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Title: The Left Hand
Author: Fred M. White
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1100901h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Aug 2014
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The Left Hand

by

Fred M. White

Published in The Rodney & Otamatea Times, New Zealand, 18 Sep 1912
This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2014



RODNELL strode across the room and looked out into the garden. Those strong hands of his were clenched, and his teeth were closely set together. He was a man of strength in more ways than one—the kind of man who knows how to suffer in silence. As his gaze wandered over the garden, the brooding shadow in his eyes deepened. Seven hard, honest years lay there; he had found the place a wilderness, he had turned it into the semblance of a smiling paradise. A bad nervous breakdown had caused him to sever his connection with the Press and start in a small way as a gardener with a capital of a hundred pounds and what experience he had picked up from casual observation.

Well, at any rate, he had managed to live. It had been a hard struggle, but the open air life had made another man of him, and he had decided to go on with the fight. There had been times when it was necessary to borrow money, but the garden had grown and grown, the shining rows of glasshouses had expanded, the returns were better every year. Yet, despite this fact, Dick Rodnell owed James Cartright four hundred pounds and the knowledge troubled him.

Cartright's reputation was a sinister one, and many were the tales told of him in Little Mersham. He called himself a lawyer, but practically no business passed through his hands, and the fortune he had scraped together had come to him in the form of usury pure and simple.

He had been pressing Rodnell of late. He had found out by some means that the latter expected to do great things with a new carnation that he had discovered. Before long the Rodnell carnations would be the talk of the horticultural world. Already one of the greatest nurserymen in England had offered Rodnell a thousand pounds for a half interest in one of the new plants, and the settlement of this deal was only a matter of time. But the big florist was in South America, and nothing could be done till his return.

Rodnell bitterly regretted that he had ever mentioned this to Cartright. He had done so more with the intention of gaining time than anything else. Unless some unforeseen event occurred he would be a comparatively wealthy man in a year's time. Cartright had shared this optimistic opinion, and on the strength of it had advanced a further sum of fifty pounds. Just as a matter of form, the precious pots of carnations were added to the security.

And now Cartright had shown his hand. He had had losses, and needed his money at once. One legal process after another followed in startling rapidity. He had done it all himself in his furtive and secretive way, and probably was the only man who knew that Rodnell had had a bankruptcy notice served on him.

Rodnell was not blind; he knew exactly what this meant. Cartright was after those carnations, and unless some miracle happened they would be his in a week's time. It was no use appealing to any of the other great florists, seeing that the carnations had finished blooming, and the great man in that line was the only member of his firm who knew anything about them. Rodnell cursed himself for his folly none the less heartily because he had been conscious of it from the first.

Why should be be robbed of all he had in this way? Cartright was just as much a thief as if he had picked his pocket. And nobody knew anything of j the story beyond the two men concerned. All the papers and documents were in Cartright's safe in the library of his house. Rodnell knew the house and its garden quite well. Cartright's niece Jessie, who lived with him, was a great gardener, and Rodnell had spent many happy hours helping her. She was a flower herself, and Rodnell often wondered how it was that she could flourish in that uncongenial soil.

As he stood there staring moodily at his own garden he could picture Jessie Cartright working in hers. He had promised to go down this evening and give her some assistance with the chrysanthemums, but he shrank from it now. He did not feel like facing James Cartright just then. Up to that moment he had had no quarrel with the money-lending attorney, whose manner was just the same as it always had been. Business was business, he said, and there was no reason to make a personal matter of it.

Rodnell could see everything quite clearly. He knew the interior of Cartright's house perfectly. He could have found his way about tEe garden blindfolded!. He could picture Cartright sitting up late as usual working at his accounts long after everybody else had gone to bed. He knew that this was Cartright's custom. Hardly anybody in Little Mersham was up after ten o'clock. Cartright would be working away there, with his papers littered all over the big table, the safe door open. Suppose he were to surprise Cartright, to gag and bind him, and take his securities and make off with them! He would pay his just debts after the matter of the sale of the carnations was effected—he had no wish to be a thief. It would be only his word against Cartright's, and people would prefer to believe him. All he needed was time to save himself from the clutches of this miserly rascal.

For half an hour Rodnell stood there brooding over this idea. He was a desperate man in a desperate mood. And these carnations were as the apple of hiw eye. His whole life's work was in them—they would give him an established reputation amongst gardeners. He had other discoveries that he would work out as soon as he had the money and the peace of mind necessary for their development.

He put on his hat presently, and went down the village street in the direction of Cartright's house. It was a warm evening in early September, and the gardens were still gay with flowers. Out at the back of the old-fashioned house Jessie Cartright was working. Her eyes brightened, and a color rose to her cheeks as she saw Rodnell coming.

"I began to imagine that you were not coming," he said. "I was conceited enough to go on with these cuttings in your absence, Mr. Rodnell. Now, have I mixed enough sand with this mould?"

Rodnell sifted the soil through his fingers thoughtfully. He held it up to the light between his fingers. Across the palm was a rough white seam, a little hard and ragged at the edges. "Yes, I should think that your proportions are quite correct," he said "What are you looking at?"

"Well, I was looking at your hand," Jessie confessed. "How did you manage to do it?"

"Oh, that is an old story," Rodnell said, lightly. "I did that five years ago. I was hacking away at a rose briar with a pruning knife, and the blade slipped and gashed my left hand. It was rather a nasty business at the time, but it is all right now, as you can see. I should add just a shade more of that peat if I were you. And push the cuttings down more firmly—so."

Jessie Cartright watched him admiringly. She made a pretty picture as she stood there, her face shaded by her big garden hat. Perhaps Rodnell's eyes told her this, for the color crept into her cheeks. She did not fail to notice that Rodnell was a little more quiet than usual. In her quick, observant way she saw most things. She had a more than vague idea as to the way in which Cartright made his money—she had not been living with him two years for nothing.

"You are very quiet to-night," she said at length.

Rodnell aroused himself from his reverie with a start. "Am I?" he said. "Well, we all have our little worries at times."

"I hope you have not been disappointed over those carnations of yours?"

"Well, not exactly that," Rodnell admitted. "They are all right. If I can only manage to hold on for a month or two longer, Waterton's people—Mr. Waterton himself But you don't understand these things. I mean it's a question of money."

Had Rodnell glanced at his companion just then be would have seen that she understood a good deal more than he gave her credit for. They had often discussed the great things likely to result from the sale of the new carnations, but as to their being pledged to Cartright nothing had been said.

"It must hare been hard work at the start," Jessie said.

"It was," Rodnell said, grimly. "I had only about a hundred pounds, and I was further handicapped by poor health and utter lack of experience. I had to pay pretty dearly for my experience; and yet I fancy I enjoyed the struggle. It was something to fight for, you see. I don't mind confessing to you that I should have had to abandon it altogether if it had not been for those carnations. And to lose them just when fortune is in my grasp is hard. I daresay

"Dick—Mr. Rodnell," Jessie whispered. "If it so bad as that? Won't you tell me?"

Her eyes were full of sympathy; the little red mouth quivered. In the impulse of the moment she laid her hand on Rodnell's arm. He took the fingers in his and kissed them; then in some vague way he found himself kissing the quivering red lips as well.

"I ought not to have done that," he said; "but I was so lonely, I had nobody to confide in. And when you looked on me as if—as if—well, as it you cared

"Of course I care," Jessie whispered. "Haven't you known that for a long time, Dick?"

"But I am a pauper," Dick groaned. "What right has a pauper to love a girl like you?"

"Well, tell me all about it," Jessie asked, impressively. "What have you been doing with the carnations—my carnations now? Please to tell me the story at once."

In a tame and halting way Rodnell complied. The carnations were in pawn to a man who had made up Ms mind to possess them. Dick mentioned no names. He had a certain delicacy in disclosing the fact that t"he Shylock in question was Jessie's own flesh and blood; and, strangely enough, she did not seem to be in the least curious on the point. Her face was hot with indignation, but all the same she seemed anxious to avoid Rodnell's glance.

"A man like that deserves any treatment!" she exclaimed. "You are justified in doing anything to thwart his plans. And you can pay him before long. If I were a man I should not hesitate for a moment. We must discuss this again, Dick; we must talk it over, and find some way to overcome the enemy. I must go now and look after my uncle's supper. Good-night."

She lifted up her face to he kissed in the most natural manner, and vanished. As a rule she asked Dick inside but she seemed averse to doing so this evening. He walked across the lawn to a gate that led into a lane, now quite dark and deserted. The oLd woman who "did" for him did not sleep in the house. She usually put out his supper and cleared it away in the morning. She had the key of the back door, and came and went as she pleased. Nobody would be able to prove that Rodnell was not in his cottage all the evening.

The more he thought the matter over the easier it looked. It was as if the Fates had gone out of their way to make the path easy for him. He was convinced now that he was justified in taking the step that he was going take, and Jessie had shared this opinion. If he only took his courage in both hands now he could be free. In a few months' time he would have ample means. He would take that dear little girl to share his cottage with him—the dream of his life" would be realised. He would do it; he would hesitate no longer.

He lay there in a dry ditch on the far side of a hedge till the clock struck eleven. By this time the whole of the village was fast asleep. There was not a light to be seen anywhere, save the one that gleamed dully from the window of Cartright's study. It was an easy matter to find his way across the lawn to the house.

There was a ragged edge to the blind, and Rodnell could see into the study. An oil lamp was on the table, and behind it sat Cartright busy at his books. Rodnell could see that the safe door was open.

Rodnell was breathing a little more quickly now, but there was no hesitation in his mind. He was going to get those papers. He knew that it would be no difficult matter to gain access to the house. Fortunately for him he was wearing tennis shoes, so that his footsteps made no sound. Ho crept round to the back, and tried the scullery window. With his thin-bladed grafting-knife he pushed back the latch. A moment later and he was creeping along the passage leading to the hall.

So far, so good. The house was absolutely silent. In his rubber soles Dick made his way to the study. The door was wide open, and as he looked in he could see the safe hospitably open. Half in front of it was a big screen fashioned out of the colored plates of bygone Christmas numbers. It might be just possible to reach the shelter of the screen without being observed. Once this was done the contents of the safe would be clear to any average pair of eyes. It was a risk, and a big risk, for once he was discovered Dick was lost. Still, Cartright's back was to him, and the miser was deeply engrossed in his papers. On all fours Dick commenced to enter the room.

He hardly dared to breathe now; the sweat was pouring down his hot face. He wriggled along like a dog until he stood in the shelter of the screen, gazing into the safe eagerly. There were rows and rows of papers, neatly docketed and arranged on shelves. Rodnell was amazed to read the names on some of them. Evidently Cartright had most of his neighbours under his thumb. His heart beat a little faster as he recognised his own name on one of the packets.

So far everything had been in his favor. He had only to snatch the packet, drop it into his pocket, and retreat by the way he had come. At any moment Cartright might rise from his chair and come over to the safe for something' or other. And if that happened—well, Dick did not care to think of it.

He grabbed the packet and thrust it into his pocket. As he did so a grunt came from the table. Cartright dragged himself heavily from his chair and rose to his feet. Rodnell watched him breathlessly through one of the folds of the screen. There was nothing for it now but to resort to heroic measures. If Cartright came as far as the safe Dick would stun him by a blow on the side of the head before his precious host could discover the identity of his visitor. This was the way that some men went headlong on to murder, Dick thought. He was living his life over again in those few seconds. Cartright came along muttering and coughing. He came nearer and nearer to the screen.

With clenched teeth and heart beating like a drum, Dick waited. Then there was a cry and an oath and a snarl, and the lamp went out with a crash, leaving the room in total darkness. Dick's fists unclenched, and he rubbed his eyes in amazement. Was it possible that he had had anything to do with this? Had there been one brief moment of madness when he had attacked Cartright openly—a terrible struggle, in which the lamp had been extinguished? It did not seem to him that he had moved; he could feel the sharp edge of the screen when his forehead had bumped against it.

And the din was still going on. Dick could hear yells and screams and the rustle of struggling bodies, than a loud cry for help, and a body crashing down the flight of stone steps that led from the passage to the door leading to the back garden. Somebody groaned again, and all was still.

A dog barked somewhere in the house, the bells began to ring, and Dick could hear footsteps outside Then somebody seemed to stand by him and fumble for his hand. A small hand grasped his and pulled him in the direction of the door. He was too dazed and stunned to ask any questions; he could only obey meohanically. Before he could realise what had happened he was outside the front door, which was quietly closed behind him raced down the little drive, and fled mechanically along the road, it seemed to him that he had gained his house without a soul being any the wiser.

He lighted his lamp and stood gazing at it, regardless of his supper.

"Now, what does it all mean?" he thought. "Am I a coward that I turned my back upon trouble in that way. And what would Jessie say it if she knew? Did I kill Cartright, or shall I wake presently and find that it has all been a hideous dream ?"

He locked the papers carefully away in his own little safe and wont to bed. He would hear all about the trouble in the morning. After breakfast ho found the village to be full of it. Somebody had broken into the house of Mr. Cartright the night before and had attacked him at hit work. A lot of books and papers seemed to be missing, but whether or not any valuables had been taken it was impossible to say, as Mr. Cartright was still unconscious. He was not dead, or anywhere near it, and probably he would be himself again in a week. He had had a nasty blow on the head with a jemmy, which had been found at the bottom of the stairs. The miscreant had got clean off, but h e had been 'badly torn by the Bedlington terrier that Cartright always turned loose after the house was closed. Dick blessed the fact that ho and the Bedlington were good friends.

It seemed a plausible story, but it puzzled him. He was still half under the impression that he was the author of the mischief. He would have to go up to the house, of course, and inquire after Cartright. It was late in the afternoon when he summoned up the necessary courage to call and ask for Jessie. She came down to the long, oak-panelled drawing-room a little pale and. tired-looking, but otherwise quite herself. Just for a moment he hesitated to kiss her.

"What is all this I hear?" he asked. "Have you found anything out,"

"I don't think we ever shall" said Jessie. "The man must have been concealed in the study. One of the side-tables has a long cloth over reaching to the ground. The French window in "the study was open till long after it was dark; in fact, I closed it myself. The man was there waiting his chance. Possibly some movement on his part betrayed him, and there was a struggle. We shall know all about it when my uncle gets better."

"It must have frightened you terribly," Dick muttered.

"To a certain extent, yes. I had not gone to bed. I was writing in my room at the back of the house. I went downstairs first and made my way to the library. I—I was suspicious about something. I may confess at once that I was not thinking of my uncle for the moment."

"Oh! Now, there is somebody else in your mind, then?"

"Yes, Dick. I was thinking of a story I heard earlier in the evening. It was a story of a man who had pledged all that he held dear to another man who was trying to rob him of it. And it occurred to me that my uncle was a man like that. And it also occurred to me that I had suggested a way in which that one man could get back that which he had been robbed of. The burglar had gone when I got to the foot of the stairs—gone by the back door, with the dog after him. I—I was thinking of the other man. And I found him, Dick—l found him and showed him how to escape. I took him by the hand, and when I felt his hand—there was a scar upon it I knew —I knew Jessie paused as if unable to proceed. Dick caught his breath as he looked at her. He could see that her eyes were full of tears, that her face was flushed and smiling. He caught her in his arms and kissed her passionately. It seemed to him that there was no further need for explanation. "I expect that man felt an awful coward," he said. "He was a coward to leave you here all alone."

Not at all, Dick. He did exactly what I wanted him to do. I was quite safe. And that man was justified in what he did. When you fight a rascal you fight him with his own weapons. And if the man I mean was in love with a girl like—me, for instance—he is all the more justified because he is taking steps to get me out of a hateful place like this. Do you believe in the truth of what are called dramatic coincidences, Dick I do, and we had one of them last night. And, Dick—whisper—did you get the papers?"

Dick smiled down into the flushed, happy face. "I did, darling," he said. "I got them before the row began. I was hiding behind the screen. If you had only seen me sneak into the study and hide myself—"

"I did," Jessie said, dreamily. "I was looking over the stairs. We are a wicked couple, Dick, and I—well, I love you all the better for it. So there!"


THE END

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