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Title: The Heels of the Dawn
Author: Fred M. White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1100881.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: December 2011
Date most recently updated: December 2011

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

Title: The Heels of the Dawn
Author: Fred M. White

*

Published in The Otago Witness, New Zealand, 24 March 1909, page 9

*


THE ROOM was in that artistic semi-darkness which adapts itself to the
well-appointed dinner table. The meal was there, too, cooling under silver
dishes half-hidden amongst a mass of green asparagus fern and flaming red
tulips. One of the crimson blossoms had fallen out of place, and Mark Crunden
stepped across and replaced it mechanically.

"I might have guessed you would do that," his wife said bitterly. "It is
so typical of you. Ever you have been wasting your life and mine upon
trifles."

"I have done my best for you and the child," Crunden murmured.

"Oh, yes, I know," Kate retorted. "Four years ago we were fairly well off.
This house belonged to us. It was a joy and a pleasure to furnish it as we
have done. And now how do we stand? The house has been sold, every stick and
stone here is in the hands of the moneylenders, indeed, I was hard put to it
to get the flowers for the dinner-table to night. And this, all because
you've forgotten wife and child in pursuit of a theory. You are just as bad
as the man who gambles away everything at Monte Carlo. But you need not look
at me like that—our friends are not coming here to-night. I put them
off by telegram, and now I'll go. You can take off your dress coat and go
back to your books again. And as for me, well, I have friends who will be
glad enough to have me for the present. And that is all arranged. I have
ordered a cab to be at the door in half an hour for Nest and myself. We
shan't trouble you any more. If you cared for me as you should... if you had
ever cared for me as you should—"

"You are quite wrong." Crunden said quietly. "You will not believe me when
I say that I have never ceased to care for you," although perhaps—but
tell me why you have made up your mind to leave me in this drastic fashion?
What have I done to-day that is worse than yesterday or the day before?"

For answer, Kate Crunden took from her pocket a small square of yellow
cardboard. She tossed it half bitterly, half contemptuously amongst the
flowers on the table. Crunden lifted it from the table, and his sensitive
face flushed.

"Where did you get this from?" he asked.

"Oh, I found it," his wife said. "It dropped out of your pocket when I was
clearing up your dressing-room this morning. It relates to a pearl cross,
pawned by you for £150. And I am taking the child with me. Of course, I
know that, legally speaking—"

A moment later, Mark Crunden was alone. He stood there in the
perfectly-appointed dining room, trying to realise what he had lost. And now
suddenly he had come to his senses. He was utterly and entirely ruined; he
would have to leave that luxurious flat and start life entirely afresh.

In the course of the last four years there was only one sensible thing he
could recollect having done. He had insured his life for £10,000, and
by some extraordinary stroke of luck he had managed to keep up the premiums.
Two days before he had recollected that the next premium was due, and that he
had not as many pence as he required pounds to keep the policy alive. He had
taken the cross and For one whole day he had sat in his study thinking the
matter out. Gradually and by slow degrees he began to see his way. He was a
failure, he had spoilt his own life, and he had dragged his wife's down to
his own level. And then he began to see his way. It would be quite a simple
thing to cheat the insurance company. There were ways of doing that to a
scientific man like himself. For instance, there was his friend Bashford, who
had the flat immediately below.

Bashford was a bacteriologist—in his laboratory there were scores of
cults—on those little gelatine tablets death in a thousand hideous
forms lurked. Really, the thing was ridiculously easy. Bashford was away for
the day, and Crunden I had the run of his flat. It might mean anything from a
long, lingering illness to a sudden death, and then Kate would be free.

Crunden did not care to question the morality of his action over the pearl
cross. That was past and done with, at any rate. All he had to do now was to
go down to Bashford's flat and choose his own method of settling his great
account. He had Bashford's spare latchkey in his pocket. He knew that the
latter would not be back until midnight, and he was quite aware of the fact
that Bashford's deaf old housekeeper would be in bed by this time. Really,
there was nothing in the way.

He was in the laboratory at length; he switched on the electric light.
Everything was exactly as he had expected to find it. In an air-tight glass
case rows of tubes were half filled with opaque masses of gelatine. Crunden
studied them all studiously and coldly. He opened a glass case presently and
took out one of three tiny tubes which were labelled with the mystic formula
represented in plain English by "Asiatic Cholera." He slipped this into his
pocket, and made his way back into his own study.

He stood there just a moment with the tube in his hand, trembling
violently from head to foot. He wiped away the perspiration which streamed
down his face; he wondered vaguely why he could be curious enough to listen
to what a newsboy was shouting in the street below...

He dropped the broken pieces of the phial into the heart of the fire. He
sat down calmly to read and smoke. He could hear the servants clearing away
the unused dinner things now. A parlourmaid came into the library presently
and asked if anything further was wanted before she went to bed. She had
three or four letters on a tray, and Crunden asked her mechanically when they
came.

"By the 9 o'clock post, sir," the girl explained. "I heard you go out,
sir, just now, and I thought that you had taken them in yourself."

Crunden stretched out his hand for the letters. He recollected that he had
seen them in the box. He opened them carelessly, with a smile. Really,
letters did not much matter to him now. Two of them were peremptory requests
for payment of accounts, a third was an invitation to dinner, and the last
letter bore the imprint of a firm of solicitors who transacted all the
business on behalf of Crunden's uncle, James Broadwood. Crunden cast his eye
over it carelessly enough then he leapt to his feet and held the letter to
the light.

Dear Sir,

With much regret we have to inform you, of the death of
your uncle Mr James Broadwood, which took place at Nice on Monday last week.
One of our representatives was with him at the time, having been summoned for
the purpose of making our late client's will. Mr Broadwood died in a
painfully sudden manner before this could be done, and, as he himself had
destroyed his last will, we have to inform you that the whole ot the property
reverts to you. As you are aware, this amounts to something over
£100,000, and we await your instructions in the matter. Would you
kindly give us a call? —Yours faithfully,

HARTOPP AND EVANS.

The intense silence of the flat rang in Crunden's ears as if the whole
place were full of ghostly machinery. It seemed to him presently that he
could hear the sound of a latchkey in the front door, and that he could hear
his wife's voice, and the eager tones of the child as if speaking through
tears. It was no effort of his imagination; the whole thing was real
enough.

Crunden groaned. "She has come back again. What, what is going to happen
now?"

At that moment Crunden came nearer to common sense and absolute sanity
than he had been for years. It was wonderful how plainly he saw things now.
His outlook was none the less lucid, because it was too late to repair the
mischief.

He would have to bear the thing as best hs could. He knew perfectly well
that he had seen the last of his wife. She might have come back to the flat
for some pressing reason or another, but not to see him. He clenched his
teeth tightly together, and made up his mind that no agony shou!d force
itself from his lips.

Why, he asked himself, had Kate come back again? He was very soon to learn
that. He could hear everything that was going on in the dining room.

"And now you must go to bed," Kate was saying. "It is quite time all
little children were fast asleep."

Crunden could hear the child laugh.

"But I am not sleepy," she protested. "You said you weren't coming back
again here yet. And why didn't we stay with Aunt May? And what was she crying
about? I saw her."

"Did you, dearie?" Kate asked absently. "Well, you see, she is in great
trouble. She is just as fond of her little girl as I am of you. And just
before we got there the doctor came to see Dorothy, and he was very much
afraid that she is going to have a horrible thing that they call scarlet
fever. That's why we couldn't stay there, and that's why Auntie May made me
come back here for the present. And, you see, I haven't got any money to go
anywhere else. You must try not to be disappointed."

"Oh, I am not," the child said cheerfully. "I am sorry for Dorothy, but
not a bit sorry for myself. And so long as I have you and daddy, the rest
doesn't matter a bit."

"You mustn't worry daddy," Kate went on. "You see, he's very busy just
now, and there are many things—now you got to bed."

"Not without seeing daddy," the child said firmly.

Crunden crossed the floor swiftly and locked the door. He was beginning to
realise now that there was a torture and a mental pain which was equal at
least to the rack and stress of the body. He quivered as he heard the child
tap gently at the door. He called out in a muffled voice that he would come
to Nest's bedroom presently.

He heard the small feet patter away disconsolately, then he bent forward
once again as the pain gripped him once more. This time the spasm was longer
and more acute. When it had passed away he had barely strength to raise
himself from his chair.

He would not let things go on like this Kate must really know. It would be
better in the long run that she should know. He dragged himself across to the
writing table and commenced to scrawl a few words hurriedly on a sheet of
notepaper. The letter was not addressed to his wife, but to Bashford. It was
chaotic enough; only a few words—barely legible, but it seemed to
Crunden that it would serve his purpose. It would be sufficient at any rate
to tell Bashford what had happened, and why this hideous thing had been
done.

There was also a hint to the effect that the writer had received a letter
from his solicitors intimating that there would be more than sufficient for
Kate and the child. Crunden managed to scribble the address of this firm,
then the pains were upon him again, and for the next five minutes his mind
seemed almost to leave him.

Once more the trouble passed; once more he was able to see clearly. He did
not know that the letter was crushed tightly in his left hand, and he was
quite under the impression that it was still lying on the table. He managed
to unlock the door. It occurred to him at that moment that a locked door
might be regarded with some suspicion. He was absolutely out of control now.
He had no longer any grip upon himself. He lay there clutching at the carpet;
he realised presently that Kate was bending over him and trying to lift him
from the floor.

"What can I do?" she whispered. "What is the trouble?"

"I don't know," Crunden said faintly. "Bashford—send for Bashford.
Go and fetch, him."

"And leave you here like this! Oh, I cannot!"

Kate flew from the room, closing the door behind her, and the next moment
she was hammering at the door of Bashford's flat.

"My husband!" she gasped. "He is asking for you. I am sure he is dying.
Will you come at once?"

Bashford looked grim and hard as he bent over the prostrate body of his
friend. His quick, keen glance took in the creased edge of the paper which
Crunden was convlusively clenching in his left hand.

"Hot water," he said, curtly. "Hot water at once. Try and keep cool;
everything depends upon your courage now. Yes, I know exactly what has
happened. Crunden has been a little too enthusiastic in his scientific
researches. Now, please."

Kate hurried off. Directly she had left the room Bashford stooped down and
forced Cvunden's frozen fingers open. He ran a quick eye over the scrawled
words he raced to his flat and hurried across to the glase case where the
specimen tubes were placed. It needed only a glance to see which one of them
was missing; then Bashford was in full possession of the facts, as if Crunden
had told him everything.

"I shall be just in time," he murmured. "It is perhaps a fortunate thing
that that particular phial should have contained a cultus a little less
virulent than the others. And now for the remedy. I didn't expect such a
speedy opportunity of trying my new cure. Still—"

Bashford was back in Crunden's flat a moment later, with a tiny bottle of
some dark-coloured fluid, and a hypodermic syringe.

He bared the arm of the patient; he saw the slight shiver that ran through
Cnmdsn's body as the needle pricked, him, then gradually the rigid limbs
began to relax, and the patient breathed freely.

When Kate came in a few minutes later with the hot water she could see by
the expression of Bashford's face that he was satisfied. She wondered perhaps
why it was that he paid no attention to the hot water

"There is no occasion for that now," he said. "All we have to do is to get
Crunden to bed and keep him warm. I will come in again the first thing in the
morning, but I am quite sure that he will go on all right now."

"You are very good," Kate murmured.

"Oh, how glad I am that I was at home. And I am only here quite by
accident. And he might have lain here and died, and I should have been none
the wiser. But won't you tell me what it is? Won't you tell me what my
husband has been suffering from?"

"I will tell you a great deal presently," Bashford said, with a certain
grim emphasis. "Only you must help me to get him to bed first. You needn't be
in the least afraid. He will sleep quite soundly, till morning now, and if
you want me, I shall be close at hand. Now let us get him to bed."

It was an hour later before Bashford left, and in that time he had had a
deal to say. Usually he was a man of a few words enough, but now he was
eloquent. Kate Crunden listened with close attention, and when at length the
door had closed behind Bashford she sat down in a chair in front of the fire,
seeing stranger pictures in the glowing coals than ever she had seen before.
For it is not an easy thing for a woman to admit after all these years that
she might have been wrong.

* * * * *

Crunden opened his eyes and stared feebly about him. He was wondering
where the light came from he lay there waiting for the next pain to grip him.
He could not quite understand how he came to find himself in bed like this,
and why the sun was shinng so brightly. A cool breath of air blew over bis
face; it seemed to him that he could smell violets somewhere. He felt
somewhat weak, too; he had a difficulty in raising his head. Then he saw that
he was in his own room.

The place was more trim and tidy than, he had ever seen it before. There
wae no litter of discarded clothing upon the floor as usual. Probably he had
managed to drag himself to his voom and to get into bed, and for some
extraordinary reason, he had slept till morning.

He began to wonder what had happened the previous night. He could not get
rid of a haunting idea that his wife had found him there; he could still feel
the touch of her arm about his neck. And here she was, bending over him with
a quivering smile on her face, and asking him, with deep anxiety in her
voice, how he felt.

Why, she had not spoken to him like that for two whole years. She looked
just the same as she had done in the happy days which he had thought he had
put behind him for ever. He could feel her hands under his head lifting his
pillow, he could feel the caress of her cool fingers on his hair. And, above
all, there was the tender glorious smile which he never ought to have lost,
and which was his at one time for the asking. And, the wonder of it all was
that here it was back again, and he had done absolutely nothing to deserve
it.

"Kate," he murmured dreamily, "Kate."

She bent over him suddenly and kissed him. His arms were not so weak now
they were not too weak to hold her to him for a moment. Then in some sudden
way he knew that she understood, and that the whole story was hers as if he
had told her. Here was something far better, then, than all those illusive
phantom searches into the unattainable. He could see now how little it
profited him to risk his own happiness in pursuit of the impossible. It was
some little time before be spoke.

"Who told you, dear?" he asked.

Kate sat there smiling and happy now.

"It was Mr Bashford firet," she said. "It was only last night it all
happened. I have come back because—"

"Yes, I know all that," Crunden interrupted. "I heard you telling Nest
when you returned. And I was afraid to see the child because I felt that I
was dying them. Perhaps I shall make you understand in time that
I—"

"Oh I understand now," Kate went on. "I suppose you came to your senses. I
suppose you realised your folly when it was almost too late. I don't know if
we should really have found out if it hadn't been for that letter which Mr
Bashford found in your hand. It is wonderful to see how he puts things
together, but he didn't understand why you had done this thing, for he knew
nothing about the pearl cross, for example. And now let me see if I can guess
why you took the cross. You took it so that you could pay the premium on your
insurance and leave little Nest and myself in comfort. Then after you had
done this thing, after you had gone down to Mr Bashford's laboratory and
possessed yourself of the awful stuff, you received a letter from the
solicitors. I know all about that, because one of the firm has been inquiring
for you this morning. And thank Heaven you are all right again now; you will
be yourself again in a week or two. It was a noble thing to do."

"Most people would think not," Crunden said. "As a matter of fact, it was
a cowardly thing to do. Still, if you will try to forgive me for what I have
done—"

Kate smiled through her tears.

"Forgive you," she cried. "Why, you never asked for it. If you had only
uttered one word of regret, I should have known then what I know now, that in
spite of all I have never ceased to care for you. And, besides, how could I
feel anything but affection for a man who loves Nest too?"

THE END



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