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   Chapter 9 No.9

A Romance of Wastdale By A. E. W. Mason Characters: 13989

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

"You!" cried Hawke.

The wall of the rock made a right angle behind him, and he backed into the corner of it, fronting Gordon with the lanthorn held aloft between them. There was a ring of terror in his voice, and his eyes glanced rapidly round with a hunted look.

Gordon saw the look and smiled; for the little platform on which they stood was open only upon two sides, of which the gully guarded one and himself the other.

He did not answer Hawke's exclamation at once, for the sudden check had aroused him to the need of wariness. A struggle had to be avoided at all costs, he thought; for it would land them both, locked together, on the screes below. It was very pleasant to him, besides, to watch the shrinking fear visible in his enemy's attitude. The very lanthorn was rattling in his unsteady grasp, and the sound of it was music to Gordon's ears.

"You did not expect to see me, did you, Austen?" he said at last, purring the words.

"You did rather startle me, I own. You came along so quietly."

"One needs to be careful when it is as dark as this. As it was, I lost my way. If you had not lit that lanthorn I should have been over the cliffs. I may thank you for my life," and Gordon laughed cheerfully.

His words and the familiarity of his voice helped Hawke back to some portion of his confidence. But he still held the lanthorn above their heads.

During these last days he had lived in a constant dread of detection, Gordon's unforeseen visit to the dale wearing to him almost the appearance of a fatality. He cursed the infatuation which had led him to summon Kate Nugent, and each fresh sight of the man he had wronged awakened in him a shudder of alarm. It is true that he had voluntarily sought Gordon's company at the farm-house the night before and again this morning. But the inconsistency of the proceeding was purely on the surface. He had felt compelled to that course by the urgency of his dread, which shook him chiefly when alone. And it was the effect of these solitary cogitations which produced his inexpressible terror on each occasion that he met the man. Once in his presence, however, the feeling wore off. He had always been accustomed to regard Gordon somewhat contemptuously in the light of an unpractical dreamer, and as he listened to his voice and watched his gestures, this habit reasserted itself from an association of ideas. He came to the conclusion that there were no grounds for his fears, crediting Gordon with no great powers of self-repression.

Viewed generally, this latter judgment of Hawke's was correct. The fatal mistake, however, which he committed was to make no allowance for a possible concentration of his entire faculties upon a single aim, under the influence of an overmastering passion, such as the lust for revenge which absorbed Gordon now.

On this particular occasion, however, Hawke had been more than usually startled. He had intended to leave Wastdale Head early the next morning, and had planned this expedition in order to avoid meeting Gordon again--nay, more, had actually given him a false description of his route. Consequently his sudden appearance from the surrounding darkness and the silence of his approach had intensified his feeling of alarm and betrayed it unmistakably to his companion.

"You have made the circuit quickly," Gordon resumed.

"I gave up the idea of Eskdale when the sky clouded," Hawke replied, "and came straight across from the Pillar."

"I wonder we did not meet before."

Gordon was speaking at random, watching keenly for a chance; but Hawke still faced him, with his back to the rock.

"Oh! I have been on the mountain for some time. You have only just come, I suppose."

"I came with the mist."

"It's a poor companion," Hawke resumed. "I found rather a good glissade just behind these cliffs running into Eskdale. I spent most of the afternoon on that. You ought to try it."

"I will."

"It lands you out close to Mickledoor and not far below the chimney. So I thought I would go home this way. But if I had known it was going to grow as cold and dark as this I would have seen myself damned first."

"It is cold," Gordon assented, although his senses gave him no knowledge of the fact. He was wondering whether Hawke would ever move. If only he would set the lanthorn down!

"Suppose that we move," he went on. "You have got the lanthorn, so you had better go first."

He drew to one side as he spoke, and made room for Hawke to pass. But at the very moment that he was taking the step, Hawke suddenly placed the lanthorn on the ground, and cried--

"Wait a moment!"

The next instant he stood upright, and that opportunity was gone.

"I have got a bottle of brandy here," said Hawke. "We had better open it. Has your knife got a corkscrew?"

Gordon thrust his hand quickly into his pocket and felt the sharp blade cut into his flesh. But he drew his hand out again empty, and said--

"I haven't got a knife at all. I left mine at home."

"We must use mine, then, and knock the neck off. They have jammed the cork in so tightly, that there is no other way. Here! hold the bottle."

Hawke handed him the bottle and searched in his pocket for his knife. He was perfectly defenceless at the moment, but the memory of Arkwright's accident had suddenly flashed upon Gordon and suggested to him a safer plan.

He added another item to his supposed new knowledge. He understood now, he fancied, why the recollection of that night in the Alps had so persistently mingled with his thoughts yesterday, and he laughed gleefully.

"What is the matter?" Hawke asked. "You seem pleased."

"I am," he replied. "It is the brandy warming me through the cork."

Hawke laughed. "It wasn't a bad suggestion, was it?"

"It was the best I ever heard from you."

Hawke found his knife and held it out to Gordon, saying--

"You had better do it! My fingers are so cursedly numbed, I should only cut myself or drop the bottle."

Gordon took the knife with his right hand, and Hawke exclaimed--

"What on earth have you done to your hand? It is covered with blood."

"Oh, it's nothing," Gordon answered quickly. "I cut it on a pointed piece of rock, that's all."

For a moment he stood with the bottle poised in one hand and the knife in the other, thinking. Then he said--

"Just take this while I open the blade," and he handed the bottle back.

"The handle will serve," said Hawke.

"The blade will do it cleaner."

Hawke took the bottle back while Gordon opened the knife. It was of a strong and heavy make, with a long, powerful blade. Gordon ran his thumb along the edge and found it sharp and even.

"Now if you will hold the bottle out," he said, "I will operate. Not that way! We shall spill it all;" and he readjusted the bottle in Hawke's hands, settling the base in his upturned palms, with the cork pointing towards himself.

"That's right," he said, and struck the neck on the side nearest to Haw

ke, slipped the blade on the glass, and drove it with all his force down into his left arm where it showed white below his sleeve.

The bottle crashed on the ground.

Hawke reeled against the rock wall behind him, clutching the injured wrist with his disengaged hand.

"God!" he shrieked. "It's an artery."

Gordon could see the blood spurting in quick jets, and said, quietly--

"It reminds me of Arkwright. That was an accident, too."

"Don't stand there, man--dreaming! Do something!"

Gordon laughed at the words--a low, happy laugh, which struck a new horror into Hawke.

"You meant to do it?"

Gordon nodded to him, knowingly.

"Damn you!" Hawke hissed and sunk down upon the platform beside the lanthorn, concentrating all his strength into the oath. He was still vainly endeavouring to stop the bursts from the vein by the pressure of his fingers.

Gordon knelt by his side.

"Let me look," he said.

Hawke dragged himself a few inches farther away, with an inarticulate snarl, and turned his back.

"Won't you let me help you?" Gordon asked, in a tone of gentle remonstrance.

The other shot a quick glance across his shoulder, and replied, with a beaten air--

"I could believe it was myself said that."

"But I mean it. There's the difference. Won't you let me bind up your arm?"

Hawke looked at him again and rolled over to face him, his eyes alive with hope.

"Oh, if you will," he said. "But be quick! quick! Use my scarf! Only be quick!"

Something in his manner recalled vividly to Gordon Kate's appeal to Hawke of the night before; but he unwound the scarf from the neck of the wounded man. The latter could not repress a convulsive shiver as he felt the touch of his fingers.

"I am sorry," Gordon apologised. "I know it must be unpleasant."

The scarf was of thick white wool, and he twisted it round the arm just above the cut and tied it firmly; but a dark stain came through it at once and widened over the folds.

"The ice-axe," gasped Hawke. "It is by your side."

Gordon took it from where it was resting on the ground, and inserting the pick into the wool, used it as a tourniquet, and strained the bandage tight.

"Thanks! thanks!" murmured Hawke. "That will hold. Give me the pole of the axe. Now run down to the Inn and get help. I may be able to last out--if only I don't freeze to death," he added, with a moan.

"It is a pity the brandy's spilt."

"Never mind that! Hurry down to the Inn."

"No! no! Austen," Gordon replied, indulgently, much as one refuses a child an impossible request. "I don't think I can do that."

Hawke raised himself upon his right elbow and peered into the other's face. Neither of them spoke, but the animation flickered out of Hawke's features, and it seemed as if a veil were drawn across the pupils of his eyes.

"You have murdered me," he said, sinking back and letting his head fall sideways on the ground.

"I have waked up. You said I was dreaming. I have waked up, that's all. It is not the sleeper's fault if he hits the man who wakes him."

Gordon bent over as he spoke, and shot the words into Hawke's ear with a savage intensity. In a moment, however, he resumed his former composure.

"But we are wasting time, and we have not much time to waste, have we? I want three letters."

Hawke dropped the pole of the axe and instinctively moved his right hand to protect his breast-pocket.

"Thank you," said Gordon. "I only wanted to know whether you had them with you. I felt sure you would have, but it was best to make certain. Don't worry about them now. I will take them--afterwards."

He laid the slightest possible stress upon the word, and continued--

"The shawl is safe enough, too. I am carrying it now. I thought you would like to know that. Is there anything more? Oh, yes! You have taught me a lesson--never to conduct interviews at night with the blind up and the window open."

"Then you--you were outside?"

"Yes! I was outside," cried Gordon, his savage fury boiling over its barriers and sweeping him away on a full flow.

"The fool was asleep, was he? The fool was on the outhouse staring into your face. Who was the fool, eh? Did you think I was blind? Did you think I didn't see you were frightened when I met you yesterday! Did you think I didn't see you watching my bedroom from the barn? What made you come back and turn my lamp out? Who was the fool, eh? Why, but for you I should never have known, never have suspected, never have killed you."

His voice had risen to a scream, and he thrust his face into Hawke's, livid with hate. A sudden access of passion stung the latter into life; he pushed the face away from him and gathering all his strength, half struggled to his feet. On the instant Gordon slipped the steel point of the axe from the bandage round his arm and Hawke fell back, fainting and sick.

"Damn you!" he whispered, "and the girl, too!"

Gordon uttered a cry, and dying though the man was, struck him on the mouth with his clenched fist.

Hawke took the blow without a moan, fixed one steady look upon the other, and then let his head fall back upon the rock.

After that neither spoke.

A feeling of horror at this last action swept over Gordon. He reproached himself for the blow, and sought to replace the axe in the scarf. His fingers, however, were now too numbed; so he clenched them tightly round the arm and knelt there watching the blanching face and feeling the blood soak about his knees. In a moment or two he saw Hawke's eyeballs quiver under the half-closed lids and he leaned across the body and blew out the lanthorn-light. The darkness rushed down between them, and almost immediately the storm broke in a pitiless shower of hail.

After awhile it passed, and Gordon bethought him of the time, but he was now so starved by the cold that at first he was powerless to unclasp his hands. The feeling of utter helplessness threw him into an agony. He fancied that his hands were dead--dead hands frozen round the dead man's wrist with blood. He looked forward in his mind through the black hours of the night and saw the morning pour down the mountain side and touch the grey face by his knees--nay, more, bring the dalesmen up to discover him riveted to the man he had killed. With this last thought he summoned all his strength to his aid, and making a final effort wrenched his hands free. The body was lying motionless at his side, and he felt along it until he reached the breast. To take the letters, however, he had to unbutton the coat, and he paused, shrinking from that. In the end he mustered courage for the task, rebuttoned the coat, and groped his way cautiously to the summit, the rest of the ascent being no more than a rock-strewn slope. From there his path was easy, and although a high wind was now blowing, he descended rapidly. Half-way down he struck a glissade which rare winters of great snow form along an old stone wall, and so slid out of the mist.

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