Story 2 | Chapter XI | Conclusion | The Golden Incubus

Story 2—Chapter XI.

I stood watching Sir John, who seemed nearly mad with grief and rage, and a dozen times over my lips opened to speak, but without a sound being heard. At last he looked up at me and saw what I wanted to do, but which respect kept back.

“Well,” he said, “what do you propose doing?”

I remained silent for a moment, and then, feeling that even if he was offended, I was doing right, I said to him what was in my heart.

“Sir John, I never married, and I never had a son. It’s all a mystery to me.”

“Man, you are saved from a curse!” he cried fiercely.

“No, dear master, no,” I said, as I laid my hand upon his arm. “You don’t believe that. I only wanted to say that if I had had a boy—a fine, handsome, brave lad like Mr Barclay—”

“Fine!—brave!” he says contemptuously.

“Who had never done a thing wrong, or been disobedient in any way till he fell into temptation that was too strong for him—”

“Bah! I could have forgiven that. But for him to have turned thief!”

I was silent, for his words seemed to take away my breath.

“Man, man!” he cried, “how could you be such an idiot as to write that document and leave it where it could be found?”

“I did it for the best, sir,” I said humbly.

“Best? The worst,” he cried. “No, no; I cannot forgive. Disgrace or no disgrace, I must have in the police.”

“No, no, no!” I cried piteously. “He is your own son, Sir John, your own son; and it is that wretched woman who has driven him mad.”

“Mad? Burdon, mad? No; it is something worse.”

“But it is not too late,” I said humbly.

“Yes, too late—too late! I disown him. He is no longer son of mine.”

“And you sit there in that dining-room every night, Sir John,” I said, “with all us servants gathered round, and read that half a chapter and then say, ‘As we forgive them that trespass against us.’ Sir John—master—he is your own son, and I love him as if he was my own.”

There wasn’t a sound in that place for a minute, and then he drew his breath in a catching way that startled me, for it was as if he was going to have a fit. But his face was very calm and stern now, as he says to me gently:

“You are right, old friend;”—and my heart gave quite a bound—“old friend.”

“Let’s go to him and save him, master, from his sin.”

“Two weak old men, Burdon, and him strong, desperate, and taken by surprise. My good fellow, what would follow then?”

“I don’t know, Sir John. I can only see one thing, and that is, that we should have done our duty by the lad. Let’s leave the rest to Him.”

He drew a long deep breath.

“Yes,” he says. “Come along.”

We went back in the darkness to the cellar door and listened; but all seemed very still, and I turned the key in the patent Bramah lock without a sound. We went in, and stood there on the sawdust, with that hot smell of burnt oil seeming to get stronger, and there was a faint light in the inner cellar now, and a curious rustling, panting sound. We crept forward, one on each side of the opening; and as we looked in, my hand went down on one of the sherry bottles in the bin by my arm, and it made a faint click, which sounded quite loud.

I forgot all about Sir John; I didn’t even know that he was there, as I stared in from the darkness at the scene before me. They—I say they, for the whispering had taught me that there was more than one—had got the stone up while we had been away. It had been pushed aside on to the sawdust, and a soft yellow light shone up now out of the hole, showing me my young master, looking so strange and staring-eyed and ghastly, that I could hardly believe it was he. But it was, sure enough, though dressed in rough workman’s clothes, and stained and daubed with clay.

It wasn’t that, though, which took my attention, but his face; and as I looked, I thought of what had been said a little while ago in my place, and I felt it was true, and that he was mad. He had just crept up out of the hole, when he uttered a low groan and sank down on his knees, and then fell sidewise across the hole in the floor. He was not there many moments before there was a low angry whispering; he seemed to be heaved up, and, a big workman-looking fellow came struggling up till he sat on the sawdust with his legs in the hole, and spoke down to some one.

“It’s all right,” he said. “The chests are here; but the fool has fainted away. Quick the lamp, and then the tools.”

He bent down and took a smoky oil lamp that was handed to him, and I drew a deep breath, for the sound of his voice had seemed familiar; but the light which shone on his face made me sure in spite of his rough clothes and the beard he had grown. It was Edward Gunning, our old servant, who was discharged for being too fond of drink, turned bricklayer once again.

As he took the lamp, he got up, held it above his head, looked round, and then, with a grin of satisfaction at the sight of the chests, stepped softly toward the opening into the outer cellar, where Sir John and I were watching.

It didn’t take many moments, and I hardly know now how it happened, but I just saw young Mr Barclay lying helpless on the sawdust, another head appearing at the hole, and then, with the light full upon it, Edward Gunning’s face being thrust out of the opening into the cellar where we were, and his eyes gleaming curiously before they seemed to shut with a snap. For, all at once—perhaps it was me being a butler and so used to wine—my hand closed upon the neck of one of those bottles, which rose up sudden-like above my head, and came down with a crash upon that of this wretched man.

There was a crash; the splash of wine; the splintering of glass; the smell of sherry—fine old sherry, yellow seal—and I stood for a moment with the bottle neck and some sawdust in my hand, startled by the yell the man gave, by the heavy fall, and the sudden darkness which had come upon us.

Then—I suppose it was all like a flash—I had rushed to the inner cellar and was dragging the slab over the hole, listening the while to a hollow rustling noise which ended as I got the slab across and sat on it to keep it down.

“Where are you, Burdon?” says Sir John.

“Here, sir!—Quick! A light!”

I heard him hurry off; and it seemed an hour before he came back, while I sat listening to a terrible moaning, and smelling the spilt sherry and the oily knocked-out lamp. Then Sir John came in, quite pale, but looking full of fight, and the first thing he did was to stoop down over Edward Gunning and take a pistol from his breast. “You take that, Burdon,” he said, “and use it if we are attacked.”

“Which we shan’t be, Sir John, if you help me to get this stone back in its place.”

He set the lamp on one of the chests and lent a hand, when the stone dropped tightly into its place; and we dragged a couple of chests across, side by side, before turning to young Mr Barclay, who lay there on his side as if asleep.

“Now,” says Sir John, as he laid his hand upon the young man’s collar and dragged him over on to his back, “I think we had better hand this fellow over to the police.”

“The doctor, you mean, sir. Look at him.”

I needn’t have bade him look, for Sir John was already doing that.

It was a doctor that I fetched, and not the police, for Mr Barclay lay there quite insensible, and smelling as if he had taken to eating opium, while Ned Gunning had so awful a cut across his temple that he would soon have bled to death.

The doctor came and dressed the rascal’s wounds as he was laid in my pantry; but he shook his head over Mr Barclay, and with reason; for two months had passed away before we got him down to Dorking, and saw his pale face beginning to get something like what it was, with Miss Virginia, forgiving and gentle, always by his side.

But I’m taking a very big jump, and saying nothing about our going across to the house opposite as soon as it was daylight, to find the door open and no one there; while the state of that basement and what we saw there, and the artfulness of the people, and the labour they had given in driving that passage right under the road as true as a die, filled me with horror, and cost Sir John five hundred pounds.

Why, their measurements and calculations were as true as true; and if it hadn’t been for me missing that paper—which, of course, it was Edward Gunning who stole it—those scoundrels would have carried off that golden incubus as sure as we were alive. But they didn’t get it; and they had gone off scot-free, all but our late footman, who had concussion of the brain in the hospital where he was took, Sir John saying that he would let the poor wretch get well before he handed him over to the police.

But, bless you, he never meant to. He was too pleased to get Mr Barclay back, and to find that he hadn’t the least idea about the golden incubus being in the cellar; while as to the poor lad’s sorrow about his madness and that wretched woman, who was Ned Gunning’s wife, it was pitiful to see.

The other scoundrels had got away; and all at once we found that Gunning had discharged himself from the hospital; and by that time the house over the way was put straight, the builder telling me in confidence that he thought Sir John must have been mad to attempt to make such a passage as that to connect his property without consulting a regular business man. That was the morning when he got his cheque for the repairs, and the passage—which he called “Drinkwater’s Folly”—had disappeared.

Time went on, and the golden incubus went on too—that is, to a big bank in the Strand, for we were at Dorking now, where those young people spent a deal of time in the open air; and Mr Barclay used to say he could never forgive himself; but his father did, and so did some one else.

Who did?

Why, you don’t want telling that. Heaven bless her sweet face! And bless him, too, for a fine young fellow as strong—ay, and as weak, too, of course—as any man.

Dear, dear, dear! I’m pretty handy to eighty now, and Sir John just one year ahead; and I often say to myself, as I think of what men will do for the sake of a pretty face—likewise for the sake of gold: “This is a very curious world.”