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Title: The Convict
Author: Fred M. White
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1100321h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Aug 2014
Most recent update: Aug 2014

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The Convict


Fred M. White

First published in The Mail, Adelaide, Australia, 21 Dec 1918, page 16
Reprinted in The Mercury, Hobart, Tasmania, 19 Feb 1938

This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2014

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.


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