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The Fire Trumpet: A Romance of the Cape Frontier

Bertram Mitford

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  The Fire TrumpetA Romance of the Cape FrontierBy Bertram MitfordPublished by Spencer Blackett, London.This edition dated 1889.



  "To my valued friend, Arthur Claverton, I bequeath the sum of ninethousand pounds."


  He to whom this announcement was made could not repress a start ofsurprise. The only other occupant of the room paused and laid down thedocument from which he had been reading. The room was a solicitor'soffice.

  "You hardly expected to be remembered, then?" said the latter.

  "No. At least I won't say that, exactly; but nothing like to such anextent. I thought poor Spalding might have left me some trifle toremember him by--his pet breechloader, or something of the kind; but,candidly, I never expected anything like this!"

  "Yet you saved his life, once."

  "Pooh! Nothing at all. The weather was hot, and the swim did me good.If I hadn't gone in, the nearest Jack Tar would have, and have thoughtnothing of it; nor do I. Poor Spalding!"

  The speaker is a man of about thirty to all appearance. His face, whichis a handsome and a refined one, wears a look of firmness, not unmixedwith recklessness. It is the countenance of one who has seen a gooddeal of the world, and knows thoroughly well how to take care ofhimself. The other man is more than twice his age, and looks what heis--every inch the comfortable, well-preserved family solicitor.

  "I don't know about that, Mr Claverton," answered the latter. "Thestory our poor friend told me was something very different. The vesselwas going at thirteen knots, the night being pitch dark, and a heavy searunning. And no one saw him fall overboard but yourself."

  The other laughed in a would-be careless way. "Oh, well, I think youare making too much of it. But the job was a risky one, I admit, and atone time I did think we should never be picked up. And now, Mr Smythe,I'm going to ask you a question that you may think queer. First of all,you knew my poor friend intimately for a good many years?"

  "I did. When first I made his acquaintance, Herbert Spalding was alittle chap in Eton jackets. I've known him tolerably intimately eversince."

  "Well, then, didn't it strike you that latterly he had something on hismind?"

  "Yes, it did. And I happen to know he had. The old story. He wasjilted; and being one of those sensitive men with a high-strung nervousorganisation, he took it to heart too much. I believe it shortened hislife. Poor fellow."

  "Well, whoever did it, has something to answer for, or would have had,at least; for, between ourselves, that time he went overboard he went ofhis own free will."

  "I had suspected as much," said the lawyer, quietly. "That was on thevoyage out, wasn't it?"

  "It was. We first became acquainted on board ship, you know. He hardlyspoke to any one on board till, all of a sudden, he took a violent fancyto me. We occupied the same cabin. In fact, I soon began to suspectthere was a petticoat in the case, the poor chap was so down on hisluck; but he didn't tell me in so many words, and it wasn't for me topry into another fellow's private affairs. One evening I came into thecabin, and found him loading a revolver. There was nothing veryastonishing in that, you know, because fellows often go in for revolverpractice at sea--shooting bottles from the yard-arm, and all that sortof thing; but it was the way in which it was done. He hid the thing,too, when he saw me, and that looked fishy. However, I managed to gethold of it, unknown to him, and stuck it right away, and made up my mindto keep an eye on him. That very night, or rather morning, for it wasin the small hours, I was awoke by something moving in the cabin. Isung out, but got no answer. Then I went over to Spalding's bunk, and,by Jove, it was empty. When a fellow has been kicked about the world asmuch as I have, he don't take long to think; consequently I was on deckin about a second, with precious little on but my nightshirt, andluckily so as it happened. It was pitch dark, and blowing half a gale.I didn't want to sing out if I could help it--wanted to avoid a fuss,you understand; so I peered about for Spalding. At last I made out adark figure standing behind the wheel, looking astern. They don't usethe rudder wheel, you know--steer from the bridge. I was just going tosing out quietly, when the figure disappeared, and I heard a splash thatthere was no mistaking. Then, you bet, I gave a war-whoop loud enoughto wake the dead, as I went over the side after it. Fortunately forSpalding--for it was him all right--fortunately for us both, thequarter-master had his wits about him, and pitched over one of thosefire-buoys that are kept handy for these occasions; but there was aheavy, lamping sea on that nearly knocked the breath out of one. Iwasn't long reaching Spalding; but he could hardly swim a stroke at thebest of times, and at that time was simply helpless. But I can tell youI had my work cut out for me. By the time the ship was brought round tous again, and we were picked up, we had been nearer half an hour in thewater than twenty minutes, and not many seconds more would have done forus. I was all right again next day, and, by way of explanation, I gaveout that Spalding was given to somnambulism. The idea took; and no onesuspected anything, or, if they did, never said so, and the affaircreated a deuce of a sensation on board."

  "I should rather imagine it did," said the lawyer, who had been vividlyinterested in the other's narrative. "But you were with him when hedied, weren't you--I mean at the moment?"

  "Yes and no. After the affair I've been telling you about we becamegreater chums than ever. He seemed to pick up in health and spirits,and I began to think the poor chap was going to forget all about histroubles. We stayed in Sydney a little while, and then went up country,where we spent three or four months, knocking about from station tostation, for Spalding had no end of letters of introduction. At last,as ill luck would have it, the mail--that curse of existence--overtookus even away up in the bush. I don't know what news he got; but poorSpalding became worse than ever. Nothing would satisfy him but we mustreturn home to England immediately. I say `we,' because I'll be hangedif I could make him see that I, at any rate, hadn't come to Australiafor fun, but to try and find a means of livelihood. No; I _must_ goback with him. He had influence and abundant means, and could get me amuch better berth in England than I should ever find out there, heargued. He wanted my company on the voyage home, and was determined tohave it; I shouldn't be out of pocket by it, and so on. We nearly had atremendous row over it; but at last I yielded, partly to sentiment, forwe were great chums and the poor fellow seemed utterly cut up at theprospect of my leaving him to go back alone, partly to carelessness,for, I reasoned, I should be no worse off than when I left England, andcould always pick up some sort of a living anywhere. So we sailed bythe first vessel we could catch, and a precious slow old tub she was.Before we had been a week at sea, Spalding got a notion into his headthat he would never see England again, and all I could say or do tocheer him was of no use. Well, to cut the matter short, one eveningabout half an hour before sundown, we were sitting aft smoking ourweeds. I left him, wanting to do a constitutional before dinner. Ihadn't been gone five minutes when the quarter-master came to say thatmy chum didn't seem well. Back I went like a shot. There was Spaldingsitting in his deck-chair just as I left him with his book in front ofhim. But his head hung forward queerly. I had only to take one look athim to know what was up. The poor chap was stone dead."

  "Dear me--dear me!" said the lawyer.

  Claverton paused a little--moved by the recollection. He had never toldthe story so circumstantially before.

  "We carried him to the cabin, and the doctor made an officialexaminatio
n and all that sort of thing. Then the captain sealed up hiseffects, and the next evening our poor friend was buried. It was in thetropical seas, you know, where they don't delay funerals longer thanthey can help. And, curiously enough, it could not have been far fromthe spot where the poor fellow made his nocturnal plunge on the voyageout. Yes; whoever _she_ is, she'll have something to answer for. Thedoctor called it heart disease; but heart-break would have been nearerthe mark, I believe."

  There was silence for a few moments. It was at length broken by thelawyer.

  "And you actually knew nothing of that codicil?"

  "Nothing whatever. Hadn't the faintest suspicion of anything of thekind. It's all right, I suppose; can't be disputed or upset--eh?"

  "No. It's perfectly in order--adequately witnessed and everything. IfSpalding had been a solicitor in busy practice, he couldn't have addedthat codicil more correctly. And he did it at sea, too!"

  "What did he die worth?"

  "It's hard to say at present. Most of his property was landed--veryextensive, but all entailed. He has bequeathed to yourself nearly allthat it was in his power to bequeath to anybody; but--"

  "Oh, I wasn't thinking of that," interrupted the other impatiently, andsomewhat annoyed. "I merely asked out of curiosity. And, as I told youbefore, I never expected anything at all."

  "But, I was going to say, there's a queer stipulation attached to yourbequest. I don't quite know what you'll think of it," went on MrSmythe, with a dry smile. "You only profit by the bequest--which isfunded--provided you remain single until the age of thirty-five. Shouldyou marry before then you forfeit the whole, which, in that case, wouldpass to a distant relative. But I should think you will not have verylong to wait. Three or four years, perhaps?" and he looked inquiringlyat the other. "Of course you draw the interest from now," he added.

  "More likely eight years."

  "You don't say so. I declare you look much older!"

  "The conditions are queer, certainly," said the legatee, with a smile."I think I can see through it, though. Poor Spalding was played themischief with so severely by a woman, that he thought the best kindnesshe could do me was to offer a counter inducement to me against making afool of myself in that line. And, look, thirty-five is the agestipulated--his own age at the time of his death."

  "It's singular, certainly," said Smythe; "but there seems to be methodin it. Probably he thought that he, not having arrived at years ofdiscretion at that time of life, neither would you. As if a man everdoes arrive at years of discretion where the sex is concerned! But Icongratulate you heartily--at least, I suppose I must; for you lookheart-whole enough at present, anyhow. But you are young--you areyoung."

  "Not too young to know the value of nine thousand pounds and its yearlyinterest, I can tell you, Mr Smythe," said the other, with a laugh.And then he took his leave.