The Bird of Prey Brought Down

COLD on the shore, in the raw cold of that leaden crisis in the four-and-twenty hours when the vital force of all the noblest and prettiest things that live is at its lowest, the three watchers looked each at the blank faces of the other two, and all at the blank face of Riderhood in his boat.

“Gaffer’s boat, Gaffer in luck again, and yet no Gaffer!” So spake Riderhood, staring disconsolate.

As if with one accord, they all turned their eyes towards the light of the fire shining through the window. It was fainter and duller. Perhaps fire, like the higher animal and vegetable life it helps to sustain, has its greatest tendency towards death, when the night is dying and the day is not yet born.

“If it was me that had the law of this here job in hand,” growled Riderhood with a threatening shake of his head, “blest if I wouldn’t lay hold of her, at any rate!”

“Ay, but it is not you,” said Eugene. With something so suddenly fierce in him that the informer returned submissively: “Well, well, well, ’tother governor, I didn’t say it was. A man may speak.”

“And vermin may be silent,” said Eugene. “Hold your tongue, you water-rat!”

Astonished by his friend’s unusual heat, Lightwood stared too, and then said: “What can have become of this man?”

“Can’t imagine. Unless he dived overboard.” The informer wiped his brow ruefully as he said it, sitting in his boat and always staring disconsolate.

“Did you make his boat fast?”

“She’s fast enough till the tide runs back. I couldn’t make her faster than she is. Come aboard of mine, and see for your ownselves.”

There was a little backwardness in complying, for the freight looked too much for the boat; but on Riderhood’s protesting “that he had had half a dozen, dead and alive, in her afore now, and she was nothing deep in the water nor down in the stern even then, to speak of,” they carefully took their places, and trimmed the crazy thing. While they were doing so, Riderhood still sat staring disconsolate.

“All right. Give way!” said Lightwood.

“Give way, by George!” repeated Riderhood, before shoving off. “If he’s gone and made off any how Lawyer Lightwood, it’s enough to make me give way in a different manner. But he always was a cheat, con-found him! He always was a infernal cheat, was Gaffer. Nothing straightfor’ard, nothing on the square. So mean, so underhanded. Never going through with a thing, nor carrying it out like a man!”

“Hallo! Steady!” cried Eugene (he had recovered immediately on embarking), as they bumped heavily against a pile; and then in a lower voice reversed his late apostrophe by remarking (“I wish the boat of my honorable and gallant friend may be endowed with philanthropy enough not to turn bottom-upward and extinguish us!) Steady, steady! Sit close, Mortimer. Here’s the hail again. See how it flies, like a troop of wild cats, at Mr Riderhood’s eyes!”

Indeed he had the full benefit of it, and it so mauled him, though he bent his head low and tried to present nothing but the mangy cap to it, that he dropped under the lee of a tier of shipping, and they lay there until it was over. The squall had come up, like a spiteful messenger before the morning; there followed in its wake a ragged tear of light which ripped the dark clouds until they showed a great grey hole of day.

They were all shivering, and everything about them seemed to be shivering; the river itself, craft, rigging, sails, such early smoke as there yet was on the shore. Black with wet, and altered to the eye by white patches of hail and sleet, the huddled buildings looked lower than usual, as if they were cowering, and had shrunk with the cold. Very little life was to be seen on either bank, windows and doors were shut,

  By PanEris using Melati.

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