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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Sawny Bean; and the Cave of Death
By Samuel Rutherford Crockett (1860–1914)
 
From ‘The Gray Man’

FOR a moment in the darkness I stood dazed, and my head swam. For I bethought me of the earl’s words, and I knew that my fate stood upon tiptoe. For here in the finding of this box lay all my life, and it might be my love also. But again another thought crossed the first, damming back and freezing the current of hot blood which surged to my heart. The caird’s words in the Grieve’s kitchen came to me:—“You will find the treasure of Kelwood in the cave of Sawny Bean, in the head of Benanback over against Benerard.”  1
  If this were to be, there was little doubt that we stood in instant and imminent danger of our lives. Yet I could not bring myself to leave the treasure. Doubtless I ought to have done so, and hastened our escape for the sake of the girls. But I thought it might be possible to convey the chest out, and so bring both our quests to an end at once—that for the treasure by the recovery of the box which had been lost and found and lost upon the Red Moss, and that of vengeance by the certain condemnation of the Auchendraynes upon Marjorie’s evidence.  2
  The next moment great fear took hold on me. All that I had heard since my childhood about the Unknown who dwelt upon the shore-side, and lived no man knew how, ran through my mind,—his monstrous form; his cloven feet that made steads on the ground like those of a beast; his huge hairy arms, clawed at the finger-ends like the claws of a bear. I minded me of the fireside tales of the travelers who had lost their way in that fastness, and who, falling into the power of his savage tribe, returned no more to kindlier places. I minded also how none might speak to the prowler by night or get answer from him; how every expedition against him had come to naught, because that he was protected by a power stronger, warned and advised by an intelligence higher than his own. Besides, none had been able to find the abode or enter into the secret defenses where lurked the Man-beast of Benerard.  3
  And it was in this abode of death that I, Launce Kennedy, being as I supposed in my sane mind, had taken refuge with two women, one the dearest to me on earth. The blood ran pingling and pricking in my veins. My heart-cords tightened as though it had been shut in a box and the key turned.  4
  Hastily I slipped down, and upon a pretext took the dominie aside to tell him what it was that I had found.  5
  “Ye have found our dead-warrant, then. I wish we had never seen your treasures and banded boxes!” said he roughly, as if I had done it with intent.  6
  And in truth I began to think he was right. But it was none of my fault, and we had been just as badly off in that place if I had not found it.  7
  After that I went ranging hither and thither among all the passages and twinings of the cave, yet never daring to go very far from the place where we were, lest I should not be able to find my way back. For it was an ill place, where every step that I took something strange swept across my face or slithered clammily along my cheek, making one grue to his bone marrows. I am as fond of a nimble fetch of adventures as any man, as every believing reader of this chronicle kens well by this time. But I want no more such experiences. Specially now that I am become a peaceable man, and no longer so regardlessly forward as I was in thrusting myself into all stirs and quarrels up to the elbows.  8
  Then in a little I went soft-footed to where Marjorie and Nell had bestowed themselves. When I told them how we had run into danger with a folly and senselessness which nothing could have excused, save the great necessity into which by the hellish fury of our enemies we had been driven, it was cheerful to hear their words of trust, and their declaration that they could abide the issue with fortitude.  9
  So we made such preparations as we could—as preparing our pistols and loosening our swords. Yet all had to be done by touch in that abode of darkness and black unchristian deeds.  10
  It was silent and eery in the cave. We heard the water lapping further and further from us as it retreated down the long passage. Now and then we seemed to catch a gliff of the noise of human voices. But again, when we listened, it was naught but the wind blowing every way through the passages and halls of the cave; or the echo of the wing-beatings of uncanny things that battened in the roofs and crevices of the murtherous cavern where we abode, unfathomed, unsounded, and obscure.  11
  But we had not long to wait ere our courage and resolution were tested to the uttermost. For presently there came to us clearly, though faintly at first, the crying and baying of voices, fearful and threatening: yet more like the insensate howling of dogs or shut-up hounds in a kennel than human creatures. Then there was empty silence, through which again the noise came in gusts like the sudden deadly anger of a mob; again more sharp and edged with fear, like the wailing of women led to their unpitied doom. And the sound of this inhuman carnival, approaching, filled the cave.  12
  The direful crying came nearer and nearer, till we all cowered pale-faced together, save Marjorie alone—who, having been as it were in hell itself, feared not the most merciless fiends that had broken loose therefrom. She stood a little apart from us, so far that I had not known her presence but for the draught of air that blew inward, which carried her light robe towards me so that its texture touched my face, and I was aware of the old subtle fragrance which in happy days had turned my head in the gardens of Culzean.  13
  But Nell Kennedy stood close to me—so close that I could hear her heart beating and the little sound of the clasping and unclasping of her hands. Which made me somewhat braver, especially when she put both her hands about my arm and gripped convulsively to me, as the noises of the crying and howling waxed louder and nearer.  14
  “I am vexed that I flouted you, Launce!” she whispered in my ear. “I do not care what you said to Kate Allison. After all, she is not such a truth-telling girl, nor yet very by-ordinary bonny.”  15
  I whispered to her that I cared not either, and that I was content to die for her.
*        *        *        *        *
  16
  Thus we sat waiting. Suddenly there was a pause in the noise which filled the cavern below. I thought they had discovered us. But Marjorie moved her hand a little to bid me keep down. So very carefully I raised my head over the rock, so that through the niche I could, as before, look down upon them.  17
  The water-door of the cave was now entirely filled by a black bulk, in shape like a monstrous ape. Even in the flickering light I knew that I had seen the monster before. A thrill ran through me when I remembered the Man-beast with which I had grappled in the barn of Culzean the night I outfaced the Gray Man. And now by the silence, and the crouching of the horde beneath me, I learned also that their master had come home. The thing stood a moment in the doorway as though angered at something. Then he spoke, in a voice like a beast’s growl, things which I could not at all understand. Though it was clear that his progeny did, for there ensued a rushing from side to side. Then Sawny Bean strode into the midst of his den. He stumbled, and set his foot upon a lad of nine or ten, judging by the size of him, who sprawled in the doorway. The imp squirmed round like a serpent and bit Sawny Bean in the leg. Whereat he stooped, and catching the lad by the feet, he dashed his head with a dull crash against the wall, and threw him like a dead rabbit in the corner.  18
  The rest stood for a moment aghast. But in a trice, and without a single one so much as going to see if the boy were dead or only stunned, the whole hornets’ byke hummed again, and the place was filled with a stifling smell of burning fat and roasting victual, upon which I dared not let my mind for a moment dwell.  19
  When Sawny Bean came in, he had that which looked like a rich cloth of gold over his arm—the plunder of some poor butchered wretch, belike. He stood with his trophy, examining it, before the fire. Presently he threw it over his shoulders with the arms hanging idly down, and strode about ’most like a play-actor or a mad person, but manifestly to his own great content and to the admiration of his followers, who stood still and gaped after him.  20
  When he had satisfied himself with this, I saw him look towards our place of refuge. A great spasm gulped my heart when I saw him take the first step towards us, for I knew that it was his forbidden treasure-house in which we lurked.  21
  So I thought it had come to the bitter push. But something yet more terrible than the matter of the boy diverted for the moment the monster’s attention. The lad whom he had cast to the side had been left alone, none daring to meddle. But now, as he passed him, Sawny Bean gave the body a toss with his foot. At this, quick as a darting falcon on the stoop, a woman sprang at him from a crevice where she had been crouching—at least by her shape she was a woman, with long elf-locks twisting like snakes about her brow. She held an open knife in her hand, and she struck at the chieftain’s hairy breast. I heard the knife strike the flesh, and the cry of anger and pain which followed. But the monster caught the woman by the wrist, pulled her over his knee, and bent back her head. It was a horrid thing to see, and there is small wonder that I can see it yet in many a dream of the night. And no doubt also I shall see it till I die—hear it as well.  22
  Then for a long season I could look no more. But when I had recovered me a little, and could again command my heart to look, I saw a great part of the crew swarm like flies, fetching, carrying, and working like bees upon spilled honey, from the corner where had been the bodies of the lad and the woman. But it was not in the ordinary way that they were being prepared for burial. In the centre of the cave was Sawny, with some of the younger sort of the women pawing over him and bandaging his wounded shoulder. He was growling and spitting inarticulately all the time like a wildcat. And every time his shoulder hurt him, as the women worked with it, he would take his other hand and strike one of them down, as though it was to her that he owed the twinge of pain.  23
  Presently the monster arose and took the gold brocade again in his hand. I thought that of a certainty now the time was come. And I looked at Nell Kennedy.  24
  God knows what was in my eyes. My heart was like to break. For the like of this pass was never man in. That I should have to smite my love to the death within an hour of the first kiss and the first owning of her affection!  25
  But she that loved me read my thought in mine eyes.  26
  She bared her neck for me, so that I could see its tender whiteness in the flicker of the fire.  27
  “Strike there,” she said, “and let me die in your arms, who are my heart’s love, Launcelot Kennedy.”  28
  I heard the Beast-man’s step on the stair. I looked from Nell’s dear neck to her eyes and back again to her bosom. I lifted my hand with the steel in it, and nerved myself for the striking, for I must make no mistaking. And even in that moment I saw a dagger also in Marjorie’s hand.  29
  Suddenly a tremendous rush of sound filled the cave. The dagger fell from my hand, and Nell and I clasped one another. The clamor seemed to be about us and all round us. Roaring echoes came back to us. The bowels of the earth quaked. Yet methought there was something familiar in the sound of it. I turned me about, and there, standing erect with all his little height, was the dominie. His cheeks were distended, and he was blowing upon his great war-pipes such a thunderous pibroch as never had been heard in any land since the pipes skirled on the Red Harlaw.  30
  What possession had come upon his mind I know not. But the effect I can tell. The pack of fiends that caroused and slew beneath stood stricken a moment, in amaze at the dreadful incomprehensible sounds. Then they fled helter-skelter, yelly-hooing with fear, down the narrow sea-way, from which the tide had now fully ebbed. And when I looked over, there was not a soul to be seen. Only over the edge of a caldron the body of the murdered woman, or at least a part of it, lay—a bloody incentive to haste out of this direful Cave of Death.  31
  The dominie stepped down as though he had been leading a march, strutting and passaging like the king’s piper marching about the banqueting-table at Holyrood. I declare, the creature seemed fey. He was certainly possessed with a devil. But the fearlessness of the man won into our veins also. For with steel or pistol in each of our hands we marched after him, ready to encounter aught that might come in our way. Aye, and even thus passed out of the cave, hasting down the long passage without a quiver of the heart or a blenching of the cheek, so suddenly and so starkly, by way of sudden hope, had the glorious music brought the hot blood back to our hearts, even as it had stricken our cruel foes with instant terror.  32
  Thus dry-shod we marched out of the cave of Sawny Bean, and not so much as a dog barked at us. But when in the gray of a stormy morning we reached the cliff’s edge, we heard inland the wild voices of the gang yelling down the wind, as though the furies of fear were pursuing them and tearing at their vitals. What they expected I know not. But I guess that they must have taken us for whatever particular devil they happened to believe in, come to take them quick to their own place. Which, after all, could not be much worse than the den in which we had seen them at their disport, nor could all the torturing fiends of lowest hell have been their marrows in devilish cruelty.
*        *        *        *        *
  33
  So once more the world was before us, and strangely quiet it seemed, as if we had died in stress and riot and been born again into an uncanny quiet. There remained now for us only the bringing to pass of righteous judgments upon the wicked ones who had compassed and plotted all this terrible tale of evils. These murders without end, the hellish cruelties and death-breeding deceits, must not fall alone on the crazed outlaw and his brood, for the chief criminals were those that were greater than Sawny Bean and his merciless crew.  34
 
 
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