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Title:      At the Pistol's Point
Author:     E W Hornung
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Language:   English
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Title:      At the Pistol's Point
Author:     E W Hornung




THE church bells were ringing for evensong, croaking across the snow with 
short, harsh strokes, as though the frost had eaten into the metal and 
made it hoarse. Outside, the scene had all the cheery sparkle, all the 
peaceful glamour, of an old-fashioned Christmas card. There was the 
snow-covered village, there the church-spire coated all down one side, 
the chancel windows standing out like oil-paintings, the silver sickle of 
a moon, the ideal thatched cottage with the warm, red light breaking from 
the open door, and the peace of Heaven seemingly pervading and enveloping 
all. Yet on earth we know that this peace is not; and the door of the 
ideal cottage had been opened and was shut by a crushed woman, whose 
husband had but now refused her pennies for the plate, with a curse which 
followed her into the snow. And the odour prevailing beneath the thatched 
roof was one of hot brandy-and-water, mingled with the fumes of some rank 
tobacco.

Old Fitch was over sixty years of age, and the woman on her way to church 
was his third wife; she had borne him no child, nor had Fitch son or 
daughter living who would set foot inside his house. He was a singular 
old man, selfish and sly and dissolute, yet not greatly disliked beyond 
his own door, and withal a miracle of health and energy for his years. He 
drank to his heart's content, but he was never drunk, nor was Sunday's 
bottle ever known to lose him the soft side of Monday's bargain. By trade 
he was game-dealer, corn-factor, money-lender, and mortgagee of half the 
village; in appearance, a man of medium height, with bow-legs and immense 
round shoulders, a hard mouth, shrewd eyes, and wiry hair as white as the 
snow outside.

The bells ceased, and for a moment there was no sound in the cottage but 
the song of the kettle on the hob. Then Fitch reached for the 
brandy-bottle, and brewed himself another steaming bumper. As he watched 
the sugar dissolve, a few notes from the organ reached his ears, and. the 
old man smiled cynically as he sipped and smacked his lips. At his elbow 
his tobacco-pipe and the weekly newspaper were ranged with the 
brandy-bottle, and he was soon in enjoyment of all three. Over the paper 
Fitch had already fallen asleep after a particularly hearty mid-day meal, 
but he had not so much as glanced at the most entertaining pages, and he 
found them now more entertaining than usual. There was a scandal in high 
life running to several columns, and sub-divided into paragraphs labelled 
with the most pregnant headlines; the old man's mouth watered as he 
determined to leave this item to the last. It was not the only one of 
interest; there were several suicides, an admirable execution, a 
burglary, and--what? Fitch frowned as his quick eye came tumbling down a 
paragraph; then all at once he gasped out an oath and sat very still. The 
pipe in his mouth went out, the brandy-and-water was cooling in his 
glass; you might have heard them singing the psalms in the church hard 
by; but the old man heard nothing, saw nothing, thought of nothing but 
the brief paragraph before his eyes.

'ESCAPE FROM PORTLAND.

'ONE CONVICT KILLED, ANOTHER WOUNDED, BUT A THIRD GETS CLEAN AWAY. 

'The greatest excitement was caused at Weymouth yesterday morning on the 
report being circulated that several convicts had effected their escape 
from the grounds of the Portland convict establishment. There appears to 
have been a regularly concerted plan on the part of the prisoners working 
in one of the outdoor gangs to attempt to regain their liberty, as 
yesterday morning three convicts bolted simultaneously from their party. 
They were instantly challenged to stop, but as the order was not complied 
with, the warders fired several shots. One of the runaways fell dead, and 
another was so badly wounded that he was immediately recaptured, and is 
now lying in a precarious condition. The third man, named Henry 
Cattermole, continued his course despite a succession of shots, and was 
soon beyond range of the rifles. He was pursued for some distance, but 
was ultimately lost to view in the thick fog which prevailed. A hue and 
cry was raised, and search parties continued to scour the neighbourhood 
long after dark, but up to a late hour his recapture had not been 
effected. Cattermole will be remembered as the man who was sentenced to 
death some years ago for the murder of Lord Wolborough's game-keeper, 
near Bury St. Edmund's, but who afterwards received the benefit of the 
doubt involved in the production of a wad which did not fit the convict's 
gun. In spite of the successful efforts then made on his behalf, however, 
the authorities at Portland describe Cattermole as a most daring 
criminal, and one who is only too likely to prove a danger to the 
community as long as he remains at large.

Fitch stared stupidly at the words for several minutes after he had read 
them through; it was the last sentence which at length fell into focus 
with his seeing eye. Henry Cattermole at large! How long had he been at 
large? It was a Sunday paper, but the Saturday edition, and this was 
among the latest news. But it said "yesterday morning," and that meant 
Friday morning last. So Henry Cattermole had been at large since then, 
and this was the Sunday evening, and that made nearly three days 
altogether. Another question now forced itself upon the old man's mind: 
how far was it from Portland prison to this room?

Like most rustics of his generation, old Fitch had no spare knowledge of 
geography: he knew his own country-side and the road to London, but that 
was all. Portland he knew to be on the other side of London; it might be 
ten miles, might be two hundred; but this he felt in his shuddering heart 
and shaking bones, that near or far, deep snow or no snow, Henry 
Cattermole was either recaptured or else on his way to that cottage at 
that moment.

The feeling sucked the blood from the old man's vessels, even as his lips 
drained the tumbler he had filled with so light a heart. Then for a 
little he had spurious courage. He leant back in his chair and laughed 
aloud, but it sounded strangely in the empty cottage; he looked up at the 
bell-mouthed gun above the chimney-piece, and that gave him greater 
confidence, for he kept it loaded. He got up and began to whistle, but 
stopped in the middle of a bar.

"Curse him!" he said aloud, "they should ha' hanged him, and then I never 
should ha' been held like this. That'll be a good job if they take an' 
hang him now, for I fare to feel afraid, I do, as long as Harry 
Cattermole's alive."

Old Fitch opened his door a moment, saw the thin moon shining on the 
snow, but no living soul abroad, and for once he was in want of a 
companion; however, the voices of the choir sounded nearer than ever in 
the frosty air, and heartened him a little as he shut the door again, 
turned the heavy key, and shot both bolts well home. He was still 
stooping over the bottom one, when his eyes fell upon a ragged 
trouser-leg and a stout stocking planted close behind him. It was 
instantly joined by another ragged leg and another stout stocking. 
Neither made a sound, for there were no shoes to the cat-like feet; and 
the stockings were remarkable for a most conspicuous stripe.

Then old Fitch knew that his enemy had found him out, and he could not 
stir. He was waiting for a knife to plunge into the centre of his broad, 
round back; and when a hand slapped him there instead, he thought for a 
moment he was stabbed indeed. When he knew that he was not, he turned 
round, still stooping, in a pitiable attitude, and a new shock greeted 
him. Could this be Henry Cattermole?

The poacher had been stout and thick-set; the convict was gaunt and lean. 
The one had been florid and youthful; the other was yellow as parchment, 
and the stubble on the cropped head and on the fleshless jaw was of a 
leaden grey.

"That--that ain't Harry Cattermole?" the old man whimpered.

"No, that ain't; but 'twas once, and means to be again! Lead the way in 
beside the fire. I wish you'd sometimes use that front parlour of yours! 
I've had it to myself this half-hour, and that's cold."

Old Fitch led the way without a word, walked innocently up to the fire, 
and suddenly sprang for his gun. He never reached it. The barrel of a 
revolver, screwed round in his ear, drove him reeling across the floor.

"Silly old fool! " hissed Cattermole. "Did you think I'd come to you 
unarmed? Sit down on that chair before I blow your brains out."

Fitch obeyed.

"I--I can't make out," he stuttered, "why you fare to come to me at all!"

"O' course you can't," said Cattermole, ironically.

"If I'd been you, I'd ha' run anywhere but. where I was known so well."

"You would, would you? Then you knew I'd got out, eh, old man?"

"Just been a-reading about it in this here paper."

"I see--I see. I caught a bit o' what you was a-saying to yourself, just 
as I was thinking it was a safe thing to come out o' that cold parlour o' 
yours. So that was me you was locking out, was it? Yet you pretend you 
don't know why I come! You know well enough. You know--you know!"

The convict had seated himself on the kitchen table, and was glaring down 
on the trembling old man in the chair. He wore a long overcoat, and under 
it some pitiful rags. The cropped head and the legs swinging in the 
striped stockings were the only incriminating features, and old Fitch was 
glancing from the one to the other, wondering why neither had saved him 
from this horrible interview. Cattermole read his thoughts, and his eyes 
gleamed.

"So you think I've come all the way in these here, do you?" he cried, 
tapping one shin. "I tell you I've walked and walked till my bare legs 
were frozen, and then sat behind a hedge and slipped these on and rubbed 
them to life again! Where do you think I got these rotten old duds? Off 
of a scare-crow in a field, I did! I wasn't going to break into no houses 
and leave my tracks all along the line. But yesterday I got a long lift 
in a goods train, or I shouldn't be here now; and last night I did crack 
a crib for this here overcoat and a bit o' supper, and another for the 
shooter. That didn't so much matter then. I was within twenty mile of 
you! Of you, you old devil--do you hear?"

Fitch nodded with an ashen face. 

"And now do you know why I've come?"

Fitch moistened his blue lips. "To--to murder me!" he whispered, like a 
dying man.

"That rests with you," said the convict, fondling his weapon.

"What do you want me to do?" 

"Confess!" 

"Confess what?" whispered Fitch.

"That you swore me away at the trial."

The old man had been holding his breath; he now expelled it with a deep 
sigh, and taking out a huge red handkerchief, wiped the moisture from his 
face. Meanwhile, the convict had descried writing-materials on a 
chiffonnier, and placed them on the table beside the brandy-bottle and 
the tobacco-jar.

"Turn your chair round for writing." Fitch did so. "Now take up your pen 
and write what I tell you. Don't cock your head and look at me! I hear 
the psalm-singing as well as you do; they've only just got started, and 
nobody'll come near us for another hour. Pity you didn't go too, isn't 
it? Now write what I tell you, word for word, or, so help me, you're a 
stiff 'un!"

Fitch dipped his pen in the ink. After all, what he was about to write 
would be written under dire intimidation, and nobody would attach any 
importance to statements so obtained. He squared his elbows to the task.

"'I, Samuel Fitch,'" began Cattermole, "'do hereby swear and declare 
before God Almighty'--before God Almighty, have you got that down?--'that 
I, Samuel Fitch, did bear false witness against my neighbour, Henry 
Cattermole, at his trial at Bury Assizes, November 29th, 1887. It is true 
that I saw both Henry Cattermole and James Savage, his lordship's 
gamekeeper, in the wood at Wolborough on the night of September 9th in 
the same year. It is true that I was there by appointment with Savage, as 
his wife stated in her evidence. It is not true that I heard a shot and 
heard Savage sing out, "Harry Cattermole!" as I came up and before ever I 
had a word with him. That statement was a deliberate fabrication on my 
part. The real truth is--but hold on! I'm likely going too fast for 
you--I've had it in my head that long! How much have you got down, eh?"

"'Fabrication on my part,'" repeated old Fitch, in a trembling voice, as 
he waited for more.

"Good! Now pull yourself together," said Cattermole, suddenly cocking his 
revolver. "'The real truth is that I, Samuel Fitch, shot James Savage 
with my own hand!'"

Fitch threw down his pen.

"That's a lie," he gasped. "I never did! I won't write it."

The cocked revolver covered him.

"Prefer to die in your chair, eh? "

"Yes."

"I'll give you one minute by your own watch."

Still covering his man, the convict held out his other hand for the 
watch, and had momentary contact with a cold, damp one as it dropped into 
his palm. Cattermole placed the watch upon the table where both could see 
the dial.

"Your minute begins now," said he; and all at once the watch was ticking 
like an eight-day clock.

Fitch rolled his head from side to side. "Fifteen seconds," said 
Cattermole. The old man's brow was white and spangled like the snow 
outside. "Half-time," said Cattermole. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty seconds 
passed; then Fitch caught up the pen. "Go on!" he groaned. "I'll write 
any lie you like; that'll do you no good; no one will believe a word of 
it." Yet the perspiration was streaming down his face; it splashed upon 
the paper as he proceeded to write, in trembling characters, at 
Cattermole's dictation.

"'The real truth is that I, Samuel Fitch, shot James Savage with my own 
hand. The circumstances that led to my shooting him I will confess and 
explain hereafter. When he had fallen I heard a shout and someone running 
up. I got behind a tree, but I saw Harry Cattermole, the poacher, trip 
clean over the body. His gun went off in the air, and when he tried to 
get up again, I saw he couldn't because he'd twisted his ankle. He never 
saw me; I slipped away and gave my false evidence, and Harry Cattermole 
was caught escaping from the wood on his hands and knees, with blood upon 
his hands and clothes, and an empty gun. I gave evidence against him to 
stop him giving evidence against me. But this is the whole truth, and 
nothing but the truth, so help me God!'"

Cattermole paused, Fitch finished writing; again the eyes of the two men 
met; and those of the elder gleamed with a cunning curiosity.

"How--how did you know?" he asked, lowering his voice and leaning forward 
as he spoke.

"Two and two," was the reply. "I put 'em together as soon as ever I saw 
you in the box." 

"That'll never be believed--got like this." 

 Will it not? Wait a bit; you've not done yet. 'As a proof of what I say 
'--do you hear me?--'as a proof of what I say, the gun which the wad 
will fit, that saved Henry Cattermole's life, will be found --'"

Cattermole waited until the old man had caught him up.

"Now," said he, "you finish the sentence for yourself!"

"What? " cried Fitch.

"Write where that gun's to be found--you know--I don't--and then sign 
your name!"

"But I don't know- "

"You do."

"I sold it! "

"You wouldn't dare. You've got that somewhere, I see it in your face. 
Write down where, and then show me the place; and if you've told a lie--"

The revolver was within a foot of the old man's head, which had fallen 
forward between his hands. The pen lay blotting the wet paper. Cattermole 
took the brandy-bottle, poured out a stiff dram, and pushed it under the 
other's nose.

"Drink! " he cried. "Then write the truth, and sign your name. Maybe they 
won't hang an old man like you; but, by God, I sha'n't think twice about 
shooting you if you don't write the truth!"

Fitch gulped down the brandy, took up the pen once more, and was near the 
end of his own death-warrant, when the convict sprang lightly from the 
table and stood listening in the centre of the room. Fitch saw him, and 
listened too. In the church they were singing another hymn; the old man 
saw by his watch, still lying on the table, that it must be the last 
hymn, and in a few minutes his wife would be back. But that was not all. 
There was another sound--a nearer sound--the sound of voices outside the 
door. The handle was turned--the door pushed--but Fitch himself had 
locked and bolted it. More whispers; then a loud rat-tat.

"Who is it?" cried Fitch, trembling with excitement, as he started to his 
feet.

"The police! Let us in, or we break in your door! "

There was no answer. Cattermole was watching the door; suddenly he 
turned, and there was Fitch in the act of dropping his written confession 
into the fire. The convict seized it before it caught, and with the other 
hand hurled the old man back into his chair.

"Finish it," he said below his breath, "or you're a dead man! One or 
other of us is going to swing! Now, then, under the floor of what room 
did you hide the gun? Let them hammer, the door is strong. What room was 
it? Ah, your bedroom! Now sign your name."

A deafening crash; the lock had given; only the bolt held firm.

"Sign!" shrieked Cattermole. A cold ring pressed the old man's temple. He 
signed his name, and fell forward on the table in a dead faint.

Cattermole blotted the confession, folded it up, strode over to the door, 
and smilingly flung it open to his pursuers. 



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