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The Goth - Editor C. Arthur Pearson

 

Young Cargill smiled as Mrs. Lardner finished her account.

"And do you really think that the fact that the poor chap was drowned had anything to do with it?" he asked. "Why, you admit yourself that he was known to have been drinking just before he fell out of his boat!"

"You may say what you like," returned his hostess impressively, "but since first we came to live at Tryn yr Wylfa only four people besides poor Roberts have defied the Fates, and each of them was drowned within the year.

"They were all tourists," she added with something suspiciously like satisfaction.

"I am not a superstitious man myself," supplemented the Major. "But you can't get away from the facts, you know, Cargill."

Cargill said no more. He perceived that they had lived long enough in retirement in the little Welsh village to have acquired a pride in its legend.

The legend and the mountains are the two attractions of Tryn yr Wylfa—the official guidebook devotes an equal amount of space to each. It will tell you that the bay, across which the quarry's tramp steamers now sail, was once dry land on which stood a village. Deep in the water the remains of this village can still be seen in clear weather. But whosoever dares to look upon them will be drowned within the year. A local publication gives full details of those who have looked—and perished.

The legend had received an unexpected boom in the drowning of Roberts, which had just occurred. Roberts was a fisherman who had recently come from the South. One calm day in February he had rowed out into the bay in fulfilment of a drunken boast. He was drowned three days before Midsummer.

After dinner young Cargill forgot about it. He forgot almost everything except Betty Lardner. But, oddly enough, as he walked back to the hotel it was just Betty Lardner who made him think again of the legend. He was in love, and, being very young, wanted to do something insanely heroic. To defy the Fates by looking on the sunken village was an obvious outlet for heroism.

He must have thought a good deal about it before he fell asleep, for he remembered his resolution on the following morning.

After breakfast he sauntered along the brief strip of asphalt which the villagers believe to be a promenade. He was not actually thinking of the legend; to be precise, he was thinking of Betty Lardner, but he was suddenly reminded of it by a boatman pressing him for his custom.

"Yes," he said abruptly. "I will hire your boat if you will row me out to the sunken village. I want to look at it."

The Welshman eyed him suspiciously, perceived that he was not joking, and shook his head.

"Come," persisted Cargill, "I will make it a sovereign if you care to do it."

"Thank you, but indeed, no, sir," replied the Welshman. "Not if it wass a hundred sofereigns!"

"Surely you are not afraid?"

"It iss not fit," retorted the Welshman, turning on his heel.

It was probably this opposition that made young Cargill decide that it would be really worth while to defy the legend.

He did not approach the only other boatman. He considered the question of swimming. The knowledge that the distance there and back was nearly five miles did not render the feat impossible, for he was a champion swimmer.

But he soon thought of a better way. He went back to the hotel and sought out Bissett. Bissett was a fellow member of the Middle Temple, as contentedly briefless as himself. And Bissett possessed a motor-boat.

Bissett was not exactly keen on the prospect.

"Don't you think it is rather a silly thing to do?" he reasoned. "Of course it's all rot in a way—it must be. But isn't it just as well to treat that sort of thing with respect?"

Eventually he agreed to take the motor-boat to within a few hundred yards of the spot. They would tow a dinghy, in which young Cargill could finish the journey.

It took young Cargill half-an-hour to find the spot. But he did find it, and he did look upon, and actually see, all that remained of the sunken village.

He felt vaguely ashamed of himself when he returned to dry land. He noticed that several of the villagers gave him unfriendly glances; and he resolved that he would say nothing of the matter to the Lardners.

They were having tea on the lawn when he dropped in. He thought that Mrs. Lardner's welcome was a trifle chilly. After tea Betty executed a quite deliberate manœuvre to avoid having him for a partner at tennis. But he ran her to earth later, when they were picking up the balls.

"How could you?" was all she said.

"I—I didn't know you knew," he stammered weakly.

"Of course everybody knows! It was all over the village before you returned.

"Can't you see what that legend meant to us?" she went on. "It was a thing of beauty. And now you have spoilt it. It's like burning down the trees of the Fairy Glen. You—you Goth!"

"But suppose I am drowned before the year is out—like Roberts?" he suggested jocularly.

"Then I will forgive you," she said. And to Cargill it sounded exactly as if she meant what she said.

A few days later he returned to town. For six months he thought little about the legend. Then he was reminded of it.

He had been spending a week-end at Brighton. On the return journey he had a first-class smoker in the rear of the train to himself. Towards the end of the hour he dozed and dreamt of the day he had looked on the sunken village. He was awakened when the train made its usual stop on the bridge outside Victoria.

It had been a pleasant dream, and he was still trying to preserve the illusion when his eye fell lazily on the window, and he noticed that there was a dense fog.

"Bit rough on the legend that I happened to be a Londoner!" he mused. "It isn't easy to drown a man in town!"

He stood up with the object of removing his dressing-case from the rack. But before he reached it there was the shriek of a whistle, a violent shock, and he was hurled heavily into the opposite seat.

It was not a collision in the newspaper sense of the word. No one was hurt. A local train, creeping along at four miles an hour, had simply missed its signal in the fog and bumped the Brighton train.

Young Cargill, in common with most other passengers put his head out of the window. He saw nothing—except the parapet of the bridge.

"By God!" he muttered. "If that other train had been going a little faster——"

He could just hear the river gurgling beneath him.

He had got over his fright by the time he reached Victoria.

"Just a common-place accident," he assured himself, as he drove in a taxi-cab to his chambers. "That's the worst of it! If I happened to be drowned in the ordinary way they'd swear it was the legend. I suppose, for that reason, I had better not take any risks. Anyhow, I needn't go near the sea until the year is out!"

The superstitious would doubtless affirm that the Fates had sent him one warning and, angered at his refusal to accept it, had determined to drive home the lesson of his own impotence. For when he arrived at his chambers he found a cablegram from Paris awaiting him.

"Hullo, this must be from Uncle Peter!" he exclaimed, as he tore open the envelope.

"Fear uncle dying. Come at once.—Machell."

Machell was the elder Cargill's secretary, and young Cargill was the old man's heir.

It was not until he was in the boat-train that he realised that he was about to cross the sea.

It was a coincidence—an odd coincidence. When the ship tossed in an unusually rough crossing he was prepared to admit to himself that it was an uncanny coincidence.

He stayed a week in Paris for his uncle's funeral. When he made the return journey the Channel was like the proverbial mill pond. But it was not until the ship had actually put into Dover that he laughed at the failure of the Fates to take the opportunity to drown him.

He laughed, to be exact, as he was stepping down the gangway. At the end of the gangway the fold of the rug which he was carrying on his arm, caught in the railings. He turned sharply to free it and stepping back, cannoned into an officer of the dock. It threw him off his balance on the edge of the dockside.

Even if the official had not grabbed him, it is highly probable that he could have saved himself from falling into the water, because the gangway railing was in easy reach; and if you remember that he was a champion swimmer, you will agree that it is still more probable that he would not have been drowned, even if he had fallen.

But the incident made its impression. His thoughts reverted to it constantly during the next few days. Then he told himself that his attendance at the last rites of his uncle had made him morbid, and was more or less successful in dismissing the affair from his mind.

He had many friends in common with the Lardners. Early in February he was invited for a week's hunting to a house at which Betty Lardner was also a guest.

She had not forgotten. She did her best to avoid him, and succeeded remarkably well, in spite of the fact that their hostess, knowing something of young Cargill's feelings, made several efforts to throw them together.

One day at the end of the hunt he came alongside of her and they walked their horses home together. When he was sure that they were out of earshot he asked:

"You haven't forgiven me yet?"

"You know the conditions," she replied banteringly.

"You leave me no alternative to suicide," he protested.

"That would be cheating," she said. "You must be drowned honestly, or it's no good."

Then he made a foolish reply. He thought her humour forced and it annoyed him. Remember that he was exasperated. He had looked forward to meeting her, and now she was treating him with studied coldness over what still seemed to him a comparatively trifling matter.

"I am afraid," he said, "that that is hardly likely to occur. The fact of my being a townsman instead of a drunken boatman doesn't give your legend a fair chance!"

Less than an hour afterwards he was having his bath before dressing for dinner. The water was deliciously hot, and the room was full of steam. As he lay in the bath a drowsiness stole over him. Enjoying the keen physical pleasure of it, he thought what a wholly delightful thing was a hot bath after a day's hard hunting. His mind, bordering on sleep, dwelt lazily on hot baths in general. And then with a startling suddenness came the thought that, before now, men had been drowned in their baths!

With a shock he realised that he had almost fallen asleep. He tried to rouse himself, but a faintness had seized him. That steam—he could not breathe! He was certain he was going to faint.

With a desperate effort of the will he hurled himself out of the bath and threw open the window.

It must have been the bath episode that first aroused the sensation of positive fear in Cargill. For it was almost a month later when he surprised the secretary of that swimming club of which he was the main pillar by his refusal to take part in any events for the coming season.

He was beginning to take precautions.

Late one night, when taxi-cabs were scarce, he found that his quickest way to reach home would be by means of one of the tubes. He was in the descending lift when he suddenly remembered that that particular tube ran beneath the river. Suppose an accident should occur—a leakage! After all such a thing was within the bounds of possibility. Instantly there rose before him the vision of a black torrent roaring through the tunnel.

Without waiting for the lift to ascend he rushed to the staircase, and sweating with terror gained the street and bribed a loafer to find him a cab.

He made an effort to take himself seriously in hand after that. More than one acquaintance had lately told him that he was looking "nervy." In the last few weeks his sane and normal self seemed to have shrunk within him. But it was still capable of asserting itself under favourable conditions. It would talk aloud to the rest of him as if to a separate individual.

"Look here, old man, this superstitious nonsense is becoming an obsession to you," it said one fine April morning. "Yes, I mean what I say—an obsession! You must pull yourself together or you'll go stark mad, and then you'll probably go and throw yourself over the Embankment. That legend is all bosh! You're in the twentieth century, and you're not a drunken fisherman——"

"Hullo, young Cargill!"

The door burst open and Stranack, oozing health and sanity, glared at him.

"Jove! What a wreck you look!" continued Stranack. "You've been frousting too much. I'm glad I came. The car's outside, and we'll run down to Kingston, take a skiff and pull up to Molesey."

The river! Young Cargill felt the blood singing in his ears.

"I'm afraid I can't manage it. I—I've got an appointment this afternoon," he stammered.

Stranack perceived that he was lying, and wondered. For a few minutes he gossiped, while young Cargill was repeating to himself:

"You must pull yourself together. It's becoming an obsession. You must pull yourself together."

He was vaguely conscious that Stranack was about to depart. Stranack was already in the doorway. His chance of killing the obsession was slipping from him! A special effort and then:

"Stop!" cried Cargill. "I—I'll come with you, Stranack."

Oddly enough, he felt much better when they were actually on the river. He had never been afraid of water, as such. And the familiar scenery, together with the wholesome exercise of sculling, acted as a tonic to his nerves.

They pulled above Molesey lock. When they were returning, Stranack said:

"You'll take her through the lock, won't you?"

It was a needless remark, and if Stranack had not made it all might have been well. As a fact, it set Cargill asking himself why he should not take her through the lock. He was admitted to be a much better boatman than Stranack, and everyone knew that it required a certain amount of skill to manage a lock properly. Locks were dangerous if you played the fool. Before now people had been drowned in locks.

The rest was inevitable. He lost his head as the lower gates swung open, and broke the rule of the river by pushing out in front of a launch. The launch was already under way, and young Cargill trying to avoid it better, thrust with his boat-hook at the side of the lock. The thrust was nervous and ill-calculated, and the next instant the skiff had blundered under the bows of the launch.

It happened very quickly. The skiff was forced, broadside on, against the lock gates, and was splintered like firewood. Cargill fell backwards, struck his head heavily against the gates—and sank.

He returned to consciousness in the lock-keeper's lodge. He had been under water a dangerously long time before Stranack, who had suffered no more than a wetting, had found him. It had been touch and go for his life, but artificial respiration had succeeded.

He soon went to pieces after that.

From one of the windows of his chambers the river was just visible. One morning he deliberately pulled the blind down. The action was important. It signified that he had definitely given up pretending that he had the power of shaking off the obsession.

But if he could not shake it off, he could at least keep it temporarily at bay. He started a guerilla campaign against the obsession with the aid of the brandy bottle. He was rarely drunk, and as rarely sober.

He was sober the day he was compelled to call on an aunt who lived in the still prosperous outskirts of Paddington. It was one of his good days and, in spite of his sobriety, he had himself in very good control when he left his aunt.

In his search for a cab it became necessary for him to cross the canal. On the bridge he paused and, gripping the parapet, made a surprise attack upon his enemy.

Some children, playing on the tow path, helped him considerably. Their delightful sanity in the presence of the water was worth more to him than the brandy. He was positively winning the battle, when one of the children fell into the water.

For an instant he hesitated. Then, as on the night of the Tube episode, panic seized him. The next instant the man who was probably the best amateur swimmer in England, was running with all his might away from the canal.

When he reached his chambers he waited, with the assistance of the brandy, until his man brought him the last edition of the evening paper. A tiny paragraph on the back sheet told him of the tragedy.

An hour later his man found him face downwards on the hearthrug and, wrongly attributing his condition wholly to the brandy, put him to bed.

He was in bed about three weeks. The doctor, who was also a personal friend, was shrewd enough to suspect that the brandy was the effect, rather than the cause of the nerve trouble.

About the first week in June Cargill was allowed to get up.

"You've got to go away," said the doctor one morning. "You are probably aware that your nerves have gone to pieces. The sea is the place for you!"

The gasp that followed was scarcely audible, and the doctor missed it.

"You went to Tryn yr Wylfa about this time last year," continued the doctor. "Go there again! Go for long walks on the mountains, and put up at a temperance hotel."

He went to Tryn yr Wylfa.

The train journey of six hours knocked him up for another week. By the time he was strong enough for the promenade it was the fourteenth of June. He noticed the date on the hotel calendar, and realised that the Fates had another ten days in which to drown him.

He did not call on the Lardners. He felt that he couldn't—after the canal episode. Four of the ten days had passed before Betty Lardner ran across him on the promenade.

She noticed at once the change in him, and was kinder than she had ever been before.

"Next Saturday," he said, "is the anniversary!"

For answer she smiled at him, and he might have smiled back if he had not remembered the canal.

She met him each morning after that, so that she was with him on the day when he made his atonement.

There had been a violent storm in the early morning. It had driven one of the quarry steamers on to the long sand-bank that lies submerged between Tryn yr Wylfa and Puffin Island. The gale still lasted, and the steamer was in momentary danger of becoming a complete wreck.

There is no lifeboat service at Tryn yr Wylfa. It was impossible to launch an ordinary boat in such a sea.

Colonel Denbigh, the owner of the quarry and local magnate, who had been superintending what feeble efforts had been made to effect a rescue, answered gloomily when Betty Lardner asked him if there were any hope.

"It's a terrible thing," he jerked. "First time there has been a wreck hereabouts. It's hopeless trying to launch a boat——"

"Suppose a fellow were to swim out to the wreck with a life-line in tow?"

It was young Cargill who spoke.

The Colonel glared at him contemptuously.

"He would need to be a pretty fine swimmer," he returned.

"I don't want to blow my own trumpet, but I am considered to be one of the best amateur swimmers in the country," replied Cargill calmly. "If you will tell your men to get the line ready, I will borrow a bathing suit from somewhere."

They both stared at him in amazement.

"But you are still an invalid," cried Betty Lardner. "You——"

She stopped short and regarded him with fresh wonder. Somehow he no longer looked an invalid.

Mechanically she walked by his side to the little bathing office. Suddenly she clutched his arm.

"Jack," she said, "have you forgotten the—the legend?"

"Betty," he replied, "have you forgotten the crew?"

While he was undressing the attendant asked him some trivial question. He did not hear the man. His thoughts were far away. He was thinking of a group of children playing on the bank of a canal.

To the accompaniment of the Colonel's protests they fixed a belt on him, to which was attached the life-line.

He walked along the sloping wooden projection that is used as a landing stage for pleasure skiffs, walked until the water splashed over him. Then he dived into the boiling surf.

Thus it was that he earned Betty Lardner's forgiveness.