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   Chapter 8 No.8

A Romance of Wastdale By A. E. W. Mason Characters: 25453

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


As Gordon was breakfasting next morning, the door was thrown open and Hawke strolled in from the lane.

"Well, have you got over your fatigue yet?" he asked, with a show of cordiality.

"Quite, thanks!"

Gordon let a moment or two slip before he found his tongue. For his new knowledge, acting vividly upon a somewhat morbid imagination, had not merely changed his conceptions of Hawke's character, but, with them, also his very impressions of his appearance. He had been unconsciously developing the man's features and body to express the qualities which he now attributed to him, moulding them, as it were, by the model of his own thoughts. So that, at the first, when Hawke stood before him in the flesh, clearly lit by the sunlight, which was pouring in through the open doorway, he hardly recognised his enemy. The very colloquialism of his speech seemed incongruous and out of place.

"You slept soundly?" asked Hawke.

There was a shade of anxiety in the question appreciable by his observer, and a faint symptom of a sneer about the lips when the answer was received.

"Like a humming-top."

"You are going over to Eskdale, aren't you?" Gordon resumed.

"I shall if I have time."

"You have changed your plans?" The query was put with a sudden alacrity.

"More or less. Lawson arrived at the Inn this morning from Drigg."

"Lawson?"

"I don't fancy you know him, but he was a friend of Arkwright's."

"And is he going to stay here?" The anxiety was upon Gordon's side now. Everything depended on the answer. For the presence of this interloper, even for a day, would render the accomplishment of his purpose impossible.

"No! He is on his way to Buttermere. I am going with him part of the distance, and we mean to spend an hour or so on the Pillar Rock. If I have time I shall work round to Eskdale afterwards."

"It will mean a long day."

"Yes! But I have to leave for London to-morrow. And, by the way, that is what brought me up here. I shall be late back, I expect, and I want to borrow your lanthorn."

Hawke turned towards the nail on which he had seen it hanging the previous night. Gordon just managed to check an involuntary start from his chair when the other wheeled quickly round.

"Why, it is gone!" he said suspiciously.

"Haven't they any at the Inn?"

The counter-thrust was delivered with a perfect assumption of carelessness, and Hawke parried it clumsily.

"Only one, and that's broken. So I thought I would borrow yours."

"I should have been pleased to lend it you, but it belongs to the house. I suppose the farmer has taken it."

The indifference with which Gordon spoke disarmed Hawke, and the next moment a shadow darkening the doorway effectually prevented any further investigation as to the whereabouts of the missing article. The newcomer carried a lanthorn.

"I hope you don't mind me intruding," he said. "It's rather unceremonious, I know. But Hawke said he was going to borrow your lanthorn. Why, the landlady had two or three," he went on, turning to Hawke. "She said she would have lent you one with pleasure. So I brought it for you."

"Thanks! Thanks!" Hawke interposed in confusion. "I must have misunderstood her. I never could unravel her dialect." He abruptly introduced his friend to Gordon, and resumed: "I was just speaking of you. Gordon, you know, was with Arkwright when he died."

The conversation drifted into the desired channel, but too late to prevent Gordon realising that the request for a lanthorn had been the merest pretext to enable Hawke to assure himself that the night's proceedings remained a secret. It was interrupted, however, by the servant, who bustled in with the tray to clear the table, and Gordon thought with a tremor: Suppose she had entered a minute earlier? Hawke would have been certain to question her, and to repeat his request; as it was, however, he was too anxious to cover his slip to risk broaching the subject again.

"That is a good-looking girl," said Lawson, when she had left the room.

"Is she?" Gordon inquired. "I have not noticed her."

Lawson smothered an incredulous laugh, and Hawke broke in: "Oh, it's true enough! Gordon never notices women's looks. They are too sacred to him."

"And you nothing but their looks, I am told," Lawson replied. "Well, I shall try to strike the golden mean."

"You will be making a mistake if you do," Hawke answered.

"Why?"

"Because women are moods. Nothing more. They can cover the distance between Diana and Phryne at a jump. They are mere moods, and always to be construed in the present tense. You must take them as they are."

"You seem to have made a grammatical study of the subject," Lawson laughed.

"No! That is exactly what I have not done. It is of no use. For, being moods, they are unintelligble, and the man who tries to solve them usually comes to grief. Besides, the effort is really unnecessary."

"You speak from experience?" Gordon asked quietly.

"I don't say that," Hawke replied, and with a shade more of earnestness than the occasion seemed to demand. "No, I don't say that. You may call it a theory of mine if you like. But I believe that it is true all the same. All that you want to know about a woman is the colour of her hair and eyes, whether she paints, how she is dressed, the texture of her gloves, and the size of her boots."

"I fancied a woman liked to be talked to about herself," Lawson objected.

"But those things constitute herself--at all events to most women," he added, seeing that the other was about to interpose. "I admit there may be exceptions."

"But you have never met one."

Hawke shot a quick glance from beneath knitted brows at Gordon as the latter spoke; but the remark had fallen quite casually from his lips, and he appeared only bored by the discussion.

"I don't want to have my ideas attributed to personal causes. An anchorite may theorise," Hawke replied.

"Anchorite is good," said Lawson.

"Believe it or not, that is the right plan. A woman's self is an awkward thing to tackle. It perplexes you if you begin to think about it, and the more you think, the more it perplexes you, and, consequently, the stronger the hold it seizes on you. And just because a woman's bewildering, you run the risk of ending by respecting her--and that is fatal."

"Indeed! Why?"

"Because the moment you begin to respect her, she begins to despise you."

Lawson burst out into a hearty laugh and said, "Come along, Hawke! That is enough lecture for to-day. You have made me laugh and bored Gordon to death."

"You epitomise the fate of unconventional truths," Hawke answered, and then turned to Gordon.

"What do you think of my theory? Does it bore you?"

"I think," Gordon replied, quietly, "that it is one of those theories which, to use your own words, sooner or later bring a man to grief."

"By Jove, yes! and irretrievably," said Lawson. "So you had better take care, Master Hawke. I have often noticed that!" he continued musingly. "When a man comes to grief over facts, he can pull round if he has any luck. But when he comes a cropper over theories, there's an end of him for good and all."

The chance remark made Gordon look towards the speaker with an active interest. Hawke's lecture, as Lawson had said, merely bored him. The views it set forth were precisely those which he had attributed to the man, and he felt so certain of the accuracy of his opinion that the actual utterance of the views sounded to him little more than a repetition. His resolve, besides, to exact a full and speedy retribution from Hawke was mail of proof alike against the covert innuendo of the disquisition and the ironical malice which had prompted it. But these last words of Lawson seemed to him instinct with truth, and found a convincing commentary in his own experience.

Lawson shook hands with Gordon and went out in the porch, with Hawke after him. The latter paused at the door to adjust the rucksack in which he carried their lunch on to his back, and shot a careless "I may see you again this evening" backwards over his shoulder, and they both passed the house and turned along the track to Black Sail.

Gordon followed them into the open air. He crossed the field in front of the farm, and climbing on to the top of a huge moss-grown mound of stones which fills an angle in the boundary wall, lit his pipe and lay in the warm sunlight watching them. He could see them for some time toiling up the side of Kirkfell into Mosedale, and every now and then he caught a flash as the sun glittered on the steel head of an ice-axe. Mosedale forms, as it were, a recess in Wastdale, running back from the valley on the side opposite to Scafell, and the Pillar mountain makes the end wall of this recess. The Pillar Rock, however, to which Lawson and Hawke were directing their steps, projects from the further side of the mountain and lies in the northern valley of Ennerdale, and the distance between that spot and Wastdale cannot be traversed at the quickest in less than an hour.

Gordon looked at his watch; it was a quarter to ten when they passed from his sight behind the shoulder of Kirkfell, and he began to calculate the time when he might hope to meet Hawke on Mickledoor Chasm. For that was the spot which he had chosen, its bleak solitude appealing to him with a sense of appropriateness. Hawke, he reflected, would have to cross Great Gable, and the Styhead, continue in the same direction southwards along Esk-Hause, the pass to Langdale, and then turn to the right into Eskdale, which is separated from the valley of Wastdale by the barrier of the Scafell chain. From there he would have to ascend the southern slope of the latter mountain, and Gordon reckoned that under no circumstances could he reach Mickledoor, the ridge between Scafell and Scafell Pikes, before half-past six.

It would then be dark.

That Hawke might change his plan and return home by the way he set out did not occur to him until hours after. For the half-formed idea that he was working under destiny had grown into a living conviction. He had come to look upon himself as the tool and agent in the completion of an ordained plan. So keen indeed had this feeling of personal irresponsibility become, that he gave no thoughts as to the details by which he was to carry out his purpose, confidently leaving occasion to direct the act. A line of Beatrice Cenci's in Shelley's play kept marching through his brain--

"Thou wert a weapon in the hand of God

To a just use."

In a word, he was looking across the interval of the next few hours, and dignifying as the judicial execution of a law what was in reality only the gratification of a savage lust for revenge; a distinction which he might have grasped from a certain luxurious feeling in the anticipation of it had he not abandoned his habit of self-analysis.

The illusion was, moreover, very naturally strengthened by the fact that circumstances seemed strangely shaping themselves to fit in with his resolve. The very appearance of Lawson, which Gordon had considered at first an insuperable obstacle, now showed as an additional advantage. For the couple had ascended in full view towards the Pillar, in the reverse direction to Scafell, and consequently if Hawke's body were found by the latter mountain, suspicion would be diverted from the idea of a premeditated attack. It would look as if Hawke had changed his route by chance, made the circuit of the valley, and then slipped on the cliffs at the opposite end. For Gordon reckoned that no one but Lawson and himself knew of Hawke's projected expedition, and the former, being ignorant of the hostility between the two men, would have no reason to connect him with the accident. That Hawke had not mentioned his intentions to the Inn people seemed fairly evident from his lie about the lanthorn. Lawson, it is true, might have told them, for he borrowed it. Gordon determined to find that out. For at all costs suspicion must be diverted from himself for the sake of the girl waiting for his message fifteen miles away. He would go down to the Inn now; and besides, he recollected he had another mission to accomplish there.

Gordon rose from his resting-place and had already proceeded some way in that direction when he suddenly stopped. After a moment's thought he turned on his steps and went back to the farm. He shouted to his landlady to pack up his lunch in a parcel, and mounted to his room. The day before he had brought over such few articles as he required in a rucksack--the bag, half knapsack, half haversack, peculiar to mountaineers--and at the bottom of this lay, still folded up, an extra coat a

nd pair of knee-breeches of the same cloth as those which he was wearing now. He emptied the bag of its other contents and descended with it to the parlour. The landlady presently brought in the packet which he had ordered, and he placed it with his flask inside the rucksack and fastened the strings.

"Dinner at half-past seven," he said. "I don't expect to be in till then, I am going over to Rosthwaite to get some fresh nails hammered into my boots."

And he slung the rucksack on to his shoulders and went down to the Inn. He inquired what time they expected Mr. Hawke back. Mr. Hawke, they told him, had borrowed a lanthorn and set out for the Pillar, with a friend some time since. He knew that, but when did they expect him home? They were not quite sure, late they gathered, but Mr. Hawke had said nothing of the matter to them. In fact it was his friend who had borrowed the lanthorn. Could Mr. Gordon leave a note? Certainly! Would he write it in the coffee-room? Oh! He knew Mr. Hawke's sitting-room then. No? The servant would show him to it if he preferred to write it there.

Gordon was accordingly ushered up into the room where the first act of his tragical-comical history had been presented to his eyes the night before. He wasted no time over his recollections, however, but just cast one curious glance towards the outhouse on which he had hung, and proceeded to hunt for Kate's missing shawl. The room was furnished upon strictly utilitarian principles, and seemed defiantly to challenge inspection by flaunting its incapacity for concealment. The search was consequently short. Gordon stopped before a cupboard in a recess by the side of the fireplace. There was another of a similar make in a corresponding position on the farther side, but that stood open, while this one was locked and the key removed. Gordon stooped to examine the lock; it belonged to that type which appears to have been invented in a genial spirit in order to excite curiosity and gratify it, and Gordon's knife proved a quick skeleton-key. He found the shawl, as he had expected, carelessly tumbled on to the shelf, and he took it down and ran the white fleecy wool through his fingers with a queer sensation, as if he were handling something which he ought to recognise and yet could not. As a matter of fact, he knew the shawl quite well. He had bought it for Kate himself at Goring last September, when the evenings were growing chilly on the river. But he had rather fancied that the touch of it would somehow send a thrill through his deadened emotions, and the entire absence of any pulsation or throb made him hazily wonder for a moment whether this that he held was the real shawl of which he was in search.

He added it, however, to the other contents of his bag, and closed the cupboard door. His knife had left little or no trace upon the wood-work, which was soft and yielded pliantly; and this Gordon looked upon as an important detail. Since, when the room was searched, as it would be afterwards, any fresh marks or scratches about the lock might, he thought, draw attention to himself, and suggest the possibility of an ulterior motive for his visit beyond the mere inditing of a note. As to the lock itself, in all probability no one but Hawke knew that it had been fastened, and Hawke's knowledge, he reflected, with a smile, would then be a matter of no importance. So he only stayed to scribble a hasty line--an invitation to dinner that evening was the somewhat gruesome device on which his ingenuity had hit--and then set out upon his way, following the path which he had ascended in the early hours of the morning.

Nothing so clearly showed the change which had taken place in Gordon as his indifference in retraversing this ground. For although he recollected with perfect completeness every feature of that previous journey, he recollected it with no shadow of emotion, and almost without interest. The facts recurred to him, but devoid of personal application. Gordon remembered them much as a man may remember vividly the details of a death which he has mourned, when he has well-nigh lost the memory of his regret.

It was barely one when he reached the cairn upon Styhead Pass, and realising that he had five hours still to wear away, he turned to the right along Esk House and ascended the central gully in the cliffs of Great End. The sky had darkened since the morning, and the air was growing heavy and still with a prophecy of a storm; so that he was not surprised, when he came out on the summit of the crags, to find the clouds brooding angrily about the tops of the fells. Far away, it is true, from one broad solitary rift, he could see the sunlight pouring on to Helvellyn and tinting its white slopes to a sheet of gold. But there were black masses clustered close above it, as if jealous of its glow, and even as he watched, the rift closed up and the snow was discoloured to a dull, cheerless grey.

From that point Gordon doubled back along the edge, descended slowly to the gloomy fissure of Piers Gill, crossed the depression at its head and the neck of land between Scafell Pikes and Lingmell, and turned up to the left towards Mickledoor, the sunken ridge between the former mountain and Scafell. It was half-past five when he stood finally upon the top of the gap, and already growing rapidly dark. The cold, moreover, had become intense; so that that silent wilderness of stones, overhung by black crags, seemed to him in the dim light the most desolate spot in all the world. On both sides the ridge sloped steeply down in an incline of scree and shattered boulders, the debris of the cliffs above. Below that were rounded promontories of brown grass strewn here and there with soiled patches of snow. But as far as the eye could see there was no trace of a living thing; for the village of Wastdale itself was excluded from view by the intervening barrier of Lingmell.

Gordon strained his eyes in the opposite direction to catch a glimpse of Hawke mounting from Eskdale. But there was no sign of his coming, not even the clatter of a dislodged stone. "It is early yet," he muttered to himself, though with the chill of a misgiving. For the first time that day his confidence began to fail him. If Hawke should have abandoned his intention of making the circuit of the hills, and gone quickly home! He would discover the note, find that Gordon had come to his rooms, and ascertain the disappearance of the shawl. He would know the game was up, and, worse still, would have time to get clear away. Gordon tried to banish the supposition; he dared not face it, the mere utterance of it seeming to accuse him of a breach of trust. None the less, however, it clung to his back and thrashed him into an aimless activity. He descended the ridge towards Wastdale in hot haste. There, to add to his dismay, he beheld a mist floating quickly up the valleys in tongues of smoke, and he knew that the moment it swept across Mickledoor, adding its thick confusion to the increasing gloom, his chances of discovering Hawke, even if he, came that way, were practically destroyed. He turned on his steps in a panic and raced back to the top of the ridge. The same stagnant silence enveloped it. There was not even a stir of the wind. Looking back, he saw the mist was already licking the boulders at the bottom of the steep incline. It would pour over the gap in a minute, he thought, and, without stopping to reason, he ran down the slope from it on the Eskdale side. It occurred to him, upon subsequent thought, that this action was the most ill-advised he could have adopted, for the gap on both sides widens rapidly from its summit. Had he calculated chances with any approach to accuracy, he would have remained where he was on the apex and narrowest part of the ridge. And yet to this mistake he owed the completion of his design. For he kept close to Scafell as he went and he had not moved many yards when he heard right above his head the metallic clink of an ice-axe. He was standing by a narrow cleft in the rocks known as "the Chimney," which, for a climber, affords an issue on to the actual summit of Scafell. Hawke, then, was crossing the mountain itself. The sound told Gordon that he was as yet not far up the side. He must have entered the cleft after Gordon's arrival, and while the latter was on the farther side of the ridge.

Gordon wondered how it was that he had not originally noticed his approach. At that moment the mist swept over Mickledoor, and a plan shaped itself in his mind. Parallel to the chimney, but some yards to the west of it, the cliffs offer a simpler route, called "Broad Stand," and after a certain height is attained by that way, a man may reach by an easy traverse a spot where Hawke must leave his gully and climb out on to the face of the rock. This latter man?uvre is always attended with a certain difficulty, since the walls of the gully afford no foothold and give only on to a shelving slab. Gordon, therefore, had little fear that Hawke would outstrip him, and determined to join him by way of Broad Stand. So he turned back once more and reascended the incline, treading cautiously and feeling along the mountain as he went, lest in the darkness he should pass the point at which the climb began. After proceeding in this manner for about a minute, he came to a narrow vertical slit in the rock, which was just discernible. It was the spot of which he was in search, and he entered it, appearing to be swallowed up in the cliff, A walk of a few yards brought him to some huge blocks piled one above another, and shaped in pyramidal steps. These formed the pathway of his ascent. They present no great difficulty as a rule, but now they were coated with a thin glaze of ice, and as Gordon had brought no axe with him, purposely, in order to sustain the supposition that he had spent the afternoon in crossing the Styhead Pass towards Rosthwaite, he was compelled at each step that he took to clear out the next footing above, with the sole aid of his numbed fingers. Consequently he made his way but slowly. An overpowering dread that his enemy might escape while he was yet struggling below the traverse began to creep over him and strung his nerves to more strenuous efforts. His hatred, tantalised by the possibility, took a renewed life and sent the blood spinning through his veins like fire. He forgot the cold in his limbs, and the ice on the rocks, and clambered up in a reckless fury.

Meanwhile the mist was thickening continually, and by the time Gordon had completed his ascent and reached the point from which he had to diverge along the cliff's face, the night had fallen pitch-dark. He stood still for a moment, with his head bent forward, listening eagerly for a sound. Was he too late? Then he heard the scrabbling of boot-nails upon the slab, and a minute after the stamping of feet a few yards away to his left. The noise drove all his thoughts of averting suspicion from his mind. The mere knowledge that his enemy was there filled him; a cry of exultation rose up to his lips and he barely checked it, and crept silently forwards. A thin buttress of rock ran down shoulder-high between the two men, and this Gordon had forgotten. He came upon it unawares as he was moving with outstretched hands, and, understanding that he had traversed the space diagonally instead of in a direct line, he descended a little to round it. As he was doing this he heard the spirt of a match. There was not a breath of wind, and the tiny flame burnt steadily, throwing out a brown light upon the mirky gloom. To Gordon it seemed blood-red. He paused and waited for the match to blow out. Instead of that, however, it grew brighter, and he remembered that Hawke carried a lanthorn. For a second he was staggered as by an unexpected blow, and stood thinking. Then he continued his stealthy descent to the end of the buttress. As he turned the corner he drew his knife and crouched like an animal. Hawke was some fifteen feet away, kneeling on the ground by the light and fumbling a small bottle clumsily in his frozen hands. Gordon measured the intervening space with his eye, and chose the point between Hawke's shoulders, where he meant to strike, gently swaying his body to and fro the while in preparation for a spring. As he threw his weight backwards, however, for the last time, his heel slipped on a loose stone and sent it echoing behind him down the crags.

"Who is that?" cried Hawke, lifting the lanthorn and standing upright.

Gordon stepped forward on the instant, slipping his knife with its open blade into his pocket, and the flame of the lanthorn encircled them both in a little ring of light.

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