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In the Dead of Night_ A Novel. Volume 1 (of 3)

In the Dead of Night_ A Novel. Volume 1 (of 3)
Title: In the Dead of Night_ A Novel. Volume 1 (of 3)
Release Date: 2018-09-21
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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Transcriber's Notes:
1. Page scan source: The Internet Web Archive
(University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign)


A Novel.




(All rights reserved.)






A hot, windless August day had settled down into a dull, broodingevening, presageful of a coming storm. It was nearly dark by the timeLionel Dering was ready to turn his face homeward. The tide was comingin with an ominous muffled roar; the wind, unfelt all day, was nowblowing in fitful puffs from various points of the compass, so thatthe weathercock on the green, in front of the Silver Lion, was moreundecided than usual, and did not know its own mind for two minutes ata time. The boatmen were busy with their tiny craft, making everythingfast for the night; and the bathing men were dragging their machineshigh and dry beyond reach of the incoming tide. Many of theexcursionists--those with families chiefly--were already making theirway towards the railway station; but others there were who seemed benton keeping up their merriment to the last moment. These latter couldbe seen through the wide-open windows of the Silver Lion, footing itmerrily on the club-room floor, to the music of two wheezy fiddles. Afew minutes later there comes a warning whistle from the engine. Themusic stops suddenly; the country-dance is left unfinished; pipes arelaid aside; glasses are quickly emptied; and the lads and lasses, withmany a shout and burst of laughter, rush helter-skelter across thegreen, to find their places in the train.

"We shall have a rough night, Ben," said Mr. Dering to a man who wascoming up from the beach.

"Yes, sir, there's a storm brewin' fast," answered Ben, carrying afinger to his forehead. "If I was you, Mr. Dering," he added, "Iwouldn't go over the cliffs to-night. It ain't safe after dark, andthe storm'll break afore you get home." But Mr. Dering merely shookhis head, laughed, bade Ben good-night, and kept on his way.

The old boatman's words proved true. The first flash of lightning camejust as the last houses of Melcham were lost to view behind a curve ofthe road, and when Lionel had two miles of solitary walking stillbefore him. The thunder and the rain, however, were still far out atsea.

By this time it was almost dark, but Mr. Dering pressed forwardwithout hesitation or delay. The cliff road, dangerous as it wouldhave been under such circumstances to any ordinary wayfarer, had forhim no terrors. He knew every yard of it as well as he knew the walkunder the apple-trees in his own garden. It was not the first time byany means that he had traversed it after nightfall. As for thelightning, it was rather an assistance than otherwise, serving everytwo or three minutes, as it did, to show him exactly where he was. Itwas a bad road enough, certainly. Unfenced in several places, withhere and there a broad, yawning chasm in the direct path, where somehuge bulk of the soft earthy cliff, undermined by fierce winter tides,had broken bodily away and had gone to feed the ever-hungry waves. Butto Lionel every dangerous point was familiar, and he followed thelittle circuitous bends in the path, necessitated by the breaks in thefrontage of the cliff, instinctively and without thought.

He had been thinking of Edith West--his ladye-love, whom he might nothope ever to see again. In his long solitary walks both by day andnight she was almost always in his thoughts. Not but what Lionel, thisevening, had an eye for the lightning, so beautifully terrible in itsapparently purposeless vagaries. Fast following one another, came theblue, quivering flashes, lighting up, for one brief moment at a time,the barren skyward-climbing cliff, and the still more barren waste ofsea.

"Like my life--like my life," murmured Lionel to himself, his eyesstill bent on the wide tract of moorland, which had just been lightedup by a more vivid flash than common. "Barren and unprofitable.Without byre or homestead. Left unploughed, unfenced, uncared for. Ofno apparent use, were it not that a few wild-flowers choose to growthere, and a few birds, equally wild, to build their nests there. Butover it, as over more favoured spots, the free breeze of heaven blowsday and night, and keeps it sweet; and the sea makes everlasting musicat its feet."

These thoughts were still in Mr. Dering's mind when a sudden turn inthe pathway brought him in view of the lighthouse, whose gleaminglantern, although full half a mile away, shone out through the comingstorm like the cheery welcome of a friend.

The thunder was coming nearer, bringing the rain with it. The flasheswere becoming more vividly painful. The sea's hoarse chorus wasgrowing more loud, and triumphant. Lionel had paused for a moment togather breath. A flash--and there, not fifty yards away, and comingtowards him, was a man--a stranger! It was the work of an instant forthe lightning to photograph the picture on his brain, but that oneinstant was enough for him to see and recognize the deadly peril inwhich the man was placed. He was marching unknowingly to his death.Not six yards in front of him yawned the most dangerous chasm in thewhole face of the cliff.

In another moment Lionel had recovered his presence of mind. "Stop!stop for your life!" he shouted at the top of his voice. "Don't stiranother step." It was too dark for him to see whether the man hadheard and understood his warning cry. He must wait for the next flashto tell him that. The words had hardly left his lips when the thunderburst almost immediately overhead, as it seemed, and the first heavydrops of rain began to fall. Lionel, meantime, was making his way asquickly as he could round the back of the chasm. Two minutes morewould bring him to the very spot where he had seen the stranger. Butwhile he had still some dozen yards or more of the dangerous path totraverse, there came another blinding flash. It had come and gone inthe twinkling of an eye, but that brief second of time was sufficientto show Lionel that the man was no longer there. An inarticulate cryof horror burst from his lips. With beating heart and strainingnerves, he pressed forward till he stood on the very spot where he hadseen the man; but he was standing there alone.

The storm was at its height. The forked flashes came thick and fast.One crack of thunder was followed by another, before the echoedmutterings of the last had time to die away. A wild hurricane of windand rain was beating furiously over land and sea. Utterly regardlessof the storm, Lionel lay down at full length on the short, wet turf,and shading his eves with his hands, peered down into the black gulfbelow. It was a dangerous thing to do, but in the excitement of themoment all sense of personal fear was forgotten. He waited for theflashes; but when they came they showed him nothing save the wildturmoil of the rising tide as it dashed itself in fury against thehuge boulders with which the beach was thickly strewn. It would behigh water in half-an-hour. Already the base of the cliff was washedby the inrushing waves. Lionel shouted with all his might, but thewind blew the sound back again, and the thunder drowned it. He stoodup despairingly. What should he do to succour the poor wretch who laythere, dying or, perhaps, already dead, at the foot of the cliff? Whatcould he do? Alone and unaided he could do nothing. He must seek thehelp of others. But where? The nearest point where he could hope toget assistance was the lighthouse, and that was nearly half-a-mileaway. But long before the lighthouse could have been reached, and helpbrought back, the rising tide would have completely barred the passagealong the foot of the cliffs, and would, in all probability, havewashed the body out to sea. At the point where he was standing, thecliff had a sheer descent of a hundred feet to the beach. But suddenlyMr. Dering remembered, and it seemed to him like a flash ofinspiration, that no great distance away there was a slight naturalbreak in the cliff, known as "The Smugglers' Staircase." It was merelya narrow gully or seam in the face of the rock, not much wider than anordinary chimney. If it had ever really been used by smugglers inyears gone by as a natural staircase, by means of which access couldbe had to the beach, they must have been very active and recklessfellows indeed. But what had been made use of by one man might be madeuse of by another, Lionel thought, and, with some faint renewal ofhope in his breast, he made his way along the cliff in the directionof the staircase. If he could only get down to the beach before thetide had risen much higher, and could succeed in finding the body, hemight, perhaps, be able to obtain some foothold among the crannies ofthe cliff, where he would be beyond reach of the waves, and where hemight wait till daybreak, and the ebbing of the tide, should give hima chance of seeking help elsewhere.

But here he was at the staircase--a place, of a truth, to try a man'snerve, even by broad daylight. Although Lionel had never venturedeither up or down it, he was no stranger to its peculiar features.More than once, in his rambles along the cliffs, he had paused toexamine it, and to wonder whether the jagged, misshapen ledges ofprotruding rock from which it was supposed to derive its likeness to agigantic staircase, were the result of nature's handiwork or that ofman.

Lionel had lost no time. From his first sight of the stranger till nowwas not more than five or six minutes. Pausing for a moment on theedge of the staircase, he flung his hat aside, buttoned his coat, andthen, instinctively, turned up his cuffs. Then he went down on hishands and knees, and was just lowering one leg over the edge of thecliff; when his collar was roughly seized, and a hoarse voice growledin his ear: "In heaven's name, Mr. Dering, what are you about?"

For the moment, Lionel was startled. Next instant he recognized Bunce,the coastguardsman--a very worthy fellow, to whom he was well known. Afew rapid words from Lionel explained everything. "All the same, Mr.Dering, you can't bring the dead back to life, do how you will," saidBunce, "and that man's as dead as last year's mackerel, you may dependon't. Let alone which, the tide's right up to the bottom of the cliff.No, no, Mr. Dering--axing your pardon--but one live man is worthtwenty dead uns."

"Bunce, you are a fool!" said Lionel, wrathfully. "If I were not in ahurry, I would prove it to you. Take your hand off my collar, sir. Itell you I am going down here. If you choose to help me, go to thelighthouse and get Jasper to come back with you, and bring some ropesand a lantern or two, and whatever else you think might be useful. Ifyou don't choose to help me, go about your business, and leave me todo mine."

"But you are going to certain death; you are indeed, Mr. Dering,"pleaded the coastguardsman.

"Bunce," said Lionel, "you are an old woman. Goodbye." There was aflash, and Bunce caught a momentary glimpse of a stern white face, andtwo resolute eyes. When the next flash came, Lionel was not to beseen. He was on his perilous journey down the Smugglers' Staircase.

"A madman--a crazy madman," muttered Bunce. "If he gets safe to thebottom of the staircase, he'll go no farther. Not as I'm going todesert him. Not likely. Though he did call me a old woman."

Going down on one knee on the wet

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