But either Rooum was stronger than I, or else he took me very much unawares. All at once he twisted clear from my grasp and stumbled on his knees to the rear door of the cab. He threw up one elbow, and staggered to his feet as I made another clutch at him.
“Keep still, you fool!” I bawled. “Hit him over the head, Hopkins!”
Rooum screamed in a high voice.
“Run him down—cut him up with the wheels—down, you!—down, I say!—Oh, my God!... Ha!”
He sprang clear out from the crane door, well-nigh taking me with him.
I told you it was a skeleton line, two rails and a tie or two. He’d actually jumped to the right-hand rail. And he was running along it—running along that iron tightrope, out over that well of light and watching men. Hopkins had started the travelling-gear, as if with some insane idea of catching him; but there was only one possible end to it. He’d gone fully a dozen yards, while I watched, horribly fascinated; and then I saw the turn of his head....
He didn’t meet it this time; he sprang to the other rail, as if to evade it....
Even at the take-off he missed. As far as I could see, he made no attempt to save himself with his hands. He just went down out of the field of my vision. There was an awful silence; then, from far below ...
* * * * *
They weren’t the men on the lower stages who moved first. The men above went a little way down, and then they too stopped. Presently two of them descended, but by a distant way. They returned, with two bottles of brandy, and there was a hasty consultation. Two men drank the brandy off there and then—getting on for a pint of brandy apiece; then they went down, drunk.
I, Hopkins tells me, had got down on my knees in the crane cab, and was jabbering away cheerfully to myself. When I asked him what I said, he hesitated, and then said: “Oh, you don’t want to know that, sir,” and I haven’t asked him since.
What do you make of it?
It would be different if you had known Benlian. It would be different if you had had even that glimpse of him that I had the very first time I saw him, standing on the little wooden landing at the top of the flight of steps outside my studio door. I say “studio”; but really it was just a sort of loft looking out over the timber-yard, and I used it as a studio. The real studio, the big one, was at the other end of the yard, and that was Benlian’s.
Scarcely anybody ever came there. I wondered many a time if the timber-merchant was dead or had lost his memory and forgotten all about his business; for his stacks of floorboards, set criss-crosswise to season (you know how they pile them up) were grimy with soot, and nobody ever disturbed the rows of scaffold-poles that stood like palisades along the walls. The entrance was from the street, through a door in a billposter’s hoarding; and on the river not far away the steamboats hooted, and, in windy weather, the floorboards hummed to keep them company.