Theodore Watts-Dunton.

Aylwin online

. (page 9 of 39)
Online LibraryTheodore Watts-DuntonAylwin → online text (page 9 of 39)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


groundless added to my joy at seeing her. With my own dead father
lying within a few roods of me, I ran towards her in a state of high
exhilaration, forgetting everything but her. With sympathetic looks
for my bereavement she met me, and we walked hand-in-hand in silence.

After a little while she said: 'My father told me he was very busy
to-night, and wished me to come on the sands for a walk, but I little
hoped to meet you; I am very pleased we have met, for to-morrow I am
going to London.'

'To London?' I said, in dismay at the thought of losing her so soon.
'Why are you going to London. Winnie?'

'Oh,' said she, with the same innocent look of business-like
importance which, at our first meeting as children, had so impressed
me when she pulled out the key to open the church door, 'I'm going on
business.'

'On business! And how long do you stay?'

'I don't stay at all; I'm coming back immediately.'

'Come,' I exclaimed, 'there's a little comfort in that, at least.
Snap and I can wait for one day.'

'Good-night,' said Winifred.

'Have you not seen the great landslip at the churchyard?' I asked,
taking her hand and pointing to the new promontory which the _débris_
of the fall had made.

'Another landslip?' said she. 'Poor dear old churchyard, it will soon
all be gone! Snap and I must have been far away when that fell. But I
remember saying to him, 'Hark at the thunder. Snap!' and then I heard
a sound like a shriek that appalled me. It recalled a sound I once
heard in Shire-Carnarvon.'

'What was it, Winnie?'

'You've heard me when I was a little girl talk of my Gypsy sister
Sinfi?'

'Often,' I said.

'She loves me more than anybody else in the whole world,' said
Winifred simply. 'She says she would lay down her life for me, and I
really believe she would. Well, there is not far from where I used to
live a famous cascade called the Swallow Falls, where the water drops
down a chasm of great depth. If you listen to the noise of the
cataract, you may hear mingled with it a peculiar kind of wail as
from a man in great agony. It is said to be the wail of a Sir John
Wynn, of Gwydir, whose spirit is under a curse, and is imprisoned at
the bottom of the falls on account of his cruelty and misdeeds on
earth. On those rare nights when the full moon shines down the
chasm, the wail becomes an agonised shriek. Once on a bright
moonlight night Sinfi and I went to see these falls. The moonlight on
the cascade had exactly the same supernatural appearance that it has
now falling upon these billows. Sinfi sings some of our Welsh songs,
and accompanies herself on a peculiar obsolete Welsh instrument
called a crwth, which she always carries with her. While we were
listening to the cataract and what she called the Wynn wail, she
began to sing the wild old air. Then at once the wail sprang into a
loud shriek; Sinfi said the shriek of a cursed spirit; and the
shriek was exactly like the sound I heard from the cliffs a little
while ago.'

'I heard the same noise, Winnie. It was simply the rending and
cracking of the poor churchyard trees as they fell.'

She turned back with me to the water-mark to see the waves come
tumbling in beneath the moon. We sauntered along the sea-margin
again, heedless of the passage of time.

And again (as on that betrothal night) Winifred prattled on,
while I listened to the prattle, craftily throwing in a word or two,
now and then, to direct the course of the sweet music into such
channels as best pleased my lordly whim, - when suddenly, against my
will and reason, there came into my mind that idea of the sea's
prophecy which was so familiar to my childhood, but which my studies
had now made me despise.

The sea then threw up to Winifred's feet a piece of seaweed. It was a
long band of common weed, that would in the sunlight have shone a
bright red. And at that very moment - right across the sparkling bar
the moon had laid over the sea - there passed, without any cloud to
cast it, a shadow. And my father's description of his love-tragedy
haunted me, I knew not why. And right across my life, dividing it in
twain like a burn-scar, came and lay for ever that strip of red
seaweed. Why did my father's description of his own love-tragedy
haunt me?

Before recalling the words that had fallen from my father in
Switzerland, I was a boy: in a few minutes afterwards, I was a man
with an awful knowledge of Destiny in my eyes - a man struggling with
calamity, and fainting in the grip of dread. My manhood, I say, dates
from the throwing up of that strip of seaweed. Winifred picked up the
weed and made a necklace of it, in the old childish way, knowing how
much it would please me.

'Isn't it a lovely colour?' she said, as it glistened in the
moonlight. 'Isn't it just as beautiful and just as precious as if it
were really made of the jewels it seems to rival?'

'It is as red as the reddest ruby,' I replied, putting out my hand
and grasping the slippery substance.

'Would you believe,' said Winnie, 'that I never saw a ruby in my
life? And now I particularly want to know all about rubies.'

'Why do you want particularly to know?'

'Because,' said Winifred, 'my father, when he wished me to come out
for a walk, had been talking a great deal about rubies.'

'Your father had been talking about rubies, Winifred - how very odd!'

'Yes,' said Winifred, 'and he talked about diamonds too.'

'THE CURSE!' I murmured, and clasped her to my breast. 'Kiss me,
Winifred!'

There had come a bite of sudden fire at my heart, and I shuddered
with a dreadful knowledge, like the captain of an unarmed ship, who,
while the unconscious landsmen on board are gaily scrutinising a sail
that like a speck has appeared on the horizon, shudders with the
knowledge of what the speck is, and hears in imagination the yells,
and sees the knives, of the Lascar pirates just starting in pursuit.
As I took in the import of those innocent words, falling from
Winifred's bright lips, falling as unconsciously as water-drops over
a coral reef in tropical seas alive with the eyes of a thousand
sharks, my skin seemed to roughen with dread, and my hair began to
stir.

At first she resisted my movement, but looking in my eyes and seeing
that something had deeply disturbed me, she let me kiss her. 'What
did you say, Henry?'

'That I love you so, Winnie, and cannot let you go just yet.'

'What a dear fellow it is!' she said; 'and all this ado about a poor
girl with scarcely shoes to her feet.' Then, after an instant's
pause, she said: 'But I thought you said something very different. I
thought you said something about a curse, and _that_ scared me.'

'Scared Winifred!' I said. 'Fancy anything scaring Winnie, who
threatens to hit people when they offend her.'

'Ah! but I am scared,' said she, 'at things from the other world, and
especially at a curse.'

'Why, what do you know about curses, Winifred?'

'Oh, a good deal. I have never forgotten that shriek of a cursed
spirit which I heard at the Swallow Falls. And only a short time ago
Sinfi Lovell nearly frightened me to death by a story of a whole
Gypsy tribe having withered, one after the other - grandfathers,
fathers, and children - through a dead man's curse. But what is the
matter with you, Henry? You surely have turned very pale!'

'Well, Winnie,' said I, 'I _am_ a little, just a little faint. After
the funeral I could take no dinner. But it will he over in a minute.
Let us go back a few yards and sit down upon the dry sand, and have
a little more chat.'

We went and sat down, and my heart slowly resumed its function.

'Let me see, Winnie, what were we talking about? About rubies and
diamonds, I think, were we not? You said that when your father bade
you come out for a walk to-night, he had just been talking about
rubies and diamonds. What was he saying about them, Winnie? But come
and lay your head here while you tell me; lay it on my breast,
Winnie, as you used to do in Graylingham Wood, and on these same
sands.'

Evidently the earnestness of my manner and the suppressed passion in
my voice drove out of her mind all her wise saws about the perils of
wealth and all her wise determinations about the postponed betrothal,
for she came and sat by my side and laid her head upon my breast.

'Yes. like _that_,' I said; 'and now tell me what your father was
saying about precious stones; for I, too, take an interest in jewels,
and have a great knowledge of them.'

'My father,' said Winifred, 'is going to have some diamonds and
rubies given to him to-night by a friend of his, a sailor, who has
come from India, and I am to go to London to-morrow to sell some of
them; for you know, dear, we are very poor. That is why I am
determined to go back to Shire-Carnarvon and see if I can get a
situation as governess. Miss Dalrymple's recommendation will be of
great aid. Poverty afflicts father more than it afflicts most people,
and the rubies and diamonds and things will be of no use to us, you
know.'

I could make her no answer.

'It seems a very strange kind of present from my father's friend,'
she continued, meditatively; 'but it is a very kind one for all that.
But, Henry, you surely are still very unwell; your heart is thumping
underneath my ear like a fire-engine.'

'They are all love-thumps for Winifred,' I said, with pretended
jocosity; 'they are all love-thumps for my Winnie.'

'But of course,' said she, 'this is quite a secret about the precious
stones. My father enjoined me to tell no one, because the temptation
to people is so great, and the cottage might be robbed, or I might be
waylaid going to London. But of course I may tell you; he never
thought of _you_.'

'No, Winnie, he never thought of me. You are very fond of him; very
fond of your father, are you not?'

'Oh yes,' said she, 'I love him more than all the world - next to
you.'

'Then he is kind to you, Winnie?' 'Ye - yes, as kind as he can
be - considering - '

'Considering what, Winnie?'

'Considering that he's often - unwell, you know.'

'Winnie.' I said, as I gazed in the innocent eyes, 'whom are you
considered to be the most like, your father or your mother?'

'I never knew my mother, but I am said to be partly like her. Why do
you ask?'

'Only an idle question. You love me, Winnie?'

'What a question!'

'And you will do what I ask you to do, if I ask you very earnestly,
Winnie?'

'Certumly,' said Winifred, giving, with a forced laugh, the lisp with
which that word had been given on a now famous occasion.

'Well, Winifred, I told you that I feel an interest in precious
stones, and have some knowledge of them. There are certain stones to
which I have the greatest antipathy: diamonds and rubies are the
chief of these.

Now I want you to promise that diamonds and rubies and beryls shall
never touch these fingers, these dear fingers, Winnie, which are
mine, you know; they are mine now,' and I drew the smooth nails
slowly along my lips. 'You are mine now, every bit.'

'Every bit,' said Winifred, but she looked perplexed.

She saw, however, by my face that, for some reason or other, I was
deeply in earnest. She gave the promise. And I knew at least that
those fingers would not be polluted, come what would. As to her going
to London with the spoil, I knew how to prevent that.

But what course of action was I now to take? At this very moment
perhaps Winifred's father was violating my father's tomb, unless
indeed the crime might even yet he prevented. There was one hope,
however. The drunken scoundrel whose daughter was my world I knew to
be a procrastinator in everything. His crime might, even yet, be only
a crime in intent; and, if so, I could prevent it easily enough. My
first business was to hurry to the church, and, if not yet too late,
keep guard over the tomb. But to achieve this I must get quit of
Winifred without a moment's delay. Now Winifred's most direct path to
the cottage was the path I myself must take to the church, the
gangway behind Flinty Point. Yet _she_ must not pass the church with
me, lest an encounter with her father should take place. There was
thus but one course open. I must induce her to take the gangway
behind the other point of the cove; and how was this to be compassed?
That was what I was racking my brain about.

'Winifred,' I said at last, as we sat and looked at the sea, 'I begin
to fear we must be moving.'

She started up, vexed that the hint to move had come from me.

'The fact is,' I said, 'I particularly want to go into the old
church.'

'Into the old church to-night?' said Winifred, with a look of
astonishment and alarm that I could not understand.

'Yes; something was left undone there this afternoon at the funeral,
and I must go at once. But why do you look so alarmed?'

'Oh, don't go into the old church to-night,' said Winifred.

I stood and looked at her, puzzled and strangely disturbed.

'Henry,' said she, 'I know you will think me very foolish, but I have
not yet got over the fright that shriek gave me, the shriek we both
heard the moment before the landslip. That shriek was not a noise
made by the rending of trees, Henry. No, no; we both know better than
that, Henry.'

I gave a start; for, try as I would, I had not really succeeded in
persuading myself that what I had heard was anything but a human
voice in terror or in pain.

'What do you think the noise was, then?' said I.

'I don't know; but I know what I felt as it came shuddering along the
sand, and then went wailing over the sea.'

'What did you feel, Winnie?'

'My heart stood still, for it seemed to me to be the call from the
grave.'

'The call from the grave! and pray what is that? I feel how sadly my
education has been neglected.'

'Don't scoff, Henry. It is said that when the fate of an old family
is at stake, there will sometimes come to him who represents it a
call from the grave, and when I saw Snap standing stock still, his
hair bristling with terror, I knew that it was no earthly shriek. I
felt sure it was a call from the grave, and I knelt on the sands and
prayed. Henry, Henry, don't go in the church to-night.'

That Winifred's words affected me profoundly I need not say. The
shriek, whatever it was, had been responded to by her soul and by
mine in the same mysterious way. But the important thing to do was to
prevent her from imagining that her superstitious terrors had
affected me.

'Really, Winnie,' I said, 'this double-voiced shriek of yours, which
is at once the shriek of the Welshman at the bottom of the swollen
falls and the Celtic call from the grave, is the most dramatic shriek
I ever heard of. It would make its fortune on the stage. But with all
its power of being the shriek of two different people at once, it
must not prevent my going into the church to do my duty; so we had
better part here at this very spot. You go up the cliffs by Needle
Point, and _I_ will take Flinty Point gangway.'

'But why not ascend the cliffs together?' said Winifred.

'Why, the prying coastguard might be passing, and might wonder to
see us in the churchyard on the night of my father's funeral (he
might take us for two ghosts in love, you know). However, we need not
part just yet. We can walk on a little farther into the cove before
our paths diverge.'

Winifred made no demur, though she looked puzzled, as we were then
much nearer to the gangway I had selected for myself than to the
gangway I had allotted to her.


IX

Winifred and I were in the little horseshoe curve called 'Church
Cove,' but also called sometimes 'Mousetrap Cove,' because, as I have
already mentioned, a person imprisoned in it by the tide could only
escape by means of a boat from the sea.

Needle Point was at one extremity of the cove and Flinty Point at the
other. In front of us, therefore, at the very centre of the cliff
that surrounded the cove, was the old church, which I was to reach as
soon as possible. To reach a gangway up the cliff it was necessary to
pass quite out of the cove, round either Flinty Point or Needle
Point; for the cliff _within_ the cove was perpendicular, and in some
parts actually overhanging.

When we reached the softer sands near the back of the cove, where the
walking was difficult, I bade Winifred good-night, and she turned
somewhat demurely to the left on her way to Needle Point, between
which and the spot where we now parted she would have to pass below
the church on the cliff, and close by the great masses of debris from
the new landslip that had fallen from the churchyard. This landslip
(which had taken place since she had left home for her moonlight
walk) had changed the shape of the cove into a figure something like
the Greek epsilon.

I walked rapidly towards Flinty Point, which I should have to double
before I could reach the gangway I was to take. So feverishly
possessed had I become by the desire to prevent the sacrilege, if
possible, that I had walked some distance away from Winifred before I
observed how high the returning tide had risen in the cove.

When I now looked at Flinty Point, round which I was to turn, I saw
that it was already in deep water, and that I could not reach the
gangway outside the cove. It was necessary, therefore, to turn back
and ascend by the gangway Winifred was making for, behind Needle
Point, which did not project so far into the sea. So I turned back.
As I did so, I perceived that she had reached the projecting mass of
debris in the middle of the semicircle below the churchyard, and was
looking at it. Then I saw her stoop, pick up what seemed a paper
parcel, open it, and hold it near her face to trace out the letters
by the moonlight. Then I saw her give a start as she read it. I
walked towards her, and soon reached the landslip. Evidently what she
read agitated her much. She seemed to read it and re-read it. When
she saw me she put it behind her back, trying to conceal it from me.

'What have you picked up, Winifred?' I said, in much alarm; for my
heart told me that it was in some way connected with her father and
the shriek.

'Oh, Henry!' said she, 'I was in hopes you had not seen it. I am so
grieved for you. This parchment contains a curse written in large
letters. Some sacrilegious wretch has broken into the church and
stolen a cross placed in your father's tomb.'

God! - It was the very same parchment scroll from my father's tomb on
which was written the curse! I was struck dumb with astonishment and
dismay. The whole terrible truth of the situation broke in upon me at
one flash. The mysterious shriek was explained now. Wynne had
evidently broken open the tomb as soon as his daughter was out of the
way. He had then, in order to reach the cottage without running the
risk of being seen by a chance passenger on the Wilderness Road,
blundered about the edge of the cliff at the very moment when it was
giving way, and had fallen with it. It was his yell of despair amid
the noise of the landslip that Winifred and I had both heard. My sole
thought was for Winifred. She had read the curse; but where was the
dead body of her father that would proclaim upon whose head the curse
had fallen? I stared around me in dismay. She saw how deeply I was
disturbed, but little dreamed the true cause.

'Oh, Henry,' said she, 'to think that you should have such a grief as
this; your dear father's tomb violated!' and she sat down and sobbed.
'But there is a God in heaven,' she added, rising with great
solemnity. 'Whoever has committed this dreadful crime against God and
man will rue the day he was born: - the curse of a dead man who has
been really wronged no penance or prayer can cure, - so my aunt in
Wales used to say, and so Sinfi says; - it clings to the wrongdoer and
to his children. That cry I heard was the voice of vengeance, and it
came from your father's tomb.'

'It is a most infamous robbery,' I said; 'but as to the curse, that
is of course as powerless to work mischief as the breath of a baby.'
And again I anxiously looked around to see where was the dead body of
Wynne, which I knew must be close by.

'Oh, Henry!' said she, 'listen to these words, these awful words of
your dead father, and the words of the Bible too.'

And she held up to her eyes, as though fascinated by it, the
parchment scroll, and read aloud in a voice so awe-struck that it did
not seem to be her voice at all:

'_He who shall violate this tomb, - he who shall steal this amulet,
hallowed as a love-token between me and my dead wife, - he who shall
dare to lay a sacrilegious hand upon this cross, stands cursed by
God, cursed by love, and cursed by me, Philip Aylwin, lying here.
"Let there be no man to pity him, nor to have compassion upon his
fatherless children....Let his children be vagabonds, and beg their
bread: let them seek it also out of desolate places." - Psalm cix.
So saith the Lord_. Amen.'

'I am in the toils,' I murmured, with grinding teeth.

'What a frightful curse!' she said, shuddering. 'It terrifies me to
think of it. How hard it seems,' she continued, 'that the children
should be cursed for the father's crimes.'

'But, Winifred, they are NOT so cursed,' I cried. 'It is all a
hideous superstition: one of Man's idiotic lies!'

'Henry,' said she, shocked at my irreverence, 'it _is_ so; the Bible
says it, and all life shows it. Ah! I wonder what wretch committed
the sacrilege, and why he had no pity on his poor innocent children!'

While she was talking, I stooped and picked up the casket from which
the letters had been forced by the fall. She had not seen it. I put
it in my pocket.

'Henry, I am so grieved for you,' said Winifred again, and she came
and wound her fingers in mine.

Grieved for _me_! But where was her father's dead body? That was the
thought that appalled me. Should we come upon it in the _débris_?
What was to be done? Owing to the tide, there was no turning back now
to Flinty Point. The projecting debris must be passed. There was no
dallying for a moment. If we lingered we should be caught by the tide
in Mousetrap Cove, and then nothing could save us. Suppose in passing
the _débris_ we should come upon her father's corpse. The idea was
insupportable. 'Thank God, however, I murmured, 'she will not even
_then_ know the very worst; she will see the corpse of her father who
has fallen with the cliff, but she need not and will not associate
him with the sacrilege and the curse.'

As I picked up the letters that had been scattered from the casket,
she said,

'I cannot get that dreadful curse out of my head; to think that the
children of the despoiler should be cursed by God, and cursed by your
father, and yet they are as innocent as I am.'

'Best to forget it,' said I, standing still, for I dared not move
towards the _débris_.

'We must get on, Henry,' said she, 'for look, the tide is unusually
high to-night. You have turned back, I see, because Flinty Point is
already deep in the water.'

'Yes,' I said, 'I must turn Needle Point with you. But as to the
sacrilege, let us dismiss it from our minds; what cannot be helped
had better be forgotten.'

I then cautiously turned the corner of the _débris_, leading her
after me in such a way that my body acted as a screen. Then my eyes
encountered a spectacle whose horror chilled my blood, and haunts me
to this day in my dreams. About twelve feet above the general level
of the sand, buried to the breast behind a mass of green sward fallen
from the graveyard, stood the dead body of Wynne, amid a confused
heap of earth, gravestones, trees, shrubs, bones, and shattered
coffins. Bolt upright it stood, staring with horribly distorted
features, as in terror, the crown of the head smashed by a fallen
gravestone. Upon his breast glittered the rubies and diamonds and
beryls of the cross, sparkling in the light of the moon, and seeming
to be endowed with conscious life. It was evident that he had, while
groping his way out of the crypt, slung the cross around his neck, in
order to free his hands. I shudder as I recall the spectacle. The
sight would have struck Winifred dead, or sent her raving mad, on the
spot; but she had not turned the corner, and I had just time to wheel
sharply round, and thrust my body between her and the spectacle. The
dog saw it, and, foaming with terror, pointed at it.

'I beg your pardon, Winifred,' I said, falling upon her and pushing
her back.

Then I stood paralysed as the full sinister meaning of the situation
broke in upon my mind. Had the _débris_ fallen in any other way I
might have saved Winifred from seeing the most cruel feature of the
hideous spectacle, the cross, the evidence of her father's sacrilege.



Online LibraryTheodore Watts-DuntonAylwin → online text (page 9 of 39)