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Title: The Convict
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1100321.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: March 2011
Date most recently updated: March 2011

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

Title: The Convict
Author: Fred M White

*

Published in The Mercury (Hobart, Tas.), Saturday 19 February, 1938.

*

THE usual placid smile was on Denny's face as he crossed the prison yard
on his way to the cook house for the inevitable matutinal bread and
butter and cocoa. Denny had come to Kingstown two years ago, and from
the first had established himself as the prime favourite with his
gaolers. He was always cheerful and always willing, and any man more
unlike the fruit of the gallows it would have been hard to imagine. And
yet Denny's escape from the supreme penalty had been a narrow one
indeed. There was little doubt of the fact that it was his hand that had
dealt the fatal blow in that wild poaching affray on the edge of Hoxton
Moor, but there was just a doubt, and the sympathetic jury had given
Denny the benefit of it. At that critical moment Denny's perennial smile
had stood him in good stead. It was impossible to believe that a man
looking so innocent and guileless could have been guilty of a cruel
murder. So the jury had called it manslaughter--to the great annoyance
of Mr. Justice Savory--and the latter had grimly complimented the
prisoner on his escape, and had let him off with the comparatively light
sentence of three years' penal servitude.

Denny smiled as he heard the sentence, smiled as he left the Court, but
his heart was full of tears and the misery of it bore him down and
overwhelmed him. He had never meant to injure the keeper, he had been
standing on the defence with his back to a dry ditch grimly resolved to
see the thing through, and it was a pure misfortune that John Stokes had
run in just in time to get the butt of the gun crashing down on his
head. Up to that moment Denny had never been in trouble. He was a
hard-working farmer doing his best to scratch a living from a few acres
of sour moorland, and naturally enough a man must have his recreations;
and poaching happened to be the outstanding passion of Denny's life. It
was common knowledge that up to that dreadful night no keeper had ever
laid Denny by the heels, and no successful charge had ever been made
against him.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

ANOTHER three months now and there would be an end of it. When the order
for release came, the leaves would be falling and the Autumn gold,
burnished and shining, would be hanging in gleaming banners on the
woodsides. Sometimes as Denny worked he could hear the cock pheasants
challenging in the spinneys, and only yesterday he had found a covey of
partridges in a ferny hollow. The smile died from his face for a moment
and something caught him by the throat and filled his eyes with tears.
At that moment the temptation to make a dash for liberty was strong upon
him. He knew every inch of the country for miles around, knew where he
could find food and shelter. All he needed was a box of matches and a
loaf of bread, and for the rest nothing mattered. It would be glorious
to have a few days' liberty, a few hours on the tors where the biggest
trout lay, and where Denny had hidden his tackle ages ago ready for the
next expedition on his lordship's preserved water. But this would only
mean the freedom of the woods for an all too brief space, and the loss
of the remission of sentence which good conduct and that perennial smile
had won for the prisoner.

So Denny put the temptation from mind and the next morning there came
the letter which was the cause of all the mischief. It was a letter from
a girl, of course, and as Denny read it in the seclusion of his cell his
face grew hard, and there was on his brow a frown as black as night. He
went about his appointed task for the rest of the day with the ghost of
a smile, and before he slept that night he had made up his mind.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

IT was a misty morning, grey and gloomy, and the lights were still
burning in the prison as he crossed to the cook house to draw his
rations. He turned abruptly to the right and made for the high wall
round the yard beyond which the misty moor and liberty lay. In an angle
of the yard some repairs had been going on, and here and there a heap of
stones ready to his hand. He whipped off his coat and unwound from his
body a rope constructed from his torn sheets, one end of which he tied
around one of the stones, and, exerting all his strength, threw it over
the wall. With his light weight he was confident that the big stone
would afford sufficient resistance for him to reach the coping. It was
just touch and go for a moment, but the stone dangling over the top held
firmly, and a few seconds later Denny was speeding across the moor in
the direction of the tors.

He ran on smoothly and easily, full of the joy of life, the keen air
filling his lungs like champagne. He knew exactly where to go; the
precise direction in which to turn, so that when the prison bell clanged
harshly through the unbroken silence, he smiled with the air of one well
satisfied.

And Denny had no illusions. With the best of luck on his side he could
not hope to be a free man more than a few days. Still, he could
accomplish a good deal in that time. The first thing he had to do was to
provide himself with suitable clothing, and here was the hut of Joe
Braund, the shepherd, all ready for the purpose. He and old Joe had shot
many a pheasant together, but when Joe heard the news and subsequently
found an old coat and pair of trousers missing--well, Joe would know how
to be silent.

It was past 10 before Denny had finished his breakfast. He had borrowed
some bread and a box of matches, and with the aid of his fishing tackle
had caught a brace of his lordship's trout, and had cooked them over a
dry wood fire. Then he lay down like a dog in the sweet-smelling bracken
and slept for hours.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

THE light was failing in the western sky as he woke and turned his steps
in the direction of a cluster of twinkling lights which he knew outlined
the little hamlet of Weston. He skirted the village cautiously until he
came to a cottage lying back in a garden, the door of which was open, so
that he could see the cheap oil lamp burning smokily on the table. As he
crept along the flagged pathway he saw that someone was moving inside.
He saw a girl, tall and slim and dark, oval of face, and looking out
through a cloud of dusky hair. She was young and straight and vigorous,
with a suggestion about her that spoke more of the South than the pink
and white robustness of the typical Devonshire lass. She was distinctly
handsome, too, in her wild, hawk-like fashion, and Denny drew a long
deep breath, as he saw her, like some portrait of Rembrandt flashing
against the dingy background. Assured that there was no one else in the
room, Denny stepped quietly inside and closed the door behind him.

The girl turned swiftly, the olive skin grew white, the dark eyes filled
with the nameless fear.

"You, you," she gasped. "Are you mad?"

"Maybe I am," Denny said slowly. "There's no fool like a fool what's
lost his heart over a woman."

"If father happens to come back," the girl stammered.

"Your father will come back when they closes the doors of the Three
Bells," Denny went on in the same toneless voice. The smile was no
longer on his face, his eyes were troubled. "Now hearken to me, Meg.
When they sent me up yonder I was as good as a dead man. Seemed to me as
if my life was finished. Three years! Three years behind prison bars!"

* * * * * * * * * * * *

"I'm very sorry, Denny," the girl stammered.

"Now that's a lie," Denny said stolidly. "You ain't a bit sorry. You've
got the wrong blood in you, my lass. There never yet was a Vincent, man
or woman, who cared for anybody but themselves. I suppose you can't help
it. I knows as you comes from some of them that settled, 'ere back in
the days when the Armady was wrecked. Your men's 'andsome and your
women's beautiful enough, and never a heart amongst the lot o' ye. Yet I
was fool enough to think you was different to the rest. It's nigh on
three years now since I put my arm round you and kissed you, and you
swore as 'ow you was the 'appiest girl in Devonshire. And I believed
you. I wouldn't listen when they told me that behind my back you was
carrying on with that lily-livered John Glass. Curse his pretty face and
them taking ways of 'is. And when the trouble came, you swore that you
would wait for me, and be my wife when I was free again. And now you are
going to marry John Glass tomorrow. Is it really true, or have I been
misinformed?"

"Who told you?" the girl asked unsteadily.

"I don't see that it matters," Denny said. "We get letters in prison
sometimes, but you seem to have forgotten it. Anyway, not one line 'ave
I 'ad from you all the time. 'Ere, what are ye goin' to do? I don't
leave the cottage, nor you neither, till I've finished what I've got to
say. A friend wrote and told me all about this thing. You're not worth a
thought, you and this new man of yours, but because I've suffered and
know what it is--well, you wouldn't understand that. Before they put me
away I showed you where my money was. I showed you over a hundred pound,
hard earned in sweat and toil, and that was to make a home for us when
my time was up. Many a bitter night have I been cheered by the thought
of that. Little did I think that you had taken my savings and bought
yourself and that scamp Glass your outfits for Canada and your passages.
Don't say a word to me. Where else did the money come from? Glass hasn't
a penny, nor you. And you thought I should know nothing of this till I
came out of prison. Do you know why I am here now? Can you guess?"

* * * * * * * * * * * *

THE girl shook her head slowly. She stood there by the side of the
table, breathing fiercely: her lips parted with a fear that was beyond
all disguising. What was this man going to do to her, she wondered. He
had altered strangely since she had last seen him; he was hard and
haggard, and the prison taint was plainly to be seen. There was blood on
his hands still; would there be blood on his hands again before he had
finished with her? For all that he had said was true. In the days gone
by she had been flattered by his attentions, she had flaunted Denny
before the other girls in the village, she had succeeded where most of
them had failed. And from the moment that the prison doors had closed
upon him she had never given him another thought. She had never lacked
admirers, and, in any case, there was always John Glass to fall back on.
Then the temptation had come to her, and she had taken Denny's money
from its hiding-place. She was going to marry Glass on the morrow, and
long before Denny was free she and her husband would be thousands of
miles away. Not in her wildest dreams had she anticipated such a crisis
as this. It had not seemed possible for Denny to find out how he had
been betrayed.

"You've got no proof of this," she said sullenly.

"What more proof do I want?" Denny demanded. "You couldn't marry Glass
without money. Neither of you ever earned a penny in your lives. And
when Ada--I mean my friend, wrote and told me the news, it didn't take
much brains to see where the money came from."

"So that's where you got it from?" she cried. "Ada Knott wrote and told
you. The white-faced cat, the jealous little fool! So that's how the
silly little doll took her revenge on me?"

"She's a good girl, and always was," Denny said stolidly. "And so you
are conceited enough to think that she is jealous of you. Why, she could
have Glass a score of times if she had minded."

"I wasn't talking about John," she cried. "It was you that Ada Knott was
after. She used to cry her eyes out when first we took to walking
together. I could see what was the matter when she came whining up to me
and wished me 'appiness. Couldn't keep her voice steady 'ardly.
Everybody in the village knew it except you."

* * * * * * * * * * * *

A dull red rose to Denny's cheeks.

All this was as if the girl had suddenly struck him a blow. It was very
much like a flash of lightning in a dark place when a solitary wayfarer
sees danger in his path. A score of forgotten incidents grew clear and
luminous in Denny's mind. And there had been a time when he and Ada
Knott--but he did not want to speak about that now. Nor could he believe
for a moment that the letter he had received was dictated by any feeling
of petty jealousy.

"I ain't goin' to argue this with you," he said. "There are lots of
things that you can't understand. And now let's have the truth. I want
to know just what you've done with my money?"

The girl shook her head sullenly.

"You've got no money," she said. "Never 'ad none. Who's going to believe
a story told by a gaol bird? Don't you come 'ere threatening me. Don't
you dare to say----"

"The money was in notes," Denny went on quietly. "Bank of England notes,
they was, and I took 'em out myself when there was all that talk about
Luker's Bank down to Oakleigh. Manager said I was a fule for takin' 'em.
Like as not they'd be stolen from the cottage. So e' takes the numbers
of the notes and enters them in a little book. It ain't my word as
you're up against, Meg. And now, what have you two done with my money?"

The girl turned a little white about the lips. She was frightened now;
the terror in her eyes leapt out, and Denny saw it. But there was no
triumph in his face, nothing but a gentle melancholy bred of some vague
intangible regret.

"You'd never charge us, Denny?" the girl asked. "The money was no use to
you; besides, I'm sick and tired of this place. And there's always a
chance out there in Canady."

"Not for the likes of John Glass," Denny said. "Seems to me as I'm
getting my revenge later on all right. I suppose you spent it all? Not a
penny of it left?"

"I didn't want to take it," the girl said hoarsely. "After I told Glass
he never let me rest. And I did want to get away so bad. Hark, there's
somebody outside. I'll pull down the blind. You mustn't be seen here,
Denny. I'll get you away."

"You won't do nothing of the sort," Denny said doggedly. "I know that
step anywhere. Many a night when we've been lying out in a dry ditch
waiting for the moon to go down--Come in, John. You didn't expect to see
me here tonight."

* * * * * * * * * * * *

A slim weed of a man came jauntily into the room, and Denny caught him
by the shoulder. The easy smile died away from the newcomer's lips, the
strength seemed to go from his limbs, he dropped into a chair as if he
had been an empty sack. The red hair plastered in a horrible fringe upon
his forehead grew damp, the little ferret eyes dilated like those of a
cat in the dark.

"My god, it's Denny," he faltered. "Denny come back to life again.
What--what do you want?"

"I came here to kill you," he said slowly. "I knew as how I should find
you here, you two together, and I promised myself--well, never mind what
I promised myself. And now we are face to face I can't do it. It isn't
as if you was a right and proper man, John Glass. You're just a
miserable rat of a chap, just a boasting coward and no more. Funny thing
to me that any woman can see anything in a bloke like you. Call yourself
a poacher. Oh, yes, you used to come with us sometimes, but you always
took good care to keep out of harm's way. And when there was a chance of
trouble, you showed the white feather, and went whining to his lordship
for mercy. It was you as put the keepers on us that night; but for you I
should be a free man at this moment. Oh, I know all about it. I knew all
about it at the time of the trial. And one of the luxuries I promised
myself then was the leathering I was going to give you when I was a free
man again. And now some'ow I can't do it. It would be almost as bad as
'itting a woman. Still, there be other ways. I could send you to jail if
I 'ad a mind."

* * * * * * * * * * * *

"You've never gone and told 'im, Meg?" Glass gasped.

"'Ere, be a man," Meg cried contemptuously. "I didn't tell 'im; 'e knew
all about it when 'e came. And 'e says the bank manager over at Oakleigh
'as got the number of the notes. Might just as well own up. Besides, 'e
can't do nothing. 'E'll be back in jail within a week."

There was something almost fine in this hard, shameless taunt. Whatever
the man might feel, the woman was utterly unconcerned. Denny looked at
her with a certain contempt for his own past blindness.

This creature was the woman he had wanted to marry! For the love of her
he had seen red, in his desire for her, and his rage against the other
man he had broken prison deliberately, full well knowing what the
consequences might be. And now it suddenly dawned upon him that the
beauty whom he had idealised was no more than a village slut, and a
bold, black-eyed wench, too lazy to keep clean and too selfish to care
for aught but herself. The anger and contempt and self-pity were fading
from Denny's heart now as these truths dawned upon him.

"I told you what I come 'ere tonight for," he said. "Leastwise, what I
thought I 'ad come for. I said as 'ow I was sure of findin' Glass 'ere,
and it were my intent to kill 'im. And now I knows as I was altogether
wrong. Stand up, John Glass, and face me like a man if you can."

Glass scrambled to his feet shamefacedly.

"I b'aint afraid of you," he said.

"That's a lie," Denny went on with the same even tone. "You'm in such a
mortal fear that you can't stand upright. And yet there's no cause for
nothing of the kind. You can say, if you like, as I come 'ere tonight to
say good-bye to two old friends, and wish 'em 'appiness in the new
sphere which it pleases Providence to call 'em. I learned that from a
sermon what the chaplain preached in the chapel last Sunday, and I've
learnt lots of things that you wouldn't understand. But that isn't what
I meant to say. I come 'ere to wish you 'appiness and make you a little
present. I've got a 'undred pounds 'idden away, and Meg knows where to
find it. That's my wedding present to you, and if you give me a pen and
a bit of paper, I'll put it down in writing. I don't want no gossip in
the village, I don't want it said afterwards as 'ow you two went off
with something that didn't belong to you. You can just show that paper
to anyone you like. It won't matter nothing to me, because when my
time's up I'm going to Canady too. I dare say when I sell up my few
sticks I shall have enough to take me out yonder. Now then, what about
that bit o' paper?"

* * * * * * * * * * * *

A sullen flush rose to the girl's face, for Denny had penetrated her
armour of callous selfishness at last. It was only just for a moment she
was touched, only just for a moment she hesitated between admiration for
Denny's generosity and an innate conviction that he was a born fool.
There could be no gratitude either, seeing that the gift had already
been spent. Without a word she produced a scrap of paper and a rusty
pen. The suspicion of a smile flickered on her lips as she watched
Denny's laborious attempt at composition. He placed his head on one
side, and regarded his handiwork with pardonable pride.

"I think that's all right," he said. "No; I don't want no thanks.
There'll be children presently, and it's just as well as they shan't
have a' couple of thieves for their parents. And now I'll be off."

Without waiting for another word he turned and left the cottage and
walked boldly out into the night. He no longer skirted along under cover
of the darkness, no longer bore himself like a hunted creature flying
from justice, for he had done his work, and was not afraid. As he
reached the turn of the road a figure came out from the woodside and a
hand was timidly laid on his arm. In the pallid moonlight he saw a
pretty, anxious face and a pair of blue eyes all swimming with tears.

"So it's you, Ada?" he said. "It's good of you to stop and speak to the
likes of me. If I hadn't been a fool----"

He stopped, for something seemed to catch him by the throat and choke
him. He was standing in the centre of one of those blinding illuminating
flashes again. And when the sear of the lightning had passed, it had
fused upon his soul the lasting knowledge that this was the girl he had
always loved, and that the other thing had been a mere obsession. He
held out his hands unsteadily.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

"OH, my dear, my dear," he said. "If I'd only--but it's no use to talk
of that now. It was good of you to send me that letter. But 'ow did you
'appen to know as I was 'ere?"

"I saw you creeping up to the cottage," the girl exclaimed. "And then I
knew who the escaped convict was. And all this because I sent you that
letter. I always knew as you cared for 'er, Denny, always felt as you
would go through fire and water for 'er. And she's not worth the love of
any man. And that's why I wrote you the letter. I knew your time was
getting near, but I didn't want you to feel the cruel disappointment
when you came out. And now you've learnt the truth from them two, and it
does my 'eart good to see as 'ow you've taken it like a man. If you will
try in time to forget 'er---"

"It's done already," Denny said simply. "I come 'ere tonight to make
them two a wedding present, and wish 'em good luck. And I don't want
ever to see neither of them again. And I don't love Meg Vincent, and I
never did. And the strange thing is that I didn't know it till an hour
ago. You learns lots of things in prison, my dear, but I ain't got no
time to tell you about them now. If you don't mind walking down the road
a little way with me----"

"Down the road?" the girl gasped. "Why, there's two warders hiding in
the plantation, Denny."

"That's all right, lass," Denny said easily. "I don't mind 'em now. And
you jest listen to me. I ain't blind any longer. Ada, tell me the truth.
Could you love me and be my wife later on if so be as I could prove to
you----"

* * * * * * * * * * * *

"OH, you know, you know," the girl whispered. "All the village knew. And
you're a good man, Denny, in spite of it all. Let us turn back. I dare
say I could manage----"

Denny drew her to his side and kissed her tenderly.

"It can't be done that way, dear," he said. "Now I tell you that many
things are to be learnt in prison, and in my spare time I've read more
books than I ever read in my life before. And the books I have studied
most are those about Canady. And that's where we're going later on, my
dear. When the time comes I'll sell everything, and we'll face the new
world together."

"I'd want no better happiness," the girl said. "And I've got a bit of
money saved too. If you can only get away into some hiding place till
they forget."

"It can't be done that way," Denny said. "I'm going back again, girlie.
I'm going to see it out; I'll not cross the water till I can go as a
free man. Now dry your eyes, and kiss me, and let me go. And remember
that by the time the swallows are here again----Goodbye."

He gently drew her arms from about his neck, and then, without another
word, with head erect and swinging step, strode off down the hill to the
spot where he knew the warders were awaiting him.



THE END


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