― 144 ―

The Lighted Windows.

In a little back parlour of a little public-house a man sat at a small table with a newspaper and a glass before him. The walls of the room were dirty, but relieved at intervals with paper pictures pasted upon them; the floor was covered with a cheap linoleum from which the pattern had long disappeared, and in a number of places the linoleum was worn through, revealing a dirty hardwood floor, or else patches of grey-black dust. The man sat in a corner, with a gas jet flaring above his head. A pair of steel pince-nez were upon his nose, and the light, shining full upon his face, showed up his features with remarkable distinctness. He was middle-aged, square built, and of medium height, with short black hair, short black stubbly moustache and beard, thick lips, and small greedy black eyes. He wore a white cabbage-tree hat, a black tweed coat buttoned close, white ducks, and soiled cheap tanned boots.

A slim man of 30 came into the room, shut the door, and said “Good day, Macksky.” The newcomer had a small sallow face, a waxed moustache, a greenish suit, a light black cane, black patent leather boots, and white spats.

“Lor',” said Macksky, as he eyed the visitor all over, “you look just as if you had come out of a bandbox.”

“Well, I've just come out of a cab,” said the gentleman with the waxed moustache. “This is the second time I've been in Sydney, and it don't do for a young professional gentleman like me to walk about the city when he wants to learn the hang of it, and to admire the scenery. Besides, walking spoils the look of me patent leathers, and then the girls won't look at me.”

“I haven't called you in here, Dice, to talk about love's young dream,” said Mr. Macksky with a nerveful manner. “Wot I've called you in here for is to sit down and listen to me while I talk business.” Thus admonished, the somewhat foppish young gentleman sat down at the table and drank his glass of beer in three successive stages.

“You're a smart and a taking young fellow, Dice,” said Mr. Macksky with considerable warmth and amiability, “and I've got a little job in hand that I think you can carry out perfectly. Now, I suppose you know what Omar, the clever man of Persia, said about life and its opportunities—

“Gather the roses while you may—
Old time is swiftly flying.”

Mr. Wordice changed his hand with which he twirled his wax end, and smiled upon his mentor. “Why don't you say straight out you've got a plant, and you don't want me to let the grass grow under my feet?” remarked Mr.

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Wordice, with an air of professional pride and alacrity. “I believe in Australian poets, not Persians; and I like to see rich men in the position of Lord Ullin—left lamenting.”

“Exactly, my lad, exactly,” said Mr. Macksky, rubbing his right palm vigorously and enjoyably in his left; “the plant, my lad, is at the seaside, and the nice old party to whom you will pay your attentions is very well up in the money world. I have drawn out a little plan of his house and grounds.”

With that, Mr. Macksky, like a good business man, suiting the action to the word, produced from the inner breast pocket of his coat a piece of paper somewhat copiously marked with rough lines and wordings. “Now, you watch that, while I talk.” Mr. Wordice instantly put his stick upon the floor, smoothed the paper out carefully on the table, gazed steadily upon it, and listened respectfully to the discourse of his elder.

“The place is a white four-storied house at Manly, with a slate roof, two small pointed towers, a white flagstaff in the garden, and a white fence in front of the lot. The moment you are off the wharf turn to the left and go along the asphalt path under the pine trees. There will be nobody about in the evening, except the lovers sitting on the seats, and they'll be too interested in one another to notice you. When you find yourself getting near a low stone building with a lot of windows in it, and with sheds and palisading jutting out into the water, that'll be the baths. Stop about eighty yards this side of 'em, look up to the right, and you'll see a lamp-post. Go up the little asphalt track towards the lamp till you get on the footpath of the street. Keep along for about a hundred yards, then you'll come to where the iron fence turns to the left a few feet and stops short. You'll see two signboards there, one standing by itself, the other nailed to a tea-tree. Leave these two signboards on your right, follow the track that runs round the shores of the bay, and you'll come to it. There's barbed wire running along on top of the fence—look out for it. Round that way a bit there's a little lodge with nobody living in it. Don't go past it, because if you do you'll reach the fowlyard, and it won't do to go in that way, because you might wake cockolorum. But have a look at it, because just beyond it there's a bit of a paddock with thick scrub and lantana. You might have to run out that way, and if you do you can easily climb the fence, because it's ordinary two-rail and palings—no barbed wire. It's easy to get over that fence from either side, and if you do a bolt that way you'll be straight away among trees, bushes, and rocks. And you can go straight down the rocks into the water if you want to—rather too sudden in places—but there are good nooks to hide in. You'll need to wear boots, not shoes, because if you have to get hot-foot out of the house it's so rough and rocky all about there that you'll have a hundred to one chance of spraining your ankle. But I don't think there's the least chance that you'll have to cut and run. At the seaside everybody becomes free and easy. There's a lot of abandon and freedom. People get careless, and as likely as not you'll find some window open or unfastened. People sleep heavy there, too. The sea air and the sea bathing gives them good appetite and good digestion, and both those things make people forget their cares and troubles. I see by the paper that there'll be a southerly blowing to-morrow night. That'll cool the air, so everybody in that house will sleep

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like tops to-morrow night, and another thing in your favour is that the old parties have a good supply of wine, and treat the servants very cordially. There's one more thing in your favour: the southerly will make a row among the trees and cause a pretty good noise with the waves breaking on the shore; those sounds will deaden all other sounds. Do you understand me, Dice—is it so?”

“I have followed every word of it on this plan,” said the younger man, quietly.

The elder man continued: “Once you've got the stuff, come straight down from the house towards the water. You'll see a big church right opposite across the bay. You're bound to see some lights in it, because it's most conspicuous from where that house is, being right opposite, and high up on the hill. I spoke to you about the lodge. Well, in a line between that lodge and the church you'll see a track leading off the main track that runs round the shore. That little track leads down to the water. You can't miss it, because it starts just in front of a seat. Stone steps lead all the way down to a hole that's been hollowed out in the rocks and built in a bit, to make a bath. I'll be fishing in a boat just off that bath, and burning a little lamp in the bow. Give a low whistle. I'll bring the boat right into the bath, pick you off the rocks, and once you're aboard we'll paddle her back to Sydney. Is it so, Dice?”

“Good!” said the young burglar. “But you've said nothing about the boodle, what it is, or where it is.”

“I'm coming to that,” said the elder man, as he slowly puffed his pipe. “But I want you first to be clear on it, that although you're a limber chap you've got to be careful about finding those steps. If you go a bit to the left the fence that's there might stop you or it mightn't, and if you should fall it's a forty-foot drop on to solid rock; that means ta-ta. And take care that you don't get to the right of the steps, for if you do—well, you know what happens to birds' eggs when they fall out of the trees. Well, you'll fall just as straight, just as hard, and you'll break just as badly there. Is it so, Dice?”

“I'll see to those steps before I'll do the trick, Mr. Mack.,” said the younger man, looking up and twirling his moustache. “If anybody falls there, it's the man I rabbit as he's following me—understand?”

For answer the amiable Mr. Macksky smiled unctuously upon his pupil.

“The police down there are a pretty sleepy lot,” continued Mr. Macksky. “They think of nothing else but trying to catch the publicans selling drink on a Sunday, and they don't know enough to do it. Or else they moon about the beach. You needn't worry about them. Well, on the side of the house near those signboards I told you of, the ground rises inside of the fence in the form of a high bank. There are plenty of trees and shrubs inside—big pine trees. There are also a few fruit trees, peaches and that. Don't take the peaches—leave 'em for the small boys on a dark night.”

“You're a verbose old fraud,” remarked Mr. Wordice. “Why don't you come to the point?”

“Remember all the geography I'm teaching you,” said Mr. Macksky with much dignity, “and you'll not only get the silver, but you'll get away with it.”

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“Well, I'm on top of the bank,” said Mr. Wordice. “How am I to get inside the house, and how am I to get to the little plant?”

“The silver,” said Mr. Macksky, “is all kept in a cupboard leading off the dining-room. The dining-room is the front room on the eastern side. As I told you before, the chances are you'll find a window open. If they're all shut you'll have to effect a little gentle persuasion. Is it so, Dice?”

“Right!” ejaculated his companion. “When I come down those steps I'll whistle ‘Love's Young Dream.’ ”

“Whistle it soft and low, Dice,” remarked Mr. Macksky with a deep inward chuckle, “whistle it soft and low, and yours ever will come to you.”

Now, when Mr. Reginald Wordice in a preliminary reconnoitre reached the top of the steps described by the excellent and painstaking Mr. Macksky, he was confronted by a spectacle that, criminal as he was, made him very uneasy. It was not the steepness of the stone steps that disconcerted him, nor was he in any way disheartened by the fortress he had to capture. On the contrary, he had been most favourably impressed, having found everything faithfully there as described by his industrious and admirable mentor. But the sight that upset him was afforded by the great church. It was far larger than any other building visible on the landscape. It was the commanding figure, the great centrepiece that looked down guardian-like upon the hundreds of houses, the smaller buildings upon its right and left. From its centre rose a square tower, and from the top of the tower a flagstaff pointed to the sky—“to heaven,” the voice of suppressed religion whispered within Mr. Wordice. He had heard many stories from his mother and his father of the far-reaching power and invincibility of the Church. He knew no sects, but all religions were massed in his mind as “the Church.” Wordice flattered himself that he was an atheist, but the germ of religion transmitted to him by inheritance now began working inside him, causing him discontent and misgiving. His imagination began to play. He found himself staring at the hundred windows of the great edifice and fancying that the windows were eyes all watching him, taking note of him, waiting for his next move. When a chorister walked out of the building, Wordice almost expected him to produce a telescope and point it directly at him. Certainly, if a clergyman were sitting at one of those windows looking over the landscape with a field-glass or a telescope, the first thing he might light on would be Wordice himself, since he was directly opposite. But to the credit of Mr. Wordice it must be said that he was too sincere a criminal to be very long bothered by these fears. He shook them off, went down the hill, and, entering a hotel, ordered dinner. He asked if he might have his coffee on the balcony. The landlady agreed with a smile, and said she would bring it up to him. He rose from the table, and, going up the stairs leading to the balcony, arrived at the little drawing-room, took hold of a comfortable chair, wheeled it upon the balcony, placed it in a convenient position, and then with accustomed coolness placed his feet upon the balcony railing before him, and leaning back in the chair dozingly surveyed the sea. Then, oppressed by the heaviness

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of the air, which was coming in fast in the form of a wet north-easter, he fell asleep.

When he awoke it was just on half-past 10, his hat had fallen off and rolled some feet away, and his right arm, which had fallen to the floor, was quite numb. He soon set these little things right, however, and went out.

It has often been commented upon by philosophers that the unforeseen, the accidental, and the insignificant play the most important parts in the development of the drama of human life. We can lay our plans, we can take every possible precaution for their successful execution, but we can never eliminate the element of chance, the million and one causes that may arise in the world without, to thwart or defeat our most carefully deliberated schemes. Our senses and our capacities being limited, we can never too surely rely upon the exactness and completeness of our own observations. Thus Mr. Macksky, who had taken the most careful note of all the surroundings of the big house, had taken no note whatever of the tremendous din made in the trees around by the locusts that swarmed on every trunk and limb. He had gone into the back entrance and later into the front entrance, on the pretence of asking questions as to whether or not the house was for sale. The real object of his visit was to ascertain whether there was a dog on the premises. Finding none, he had come away in great jubilation, and therein was the shortness of his wisdom; for although no dog was there, he would have perceived, had he looked attentively, that there was a large cat snoozing on the verandah in the sunshine. The dishonest assistant of a fashionable jeweller had given him exact information about the value of the silver, but the same assistant had never even suggested that a youth who had fallen soundly asleep at 11 p.m. may be awakened by a noise half an hour later, and, feeling hungry, may forthwith arise and go down to the dining-room and thrust his head into the very cupboard where the silver is kept unprotected. Nor would these forces have ever become active in the fields of this story had not Mr. Wordice, strange as the assertion may seem, possessed quite a number of mental and moral defects, the smallest of which was contrariness. Thus, when he discovered two windows open in the dining-room, he did not take the one nearer the ground, but chose the one that was two or three inches higher. This, however, would have been of no consequence whatever had it not caused Mr. Wordice to alight somewhat heavily on the one creaking board in the floor of the dining-room. This is turn would have signified nothing, had not the open window let in an hour earlier the family cat, and two hours earlier a “yellow mundy” locust. The creaking of the board agitated the locust in the corner to which it had crawled. It squeaked. The cat awoke, bounded over to it, and began pawing and playing with it. Every time it tried to fly from the floor the cat struck it down. It began to “sing” at its top, and the locusts on the trees without caught up the refrain and sang in clear sonorous chorus. The boy, awakened by the noise, same downstairs looking for food. He put his head into the cupboard, surprising Mr. Wordice, who without hesitation smashed the boy down with a terrible blow on the head from a heavy silver mug. Then he rushed across the room, slipped out of the window, and made his escape. Reaching the esplanade he saw there was no steamer at the wharf; he went straight on past the wharf to the place where the rowing

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fleet is moored. Wading into the water, he got hold of a boat, cut the rope of its moorings, and, with the help of the rudder, which he found lying in the bottom of the boat, he began paddling out from shore. He intended to paddle over to the spot where Macksky was fishing. But suddenly the rudder fell from his nerveless grasp; he shrank down, appalled by the lights that shone from a hundred windows. One moment the windows were ablaze, the next they were in utter darkness. Very soon they shone again, then once again they were shrouded in the blackness of the night. And this kept recurring and recurring at regular intervals, until the man, with the fear of the murderer shaking him like a palsy, saw in it the action of the supernatural, the effect of something done by the Church—the Church. They were doing this, these black-robed men of the Church, who kept vigil and prayed through the night. They had heard the blood of the murdered man crying from the earth, as God had heard the blood of Abel crying after the first great crime. By supernatural agency the windows seemed to light up, to darken; to relight, and re-darken; and this he knew would go on till the hue and cry were raised. The telephones would be set in motion, the police would begin scouring the harbour, and here he was alone in a boat, trying to paddle his way with the help only of a rudder. They would know him at once by these signs; and once they had him, what then? The thought never came to his brain in its full reality, but, actuating his muscles, caused him to fling himself overboard. The water was deep, and, being unable to swim, he soon choked and sank.

Early next morning they found his body. Nobody identified him, not even the youth whom he had struck down, and who had recovered of his own accord after laying stunned for ten or twelve minutes.

The jury returned a verdict of “found drowned.” Nobody suspected for a moment that he was a comparative stranger in Sydney, and that his death was brought about by the effect made upon the windows by the revolving light of the lighthouse at South Head.