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Title: The Heels of the Dawn
Author: Fred M. White
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1100881h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Aug 2014
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The Heels of the Dawn

by

Fred M. White

Published in The Otago Witness, New Zealand, 24 Mar 1909

This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2014


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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