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Two Sides of the Face: Midwinter Tales By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 19169

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Cleeve Court, known now as Cleeve Old Court, sits deep in a valley beside a brook and a level meadow, across which it looks southward upon climbing woods and glades descending here and there between them like broad green rivers. Above, the valley narrows almost to a gorge, with scarps of limestone, grey and red-streaked, jutting sheer over its alder beds and fern-screened waterfalls; and so zigzags up to the mill and hamlet of Ipplewell, beyond which spread the moors. Below, it bends southward and widens gradually for a mile to the market-town of Cleeve Abbots, where by a Norman bridge of ten arches its brook joins a large river, and their waters, scarcely mingled, are met by the sea tides, spent and warm with crawling over the sandbanks of a six-mile estuary.

Cleeve Old Court sees neither the limestone crags above nor the town below, but sits sequestered in its own bend of the valley, in its own clearing amid the heavy elms; so sheltered that, even in March and November, when the wind sings aloft on the ridges, the smoke mounts straight from its chimneys and the trees drip as steadily as though they were clocks and marked the seconds perfunctorily, with no real interest in the lapse of time. For the house, with its round-shouldered Jacobean gables, its stone-cropped roof, lichen-spotted plaster, and ill-kept yew hedge, has an air of resignation to decay, well-bred but spiritless, and communicates it to the whole of its small landscape. Our old builders chose their sites for shelter rather than for view; and this-and perhaps a well of exquisite water bubbling by the garden gate on the very lip of the brook-must explain the situation of the Old Court. Its present owner-being inordinately rich-had abandoned it to his bailiff, and built himself a lordly barrack on the ridge, commanding views that stretch from the moors to the sea. For this nine out of ten would commend him; but no true à Cleeve would ever have owned so much of audacity or disowned so much of tradition, and he has wasted a compliment on the perished family by assuming its name.

The last à Cleeve who should have inherited Cleeve Court returned to it for the last time on a grey and dripping afternoon in 1805-on the same day and at the same hour, in fact, when, hundreds of miles to the southward, our guns were banging to victory off Cape Trafalgar. Here, at home, on the edge of the Cleeve woods, the air hung heavy and soundless, its silence emphasised rather than broken now and again by the kuk-kuk of a pheasant in the undergrowth. Above the plantations, along the stubbled uplands, long inert banks of vapour hid the sky-line; and out of these Walter à Cleeve came limping across the ridge, his figure looming unnaturally.

He limped because he had walked all the way from Plymouth in a pair of French sabots-a penitential tramp for a youth who loathed walking at the best of times. He knew his way perfectly, although he followed no path; yet, coming to the fringe of the woodland, he turned aside and skirted the fence as if unexpectedly headed off by it. And this behaviour seemed highly suspicious to Jim Burdon, the under-keeper, who, not recognising his young master, decided that here was a stranger up to no good.

Jim's mind ran on poachers this year. Indeed he had little else to brood over and very little else to discuss with Macklin, the head-keeper. The Cleeve coverts had come to a pretty pass, and, as things were going, could only end in worse. Here they were close on the third week in October, and not a gun had been fired. Last season it had been bad enough, and indeed ever since the black day which brought news that young Mr. Walter was a prisoner among the French. No more shooting-parties, no more big beats, no more handsome gratuities for Macklin and windfalls for Jim Burdon! Nevertheless, the Squire, with a friend or two, had shot the coverts after a fashion. The blow had shaken him: uncertainty, anxiety of this sort for his heir and only child, must prey upon any man's mind. Still (his friends argued) the cure lay in his lifelong habits; these were the firm ground on which he would feel his footing again and recover himself-since, if so colourless a man could be said to nurse a passion, it was for his game. A strict Tory by breeding, and less by any process of intellectual conviction than from sheer inability to see himself in any other light, indolent and contemptuous of politics, in game-preserving alone he let his Toryism run into activity, even to a fine excess. The Cleeve coverts, for instance, harboured none but pheasants of the old pure breed, since extinct in England-the true Colchian-and the Squire was capable of maintaining that these not only gave honester sport (whatever he meant by this), but were better eating than any birds of later importation (which was absurd). The appearance-old Macklin declared-of a single green-plumed or white-ringed bird within a mile of Cleeve Court was enough to give him a fit: certainly it would irritate him more than any poacher could-though poachers, too, were poison.

When first the Squire took to neglecting his guns all set it down to a passing dejection of spirit. He alone knew that he nursed a wound incurable unless his son returned, and that this distaste was but an early stage in his ailing. Being a man of reserved and sensitive soul, into which no fellow-creature had been allowed to look, he told his secret to no one, not even to his wife. She-a Roman Catholic and devout-had lived for many years almost entirely apart from him, occupying her own rooms, divided between her books and the spiritual consolations of Father Halloran, who had a lodging at the Court and a board of his own. In spite of the priest's demure eye and neat Irish wit, the three made a melancholy household.

"As melancholy as a nest of gib cats," said old Macklin. "And I feel it coming over me at nights up at my cottage. How's a man to sleep, knowing the whole place so scandalously overstocked-the birds that tame they run between your legs-and no leave to use a gun, even to club 'em into good manners?"

"Leave it to Charley Hannaford," growled Jim bitterly. "He'll soon weed us out neat and clean. I wonder the Squire don't pay him for doing our work."

The head-keeper looked up sharply. "Know anything?" he asked laconically.

Jim answered one question with another. "See Hannaford's wife in church last Sunday?"

"Wasn't there-had too much to employ me walking the coverts. I believe a man's duty comes before his church-going at this time o' year; but I suppose there's no use to argue with a lad when he's courting."

"Courting or not, I was there; and, what's more, I had it reckoned up for me how much money Bess Hannaford wore on her back. So even going to church may come in useful, Sam Macklin, if a man's got eyes in his head."

"Argyments!" sniffed the head-keeper. "You'll be some time lagging Charley Hannaford with argyments. Coverts is coverts, my son, and Bow Street is Bow Street. Keep 'em separate."

"Stop a minute. That long-legg'd boy of his is home from service at Exeter. Back in the summer I heard tell he was getting on famous as a footman, and liked his place. Seems to have changed his mind, or else the Hannafords are settin' up a footman of their own." (Jim, when put out, had a gift of sarcasm.)

"Bow Street again," said Macklin stolidly, puffing at his pipe. "Anything more?"

"Well, yes,"-Jim at this point began to drawl his words-"you've cast an eye, no doubt, over the apple heaps in Hannaford's back orchard?"

Macklin nodded.

"Like the looks o' them?"

"Not much. Anything more?"

Jim's gaze wandered carelessly to the horizon, and his drawl grew slower yet as he led up to his triumph. "Not much-only I took a stroll down to town Saturday night, and dropped in upon Bearne, the chemist. Hannaford had been there that afternoon buying nux vomica."

"No?" The elder man was startled, and showed it. "The gormed rascal! That was a clever stroke of yours, though, I will say."

Jim managed to conceal his satisfaction with a frown. "If I don't get a charge of buckshot somewhere into Charles Hannaford between this and Christmas I'm going to enlist!" he announced.

But Macklin did not hear, being occupied for the moment with this new evidence of Hannaford's guile, which he contemplated, be it said, more dispassionately than did Jim. In Jim there rankled a venomous personal grudge, dating from the day when, having paid an Exeter taxidermist for a beautifully stuffed Phasianus colchicus, he had borne the bird home, cunningly affixed it to a roosting-bough, and left it there looking as natural as life. On arriving at the tree early next morning he found Macklin (to whom he had not imparted the secret) already there, and staring aloft with a puzzled grin. Someone had decorated the bird during the night with a thin collar of white linen. "Very curious," explained Macklin; "I got a 'nonamous letter last night, pushed under my door, and tellin' me there was a scandalous ring-necked bird roosting hereabouts. The fellow went on to say he wouldn't have troubled me but for knowing the Squire to be so particular set against this breed, and wound up by signing himself 'Yours truly, A WELL WISHER.'"

The worse of it was that Macklin found the joke too good to keep it to himself: by this time the whole countryside knew of Jim's visit to the "tackydermatist," and maddening allusions to it had kept Jim's temper raw and his fists pretty active.

So it was that, on the misty afternoon when y

oung Mr. Walter à Cleeve passed him unawares, Jim had been standing for twenty minutes flat against a tree on the upper outskirts of the plantation, sunk in a brown study. The apparition startled him, for the thick air deadened the sound of footsteps; and the sound, when it fell on his ears, held something unfamiliar. (Jim was unacquainted with sabots.) He stood perfectly still, let it go by, and at once prepared to follow-not that his suspicions connected this stranger with Charley Hannaford, who habitually worked alone, but because the man's gait ("He lopped like a hare," said Jim afterwards) and peculiar slouch of the shoulders somehow aroused his misgivings. Who could this be? And what might be his business that he followed no path, yet seemed to be walking with a purpose?

A shallow ditch ran along the inner side of the fence, clear of undergrowth and half filled with rotted leaves. Along this Jim followed, gun in hand, keeping his quarry's head-and shoulders well in sight over the coping. This was laborious work, for he plunged ankle-deep at every step; but the leaves, sodden with a week's rain, made a noiseless carpet, whereas the brushwood might have crackled and betrayed him.

Walter à Cleeve limped forward, not once turning his head. These were his paternal acres, and he knew every inch of them, almost every spot of lichen along the fence. Abroad he had dreamed of them, night after night; but he did not pause to regreet them now, for his thoughts were busy ahead, in the Court now directly beneath him in the valley; and in his thoughts he was there already, announcing himself, facing his mother in her unchanged room, and his father in the library.

Amid these thoughts (and they were anxious ones) he reached the point for which he had been steering, a platform of rock and thin turf from which a limestone cliff, parting the woods, descended almost sheer to the valley. The White Rock it was called, and as a child Walter à Cleeve had climbed about it a score of times in search of madrepores; for a gully ran down beside it, half choked with fern and scree, and from the gully here and there a ledge ran out across the cliff-face, otherwise inaccessible. The gully itself, though daunting at first sight, gave, in fact, a short cut down to the meadows above Cleeve Court, easy and moderately safe. Walter à Cleeve plunged into it without hesitation.

Now it so happened that at this moment, some fifty yards down the gully, and well screened by the overhanging rock, Charley Hannaford was crouching with a wire in his hand. Even had you known his whereabouts and his business, it would have been hard to stalk Charley Hannaford single-handed on the face of the White Rock. But the wiliest poacher cannot provide against such an accident as this-that a young gentleman, supposed to be in France, should return by an unfrequented path, and by reason of an awkward French boot catch his toe and slide precipitately, without warning, down twenty feet of scree, to drop another six feet on to a grassy ledge. Yet this is just what happened. Charley Hannaford, already pricking up his ears at the unfamiliar footfall up the gully had scarcely time to rise on his knees in readiness for retreat, when Walter à Cleeve came sprawling almost on top of him.

"Hallo!" gasped Walter, scarcely more confused by his fall than by the singular meeting. "Clumsy of me-" His eyes fell on the wire which Hannaford was stealthily trying to pocket, and grew wide with understanding. Then they sought the ground by Hannaford's feet, and glanced from that up to the fence of the plantation overhanging the far side of the gully.

"Well, Charles Hannaford, you don't look overjoyed to see me home again!"

The poacher grinned awkwardly. He was caught, for certain: nevertheless, his wariness did not desert him.

"You took me rather sudden, Mister Walter."

"That's fairly evident. Maize, eh?" He scooped a few grains into his palm and sniffed at them. "Better maize than my father's, no doubt. Where's Macklin?"

"Somewhere's about. I say, Mister Walter-"

"And Jim Burdon?"

"Near abouts, too. Be you goin' to tell on me?"

"Why on earth shouldn't I? It's robbery, you know, and I don't care any more than my father does for being robbed."

"That was a nasty tumble of yours, sir."

"Yes, I suppose it was something of a spill. But I'm not hurt, thank you."

"It might ha' been a sight worse," said Charley Hannaford reflectively. "A foot or two more, now-and the rock, if I remember, sloping outwards just here below." He leaned his head sideways and seemed to drop a casual glance over the ledge.

Walter knew that the drop just there was a very nasty one indeed. "Oh, but yon's where I came over-I couldn't have fallen quite so wide-" he began to explain, and checked himself, reading the queer strained smile on Hannaford's face.

"I-I reckon we'll call it Providence, all the same," said the poacher.

Then Walter understood. The man was desperate, and he-he, Walter à Cleeve, was a coward.

Had he known it, across the gully a pair of eyes were watching. He had help within call. Jim Burdon had come to the upper end of the plantation a few seconds too late to witness the accident. By the time he reached the hedge there and peered over, Walter had disappeared; and Jim- considerably puzzled, half inclined to believe that the stranger had walked over the edge of the White Rock and broken his neck-worked his way down the lateral fence beside the gully, to be brought up standing by the sight of the man he sought, safe and sound, and apparently engaged in friendly chat with Charley Hannaford.

But Walter à Cleeve's back was turned towards the fence, and again Jim failed to recognise him. And Jim peered over the fence through a gorse-whin, undetected even by the poacher's clever eyes.

"It's queer, too," went on Charley Hannaford slowly, as if chewing each word. "I hadn't even heard tell they was expectin' you, down at the Court."

"They are not," Walter answered. He scarcely thought of the words, which indeed seemed to him to be spoken by somebody else. He was even astonished at the firmness of their sound; but he knew that his face was white, and all the while he was measuring Hannaford's lithe figure, and calculating rapidly. Just here he stood at a disadvantage: a sidelong spring might save him: it would take but a second. On the other hand, if during that second or less… His eyes were averted from the verge, and yet he saw it, and his senses apprised every foot of the long fall beyond. While he thought it out, keeping tension on himself to meet Charley Hannaford's gaze with a deceptive indifference, his heart swelled at the humiliation of it all. He had escaped from a two years' captivity-and, Heavens! how he had suffered over there, in France! He had run risks: his adventures-bating one unhappy blot upon them, which surely did not infect the whole-might almost be called heroic. And here he was, within a few hundred yards of home, ignominiously trapped. The worst of it was that death refused to present itself to him as possible. He knew that he could save himself by a word: he foresaw quite clearly that he was going to utter it. What enraged him was the equal certainty that a courageous man-one with the tradition he ought to have inherited-would behave quite differently. It was not death, but his own shameful cowardice, that he looked in the face during those moments.

Into the poacher's eyes there crept his habitual shifty smile. "You'll have a lot to tell 'em down there, Mr. Walter, without troublin' about me."

The unhappy lad forced a laugh. "You might say so, if you knew what I've been through. One doesn't escape out of France in these days without adventures, and mine would make pretty good reading."

"Surely, sir."

"But if I-if I overlook this affair, it's not to be a precedent, you understand. I intend to live at home now and look after the estate. My father will wish it."

"To be sure."

"And stealing's stealing. If I choose to keep my own counsel about this, you are not to suppose I shall forget it. The others suspect only, but I know; and henceforth I advise you to bear that in mind."

"And much obliged to you, sir. I know a gentleman and can trust his word."

"So the best advice I can give you is to turn over a new leaf." Walter turned to go with an air of careless magnanimity, conscious of the sorry part he was playing, yet not wholly without hope that it imposed upon the other. "I want to be friends with all my neighbours, you understand. Good-bye."

He nodded curtly and began to pick his way down the gully with a slowness almost ostentatious. And as he went he cursed his weakness, and broke off cursing to reconstruct the scene from the beginning and imagine himself carrying it off with contemptuous fearlessness, at hand-grips with Charley Hannaford and defying him. He would (he felt) give the world to see the look Charley Hannaford flung after him.

The poacher's eyes did indeed follow him till he disappeared, but it would have taken a wise man to read them. After a meditative minute or so he coiled up his wire, pocketed it, and made off across the face of the rock by a giddy track which withdrew him at once from Jim Burdon's sight.

And Jim Burdon, pondering what he had seen, withdrew himself from hiding and went off to report to Macklin that Charley Hannaford had an accomplice, that the pair were laying snares on the White Rock, and that a little caution would lay them both by the heels.

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