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Title: A Rope of Snow
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1000411.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: August 2010
Date most recently updated: August 2010

This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy

Production notes: Published in The Brisbane Courier, 16 December, 1911.

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Title: A Rope of Snow
Author: Fred M White

Author of:
"A Front of Brass,"
"The Cardinal Moth,"
"Craven Fortune,"
&c, &c.

Published in The Brisbane Courier, 16 December, 1911.

* * *

Raymond Nodes turned away from the contemplation of the snowy landscape,
and the 'Telegraph' fluttered from his hand. He did not doubt the
evidence of his senses; he did not clasp his hand wildly to his brow and
ask himself if he were the victim of some strange hallucination. He was
too cold-blooded and unimaginative for that. There must be some
practical explanation to account for the man sitting opposite to him in
the first class carriage. He had not materialised a fellow passenger.

To begin with, though it was Christmas time and the train was
consequently full, the compartment had been reserved for him. As a man
of means and local influence, he could command that sort of thing. He
was going on to the Gate House to dine; he had been detained till the
last moment by important business, and his idea had been to dress in the
train. He had telephoned to his man to meet him at Whiteley-road with
his kit bag and evening clothes. The man was to see that a carriage was
attached to the train at Whiteley-road, and the Stationmaster had given
the desired assurance. They usually had a spare coach or two there. It
was no trouble, and Nodes had more than once done the same thing. He had
everything he needed in his bag, even to his safety razor, but that
would not be needed, as he had shaved closely that morning.

All the same he wanted to be a little particular, especially as he was
going to meet Mary Glynn at the Gate House. He had never been there
before--the invitation had come through Mary Glynn's host, Reginald
Norfolk. There was no definite engagement between Mary Glynn and Raymond
Nodes, but her friends expected her to marry him. Most of them thought
she would be a fool if she didn't.

Nodes was not hurrying. The train was pretty sure to be late, as the
snow lay so deep along the line. He had the best part of an hour before
him yet, and he knew that he should find everything ready, down to the
stud in his buttonhole. He did not want to lose the freshness of his
toilette; he would leave it till the last moment. There was a lavatory
with hot and cold water leading from the carriage. These are the sort of
little luxuries that money can buy.

Then Nodes turned to find himself no longer alone. For seated opposite
to him was a man about his own size and build, grim, determined, and
dirty, and evidently in considerable trouble. He had a wild and hunted
look; he suggested many sinister things, accentuated in his case by the
queer garments that he was wearing. They consisted mainly of a horrible
yellow jacket and knickerbockers, heavy woollen stockings and clumsy
boots. Beyond question, the man was an escaped convict.

Nodes did not need anybody to tell him this. By some means or other an
escaped convict had found his way into the carriage. The train had been
stopped by the deep snowdrifts more than once. It was quite the
old-fashioned Christmas weather. This must be the escaped Bransby
convict. No doubt he had found his way into the carriage by way of the
lavatory during one of the stoppages. He was going to ask Nodes to help
him. He smiled at the thought. There was nothing feeling or sentimental
about Nodes. He respected the conventions of society too sincerely for
that.

"What on earth are you doing here?" he asked. "How did you get here?"

"We will come to that presently," the convict said. "Is it possible you
don't recognise me?"

Nodes shook his head. He was not exactly frightened, but the back of his
throat was dry. He did not like the grimness of the other's manner. He
had expected an appeal to his better nature. Apparently, that formed no
part of the intruder's programme.

The convict strode across the carriage in the direction of the lavatory.
He was not away long enough to give Nodes a chance to press the alarm
bell.

He came back with a wet towel in his hand. He rubbed it vigorously over
his face, and turned to Nodes again. A cry came from the latter.

"Good Lord, it's Summers!" he stammered. "Rick Summers! What does this
mean?"

"We will come to that presently," the man addressed as Summers said
again. "Give me a cigarette. I was lucky enough to get both meat and
drink today, and now I fancy a smoke. A merry Christmas to you, dear
sir."

Nodes passed over his cigarette case with a shaking hand. Of all the men
on the face of the universe at that moment, Richard Summers was the very
last he wanted to meet. There were reasons why his heart turned to
water; and his tongue clave to the roof of his mouth as he looked at the
other.

"I am not here by accident," Summers went on. There was a hard, dry
grimness in his voice that caused Nodes to wriggle about uneasily on his
seat. "I came to meet you. I dragged myself hungry and tired across a
whole county to see you. My intention was to call upon you last night. I
was actually in the house when Henderson called on business, and you had
him in the library. I heard your conversation there. I heard your plans
for to-day. I changed my mind. An excellent idea occurred to me, if I
could only put it in practice. If possible, I wanted to get on the train
with you to-night. As I had heard all your plans discussed, the matter
was not quite so difficult. If I could find my way in safety to
Whiteley-road Station the thing might he managed. The dark and gloomy
time of year was distinctly in my favour. I managed to get to the
station and hide myself in the goods shed. How I got here you can easily
guess."

"What do you expect to gain by this? Sooner or later you will be--"

"Sooner or later the truth will come out. A man in prison without
friends or influence has a poor chance with a man like yourself. But
things happen--unexpected accidents take place. A week ago it seemed to
me that I had lost everything that made life worth living. I did not
care for the future. I was quite resigned to serve my ten years'
sentence out. But we hear things even in prison, we get scraps of news,
we even see papers sometimes. That is what happened in my case. I saw in
a paper that Tom Glynn was dead, that he had died in Paris after a long
illness, following on an 'accident.' The 'accident' happened six months
ago."

Nodes shivered. Words were precious with him just for the moment.

"I got ten years for the manslaughter of Wilfred Catling," Summers
proceeded. "It was a bad case, and the judge was accused of erring on
the side of clemency. I killed the best friend I ever had. I killed him
because I was desperately hard up for money, and because I knew that he
had made a will in my favour. And I killed him so that he should not
discover that I had forged a cheque upon his banking account for 500.
The jury were induced to believe that there was a violent quarrel, and
that blows were exchanged. There was just a possibility that I did not
really mean to kill the man whom I loved as a brother, and that saved my
neck. But you know all about that, because you gave evidence at the
trial. I was duly convicted, and there is an end of it--or rather, there
was an end of it. And when my time is up, and I come out of gaol, I
shall be free to enjoy the fortune of the man whom I am supposed to have
murdered! But it will be too late then--long before that time you will
become the husband of Mary Glynn. I could have hanged for all you cared.
And I am going to hang you, my friend, hang you with a rope of snow."

"Miss Glynn and myself are not even engaged," Nodes stammered.

"That I am quite prepared to believe," Summers went on. "In the light of
recent illumination, I am prepared to believe that she does not know
what has happened to me. After the 'accident' to her brother, she went
over to Paris with him to see a specialist. She probably made a devoted
nurse--whilst she had Tom to look after she could think of nothing else.
Very few people knew of the relationship in which we stood to each
other. I knew none of her friends. I waited for her to come forward till
it was forced upon me that she had turned against me. I had no idea that
she had hurried Tom off to Paris. I only gathered that from the
newspaper paragraph I was telling you about just now. A lot of things
came clear to me as I sat in my cell the last few days. I wrote a letter
or two, but no reply came. I decided to try to escape. Luck came my
way--and, in short, I am here."

"What do you expect that I can do for you?" Nodes asked timidly.

"Not more than you can help," Summers laughed. "If I had found you alone
last night, I might have done something to justify my sentence. I rather
fancy that I should have killed you, my friend! But as I listened to
your conversation with Henderson, and learnt the facts you told him,
another idea occurred to me. I learnt, for instance, how it was that
Mary Glynn never came near me. I became quite sure of the way in which
poor Wilfred Catling came by his death. Then, as I gathered how you
intended to spend this evening--this typical Christmas Eve--and how you
were going to get to the Gate House, the whole thing came upon me like
an inspiration. Get your kit bag down--it is time you began to dress."

Nodes proceeded to obey. There was something grimly determined about his
companion, some suggestion that there was unfortunately worse to follow
than this. With a shaking hand he turned kit bag and dressing-case out
on the seat. Summers nodded approval behind his cigarette.

"Very good," he said. "Here we have everything that may become a man of
fashion. You have prudently brought your dressing-case, and possibly you
may stay the night. I am delighted to see that you use safety razors. My
hair is fortunately about the right length, but I sadly need a shave. Do
it!"

Nodes started. Summers' request was stern and threatening.

"Well, get on," he snapped. "Here is the shaving stick, and the brush
and the razor. Get hot water and another towel. You are going to shave
me. You can't cut my throat with that razor. But you can shave me, and
the jolting of the carriage makes no difference. Get on with your work."

Nodes complied. It was just as well, perhaps, to humour this desperado.
On the whole, he made an exceedingly good job of it. With Nodes close
under his eye, Summers made something like a bath. Then he proceeded to
turn over Nodes's evening kit.

"Everything here," he said. "An entire change from head to foot. Silk
socks and underwear, pearl stud, half a dozen dress ties in case of
accidents. We are about the same size--in the days when we were friends
we borrowed one another's collars."

"What on earth are you going to do?" Nodes stammered.

"Why, put your dress clothes on, of course. When the operation is
completed I flatter myself that I shall look very nice. I shall still
have ten minutes to spare when I have finished. I won't put the coat on
yet, because I have a little work to do first. Really, it was very good
of you to make up your mind to change in the train. My little plan would
have been a complete failure otherwise."

"But you cannot possibly gain anything by this," Nodes protested.

"Think not? But you are not altogether behind the scenes, Mr. Nodes. I
am not going to ask you to pass me off as a friend of yours, so that I
can leave the train in safety. I am not going to ask you to lend me your
dress clothes and make an apology for turning up at Gate House in a
morning suit. In that case I should simply have borrowed the clothes you
are wearing at this moment. As a matter of fact, I am not asking any
favour at all. I am simply making use of you. Take your things off!"

Nodes protested. But he was past all resistance now. What little courage
he had possessed had left him. Very slowly and reluctantly he divested
himself of his garments. It was none too warm, and he shivered. He
waited with sickening anxiety for the next scene in the drama. Summers
indicated the hideous covering he had so recently discarded. He pointed
to this sternly.

"Put them on!" he said. "If you decline I shall force you to do so. You
were always afraid of pain, but you are going to experience it now if
you don't do as you are told."

There came something like tears in Nodes's eyes as he compiled. He
demurred bitterly to the command that he should remove all his
underclothing.

"Can't be permitted," Summers said curtly. "It would spoil all my
carefully-laid plans. It is absolutely necessary that you should be
dressed exactly as I was. Ah! that is better. You will see in a moment
why I have not yet donned your dress-coat. I have some work to do first.
Now, you are probably aware of the fact that this train slows up for a
few hundred yards this side of Formgrave Station. It is at a point where
the line crosses the marshes. At this critical moment you are going to
leave the train. I am going to throw you into one of the deep drifts of
snow by the side of the line. A typical Christmas, is it not? There is
no danger; you will not be a bit hurt, though the odds are that you will
be exceedingly damp. All you have to do afterwards is to crawl out on to
the line again and make your way to Formgrave. You will tell your story
there, and when you do so, the betting is that nobody will believe you.
They will refuse to credit so preposterous a tale. You look a pretty
disreputable object now, but nothing to what you will appear when you
have emerged from that snowy ditch. You will have no proof of what you
say, and you will probably be detained till the police have been sent
for. I should say that a good twenty-four hours will elapse before the
authorities are satisfied that a mistake has been made. Meanwhile, I
shall have succeeded in my scheme, and--"

"For Heaven's sake, Summers," Nodes gasped, "be careful. This mad
business will be the death of me. And I utterly fail to see why you
should hurt me in this revolting fashion."

Summers' face grew dark. For the first time, there was hatred as well as
contempt in his eyes.

"Ask yourself a question or two," he said. "Cast your mind back to the
events of six months ago. But for you I should never have been in my
present unhappy position. At my trial you could have told the story of
that forged cheque, had you liked. But you wanted me convicted, you
wanted me out of the way. And as things turned out I did not mind. I was
deserted by everybody I cared for, and the rest mattered nothing. Come
this way--the train is slackening speed."

Nodes crept unwillingly across the floor. His legs were shaking under
him. Peering out into the darkness, he could see dimly a flat country,
with great drifts of snow gleaming here and there. The footboard of the
carriage overhung what seemed like water. Without another word Summers
caught his companion by the collar and swung him clear of the train. He
dropped like a plummet up to his waist in the feathery white mass. Cold
and tearful, but quite unharmed, he crept on to the line again,
forlornly watching the tail lights of the train growing fainter in the
distance. Summers closed the door of the carriage, and took another
cigarette from Nodes' case.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Reginald Norfolk's guests had assembled for dinner in the drawing-room.
The circle of diners was complete save one--they were waiting for
Raymond Nodes. The host looked at his watch.

"I expect the train's a little late," he said.

"I've sent the car to meet it. In any case, your friend can't be very
long now. I hope you are not feeling anxious about him, Mary."

Mary Glynn shook her head. She only half comprehended what Norfolk was
saying. Her mind was very far away at the moment. There were one or two
women there asking themselves why it was that men voted Mary Glynn to be
such a pretty girl. She looked horribly white and aged; the black dress
she was wearing merely served to throw up the unhealthy pallor of her
cheeks. True, she had had a good deal of trouble lately--she had lost
her brother, but that did not account for everything. She was trying to
say something appropriate now, when the door was flung open, and the
butler announced Mr. Raymond Nodes.

He came forward, coolly and easily, and shook hands with his host and
hostess. He said just the right thing. Then he lounged across the room
towards Mary Glynn. She had not even glanced up at him, she was
contemplating the floor in the same abstracted way.

"I know you will be glad to see me," Summers said in a thrilling
whisper.

Something like a cry escaped Mary's lips. A clatter of conversation was
going on all round. As Mary looked up the deadly pallor of her face grew
ghastly. Then the blood flashed to her cheeks again, there was something
in her eyes between joy and fear.

"Be brave," Summers whispered. "Nobody has noticed anything. I was
fearful lest you should betray yourself. But luck has been on my side
all through, and it is not going to fail me now. This is not a nice
thing that I have done, Mary, but practically there is no other way.
Everybody says that Reggie Norfolk is a real good fellow, and I am sure
that he will forgive me when the time for explanation comes."

"But I thought," Mary gasped. "I thought that you were--you were--"

"In prison. So I was. And, what is more, I had no desire to get away
until I discovered that Tom was dead. Then I knew that the time had come
when I could speak. The strange part of it is that I should not have
been here at all had it not been for Nodes. I found out that he did not
know Norfolk; I found out that you were here. Nodes was going to dress
in the train, and he engaged a compartment to himself. I'll tell you
presently how I managed to get on to all this. Anyway, I boarded the
train, and compelled Nodes to change clothes with me. Somewhere about
this time he is telling his story to a set of people who will not
believe a single word that he says. They will naturally take him for the
escaped convict, and detain him for the police to make inquiries. Long
before his identity is established, and the authorities are after me, I
shall have proved my innocence."

"I know that you are innocent," Mary murmured. "Will you believe me when
I tell you that not till the day before yesterday did I know that your
friend, Wilfred Catling, was dead? That you had been convicted on a
charge of killing him came as a terrible shock to me. But--"

"Presently," Summers whispered. "We shall have our chance after dinner.
Meanwhile your hostess is making signals to the ladies. I take it for
granted that I am going to be your escort. Of course, I am not exactly
so fascinating as Nodes, but still--"

Mary squeezed her companion's arm. Nobody could say that she was pale
and cold now. She was trembling between fear and joy. She was longing
for the meal to come to an end, so that she could hear the much-needed
explanation. It was maddening to sit there with the lights and the
chatter, the gleam of the silver, and the din of voices about her. She
played with the food on her plate, she toyed with her glass. It was with
a deep drawn sigh of relief presently that she saw her hostess rise.

"There is a little conservatory at the end of the hall," she whispered.
"When you have finished your cigarettes, you will find me waiting for
you there. And for heaven's sake, don't be long, Rick."

Summers slipped away at the first favourable opportunity. In spite of
everything, he had enjoyed his coffee and cigarette, the refined
surroundings, and the talk of his fellow-men. He made for the dim little
conservatory, where Mary was waiting for him. He flung himself down by
her side, and attempted to draw her to him. She placed a trembling hand
on his shoulder.

"Not yet," she said, "not yet, Rick. You must hear what I have to say
first. I must tell you of a dreadful thing that only came to light the
night before my brother died. There was really no hope for him from the
first, but I did my best. For six months I saw nobody over there in
Paris: I had no time to look at any English papers. All I knew before I
went to Paris was that my brother and Wilfred Catling had been in an
accident together. But I did not know that Mr. Catling was dead. I did
not know that you had been charged with taking his life. But Tom knew.
He read the papers that he never gave me to look at. And the night
before he died, he told me why he had been so depressed. It was he who
had forged the cheque that was the cause of all the trouble."

"I knew that all along," Summers said quietly. "And what's more, Catling
knew before he died. If Tom had not been your brother, I should have
spoken long ago. But it seemed to me that it did not matter. Yet, when
everybody appeared to have deserted me, I could see how foolish I had
been. Still, it was too late to speak then, and I was too desperately
miserable to care what happened to me. It was only when I found out that
Tom was dead that I decided to clear my character, and make some sort of
an attempt to restore myself in your eyes again. I thought, of course,
that you knew all about it. It was only when I escaped and attempted to
see Nodes that I learnt pretty well everything by listening to a
conversation between Nodes and his friend Henderson. I believe that I
should have killed him had we met a few moments before. As it was, I
thought of a much better plan than that. I worked out this scheme to see
you this evening, and it has proved absolutely successful. We need say
nothing--"

"Yes," said Mary firmly, "we need. The whole truth must be spoken. And
the part that Mr. Nodes has taken in this vile conspiracy must be public
property. And after that, if you still care to--to--"

"My dearest girl, how can you doubt it? If the circumstances were
reversed, then--"

"Well, a girl is different from a man. You see, I always loved you Rick,
and I was so hurt when I got no letter from you in Paris. Probably you
wrote to me. Probably Tom suppressed the letters."

Summers preferred to ignore the point. He turned to Mary, and kissed the
tears from her eyes.

"What difference does it make?" he asked. "Tom's folly cannot touch you.
There will be a few days' gossip and scandal and then everything will be
forgotten. And you and I together, my dearest--"

Summers stopped suddenly. His host of a night stood in the doorway of
the conservatory, with a queer expression on his face. Two police
officers were in the library, together with a strange gentleman. They
had had an amazing story to tell. Would Mr.--er--Nodes be so good as
to--?

Mary grasped her lover's arm. The happy colour faded from her face. He
touched her tenderly.

"It has come," he said "I shall be very happy to give you the
explanation you need, Mr. Norfolk, and the sooner the better. I shall
tender you an apology later, and that, I hope, you will accept. And now
I am anxious to see the gentleman in the library. Mary, I shall not be
long."

* * * * * * *

The bells were chiming from the village church across the snow. Under
the porch of the house a troop of children were singing a carol Mary
listened to it all dreamily.

"Oh, yes, Rick would not be long. And to-morrow was Christmas Day!"



THE END



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