The Prelude to Adventure - Hugh Walpole - ebook

The Prelude to Adventure ebook

Hugh Walpole



This is the story of a Cambridge student, Olva Dune, who commits murder. Ironically, the moment he commits his crime, he feels the presence of God. Perhaps a hundred years ago, March Square could boast of such excellent ignorance, but fashion is changing to prevent, perhaps, our own being too easily annoyed.

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“There is a God after all.” That was the immense conviction that faced him as he heard, slowly, softly, the leaves, the twigs, settle themselves after that first horrid crash that the clumsy body had made.

Olva Dune stood for an instant straight and stiff, his arms heavily at his side, and the dank, misty wood slipped back once more into silence. There was about him now the most absolute stillness: some trees dripped in the mist; far above him, on the top of the hill, the little path showed darkly–below him, in the hollow, black masses of fern and weed lay heavily under the chill November air–at his feet there was the body.

In that sudden after silence he had known beyond any question that might ever again arise, that there was now a God–God had watched him.

With grave eyes, with hands that did not tremble, he surveyed and then, bending, touched the body. He knelt in the damp, heavy soil, tore open the waistcoat, the shirt; the flesh was yet warm to his touch–the heart was still. Carfax was dead.

It had happened so instantly. First that great hulking figure in front of him, the sneering laugh, that last sentence, “Let her rot... my dear Dune, your chivalry does you credit.” Then that black, blinding, surging rage and the blow that followed. He did not know what he had intended to do. It did not matter–only in the force that there had been in his arm there had been the accumulated hatred of years, hatred that dated from that first term at school thirteen years ago when he had known Carfax for the dirty hypocrite that he was. He could not stay now to think of the many things that had led to this tremendous climax. He only knew that as he raised himself again from the body there was with him no feeling of repentance, no suggestion of fear, only a grim satisfaction that he had struck so hard, and, above all, that lightning certainty that he had had of God.

His brain was entirely alert. He did not doubt, as he stood there, that he would be caught and delivered and hanged. He, himself, would take no steps to prevent such a catastrophe. He would leave the body there as it was: to-night, to-morrow they would find it–the rest would follow. He was, indeed, acutely interested in his own sensations. Why was it that he felt no fear? Where was the terror that followed, as he had so often heard, upon murder? Why was it that the dominant feeling in him should be that at last he had justified his existence? In that furious blow there had leapt within him the creature that he had always been–the creature subdued, restrained, but always there–there through all this civilized existence; the creature that his father was, that his grandfather, that all his ancestors, had been.

He looked down. The hulking body that had been Carfax had made a hollow in the wet and broken fern. The face was white, stupid, the cheeks hanging fat, horrible, the eyes staring. One leg was twisted beneath the body. Still in the air there seemed to linger that startled little cry–“Oh!”–surprise, wonder–and then fading miserably into nothing as the great body fell.

Such a huge hulking brute; now so sordid and useless, looking at last, after all these years, the thing that it ought always to have looked. Some money had rolled from the pocket and lay shining amongst the fern. A gold ring glittered on the white finger, seeming in the heart of that dripping silence the only living note.

Then Olva remembered his dog–where was he? He turned and saw the fox terrier down on all fours amongst the fern, motionless, his tongue out, his eyes gazing with animal inquiry at his master. The dog was waiting for the order to continue the walk. He seemed, in his passivity, merely to be resting, a little exhausted perhaps by the heavy closeness of the day, too indolent to nose amongst the leaves for possible adventure: Olva looked at him. The dog caught the look and beat the grass with his tail, soft, friendly taps to show that he only waited for orders. Then still idly, still with that air of gentle amusement, the dog gazed at the thing in the grass. He rose slowly and very delicately advanced a few steps: for an instant some fear seemed to strike his heart for he stopped suddenly and gazed into his master’s face for reassurance. What he saw there comforted him. Again he wagged his tail placidly and half closed his eyes in sleepy indifference.

Then Olva, without another backward glance, left the hollow, crashed through the fern up the hill and struck the little brown path. Bunker, the dog, pattered patiently behind him.


Olva Dune was twenty-three years of age. He was of Spanish descent, and it was only within the last two generations that English blood had mingled with the Dune stock. He was of no great height, slim and dark. His hair was of the deepest black, his complexion sallow, and on his upper lip he wore a small dark moustache. His ears were small and beautiful, his mouth thin, ironical, sometimes cruel, his chin sharply pointed, but his eyes, very large, dark brown, and fringed with enormous black eyelashes, were by far his most remarkable feature. They were eyes that looked as though they held in their depths the possibility of great tenderness, but no one, except Olva’s mother, had ever seen that softness. He walked as an athlete, there was no spare flesh about him anywhere, and in his carriage there was a dignity that had in it pride of birth, complete self-possession, and above all, contempt for his fellow-creatures.

He despised all the world save only his father. He had gone through his school-life and was now passing through his college-life as a man travels through a country that has for him no interest and no worth but that may lead, once it has been traversed, to something of importance and adventure. He was now at the beginning of his second year at Cambridge and was regarded by every one with distrust, admiration, excitement. His was by far the most interesting personality at that time in residence at Saul’s–the college that he honoured with his presence.

He had come with a historical scholarship and a great reputation as a Three-quarter from Harrow. He was considered to be a certain First Class and a certain Rugby Blue; he, lazily and indifferently during the course of his first term, discouraged both these anticipations. He attended no lectures, received a Third Class in his May examinations, and was deprived of his scholarship at the end of his first year. He played brilliantly in the Freshmen’s Rugby match and so indolently in the first University match of the season that he was not invited again. Had he played merely badly he would have been given a second trial, but his superior insolence was considered insulting. He never played in any College matches nor did he trouble to watch any of their glorious conflicts. Once and again he produced an Essay for his Tutor that astonished that gentleman very considerably, but when called before the Dean for neglecting to attend lectures explained that he was studying the Later Roman Empire and could not possibly attend to more than one thing at a time.

He was perfectly friendly to every one, and it was curious that, with his air of contempt for the world in general, he had made no enemies. He wondered at that himself, on occasions; he had always been supposed, for instance, to be very good friends with Carfax. He had, of course, always hated Carfax–and now Carfax was dead.

The little crooked path soon left the dark wood and merged into the long white Cambridge road. The flat country was veiled in mist, only, like a lantern above a stone wall, the sun was red over the lower veils of white that rose from the sodden fields. Some trees started like spies along the road. Overhead, where the mists were faint, the sky showed the faintest of pale blue. The long road rang under Olva’s step–it would be a frosty night.

When the little wood was now a black ball in the mist Olva was suddenly sick. He leant against one of the dark mysterious trees and was wretchedly, horribly ill. Slowly, then, the colour came back to his cheeks, his hands were once more steady, he could see again clearly. He addressed the strange world about him, the long flat fields, the hard white road, the orange sun. “That is the last time,” he said aloud, “the last weakness.”

He definitely braced himself to face life. There would not be much of it–to-morrow he would be arrested: meanwhile there should be no more of these illusions. There was, for instance, the illusion that the body was following him, bounding grotesquely along the hard road. He knew that again and again he turned his head to see whether anything were there, and the further the little wood was left behind the nearer did the body seem to be. He must not allow himself to think these things. Carfax was dead–Carfax was dead–Carfax was dead. It was a good thing that Carfax was dead. He had saved, he hoped, Rose Midgett–that at any rate he had done; it was a good thing for Rose Midgett that he had killed Carfax. He had, incidentally, no interest on his own account in Rose Midgett–he scarcely knew her by sight–but it was pleasant to think that she would be no longer worried....

Then there was that question about God. Now the river appeared, darkly, dimly below the road, the reeds rising spire-like towards the faint blue sky. That question about God–Olva had never believed in any kind of a God. His father had defied God and the Devil time and again and had been none the worse for it. And yet–here and there about the world people lived and had their being to whom this question of God was a vital question; people like Bunning and his crowd–mad, the whole lot of them. Nevertheless there was something there that had great power. That had, until to-day, been Olva’s attitude, an amused superior curiosity.

Now it was a larger question. There had been that moment after Carfax had fallen, a moment of intense silence, and in that moment something had spoken to Olva. It is a fact as sure as concrete, as though he himself could remember words and gesture. There had been Something there....

Brushing this for an instant aside, he faced next the question of his arrest. There was no one, save his father, for whom he need think. He would send his father word saying–“I have killed a beast–fairly–in the open”–that would be all.

He would not be hanged–poison should see to that. Dunes had murdered, raped, tortured–never yet had they died on the gallows.

And now, for the first time, the suspicion crossed his mind that perhaps, after all, he might escape–escape, at any rate, that order of punishment. Here on this desolate road, he had met no living soul; the mists encompassed him and they had now swallowed the dripping wood and all that it contained. It had always been supposed that he was very good friends with Carfax, as good friends as he allowed himself to be with any one. No one had known in which direction he would take his walk; he had come upon Carfax entirely by chance. It might quite naturally be supposed that some tramp had attempted robbery. To the world at large Olva could have had no possible motive. But, for the moment, these thoughts were dismissed. It seemed to him just now immaterial whether he lived or died. Life had not hitherto been so wonderful a discovery that the making of it had been entirely worth while. He had no terror of disgrace; his father was his only court of appeal, and that old rocky sinner, sitting alone with his proud spirit and his grey hairs, in his northern fastness, hating and despising the world, would himself slay, had he the opportunity, as many men of the Carfax kind as he could find. He had no terror of pain–he did not know what that kind of fear was. The Dunes had always faced Death.

But he began, dimly, now to perceive that there were larger, crueller issues before him than these material punishments. He had known since he was a tiny child a picture by some Spanish painter, whose name he had forgotten, that had always hung on the wall of the passage opposite his bedroom. It was a large engraving in sharply contrasted black and white, of a knight who rode through mists along a climbing road up into the heart of towering hills. The mountains had an active life in the picture; they seemed to crowd forward eager to swallow him. Beside the spectre horse that he rode there was no other life. The knight’s face, white beneath his black helmet, was tired and worn. About him was the terror of loneliness.

From his earliest years this idea of loneliness had pleasantly seized upon Olva’s mind. His father had always impressed upon him that the Dunes had ever been lonely–lonely in a world that was contemptible. He had always until now accepted this idea and found it confirmed on every side. His six years at Harrow had encouraged him–he had despised, with his tolerant smile, boys and masters alike; all insincere, all weak, all to be used, if he wanted them, as he chose to use them. He had thought often of the lonely knight–that indeed should be his attitude to the world.

But now, suddenly, as the scattered Cambridge houses with their dull yellow lights began to creep stealthily through the mist, upon the road, he knew for the first time that loneliness could be terrible. He was hurrying now, although he had not formerly been conscious of it, hurrying into the lights and comforts and noise of the town. There might only be for him now a night and day of freedom, but, during that time, he must not, he must not be alone. The patter of Bunker’s feet beside him pleased him. Bunker was now a fact of enormous importance to him.

And now he could see further. He could see that he must always now, from the consciousness of the thing that he had done, be alone. The actual moment of striking his blow had put an impassable gulf between his soul and all the world. Bodies might touch, hands might be grasped, voices ring together, always now his soul must be alone. Only, that Something–of whose Presence he had been, in that instant, aware–could keep his company. They two... they two....

The suburbs of Cambridge had closed about him. Those dreary little streets, empty as it seemed of all life, facing him sullenly with their sodden little yellow lamps, shivering, grumbling, he could fancy, in the chill of that November evening, eyed him with suspicion. He walked through them now, with his shoulders back, his head up. He could fancy how, to-morrow, their dull placidity would be wrung by the discovery of the crime. The little wood would fling its secret into the eager lap of these decrepit witches; they would crowd to their doors, chatter it, shout it, pull it to pieces. “Body of an Undergraduate... Body of an Undergraduate....”

He turned out of their cold silence over the bridge that spanned the river, up the path that crossed the common into the heart of the town. Here, at once, he was in the hubbub. The little streets were mediæval in their narrow space, in their cobbles, in the old black, fantastic walls that hung above them. Beauty, too, on this November evening, shone through the misty lamplight. Beauty in the dark purple of the evening sky, beauty in the sudden vista of grey courts with lighted windows, like eyes, seen through stone gateways. Beauty in the sudden golden shadows of some corner shop glittering through the mist; beauty in the overshadowing of the many towers that were like grey clouds in mid-air.

The little streets chattered with people–undergraduates in Norfolk jackets, grey flannel trousers short enough to show the brightest of socks, walked arm in arm–voices rang out–men called across the streets–hansoms rattled like little whirlwinds along the cobbles–many bells were ringing–dark bodies, leaning from windows, gave uncouth cries... over it all the mellow lamplight.

Into this happy confusion Olva Dune plunged. He shook off from him, as a dog shakes water from his back, the memory of that white mist-haunted road. Once he deliberately faced the moment when he had been sick–faced it, heard once again the dull, lumbering sound that the body had made as it bundled along the road, and then put it from him altogether. Now for battle... his dark eyes challenged this shifting cloud of life.

He went round to the stable where Bunker was housed, chattered with the blue-chinned ostler, and then, for a moment, was alone with the dog. How much had Bunker seen? How much had he understood? Was it fancy, or did the dog crouch, the tiniest impulse, away from him as he bent to pat him. Bunker was tired; he relapsed on to his haunches, wagged his tail, grinned, but in his eyes there seemed, although the lamplight was deceptive, to be the faintest shadow of an apprehension.

“Good old dog, good old Bunker.” Bunker wagged his tail, but the tiniest shiver passed, like a thought, through his body.

Olva left him.

As he passed through the streets he met men whom he knew. They nodded or flung a greeting. How strange to think that to-morrow night they would be speaking of him in low, grave voices as one who was already dead. “I knew the fellow quite well, strange, reserved man–nobody really knew him. With these foreigners, you know...”

Oh! he could hear them!

He passed through the gates of Saul’s. The enormous porter touched his hat. The great Centre Court was shrouded in mist, and out of the white veil the grey buildings rose, gently, on every side. There were lights now in the windows; the Chapel bell was ringing, hushed and dimmed by the heavy air. Boots rang sharply along the stone corridors. Olva crossed the court towards his room.

Suddenly, from the very heart of the mist, sharply, above the sound of the Chapel bell, a voice called–

“Carfax! Carfax!”

Olva stayed: for an instant the blood ran from his body, his knees quivered, his face was as white as the mist. Then he braced himself–he knew the voice.

“Hullo, Craven, is that you?”

“Who’s that?... Can’t see in this mist.”


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