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Title: The Case for the Prisoner
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1000771.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: November 2010
Date most recently updated: November 2010

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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: The Case for the Prisoner
Author: Fred M White


*

Published in The Queenslander, Saturday, 1 September, 1917.

*

Ellis, standing in the doorway, gave a little sigh of admiration, with
perhaps a tinge of envy in it. He could see a room half in shadow and
half in the subdued light of the shaded lamps, a flicker of blue and
orange from the clear fire, and by the side of it a woman, lying back in
a deep, cosy chair.

Colonel Henderson's wife owned frankly to 40 years, and perhaps all the
more joyously because she looked at least a decade younger. Her face
lighted up now and again, and her lips parted in a smile at some remark
by the man who sat at her side, with his long legs stretched out towards
the cheerful blaze.

Colonel Henderson was a good ten years older than his wife, though she
refused to admit it. He was a fine figure of a man, lean and well-knit,
and his hair and moustache bore no trace of grey. Yet he had seen hard
service in many lands, and his D.S.O. had been fairly won during the
Boer War.

Ellis advanced into the room, and made his presence known. It was good
to see the light of pleasure in Molly Henderson's blue eyes, and feel
the grip of the Colonel's hand. It was good to sit there facing the
cheerful blaze and listen to news of mutual friends. Then gradually the
conversation lapsed, as it will between friends, and a long silence
followed. It was Ellis who broke it first.

"Well," he said, "you have not asked me how the search has progressed."

The Colonel shrugged his shoulders just a little impatiently. "Oh, the
Odyssey," he said. "Aeneas in search of the sentimental idea. My dear
fellow, I have never had any sympathy with this scheme at all. To begin
with, I can see nothing to be gained by it. Your brother is dead. And he
has lain under the veldt now for nearly 13 years. His wife may be dead,
too, for all you know. For the sake of argument, let us grant that she
isn't. Say you find her, what are you going to do then?"

"Give her back that money," Ellis said. "It belonged to her, and I shall
never be satisfied till she has the whole 20 thousand back again."

"Wasn't it more than that?" Henderson asked.

"Well, at one time it was, much more. We heard from Capetown that my
brother was married, and that his wife had settled her money on him, but
my mother and myself would not have known her if we had met her in the
street. Well, she left her husband, heaven knows why, and Philip was
heartbroken about it. Then the Boer War broke out, and we gathered from
my brother's letters that his wife was entirely in sympathy with the
foe. Finally he was left alone, defending his farm with perhaps a couple
of English men, and supplying Kitchener with valuable information. And
what did that woman do? She left the farm at dead of night, and
deliberately betrayed her husband into the hand of the foe. They shot
him as he was writing home to tell my mother this, and the unfinished
letter reached us in due course. And you laugh at me because I have made
it the business of my life to find that woman and give her money back to
her. Is not that so?"

"Well?" Henderson said, half wearily. "Go on."

"Well, I am going to make a deliberate accusation against you, George. I
am going to challenge you to deny that you know where Philip's wife is
to be found."

Molly Henderson lifted a smiling, questioning face to her husband.

He smiled in turn. "I am not going to deny it," he said. "I can't--at
least, not till Geoffrey has produced his proofs."

"I can do that," Ellis said, grimly. "Now, as you know, I have been
travelling about the Transvaal, hunting for information for the last two
years. But the war had removed so many landmarks. Whole families had
been wiped out, and people disappeared in the most mysterious manner.
Then I got hold of a Cape boy, an old man who remembered my brother, and
he took me to the farm, where he died. In one of the ruined buildings I
discovered a mass of documents in my brother's handwriting. And amongst
them was a common luggage label. It was written by a woman and addressed
to Colonel George Henderson at Paarburg, to be called for, and the
initials in the corner were those of my brother's wife. A date is on
that label, the very day that the woman I am in search of abandoned her
husband to his fate. And if you want any more, let the thing speak for
itself."

Very quietly Ellis laid the torn slip of paper on the table. Henderson
picked it up and examined it carefully.

"I am not denying anything," he said. "I should say, without a doubt,
that that label was addressed by your brother's wife, and it would be
futile to deny that I am the Colonel Henderson in question."

"Then she did write to you!" Ellis cried, eagerly.

"You can't force me to speak, you know," Henderson said. "For many
reasons I deplore this discovery of yours, and yet I cannot tell you
why. Give it up, Geoffrey. If that money weighs on your conscience, give
it me, and I will see that it reaches its destination. The woman you
seek doesn't want it; indeed, I know that she wouldn't touch a penny of
it. And I warn you that you will not get any further."

Ellis listened in moody silence, and then turned eagerly to Molly
Henderson for sympathy.

"Won't you help me?" he implored. "Dear Molly, George cannot resist you,
if you ask him."

"I do ask him," Mrs. Henderson whispered.

Henderson bent and touched his wife's forehead gently. "Listen," he
said. "A woman comes to me in the hour of her distress, and appeals to
me for protection. Does it matter whether she is good or bad; does
anything matter beyond the fact that she is a woman? She came to me,
knowing that I was prejudiced against her. She came in peril, with the
stigma of the spy upon her. And because she appealed for my protection I
gave it her, and I have never regretted it. You know that, Molly, don't
you?"

"We have discussed the matter many times," Mrs. Henderson said, with a
little catch in her voice. "Don't think we are callous or heartless,
Geoffrey. We have not deliberately deceived you. We always hoped that
you would forget, and that one of these days some nice girl----"

"There's a nice girl, now," Ellis said, moodily. "But you know I cannot
speak to her yet."

"You are a fool," Henderson broke out. "A sentimental fool, who is
wasting his life in the pursuit of shadows. And with that I have no more
to say."

"I will make one more appeal to you," Ellis persisted. "You suggested
just now that there might be a girl somewhere for me, and I have told
you that there is. You say you are anxious for my future happiness, and
yet all the time you are doing your best to prevent it."

There was something like pity in Henderson's smile, something sad in the
expression in Molly's face.

"Well, Molly!" Henderson asked. "Geoffrey has made an appeal to you.
What are you going to say?"

"It would be far kinder to say nothing," Molly Henderson murmured, after
a moment's hesitation. "As you suggested just now, let sleeping dogs
lie."

"But why?" Ellis protested. "Can't you see what a living tragedy the
thing is to me?"

"Supposing you were a woman who had done something in the past and had
suffered for it," Henderson suggested. "It is always the woman who
suffers, you know, always the woman who pays. She may be living out her
life in some remote part of the world, she may be the wife of some good
fellow who knows nothing of that closed volume. She may be absolutely
and entirely happy. You wouldn't grudge her that happiness?"

"What decent fellow would?" Ellis asked. "But is this fact or fable?"

"It's founded on fact, any way. And don't run away with the impression
that your brother's case is unique, because more than one Englishman
with a Dutch wife paid a similar penalty during that campaign. And the
Boers are our blood brothers to-day, mind. I am going to ask you to
listen to my story, and perhaps, when I have finished, you will not be
so anxious to injure a person whom you have never seen, and who is known
to you only by the name of Ruth Ellis."

"The story is worth listening to," Mrs. Henderson murmured.

"I will go back to a few months before the war," Henderson began. "I was
in Cape Colony, remember, before the fighting began. And there I met a
man whom I will call Trevor. He was a very charming and delightful
fellow, a typical, well-bred Englishman, with the public school
hall-mark upon him. He had plenty of ambition; perhaps he was a little
too ambitious, for he rejected one or two excellent openings on the
ground that they were not good enough. As a matter of fact, he was
wasting his money, and was just a little too much inclined to spend his
evenings in the club billiard-room, when he met a girl. I didn't know
her then, but I heard she was a good type, and that her people were
wealthy. They got married, and went up country, precisely as your
brother did. I heard from him from time to time, though I never met his
wife. You see, it was just then that we in the army began to see the red
light ahead, and very full our hands were in consequence. But I did not
lose interest in Trevor, and he wrote to me frequently. He was always
the type of man to show his feelings; he belonged to the emotional class
that must have sympathy. His letters gradually changed in tone; he was
not getting on with his wife. He complained that she was frivolous and
thoughtless, and fond of admiration. She hated the lonely life; there
were violent quarrels and passionate scenes, and very vividly they were
described. Trevor was a born novelist--anybody who read the letters
would have known that. And I am bound to say that I took them all for
gospel. They were deucedly convincing.

"I got those letters regularly," Henderson went on. "'They culminated
some months later after the war broke out, with the declaration that the
woman had left her husband and gone back to Capetown. After a bit, she
was back again; indeed, the same thing happened twice more, and then
Trevor was killed by a handful of wandering Boers during one of his
wife's periodical absences. I thought I'd heard the last of her, but I
was mistaken. Late one night an orderly came to me with the information
that a woman had called on important business. It was a queer place for
a woman, that desolate region, and I must confess that my curiosity was
aroused; so the lady came into my tent, and introduced herself as Mrs.
Trevor.

"She was quite candid; she knew perfectly well what her husband had
written to me, for she had read every line of his letters before they
were despatched. She spoke utterly without bitterness; she spoke as one
who had suffered in silence at the hands of a madman. It was the old,
old story. Trevor had taken to drink--the worst type of drunkard, the
man who has savage spells with sober interludes. Geoffrey, I cannot
convey to you in as many words what that poor woman had suffered. She
had never left the man of her own accord, she had stood by him as long
as it was safe; and had fought for his soul. And when she fled in fear
of her life, and Trevor was writing whining to me and cadging for
sympathy, he was sending her the most passionate and imploring letters,
promising her anything if she'd only return. And her return from time to
time was none the less noble, because he had killed all her love long
ago. She was with him to the end. It came after a scene of violence
greater than any that had preceded it, and she, a woman, was left all
alone on the veldt. Trevor was shot at daybreak by the roaming Boers I
speak of, and, at the last moment, conveyed an impression to me that he
had been the victim of treachery on the part of his wife. But I know
better; I have chapter and verse for everything I am telling you in my
safe yonder. I don't suppose you would care to see it, and, in any case,
it is no business of yours. And I think that's about all, Geoffrey."

Ellis looked up with a lack-lustre eye. He only dimly comprehended what
all this was leading to.

"A sad story," he murmured. "But I don't see the application of it. It
sounds like poor Phil's life over again, in a slightly different form.
But, then, poor old Phil did not drink, and he would not have hurt a
fly. Good heavens! you're not insinuating----"

"You are very blind, Geoffrey," Mrs. Henderson whispered.

Ellis collapsed trembling into a chair. "Heavens! Is it true?" he cried.
"Is it true that all these years I have been sacrificing my life for one
so unworthy? But it must be true. Forgive me, Molly, for all the pain I
have inflicted upon the one woman who, after my mother, I love best in
the world. And how am I going to tell her the truth?"

"Why tell her at all?" Molly Henderson whispered. "Phil's wife is dead.
Ruth Ellis died of a broken heart, and lies in her grave out there on
the veldt, Molly Henderson, thank heaven, is a different person
altogether. And now, Geoffrey----"

Ellis advanced towards the speaker and placed his hands on hers. Then he
lifted them to his lips. "Everything is buried on the veldt," he said.
"And you will never hear me mention this again. I should like to come
back in a day or two, when I feel more able--you know what I mean. And
if I leave you now I am quite sure."

He was gone. The door closed behind him.

 * * * * * * * * *

Henderson laid his hands on his wife's shoulders, and looked down into
her eyes. "That was brave of you," he said. "He would never have got the
story from me. Still, if you think it is for the best----"

"Oh, yes," Molly Henderson smiled. "It is good for him that he should
hear the case for the prisoner. And I am sure I shall never regret that
the story has been told. Geoffrey will tell nobody, not even the girl
who is waiting for him. And, George, I think it was for her sake that
the story was told."



THE END



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