X Amber Eyes

THE old saw is fallible—“murder will out.” Murder does not always out. Jim McGrath, when brought to trial, stoutly protested his innocence, and for the rest maintained that he knew absolutely nothing of the crime. He had been offered a free-pardon if he would turn Queen's evidence, but had doggedly refused. After

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all, the testimony against him was purely circumstantial. He had been caught within fifty yards of Tobin's body, lying on the ground half-stunned from a fall, stretched out at full length, his feet pointing in the direction of the victim. Then on arrest he had failed to give any satisfactory account of his presence in that locality. It was far from his home, he had no apparent business there. He elected to give evidence on his own behalf, and asserted that he had been quietly strolling along, when he suddenly heard a revolver shot, and the moment afterwards had been knocked down by running men, whom he could not see because of the dark. Cross-examined, he denied having heard any previous out-cry, a policeman's whistle, or groans. He swore that he had simply gone for a stroll because he had found himself unable to sleep. He failed to explain the reason of the direction in which his body was lying when he was discovered by the police, but vigorously protested he had been walking towards the scene of the crime when overthrown. Counsel for the defence smoothed this difficulty, and demonstrated that the direction of his body might just as easily be accounted for by a sudden assault, as the theory put forward by the prosecution that McGrath had stumbled and fallen in his flight. The defending barrister, an eminent Q.C., made out a very strong case for his client, and succeeded not only in shaking the minds of the jury, but in disturbing the opinions of the Sydney public. Judge Windeyer, however, summed up dead against the prisoner, laying special emphasis on the extraordinary fact that McGrath had sworn he did not hear Tobin's whistle for assistance, when at the time it was blown he could not have been far off, and two constables had heard it from a much greater distance. The jury, after a lengthy deliberation, brought in a verdict of guilty, but nevertheless strongly recommended the prisoner to mercy, and their rider had the effect of unsettling even the judge's strong opinion of the case. Sir William Windeyer put on the black cap, and sentenced James McGrath to be hanged; but on the following day made such representations to the Executive Council that the sentence was presently commuted to one of imprisonment for life.

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Thus Jim McGrath passed from the world of freedom, to expiate the brutal crime in which he had participated, in the solitude of a cell. The Push to which he had been so faithful—to the point of his own annihilation—regarded his fate with mournful gratitude. He was looked upon as a hero and a martyr, and to this day his memory is revered among them. His old mother was voted the sum of twenty-five shillings weekly for her maintenance, but in a few weeks she died of a broken heart; she had idolised her son, and had never believed him guilty. The whole Push attended her funeral; their faces were very grave, almost sorrowful. Afterwards many got drunk without permission; but my uncle paid their fines, and never sought to punish them for the breach of Push law involved. It was a very sad and dreadful time, and made a deep impression upon us all. Even Judith Kelly, who was secretly glad to be rid of her lover, went about with a downcast countenance, discreetly garbed in black. But as McGrath's widowed sweetheart, she was looked upon with great and universal pity, and I think she extracted a good deal of quiet pleasure from the attentions that were paid her, and the many consolatory presents she received from various members of the Push. McGrath was always alluded to as a dead man, he was called “the late,” and voices were hushed in naming him. So deeply was he regretted, that it was resolved to allow his place in the council to remain vacant for six months as an appreciatory tribute to his Push virtues. Speech-making was forbidden, no picnics were undertaken, and the Push-met only in secret conclave. One evening my uncle informed me that he had broken to them his new resolve, and informed them that he would no longer countenance the murder of their enemies. He said that they had accepted his determination without a murmur. In a queer depressed fashion I was glad, but I had suffered so much that all news was good. If he had told me that my death had been decreed I should, I think, have welcomed the knowledge with equal joy. Through the days, and far into each night, I sedulously worked at my studies. I had purchased the text books required for my first year at the University, and in three months knew them almost by heart.

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In work was my only solace, my only respite from black, haunting thoughts. I wonder if I was singular in this;—sometimes after a wretched night spent in hopeless brooding, my feelings would grow so dull that I would say to myself, “At last the limit is attained, I have not the capacity to endure further pain; I am at peace.” Then for many hours I would be callous, indifferent, heavy. But some trivial thing would happen; a look, a cough, a hand-clasp, and the whole agony would recur with renewed force, if with slightly altered pain-tones. For instance, if for a time I had sorrowed because of my unwitting guilt of knowledge, and a respite came, I was never so hardened that a hoarse voice could not recall Tobin's dying groan. Over and over again I would hear his groans. I would grow used to them, listen to them so long that at last I could hear them almost unmoved. Another respite, then a sigh would send me into brooding on my cowardly inaction. I felt myself an unspeakable thing that I had not gone forward and shared McGrath's fate, confessed my companionship with him on that night of horror.

The ban upon my wanderings had been removed, but I did not avail myself of my new freedom. I lacked interest in anything but work. My uncle often turned me out of the house, forcing me to take exercise. I would take a book, wander to some secluded spot very near the sea, read and brood. I have seen Tobin killed a hundred times a day, a thousand times a night. Not as the crime was actually committed, shrouded in the gloom of Erebus, but in a faint leaden twilight, through which I could mark his death struggle, his pitifully extended arms, and see the wild anguish of his upturned eyes. Then again I was often forced to take part, a real part. I would kick him in the ribs, fiercely, brutally; feel the shrinking shudder of his frame, hear the dull thud of my shod foot on his mangled flesh. And this repeated so many times, that I would sometimes lose control of my reason, and ask myself the dreadful question, “Did you not in reality take part? are you not in reality guilty of his death?” I am unskilled in the art of relation; emotions are often so intangible, however painful, that they are hard to describe; but it may be understood

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that I suffered much, even though I fail in explaining how, or why. In the cooler light of added years I feel sure I suffered causelessly. I was never to blame for Tobin's murder, but nevertheless I am glad I suffered. My suffering distinguished me from the real murderers. They did not care; they had no remorse, no perception of a need for it. They were for a time shocked while the danger lasted of McGrath betraying them, but after that had passed, they plucked up courage, and, although deprived of picnics, sang, laughed, danced, and paraded the lanes with mouth-organs or concertinas as in days of old. They spat on the ground if ever Tobin was named before them. I would follow the direction of their unmanly contempt, expecting to see a vengeful spirit rise like a blighting humour from the earth. But how I envied them! Such a callousness, such a lack of conscience and remorse, I told myself, must be the greatest of all heaven's blessings. But I was cursed, and could not avoid my curse.

One night I resolved to escape it all. I left the shop a little after nightfall, and made my way to the barren rocks before the observatory hill. There the workmen, who had been mending the old sea-wall, had left a great pile of cut freestone at the very edge of the sea. Now it is my habit to compose myself to sleep lying on my left side, and after a little while I always unconsciously turn and sleep upon my back. I therefore climbed to the summit of the stones, and stretched myself upon my left side, facing the land, at the extreme verge of the precipice. I knew that I should sleep soon, for I was very weary. Then after a while I would turn in my sleep, and fall into the sea. I could not swim; the water was deep, the sea-wall slippery; thus would come the end, for boats were far, and probably no one would hear my drowning cries. The resolve gave me a blessed sense of relief and joy which I had not known for months. I felt it was an evil thing to commit suicide, but I appeased my conscience with this reflection: should I fall as I hoped and die, it would not be suicide, seeing that it would take place in my sleep. I stopped just there, fearing argument, for conscience is an untiring debater. I put the whole responsibility upon Providence. I said to

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myself, “As God wills, so it will come to pass. If He wishes me to live, He will not let me turn.”

So it fell out. Before many moments I was wrapped in sound and dreamless [?] slumber. I awoke without a start. Hours had passed. Something soft but firm circled my body. A great full golden moon had risen, which bathed the world in a flood of amber radiance. It was almost bright as day. A woman held her arm about me to prevent me falling, with her other hand she clutched an escarpment of rock; she was kneeling on the stones. Another woman held the lapel of my coat with both hands; she was also kneeling, but her body was bent backwards to give her leverage. They had evidently determined to save my life. I thought at first one was Judith Kelly, but her voice swiftly dispelled the illusion; a beautiful voice, which, although full of anxiety, was nevertheless deep toned, musical, and sweetly modulated.

“Are you awake?” she asked.


“Do not stir yet, I want you to realise your position. You are lying on the edge of a precipice, the least movement away from me will precipitate you into the water.”

I lay quite still for a moment, thinking how beautiful her voice sounded. I had never heard a lady speak before. I knew at once this woman was a lady. I wished she would speak again.

“Do you think you could roll over a little towards me?” she asked.

I opened my eyes wide, and saw her face. It was very white, the skin like cream. Her eyes were a wonderful deep amber colour, and, radiating from the pupils, struck a shower of darker bars. I gazed into them entranced.

“I think so!” I said, and slowly turned over until I rested on my face, then quickly I arose. The women, too, fell back, and got to their feet. We stood regarding each other on the pile of the stones. I saw that they were both young. She who had spoken was no more than eighteen, the other seemed even younger.

“How did you come to go to sleep there?” asked the amber-eyed woman.

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I shook my head; I could not tell her the truth, but I would not lie to her.

“Well, you are alright now,” she suggested.

“Yes, thank you.”

“Come, Edith!” she said, and turned to her companion, a slim childish figure of a girl, pretty, but with rather an uninteresting face. She suddenly stooped and picked up a book. “Is this yours?” she asked me, and glanced at the title page. The print was perfectly legible in the splendid moonlight. She read it aloud, “Euripides.” “Oh, it's yours, May.”

“No,” replied the other, “I had no book.”

“It is mine, I think!” I muttered, hesitatingly. It was a text book which I had from mere force of habit taken with me on my errand of self-destruction.

The girl handed it up, and glanced at me with sudden curiosity.

“Do you read Greek?” asked the girl Edith.

“Very imperfectly,” I replied, receiving the book from her outstretched hand.

“How strange!”

“Edith!” cried the amber-eyed woman, reprovingly; then in a moment, “Come, dear, we had better go; goodnight, sir.”

I looked at her. I noted that her nose was good, straight, and strong; her mouth large, but firm; her brows were broad and beautiful.

“Good-night,” I answered.

They left me and descended the stones, carefully picking their steps. Then they crossed the road in the direction of the observatory garden. I noted that neither wore a hat, that each was in evening dress.

“Guests of the astronomer, I suppose,” I mused. The amber-eyed woman was the taller; her hair was dark brown, almost ruddy, to match her eyes. Their shoulders gleamed milk-white in the moonlight; they seemed to me very lovely and worshipful, like two beautiful spirits from another and more lofty world than mine. I gazed after them in a sort of delightful dream, for I thought, soon I shall be going out into the world where I shall be able to meet and know many

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women like those; perhaps, even, some day I shall see her again. I watched them open a gate and enter the observatory grounds, climb the sloping lawn, and pause for a moment on the terrace. It must have been while standing there that they had observed me in the first instance, before they came to my rescue. The amber-eyed woman turned, and seeing me still standing on the stones, waved her hand. I was glad she had saved me from death. I immediately attributed the act solely to her. I lifted my hat, and the women disappeared. Then I realised what I had done. I had permitted her to depart after she had saved my life without one word of acknowledgment or gratitude. I had not offered even to assist her down the stones, which were steep and difficult to climb. I was overwhelmed with shame. My face burned with a sudden rush of hot blood. I almost cursed my boorishness, and, scrambling to the ground, ran from the spot as fast as I could, all the while feeling measuring, condemning eyes fastened on my back, eyes which said, “Is he not a thankless, unmannerly wretch!”

Judith Kelly was lounging in the porch of the shop, which, to my surprise, was still open and lighted up. “Where have you been? Dada has been waiting for you this long while,” she said.

I compared her mentally with the woman who had amber eyes, and shivered to mark the unbounded gulf between. I felt sorry for Judith.

“I have been detained!” I muttered.

“What by?” asked Judith, jealously, it seemed to me. Judith still loved me, that was plain to see.

I was preoccupied with my thoughts, and stupid. I answered her at haphazard, scarcely knowing what I said, “Eyes.”

“Idiot,” she said, with scorn; “what eyes?”

“Amber eyes,” I replied; “great big ones, with bars of black running from the pupils, like spokes from the hub of a wheel!”

I must have been mad for the moment. At a later day I paid the penalty.

Judith turned white with passion. “So you've picked up

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a girl!” she muttered in a low, grating voice that jarred on all my nerves.

I pushed past her, but the creature of impulse caught my arm, and buried her teeth in the flesh, for all the world like an enraged wild animal. I tore myself free, and left her immersed in repentant tears, imploring forgiveness, and intermittently calling herself by the most dreadful names. Poor Judith!

In my bedroom I found my uncle awaiting me, seated in the midst of his four remaining councillors.