In Which I see that which has been seen by Few

“I have been anxious about you all,” I said, “for it is some little time since I have seen or heard from any of you. How have you all been keeping?”

“Why, as well as could be expected. But we will be better tomorrow—we will be different men to-morrow, eh, Corporal?”

“Yes, sir,” said the corporal, raising his hand to his forehead in a military salute. “We’ll be right as the bank to-morrow.”

“The corporal and I are a little disturbed in our minds just now,” the general explained, “but I have no doubt that all will come right. After all, there is nothing higher than Providence, and we are all in His hands. And how have you been, eh?”

“We have been very busy for one thing,” said I. “I suppose you have heard nothing of the great shipwreck?”

“Not a word,” the general answered listlessly.

“I thought the noise of the wind would prevent you hearing the signal guns. She came ashore in the bay the night before last—a great barque from India.”

“From India!” ejaculated the general.

“Yes. Her crew were saved, fortunately, and have all been sent on to Glasgow.”

“All sent on!” cried the general, with a face as bloodless as a corpse.

“All except three rather strange characters who claim to be Buddhist priests. They have decided to remain for a few days upon the coast.”

The words were hardly out of my mouth when the general dropped upon his knees with his long, thin arms extended to Heaven.

“Thy will be done!” he cried in a cracking voice. “Thy blessed will be done!”

I could see through the crack that Corporal Rufus Smith’s face had turned to a sickly yellow shade, and that he was wiping the perspiration from his brow.

“It’s like my luck!” he said. “After all these years, to come when I have got a snug billet.”

“Never mind, my lad,” the general said, rising, and squaring his shoulders like a man who braces himself up for an effort. “Be it what it may we’ll face it as British soldiers should. D’ye remember at Chillianwallah, when you had to run from your guns to our square, and the Sikh horse came thundering down on our bayonets? We didn’t flinch then, and we won’t flinch now. It seems to me that I feel better than I have done for years. It was the uncertainty that was killing me.”

“And the infernal jingle-jangle,” said the corporal. “Well, we all go together—that’s some consolation.”

“Good-bye, West,” said the general. “Be a good husband to Gabriel, and give my poor wife a home. I don’t think she will trouble you long. Good-bye! God bless you!”

“Look here, General,” I said, peremptorily breaking off a piece of wood to make communication more easy, “this sort of thing has been going on too long. What are these hints and allusions and innuendoes? It is time we had a little plain speaking. What is it you fear? Out with it! Are you in dread of these Hindoos? If you are, I am able, on my father’s authority, to have them arrested as rogues and vagabonds.”

“No, no, that would never do,” he answered, shaking his head. “You will learn about the wretched business soon enough. Mordaunt knows where to lay his hand upon the papers bearing on the matter. You can consult him about it to-morrow.”

“But surely,” I cried, “if the peril is so imminent something may be done to avert it. If you would but tell me what you fear I should know how to act.”

“My dear friend,” he said, “there is nothing to be done, so calm yourself, and let things take their course. It has been folly on my part to shelter myself behind mere barriers of wood and stone. The fact is, that inaction was terrible to me, and I felt that to do anything, however futile, in the nature of a precaution, was better than passive resignation. My humble friend here and I have placed ourselves in a position in which, I trust, no poor fellow will ever find himself again. We can only recommend ourselves to the unfailing goodness of the Almighty, and trust that what we have endured in this world may lessen our atonement in the world to come. I must leave you now, for I have many papers to destroy and much to arrange. Good-bye!”

He pushed his hand through the hole which I had made, and grasped mine in a solemn farewell, after which he walked back to the Hall with a firm and decided step, still followed by the crippled and sinister corporal.

I walked back to Branksome much disturbed by this interview, and extremely puzzled as to what course I should pursue.

It was evident now that my sister’s suspicions were correct, and that there was some very intimate connection between the presence of the three Orientals and the mysterious peril which hung over the towers of Cloomber.

It was difficult for me to associate the noble-faced Ram Singh’s gentle, refined manner and words of wisdom with any deed of violence, yet now that I thought of it I could see that a terrible capacity for wrath lay behind his shaggy brows and dark, piercing eyes.

I felt that of all men whom I had ever met he was the one whose displeasure I should least care to face. But how could two men so widely dissociated as the foul-mouthed old corporal of artillery and the distinguished Anglo-Indian general have each earned the ill-will of these strange castaways? And if the danger were a positive physical one, why should he not consent to my proposal to have the three men placed under custody—though I confess it would have gone much against my grain to act in so inhospitable a manner upon such vague and shadowy grounds.

These questions were absolutely unanswerable, and yet the solemn words and the terrible gravity which I had seen in the faces of both the old soldiers forbade me from thinking that their fears were entirely unfounded.

It was all a puzzle—an absolutely insoluble puzzle.

One thing at least was clear to me—and that was that in the present state of my knowledge, and after the general’s distinct prohibition, it was impossible for me to interfere in any way. I could only wait and pray that, whatever the danger might be, it might pass over, or at least that my dear Gabriel and her brother might be protected against it.

I was walking down the lane lost in thought, and had got as far as the wicket gate which opens upon the Branksome lawn, when I was surprised to hear my father’s voice raised in most animated and excited converse.

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