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Read Tales from Blackwood Volume Ii Part 5

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“It’s very well by day,” said Bags, “but the nights is cold, and the company of that ghost ain’t agreeable–I see’d it again last night.”

“Ah!” said his friend, “what was it like, Tongs?”

“Something white,” returned Bags in an awful whisper, “with a ghost’s eyes. You may allays know a ghost by the eyes. I was just rising up, and thinking about getting a drink, for my coppers was hot, when it comes gliding up from that end of the cave. I spoke to you, and then I couldn’t see it no more, because it was varnished.”

“Ghosts always varnishes if you speak,” said Mrs Bags. “But never mind the spirit now–let’s look after the flesh,” added the lady, who possessed a fund of native pleasantry: “the pig’s done to a turn.”

At this interesting juncture, and just as they were about to fall to, the footsteps of the approaching mules struck on their ears. Owen went to meet the party, and hastily selecting six men from it, advanced, and desired them to secure the astounded convivialists.

On recovering from their first astonishment, Bags begged Owen would overlook the offence; they were only, he pleaded, having a little spree–times had been hard lately. Mrs Bags, as usual, displayed great eloquence, though not much to the purpose. She seemed to have some idea that an enumeration of the gentlemen’s families she had lived in, and the high estimation in which she had been held in all, would really tell powerfully in favour of the delinquents, and persevered accordingly, till they were marched off in custody of the escort, when she made a final appeal to my grandfather, as the last gentleman whose family she had lived in–with what advantage to the household the reader knows. The Major, who could not forgive the roasting of his ham, called her, in reply, a “horrible woman,” but, at the same time, whispered to Owen that he hoped the fellows would not be severely punished. “If we had caught them after dinner,” said he, “I shouldn’t have pitied them so much.”

“Never mind them,” said Owen; “let us proceed to business. We must select the driest spot we can find to put the stores in.”

[Here, by way of taking leave of Mr Bags, I may remark, that he narrowly escaped being hanged as a plunderer–failing which, he was sentenced by a court-martial to receive a number of lashes, which I refrain from specifying, because it would certainly make the hair of a modern humanitarian turn white with horror.]

“Come along, Major,” said Owen; “perhaps we may find more of these scoundrels in the course of our researches.”

The Major did not move; he was earnestly regarding the carca.s.s of the pig, that steamed hissing above the embers.

“Queer idea that of the cinnamon fire,” said he. “I wonder how the meat tastes.”

Owen did not hear him, having walked forward.

“Have you got a knife about you, Frank?” said the Major. “Do you know I have a curious desire to ascertain the flavour. It may be a feature in cookery worth knowing.”

Owen had not a knife, nor had any of the men, but one of them suggested that the Major’s sword would answer the purpose.

“To be sure,” said the Major. “A good idea! I don’t see why swords shouldn’t be turned into carving-knives as well as into pruning-hooks.”

So saying he drew it from the sheath, and, straddling across the fire, detached a crisp brown mouthful from the pig’s ribs, and putting a little salt on it, he conveyed it to his mouth.

“Excellent!” cried the Major. “I give you my word of honour, Owen, ’tis excellent! The cinnamon gives it a sort of a—-“

Here a second and larger mouthful interrupted the criticism.

“It must be very near lunch-time,” said the Major, pausing, sword in hand, when he had swallowed it; then, pretending to look at his watch–“Bless me, it only wants half-an-hour of it. Do you think this business will take you long, Owen?”

“About a couple of hours,” said Owen.

“Ah, why, there you see,” returned the Major, “we shan’t get home till long past lunch-time. I really don’t see why we shouldn’t take a snack now. Nothing can be better than that pig. I only wish the woman had dressed my dinner half as well. Corporal Hodson, would you oblige me with a piece of that biscuit near you?” And, detaching a large fragment of pork, he placed it on the biscuit, and sprinkling it with pepper and salt, which condiments had not been forgotten in the gastronomic arrangements of Mr Bags, he proceeded to follow Owen into the interior of the cave, taking huge bites as he went.

The path slopes at first steeply downward from the mouth to the interior of the cavern, where it becomes more level. Light being admitted only at the entrance, the gloom of the interior is almost impenetrable to the eye. The men had brought torches to a.s.sist them in their work, and, a suitable spot having been selected, these were stuck on different points and abutments of the rocky wall, when the party proceeded to unload the mules at the entrance, conveying their burdens into the cave.

In the midst of the bustle and noise attending the operation, the little dog given by Esther to Carlota, which had that morning followed the Major, to whom it had speedily attached itself, began barking and howling dismally in a dark recess behind one of the great natural pillars before spoken of. As the noise continued, intermixed with piteous whinings, one of the men took a torch from the wall, and stepped forward into the darkness, to see what ailed the animal. Presently he cried out that “there was a man there.”

My grandfather, who was next him, immediately followed, and five paces brought him to the spot. The soldier who held the torch was stooping, and holding it over a figure that lay on the ground on its back. In the unshaven, blood-stained countenance, my grandfather, at first, had some difficulty in recognising Lazaro the Jew. Some fiery splashes of pitch from the torch dropping at the moment on his bare throat, produced no movement, though, had he been living, they must have scorched him to the quick.

On the body was nothing but the shirt he wore the night of his flight from the hospital, but his legs were wrapt in a woman’s dress. Across his breast, on her face, lay Esther, in her white undergarments–for the gown that wrapt the Jew’s legs was hers. The glare of the torch was bright and red on the two prostrate figures, and on the staring appalled countenance of the man who held it–the group forming a glowing spot in the vast, sombre, vaulted s.p.a.ce, where dim gleams of light were caught and repeated on projecting of rock, more and more faintly, till all was bounded by darkness.

Years afterwards my grandfather would sometimes complain of having been revisited, in dreams of the night, by that ghastly piece of Rembrandt painting.

The rest quickly flocked to the spot, and Esther was lifted and found to breathe, though the Jew was stiff and cold. Some diluted spirit, from the cellar of Bags, being poured down her throat, she revived a little, when my grandfather caused two of the men to bear her carefully to his house; and the body of the Jew, being wrapt in a piece of canva.s.s, was placed on a mule and conveyed to the hospital for interment.

Medical aid restored Esther to consciousness, and she told how they came to be found in the cave.

Her father, on leaving the hospital, had fled by chance, as she thought, to this cave, for he did not reach it by the usual path, but climbed, in his delirious fear, up the face of the rock, and she had followed him as well as she could, keeping his white figure in sight. They had both lain exhausted in the cave till morning, when, finding that her father slept, she was on the point of leaving him to seek a.s.sistance. But, unhappily, before she could quit the place, Bags and his a.s.sociates entered from their plundering expedition into the town, and, frightened at their drunken language, and recognising in Bags the man who had robbed her of her comb, she had crept back to her concealment. The party of marauders never quitted the cavern from the moment of establishing themselves in it. They spent the day in eating, drinking, singing songs, and sometimes quarrelling. Twice, at night, she ventured forth; but she always found one of them asleep across the entrance, so that she could not pa.s.s without waking him, and once one of them started up, and seemed about to pursue her–doubtless Bags, on the occasion when he thought he saw a ghost. Nevertheless, she had mustered courage twice to take some fragments of food that were lying near the fire, leaving each time a piece of money in payment; and she had also taken a lighted candle, the better to ascertain her father’s situation. He had never spoken to her since the first night of their coming, and, during all these dark and weary hours (for they were three nights and two days in the cavern), she had remained by him listening to his incoherent mutterings and moans. The candle had showed her that he had lost much blood, from the wound in his forehead breaking out afresh, as well as from the other received in the hospital, though the latter was but a flesh wound. These she had bandaged with shreds of her dress, and had tried to give him some of the nourishment she had procured, but could force nothing on him except some water. Some hours, however–how long she did not know, but it was during the night–before Owen’s party found her, the Jew had become sensible. He told her he was dying; and, unconscious of where he was, desired her to fetch a light. This she had procured in the same way as before, lighting the candle at the embers of the fire round which Bags and his friends reposed. Then the Jew, who seemed to imagine himself still in the hospital, bid her say whom, among those she knew in Gibraltar, she would wish to have charge of her when he was no more; and, on her mentioning Carlota, had desired her to take pen and paper and write his will as he should dictate it. Pen she had none, but she had a pencil and a sc.r.a.p of paper in her pocket, and with these she wrote, leaning over to catch the whispered syllables that he with difficulty articulated.

From this paper it would appear that the Jew had some fatherly feelings for Esther concealed beneath his harsh deportment towards her. I can describe the will, for I have often seen it. It is written on a piece of crumpled writing-paper, about the size of a bank-note, very stained and dirty. It is written in Spanish; and in it the Jew entreats “the Senora, the wife of Sr. Don Flinder, English officer, to take charge of his orphan child, in requital whereof he leaves her the half of whatsoever property he dies possessed of, the other half to be disposed of for the benefit of his daughter.” Then follows a second paragraph, inserted at Esther’s own desire, to the effect that, should she not survive, the whole was to be inherited by the aforesaid Senora. It is dated “Abril 1781,” and signed in a faint, straggling hand, quite different from the clear writing of the rest–“JOSe LAZARO.”

Esther would now have gone, at all hazards, to obtain a.s.sistance, but the Jew clutched her arm, and would not permit her to quit him. He breathed his last shortly after, and Esther remembered nothing more till she came to herself in the Major’s house. The paper was found in her bosom.

Some days after this event, my grandfather went with Owen into the town, during a temporary lull in the enemy’s firing, to visit the house of Lazaro, in order to ascertain whether anything valuable was left that might be converted to Esther’s benefit. They had some difficulty in finding the exact locality, owing to the utter destruction of all the landmarks. The place was a ma.s.s of ruins. Some provisions and goods had been left by the plunderers, but so mixed with rubbish, and overflowed with the contents of the casks of liquor and, as to be of no value even in these times of dearth.

Owen, poking about among the wreck, observed an open s.p.a.ce in the middle of one of the shattered walls, as if something had been built into it.

With the a.s.sistance of my grandfather’s cane, he succeeded in dislodging the surrounding masonry, already loosened by shot, and they discovered it to be a recess made in the thickness of the wall, and closed by a small iron door. At the bottom was lying a small box, also of iron, which they raised, not without difficulty, for its weight was extraordinary in proportion to its dimensions. This being conveyed to my grandfather’s, and opened, was found to contain more than six hundred doubloons (a sum in value about two thousand pounds), and many bills of exchange and promissory notes, mostly those of officers. The latest was that of Von Dessel. These the Major, by Esther’s desire, returned to the persons whose signatures they bore.

Esther never completely recovered from the effects of her sojourn in the cave, but remained always pale and of weak health. My grandfather took good care of her inheritance for her, and on leaving Gibraltar, at the conclusion of the siege, invested the whole of it safely for her benefit, placing her, at the same time, in the family of some respectable persons of her own religion. She afterwards married a wealthy Hebrew; and, in whatever part of the world the Major chanced to be serving, so long as she lived, valuable presents would constantly arrive from Gibraltar–mantillas and ornaments of jewellery for Carlota, and b.u.t.ts of delicious sherry for my grandfather. These, however, ceased with her death, about twenty years afterwards.

This is, I believe, the most connected and interesting episode to be found in the Major’s note-book; and it is, I think, the last specimen I shall offer of these new “Tales of my Grandfather.”

As a child I used to listen, with interest ever new, to the tale of the young Jewess, which the narrator had often heard from the lips of Carlota and her husband. St Michael’s cave took rank in my mind with those other subterranean abodes where Ca.s.sim, the brother of Ali Baba, who forgot the words “_Open Sesame_,” was murdered by the Forty Thieves; where Aladdin was shut by the magician in the enchanted garden; and where Robinson Crusoe discovered the dying he-goat. And when, at the conclusion of the tale, the sc.r.a.p of paper containing the Jew’s will was produced from a certain desk, and carefully unfolded, I seemed to be connected by some awful and mysterious link with these departed actors in the scenes I had so breathlessly listened to.



[_MAGA._ APRIL 1834.]



So it was finally agreed upon that we should dine at Jack Ginger’s chambers in the Temple, seated in a lofty story in Ess.e.x Court. There was, besides our host, Tom Meggot, Joe Macgillicuddy, Humpy Harlow, Bob Burke, Antony Harrison, and myself. As Jack Ginger had little coin and no credit, we contributed each our share to the dinner. He himself provided room, fire, candle, tables, chairs, tablecloth, napkins–no, not napkins; on second thoughts we did not bother ourselves with napkins–plates, dishes, knives, forks, spoons (which he borrowed from the wig-maker), tumblers, lemons, sugar, water,, decanters–by the by, I am not sure that there were decanters–salt, pepper, vinegar, mustard, bread, b.u.t.ter (plain and melted), cheese, radishes, potatoes, and cookery. Tom Meggot was a cod’s head and shoulders, and oysters to match–Joe Macgillicuddy, a boiled leg of pork, with pease-pudding–Humpy Harlow, a sirloin of beef roast, with horse-radish–Bob Burke, a gallon of half-and-half, and four bottles of whisky, of prime quality (“Potteen,” wrote the Whiskyman, “I say, by Jupiter, but of which _many_-facture _He_ alone knows”)–Antony Harrison, half-a-dozen of port, he having tick to that extent at some unfortunate wine-merchant’s–and I supplied cigars _a discretion_, and a bottle of rum, which I borrowed from a West Indian friend of mine as I pa.s.sed by. So that, on the whole, we were in no danger of suffering from any of the extremes of hunger and thirst for the course of that evening.

We met at five o’clock–_sharp_–and very sharp. Not a man was missing when the clock of the Inner Temple struck the last stroke. Jack Ginger had done everything to admiration. Nothing could be more splendid than his turn-out. He had superintended the cooking himself of every individual dish with his own eyes–or rather eye–he having but one, the other having been lost in a skirmish when he was midshipman on board a pirate in the Brazilian service. “Ah!” said Jack, often and often, “these were my honest days. Gad! did I ever think when I was a pirate that I was at the end to turn rogue, and study the law!”–All was accurate to the utmost degree. The tablecloth, to be sure, was not exactly white, but it had been washed last week, and the collection of the plates was miscellaneous, exhibiting several of the choicest patterns of delf. We were not of the silver-fork school of poetry, but steel is not to be despised. If the table was somewhat rickety, the inequality in the legs was supplied by clapping a volume of Vesey under the short one. As for the chairs–but why weary about details? Chairs being made to be sat upon, it is sufficient to say that they answered their purposes; and whether they had backs or not–whether they were cane-bottomed, or hair-bottomed, or rush-bottomed, is nothing to the present inquiry.

Jack’s habits of discipline made him punctual, and dinner was on the table in less than three minutes after five. Down we sate, hungry as hunters and eager for the prey.

“Is there a parson in company?” said Jack Ginger, from the head of the table.

“No,” responded I, from the foot.

“Then, thank G.o.d,” said Jack, and proceeded, after this pious grace, to distribute the cod’s head and shoulders to the hungry mult.i.tude.



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