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

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The Case for the Prisoner

by

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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