A Simpleton by Charles Reade
The electrified man rushed out into the storm, but he scarcely felt it in his body; the effect on his mind overpowered hail-stones. The lightning seemed to light up the past; the mighty explosions of thunder seemed cannon strokes knocking down a wall, and letting in his whole life.
Six hours the storm raged, and, before it ended, he had recovered nearly his whole past, except his voyage with Captain Dodd--that, indeed, he never recovered--and the things that happened to him in the hospital before he met Phoebe Falcon and her brother: and as soon as he had recovered his lost memory, his body began to shiver at the hail and rain. He tried to find his way home, but missed it; not so much, however, but that he recovered it as soon as it began to clear, and just as they were coming out to look for him, he appeared before them, dripping, shivering, very pale and worn, with the handkerchief still about his head.
At sight of him, Dick slipped back to his sister, and said, rather roughly, "There now, you may leave off crying: he is come home; and to-morrow I take him to Cape Town."
Christopher crept in, a dismal, sinister figure.
"Oh, sir," said Phoebe, "was this a day for a Christian to be out in? How could you go and frighten us so?"
"Forgive me, madam," said Christopher humbly; "I was not myself."
"The best thing you can do now is to go to bed, and let us send you up something warm."
"You are very good," said Christopher, and retired with the air of one too full of great amazing thoughts to gossip.
He slept thirty hours at a stretch, and then, awaking in the dead of night, he saw the past even more clear and vivid; he lighted his candle and began to grope in the Cape Gazette. As to dates, he now remembered when he had sailed from England, and also from Madeira. Following up this clew, he found in the Gazette a notice that H. M. ship Amphitrite had been spoken off the Cape, and had reported the melancholy loss of a promising physician and man of science, Dr. Staines.
The account said every exertion had been made to save him, but in vain.
Staines ground his teeth with rage at this. "Every exertion! the false-hearted curs. They left me to drown, without one manly effort to save me. Curse them, and curse all the world."
Pursuing his researches rapidly, he found a much longer account of a raft picked up by Captain Dodd, with a white man on it and a dead body, the white man having on him a considerable sum in money and jewels.
Then a new anxiety chilled him. There was not a word to identify him with Dr. Staines. The idea had never occurred to the editor of the Cape Gazette. Still less would it occur to any one in England. At this moment his wife must be mourning for him. "Poor--poor Rosa!"
But perhaps the fatal news might not have reached her.
That hope was dashed away as soon as found. Why, these were all old newspapers. That gentlemanly man who had lent them to him had said so.
Old! yet they completed the year 1867.
He now tore through them for the dates alone, and soon found they went to 1868. Yet they were old papers. He had sailed in May, 1867.
"My God!" he cried, in agony, "I have lost a year."
This thought crushed him. By and by he began to carry this awful idea into details. "My Rosa has worn mourning for me, and put it off again. I am dead to her, and to all the world."
He wept long and bitterly.
Those tears cleared his brain still more. For all that, he was not yet himself; at least, I doubt it; his insanity, driven from the intellect, fastened one lingering claw into his moral nature, and hung on by it. His soul filled with bitterness and a desire to be revenged on mankind for their injustice, and this thought possessed him more than reason.
He joined the family at breakfast; and never a word all the time. But when he got up to go, he said, in a strange, dogged way, as if it went against the grain, "God bless the house that succors the afflicted." Then he went out to brood alone.
"Dick," said Phoebe, "there's a change. I'll never part with him: and look, there's Collie following him, that never could abide him."
"Part with him?" said Reginald. "Of course not. He is a gentleman, and they are not so common in Africa."
Dick, who hated Falcon, ignored this speech entirely, and said, "Well, Pheeb, you and Collie are wiser than I am. Take your own way, and don't blame me if anything happens."
Soon Christopher paid the penalty of returning reason. He suffered all the poignant agony a great heart can endure.
So this was his reward for his great act of self-denial in leaving his beloved wife. He had lost his patient; he had lost the income from that patient; his wife was worse off than before, and had doubtless suffered the anguish of a loving heart bereaved. His mind, which now seemed more vigorous than ever, after its long rest, placed her before his very eyes, pale, and worn with grief, in her widow's cap.
At the picture, he cried like the rain. He could give her joy, by writing; but he could not prevent her from suffering a whole year of misery.
Turning this over in connection with their poverty, his evil genius whispered, "By this time she has received the six thousand pounds for your death. She would never think of that; but her father has: and there is her comfort assured, in spite of the caitiffs who left her husband to drown like a dog.
"I know my Rosa," he thought. "She has swooned--ah, my poor darling--she has raved--she has wept," he wept himself at the thought--"she has mourned every indiscreet act, as if it was a crime. But she has done all this. Her good and loving but shallow nature is now at rest from the agonies of bereavement, and nought remains but sad and tender regrets. She can better endure that than poverty: cursed poverty, which has brought her and me to this, and is the only real evil in the world, but bodily pain."
Then came a struggle, that lasted a whole week, and knitted his brows, and took the color from his cheek; but it ended in the triumph of love and hate, over conscience and common sense. His Rosa should not be poor; and he would cheat some of those contemptible creatures called men, who had done him nothing but injustice, and at last had sacrificed his life like a rat's.
When the struggle was over, and the fatal resolution taken, then he became calmer, less solitary, and more sociable.
Phoebe, who was secretly watching him with a woman's eye, observed this change in him, and, with benevolent intentions, invited him one day to ride round the farm with her. He consented readily. She showed him the fields devoted to maize and wheat, and then the sheepfolds. Tim's sheep were apparently deserted; but he was discovered swinging head downwards from the branch of a camel- thorn, and seeing him, it did strike one that if he had had a tail he would have been swinging by that. Phoebe called to him: he never answered, but set off running to her, and landed himself under her nose in a wheel somersault.
"I hope you are watching them, Tim," said his mistress.
"Iss, missy, always washing 'em."
"Why, there's one straying towards the wood now."
"He not go far," said Tim coolly. The young monkey stole off a little way, then fell flat, and uttered the cry of a jackal, with startling precision. Back went the sheep to his comrades post haste, and Tim effected a somersault and a chuckle.
"You are a clever boy," said Phoebe. "So that is how you manage them."
"Dat one way, missy," said Tim, not caring to reveal all his resources at once.
Then Phoebe rode on, and showed Christopher the ostrich pan. It was a large basin, a form the soil often takes in these parts; and in it strutted several full-grown ostriches and their young, bred on the premises. There was a little dam of water, and plenty of food about. They were herded by a Kafir infant of about six, black, glossy, fat, and clean, being in the water six times a day.
Sometimes one of the older birds would show an inclination to stray out of the pan. Then the infant rolled after her, and tapped her ankles with a wand. She instantly came back, but without any loss of dignity, for she strutted with her nose in the air, affecting completely to ignore the inferior little animal, that was nevertheless controlling her movements. "There's a farce," said Phoebe. "But you would not believe the money they cost me, nor the money they bring me in. Grain will not sell here for a quarter its value: and we can't afford to send it to Cape Town, twenty days and back; but finery, that sells everywhere. I gather sixty pounds the year off those poor fowls' backs--clear profit."
She showed him the granary, and told him there wasn't such another in Africa. This farm had belonged to one of the old Dutch settlers, and that breed had been going down this many a year. "You see, sir, Dick and I being English, and not downright in want of money, we can't bring ourselves to sell grain to the middlemen for nothing, so we store it, hoping for better times, that maybe will never come. Now I'll show you how the dam is made."
They inspected the dam all round. "This is our best friend of all," said she. "Without this the sun would turn us all to tinder,--crops, flowers, beasts, and folk."
"Oh, indeed," said Staines. "Then it is a pity you have not built it more scientifically. I must have a look at this."
"Ay do, sir, and advise us if you see anything wrong. But hark! it is milking time. Come and see that." So she led the way to some sheds, and there they found several cows being milked, each by a little calf and a little Hottentot at the same time, and both fighting and jostling each other for the udder. Now and then a young cow, unused to incongruous twins, would kick impatiently at both animals and scatter them.
"That is their way," said Phoebe: "they have got it into their silly Hottentot heads as kye won't yield their milk if the calf is taken away; and it is no use arguing with 'em; they will have their own way; but they are very trusty and honest, poor things. We soon found that out. When we came here first it was in a hired wagon, and Hottentot drivers: so when we came to settle I made ready for a bit of a wrangle. But my maid Sophy, that is nurse now, and a great despiser of heathens, she says, 'Don't you trouble; them nasty ignorant blacks never charges more than their due.' 'I forgive 'em,' says I; 'I wish all white folk was as nice.' However, I did give them a trifle over, for luck: and then they got together and chattered something near the door, hand in hand. 'La, Sophy,' says I, 'what is up now?' Says she, 'They are blessing of us. Things is come to a pretty pass, for ignorant Muslinmen heathen to be blessing Christian folk.' 'Well,' says I, 'it won't hurt us any.' 'I don't know,' says she. 'I don't want the devil prayed over me.' So she cocked that long nose of hers and followed it in a doors."
By this time they were near the house, and Phoebe was obliged to come to her postscript, for the sake of which, believe me, she had uttered every syllable of this varied chat. "Well, sir," said she, affecting to proceed without any considerable change of topic, "and how do you find yourself? Have you discovered the past?"
"I have, madam. I remember every leading incident of my life."
"And has it made you happier?" said Phoebe softly.
"No," said Christopher gravely. "Memory has brought me misery."
"I feared as much; for you have lost your fine color, and your eyes are hollow, and lines on your poor brow that were not there before. Are you not sorry you have discovered the past?"
"No, Mrs. Falcon. Give me the sovereign gift of reason, with all the torture it can inflict. I thank God for returning memory, even with the misery it brings."
Phoebe was silent a long time: then she said in a low, gentle voice, and with the indirectness of a truly feminine nature, "I have plenty of writing-paper in the house; and the post goes south to-morrow, such as 'tis."
Christopher struggled with his misery, and trembled.
He was silent a long time. Then he said, "No. It is her interest that I should be dead."
"Well, but, sir--take a thought."
"Not a word more, I implore you. I am the most miserable man that ever breathed." As he spoke, two bitter tears forced their way.
Phoebe cast a look of pity on him, and said no more; but she shook her head. Her plain common sense revolted.
However, it did not follow he would be in the same mind next week: so she was in excellent spirits at her protege's recovery, and very proud of her cure, and celebrated the event with a roaring supper, including an English ham, and a bottle of port wine; and, ten to one, that was English too.
Dick Dale looked a little incredulous, but he did not spare the ham any the more for that.
After supper, in a pause of conversation, Staines turned to Dick, and said, rather abruptly, "Suppose that dam of yours were to burst and empty its contents, would it not be a great misfortune to you?"
"Misfortune, sir! Don't talk of it. Why, it would ruin us, beast and body."
"Well, it will burst, if it is not looked to."
"Dale's Kloof dam burst! the biggest and strongest for a hundred miles round."
"You deceive yourself. It is not scientifically built, to begin, and there is a cause at work that will infallibly burst it, if not looked to in time."
"And what is that, sir?"
"The dam is full of crabs."
"So 'tis; but what of them?"
"I detected two of them that had perforated the dyke from the wet side to the dry, and water was trickling through the channel they had made. Now, for me to catch two that had come right through, there must be a great many at work honeycombing your dyke; those channels, once made, will be enlarged by the permeating water, and a mere cupful of water forced into a dyke by the great pressure of a heavy column has an expansive power quite out of proportion to the quantity forced in. Colossal dykes have been burst in this way with disastrous effects. Indeed, it is only a question of time, and I would not guarantee your dyke twelve hours. It is full, too, with the heavy rains."
"Here's a go!" said Dick, turning pale. "Well, if it is to burst, it must."
"Why so? You can make it safe in a few hours. You have got a clumsy contrivance for letting off the excess of water: let us go and relieve the dam at once of two feet of water. That will make it safe for a day or two, and to-morrow we will puddle it afresh, and demolish those busy excavators."
He spoke with such authority and earnestness, that they all got up from table; a horn was blown that soon brought the Hottentots, and they all proceeded to the dam. With infinite difficulty they opened the waste sluice, lowered the water two feet, and so drenched the arid soil that in forty-eight hours flowers unknown sprang up.
Next morning, under the doctor's orders, all the black men and boys were diving with lumps of stiff clay and puddling the endangered wall with a thick wall of it. This took all the people the whole day.
Next day the clay wall was carried two feet higher, and then the doctor made them work on the other side and buttress the dyke with supports so enormous as seemed extravagant to Dick and Phoebe; but, after all, it was as well to be on the safe side, they thought: and soon they were sure of it, for the whole work was hardly finished when the news came in that the dyke of a neighboring Boer, ten miles off, had exploded like a cannon, and emptied itself in five minutes, drowning the farm-yard and floating the furniture, but leaving them all to perish of drought; and indeed the Boer's cart came every day, with empty barrels, for some time, to beg water of the Dales. Ucatella pondered all this, and said her doctor child was wise.
This brief excitement over, Staines went back to his own gloomy thoughts, and they scarcely saw him, except at supper-time.
One evening he surprised them all by asking if they would add to all their kindness by lending him a horse, and a spade, and a few pounds to go to the diamond fields.
Dick Dale looked at his sister. She said, "We had rather lend them you to go home with, sir, if you must leave us; but, dear heart, I was half in hopes--Dick and I were talking it over only yesterday-- that you would go partners like with us; ever since you saved the dam."
"I have too little to offer for that, Mrs. Falcon; and, besides, I am driven into a corner. I must make money quickly, or not at all: the diamonds are only three hundred miles off: for heaven's sake, let me try my luck."
They tried to dissuade him, and told him not one in fifty did any good at it.
"Ay, but I shall," said he. "Great bad luck is followed by great good luck, and I feel my turn is come. Not that I rely on luck. An accident directed my attention to the diamond a few years ago, and I read a number of prime works upon the subject that told me of things not known to the miners. It is clear, from the Cape journals, that they are looking for diamonds in the river only. Now, I am sure that is a mistake. Diamonds, like gold, have their matrix, and it is comparatively few gems that get washed into the river. I am confident that I shall find the volcanic matrix, and perhaps make my fortune in a week or two."
When the dialogue took this turn, Reginald Falcon's cheek began to flush, and his eyes to glitter.
Christopher continued: "You who have befriended me so will not turn back, I am sure, when I have such a chance before me; and as for the small sum of money I shall require, I will repay you some day, even if"--
"La, sir, don't talk so. If you put it that way, why, the best horse we have, and fifty pounds in good English gold, they are at your service to-morrow."
"And pick and spade to boot," said Dick, "and a double rifle, for there are lions, and Lord knows what, between this and the Vaal river."
"God bless you both!" said Christopher. "I will start to-morrow."
"And I'll go with you," said Reginald Falcon.