At the merest mention of the name every one connected with the Midland Great Southern Railway smiled. That is to say, everyone living within twenty miles of Hancastle.
To be sure, the smiles usually ended with sighs and shakes of the head; and one after another of those who had hazarded all they could conscientiously risk in his interest, frowned as they said: "It is hopeless, poor fellow! We can do no more for him."
It had often been said that Lanty was nobody's enemy but his own; and there were narratives of his having risked his life in Burmah, not only for comrades in imminent danger from the Dacoits, but for a poor shikari, over whose prostrate body he had shot the fierce tigress which was slowly crunching the thin black limbs inch by inch. It used to be believed that during this adventure--of which the hero could never be induced to speak--Gunner Riordan had never let his coarse Trichinopoly cheroot go out, although he had walked so closely up to the wounded tigress that her fulvous coat was singed by the powder from the shot when she fell over.
It was further asserted that a formal charge of "making away with Government property, in that he did (date, place, etc.) expend, that is to say, fire off without proper authority, one round of breech-loading carbine ammunition, the property," etc., was sent in against him by the Divisional Sergeant on the occasion. He was admonished in the Battery Orderly Room; but privately shaken hands with the Brigadier-General Commanding, and secretly presented with Rs 100, a sum which was collected in ten minutes in the Royal Artillery mess.
The expenditure of this sum naturally got Gunner Riordan and the five beloved friends into the guard room, with long spells of confinement to barracks to follow. Poor Lanty could not bear so much fame, accompanied by so much wealth.
Now Hancastle, at the period of this true history--the locality where Lanty Riordan was so well, although not favorably known--was the point at which coal trucks were shunted, under somewhat incomplete arrangements, into the depot yard, then under construction. Here they stood, on from five to nine lines of rails, alongside nearly a quarter of a mile of the permanent way. The switch used when the wagons were thus to be shunted was at foot of a semaphore, which was under the control of the signalman in the box half a mile further away in the provincial direction. Trains coming up to London passed, first, the signal box, then the semaphore, and, lastly, a dismounted old railway carriage at the depot, which had been Lanty's dwelling during the past three years.
It was impossible not to like Lanty. Selfish, wilful, slovenly, sulky, often absent from duty, lazy, disrespectful, and ungrateful at times--he periodically turned over new leaves, attended to his religious and other duties, was sorry for his faults, overflowing with a gratitude which was genuine as his wickedness, helpful, gentile, thoughtful, the cheer and life of all who knew him. His good-looking head was an intelligent one; his heart was warm and kind; but within five minutes of entering bad company his good impulses and his pledges were forgotten in a very chaos of extravagance and dissipation.
In settling down at Hancastle, Lanty fell across his evil genius in the person of a man named Potter. Shortly after Lanty's return from India, it had been conveyed to him that it rested with him to say whether of not the person, and twenty pounds in ready money, the property of a public school nurse in the neighborhood should be attached to him matrimonially. In the "spratae injuria formae" which his love of liberty caused, the addresses of a less desired but persistent suitor, Potter to wit, were hastily accepted; and much of the former liking for Lanty on the new Mrs. Potter's part turned into angry dislike, without the addition of a grain of happiness or goodwill to the sentiments of the bridegroom regarding Riordan.
It was mainly owing to this evil influence that at last Lanty had arrived at two "ends" in his life; and now alas! as he staggered along through the wind and the rain, he was resolved upon making a third conterminous with them.
First, it was just five years since he had been discharged into the Reserve; and he had that 1st of April drawn, at the Hancastle Post Office, the last installment of his Reserve pay, which had been at the rate of sixpence per diem for the period.
Secondly, he had also, that very day, been discharged from the service of the Midland Great Southern Railway. It was a line upon which vast changes of way and plant had been taking place, and from which, chiefly owing to the patience and co-patriotic kindness of Mr. Roche, the local superintendent of works, Lanty had had almost regular employment as a navy on the new coal deposit works, at fog signalling, at keeping the fires beside the hydrants in hard frosts--and so on.
But now all this was over.
He had been a "blessed good fellow" while ever he had cash in his pocket, which was up to about 7 P.M. on that 1st April. But when his money had gone too low to stand another round of drinks, he had been sneered at as a poor beggar of a Pady; had felled "sponging Sassenachs," as he called them, right and left; and had stalked out of the tavern, over their bodies, drunkenly singing that--
Whither should poor Lanty's staggering footsteps lead him except toward the half-made coal-depot near which was the dismounted old railway-carriage which he had been allowed to occupy during the past three years?
Of course he ought to have recollected that he had been firmly evicted that morning. He had also been informed that he must expect to find his late residence appropriated to stores thenceforward, and provided with a powerful bolt secured by a padlock of which he had not the key. But his faculties were not very clear; and he only had a vague despairing feeling that he should have neither food nor shelter to-morrow; that he would probably have to go to jail for assault; and that the rushing monsters which he loved made quick and merciful ends. It had been so--God rest their souls!--for those whose remains, on two occasions, he had cooly and most decorously dealt with, when others had shrunk and turned pale, and hurried away from the ghastly sights.
Lanty, in India, had shown great gifts as an extra hospital orderly during cholera epidemics; as also when a party had suffered severe losses by falling into an ambush in Loonungoung, Burmah. He had for a time been a medical officer's batman in Ireland; and had evinced such intelligent interest when detailed to help at autopsies in the mortuary in Burmah, that the apothecaries had taught him a good deal about the bones, and the general lie of blood-vessels and organs.
There was, indeed, scarcely a sense in which Lanty Riordan could be said to fear death. Even drunkenness only gave unction to his homilies upon the wisdom of preparation for our inevitable dissolution. And now, as soon as he had spent his last few coppers upon a flask of whiskey of a special curved and flat pattern, prepared for slipping into the breast-pockets of travelers--"for use in the tunnels," as the leering tavern-keeper said--Lanty ceased his melodious singing of "The Young May Moon," and staggered solemnly along droning the "Adeste Fidelis" in his rich and tuneful baritone.
There had been many hours of saturating rain that day.
Had it been fine, Lanty had intended to spend his first unemployed afternoon in a visit to South Kensington Museum, ending up with attendance at a special High Mass at the Brompton Oratory. But he had been met by his evil genius, Potter, who had made the wild and wet weather a plea for the abandonment of the idea; and the day had been passed in drinking, treating, and wild card-playing. Potter had been discharged from the service of the Midland Great Southern Railway for dishonesty, and had never since ceased from efforts to make Lanty commit himself. This unhappy day he had succeeded. With this wild orgie Lanty had ended all his money and all his luck; and now, as he struggled over the wire fence into the cutting, maudlinly singing the fine old Latin hymn, he smilingly pictured the cowardly mean face of the man who had compassed his ruin when he should hear of the "shocking accident" next morning.
"Begorra," mutters Lanty, "'tis a feather in his cap it will be, if he only knew it, bad scran to him! To think of the likes of him, a white-livered cur that never seen green wather or a Queen's enemy, dhrivin' Lanty Riordan, no less, to a bloody ind! Ay! and the spalpeen will faint stiff if they tell him to pick up the pieces!
"Well, I had my chance, an' chances on the top of it! Not alone from Misther Roche and Father Olpherts, but from Mrs. Roche herself--the blessin' o' God on her! Shure, haven't I seen her ill wid the dint iv sore disthress when she knew I was goin' for the Reserve pay, Lord forgive me! She warned me agin Potter next before the divvil his masther. 'Riordan,' she would say, 'when Potter sees you one day dhragged in the gutther, he will rejoice over your downfall, an' rub his hands wid glee to see the masther an' me made mock of because of you!' 'Twould be the thruth she spoke if I would live to see it! But the nine o'clock express will settle the business otherwise, wid my brave Tornado doing her fifty-five miles an hour at the head of it! Holy Mary, Mother o' God! pray for us now and in the hour of our death!"
Here Lanty paused unsteadily for a moment before the semaphore which had just rattlingly signalled "Go ahead" with its green light to the approaching express.
Now the new coal-deposit, as has been indicated, was being made by the gradual filling up of a small valley which ran for some distance irregularly parallel to the line. The practice was to lay down temporary lines, upon which loaded wagons were cautiously run to aid the settling process. When the surface was sound and level, the line was of course relaid at the level of the permanent way,, which had formerly been upon an embankment above the depression. The heavy rains of that day would search out weak places, and be of great use in helping the settlement of new and old materials.
In his least sober moments, Lanty, from long practice, was able to stride safely among sleepers and rails, So, when sinking first to his ankles, and then, with a plunge, up to his knees, among the unsupported sleepers on the main line, his intelligence of the fearful condition of things half-sobered him. A subsidence had taken place in the side of the bank next to the coal-depot at a point beyond the control of the semaphore; and the next train, the famous nine o'clock express, would be wrecked if it reached the defective place.
"Lord a mercy on me for a drunken swab--what in His Holy Name am I to do now?" cried Lanty. "If I had a bit of a red hankercher to put over the green light-- No! even that wouldn't make a red one. Wait! I'll make a white light wid my owld lanthern, anyway."
Dashing off toward the dismounted carriage which had been his dwelling, he looked for the battered old stable lantern in which he used to place his candle, and which had that morning been thrown out of the hut. He found it among the sweepings and rubbish which, together with his very primitive furniture and himself, had had to give place to oil-cans, iron bolts, and stores of all sorts.
"The blessed saints be praised!" cried Lanty, "there's ten minutes of candle in it yet; an' the express will be here in less time."
To so heavy a smoker as Lanty Riordan, matches were a very necessity of life. Under shelter of the hut the half-sobered fellow stooped, and, at the third attempt of very shaky hands, succeeded in lighting the sputtering bit of carriage-candle which Mr.. Roche's coachman had given him some days before. As he stooped, the flat whiskey flask fell out of his breastpocket; the neck struck a stone; and before he could pick up the bottle nearly all the spirit had gurgled out.
Snatching the flask with a haste which caused the loss of most of the remaining contents, and slightly cutting his hand on the briken neck, Lanty uttered a rueful exclamation, and made sure of the last tea-spoonful by pouring it into his mouth. Then, as the light of the kindling candle increased, he saw the blood on his hand--and at the same instant he heard the rumble of the express in the deep stone cutting only six miles off.
Springing to the erect position, Lanty passed through some ten seconds of the most intense mental exertion he had ever known. Then came his design and his action. At a rain-pool he half-filled the broken flask with water. Feeling for the blood-vessel which gave the pulse at his left wrist, he set his teeth and plunged the keen angular edge of the glass bottle-neck--keener than the finest lance or razor--into it. The lights of the express emerged from the cutting. The blood jetted from the wounded artery--none too freely for the anxious martyr who had the train to save. Much of the scarlet stream poured down the sides of the flask, even when, by the light of the candle, Lanty did what he could to direct the stream into the bottle. But at last, with the roar of the train waxing louder and coming nearer, Lanty had made a rich ruby-colored fluid in the flask. Cramming twisted paper into the broken neck, he carefully opened the lantern, placed the bottle between the flame and the glass, heeded not at all the jetting artery, and stepped on to the line in front of the express.
"Now may God send that I get far enough to give them time to see the signal an' pull up!" moaned Lanty. "'Tis liquor that's a curse; an' me head is reelin' so, I can't hardly hold the lanthern steady! An' now, if the Mother o' God doesn't strengthen me knees, I can't go far enough to do any good! They'll see the big green light; but who would notice this poor red glimmer--anyway in time? What? Glory be to God! they're whistlin'!"
And so it was! Yonder, about a mile off, the keen-eyed driver of the bigwheeled engine Tornado had caught sight of poor tottering Lanty's feeble red light. He need no longer strain forward upon those trembling limbs. Straddling his legs apart so that he might at least stand the more firmly--raising his lamp high in his left hand, and pressing a round pebble into the wound in the wrist with his right, there he stood! Never did seconds seem so like minutes. Lanty felt his limbs failing. A dew which was not all rain trickled down his forehead. Indeed, the cool rain, which might have refreshed him, had abruptly ceased.
"St. Michael, St. Patrick, and all angels succor me now for God's dear love! Oh! His holy curse, an' my black curse be on the dhrink this blessed an' dhreadful minute! Father in Heaven! give me the sthrength to hold up till I stop Th' express! Resave my sowl if it ends me! An' hear my vow; if it stops short and spares itself an' meself, the dhrain of dhrink I tuk five minutes ago will be the last forever, by the Sacraments of God. Amen. Ah, merciful Lord! 'tis blind I'm gettin'! Let me put the lanthern safe down on the sleeper! There! Ah! Glory be to God, the signalman has seen it, an' changed the signal! Th' express is stoppin'! I--am--dy--"
The great hissing engine Tornado pulled up within sixty yards of Lanty Riordan's red light. The stoker and guard ran forward, and found the poor fellow unconscious from loss of blood beside it. The scarlet spray from the jetting artery had closely spotted his face and dress. Two of the passengers were eminent surgeons. The artery was instantly compressed and quickly tied. Others soon found the landslip and explained what had happened.
But when flasks were produced, and it was attempted to give the brave fellow some stimulant, he feebly turned his pale clammy face away, pushed the liquor aside, and said--
"Wather, if ye plase! Wid my last dyin' words I put my blackest curse on the dhrink; an' die I will, plase God, afore I throw His mercy back in His face wid breakin' of my word. Wather!
"You are not going to die, my brave fellow!" said the great surgeon, as he wiped his own hands after the operation. "You have saved all our lives at the double risk of your own; and, as one of the directors, I shall tell the story of how you did it."
The third-class carriages were next the engine, and several of the passengers descended. Among them, and when Lanty's saving of the train had become quickly understood, the wife of Lanty's evil genius, Potter, hurried forward.
"Oh, sir!" she cried distractedly, to no one in particular, "will Riordan die? He has been wronged and put upon by me and mine; and now see what we have come to owe him!"
It was many days before Lanty Riordan was even pronounced out of danger, and many weeks before he was able to get actively about, or essay any kind of work, so heavy had been the loss of blood which he had suffered. The circumstances were hushed up as much as might be, lest passengers should shrink from travelling by a line upon which such dangers were possible. Within an hour of the occurrence a large gang had been put to work upon the weak spot; and no subsidence can ever possibly take place there now.
But the director who had travelled upon the line that evening was, as stated, an eminent surgeon, and has an interesting museum containing missiles, weapons, and the gruesome curiosities of a great hospital surgical practice. Prominent among these is the broken necked breast-pocket whiskey-flask, still stained with blood, with which Lanty Riordan had made his red light.
And Lanty would still do an heroic action for one he honored and loved. It was the pesky small things and doings of life which needed his care, and which proved too much for his resolutions. When his life had nearly ebbed away, he could turn his pale cold face aside from the surgeon's brandy-flask and ask for water, remembering his oath upon the Sacraments of God.
But when an old companion met him three months afterward and said: "Come along, old fellow--don't be a baby--name the particular poison we are to drink the mistress's good health in"--
Poor Lanty Riordan!