Chapter 23 - An Outlandish Watch
As I entered the little town, I came upon two of the fishermen's wives interchanging that last word "which never was the last": and it occurred to me, as an experiment with the Magic Watch, to wait till the little scene was over, and then to 'encore' it.
"Well, good night t'ye! And ye winna forget to send us word when your Martha writes?"
"Nay, ah winna forget. An' if she isn't suited, she can but coom back. Good night t'ye!"
A casual observer might have thought "and there ends the dialogue!" That casual observer would have been mistaken.
"Ah, she'll like 'em, I war'n' ye! They'll not treat her bad, yer may depend. They're varry canny fowk. Good night!"
"Ay, they are that! Good night!"
"Good night! And ye'll send us word if she writes?"
"Aye, ah will, yer may depend! Good night t'ye!"
And at last they parted. I waited till they were some twenty yards apart, and then put the Watch a minute back. The instantaneous change was startling: the two figures seemed to flash back into their former places.
"--isn't suited, she can but coom back. Good night t'ye!" one of them was saying: and so the whole dialogue was repeated, and, when they had parted for the second time, I let them go their several ways, and strolled on through the town.
"But the real usefulness of this magic power," I thought, "would be to undo some harm, some painful event, some accident--"
I had not long to wait for an opportunity of testing this property also of the Magic Watch, for, even as the thought passed through my mind, the accident I was imagining occurred. A light cart was standing at the door of the 'Great Millinery Depot' of Elveston, laden with card-board packing-cases, which the driver was carrying into the shop, one by one. One of the cases had fallen into the street, but it scarcely seemed worth while to step forward and pick it up, as the man would be back again in a moment. Yet, in that moment, a young man riding a bicycle came sharp round the corner of the street and, in trying to avoid running over the box, upset his machine, and was thrown headlong against the wheel of the spring-cart. The driver ran out to his assistance, and he and I together raised the unfortunate cyclist and carried him into the shop. His head was cut and bleeding; and one knee seemed to be badly injured; and it was speedily settled that he had better be conveyed at once to the only Surgery in the place. I helped them in emptying the cart, and placing in it some pillows for the wounded man to rest on; and it was only when the driver had mounted to his place, and was starting for the Surgery, that I bethought me of the strange power I possessed of undoing all this harm.
"Now is my time!" I said to myself, as I moved back the hand of the Watch, and saw, almost without surprise this time, all things restored to the places they had occupied at the critical moment when I had first noticed the fallen packing-case.
Instantly I stepped out into the street, picked up the box, and replaced it in the cart: in the next moment the bicycle had spun round the corner, passed the cart without let or hindrance, and soon vanished in the distance, in a cloud of dust.
"Delightful power of magic!" I thought. "How much of human suffering I have--not only relieved, but actually annihilated!" And, in a glow of conscious virtue, I stood watching the unloading of the cart, still holding the Magic Watch open in my hand, as I was curious to see what would happen when we again reached the exact time at which I had put back the hand.
The result was one that, if only I had considered the thing carefully, I might have foreseen: as the hand of the Watch touched the mark, the spring-cart--which had driven off, and was by this time half-way down the street, was back again at the door, and in the act of starting, while--oh woe for the golden dream of world-wide benevolence that had dazzled my dreaming fancy!--the wounded youth was once more reclining on the heap of pillows, his pale face set rigidly in the hard lines that told of pain resolutely endured.
"Oh mocking Magic Watch!" I said to myself, as I passed out of the little town, and took the seaward road that led to my lodgings. "The good I fancied I could do is vanished like a dream: the evil of this troublesome world is the only abiding reality!"
And now I must record an experience so strange, that I think it only fair, before beginning to relate it, to release my much-enduring reader from any obligation he may feel to believe this part of my story. I would not have believed it, I freely confess, if I had not seen it with my own eyes: then why should I expect it of my reader, who, quite possibly, has never seen anything of the sort?
I was passing a pretty little villa, which stood rather back from the road, in its own grounds, with bright flower-beds in front---creepers wandering over the walls and hanging in festoons about the bow-windows-- an easy-chair forgotten on the lawn, with a newspaper lying near it-- a small pug-dog "couchant" before it, resolved to guard the treasure even at the sacrifice of life--and a front-door standing invitingly half-open. "Here is my chance," I thought, "for testing the reverse action of the Magic Watch!" I pressed the 'reversal-peg' and walked in. In another house, the entrance of a stranger might cause surprise-- perhaps anger, even going so far as to expel the said stranger with violence: but here, I knew, nothing of the sort could happen. The ordinary course of events first, to think nothing about me; then, hearing my footsteps to look up and see me; and then to wonder what business I had there--would be reversed by the action of my Watch. They would first wonder who I was, then see me, then look down, and think no more about me. And as to being expelled with violence, that event would necessarily come first in this case. "So, if I can once get in," I said to myself, "all risk of expulsion will be over!"
[Image...'The pug-dog sat up']
The pug-dog sat up, as a precautionary measure, as I passed; but, as I took no notice of the treasure he was guarding, he let me go by without even one remonstrant bark. "He that takes my life," he seemed to be saying, wheezily, to himself, "takes trash: But he that takes the Daily Telegraph--!" But this awful contingency I did not face.
The party in the drawing-room--I had walked straight in, you understand, without ringing the bell, or giving any notice of my approach-- consisted of four laughing rosy children, of ages from about fourteen down to ten, who were, apparently, all coming towards the door (I found they were really walking backwards), while their mother, seated by the fire with some needlework on her lap, was saying, just as I entered the room, "Now, girls, you may get your things on for a walk."
To my utter astonishment--for I was not yet accustomed to the action of the Watch "all smiles ceased', (as Browning says) on the four pretty faces, and they all got out pieces of needle-work, and sat down. No one noticed me in the least, as I quietly took a chair and sat down to watch them.
When the needle-work had been unfolded, and they were all ready to begin, their mother said "Come, that's done, at last! You may fold up your work, girls." But the children took no notice whatever of the remark; on the contrary, they set to work at once sewing--if that is the proper word to describe an operation such as I had never before witnessed. Each of them threaded her needle with a short end of thread attached to the work, which was instantly pulled by an invisible force through the stuff, dragging the needle after it: the nimble fingers of the little sempstress caught it at the other side, but only to lose it again the next moment. And so the work went on, steadily undoing itself, and the neatly-stitched little dresses, or whatever they were, steadily falling to pieces. Now and then one of the children would pause, as the recovered thread became inconveniently long, wind it on a bobbin, and start again with another short end.
At last all the work was picked to pieces and put away, and the lady led the way into the next room, walking backwards, and making the insane remark "Not yet, dear: we must get the sewing done first." After which, I was not surprised to see the children skipping backwards after her, exclaiming "Oh, mother, it is such a lovely day for a walk!"
In the dining-room, the table had only dirty plates and empty dishes on it. However the party--with the addition of a gentleman, as good-natured, and as rosy, as the children--seated themselves at it very contentedly.
You have seen people eating cherry-tart, and every now and then cautiously conveying a cherry-stone from their lips to their plates? Well, something like that went on all through this ghastly--or shall we say 'ghostly'?---banquet. An empty fork is raised to the lips: there it receives a neatly-cut piece of mutton, and swiftly conveys it to the plate, where it instantly attaches itself to the mutton already there. Soon one of the plates, furnished with a complete slice of mutton and two potatoes, was handed up to the presiding gentleman, who quietly replaced the slice on the joint, and the potatoes in the dish.
Their conversation was, if possible, more bewildering than their mode of dining. It began by the youngest girl suddenly, and without provocation, addressing her eldest sister. "Oh, you wicked story-teller!" she said.
I expected a sharp reply from the sister; but, instead of this, she turned laughingly to her father, and said, in a very loud stage-whisper, "To be a bride!"
The father, in order to do his part in a conversation that seemed only fit for lunatics, replied "Whisper it to me, dear."
But she didn't whisper (these children never did anything they were told): she said, quite loud, "Of course not! Everybody knows what Dotty wants!"
And little Dolly shrugged her shoulders, and said, with a pretty pettishness, "Now, Father, you're not to tease! You know I don't want to be bride's-maid to anybody!"
"And Dolly's to be the fourth," was her father's idiotic reply.
Here Number Three put in her oar. "Oh, it is settled, Mother dear, really and truly! Mary told us all about it. It's to be next Tuesday four weeks--and three of her cousins are coming; to be bride's-maids-- and--"
"She doesn't forget it, Minnie!" the Mother laughingly replied. "I do wish they'd get it settled! I don't like long engagements."
And Minnie wound up the conversation--if so chaotic a series of remarks deserves the name--with "Only think! We passed the Cedars this morning, just exactly as Mary Davenant was standing at the gate, wishing good-bye to Mister---I forget his name. Of course we looked the other way."
By this time I was so hopelessly confused that I gave up listening, and followed the dinner down into the kitchen.
But to you, O hypercritical reader, resolute to believe no item of this weird adventure, what need to tell how the mutton was placed on the spit, and slowly unroasted--how the potatoes were wrapped in their skins, and handed over to the gardener to be buried--how, when the mutton had at length attained to rawness, the fire, which had gradually changed from red-heat to a mere blaze, died down so suddenly that the cook had only just time to catch its last flicker on the end of a match--or how the maid, having taken the mutton off the spit, carried it (backwards, of course) out of the house, to meet the butcher, who was coming (also backwards) down the road?
The longer I thought over this strange adventure, the more hopelessly tangled the mystery became: and it was a real relief to meet Arthur in the road, and get him to go with me up to the Hall, to learn what news the telegraph had brought. I told him, as we went, what had happened at the Station, but as to my further adventures I thought it best, for the present, to say nothing.
The Earl was sitting alone when we entered. "I am glad you are come in to keep me company," he said. "Muriel is gone to bed--the excitement of that terrible scene was too much for her--and Eric has gone to the hotel to pack his things, to start for London by the early train."
"Then the telegram has come?" I said.
"Did you not hear? Oh, I had forgotten: it came in after you left the Station. Yes, it's all right: Eric has got his commission; and, now that he has arranged matters with Muriel, he has business in town that must be seen to at once."
"What arrangement do you mean?" I asked with a sinking heart, as the thought of Arthur's crushed hopes came to my mind. "Do you mean that they are engaged?"
"They have been engaged--in a sense--for two years," the old man gently replied:
"that is, he has had my promise to consent to it, so soon as he could secure a permanent and settled line in life. I could never be happy with my child married to a man without an object to live for--without even an object to die for!"
"I hope they will be happy," a strange voice said. The speaker was evidently in the room, but I had not heard the door open, and I looked round in some astonishment. The Earl seemed to share my surprise. "Who spoke?" he exclaimed.
"It was I," said Arthur, looking at us with a worn, haggard face, and eyes from which the light of life seemed suddenly to have faded. "And let me wish you joy also, dear friend," he added, looking sadly at the Earl, and speaking in the same hollow tones that had startled us so much.
"Thank you," the old man said, simply and heartily.
A silence followed: then I rose, feeling sure that Arthur would wish to be alone, and bade our gentle host 'Good night': Arthur took his hand, but said nothing: nor did he speak again, as we went home till we were in the house and had lit our bed-room candles. Then he said more to himself than to me "The heart knoweth its own bitterness. I never understood those words till now."
The next few days passed wearily enough. I felt no inclination to call by myself at the Hall; still less to propose that Arthur should go with me: it seemed better to wait till Time--that gentle healer of our bitterest sorrows should have helped him to recover from the first shock of the disappointment that had blighted his life.
Business however soon demanded my presence in town; and I had to announce to Arthur that I must leave him for a while. "But I hope to run down again in a month I added. I would stay now, if I could. I don't think it's good for you to be alone.
No, I ca'n't face solitude, here, for long, said Arthur. But don't think about me. I have made up my mind to accept a post in India, that has been offered me. Out there, I suppose I shall find something to live for; I ca'n't see anything at present. 'This life of mine I guard, as God's high gift, from scathe and wrong, Not greatly care to lose!'"
"Yes," I said: "your name-sake bore as heavy a blow, and lived through it."
"A far heavier one than mine, said Arthur.
"The woman he loved proved false. There is no such cloud as that on my memory of--of--" He left the name unuttered, and went on hurriedly. "But you will return, will you not?"
"Yes, I shall come back for a short time."
"Do," said Arthur: "and you shall write and tell me of our friends. I'll send you my address when I'm settled down."