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Title: The Dreadful Vigil
Author: Arthur Gask
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 2000941h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Sep 2020
Most recent update: Sep 2020

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The Dreadful Vigil


Arthur Gask

Cover Image

As published in The Chronicle, Adelaide, Australia, 29 May 1941

This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2020

JOE TREBBLE was wanted for murder and it was seven weeks to the day after he bolted before Scotland Yard at last got upon his trail.

But he was certainly not going to be an agreeable person to get too close to, for he was known to be carrying the big cavalry revolver with which his father had fought at Omdurman, and he himself was a bold, daring fellow who often scoffed he was afraid of nothing.

It was Andrew Bales he had killed, or rather it was generally conceded he must be the killer, although there had been actually no eyewitness of the crime. Still, everyone knew the two men had hated each other, and several times Trebble had been heard to threaten the dead man. Moreover, Trebble had disappeared upon the night of the crime, and that, to everyone, was conclusive evidence he must be guilty.

Of course, there was a woman in the case—Nancy Rains, a girl nearly a dozen years younger than Joe, and he and Bales had been rivals, with the preference on the girl's part leaning decidedly to Joe's side. But Bales had been the richer man, and the girl's parents had been all for him, he being a well-to-do farmer, whereas Joe was only the chauffeur to Squire Benson in the little village of Holme-St. Mary, near Chelmsford. Nancy was under age, and her parents had refused to allow Joe to have anything to do with her, or, indeed, come near the house.

Generally speaking, most people were sorry for Joe. He was merry and open-hearted, with Bales a much older man, of a surly disposition and liked by very few. Bales, too, had not been long in the district, and there had been rumors going about that in Shropshire, from where he had come, he had not been considered too nice a person for any girl to know.

Bales had been killed about nine o'clock at night upon the village common, and some passers-by had come upon his body almost at once. Indeed, the doctor, who had been summoned from a couple of miles away, was of opinion that he could not have been dead more than ten minutes, when he was found.

Knowing the enmity existing between the two, Joe Trebble had come into everyone's minds at once and when, in the morning, it was found he had disappeared, a description of him was broadcast far and wide and, the next day, his photograph published in many of the newspapers.

But Joe had been lucky in his getaway for, bicycling to Lowestoft during the night, he had there met a friend whom he had known when they were both in the Navy and, through him, had obtained a job upon a steam-trawler operating upon the fishing grounds round Norway. He had been taken on in the place of a man who had suddenly fallen sick.

The trawler had sailed within an hour and, running into one of the fiercest and most battering storms it had ever encountered, its wireless had been put out of order. Then, by the time the wireless had been repaired, the broadcast for the wanted man had been missed, and so for the moment Joe had been safe.

When among the biting cold and bitter winds of the fishing grounds, Joe had often ruminated upon what a fool he'd been to run away, for if he had stayed and told everything, at the worst, he could only have been punished for manslaughter.

That dreadful night he had met Bales quite accidentally and, upon warning him that if he laid a finger upon his girl again he would get the biggest thrashing he had ever had, a fight had ensued, with Bales attacking Joe with a stout ash stick. Then Bales had struck a foul blow and kicked Joe violently in the stomach, whereupon Joe, mad with pain, had wrenched a loose iron stay from one of the seats upon the common and struck Bales down.

Then Joe had lost his head altogether, and, seeing Bales's crushed in forehead and realising he had killed him, he had thrown the iron into some bushes and bolted for his life. Later on, he realised most poignantly that it was only his finger-marks upon that iron that could in any way have associated him with Bales's death, for not a single person had set eyes upon him between his leaving his room above Squire Benson's garage and his returning there in such dreadful panic.

Joe remained on the trawler for seven weeks and then the vessel returning to Lowestoft, he was paid off and left once more to face the danger of being arrested. In his seaman's clothes, however, and having grown something of a beard, he was hoping he would not be recognised by the casual scrutiny of any acquaintance.

Putting up at a seaman's lodging-house close to the quay, he then did what turned out to be a very foolish thing for, anxious to learn something of what had taken place after he had disappeared, he went into the Public Library and started going through the files of one of the newspapers of the previous month. His absorption in his task, and the sharp and frowning manner in which he turned the pages, attracted the attention of a small wizened man who was loafing there, and who, all unnoticed by Joe, came and stood beside him, curious to find out what he was searching so intently for.

Presently, Joe found the particular page of the issue he wanted, and, with a rapid beating of his heart, stared fearfully at an excellent photograph of himself, under a big-typed heading, '100 Reward.' He read down and learnt that Scotland Yard had been called in and Inspector Gilbert Larose been put in charge of the case. Whistling softly in his dismay, he suddenly became aware of the man at his side, whom he saw staring at him with startled and widely dilated eyes.

Joe cursed deeply under his breath, and, quickly flapping over the page, pretended to be absorbed in the instalment of a serial story he found there. But his common-sense told him the mischief had been done, when out of the corner of his eye he saw the wizened man immediately proceed to leave the room in a slow and suspicious manner, as if he were desperately anxious to avoid all appearance of haste. Joe was the more certain he had been recognised when the man flung a last furtive look in his direction as he passed through the revolving door. A quarter of a minute later Joe left the library, too, to see, as he had quite expected, the man running for all he was worth up the street.

"Gone for the police," choked Joe, "and now I'll have to bolt like a scalded cat. In an hour every policeman in the county will be upon the lookout for me."

Not daring to return to his lodging, he left the town without a moment's delay, and directly he was clear of the houses, cut off across the fields. Fortunately, he knew the country well, and it was his intention to make his way up North to either Grimsby or Hull, and get another job on a boat.

His travelling through the night was miserable, for almost at once it started to rain, and he was soon soaked to the skin, but he tramped on resolutely hour after hour, and by the time dawn was breaking reckoned he had covered a good five and twenty miles. According to the sign post in a small bye-road, he was then six miles from the town of Wymondham, and, coming in to a haystack, he climbed up with some difficulty, and burrowed his way in. There was a small farmhouse a few hundred or so yards away. It was much too close for his liking, but he felt he must get some sleep and rest somewhere. No sleep, however, came to him. He was much too anxious in his mind, and his limbs ached too badly.

Presently he saw a man come out of the house and bring a horse and trap round to the back door. A big basket was hoisted up, and a woman appearing and getting into the trap, it was driven away. He guessed there was no one left in the house, because the woman had carried a cat out and put it down on to the ground.

His spirits rose, for with the house untenanted he might get inside and obtain some food; better still, he might come upon a razor and give himself a shave. He knew everyone would be on the lookout for a man with a beard.

Getting into the house through a bedroom window presented no difficulty. He found a razor and his beard was soon off. There was not much food in the house, and, fearful that any theft would be noticed, all he dared take was a piece of bread and a small cut off a leg of mutton. Leaving the house by the way he had entered, he set off upon his journey again with a much lighter heart. He was quite certain he had left no traces of his visit behind him. He was quite mistaken there, for he had made one ghastly mistake. While he had been shaving at the kitchen sink, the cat had climbed back into the house while the bedroom window was open, and, not having noticed her, he had shut her in the house when he had closed down the window again.

It proved to be a fatal piece of carelessness, for the farmer and his wife, returning about midday, had been astounded at finding the cat sleeping before the kitchen fire. A quick look round, and they were certain someone had been in the house. The loaf of bread had been cut unevenly, the leg of mutton had been interfered with, and—most convincing of all—there were marks of mud where someone had climbed in through the bedroom window. Mindful of the tale they had heard when in Wymondham of the wanted man, they had at once rung up the police.

In the meantime, all unconscious that the police were closing in upon him, Joe had been covering the miles at a good pace, and dusk found him at a little village close to the Norfolk Fens. With his two long tramps and no sleep the previous night, he was feeling upon the point of exhaustion. It was going to be another bad night, too. There was thunder in the air, and a big storm was approaching. So he realised he must have shelter and sleep at any cost. He turned into the village inn, with the intention of getting a bed there, but over a glass of beer imagined the innkeeper was regarding him very curiously. So, in a most uneasy frame of mind, he decided it would be safer to look for an empty barn or another haystack.

Leaving the inn, he crossed over to the one village shop and bought a loaf of bread, half a pound of cheese, and some cigarettes. Then the woman who was serving him remarked chattily, "Quite a run on my cigarettes today. I sold a dozen packets not half an hour ago to four gents who pulled up in a car." She lowered her voice mysteriously. "Detectives, so my boy heard, and they are looking for that man with the beard."

Joe felt an icy shudder run down his spine and his knees shook together. "What man?" he asked hoarsely. "Whats he done?"

"Murdered someone in Chelmsford, they say," replied the woman. "Killed him with an iron bar, and there's a big reward offered for him."

Joe steadied his voice with a great effort. "But why are they looking for him here?"

"He broke into a farmhouse at Bracon Ash this morning and stole a lot of things. He's got a big revolver, and they think he's escaping this way." The woman nodded vigorously. "But there's a great detective after him, that man Larose, and if there's any shooting everyone thinks Larose will shoot first."

Joe could hardly walk straight as he left the shop, and, glancing furtively across to the inn, was sure he saw someone peering at him through the window.

Then a great rage surged up into him, and he gritted his teeth together. Well, they should never take him alive anyhow, and he'd shoot instantly if anyone came after him! But oh, by what dreadful chance had they found out he'd been to that farm! Someone must have been watching the place all the time he had been inside!

In the now rapidly falling dusk he proceeded to walk quickly out of the village, but when he had gone about a quarter of a mile he crept through a hedge and went off in almost the opposite direction, towards the Methwold fens where he knew no motor car would be able to follow.

He started to run but soon had to give that up, finding his strength almost exhausted. Then, when he had crossed the main Downham Market road and was well among the muddy tracks of the fens, he came upon a small stone house that he was sure, at first glance, must be uninhabited. There were no lights showing, there was an air of desolation all about it and, approaching closely, he saw that all the panes in the windows were broken.

He tried the door, and the handle yielded at once to his touch. Entering, he struck a match and found himself in a long passage, with two rooms leading out from it, on either side. There was another door at the end of the passage.

Going quickly through the rooms and lighting a match at floor level in each one of them, he saw they were quite empty, except for some trusses of dirty straw piled before one of the fireplaces.

Nearly dropping in his fatigue, he dragged some of the trusses into the passage and made a bed for himself at the far end, opposite to the door by which he had come in. Then he threw himself down, determined, whatever happened, to get some sleep. He could see the sky through a broken skylight above the middle of the passage. He closed his eyes, but his thoughts would allow him no rest, for he was listening all the time, expecting every moment to hear footsteps, and the opening of the door. He kept his revolver cocked, intending to shoot instantly if he heard the very slightest sound.

It seemed to him hours and hours before he at last dropped into a troubled and uneasy slumber. Then, almost at once, he was awakened by a dreadful peal of thunder, just overhead, and, dazed and terrified, he was upon his feet instantly and waving the cocked revolver before him.

But a deep silence followed, and after a few moments, with the sweat pouring off him, he sank on to the straw again. Everything was now as quiet as the grave.

Then, as in a dream, he heard the handle of the door at the other end of the passage being turned, and he felt a rush of wind come sweeping over his body. He made no movement, however, until a second sound, as of the door being closed very softly, roused him to complete consciousness, and then, with a muttered oath he sprang to his feet and stood pointing his revolver into the darkness, with his finger trembling upon the trigger.

But all was black and silent again, and gradually, very gradually, his revolver hand sank down until the weapon was pointing to the floor. It could have been only a dream, he told himself. He had heard and felt nothing.

Just as he was about to drop back upon the floor, however, a fearful flash of lightning stabbed the darkness, and for one split second, most certain and unmistakable, he saw—oh, God!—a man crouching, even as he was doing, at the other end of the passage and holding an upraised pistol in his hand.

But the intense blackness after the flash of lightning engulfed everything so instantaneously that he had no time to take his aim and fire before the opportunity had gone. He was afraid to fire now lest he should hit nothing and only betray his position to the man waiting there. A crashing peal of thunder shook the house, and down in torrents came the rain. The noise upon the iron roof was like an inferno being let loose.

Minute after minute passed, and Joe stood crouched against the wall, but Inspector Larose—for it was he at the other end of the passage—was wiser, and had lowered himself in comfort on to the floor. He was now lying upon his right side, his feet were towards Joe, and his pistol hand was resting in the crook of his right arm.

The rain went on and on, and gradually the muscles of the two men relaxed. Joe sank down upon his heap of straw, sodden with fatigue and lack of sleep. At last the rain stopped, and once again silence followed, a silence so deep that Joe wanted to shriek out in his terror.

"A good five hours to dawn," muttered Larose ruefully, "and one of us may go dotty before that. If neither of us do, then with the faintest streak of light it'll be kingdom-come for him or me. I'm nearer the skylight than he is, so the odds, are slightly in his favor." He shook his head vexatiously. "What a fool I was to come here in the night like this."

The hours dragged on, with neither of them having any idea as to the exact flight of time. Larose never for one second allowed himself to relax his vigilance, but Joe was now listening, and pointing his revolver, only in fits and starts. Every now and then his eyes would shut and his chin drop on to his chest. His desire for sleep was becoming overpowering.

Presently, when Larose thought it must be getting on for about three o'clock, he started suddenly and lifted up his head. He was sure he had heard a faint sound at the other end of the passage. The sound was repeated, louder this time. He smiled scornfully. Joe Trebble was wanting to make out he had fallen asleep and was snoring. Yes, and he was doing it well, too, as the snores were natural and in perfect rhythm.

"But I'm too old a bird to be caught like that," murmured Larose scoffingly. "He'll put nothing over me in that way."

The snores, however, went on, gentle even snores one after the other, in perfect time. Then gradually the detective's idea of deception began to weaken and finally, he came to the conclusion that Joe was actually asleep. "Well, whether or not Joe started it as a trick," he nodded confidently, "he's gone off for sure now. He's hypnotised himself into it," and he started to wriggle like a snake along the passage.

A breathless couple of minutes and he was by the snorer's side, feeling with the lightness of a falling leaf for the latter's pistol hand. Gently, very gently, he disengaged the sagging fingers from the revolver. Then, greatly emboldened, he drew the two wrists together and, taking a pair of handcuffs from his pocket, clicked them softly on. Then, as Joe still made no movement, he completed his work by unloosing the ends of the sleeper's bootlaces and tying them tightly together.

Then, and then only, he flashed a little electric torch full on the sleeper's face.

Joe grunted and stirred uneasily, closing his eyelids tightly so that his eyes should not be hurt by the light, until finally Larose had positively to shake him to make him wake up.

Then Joe's eyes opened very wide, he stared up at his captor. With an angry curse he raised up his manacled hands and tried to spring to his feet.

But Larose pressed him back upon the straw.

"Keep down, Trebble," he said sharply. "It's no good struggling. You've got the handcuffs on and your feet are tied. You're finished."

It was some seconds before Joe could take in the situation, and then his face broke into a wry smile. "Yes, Guv'nor, I'm finished right enough," he said, "but now make a good job of it and put a bullet between my eyes. The hangman'll have lost a few bob, but it'll be a great kindness to me."

Larose shook his head. "Sorry, Joe, but it can't be done," he said kindly. "You should have shot at me when you had the chance, and then you might have got a lucky one in return. It's too late now."

In the morning Joe was taken back to Chelmsford, and, later, duly committed for trial at the forthcoming assizes.

The day after his commitment he heard that a public fund was being raised for his defence, and that same afternoon one of the leading lawyers of the town appeared for a consultation with him.

Much to Joe's surprise, the lawyer shook him warmly by the hand.

"We can all understand, and, in a way, appreciate the motive for your running away," he said smilingly. "Still, you must see now it was a very foolish thing to do." He shook his head gravely. "You have occasioned your friends a lot of anxiety, and, in addition to that, have brought Miss Rains into a most unenviable publicity. Now, if you had only stood your ground and frankly told the police exactly where you were upon the night of the murder, they would most certainly have respected your confidence and the girl's reputation would not have suffered as it has."

Joe blinked his eyes very hard. He had no idea what the lawyer meant, but he put on a very serious look and said nothing.

The lawyer took some papers out of his pocket and went on.

"Well, Miss Rains's statement is,"—he paused a moment to regard Joe very solemnly—"and it was a very noble thing for her to go at once to the police directly she had heard you had been caught, and tell them everything—her statement is that you were alone with her, in her room in her father's house, during the whole time covering the hours between Andrew Bale's departure from his home that night to long after the subsequent finding of his dead body upon the common."

Joe still said nothing. He was too astounded, and the lawyer went on, ticking off the points upon his fingers.

"Punctually, at seven o'clock, her father and mother went out for the evening and she believed they would not be returning until after eleven. She and her aunt had finished washing up the tea things just before half past seven—the aunt verifies that—then, pleading that she had a headache, the girl retired at once to her room and before the church clock had struck eight. She admitted you by arrangement, through her window at the back, with the chained-up dog barking furiously at the approach of a stranger—the aunt verifies here, too, that she heard the dog barking a few minutes after her niece had left her." He nodded at Joe. "Now, the dog did bark as you climbed the fence, did he not?"

But Joe only stared stolidly before him, and after waiting a few moments, the lawyer went on. "Then you stayed with the girl until you were surprised at hearing her father and mother return much earlier than was expected, which occurred just before half past ten. Then the dog barked again as you were leaving the premises, and once more the verification of the aunt comes in."

The lawyer tapped his papers significantly. "Then the mother went into the girl's room with the startling news that Andrew Bales had just been found murdered on the common, and that everyone was sure you must be the murderer, and would certainly be arrested the following morning. So later, when they were all in bed, Miss Rains slipped out of the house to warn you, and she woke you exactly as the church clock was sounding midnight." He nodded smilingly. "Very convenient, that clock, for it clinches the important times most satisfactorily."

"You can hear it for miles round," growled Joe. "It's often woke me up."

"Well," said the lawyer confidently, "with this testimony of Miss Rains and her aunt, if we put you into the witness box and you make a good impression upon the jury, they won't be five minutes considering their verdict. The police have absolutely nothing against you, except that you and the dead man were known enemies. And that you so foolishly bolted away."

Joe thought hard for a few moments and then asked with studied slowness. "Do they know what Bales was killed with?"

"Most assuredly they do," nodded the lawyer. "A piece of iron that had been wrenched off one of those seats by the War Memorial. It had blood and hair upon it, but unhappily it was found by some boys when going to school the next morning, and, thinking nothing about finger-marks, it was mauled over by scores of their school-fellows before it finally reached the master. Then, of course, all the original finger-marks had been obliterated."

Joe drew in a deep breath and looked down upon the floor to mask the expression upon his face. Oh! what a trick Fate had played him! There would not have been a scrap of evidence against him if he had not run away!

"Now, Trebble," said the lawyer briskly, "are you prepared to go into the witness box and substantiate everything Miss Rains has told us?"

"No," replied Joe instantly. "I'll not say a word. I'll just hold my tongue. I won't go into the box."

And that was the attitude he persisted in and no persuasion from the lawyer could induce him to alter his decision.

So, at the trial he sat a sad and sombre figure, the very picture of grief at the shame he had brought upon the girl who was so fearlessly testifying upon his behalf. Many said he was a fool to refuse to go into the witness-box, but others admired him for it, although they thought it quixotic chivalry.

The girl gave her evidence calmly and with great confidence, and came triumphant and unscathed out of the long cross-examination to which she was subjected. Nothing could shake her evidence and no one could trip her up, and it was soon sensed that the feeling of the Court was wholly in Joe Trebble's favor. He had simply run away to save the girl's honor.

The climax of interest came when the girl told how the dead man had pestered her; how one evening, meeting her by chance in a wood he had laid violent hands upon her in his attempted love-making, and how she had only been saved by the timely appearance of some strangers.

"But it's a gross miscarriage of justice," scowled the local superintendent of police to Larose as they two were leaving the court after the verdict of "not guilty" had been brought in. "Trebble killed the man right enough, and that girl is an accomplished liar. Trebble never went near her house that night, and if only he'd gone into the witness-box we'd have bowled him out in two ticks. Trebble couldn't lie like that girl did."

Larose grinned. "Then it was a darned clever move to keep him out of the box." He nodded. "Yes, I think with you that Mr. Joseph Trebble is a lucky man to have got off."

SOME few months later, when motoring among the South Downs towards one evening, Larose pulled up at a little wayside garage to get some petrol and noted a man and woman sitting outside, apparently enjoying the beautiful sunset. The woman was busy sewing, but, seeing the car was stopping, immediately gathered up her things and proceeded somewhat hastily into the house. The man came forward to know what Larose wanted.

"Three gallons, please," said Larose, and then, looking at the man, he started and exclaimed, "But, good gracious, it's Joe Trebble!"

"Yes, sir," smiled back Joe, "and very pleased to see you again, Mr. Larose. You were very kind to me in my trouble."

"But what are you doing here?" asked Larose, after they had shaken hands. "I heard you had gone back to Squire Benson's."

"So I did for a time, sir," said Joe, "but some of the gentry round Holme St. Mary were kind enough to get up a little subscription for us and I was able to take this garage here." He looked rather embarrassed. "After all that had happened I thought I'd leave the neighborhood and come somewhere where we weren't known."

"And quite right, too," agreed Larose heartily. He nodded towards the house. "And that's your wife, of course?" He looked significantly at Joe. "I hope you're a good husband and never forget what you owe her."

"Oh, I'll always remember that," said Joe quickly, "and she's as happy as a queen all day long." He lowered his voice. "I can't take you in and introduce you because——"

"All right," smiled Larose, "I quite understand." He lowered his voice in turn. "But you're a lucky chap to be here, Joe, for you killed that man, right enough."

"Yes, sir, I did," replied Joe quietly. "But I'm not as bad as you may perhaps think I am," and then, in a sudden burst of confidence, and as if relieved to get it off his mind, he told Larose everything that had happened that evening on the common. "But you must have known all along that I was guilty, sir," he finished up with, "because when you woke me up that night in the hut, I asked you to shoot me and save me from the hangman."

"Oh, yes, I knew," said Larose. "I never had any doubt about it." He smiled grimly. "But that untruthful alibi your wife gave you was clever enough to get you off all right." He nodded. "Still, it was very brave of her to ruin her reputation to save you. I will put that to her credit."

To his astonishment, Joe grinned broadly. "But her reputation would not have suffered at all if we had told everything," he said. He looked at Larose with some amusement. "We had been man and wife a month and longer when everything happened. No one knew it, but I had married her on the quiet at a London registry office five weeks before."

"Great Jupiter!" exclaimed Larose, "then why didn't you let everyone know that?"

Joe shook his head. "It wouldn't have done," he said. He looked scornful. "Who would have believed what a wife was saying when she was giving evidence to save her husband?"

"Exactly, exactly," nodded Larose, "I see what you mean. The lawful wedded wife testifying on behalf of her husband would have been humdrum business, but, on the other hand, the unmarried girl confessing her secret and pleading for her lover, was romance and quite irresistible." His face broke into a smile. "Yes, you did the right thing there, Joe, for, so often sinning themselves, the world has always a soft spot for sinners."

He got back into his car and waved his hand in farewell. "Well, goodbye, Joe, and good luck to you; but you just behave yourself in future, for you mayn't be so lucky another time."


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