There was no apparent change in Goddard’s condition. He lay upon his back staring straight upward and mumbling aloud with every breath he drew.
“He must have been ill, before he attacked me,” continued Mr. Juxon, very much as though he were talking to himself. “He evidently is in a raging fever—brain fever I should think. That is probably the reason why he missed his aim—that and the darkness. If he had been well he would have killed me fast enough with that bludgeon. As you say, Mr. Short, there is no doubt whatever that he would prefer to die here, if he had his choice. In my opinion, too, it would be far more merciful to him and to—to him in fact. Nevertheless, neither you nor I would like to remember that we had let him die without doing all we could to keep him alive. It is a very singular case.”
“Most singular,” echoed John.
“Besides—there is another thing. Suppose that he had attacked me as he did, but that I had killed him with my stick—or that Stamboul had made an end of him then and there. The law would have said it served him right—would it not? Of course. But if I had not quite killed him, or, as has actually happened, he survived the embraces of my dog, the law insists that I ought to do everything in my power to save the remnant of his life. What for? In order that the law may give itself the satisfaction of dealing with him according to its lights. I think the law is very greedy, I object to it, I think it is ridiculous from that point of view, but then, when I come to examine the thing I find that my own conscience tells me to save him, although I think it best that he should die. Therefore the law is not ridiculous. Pleasant dilemma—the impossible case! The law is at the same time ridiculous and not ridiculous. The question is, does the law deduce itself from conscience, or is conscience the direct result of existing law?”
The squire appeared to be in a strangely moralising mood, and John listened to him with some surprise. He could not understand that the good man was talking to persuade himself, and to concentrate his faculties, which had been almost unbalanced by the events of the evening.
“I think,” said John with remarkable good sense, “that the instinct of man is to preserve life when he is calm. When a man is fighting with another he is hot and tries to kill his enemy; when the fight is over, the natural instinct returns.”
“The only thing worth knowing in such cases is the precise point at which the fight may be said to be over. I once knew a young surgeon in India who thought he had killed a cobra and proceeded to extract the fangs in order to examine the poison. Unfortunately the snake was not quite dead; he bit the surgeon in the finger and the poor fellow died in thirty-five minutes.”
“Dreadful!” said John. “But you do not think this poor fellow could do anything very dangerous now—do you?”
“Oh, dear me, no!” returned the squire. “I was only stating a case to prove that one is sometimes justified in going quite to the end of a fight. No indeed! He will not be dangerous for some time, if he ever is again. But, as I was saying, he must have been ill some time. Delirium never comes on in this way, so soon—”