The Amazing Judgment - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

The Amazing Judgment ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim

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This is a very early novel by E. Phillips Oppenheim from 1897. The wealthy and bored Lord Hildyard, Marquis of Esholt, is on a yachting tour with a group of friends, including his kept lover, Pauline Owston. When Hildyard spies an apparently uninhabited island, he slips off the ship in search of adventure. In the middle of the night, he hears wonderful violin music and finds a young and beautiful girl, Bertha, playing in the forest. She is accompanied by a cruel and misshapen dwarf. Enchanted, Hildyard stays on the island, where he finds an old college chum, Stanley Owston, the estranged husband of the actress, who is the guardian of the girl, and the owner of the island. The adventures are continuing...

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Liczba stron: 181

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Contents

BOOK I

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

BOOK II

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

BOOK I

CHAPTER I

A WHITE-WINGED ship sailed out on the sunlit ocean into a dense sheet of drifting mist The world of sunshine and blue sky and murmuring waters seemed to have faded into chaos. In a very few moments the decks were wet and slimy, and a damp chilliness hung about the air. The pleasant warmth of the afternoon was gone. Gay voices were sunk into whispers. A sailor who had been polishing some brasswork to the tune of “Nancy Lee” whistled no more. The thick twilight seemed to have fallen upon them like a mantle of silence. It was a metamorphosis so sudden and complete as to possess for one of the little company at least a significance almost allegorical.

A woman who was lying in a low deck-chair under a canvas awning, clad in the lightest and daintiest of summer gowns, began to shiver. She looked around her and back again into her host’s face with a slight uplifting of the eyebrows.

“This is one of the delights of yachting, I suppose, Hildyard?” she remarked. “Have you any idea how long it is going to last? I am getting chilly.”

He stooped down, and drew the rug, which had fallen away from her feet, up to her throat.

“Only a few minutes,” he answered. “It is really on a heat mist, and we should pass through it directly. Seems pretty thick, though: would you like to go down? It isn’t exactly pleasant, I must admit.”

She shook her head slightly. She was so well wrapped up that there was little else of her to be seen now.

“Not for worlds! I am quite comfortable with this rug around me.”

“It is almost like a London fog,” he said disconsolately. “Our view has gone altogether.”

“I am not sure that I regret it–for a moment or two. To see nothing at all is rather a relief after seeing so much day by day.”

He looked at her doubtfully. Presently she continued,

“An ocean view is too expansive for my tastes. It suggests infinity, and infinity–no end of disagreeable things. On the whole, I prefer Bond Street. It is wearisome to be made to think. Don’t you think so? But then you are rather a dreamer, aren’t you? You like to lose yourself–I don’t.”

“I am afraid that this cruise has bored you,” he said quietly.

“No; I think not,” she answered deliberately. “I have great hopes of being able to say that I have enjoyed it–so far as my capacity for enjoyment goes, of course!”

“There is nothing–?”

“No; there is nothing else in the world which you could have done,” she interrupted thoughtfully. “You have been very good indeed. The only thing is, that I am afraid I am not a very satisfactory person to be good to. I do not enjoy things as I ought. I suppose it is my unfortunate disposition. How dreary it looks up on the bridge; and why doesn’t Captain Henderson put on his oilskins? He will be soaked. Aren’t you glad that you are not there instead?”

He glanced upwards. His captain, a stalwart, middle-aged man, was standing like a carved figure, his hands grasping the rail in front of him, and his eyes fastened upon the vessel’s bows. Two extra men had been sent forward, and the throb of the machinery had slackened. They were going at half speed. Oscillation seemed to be completely suspended. The sea was as smooth as glass.

“Yes; I think it is just as well that Henderson is there,” he answered; “especially as we are rather out of the beaten track. Nothing but fishing smacks ever come into these waters.”

“And how far are we from land?”

“There should be some uninhabited islands close about here. Henderson is on the lookout for them now. See, it is lifting a little already. It will be all over in a minute or two. Do have another peach.”

She shook her head. A somewhat elaborate tea equipage was by her side, and several silver bowls filled with fruit. A steward was waiting a few yards away.

“Nothing more, thank you. Yes, I think it is getting lighter. How quiet everyone is! It is like the silence before–shall I make you nervous, if I say– disaster?”

He did not answer her. He had moved a few steps forward, and was gazing steadfastly across the vessel’s bows. Suddenly the stillness was broken by a hoarse shout from one of the look-out men, echoed promptly by the other.

“Land on the starboard bow! Land to starboard!”

“Land on the starboard bow it is.”

A brief order was thundered from the bridge. Then the captain looked down.

“It’s the outside island of the group, my lord!” he cried, with his hand to his hat. “We’re clear by half a mile.”

The yacht had altered her course slightly, and was going now at full speed. Everyone was standing up. The woman, for whose sake this cruise and many other things had been planned, threw aside her rug, and leaned over the white railing. With an involuntary movement, she suffered her hand to rest upon her companion’s arm. They stood there watching together.

Suddenly the mist lifted. The veil of grey, floating shadows melted into thin air. Before them was a glassy, waveless stretch of sunlit ocean whose lack of colour was atoned for by phosphorescent streaks of multicoloured light. Exactly opposite was the land.

It was an island rising high out of the sea, and shaped something like a sugar-loaf. Its cliffs and summit were fringed with stunted pines and firs. Here and there only was a patch of green standing out with a peculiar vividness of bright colour from amongst the darker background of trees and rocks. There were no cattle, nor indeed was there any sign of life, or any dwelling-house. To all appearance the place was uninhabited, and uncultivated. The little strip of beach was piled up with mighty masses of rocks of huge size and terrible shapes. Amongst them, the sea-gulls in countless numbers screamed and circled, darting in and out of the drifting mist which lay behind them, like phantom birds. At one moment their wings flashed like little streaks of silver lightening, as they flew round and round in the sunlight; then they vanished into chaos, only to reappear again and again crossing the broad path of the sun’s rays, and catching once more upon their slowly-flapping wings the glory of the sudden, white light. Their hoarse cries struck a weird, almost unearthly note in the deep silence.

“What a desolation of desolations!” she exclaimed, with a little shiver. “Almost lonely enough for you, my friend, when you have the blues, and cultivate misanthropy. What do you say? Would you like to try it? It would be a pleasant little retreat for you, and I almost think that you would be undisturbed!”

Her companion did not answer. It was rude of him, but he was evidently deeply preoccupied. He was standing motionless by her side, his arms folded upon the rail, and his eyes full of a curious expression, steadfastly fixed upon the island. She tightened her grasp upon his arm. She looked into his face, and she was full of wonder.

“My dear Hildyard, what is the matter with you?” she exclaimed. “You look positively tragic! One would think that you were face to face with the modern ghost–the ghost of our sins, you know. If there is anything of that sort walking upon the waters, I am going down. Whatever are you looking at?”

He did not even glance towards her. There was a distinct shade of pallor creeping through the bronze sunburn of his cheeks. He did not answer her, but stretched out his right hand towards the island. She followed his shaking finger, and uttered a little cry.

They had passed a promontory jutting out into the sea from the northern end of the island, and before them, on the sheer edge of a great, bare rock, a large cross of fire flared up into the clear sky. For a moment every one seemed to be dumb with the wonder of it. The faint ripple of conversation from behind them had ceased. Even the sailors stood still at their work. Then there was a little murmur. The woman drew a deep breath of relief, and laughed softly.

“What an illusion!” she exclaimed. “It was the sun, of course. For a moment I thought that we had found another wonder of the world!”

He looked over her shoulder half doubtfully. The long, slanting rays of the dying sun lay across the ocean like broad bars of red gold stretching to the feet of the piled-up rocks, and touching with fire the sea-stained stone. Even while they watched, the light died out. Slowly the sun sank down into a bed of angry clouds. Cold and grey the cross stretched out its naked arms against the colourless background of sky and air. The woman, looking up at her companion, wondered at his unchanged expression.

“Hildyard!” she repeated, with a note of impatience in her soft, languid tones. “What on earth is the matter with you? Why don’t you talk to me? You stand there as though you had been transformed into–something wooden. You are very stupid, and you don’t amuse me at all. I shall go and ask Mr. Pearmain to tell me a story.”

“I will tell you a better one myself directly; he answered lightly. “please forgive me, and don’t go. Besides, Pearmain wouldn’t thank you to be interrupted. He is telling Lady Bergamot the plot of his next novel. Just a moment!”

He drew a silver whistle from his pocket, and blew it. The chief mate was by his side in a moment.

“Johnson, do you know anything about that island?” he asked. “Nothing, my lord,” the man answered doubtfully. “The group is down in the chart as barren and uninhabited.”

“You don’t know how that cross got there, then?”

“No, my lord–no more do any of the others on board. We’ve been passing the question round. I should say myself, that it was a natural cross. There’s a terrible sea running upon that beach, and I’ve seen rocks twisted into some queer shapes.”

“Captain!”

The captain looked down from the bridge. “Yes, my lord.”

“Johnson seems to think that that might be a natural cross over on the rocks there. What is your opinion?”

“Very like it is, my lord. It would be an odd thing if anyone had troubled to build on such a desolate spot, and no shipwreck or anything that I ever heard of, to call for it. I should call it a natural cross myself”

The captain resumed his walk upon the bridge, and the chief mate departed about his duties. The man and the woman were alone again. She went back to her seat, and he drew a camp stool to her side. She was still watching him curiously.

“Hildyard,” she said, “I am prepared to hear something thrilling. You have a look in your eyes as though you had seen more than we saw upon that island. Perhaps you are one of those favoured individuals who possess–what is it they call it?–second sight. Tell me about it. I insist!”

He hesitated, and then he obeyed her. He generally obeyed her. It had become a habit with him.

“Well, it is rather a coincidence,” he said deliberately, choosing a cigarette from his case, and lighting it. “Pardon me. You won’t smoke before dinner, I know. Always gives me an appetite.”

“I don’t want to hear about your appetite, Hildyard, I want to hear about the island. You needn’t be afraid. I’m not going to laugh at you. I’m immensely impressed!”

“Quite sure? Well, here goes!”

He blew the smoke away from his cigarette, and became suddenly serious. His eyes were fixed upon the dim, white line where sea and sky seemed to touch. His voice was sunk almost to a whisper. He had the air of a man talking to himself

“Last night I had a dream. I saw myself upon the rocky beach of just such an island as that. I was alone amidst the roar of the surf, and the crying of the sea birds. I was another man, and yet I was the same man. I felt, and I suffered! I was searching ever for something which I could not find. We are always doing that every day of our lives; only instead of being in Piccadilly– I was there. My hands were stretched out toward the ocean. I am not sure that I was not praying–but if so, it was in an unknown tongue, and to an unknown God!”

“Hildyard, are you serious? You are raving!”

“I am perfectly well aware of it. Please let me finish, though. I want to photograph my impressions–verbally, of course. Some day I am going to write another novel, and weave this in. It is excellent material. Last night, as I was saying, I saw it all! The cross was there, the island was there, I was there! Centuries ago, Pauline, there was an ancestor of mine who fought in the Crusades. He joined the Saracens for the love of an infidel woman, and he spat upon the Cross. It was bad form, especially in those days, but he did it. I think he was hung up by his heels afterwards, or crucfied–I am not sure which, but it is immaterial. The point of the thing is this, that since then, for generation after generation, the cross has been a token of woe to all my family. Whenever it has appeared–in any exceptional way, of course–some great change has followed, generally a death, or disaster of some sort. Please don’t look so incredulous. That is the worst of you modern women! You will believe nothing! I don’t think I will go on!”

“You will go on at once!” she commanded. “Don’t you see that I am deeply interested?”

He looked at her lazily, and flicked the ash off his cigarette.

“Well, I was going to give you a few proofs,” he continued. “These things are in the family archives, and they must not be doubted. Sir Hugh, who fought at Cressy, saw a golden cross in the sky, and fell with a French sword cleaving his heart. A century or so later Sir Francis was riding out to join Monmouth, when he saw a cross–some of his followers declared that it was a gallows–on the top of Dunkerry Beacon, and like a wise man he rode home again, and saved his neck. My great grandfather, who broke his neck in an Irish steeplechase, sobbed out with his last breath, that the winning post had turned into a cross. There are many others. Last night I saw them all. One by one they flitted into my cabin, and when I stretched out my hand–quite in a friendly way–they vanished through the port-hole. It was tremendously aggravating. And then I saw myself upon the rock, always searching, waiting, with the cross before my face. It was my warning.”

“Your warning. From what?”

“I could not tell. Only I seemed to see the story of my life written across the sky in letters of fire, and it was like the lives of all other men–it was evil. I looked in vain for a single deed that was not selfish, a single impulse that was not vicious. Pauline, I think that we men of to-day have fallen upon evil times. We have no duties, we have no scope to develop even such stuff as sent our forefathers to Palestine. We are, as Pearmain would say, an ‘effete and scentless blossom upon the tree of Life!’ That dinner bell is a distinct interposition of fate. In a few moments I should have been preaching. We must hurry.”

“Hildyard, I believe that you are half in earnest.”

He looked down at her, and laughed.

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