A Man of Many Murders
It was a good-sized wine-cellar, with very little wine in it; only one full bin could I discover. The bins themselves lined but two of the walls, and most of them were covered in with cobwebs, close-drawn like mosquito-curtains. The ceiling was all too low: torpid spiders hung in disreputable parlors, dead to the eye, but loathsomely alive at an involuntary touch. Rats scuttled when we entered, and I had not been long alone when they returned to bear me company. I am not a natural historian, and had rather face a lion with the right rifle than a rat with a stick. My jailers, however, had been kind enough to leave me a lantern, which, set upon the ground (like my mattress), would afford a warning, if not a protection, against the worst; unless I slept; and as yet I had not lain down. The rascals had been considerate enough, more especially Santos, who had a new manner for me with his revised opinion of my character; it was a manner almost as courtly as that which had embellished his relations with Eva Denison, and won him my early regard at sea. Moreover, it was at the suggestion of Santos that they had detained me in the hall, for much-needed meat and drink, on the way down. Thereafter they had conducted me through the book-lined door of my undoing, down stone stairs leading to three cellar doors, one of which they had double-locked upon me.
As soon as I durst I was busy with this door; but to no purpose; it was a slab of solid oak, hung on hinges as massive as its lock. It galled me to think that but two doors stood between me and the secret tunnel to the sea: for one of the other two must lead to it. The first, however, was all beyond me, and I very soon gave it up. There was also a very small grating which let in a very little fresh air: the massive foundations had been tunnelled in one place; a rude alcove was the result, with this grating at the end and top of it, some seven feet above the earth floor. Even had I been able to wrench away the bars, it would have availed me nothing, since the aperture formed the segment of a circle whose chord was but a very few inches long. I had nevertheless a fancy for seeing the stars once more and feeling the breath of heaven upon my bandaged temples, which impelled me to search for that which should add a cubit to my stature. And at a glance I descried two packing-cases, rather small and squat, but the pair of them together the very thing for me. To my amazement, however, I could at first move neither one nor the other of these small boxes. Was it that I was weak as water, or that they were heavier than lead? At last I managed to get one of them in my arms - only to drop it with a thud. A side started; a thin sprinkling of yellow dust glittered on the earth. I fetched the lantern: it was gold-dust from Bendigo or from Ballarat.
To me there was horror unspeakable, yet withal a morbid fascination, in the spectacle of the actual booty for which so many lives had been sacrificed before my eyes. Minute followed minute in which I looked at nothing, and could think of nothing, but the stolen bullion at my feet; then I gathered what of the dust I could, pocketed it in pinches to hide my meddlesomeness, and blew the rest away. The box had dropped very much where I had found it; it had exhausted my strength none the less, and I was glad at last to lie down on the mattress, and to wind my body in Rattray's blankets.
I shuddered at the thought of sleep: the rats became so lively the moment I lay still. One ventured so near as to sit up close to the lantern; the light showed its fat white belly, and the thing itself was like a dog begging, as big to my disgusted eyes. And yet, in the midst of these horrors (to me as bad as any that had preceded them), nature overcame me, and for a space my torments ceased.
"He is aslip," a soft voice said.
"Don't wake the poor devil," said another.
"But I weesh to spik with 'im. Senhor Cole! Senhor Cole!"
I opened my eyes. Santos looked of uncanny stature in the low yellow light, from my pillow close to the earth. Harris turned away at my glance; he carried a spade, and began digging near the boxes without more ado, by the light of a second lantern set on one of them: his back was to me from this time on. Santos shrugged a shoulder towards the captain as he opened a campstool, drew up his trousers, and seated himself with much deliberation at the foot of my mattress.
"When you 'ave treasure," said he, "the better thing is to bury it, Senhor Cole. Our young friend upstairs begs to deefer; but he is slipping; it is peety he takes such quantity of brandy! It is leetle wikness of you Engleesh; we in Portugal never touch it, save as a liqueur; therefore we require less slip. Friend squire upstairs is at this moment no better than a porker. Have I made mistake? I thought it was the same word in both languages; but I am glad to see you smile, Senhor Cole; that is good sign. I was going to say, he is so fast aslip up there, that he would not hear us if we were to shoot each other dead!"
And he gave me his paternal smile, benevolent, humorous, reassuring; but I was no longer reassured; nor did I greatly care any more what happened to me. There is a point of last, as well as one of least resistance, and I had reached both points at once.
"Have you shot him dead?" I inquired, thinking that if he had, this would precipitate my turn. But he was far from angry; the parchment face crumpled into tolerant smiles; the venerable head shook a playful reproval, as he threw away the cigarette that I am tired of mentioning, and put the last touch to a fresh one with his tongue.
"What question I" said he; "reely, Senhor Cole! But you are quite right: I would have shot him, or cut his troth" (and he shrugged indifference on the point), "if it had not been for you; and yet it would have been your fault! I nid not explain; the poseetion must have explained itself already; besides, it is past. With you two against us - but it is past. You see, I have no longer the excellent Jose. You broke his leg, bad man. I fear it will be necessary to destroy 'im." Santos made a pause; then inquired if he shocked me.
"Not a bit," said I, neither truly nor untruly; "you interest me." And that he did.
"You see," he continued, "I have not the respect of you Engleesh for 'uman life. We will not argue it. I have at least some respect for prejudice. In my youth I had myself such prejudices; but one loses them on the Zambesi. You cannot expect one to set any value upon the life of a black nigger; and when you have keeled a great many Kaffirs, by the lash, with the crocodiles, or what-not, then a white man or two makes less deeference. I acknowledge there were too many on board that sheep; but what was one to do? You have your Engleesh proverb about the dead men and the stories; it was necessary to make clin swip. You see the result."
He shrugged again towards the boxes; but this time, being reminded of them (I supposed), he rose and went over to see how Harris was progressing. The captain had never looked round; neither did he look at Santos. "A leetle dipper," I heard the latter say, "and, perhaps, a few eenches - " but I lost the last epithet. It followed a glance over the shoulder in my direction, and immediately preceded the return of Santos to his camp-stool.
"Yes, it is always better to bury treasure," said he once more; but his tone was altered; it was more contemplative; and many smoke-rings came from the shrunk lips before another word; but through them all, his dark eyes, dull with age, were fixed upon me.
"You are a treasure!" he exclaimed at last, softly enough, but quickly and emphatically for him, and with a sudden and most diabolical smile.
"So you are going to bury me?"
I had suspected it when first I saw the spade; then not; but since the visit to the hole I had made up my mind to it.
"Bury you? No, not alive," said Santos, in his playfully reproving tone. "It would be necessary to deeg so dip!" he added through his few remaining teeth.
"WeIl," I said, "you'll swing for it. That's something."
Santos smiled again, benignantly enough this time: in contemplation also: as an artist smiles upon his work. I was his!
"You live town," said he; "no one knows where you go. You come down here; no one knows who you are. Your dear friend squire locks you up for the night, but dreenks too much and goes to slip with the key in his pocket; it is there when he wakes; but the preesoner, where is he? He is gone, vanished, escaped in the night, and, like the base fabreec of your own poet's veesion, he lives no trace - is it trace? - be'ind! A leetle earth is so easily bitten down; a leetle more is so easily carried up into the garden; and a beet of nice strong wire might so easily be found in a cellar, and afterwards in the lock! No, Senhor Cole, I do not expect to 'ang. My schims have seldom one seengle flaw. There was just one in the Lady Jermyn; there was - Senhor Cole! If there is one this time, and you will be so kind as to point it out, I will - I will run the reesk of shooting you instead of - "
A pinch of his baggy throat, between the fingers and thumbs of both hands, foreshadowed a cleaner end; and yet I could look at him; nay, it was more than I could do not to look upon that bloodless face, with the two dry blots upon the parchment, that were never withdrawn from mine.
"No you won't, messmate! If it's him or us for it, let a bullet do it, and let it do it quick, you bloody Spaniard! You can't do the other without me, and my part's done."
Harris was my only hope. I had seen this from the first, but my appeal I had been keeping to the very end. And now he was leaving me before a word would come! Santos had gone over to my grave, and there was Harris at the door!
"It is not dip enough," said the Portuguese.
"It's as deep as I mean to make it, with you sittin' there talkin' about it."
And the door stood open.
"Captain!" I screamed. "For Christ's sake, captain!"
He stood there, trembling, yet even now not looking my way.
"Did you ever see a man hanged ?" asked Santos, with a vile eye for each of us. "I once hanged fifteen in a row; abominable thifs. And I once poisoned nearly a hundred at one banquet; an untrustworthy tribe; but the hanging was the worse sight and the worse death. Heugh! There was one man - he was no stouter than you are captain -"
But the door slammed; we heard the captain on the stairs; there was a rustle from the leaves outside., and then a silence that I shall not attempt to describe.
And, indeed, I am done with this description: as I live to tell the tale (or spoil it, if I choose) I will make shorter work of this particular business than I found it at the time. Perverse I may be in old age as in my youth; but on that my agony - my humiliating agony - I decline to dwell. I suffer it afresh as I write. There are the cobwebs on the ceiling, a bloated spider crawling in one: a worse monster is gloating over me: those dull eyes of his, and my own pistol-barrel, cover me in the lamp-light. The crucifix pin is awry in his cravat; that is because he has offered it me to kiss. As a refinement (I feel sure) my revolver is not cocked; and the hammer goes up - up -
He missed me because a lantern was flashed into his eyes through the grating. He wasted the next ball in firing wildly at the light. And the last chamber's load became suddenly too precious for my person; for there were many voices overhead; there were many feet upon the stairs.
Harris came first - head-first - saw me still living as he reeled
- hurled himself upon the boxes and one of these into the hole
- all far quicker than my pen can write it. The manoeuvre, being the captain's, explained itself: on his heels trod Rattray, with one who brought me to my feet like the call of silver trumpets.
"The house is surrounded," says the squire, very quick and quiet; "is this your doing, Cole?"
"I wish it was," said I; "but I can't complain; it's saved my life." And I looked at Santos, standing dignified and alert, my still smoking pistol in his hand.
"Two things to do," says Rattray - "I don't care which." He strode across the cellar and pulled at the one full bin; something slid out, it was a binful of empty bottles, and this time they were allowed to crash upon the floor; the squire stood pointing to a manhole at the back of the bin. "That's one alternative," said he; "but it will mean leaving this much stuff at least," pointing to the boxes, "and probably all the rest at the other end. The other thing's to stop and fight!"
"I fight," said Santos, stalking to the door. "Have you no more ammunition for me, friend Cole? Then I must live you alive; adios, senhor!"
Harris cast a wistful look towards the manhole, not in cowardice, I fancy, but in sudden longing for the sea, the longing of a poor devil of a sailor-man doomed to die ashore. I am still sorry to remember that Rattray judged him differently. "Come on, skipper," said he; "it's all or none aboard the lugger, and I think it will be none. Up you go; wait a second in the room above, and I'll find you an old cutlass. I shan't be longer." He turned to me with a wry smile. "We're not half-armed," he said; "they've caught us fairly on the hop; it should be fun! Good-by, Cole; I wish you'd had another round for that revolver. Good-by, Eva!"
And he held out his hand to our love, who had been watching him all this time with eyes of stone; but now she turned her back upon him without a word. His face changed; the stormlight of passion and remorse played upon it for an instant; he made a step towards her, wheeled abruptly, and took me by the shoulder instead.
"Take care of her, Cole," said he. "Whatever happens - take care of her."
I caught him at the foot of the stairs. I do not defend what I did. But I had more ammunition; a few wadded bullets, caps, and powder-charges, loose in a jacket pocket; and I thrust them into one of his, upon a sudden impulse, not (as I think) altogether unaccountable, albeit (as I have said) so indefensible.
My back was hardly turned an instant. I had left a statue of unforgiving coldness. I started round to catch in my arms a half-fainting, grief-stricken form, shaken with sobs that it broke my heart to hear. I placed her on the camp-stool. I knelt down and comforted her as well as I could, stroking her hands, my arm about her heaving shoulders, with the gold-brown hair streaming over them. Such hair as it was! So much longer than I had dreamt. So soft - so fine - my soul swam with the sight and touch of it. Well for me that there broke upon us from above such a sudden din as turned my hot blood cold! A wild shout of surprise; an ensuing roar of defiance; shrieks and curses; yells of rage and pain; and pistol-shot after pistol-shot as loud as cannon in the confined space.
I know now that the battle in the hall was a very brief affair; while it lasted I had no sense of time; minutes or moments, they were (God forgive me!) some of the very happiest in all my life. My joy was as profound as it was also selfish and incongruous. The villains were being routed; of that there could be no doubt or question. I hoped Rattray might escape, but for the others no pity stirred in my heart, and even my sneaking sympathy with the squire could take nothing from the joy that was in my heart. Eva Denison was free. I was free. Our oppressors would trouble us no more. We were both lonely; we were both young; we had suffered together and for each other. And here she lay in my arms, her head upon my shoulder, her soft bosom heaving on my own! My blood ran hot and cold by turns. I forgot everything but our freedom and my love. I forgot my sufferings, as I would have you all forget them. I am not to be pitied. I have been in heaven on earth. I was there that night, in my great bodily weakness, and in the midst of blood-shed, death, and crime.
"They have stopped!" cried Eva suddenly. "It is over! Oh, if he is dead!"
And she sat upright, with bright eyes starting from a deathly face. I do not think she knew that she had been in my arms at all: any more than I knew that the firing had ceased before she told me. Excited voices were still raised overhead; but some sounded distant, yet more distinct, coming through the grating from the garden; and none were voices that we knew. One poor wretch, on the other hand, we heard plainly groaning to his death; and we looked in each other's eyes with the same thought.
"That's Harris," said I, with, I fear, but little compassion in my tone or in my heart just then.
"Where are the others ?" cried Eva piteously.
"God knows," said I; "they may be done for, too."
"If they are!"
"It's better than the death they would have lived to die."
"But only one of them was a wilful murderer! Oh, Mr. Cole - Mr. Cole - go and see what has happened; come back and tell me! I dare not come. I will stay here and pray for strength to bear whatever news you may bring me. Go quickly. I will - wait - and pray!"
So I left the poor child on her knees in that vile cellar, white face and straining hands uplifted to the foul ceiling, sweet lips quivering with prayer, eyelids reverently lowered, and the swift tears flowing from beneath them, all in the yellow light of the lantern that stood burning by her side. How different a picture from that which awaited me overhead!Next