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Title: The Big Thing
Author: Fred M. White
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Language: English
Date first posted: January 2012
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The Big Thing

by

Fred M White


Published in The Windsor Magazine, December 1918 to May 1919 edition


THE rime on the bracken and heather, that a few minutes ago had been one sparkle of gems in the sunshine, was now no more than a dripping mist. The wind had suddenly swung round to the north-east, so that, with the cooling of the atmosphere, a thick blanket of fog came over Dartmoor with the suddenness of a dream. One moment brilliant sunshine and the vivid joy of a great September day, and the next blankness and desolation everywhere. Here and there a figure loomed gigantic out of the yellow atmosphere, and the armed guards of the convict gang moved uneasily from spot to spot, for this fog was a thing to be dreaded when it was impossible to see half a dozen yards ahead.

Five minutes later two figures crept along a dry watercourse, with their faces turned towards the open moor. They moved not with hesitation nor the uncertainty of the future, but with bold yet cautious strides of men who knew every inch of the ground, as indeed they did. If the fog only held for a quarter of an hour, they might be beyond the reach of their guard for many a day to come. And it was for this that George Shenstone had been waiting all through those hot summer months.

There came a time presently when the fog lifted a little, and down there in the valley they could hear the shrill sound of whistles and presently the dull report of a rifle. Shenstone smiled grimly to himself as he turned to his companion.

"Did you hear that, Dan?" he asked. "They've found out. But they haven't got us yet. It'll be our own fault if they see anything of us for the next week."

This was no idle boast on Shenstone's part, for he had been born and bred on the edge of the moor, over there in the little market town of Helsmere, and there was not one yard of the moor that he did not know as well as be knew the palm of his own hand. In early boyhood he had bird's nested there, he had fished in the rivers, and, later on, had hunted with two packs of hounds from the sea right away to Tor Point. It had been his boast that he could find his way about Dartmoor blindfold, and that was really no figure of speech.

He was a lover of the country and a sportsman to his finger-tips, an outdoor man, if ever there was one, with the joy of life tingling in his veins and a love of the deep-red Devonshire earth which was to him something like a religion—the sort of man who, despite his recklessness and strength of character, would have pined and died in the close confinement of a city street.

And yet, with all this, with all the advantage of birth and money and the ownership of Shenstone's Bank, he had fallen, and now, by the irony of Fate, found himself a prisoner on the very ground that he had roamed a free man since boyhood.

They came presently to what, in the winter, had been a waterfall up there on the top of the tors. The mist had cleared a little now in the fitful, shifty way of Dartmoor fog, so that from their hiding-place behind the bushes they could look down into the valley below, with the big convict settlement in the distance. It was possible for anyone who knew the way to climb up the almost perpendicular face of the cliff without being followed, or, indeed, without anybody dreaming that they had come that way. It was a hiding-place in a hundred, where, given food and clothing, they might lie secure for weeks. And Shenstone had found this himself many years ago, when he had come that way in search of the nest of some rare bird that dwelt there.

Back in the hollow of the rocks was a packet of food, together with a bottle or two and some cigarettes. One of these latter Shenstone lighted, and lay back, inhaling the tobacco with a sense of luxury that he had not experienced since he stood face to face with the judge six months ago in the Assize Court at Exeter. The other man sat at his feet, smoking likewise.

"Ah, that's good!" Shenstone said, drawing a deep breath. "This first taste of luxury likes me well, Dan. Ah, what a thing it is to be free once more!"

"I am glad for your sake, Mr. George," Dan Mavis said.

"You always were a faithful creature, Dan. Did it ever occur to you that if I hadn't been a fool, or something worse, you would be a free man to-day? It was all wrong, Dan. You weren't any more to blame than a child. You only did what I told you to do, because the Mavises have always done what the Shenstones told them. You ought to hate me, Dan."

"I don't feel like that, sir, somehow," the ex-bank clerk said. "Don't you trouble about me, Mr. George. What are you going to do? It doesn't much matter whether they get me again or not, but you'd die yonder. Either you'd die or you'd break out into one of those passions of yours and kill one of those warders. I know you would—it was always your way. You let me go and find Mr. Boyden. I'll manage it all right. I can get along after dark, and I dare say—"

"That's not the idea at all, Dan," Shenstone said. "I haven't been plotting and scheming all these months for that. I dare say you think you know all about it, but you don't. I have been thinking, Dan, which is a thing that my old father told me I never did. In that stuffy little cell of mine I've been thinking a lot lately. I am not going to say that I did wrong, and I am not going to say that I am sorry, but I am. It was a great big chance, and I took it because I could see my way out. I wasn't satisfied with being comfortably off, Dan; I wanted to be rich, not for my own sake, but for the sake of—"

Mavis nodded sympathetically.

"I know, sir," he said—"for the sake of a girl. We are all like that at times, sir, though I am sure that Miss Revel—I beg your pardon, sir. I ought not to have mentioned her name."

"Well, why not?" Shenstone asked. "It's the truth. I wanted her to care for me. By Heavens, I believe she did at one time, before Ralph Pentyre came home. And because I wanted to show those two what I could do I went mad. I took my clients' money and my own, and I speculated with it. And when the crash came I ruined those who trusted me, and, what was worse, I ruined you and others in my employ who simply did what they were told because a Shenstone said it. And that wasn't the worst, Dan—I dragged Pentyre into it, too. I wanted to ruin him, I wanted to see him in the dock, I wanted him to suffer as I was suffering. I see how wrong it all was now; but the mischief's done, and when those officials from the Board of Trade come to investigate matters further, it's as sure as there is a sky above us that Ralph Pentyre will have to stand his trial, too. Of course, it wasn't his fault that he inherited from his father the post of trustee to Shenstone's Bank, but the fact remains that he is trustee, and that he signed every document I put before him without looking at it. He trusted me, Dan—he trusted me because I was a Shenstone, and because he had faith in my word, and I betrayed him deliberately, like the dog that I am."

"Oh, dear, sir," Mavis cried, "it isn't as bad as all that! Why did you do it?"

"Oh, because I was mad," Shenstone said—"mad with love for a girl who would not look at me. No, that isn't true, Dan. She was always sweet and kind and gentle, but she didn't love me, and I ought to have faced my trouble like a man. I didn't. I speculated wildly with the money of the bank and the money of clients. I was going to be a millionaire and dazzle Maud Revel with my riches. Ah, I wonder how many fools have thought the same thing! But I wasn't content with that. When I saw how things were going, all that was bad in my nature came out, and, like a dog in the manger, I resolved that, as Maud Revel was beyond my reach, I would drag down Pentyre in the ruin and disgrace him too. Neither of them know what is hanging over his head yet, but it's coming, and before long Pentyre will wear a uniform with a number, like you and me. Ah, my faithful Dan, you never guessed this, did you? You sit there without a frown on your face, thinking about nothing but the honour of the Shenstones and the safety of the man who degraded it. You don't even blame me for bringing you to this pass. You don't even ask me why we are here and what is going to happen to us."

"That's all in your hands, Mr. George," Mavis said easily. "I am trusting you. I suppose it was Mr. Boyden who brought these things here for us. He is coming to see us presently and arrange for our escape."

Shenstone shook his head thoughtfully.

"Nothing of the kind, Dan, nothing of the kind," he said. "I only brought you here for the sake of companionship and so that I might have a chance to explain to you exactly how things stood. I wanted you to know everything. Now listen. I have got something to do, a big thing, the really big thing that every man has to face once in his lifetime. It's the only chance I have of showing the world—or, at least, that portion of it that concerns me—that I am not utterly vile. I have been planning it for weeks, Dan. I knew that the fog must come some time, and I knew that when it did, with my knowledge of the moor, I could get away with the greatest of ease. And I wanted you to come along with me in case anything went wrong. But I am going back again."

"Back there?" Mavis cried. "Back into the settlement? No, no, Mr. George, you mustn't do it! It was killing you. Ah, if you could only realise what six months there has done for you!"

"I do," Shenstone said grimly; "I can feel it in my bones. Ah, only a man who has been brought up in the open air, the man who thrives on the smell of the good red earth, and knows the joy of the saddle, can tell what I have suffered. Three months ago it was all different. Three months ago I was planning my escape—aye, and I could have managed it, too—for my own sake alone. And because I realised what the torture and agony of it is, I can feel for others. Heavens, it's bad enough to suffer as I do, knowing myself to be guilty, but if I'd been an innocent man, I should have gone mad. I should have murdered one of those warders, as you suggest, for the sake of being hanged and thus get out of my misery. But I see things from a different angle now, Dan. I am going to stick it, my boy—I am going to stick it for the next two years—and then, when I have earned my freedom, I am going abroad to try and build up again what I have lost, and you are coming with me, old boy. I want you, Dan. For a hundred and fifty years the Mavises have served the Shenstones, and I can't break all the old links."

Mavis shook his head gloomily.

"I don't, like it, Mr. George, I don't like it a bit," he said. "Here we are, free, and Mr. Boyden will do anything for us. And why didn't you write?"

"I couldn't," Shenstone said thoughtfully. "Any letter of mine would have been read by the Governor, and my explanation would have implicated still more people who at present are quite free. No, I must do it myself, Dan, and I must do it to-night. I must face people who will regard me coldly and scornfully, but it must be done. Now, I want you to stay here—stay here till I come back. It may be in a couple of hours, and it may not be before morning. But rest assured that I shall come back, and then to-morrow we can join our gang as if nothing had happened. We can tell them that we lost our way in the fog, or something of that sort. So long as we give ourselves up, there is not much chance of punishment. Now, you just curl yourself up here and smoke these cigarettes while you have got a chance. Don't you worry about me."

The fog had fallen again now, and lay in thick folds over the hillsides and valleys, as Shenstone climbed out of his hiding-place and made his way cautiously across the heather and the bracken, with his face turned towards the town of Helsmere, some seven miles away. There was no occasion for him to expose himself or to feel his way, for that was quite familiar to him. Here was a deep tussock of gorse and bracken where he had found his first night-jar's nest, and a little further on a threadlike stream where he had hunted down the home of a pair of ring-ousels, and yet a little further down the stream, under a shelving bank, the spot where he, together with two terriers of his, had killed an otter. Every bush and bramble seemed to hold some memory, the scent of the earth was in his nostrils now as he pressed eagerly forward with the air of a man who knows exactly where he is going.

But there were open spots here and there on the higher ground, where the wide sheets of heather afforded no cover for anything bigger than a bird, and here he had to move cautiously, in case the fog should lift and he stood exposed against the hillside to those lynx eyes watching in the valley. It was nearly dusk before he reached the outskirts of the town. Then he made his way through a wood and thence past a thick shrubbery that opened on to a wide lawn in front of a long, low, white house that gleamed pale and ghostly through the mist of the falling night. On the edge of the lawn was the empty basin of a fountain, into which Shenstone crept, and there he lay hidden until the night fell at length and the windows in front of him turned to squares of yellow flame.

Three of those windows were open to the lawn, and in one of them, by some oversight, probably, the blind had not been drawn. And presently from the open windows came the sound of music. Somebody was playing some soft and dreamy melody that carried familiarly to Shenstone's ears and brought a mist into his eyes. He dashed it away angrily, for it was not time for sentiment. He listened acutely for sign or sound or movement, then, feeling that all was safe, he crept out of his hiding-place and moved swiftly across the dew-drenched lawn until he stood under the shadow of the lighted windows. From his hiding-place he looked into a room that was as familiar to him as the moor and the trout stream outside.

He noted the long low room with the old panelled walls and the old mezzotints, the pictures mellowed by the hand of Time, and, above all, the dainty suggestion of the feminine spirit there in the shape of the flowers in the vases, the music littered on the piano, and the thousand and one odds and ends that go to make up all the difference between a house and a home.

As Shenstone stood there, the player rose from the piano and crossed the room, so that she was almost near enough for him to touch. He could see into the violet depths of her eyes could see the clear-cut pallor of her cheeks and the drooping expression of trouble on her lips. She moved, unconscious of his presence, towards a little alcove by one of the windows, as if seeking for something; then it seemed to Shenstone that he could hear the quick ripple of a telephone bell.

But for the moment that was not troubling him. He was watching the slim figure in its simple evening-dress with all his heart in his eyes. He was trying to recall the last time he had looked into that room, not as a fugitive from justice, but as an honoured guest and a welcome companion. For he had been there more times than he could think. He could picture the ancient dining-room across the hall, where he had always been sure of a warm greeting from that genial host of his, and a meal at any time he cared to drop in. And there had been many meals there—hunting breakfasts in the early dawn, lunch after a morning's shoot, and cheery dinners where all the county was only too glad to see a Shenstone sitting amongst them.

And all this he had lost—deliberately thrown away in that vain pursuit of wealth which had been the ruin of so many. Never more would he sit there amongst his peers, never more would he take those slim fingers in his and see the light of welcome in Maud Revel's shining eyes. Just for a moment he had half a mind to turn back and renounce all those aspirations of his. He stood there, afraid to meet the girl, or afraid of what she might say, and most of all afraid of the contempt and scorn that he was about to waken in her eyes.

Then the telephone in the alcove rang again, and the girl took down the receiver. Shenstone could plainly see the expression on her face as she listened to the voice at the other end of the wire. And he knew a moment later that she was talking to the very man whom at one time he had been pleased to regard as the source of all the mischief. He ought not to have listened, perhaps, but it seemed to him that he had a sufficiently good excuse, so he stood there, watching the girl at the telephone, noting every change in her face and the expressions that fleeted across it as shadows flit across an autumn moor.

"Yes, yes," she was saying. "You are talking to her. I am Maud. Is that you, Ralph? I am so glad. I have been waiting anxiously to hear from you for hours. What's that? Oh, you have just got back. Never mind about that.. .. Is that true?.. .. Oh, it can't be! I won't believe it.. .. Yes. What—you of all men? It's preposterous, Ralph.. .. Certainly. Of course I believe you. My dear boy, I should believe you if you stood in the dock and all the world gave evidence against you. I only heard this afternoon, and you can imagine the shock it was to me. What's that you say? The line is not very good. Yes, I think you'd better. At once. Yes, as soon as you like. I am quite alone here, because father is dining out. Oh, do come! A quarter of an hour. Come straight into the drawing-room."

Shenstone stood listening out there, following this conversation easily enough. There was no reason for anyone to tell him that Maud Revel was talking to his rival, and that the blow had fallen like a bolt from the blue when it had been least expected. Evidently things had been moving rapidly lately. Those investigations had been made, and there was no time to be lost now if the big thing was to be done and Pentyre's reputation cleared. And as Shenstone looked into the eyes of the girl standing there, he knew well enough that, if anything happened to Pentyre, the light of happiness would never shine in them again. He took a step forward and walked through the window into the room.

He stood there before the girl, a somewhat gaunt and haggard figure, with his prison clothes about him and a certain dogged recklessness on his face.


Then their eyes met, and the girl started back

It was a vivid contrast indeed between the convict in his dingy suit and the slim figure in black, with not one single ornament to relieve it. Then their eyes met, and the girl started back as if she had seen a ghost.

"George!" she cried. "George!"

"Yes, it's I right enough," Shenstone said. "I wondered if you would recognise me."

"You must go away," the girl said. "Go away at once! We heard an hour or two ago that there had been an escape, but we did not dream that it was you. They have been here already."

"Oh, really," Shenstone said. "They haven't lost any time. I suppose they calculated that I should make for a familiar hiding-place, as the fox does when the hounds are after him. Well, for once they were right. But all the warders in Dartmoor would never guess what brings me here to-night."

"Why did you come?" Maud asked.

"Well, shall we call it pride? Honour, if you like."

"Pride and honour!" the girl echoed.

"Well, why not? Even a convict may possess some of both. Now, listen to me, Maud. Perhaps I ought not to call you that."

"Oh, call me what you like," the girl said. "You are in danger. Let me help you."

"Ah, I expected to hear you talk like that," Shenstone said. "But no one can help me now except yourself. Were you talking to Pentyre on the telephone just now?"

"I was," Maud said somewhat coldly.

"I thought so. I listened to that conversation. So it is all out at last, and there is every chance of Pentyre standing where I stood six months ago. There is no escape for him unless—well, we'll come to that presently. His father trusted me and he trusted me, and I betrayed them both. And yet it is in my power to say the word—"

"Ah, I understand," Maud said swiftly. "It has all come to me in a flash. George, why did you do this thing?"

"I think you know," Shenstone said quietly. "They say that every girl knows when a man is in love with her."

The girl bowed her head and her face flushed.

"Ah, I see you know," Shenstone went on. "And things might have been different if Ralph Pentyre had not come back from India. From the day he came I saw my hopes fade away, and, because of that, I did wrong. I was going to be rich—so rich that even you would be dazzled. And when I found that it was all the dream of a madman, then I resolved that, if I could not make you my wife, Pentyre never should. I could see clearly enough that, by suppressing certain facts and keeping back certain papers, I could involve Pentyre in my ruin, and I did so deliberately."

Maud Revel started back as if he had struck her.

"Is this thing really true?" she cried.

"Absolutely," Shenstone went on. "And I did it. And I wasn't sorry, either—at least, not at first. Then, when the horrors of that place yonder began to get a grip on me, and I realised what it was for a man who loves the open air to be shut up, my point of view changed. I saw what a terrible thing it was to drag another man down into the hell that I was suffering, and rightly suffering, mind you. So gradually I made up my mind that your happiness and Pentyre's honour meant as much to me as freedom itself. I would have written had I only dared, but I could not do that, as my letter would have involved other people, faithful tools of mine, who ought not to suffer for my crime. And so I made up my mind, when the first of the fogs came, to escape for a few hours, so that I could come here and, if fortune was on my side, tell you what I am telling you now. Tom Boyden is the man to go to. He is the one who stuck to me through thick and thin. And he has all the papers necessary to clear Pentyre entirely. They are locked up in a sealed box which was not to be opened without my consent. Go to Boyden and tell him of this interview, and give him my authority to break the seal. The documents I speak of are in a blue envelope on the top. All the other papers are to be burnt. And I think—yes, I really think that is about all I have to say, Maud. It was a vile thing for me to do, but I have done my best to make amends."

Maud stood there with her hand on her heart, as if some pain was gnawing at it. Her face was white and her eyes shone like stars as she faced the man in the convict garb.

"And you have done this for our sakes, George?" she whispered. "That is very fine of you."

"Could I do anything else?" Shenstone asked. "And yet I don't think I could have brought myself to do so if they had not made a prisoner of me. Every time I looked out and saw the sun on the moor I felt as if I was being stifled. And, mind you, I deserved all I got. That was the one reflection that kept me sane. But if I had been innocent, as Pentyre is, then, by Heavens, I would not have been responsible for what I might have done. Every morning that I woke up this thought came back to me, till I could see nothing else. I could only picture Pentyre's feelings in my place, and try to imagine what you would say or think when you lost the man you loved. And—oh, here I am, a broken convict, trying to do the big thing. Ralph and I in our boyhood always used to talk about the big thing, and how we should do it when the time came. But we never expected anything like this. It isn't a big thing, after all, but in the circumstances the biggest thing that I will do. It isn't much, is it?"

Maud was looking at him now with shining eyes and an unsteady smile about her lips.

"You must leave others to judge that," she said. "I think it is a very big thing indeed, not because it affects me and my happiness, but because I know that very few men could have done it, and perhaps—But I won't go into that."

As she spoke the door opened and another man came in. He stood there, in the lamp-light, gazing in astonishment at the drab figure in the shadow of the window.

"George!" he cried. "George!"

"Eh, lad, it's George right enough," Shenstone said quietly.

"But I did not know—"

"What does it matter?" Shenstone asked. "They are after me, and they may be here at any moment now. Sit down, Ralph, and let me tell you the story I have just been telling Maud."

"No, no," Maud cried, "let me tell the story! I must. It's my story as much as yours, George, and I shall do it far more justice than you can. Listen, Ralph!"

She told the sequence of events in her own glowing words until she had finished at length, so that even Shenstone could see in what light his conduct had presented itself to these old friends of his. It was a long time before anyone spoke. It was Pentyre who at length broke the silence. With a smile on his face and an outstretched hand he reached over to Shenstone.

"That was a big thing, George," he said—"a very big thing. I always knew you would do it if the time came. And you were never its bad as you made yourself out to be. Reckless and headstrong and sanguine to a fault, but never really bad. And there's my hand on it."

"Yes, it was very fine," Maud said.

"Nothing of the kind," Shenstone said gruffly. "For Heaven's sake don't talk to me like that, you people, or else I shall do something foolish! You'll be making me out to be a hero presently. Now, look here, Ralph, get on the telephone and call up Devereux at the prison. I am only a number to him now, but there was a time, of course, when we dined and hunted and shot together, and I don't think he has altogether forgotten it. Tell him I am here. Tell him I wandered off a bit in the fog, and that the temptation to visit some dear friends of mine was too much for me. Say I am waiting for a guard here, and that I am ready to come back as soon as they fetch me. And if you want to do something for me, give me a cigarette and a chance to taste a decent whisky and soda again. Only, for Heaven's sake, don't be sentimental, because to a man in my position that sort of thing hurts like the devil. After all, it's only a couple of years I've got to serve, and when I come out I know I shall find some friends waiting for me."

"You will that," Pentyre said heartily.

Maud made no reply in words, but there was a look on her face and an expression in her eyes that was worth all the words in the world to the man standing there.


THE END

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