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The Red Derelict

Bertram Mitford

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  The Red DerelictBy Bertram MitfordPublished by Methuen and Co. London.This edition dated 1904.The Red Derelict, by Bertram Mitford.


  ________________________________________________________________________THE RED DERELICT, BY BERTRAM MITFORD.




  The word was breathed rather than uttered, and its intonation conveyed asense of the most perfect, even ecstatic, contentment. The vivid greenof early summer woods piled as it were in great cloud masses to theclear, unbroken blue, rolling up from the sheen and glory of golden seasof buttercups which flooded every rich meadow surface. Hawthorn hedgesdistilled their sweetness from snowy clusters crowding each other intheir profusion, a busy working ground for myriad bees whose murmur mademusic in low waves of tone upon the sweet evening glow. And yonder,behind him who is contemplating all this, the slant of the westering suntouches the tall chimney stalks of the old house, just visible amongmasses of feathery elms loud with cawing clamour from black armies ofhoming rooks. Again the glance swept round upon this wealth of Englishsummer loveliness and again the uttered thought, with all its originalexaltation, escaped the lips.


  Wagram Gerard Wagram strolled leisurely on, drinking in the golden gloryof the surroundings as though suffering it to saturate his whole being.As for the second time he half-unconsciously enunciated that singlepossessive it was with almost a misgiving, an uncomfortable stirring asof unreality. Would he awaken directly, as he had more than onceawakened before, to find this vision of Paradise, as it were, dispelledin the cold and sunless grey of a mere existence, blank alike of aim orprospect--illusions dead, life all behind, in front--nothing?

  With these conditions he was well acquainted--only too well. The seamyside of life had indeed been his--failure, straitened means,disappointment in every form, and worse. Years of bitter andheart-wearing experiences had planted the iron in his soul--but this wasall over now, never to return. To him, suddenly, startling in itsunexpectedness, had come the change, and with it, peace.

  A perfect chorus of bird harmony filled the air. Thrushes innumerablepoured forth their song, whose sweet and liquid notes gurgled upon theear as though through organ pipes. Robins, too, and blackbirds were notslow to join in, and then the soft amorous coo of wood-pigeons, andthrough all--thrown as it were from copse to copse--the blithe andgladsome shout of answering cuckoos.

  Wagram opened a gate noiselessly, and with equally noiseless tread movedalong one of the "rides" of a wood. On his shoulder was a rabbitrifle--one of some power and driving capacity--with which he was wont topractise long shots at outlying but uncommonly suspicious and wideawakeBunny. Things rustled in the undergrowth and brambles on either side,as though stealthily creeping away. A slight stirring of the grasscaught his eye, and, as he bent over it, an adder contracted itself intoa letter S, with its heart-shaped head somewhat lifted, alert,defensive. He raised the rifle so as to bring down the butt upon thesnake--then seemed to think better of it.

  "Poor little brute. The chances are ten thousand to one against it everdamaging anybody in a place like this, and those chances it can have thebenefit of."

  He touched it with the muzzle of the gun, amused by the impotent wrathwherewith the small reptile struck at the cold iron. Then he went onhis way.

  He reached a gate and peered over. Two or three rabbits were outfeeding, but they darted like lightning into cover before he had time somuch as to raise the piece. Passing out of the gate he crossed the openmeadow.

  In front a gleam of water, and beyond it the skipping forms of younglambs, whose shrill bleat harmonised with the multitudinous bird voices,and the green loveliness of the picture. Leaning lazily on the parapetof an old stone bridge which spanned the river, Wagram watched theripple here and there of a rising trout, or the perky flirtings of apair of water-ouzels, whose nest clung, excrescence-like, against one ofthe stone piers. Away down stream the roof of a picturesque old mill,its wheel for the nonce still and silent, and beyond, pointing abovemore woods, the spire of a distant church.

  Again that well-nigh ecstatic sense of possession--of ownership--cameover him, and now, giving himself up to it, he fairly revelled in it.The utter solitude of the spot constituted, in his eyes, one of itsgreatest charms. He could wander at will without meeting a human being,and though here the bridge carried on a public thoroughfare it was alonely road at any time. But one side of such solitude was thatthoughts of the past would arise, would obtrude, and such he steadilyput from him. For he hated the past. Not one day of it would hewillingly live over again--to no single incident of it would hewillingly let his mind revert. It was a very nightmare.

  Leaving the bridge he strolled up the tree-shaded road intending toreturn home. But no chances did he get of practising marksmanship, forthe rabbits seemed unaccountably shy. Ah--at last. There was one.Nearly a hundred yards' range, too. Yes, it would do.

  But before he could draw trigger he lowered the piece and threw up hishead listening. A sound--a strange sound--had caught his ear. Yet itwas not so much the nature of the sound, as the quarter from which itcame that had startled him. No further thought of the rabbit now, as helistened for its repetition.

  It came--louder, nearer, this time--a strange, harsh, raucous bellow.Again and again he heard it, each time nearer still. And with it nowblended another sound--a loud shrill scream for help.

  Wagram's blood thrilled as already he foresaw a tragedy. It happenedthat a portion of the park was set apart for several varieties of thelarger African antelopes, which they were trying to acclimatise, and oneof these must, by some means or other, have escaped from its paddock.

  It is a fact that the shyest and wariest of wild creatures in theirnatural state, when captured and placed in confinement, as they becomeaccustomed to the sight of the human form divine, soon develop anaggressive ferocity in exactly opposite proportion to their formershyness. No better instance is furnished of familiarity thus breedingcontempt than in the case of the male ostrich. In his wild state thesky-line is hardly a sufficiently respectable distance for him to keepbetween you and him--incidentally he never does hide his head in thesand, a ridiculous fable probably originating with the old Portugueseexplorers, in whom the waggishly disposed natives would find fair game."Camped off" or enclosed, there is no limit to his absolutely fearlesstruculence. Even the graceful little springbok, half tamed, and shut upalone in a paddock, we have known to give a full-grown man all the roughand tumble he wants before getting out of that paddock unscathed. Andthese, we repeat, were of the largest variety of antelope, and now herewas one of them at large and pursuing somebody--from the scream,evidently a woman.

  Even while thinking, Wagram was at the same time acting, for he hadrushed forward and literally torn himself through a high thick hedgewhich interposed between himself and what was transpiring. And this iswhat he saw.

  A girl on a bicycle was skimming the broad white road which banded thelevel sward. Close in pursuit coursed a strange looking beast, utterlyout of keeping with the peaceful and conventional beauty of an Englishpark--a slate-coloured beast, with the head of an exaggerated he-goat,and bearded withal; the horns of a miniature buffalo, the mane of ahorse and almost the tail of one. It was in fact a fair specimen of thebrindled gnu, commonly known as the blue wildebeeste.

  Fortunately the creature did not seem able to make up its mind tocharge; for now it would range up alongside of the bicycle and itsrider, prancing and whisking around, and uttering its raucous bellow,then it would drop back, and rush forward again with horns
lowered, topull up and proceed to play the fool as before. All this Wagram tookin, as he hurried up, and, taking it in, knew the peril to be great anddual. If the beast were to charge home, why then--those meat-hook likehorns would do their deadly work in a moment. If the rider kept up, orincreased her pace any further to speak of, why then this road ended ina gate giving admission to the high road, and this gate was shut. Therewas only one thing to be done, and he did it.

  He rushed towards this strange chase, shouting furiously, evengrotesquely, anything to draw the attention of the dangerous brute. Butat that moment, whether the girl had lost her head, or was as startledat this new diversion as her pursuer ought to have been, the bicyclewheel managed to get into a dry rut, skidded, and shot the rider cleanoff on to the turf. A half-strangled scream went up, and she lay still.

  It is possible that the accident saved the situation so far as she wasconcerned, for the gnu held straight on and, lowering his head, with asavage drive sent his horns clean through the fabric of the machinelying in the road, then throwing up his head flung the shatteredfragments of metal whirling about in every direction, but the remainder,entangled in the horns, still hung about his forehead and eyes.

  Wagram summed up the peril in a flash. There lay the girl, helpless ifnot unconscious, the gate a quarter of a mile away--even the hedge hehad come through considerably over a hundred yards. Not so much as atree was there to dodge behind, and there was the infuriated beastshaking its head and bellowing savagely in frantic attempts to disengageitself of the clinging remains of the bicycle. The rifle, he decided,was of no use; the bullet, too diminutive to kill or disable, would onlyavail to madden the animal still more. And even then it succeeded inflinging the last remnant of the shattered machine from its horns. Itstood for a second, staring, snorting, stamping its hoofs, then charged.

  Wagram levelled the piece and pressed the trigger. The hammer fell witha mere click, and as he remembered how he had fired in the air whilerushing to the rescue, in the hope that the report might scare thebeast, the shock of the onrush sent him to earth, knocking the weaponfrom his grasp.

  For a second he lay, half stunned. Fortunately, he had managed to dodgepartially aside so as to escape the full shock, and the impetus hadcarried his assailant on a little way. Would the brute leave them, hewondered, if they both lay still. But no. It faced round, stamped,shook its head, bellowed, then came on again--this time straight for theprostrate girl.

  Wagram rose to his feet with a shout--a loud, pealing, quavering shout.He had no clear idea as to what he was going to do, but the first thingwas to get between the maddened beast and its intended victim.

  Even at that moment, so strange are the workings of the human mind,there flashed across Wagram's brain the irony of it all. The ecstasy ofpossession had culminated thus: that a sudden and violent death shouldovertake him in the midst of his possessions, and through the agency ofone of them. The gnu, diverted from its original purpose, or preferringan erect enemy to a recumbent one, once more charged him. Then heliterally "took the bull by the horns" and gripped them as in a vice.Throwing up its head the struggling, pushing beast strove to tear itselffree, but those sinewy hands held on. Then it reared on its hind legs,and tall man as he was, Wagram felt himself pulled off the ground.Though considerably past his first youth, he was wiry and hard ofcondition, and still he held on, but it could not continue. He mustrelax his grip, then he would be gored, trampled, mangled out of allrecognition. Already one of the pointed hoofs, pawing wildly downward,had ripped his waistcoat open, gashing the skin, when--he wassomersaulting through the air, to fall heavily half-a-dozen yards away,at the same time that the sharp crack of firearms almost at his very earseemed to point to a miracle in his swiftly revolving brain.

  He raised his head. His late enemy was lying on the turf, a faintquiver shuddering through its frame, and, standing contemplating it,erect, unhurt, the form of her he had nearly lost his life to rescue,and in her hand, the smoke still curling from the muzzle, a rifle--hisrifle.