Read CHAPTER FORTY TWO - By a Ruse of Witness to the Deed , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on ReadCentral.com.

Such a chance did not come in Stratton’s way again.  “If I had drunk that when Guest came and interrupted me ­when was it?  Two years and more ago,” sighed Stratton one night, “what an infinity of suffering I should have been spared.  All the hopes and disappointments of that weary time, all the madness and despair of the morning when that wretched convict came, all my remorse, my battles with self, the struggles to conceal my crime ­all ­all spared to me; for I should have been asleep.”

A curious doubting smile crossed his face slowly at these thoughts; and, resting his cheek upon his hand, with the light full upon his face, he gazed straight before him into vacancy.

“How do I know that?” he thought.  “Could I, a self-murderer, assure myself that I should have sunk into oblivion like that ­into a restful sleep, free from the cares I had been too cowardly to meet and bear?  No, no, no; it was not to be.  Thank God!  I was spared from that.”

“But mine has been a cruel lot,” he continued; “stroke after stroke that would have been kinder had they killed; for the misery has not been mine alone.  I could have borne it better if it had been so.  Poor Myra ­poor girl!  Yours has been a strange fate, too.”

And his thoughts were filled by her pain-wrung features, and wild, appealing look last time they met, when she had clung to him there, and appealed to him to forget the past, for she would forgive everything and take him to her heart and face with him the whole world.

He shuddered.

“Poor, blind, loving heart! ready to kiss the hand wet with her husband’s blood.”  It was too horrible ­too terrible to bear.

He hid his face in his hands for a few minutes, but grew calmer as he went on reviewing the past; and from time to time a slight shiver ran through him, as he thought of what he had done, and the mad plan he had made to utterly conceal his crime by fire.

“But that’s all past now,” he said at last, with a sigh of relief.  “That horror has been taken from my load, and I will, as a man, fight hard to meet whatever comes.  Heaven knows my innocence, and will find me strength to bear it all; and, perhaps, some day, give me ­give her forgetfulness and rest.”

He looked sharply up and listened, for he fancied that he heard a sound; but a step faintly beating on the paving outside seemed to accord with it, and he went on musing again about Brettison, wondering where he could be, and how he could contrive to keep hidden away from him as he did.

“If we could only meet,” he said, half aloud ­“only stand face to face for one short hour, how different my future might be.”

“No,” he said aloud, after a thoughtful pause, “how can I say that? L’homme propose et Dieu dispose.  We are all bubbles on the great stream of life.”

He half started from his chair, listening again, for he felt convinced that he heard a sound outside his doors, and going across, he opened them softly and looked out, but the grim, ill-lit staircase and the hall below were blank and silent, and satisfied that he had been mistaken, he went back to his seat to begin musing again, till once more there was a faint sound, and as he listened he became conscious of a strange, penetrating odour of burning.

Stratton’s face grew ghastly with the sudden emotion that had attacked him, and for a few moments he sat trembling, and unable to stir from his seat.

“At last!” he said in a whisper; “at last!” and, conscious that the time had come for which he had longed and toiled so hard, he felt that the opportunity was about to slip away, for he would be unable to bear the encounter, if not too much prostrated by his emotion to rise from his seat.

It was only a trick of the nerves, which passed off directly; and he rose then, firm and determined, to cross gently to first one and then the other door by his mantelpiece, where he stood, silent and intent, breathing deeply.

Yes; there was no doubt now.  He was inhaling the penetrating, peculiar odour of strong tobacco; and at last Brettison must have returned, and be sitting there smoking his eastern water-pipe.

Stratton drew softly back, as if afraid of being heard, though his steps were inaudible on the thick carpet, and he stood there thinking.

“If I go,” he said to himself, “he will not answer my knock.”  And feeling now that Brettison might have been back before now unknown to him, he tried to think out some plan by which he could get face to face with his friend.

A thought came directly, and it seemed so childish in its simplicity that he smiled and was ready to give it up; but it grew in strength and possibility as he looked round and took from a table, where lay quite a little heap that had been thrust into his letter-box from time to time, four or five unopened circulars and foolscap missives, whose appearance told what they were; and armed with these he opened his doors softly and passed out, drawing the outer door to, and then stole on tiptoe downstairs and out into the dimly lit square.

“He will not notice that it is so late,” he said to himself, as he looked up and saw just a faint gleam of light at Brettison’s window, where the drawn curtain was not quite closed.

Stratton paused for a moment, and drew a long breath before attempting to act the part upon which he had decided.  Then, going on some twenty or thirty yards, he turned and walked back with a heavy, decided, businesslike step, whistling softly as he went, right to the entry, where, still whistling, he ascended the stairs to his door, thrust in and drew out a letter-packet thrice, making the metal flap of the box rattle, gave a sharp double knock, and then crossed the landing and went the few steps, whistling still, along the passage to Brettison’s door.  Here he thrust in, one by one, three circulars, with a good deal of noise, through the letter-flap, gave the customary double knock, went on whistling softly, and waited a moment or two; and then, as he heard a faint sound within, gave another sharp double rap, as a postman would who had a registered letter, or a packet too big to pass through the slit.

The ruse was successful, and with beating heart Stratton stood waiting a little on one side, as there was the click and grate of the latch, and the door was opened a little way.

That was enough.  Quick as lightning, Stratton seized and dragged it wide, to step in face to face with Brettison, who started back in alarm and was followed up by his friend, who closed both doors carefully, and then stood gazing at the bent, grey-headed, weak old man, who had shrunk back behind the table, whereon the pipe stood burning slowly, while the unshaded lamp showed a dozen or so of freshly opened letters on the table, explaining their owner’s visit there.

Stratton did not speak, but gazed fiercely at the trembling old man, who looked wildly round as if for some weapon to defend himself, but shook his head sadly, and, with a weary smile, came away from his place of defence.

“Your trick has succeeded, sir,” he said quietly.  “Seventy-two!  Has the time come?  I ought not to fear it now.”

Stratton uttered a harsh sound ­half-gasp, half-cry.

“Well,” continued Brettison, who looked singularly aged and bent since they had last stood face to face, “you have found me at last.”

Stratton’s lips parted, but no sound came; his emotion was too great.

“It will be an easy task,” said Brettison, with a piteous look at Stratton.  “No sounds are heard outside these chambers ­not even pistol shots.”

There was an intense bitterness in those last words which made the young man shrink, and as Brettison went on, “I shall not struggle against my fate,” he uttered a cry of bitterness and rage.

“Sit down!” he said fiercely.  “Why do you taunt me like this?  You have been here before from time to time.  Why have you hidden from me like this?”

“I have my reasons,” said Brettison slowly.  “Why have you come?”

“You ask me that!”

“Yes.  You have hunted me for months now, till my life has been worthless.  Have you come to take it now?”

“Why should I take your life?”

“To save your own.  You believe I heard or witnessed ­that.”

He paused before uttering the last word, and pointed to the door on his left.

Stratton could not suppress a shudder; but, as he saw the peculiar way in which the old man’s eyes were fixed upon his, a feeling of resentment arose within him, and his voice sounded strident and harsh when he spoke again.

“I had no such thoughts,” he said.  “You know better, sir.  Come, let us understand one another.  I am reckless now.”

“Yes,” said Brettison coldly.

“Then, if you have any fear for your life, you can call for help; that is, for someone to be within call to protect you, for what we have to say must be for our ears alone.”

Brettison did not answer for a few moments, during which time he watched the other narrowly.

“I am not afraid, Malcolm,” he said; and he seated himself calmly in his chair.  Then, motioning to another, he waited until Stratton was seated.

“Yes,” he said quietly, “I have been here from time to time to get my letters.”

“Why have you hidden yourself away?” cried Stratton fiercely.

“Ah!  Why?” said Brettison, gazing at him thoughtfully from beneath his thick, grey eyebrows.  “You want a reason?  Well, I am old and independent, with a liking to do what I please.  Malcolm Stratton, I am not answerable to any man for my actions.”

Stratton started up, and took a turn to and fro in the dusty room before throwing himself again in his chair, while the old man quietly took the long, snake like tube of his pipe in hand, examined the bowl to find it still alight, began to smoke with all the gravity of a Mussulman, and the tobacco once more began to scent the air of the silent place.

Stratton’s lips parted again and again, but no words would come.  In his wild excitement and dread of what he knew he must learn, he could not frame the questions he panted to ask in this crisis of his life, and at last it was with a cry of rage as much as appeal that he said: 

“Man, man, am I to be tortured always?  Why don’t you speak?”

“You have hunted me from place to place, Malcolm Stratton, in your desperation to find out that which I felt you had better not know; and now you have found me ­brought me to bay ­I wait for you to question me.”

“Yes, yes,” said Stratton hoarsely; and, with a hasty gesture, as he clapped his hand to his throat, “I will speak ­directly.”

He rose again and paced the room, and it was while at the far end that he said in a low voice: 

“Yes; you know all.”

“All.”

“Tell me, then ­why have you done this?  Stop!  I am right ­it was you.”

“You are right; it was I,” said Brettison, smoking calmly, as if they were discoursing upon some trivial matter instead of a case of life and death ­of the horror that had blasted a sanguine man’s life, and made him prematurely old.

“Tell me, then; how could you ­how could you dare?  Why did you act the spy upon my actions?”

The old man rose quickly from his chair, brought his hand down heavily upon the table, and leaned forward to gaze in Stratton’s eyes.

“Answer me first, boy.  Me ­the man who loved you and felt toward you as if you were a son!  Why did you not come to me for help and counsel when you stood in danger ­in peril of your life?”

The gentle, mild face of the old botanist was stern and judicial now, his tone of voice full of reproof.  It was the judge speaking, and not the mild old friend.

“Did you think me ­because I passed my life trifling, as some call it, with flowers, but, as I know it to be, making myself wiser in the works of my great Creator ­did you think me, I say, so weak and helpless a creature that I could not counsel ­so cowardly and wanting in strength of mind and faith in you, that I would not have stood by you as a father should stand by his son?”

Stratton groaned.

“Forgive me,” he said feebly; “I was half-mad.”

“Yes.”

“How could I, crushed by the horror of having taken a fellow-creature’s life, cursed by the knowledge that this man was ­But you cannot know that.”

“Take it, boy, that I know everything,” said the old man, resuming his seat.

“Then have some pity on me.”

“Pity for your folly?  Yes.”

“Folly!  You are right.  I will take it that you know everything, and speak out now.  Brettison ­”

He paused ­he could not speak.  But by a mighty effort he mastered his emotion.

“Now think, and find some excuse for me.  I was in my room there, elate almost beyond a man’s power to imagine; in another hour the woman whom I had idolised for years was to be my wife.  Recollect that, two years before, my hopes had been dashed to the ground, and I had passed through a time of anguish that almost unhinged my brain, so great was my despair.”

“Yes,” said Brettison, “I recall all that.”

“Then that man came, and I was face to face with the knowledge that once more my hopes were crushed, and ­he fell.”

Stratton ceased speaking, and sat gazing wildly before him into the past.

It was in a husky whisper that he resumed: 

“I stood there, Brettison, mad with horror, distraught with the knowledge that I was the murderer of her husband ­that my hand, wet with his blood, could never again clasp hers, even though I had made her free.”

The old man bent his head; and, gathering strength of mind and speech, now that he was at last speaking out openly in his defence, Stratton went on: 

“It was horrible ­horrible!  There it is, all back again before my eyes, and I feel again the stabbing, sickening pain of the bullet wound which scored my shoulder, mingled with the far worse agony of my brain.  I had killed her husband ­the escaped convict; and, above the feeling that all was over now, that my future was blasted, came the knowledge that, as soon as I called for help, as soon as the police investigated the matter, my life was not worth a month’s purchase.  For what was my defence?”

Brettison satin silence, smoking calmly.

“That this man had made his existence known to me, shown by his presence that his supposed death was a shadow ­that, after his desperate plunge into the sea, he had managed to swim ashore and remain in hiding; the dark night’s work and the belief that he had fallen shot, being his cloak; and the search for the body of a convict soon being at an end.  You see all this?”

Brettison bowed his head.

“Think, then, of my position; put yourself in my place.  What jury ­what judge would believe my story that it was an accident?  It seemed to me too plain.  The world would say that I slew him in my disappointment and despair.  Yes, I know they might have called it manslaughter, but I must have taken his place ­a convict in my turn.”

“You thought that?”

“Yes, I thought that ­I think it now.  I could not ­I dared not speak.  Everything was against me, and in my horror temptation came.”

Brettison looked at him sharply.

“The hope was so pitiful, so faint, so weak, Brettison; but still it would linger in my maddened brain that some day in the future ­after years, maybe, of expiation of the deed ­I might, perhaps, approach her once again.  I thought so then.  The secret would be between me and my Maker, and in his good time he might say to my heart:  `It is enough.  You have suffered all these years.  Your sin is condoned ­your punishment is at an end.’  I tell you I thought all that, and in my madness I dared not let the thing be known.  She would know it, too, and if she did I felt that hope would be dead indeed, and that I had, too, better die.”

Stratton ceased speaking, and let his head fall upon his hand.

“Put yourself in my place, I say.  Think of yourself as being once more young and strong ­the lover of one whom, in a few short hours, you would have clasped as your wife, and then try and find excuse for my mad action ­for I know now that it was mad, indeed.”

“Yes, mad indeed,” muttered Brettison.

“Well, I need say no more.  You know so much, you must know the rest.  They came to me, fearing I had been killed ­robbed and murdered.  They found me at last, when I was forced to admit them, looking, I suppose, a maniac; for I felt one then, compelled to face them, and hear the old man’s reproaches, in horror lest they should discover the wretched convict lying dead, and no word to say in my defence.  Nature could bear no more.  My wound robbed me of all power to act, and I fainted ­to come to, fearing that all was discovered; but their imaginations had led them astray.  They had found my wound and the pistol.  It was an attempt at suicide.  Poor Guest recalled the first ­I do not wonder.  And they went away at last, looking upon me as a vile betrayer of the woman I loved, and sought in their minds for the reason of my despair, and the cowardly act I had attempted to escape her father’s wrath.  Brettison, old friend, I make no excuses to you now; but was I not sorely tried?  Surely, few men in our generation have stood in such a dilemma.  Can you feel surprised that, stricken from my balance as a man ­a sane and thoughtful man ­I should have acted as I did, and dug for myself a pit of such purgatory as makes me feel now, as I sit here making my confession, how could I have gone through so terrible a crisis and yet be here alive, and able to think and speak like a suffering man.”

The silence in the room was terrible for what seemed an age before Brettison stretched out his trembling hand and took that of the man before him.

“Hah!”

Malcolm Stratton’s low cry.  It was that of a man who had long battled with the waves of a great storm, and who had at last found something to which he could cling.

There was another long and painful pause before Stratton spoke again, and then he slowly withdrew his hand.

“No,” he said; “we must never clasp hands again.  I must go on to the end a pariah among my kind.”

Brettison shook his head.

“I have put myself in your place often,” he said slowly, “and I have felt that I might have acted much the same.”

Stratton looked at him eagerly.

“Yes; my great fault in you is that you should not have trusted me.”

There was again a long silence before Stratton spoke.

“I felt that I was alone in the world to fight my own battle with all my strength,” he said wearily.

“And that strength was so much weakness, boy.  Mine, weak as it is, has proved stronger far.”

Stratton looked at him wonderingly.

“Yes; how much agony you might have been spared, perhaps, if you had come to me.  But I don’t know ­I don’t know.  You acted as you thought best; I only did the same, and, not knowing all your thoughts, I fear that I have erred.”

Stratton sat thinking for a few moments, and then, raising his eyes: 

“I have told you all.  It is your turn now.”

Brettison bowed his head.

“Yes,” he said, “it is better that I should speak and tell you.”

But he was silent for some time first, sitting back with the tips of his fingers joined, as if collecting his thoughts.

“You remember that morning ­how I came to say good-bye?”

“Yes, of course.”

“I started, and then found that I had forgotten my lens.  I hurried back, and had just entered my room when I heard voices plainly in yours.  My book-closet door was open, that of your bath room must have been ajar.  I did not want to hear, but the angry tones startled me, and the words grew so fierce ­you neither of you thought of how you raised your voices in your excitement ­that I became alarmed, and was about to hurry round to your room, when a few words came to my ears quite plainly, and, in spite of its being dishonourable, I, in my dread that you were in danger, hurried into the book-closet and was drawn to the thin, loose panel at the end.

“There I was enchained; I could not retreat, for I heard so much of the piteous position in which you were placed.  My mind filled in the blanks, and I grasped all.

“I need not repeat all you know ­only tell you that, unable to master my curiosity, I placed my eye to one of the cracks in the old panelling, and could see the man’s face ­her husband’s features ­and I saw him glance again and again at the money, and felt that he meant to have it, though you seemed ignorant of the fact; and, dreading violence, I drew back to go for help.  But I could not leave.  It meant a terrible expose and untold horror for your promised wife.  I tell you I could not stir, and the fact of my being a miserable eavesdropper died out in the terrible climax you had reached.”

Brettison paused to wipe his brow, wet with a dew begotten by the agony of his recollections, before he continued: 

“I stayed there then, and watched and listened, almost as near as if I had been a participator in the little life drama which ensued.  There, I was with you in it all, boy ­swayed by your emotions, but ready to cry out upon you angrily when I saw you ready to listen to the wretch’s miserable proposals, and as proud when I saw your determination to sacrifice your desires and make a bold stand against what, for your gratification, must have meant finally a perfect hell for the woman you loved.  Then, in the midst of my excitement, there came the final struggle, as you nobly determined to give the scoundrel up to the fate he deserved so well.  It was as sudden to me as it was horrible.  I saw the flash of the shot, and felt a pang of physical pain, as, through the smoke, I dimly saw you stagger.  Then, while I stood there paralysed, I saw you fly at him as he raised his pistol to fire again, the struggle for the weapon, which you struck up as he drew the trigger.”

“Yes,” said Stratton, “I struck up the pistol as he drew the trigger; but who would believe ­who would believe?”

“And then I saw him reel and fall, and there before me he lay, with the blood slowly staining the carpet, on the spot where I had so often sat.”

He wiped his brow again, while Stratton rested his elbows on the table and buried his face in his hands, as if to hide from his gaze the scene his friend conjured up from the past.

“Malcolm Stratton,” continued the old man, rising to lay his hand upon the other’s head, “you were to me as a son.  As a father loves the boy born unto him, I swear I felt toward you.  I looked upon you as the son of my childless old age, and I was standing there gazing at you, face to face with the horror of that scene, while, with crushing weight, there came upon me the knowledge that, come what might, I must summon help.  That help meant the police; and, in imagination, I saw myself sending you to the dock, where you would perhaps, from the force of the circumstances ­as you have told me you might ­stand in peril of your life.  But still I felt that there was nothing otherwise that could be done; and, slowly shrinking back, I was on my way to perform this act of duty, when I heard a low, deep groan.  That drew me back, and, looking into your room once more, a mist rose between me and the scene, my senses reeled, and I slowly sank down, fainting, on the floor.”