Fairliegh Fansides sought the wilds, but he found them not. He therefore returned by the waters. Swollen and brown were they with many rains. The bubbling foam flew from their heaving sides, aud whitened the grassy bank on which he stood. “Ah,” he exclaimed, with a sudden jerk, “what do I behold?” And what did he behold? He beheld a mantle-muffled figure approach the river’s brink with crouching cat-like steps. It suddenly raised its arms with a mighty jerk in the air, and flung a something forward, which fell with a heavy splash in the tide. Moodily the muffled figure gazed upon the waters closing o’er it, and watched them until the last bubble melted away. Horror froze the soul and the tongue of our hero through all the eventful incidents of that mysterious scene. As that dull-like splash thrilled upon his ears, his heart gave one mighty thump, the muscles of his tongue relaxed, and his pent up feelings found vent in a bellow that would have done credit to the vocal powers of a seahorse.
“Fiend!” he shrieked, “what hast thou done!” The moaning rush of the waters and the echoes of his own voice returning in a triumphant and demoniac shriek was the only reply. The very marrow in his bones grew cold with terror at the babel of sounds his own voice had created. He closed his eyes to shut out the hubbub from his ears. And when he opened them again, lo, the river disturber had vanished away.
Fairleigh Fansides from that hour henceforth and for ever was and altered man. A mysterious secret hung heavy on his soul. His face grew pale and thin and the tip of his nose grew blue. His once dull eyes grew bright with the fever of care, and seemed anxious to slink away into the recesses of his head afar from the sight of man. They peeped from under his overhanging eyebrows like a couple of stars from out of a broken cloud. Asleep or awake, that scene enacted on the river’s bank loomed eternally before his mind. Life became a burden grievous to be borne, and the companionship of his friends a bore. The question of “to be or not to be” had been debated pro and con within his mind often and over again, until the spirit of philosophy (oh, ‘tis a grand thing to be a philosopher!) came to his aid, lifting the load of despair from his shoulders. “What!” he cried, “Shall I perish for another mortal’s sins? No. The world shall know the secret yon river contains.” And the world—at least the villagers of Stepstone, in lieu of the world—heard the tale, and wondered thereat exceedingly.
The village drummer had been amongst them beating out the news and a notice together, “inviting all the inhabitants to meet on the village green” at 3 P.M. on the 11th instant, to Fairleigh Fansides to that direful spot where the murderous deed was done.
The morning of the 11th dawned amid wind and rain—lit opening for such an eventful day. Intense had been the excitement throughout the preceding night. Morpheus in his night rounds had fled in disgust from the sleepless village; all the long night through the streets had been crowded with clustering knots of men, women, and children, discussing the mysterious news. What the news in particular was no one could precisely tell, but that it was something horrible and awful no one for a moment disbelieved.
Three P.M. creeps onwards on leaden wings, and as it drew near the excitement rose to an unparalleled height. The oldest man in the village had been heard to exclaim that he had never seen “Sic an ado in a’ his born days.” Men spoke in whispers, and cast suspicious glances upon their neighbours, as if they suspected them to be murderers in disguise. And, most wonderful of all, not a woman’s tongue was heard (unless one, but more of her anon.) In all the history of Stepstone such an event had never occurred before.
Children clung to their mothers’ garments, and gazed with awestruck eyes upon a long-legged table, covered with green cloth, which stood in the centre of the market place. What that table contained and what that green cloth covered they could not tell, but that it had something to do with their mothers’ silence and their fathers’ looks of dread seemed an undoubted fact.
Three P.M. at last rung upon every timepiece in the village, for they had all been set right for that particular day and that particular hour. Expectation spread itself aloft on wings; all at once a silence deep as the grave flung itself like a cloud over that immense assembly. The last stoke of the bells were vibrating upon the air when Fairliegh Fansides, like a Herald of Hope, mounted the rostrum—said rostrum being a long-legged table with a green cloth—said table being an old woman’s apple stall, borrowed for the occasion—said old woman being the only one whose tongue had been able to defy the weight of horror that had stilled the rest. “Fellow citizens,” began Fairliegh Fansides, as he waved a white silk handkerchief in the air, “You have all had notice to meet me here at three P.M.”
“We have! we have!” thundered a thousand voices.
“Silence!” cried F. F., with the voice of a Stentor, waving his handkerchief with terrible energy.
“Silence,” shrieked the old apple woman.
“Silence,” thundered the crowd, and all was still—so still you might have heard the echoes of that splash in the river rolling about among the caverns of the past.
“Fellow citizens,” began F. F. again, “You all know what we have assembled here for to-day?”
“We do—we do!” thundered the thousand voices again in one grand chorus.
“Then away with me.” So saying he disappeared like a flash of lightning. In the excitement of the moment he had stood too near the edge of the table; it had upset, and Fairliegh Fansides was plunged head foremost into the crown of another man’s hat. But all men are mortal, and tables are not expected to know when great men tread upon them—let hero worshippers say what they may.
3.30 P.M.—The river banks are swarming with life. Boats are launched, and iron creepers are diligently tearing the eel-beds therein from their foundations. Four o’clock came and passed. Many a wondrous and curious thing was brought to light, but no sign was as yet given of the object for which they were in search. Five o’clock was stamped by the hand of destiny on the book of time, and no sign. Hour after hour rolled past, and the mystery was still as dark as ever. Night came with its mantle of black, and flung it over their heads, but still the search was continued with unabated zeal. Morning dawned upon their labours, and just as the first rays of the sun tinged the eastern hills, a shout of joy arose and whirled in one triumphant chorus away among the infinitude of the skies. Every pulse for a moment ceased to beat, and then thumped away at racehorse speed. Men shook each other by the hands; women kissed each other on the cheeks; little boys flung their caps in the air; and little girls clapped their hands. Truly such a scene the world never saw before, and shall never see again.
“Make room! make room!” thundered a hundred voices; and room was made. Fairleigh Fansides, the hero of the hour, entered the sacred circle in the centre of which was deposited the mysterious bundle. As soon as he saw it he pronounced it the long sought for sign. On his knee he knelt, and proceeded with trembling fingers to unfold its awful mysteries to the light of day. Fold after fold of the red rag in which it was enwrapped was loosened, until at last the much sought-for sign was seen—and lo! “’twas but the corpse of a cat!”