only for a moment. The defiance flickered out of her face, her lips shaped to an entreaty, and, with a meek gentleness which was infinitely pitiful, she unclasped the fingers about her wrist. She moved towards the window, stumbling as she went. She felt blindly for the catch, unfastened it as though her hands were numbed, and slowly lifted the sash.

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