IN WHICH THE APPARITION OF MR. IRONS IS SWALLOWED IN DARKNESS.
Twas a darkish night—very little moon—and he made us turn off the road, into the moor—black and ugly it looked, stretching away four or five miles, all heath and black peat, stretches of little broken hillocks, and a pool or tarn every now and again. An' he kept looking back towards the road, and not a word out of him. Well, I did not like meeting him at all if I could help it, but I was in dread of him; and I thought he might suppose I was plotting mischief if I refused. So I made up my mind to do as he bid me for the nonce, and then have done with him.
'By this time we were in or about a mile from the road, and we got over a low rising ground, and back nor forward, nor no way could we see anything but the moor; and I stopped all of a sudden, and says I, "We're far enough, I'll go no further."
'"Good," says Mr. Archer; "but let's go yonder, where the stones are—we can sit as we talk—for I'm tired."
'There was half-a-dozen white stones there by the side of one of these black tarns. We none of us talked much on that walk over the moor. We had enough to think of, each of us, I dare say.
'"This will do," says Mr. Archer, stopping beside the pool; but he did not sit, though the stones were there. "Now, Glascock, here I am, with the price of my horse in my pocket; what do you want?"
'Well, when it came to the point so sudden, Glascock looked a bit shy, and hung his head, and rowled his shoulders, and shuffled his feet a bit, thinking what he'd say.
'"Hang it, man; what are you afraid of? we're friends," says Mr. Archer, cheerfully.
'"Surely, Sir," says Glascock, "I did not mean aught else."
'And with that Mr. Archer laughed, and says he—
'"Come—you beat about the bush—let's hear your mind."
'"Well, Sir, 'tis in my letter," says he.
'"Ah, Glascock," says he, "that's a threatening letter. I did not think you'd serve me so. Well, needs must when the devil drives." And he laughed again, and shrugs up his shoulders, and says he, putting his hand in his pocket, "there's sixty pounds left; 'tis all I have; come, be modest—what do you say?"
'"You got a lot of gold off Mr. Beauclerc," says Glascock.
'"Not a doit more than I wanted," says he, laughing again. "And who, pray, had a better right—did not I murder him?"
'His talk and his laughing frightened me more and more.
'"Well, I stood to you then, Sir; didn't I?" says Glascock.
'"Heart of oak, Sir—true as steel; and now, how much do you want? Remember, 'tis all I have—and I out at elbows; and here's my friend Irons, too—eh?"
'"I want nothing, and I'll take nothing," says I; "not a shilling—not a half-penny." You see there was something told me no good would come of it, and I was frightened besides.
'"What! you won't go in for a share, Irons?" says he.
'"No; 'tis your money, Sir—I've no right to a sixpence—and I won't have it," says I; "and there's an end."
'"Well, Glascock, what say you?—you hear Irons."
'"Let Irons speak for himself—he's nothing to me. You should have considered me when all that money was took from Mr. Beauclerc—one done as much as another—and if 'twas no more than holding my tongue, still 'tis worth a deal to you."
'"I don't deny—a deal—everything. Come—there's sixty pounds here—but, mark, 'tis all I have—how much?"
'"I'll have thirty, and I'll take no less," says Glascock, surly enough.
'"Thirty! 'tis a good deal—but all considered—perhaps not too much," says Mr. Archer.
'And with that he took his right hand from his breeches' pocket, and shot him through the heart with a pistol.
'Neither word, nor stir, nor groan, did Glascock make; but with a sort of a jerk, flat on his back he fell, with his head on the verge of the tarn.
'I believe I said something—I don't know—I was almost as dead as himself—for I did not think anything that bad was near at all.
'"Come, Irons—what ails you—steady, Sir—lend me a hand, and you'll take no harm."
'He had the pistol he discharged in his left hand by this time, and a loaded one in his right.
'"'Tis his own act, Irons. I did not want it; but I'll protect myself, and won't hold my life on ransom, at the hands of a Jew or a Judas," said he, smiling through his black hair, as white as a tombstone.
'"I am neither," says I.
'"I know it," says he; "and so you're here, and he there."
'"Well, 'tis over now, I suppose," says I. I was thinking of making off.
'"Don't go yet," says he, like a man asking a favour; but he lifted the pistol an inch or two, with a jerk of his wrist, "you must help me to hide away this dead fool."
'Well, Sir, we had three or four hours cold work of it—we tied stones in his clothes, and sunk him close under the bank, and walled him over with more. 'Twas no light job, I can tell you the water was near four feet deep, though 'twas a dry season; and then we slipped out a handsome slice of the bank over him; and, making him all smooth, we left him to take his chance; and I never heard any talk of a body being found there; and I suppose he's now where we left him.'
And Irons groaned.
'So we returned silent and tired enough, and I in mortal fear of him. But he designed me no hurt. There's luckily some risk in making away with a fellow, and 'tisn't done by any but a fool without good cause; and when we got on the road again, I took the London road, and he turned his back on me, and I don't know where he went; but no doubt his plans were well shaped.
Twas an ugly walk for me, all alone, over that heath, I can tell you. 'Twas mortal dark; and there was places on the road where my footsteps echoed back, and I could not tell but 'twas Mr. Archer following me, having changed his mind, maybe, or something as bad, if that could be; and many's the time I turned short round, expecting to see him, or may be that other lad, behind, for you see I got a start like when he shot Glascock; and there was a trembling over me for a long time after.
'Now, you see, Glascock's dead, and can't tell tales no more nor Mr. Beauclerc, and Dr. Sturk's a dead man too, you may say; and I think he knew—that is—brought to mind somewhat. He lay, you see, on the night Mr. Beauclerc lost his life, in a sort of a dressing-room, off his chamber, and the door was open; but he was bad with a fall he had, and his arm in splints, and he under laudanum—in a trance like—and on the inquest he could tell nothing; but I think he remembered something more or less concerning it after.' And Mr. Irons took a turn, and came back very close to Mervyn, and said very gently, 'and I think Charles Archer murdered him.'
'Then Charles Archer has been in Dublin, perhaps in Chapelizod, within the last few months,' exclaimed Mervyn, in a sort of agony.
'I didn't say so,' answered Irons. 'I've told you the truth—'tis the truth—but there's no catching a ghost—and who'd believe my story? and them things is so long ago. And suppose I make a clean breast of it, and that I could bring you face to face with him, the world would not believe my tale, and I'd then be a lost man, one way or another—no one, mayhap, could tell how—I'd lose my life before a year, and all the world could not save me.'
'Perhaps—perhaps Charles Nutter's the man; and Mr. Dangerfield knows something of him,' cried Mervyn.
Irons made no answer, but sat quite silent for some seconds, by the fire, the living image of apathy.
'If you name me, or blab one word I told you, I hold my peace for ever,' said he, slowly, with a quiet oath, but very pale, and how blue his chin looked—how grim his smile, with his face so shiny, and his eyelids closed. You're to suppose, Sir, 'tis possible Mr. Dangerfield has a guess at him. Well, he's a clever man, and knows how to put this and that together; and has been kind to Dr. Sturk and his family. He's a good man, you know; and he's a long-headed gentleman, they say; and if he takes a thing in hand, he'll be as like as another to bring it about. But sink or swim my mind's made up. Charles Archer, wherever he is, will not like my going—he'll sniff danger in the wind, Sir. I could not stay—he'd have had me—you see, body and soul. 'Twas time for me to go—and go or stay, I see nothing but bad before me. 'Twas an evil day I ever saw his face; and 'twould be better for me to have a cast for my life at any rate, and that I'm nigh-hand resolved on; only you see my heart misgives me—and that's how it is. I can't quite make up my mind.'
For a little while Mervyn stood in an agony of irresolution. I'm sure I cannot understand all he felt, having never been, thank Heaven! in a like situation. I only know how much depended on it, and I don't wonder that for some seconds he thought of arresting that lank, pale, sinister figure by the fire, and denouncing him as, by his own confession, an accessory to the murder of Beauclerc. The thought that he would slip through his fingers, and the clue to vindication, fortune, and happiness, be for ever lost, was altogether so dreadful that we must excuse his forgetting for a moment his promise, and dismissing patience, and even policy, from his thoughts.
But 'twas a transitory temptation only, and common sense seconded honour. For he was persuaded that whatever likelihood there was of leading Irons to the critical point, there was none of driving him thither; and that Irons, once restive and impracticable, all his hopes would fall to the ground.
'I am going,' said Irons, with quiet abruptness; 'and right glad the storm's up still,' he added, in a haggard rumination, and with a strange smile of suffering. 'In dark an' storm—curse him!—I see his face everywhere. I don't know how he's got this hold over me,' and he cursed him again and groaned dismally. 'A night like this is my chance—and so here goes.'
'Remember, for Heaven's sake, remember,' said Mervyn, with agonised urgency, as he followed him with a light along the passage to the back-door.
Irons made no answer; and walking straight on, without turning his head, only lifted his hand with a movement backward, like a man who silently warns another from danger.
So Irons went forth into the night and the roaring storm, dark and alone, like an evil spirit into desert places; and Mervyn barred the door after him, and returned to the cedar parlour, and remained there alone and long in profound and not unnatural agitation.