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O'Donnell's Revenge by Frank Maclean

 

Engineer Trevannion was annoyed; for the Works Committee at Berthwer, who managed the affairs of the new wharf in course of construction there, had written to announce that they had appointed an assistant engineer, and had added an expression of opinion that "Mr. Garstin would prove of exceptional aid in the theoretical department, leaving Mr. Trevannion more time for the practical work in the execution of which he had given such satisfactory proof of his ability."

Notwithstanding the sop to his feelings, Trevannion had grasped the significance of this communication, and resented it. He had been here, in sole charge, since the beginning; the chief engineer, who lived at the other end of the town, only came round once a fortnight, so trustworthy did he consider his subordinate. He had laboured at the detailed plans, wrestled with measurements to scale, until his eyes ached. He had stood about the works in all weathers, had exercised a personal supervision over the men, and had never made a slip in his weekly reports.

To write the latter correctly, to keep the Committee informed of the amount of cement used, of fresh piles driven, of water pumped out, of concrete put in, to notify casualties, as they occurred, in a manner that might suggest the Committee's obligations under employers' liability, but did not harrow their feelings; to be at the works by nine o'clock every morning and not to leave till five; to be either in the iron shanty called the engineer's office, or supervising the making of concrete, or clambering about the massive beams and piles, or shouting through the telephone, or interviewing the ganger, or doing one of the hundred other things that were in the day's work; surely this was all that was required to be done, and he flattered himself that he had done it very well.

And now the Works Committee were going to foist an assistant on him. Assistant! The very name was a slight upon his capabilities, a slur on his independence. Why had they treated him thus?

He thought he knew the reason, ridiculous as it appeared to him. The new wharf, which was to increase the already considerable importance of Berthwer as a river port, had not proceeded very rapidly during the past few weeks. There had been difficulties—difficulties which Trevannion had attributed to unforeseen circumstances. It was possible that the Committee had attributed the difficulties to circumstances which ought to have been foreseen.

Herein lay the gist of his resentment at the new appointment. The Committee, while recognising his diligence, energy, and pluck, considered that he lacked some of the finer qualities of insight that enable a man to forestall such difficulties and, when they occur, to meet them with as small an expenditure of capital and labour as possible. So they had appointed Garstin to help him; in other words, to supply the brain qualities which they imagined he lacked. It was unfair and humiliating.

"Some puling theoretician!" he muttered to himself, as he walked to the works one winter morning. "Some dandy who can draw cubes and triangles and cannot do anything else except come here—late probably—in an overcoat and comforter. One of those sickly office-desk beggars who are ill half the time and useless the rest. Absolutely sickening!"

He strode along in a temper with which the weather harmonised. It was gusty, bleak, and wet. Great pools of water lay on the rough roads in the poor quarter of the town through which lay his route. In order to reach the works, he had to cross the river by means of a ferry-boat. When he reached the landing-stage on this particular morning, he could see the boat moored against the opposite bank, but there was no ferryman in sight, and there was no response when he shouted.

He shouted again and again. Then he turned up the collar of his jacket—he disdained a greatcoat—and pulled his cap over his eyes, and used strong language to relieve his feelings. He was still blaming the river, the ferryman, and anything else he could think of, when he became conscious of a light footfall, and, turning, saw a young man standing by his side.

"I can't make the ferryman hear," he remarked in an aggrieved tone to the newcomer, as if the latter was in some way responsible for the fact. "It's an awful nuisance—I am already late. I've never known him play this trick before."

"And I've been here ten minutes," was the answer. "The man has either gone away or gone to sleep. Hadn't we better get across some other way? There is a boat a few yards down. We might borrow it and scull ourselves across, that is, if you think——"

"Good idea!" exclaimed Trevannion. Then he hesitated. "You—you are not going to the wharf, are you?" he asked.

"Yes—for the first time in my life."

"Is your name Garstin?"

"That's it. Perhaps you can tell me——"

"I'm Trevannion," briefly. "I didn't expect you quite so soon. Er—I'm glad to meet you."

His eyes went to the heavy coat in which the lad—he was little more—was encased, to the fashionable bowler that contrasted with his own tweed cap, to the umbrella that protected the bowler from the dripping rain—ay, even to the comforter. It was as he had feared. Garstin was an office-desk weakling, and a mere boy into the bargain. The Works Committee had added insult to the injury they did him.

"Oh, you're Mr. Trevannion," said the "insult," shyly holding out a gloved right hand. Trevannion took it limply and quickly let it drop. "Come on," he said. "We will get across first and talk afterwards."

The gruffness of his tone did not tend to encourage expansiveness on the other's part, and little more was said whilst they unmoored the boat and rowed across, so the engineer had good opportunity for taking stock of his companion. The water was rough, and he judged from the clumsy way in which Garstin handled his oar and his apparent powerlessness to impart vigour to the stroke that muscular development had not formed part of his education. Trevannion stood six-foot-one in his stockings, and his frame was well knit with muscles that were supple as well as strong; naturally, he believed that physical fitness was essential to a good engineer, especially to an engineer in charge of a rather rough crew of workmen. He resolved by-and-by to recommend a course of Sandow to the new hand.

"Mind how you get out," he said, when the boat bumped against the slimy ladder that did duty for a stairway. "The steps are greasy, and those togs of yours are hardly suited to this job."

Garstin flushed but made no remark, and Trevannion flattered himself that the hint would not be wasted. He had already decided that the new engineer would have to be taught many things. This was Lesson No. 1.

Hardly had they scrambled on to the wharf when Trevannion's ganger came up.

"'Morning, sir. Can I speak to you a moment? There has been trouble between O'Donnell and Peters. O'Donnell was drunk—leastways so Peters says. Any'ow they got fighting and mauled each other pretty severe; in fact Peters is in hospital. Thought you'd better hear of it, sir."

"Quite right," said Trevannion judicially. It was a common enough story on the wharf, and he had heard it before without paying much attention, but now—he glanced at the slight figure beside him, who evidently required as many object-lessons as could be given—and decided that here lay the opportunity for giving Lesson No. 2. "Pay O'Donnell and sack him," he commanded.

"Very good, sir," said the ganger, moving away.

"That's the way we have to treat our fellows here," said Trevannion. "Summary justice, you know. They're a rough lot. Now come and see the office and the plans."

Whatever Garstin may have thought of these proceedings, he said nothing, but followed submissively along the wharf. Perhaps, without knowing the peculiar authority which had at the contractor's desire been vested in Trevannion, he wondered that any engineer should wield such powers. However, he had not much time for wondering, or indeed for anything except the task of keeping pace with his nimble, long-legged comrade. He kept stumbling over little heaps of granite and sand, over rails, along which the travelling cranes moved ponderously, over bits of tarpaulin and old iron instruments, over every object, in fact, that Trevannion avoided with such apparent ease.

Garstin was rather a distressful youth by the time the shanty was reached, for the pace had been hot, and he had been impeded by the fatal greatcoat and muffler. After divesting himself of these he stood still and breathed hard in front of a cheerful coke fire, while Trevannion unrolled the plans and pinned them to the long, sloping desk occupying one side of the room.

When all was ready the engineer began to explain the plans in detail, elaborating the explanation with simpler explanation, getting through the sections one by one with slow precision, repeating his elucidation of black lines, red lines, and green lines, of the length, breadth, and numbers of the piles, of the soil, subsoil, and sub-subsoil, that received them; all this in the manner of one who is instructing a child in the rudiments of engineering science, for he had made up his mind that Garstin would want a lot of instructing.

Garstin seemed a patient listener, and Trevannion had almost begun to enjoy himself, when the former suddenly laid his finger on a certain spot and asked a question connected with water-pressure and the strength of resisting force. Trevannion was surprised into returning what he thought was the correct answer. He was still more surprised when the other proceeded to prove by figures that that answer was incontestably incorrect.

This was the beginning. Garstin quickly found more questions to put on other points, more criticisms of Trevannion's replies. The latter at first made desperate efforts to crush him by assuming the calm superiority of the older hand. But with Garstin's logic it was useless to be calm. It was worse than useless to try to be superior. The intruder stuck to his guns with respectful pertinacity. Perhaps the fire had warmed his brain into unwonted activity; Trevannion found himself wondering whether this was so, or whether it was a normal state—the last thought was horrible!

At any rate, there was no doubt that within these four stuffy walls Garstin was in his element. Trevannion clearly was not. In half an hour his treasured theories had been picked to pieces and his stock of argument was exhausted, whilst his rival appeared as fresh as the woodwork.

But the climax was reached when Section D came up for discussion. Things had not gone well with Section D in practice. Trevannion incautiously admitted as much when he said that Section D represented a point on the wharf where the river persistently—more persistently than at other points—forced its way into the cavity intended for good concrete. Garstin promptly demonstrated the probable reason why. This was too much. Trevannion shut up the demonstration by opening the door.

"Phew!" he said. "Let's go out and get a little fresh air. We'll have a look at the section itself."

He stepped out, followed by the other—meekly.

It was still raining. Under the leaden sky the works looked more dismal than ever. Lakes of water lay where there had been pools; rails and machinery glistened as if they had been carefully oiled. A thick light-brown river raced past. The echoing wind and the hoarse murmur of the gang at work on Section D mingled with the groaning and clattering of the cranes. Garstin missed the warmth of the fire and shivered; he had forgotten his overcoat; and he experienced only the mildest curiosity in the surroundings. Trevannion walked rapidly and in silence. He was thinking mainly of how he could get his own back from this usurper.

They came to the edge of Section D. Below them yawned a huge pit with uneven walls sheer from top to bottom. Fronting them, on the river side, solid piles went down into an abyss that ended in black water; these were a barrier—a support to the wedge of earth that the mighty river pressed against their backs. From the land side to the tops of the piles stretched transverse beams, two and three yards apart; more beams lower down, constituting stays against the piles buckling; the whole a giant scaffolding embedded in the bowels of the earth. A few rough blocks of concrete peeped from the water below. Fountains spurted from between the piles and splashed into the basin.

Trevannion looked at the fountains and frowned. There would be work for the pumps very shortly; there was always too much work for the pumps in Section D, and so too little time and opportunity for more progressive labour. Then, disregarding the obviously slippery state of the transverse beams, he stepped on to one of them, and stood poised for a moment over sixty feet of hungry voidness.

"Come over to the other side," he said to Garstin. "You cannot see what is going on below from where you are. Why, what——?"

Garstin, after placing one foot on the beam, had drawn back, a leaden pallor showing unmistakably under his skin.

Trevannion stared at him. The laugh, the jeer, that had risen in his heart at this sudden failure of nerve never found expression. There was something in the young fellow's face that spoke of more than a qualm of nervousness. It was a pitiful terror that met Trevannion's eyes—the pleading terror of a dumb, helpless animal before a human tormentor.

For a moment the engineer stood irresolute. Two men, engaged in mixing cement a few yards distant, had laid down their spades, and, having heard Trevannion's invitation to cross the beam, were looking at "the new bloke" in mild wonder as to why he hesitated. A third was slowly trundling a wheelbarrow full of sand towards them. Trevannion took in these details in a flash—and realised their significance. Here was an easy chance of shaming Garstin before the gang, of convicting him of rank and unprofessional cowardice, of getting his own back again from the office-desk theoretician, yet—an uncontrollable impulse of generosity prevented his seizing it. He stepped on to the bank and stood beside the fear-struck figure.

"You must come on," he said in a whisper that was little more than a breath. "Pull yourself together. I'll hold you."

An instant later, and for an instant only, the two stood together on the narrow beam, Garstin a shrinking form, his every limb shaken by something more potent than the gusty wind, his face turned anywhere but downwards. Trevannion did not hold him, but his hand rested reassuringly on the other's quivering arm. For an instant only, and then Garstin was pushed on to the firm bank again and hurried towards the office.

Trevannion talked jerkily as soon as they were out of earshot of the gang. "Sudden attack of funk—rather a bogie place on a slippery day—might happen to anybody—get used to it—dance a jig on top of the king pile one day, and wonder how you could ever have been such a——"

"Coward," finished Garstin quietly.

"No-o, that's not exactly the word," said Trevannion lamely, and waited for explanation or extenuation.

But none came. It was as if the boy was quite aware of the cowardice, and did not wish his companion to consider it anything else. Trevannion's mind marvelled at the seeming abasement.

A few days later Trevannion reported progress to his wife anent the new assistant, whom for some strange reason he had grown positively to like.

"Wonderfully brainy chap, Garstin. He has helped me no end with Section D—you know, where we have had all the trouble. With luck we shall have it finished in a week or two. At the same time"—with conviction—"he will never make a practical engineer. Wouldn't be any good in an emergency. No nerve—no nerve at all. Seems to go to bits directly he gets outside the office. Can't even look down into the section without holding on to something. If a crane starts anywhere near, it makes him jump, and as to being any good with the gang, why, he daren't speak to one of them. Only this afternoon, when O'Donnell came and blustered——"

"O'Donnell?" said his wife.

"Yes—a man I sacked for being drunk and fighting. He came to the office this afternoon and asked to be taken on again. He said he could get no other job, and his wife and children were starving. I told him that the regulations would not admit of his re-employment; besides, I had reported him as dismissed and filled up the vacancy. Then he started cursing and threatening that he would do for the wharf and for me too, unless I relented. Of course I didn't relent. I turned him out—he was half-drunk. And there—what do you think?—there was Garstin with his hands covering his face, shivering and shaking as if he had seen a ghost.

"'I am sure that fellow means mischief, Mr. Trevannion,' he muttered. 'I'm sure he does—I read it in his eyes. Hadn't you better take him back—just for the sake of his wife?'

"Of course I couldn't—wouldn't. But Garstin's a brainy beggar—oh, wonderfully brainy."


There came a certain Friday evening when the two men sat late in their office, compiling the weekly report. Trevannion was in high good-humour; for had not their joint efforts, as he liked to call Garstin's useful suggestions, proved successful in ousting the river finally from Section D? and was not that troublesome part of the wharf ready for good concrete as soon as it could be made? He had to record this gratifying intelligence for the Committee's benefit, and he did it with a relish.

"Nothing to fear now for the old section," he remarked cheerfully.

"Nothing but the unexpected collapse of a pile," said Garstin.

"Oh, that's impossible."

"It's improbable."

The report was finished and placed in its long envelope, and they prepared to go home. Trevannion began to busy himself with a heavy oil lantern. "I am going to have a look at the section on the way," he said; "just to see that the river has not come over the top," he added jestingly. "It's a whim of mine. But don't come if you'd rather not. I can join you at the steps."

"Oh, I'll come," said Garstin—without enthusiasm.

The pair stepped out into the night, Trevannion locking the door behind him. It was pitch-dark on the wharf. They could feel the presence of, rather than see, the river that flowed silently in front of them, and they could roughly locate the far bank by the myriads of starry lights that showed Berthwer town beyond. A single red lamp glowed dully far to the west; it belonged to a steamer that they had seen come to her moorings in the afternoon. There were no other vessels showing lights. The rest was black with a blackness sentient of vague forms—an impenetrable wall of darkness that seemed to stand between them and the outer world.

Picking their way carefully between débris and other impedimenta, they made their way towards the section, and had covered half the distance when Garstin stopped. "Don't you hear something?" he asked. "I am almost sure I was not mistaken. It was like the sound of blows. There cannot be anybody there now, can there?"

Trevannion halted and listened.

"I don't hear anything," he said presently. "Besides, who could be on the wharf now? You know the regulations, and the watchman is there to enforce them."

"I think—the noise has stopped."

Trevannion flashed the lantern on him suspiciously. "Nerves again" had come into his mind. However, he said nothing, but resumed his march, swinging his lantern this way and that, so as to gain a larger circumference of light. But suddenly he again stopped, as an unexpected sound fell on his ears.

"By jove—water!" he exclaimed, and broke into a run.

Garstin followed as fast as he could, but, deprived of the light, he quickly came to grief over some old metal. When he picked himself up, the other was yards ahead, and after that he had to content himself with keeping the lantern in view.

The engineer reached Section D and stopped breathless on the brink. He had forgotten Garstin—had forgotten everything save that water was again forcing its way into the unhappy section. But how and where? Anxiously examining the opposite side with his lantern, he soon discovered what the matter was, and the discovery caused him a thrill of amazed horror. The "improbable thing" had happened. One of the piles was buckling—bending inwards—and the earth dam was surely, if slowly, giving way at this point. He turned to shout to Garstin.

Then something hit him on the shoulder and he fell backwards into Section D, wildly and vainly clutching at a beam to save himself.


"Trevannion! Trevannion!"

The voice of Garstin, office-desk theoretician, assistant-engineer—Trevannion was clear about that. What he did not realise so clearly was what had happened to himself. He was lying face downwards on something, with his arm under his breast—his left arm, that is—his right seemed to have disappeared. Likewise, though he was conscious of a weight hanging downwards from his middle, he wondered vaguely what had become of his legs. He felt a curious disinclination to stir.

Yet the voice went on calling, and presently he was impelled to answer "Hello, Garstin." Then, while he was still listening to the unfamiliar echo of his own voice, he heard just behind him a splash, splash, splash, and his left arm jerked itself spasmodically from beneath his breast, the hand simultaneously touching a substance that was hard, cold, and slimy.

Then he realised.

He was somewhere near the bottom of Section D. His body lay across one of the lowest beams; his legs dangled in the water. Garstin was somewhere above him, and the river was pouring steadily into the section, splashing now with monotonous regularity. And the water was rising—creeping up towards the level of the beam where he lay.

Trevannion tried to raise himself by his right arm, but the limb gave way with an agonising shoot of pain; it was broken. He remained still and considered. Was the broken arm the extent of his injuries? The cold water had numbed his legs beyond all feeling. They were so much dead weight attached to his body. Both might be fractured for all he knew.

The main fact was that he was incapable of moving, of helping himself, at any rate until assistance came. And the water was rising, of course. Would rescue or the water arrive first?

He looked up painfully through the clammy gloom. Nothing save patches of sky, seen between the black beams, greeted his eyes. There was no sound save that of the water—splash, splash, drip, drip. For an instant the fear of death conquered him, and he almost shrieked.

However, as physical exhaustion renewed its hold upon him, he grew calmer. He began to recall what had happened. He had fallen into the section—no—he had been pushed in. There flashed upon him the vision of a sullen, black-haired labourer, whom he had refused to reinstate; this act was O'Donnell's revenge.

What had happened after that? The man would scarcely have had time to make his escape before Garstin came up. Well, it did not matter—he had heard Garstin's voice since in proof that he had survived any possible encounter. And the absence of Garstin, the oppressive silence now? Garstin had gone for help, of course. A boy like that could do nothing by himself even if he had the nerve; and Garstin had none. However, he would not be long in finding the watchman, and bringing him to the rescue. They ought to be here now. They certainly ought to be here now.

Nervously anxious, he listened for any sound of footfall or voice. Did Garstin realise the danger of the black water that was rising, ever rising? Had he by any evil chance failed to find the watchman at his post?

A smooth wave flowed slowly over the beam, and he shuddered.

Suddenly—after hours, as it seemed—something flickered on the surface of the water in front of him. A shadowy white gleam it was. It danced before his eyes like a mocking spirit—and was gone. But shortly it reappeared, and with it a lantern and a rope, with somebody clinging to the end of the rope. Trevannion had just time to recognise the figure of Garstin, swaying slowly above him, before he lost consciousness.


Garstin got him out, of course. But it was many days before Trevannion learned the details of the rescue.

It appeared that Garstin had arrived just in time to witness O'Donnell's treacherous attack, and to confront the infuriated man as he turned to retreat. In a blind frenzy the boy sprang at his enemy, and the latter, taken by surprise, went down with a crash, striking his head on a heap of stones, and lay senseless.

Thereupon Garstin, with the one idea of rescuing Trevannion in his mind, hurried off to the watchman's hut—only to find that the fellow had left his post. However, he discovered there a lantern and a coil of rope, and, taking these, he returned to Section D, resolved to attempt the rescue by himself. Having shouted and received a reply, he hitched one end of the rope to a beam, and was about to lower himself down, when he discovered that the rope was so badly frayed in its centre that it could not be trusted to bear even his slight weight.

There was nothing to be done save to postpone the attempt till he had found a more substantial cable. He remembered that there was a length or two in the office, and thither he set out at once. The door being locked and Trevannion having the key is his pocket, he had to force the lock as best he could with the first implement he could lay hands on.

This occupied several minutes, and when he returned to the section, he was tormented by the fear that he might find Trevannion drowned. He hastily affixed the new rope, and let himself down into the abyss, where he discovered Trevannion insensible, with his forehead almost touching the water.

It did not take long to make a noose and slip it over the latter's shoulders, but he had hardly done so when a gush of water swept over the beam, carrying away the lantern and plunging them into total darkness. For some subsequent seconds the boy clutched the rope and Trevannion's lifeless body in an agony of terror and doubt.

Then he started to climb up. The process proved exceedingly laborious, for the hemp was thin and damp, and it was difficult to obtain a grip. However, he managed to reach the summit and clambered over the brink, then paused awhile for some little breath and strength before essaying the hardest task of all—the hauling of Trevannion into safety.

How his puny strength enabled him to do this, he never could say. His foothold was none too secure, and the only available leverage was a narrow piece of masonry that jutted from the side. Yet, working inch by inch, he accomplished it, and when Trevannion had been brought sufficiently near the top, he made the rope fast to a convenient block of granite, and, kneeling down, regardless of his own peril, lifted him over the side. It was quite ten minutes before he could stagger with his burden to the office.

Safely inside, he made up the fire and telephoned for the doctor. Then he remembered O'Donnell, and spoke a message to the police-station, whence were presently despatched a couple of constables who found the man, stunned and considerably bruised. Neither did he forget Section D—with the result that there was a breakdown gang on the spot before midnight.

The buckled pile was found to have been nearly chopped through a few feet from the top, and there was no doubt that if O'Donnell had been undisturbed, he would have done the most serious mischief to the work. As it was, the completion of the section was delayed for two months.

Trevannion heard this story during his convalescence—a lengthy period, since two ribs were broken as well as the arm, and he had suffered severely from shock and exposure. In answer to a question Garstin said that at the time he had scarcely noticed the physical strain. The thing that was uppermost in his mind was the fear that Trevannion might drown before he could get to him. No, he had experienced no personal sensation of nervousness, when preparing to descend into the section. Whereupon Trevannion thought deeply.

"I owe my life to your pluck, and I was a fool to faint at the critical moment," was all he said.

But, as has been remarked, his thoughts were many and profound. Nor was he ever again heard to reflect on Garstin's "want of nerve."