PETHERICK’S PERIL

Each story of the Shelton Cotton Factory is fifteen feet between floors;
there are seven such over the basement, and this rises six feet above
the ground. The brick walls narrow to eight inches as they ascend, and
form a parapet rising above the roof. One of the time-keepers of the
factory, Jack Hardy, a young man about my own age, often runs along the
brick-work, the practice giving him a singular delight that has seemed
to increase with his proficiency in it. Having been a clerk in the
works from the beginning, I have frequently used the parapet for a
footpath, and although there was a sheer fall of one hundred feet to the
ground, have done it with ease and without dizziness. Occasionally
Hardy and I have run races, on the opposite walls, an exercise in which
he invariably beats me, because I become timid with increase of pace.

Hopelessly distanced last Wednesday, while the men were off at noon, I
gave up midway, and looking down, observed the upturned face of an old
man gazing at me with parted lips, wide eyes, and an expression of
horror so startling that I involuntarily stepped down to the
bricklayer’s platform inside. I then saw that the apparently frightened
spectator was Mr. Petherick, who had been for some weeks paymaster and
factotum for the contractors.

“What’s the matter, Petherick?” I called down. He made no answer, but
walking off rapidly, disappeared round the mill. Curious about his
demeanor, I descended, and after some little seeking found him smoking
alone.

“You quite frightened me just now, Petherick,” said I. “Did you think I
was a ghost?”

“Not just that,” he replied.

“Did you expect me to fall, then?”

“Not just that, either,” said he. The old man was clearly disinclined
to talk, and apparently much agitated. I began to joke him about his
lugubrious expression, when the one o’clock bell rang, and he shuffled
off hastily to another quarter.

Though I puzzled awhile over the incident, it soon passed so entirely
from my mind that I was surprised when, passing Petherick in the
afternoon, and intending to go aloft, he said, as I went by:

“Don’t do it again, Mr. Frazer!”

“What?” I stopped.

“That!” he retorted.

“Oh! You mean running on the wall,” said I.

“I mean going on it at all!” he exclaimed. His earnestness was so marked
that I conceived a strong interest in its cause.

“I’ll make a bargain with you, Mr. Petherick. If you tell me why you
advise me, I’ll give the thing up!”

“Done!” said he. “Come to my cottage this evening, and I’ll tell you a
strange adventure of my own, though perhaps you’ll only laugh that it’s
the reason why it sickens me to see you fooling up there.”

Petherick was ready to talk when Jack and I sat down on his doorsteps
that evening, and immediately launched into the following narrative:

I was born and grew to manhood near the highest cliffs of the Polvydd
coast. Millions of sea-fowls make their nests along the face of those
wave-worn precipices. My companions and I used to get much excitement,
and sometimes a good deal of pocket money, by taking their eggs. One of
us, placing his feet in a loop at the end of a rope and taking a good
grip with his hands, would be lowered by the others to the nest. When
he had his basket full they’d haul him up and another would go down.

Well, one afternoon I thus went dangling off. They paid out about a
hundred feet of rope before I touched the ledge and let go.

You must know that most of the cliffs along that coast overhang the
water. At many points one could drop six hundred feet into the sea, and
then be forty or fifty feet from the base of the rock he left. The
coast is scooped under by the waves, and in some places the cliff wall
is as though it had been eaten away by seas once running in on higher
levels. There will be an overhanging coping, then—some hundred feet
down—a ledge sticking out farther than that of the top; under that ledge
all will be scooped away. In some places there are three or four such
ledges, each projecting farther than those above.

These ledges used to fall away occasionally, as they do yet, I am told,
for the ocean is gradually devouring that coast. Where they did not
project farther than the upper coping, the egg-gatherer would swing like
a pendulum on the rope, and get on the rock, if not too far in, then put
a rock on the loop to hold it till his return. When a ledge did project
so that one could drop straight on it, he hauled down some slack and
left the rope hanging. Did the wind never blow it off? Seldom, and
never out of reach.

Well, the ledge I reached was like this. It was some ten feet wide; it
stuck out maybe six feet farther than the cliff top; the rock wall went
up pretty near perpendicular, till near the coping at the ground; but
below the ledge, the cliff’s face was so scooped away that the sea, five
hundred feet below, ran in under it nigh fifty feet.

As I went down, thousands of birds rose from the jagged places of the
precipice, circling around me with harsh screams. Soon touching the
ledge, I stepped from the loop, and drawing down a little slack, walked
off briskly. For fully a quarter of a mile the ledge ran along the
cliff’s face almost as level and even in width as that sidewalk. I
remember fancying that it sloped outward more than usual, but instantly
dismissed the notion, though Gaffer Pentreath, the oldest man in that
countryside, used to tell us that we should not get the use of that
ledge always. It had been as steady in our time as in his
grandfather’s, and we only laughed at his prophecies. Yet the place of
an old filled fissure was marked by a line of grass, by tufts of weeds
and small bushes, stretching almost as far as the ledge itself, and
within a foot or so of the cliff’s face.

Eggs were not so many as usual, and I went a long piece from my rope
before turning back. Then I noticed the very strange conduct of the
hosts of sea-fowls below. Usually there were hundreds, but now there
were millions on the wing, and instead of darting forth in playful
motions, they seemed to be wildly excited, screaming shrilly, rushing
out as in terror, and returning in masses as though to alight, only to
wheel in dread and keep the air in vast clouds.

The weather was beautiful, the sea like glass. At no great distance were
two large brigs and, nearer, a small yacht lay becalmed, heaving on the
long billows. I could look down her cabin stairway almost, and it
seemed scarcely more than a long leap to her deck.

Puzzled by the singular conduct of the sea-birds, I soon stopped and set
my back against the cliff, to rest while watching them. The day was
deadly still and very warm.

I remember taking off my cap and wiping the sweat from my face and
forehead with my sleeve. While doing this, I looked down involuntarily
to the fissure at my feet. Instantly my blood almost froze with horror!
There was a distinct crack between the inner edge of the fissure and the
hard-packed, root-threaded soil with which it was filled! Forcibly I
pressed back, and in a flash looked along the ledge. The fissure was
widening under my eyes, the rock before me seemed sinking outward, and
with a shudder and a groan and roar, the whole long platform fell
crashing to the sea below! I stood on a margin of rock scarce a foot
wide, at my back a perpendicular cliff, and, five hundred feet below,
the ocean, now almost hidden by the vast concourse of wheeling and
affrighted birds.

Can you believe that my first sensation was one of relief? I stood
safe! Even a feeling of interest held me for some moments. Almost
coolly I observed a long and mighty wave roll out from beneath. It went
forth with a high, curling crest—a solid wall of water! It struck the
yacht stern on, plunged down on her deck, smashed through her swell of
sail, and swept her out of sight forever.

Not till then did my thoughts dwell entirely on my own position; not
till then did I comprehend its hopelessness! Now my eyes closed
convulsively, to shut out the abyss down which my glance had fallen;
shuddering, I pressed hard against the solid wall at my back; an
appalling cold slowly crept through me. My reason struggled against a
wild desire to leap; all the demons of despair whispered me to make an
instant end. In imagination I _had_ leaped! I felt the swooning
helplessness of failing and the cold, upward rush of air!

Still I pressed hard back against the wall of rock, and though nearly
faint from terror, never forgot for an instant the death at my feet, nor
the utter danger of the slightest motion. How long this weakness lasted
I know not; I only know that the unspeakable horror of that first period
has come to me in waking dreams many and many a day since; that I have
long nights of that deadly fear; that to think of the past is to stand
again on that narrow foothold; and to look around on the earth is often
to cry out with joy that it widens away from my feet.

(The old man paused long. Glancing sidewise at Jack, I saw that his
face was pallid. I myself had shuddered and grown cold, so strongly had
my imagination realized the awful experience that Petherick described.
At length he resumed his story:)

Suddenly these words flashed to my brain: “Are not two sparrows sold for
a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your
Father. Fear not, therefore; ye are of more value than many sparrows.”
My faculties were so strained that I seemed to hear the words. Indeed,
often yet I think that I did truly hear a voice utter them very near me.

Instantly hope arose, consciously desperate indeed; but I became calm,
resourceful, capable, and felt unaccountably aided. Careful not to look
down, I opened my eyes and gazed far away over the bright sea. The
rippled billows told that a light outward breeze had sprung up. Slowly,
and somewhat more distant, the two brigs moved toward the horizon.
Turning my head, I could trace the narrow stone of my footing to where
my rope dangled, perhaps three hundred yards distant.

It seemed to hang within easy reach of the cliff’s face, and instantly I
resolved and as instantly proceeded to work toward it. No time remained
for hesitation. Night was coming on. I reasoned that my comrades
thought me killed. They had probably gone to view the new condition of
the precipice from a lower station, and on their return would haul up
and carry off the rope. I made a move toward it. Try to think of that
journey!

Shuffling sidewise very carefully, I had not made five yards before I
knew that I could not continue to look out over that abyss without
glancing down, and that I could not glance down without losing my
senses. You have the brick line to keep eyes on as you walk along the
factory wall; do you think you could move along it erect, looking down
as you would have to? Yet it is only one hundred feet high. Imagine
five more such walls on top of that and you trying to move
sidewise—incapable of closing your eyes, forced to look down, from end
to end, yes, three times farther! Imagine you’ve got to go on or jump
off! Would you not, in an ecstasy of nervous agitation, fall to your
knees, get down face first at full length, clutch by your hands, and
with your shut eyes feel your way? I longed to lie down and hold, but
of course that was impossible.

The fact that there was a wall at my back made it worse! The cliff
seemed to press outward against me. It did, in fact, incline very
slightly outward. It seemed to be thrusting me off. Oh, the horror of
that sensation! Your toes on the edge of a precipice, and the
implacable, calm mountain apparently weighting you slowly forward.

(Beads of sweat poured out over his white face at the horror he had
called before him. Wiping his lips nervously with the back of his hand,
and looking askant, as at the narrow pathway, he paused long. I saw its
cruel edge and the dark gleams of its abysmal water.)

I knew that with my back to the wall I could never reach the rope. I
could not face toward it and step forward, so narrow was the ledge.
Motion was perhaps barely possible that way, but the breadth of my
shoulders would have forced me to lean somewhat more outward, and this I
dared not and could not do. Also, to see a solid surface before me
became an irresistible desire. I resolved to try to turn round before
resuming the desperate journey. To do this I had to nerve myself for
one steady look at my footing.

In the depths below the myriad sea-fowl then rested on the black water,
which, though swelling more with the rising wind, had yet an unbroken
surface at some little distance from the precipice, while farther out it
had begun to jump to whitecaps, and in beneath me, where I could not
see, it dashed and churned with a faint, pervading roar that I could
barely distinguish. Before the descending sun a heavy bank of cloud had
risen. The ocean’s surface bore that appearance of intense and angry
gloom that often heralds a storm, but, save the deep murmur going out
from far below my perch, all to my hearing was deadly still.

Cautiously I swung my right foot before the other and carefully edged
around. For an instant as my shoulder rubbed up against the rock, I
felt that I must fall. I did stagger, in fact, but the next moment
stood firm, face to the beetling cliff, my heels on the very edge, and
the new sensation of the abyss behind me no less horrible than that from
which I had with such difficulty escaped. I stood quaking. A delirious
horror thrilled every nerve. The skin about my ears and neck, suddenly
cold, shrank convulsively.

Wild with fear, I thrust forward my head against the rock and rested in
agony. A whir and wind of sudden wings made me conscious of outward
things again. Then a mad eagerness to climb swept away other feeling,
and my hands attempted in vain to clutch the rock. Not daring to cast my
head backward, I drew it tortoise-like between my raised shoulders, and
chin against the precipice, gazed upward with straining of vision from
under my eyebrows.

Far above me the dead wall stretched. Sidewise glances gave me glimpses
of the projecting summit coping. There was no hope in that direction.
But the distraction of scanning the cliff-side had given my nerves some
relief; to my memory again returned the promise of the Almighty and the
consciousness of his regard. Once more my muscles became firm-strung.

A cautious step sidewise made me know how much I had gained in ease and
security of motion by the change of front. I made progress that seemed
almost rapid for some rods, and even had exultation in my quick approach
to the rope. Hence came freedom to think how I should act on reaching
it, and speculation as to how soon my comrades would haul me up.

Then the idea rushed through me that they might even yet draw it away
too soon, that while almost in my clutch it might rise from my hands.
Instantly all the terrors of my position returned with tenfold force; an
outward thrust of the precipice seemed to grow distinct, my trembling
hands told me that it moved bodily toward me; the descent behind me took
an unspeakable remoteness, and from the utmost depth of that sheer air
seemed to ascend steadily a deadly and a chilling wind. But I think I
did not stop for an instant. Instead a delirium to move faster
possessed me, and with quick, sidelong steps—my following foot striking
hard against that before—sometimes on the point of stumbling, stretched
out like the crucified, I pressed in mortal terror along.

Every possible accident and delay was presented to my excited brain.
What if the ledge should narrow suddenly to nothing? Now I believed
that my heels were unsupported in air, and I moved along on tip-toe.
Now I was convinced that the narrow pathway sloped outward, that this
slope had become so distinct, so increasingly distinct, that I might at
any moment slip off into the void. But dominating every consideration
of possible disaster was still that of the need for speed, and distinct
amid all other terrors was that sensation of the dead wall ever silently
and inexorably pressing me outward.

My mouth and throat were choked with dryness, my convulsive lips parched
and arid; much I longed to press them against the cold, moist stone.
But I never stopped. Faster, faster, more wildly I stepped—in a frenzy
I pushed along. Then suddenly before my staring eyes was a
well-remembered edge of mossy stone, and I knew that the rope should be
directly behind me. Was it?

I glanced over my left shoulder. The rope was not to be seen! Wildly I
looked over the other—no rope! Almighty God! and hast thou deserted me?

But what! Yes, it moves, it sways in sight! it disappears—to return
again to view! There was the rope directly at my back, swinging in the
now strong breeze with a motion that had carried it away from my first
hurried glances. With the relief tears pressed to my eyes and, face
bowed to the precipice, almost forgetful for a little time of the hungry
air beneath, I offered deep thanks to my God for the deliverance that
seemed so near.

(The old man’s lips continued to move, but no sound came from them. We
waited silent while, with closed eyes and bent head, he remained
absorbed in the recollection of that strange minute of devoutness. It
was some moments before he spoke again:)

I stood there for what now seems a space of hours, perhaps half a minute
in reality. Then all the chances still to be run crowded upon me. To
turn around had been an attempt almost desperate, before, and certainty,
most certainly, the ledge was no wider where I now stood. Was the rope
within reach? I feared not. Would it sway toward me? I could hope for
that.

But could I grasp it should I be saved? Would it not yield to my hand,
coming slowly down as I pulled, unrolling from a coil above, trailing
over the ground at the top, running fast as its end approached the edge,
falling suddenly at last? Or was it fastened to the accustomed stake?
Was any comrade near who would summon aid at my signal? If not, and if
I grasped it, and if it held, how long should I swing in the wind that
now bore the freshness and tremors of an imminent gale?

Again fear took hold of me, and as a desperate man I prepared to turn my
face once more to the vast expanse of water and the nothing beyond that
awful cliff. Closing my eyes, I writhed around with I know not what
motions till again my back pressed the cliff. That was a restful
sensation. And now for the decision of my fate! I looked at the rope.
Not for a moment could I fancy it within my reach! Its sidewise
swayings were not, as I had expected, even slightly inward—indeed when
it fell back against the wind it swung outward as though the air were
eddying from the wall.

Now at last I gazed down steadily. Would a leap be certain death? The
water was of immense depth below. But what chance of striking it feet
or head first? What chance of preserving consciousness in the descent?
No, the leap would be death; that at least was clear.

Again I turned to the rope. I was now perfectly desperate, but steady,
nerved beyond the best moments of my life, good for an effort surpassing
the human. Still the rope swayed as before, and its motion was very
regular. I saw that I could touch it at any point of its gyration by a
strong leap.

But could I grasp it? What use if it were not firmly secured above?
But all time for hesitation had gone by. I knew too well that strength
was mine but for a moment, and that in the next reaction of weakness I
should drop from the wall like a dead fly. Bracing myself, I watched
the rope steadily for one round, and as it returned against the wind,
jumped straight out over the heaving Atlantic.

By God’s aid I reached, touched, clutched, held the strong line. And it
held! Not absolutely. Once, twice, and again, it gave, gave, with
jerks that tried my arms. I knew these indicated but tightening. Then
it held firm and I swung turning in the air, secure above the waves that
beat below.

To slide down and place my feet in the loop was the instinctive work of
a moment. Fortunately it was of dimensions to admit my body barely. I
slipped it over my thighs up to my armpits just as the dreaded reaction
of weakness came. Then I lost consciousness.

When I awakened my dear mother’s face was beside my pillow, and she told
me that I had been tossing for a fortnight in brain fever. Many weeks I
lay there, and when I got strong found that I had left my nerve on that
awful cliff-side. Never since have I been able to look from a height or
see any other human being on one without shuddering.

So now you know the story, Mr. Frazer, and have had your last walk on
the factory wall.

He spoke truer than he knew. His story has given me such horrible
nightmares ever since that I could no more walk on the high brickwork
than along that narrow ledge of the distant Polvydd coast.