previous
next



  ― 224 ―

An Old Pocket Book—A Tragedy.

It had been a hot and sultry day, and as the afternoon advanced the signs of the coming thunderstorm, which had been visible for some time, became more pronounced. A horseman, who had reached the brow of a hill, reined to a standstill and looked at the rapidly-gathering clouds.

He did not remain stationary long. Urging his horse into a canter again, he continued his way down into the picturesque valley which lay before him. A quarter of an hour later he had dismounted at the door of a wayside hotel.

The landlord, who, from his door, had watched the stranger's approach, called to a boy to “take the gentleman's horse.”

“I shall not stay more than a few minutes,” said the newcomer. “Let the boy hold the horse here.”

“Better wait till the storm is spent, sir,” said the landlord. “It may blow over in half an hour, and the horse will be comfortable in the stable.”

The stranger made no reply to this, but straightway entered the house. The landlord following, he received an order for a tankard of ale, which, when it had been supplied, was quaffed with evident relish.

“How far is it to the property owned by old John Hazel?” the newcomer asked.

“Inside a mile and a half,” replied the hotelkeeper; “on this side of the road. It's the fourth place you come to. Are you the gentleman who's bought the place, might I ask?”

“Yes.”

“Then you will be Mr. Davis?”

“That is my name.”

“We heard, up here, that the Crown had sold the property some time ago. But Christmas Eve, if you'll excuse my saying it, seems a pecullar time to inspect it—for I suppose that's what you've come for?”

“And why should Christmas Eve be a peculiar time?”

“Oh, I don't know,” replied the other, “except that most people spend Christmas at home.”

“Oh, I had to take advantage of the holidays. I suppose I can have a bed here to-night? I must ride back to the railway station to-morrow.”

“A bed? Certainly. But why not put up now, instead of going on in the storm, and ride over to the place in the morning?”

“The storm will not break for a couple of hours yet,” replied Mr. Davis. “I shall have plenty of time to do what I want to do. But tell me, if you can, what sort of a place it is. I bought it, of course, entirely on the description given on paper.”




  ― 225 ―

“Well,” said the landlord, “the land is good enough, but the house is falling down. I suppose you have heard the story about old Hazel?”

“No, I have not. You may tell it me when I come back, if you like. I'll move on now. You'll have something to eat ready by the time I return?”

“All right. I thought I'd mention old Hazel, because when a man is going into a house where a supposed murderer has——”

“What's that?” exclaimed the other, stopping on his way to the door and turning sharply.

“Why, it's only a supposition, of course. But what was one to think, in the circumstances?”

“What circumstances?”

“Well, that's the story. In as few words as I can put it, seeing that you won't be persuaded to stay, old Hazel many years ago was disappointed in love. The girl he wanted married another chap, and went to live in Sydney. Some little time after, there was a terrible tragedy in the city, and Hazel went down with the express purpose of taking vengeance into his own hands. After a while he came back, but he was an altered man, aged-looking, and very silent. And, strangely enough, the man he went out to hunt was never seen again. People round here got the impression that he had found the man and had killed him. It might have been wrong, but things seemed to justify it. And he would never say anything in reply to hints. There was only one man bold enough to tackle him straight out and ask how he had fared in the city, and if things were all right; and all he said was that he was satisfied, that a big debt had been paid in God's own way. Mighty queer answer it was reckoned, but it was all he would give. And so there was no proof that he had done anything criminal. He lived on here for many years; lived all alone after his mother died, and presently he died himself. That was years ago. He hadn't a soul in the world related to him, and, as he died without making a will, the little farm went to the Crown. But, as you've bought it, you know all about that.”

“So that's the story?” said the stranger, moving to the door again. “I am inclined to think your suppositions were wrong. Because the man chose to nurse his sorrow alone, busybodies wove this tale of mystery and imagination about him. Pity they hadn't something better to occupy themselves with!”

He mounted his horse and rode off along the winding road. It was not long ere he reached the place he had come in search of. It was much neglected. Much of the fencing was out of repair, and what had once been a flower garden in front of the house was now a wilderness.

The house itself was valueless, save that its timbers might be used in patching up sheds, and the new owner decided that it must come down at once. Dismounting, he peered in through a broken window: and then, noticing that a door had fallen partly from its hinges, he tied his horse to a dead peach tree near, and proceeded to enter.

But just then the storm, which had threatened so long, broke with unexpected suddenness, and stepping back he untethered the horse and led it into the old house.

“Not so good a place as you shall find yourself in presently,” he said, as


  ― 226 ―
the animal seemed rather disinclined to enter; “but we shall be out of the wet here, at all events.”

The front door opened directly into a room, there being no hall to the house. Finding an empty box near the dilapidated fireplace, the new owner seated himself thereon, holding the bridle reins loosely.

He sat thus for nearly half an hour, waiting for the rain to cease. Once he spoke to the horse, which was restlessly pawing the floor.

“You'll drive a hole through there if you stamp so heavily, old chap,” he said. And then, a moment later: “There, you've done it now. Stand over!”

Looking idly at the gap which had been made in the rotten floor, he was surprised to see a packet. Hastily securing and opening it, he found an old pocketbook, the sheets of which were closely written on. The light had faded rapidly, and he was unable to decipher the writing.

Putting the packet carefully into his pocket, he looked out to see if the storm was spent. His scrutiny satisfied him, for in a few minutes he was cantering briskly back to the hotel.

He said nothing to the inquisitive landlord as to his discovery, but, having partaken of a meal which had been prepared, retired at once to the room set apart for him, and then, locking the door, he lighted his pipe, took the strangely-found packet from his pocket, turned up the wick of the lamp, and settled himself to read. And this is what was written:—

It is a strange story I am about to write, but I deem it well that all should be set down in black and white, so that the truth of things be known. Yet that must be till, in the fulness of time, my bones have been laid in their last resting-place, being convinced that no good end would be served by publishing the facts before then, but only increased trouble and care brought upon me. And as, of all those concerned, I am the only one still on this side of the great dark river, there will be none, when I am gone, to be injured or embarrassed by the recital.

I am but a poor hand with the pen, my muscles having been hardened by the grip of plough handles and the jarring of heavy farm tools. The writing of a letter was always a difficult task, and one which I always avoided performing if my business could be done by word of mouth; so that I fear the setting down of what I desire will be but poorly accomplished. Nevertheless, having set myself to it, I will endeavour to carry it on to the end. Then, it mattering not much in which generation it be read, I shall place the paper in some unlooked-for place, and leave its discovery to the working of chance.

Having written this much of myself, it is well that I proceed with the history I have set myself to chronicle. In early life the comeliness of face and figure and winsome ways of Mary Ford won my heart, and engendered an affection which strengthened as the days passed, and which remains to this day unchanged, though its object has long been but a memory. Her father's farm adjoined that which was owned and managed by my widowed mother, aided by my able-bodied self. My love for Mary grew as I grew to manhood, yet I worshipped at a distance, for she seemed too refined to be mated with one of such rough exterior and unpolished manners as I. Yet, being such


  ― 227 ―
close neighbours, I saw her and was in her company frequently, and despite my awkward ways I felt that she must have seen that my beart was hers to do with as she would.

I never rightly knew how it came about, but one day, while Mary was still in short frocks, she became possessed of a violin. And when some time had passed there came to stay in our village an old man who also played upon this beautiful instrument. During the time that he was in our midst he took Mary under his care, and so led her on the way to knowledge of the violin. She speedily became a very proficient and sympathetic player. Often have I allowed my horses to stand idle while I listened to the beautiful music she made, and which, as it swept across the paddock from her house to where I was, seemed, to my simple and adoring senses, like harmony direct from heaven.

For a long time, as I have said, my love for Mary remained unspoken. Often had I said to myself that I must take firm hold of my courage and tell her how it was with me; but just as often I found myself wanting in courage when the opportunity came. So it was that, when she had passed her nineteenth birthday, I was still silent. The time was to quickly come, however—though I dreamt not of it then—when I was to speak and to be spoken to.

She was standing one evening by the sliprails opening on to the road. She told me a gentleman sent from Sydney who knew her father was at their place. The visitor had been very ill, and came to the country to gather health and strength. The moment she told me that I felt in my heart that this man would take my Mary away.

I saw him first on the morning of the next Sunday, and I noticed that he was a little lame. He was a handsome man, well-dressed, and with the city manner of speech. I was barely civil with him in returning the time of day.

He must have had a serious illness, for he stayed at Ford's for two months. When he had gone I breathed a little easier. But my peace of mind was soon to be again upset, and at a time, too, when I had at last screwed my courage up to speak. One afternoon I saw my heart's desire set out from home, and I awaited her return. When I saw her coming presently, I left my horses standing and went to meet her.

“Oh, John,” she said, before ever I could open my mouth, “I am going to make my fortune. I am going away from this sleepy old place to Sydney.”

“Going to Sydney!” I gasped. apart from him, and then, locking the door, be lighted his pipe, took the though you were sorry. I thought you would be glad to know I am to become a great player.”

“But you are not going to stay in Sydney?”

“Oh, but I am: and Mr. Sturt—that's the gentleman who was staying with us, you know—is the manager of a theatre company, and was so pleased with my playing on the violin that he said it was a shame that I should be buried here, and he promised that he would make a ‘star’ of me. But why don't you say something nice to me?”

“Something nice!” I said, when at lenght I found my tongue. “How can I say anything nice when you are going away?”




  ― 228 ―

And then I blurted out that I loved her. She told me, as kindly as she could, that to marry me was impossible. She said she had a career before her, and if she married me it would be lost. She took my hand and said, simply, “Thank you, John,” when I told her that I wished only for her happiness, and moved away. I stood where she had left me. In a moment she turned and came back, put her hands on my shoulders, and, leaning forward, kissed me on the cheek. I feel the spot burn now when I think of it. Then she ran away. I called to the horses, and, as they moved, the jackasses in the tree laughed. If I had had my gun they would have died in the midst of their mockery.

The world seemed empty after Mary went away. I read, after some months had passed, of her successful entry upon the career she had looked forward to. Then I read that she was engaged to be married. And shortly after this, to me, distressing news, came Mary herself. How beautiful she looked, and how improved by her sojourn in the city among accomplished people. She came to the gap in the fence in just the old way on the very day of her arrival.

There is no need to here set down what was spoken between us. She stayed but a few days at her old home, and then returned to the city, her mother going with her, for the marriage was to take place in Sydney. I saw the heading in the paper, but could never bring myself to read the account of the ceremony.

One day, nearly twelve months after, I entered the house and found my mother had been crying. She strove to hide a newspaper from my sight, but I was too quick for her. She urged me to be calm and brave before she would give me the paper, for, good soul, she well knew my passion for Mary. Well might my mother have pleaded with me to control myself. Mary was dead. She had been struck down by a murderous blow, and, her husband having disappeared, suspicion was fastened upon him.

Presently I told my mother—and I was surprised at the calmness and steadiness of my voice—that I was going to Sydney at once.

“But why?” she questioned. “Surely it is no business of yours? She has a father, and she has a husband.”

“It's her husband I am going to find,” I replied. “Did you not read that he has not been seen since the terrible thing was done? He is responsible, I tell you. He has done this.”

“You always disliked him,” murmured my mother, “and in your bias you misjudge him.”

“I will wring the truth from him,” I said.

“But no violence,” pleaded my mother, putting a hand on my shoulder.

I made no answer to this, but I left home intent on taking this man's life unless his explanation satisfied me fully.

There is no need to recount my vain search in Sydney, and come to one soft, summer, moonlit night, when I had gone out near Watson's Bay to bay a visit to an old friend of my mother's. It was, as well I remember, Christmas eve, that special period of the year when men should be at peace with men, and nought but goodwill for the present and future prevail. Peace! Goodwill


  ― 229 ―
I smiled quietly as the thought came to me, for, so far from being at peace with all men, there was something very like a murderous thought in my heart against one man. I had left the house to return to my lodging, and when near the garden gate I noticed a man passing along the road; not going towards the city, but away from it. By the moonlight I saw—and my heartbeats quickened at the sight—that this man limped a little as he walked. The next moment I was following him.

For some reason, which I did not at the moment perceive, he kept himself as much as possible in the shade of clumps of trees and such growth of scrub as there was beside the road. I kept him in sight, however, determined to follow till he was well clear of what few houses there were in the vicinity.

Presently I perceived that, while I was so carefully following him, he was with equal care and caution following someone else, and that he sought the shade as much as possible to avoid being seen by the man he was in pursuit of. So that it was a double chase. I had decided to come up with my man at the first favourable spot, but, finding matters as they were, I determined to see something of what was afoot before bringing my own affair to the front.

Shortly after this, when we had almost reached the seafront, my man suddenly plunged into the scrub on the left-hand side of the way, and for a few moments I lost him. Darting after him, I soon caught sight of him again making his way up a little incline some distance ahead. Determined now to take no further risks of delay, I hastened forward to such good purpose that on the edge of another little patch of scrub I overtook him.

He gave a start of astonishment when he saw and recognised me. Then, holding up his hand in caution, he said, just above a whisper:

“Speak softly. Don't make a noise.”

“You and I have a few words to exchange,” said I, “and I see no reason why we should be particular about speaking in whispers in this lonely spot.”

“Pray speak softer, good John,” he said, glancing hurriedly and anxiously over his shoulder.

“Call me not ‘good John,’ you,” I retorted, hotly. “I have a few questions to which I want answers, and I will have them now.”

His manner had angered me almost beyond my controlling, and I felt that at the next moment I must have taken him in my arms, and, with the strength of my hardened muscles, crushed the life out of him. For in those days I was a very strong young man. With a single blow of my clenched fist I have felled a horse. But I kept my hands at my side, for I knew that if I struck him it would mean death, being in the mood I then was; and I would not do that until I had learned the truth of my suspicions.

“In the first place,” said I, when he again interrupted.

“Hash!” he said. “He comes at last.” Then he smiled, such a smile that I hope never to see on a human face again.

“I think I know your questions, good John,” he whispered. “Wait but a few minutes more and you will get the answers. But”—and he raised his hand threateningly—“interfere not.”

As he finished speaking I heard the sound of a footfall. We were beside the road, which at that point ran quite near the edge of the cliff, whose bluff wall was washed by the sea.




  ― 230 ―

Sturt, of a sudden, stepped forward and stood full in the moonlight. A man who was approaching stopped with a cry of alarm, and then made as though he would run off.

“Stand!” cried Sturt, quickly producing a revolver. “Stand, or I will blow your brains out.”

I witnessed this, and what followed, from the shelter of the scrub. Standing as I was quite close to the road, I heard all that was said. And I got the answers to the questions I had not asked.

“You are my wife's murderer,” said Sturt, who, with folded arms now, stood but three paces from the other.

“No, no!” cried the man, shrinking back at the accusation. “You cannot say that. 'Twas you who struck the blow.”

“True,” said Sturt, his voice cold and level, “I grant you that.”

I half stepped forward, at this confession, to lay hands on him; but, recollecting that there might be more to come, I withheld. Nevertheless I put my hand on a little weapon in my pocket, determined that if any attempt at a runaway were made. I would stop it effectually.

“I grant you that,” Sturt went on. “But how came the blow to be struck?”

The other man made no reply to this. I saw him glance furtively over his shoulder, as though to see a road where flight would be of avail. It was but a momentary glance, and then his eyes were again fixed on the face of the man speaking.

“You villain!” Sturt went on. “You were received into my house as a friends, and of the freedom allowed you there you sought to take advantage. My wife spoke to me of you; and returning once, as you remember I returned, I found you there again, and charged you with your perfidy. Is that true?”

The other did not speak, but I saw him glance again over his shoulder.

“And then I struck you,” said Sturt; “and having struck you, grasped my heavy stick to strike again. Then my wife”—his voice faltered at the word, and it was a moment or so before he proceeded—“my wife, tearful of what might result to me, rushed between, and the blow meant for you fell upon her. Is that true?”

A mechanical nod of the head, but no sound of the voice.

“She dropped at my feet,” said Sturt, his voice hardening as he proceeded, “and while I was attending to her you fled.”

At last the other found his voice.

“No, no!” he cried in a whining voice, “I struck no blow. 'Twas you, but it was a mistake; her own fault.”

“You struck no blow; no. But if you had never darkened my door, if you had been a man instead of a serpent, no blow would have been struck. But that is past, past, and we have reached the present.”

He unfolded his arms and advanced a stride, and then said, in a low, tense voice:

“That, I say, is past. And now I am going to take your life in payment for hers.”

I heard the other emit a dreadful scream of fear. The next instant Sturt's arms were about his body. His strength surprised me, and I could not help thinking, even in that intense moment, that if I had come to grips with him,


  ― 231 ―
strong as I was, I should have met a strong man.

The man who had been seized so suddenly spoke but once during the early stages of the great struggle.

“Let go!” I heard him say. “Let go, or I'll tear your throat out! Hands off; I'll strangle you!”

“I shall never let go again,” hissed Sturt. “The law wants my life; I want yours. We go to-night together.”

Stepping from the shade of the scrub, I went near them, and stood, silent, watching the struggle. Never had I seen such a pitting of strength, for both were strong men. Sturt's lameness seemed to have disappeared, and he held his man in an iron grip, never heeding the blows which were rained upon him. Whenever he got a chance he loosened his hold. He reminded me of the tactics of the bulldog, with this difference, that having got hold and never letting go, instead of working up he worked down. I saw his meaning the first time I noticed his arms move, and knew then what was in his mind.

Yet, though I knew that murder was being enacted before me, I made no effort to separate them. I had hunted for days with murder in my own heart, and the sight before me increased my blood-thirst. May leaven forgive me my thoughts of the moment, and of the days I had passed through. For my proper senses had left me for the time being.

I know a strong man when I see one, and I know when I see a strong man who knows how to use his strength. The men before me were both strong, and both knew their strength. Both knew, also, that their struggle was one of life or death. And death was very near, for Sturt was slowly but surely forcing a way to the edge of the cliff. His purpose was plain to me. The death he feared not himself, but which he was determined the other should share, was waiting a hundred feet below.

No blows were struck now by the man whom Sturt held in his mighty embrace. It was a trial of muscle and weight, the one to reach the precipice, the other to force back from it. The turf was torn and scattered by their heels. Not a sound came from either, and not a sound came from anywhere about the scene of the awful struggle.

They were on the very brink, and I scarce dared breathe. But now a reversion of feeling came upon me, and I stepped forward to pluck them back from the plunge into eternity. Yet, even as I took the first hasty step forward I stopped, for the voice of Sturt's victim sounded again.

“For the love of God, let go!” he gasped. “I will do anything—anything —for you.”

At this I, too, found my tongue.

“Loose your hold, Sturt,” I cried, stepping nearer. “Let him go. I have heard the story, and I myself will help you. Spill no more blood.”

Then came the crisis.

With a supreme effort Sturt lifted the struggling and terrified man clean off the ground, and held him there despite his struggles.

“Yes, you shall go,” he cried. “You shall go—with me!”

With an exultant cry he sprang outwards from the cliff's edge.

previous
next