NOEL determined to
avail himself in part of Sophia’s invitation; and to take a holiday from his
work, to which he had been applying himself closely for some time. He did not
feel disposed to take up his quarters at Linnwood, but
determined to make some contemplated changes in his own house and grounds a
pretext for living at home. He preferred the freedom left him by such an
arrangement, and about a week after the receipt of Sophia’s letter, he set off
Not that he omitted his cigar on this occasion. It was too good a friend, in the moderation with which he used it, to be neglected, when the end of another day, and the solitude of a country coffee-room, stimulated meditation. As the soothing effect of the herb crept over Noel on this occasion he thought –
‘If only James would smoke, he would be a happier man, and Margaret would know a little peace.’
The prospect of so soon again seeing them, filled him with conflicting emotions. Of late he had to some extent succeeded in diverting his attention from a situation which he felt to be hopeless, and fixing it upon his writing. He had somehow come to regard this as in some way connected with the future of Margaret and himself. Whatever might be the issue of their aimless and uncalculating attachment, a time might come when it would at least be to her a satisfaction and a solace to be assured that his feeling for her was one of deepest unvarying veneration.
As the time approached for his departure next morning, he was made aware of something being out of course in the hotel, and while superintending the moving of his baggage in the hall, Sophia Bevan came downstairs in a state of excitement and anxiety. Catching sight of him she exclaimed, –
‘Oh, this is fortunate. You can be of use to us. We have come home rather sooner than we expected, and are all on our way to Linnwood. But James went out last night, after we
had all gone to bed, and has not returned yet, and we were to go by the next train.’
‘What does Margaret say?’
‘She is not so alarmed as I am, because she says he often goes out in the same way, but she never knew him stay so long before.’
‘Can I see her?’
‘Oh yes, do. And try to rouse her out of that preternatural calm.’
Noel entered the sitting-room, where she was alone.
She rose mechanically to meet him, pale, and without a particle of animation in her rigid face.
Taking her two hands in his, he held them firmly, and gazed intently into her face for some moments without speaking. Gradually she seemed to come back to herself, for she drew a deep breath, and manifested more consciousness.
‘What do you fear?’ he asked, in a low tone.
‘I do not know. But I have a dead weight upon me that crushes my heart.’ And she gasped, and said, ‘I can hardly breathe.’’
‘Your train is just ready. Will you go on with your aunt and Sophia, and trust me to look for him and bring him on afterwards?’
She hesitated: so he added, –
‘He would prefer it so, and it is best for the children. They must not be travelling late at night in this weather.’
She looked intently at him for a moment, as if to divine his thought, and as if about to insist on making the search with him. But she restrained herself and said, ‘I will do as you bid me, and trust all to you.’
Noel went to Sophia, and told her that he had prevailed on Margaret to go with them by the train appointed. Sophia said with asperity, –
‘Quite right of her. A husband who behaves so has no right to be considered. What is your idea?’
‘I am going to wait for him, and bring him on with me. He had acquaintances in the neighbourhood. Perhaps I may go out and inquire for him.’
As soon as the party had started, Noel ordered a carriage to be got ready, with
driver and groom. Placing in it his railway rug, and a flask of brandy, he bade
them drive as fast as possible to
His only cause for real anxiety on his friend’s behalf arose from the terrible inclemency of the night. He was deterred from taking a doctor with him by the consideration that James would not like his eccentricity exposed.
Arrived at the Avenue, Noel bade the carriage wait, and advanced on foot to the circle of stones.
‘Grand as ever in their eternal loneliness, and showing no trace of tempest or man.’ This was his first thought as he entered the inner circle.
‘But surely I miss one,’ he thought, presently. ‘Yes, the great stone that James especially pointed out to me as the next one to go, it already leant over so. It has fallen since we were here, after standing – who shall say how many thousands, or tens of thousands of years.’
And he stood beside the recumbent monster, and noted the aspect of the earth thrown up at the base in the fall, and the indentation in the soil, the softening of which by the rains had evidently caused the catastrophe. And the water filled all the hollows up to the rim round the edges of the stone at its base.
‘It has not been down many days, perhaps not many hours. In a little while it will look as if it had been down for ages.’ His next thought was, ‑
‘What a sad omen for James!
‘But I must continue my search till I succeed, or how can I meet Margaret? If James returns to the hotel in my absence, and finds her gone without him, he may pursue her with a storm of reproaches. To judge by her woe-stricken look of this morning, it would not take much to kill her. Her heart seemed well-nigh broken. That deadly weight upon it, of which she spoke,
seemed to indicate the breaking of the spring, and the crushing out of vitality. Happier would it be for her, too, were this stone her tomb. Ah! could it have meant – could her feeling have been sympathetic of reality? If James did, as I surmised, wander hither, and if the stone did fall in the night, what more likely than that he should have taken refuge under its lea from the driving storm, and – and ––’
And Noel gasped with agony, and big drops of sweat rolled down from his brow as the idea broke upon him with the might as of a sudden revelation, that there, beneath that ponderous load, was lying the body of James Maynard, suffocated, crushed, and dead! and he had been already weeping unconsciously over his grave!
Filled with the dreadful idea, he was about to summon his attendants to aid him in lifting the superincumbent mass. But he at once saw the folly of such a notion. ‘It would be easier to dig under it,’ he reflected, and if he be really there, to draw him out.’ Walking round and peering in at the edges, he sought for any indication of projecting clothing, but in vain. This, however, proved nothing; for the stone was of ample length and width to cover and hide a human figure.
Then he thought, –
‘If he is not here, why should I create an excitement which would rouse the whole neighbourhood, and expose him to public curiosity?’
Then he took out his pocket-book, and commenced writing some instructions for
his attendants to take to the town, while he himself remained by the stone, for
in his present state of feeling he could not bear to leave the spot. They were
to inquire at the hotel if Mr. Maynard had returned; and in case he had not,
they were to despatch men with appliances either for raising the stone or
digging under it. Then he reflected that if by any chance James had returned, there was no need for him to be waiting at
‘No fear of the stone being molested in my absence. I will go myself. If he has not made his appearance, I will return with a staff of men, as if to indulge a whim of my own, and restore the stone to its former position.’
Upon this thought he acted first taking the precaution of asking his driver if he knew of any stone having fallen lately. The man said that he believed none had fallen for near a hundred
years; he had brought a party there the day before yesterday, and no one had mentioned such a thing.
Noel’s anxiety, as he approached the hotel, became intense. Repelling the idea which had lately taken possession of him, he looked eagerly forward, fully expecting to see Maynard standing at the entrance waiting for him. His heart sank as he saw its deserted look, and learned that nothing had been heard of him.
Adhering to his plan of secrecy, Noel said that he should probably not leave
‘I have just been visiting a favourite spot of mine, Stonehenge, and have found that one of the principal stones has lately fallen – most likely only last night, through the softening of the ground by the rain.’
‘Is it the tall stone that stands by itself, and is called by some the astronomical stone? The one that leans over so much?’
‘Yes. You know
‘Oh yes; I have often thought that stone would be the next to come down, if any did.’
‘Well, my intention is to set it up again. And I want you to do it for me, at once.’
‘It will be a heavy job. And you must have permission from the lord of the manor
to do anything with
‘You need anticipate no difficulty on that head. The responsibility and expense rest with me. My plan is to dig the foundation somewhat deeper than it was before, raise the end of the stone with levers and a derrick, and let it slip back into its place. But it must be done this afternoon.’
‘I made a calculation once, of the weight of that stone,’ said the man, after reflecting for a few moments, ‘and if I remember rightly, it came to near sixteen tons.’
‘But it will be necessary to lift only one end from the ground, and prop it up as it is raised, until it is sufficiently upright to fall into its proper position.’
‘True, sir; I can do it. The men are at their dinner now. As soon as they come in, they shall put the derrick and poles in the waggon, and get ready to start. We can’t get there much before four o’clock.’
‘Well, be as speedy as you can, and I will meet you there.
I want to leave by the last train for the west, and shall be glad if I see the job finished first.’
‘I will do my best, sir; but it may be more troublesome than we expect,’ said
the man. And Noel returned to his hotel, to endeavour to eat some luncheon, and
to control his anxiety as he best might, until it should be time to set off
Before starting, he wrote a note to tell Maynard he would find him at
It was nearly five o’clock when Noel found himself again on the spot, surrounded by a strong party of labourers. Having conferred with their master, and decided on a plan of operations, he seated himself on the prostrate altar, and watched every movement in an agony of suspense. It was only by strong effort of his mind that he succeeded in controlling an emotion which, for the present, at least, could not but appear unintelligible and uncalled-for to others. The very merriment indulged in by the men, helped him to encourage the reflection that his mood was rather that of a madman. For anything he knew, he suddenly reflected, the stone might have been down for days or for weeks. He had no sure evidence on this point. The rains had been heavy enough to make all traces indistinct, and now, by the depth of the indentation made in the earth, he began to feel certain that it must be so.
These reflections helped to keep him from betraying his anxiety, as a series of fulcrums were placed at the sides and head of the stone, and strong beams for levers were inserted into apertures dug out to receive them beneath the edges, and men stood by ready to thrust supports underneath, to prevent the stone, when raised a bit, from falling back, and the effort being wasted.
‘Ascertain first,’ Noel had said, ‘whether you have sufficient lifting power. It will then be time enough to dig out the new foundation.’
The first effort merely loosened the mass slightly in its bed. The water beneath made a loud sucking noise, showing that, by excluding the air, it helped to keep the stone down. A renewed
pressure applied to the levers enabled the ends of some broad planks to be thrust beneath the head of the stone. The next effort, a few more planks there, and some also beneath the sides. The hollow beneath, so far as could be judged from the appearance near the edges, was filled with muddy water.
While this was going on, Noel had slipped quietly down from his seat on the altar, and was lying on the ground, so as to be able to peer under the stone whenever the levers for an instant swayed it upwards. But nothing in his demeanour betrayed to the bystanders more than a natural curiosity and interest.
Partly for Maynard’s sake, partly for the credit of his own sanity, he endeavoured so to conduct himself, that whatever the event might be, his demeanour should be regarded as natural and explicable. Should it prove that his worst apprehensions were unfounded, he would thus avoid exciting surmises about the disappearance of James. If the body really were there, he would escape being charged with indifference.
Comparing the direction in which the stone leant and fell, with the direction of the previous night’s storm, Noel felt certain that any one seeking shelter there would have got directly beneath it, and close to its base. Since, then, the stone was nearly twenty feet in length, a human figure crouching close to the base could not reach within fifteen feet of the end which was being raised, so that it must be lifted several feet from the ground, before it was possible to see far enough under to make any discovery. So Noel got up, and gazed awhile across the plain. What if he could see Maynard approaching!
Even in this case he determined to keep his idea to himself, greet him with a
quiet welcome to aid in the restoration of
Noel next thought of the position a man would be likely to adopt when seeking such a shelter. A chance wayfarer, caught in a flying storm, would crouch close at the foot. But the storm had lasted all the evening, and all night, and Maynard would have been wet through and through before he reached the place. It would be, not so much for the sake of the shelter that he would have Iaid himself down there, as to meditate undisturbed by the rushing, beating tempest. Yes, he would have lain down at full length, perhaps resting his head upon
his arm, and perhaps even falling asleep; or, chilled and numbed into insensibility, he might have perished of cold and wet even before the stone’s descent.
There was another chance, however, of which Noel was not forgetful. The descent of such a mass would, in the first instance, and as the earth began to give way, be so gradual as to allow of a person beneath becoming aware of it in time to escape. It might be that James had been caught in such an attempt, and crushed near the end or one of the sides.
So Noel returned to his position on the ground, and watched intently. The idea that, if there at all, James had been crushed while lying exhausted and insensible at the stone’s base, grew strongly upon him; so that he longed to reverse the operation, and raise the opposite end first. But this was so inconsistent with the sole reason he could give for moving the stone at all, that he compelled himself to withstand the impulse.
The great length of the stone led to this result. When the end was raised four feet off the ground, the centre would be but two feet from it; and at five feet from the base the space would be but one foot. It was owing to the indentation in the ground that this interval of a foot was not sufficient to allow of Noel’s seeing beneath the stone there. The cavity was still dark, and as they raised the stone the muddy water ran into it.
It is a longer job than I expected,’ said Noel to the working party; but if you don’t mind for once working after hours, I will make it up to you.’
‘We will work till dark, sir; but I don’t think we shall make a finish of it by that time,’ said their chief.
A few more applications of pressure enabled Noel to see under the portion of the stone that was near the base. He fancied it was darker there than was quite warranted by the shadow and the falling evening.
Between his anxiety and his judgment, he distrusted his own eyesight. Beckoning to the master, he asked him to look under also, and see how dark it was there.
The man looked, and rose without making any remark, and bade his men raise their fulcrums so as to make a greater hoist at the next pressure, and to thrust the supports as far under as possible. He then lay down beside Noel to look into the cavity as the stone was lifted another foot.
‘Are the props all fast?’ he then asked of his foreman.
The man replied that they could not possibly give way.
Upon this the master again crept under the suspended mass, and on approaching the last quarter which lay near the base, Noel, who was watching every movement with a tremor of anxiety, saw him reach out one arm as if to feel the space before him. In another moment he seemed to have got hold of something, and to be pulling at it.
‘A man’s foot, surely,’ said Noel to himself. ‘Yet not necessarily his.’
Keeping hold of whatever he had found, the man forced himself back a little way towards the entrance of the space, and said to his men, –
‘Catch hold of my legs, four of you; and when I tell you, pull me straight out.’
The stone was so broad that there was room enough for the levers along the sides and at the end, and for any one to pass between to get under. The four men, stooping and reaching far under the slanting stone, had got firm hold of their master’s ankles, and were awaiting his signal.
Presently, having apparently arranged himself to his liking, he called out to them, –
With an effort and a rush the men emerged from beneath the ponderous roof, drawing their master by the legs until he was clear of it, and also drawing out another man whose legs he was grasping.
Heedless of the exclamations of astonishment and horror, Noel threw himself down by the body and cleared the face and head of the dirt with which it was covered. There was no mistaking its identity. The long, dark hair, and the pile, calm face, were indeed those of him whom he sought; and, owing to the softness and inequality of the ground, less terribly crushed than might have been expected.
Regardless of all around, Noel cried –
‘Oh, my darling, my darling, how can you bear this!’ and broke into a flood of irrepressible tears.
‘Is this what he came here to look for?’ asked the master of Noel’s groom and coachman, who stood by in the wondering group. ‘Did he know of it?’
They said that the gentleman who owned the body had left the hotel late last
evening, and been out ever since; and the other gentleman had stayed behind in
while the ladies belonging to them went on by the railway.
They all stood round, respecting Noel’s grief, and removing as far as might be
the muddy stains from the dead man’s clothes. It was fast getting dark, and
there was no moon. Noel bid the men finish their work in the morning. He should
not be leaving
END OF PART III.
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