The Winning Shot
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
- in Bow Bells (11 july 1883 [UK]) 1 illustration
- in Le Parasite (1909, P.-V. Stock [FR]) as Le Coup gagnant
- in Le Parasite (ca. 1920-1923, L'Édition Française Illustrée [FR]) as Le Coup gagnant
Plot summary (spoiler)
Miss Lottie Underwood and her lover Charley take a walk on the moor, where they meet a strange ugly Swede man known as Dr. Octavius Gaster. As he is lost and in search of a place to rest, Charley decides to invite him at his father's house. The stranger is very agreeable and grown but he also has some strange behaviours. He reads an old book written in Arabic characters; he has some passionate speeches about life after death; he is the only one who can approach the dog's house who bites everyone; and Lottie discovers a newspaper article about necromancy which makes him laugh in a morbid way. He also seems to be very interested with Lottie and, one day, he meets her in an arbour and frightens her when he asks her to flee with him. Charley intervenes and they have a fight. Gaster is asked to leave and never to return. A few days later, Charley participates to the great rifle competition of Toynby Hall vs Plymouth. The three-round game almost ends up as a tie. Charley is the last shooter, and he has to hit the bull's eye for his team to win. While he prepares his winning shot, Lottie notices Gaster amongst the spectators, in a state of trance while concentrating at Charley. Charley starts to hallucinate, seeing someone resembling to himself in the middle of his shooting line. He doesn't want to kill him and stops aiming. Everyone tells him there is nobody and he has to shoot or be disqualified. He finally shoots and makes his team win. But at the same time he falls dead. Lottie, desperate, falls in a shock. She spends a few days in hospital and disappears from town after leaving the sick-room. Some witnesses say they have seen her in the train with a strange looking man.
The Winning Shot
"Caution. - The public are hereby cautioned against a man calling himself Octavius Gaster. He is to be recognised by his great height, his flaxen hair, and deep scar upon his left cheek, extending from the eye to the angle of the mouth. His predilection for bright colours — green neckties, and the like — may help to identify him. A slightly foreign accent is to be detected in his speech. This man is beyond the reach of the law, but is more dangerous than a mad dog. Shun him as you would shun the pestilence that walketh at noonday. Any communications as to his whereabouts will be thankfully acknowledged by A.C.U., Lincoln's Inn, London."
This is a copy of an advertisement which may have been noticed by many readers in the columns of the London morning papers during the early part of the present year. It has, I believe, excited considerable curiosity in certain quarters, and many guesses have been hazarded as to the identity of Octavius Gaster and the nature of the charge brought against him. When I state that the "caution" has been inserted by my elder brother, Arthur Cooper Underwood, barrister-at-law, upon my representations, it will be acknowledged that I am the most fitting person to enter upon an authentic explanation.
Hitherto the horror and vagueness of my suspicion, combined with my grief at the loss of my poor darling on the very eve of our wedding, have prevented me from revealing the events of last August to anyone save my brother.
Now, however, looking back, I can fit in many little facts almost unnoticed at the time, which form a chain of evidence that, though worthless in a court of law, may yet have some effect upon the mind of the public.
I shall therefore relate, without exaggeration or prejudice, all that occurred from the day upon which this man, Octavius Gaster, entered Toynby Hall up to the great rifle competition. I know that many people will always ridicule the supernatural, or what our poor intellects choose to regard as supernatural, and that the fact of my being a woman will be thought to weaken my evidence. I can only plead that I have never been weak-minded or impressionable, and that other people formed the same opinions of Octavius Gaster that I did.
Now to the story.
It was at Colonel Pillar's place at Roborough, in the pleasant county of Devon, that we spent our autumn holidays. For some months I had been engaged to his eldest son Charley, and it was hoped that the marriage might take place before the termination of the Long Vacation.
Charley was considered "safe" for his degree, and in any case was rich enough to be practically independent, while I was by no means penniless.
The old Colonel was delighted at the prospect of the match, and so was my mother; so that look what way we would, there seemed to be no cloud above our horizon.
It was no wonder, then, that that August was a happy one. Even the most miserable of mankind would have laid his woes aside under the genial influence of the merry household at Toynby Hall.
There was Lieutenant Daseby, "Jack," as he was invariably called, fresh home from Japan in Her Majesty's ship Shark, who was on the same interesting footing with Fanny Pillar, Charley's sister, as Charley was with me, so that we were able to lend each other a certain moral support.
Then there was Harry, Charley's younger brother, and Trevor, his bosom friend at Cambridge.
Finally there was my mother, dearest of old ladies, beaming at us through her gold-rimmed spectacles, anxiously smoothing every little difficulty in the way of the two young couples, and never weary of detailing to them her own doubts and fears and perplexities when that gay young blood, Mr. Nicholas Underwood, came a-wooing into the provinces, and forswore Crockford's and Tattersall's for the sake of the country parson's daughter.
I must not, however, forget the gallant old warrior who was our host; with his time-honoured jokes, and his gout, and his harmless affectation of ferocity.
"I don't know what's come over the governor lately," Charley used to say. "He has never cursed the Liberal Administration since you've been here, Lottie; and my belief is that unless he has a good blow-off, that Irish question will get into his system and finish him."
Perhaps in the privacy of his own apartment the veteran used to make up for his self-abnegation during the day.
He seemed to have taken a special fancy to me, which he showed in a hundred little attentions.
"You're a good lass," he remarked one evening, in a very port-winey whisper. "Charley's a lucky dog, egad! and has more discrimination than I thought. Mark my words, Miss Underwood, you'll find that young gentleman isn't such a fool as he looks!"
With which equivocal compliment the Colonel solemnly covered his face with his handkerchief, and went off into the land of dreams.
How well I remember the day that was the commencement of all our miseries!
Dinner was over, and we were in the drawing-room, with the windows open to admit the balmy southern breeze.
My mother was sitting in the corner, engaged on a piece of fancy-work, and occasionally purring forth some truism which the dear old soul believed to be an entirely original remark, and founded exclusively upon her own individual experiences.
Fanny and the young lieutenant were billing and cooing upon the sofa, while Charley paced restlessly about the room.
I was sitting by the window, gazing out dreamily at the great wilderness of Dartmoor, which stretched away to the horizon, ruddy and glowing in the light of the sinking sun, save where some rugged tor stood out in bold relief against the scarlet background.
"I say," remarked Charley, coming over to join me at the window, "it seems a positive shame to waste an evening like this."
"Confound the evening!" said Jack Daseby.
"You're always victimising yourself to the weather. Fan and I ar'n't going to move off this sofa—are we, Fan?"
That young lady announced her intention of remaining by nestling among the cushions, and glancing defiantly at her brother.
"Spooning is a demoralising thing—isn't it, Lottie?" said Charley, appealing laughingly to me.
"Shockingly so," I answered.
"Why, I can remember Daseby here when he was as active a young fellow as any in Devon; and just look at him now! Fanny, Fanny, you've got a lot to answer for!"
"Never mind him, my dear," said my mother, from the corner. "Still, my experience has always shown me that moderation is an excellent thing for young people. Poor dear Nicholas used to think so too. He would never go to bed of a night until he had jumped the length of the hearthrug. I often told him it was dangerous; but he would do it, until one night he fell on the fender and snapped the muscle of his leg, which made him limp till the day of his death, for Doctor Pearson mistook it for a fracture of the bone, and put him in splints, which had the effect of stiffening his knee. They did say that the doctor was almost out of his mind at the time from anxiety, brought on by his younger daughter swallowing a halfpenny, and that that was what caused him to make the mistake."
My mother had a curious way of drifting along in her conversation, and occasionally rushing off at a tangent, which made it rather difficult to remember her original proposition. On this occasion Charley had, however, stowed it away in his mind as likely to admit of immediate application.
"An excellent thing, as you say, Mrs. Underwood," he remarked; "and we have not been out to-day. Look here, Lottie, we have an hour of daylight yet. Suppose we go down and have a try for a trout, if your mamma does not object."
"Put something round your throat, dear," said my mother, feeling that she had been outmanoeuvred.
"All right, dear," I answered; "I'll just run up and put on my hat."
"And we'll have a walk back in the gloaming," said Charley, as I made for the door.
When I came down, I found my lover waiting impatiently with his fishing basket in the hall.
We crossed the lawn together, and passed the open drawing-room windows, where three mischievous faces were looking at us.
"Spooning is a terribly demoralising thing," remarked Jack, reflectively staring up at the clouds.
"Shocking," said Fan; and all three laughed until they woke the sleeping Colonel, and we could hear them endeavouring to explain the joke to that ill- used veteran, who apparently obstinately refused to appreciate it.
We passed down the winding lane together, and through the little wooden gate, which opens on to the Tavistock road.
Charley paused for a moment after we had emerged and seemed irresolute which way to turn.
Had we but known it, our fate depended upon that trivial question.
"Shall we go down to the river, dear," he said, "or shall we try one of the brooks upon the moor?"
"Whichever you like?" I answered.
"Well, I vote that we cross the moor. We'll have a longer walk back that way," he added, looking down lovingly at the little white-shawled figure beside him.
The brook in question runs through a most desolate part of the country. By the path it is several miles from Toynby Hall; but we were both young and active, and struck out across the moor, regardless of rocks and furze- bushes.
Not a living creature did we meet upon our solitary walk, save a few scraggy Devonshire sheep, who looked at us wistfully, and followed us for some distance, as if curious as to what could possibly have induced us to trespass upon their domains.
It was almost dark before we reached the little stream, which comes gurgling down through a precipitous glen, and meanders away to help to form the Plymouth "leat."
Above us towered two great columns of rock, between which the water trickled to form a deep, still pool at the bottom. This pool had always been a favourite spot of Charley's, and was a pretty cheerful place by day; but now, with the rising moon reflected upon its glassy waters, and throwing dark shadows from the overhanging rocks, it seemed anything rather than the haunt of a pleasure-seeker.
"I don't think, darling, that I'll fish, after all," said Charley, as we sat down together on a mossy bank. "It's a dismal sort of place, isn't it?"
"Very," said I, shuddering.
"We'll just have a rest, and then we will walk back by the pathway. You're shivering. You're not cold, are you?"
"No," said I, trying to keep up my courage; "I'm not cold, but I'm rather frightened, though it's very silly of me."
"By jove!" said my lover, "I can't wonder at it, for I feel a bit depressed myself. The noise that water makes is like the gurgling in the throat of a dying man."
"Don't, Charley; you frighten me!"
"Come, dear, we mustn't get the blues," he said, with a laugh, trying to reassure me. "Let's run away from this charnel-house place, and—Look!—see!—good gracious! what is that?"
Charley had staggered back, and was gazing upwards with a pallid face.
I followed the direction of his eyes, and could scarcely suppress a scream.
I have already mentioned that the pool by which we were standing lay at the foot of a rough mound of rocks. On the top of this mound, about sixty feet above our heads, a tall dark figure was standing, peering down, apparently, into the rugged hollow in which we were.
The moon was just topping the ridge behind, and the gaunt, angular outlines of the stranger stood out hard and clear against its silvery radiance.
There was something ghastly in the sudden and silent appearance of this solitary wanderer, especially when coupled with the weird nature of the scene.
I clung to my lover in speechless terror, and glared up at the dark figure above us.
"Hullo, you sir!" cried Charley, passing from fear into anger, as Englishmen generally do. "Who are you, and what the devil are you doing?"
"Oh! I thought it, I thought it!" said the man who was overlooking us, and disappeared from the top of the hill.
We heard him scrambling about among the loose stones, and in another moment he emerged upon the banks of the brook and stood facing us.
Weird as his appearance had been when we first caught sight of him, the impression was intensified rather than removed by a closer acquaintance.
The moon shining full upon him revealed a long, thin face of ghastly pallor, the effect being increased by its contrast with the flaring green necktie which he wore.
A scar upon his cheek had healed badly and caused a nasty pucker at the side of his mouth, which gave his whole countenance a most distorted expression, more particularly when he smiled.
The knapsack on his back and stout staff in his hand announced him to be a tourist, while the easy grace with which he raised his hat on perceiving the presence of a lady showed that he could lay claim to the savoir faire of a man of the world.
There was something in his angular proportions and the bloodless face which, taken in conjunction with the black cloak which fluttered from his shoulders, irresistibly reminded me of a bloodsucking species of bat which Jack Daseby had brought from Japan upon his previous voyage, and which was the bugbear of the servants' hall at Toynby.
"Excuse my intrusion," he said, with a slightly foreign lisp, which imparted a peculiar beauty to his voice. "I should have had to sleep on the moor had I not had the good fortune to fall in with you."
"Confound it, man!" said Charley; "why couldn't you shout out, or give some warning? You quite frightened Miss Underwood when you suddenly appeared up there."
The stranger once more raised his hat as he apologised to me for having given me such a start.
"I am a gentleman from Sweden," he continued, in that peculiar intonation of his, "and am viewing this beautiful land of yours. Allow me to introduce myself as Doctor Octavius Gaster. Perhaps you could tell me where I may sleep, and how I can get from this place, which is truly of great size?"
"You're very lucky in falling in with us," said Charley. "It is no easy matter to find your way upon the moor."
"That can I well believe," remarked our new acquaintance.
"Strangers have been found dead on it before now," continued Charley. "They lose themselves, and then wander in a circle until they fall from fatigue."
"Ha, ha!" laughed the Swede; "it is not I, who have drifted in an open boat from Cape Blanco to Canary, that will starve upon an English moor. But how may I turn to seek an inn?"
"Look here!" said Charley, whose interest was excited by the stranger's allusion, and who was at all times the most openhearted of men. "There's not an inn for many a mile round; and I daresay you have had a long day's walk already. Come home with us, and my father, the Colonel, will be delighted to see you and find you a spare bed."
"For this great kindness how can I thank you?" returned the traveller. "Truly, when I return to Sweden, I shall have strange stories to tell of the English and the hospitality!"
"Nonsense!" said Charley. "Come, we will start at once, for Miss Underwood is cold. Wrap the shawl well round your neck, Lottie, and we will be home in no time."
We stumbled along in silence, keeping as far as we could to the rugged pathway, sometimes losing it as a cloud drifted over the face of the moon, and then regaining it further on with the return of the light.
The stranger seemed buried in thought, but once or twice I had the impression that he was looking hard at me through the darkness as we strode along together.
"So," said Charley at last, breaking the silence, "you drifted about in an open boat, did you?"
"Ah, yes," answered the stranger; "many strange sights have I seen, and many perils undergone, but none worse than that. It is, however, too sad a subject for a lady's ears. She has been frightened once to-night."
"Oh, you needn't be afraid of frightening me now," said I, as I leaned on Charley's arm.
"Indeed there is but little to tell, and yet is it sorrowful.
"A friend of mine, Karl Osgood of Upsala, and myself started on a trading venture. Few white men had been among the wandering Moors at Cape Blanco, but nevertheless we went, and for some months lived well, selling this and that, and gathering much ivory and gold.
"'Tis a strange country, where is neither wood nor stone, so that the huts are made from the weeds of the sea.
"At last, just as what we thought was a sufficiency, the Moors conspired to kill us, and came down against us in the night.
"Short was our warning, but we fled to the beach, launched a canoe and put out to sea, leaving everything behind.
"The Moors chased us, but lost us in the darkness; and when day dawned the land was out of sight.
"There was no country where we could hope for food nearer than Canary, and for that we made.
"I reached it alive, though very weak and mad; but poor Karl died the day before we sighted the islands.
"I gave him warning!
"I cannot blame myself in the matter.
"I said, 'Karl, the strength that you might gain by eating them would be more than made up for by the blood that you would lose!'
"He laughed at my words, caught the knife from my belt, cut them off and eat them; and he died."
"Eat what?" asked Charley.
"His ears!" said the stranger.
We both looked round at him in horror.
There was no suspicion of a smile or joke upon his ghastly face.
"He was what you call headstrong," he continued, "but he should have known better than to do a thing like that. Had he but used his will he would have lived as I did."
"And you think a man's will can prevent him from feeling hungry?" said Charley.
"What can it not do?" returned Octavius Gaster, and relapsed into a silence which was not broken until our arrival in Toynby Hall.
Considerable alarm had been caused by our nonappearance, and Jack Daseby was just setting off with Charley's friend Trevor in search of us. They were delighted, therefore, when we marched in upon them, and considerably astonished at the appearance of our companion.
"Where the deuce did you pick up that second-hand corpse?" asked Jack, drawing Charley aside into the smoking-room.
"Shut up, man; he'll hear you," growled Charley. "He's a Swedish doctor on a tour, and a deuced good fellow. He went in an open boat from What's-it's- name to another place. I've offered him a bed for the night."
"Well, all I can say is," remarked Jack, "that his face will never be his fortune."
"Ha, ha! Very good! very good!" laughed the subject of the remark, walking calmly into the room, to the complete discomfiture of the sailor. "No, it will never, as you say, in this country be my fortune,"—and he grinned until the hideous gash across the angle of his mouth made him look more like the reflection in a broken mirror than anything else.
"Come upstairs and have a wash; I can lend you a pair of slippers," said Charley; and hurried the visitor out of the room to put an end to a somewhat embarrassing situation.
Colonel Pillar was the soul of hospitality, and welcomed Doctor Gaster as effusively as if he had been an old friend of the family.
"Egad, sir," he said, "the place is your own; and as long as you care to stop you are very welcome. We're pretty quiet down here, and a visitor is an acquisition."
My mother was a little more distant. "A very well informed young man, Lottie," she remarked to me; "but I wish he would wink his eyes more. I don't like to see people who never wink their eyes. Still, my dear, my life has taught me one great lesson, and that is that a man's looks are of very little importance compared with his actions."
With which brand new and eminently original remark, my mother kissed me and left me to my meditations.
Whatever Doctor Octavius Gaster might be physically, he was certainly a social success.
By next day he had so completely installed himself as a member of the household that the Colonel would not hear of his departure.
He astonished everybody by the extent and variety of his knowledge. He could tell the veteran considerably more about the Crimea than he knew himself; he gave the sailor information about the coast of Japan; and even tackled my athletic lover upon the subject of rowing, discoursing about levers of the first order, and fixed points and fulcra, until the unhappy Cantab was fain to drop the subject.
Yet all this was done so modestly and even deferentially, that no one could possibly feel offended at being beaten upon their own ground. There was a quiet power about everything he said and did which was very striking.
I remember one example of this, which impressed us all at the time.
Trevor had a remarkably savage bulldog, which, however fond of its master, fiercely resented any liberties from the rest of us. This animal was, it may be imagined, rather unpopular, but as it was the pride of the student's heart it was agreed not to banish it entirely, but to lock it up in the stable and give it a wide berth.
From the first, it seemed to have taken a decided aversion to our visitor, and showed every fang in its head whenever he approached it.
On the second day of his visit we were passing the stable in a body, when the growls of the creature inside arrested Doctor Gaster's attention.
"Ha!" he said. "There is that dog of yours, Mr. Trevor, is it not?"
"Yes; that's Towzer," assented Trevor.
"He is a bulldog, I think? What they call the national animal of England on the Continent?"
"Pure-bred," said the student, proudly.
"They are ugly animals—very ugly! Would you come into the stable and unchain him, that I may see him to advantage. It is a pity to keep an animal so powerful and full of life in captivity."
"He's rather a nipper," said Trevor, with a mischievous expression in his eye; "but I suppose you are not afraid of a dog?"
"Afraid?—no. Why should I be afraid?"
The mischievous look on Trevor's face increased as he opened the stable door. I heard Charley mutter something to him about its being past a joke, but the other's answer was drowned by the hollow growling from inside.
The rest of us retreated to a respectable distance, while Octavius Gaster stood in the open doorway with a look of mild curiosity upon his pallid face.
"And those," he said, "that I see so bright and red in the darkness—are those his eyes?"
"Those are they," said the student, as he stooped down and unbuckled the strap.
"Come here!" said Octavius Gaster.
The growling of the dog suddenly subsided into a long whimper, and instead of making the furious rush that we expected, he rustled among the straw as if trying to huddle into a corner.
"What the deuce is the matter with him?" exclaimed his perplexed owner.
"Come here!" repeated Gaster, in sharp metallic accents, with an indescribable air of command in them. "Come here!"
To our astonishment, the dog trotted out and stood at his side, but looking as unlike the usually pugnacious Towzer as is possible to conceive. His ears were drooping, his tail limp, and he altogether presented the very picture of canine humiliation.
"A very fine dog, but singularly quiet," remarked the Swede, as he stroked him down.
"Now, sir, go back!"
The brute turned and slunk back into its corner. We heard the rattling of its chain as it was being fastened, and next moment Trevor came out of the stable-door with blood dripping from his finger.
"Confound the beast!" he said. "I don't know what can have come over him. I've had him three years, and he never bit me before."
I fancy—I cannot say it for certain—but I fancy that there was a spasmodic twitching of the cicatrix upon our visitor's face, which betokened an inclination to laugh.
Looking back, I think that it was from that moment that I began to have a strange indefinable fear and dislike of the man.
Week followed week, and the day fixed for my marriage began to draw near.
Octavius Gaster was still a guest at Toynby Hall, and, indeed, had so ingratiated himself with the proprietor that any hint at departure was laughed to scorn by that worthy soldier.
"Here you've come, sir, and here you'll stay; you shall, by Jove!"
Whereat Octavius would smile and shrug his shoulders and mutter something about the attractions of Devon, which would put the Colonel in a good humour for the whole day afterwards.
My darling and I were too much engrossed with each other to pay very much attention to the traveller's occupations. We used to come upon him sometimes in our rambles through the woods, sitting reading in the most lonely situations.
He always placed the book in his pocket when he saw us approaching. I remember on one occasion, however, that we stumbled upon him so suddenly that the volume was still lying open before him.
"Ah, Gaster," said Charley, "studying, as usual! What an old bookworm you are! What's the book? Ah, a foreign language; Swedish, I suppose?"
"No, it is not Swedish," said Gaster; "it is Arabic."
"You don't mean to say you know Arabic?"
"Oh, very well—very well indeed!"
"And what's it about?" I asked, turning over the leaves of the musty old volume.
"Nothing that would interest one so young and fair as yourself, Miss Underwood," he answered, looking at me in a way which had become habitual to him of late. "It treats of the days when mind was stronger than what you call matter; when great spirits lived that were able to exist without these coarse bodies of ours, and could mould all things to their so-powerful wills."
"Oh, I see; a kind of ghost story," said Charley. "Well, adieu; we won't keep you from your studies."
We left him sitting in the little glen still absorbed in his mystical treatise. It must have been imagination which induced me, on turning suddenly round half an hour later, to think that I saw his familiar figure glide rapidly behind a tree.
I mentioned it to Charley at the time, but he laughed my idea to scorn.
I alluded just now to a peculiar manner which this man Gaster had of looking at me. His eyes seemed to lose their usual steely expression when he did so, and soften into something which might be almost called caressing. They seemed to influence me strangely, for I could always tell, without looking at him, when his gaze was fixed upon me.
Sometimes I fancied that this idea was simply due to a disordered nervous sytem or morbid imagination; but my mother dispelled that delusion from my mind.
"Do you know," she said, coming into my bedroom one night, and carefully shutting the door behind her, "if the idea was not so utterly preposterous, Lottie, I should say that that Doctor was madly in love with you?"
"Nonsense, 'ma!" said I, nearly dropping my candle in my consternation at the thought.
"I really think so, Lottie," continued my mother. "He's got a way of looking which is very like that of your poor dear father, Nicholas, before we were married. Something of this sort, you know."
And the old lady cast an utterly heart-broken glance at the bed-post.
"Now, go to bed," said I, "and don't have such funny ideas. Why, poor Doctor Gaster knows that I am engaged as well as you do."
"Time will show," said the old lady, as she left the room; and I went to bed with the words still ringing in my ears.
Certainly, it is a strange thing that on that very night a thrill which I had come to know well ran through me, and awakened me from my slumbers.
I stole softly to the window, and peered out through the bars of the Venetian blinds, and there was the gaunt, vampire-like figure of our Swedish visitor standing upon the gravel-walk, and apparently gazing up at my window.
It may have been that he detected the movement of the blind, for, lighting a cigarette, he began pacing up and down the avenue.
I noticed that at breakfast next morning he went out of his way to explain the fact that he had been restless during the night, and had steadied his nerves by a short stroll and a smoke.
After all, when I came to consider it calmly, the aversion which I had against the man and my distrust of him were founded on very scanty grounds. A man might have a strange face, and be fond of curious literature, and even look approvingly at an engaged young lady, without being a very dangerous member of society.
I say this to show that even up to that point I was perfectly unbiased and free from prejudice in my opinion of Octavius Gaster.
"I say!" remarked Lieutenant Daseby, one morning; "what do you think of having a picnic to-day?"
"Capital!" ejaculated everybody.
"You see, they are talking of commissioning the old Shark soon, and Trevor here will have to go back to the mill. We may as well compress as much fun as we can into the time."
"What is it that you call nicpic?" asked Doctor Gaster.
"It's another of our English institutions for you to study," said Charley. "It's our version of a fête champêtre."
"Ah, I see! That will be very jolly!" acquiesced the Swede.
"There are half a dozen places we might go to," continued the Lieutenant. "There's the Lover's Leap, or Black Tor, or Beer Ferris Abbey."
"That's the best," said Charley. "Nothing like ruins for a picnic."
"Well the Abbey be it. How far is it?"
"Six miles," said Trevor.
"Seven by the road," remarked the Colonel, with military exactness. "Mrs. Underwood and I shall stay at home, and the rest of you can fit into the waggonette. You'll all have to chaperon each other."
I need hardly say that this motion was carried also without a division.
"Well," said Charley, "I'll order the trap to be round in half an hour, so you'd better all make the best of your time. We'll want salmon, and salad, and hard-boiled eggs, and liquor, and any number of things. I'll look after the liquor department. What will you do, Lottie?"
"I'll take charge of the china," I said.
"I'll bring the fish," said Daseby.
"And I the vegetables," added Fan.
"What will you do, Gaster?" asked Charley.
"Truly," said the Swede, in his strange, musical accents, "but little is left for me to do. I can, however, wait upon the ladies, and I can make what you call a salad."
"You'll be more popular in the latter capacity than in the former," said I, laughingly.
"Ah, you say so," he said, turning sharp round upon me, and flushing up to his flaxen hair. "Yes. Ha! ha! Very good!" And with a discordant laugh, he strode out of the room.
"I say, Lottie," remonstrated my lover, "you've hurt the fellow's feelings."
"I'm sure I didn't mean to," I answered. "If you like I'll go after him and tell him so."
"Oh, leave him alone," said Daseby. "A man with a mug like that has no right to be so touchy. He'll come round right enough."
It was true that I had not had the slightest intention of offending Gaster, still I felt pained at having annoyed him.
After I had stowed away the knives and plates into the hamper, I found that the others were still busy at their various departments. The moment seemed a favourable one for apologising for my thoughtless remark, so without saying anything to anyone, I slipped away and ran down the corridor in the direction of our visitor's room.
I suppose I must have tripped along very lightly, or it may have been the rich thick matting of Toynby Hall—certain it is that Mr. Gaster seemed unconscious of my approach.
His door was open, and as I came up to it and caught sight of him inside, there was something so strange in his appearance that I paused, literally petrified for the moment with astonishment.
He had in his hand a small slip from a newspaper which he was reading, and which seemed to afford him considerable amusement. There was something horrible too in this mirth of his, for though he writhed his body about as if with laughter, no sound was emitted from his lips.
His face, which was half-turned towards me, wore an expression upon it which I had never seen on it before; I can only describe it as one of savage exultation.
Just as I was recovering myself sufficiently to step forward and knock at the door, he suddenly, with a last convulsive spasm of merriment, dashed down the piece of paper upon the table and hurried out by the other door of his room, which led through the billiard-room to the hall.
I heard his steps dying away in the distance, and peeped once more into his room.
What could be the joke that had moved this stern man to mirth? Surely some masterpiece of humour.
Was there ever a woman whose principles were strong enough to overcome her curiosity?
Looking cautiously round to make sure that the passage was empty, I slipped into the room and examined the paper which he had been reading.
It was a cutting from an English journal, and had evidently been long carried about and frequently perused, for it was almost illegible in places. There was, however, as far as I could see, very little to provoke laughter in its contents. It ran, as well as I can remember, in this way:—
"Sudden Death in the Docks.—The master of the bark-rigged steamer Olga, from Tromsberg, was found lying dead in his cabin on Wednesday afternoon. Deceased was, it seems, of a violent disposition, and had had frequent altercations with the surgeon of the vessel. On this particular day he had been more than usually offensive, declaring that the surgeon was a necromancer and worshipper of the devil. The latter retired on deck to avoid further persecution. Shortly afterwards the steward had occasion to enter the cabin, and found the captain lying across the table quite dead. Death is attributed to heart disease, accelerated by excessive passion. An inquest will be held to-day."
And this was the paragraph which this strange man had regarded as the height of humour!
I hurried downstairs, astonishment, not un-mixed with repugnance, predominating in my mind. So just was I, however, that the dark inference which has so often occurred to me since never for one moment crossed my mind. I looked upon him as a curious and rather repulsive enigma—nothing more.
When I met him at the picnic, all remembrance of my unfortunate speech seemed to have vanished from his mind. He made himself as agreeable as usual, and his salad was pronounced a chef-d'oeuvre, while his quaint little Swedish songs and his tales of all climes and countries alternately thrilled and amused us. It was after luncheon, however, that the conversation turned upon a subject which seemed to have special charms for his daring mind.
I forget who it was that broached the question of the supernatural. I think it was Trevor, by some story of a hoax which he had perpetrated at Cambridge. The story seemed to have a strange effect upon Octavius Gaster, who tossed his long arms about in impassioned invective as he ridiculed those who dared to doubt about the existence of the unseen.
"Tell me," he said, standing up in his excitement, "which among you has ever known what you call an instinct to fail. The wild bird has an instinct which tells it of the solitary rock upon the so boundless sea on which it may lay its egg, and is it disappointed? The swallow turns to the south when the winter is coming, and has its instinct ever led it astray? And shall this instinct which tells us of the unknown spirits around us, and which pervades every untaught child and every race so savage, be wrong? I say, never!"
"Go it, Gaster!" cried Charley.
"Take your wind and have another spell," said the sailor.
"No, never," repeated the Swede, disregarding our amusement. "We can see that matter exists apart from mind; then why should not mind exist apart from matter?"
"Give it up," said Daseby.
"Have we not proofs of it?" continued Gaster, his gray eyes gleaming with excitement. "Who that has read Steinberg's book upon spirits, or that by the eminent American, Madame Crowe, can doubt it? Did not Gustav von Spee meet his brother Leopold in the streets of Strasbourg, the same brother having been drowned three months before in the Pacific? Did not Home, the spiritualist, in open daylight, float above the housetops of Paris? Who has not heard the voices of the dead around him? I myself—"
"Well, what of yourself?" asked half a dozen of us, in a breath.
"Bah! it matters nothing," he said, passing his hand over his forehead, and evidently controlling himself with difficulty. "Truly, our talk is too sad for such an occasion." And, in spite of all our efforts, we were unable to extract from Gaster any relation of his own experiences of the supernatural.
It was a merry day. Our approaching dissolution seemed to cause each one to contribute his utmost to the general amusement. It was settled that after the coming rifle match Jack was to return to his ship and Trevor to his university. As to Charley and myself, we were to settle down into a staid respectable couple.
The match was one of our principal topics of conversation. Shooting had always been a hobby of Charley's, and he was the captain of the Roborough company of Devon volunteers, which boasted some of the crack shots of the county. The match was to be against a picked team of regulars from Plymouth, and as they were no despicable opponents, the issue was considered doubtful. Charley had evidently set his heart on winning, and descanted long and loudly on the chances.
"The range is only a mile from Toynby Hall," he said, "and we'll all drive over, and you shall see the fun. You'll bring me luck, Louie," he whispered, "I know you will."
Oh, my poor lost darling, to think of the luck that I brought you!
There was one dark cloud to mar the brightness of that happy day.
I could not hide from myself any longer the fact that my mother's suspicions were correct, and that Octavius Gaster loved me.
Throughout the whole of the excursion his attentions had been most assiduous, and his eyes hardly ever wandered away from me. There was a manner, too, in all that he said which spoke louder than words.
I was on thorns lest Charley should perceive it, for I knew his fiery temper; but the thought of such treachery never entered the honest heart of my lover.
He did once look up with mild surprise when the Swede insisted on relieving me of a fern which I was carrying; but the expression faded away into a smile at what he regarded as Gaster's effusive good-nature. My own feeling in the matter was pity for the unfortunate foreigner, and sorrow that I should have been the means of rendering him unhappy.
I thought of the torture it must be fora wild, fierce spirit like his to have a passion gnawing at his heart which honour and pride would alike prevent him from ever expressing in words. Alas! I had not counted upon the utter recklessness and want of principle of the man; but it was not long before I was undeceived.
There was a little arbour at the bottom of the garden, overgrown with honeysuckle and ivy, which had long been a favourite haunt of Charley and myself. It was doubly dear to us from the fact that it was here, on the occasion of my former visit, that words of love had first passed between us.
After dinner on the day following the picnic I sauntered down to this little summer-house, as was my custom. Here I used to wait until Charley, having finished his cigar with the other gentlemen, would come down and join me.
On that particular evening he seemed to be longer away than usual. I waited impatiently for his coming, going to the door every now and then to see if there were any signs of his approach.
I had just sat down again after one of those fruitless excursions, when I heard the tread of a male foot upon the gravel, and a figure emerged from among the bushes.
I sprang up with a glad smile, which changed to an expression of bewilderment, and even fear, when I saw the gaunt, pallid face of Octavius Gaster peering in at me.
There was certainly something about his actions which would have inspired distrust in the mind of anyone in my position. Instead of greeting me, he looked up and down the garden, as if to make sure that we were entirely alone. He then stealthily entered the arbour, and seated himself upon a chair, in such a position that he was between me and the doorway.
"Do not be afraid," he said, as he noticed my scared expression. "There is nothing to fear. I do but come that I may have talk with you."
"Have you seen Mr. Pillar?" I asked, trying hard to seem at my ease.
"Ha! Have I seen your Charley?" he answered, with a sneer upon the last words. "Are you then so anxious that he come? Can no one speak to thee but Charley, little one?"
"Mr. Gaster," I said, "you are forgetting yourself."
"It is Charley, Charley, ever Charley!" continued the Swede, disregarding my interruption. "Yes, I have seen Charley. I have told him that you wait upon the bank of the river, and he has gone thither upon the wings of love."
"Why have you told him this lie?" I asked, still trying not to lose my self-control.
"That I might see you; that I might speak to you. Do you, then, love him so? Cannot the thought of glory, and riches, and power, above all that the mind can conceive, win you from this first maiden fancy of yours? Fly with me, Charlotte, and all this, and more, shall be yours! Come!"
And he stretched his long arms out in passionate entreaty.
Even at that moment the thought flashed through my mind of how like they were to the tentacles of some poisonous insect. "You insult me, sir!" I cried, rising to my feet. "You shall pay heavily for this treatment of an unprotected girl!"
"Ah, you say it," he cried, "but you mean it not. In your heart so tender there is pity left for the most miserable of men. Nay, you shall not pass me—you shall hear me first!"
"Let me go, sir!"
"Nay; you shall not go until you tell me if nothing that I can do may win your love."
"How dare you speak so?" I almost screamed, losing all my fear in my indignation. "You, who are the guest of my future husband! Let me tell you, once and for all, that I had no feeling towards you before save one of repugnance and contempt, which you have now converted into positive hatred!"
"And is it so?" he gasped, tottering backwards towards the doorway, and putting his hand up to his throat as if he found a difficulty in uttering the words. "And has my love won hatred in return? Ha!" he continued, advancing his face within a foot of mine as I cowered away from his glassy eyes. "I know it now. It is this—it is this!" and he struck the horrible cicatrix on his face with his clenched hand. "Maids love not such faces as this! I am not smooth, and brown, and curly like this Charley—this brainless school-boy; this human brute who cares but for his sport and his—"
"Let me pass!" I cried, rushing at the door.
"No; you shall not go—you shall not!" he hissed, pushing me backwards.
I struggled furiously to escape from his grasp. His long arms seemed to clasp me like bars of steel. I felt my strength going, and was making one last despairing effort to shake myself loose, when some irresistible power from behind tore my persecutor away from me and hurled him backwards on to the gravel walk.
Looking up, I saw Charley's towering figure and square shoulders in the doorway.
"My poor darling!" he said, catching me in his arms. "Sit here—here in the angle. There is no danger now. I shall be with you in a minute."
"Don't Charley, don't!" I murmured, as he turned to leave me. But he was deaf to my entreaties, and strode out of the arbour. I could not see either him or his opponent from the position in which he had placed me, but I heard every word that was spoken. "You villain!" said a voice that I could hardly recognise as my lover's. "So this is why you put me on a wrong scent?"
"That is why," answered the foreigner, in a tone of easy indifference.
"And this is how you repay our hospitality, you infernal scoundrel!"
"Yes; we amuse ourselves in your so beautiful summer-house."
"We! You are still on my ground and my guest, and I would wish to keep my hands from you; but, by heavens—"
Charley was speaking very low and in gasps now.
"Why do you swear? What is it, then?" asked the languid voice of Octavius Gaster.
"If you dare to couple Miss Underwood's name with this business, and insinuate that—"
"Insinuate? I insinuate nothing. What I say I say plain for all the world to hear. I say that this so chaste maiden did herself ask—"
I heard the sound of a heavy blow, and a great rattling of the gravel.
I was too weak to rise from where I lay, and could only clasp my hands together and utter a faint scream.
"You cur!" said Charley. "Say as much again, and I'll stop your mouth for all eternity!"
There was a silence, and then I heard Gaster speaking in a husky, strange voice.
"You have struck me!" he said; "you have drawn my blood!"
"Yes; I'll strike you again if you show your cursed face within these grounds. Don't look at me so! You don't suppose your hankey-pankey tricks can frighten me?"
An indefinable dread came over me as my lover spoke. I staggered to my feet and looked out at them, leaning against the door-way for support.
Charley was standing erect and defiant, with his young head in the air, like one who glories in the cause for which he battles.
Octavius Gaster was opposite him, surveying him with pinched lips and a baleful look in his cruel eyes. The blood was running freely from a deep gash on his lip, and spotting the front of his green necktie and white waistcoat. He perceived me the instant I emerged from the arbour.
"Ha, ha!" he cried, with a demoniacal burst of laughter. "She comes! The bride! She comes! Room for the bride! Oh, happy pair, happy pair!"
And with another fiendish burst of merriment he turned and disappeared over the crumbling wall of the garden with such rapidity that he was gone before we had realised what it was that he was about to do.
"Oh, Charley," I said, as my lover came back to my side, "you've hurt him!"
"Hurt him! I should hope I have! Come, darling, you are frightened and tired. He did not injure you, did he?"
"No; but I feel rather faint and sick."
"Come, we'll walk slowly to the house together. The rascal! It was cunningly and deliberately planned, too. He told me he had seen you down by the river, and I was going down when I met young Stokes, the keeper's son, coming back from fishing, and he told me that there was nobody there. Somehow, when Stokes said that, a thousand little things flashed into my mind at once, and I became in a moment so convinced of Gaster's villainy that I ran as hard as I could to the arbour."
"Charley," I said, clinging to my lover's arm, "I fear he will injure you in some way. Did you see the look in his eyes before he leaped the wall?"
"Pshaw!" said Charley. "All these foreigners have a way of scowling and glaring when they are angry, but it never comes to much."
"Still, I am afraid of him," said I, mournfully, as we went up the steps together, "and I wish you had not struck him."
"So do I," Charley answered; "for he was our guest, you know, in spite of his rascality. However, it's done now and it can't be helped, as the cook says in 'Pickwick,' and really it was more than flesh and blood could stand."
I must run rapidly over the events of the next few days. For me, at least, it was a period of absolute happiness. With Gaster's departure a cloud seemed to be lifted off my soul, and a depression which had weighed upon the whole household completely disappeared.
Once more I was the light-hearted girl that I had been before the foreigner's arrival. Even the Colonel forgot to mourn over his absence, owing to the all-absorbing interest in the coming competition in which his son was engaged.
It was our main subject of conversation and bets were freely offered by the gentlemen on the success of the Roborough team, though no one was unprincipled enough to seem to support their antagonists by taking them.
Jack Daseby ran down to Plymouth, and "made a book on the event" with some officers of the Marines, which he did in such an extraordinary way that we reckoned that in case of Roborough winning, he would lose seventeen shillings; while, should the other contingency occur, he would be involved in hopeless liabilities.
Charley and I had tacitly agreed not to mention the name of Gaster, nor to allude in any way to what had passed.
On the morning after our scene in the garden, Charley had sent a servant up to the Swede's room with instructions to pack up any things he might find there, and leave them at the nearest inn.
It was found, however, that all Gaster's effects had been already removed, though how and when was a perfect mystery to the servants.
I know of few more attractive spots than the shooting-range at Roborough. The glen in which it is situated is about half a mile long and perfectly level, so that the targets were able to range from two to seven hundred yards, the further ones simply showing as square white dots against the green of the rising hills behind.
The glen itself is part of the great moor and its sides, sloping gradually up, lose themselves in the vast rugged expanse. Its symmetrical character suggested to the imaginative mind that some giant of old had made an excavation in the moor with a titanic cheese-scoop, but that a single trial had convinced him of the utter worthlessness of the soil.
He might even be imagined to have dropped the despised sample at the mouth of the cutting which he had made, for there was a considerable elevation there, from which the riflemen were to fire, and thither we bent our steps on that eventful afternoon.
Our opponents had arrived there before us, bringing with them a considerable number of naval and military officers, while a long line of nondescript vehicles showed that many of the good citizens of Plymouth had seized the opportunity of giving their wives and families an outing on the moor.
An enclosure for ladies and distinguished guests had been erected on the top of the hill, which, with the marquee and refreshment tents, made the scene a lively one.
The country people had turned out in force, and were excitedly staking their half-crowns upon their local champions, which were as enthusiastically taken up by the admirers of the regulars.
Through all this scene of bustle and confusion we were safely conveyed by Charley, aided by Jack and Trevor, who finally deposited us in a sort of rudimentary grandstand, from which we could look round at our ease on all that was going on.
We were soon, however, so absorbed in the glorious view, that we became utterly unconscious of the betting and pushing and chaff of the crowd in front of us.
Away to the south we could see the blue smoke of Plymouth curling up into the calm summer air, while beyond that was the great sea, stretching away to the horizon, dark and vast, save where some petulant wave dashed it with a streak of foam, as if rebelling against the great peacefulness of nature.
From the Eddystone to the Start the long rugged line of the Devonshire coast lay like a map before us.
I was still lost in admiration when Charley's voice broke half- reproachfully on my ear.
"Why, Lottie," he said, "you don't seem to take a bit of interest in it!"
"Oh, yes I do, dear," I answered. "But the scenery is so pretty, and the sea is always a weakness of mine. Come and sit here, and tell me all about the match and how we are to know whether you are winning or losing."
"I've just been explaining it," answered Charley. "But I'll go over it again."
"Do, like a darling," said I; and settled myself down to mark, learn, and inwardly digest.
"Well," said Charley, "there are ten men on each side. We shoot alternately; first, one of our fellows, then one of them, and so on—you understand?"
"Yes, I understand that."
"First we fire at the two hundred yards range—those are the targets nearest of all. We fire five shots each at those. Then we fire five shots at the ones at five hundred yards—those middle ones; and then we finish up by firing at the seven hundred yards range—you see the target far over there on the side of the hill. Whoever makes the most points wins. Do you grasp it now?"
"Oh, yes; that's very simple," I said.
"Do you know what a bull's eye is?" asked my lover. "Some sort of sweetmeat, isn't it?" I hazarded.
Charley seemed amazed at the extent of my ignorance. "That's the bull's- eye," he said; "that dark spot in the centre of the target. If you hit that, it counts five. There is another ring, which you can't see, drawn round that, and if you get inside of it, it is called a 'centre,' and counts four. Outside that, again, is called an 'outer,' and only gives you three. You can tell where the shot has hit, for the marker puts out a coloured disc, and covers the place."
"Oh, I understand it all now," said I, enthusiastically. "I'll tell you what I'll do Charley; I'll mark the score on a bit of paper every shot that is fired, and then I'll always know how Roborough is getting on!"
"You can't do better," he laughed as he strode off to get his men together, for a warning bell signified that the contest was about to begin.
There was a great waving of flags and shouting before the ground could be got clear, and then I saw a little cluster of red-coats lying upon the greensward, while a similar group, in grey, took up their position to the left of them.
"Pang!" went a rifle-shot, and the blue smoke came curling up from the grass.
Fanny shrieked, while I gave a cry of delight, for I saw the white disc go up, which proclaimed a "bull," and the shot had been fired by one of the Roborough men. My elation was, however, promptly checked by the answering shot which put down five to the credit of the regulars. The next was also a "bull," which was speedily cancelled by another. At the end of the competition at the short range each side had scored forty-nine out of a possible fifty, and the question of supremacy was as undecided as ever.
"It's getting exciting," said Charley, lounging over the stand. "We begin shooting at the five hundred yards in a few minutes."
"Oh, Charley," cried Fanny in high excitement, "don't you go and miss, whatever you do!"
"I won't if I can help it," responded Charley, cheerfully. "You made a 'bull' every time just now," I said.
"Yes, but it's not so easy when you've got your sights up. However, we'll do our best, and we can't do more. They've got some terribly good long-range men among them. Come over here, Lottie, for a moment."
"What is it, Charley?" I asked, as he led me away from the others. I could see by the look in his face that something was troubling him.
"It's that fellow," growled my lover. "What the deuce does he want to come here for? I hoped we had seen the last of him!"
"What fellow?" I gasped, with a vague apprehension at my heart.
"Why, that infernal Swedish fellow, Gaster!"
I followed the direction of Charley's glance, and there, sure enough, standing on a little knoll close to the place where the riflemen were lying, was the tall, angular figure of the foreigner.
He seemed utterly unconscious of the sensation which his singular appearance and hideous countenance excited among the burly farmers around him; but was craning his long neck about, this way and that, as if in search of somebody.
As we watched him, his eye suddenly rested upon us, and it seemed to me that, even at that distance, I could see a spasm of hatred and triumph pass over his livid features.
A strange foreboding came over me, and I seized my lover's hand in both my own.
"Oh, Charley," I cried, "don't—don't go back to the shooting! Say you are ill—make some excuse, and come away!"
"Nonsense, lass!" said he, laughing heartily at my terror. "Why, what in the world are you afraid of?"
"Of him!" I answered.
"Don't be so silly, dear. One would think he was a demi-god to hear the way in which you talk of him. But there! that's the bell, and I must be off."
"Well, promise, at least, that you will not go near him?" I cried, following Charley.
"All right—all right!" said he.
And I had to be content with that small concession.
The contest at the five hundred yards range was a close and exciting one. Roborough led by a couple of points for some time, until a series of "bulls" by one of the crack marksmen of their opponents turned the tables upon them.
At the end of it was found that the volunteers were three points to the bad—a result which was hailed by cheers from the Plymouth contingent and by long faces and black looks among the dwellers on the moor.
During the whole of this competition Octavius Gaster had remained perfectly still and motionless upon the top of the knoll on which he had originally taken up his position.
It seemed to me that he knew little of what was going on, for his face was turned away from the marksmen, and he appeared to be gazing into the distance.
Once I caught sight of his profile, and thought that his lips were moving rapidly as if in prayer, or it may have been the shimmer of the hot air of the almost Indian summer which deceived me. It was, however, my impression at the time.
And now came the competition at the longest range of all, which was to decide the match.
The Roborough men settled down steadily to their task of making up the lost ground; while the regulars seemed determined not to throw away a chance by over-confidence.
As shot after shot was fired, the excitement of the spectators became so great that they crowded round the marksmen, cheering enthusiastically at every "bull."
We ourselves were so far affected by the general contagion that we left our harbour of refuge, and submitted meekly to the pushing and rough ways of the mob, in order to obtain a nearer view of the champions and their doings.
The military stood at seventeen when the volunteers were at sixteen, and great was the despondency of the rustics.
Things looked brighter, however, when the two sides tied at twenty-four, and brighter still when the steady shooting of the local team raised their score to thirty-two against thirty of their opponents.
There were still, however, the three points which had been lost at the last range to be made up for.
Slowly the score rose, and desperate were the efforts of both parties to pull off the victory.
Finally, a thrill ran through the crowd when it was known that the last red-coat had fired, while one volunteer was still left, and that the soldiers were leading by four points.
Even our unsportsman-like minds were worked into a state of all- absorbing excitement by the nature of the crisis which now presented itself.
If the last representative of our little town could but hit the bull's- eye the match was won.
The silver cup, the glory, the money of our adherents, all depended upon that single shot.
The reader will imagine that my interest was by no means lessened when, by dint of craning my neck and standing on tiptoe, I caught sight of my Charley coolly shoving a cartridge into his rifle, and realised that it was upon his skill that the honour of Roborough depended.
It was this, I think, which lent me strength to push my way so vigorously through the crowd that I found myself almost in the first row and commanding an excellent view of the proceedings.
There were two gigantic farmers on each side of me, and while we were waiting for the decisive shot to be fired, I could not help listening to the conversation, which they carried on in broad Devon, over my head.
"Mun's a rare ugly 'un," said one.
"He is that," cordially assented the other.
"See to mun's een?"
"Eh, Jock; see to mun's moo', rayther!—Blessed if he bean't foamin' like Farmer Watson's dog—t' bull pup whot died mad o' the hydropathics."
I turned round to see the favoured object of these flattering comments, and my eyes fell upon Doctor Octavius Gaster, whose presence I had entirely forgotten in my excitement.
His face was turned towards me; but he evidently did not see me, for his eyes were bent with unswerving persistence upon a point midway apparently between the distant targets and himself.
I have never seen anything to compare with the extraordinary concentration of that stare, which had the effect of making his eyeballs appear gorged and prominent, while the pupils were contracted to the finest possible point.
Perspiration was running freely down his long, cadaverous face, and, as the farmer had remarked, there were some traces of foam at the corners of his mouth. The jaw was locked, as if with some fierce effort of the will which demanded all the energy of his soul.
To my dying day that hideous countenance shall never fade from my remembrance nor cease to haunt me in my dreams. I shuddered, and turned away my head in the vain hope that perhaps the honest farmer might be right, and mental disease be the cause of all the vagaries of this extraordinary man.
A great stillness fell upon the whole crowd as Charley, having loaded his rifle, snapped up the breech cheerily, and proceeded to lie down in his appointed place.
"That's right, Mr. Charles, sir—that's right!" I heard old McIntosh, the volunteer sergeant, whisper as I passed. "A cool head and a steady hand, that's what does the trick, sir!"
My lover smiled round at the gray-headed soldier as he lay down upon the grass, and then proceeded to look along the sight of his rifle amid a silence in which the faint rustling of the breeze among the blades of grass was distinctly audible.
For more than a minute he hung upon his aim. His finger seemed to press the trigger, and every eye was fixed upon the distant target, when suddenly, instead of firing, the rifleman staggered up to his knees, leaving his weapon upon the ground.
To the surprise of everyone, his face was deadly pale, and perspiration was standing on his brow.
"I say, McIntosh," he said, in a strange, gasping voice, "is there anybody standing between the target and me?"
"Between, sir? No, not a soul, sir," answered the astonished sergeant.
"There, man, there!" cried Charley, with fierce energy, seizing him by the arm, and pointing in the direction of the target, "Don't you see him there, standing right in the line of fire?"
"There's no one there!" shouted half a dozen voices.
"No one there? Well, it must have been my imagination," said Charley, passing his hand slowly over his forehead. "Yet I could have sworn—Here, give me the rifle!"
He lay down again, and having settled himself into position, raised his weapon slowly to his eye. He had hardly looked along the barrel before he sprang up again with a loud cry.
"There!" he cried; "I tell you I see it! A man dressed in volunteer uniform, and very like myself—the image of myself. Is this a conspiracy?" he continued, turning fiercely on the crowd. "Do you tell me none of you see a man resembling myself walking from that target, and not two hundred yards from me as I speak?"
I should have flown to Charley's side had I not known how he hated feminine interference, and anything approaching to a scene. I could only listen silently to his strange wild words.
"I protest against this!" said an officer coming forward. "This gentleman must really either take his shot, or we shall remove our men off the field and claim the victory."
"But I'll shoot him!" gasped poor Charley.
"Shoot him, then!" growled half a score of masculine voices.
"The fact is," lisped one of the military men in front of me to another, "the young fellow's nerves ar'n't quite equal to the occasion, and he feels it, and is trying to back out."
The imbecile young lieutenant little knew at this point how a feminine hand was longing to stretch forth and deal him a sounding box on the ears.
"It's Martell's three-star brandy, that's what it is," whispered the other. "The 'devils,' don't you know. I've had 'em myself, and know a case when I see it."
This remark was too recondite for my understanding, or the speaker would have run the same risk as his predecessor.
"Well, are you going to shoot or not?" cried several voices.
"Yes, I'll shoot," groaned Charley—"I'll shoot him through! It's murder—sheer murder!"
I shall never forget the haggard look which he cast round at the crowd. "I'm aiming through him, McIntosh," he murmured, as he lay down on the grass and raised the gun for the third time to his shoulder.
There was one moment of suspense, a spurt of flame, the crack of a rifle, and a cheer which echoed across the moor, and might have been heard in the distant village.
"Well done, lad—well done!" shouted a hundred honest Devonshire voices, as the little white disc came out from behind the marker's shield and obliterated the dark "bull" for the moment, proclaiming that the match was won.
"Well done, lad! It's Maister Pillar, of Toynby Hall. Here, let's gie mun a lift, carry mun home, for the honour o' Roborough. Come on, lads! There mun is on the grass. Wake up, Sergeant McIntosh. What be the matter with thee? Eh? What?"
A deadly stillness came over the crowd, and then a low incredulous murmur, changing to one of pity, with whispers of "leave her alone, poor lass—leave her to hersel'!"—and then there was silence again, save for the moaning of a woman, and her short, quick cries of despair.
For, reader, my Charley, my beautiful, brave Charley, was lying cold and dead upon the ground, with the rifle still clenched in his stiffening fingers.
I heard kind words of sympathy. I heard Lieutenant Daseby's voice, broken with grief, begging me to control my sorrow, and felt his hand, as he gently raised me from my poor boy's body. This I can remember, and nothing more, until my recovery from my illness, when I found myself in the sick-room at Toynby Hall, and learned that three restless, delirious weeks had passed since that terrible day.
Stay!—do I remember nothing else?
Sometimes I think I do. Sometimes I think I can recall a lucid interval in the midst of my wanderings. I seem to have a dim recollection of seeing my good nurse go out of the room—of seeing a gaunt, bloodless face peering in through the half-open window, and of hearing a voice which said, "I have dealt with thy so beautiful lover, and I have yet to deal with thee." The words come back to me with a familiar ring, as if they had sounded in my ears before, and yet it may have been but a dream.
"And this is all!" you say. "It is for this that a hysterical woman hunts down a harmless savant in the advertisement columns of the newspapers! On this shallow evidence she hints at crimes of the most monstrous description!"
Well, I cannot expect that these things should strike you as they struck me. I can but say that if I were upon a bridge with Octavius Gaster standing at one end, and the most merciless tiger that ever prowled in an Indian jungle at the other, I should fly to the wild beast for protection.
For me, my life is broken and blasted. I care not how soon it may end, but if my words shall keep this man out of one honest household, I have not written in vain.
Within a fortnight after writing this narrative, my poor daughter disappeared. All search has failed to find her. A porter at the railway station has deposed to having seen a young lady resembling her description get into a first-class carriage with a tall, thin gentleman. It is, however, too ridiculous to suppose that she can have eloped after her recent grief, and without my having had any suspicions. The detectives are, however, working out the clue.—EMILY UNDERWOOD