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Title: The Way Of Chance Author: Arthur Gask * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1203931h.html Language: English Date first posted: October 2012 Date most recently updated: October 2012 Produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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THEY had been married 13 years when Matt Huggins was the cause of his wife's untimely and sudden death. There was no premeditation about the act and, in a way, her passing was quite accidental. He was shocked with what he had done.
There could be no doubt, however, she had been leading him a most unhappy life. An inoffensive, good-natured little man, he had had a lot to put up with her, and even in the very early days of their honeymoon she had started to nag him. Nothing he ever did was right and she bullied him unmercifully. She took away his beer, she wouldn't let him smoke in the house, the wireless was turned on for what she wanted, and, when she was tired of listening, it was turned off as a waste of electricity.
When he came home tired of an evening she would not let him read the newspaper until he had done the many odd jobs she was always finding for him, and when they were finished it was nearly always time for bed, and any further use of the lights considered as more waste of electricity.
MATT was head clerk in a lawyer's office, and every penny of his £6 a week salary had to be strictly accounted for. When his Aunt Emily died and he came into the nice little legacy of £4,000, it was all banked in his wife's name and she invested it as she thought best.
Year after year he put up with everything almost uncomplainingly, hardly ever daring even to answer her back, and then the end came. It was not like the worm turning, but rather as the wrath of a sheep. One quick blow with a rolling pin and she was dead.
This dreadful climax to Matt's way of sorrow had eventuated one evening in early summer when they were spending his annual holiday at a small bungalow they had on a beach some 20 miles from the city. He had been helping her dry up the tea things and had dropped a saucer. It had broken all to pieces and, in her anger, she had lashed at him with the wet cloth she had in her hand. It had caught him in the eye and the pain stung him like a red-hot needle.
AS she had made a lash at him again, he had snatched up a heavy rolling pin from the table and struck at her uplifted arm. Missing the arm, however, the blow had landed hard on her head, and she had crashed down against the stone upright of the fireplace and broken her neck. She had made no sound and, after a few convulsive movements, had lain quite still.
There was no doubt she was dead. Her mouth had gaped open, her head lay at a sickening angle, and she was not breathing.
Matt burst into tears. He had not meant to do it, he told himself. It was an accident which she had brought upon herself. Still, it would look like murder and, of course, he would be hanged for it. A sob caught his breath. But he wouldn't mind hanging. She had made him sick of life, and for a long time he had had nothing to live for. She had hated him and made him hate her. He was not sorry she was dead.
He dried his eyes. Now he would go and give himself up. It would be a long walk to the nearest police station, quite five miles, but he would start at once and get it over. Ah, but he must go and feed old Hobson's fowls first and water his canaries.
HOBSON was his friend, the only friend he had been allowed to have. His wife had encouraged the friendship there because the old sea captain was an ardent fisherman, and often gave them fish. His bungalow was next door, and he and Mrs. Hobson lived there all the year round.
Just now, however, they were both away in Melbourne, and Matt had charge of the key. No, he musn't let the old man down! He would attend to his birds, and at the same time give himself a good nip from the bottle of brandy he had noticed in the cupboard where the canary seed was kept!
Going outside, for a long moment he stood looking at the sea, realising with a pang that after that night he might never see it again.
He remembered the shark they had seen that morning, and which had made them cut short their dip so quickly. How he wished they had not noticed it and that it had taken him! Then at any rate he wouldn't be going to be hanged, as he was now!
Here his conscience smote him unpleasantly as he speculated upon what a difference it would have made to everything if the shark had taken his wife, and it, and not he, had been the cause of her death.
HE fed Hobson's fowls, and gave the canaries their water, also, he had a stiff tot of the brandy, and the unaccustomed spirit seemed to liven him up a lot. His thought harked back to the shark, and, all suddenly, an amazing idea leapt into his mind.
If the shark hadn't got his wife that morning—what harm would it be if it got her now? It might still be prowling about, and he could wade out with the body and then go shrieking off to the people in the cafe that he had seen her drawn under! Then all would be put right, and—ah! but what if the shark were not there to take the body, and, it drifting back to shore, it was found out how his wife had really died? He would be hanged just the same.
But let him think calmly. What if he got rid of the body in another way, if he buried it somewhere and then, very early tomorrow morning, went down as usual to bathe and, a few minutes later, ran in a state of terror to the cafe with his carefully prepared tale?
He was sure they would believe him, as it was well known to everyone that a shark had been seen recently in the neighbourhood. And he knew where he could bury the body, too—in a deep pit which his wife had made him dig in their little back yard that very morning. It had been dug for the household rubbish, and was a good 4 ft below the surface of the sand. It was the very place, and the body would never be discovered there.
HE took another good nip of the brandy, and thought out all the details of his plan.
The next morning everything went off without a hitch. The proprietor of the cafe did not for a moment doubt his story, and, pushing down a boat with all possible speed, for an hour and longer, with Matt a tearful and woebegone looking passenger, rowed backwards and forwards over the place where the wife was supposed to have been last seen. The local policeman was rung up and, news of what had happened becoming known, reporters were rushed to the scene, with city newspaper readers being later intrigued with exciting headlines,
'WIFE TAKEN BY SHARK OFF HUNTER'S BEACH.
HUSBAND EYE WITNESS OF DREADFUL TRAGEDY.'
Matt comported himself as became the bereaved husband, sad, sorrowing, and with a haunted look in his eyes. He had thought it wisest to stay on at the bungalow to keep morbid sight-seers from coming too close. He was sure if he were not about they would invade his front garden and back yard to peer through the windows.
In a way he was most uneasy about that back yard, for, to his guilty mind, in its uncared for and unkempt condition it looked just the very place where a body would be buried. He comforted himself, however, with the thought that his story had been believed everywhere.
THEN chance threw down an evil card against him, and suspicion was aroused in the mind of, perhaps, the very worst person possible. One morning Detective-Inspector Alec McNab was in a tram and overheard two men talking about the tragedy.
"And it's about the best thing which could have happened," said one of them, "at any rate for the husband. She led him an awful life, and I'd bet any money that, privately, he is reckoning that shark as about the best friend he ever had."
"That's so," nodded the other. "I knew them both, and she was a dreadful nagger." He grinned. "It was a good thing that chap from the cafe saw the shark take her, or people might be thinking he drowned her himself."
But the inspector, remembering the local policeman's report, knew the second man was wrong, and that Matt alone had seen the shark take his wife. So, certain faint suspicions coming into his mind, he thought it quite worth while to go down to Hunter's Beach that same afternoon, and have a talk with the husband.
BY great good luck Matt knew the inspector by sight, he having once been pointed out to him in court when his, Matt's, employer was defending a man charged with illegal betting.
So, when sitting on the low cliff before the row of bungalows, Matt saw two men coming along in a car and recognised one of them as the inspector, he had a few moments to prepare himself and get a good grip of his composure. An instinct, to say nothing of his guilty conscience, told him they were coming to speak to him.
The car pulled up and the inspector asked to be directed to where Mr. Matthew Huggins lived. Matt's heart was beating painfully, for, he knew he was in terrible danger.
If this awful inspector went into the back yard he would surely suspect something at once. He had eyes like a hawk, and nothing would escape him. Matt put on a stolid look. "I'm that man," he said gruffly. "What do you want?"
"We're police from Adelaide," replied the inspector, "and we want a few words with you." The two detectives jumped out of the car and their eyes roved seawards. "So this is where the shark was," said the inspector, "but you don't often get them as close in shore, do you?"
"Very seldom," grunted Matt. "I've only once seen one before in the five years I've been coming down here."
THE inspector eyed him intently and, with a certain disappointment, did not think he was the kind of man who would have had pluck enough to commit a dreadful crime, but for all that, asked sharply, "And I understand no one but you saw the shark?"
Matt shook his head slowly. "No one but me that morning," he replied, "but plenty saw it the days before." He sighed heavily. "I suppose it was waiting until it got its meal." He caught sight of some people coming along the cliff and went on quickly, "but come inside if you want to talk. I'm a public curiosity now, and people stare at me until I feel sick."
With all his wits about him and as bold as brass, he led the way—not to his own bungalow, but to Hobson's. As it happened, both the doors, front and back, were wide open. He had been inside a few minutes before to put back a book he had borrowed and, the place smelling stuffy, he had opened up everywhere to let in the air.
He took the detectives into the sitting room and waved them to chairs. The bungalow, unlike his, was nicely furnished in a homey and comfortable sort of way. A big fishing rod was hanging on the wall and the inspector, an enthusiastic fisherman, pounced upon it at once. "Gad, that's a beautiful rod," he exclaimed, "a genuine Mackenzie!" And he plunged into an animated discussion about fishing, or rather he talked and Matt listened, as the latter had never caught a fish in all his life, and was not interested.
PRESENTLY the inspector asked, "And what's the biggest butterfish you've ever caught?"
Matt dared not answer. He had no idea what butterfish, big or little, weighed. "Oh, don't talk any more about fishing," he exclaimed irritably. "My poor wife was as keen on it as I was, and I don't suppose I'll ever go fishing again." He spoke sharply. "Besides, I'm sure you didn't come down here to talk to me about fish."
The inspector was annoyed. He had been snubbed in front of a subordinate, and it stung him to a line of questioning upon which, otherwise, he might not have been quite so willing to start. "Certainly not," he frowned. He eyed Matt very hard, and rapped out, "Now you and your wife did not get on too well together, did you?"
Matt met his stare unflinchingly. He had bluffed the inspector about the bungalow and his success there gave him confidence. "Who said so?" he asked quietly.
"Never mind. We heard it," replied the inspector. He nodded unpleasantly. "We police hear a lot of things," and then as Matt was silent, he went on, "It's only the truth, isn't it?"
MATT weighed his words carefully. "We had little tiffs at times, but they weren't big enough to have made me let that shark get her if I could have prevented it." His eyes glared. "I suppose that's what you mean."
The inspector certainly had not though the implication of his question would have been met so boldly, and he was now angry with himself for having asked it. If everything were above board, this little man looked just the very chap to complain to headquarters, or, worse still, go writing to the newspapers about inconsiderate treatment by the police.
He hastened to put things right. "No, I don't mean that," he said quickly, "and I only put the question just as a matter of routine to be assured by you it was no case of your wife having drowned herself, say after a quarrel."
Matt would have liked to have laughed. The idea of his wife committing suicide on his account seemed so funny. "But she wasn't drowned." he said sharply. "If it hadn't been for that shark she'd be alive now." He smiled a grim smile. "Besides, if there had been any suicide business after a quarrel it would have been me doing it and not her. She wasn't made that way."
WHATEVER suspicions the inspector had been wanting to entertain, Matt's open frankness dissipated them and he had to smile back.
"Nice little place you've got here," he said. "Do you mind if we go through it?"
Of course, Matt did not mind and, indeed, he felt quite a pride in showing them over. The Hobsons were methodical people and all the rooms were neat and tidy. From the back door the inspector meditatively regarded the little yard which the old sea captain had made into a thriving garden. Every foot of it was growing something.
The detectives went back to the city, and at the end of the week, with the return of the Hobsons, Matt followed.
TEN years went by, and at forty-five Matt was a happy and contented man. He had filled out a lot and no longer looked skinny and underfed. He had long since married again, and his wife, a good fifteen years younger than he, was amiable and good tempered. She had presented him with three children, of whom he was immensely proud.
One Sunday afternoon Inspector McNab and a friend were fishing off the jetty at Largs Bay when Matt and his little family walked by. The friend passed the time of day to Matt, and when they were out of earshot remarked to the inspector. "Now, that's a man who had a most dreadful experience some years ago. He saw the woman who was his wife then taken by a shark, before his very eyes, when they were both bathing off Hunters Beach."
The inspector nodded. "I remember him. I went down there to make inquiries about it at the time. He was a great fisherman, wasn't he?"
His friend looked puzzled. "Fisherman!" he exclaimed. "No, he never fished."
"But he did," insisted the inspector, who never liked to be contradicted. "He took me into his bungalow and it was full of tackle. Why, he'd got a fine Mackenzie rod!"
HIS friend shook his head. "But you're mixing him up with someone else, old man. I'd stake my life Matt Huggins never baited a hook in those days. He hated anything to do with fish, and when he had any given him used to say it made him sick to have to clean them. I tell you, I knew him pretty well, as we lived next door to him in Prospect, and I've been to his rotten old bungalow, too."
"His bungalow wasn't rotten or old," scowled the inspector. "It was nicely furnished and he'd some lovely canaries there."
"Oh. I see it!" exclaimed the other. "It's Captain Hobson's bungalow you're thinking of, and the old chap was the fisherman you mean. His place was next door to Matt's, and it was he who had that Mackenzie rod and the canaries. I remember now that when Hobson was away Matt used to go in to attend to his birds."
THE inspector's face was a study. "So that was his little game, was it?" he thought. "Well, he tricked me right enough."
And then he was so preoccupied that his friend had to shout to him that he'd got a bite. Presently he asked casually: "And has this Huggins still got the bungalow he had then? Do you know?"
The friend nodded. "Yes, he's got it though he never goes there now. It's been shut up ever since that shark business, and no one understands why he doesn't sell it."
The inspector, however, thought he understood, and his thoughts boded ill for the happy husband and father.
The two remained on the jetty for a little while longer, and then the inspector began to pack up and said he must be going home.
He was still very preoccupied, so preoccupied, indeed, that, in crossing the road he did not see a big lorry coming, and, stepping straight in front of it was knocked down and killed instantly.
Matt's good luck was holding to the end.