THE COLONEL HAD BEEN A puzzle to me for years before I ever spoke to him, and in some ways he remains a puzzle still. That reminds me that perhaps before I go any further I had better begin by saying something about myself. My name, you will understand, is Lockhart. I am an old bachelor, and I had lived at Jamaica Road, Highgate, for nearly ten yean before the Colonel came to live in the house next door. Neither of these facts has anything to do with the story that follows; but then, it may surprise you to learn that I have nothing to do with the story myself. I didn’t write a word of it; I don’t guarantee that any of it is true; and I haven’t even corrected the proofs of it for the press. Yet, in spite of all that, I find myself in a queer sort of way responsible for it. I think you will admit that under these circumstances an explanation is no more than fair both to you and me; and an explanation mean some account of my acquaintance with Colonel Ambrose.
The Colonel was my next neighbour at Highgate for nine years. He was a retired officer, who, as I have been told since then, had served with distinction in India for many years. Perhaps it isn’t necessary to remark that Highgate was a different place twenty odd years ago from the Highgate of today. Whether my readers know it or not, it is a fact that Highgate has been ruined. Quarter a century ago, when I went there, a gentleman could find houses at Highgate that were really private to live in. There were gardens where he could sit and smoke in peace and privacy, bits of green lawn, where he could feel as if he were alone. It wasn’t an aristocratic suburb even then, I’ll admit, but it was vastly better than that; for it was quite as quiet, it was fully as pretty, and it was a very great deal cheaper. I lived there nearly a quarter of a century, and I ought to know.
Colonel Ambrose had been my nearest neighbour for more than two years before we ever exchanged a word, and if it hadn’t been for the Colonel’s dog we might never have done so at all. That dog was the very deuce; not one of those noisy barking brutes, you understand—the Colonel wouldn’t have kept such a creature about him for a day; and if he had been willing, his man Hector wouldn’t have allowed him. That dog—his name was ‘Cerberus,” without any abbreviation; nobody would have had the audacity to abbreviate that dog—was a huge animal, handsome, and jet-black. His manners were reserved and dignified, his temper was good, and his appearance impressive; and yet that dog was the very deuce. Although we were next-door neighbours, the Colonel’s tastes and my own differed. I was fond of flowers; the Colonel preferred grass. The Colonel’s dog, unfortunately, developed tastes that were a compromise between the two. During the greater part of each day Cerberus consented to be guided by his master’s tastes, and to stay on his master’s premises; but early each morning, when the weather was fine, he relieved his feelings and cultivated his finer tastes by taking a stroll through my flowerbeds. How he got over the seven-foot wall that divided the gardens I never could imagine, but that he did so was unquestionable. To begin with, there were his footprints, and these were neither few nor light; then there was the huge animal himself, for he never tried to go back again over the wall, but waited to be let out at the gate. At first I contented myself with grumbling and letting him out. Then I got into the habit of sending my man Dick to deliver him at the Colonel’s door with the message, ‘Mr. Lockhart’s compliments to Colonel Ambrose, and his dog has been in the garden again.”
He invariably brought back the same reply, which, I suspect, came from Hector rather than the Colonel:
“The Colonel he would be ferry sorry, and he will be seeing that Cerberus will not be doing so anymore.”
You can get used to anything. I got used to the visits of Cerberus, and both Dick and I found regular employment in erasing his footprints from the flowerbeds. One day the dog failed to show himself. There was no dog, and there were no footprints. I missed the animal, and I seemed to have nothing to do in the garden. A second morning came, and still there was no dog. I sent Dick round to inquire what had become of Cerberus. Hector sent back the Colonel’s compliments as usual, ‘but Cerberus she would heff been stolen, and the Colonel he would not be ferry well pleased that he did not heff him brought back.”
I went round and paid my first visit to my neighbour. Absurd as it may appear, I was positively anxious about the recovery of that ponderous animal; and, strange as it will probably sound, the loss of the dog became the foundation of a sort of friendship, which lasted as long as the Colonel lived.
I suppose Colonel Ambrose had plenty of experience about some things—the reader, if the story that follows should have any readers, can form his own opinion about that—but in others, perhaps because he had lived more than forty years in India, he was as simple as a child. He and his man Hector had wandered about the streets of London for hours looking for the dog; they had called at a dozen police-stations to inquire about him; but it had never entered into the mind of either of them to advertise a reward for his recovery. As we really wanted to get Cerberus back, I let the police alone, and I offered a reward in the newspaper at once. The reward was a handsome one—the Colonel seemed to feel that anything less would be an insult to his dog—and in a couple of days we got him back again as a matter of course. He was a little thinner, a little older-looking, and a good deal hungrier than when he was lost; but his habits were unchanged, and his footprints were as deep as ever.
This was the beginning of my acquaintance with Colonel Ambrose, and it appeared harmless enough at the time. I never became intimate with the Colonel, any more than I ever grew familiar with his dog. The two had, I think, a good deal in common, which may partly account for it. The Colonel, like his dog, was reserved, and perhaps rather solemn in his manner. He was tall, a little gaunt, with abundant evidences of former strength and vigour of no ordinary kind. Nobody could possibly have mistaken him for anything but a gentleman, or his dog for anything but a dog of birth and breeding. If you ask me how old the Colonel was, I can only say I don’t know. His closely-cropped, iron-gray hair said little, and his closely-shaven cheeks and chin, if possible, less as to his age. He might, from his appearance, have been sixty-five or so; but the story which follows, and other things, have since then made me fancy he must have been a good deal nearer eighty.
I knew Colonel Ambrose altogether for about seven years. We never grew intimate, but I suppose I must have been more intimate with him than anybody else, always excepting his man Hector. I saw him for an hour or more every afternoon. On one day I called and smoked with him, and on the next he returned the compliment. We were not talkative, though in seven years we must, I suppose, have said a good deal; but, in spite of that, I knew hardly anything about him. That he had spent his life as an officer in the East India Company’s service I was aware of course; that he had seen much active service I suspected; but beyond a few casual references to India once or twice he said nothing about his past life.
The Colonel’s study, library, or smoking-room—for the room in which we used to sit when the weather was unfit for sitting out of doors might have been called any one of the three—was, like himself, dignified but simple. The furniture was good and solid, but not showy. A table, covered with dark leather, on which there stood a heavy, old-fashioned mahogany desk, bound with brass, a few leather-covered chairs, besides one curious armchair of bamboo, a dark Turkish carpet, and a heavy bookcase of black oak, containing perhaps three hundred volumes in somewhat faded bindings, formed the chief objects on which the eye rested in the Colonel’s room. The wall above the mantelpiece was decorated with a very fine tiger’s head, which glared with glassy eyes at all comers, and above this a trophy of weapons. Thank Heaven I am not learned in such things! and whatever connoisseurs might think of them, I set them down in my own mind as a lot of ugly and barbarous weapons of destruction, about which I, felt very little curiosity. I remember, however, noticing that at the bottom of the trophy there hung a very large and singularly shaped axe, made apparently of a dull bronze metal.
“Eastern relics, I suppose. Colonel?” was, I think, the only remark it occurred to me, to make about them.
The Colonel’s eye followed my glance, and rested on the axe for an instant with a strange expression but he only answered:
The weapons were never referred to again by either of us during all my visits to the room.
Our acquaintance had lasted in this way for nearly seven years, when I was called away to Scotland to see my brother, who was ill. I remained for several weeks, and was beginning to look forward with some impatience to my return to civilization and Highgate, when, to my surprise, I one morning received a telegram. Such a thing hadn’t happened to me for years, and my surprise was increased when I had opened and read it. It was written in the third person:
“Colonel Ambrose presents his compliments to Mr. Lockhart. He has met with an accident, and is reported dying. Would gladly see Mr. Lockhart on argent business.”
I was shocked by the intelligence, and hurried home at once. My first step upon reaching home was to call at the Colonel’s house. I was met at the door by the imposing figure of Hector, the Colonel’s confidential attendant, whose strongly marked features, I observed, looked more solemn and grim than I had ever seen them, as he received me with a military salute.
“Can I see Colonel Ambrose, Hector?” I asked.
“Surely, sir, for it will be the Colonel himself that will be wearying ferry much to be seeing you. Oh yes indeed, it would be ferry much that he would heff been wearying.”
My man Dick had already told me that the Colonel had been knocked down by a runaway horse, and had received some internal injury from which the doctors held out no hope of his recovery. I was therefore prepared to find him in a critical state, yet I confess I was startled by his appearance when I was ushered by Hector into his bedroom. I had expected to see signs of illness, possibly even some of injury or disfigurement; but it was neither of these things that came upon me almost with a shock—the Colonel had grown old, as it seemed, in a day. It was neither sickness nor suffering that showed in his face so much as extreme old age. Years and years seemed to have fallen upon him all at once, and instead of the stern, soldierly face—bronzed, lined, and war-worn, indeed, but vigorous still—I saw, propped up with pillows, facing the dying sunlight of the long summer’s day, a feeble old man.
I paused for an instant in my surprise, till an impatient motion beckoned me to come nearer. I stepped forward and took his hand, muttering something about hoping he was feeling better as I did so. He merely shook his head slightly, and pointed to a chair which had been placed close to the bed.
“No, sir,” he said, in a voice that had grown strangely thin and broken—“No, sir; I am not better, nor shall I be. I had hoped to have seen you sooner, but allow me to apologise if I have cut your visit short. The matter was urgent, as you can see.”
The voice, like the face, had grown strangely old, but the same grave courtesy of manner clung to him still. I made haste to assure him that he had not put me to any inconvenience, and added that I was sorry to find him so great a sufferer.
“Sufferer, sir?” he repeated, and a new expression that was almost a smile dawned on his face. “I am not a sufferer. I have only received marching-orders. At last, sir—at last. It was time.”
He stopped, and for several minutes his eyes were fixed dreamily on the golden brightness of the western sky. I thought he had forgotten my presence, and at last interrupted his reverie by saying:
“Your message spoke of business, Colonel. Is there anything I can do for you?”
He withdrew his eyes from the window, and glanced round the room. His eye caught sight of Hector’s great figure, as he stood near the door with bent, head, regarding his master with a melancholy look.
“Hector,” he said—“Hector, old friend and comrade, leave us now. I will send for you before the end.” The almost giant figure turned slowly away, and I thought I saw a tear steal down his cheek as he left the room. “Yes,” the Colonel continued slowly—“yes; I took the liberty of asking to see you on business.” He hesitated for an instant, and then, as if with an effort, continued: “I have to ask a favour. It isn’t much in my line, but it comes to all of us sooner or later to do it.”
“Only mention it, Colonel,” I exclaimed. “If it is in my power I shall do it with pleasure.”
“Thank you,” he said quietly; “I thought you would. Please give me that box,” he resumed, after a pause, pointing to a despatch-box which stood on the table.
He drew a bunch of keys from under his pillow, and singling one out, motioned me to open the box. It was nearly full of papers, and on the top there lay a long blue envelope, with the word ‘Will’ written in a bold hand across it. I lifted it, and handed it to him.
“Was it about this?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said slowly—“yes, about that. I have asked you to be my executor, if you will do me so great a favour, and also one other matter. I am sorry to trouble you with this, but I have nobody else I can ask, no one at all.”
I hadn’t quite bargained for this when I had spoken, and perhaps I was a little alarmed at the prospect; but I had promised, and now I could only repeat that I would gladly do what I could. He looked at me as if he were following my thoughts. Then he said:
“It will not be much. My pension dies with me, of course, and I shall have little to leave behind me.” He spoke wistfully, as if afraid I might wish to draw back. I repeated my assurance more earnestly, and I dare say showed him that I was in earnest. His eyes rested on my face, and his own grew tranquil again as he did so.
“You will find everything in the envelope to guide you. I don’t think it will give you much trouble. In so far as it does, let me apologize now, and thank you in advance.”
“Don’t,” I said hastily, “don’t. It is little indeed for one lonely man to do for another. I only wish—but you know I do—that it were anything else.”
“Don’t wish that,” he said quietly. “It was time, surely more than time.”
Again his eyes had turned to the window, and the glow of the setting sun rested on his face, and lit it up with a strange brightness.
“You said there was something else,” I suggested, after I had waited in vain for some time for him to say more,
“Yes,” he said—“yes; I had almost forgotten. You will find the papers in that box; it was about them.”
I moved to lift them, but he raised his hand feebly to stop me.
“No,” he said, and his voice seemed to have grown weaker still in the last minute or two—“no; not now. You will look at them afterwards, and I think—yes, I think I should like you to publish them. There will be money enough for that.”
“It is a book, then?” I asked in some surprise. I had never connected the Colonel in my own mind with authorship.
“It is a history,” he answered slowly, “yet not a history, either—the romance of a lifetime, of two lives, both passed or passing away. It has been sacred till now. Now it may be useful.”
He paused again, and his eyes were fixed wistfully on the western sky once more. It was a glorious evening. The sun had dipped below the horizon, and a few light clouds hung softly round the point of his departure. Between them a flood of golden light poured upwards like a great river, gorgeous, but no longer dazzling. The Colonel’s eyes were fixed on it eagerly, as if they saw something new and yet familiar there. I watched him in silence, wondering what could be occupying his thoughts at such a time.
“Hector!” he whispered. “Hector! Here!”
I went quietly to the door and beckoned to the tall figure that stood in the passage a few yards away. He followed me silently into the room, and stood looking at the Colonel. His hands had sunk feebly on the bed, and he leant back on the pillows without an effort to support himself; yet his eyes were bright and clear, and his face was full of a strange, still life. His thoughts, I could see, were far away—perhaps among the scenes of the old romance of which he had spoken—and I didn’t dare to interrupt them. How long it lasted I cannot say, but long enough for the sunset light to fade slowly in the sky. The golden river was still there, indeed, but it had ceased to sparkle, and the surrounding clouds were turning from gold to crimson. I turned from the sky once more to look at the Colonel, and I started. In his face, too, the light was going out. The eyes were slowly growing dim, and the lines of the face seemed to be settling into a marble stillness. I looked hastily at Hector, but his great head was bowed upon his hands, and I thought his giant shoulders shook with a sob.
“Colonel!” I exclaimed hastily, but he didn’t seem to hear.
His dying gaze never left the pathway of the sunken sun, but his lips moved as if they were whispering soft words in an unknown tongue. Suddenly a bright glow shot upwards into the western sky, and a crimson glory, like a celestial blush, spread to the zenith. With a sudden movement Colonel Ambrose sat up. He raised and stretched out his arms, as if in welcome—the eager welcome of a young lover—and exclaiming, “Eureka! Eureka!” in tones that were strong and clear, yet soft, and full of tenderness, he sank back on the pillows once more. I looked into the Colonel’s free. The light had gone out of his eyes; he was dead.
I have done what I could to fulfil my promise. I found that Colonel Ambrose had been right. He had left little behind him to arrange, and the terms of his will had made that little simple. The will was very short, and soldierly in its simplicity. It directed me to pay any debts he might leave behind him, and to pay the sum of one thousand pounds to his friend and servant Hector McTavish, who was also to be at liberty to select any articles he might choose from the testator’s personal effects. All the rest of his estate he left to me as residuary legatee. I had no trouble worth mentioning. I paid the few trifling debts that were owing. Hector received his legacy, which I advised him to invest in an annuity. He went home to the Highlands, I believe, and took with him the Colonel’s bamboo chair, the great bronze axe that hung on the wall, and Cerberus.
I found that when I had sold the furniture there were still about five hundred pounds left, and the box of papers. I read the papers, as the readers of this book may now do for themselves. The five hundred pounds enabled me to make the task an easier one for them than it was for me, as the writing was old and the ink faded.
I began this by saying that I owed the reader, as well as myself, an explanation; now I have made it as far as possible. Hector had gone home before I read the papers, or I might have learned something from him, and if anybody is anxious to know more than the book will tell him he must look for him. For myself I have no means of knowing whether the adventures related in the story really took place beyond the facts I have mentioned. One thing only I will say in taking leave of the reader. If he had stood beside the Colonel’s bed, as I did, on that summer evening, and seen the light in the Colonel’s dying eyes, he would have said, as I do now, that, whether the creation of fact or of fancy, it was the vision of the lost Eureka that welcomed him on the golden pathway of the sinking sun.