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The Red Paste Murders (Murder in the Night):
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Date first posted: Nov 2012
Most recent update: Feb 2021
This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy, Colin Choat and Roy Glashan
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The strange story of Peter Wacks, a timid soul who became a cold-blooded murderer, is the theme of "The Red Paste Murders." ... Readers will find much excitement and many shocks in the Jekyll and Hyde existence of this remarkable man, known as "Rabbits" to his intimates, who, in a fortnight, became the terror of a whole city. Arthur Gask, the Adelaide author, chose a local setting for this novel, and it is among familiar scenes that the story races to its unusual climax.
—The Advertiser, Adelaide, 9 Sep 1938.
I SHALL never know what dreadful impulse compels me to write it all down.
My life is so many, many times forfeit to the State that were my hideous secret to become known, even now, after all these years, within an hour infuriated crowds would gather at my gate and I should be torn limb from limb without the slightest hope of mercy or reprieve.
I shall never be forgiven.
My crimes were too brutal. I spared neither young nor old, and every deed of violence that could bring pain and horror it was fiendish joy to do.
I have before me now a blurred, torn page of an old newspaper—all dim and ghostly in its faded ink. It has great, startling headlines, and all about me.
The fiend of the ages it calls me—the criminal of all time; a foul and dreadful maniac stalking through the city with his bloody hands uplifted against all mankind; a very prince of vileness; a monster that out-Satans Satan in his crimes; and so on, and so on.
So many times I wonder if it can possibly be all true, and if it be, after all, nothing but the nightmare of some cruel and dreadful dream.
How well do I remember the very exact words in which the 'Adelaide Evening Journal' recorded the discovery of the first crime. I read and re-read them so often that every line is seared for ever in my mind.
"Early this morning," they run, "a terrible discovery was made on the park lands between North Adelaide and the bank of the Torrens River. Michael Dayman, a workman in the employ of Messrs. John Shearer and Sons, the well-known agricultural implement makers of Kilkenny, was passing along a lower road when he noticed under a clump of trees what he at first thought was the form of a sleeping man.
"Approaching the spot, however, he was horrified to find that the man was dead, and that his face was covered with blood. He saw the head had been terribly battered in. Dayman communicated at once with the Bowden police, and within an hour the body had been conveyed to the city mortuary. There it was almost immediately identified as that of Alderman Charles Bentley, who had been missing from his home since last evening.
"The dreadful news at once occasioned a tremendous sensation in the city, and the flags on all the public buildings were immediately placed at half-mast. It is certain that a terrible and ghastly murder has been committed, but it is too early as yet to hazard any guess as to the motive for the crime. Robbery, however, it was not, for nothing at all had been removed from the person of the dead man. His watch, his ring, and all his other valuables were quite intact. The police are naturally reticent about the matter, but it is understood that his wounds were of a terrible nature, and that death must have been almost instantaneous after the blows.
"The utmost sympathy is extended to the deceased's relatives. The alderman was too well known to our readers for us to refer now to his public life and work. In our grief we can only say that not only has the city of Adelaide lost one of the most loyal and honored sons, but that the whole State of South Australia also, and the great Commonwealth itself, is poorer by his loss. It will be the sincere prayer of everyone that the vile and brutal murderer may be speedily brought to book."
It was a terrible thing that I should kill that poor old man, and yet his death lay only at the very beginning of my path of crime. It was as nothing to what was to follow later. Week after week, horror upon horror was to gather on the city; fear was to hang over it like a dreadful cloud, and panic even was to seize the strongest as they went upon their ways.
Did I do all this?
Could it possibly be I who was the man? Could it, indeed, be I who, in those hot midsummer days, made great strong men afraid of their own shadows, and brought this nameless terror into all their lives; who made each lonely road at dusk a path of dread and of possible foul, awful crime; who filled ten thousand gentle breasts with horror, and who made the very faces of the children blanch and whiten when the night wind stirred among the trees?
Every day almost I tell myself it must be all a dream. I could never have done such wrongs.
I was always such a coward and such a law-abiding man. I have always had such horror of violence and have always been so meek and gentle in my ways.
No—no, it is all a mistake. I have been sick and ill, and all these thoughts came only to me in the tossing of some fevered sleep. I am harmless and innocent as other men are.
But alas! often I take out that dreadful copy of the 'Times of Adelaide.' I have kept it through all these years at the bottom of my drawer. It is hidden there so that Lucy may never see it and be reminded of those days.
Oh! how it points the accusing finger at me in its stern and baleful way.
It tells so clearly how the grip of terror held the city then, and explains far better than could any words of mine to what a pitch of horror everything had come. Dated only just a fortnight after Alderman Bentley died, it is headed, "No Panic, Please."
"This morning for the eighth time during the past fortnight and for the fourth day in succession," it begins, "it is our distressing duty to record for our readers the happening of a new and dreadful crime. Last evening, about nine o'clock, Dr. Charles Smallwood, a popular and esteemed medical practitioner of Lower Unley, was foully done to death in the open public road, within a few yards of his home. With the manner of his death we have unhappily of late become only too familiar, but the reason for the brutal act is again as mysterious and as obscure as are the reasons for all the other crimes that have recently been perpetrated in our midst. As usual there was no attempt at robbery—no removal of anything from the person of the murdered man—no semblance of suspicion that he had enemies in any quarter, or that anyone had ever wished him ill. There is no suggestion of any of these things—nothing again but, as in all the other deaths, the sheer wanton lust of blood.
"What are we going to do?
"As a people it has been always our pride that in all circumstances we can keep our heads. Down all the life-story of our race we have been always stubborn and unflinching in adversity, and the greater our need the greater have been our courage and endurance. Surely we now in Adelaide have never needed these qualities more than we do today.
"With what are we faced? Let us be open and candid with ourselves. Our city is no longer secure to live in, and the shadow of a dreadful death hangs nightly on us all.
"Somewhere in our midst—somewhere unnoticed and unmarked among us—lurks a maniac of most horrible proclivities, a man of terrible and diseased mind.
"We are, of course, in complete ignorance as to how it has come to happen, but, somehow, in some poor wretch the beautiful and complicated machinery of the mind has broken down, and in its fall has loosed amongst us a ravening and ferocious beast.
"Unhappily it is not with the ordinary type of madman that we probably have now to deal.
"Outwardly he may show no signs at all of his malady, and our difficulty lies in the probability that he is not always mad. His mania may come on in paroxysms—perhaps only at night. By day, perhaps, he is a quiet and inoffensive member of the community. Maybe he works just like an ordinary man in some factory—some office, or some shop. Maybe he stops quietly at home, for we know nothing of his circumstances or conditions of life.
"At any rate, as long as daylight lasts so far his madness has left behind no trail. Then, perhaps, he is as sane as anyone in the State.
"But when night comes apparently an irresistible impulse seizes him. Every street and path and road becomes his hunting ground, and the chance of sudden death looms over everyone outside locked doors.
"With our knowledge of what has already occurred it is too much to hope that the last chapter of our trouble has been written, or, indeed, that we shall have no more dreadful happenings to record.
"How, then, shall we attempt to grapple with the evil, and what can we possibly learn to help us from a cool and calm consideration of the methods of these dreadful crimes?
"Let us briefly refer to them seriatim as they have occurred in the city and its suburbs.
"A fortnight ago yesterday, on Tuesday night, Alderman Bentley was killed on the park lands between North Adelaide and the bank of the Torrens River. (Shall we ever learn by what strange chance this dear old man became the first victim of these bloody crimes?) Two days later Police Constable Holthusen was killed almost on the same spot. Both had been bludgeoned with the same kind of heavy, blunt weapon.
"The day following, on Friday evening, Mrs. Hutton, a young and recently married woman, met her dreadful fate near South station, also, be it noted, when crossing over the park lands. Again, one fierce, vicious blow with some blunt instrument, and the poor creature was left to die where she fell.
"On Saturday nothing happened, and nothing on Sunday either. It will be remembered, however, that heavy rain fell on both these evenings.
"On Monday again a blank day, but at 9.35 that night information was brought to Woodville Police Station that Rex Ferguson, a St. Peter's boy, just over seventeen, had been chased by an unknown man for two hundred yards along the Port road. Young Ferguson is a cool, intelligent young fellow, and he describes his pursuer as a thin, medium-sized man without a hat. Unhappily, the night was dark, and he was unable to see the man's face. The escape was apparently quite accidental, for it was only by chance that Ferguson turned round to find, as he says, a black figure rushing furiously down upon him. He does not remember hearing any footsteps. He took to his heels instantly, and, being a strong runner, providentially escaped. But this is significant—Ferguson said the man held him for quite a hundred yards. He heard him plainly close behind.
"To continue—the next night, on Tuesday, a week ago today, Walter Bevan, a porter from Kilkenny station, was killed just after bathing, on the sandhills at Grange. The same black tale—bludgeoned on the head with a blunt instrument. There were other bathers near him not fifty yards away, and he was discovered almost at once. But no sound, no cry had been heard—just the same usual silent, dreadful death.
"Thursday and Friday we had nothing to record, and we are sure our readers scanned our columns in thankful relief. Some of us, indeed, were sanguine that the measures taken by the authorities and the increased vigilance of us all were already bearing fruit.
"But, no—the bloody run of crime goes on, and the week-end has been one of sustained and continued horror.
"Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, and last night, too, have all, one after another, had their awful deed to record.
"Old Mr. Perterson, of Toorak, was killed while asleep on his verandah on Friday.
"On Saturday night Mathew Crane, a tram conductor on duty, was struck on the head when actually not five yards away from his tram, just as he was altering the tram time-indicator at the terminus opposite Kensington Gardens. He died an hour later in the Adelaide Hospital.
"Sunday brought a double crime—the killing of Mr. and Mrs. Van Dene, in their own drawing-room in Medindie. It is very difficult to write calmly here. Those whose duty it was to visit the scene of the crime described it as being as terrible in its surroundings as anything the mind of anyone could conceive. For the first time the assassin had been interrupted in his ghastly work, and Mr. Van Dene had put up a gallant fight. But we cannot further harrow the feelings of our readers—the dreadful facts were detailed in our columns yesterday.
"Then last night—this last crime, the murder of Dr. Smallwood. We had hoped that the assassin was not uninjured by what happened on Sunday, or would at least have been disheartened for a time by the resistance he undoubtedly encountered. But, no—directly darkness fell last evening he returned to his bloody work, and once again a harmless and inoffensive member of the community has met with a dreadful death.
"Now there can be no hiding from ourselves that we are all living in very black and deadly peril.
"Tonight—tomorrow night—or any night until the madman is laid low it may be the fate of any one of us to suffer sudden death. It is a dreadful thing to contemplate, and we may well all feel in a state of nerves.
"But let us straight away apply the antidote and drill in forcibly to ourselves that there is not the slightest need for panic. In the end the community must inevitably prove stronger than the individual. Sooner or later, and probably much sooner than any of us think, the madman will be laid by the heels.
"It is well known everywhere that special measures are being taken for the trapping of the madman. As far as possible revolvers are being served out to responsible individuals, and police patrols have everywhere been doubled. It is an open secret, too, that bloodhounds are now on their way from Melbourne, and are expected to arrive in the city this morning. Indeed, we have received information that this afternoon the Chief Commissioner of Police is issuing placards broadcast warning everyone generally, in the event of another tragedy, not to crowd round but to stand clear of the body and give the dogs a chance.
"We can rest confident that the authorities are in every way alive to the needs of the situation, and it is up to us loyally and manfully to support them. How then can we help? In many ways. Firstly, each district must organise its own local Vigilance Society. Great credit is due in this respect to Mr. Peter Wacks, of Bowden, for being first in the field.
"On Saturday this gentleman was instrumental in forming the first Committee of Public Safety in his own district. Following upon an outdoor meeting at the station gates, at which we understand he made an impassioned and eloquent appeal for unity, he at once got together a small band of local stalwarts, and by now has each road in his neighborhood under special and particular control. And this is what all other parts of Adelaide and its suburbs must do. Special constables must be enrolled everywhere—armlets must be given out, and truncheons must be provided. Public meetings must be called at once, and within three or four days at most a new and easy running machinery should be at the service of the regular police.
"A word now for our guidance as to the probable personality of the madman we are looking for. It was not for nothing that we referred above to the nauseating details of his crimes. A man cannot commit nine murders and leave behind nothing that cannot be deduced from the environment and methods of his savagery.
"What do we gather from these cases then?
"He is certainly a young man—probably well under thirty; almost certainly, too, he is of a wiry and slight build, and undoubtedly he is an athlete.
"The testimony of young Ferguson in that respect is most important and the authorities have carefully been over the ground with him where he was chased. It is a good two hundred yards from where he points out he first saw the man running on him to where he had out-distanced him and was safe. As we remarked before, it is most significant that Ferguson was only just able to hold his own for the first half of the pursuit, and it proves conclusively that the man we are looking for is a first-class runner.
"Ferguson is one of the best sprinters in St. Peter's School—if not, indeed, the very best. He can do the hundred yards in less than eleven seconds and in the intercollegiate sports last year he also swept the board in all the races up to the half-mile. So there can be no doubt whatever that the man who chased him is something of a runner, and good runners, as we all know, are nearly always built on the light side and are rarely of more than medium height.
"It fits in, too, with everything that his footsteps were noiseless. Probably he is wearing rubber soles, or at least his heels are of rubber, and he is very light on his feet.
"In general appearance he must be quite harmless and ordinary-looking, for it is a sinister fact that he has apparently been able to approach all his victims without exciting any suspicion or distrust.
"We have said he is probably of the wiry type, for fairly strong he certainly must be. The deadly blows with which he does his ghastly work are conclusive evidence that the man is no weakling.
"Now as to the weapon he is using. All the medical testimony goes to prove that it is a short bar of iron with a smooth round knob at the end. The bar is not more than twelve inches long at most, and it is probably a part of some piece of disused machinery. It cannot be more than twelve inches long, for he must be carrying it about under his coat or in one of his pockets. Detective-Inspector Miles distinctly warned us all at the inquest last Thursday to beware of any man who was not walking with his hands both free from his pockets.
"One word now in conclusion as to what may still be before us.
"Unhappily these crimes all show an upward and progressive tendency. The first one was probably unpremeditated or, at any rate, was not undertaken with the confidence of the later ones. Poor old Alderman Bentley was struck three times, and the first two were feeble blows. In all the other cases, except in that of Mr. Van Dene, one blow and one only was inflicted. Indeed, it looks each time as if the madman had just waited and struck at his leisure—without any haste or indecision.
"Then, as to when he has committed his crimes. Here again we regretfully notice a progressive confidence and boldness in his actions. The first three murders were carried out on lonely park lands, in comparatively unfrequented spots. Then we have the attempt on the Port road, then the murder on the sands at Grange. Next he actually enters a private garden at Toorak and completes his ghastly work on a verandah. Then he kills on an open public road—a well frequented road, even at night—and kills, moreover, within a few yards and almost in the presence of another man whose nearness he must have realised. The next night he actually penetrates into a private house, and last night he again chances discovery by attacking in a main thoroughfare.
"We dwell on these things because, unhappily, we must henceforth be prepared for greater boldness still on the part of the maniac, and must realise that we are not even safe in our own homes unless behind closed and barred doors.
"Now for a few simple suggestions.
"People should not be foolhardy enough to sleep outdoors unless they have a good dog with them. No one should go out alone at night, and any promenader by himself after dark should be at once regarded with suspicion. Every house door should be locked after sunset and all families should provide themselves with a loud whistle. Any suspicious or unnatural conduct on the part of any individual should be at once reported to the police.
"We share with our readers the horror of the dreadful possibilities that lie over us, and we realise to the full the mental anguish of living under this reign of terror, but we must all be brave about it, and, we insist again, it can be only a matter of time, and perhaps very little time, before our anxieties will be over for ever and the normal condition of safe untroubled life will be resumed again in all respects."
Oh, what a dreadful thing it is for me to read this now, and what a hateful memory it calls up of all those days. Why do I not tear it up? I cannot, for its very horror fascinates me, and it has become, like my own thoughts, part of myself.
But I don't always think I was THE MAN. Sometimes I am at peace for a while, a very little while.
I kneel in chapel with my wife and boys. I hear the gentle voices mingling with my own, the music of the organ soothes me, and my thankful heart rejoices that my fears are baseless and imaginary and I am only a morbid dreamer after all.
And then—then I pass my hand upon my thigh and feel the callous where the bullet struck me and—I know it is all true—all true.
I fall violently to my prayers.
I WAS always such a coward.
I had no parents that I could remember and it was an old maiden aunt who brought me up.
She was poor and kept a little greengrocer's shop in Hindmarsh, a suburb of Adelaide, just off the great Port road.
My childhood days are chiefly memories of the smell of stale vegetables and the worries of very unhappy days at school.
I was a thin, white-faced little fellow and it seemed the mission in life of all other boys to tease me and make me cry. It was good sport to them to bully me, for I was always so afraid of everyone, with timid, nervous ways that made me an endless source of amusement to the school.
There was something about me that aways prevented my making friends and no one ever gave me any pity in my troubles. The other boys never seemed to leave me in peace. They took away my marbles and broke up my few occasional toys. They stole my sweets from me, and if ever I brought my dinner with me to school I had to eat it stealthily away from everyone, or it would have been seized at once by my tormentors and passed round. Looking back, it seems strange that I never retaliated, and, I think, never even complained. I seemed to have no spirit at all, and accepting all my persecutions as quite in the natural order of things, I slunk through my lonely boyhood, a little, shrinking, joyless coward.
Yes, childhood and boyhood brought me sadly unhappy schooldays, and when at fifteen years of age I was taken on, as office boy, by Messrs. Winter and Winter, the big wholesale chemists of Pirie street, my life story was much the same.
I had the heart of a coward.
Everybody found me out at once and the timidness of my disposition served only to provoke the cruellest instincts of those about me. The elder boys kicked and cuffed me as a matter of daily routine. They played practical jokes upon me. They hid my caps and inked my collars and generally in all their dealings with me were as brutal and callous as only boys can be.
As we grew up together and the years went by, they never seemed to get accustomed to me or to accord me the forbearance most generally given to old fellow workers. I was always a new-comer and always outside the pale of their confidences.
It was not that I purposely made myself unpopular; I did nothing of the kind.
Quick and sharp at figures as I always am, I had soon mastered the work we had to do, and was often able to give a lift to others in their tasks. Also, I was always ready to do little outdoor services for anyone, to fetch and carry for the office, to put the desks straight when they had been skylarking, to get the water boiling for the tea, and generally to make myself useful in countless little ways. But it was no good. It never made any difference, and everyone held me at best in more or less good-natured contempt.
WHEN I had been eleven years at Winter and Winter's, I became, by seniority, head clerk in the invoice office, and the firm expressed their appreciation of my work by an increase in salary. It was really no more than I deserved, for I was a good servant to them, and always punctual, painstaking, and thoroughly to be trusted in my work.
I was never late in the mornings—never exceeded the hour allowed for dinner, and never grumbled when, in busy times, we had to return to the office after tea.
I don't think, indeed, that I could ever have had any vices at all. I didn't smoke, I was a strict teetotaler, and every Sunday was a zealous frequenter of our little chapel on the Port road. Also I had never had the courage for any of the love adventures the other fellows had.
In spite, however, of what the heads thought of me, I had no happiness at the office, because of the way the other clerks treated me. There were ten of us in my room, and even when I was formally placed in charge of them all they never showed me the slightest atom of respect, or ceased for an hour to regard me as in any other light than the butt for their cheap wit and the natural object for their silly jokes.
I rather believe now they thought I didn't really mind it and was quite content to provide amusement for the office. But I did mind it, and it was torture to my little cowardly soul. I was sensitive, very sensitive, behind all my timidity, and it galled me to the quick to be cheeked and insulted by quite young boys.
Sometimes I would get quite livid with anger at some scornful impertinence of one of the juniors.
I would spring up from my desk and turn in a blast of fury upon the offender, but no sooner was I on my feet than my cowardice would take possession of me like a seizure, and I would subside ingloriously to half-muttered threats that would only redouble the laughter of my tormentors. They would slap me on the back and tell me mockingly to go back to my hutch or the bow-wows would bite me and I should lose my tail. 'Rabbits' was what they used to call me, and the contempt they put in that one word would sometimes make me wince to the very marrow.
"Mr. Rabbits," would sneer Waller, my junior by five years, when introducing me to a newcomer. "Mr. Rabbits, our head invoice clerk, and the composer of chess problems," and then would follow a high-colored and spicy account of the latest jokes that had been played upon me, and the helpless way in which I had received them.
How I hated Waller! He was an idle, well-dressed fellow who always came late to the office, and smoked a lot of cigarettes, and was always in debt to some one or other. He had big fat legs and went in for athletics; also he was great on football, and went to horse-races, and all that sort of thing. He was the very type of man I loathed, chiefly, I think, because he was careless and reckless and never seemed to be afraid of anyone.
Of course, he was supposed to be under me in the office, but I should sooner have expected the roof to fall upon me than for him to have taken notice of anything I told him.
And as I have said, it was the same with them all. They just ignored me, and the youngest junior, when he had been three weeks in the office, would have looked upon it as a huge joke if I had tried to insist upon his doing anything he didn't feel inclined to do.
I began to perceive gradually that the firm was not satisfied with the way I kept order in the office, and our Mr. William began constantly to refer to it.
"Wacks," he said to me irritably one day, when he had unexpectedly interrupted an exciting game of shove-penny in our room, "why don't you keep order over them all? It's quite a disgrace for a man of your age to let young boys waste their time as they were doing today. You must stop it—do you hear?"
Mr. William had always been kindness itself to me, and his reproof made me want to burst into tears. But what could I do? I knew that no one would ever obey me, and I hated myself for being what I was.
I went home very dismally to my lodgings that evening, with no appetite at all for the tasty tea my landlady had, as usual, provided for me.
I lived in White Street, Bowden, about two miles from the city, and had two comfortable little rooms that I could call my own. My landlady was a hardworking widow, and I shared the house with an old retired sea-captain, who had the two front rooms, and a plain-clothes detective, who lived mysteriously in a back room, off the garden.
Of the latter, whose name was Meadows, I knew very little, and except for an occasional meeting in the street or a rare 'Good morning' in the hall should hardly, sometimes for weeks and weeks on end, have been aware of his existence. He was a quiet secretive-looking man, about thirty, and always went about with a thick stick and with his coat buttoned high up to his chin. He must have lodged with us quite six months before I even got to know his name, but I gathered accidentally from Mrs. Bratt that he had asked all about me soon after he came, and had appeared quite interested, so she said, in all the details she had been able to supply them.
Contrary to his appearance, however, he was not an uncommunicative man in his spare time, and I had some very interesting talks with him about his profession. He was very enthusiastic about crime, and held strong views that everyone was bursting with criminal propensities that only required encouragement and opportunity to come out.
"None of us can ever tell," he would say mysteriously, "the undiscovered criminals that we rub shoulders with every day. The innocent looking man that we sit down next to in the train, for aught we know, may have just come fresh from some ferocious murder. Perhaps he has just hidden a body to rot in some forgotten cellar, or in the thickets of some dark wood. Perhaps, for all we can tell, he may now be living on the proceeds of robbery and violence, and, even as we sit beside him, may be planning the details of some further crime. The young woman who brings us our meal at the restaurant where we go to dinner may have been at home a secret poisoner, and somewhere may have a six-foot grave to her credit in some quiet suburban cemetery. The man who collects our tickets at the station barrier may have broken into some mansion in his spare time, in years gone by, and perhaps have married and set up house upon the proceeds of his robbery. The assistant who serves us with groceries at the store may be a secret and persistent embezzler of his master's goods; the postman who brings us our letters may sneak postal orders from time to time, and the very deacon who collects the offertory from us at the church or chapel may pilfer undiscovered, when chance comes his way. Crime is everywhere," he would wind up emphatically, "and not one-thousandth part of it falls within the meshes of the Law."
Sometimes he stared so hard at me, and was so pointed and sweeping in his accusations, that I got quite uncomfortable and took to wondering exactly what particular crime he was suspecting me of.
He would never tell me of the cases he was engaged upon, but he nearly always seemed to have something to do, and at times was away for weeks and weeks together. Mrs. Bratt told me he was very highly thought of at headquarters.
The other lodger, Captain Barker, was a friend of mine, and I may add, the only friend I had. I had got to know him first in quite a casual sort of way. He was an old chap, well over sixty, and he had been with Mrs. Bratt some years before I came to lodge with her. He lived a lonely life, all by himself, and never had any friends or callers, so Mrs. Bratt said, at any time. At first, he never took the slightest notice of me when I met him in the hall, and for a long time never condescended even to say 'Good evening' or 'Good morning.' But one night he was suddenly taken ill with some kind of fit and I helped Mrs. Bratt to lift him into bed before the doctor came. He was so bad at the time that I didn't think he knew I was helping, but when he got better, as he did in about three weeks, he asked me to come into his room, and from that evening dated a friendship that lasted until he died.
He was a queer old chap, and so crippled after his seizure as to be almost unable to move about. As far as I remember he never left his rooms, and his only recreations were a daily consumption of a surprising amount of cheap brandy, and his games of chess with me.
I had rather fancied myself as a chess player until I met him. For some years I had been always top-dog at the little institute of our chapel, and had also studied the game for countless hours from various chess handbooks at the library. Consequently, I was decidedly a hard nut to crack, and our minister, who was a Melbourne University man, and had played in club tournaments and no end of matches, used often to say that I was one of the best players he had ever met.
I remember so well my first game with Captain Barker. His sitting-room was full of curiosities and odd things that he had collected from all parts of the world on his voyages, and he had been limping awkwardly round to explain them to me. I noticed a set of queer-colored chess-men in a cabinet, and asked him casually if he ever played. He stopped abruptly and snorted in a way that quite scared me for a moment. Then he asked me roughly if I would like to take him on.
I complied at once, as a matter of courtesy, and sat down to the board with the intention of giving the old chap an easy time and beating him just as gently as I could.
I thought I would just make a few simple moves and let the game take care of itself until the time justified me in giving him 'check,' and going off to bed. But I need not have worried myself over my politeness. He could beat me hollow. He was a consummate master of the game. He had me in difficulties in the first dozen moves, and play as I would, I found myself tight in the grip of an iron hand. He won easily, and we started a second game.
This time I determined to give him no chance and, spurred by the humiliation of my first defeat, embarked on a sound, steady defence. But it was no good. He beat me just the same. He was all round a much better player than I, and the subtle sense of impending disaster that all chess players feel when the game begins to lean even a hair's breadth against them again came to me in the first dozen moves.
I was greatly astonished at his play, because any one could plainly see he was not an educated man, and chess was certainly one of the last games I should have expected him to be fond of.
We played often after that first evening, so often, indeed, that sometimes it became a real nuisance to me, and I wished we had never become friends. He would play on for hours and hours at night, and never seemed to want to leave off, keeping me out of bed until two and three in the morning. Now and then, on one plea or another, I wouldn't go near him for several days together, but he was always so very glad to see me when I did return that I used to reproach myself for my neglect and feel I had done him an injury.
"Mr. Wacks," he would say—he was always scrupulously polite to me, except when the brandy had got hold of him, and then he commenced everything with a damn—"Mr. Wacks, you're a gentleman to keep company with an old sailor man, but I'll make you the finest chess player in Australia if you'll only learn."
He certainly did, as after years have proved, make me an unusually resourceful player, and he was always urging me, when he got to know me well, to join the big Adelaide Chess Club, and take part in matches.
I used always, however, to refuse, and excuse myself by saying I was too nervous to play with strangers, and when he was not feeling well or had been drinking heavily during the day my excuses would rouse him to an awful fit of temper.
"You dirty little coward," he shouted to me once when we had been discussing the moves of some game that had been published in the local papers, and I had refused, as usual, to send a challenge to the captain of the local club, "you could beat them all if you dared, and had a spot of pluck in your lean, mingy body. I know how strong I am and I know your play, and you're not half a pawn behind me now. Good judges have told me—good judges, mind—that I am almost a genius at the game. Twenty years ago and there were few players that did not meet their match in me, and me—only a rough sailor man. Afraid of playing with strangers, eh? Why, many a time in strange ports round the Mediterranean have I sat down in little cafes to play with damned foreigners, who didn't know a word of any language but their own, and who could only roll their eyes and jabber 'We—we,' when I gave them mate on the move. But you—you've not a grain of pluck in you—you're a worm, sir, a worm," and he thumped and banged on the table so heavily that I thought every moment Mrs. Bratt would rush in to know what was happening, and what was the matter.
Yes, the old man's friendship was a bit of a trial sometimes, and I often came to wish he had never spoken to me.
I have said he was my only friend, but there was Lucy—Lucy Brickett. She was not exactly a friend, however, for I was her devoted lover. I had got to know her at our little chapel, where every Sunday she played the harmonium and led the singing of the hymns. She didn't know I loved her, or, perhaps, even admired her, for here again my cowardice damned me and I hardly dared to say a word when she was present.
She was the younger of two sisters, and about twenty-two years of age. Of medium height, and with a plump and well-formed figure, she was undeniably pretty, with a soft and gentle face and dove-grey eyes.
The harmonium at the chapel sounded old and wheezy when the others touched it, but when she was playing there was no sweeter music in all the world to me. It reminded me of the kingdom of Heaven. Her face, too, I thought, was like one of the angels, and the memory of her eyes was always with me when I said my prayers. I never missed a service at the chapel, and, always sitting where I could easily see her, regarded all Sundays as the red letter days of my poor and lonely life.
Her uncle—oh, her uncle—was a very different type of being. He was a fat, gross man, with big, heavy features and a large, coarse face. He breathed very heavily and ate too much. A confirmed drunkard in his younger days, a file-tongued doctor had one day put the fear of hell into him, and he had never touched a drop of liquor since. Of late years, he had become a shining light of the prohibitionists, and he argued for them, just as he argued for all his other beliefs, in a coarse, pig-headed, and persistently narrow way. He never forgot his own profit in anything, and things were good or bad, and right or wrong, just as he was the gainer or loser in the transaction.
He was a widower and kept a little general and cool-drink shop on the Port Road, or rather, his two nieces kept it, and he gathered in the proceeds. He never seemed to do any work, but sat most of the day in a big well-cushioned chair behind the counter, laying down the law and making himself generally objectionable to his family.
Save that his two nieces were pretty and obliging, but little custom would have come to the shop; as it was, however, they did a fairly good trade, and of an evening especially plenty of young fellows lounged and dawdled over sweet fizzy drinks to get an opportunity of speaking to Lucy or her sister Maud.
I myself was often there, and sat either dumbly listening to the laughs and chatter around or very occasionally joining in and acquiescing with the bigoted assertions of the old man.
"Just so—just so, Mr. Brickett," I would assent hypocritically, "you're quite right; there's no getting away from it there," and I would order another drink from Lucy, as an excuse for lingering.
I think the two girls rather liked me, or at any rate were pleased for their uncle to have someone to agree so whole-heartedly with everything he said. Lucy always gave me a sweet smile when I came in, and on hot nights always saw that I had a big lump of ice in my tumbler. She sometimes, too, asked me about the work in the office, and seemed then inclined to sympathise with me and mother me in her soft, gentle way.
But her uncle always annoyed me, and I many a time longed to tell him what an ass he was, when Lucy wasn't there. He had absolutely no sense of humor, and was an awful bore.
One evening, coming home, I overtook him in the Port Road, just opposite the Admiral Nelson, the chief hotel of the neighborhood.
"Look at them beasts there," he growled, pointing with a fat and dirty finger to the saloon entrance, "look at them there hogs a-going in and out of that booze door. Think of the money they's a-spending—think of the money that might go on good cool drinks. I've a line of squash as would keep 'em busy all the evening—specially," and he winked knowingly at me, "if a pinch or two of good salt was put in with it to bring out the flavor."
I agreed with him, of course, and for my hypocrisy was a full twenty minutes late for my tea.
He was quite a big man at the chapel, however, and clothed in his black Sunday suit was not without a sort of ponderous dignity. He was one of the deacons, and bawled and bellowed like a bull when any of his favorite hymns were sung. He was a fair contributor to the chapel funds, but serving most of the congregation with groceries, as he did, the account in the end was probably, I expect, not on the losing side.
He was a dreadful bully his nieces and tyrannised over them in a way that sometimes made my blood boil. Often Lucy looked as if she had been crying, and when I saw the load of trouble in her gentle eyes I could have killed the old man for his beastliness, though he never knew it.
ONE Saturday it unexpectedly rained all day long, and after dinner Captain Barker, hearing from Mrs. Bratt that I was at home, sent word to enquire if I would go in for a game of chess.
I had had a very worrying week at the office, and would have dearly liked to say "No," but I had no excuse ready, and so meekly went in.
I thought the old chap was looking very ill, and I could see at once that he had been at the brandy.
He was irritable and inclined to be rude—a sure sign with him that he had started drinking. We began to play, but my thoughts were wandering, and I played very badly.
I made two bad blunders, and the old man swore angrily at me for my carelessness. I told him apologetically that I was not in a mood for playing, and then in a sudden burst of confidence let him know how things were going at the office, and that I was almost daily expecting to get the sack.
He listened quite quietly to me, but with a sneer that hardened and deepened as I went on.
"Oh, you little rotter," he jeered, when I had finished, "and to think that I call you my friend. You little crawling worm—you've not got the courage of a bug. Man alive, how long are you going to put up with it? Can't you see just where it's leading you to, and what a hell you're warming up for your poor dirty little soul? Where's it going to end? What are you always going to do? 'Rabbits' they call you, do they?—well, don't you make any mistake, it's the rabbits they insult—not you! Oh, you little swab!"
I was too miserable to feel the faintest twinge of anger, but just leaned back in my chair, and dispiritedly regarded the driving rain upon the window.
"Yes, you swab," he went on presently, seeing I was not going to make any excuses, "and do you know I could alter it all for you if I chose, yes, alter it at once. If you were worth it, and I could trust you, I'd send you out of this room with fifty times more courage even than I have. Fifty times more courage than I have—do you hear that, sir, and me—me, that in all my life's never been afraid of any man that's lived—do you hear that, I say?"
Perhaps I looked incredulous or perhaps it was I smiled, but the next moment he was pointing angrily to a large cabinet in a corner of the room.
"Open that door, you ass," he spluttered in his rage, "give me out the black box on the bottom shelf. I'll show you something, too, Mr. Rabbits—Mr. Bug."
The box I carried to him was about the size of a cigar box. It was an ordinary looking wooden box without a lock or clasp, and just tied round with a piece of dirty string.
The string was too knotted to untie, and the old man hesitated for a few moments before cutting it with his knife.
"I've half a mind not to show you," he went on musingly, with all trace of his anger for the moment gone. "There's that in here that once cost the lives of four good men—and it might cost the lives of a good many more, if it got into wrong hands. But there," he sneered disgustedly, "it's safe with you. You'd want a bucketful before you'd ever dare to taste it. Oh, you miserable coward."
He cut the string with a jerk, and, opening the box, took out a small packet wrapped in a length of dirty green oilskin.
"Now, Wacks," he said solemnly, "it's eleven years and more since this oilskins been unwrapped, and I don't know why the devil I am unwrapping it now. I always swore I'd never touch it and that I'd let it die with me."
He hesitated again, and then, taking a good gulp from the glass at his elbow, unrolled the oilskin clumsily, and a little brown jar rolled on to his knees. It was about the size of a small condensed milk can; the mouth of it was tied over tightly with a piece of greasy looking parchment.
"No; I'm not going to open it," he growled. "This is as far as we'll go to-day anyhow."
He held the jar close up for me to inspect, and then, setting it carefully on the table with his shaky hand, fell into a long reverie that I thought best not to interrupt or disturb.
"Lord! how old I'm growing," he said, presently. "See the date on it. I said eleven years, didn't I? Well, it's more like twenty. Curse you, Wacks, I'm blasted sorry I ever disturbed it. I'm nine years older than I thought—no wonder I feel sometimes as if coffin time was come. Look here, my boy," he went on again, but in quite a gentle voice, "I said I'd tell you, and so I will, but it's a tale that won't do you no good, and maybe you'll be sorry you roused me up to tell it at all."
"Listen here. Twenty years ago, when I was master of the 'Willing Bird,' from Liverpool to Fremantle, I shipped a Malayan as fireman at Marseilles. I was short handed, and had lost two men in a gale off Finisterre. Well, this new man was just such another as you. A little silly swine that let everyone curse him and never cursed back. A man without a grain of pluck. Everyone harried him from the first moment he came aboard, and he had a rotten time. I couldn't stop it, for I wasn't everywhere in the ship. They bullied him and knocked him about, just because he was a blithering coward, like you, and let 'em do it. He never once hit anybody back, and all he did was to threaten them with something a cousin of his was going to do.
"'Me cousin at Colombo,' he would jabber, 'he gib me something and me gib you hell den—see.' But all they did was to jeer at him and give him more knocks. No one knew then what he meant. Well, at Colombo he went ashore, and right enough his damned cousin did give him something. He gave him this pot of paste. Two days out from Colombo he ate a teaspoonful of it, and in a couple of hours there was all hell aboard. Someone started him, and in a second he was flying at everyone he met. He knifed the quartermaster through the heart; then he stabbed a deck hand who tried to catch him. Then he rushed on deck, and put up an awful fight there. With everybody on him there was two more stabbed before the mate managed to break his arm with a marlinspike. Even then he fought 'em all like a tiger, and it was only when he broke his back by falling down the forecastle steps that we at last had him under control.
"The poor brute was quite conscious before he died next day, and he told me all about the jar. It's a stuff the natives take before they go into the jungle after tigers, and it makes a man afraid of nothing in the world. Now you've heard all about it, Mr. Wacks, and will you have a taste?"
His jeering tones had come back, and he held up the jar, eyeing me with every expression of contempt. I shook my head feebly, and he went on tauntingly.
"Not a little bit, Mr. Wacks. Just think what it would do. You would go up to the office like a man—like a human being, sir. Think how you would walk into those chaps—think of the grudges you could pay back—think how astonished they would be. Wouldn't their eyes bulge when the blooming bunny showed his claw—wouldn't they gape to see the blasted worm turning round at last! Oh—get out, you little beast—get away from me, quick—I'm sick of your putty face. Get out, I say—get out."
I got up hastily in real alarm. I had never seen the captain in quite such a kind of rage before. His face twitched horribly, and I thought he was going to have another fit.
I got to my own room as quickly as I could, and, throwing myself upon the bed, gave way passionately to the tears of a little child.
Yes—how was it all going to end? As the old man had said, it couldn't go on for ever, and what was I going to do? The story he had told me hadn't interested me in the least. I didn't believe it, and I didn't disbelieve it—I simply hadn't taken it in. But his contempt had stung me somehow, and his bitter tongue had cut me somewhere on the raw. I had never felt so miserable and so hopeless before.
The next day, Sunday, turned out a fine and glorious day, and I looked to the service in chapel to make up in some way for the humiliations and worries of the week. But everything was against me still, and before the service began I had yet another horrible humiliation to get over.
As was my general habit, I had got early to the chapel, and had just settled myself comfortably in my accustomed seat, when I heard hurried footsteps behind me. Turning round curiously, I found Lucy's gentle face, all flushed and animated, within a few inches of my own.
"Oh, do come out, please, Mr. Wacks," she whispered quickly. "Deacon Brown's horse is trying to bolt, and it's tied to the railings. His mother's in the chaise."
I guessed what had happened at once. Every Sunday Deacon Brown used to bring his old mother to chapel in the chaise, and every Sunday he used to tie the horse up to the chapel railings whilst he went over to the minister's house to have a yarn with him before the service began. Then they would both walk over together, and between them help the old lady out of the chaise, and gallantly escort her up the aisle to her allotted seat in the front pew. The horse was young and mettlesome, and was always rolling its eyes and pricking its ears when anything noisy went by. Everyone had said it would bolt one day, but the deacon had always pooh-poohed and laughingly replied that it was quiet as a lamb, and only showing play.
I ran out quickly and there was the brute as I had expected, tugging viciously at the cord that held him to the railings, prancing up and dawn and giving the old lady in the chaise a very fair imitation of a steamer dipping in a heavy sea. I looked round in horrible nervousness. There were plenty of women and children round, but I was the only man to be seen.
"Catch hold of his head, Mr. Wacks," squeaked out an old lady, vigorously brandishing a fearful looking sunshade right in front of the beast's eyes, "catch hold of his head, Mr. Wacks, and hold it low down."
Catch hold of his head, I thought. How could I get anywhere near the beast, let alone catch hold of his head? His front legs were pumping viciously up and down, and it looked sudden death to me to go anywhere within three yards. I turned quite sick with nervousness and stood stock still, feebly wondering what on earth I was going to do.
"Catch hold of his head, please," plaintively called out the white-faced old lady in the chaise. "He'll get away if you don't get hold of him quickly."
Other people began to join in, and I could see contemptuous glances being thrown from all sides in my direction. I stood quite still, however, helplessly doing nothing, with the sweat now all covering my forehead in small beads. Every moment it looked as if the horse would break loose, and every moment I became more and more convinced in my own mind that it was not an occasion where I could successfully interfere. Let the beast jump up and down, I thought. He'll soon get tired, and if the rope holds on no one will be a penny the worse, and, besides, it will be a good lesson to the deacon not to leave his poor old frightened mother alone in the chaise again.
What would ultimately have happened goodness only knows, but suddenly there was a rush and a shout behind me. I was knocked down roughly into the road, and a man sprang over me to the horse's head.
Almost in a second it seemed he had seized hold of the bridle, and long before I had got on my feet he had secured the brute firmly, and was gently soothing and patting it back to a quiet state.
Something in the man's voice seemed familiar to me, and, clearing my smarting eyes of dust, I saw to my disgust that it was Waller. Waller of all people, to have witnessed my cowardice. What a tale he would be making of it at the office! What humiliation for me again tomorrow.
They all crowded round to thank him, and I saw old Mrs. Brown, whom he apparently knew, introduce him to Lucy. Lucy impulsively clasped his outstretched hand in both of hers and, with her sweet and gentle face uplifted, said something that wreathed his face in a broad, self-satisfied, and delighted smirk.
My one piece of good fortune was that for the moment everyone had forgotten me, and taking advantage of their absorbed interest in the wretched Waller, I slunk away home, unnoticed and unmissed.
MONDAY was again a black day with me in the office, and I sensed instinctively that things had come almost to a head.
In the morning complaint was made to me about the noise in our room. A sarcastic message was sent in from the counting house that, if we didn't mind, they would like sometimes to be able to hear themselves speak.
In the afternoon Mr. William had suddenly interrupted a game of darts. From the interested comments of the room generally I gathered that the game had just reached a most exciting stage. Waller was 'two up,' but Muggins had still 'three to play.' The firm's penholders made excellent darts, and with the end nicely split to hold a steadying length of paper good hits were being obtained upon the target, on the back of the country ledger.
Mr. William had not said much, but he had given me a quick, stern look and I had shivered in my shoes.
That evening I returned home almost bowed down with grief. My nerves were strung up almost to breaking point.
I had just reached the garden gate when Mrs. Bratt came out of the hall door. She was red-eyed and had been crying.
"He's dead," she called out directly she caught sight of me. "He's dead—poor old Captain Barker."
"Dead," I repeated numbly. "My God! When did he die?"
"Just after his dinner," she half sobbed. "He said he wasn't well and would lay down a bit. I helped him to the bed and he just fell back straight off and was gone. The doctor's been and he's to be buried tomorrow. I'm going to see about it now. Oh! Mr. Wacks, isn't it terrible—he's been with me over eight years and I'll never have another lodger like him. I've put your things all ready and you've only got to make the tea. I shan't be gone an hour. I hope I haven't forgotten anything, but I'm so upset I can't think of things properly," and she went off with her handkerchief to her eyes.
For a moment or two I hesitated to enter the silent house. I was as frightened of the dead as of the living, and the thought of the dead body, all alone there on the bed, filled me with horror. I tiptoed quickly through the hall and shut myself up closely in the kitchen. I wasn't in the mood for any tea; I felt too miserable for anything. Poor old Captain Barker. How many, many nights I must have played with him and, on the whole, how nice he had always been to me. It was only the brandy that made him swear at me and call me names.
Poor old fellow, but what a lonely life his had been. Well, he was dead now, and all his troubles were over. I wished I were dead, too. Anything to get out of all my worry.
I would have gladly killed myself if I had known how, and then my thoughts went in a flash to the little brown jar in the box. What a strange tale it was he had told me! Could it by any means have been true? He must have believed it himself, for he had been in deadly earnest and all the time I had known him I had never found him to exaggerate in anything. What if I had taken a taste when he offered it me? What if I took some now? I could feel my heart jump at the thought, and I had to stand up to get my breath. Why shouldn't I at any rate get hold of the jar? No one knew of its existence yet, except myself, and no one need ever know. At any rate, I could get it now and think over later about using it. But I must get it at once, whilst Mrs. Bratt was out; later on I should have no excuse for entering the old man's room.
Without giving myself a moment to reflect, and marvelling all the time at my own boldness. I tiptoed stealthily into the Captain's sitting-room and opened the cabinet door. Yes—there was the box in the same place where I had first seen it, but now it was not even tied with string. Trembling all over, I thrust a shaking hand under the lid and, feeling the jar in its oilskin covering, quickly transferred it to the depths of my trouser pocket. Then closing up the cabinet again, I ran back quickly to the kitchen, and there Mrs. Bratt found me when she returned about a quarter of an hour later.
"Oh, Mr. Wacks," she called out, "how dreadfully pale you are. I'll have you going next if you don't take care," and she burst again weakly into tears.
I got away from her in a little while, and by 9 o'clock, at latest, went into my bedroom to get ready for bed.
I was just tired out and worn out, and only in half a mind after all about tasting any of the paste. I unwrapped the jar, however, and taking off the parchment cover curiously examined its contents. It was dark red in color, and thick, like jam that has set very hard. Almost automatically, I tasted a little with my finger. It was rather sickly and had the strong flavor of aniseed. I dipped in the handle of my tooth brush and brought up what I thought was about a small teaspoonful. I hesitated, perhaps for two seconds and then quickly put it in my mouth and gulped it down, so as not to give myself time to consider or repent.
I am sure now that I expected something to happen at once. I know I stood still in a perfect smother of excitement with great drops of perspiration running down my face.
Nothing happened, however, except that I felt rather sick. I waited and waited, mopping my forehead with shaking hands, hardly able to breathe for my emotion. Quite ten minutes must have passed and my feelings turned partly to relief and partly to disgust. What an ass I had been to believe all the old Captain had said! I had made no allowance for the natural superstitious credulity of all sea-going men and had now gone and swallowed some beastly stuff that might have turned rotten years ago and would probably give me fearful stomach-ache later in the night.
I threw the pot angrily into the cupboard amongst my clothes, and, very much disgusted with myself, undressed and got into bed.
My head was aching terribly and I expected to turn and toss, hour upon hour, before getting off to sleep.
But no, I must have dropped to sleep almost at once, for with a most vivid recollection of even the remotest happenings of that eventful night I can remember nothing more until when I woke up just before the hall clock struck three.
I believe, indeed, I had had some heavy dreams in which Waller and Captain Barker figured prominently, but, they left no distinct waking impressions on my brain, and I woke to the howl of Boulter's dog in the garden of the house next door.
I sat up instantly in a tearful rage.
What right had Boulter to keep such a brute out of doors at night? Boulter himself might be as deaf as a post, but that was no reason why everyone else in the road should be nightly exasperated by the howling of his beastly cur.
I for one had put up with it long enough and would stand it no longer. I would kill the brute, and I wouldn't care if everyone knew it.
I sprang out of bed and hurriedly slipping on my trousers ran into the hall.
I remembered a short iron bar that I had noticed once under some papers on a shelf in the back kitchen, and I struck a match and found it. It was part of the handle of a broken linen press rotting outside in the yard, and it was curved and had a heavy ball at one end. I thrust it down into my pocket and, opening the hall door quietly, softly slipped out into the road.
Boulter's house was a corner house and honored with a back door which opened into a narrow passage that led into the garden.
I gambled on the back door being unlocked, and instead of climbing over the fence, approached it from the road.
The noise of my approaching footsteps cut short the howling of the dog and I could hear her shuffling down the passage to meet me.
She growled menacingly as I came near, and to reassure her I called her softly by name.
"Nell, old girl—good dog, lie down."
She knew my voice at once for I had often patted her in passing and not infrequently she had come to our house for scraps.
She stopped growling at once, and very gently I pushed open the door intending to bash her with the iron directly I saw her head appear. But she was too quick for me, for when I had opened the door, ever so slightly, she slipped by me in a flash, and was out and down the road before I could even aim at her with my heavy bit of iron.
I swore at her retreating figure with a damn that came easily, though strangely, to my lips, and seeing there was no chance at all of overtaking her, turned back into her master's back garden.
It was still dark, but a faint glowing in the sky warned me that morning was not far off.
There was a nasty strong smell in the garden and my disappointed rage found vent in more cursing. It was Boulter's rabbits, of course.
What right had Boulter, I asked myself angrily, to keep his stinking rabbits so near to other houses? With his dog and his other dirty belongings he was a positive menace to the health of the place. He should be taught a lesson anyhow.
I cautiously approached the row of hutches and, after looking round to make sure no one was watching me, opened the door of the one nearest, and feeling about for a moment inside, brought out the inmate by its ears.
It was a fine big beast, and in the softly glowing light I could see the glinting of two big, frightened eyes. But I had no pity at all, and in a sudden paroxysm of rage nipped its body firmly between my knees and broke its neck.
Making sure I had killed it, I put back the quivering body into the hutch and, curling it in what I considered a natural position for sleep, carefully reshut and fastened the door.
The animals in the next hutches I served in exactly the same way, and in three or four minutes at most, seven of Boulter's best rabbits were in the process of stiffening in their houses.
I felt the lust of taking life intoxicating me like wine and I should undoubtedly have finished off every rabbit in the place but for the sudden noise of a distant train.
It startled me unpleasantly and thinking that at all events I had done enough to go on with, I hurried stealthily back by the same way I had come.
I closed the hall door very carefully and with hardly a sound tiptoed to my bedroom and threw myself back into bed. Again I fell asleep at once, but this time I had no disturbing dreams.
I WOKE up feeling very irritable and with a bitter taste in my mouth. It was seven o'clock, and about the usual time I awoke. I could hear Mrs. Bratt brushing vigorously in the hall and my first thought was one of annoyance at the noise she was making. Then all the events of the previous twenty-four hours flashed through my mind and I felt out of temper with everyone.
I would make them smart at the office for all their insolence to me. Captain Barker deserved to die for being such an old liar about his wretched red paste. Mrs. Bratt was a drunken old charwoman, and I would clear out of her dirty show with a week's notice. Boulter had only got his deserts and it was a pity all his beastly old rabbits weren't dead, instead of a beggarly lot of seven.
I dressed myself quickly and going out into the hall, proceeded at once to give Mrs. Bratt a piece of my mind. I told her, and in not over quiet tones either, that she was an alcoholic old beast, and shouted to her, as she retreated hysterically towards the kitchen, that I should be leaving that day week. When she feebly remonstrated with me for speaking so loudly and pointed reproachfully to Captain Barker's door, saying, "Hush, hush," I got angrier still, and stamped noisily about the hall, flourishing the dead man's walking stick that I had taken from the stand.
I felt that I wanted to kill her, and had quite a difficulty to restrain myself from doing her some injury.
She was quite thunderstruck at my rage, as well she might be, for I had been always meek as a young calf before her.
I swallowed some sort of breakfast, and banging the door behind me set off to catch my usual train up to the city.
The sun was shining gloriously, but it only roused my anger with its promise of more heat and I felt ready to quarrel with everything and everybody.
A big ugly looking dog was sunning himself on the footpath, and I surprised both myself and him by sending him off howling with a well directed kick in the ribs.
The usual last minute crowd was hurrying into the station as I arrived, and I pushed and elbowed amongst them in a manner that quickly reaped for me a rich harvest of black looks, but my savage face and the complete indifference with which I received their uncomplimentary remarks preserved me from molestation and, the train steaming into the station, I threw myself sourly into a corner seat and gave myself up to my own thoughts.
I was beginning to think that after all there might be some virtue in the red paste. I felt quite different from the way I did yesterday. I didn't feel afraid of anyone any more, and I was just longing to injure someone at the office. But I told myself I mustn't be too hurried and too eager in paying off my grudges. I must be cunning and take advantage of my supposed timidity to be revenged on everyone in their proper turn. I musn't overdo it at first.
I reached the office in good time and could not refrain from commencing the new era by straightaway giving the office boy a slap on the face for being immersed in the pages of a book instead of dusting the desks and filling the inkpots as was his proper duty. He gasped at first, in mingled pain and astonishment, but immediately recovering called me a damned fool and prepared to show fight. But he was a small boy with all his damns, and I was soon able to convince him that physically, at least, I was easily his superior. Indeed, the generosity of my violence took all the fight out of him at once.
I took the accustomed place in my corner and the other clerks began to arrive chatting and passing laughing remarks to one another as they hung up their hats and took their seats at the desks.
Waller came in as usual, last of all—twenty-one minutes after his proper time I noticed. I said nothing, however, to anyone, and was apparently absorbed as usual in my work.
Waller exhibited no particular hurry to settle at his desk; instead he perambulated about the room, flourishing a high-colored sporting paper and informing the office generally that he had a certain winner for the afternoon at ten to one.
"Fireball's bound to win," he exclaimed emphatically, "the distance will just suit her and Nat Slogger's got the mount."
It was the very chance I had been waiting for, and I stood up at my desk.
"Mr. Waller," I interrupted icily, "this is not a betting club. You work here at a salary for so many hours a week and I notice you have already this morning cheated the firm of five-and-twenty minutes of their time."
Waller looked at me blankly in a puzzled sort of way and then, apparently becoming aware who it was had spoken, dropped his jaw to an ugly sneer. Whatever retort he was about to make was stayed, however, by the abrupt entrance of Mr. William, who came in with some papers in his hand.
"Mr. William," I said at once in the same level tones that I had used to Waller, "you requested me yesterday to report more carefully on the conduct of those in this room, and I take the opportunity now to inform you that Mr. Waller has only just this minute arrived. He is twenty-five minutes late this morning, and I may add he is rarely on any day at his desk within a quarter of an hour of the proper time."
Mr. William seemed, I thought, rather taken aback at my remarks, and looked as if he had to half smother a smile, but he remarked grimly enough, anyhow, "Thank you, Wacks, I am much obliged to you. Business is not very good just now, and we have been thinking lately of dispensing with the services of two or three gentlemen in this room. I shall, therefore, be glad to know the ones we shall miss least," and then, beckoning to Waller. "I'll have a word with you, my friend, if you'll please come out with me."
"And something more, Mr. William," I went on calmly, "I am not at all satisfied with Muggins here. His work has become very slovenly lately, and nearly all the invoices he makes out I have to re-do myself, because of the blots and mistakes he makes. I understand he expects a rise at the end of this month, but I would suggest, sir, that the firm hold it over until some improvement be shown."
"Certainly, Wacks, I think it's quite a good idea. Now is there anything more you would like to tell me?"
"Yes, sir," I continued coldly, "I understand from remarks here that more heats of the dart tournament are to be played off this afternoon, and, if that be so, I am afraid I shall have to ask you for more pens. You will understand, sir, that using the nibs as darts rather spoils them for other kinds of work, and, in consequence, I often find it difficult to carry on the work of the office with the supply of pens and nibs that you allow me."
I spoke quite quietly and without any particular feeling or passion, but I hardly recognised my own voice, and seemed almost to be speaking in a dream.
"Quite so, quite so," replied Mr. William, again, I thought, smothering a smile. "I can understand. Well, if any more pens are required this afternoon for this tournament you refer to, I shall be glad if you will send those participating in the game to fetch them,"—very grimly—"I shall be glad to meet them. Now, please come with me, Waller."
They went out together. Waller looking very frightened and pasty faced, and for half a minute, at least, there was a dead silence over our room. Then the storm broke, and their tongues lashed out. Everyone seemed to have something to say.
"You sneak—you little cur—you blasted little fool," were but a few of their remarks to me, but I looked round indifferently, as if not interested, until one of them, more practical than the others in their rage, threw a dirty and wet duster at me from across the room.
The duster missed me easily, but the action instantly brought my temper to a blaze.
A heavy brass paper-weight lay near me on my desk, and seizing it up, quick as thought, I hurled it point blank at the offender. It missed his head only by a hair's breadth, and crashed through the wire protection of the window behind. Nothing daunted, I followed it up immediately with a big lead inkstand, which, missing again, broke in a panel of the door. Then, having nothing further to my hand to throw, I seized up a stool and brandishing it over my head made ready to at least maim someone if anyone came on. But they were unnerved by my violence, and stood with white faces at their desks.
They could see I was in earnest, and quite reckless of what I did. The paper-weight I threw would have seriously injured Monks had it hit him, and if the lead inkstand had found its mark it would have smashed his face in like a drum.
They looked blankly at one another, and their violence seemed suddenly to die down as I faced them. No one leading an attack, they subsided gradually to cursing and black looks, and by the time Waller returned, which he did in about ten minutes looking scared and uncomfortable, the office was wrapped in an unusual quiet.
Waller scowled menacingly at me, and was quietly informed of what had happened in his absence. He pursed up his lips when he was shown the strained wire netting, and he stared thoughtfully at the broken panel of the door. Then—and somehow I felt it at once—the impression got among them that I had gone mad. They edged away from me, and I saw it also in their nervous faces and averted eyes.
All the morning they sat uneasily at their desks, and if I made any hurried movement in turning over the pages of my ledger, everyone was on the look-out instantly. But it only amused me and I went on with my work in the usual way.
At dinner time I went out and had half a pint of beer at the 'Southern Cross,' and I can see now the startled and amazed looks on the faces of two of the clerks who happened to be lunching at the same bar. I was known so well as a rabid teetotaler and as one who had never entered a public-house. That afternoon there was absolute quiet in the office, and at half-past five they all melted away without any word of insolence or rudeness to me.
I went home myself, in a queer mood of exaltation. I was quite pleased with everything in general, and was smiling to myself at the day's adventures.
But for all this I could feel a murderous temper only just beneath my smiles, and knew that the very slightest crossing might rouse me instantly to a pitch of rage. The people that got in my way as I made for the train—the man who asked to see my season ticket at the barrier—the woman who took up too much space with her parcels in the carriage—and the paper boy who shouted too loudly as he passed the carriage door—all almost made me choke in fury. Under my pinched white face, I was a seething volcano, and if they had only known it, as dangerous to everyone I came in contact with as a man with a bomb.
As I came up our street, Boulter was leaning over his front gate, talking to Meadows, the detective. I should have passed them by with a nod and 'Good evening,' but Boulter shouted to me, in the way of those hard of hearing, and I had to stop.
"Did you hear anything last night, Mr. Wacks?" he bawled thunderously. "Any suspicious noises outside the house at all—because there was something happened in my garden—did you hear anyone moving in the night?"
I shook my head as if pressed for time and wanting to pass on, but he continued impressively. "Someone murdered my rabbits last night—seven of them—seven of the best I ever bred. All laid out stiff and still when I came out this morning to feed 'em."
I felt the detective was eyeing me narrowly and I feigned great interest at once.
"All your rabbits dead, Mr. Boulter!" I ejaculated. "They must have had something wrong to eat."
Boulter snorted furiously. "Something wrong to eat, eh? All seven of 'em with their necks broke and laid out as straight as on the counter of a butcher's shop. Something wrong to eat, eh? You're a fool, sir—another damn fool, sir."
It struck me at once what a liar the man was, for I remembered how careful I had been to curl the smelly brutes up in circles so as to make it look as if they had all died in their sleep.
The detective interrupted Boulter's flow of abuse. "No noises in the night, Mr. Wacks?" he remarked pleasantly. "No creaking of the gate? Nothing out of the ordinary? But I suppose you weren't awake. You didn't hear the dog bark by any chance?"
Nell came up to us as he spoke and began interestedly to sniff about my legs. I remembered, with a pang of uneasiness, that it was in those very trousers that I had gripped the rabbits between my knees as I had broken their necks.
I shooed her off irritably, but she was most persistent, and wouldn't go away until Boulter himself hit her angrily on the back with a stick, and then she sat down a few paces off and watched me with her bead on one side.
I made a mental note that she was dangerous, and that I must serve her as I had served the rabbits directly I could find an opportunity.
I answered the detective that I certainly had heard nothing suspicious during the night, although my window had, of course, been wide open the whole time.
Boulter calmed down a little then, and went into further details. It was murder, he insisted, cold-blooded murder by a scoundrel, and the strange part of it was his dog Nell had never given any warning. She had been quiet all night (lie number two, I thought), and had been found sleeping in her kennel just as usual when he went out at half-past six.
He was determined to find out who had done it, and we might mark his words, it would all come out one day.
I got away at last, and the detective, making my departure the excuse, came along with me. "It's quite interesting about those rabbits," he remarked musingly. "The whole thing seems so purposeless to me. What should anyone want to kill Boulter's rabbits for, unless they owed him a grudge, and, if anyone did, who in their senses would go to the risk of entering his back garden in the dead of night, killing seven rabbits and then methodically returning them one by one to their separate cages, and refastening the doors? It must have taken a lot of time, and there was the dog there all the while."
I didn't pretend to hazard a guess, and together we entered our house. Mrs. Bratt met us in the hall, full of importance and wearing her best dress.
"His lawyer has come," she whispered excitedly. "I got his address through the young man at the bank, and he is here now arranging everything."
She had evidently forgotten the unpleasantness of the morning, and was eager to enlist our interest in the dead man's affairs.
But they didn't interest me in the least. Captain Barker might have been dead for years for all I cared, and I went to my room thinking least of anybody about him.
All teatime, it was Boulter's dog alone that occupied my thoughts. She was a mangy beast, and it might be somehow found out through her that it was I who had visited the back garden in the night. She must be got rid of, and I determined to lose no time, but to do it straight away that very night.
I knew the brute's habits well. In addition to that of howling vilely at nights, there was another one, equally objectionable to those who happened to be in the vicinity at the time. In the summer months she was accustomed every evening, about sunset, to frequent the banks of the Torrens River, just below North Adelaide, and there, with a score or more of other dripping beasts, to yelp and yell while certain two-legged idiots threw sticks and stones into the water for their edification and excitement.
I would interview her, I thought, as she was returning home, and bash her quietly on the head in some convenient corner.
I set off just before eight with the iron bar in my trouser pocket. Its curved shape made it quite easy to hide, and except that it banged up against my leg when I walked quickly, it was not inconvenient to carry.
I reached the riverside just about dusk, but to my disappointment and rapidly rising anger I could see nothing of Nell. There were plenty of other howling brutes there, but not the one I wanted. Where was Boulter's beastly dog? I asked myself irritably. She could always have been found here, night after night, when no one wanted her, and yet tonight, the very night she was wanted, something had kept her away. Perhaps Boulter himself had locked her up after last night's affair. Anyhow, I would get at her somehow.
I wandered irritably across the park lands with my hand ready on my bar of iron on the off-chance of still meeting my prey.
It was nearly dark by then, and I sullenly cursed my bad luck. The footpath was quite deserted, and I took out my watch to look at the time. It had stopped at half-past seven, and I was furious. I had paid thirty shillings for it less than a month ago, and this was the way it was serving me.
A figure loomed up towards me out of the dusk. It was a short, stout man, and he was carrying his hat in one hand and with the other was mopping a rather bald head with a handkerchief.
He was puffing and blowing with the heat, and waddling along, apparently in no particular hurry. I asked him, not over politely, what was the time, but he shook his head vaguely and grunted something that left me as ignorant as before. I repeated my question, but he didn't take the slightest notice, and continued to waddle on.
A paroxysm of fury burst over me, and I shouted after him that he was a cad, but he still took no notice at all, and, chattering now with rage, I ran after him and pulled him by the arm. He turned round with a start, and with a frightened stare on his white face, elbowed me roughly in the chest. I instantly lost all control, and, whipping out my piece of iron as he started to walk on, struck him twice over the head. He put up his hands to protect himself, but I struck savagely again, and he fell on the path without a moan.
I stood over him waiting, but he was quite still. I looked up and down the path. Not a soul was near us, but I grew all at once afraid. I literally shook with fear.
What if I were seen? It would be a hanging for me if the man were dead. At any moment someone might come by along the path, and I should be a lost man. I thrust the iron back into my pocket, and, seizing the limp body by the collar, dragged it heavily across the turf, away from the path. It was a heavy load to pull, and less than fifty yards left me breathless and exhausted. I took a moment's rest, and then, spurred on by fear, dragged the body along again towards a little clump of trees.
I stood up stealthily and looked round. There was nothing to disturb me—only the flickering lights of the city and the rumbling of some distant train.
My momentary feeling of panic left me as suddenly as it had come, and I trembled now with a delicious feeling of excitement to think of what I had done. I had killed a man, and the man had richly deserved to be killed, for insulting and ignoring me when I had asked him the time.
I wasn't going to be insulted any more, and if anyone attempted to browbeat me, they must take the consequences. I wasn't going to be caught either. It would always be a secret who had killed this man, and I would gloat over the mystery I had caused. What a tale for the papers tomorrow, and what an interest I should get in reading all they had to say. But I must be careful not to be found out, and must leave no trace behind.
I took out the piece of iron that I had thrust back in my pocket and rubbed it vigorously upon the turf to remove any trace of blood that might be on it. Then, keeping my body low, I quickly put two or three hundred yards between me and the man I had killed before I again struck the path leading over the park lands.
I crouched low for a minute to see if anyone was passing, and then, finding the coast quite clear, broke into a quick walk towards the city.
I made a good detour before going home, and reached my front door just as the clocks were striking eleven. The only thing that marred my complete satisfaction was running into Meadows in the hall. He was inclined to be quite friendly and chatty, but the encounter seemed rather to upset my nerves, and when I finally got to my room I took out the jar of paste in a vague feeling of recklessness, and helped myself to another teaspoonful.
Then I got into bed and passed a rather restless night of troubled slumber. I seemed to be dreaming and dreaming all night long.
WITH my first waking moments next morning, I realised to myself that I had lost all moral sense, and that my instincts had become frankly criminal. There was no haziness at all in my mind about the events of the previous evening, and I had not the slightest remorse for what I had done. I had killed an elderly man on the park lands—a perfect stranger—and the action seemed to me quite natural and justifiable, under the circumstances.
I was not a bit surprised at having done it. He had been rude to me, and killing was what he had deserved. I should do the same to any others who offended me and it would serve them right too.
Of course, I didn't want anyone to know I had done it, for I should then be punished and the form of punishment would undoubtedly be that of hanging. It made me shudder a little to think of being taken by the police and being put in a cell and all that sort of thing; but I was quite certain I should never be found out, and I thought with pleasurable anticipation how intensely interesting the newspapers would now be.
There would be columns and columns about the murder, when it was discovered today, and everyone would be wondering and puzzling over what had taken place out there in the dark last night.
And all the time I would be sitting quietly by myself, reading all the articles and listening to what everyone said.
How thrilling it would all be, and how little anyone would dream or guess that it was I who alone could disclose who had done it.
Despite a slight headache I dressed myself in a happy and light-hearted mood, and went in to breakfast.
I was rather puzzled to know what to do with the bar of iron, but ultimately, after assuring myself it was quite clean, I returned it boldly, in Mrs. Bratt's temporary absence from the kitchen, to its old place, under the newspapers, on the pantry shelf.
I went up to the office in a state of subdued excitement, but I noticed I was not feeling nearly so irritable and had more control over myself.
The other clerks were fairly quiet all the morning, and contented themselves with whispering and tapping their foreheads significantly, when they thought I wasn't looking at them. The remarks of Mr. William the previous day, about certain contemplated dismissals, had evidently frightened them a good deal, and they were all afraid of being reported to him in his present mood.
I knew I should have to wait until lunch time for any news I might hear. Waller always went out first, and at twelve to the second, he put on his coat.
He always chose the early hour, because then he used to meet a bookmaker at the bar of some public-house and consistently back horses that never seemed to win. The other clerks went out later, but my regular time was one o'clock, and I had no excuse for altering it.
Just before one I heard Waller talking loudly in the passage just outside our door. It sounded as if he had some exciting news.
In a flash of a second, I suddenly became sick with fear. My heart thumped like a piston and I bent low over the desk to get my breath. It was the crucial moment, I thought. The crime had been discovered and I felt suddenly that my secret was not as secure as I had hoped. Everyone in the office knew that I lived in Bowden, quite near to the park lands by the river. If I showed undue emotion, they would at once be curious about me and perhaps suspect me. They might then search the house and find blood somewhere on my clothes. The microscope, too, might reveal blood-stains on the bar under the papers on the pantry shelf and all—all might be found out.
Terror rushed through me like a wave and I crumpled up.
"Look here, you chaps," called out Waller excitedly, "I've just met a man I haven't seen for years and he tells me to back Hoop-la in the three-thirty today. He says it's been kept expressly for this, and will win by about half a street. I'm going to have a dollar on it, and if anyone likes to chip in they can, but it's ready money down, you know."
I cursed myself deeply for an ass and, like a reprieved criminal, furtively wiped my dripping forehead on my sleeve. Of course, I should never be found out, and after all what would it matter if I were. They could only hang me at the worst. My courage returned to me as quickly as it had departed, and I walked out of the office with my head in the air, only curious now to find out if anything were known.
King William street seemed just as usual, and I heard nothing to interest me while I was having my lunch. I gave myself plenty of time and it was well over the allotted hour when I started back to return to the office. I was just turning into Pirie street when, happening to look up, I noticed there was a flag on the Town Hall flying half-mast high.
I was mildly curious and stopped to ask a policeman the reason why.
"Alderman Bentley's dead," he said curtly—and then with a grin, "but I don't suppose he's left you any money, sonny."
I looked at him coldly, annoyed that he should show no respect and that his manner should be so familiar. Then I thought it must be because my clothes were badly cut and shabby. I stopped before a looking-glass in a tailor's shop window, and took good stock of my general appearance. No—I wasn't bad looking, I told myself. I had what people always were wont to call a 'nice' face; my complexion, however, was white and sickly, and my mouth too small and sensitive for a man. But my clothes—oh, how sloppy and shabby they looked. I got hot with shame as I noted the ill-fitting collar and the baggy knees. No wonder people sneered at me and had no respect.
I felt quickly in my pocket—yes, my pocket-book was there and I knew there were six one-pound notes inside.
I walked into the shop, and speaking as indifferently as I could, asked to be measured for a suit. The man eyed me curiously, but produced a book of patterns for me to choose from.
I selected one, the same kind of cloth that I had seen our Mr. William wear, and the man told me it would be five guineas. I paid three pounds on deposit and was promised it should be ready in three days. I also bought half-a-dozen collars of a fashionable shape and a smart looking heather mixture tie.
I reached the office nearly half an hour over time, and was stared at inquisitively by every pair of eyes. The men whispered among themselves, but no remark was made. I thought to myself with a sneer how like rabbits they all were.
"Rabbits," they had always called me readily enough, and with the same contempt that sporting men have for the courage of that animal, they had always regarded me, and yet whenever anyone threatened them ever so little—only the few quiet words from Mr. William that he was going to send some of them away—they were all cowed to nothing at once, and bolted to their holes in a body, just like a field of rabbits when the farmer's boy appears at the gate.
Bah! how I despised them and with what a vengeance was the boot now on the other foot.
It seemed a wretched long time that afternoon to half-past five, and many times I thought surely the clock must have stopped. The room was very quiet, however, and save for the gloom of learning from the office by about half-past four that Waller's wonderful horse had lost—and with it had gone fourteen shillings and sixpence of the office money—the monotony of the afternoon was unbroken.
Five-thirty, however, came at last, and at the corner I breathlessly bought a copy of 'The Evening Journal.'
Yes, here it was, all there this time, and just as I had wished, with big headlines on the front page:—
TERRIBLE TRAGEDY ON THE PARKLANDS ALDERMAN BENTLEY BLUDGEONED TO DEATH MURDER, NOT ROBBERY, THE MOTIVE OF THE CRIME A FOUL DEED IN THE DARK HOURS OF THE NIGHT.
I was thrilled with pleased excitement. So it was really known at last, and now would commence all the queries and conjectures that follow on such deaths. Detectives would search over every inch of the spot and the reporters from the newspaper would go down. They would unravel and discuss. They would take photographs and make sketches, and all sorts of rumors would get about. I should read everything and thoroughly enjoy it all. It would be just like sitting in some dark corner of a theatre all by myself, with the lights out everywhere except on the stage, and watching the players play out a play, entirely for me.
Fancy, too, it being Alderman Bentley—I had always heard of him as a very rich man—one of the richest in Adelaide.
Well, he shouldn't have been rude to me. He was only a man just as I was, and simply because he had money he had no business to think he was a different kind of human being to me and could just ignore me and thrust me away when I asked him the time.
I didn't feel sorry at all.
Going home in the train everyone was talking about it, and I lay back in the corner with my eyes half-shut, thinking dreamily what a poor weak thing civilisation was after all, and how easily—how very easily—everything could be upset by a white-faced, baggy-trousered clerk and an insignificant little piece of useless iron.
AFTER tea I went to see Lucy. Somehow I felt quite different about her. A week ago she had seemed a far-off vision to be gazed at and dreamed of at a distance, but to-night I wanted to put my arms round her and press her to me. I wanted to feel if her lips were soft. I wanted to hold her tight, and to tell her that I was going to be her master. I wanted to make her blush when I looked at her, and I thought of how one day she would close her eyes and sigh when I tipped up her chin to kiss.
I put on my new tie carefully and, snipping a white rose from one of Mrs. Bratt's best trees, walked confidently round to the shop.
For a wonder the place was empty when I arrived, and it was Lucy herself who came out of the back room to serve me. She looked tired and sad and there were shadows under her pretty eyes. She smiled nicely, however, when she saw who it was, and I pulled a stool close up to the counter. "Bless my soul, Miss Lucy," I said confidentially, "but you do look tired tonight. Don't you feel well?"
She gave me a little quick look of curiosity—noticing, I was pleased to see, my new tie.
"Oh, yes, thank you, I'm quite well. It's only the heat has given me a headache. We've been very busy to-day."
"You're working too hard," I went on. "That's what it is, and I suppose your energetic hard-worked uncle, as usual, has done the lion's share of the work."
She smiled prettily, showing a sweet little dimple that I longed to examine closer and to kiss.
"Well, I don't think uncle's overdone himself to-day, at any rate!"
"Someone ought to tell him off," I said angrily. "He puts far too much on you two girls."
"Well, why don't you do it, Mr. Wacks?" and she looked at me in a shy, amused way. "You always agree so well together."
"Oh," I smiled shamelessly, "that's only to keep on good terms with him so that I can come round here and look at you. Good gracious! You don't think, surely, that I believe a quarter of his silly ideas, do you? You must think me a soft. Yes—I'll tell him off tonight—see if I don't."
She looked at me strangely, but said nothing, as two more customers at that moment entered the shop.
I took out a cigarette and commenced to smoke. Some more people arrived, and Lucy was too occupied to return to her conversation with me.
I watched her hungrily all the time. What pretty rounded arms she had, and how bewitchingly the soft curves of her bosom showed up through her dress. Her skin, too, was like ivory and her hands, with all her work, were pretty and well shaped.
What an ass I had been, I thought. Here was no cold spirit creature with the frail and sacred beauty of another world—but a loving earthly woman, with all the impulse and the longing of her sex—a woman to be kissed and fondled deliciously by the lucky man who would one day possess her.
Old Brickett came in grunting, and broke through my agreeable train of thought.
He waddled ponderously to his chair and saluted the company generally, in what he always considered to be the strict military manner. Before he had got too fat he had been one of the local fire brigade and, as he was never tired of telling us, strict military discipline had been the order of the day.
"Evening, Brickett," I said casually. "How's the cool slop trade to-day? Been busy in the pickles and tea, eh?"
He looked round sourly to make out who it was had addressed him so disrespectfully and, seeing it was me, he frowned in a puzzled sort of way.
He mumbled something, however, in reply, and then, turning to Beaks the butcher, at once started an acrimonious discussion as to the respective merits of their different places of worship, and the varying degrees of influence of the pastors who had care of their souls. Beaks was Methodist New Connection, and we were Strict Baptist. Beaks banked on the new man who had recently come to take over their chapel, and old Brickett was strong on our chap—the Reverend Michael Pitchfellow. The arguments soon became very fierce and I wanted to butt in.
"Look at our man!" almost shouted old Brickett presently—"look at the good he's a-doin' here—look 'ow he's making people think. Look 'ow the takings of the pubs is going down. Why, only last week I 'eard as 'ow the owner of the 'Wattle Tree' 'ad told the income tax man as 'ow all his profits was agoing to the dogs, and that he oughtn't to be paying 'alf as much as he did last year. Now that's because of our chapel, sure; the influence is a-gradually beginning to be felt and in a year or two anything may happen. Now what I say is——"
"Tosh," I called out loudly, unable to keep silence any longer. "Tosh, sir, tosh! Who the blazes has ever heard of our chapel out of this street, and who the blazes would take any notice of us if they had?"
There was a dead silence when I had spoken and everyone looked hard at me. The old man himself simply gasped in astonishment. That anyone should interrupt him in such a manner at all, and that I of all people should dare to put in my spoke when he was laying down the law, appeared to him to border almost on the incredible. He looked at me very sternly.
"Wacks—Peter Wacks, was you speaking then, to me?"
"Well," I answered arily, "who the devil else should I be speaking to? You were the only one talking rot, weren't you?"
A titter went round the shop at this and everyone stopped whispering, to enjoy the unexpected passage of arms. I was so well known to them all as the meekest and most slavish supporter of the old man, that to hear me now contradicting him as I was surprised them as much as it did him. It was in the nature of a treat, of the enjoyment of which nothing must be lost.
"Do you mean," said old Brickett slowly and ponderously after a while, "do you mean as our chapel is rot and the Reverend Pitchfellow what you call tosh?"
"I never mentioned Pitchfellow, did I? But if you ask me I tell you straight there's precious little in his preaching any time. A shouter, I grant you—a bonzer shouter any day—but a good preacher—no. Many's the headache I've had off him, when he's turned the tap well on, but as for any good ideas or new thoughts—well, he's no John the Baptist, as everybody knows."
Brickett looked sourly at me "Then why do you come to the chapel at all?" he asked bitterly.
"Why do I come to the chapel? For the same reason that I come here, and I leave you to guess it."
I looked round laughing as I spoke, and old Brickett, thrown out of his stride as it were, could not for a moment think of any reply. But his self-confidence was too colossal for him to keep silent long, and in a minute or two he had turned a baleful eye again in my direction.
"I go to chapel," he said heavily, "for the same reason as I don't go to pubs—for the sake of example."
"Blow your example," I sneered mockingly; "the cheek and vanity you've got. Do you really believe, Mr. Brickett, that you're so important that anybody's going to wait before they do anything until they see what you're going to do?"
He didn't answer and I drove in my argument.
"Do you really think now, that there's one single person in all South Australia who, if he thinks he wants a glass of beer, will wait before drinking it until he finds out about you—what you're going to do?"
"Yuss I do," frowned old Brickett, now looking uncomfortably in a corner. "Yuss, I do."
"I suppose," I went on mockingly, "he'll hold up the glass of beer and smack his lips and then say—'No, no—I mustn't drink it until I find out what Matthew Brickett's going to do.' Something like that, eh?"
"Not quite so free with your Bricketts, young man; put the Mr. on before," snarled the old man feeling this time on safer ground. Then screwing up his eyes curiously:—"What's the matter with you, Wacks, tonight; is it beer or just cussedness what worries you?"
"Neither, but I'm just fed up with people talking about their examples, that's all. It's just blessed conceit and nothing more."
This time the old man didn't deign to answer me, but, turning his back contemptuously, started talking about the murder to another customer who had just come in.
I asked Lucy for another lemon-squash and in taking it from her took care that our fingers should meet. She looked up as I expected she would, and just gave me a little quick glance of enquiry—quick and fleeting only, but sufficient to rouse in me the delicious hope that there might be now the beginnings of some sweet and subtle bonds of sympathy between us.
I stopped until quite late that night and interfered in and argued about every subject that came up for discussion. I tied up old Brickett fine, and crossed and contradicted him upon every possible occasion. In the end he got quite nervous about me, and gave expression to no opinions without apprehensively cocking his eye in my direction to see how I was going to take them. A big bully, I could see he would soon get really frightened of me, and in my own mind I was determined to use that fear to make things easier for Lucy and her sister, for Lucy particularly, of course. When I at last got up to go, I tossed him a curt goodnight, but for Lucy I reserved a glance the very giving of which made my heart thump heavily and caused my pulses to throb in a way they had never quite throbbed before.
THE next day I began to feel myself getting rather anxious and depressed, and directly I got home, before having any tea or anything, I took a good dose of the paste. The effect was apparent in me almost at once, and towards dusk I set out with my bar of iron to have another go at Nell. I had taken a violent dislike to the dog, and was determined to pay her out for sniffing at my clothes the other evening.
I went up round North Adelaide, and this time approached the park lands from quite a different direction. The walk took me longer than I had thought and it was almost dark when I struck the path where I had met the old man the other night. I realised disgustedly that I was too late for Nell, and irritably set myself to walk back the shortest way home.
I remembered I should have to pass the very spot where I had struck the old man down, but it didn't trouble me in the least, and I was only just mildly curious to see if anyone would be about.
The night fell rapidly almost to pitch dark, and walking slowly along the path I suddenly almost ran into a policeman, coming from the opposite direction. I could feel him give me a hard stare, but slightly quickening my pace I passed on. About a hundred yards farther on I remembered there was a fair-sized ditch just off the side of the path, and arriving there I slipped quietly down and hid myself under the bank.
I was interested that any policeman should be there at that time of night, and I smiled grimly to think that they should be now patrolling the park lands, two nights after the murder had been committed. Did they think, surely, I said to myself, that the murderer would be coming back there tonight? Then I remembered with just a suspicion of uneasiness that I was carrying about with me the incriminating bar of iron. It would never do for me to be caught, of course, I thought, but at the same time I was not in the least afraid. The excitement was distinctly enjoyable, and a thrill of impending adventure ran pleasurably through me.
Suddenly I heard slow cautious footsteps in both directions—unmistakably policemen's footsteps. They stopped almost directly opposite to me, and a muffled conversation took place.
"Idiotic stunt this, Bill; why the deuce we've been put on it, nobody knows."
"Rotten, Henery," replied a second voice, "but the Chief swears the bloke is certain to come back—he says they always do."
"Rats! I'll bet he's much too frightened to come anywhere near—but what did you make of that chap who just came along? I was a bit hazy about him myself—that's why I turned back."
"What chap—there's been no one by me at all."
"Not a white-faced looking Johnny—walking with his shoulders rather hunched up—not three minutes ago?"
"Not a soul's come along since it got dark. He must have turned off over the grass somewhere. Why didn't you pinch him, you goat? At any rate, it would have been a fine excuse for getting out of this. But come back with me—we'd better tell the sergeant now."
They moved off, talking quietly, and in a couple of minutes or so I glided softly after them, crouching low down. But not a sign of them could I see, and not a sound could I hear anywhere, both policemen seemed to have completely vanished.
I went forward about a hundred yards, edging all the time a little farther away from the path.
Suddenly the big chimney of the Kilkenny bottle works flared up in the distance, right in front of me, and in the flash of a second I saw I was walking bang into as pretty a little ambush as one could have wished. The flare only lasted as long as a man might comfortably count five, but it was long enough for me to see three heads all close together silhouetted against the sky—and the heads all wore helmets, too. Even as I watched with startled eyes, the heads on either side melted gently away, leaving the middle one motionless, but with the alert expectant pose of a man who listens and watches.
Fortunately, I, too, found my wits at once and turned quickly round to see if there was anyone stalking behind me.
Fool, fool, no wonder I had been seen—there were the lights of all Adelaide behind me and every movement of mine must have shown up plainly against the sky.
It was well for me that I knew every inch and undulation of the ground. Many and many a morning had I tramped over these same parklands on my way to the office, and it would be standing me in good stead now.
I threw myself prone to get out of the way of the light and, wriggling myself into a fold of the ground that was fortunately only a few yards away, doubled like a hare up the hill.
I heard no sound and I made no sound.
When I had run for about two minutes I pulled up for breath, and then thinking I would like to know more of what was going on where I had left the policemen, made a wide circle so as to get right behind them. This time I determined the light from the city should be on my side, and not on theirs.
I made cautiously to about where, I thought, I should find them, but to my disappointment all was still and silent as the grave.
Crouching breathlessly upon the ground, my hand came suddenly in contact with a fair sized stone, about the size of a small orange. Disappointed at the apparently tame termination of my adventure, and in a spirit of mad devilry, I balanced it carefully in the palm of my right hand, and without much thought hurled if suddenly in the direction of where I knew the railway line must be. My sense of direction was very true, for the stone pinged loudly upon one of the wires of the fence running along the permanent way.
The result was startling. Within a bare radius of fifty yards, four or five electric torches instantly flashed out, and there was the shout and scuffle of men racing down to where the stone had struck.
"Quick, quick," a voice shouted, "he's crossing over the railway line. One of you cut him off by the signal box."
But I was not concerned with what they were doing. A much more startling thing had happened, closer at hand. Right under my very feet, a policeman had sprung up. So close to me had he been lying, that the wonder was I had not trodden on him when I had stood up to throw the stone. He, too, flashed his torch, but I saw him the fraction of a second before he saw me. He shouted something hoarsely and made to catch me with his hands, but I got in first and struck him furiously with the iron. He went down crash, and overbalancing myself, I fell after him. But I was up again in a second, and, finding he made no movement, passed my hand hurriedly over him for an automatic. But I was disappointed, he hadn't one; there was a whistle, however, which I at once took.
I made a rapid survey of the situation. His cry had evidently been heard, for someone was now shouting to the men to come back. My escape across the line was obviously cut off and also the way behind me, on the road. There was no help for it but to sprint up the hill to the terrace at North Adelaide. I didn't like it, for it was quite probable other people up there might join in the chase, and at any moment, too, the North Adelaide police might also appear on the scene. Stupidly omitting to switch off the fallen policeman's torch, I started to run my hardest up the hill. I had not gone two hundred yards, however, before hoarse cries of anger brought home to me what my omission was likely to cost me. They had found their comrade, and worse still could clearly guess now in which direction I had bolted.
A shrill whistle sounded below, and it was at once answered by one on the Port road, and by one near Bowden station, too.
I should now be headed off for sure, I thought. I glanced back hastily. By the flashing of their torches, I could see my pursuers had spread themselves out with about thirty yards between each of them and were systematically beating over the ground, up the hill.
They were determined, I could see, not to let me slip by them, rightly arguing that my likeliest way to safety would be back over the railway line.
Almost spent, I breathlessly gained the wire fence against the terrace on the hill. In scrambling over, however, I slipped badly and gave my right leg an awful wrench.
For a moment the pain was simply excruciating and it was as much as I could do to keep myself from falling down. I knew at once it would be quite hopeless for me to move for a little while, and I began desperately to rub the injured limb.
I looked down the line. The four policemen were steadily advancing, flashing their torches from side to side to cover every inch of the ground, and all the time whistles seemed to be going in all directions.
I gave myself up as lost.
Suddenly a boy came riding down the terrace on a bicycle. He slowed up and got off when he saw me. I pulled my cap low down to hide my face.
"What's up, guv'nor?" he asked, taking in the whistling and the lights as something quite abnormal to the place.
"Oh," I replied offhand, with the first words that came into my mind, "it's a paper chase. I've won and we're whistling to call off the hounds. I was the hare, and we've run all the way this evening from Glenelg." The boy, from his attitude, was obviously impressed.
Then an inspiration seized me, and I went on quickly. "Look here, sonny, just be a sport and help me, will you? I'm dead beat here, and can't run a stitch. Take this whistle and ride down to the end of the terrace there and blow like blazes. You can keep the whistle for your trouble," and I thrust the whistle I had taken off the policeman into his hands.
"Oh, thank you, sir," he said eagerly; "yes, I'll go."
"That's right, my boy," I called out heartily as he at once swung on his bike, "and when you get to the end there—just ride down the hill to the post office and blow hard all the time. I'll walk down slowly and if you've called them all in before I get there, there'll be half a dollar for you when I come, see?"
He disappeared joyfully at full speed.
Two minutes later, a perfect tornado of whistles broke out on the air. Loud, long, sustained whistles—screeching whistles—short, sharp whistles—whistles that spoke of urgency and whistles that would make anyone groan for even a second's delay.
The policemen's torches stopped advancing instantly and then upon a hoarse order all wheeled round at right angles and in the faint light I could see quite half a dozen burly figures tearing off in the direction of my timely young friend and his bicycle.
I was saved for the present, anyhow.
My leg felt much better and I hobbled across the road with no clear plan, however, as to where I should go, But my good star was still in the ascendant.
As I reached the corner of a rather narrow by-road, I saw a huge, big lorry lumbering down. A brain-wave seized me. It would have to slow up at the corner to get round and I would catch hold and hang on behind.
But better luck still was in store for me. Not only did it slow up, but the body was open and not high off the ground. I jumped desperately as it passed and the noise of my impact among the few empty tins that it carried was drowned happily in the scrunching of its brakes.
The whistling was still going on, and I chuckled to myself as happy as a king.
I was not quite as happy, however, about half an hour later, when stiff and sore I slipped off the back of the truck at the railway gate near Port Adelaide Station.
It was the first opportunity I had had to get off. I caught the last train back to Bowden, and arriving home just before midnight was disgusted to find the detective, Meadows, smoking by the garden gate.
He shook his head jestingly when I passed him, and made some remark about the growing bad habits of young men, but I said goodnight curtly, and shut myself in my room, devoutly hoping he had not noticed my bedraggled and ruffled appearance.
OF many of the happenings of the ensuing weeks I remember nothing at all. Memory is merciful to me and there are blanks and blurs that no thought nor brooding can fill in.
The time of terror for the city lasted, I know, eleven weeks and two days, and horrors unspeakable were the almost daily menace of men's lives.
But, in the knowledge of what happened later, there can be no doubt that these crimes were not all mine. My own deeds were many and vile enough, I know, but that is no reason for me being saddled with the blame for those I did not do.
I am making no excuse for myself, but simply trying to explain the dim hope to which I always cling that, one day, I may not be called to answer for all the things that are now put down to me.
I make no pretence that I remember nothing. I remember hazily a lot of dreadful happenings in the night. It was always in the night, it seemed to me.
I remember bodies stretched out on the dark roads. I remember struggles on paths when there were no stars. I remember blood on a verandah once and in a room, the very memory of which makes me shudder even now. I have a dim recollection, too, of something happening to the Melbourne express as it came down through the hills. I remember a tram crashing down over a bridge near the city, and I remember, later, the flare of many fires.
But so many things are mixed up in the night life of those days that I can never properly sift the dreams from the realities. Thoughts come and go bewilderingly through my tortured brain, but there is always the deep sense of horror to abide and remain.
I HAD three distinct personalities in those days and led three different lives. None of them seemed to encroach upon the others overmuch.
First, I was the clerk at Winter and Winter's; the head clerk in the invoice office, and, as the weeks went on, a real head clerk, too. I kept them all in order now and the room was quiet, orderly, and well conducted. I took to keeping myself very much to myself, and never mixed with any of them or discussed anything out of business routine. Rarely, I permitted myself to smile. I had become a cold sort of machine. Suave, polite, even to Waller, but firm, very firm, and entirely devoted to the interests of those who employed me.
One day, when I was shaving, I noted my expression in the glass. I had altered a great deal. My eyes were harder and had lost that gentle look, my lips shut closer together, too, and there was a firmness about the corners of my mouth that was not there in other days. I looked sterner, and, altogether, there was that about me of a man who had acquired confidence in himself and had little regard for the opinion of others.
I dressed quite differently too. I was smart and well-attired. I wore well-cut clothes and collars that were fashionable, and was most particular, too, that my trousers were neatly pressed with the crease straight down the middle.
Mr. William, I could see, was quite interested in the change, and when he had called me into his office alone upon some invoice matter would sometimes chaff me about it.
"What's become of you, Wacks," he said one day, "you quite puzzle me. You're so different to what you used to be. Are you in love?"
"I may be, sir," I replied demurely, "but it's not that that makes me different. I realised I was too soft with the men and I did just what you told me, that's all, sir."
"Well, I am very glad you did, Wacks," he went on genially. "Do you know, I was just on the point of telling you that you must leave us, when you suddenly cleared everything up."
"I knew you weren't pleased with me, Mr. William, and that in the end spurred me on."
"Well, all's well that ends well, Wacks, and it's quite nice to see the order and quietness you've got the men into."
Then there was the other man in me—the man in love. Life was telling its great secret to me now, and sometimes my happiness was almost too great to bear. Heaven had opened a far-off lattice for us and a golden ray was falling on the dingy little shop on the Port Road.
I forgot everything when I was with Lucy. I loved her passionately and believed she loved me too. I had felt her tremble in surrender when I had put my arms about her, and had heard her sigh when I bent down to kiss. I had seen the love-light in her eyes when I came near, and had felt the quickening beatings of her heart when the sweet, soft body came in close to mine.
I was always tender to her, but somehow I was always stern. At first in my determined open wooing I had sensed impending trouble with her uncle, but I had soon convinced him whose was the stronger will.
One day I thought Lucy had been crying, and catching old Brickett alone a little later, I taxed him with it. He didn't deny it; but just glared sullenly at me.
"What's that to do with you, Mr. Nosey Parker," he began contemptuously, but he stopped very quickly when he saw the devil he had roused.
I reached over the counter and grabbed him quickly by the cloth he wore round his neck.
"No—don't you move, Brickett," I hissed, "don't move, don't lift your hands and don't answer back. I'm not a fighting man, as you know, but, by gosh, if you make me strike you—I'll bash you so that no one'll know you, except by your clothes. You hulking dog," I went on shaking him backwards and forwards in my rage, "you let me see that Lucy's been crying again and by all there is in hell, I'll lay you out as stiff as anyone's been laid out in Adelaide in all these days."
He got very white and shaky, but didn't say a word in reply, and I let him go. I had put some fear in him, however, and after that evening I had no difficulty in seeing Lucy whenever I wanted her; indeed I was allowed to do exactly as I pleased.
The old man always pretended to ignore me when he saw me, but I often caught him watching me curiously when he thought I was not looking.
Then there was my third self—the MAN at night. A beast lurking by lonely corners and in dark roads. A ghoul feasting on horrors and the smell of blood. A furtive, baleful shadow, creeping by silent pathways and where no lights were. A madman chattering to himself—a creature reckless of discovery and danger and yet—a wretch of infinite resource and cunning. A man who thought and planned—a man who played his moves as in a game of chess.
It was night only that put murder in my heart. By day I had no lust for blood. The drug I took just made me confident, so that I was not afraid of things or people. Also, I could control myself, and if I wanted to keep my temper well in check, I could.
But in the dark I was a different man. Directly night fell and I had taken the evening dose of paste that I was now afraid to leave off, an irresistible longing seized me to take life. To kill someone swiftly—to see him fall, and then to slink away in silence, were all happiness unutterable to me, and made of no account the attendant risks and dangers I might have to face.
The strange thing about it all to me was that my three personalities were not much interested in one another and, unless a common danger threatened all of them together, they were not much concerned with what one another did.
When in the evening I was courting Lucy, for instance, I never gave a thought to my crimes by night, and when I was slinking along in the dark with my heart full of murderous hopes I gave no thought to Lucy.
Looking back now, it seems that I lived all my life then in compartments.
LESS than ten days after the old Captain died I was the best- wanted man in all Australia. I was on all men's tongues and in all men's minds.
I had horrified and shocked the community as it had never been shocked before, and there was no disguising the fact that a sort of panic had set in.
The night life of the City of Adelaide was practically at a standstill and, even then, the inhabitants sat shuddering behind locked doors.
The police were blamed everywhere for their supineness, and nobody now had any security in their protection.
One evening I was near Bowden station when I noticed a crowd by the station gates. A short stout man was haranguing the people viciously from the giddy elevation of an empty soap box and I gathered, as I had surmised, that my crimes by night were the theme.
He was not a very eloquent speaker, but he was a very earnest one, and in his stodgy way he brought home to his hearers what little had hitherto been done by the authorities to render the environs of the city safe for pedestrians after darkness had set in.
He had been hard hit, he told us, and didn't know how he was going to live. He kept a billiard saloon in Bowden.
"Who's a-going to come out?" he shouted to us indignantly. "Who's a-going to come out o' nights and probably get their heads all broke for a game of billiards? Who's a-going to risk it, I says? How can you expect 'em?"
Somehow his misfortune struck a chord of compassion in me and I suddenly found myself sorry for him. There seemed nothing incongruous to me about this, for, after all, I thought, what fools the police were. Why hadn't they been able to catch me? Why hadn't they, with all their organisation and their unlimited resources, been able to get the better of a poor weak and friendless clerk?
My indignation worked me up to a fine fit of temper and the billiards proprietor in due time finishing his speech with an emphatic "damn," I immediately jumped up on to the box.
Like the previous speaker I fell foul of the authorities at once, and gave it to them hot and strong. The police were fools, I said—blind fools and the whole civic administration of the city was rotten. In any emergency they at once went off their heads. They were children in their understandings and old women in their ways.
"What have they done for us?" I cried. "They have taken away our liberties and have given us not even safety in return. We mayn't buy a reel of cotton or a packet of envelopes after six o'clock. We mayn't have a glass of beer when we want to. Yet with all their coddling over little things—with all their annoying and unnecessary interference with our rights, they can't even guarantee to us that we may go out for a simple walk at night and not get a crack on the head as we pass down some main road or turn some quiet corner. It's disgraceful, I say. What are the police doing with their time then? You may well ask!
"Look at tonight's paper—seventeen motorists fined for exceeding the speed limit in King William street! Just fancy, seventeen awful criminals brought to the bar of justice for this dreadful offence, and yet—no mention in the paper of any arrest of the one man who is making this beautiful city of ours unfit to live in. How long is this going on and what are we going to do? We ought to take the law into our own hands—we ought to set about protecting ourselves. We ought to form our own special police from among ourselves. Every suburb and every township ought to have its own vigilance society, so that we can go about in safety as we have a right to."
I made a good rousing speech with plenty of fight in it, and the crowd well punctuated my remarks with "Hear, hears," and cheers.
Directly I had finished there was an excited burst of clapping and the billiards man bobbed up again earnestly to implore his hearers that my advice be followed. He there and then offered to lend his saloon for an indoor meeting, straight away.
A moment's hesitation and we all followed him to his place. We crowded in, about forty of us, and on the strength of my speech I was immediately voted to the chair.
I had, of course, never in my life taken the chair at any gathering before—not even at the little potty committee meetings connected with the chapel, but I had often noted and admired the dignity with which Mr. Stunts, the hay and straw dealer, was wont to preside over the annual meeting of the chapel chess club, and I took my cue from what I remembered of him.
I rapped the table loudly for silence, and opened with a short speech, but one very much to the point. The responsibility of being in the chair sobered me not a little, and the fierce abandon of the speech outside was lacking.
But I gave them plenty to think about and made them realise at once that the formation of a vigilance society meant work. I told them if we once started on the project we must keep it up. We must not make fools of ourselves and become the laughing stock of the regular police. We must divide our district into proper areas, particular men must be alloted to each area, and every road must be patrolled and have help at call, at any time between dusk and midnight.
I called for volunteers at once, and twenty-two responded on the second.
Things moved in avalanche fashion then. A subscription list was opened to defray expenses, and I grandly headed it myself with a guinea. We formed a small committee and the meeting was adjourned until the next day, in order to give us time to get handbills printed and make our project generally known.
The next evening the saloon was simply packed, and, arriving only just on time, I had great difficulty in making my way in.
The sweets of office came to me for the first time.
"Room for the chairman," shouted Wiley, the billiards man, "room for Mr. Peter Wacks," and the interested crowd at once gave way to let me pass. Some of them started a friendly cheer and I smiled easily to them in return.
I was wearing my new suit of the same cloth as Mr. William's, and knew that I looked well. Lucy's eyes had opened wide to see me in it, and her gentle face had flamed with pleasure when I had called in on my way down to tell her what was on.
The meeting was a huge success and there was no denying that I had the audience well in hand, from first to last.
The blood of some long-dead statesman ancestor must have been stirring in my veins, I thought, to give me the dignity and the presence that I knew I showed. I was completely at my ease the whole evening. I made a happy and convincing speech and was never for a moment at a loss to know what to say. The words came tripping to my tongue every time I spoke, and I could work my hearers up to long continued cheering just whenever I chose.
I was masterful, too, and irrespective of their importance or otherwise, made every speaker keep strictly to the point.
It was arranged that a deputation should wait on the Premier, and, of course, it was I who was told off to be spokesman.
I got in touch with the Minister at once, and the following evening we were sympathetically received by the great man at his private residence.
He asked us very politely what he could do for us, and I laid our case emphatically and convincingly before him. I didn't mince matters either. I told him flatly that the public generally had quite lost faith in the ability of the police to protect them.
Either, I said, the police were not capable enough or not numerous enough. He smiled here, but I went on crushingly that it was an open secret in the city that they had practically had the assassin once in their hands, but had let him slip through their fingers.
The Premier pulled me up at once here with a pretty assumption of surprise, and asked me, very sternly to tell him when, exactly, this slipping through had occurred.
"On the night of the second murder," I replied, quite cocksure. "On the night when Policeman Holthusen was murdered on the park lands. He was killed within a few yards of his comrades, and if there be any truth in the rumors that have got about, the police were there in force on the very spot all the time."
"Oh, you mustn't believe all you hear, Mr. Wacks—that would never do," he said.
"I don't, sir, for one minute," I rejoined, "but I know for a fact that at one time there were at least a dozen of the police quite surrounding him, and yet he got away"—then, remembering what I had heard the policeman say when I was hiding in the ditch, I added coolly, "But you can easily verify it, sir—Inspector Watkins was in charge."
"Well, I can't argue it with you, of course, Mr. Wacks, but now leave the police alone, please, and tell me specifically exactly what it is you want us to do."
I told him that we thought we could help the authorities. That we thought the need justified it, and that we wanted to be enrolled as special constables, and properly sworn in.
We wanted whistles, badges, and truncheons to be provided for us, and we wanted generally to be regarded as a special auxiliary arm of the regular police.
He heard me through patiently, thanked us kindly for the trouble we had taken, and then dismissed us very politely, promising to think the matter over, and let us know the result when he had consulted his colleagues.
I wasn't at all satisfied with the result of our interview, and bluntly told my committee so.
"He doesn't mean to do anything," I said. "We shall get a polite refusal in a day or two. The only thing is to go forward with our own plans."
It happened just as I said it would. Less than twenty-four hours later I received a polite communication from the Premier. He had conferred with his colleagues, he wrote, through his secretary, and they considered the regular police had the matter well in hand, and he regretted, therefore, he was unable to comply with our request. He again thanked us, however, for our zeal in offering our services. I snorted in contempt.
In the meantime something of our interview had got into the newspapers, and prominence was given to my remarks about the police.
The public generally were on my side, and I found no lack of supporters in my own particular district. I am at all times a good organiser, and with the help of three or four energetic members of the committee, had soon begun to get things in order.
In a week my arrangements were all complete and, from the minute night had fallen we had every road and street in our neighborhood under proper and adequate control.
I made this known in a letter to the newspapers, and I boasted that our cordon was now so close that not even a mouse could leave or enter without its becoming known.
The Chief Commissioner of Police silently accepted my challenge, and two nights later three of my patrols espied Detective Spratt hiding in a ditch. Greatly to his disgust they dragged him forcibly to the guard room we had established in the billiard saloon, and he was not allowed to leave until they had sent an inspector from the Police Head-quarters in Victoria Square to identify him.
It was a delicious moment for my quickly assembled committee when the irate police inspector arrived. He was quite livid with rage, but he said very little, and just bustled his discomfited henchman into the car and rattled way.
I took care that the whole affair got into the newspapers, and great amusement was caused in the city by the publication of the details. 'The Evening Express' was very sarcastic, and the headings to its paragraphs were most funny.
'Wacks on the War Path' was one, and in smaller type underneath, 'The Vigilantes Arrest Detective Spratt in a Ditch—Wacks Scores Again.'
The officials at headquarters did not love us by any means.
ONE Saturday I took Lucy to the races. It was the first time we had been out for the day alone, and my heart beat with excitement when I called at the shop for her.
Old Brickett had said nothing when I told him where we were going. He had just shrugged his shoulders contemptuously, as if to imply we were both well on the way to the dogs, and then turned his head away.
Lucy looked supremely pretty in her white dress. I dare say—in fact, I am sure—it must have been a very cheap dress, for she had very little money—but whatever it cost, it just suited her to perfection.
She looked so bright and happy, too, with the eager happiness of a little child. Her face was greatly flushed, and her eyes shone brightly, and every line of her supple body spoke unmistakably of youth, pleasure and love.
Of course, she had never been to any races before. Races were quite contrary to all chapel tradition, and in my own mind I wondered mildly that she had acquiesced so willingly when I had asked her.
I meant to enjoy the afternoon for sure. I had taken twenty pounds out of the Savings Bank, and privately had determined to have what the detestable Waller always called a flutter.
The races were at Morphettville, and we went down first class. A man opposite to me started talking about the afternoon's programme to me, and to Lucy's manifest amazement I seemed to know as much about the horses engaged as he. I had not lived for five years with Waller for nothing. All the jargon of the turf was familiar to me. I knew about horses 'winning by streets,' or 'being down the course,' and 'running like pigs.' I knew about them 'getting off' badly from the 'gate,' or 'poaching a flying start.'
I knew that when 'the money was on' the brutes ran like blazes, but when 'Johnny Strongarm' was in the saddle the wretched backer always lost his money. I knew a lot about the horses and their owners, too. I knew that Kitty's Darling was a terror at the gate, that Blacktoes couldn't stay a yard beyond six furlongs, and that the owner of The Boss was a first-class racing crook, who deserved to get six months.
Much of this varied and miscellaneous information I then passed on to my greatly interested vis-a-vis. He was a genial, simple sort of soul, and in return implored me not to forget to back Rosyfingers in the second race.
Arriving on the course, it was strange that almost the first man I knocked up against was the owner of The Boss himself. He was a well-known racing man, Bob Hales by name, and I had good reason to remember him. He was a member of the City Council and a butcher by trade. The day following a letter of mine to the newspapers, someone had prompted him to phone up our firm and ask them if my interference in public matters was done with their approval. He had hinted that my reflections on the capacity of the police, and the authorities generally, would not tend to advance the interests of the firm of Messrs. Winter & Winter themselves. Fortunately. Mr. William had answered the phone and all friend Bob had got had been a nasty snub for his pains.
I had not forgotten him, however, and had made a mental note of his address.
He was generally regarded as a real racing crook, but a very clever one too—so clever that no one had ever been able to bring him to book for actually crossing over the line.
He had quite a respectable racing stable, but always ran his horses, win or lose, wholly to please himself. If he himself wanted them to win they invariably ran well, but if he didn't want them to they always ran nowhere. He was well served by a jockey of the same kidney—a very clever rider, but one notoriously to be nobbled for a price, and no doubt old Hales always paid him well.
The public were always interested in his horses, for some of them were the best in the State, but they were always very uncertain about backing them, because they could never tell exactly when they were out to win.
Time after time the public had plunged heavily on them, and then—they had run, as Waller said, "like pigs." A week or two later, when they were almost friendless in the machine, they would score easily and return heavy dividends—fifteen and even twenty to one.
No one seemed ever to know who were the lucky investors on these occasions, but it was generally agreed that old Hales had managed it somehow. The bookmakers were afraid of him, too, for several times, with all their caution, they had been badly burned by taking on his bets.
Just now everyone was interested in his horse, The Boss, down to run that afternoon in the Cup. Three times in succession had the public backed him recently, and three times had they come down with a thud. Only a fortnight back, old Hales had made a great show by ostensibly putting fifty pounds on at the tote, as well as making several private bets at Tattersalls Club in the city.
The public had tumbled head over heels to get a slice of the good thing, and The Boss had carried more money almost than all the other horses put together.
But the beast hadn't won. It had just ambled along and died off to nothing when the pinch came.
Old Hales had sworn a lot at the jockey and trumpeted everywhere what great sums he had lost. He had also talked of giving the horse a long rest before racing him again.
But apparently he had thought better of it, for he was now running him again this afternoon, notwithstanding that rumors were being industriously spread about that he was suffering from rheumatism in his hind legs.
All this I had learned from hearing Waller talk about it at the office. Waller just hated Hales, for many were the half-crowns he had lost in backing his horses when they were not, as Waller found out afterwards, intended to win.
This, then, was the man I noticed as Lucy and I were coming on to the course. He was a big, stout man, with shaggy eyebrows and a big red face.
He was standing idly watching the crowd pass through the turnstiles. Suddenly I saw him wink knowingly at someone close behind me, and I turned round just in time to catch the faint answering smile on the face of a tall, thin man, in a sort of faded orange-colored crash suit. I shouldn't probably have taken the slightest interest in the matter if the thin man, seeing me turn round, hadn't instantly cut short his smile and passed Bob Hales with a calm, impassive face, as if he didn't know him at all.
What's going on here, I thought, and then I remembered something else Waller had said once—stung probably to bitterness by the loss of some good half-crown.
"The only way," he had told the office then, "the only way to find out the old blighter's real intentions with his damned horses is to become a blooming angel and shadow him all day. Then we should find out, but perhaps only at the last moment, what the old scoundrel really meant to do."
"Good," I said to myself, "I'll keep my eye on you, my beauty, and it'll be easy, too, with your friend here, because of his highly-colored crash suit."
I took Lucy round to the totalisator and explained to her the wonderful way in which the amount of any money invested on any horse is immediately recorded on the face of the machine, in full view for everyone to see.
It was not my first visit to a racecourse—I had paid one furtive visit on a Saturday a fortnight back, and thanks to the depravity of the life of the wretched Waller and to my own good memory in remembering most of what he had said, had soon got into the hang of things generally.
I invested five shillings in the first race. I backed The Barge because Lucy said his number was seven on the card and it was the seventh day of the month. But the coincidence didn't click, and I remonstrated with Lucy tenderly that, generally speaking, it was a rotten way of acquiring wealth.
In the next race, I remembered what my genial friend in the railway carriage had said about Rosyfingers. She looked a pretty little horse to me, and, as Lucy was greatly taken with her jockey's colors—French grey, rose sleeves and cap—I thought her worth an investment.
Looking up at the totalisator, I saw she was a good second favorite and being well backed.
I walked over towards the long row of pound ticket windows intending to take a ticket there, but passing on my way the one single window where the five-pound tickets only were obtained, I happened to glance inside.
To my astonishment, I recognised the tickets operator there as one of the clerks of the Adelaide bank where Winter & Winter had their account. I had often chatted with him when I had gone in on business for the firm.
I thought it would be great fun to astonish him for once, and quite indifferent to my probable loss, approached the window and boldly demanded a ticket for number nine.
"Great Scot," he ejaculated, as he handed over the ticket, "it's you, Wacks, backing in fivers, is it? Well, I'm damned."
"Oh," I laughed airily, "I like a flutter occasionally on a good thing."
We climbed up to the back row of the grandstand to watch the race. It was a hot day even for Adelaide. Well over a hundred and five degrees in the shade, it was a beautiful dry heat. A heat that stimulated and did not depress. A dry, clear air that shook the stiffness from one's bones and gave a sense of lightness and exhilaration to all one's movements.
The gay scene below us was one of bustle and excitement—of brightly flashing colors on all sides, of happy, smiling people walking to and fro, of proud, slender-loined thoroughbreds prancing and curvetting in the beauty of their life and strength, and, back of all, of the long, low, purple hills, shimmering away into the distance where the blue sea touched the sky.
The band was playing "O Sole Mio," and the soft, entrancing melody stole up to us and mingled sweetly with our thoughts.
We hardly spoke at all, but just sat silently drinking in the beauty and ecstasy of everything.
To my great joy and to Lucy's no small amazement, Rosyfingers came bustling home all on her own. She paid £4 2s. for each pound invested, and I drew £20 10s. for my £5 ticket.
The next race was the cup, and I at once bethought myself of Mr. Bob Hales, the crafty owner of The Boss.
I found him right enough, just where I expected—in front of the tote. He was watching the figures going up with a stony and impassive face. A few yards from him, but apparently quite a stranger to him now, was the man in the orange-colored crash suit, the man I had seen him wink at earlier in the day.
Now what were they up to, I wondered, but I guessed pretty well. Bob Hales was watching the totalisator to see if it were worth his while to let The Boss win. If the public put their money on the animal sufficiently to make the dividend likely to be a small one after the race, then, of course, he wouldn't back it, and it wouldn't win. But if the public had got tired of the wretched beast and didn't put their money on, and consequently the dividend was going to be a large one, then—I reckoned—he would throw a hundred pounds or so into the tote at the very latest moment, and The Boss would then run for all he was worth.
He would, of course, have to give the signal somehow to his jockey, so that the latter would know what he was expected to do.
But I wasn't the only one watching the wily Bob. Not a few sharp-looking gentlemen were hovering furtively round to see what he was going to do, and throw in their money, too, if he made any movement to the tote.
The minutes went quickly by, and very little money was going on The Boss. He was number one on the card, and it was plain to see that the public generally were fairly sick of him at last.
Five minutes before the race was due to start not a hundred pounds out of a total of over five thousand was credited under his name.
The start was taking place almost to front of the Derby stand, and suddenly Bob Hales, after mopping his forehead vigorously with a conspicuous-looking red handkerchief, turned sharply round and pushed his way towards the railings near to where the horses were lined up.
Good! I thought, he has made up his mind at last, and gone off now to let the jockey know in some clever pre-arranged manner exactly what he has to do.
But what about the gentleman in crash? I watched interestedly. He was evidently the master key, but be had not moved, and he had made no sign. He was just carelessly watching the tote figures in a mild, uninterested sort of way.
Again I tried to fathom their minds. Of course, he was waiting for the starting bell to ring. There was always, I knew, two or three minutes' interval between its ringing and the actual starting of the race, for it was not until the bell had rung that the starter commenced to line up the waiting horses in their proper order, according to the positions they had drawn at the barrier.
The bell clanged at last, and, as I had expected, my gentleman moved off leisurely towards the five pound window of the tote. Good, again, I thought—I, too, would participate in the good thing.
I elbowed in before him—through the now quickly thinning crowd—and reached the window with him only just behind. There were three or four still in front of me, and, of course, only one was being served at a time. The tote window was narrow, and we had to file up each in our turn.
The tickets seemed to be being dealt out very slowly, and my temper rose at the delay. Then an inspiration seized me. The start might take place any second now, and then bang down would go the window automatically, as the starting tapes went up.
What if I could baulk the man behind me and prevent him getting his money on! I looked quickly down behind me. He was holding an unfolded hundred pound note in his right hand.
I whistled to myself. Whew! What a have. A hundred pounds at about fifteen to one.
The man began to get anxious.
"Hurry up, you goats there," he shouted angrily over my shoulder; "brisk along, or we shall be here all night—do you hear?"
The two men remaining in front of me turned round frowningly to see who had called them goats, and my friend behind the window leaned round to see who was making the fuss.
"All right sir, all in good time," he called out; "we shan't be long now."
At last my turn came, and I had thought what I would do.
"One on number one," I drawled slowly, winking solemnly and jerking my head towards the man behind.
"One it is," replied the clerk grinning, and he slowly clicked the machine and passed over the ticket.
"Another on number one," I went on as slowly as before—"another and another."
"Curse you, you fools—be quick—damn you, don't you hear?" and the gentleman in crash, losing all patience at last, thrust a large and dirty hand on to my shoulder and made to push me away.
"Twenty tickets on number one," he shouted, "quick, or you'll be too late late—quick, quick."
I was in a fearful temper at once and sent him sprawling with a sudden vicious blow on the chest.
"Damned fool yourself," I cried threateningly as he picked himself up. "No, don't you come near me, or you'll get worse than that, my friend. Who wants your filthy paws on them, you beast—keep clear of me, I say."
The scuffle had attracted instant attention from the crowd, and a number surged round to enjoy the row.
A policeman happened to be handy, too, and pushed his way authoritatively to where we stood.
"What's up?" he asked sharply. "What's it all about?"
The ticket clerk strained his head out of the window and explained. "The tall man was insolent and wanted tickets out of his turn. He started the trouble, and it's all his fault."
"Any charge?" asked the policeman, beginning to take out his book.
"Not from me," I answered contemptuously, and started to adjust my coat collar that had got turned up in the scuffle.
"Well, you be careful," jerked the policeman sternly to the man in crash, "or I'll lock up you," and he moved off majestically through the crowd.
"Twenty tickets on number one," almost shrieked my late opponent, rushing frantically up to the tote window.
A fearful shout from the crowd. "They're off," and the window banged down sharply in the fellow's face.
For a moment he stood stock still in baffled rage, and then, with a very white face cut off towards the owners' stand.
"He's going to tell old Hales," I chuckled gleefully, and then I remembered, not without regret, that my little adventure was likely to cost me dear.
"By Jove!" I said to myself grimly. "Twenty pounds on The Boss, and perhaps, after all, he'll not be able to win."
I ran up quickly to where I had told Lucy to wait for me, at the top of the grassy slope in front of the grand stand.
I found her at once, and breathlessly informed her she should have fifty pounds if The Boss won.
"Look out for his colors now—orange and grey." We had had a good look at the horse—in the paddock—earlier in the afternoon, and had both thought what a magnificent looking beast he was.
He was a great big fellow—jet black—and with great big, liquid eyes. He towered high above all the other horses, and was easily the biggest there.
When I had reached Lucy the horses were already well away, and in less than a minute, so it seemed, they were right opposite to us on the other side of the course.
We could easily pick out The Boss. Lucy said he was fifth or sixth—at any rate, he was well up and not far behind the leaders.
"Ben Thomson's going well," remarked a man in front of us. "Dear old thing, if only he were a few years younger. I've been backing him for years and—Lord! the money he must have cost me—I must have paid for him by now."
"Look at Eyes of Gray," called out a woman. "Matson's got her on the rails—they'll never catch her now. You see."
"The Boss won't win," remarked another man. "He's too far back among the crowd."
"Just wait," replied his friend. "If he gets through he'll eat 'em up, that is, if Shooter wants him to."
Round into the straight they came—seven or eight of them—all in a straight line, it seemed to me, but no sign of The Boss in front—he was still just behind.
Then suddenly a man yelled, "I told you so—there's Shooter coming up," and like a great black wave, The Boss broke through.
An angry storm of shouting, for The Boss was leading by a length.
"Damn him," someone shouted, "sold again. Oh, hold him, Eyes of Gray—hold him, you little dear."
A beautiful little chestnut mare had spurted grandly to the black beast's flanks, and was making a gallant effort to overtake him, but she couldn't keep it up, and The Boss was again out clear.
A fine handsome roan then got up close and the crowd shrieked again for The Boss to be overtaken. "Come on, Storm, come on—use your whip, man—use your whip."
But what was the good—the great black beast shook them all off contemptuously, and came rattling past the judge's box, winning, as I knew Waller would have said, by half a street.
The crowd booed angrily as Bob Hales went out to lead him in, but the old man only smiled unconcernedly, and took no notice of their menacing attitude towards him.
But he didn't look so unconcerned a few minutes later, when the man in the crash suit at last managed to get to his side. There was a blank look of astonishment—an angry interchange of words and finally almost an actual fight, with the dark suit man again as the aggressor.
Some of Hales' friends interfered, but the quarrel had attracted a good deal of attention and, something of the affair at the tote window having got about over the course, the public naturally put two and two together and were immensely tickled with the way the old man had been served.
Over six thousand pounds had been invested in the tote, and considerably less than two hundred had gone on The Boss. The dividend returned was £24 5s. and with my four five-pound tickets I picked up £485. I was almost speechless with my good fortune, and Lucy quite thought all the riches in the world were gathered in the thick wad of notes that she saw me receive at the paying-out window.
After a good deal of demur I persuaded her to take, then and there, the fifty pounds that I had promised her if The Boss won. We had quite a little fight about it, but it was only when I insisted significantly that she would be wanting every penny of it very shortly for her bottom drawer that she gave in. A faraway gentle look came into her eyes, and she gave me a fond pressure of her hand in reward.
Dear little Lucy! She had half a crown, later on, on The Dentist, and was very annoyed that it came in only 'fourth.'
"What!" she exclaimed prettily in painful and reproachful surprise, "and don't I get anything this time? It looked to be running so well."
There were two other lumps of sugar in my cup of joy that afternoon.
The Premier was at the races and, with my face evidently fresh in his mind, he recognised me at once. Lucy and I were standing just in front of the grand stand when the great man came by, accompanied by the Governor of the State. He pulled up and smilingly held out his hand.
"How do you do, Mr. Wacks, this is better than patrolling dangerous roads at night—now isn't it?"
I introduced him to Lucy and we were both in turn made known to the Governor. We chatted interestedly for a few minutes, and, of course, everyone was looking at us and taking us all in. A press photographer snapped us all together, and to my great joy I caught sight of Waller—the hated Waller—staring at us through the railings of the cheap enclosure. His eyes were wide with amazement.
IT was nearly 11 o'clock before I brought Lucy home. We had come to a clear understanding. I had taken her for a walk among the hills, and I had asked her to be my wife.
It was a starless night, and in a world of dark and stillness we had sat clasped in ecstasy in each others arms. Her sweet full lips had clung lingering to mine. I had felt her heart beat, first, fast in fear—then slower on her confidence returning—and finally to the soft and gentle rhythm of assured faith and trust.
The night had made a heaven for us, and yet so strange is life—there was a subtle sense of sorrow in me as Lucy lay quiet and all but sleeping in my arms. It was the sorrow of something gone—of some high summit scaled—of depths of happiness we would never plumb again.
For ever I had set my seal upon her and for ever now would she remember this first avowal of her love.
Things would never be quite the same to her.
Love, I knew, she might perhaps again—but never more would love wake in her from its first maiden dream.
Never more would passion be a stranger to her; for never could it wait to watch again the lights and splendors of its maiden dawn rising and crimsoning through the hills and valleys of her soul.
THE Bowden Vigilance Society was a great success from the very first, and within a few days the adjoining suburbs of Croydon and Kilkenny asked to come in under our wing. It was quite convenient for us to take them, for many of our streets and roads overlapped, and we soon had a fine wide organisation, working easily and without friction throughout.
We were, of course, as I took care we should be, quite free from any trouble at night, and it soon became a proud boast with us that while the inhabitants of other townships and suburbs cowered shiveringly behind closed doors directly dusk had fallen—we went about our nightly avocations and amusements in a perfectly normal manner.
The Adelaide 'Advertiser' sent down a Special Commission to investigate and make known our methods, and the next morning, in a long three-column article, spoke most highly of the efficiency and thoroughness of our organisation. It described the perfect system of patrols we had initiated, the remarkable way in which all our arrangements dovetailed into one another, and it pointed significantly to the security and safety our districts had enjoyed, from the very first moment we had taken things in hand.
The article made an immense impression on the city, and were were inundated with enquiries from other districts.
I was asked repeatedly to speak at hastily summoned public meetings and nearly always complied with the requests.
Rather to my astonishment still, I found I was a first-class public speaker; indeed, I was more than that—I was an orator.
No matter how important and how influential were the other speakers on a platform, no one could quite so please the public as did I.
Big men of the city got up on their legs and with laborious notes made ponderous heavy speeches of the council chamber style. They bored their audiences to stiffness, and it would have been quite possible to photograph the relieved look on the faces of the crowd as they sat down.
But when I got up I always made things hum. I was light and easy to listen to, and spoke quite clearly so that everyone could hear. There was no hesitation at all in my manner, and I had no difficulty in choosing my words. I could reel off sentence after sentence as smoothly and as evenly as if I had previously written it all down. My audiences soon got warmed up. I could make them laugh, and I could make them cry. They would clap and stamp until the dust rose from the floor in clouds and then, with one quick turning of my tongue, I would bring so deep a hush into the hall that it could be almost felt. Their faces would grow still and stiff, their eyes would hang on every movement of my lips, and they would sit like statues, carved in stone.
I could play on all their feelings and hand out the sob-stuff or the burning words, just as I chose. When it at last came to the peroration, I would sometimes wind them up to such a pitch of enthusiasm that they would break into my last sentences with a hoarse storm of cheers, so as to make it quite impossible for me to conclude what I had intended to say.
The Lord Mayor remarked feelingly one night, "If ever the hour has produced the man—today has given us Peter Wacks."
In less than three weeks all the suburbs of Adelaide had got their Vigilance Societies. Prospect and Unley came in last of all. For a few days they turned up their noses and would have nothing to do with us. On two consecutive nights, however, they each had their share of trouble, with the result that they very quickly and very humbly came to heel.
In due course all the local Vigilance Societies were affiliated together and I was elected President and Patrol Inspector-in-Chief.
A rich resident placed a fine car at my disposal so that, as I thought fit, I could visit all the Vigilance Society centres in turn and see nothing was being neglected for the public safety.
The days sped by and looking back down the newspaper files of the time, one can see plainly that the horror of the city was widening and deepening in intensity.
The crimes undoubtedly were fewer in number and their occurrence was more irregular and spasmodic now, but still the fear of sudden death was over all, and gradually, too, the dreadful feeling was eating into men's minds that the murderer would never be found out.
Murder, too, was not the only thing to be dreaded now. Fires had taken to breaking out in altogether totally unexpected quarters and the railways and bridges had now to be guarded.
My mentality at this time is very difficult for me to analyse. As Chairman of the Vigilance Society I had most thoroughly and most efficiently organised the city patrols; as maniac under the influence of the drug, I was doing my utmost to bring all this elaborate machinery to nothing.
It was like some devilish kind of sport to me. I could work only on the darkest nights now, and even then I had to take terrible risks in getting about.
Any pedestrian by himself at night was always an object of suspicion and liable to be stopped and searched at any moment.
This, I knew, would have been quite fatal for me, for I still always carried with me my incriminating bar of iron.
One night, late, I was prowling somewhere round St. Peters and espied three men coming down the road in my direction.
I dodged into a garden to avoid them, but unfortunately a wretched little pom started yapping and the men stopped when they came up.
"I would swear I saw someone in front of us," remarked one of them meditatively, "and if I did, he disappeared about here. Just flash your lamp will you, Josh? Yes, just over by that tree."
I stood motionless where I was in the shadows, and should probably have escaped detection altogether, if the dog hadn't seen me and rushed down.
I am always quick in my decisions and it was my quickness alone that saved me then.
I had vaulted over into the road quite five seconds before any of the men had realised what had happened, and was well away before they even thought to sound their whistles.
I ran down the road like a hare, but, unfortunately for me, it was a bad place to be chased in. There were villas almost on every side and no vacant lands with any chance of hiding if systematic search were to be made.
I intended to slip over into the Botanic Garden and chance it among the trees, but just where I was intending to get over, I heard voices and saw lights flashing, and so had to run on. My pursuers were still clamoring and whistling behind me.
The worst of it was that I was now running hard towards the city and any moment the police or patrols might appear and block my way.
Just when I reached the corner wall of Government House, I heard answering whistles in front of me, and saw the lights of two bicycles coming down towards me. As they came under a lamp I saw they were two of the cycle police.
Things were getting desperate, for I was almost exhausted with the long run.
I must get over into the Governor's garden, I told myself. There was no help for it, although it was almost the last place I should have wished to take refuge in. It was the best guarded house in Adelaide, I knew, and there were always heaps of police within call.
I pulled myself up quickly by the thick strands of ivy and lay panting on the top of the wall. The ivy was thick and high there, and for the moment I was completely hidden in the shadow of a big tree.
My pursuers met the two policemen a few yards from where I lay, and the latter at once got off their machines.
"Seen him?" gasped one of my pursuers. "He can't have got by here."
"Seen who?" asked one of the policemen quickly. "What are you running after?"
"A man we caught hiding in a front garden. He ran like hell, directly we turned the light on him."
"What was he doing in the garden?" went on the policeman judicially.
"We don't know, but he cut directly we saw him, so he couldn't have been up to any good."
"Where did you lose him then—come on, be quick."
"Well," panted the man, still out of breath, "if he didn't pass you, he must have got over the Governor's wall here."
"Why the devil didn't you say that before?" cut in the policeman roughly. "Now look here—you help us, and we'll catch him sure. Two of you run down along the wall there, and see that he doesn't escape from that end, and you sir," to the third man, "go back to the main entrance and tell the sergeant you'll see there exactly what you've told us—that an unknown man's gone into the Vice-regal garden. Be quick—don't make a noise now; we'll wait here in case he tries to bolt back the same way he came, which he probably will do."
Off went the three men as they were bid, and the policemen were left alone. They propped their bicycles against a tree and crept stealthily to the corner angle of the wall.
"Not a sound, Billy," I heard one say. "He'll be somewhere close here. If he hears nothing maybe he'll pop over again. He knows he can't get away inside."
They knelt down under the ivy and craning their necks out cautiously, expectantly regarded the long length of wall that lay round the corner.
Their backs were now turned to me, and I didn't hesitate a second. I dropped softly down from the wall, landing without a sound in the flower bed just underneath.
For a moment I lay prone, and then finding my descent had passed quite unnoted, wriggled slowly and softly towards the tree, against which the two bicycles were still leaning.
I tried to make out which was the smaller one, but in the dark they seemed both about the same size, and I had to chance not being able to ride the one I was going to select. Lying flat on my stomach, I reached out and felt for the valve caps of the one I was going to leave. They were dreadfully hard to turn and it seemed ages before I at last heard the gentle hissing of the air escaping from the tyres.
To make doubly sure, I reached up to the wallet just below the saddle, and abstracting an adjustable wrench, thoroughly loosened the nuts holding the front wheel into the fork.
Then I rose up suddenly and, still without a sound, started to trundle the other bicycle along the stretch of grass running down alongside the path.
I counted on getting at least fifty yards start before I should be noticed, and I was not far wrong. Indeed, I might have sneaked off altogether, if it had not been for kicking against a stone.
I knew instantly they had heard me, for there was a shout and a damn, followed by a scuttling over the gravel path; the sound of a bicycle falling down and then—more damns.
But I had leaped on to the machine I had taken and was flying for my life back along the road where I had been chased. No one came after me. There was apparently no pursuit at all; I had evidently put the other bicycle clean out of action. I could not have wished for a luckier or more easy escape.
Having gone about half a mile, I turned off into a by-road and put out my light. Then I made off towards home, as quick as I could. I was twice challenged that night, but, happily, both times I had got well by my challengers, before they had caught sight of me, and as they were both times on foot, I, of course, got easily away again.
About a mile from home I knew of a long disused gravel pit, at the back of a small wood. Hardly anyone ever went there because it was supposed to be infested with snakes. At the bottom it was covered with a rank undergrowth that had been undisturbed for years. I chanced the snakes and cautiously carrying the bicycle down over the rather steep side, hid it carefully where I should easily be able to find it again. I had thought, when riding home, that it might come in useful on future occasions.
The next day all sorts of rumors were going about the city. The Governor had been attacked—an attempt had been made to get at his two children—a policeman had been killed in Government House—the murderer had been chased in the garden, &c.
There were many contradictions and explanations in the course of the afternoon, and most of the incidents that had been reported were later strenuously denied. But stripped of all gossip and exaggeration, at bottom, it was clear something had happened at Government House and the public were profoundly moved.
That the assassin should have had the audacity to penetrate into the Vice-regal garden, and, moreover, that having done so and his presence having become known, he should have been able to baffle and defy the police, struck the public significantly as a very terrible and incomprehensible thing.
The whole police organisation must be rotten, they said, and once and for all, special constables must be sworn in.
Pressure was brought on the Government from all sides, the Governor himself was reported as having vigorously spoken his own mind, and, in the end the authorities gave way.
At first they spitefully intended altogether to ignore our organisation, and just published a bare announcement that special constables would be sworn in in the usual way with no reference at all to the Vigilance Societies that already existed.
But I wasn't having anything like that.
At once I got our head-quarters committee together and a great public meeting was arranged for the next night. We invited representatives of the Government, of the City Council, and of the police authorities to be present, and I publicly stated pertinently that reasons must be forthcoming from them why our organisation should not be adopted en bloc.
In view of the state of public opinion, they all thought it wise to accept the invitation, and, when evening came, the platform was crowded with the big-wigs of the city and the State. The Premier came in person, and the Lord Mayor and a fair sprinkling of the alderman and councillors were also there, and last, but not least, Major Young, the Chief Commissioner of the Adelaide Police.
I was introduced to the last just before the meeting opened. He was a fine, tall, good-looking man and gave me a careless, but very politely frigid bow. I knew that he credited much of the ill-favor in which the police undoubtedly then were to the remarks I had been continually making about them.
I didn't know whether our guests by turning up in force expected to take a rise out of me, but if they did they were very much mistaken.
I was in the chair and I never for one moment let any of them forget it.
I rose to a storm of cheers and opened my remarks at once by saying I was quite sure the great audience then before me had not been gathered together in any spirit of antagonism to one another. Rather had they come in a friendly spirit of patriotism and loyalty to determine exactly what was the best for the care and safely of the dear city that they all loved so well.
They cheered appreciatively at this, and I went on to describe the peculiar situation that had arisen amongst us. One Man—most probably, only one man—was defying the community. He was setting at naught all those laws that they had framed for mutual safety. He was destroying the peace of the city and was making a nightly shambles of our roads and streets. He had been doing it now for over six weeks, and who he was, and where he was, and where he came from, were just as much secrets today as they were when he first started on his ghastly game.
As they were all aware, his cunning had been too great for the police. It was easy, I knew, to blame the police, but we must remember they were being called upon to face very unusual circumstances.
We must not, for a moment, be too hasty in discrediting the great efforts they had undoubtedly made to effect the arrest of the malefactor. But—and here I dropped my voice impressively, and spoke slowly and deliberately—while we must be kind and charitable in our thoughts towards those who were doing their utmost to carry out their appointed duties, at an admittedly very difficult time, we must have no pity whatsoever for any official blindness or red tapeism that refused to take advantage of one single thing that would make for the safety of the city. Otherwise, there would be placed round the neck of those willing and anxious to help a halter too heavy and too grievous to be borne.
They cheered enthusiastically here, and I gave them two instances as showing the inability of the police to cope with the present danger, owing to the paucity of their numbers. The first, when Policeman Holthusen was killed on the park lands, and the second, only two nights gone, when the unknown man escaped, so easily, from the Vice-regal gardens.
"Policeman Holthusen, gentlemen," I cried, "died almost in his comrades' arms, and the assassin, surprised and seen, seen, mark you, escaped without the very slightest difficulty through what should have been one of the most carefully guarded suburbs of the city; and that with lights flashing and with whistles blowing for assistance in all directions. Then the night before last—what do we have here? An unknown prowler, hiding and disturbed in a main road garden in St. Peters, is chased for upwards of a mile by three unofficial pursuers.
"The fugitive runs for safety, not towards lonely parklands, not towards the outskirts of the city—but right to the very heart of the city itself, just as if he were sure of there shaking off his pursuers. Well—after running as I say for over a mile—he sees two policemen coming up on bicycles, and is, no doubt, considerably surprised by their totally unexpected appearance"—the hall rocked with laughter here—"he climbs over, and takes refuge in the Governor's garden. The police confer with the man's pursuers and learn from them where he has gone, and take all the immediate measures possible to them to apprehend him. Well, what was the result? Not only did they fail to catch him, but he actually borrowed one of the policemen's bicycles and went off without, I believe, even condescending to say good-night.
"Now, gentlemen, North terrace is one of the few places that is not under the protection of our Vigilance patrols. We have always understood Government House and its immediate neighborhood to be so strongly guarded as to render it quite unnecessary for us to take them under our special control. Had we done so, however, last night's happening would have been quite impossible. The instant the first whistle sounded it would have been picked up in every direction by our patrols and a cordon would have been at once formed.
"Of course, we do not know who was this unknown man who climbed so quickly in and out of the Vice-regal garden. He may have been only an ordinary harmless pedestrian, frightened for the moment out of his wits and common sense. I say he may have been, but from the cunning of his movements, from his resource—do you know he actually stopped to let the wind out of the tyres of the other bicycle, before mounting the one he got away with—and from his general reckless disregard of danger, I am strongly of opinion that the man who got away last night is the very man we have been looking for all these weeks."
I went on, that with dangers such as now threatened us it was indisputable that we had not enough police. Some of us had recognised it weeks ago—officialdom was recognising it today.
They asked us now for special constables and the whole question was in a nutshell.
Were the authorities to obtain these special constables from the single and spasmodic swearing in of individuals, a proceeding that might entail days and weeks of delay, or were they to take advantage of an already highly organised body and obtain all that they required in a single minute and by a single sweep of the pen?
Surely we deserve some consideration and some thanks from the authorities—nay, more—surely we deserve some honor and some respect, too. For had we not anticipated, by at least a month, the tardy movement they were now making today?
Instead of asking generally for special constables, the more statesmanlike and dignified proceeding on the part of the authorities would have been to have taken over the Vigilance Society en bloc and so give us at once the official status we had been asking for all these weeks. And it would be no favor they would be granting us either. We should be turning over to them a going concern—an organisation that had been tested and in whose structure every man was dovetailed. We had no misfits amongst us.
I spoke for about twenty minutes, and there was no question, but that I carried the entire meeting with me. Indeed, they cheered for so long that at last I had to stand up and appeal for silence.
The Premier was the next to speak. He was an old parliamentary hand and a suave, cynical master of craft. Never, perhaps, were his powers shown to greater advantage than in his reply to me.
An election was shortly coming on; it was necessary to keep every vote for his side, and he saw unmistakably the direction in which public opinion was set. So he just drifted along with the current, as if all the time that had been the one precise direction in which he had intended to go. He agreed entirely with me that they had better take over the existing organisation we had formed. Obviously, it was the only thing to do, and if that were the sole reason for calling the meeting tonight then—shrugging his shoulders—we might just as well not have called it at all. A word, either in his ear, or in the ear of the Chief Commissioner of the Police, would have been quite sufficient. At the same time—and here he smiled and bowed most politely to me—if the meeting had not been called, speaking for himself, he would have missed one of the greatest treats of oratory he had enjoyed for a long time. He only wondered where I had been hiding the great gifts that I undoubtedly possessed in so remarkable a degree.
As I say, the Premier's speech was a very crafty one, but it gave as all we wanted and put the meeting on excellent terms with itself.
Two other speakers followed, and then someone called for the Chief Commissioner of the Police. The Chief had been sitting the whole time, as if very bored, crossing and uncrossing his legs, and continually taking out his watch to look at the time. Apparently he was not over-anxious to speak, for at first he smiled coldly and shook his head, when the audience asked for him.
But the calls becoming more insistent and the Premier leaning round and whispering something, he came forward to comply with the request.
Now he was no fool; anyone could see that by looking at him, and his speech was quite a little model, in its way.
He said he was a soldier, and a policeman, and always averse to talking about his work. Just now, his work was very unpleasant and he was quite aware he was most unpopular. But then, policemen were always unpopular, it was just part of their calling to be unpopular. One-half of the world was always wanting the other half to be locked up, and they offended some people when they took them up and offended others when they didn't. They were in for a bad time, anyway. If things were going all right, people looked upon them as unnecessary and a needless expense. If things went wrong, everybody blamed them and asked, "What the devil are the police doing?"
Speaking for himself, if anyone wanted to take on his job they were welcome to. He got more kicks than halfpence every day. As to the Vigilance Societies, he should be most happy to have them to work under him, but—here he squared his jaw and looked very sternly at me—anybody who was sworn in as a special constable would have to sink his individuality and be amenable to discipline in the usual way. Let them, please, remember that.
He resumed his seat without having made many friends, but he left behind him the impression of being a strong and capable man.
I met him next day at luncheon at Government House. I learned afterwards that the Governor had purposely arranged the meeting in order to soften down any antagonism there might be between us. There was also present Sir Bartle Elkin—the great mental expert—perhaps the greatest authority on diseases of the mind that the Commonwealth has ever produced. He was a long-faced, lean, clean-shaven man with the abstract dreamy look that is so often seen on the faces of those placed over the care of the insane. Our main topic of conversation was, of course, the terror that was hanging over the city, and I enjoyed the discussion in a strange, impersonal sort of way.
The Governor asked me presently, if I had formed any decided opinions as to the kind of man the malefactor was.
I hesitated for a moment, and he went on smilingly.
"Come, Mr. Wacks, you must surely have some idea in your own mind as to the personality of the man against whom you have built up that fine organization of yours."
"Well, sir," I replied cautiously, "I regard him, as I suppose we all do, as a madman of a kind."
"What do you mean 'of a kind'?"
"Well, he can't be mad always, he can't carry about him any sign of his madness, for instance, or he would have been spotted long ago."
"Exactly, Mr. Wacks," broke in Sir Bartle, "and that's where our difficulty lies. Probably if the man were here with us at this table today, he would be just like you and me, or our friend here, the Chief Commissioner of the Police. No one would possibly be able to certify him as insane."
"I have often mildly speculated too, Sir Bartle," I continued coolly, "as to whether, indeed, he might not be a member of my own troop."
"Most possibly so, Mr. Wacks," smiled back the great specialist thoughtfully, "indeed, you yourself might be he. In fact, and I know you won't mind my saying so—to me, as a mental student, you yourself exhibit many of the characteristics that this gentleman who is so troubling us to-day must possess."
"Oh, come, doctor," interrupted the Governor laughingly, "I can't have you putting down all the trouble to Mr. Wacks—at my own table, too."
"No, no, not for a moment, my lord—I didn't say that. What I meant was—our friend here has shown himself to be suddenly the possessor of characteristics as totally unexpected as all the characteristics of the man we are looking for. An unknown quantity a few weeks ago, today Mr. Wacks is easily the second most interesting personality in the State. I was at the meeting last night, and it struck me then that exactly as some unknown force acting on the mentality of one man has given us a secret, a hidden criminal, so another unknown force acting on the mentality of another man—in this case Mr. Peter Wacks—has given us a fine organiser and a great orator. I know Mr. Wacks will forgive me the comparison, but as I say, as a very humble student of the workings of the mind, both men exhibit to me the same wonderful new-born qualities of power—ability and resource. One, of course, using these qualities for the well-being of the community—the other for its harm. You follow me, don't you, Mr. Wacks?"
"Oh yes," I assented laughing, "you mean I am under suspicion."
"Not at all—not at all, but you are a surprise to us, just as the other man is, but happily in a very different way."
"Well, it seems to me," said the Commissioner of the Police, looking highly amused, "that at any rate I shall have to keep my eye on our friend here."
We all laughed good naturedly. I felt quite at ease, notwithstanding the dangerous turn the conversation had taken. It didn't seem to trouble me in the least. As far as I was concerned, they might have been talking about another man.
"What puzzles me," went on Sir Bartle meditatively, "what I don't understand is how the madman has managed to maintain his anonymity for so long. How it is these dreadful bouts of mania, extending for over six weeks now, have not wholly broken down his mind and so betrayed him. In his lucid intervals, he must go back very completely to a state of mental quietness, or his brain must have generally given way long before now.
"Then, if he does go back to comparative sanity in the intervals between his paroxysms—what is it that stirs him up again?"
"What are the stimuli that bring him, almost nightly, to a state of mania? Is it a drug? I know of nothing that could keep up its effect for so long. It is quite beyond me."
We were all silent from different motives, and after a few moments the great specialist went on:—
"One thing I do notice now—the violence of his mania seems rather to be fading away."
"Fading away, is it?" growled the Chief Commissioner. "I haven't seen any fading away. That affair up at Gilberton last Sunday was as bad as anything we have had—quite."
"Oh—I was referring, rather, to the frequency of the attacks, not to their violence when they actually occur. Look here; it's just over six weeks since these crimes started and the man has had, say, twenty-seven nights when the moon allowed him to carry on his dreadful work. Twenty-seven nights when he could work in darkness, between half-past eight and eleven. I believe all his attacks have taken place between those hours—haven't they?"
"Yes, that's so," replied the Chief resignedly. "He's been always most particular to finish in time so that he could catch his tram or his train—confound him."
"Well, in the first fourteen of these favorable nights we hear of him on eleven occasions—in the last thirteen favorable nights, he troubles us upon only seven, and in the last six nights, only twice. You see my point, Chief, don't you?"
"Oh, yes, I follow you there, Sir Bartle, but what do you argue from that?"
"Well—I am wondering if by any chance his mania is beginning to exhaust itself, and that after a few days everything may die down, and we may hear nothing more of him. It's quite possible."
"Do you mean to say," frowned the Chief Commissioner, "that he may suddenly subside to normal life again, and that we may hear nothing further of him?"
"Quite possible, at any rate for a time, until his mania may perhaps break out again."
"The saints preserve us!" ejaculated the Chief. "I want to live a few years longer. The early grave business is not in my line."
"Well, we ought to know soon now—it will be seven weeks on Tuesday since the first manifestation began.
"No it was earlier than that, doctor," said the Chief, shaking his head; "we know now they began on the Monday."
"But surely poor old Bentley was killed on the Tuesday."
"Yes, but on the Monday something else happened."
We all looked interestedly at the Chief. He evidently enjoyed our puzzled looks, for it was quite a minute before he went on.
"Yes, Mr. Wacks, here, didn't know everything, although I may say frankly that I have been surprised several times by what he does know. What happened on the Monday was this. A man in Bowden had seven rabbits killed. No—you needn't laugh. I firmly believe their killing was the work of this same hand.
"Someone, in the middle of the night, went into this man's garden, opened seven rabbit hutches, killed seven rabbits and put them all back, one by one, just as he had found them. We have gone most carefully into the matter and can conceive of no earthly reason for it at all. It was just as insane and purposeless as all these later crimes—and in the manner of its execution, it is quite on all fours with them."
"This is most interesting, Major. I ought to have been told of it before. Give me the details most minutely now."
I sat silent in great astonishment, and for the first time for many weeks there flashed through my mind the possibility that I might be found out. I dropped my eyes to think. I had quite forgotten about Boulter and his rabbits, and it positively amazed me that anyone had so wonderfully grasped the significance of their deaths. It must be Meadows, of course. I must look after him—lately, I had never given him a thought.
I intently regarded the Doctor and the Chief as they discussed the matter. How very, very different were their faces, I thought, and yet—and yet I fancied I could see the cold, clear, icy reasoning in them both. The power to push away the lines of thought not wanted, and sink like a plummet to the very bottom rock of facts.
I was a fool, I told myself. They had evidently been throwing a wide net around, and all the time I had never given a thought to the possibilities of what they might drag in. I must be careful.
I went back to the office that afternoon rather depressed. I longed for the time when I could get home and fly again to the paste.
THE next day it was, of course, in all the morning papers that Sir Bartle Elkin, the Chief Commissioner of the Police, and I had lunched with the Governor at Government House. It was very amusing to feel the almost awed respect they now had for me in the office. Even the hated Waller was subdued in his manner when he spoke to me, and there was always quite a hush when I gave orders or spoke to them. They had really become very proud of me, and, I knew, referred to me outside the office, as "Our Peter Wacks."
The firm, too, were very pleased with the position I now occupied in the public eye. Old Mr. Winter had had me up to dinner in his big mansion, in the most select part of North Adelaide, and his daughter from the first had made quite a fuss of me.
She was a woman of about thirty, and, unused though I was to the ways of her sex, I could not but help noticing the interest she at once took in me. Of a strong, independent nature herself—a woman who, in the ordinary way, was not much attracted by men—I must have struck some chord in her that brought out the inherent longing of every woman to be the care and fond desire of some one man.
Anyhow, she was most nice to me, and in a tactful friendly way made me feel at once at my ease. There were nine of us at table, and I joined naturally and unrestrainedly in all the talk that went on.
During dinner the conversation happened to turn on chess, and I told them all about Captain Barker and the many games I had had with him.
A keen looking, hawk-faced man, who, I learned afterwards, was Professor of Mathematics at the Adelaide University, was most interested, and asked me what sort of game the old man played.
"Oh," I replied, "he was in a way a really marvellous player. He had quite a natural genius for the game."
"And yourself," queried the Professor smiling, "I should say you would be a devout disciple?"
"Well, I can play," I admitted, "but I have met so few really good players that I hardly exactly know my strength."
"Or your weakness," smiled back the Professor. "Well, I must give you a game—I rather fancy myself, you know."
"Don't take him on, Mr. Wacks," advised Miss Winter, shaking her head emphatically. "He's a very hard nut to crack, and by far the best player here."
But I felt quite confident, and when, later on in the evening, the Professor set out the chessmen, I sat down to the board without any qualms at all.
"If you don't mind I'll take first move," he said, "and, of course, we must play quickly. I just want to get some idea of what your old sea captain's teaching was worth."
Everyone stood round to watch the game.
He opened at once with a most slashing attack, and in the first few moves boldly made the sacrifice of a pawn. I wasn't in the slightest degree nonplussed, however, but met his onslaught patiently, and with the perfect confidence of later reprisals. After 10 moves he was thinking harder than I, and after 15 I could feel his attack had weakened right away. He began to hesitate in making his moves, but I was ready always on the instant with my replies.
He looked up soon, and smilingly asked what I thought of the prospects of the game.
"No, don't hesitate, Mr. Wacks, give me your honest opinion. Remember, I am trying to test your knowledge of the game."
"Well," I replied bluntly, rather nettled with his patronising air, "you haven't a chance at all. You are a pawn down, your attack has failed, and in half a dozen moves at most your position will be so cramped that you'll have to sacrifice a piece to get elbow room."
He thought for a minute. "Quite true—quite true," he slowly remarked at length. "It's as you say, I'll give you this game. Now you open, please. Perhaps I'll have better luck this time."
I opened in exactly the same way as he had done and at once offered the sacrifice of a pawn. He screwed up his face to an amused grimace. "You're cruel, sir, very cruel," he remarked; "it's just like smacking a naughty child."
He took the pawn, however, and started to follow the line of defence that I had adopted in the previous game. But I varied the attack considerably, and, playing strongly and fearlessly, in a few moves offered the sacrifice of a piece. For a long time he hesitated—so long that old Mr. Winter banteringly implored him to buck up. Then he suddenly whipped off his knight with a jerk, and, leaning back in his chair, looked round complacently as if quite assured that he had at last done a good thing. Three moves later however, he had got both his hands on to his forehead, and it was my turn to assume the pose of all things going well.
He didn't wait very long this time, but looked across to me, with quite a sad smile.
"Well, Master," he said with a fine exaggeration of disappointment, "what do you think of the game now?"
"Mate in three," I replied laconically, "or you lose your queen." He downed his king with a little bow and got up from the table.
"You're quite a player, Mr. Wacks," he said, "a fine player. I don't deny I'm chagrined a bit, and I confess I feel very humble. I dare say in a match I should give you a better game than I've given you now, but still you're stronger than I in every way. Speaking off-hand, I should say you're quite good enough to play in a Masters' tourney; I know something about the game, too; for five years I took on all comers in Sydney."
Miss Winter was quite delighted that I had beaten the Professor, and in saying good-bye, hoped I should often come up now. She said I must give her some lessons in chess.
A few days later I was called into the private office of the firm, and given the post of general secretary to the Company.
It meant a tremendous boost for me, for the salary was nearly three times what I had been receiving in the invoice room.
"We pride ourselves as a firm in being enterprising, Wacks," laughed Mr. William, "and it would be hardly up to our principles to keep any gentleman of such organising ability as yours in the lowly position of a clerk in the invoice room."
When I told Lucy that night of what had happened she threw her arms round my neck in delighted surprise.
"Oh, Peter dear, I'm so happy," she said. "Everything seems so different to me now since you love me. When I wake up in the morning I hear the birds calling to me through the window, and all day long I want to sing. I'm always thinking about you and just longing for the time when I shall be all yours."
I strained her to me passionately, but somewhere deep down in my subconscious mind there was something stirring that made me feel uneasy, and part afraid. Was I beginning to think?
AFTER being sworn in as special constable, I was very often up at the police head-quarters, in Victoria square. As Patrol Inspector-in-Chief I had no particular duties assigned to me, but had a roving commission given me, which, in effect, left me pretty well free to do as I pleased, although every evening I was expected to put in an appearance and sign the roll of attendance.
Contrary to what I had expected, the Chief Commissioner was always very pleasant to me; indeed, he was sometimes quite affable, and given to joking about the cloud we were both under.
He often said he was sure the crowd would hang us both some day, and when in a good mood it was his favorite joke to ask if I had chosen my particular lamp-post yet.
One evening I boldly appropriated a policeman's cape and cap. There were always a number hanging up in the men's waiting room and, noticing the place to be empty once when I passed, I darted in quickly and helped myself to what I hurriedly considered were suitable sizes.
I walked out calmly with them tucked away under my arm and no one took any notice of what I was carrying.
I had been wanting them badly—to go with the policeman's bicycle I had already annexed.
There was now such a cloud of suspicion hovering over everyone that even a man bicycling slowly along, with full lights glaring, was liable any moment to be stopped and questioned.
But the policeman's cape and cap would make it quite different, I thought, and upon meeting any patrol-men suspicion would be disarmed at once. I chanced it that the loss of the things would not be discovered; at any rate, I guessed no one would ever dream they had been stolen from inside.
I was still taking the nightly dose of paste, but somehow I didn't feel nearly so keen now about going out upon my dreadful quest of blood.
Whether or not the drug was gradually losing its effect upon me, as the great specialist had suggested, I could not tell, but certainly as the days went on I began only very occasionally to go out.
For one reason, perhaps, I was never certain to be free now until fairly late in the evening, and when the dreadful fits did seize me, I had to work in very late and unprofitable hours. There were then fewer people about and, besides, everyone had by now been so thoroughly stirred up and frightened that they took far fewer risks, and either stayed indoors altogether, or went about outside in twos and threes.
I have, strangely enough, a much clearer memory of what happened in those later times and it seems to me now that my various personalities were beginning then gradually to coalesce and overlap.
I could no longer keep my mind exactly in compartments, and one part of my life began to worry about what the other part was doing.
Sometimes for a few minutes thoughts about the future, too, would oppress me and I was no longer content, as I had been, to live wholly in the passing hour. I began to worry about Lucy. One day I caught myself wondering if she would be happy as my wife.
These thoughts did not last for long at a time, but I gradually began to feel they were there. I was like a man with a sore place that was always likely to give trouble.
ONE night, very late, I found myself near the Zoological Gardens. It had been a fearfully gusty day, and the wind was still blowing furiously.
One of my real savage moods had returned and I was quite reckless of anything I did. I had ridden boldly up to the city, along the Port Road, and it had been no gratification to me that I had openly passed three patrols without being spoken to and questioned.
I had hidden my bicycle under the bank of the Torrens River and was sullenly prowling round, rejoicing in the risks and dangers I was running.
Suddenly, between the gusts of wind, I heard the roaring of a lion. It sounded mournful and sorrowful to me, as if the beast were pining for its home. I was in angry pity all at once. What brutes men were to cage these poor beasts! They had no right to inflict a lifetime of loneliness upon any animal, just to gratify a lot of silly people who paid sixpences and shillings to stare and gape at creatures often far nobler than themselves. It ought to be stopped.
Then an idea flashed to me. At any rate, they should have one night of freedom to remember.
I climbed without difficulty over the wall, and in a couple of minutes I was standing in front of the cages of the imprisoned beasts.
It was the night of a new moon, and I could just make out the dim form of the lion whose despairing roar had called up my train of thought.
He was a magnificent animal and was softly padding to and fro behind the bars of his cage.
I mounted fearlessly to the door at the side and with my short bar of iron, set vigorously to work on the lock. It was a flimsy sort of arrangement at any time, but, clinging to the cage with one arm as I had to, it was quite four or five minutes before I broke it open, and was able to fling wide the door for the lion to come out.
To my annoyance, however, the beast was nowhere to be seen. My hammering evidently had been too much for its nerves and it had crept into its sleeping apartment, apparently afraid.
I rattled on the bars disgustedly to make it come out, but it was no good, and then in a fit of rage I walked right in and threw a handful of gravel in the direction of where I thought the beast must be.
Nothing happened, however, and for a moment I had serious thoughts of going in to drag it out forcibly, but an angry growl in the darkness made me think better of it, and I passed on to the next cage.
There were two young tigers there, and at once both were much interested in my proximity to their cage; indeed, I had to hit one vigorously over the paws several times with my iron before I could sufficiently divert his attention from my legs to allow me to get to work on the lock.
When I at length did get the door open both animals dashed through so quickly that I was knocked over and left sprawling on the gravel, in front of the cage.
I next had a go at the bears. Three brown ones I saw depart inquisitively upon a tour of inspection in the direction of the manager's house, but the fourth, a big black one, pig-headedly refused to get up or even budge an inch, notwithstanding that I prodded vigorously into his back with a long piece of paling that I found on the path, outside his cage. He just grunted and rolled over out of reach.
Two wolves also persistently refused to leave their cage until, in a terrible rage now, I finally went in and booted them out. I fancied they must have gone in the same direction as the bears, for I later heard an awful row as it they were disagreeing together.
I went to let out the big polar bear, too, but on my approaching his cage he was most anxious at once to commence operations on me. The silly brute wouldn't let me come anywhere near the bars without thrusting his nasty looking claws out and trying to grab at me and pull me in. I hit him and threw gravel at him, but he just snarled and kept his place, so I gave him up at last and came away.
I let out a few parrots and broke down the ostrich door, but it was poor sport and quite in a disgusted frame of mine I returned to my bicycle and rode off.
Next morning there were all sorts of rumors going about. I heard them even going up in the train. All the animals had got loose from the Zoo. The elephants had broken into the Botanic Gardens and eaten all the oranges off the trees. One of the tigers had got right through the city and had walked into the office of the Tramway Trust—he had fortunately, however, discovered at once where he was and had slunk away, abashed. (The Tramway Trust had just recently raised the tram fares on all their routes.) A big bear had got into the Cathedral, but the Bishop had been privately rehearsing his Sunday sermon there and the bear had gone off to sleep. A short-sighted old lady had woke him up by prodding with her umbrella, thinking it was the Dean—and so on, and so on.
Everyone was much amused and it was only when they found that a tiger was actually somewhere at large in the city that the situation lost something of its humor.
The animal was later located, however, in the garage of a dentist, whose back entrance opened into Gawler Place. With the energetic help of this gentleman it was soon coaxed into a large packing case and secured. The jovial dentist stood all its captors drinks and, hastily summoning a photographer, had his photo taken sitting on the packing case and surrounded by the four uniformed attendants from the Zoo. He said it was one of the most reasonable patients he had ever attended.
None of the other animals, it appeared later, had got outside the Zoo ground; some even had never left their cages, and, the facts becoming known, the public generally voted them a poor set of wild beasts, and sarcastically suggested they should be henceforth allowed to roam loose.
But if the public were amused, the authorities were not, and long and serious confabulations took place at the police head-quarters as to the immunity the perpetrator of these continued outrages enjoyed.
I did not go out for several nights after that. I had hurt my left hand considerably in banging about the cage locks and it was quite stiff and useless for a while. I told everyone I had twisted it in chopping wood.
Two days after the affair at the Zoo, I fancied there was an unusual air of expectation on the faces of the heads at Victoria Square. The Chief himself was in a most happy mood, and chaffed me incessantly whenever he saw me.
"Chosen your lamp-post yet, Mr. Wacks?" he laughed genially. "I've chosen mine, just outside Tattersalls Club, to be a warning to all the evildoers there. I hear they're betting ten to one against us finding our friend within the next six months."
I frowned coldly at him. I was sure something was going on and was annoyed that we specials were never, even in the very slightest degree, taken into the confidence of the regular officials. Even small unimportant things that were taking place came to my knowledge sometimes in quite a roundabout way from casual conversation with some of my brother specials—and as their chief officer I felt I was being badly treated.
I had expected that quite naturally there would be always some sort of jealousy between the regular police and ourselves, but I had expected also that we should receive at least some part of their confidence.
But no—we were never told anything about anything and the youngest policeman would always derive pleasure in handing out a snub whenever he could.
I tried tacitly to pump Meadows, but I might just as well have spoken to a piece of cheese. Early one morning, I met him at home, just when he was coming in for breakfast. He looked white and tired, as if he had been up all night; also I noticed his clothes were very dusty and there were reddish patches on his coat.
"Morning, Mr. Meadows," I said cheerfully. "How's business? Anything fresh?"
"I haven't seen the papers yet," he replied coldly. "We shall be sure to see if there is anything then"—and he passed brusquely back to his own room. Unmannered beast, I thought; I was beginning to hate him.
I was very puzzled, for I knew from Mrs. Bratt that Meadows had lately been sleeping at home a lot during the day, and that, of course, meant he had been out on all-night work.
I was more convinced than ever that something was going on and, in a faint uneasy way, I fell to wondering if it could possibly be anything to do with me.
The solution came to me that afternoon, in a very unexpected manner.
I was walking up North Terrace at lunch time, and suddenly came face to face with Sir Bartle Elkin.
He stopped at once and held out his hand.
"Well, Mr. Wacks," he said cordially, "and how's that great abnormal brain of yours today? Any grit in the wheels yet, as time goes on, or do you find it working better and better with the exercise you are now giving it?"
I assured him I was well strung up to concert pitch and ready and waiting for anything.
"Now didn't I tell you," he went on, "that things must get quieter and quieter in the mania line? No outrage now for over a week, except that potty little affair at the Zoo, which, after all, may have been only a little ebullition of spirit on the gentleman's part. But still," and he wagged his head solemnly, "no relaxation of vigilance, mind—no taking things easy now. If he commits, perhaps, only one more crime, that crime may yet turn out to be the most bloody and most wicked of the lot. Well—good-bye—hope I shall meet you again some day, and we'll continue that interesting little discussion we were having at the Governor's. You know, you're quite a study to me, and you're indexed up on my file. Oh, by-the-by, there's a most interesting case at the hospital just now. I've just come from there. A case of delirium after snake-bite. A policeman was bitten the day before yesterday, and he's been raving ever since that he was watching a bicycle and the tyres turned into a snake and bit him. Funny, the line of thought, isn't it?"
"What?" I exclaimed startled, I didn't know why. "A policeman bitten by a snake—not an Adelaide policeman, surely."
"Oh, yes—a city one. A red-headed Irishman, and bitten close to the city, too, I think. He's been very bad, but he's pulling round nicely now. Good-bye."
He went off smiling, but left me thinking heavily.
A policeman bitten by a snake and thinking he was watching a bicycle! Snakes—policeman—and a bicycle. Good heavens! How it all smelt of the gravel pit. A red-haired Irishman too! It must be Sullivan, and Sullivan was Meadows's pal! Meadows's pal, and the one that always worked with him on double jobs! Could they—could they possibly have traced the bicycle by now? Out there in that lonely gravel-pit behind the brick-kilns on the Torrens Road! Brick-kilns— brick-kilns—bricks—good Lord!—where had I just seen the red dust of bricks? Why Meadows had had brick dust on his coat that very morning! Meadows himself!
In a flash the light came to me and everything was clear as day. Of course, that was the excitement at the police head-quarters. They had found the bicycle and were expecting to trap me at last, thinking any night I might be returning again to get the machine. They were watching the pit. That was why Meadows had been out all night lately, and that was why he had got the brick dust on his coat.
What an escape! And what a fool I had been! I had looked upon the police as asses and yet, in less than ten days, they had gone straight to the one spot, out of the many millions I might have chosen, and found the machine. I wondered vaguely how they had ever gone on the track, and then I called myself a fool again. Of course, the two lots of people who had challenged me that night when I had taken the bicycle must have reported to the police separately and that had given them some sense of the direction I had gone.
Then, too, Meadows had lived all his life about Bowden, and, of course, he knew every possible or probable hiding place for miles round. No doubt, he had many times thrown stones into the slimy pool at the bottom of the pit, just as I had often done when a boy.
Yes, it was rather simple after all. I wondered then if they had found the policeman's cape and cap I had hidden under some stones in another part of the pit. Anyhow, it didn't matter if they had—I wouldn't go for them again.
I was very absent-minded that afternoon at the office. I felt really worried all the time, and it was quite a new thing for me. I was fidgety and anxious, I didn't quite know why.
I left early that afternoon and walked up to the police head-quarters. It was easy for me to make an excuse, and I was curious to confirm my suspicions.
As luck would have it, I met the very man I wanted, Inspector Wedlake—he was the Chief's right-hand man. I asked him carelessly if he were satisfied with the attendance the specials were putting in.
"Certainly," he replied emphatically, "you've got together a smart, keen lot of men, and not one has failed for duty yet."
"How are your own lambs, Inspector?" I laughed—referring, of course, to the regular police.
"As happy and as frolicsome as anyone could wish, Mr. Wacks."
"None of them ill either, Inspector—every one on duty, too?"
"Certainly, sir—every one on duty—we don't allow sickness in the force. Why, if any of the poor beggars here fell ill, we should soon have someone writing to the papers to point out what a weak lot we had recruited," and he laughed in high good humor at his own wit.
What a liar the Inspector was, I thought—but there was no doubt they had all got the office to keep the news of Policeman Sullivan's snakebite from getting about. Of course, if it got out he had been bitten by a snake, everyone would have been interested at once to know how it had happened, and perhaps the purloiner of the bicycle might get his suspicions and stay away. The gravel pit was notorious for its evil reputation for snakes.
I was quite satisfied that I had hit on the truth, but still I hadn't done with the matter yet.
There was a hill about a mile from the gravel pit that would command, I knew, an almost clear view of the brickfields through which anyone would have to pass to get to where I had hidden the bicycle.
I determined to watch that evening at dusk, for if they were watching the pit, as I was almost certain they were, it would be at dusk that they would place their sentries to be ready for the night.
I made my way home quickly to get the binoculars I had bought when Lucy and I went to the races, and about half an hour before dusk I was lying snugly among the bushes on the side of the hill I had selected for my observations.
I could see the brickfields quite easily and with the glasses could even pick out small objects lying about on the grass. It was well I had come early, for I was hardly comfortably settled in my position when I saw a solitary figure walk quickly over the brickfields and disappear into the little wood.
Another and another followed until in less than five minutes I had counted ten. They had all walked quickly and purposely into the wood, with no loitering or hesitation. At that distance they had all seemed to have overcoats or mackintoshes on, and one, from the forward way in which he held his head, I could have sworn was Meadows himself.
I waited until dark had actually closed down, but nothing more happened. All was lonely as the grave—I should have added, silent as the grave, too, if once or twice I had not fancied I could hear the deep, but far-off, baying of a hound. Evidently, I thought, they were well prepared, and, hoping an opportunity would present itself, had actually got the bloodhounds handy to lay them quickly on the trail.
That night I determined somehow to get into Meadows' room. Things could not be more fortunate for me in that respect; Meadows himself, I was certain, would be out all night, and Mrs. Bratt would probably be away, too. Her married sister was very ill at Alberton, about three miles away, and every evening lately Mrs. Bratt had taken herself off with tears and profuse apologies, leaving us to look after ourselves.
I was very uneasy about Meadows and a sure instinct told me that, sooner or later, his suspicions were going to fall on me. There were so many little things that might turn his thoughts towards me, and once his suspicions were really awakened a dangerous significance would attach to lots of happenings that at present he could think nothing of.
He knew, for instance, that I often came home very late, and upon three occasions when I must have had blood on me, if he had only known it, he had passed and said good-night to me in the hall.
Then there was the business about Boulter's rabbits. Of course, it was he who had guessed there was some connection between the rabbit killing and the other crimes. Only he could have told the Chief of Police about it. Then, this present affair at the gravel pit. He must have guessed that the man who hid the bicycle there would live somewhere handy to the spot. Yes—altogether, I thought, Meadows was a man I must know all I could about. He was going to be very dangerous to me.
I knew he always kept his room locked. I had never been in it, all the five years and more he and I had boarded with Mrs. Bratt. It was always locked except when he was having his meals in the kitchen, and then Mrs. Bratt was allowed to go in and tidy it up a bit. Captain Barker had often laughed about the funny arrangement; he used to suggest Meadows must be keeping dead bodies there.
Mrs. Bratt went out early, as I had thought she would, and waiting a few minutes in case she should be coming back for something she had forgotten, I stealthily set about my investigations.
I switched off all the lights and put the house in darkness. Then I crept quietly out by the back door and carefully examined Meadows' window from outside.
As I expected, it was unlatched and wide open. There was only the flyproof wire frame to protect the room from intruders. I soon made short work of that.
I carefully prised out the nails that held the wire frame to the window sill, and in half a minute was inside the room.
I pulled down the blind and boldly switched on the light. It would be far better, I argued, to have the light full on than to be seen sneaking about by the flash of my electric torch.
The room was quite nicely furnished though, and there were a lot of books on the shelf. Books on travel, books on law, novels, detective stories, Tudor's 'Psychology of Crime,' Fendleson's 'The Art of Disguise,' a book on Poisons, and two thick volumes on Medical Jurisprudence. Dear me, I thought, a student here. Meadows must be quite a rising young man, and far more than the stolid, clod-hopping policeman I had always taken him to be.
I opened his cupboard, and his clothes at once profoundly interested me. Heaps and heaps of them, and of all sorts of cuts and shapes. I knew his work often took him out in disguise—for Mrs. Bratt had continually told me so, but I never imagined anything like this. He had countrymen's and laborers' suits—a suit of a navvy—one of a railway porter—a rig-out that looked like a tramp's, and last but not least, a nice, natty-looking, well-cut dress suit.
All, too, were hanging methodically on their separate pegs. In a box on the bottom shelf I found two wigs, a lot of tufts of false hair, and a complete grease paint outfit for making up.
I was the more and more astonished.
I opened a large tin trunk next, and in it found pile upon pile of newspaper cuttings all neatly docketed and arranged.
There was a large map there, which something made me open. I was at once amply repaid.
It was a full-size scale map of Adelaide and its surroundings, and there were little red crosses all over it, with marginal notes at the side. It didn't take me long before I realised that the little red crosses marked the places where I had attempted or had committed my crimes. Every spot in the city or thereabouts where I had been at any time heard of had been carefully marked down; and the marginal notes explained things, and gave the approximate time.
I felt my back beginning to creep.
Underneath the newspapers, I came upon the gem of all. A fair-sized, thickish, black book that he had used as a rough diary and that extended back for years. The entries were in neat regular handwriting, but the names of most of the people he referred to were represented by abbreviations or simply by a single letter.
I started upon the book towards the end, and soon found things that interested me. Some of the entries were most trivial, however. 'Mrs. B. broke water jug,' was one. 'Mrs. B's sister came,' was another. Then came what were evidently referring to me. 'Heard W-k speak at Woodville'—'Met W-k with L.B.'—'W-k came home at 11.45 to-night.'
Exactly—he spied upon everyone, as I thought. I turned over several more pages and found a lot about Boulter on one. Boulter's name was written in full—no doubt to distinguish him from other people whose names commenced with B.
I read on. "People Boulter knows," went on the diary, and then followed a lot of names with mine, of course, among the first. "People Boulter's dog knows," and my name again was near the top of the list. I could easily follow the drift of the fellow's thoughts. He was thinking about the rabbits being killed and was trying to tabulate a list of people who might possibly have owed Boulter a grudge, and he was trying also to call up all the people who were friendly with his dog and who could have entered the back garden that night without being received with growls or barks. Then came a terse significant entry. "Told C.C." Yes, that, of course, meant when he went up to the Chief Commissioner and suggested to him that the slayer of the rabbits and the terrorizer of the city were one and the same man. Yes, quite a long shot that, Master Meadows, I sneered, but a bulls-eye, all the same.
I learned a lot from that diary before my eyes so ached that I had, at last, to shut it up. As I had surmised, it was Meadows himself who had found the bicycle, and found it after nine days' strenuous, one-man search. Then for the last three nights he had lain expectant with his comrades upon the gravel pit side—waiting and waiting for the man who never came.
In a strange sort of way, I felt rather sorry for them all. I knew so well the horrible surroundings of the pit.
I could picture their vigil even as I sat reading there. They would be lying prone upon the dark pitside and it would be blackest night where they all were. It would be hot and sultry and foul smells would drench the air. There would be a grave-like silence. Every sense and feeling would be strained, almost to the breaking point. Every moment they would hope to see a shadow creeping down, and every moment they would hope to hear the footfalls of a man picking his way stealthily and with care. But every moment would bring its disappointment to them. The shadow they would never see, and the footfall they would never hear. They would wait and watch in vain.
Fear, too, would be with them all the night—fear of the cold, vile reptile creatures, crawling and writhing all around them, in the pit that was their home. The whole night long death in its most ghastly form would never be far from them and the dawn only could bring relief, both from their hopes and from their fears.
I replaced the book just where I had found it, and, leaving no traces of my visit, climbed softly out of the room.
I slept badly and brokenly that night and my sleep was full of disquieting dreams.
Next morning, however, my old confidence had returned, and I went up to the office thinking of Lucy most of the time.
As I was walking up the railway station stairs in Adelaide, I met one of the reporters of 'The Register' whom I knew.
"Any news, Mr. Wacks," he asked briskly, "anything good for copy that you happen to know?"
I shook my head smilingly, and then a thought struck me and I grinned to myself.
"Well, I've nothing particular to tell you," I said slowly, "but I can give you an interesting item of general news. Policeman Sullivan is at present in the Adelaide Hospital, suffering from snake-bite contracted in the course of some special duties. You needn't necessarily say that it was I who told you, but its a fact, and it may interest the public."
He thanked me, and that evening, as I expected, there appeared a paragraph in the 'Evening Journal,' detailing the news about the snake-bitten policeman. The police being then very much in the public eye the 'Journal' people had thought it quite worth their while to send up a reporter to the hospital and gather in all the particulars. An innocent young house surgeon had very amiably obliged, and the reporter had worked up quite a nice little story for the edification of the 'Journal's' readers.
I smiled grimly to myself when I read it, and wondered rather spitefully exactly what particular word the Chief Commissioner of the Police would make use of when it came to meet his eye.
That night I got rid of one of my suits of clothes. I had practically always worn the same suit when I had gone out on my expeditions at night. It was a suit of very dark grey.
I had been always most careful to sponge off any stains that had come on it, but as the sponging had generally been done on the mornings following upon the nights that I had been out, I was never sure that it had been effective. I was afraid of what the microscope might reveal.
I had puzzled all day how to get rid of it, but my good fortune was befriending me.
As I came up our garden that evening, I smelled that Mrs. Bratt had been burning rubbish in the yard. She had had quite a good-sized bonfire I saw, and the embers were still glowing, under the big heap of debris that she had made. As usual, she had gone off in a great hurry to her sister directly after preparing my tea, and there was no one about the house.
I made a small bundle of my suit and pushed it well into the middle of the smouldering heap. It made a nasty smell, but in an hour or so it was all consumed, and I congratulated myself that that danger was now over once and for all.
Now, Mr. Detective Meadows, I thought, you can just focus your suspicions when you like. I'm quite ready for you.
I saw him coming in that evening about seven o'clock, and he looked very sullen and cross.
ON the following Saturday I made what ultimately turned out to be my last attempt at crime, and never before had I been in such great and deadly peril. At one time it was any odds on my being captured, and it was only by the most fortunate combination of circumstances that I escaped at all.
I had partly got over my fear of Meadows, and in an evil humor that evening had even boldly carried my bar of iron with me up to the police head-quarters.
I had long since bound it well round with string at the handle end, to give a better grip, and I found it fairly easy to carry, suspended to my side just under my left arm.
They were all down in the dumps again at Victoria Square, where the police head-quarters were situated. The paragraph in the 'Journal' about Policeman Sullivan's snake bite had made the Chief Commissioner wild with rage, and for the last few days he had hardly spoken to me, although he had seen me several times.
I neither knew nor cared whether he was aware that the information had come through me. He should have treated me with more confidence, I argued, and it served him right.
About nine o'clock I got on the tram for Prospect, with no particular definite object in my mind. I felt the lust of blood upon me, however, and was quite reckless of any danger I might run.
I went the full tram journey, and for quite half an hour wandered aimlessly about the roads. I kept a good eye out for my patrols, and dodged three of them when I saw them coming.
Presently I turned off into a small side road, and almost immediately came upon what thrilled me with a terrible joy.
A man was sleeping on an outside verandah, and he had left the small glow-worm electric light burning directly over his head. I could see his face quite plainly.
He had evidently been reading, and had apparently read himself to sleep. He was a fat-faced, jovial-looking man, and somehow reminded me of Waller.
I looked round. Everything was quiet, and there was not a soul in sight. I gently opened the gate.
I pulled my cap hard down over my eyes, and, holding my deadly weapon handy, crept stealthily up the path.
Then three totally unexpected things happened.
A bulldog rushed at me from under the bed, the man sprang up instantly and covered me with a revolver, and I heard a motor coming up the road.
The dog I downed with one furious and fortunate blow that crashed his head in, even before he had touched me, but the man on the verandah was a very different type of customer.
He blazed twice at me with his revolver before I had bounded into the shadows, and then it seemed all hell was loose.
A woman screamed inside the house—the door snapped open and three men burst out—the motor ground its brakes and pulled up dead against where I had just come in—and the man with the revolver called out "Hell!" and shouted to everyone the way I had gone.
I was round the house and down the back garden in a trice, only to butt against a high wooden fence that was too high and would have taken me too long to scale.
I doubled back, escaping one of my stumbling pursuers only by about a foot. He made a grab at me, but I struck him on the chest. He lurched over backwards and brought down someone else in his fall.
Then, before they could recover themselves I was back in the front garden again, but this time on the other side and right away from the gate.
A man was standing at the gate, holding it closed, and the staring headlights from the car showed up everything and made the road as light as day.
I crouched behind a clump of bushes, not knowing what to do. My escape was apparently cut off in all directions. The fence was too high to get over anywhere—behind me were the three or four men I had just evaded. In front stood the other man blocking the only sure way of getting back into the road. Luckily for me, and it was the only piece of good fortune so far, the clump of bushes behind which I crouched was in the deepest shadow, and I was quite invisible to the man standing by the gate.
I waited, however, without any sense of fear—only in a cold, fierce rage at being trapped. Round came my pursuers from the back of the house.
"Where is he?" shouted the man with the revolver excitedly. "He can't have got away. I heard him yell; I must have winged him anyhow."
The man at the gate was rather confused. He was dressed as a chauffeur. He replied that he didn't think anyone had come out—they certainly hadn't come out since he had been there, but he didn't exactly know what it was all about.
"It's the MAN we've got here, you silly ass—the murderer," the shooter yelled. "He was going to bash me, just as he's bashed poor Boxer here. But he can't have got away—he's in the bushes somewhere—spread out, boys, quick—look out for his iron, though."
It was all up with me, I thought, and only the matter of a short and bloody fight before the end.
Then an idea struck me. If only I could divert their attention for even half a minute I might stand a chance of getting out into the road.
I grasped my bit of iron firmly by the end, and, swinging it furiously twice round my head, hurled it fiercely in the direction of the house right on the other side of the road.
There was a second's silence, and then a resounding crash of splintered glass. I had hit a window somewhere.
"There he is," shouted someone hoarsely. "He's got over the road into Mr. Webber's—after him, all of you, quick."
They rushed pell-mell through the gate, and I was about to follow them when two other men came running out of the house next door, and planted themselves deliberately right in front of where I should have to pass.
"Don't all of you go in," called out one of them sharply. "Someone stop in the road. He may double back, and we shall see in which direction he's gone."
"Damn them!" I swore. "Someone's got some sense at last." I ran softly round, intending to try the back garden again, but whistles began sounding in all directions, and I heard voices on the other side of the fence.
I stood hesitating for quite half a minute and then, hearing footsteps coming up the gravel in both directions, in sheer desperation shinned up one of the verandah posts and got softly on to the roof of the house.
For a moment I thought it was absolutely the very worst place for hiding I could have chosen, and then—I realised it might perhaps be the very best.
At first sight there was apparently no cover for even a cat to hide. The corrugated iron roof just sloped up one side and down the other. All the way round, at the foot of the sloping roof there was a flat lead-sheeted gutter about a foot wide. This gutter was quite unprotected and open, and a sparrow even could not have found a hiding place there. Just over the front door, however, there was a piece of ornamental wood lintel, at the most ten inches high.
I wondered instantly if, by squeezing myself flat upon the lead guttering, this piece of wood lintel would hide me from the observation of anyone on the ground. At any rate, it was my only hope, and, stretched out at full length, I breathlessly regarded the operations below through a crack in the wood.
There was tremendous excitement going on and, in the short time that had elapsed since the first alarm had been given, all the neighborhood seemed to have gathered in the road.
A second motor-car had arrived, and they were detaching the supplementary oil lamps to search thoroughly through all the gardens round.
Several of my armletted patrols were in the crowd, and even in my dreadful plight, I felt proud that we had beaten the regular police.
I heard the telephone going inside the house. It was the man with the revolver speaking to the police station. I was startled to hear how close his voice sounded. He was just underneath me in the hall. He told a very bumptious tale.
He had got the murderer for sure, if they came quick. Mr. Sam Podsley, he was, and number eight, Angas Terrace, was his address. No, they hadn't actually got hold of the man, but they had taken his weapon and he was surrounded somewhere in the block of houses. He couldn't possibly get away, and he couldn't run far in any case for he had winged him with his revolver. He was a dead shot.
I heard the telephone ring off sharply, and then there was a perfect babel of voices in the garden. They were handing round my iron bar for inspection, and everyone wanted to see it close.
"Now, you fellows," shouted the revolver man truculently, "don't waste time looking at that thing now. We'll have plenty of time to examine that when we've got the handcuffs on our man. The police will be here in two shakes, but let's truss him up before they come. He must be somewhere in the block, and he's not got a dog's chance of getting away. Flash all the lights round now, quick."
Round and round came the detached lamps, flashing in every direction. The bushes were trampled through most thoroughly, and I thanked my stars gratefully that my footprints must have been very effectually blotted out.
Everyone who passed flashed his lamp for a second on the roof, but my strip of lintel seemed so hopelessly small and low that no one for a second gave a thought as to whether it could hide a man. Lying flat up there, I thought what asses they all were, but when, a couple of days later, I came to examine the house in clear and broad daylight, I quite understood the mistake they had made.
From the ground the woodwork didn't look six inches high, and I marvelled to myself how it could have hid me there.
Presently a great white light came in the sky, and two big long police cars discharged quite a score of uniformed and un-uniformed members of the force.
Inspector Wedlake was in charge and, quickly put in possession of all the facts, he began to swear in true policeman fashion.
"Come out of the garden, all of you blank ninnies standing there. Haven't any of you got any more sense than that? How the devil do you think we're going to find that man's tracks out of all the footmarks there? Come out, I say."
The crowd filed out quickly and the policemen were soon the only ones in possession of the scene.
The man with the revolver was cross-examined sharply by the Inspector. He was most voluble and most minute in all his details.
"This is where I was lying," he explained delightedly, "and this is where Boxer was killed. He saw the man first and growled. He ran at him at once. I caught sight of him just as he hit Boxer on the head. I let fly at him on the second, and winged him somewhere, for I heard the beggar yell. He jumped quite a foot into the air. Then he tore round the house. We ran after him but he dodged back and somehow got over the road. He broke in the window there, with his iron. Then we couldn't find him, but he can't have got away for there is no escape on either side at the back. The walls are too high there—and not a mouse has crossed the road. For certain, he's now in the gardens somewhere."
The chauffeur was next quickly handled. He looked a fool and the Inspector was soon glaring angrily at him. The tale, he told was very muddled. Yes—he had been standing by the gate all the time, almost from the very first second when the revolver had been fired. The murderer must have run very quickly across the road. No—he didn't actually see him run. In fact, he hadn't seen anyone run. What he meant was—that if he had really run he didn't know how he could have done it at all, for he had been watching the road all the time. No—he wasn't drunk and he wasn't making anything up. He didn't care who asked him anything if they asked him politely, and he didn't mind now who heard him say—"Blast the police!" He was disgusted.
All this took place exactly below me, and right before the front door. I heard all the instructions given to the policemen, and for three hours they hunted incessantly in and out and all about the gardens of the adjoining houses.
The police were puzzled and frankly said so. The cordon had been drawn so quickly and so closely round the entire terrace that they couldn't possibly make out how I had got away.
"Wait till morning," at last snarled Inspector Wedlake, "and we'll go through every bally inch of the whole place with a tooth-comb. Meanwhile, everyone's to keep his place and not a living soul's to cross out over the cordon."
Soon after midnight Meadows himself arrived, and it made me shudder to see his cold set face under the half light. His eyes glared with vicious determination.
"If we lose him this time, Inspector," he whispered hoarsely, "the Chief will never forgive us. It's the right man now, if it never was before; that string-bound iron's an eye opener at last."
There were few people about Angas Terrace that night who could have slept a wink.
To begin with there were the people in the house. Save for two little boys, who I gathered from the conversation going on inside—and I could plainly hear every word that was said—had gone off to sleep again almost at once—no one could have taken their clothes off, even if they had lain down at all.
In the dining-room below, there was a continual noise of rattling glasses and drawing corks all night long. All the police in turn must have come in for a 'wad,' and the talk—oh, the talk! The fat brute with the revolver was boasting and yapping from midnight until dawn. He told his beastly rotten tale over and over again until every word of it was as familiar to me as my own name. He had been sleeping on his right side. Boxer's growl had awakened him in a sweat—he had seized his revolver and fired twice—he had winged me once for sure—I had yelled like hell, and I had jumped a good foot in the air, &c. Thank goodness, someone else got sick of it besides me, and at last he was told to shut up.
"Oh, curse you—Podsley," I heard a sleepy voice say, "we're damn sick of your rotten yarn. I don't believe you hit him at all. How the devil did the blighter get away if you put all the lead in him that you say you did? I believe it was Boxer you hit after all. You killed your own bally dog, old man—that's what you did—so shut up."
Then followed a long and bitter argument that, in the end, was almost as boring as the shooting episode itself.
The police, too, could have had no sort of rest at all. All night long numbers were pacing the road—never more than a dozen yards from one another. They talked in gruff voices and repeatedly wished for the morning, when everything wonderful was going to happen, and I should be taken, without doubt. They cursed the people in the house for a lot of muddlers to have let me get away at all, and gave it as their opinion that it would be a hanging matter for half the police if I weren't caught this time.
Then there was myself. I know I never slept. I was listening and listening the whole night long. I was in a bitter agony of mortification, and fear, too, was now creeping like a cold palsy over my mind. What chance of escape had I now, and when I was taken what would it all mean? I should be hanged for certain, and what would become of Lucy then? She would be branded for ever because of my love, and every kiss I had given her would leave its dark memory of dreadful shame. Why—oh, why had I ever touched the paste. I had never dreamed of things like this. It was Fate that had turned my steps this awful way. I was only a pawn in her dreadful game.
The night was long and terrible for me, and yet in contrast such a perfect night it was, too. Starry and beautiful, in such a wondrous sky. The air was warm and mild and everything spoke of peace and quiet, with the tired world resting in its dreams.
Just as the dawn came I believe I must have been almost on the point of dropping asleep. At any rate, I know I had got my eyes shut, and had partly forgotten my surroundings. Suddenly—so suddenly that I remember jerking myself upon my elbow to listen—I heard a sound that froze the very marrow in my spine. It was the baying of a dog. A deep-throated hollow sound like a dog moaning in a cave. All my faculties were alive in an instant. Then it came again—mournful and hollow, but with dreadful menace in its tone.
A policeman in the road called out briskly:—
"Here they are, mates—the bloodhounds at last."
The bloodhounds—of course! The terror of it struck me like a blow—I had not thought of them. The police were bringing them up to put them on my trail. They had got my iron bar now, and that would give them for the first time the scent they were needing to follow.
I lay back in a muck sweat, with my teeth chattering horribly. Dawn comes very quickly in Australia, and within five minutes of first hearing the hounds I saw the two of them brought up in leash to the other side of the road, just in front of the house.
They were terrible looking beasts, with huge flopping ears and large bloodshot eyes. Two men were in charge of them and holding them back with thick leathern straps.
Early as it was, a little half-dressed crowd had already collected from the adjoining houses.
"Everybody keep away from the hounds," shouted one of the keepers angrily. "This isn't a picture stunt, and we don't want any help either. We want perfect quiet, too, please." The crowd obediently edged a little away and stopped talking among themselves.
A milk cart came clattering up and stopped noisily, right in front of the gate. There was a little fox terrier on the seat, and catching sight of the bloodhounds, it started to bark furiously.
"Stop that dog," roared one of the men; "take it away. It'll spoil everything. Take it off—do you hear?"
The flustered milkman leaned over savagely to seize the animal, but losing his balance he banged up against one of his large milk cans and, in a second, a generous torrent of milk was pouring into the road.
"Oh, you damned fool," shrieked the keeper, now wild with rage. "If that milk gets on them, all the scent will be lost. Get out of it—you idiot—take your horse away."
A dozen willing pairs of hands quickly bundled the milkman and his cart away, but the bloodhounds had smelt the milk and were anxious for a closer acquaintance with it.
"Come on, Pluto, you brute," swore the keeper. "Now then," to the other man, "keep Jezebel away. Pull her back, right over."
There was a lot of shouting and expostulating and, finally, the two big animals were given my iron bar to smell, and encouraged to pick up the trail.
"Good boy, Pluto—find it now," coaxed the keeper. "Nose it, Jezebel—nose it now."
Pluto lifted his great muzzle interestedly and was making strenuous efforts to come across the road. He pulled and tugged, but his keeper wouldn't let him go, and kept drawing him back to the footpath, in front of the broken window.
"It's that damned milk he's after," he explained savagely; "once he's lapped it, we may as well take him home. Oh, good girl, Jezebel—good girl."
Jezebel had smelt something, for with her head low down, she was running backwards and forwards on the path by the side of the road. I remembered, with a pang of fear, that it was there I had stood for a few seconds before I had crossed the road to slink up the garden after the man asleep on the verandah.
It was an agonising moment for me—which way would the great beast go? Would she try, like her mate had done, to cross the road, or would she follow my trail back along the way I had come from the Prospect tram?
I could see everything so plainly through the crack in the wood. She ran backwards and forwards for about a minute and then, to my great joy, with a deep throated bay, started pulling hard in the direction away from the house.
The crowd gave a little encouraging cheer, and Pluto now shambling contentedly after her, they both disappeared out of my sight up the road.
Most of the crowd followed excitedly after them, and, for a moment, I hoped that I might get down and escape in the confusion.
But no, to my dismay not a policeman had moved, and all down the road I could see them keeping their allotted stations just as they had done through out the entire night.
The Inspector was taking no chances, I thought.
For two hours I lay wondering what had happened, and then news began to filter through. From the remarks I picked up from the policemen and the people standing about, the bloodhounds were not proving quite a success.
They had got to the shelter from where the trams started—they had lost the scent altogether—they had followed a milk cart—they wouldn't leave a butcher's shop, and so on, and so on.
In the meantime, a big crowd had gathered in the road in front of the house. Somehow the news had quickly got about, and on foot and in all sorts of conveyances they had hurried to the spot. Bicycles, motor cars and carts had all been pressed into service, and soon spectators were standing ten and twelve deep on the footpath gaping curiously at the house.
The police were furious, but the crowd was too great to handle easily, and they had to be content with keeping them out of the garden in front.
Presently I heard the baying of the dogs again. They were being brought back to pick up another trail. In a scene of intense excitement, a way was opened through the crowd and they were brought straight into the garden, just under where I lay.
My heart was thumping terribly in my chest, and I could hardly breathe. The great beasts smelt something at once. They tore excitedly round and round the house, and sniffed about in every place where I had been. Time after time they nosed to the verandah post, up which I had climbed to get on the roof, but every time, directly they came there, they were immediately pulled roughly back.
I had killed the bulldog just under there and his blood was still dark and red upon the gravel.
"For the Lord's sake they mustn't lick that blood," implored the head keeper; "if they touch it once, they'll never scent anything again. Some of you men stand round it, please. Pull them back hard now."
A little sheltering group stood round the post, and, my confidence now returning, I smiled amusedly to myself at the protection I was receiving.
The dogs had a long stay near the bushes where I had hid, and then nosed off to the gate. The road had been entirely cleared of sight-seers now, just in front of the house, and the beasts ambled out to and fro over the path. But they were always at fault at once, and returned inside. Again and again they went from the verandah post to the gate, but the milk—trodden all over the place by then—evidently fogged them, and they only bayed hoarsely and turned round.
For quite half an hour they were kept smelling round the house but nothing happened, except that they invariably made straight for the verandah post.
"Curse that blood," said the head bloodhound man at last, "and curse the milk, too. Everything's against us. If it hadn't been for that milk, we should have been straight on him by now. It's no good going on. The scent in this garden's as strong as hell, I'm dead sure of that. But what's the good if it leads nowhere? Directly they get into the road the scent's gone."
In great disappointment, the bloodhounds were at length led away, and a few minutes later a sort of conference was held just by the front door. Six or seven of the heads of the police were there.
Inspector Wedlake looked tired, white, and angry. "What are we to tell the Chief when he comes back tonight?" he asked savagely. "Same old tale he'll say—had him actually in your hands and you let him go. He'll be jolly pleasant, I can see."
"Well, it isn't our fault, Inspector," said another voice. "We can't catch him if he isn't here, can we?"
"But he must be here," replied the Inspector irritably. "If there's any truth in what these men say, he never got out of the garden of these two houses. I don't understand it. We've gone through every inch of the place."
"Well, we've got his weapon now," said the other shortly. "He's lost his mascot, anyhow."
"What's that to us?" was the sneering reply; "we can't hang his bit or iron, can we?"
I saw Meadows standing there. He said nothing, but he was looking very glum.
A few minutes later the order was passed round for the police to go. Meadows was the last to leave. When he got to the garden gate, he turned round and for quite a couple of minutes stood looking thoughtfully at the house. His eyes roved over every part of it, and for a moment I was terrified that, in that last second, he might unravel all. But no—just when I had fully made up my mind that he was coming back, he shrugged his shoulders disappointedly and turned off down the road.
But if with the departure of the police I had thought my troubles were to be all over, I soon found I was greatly mistaken. I had only exchanged one set of troubles for another.
It began to get hot, terribly hot. The sun shone down with awful violence upon the roof and I had no shelter for my head from its burning rays.
I stood it as long as I could and then, in desperation, I took out my pocket knife and started cutting softly at the lead gutter to bend a piece up.
To my delight it cut very easily, and in a few minutes I had turned up quite a long piece and made an arch of it over my head and part of my back.
I had to be very careful and make no noise, for I was exactly over the hall, and in one corner where the plaster had broken away I found I could see right in through the dining-room ventilator, on to the dining-room table itself.
I was very thirsty by now and it exasperated me most intensely to see some tumblers and a nice cool jug of what looked like lemonade.
They started laying the table in preparation for dinner, and from time to time all the members of the family came within my range of view. There were two little boys, one about six, and the other some years older. They were both of them evidently immensely impressed with the importance their home had suddenly assumed in the public eye.
"Will Daddy's picture be in the newspapers, Mummy?" asked the younger one between vigorous bites at a large succulent looking pear.
"I expect so, dear—it may be."
"Will mine be in, too. Mummy? I might have been killed as well as Daddy." The child's mother assured him that possibly all their photos would be in next week, and a few minutes later rang the bell vigorously for dinner.
The fat man carved and I had a good view through the ventilator. There was a big joint of beef and delicious brown-looking gravy. There was also a big, fine bottle of cool lager beer that I heard had just come straight off the ice. They evidently had visitors, for the fat man, between huge mouthfuls of potatoes and beef, reeled off his same rotten tale.
"I fired twice—winged him for sure—he yelled like hell—jumped a foot in the air," &c.
I shut my eyes and groaned. My hunger and thirst were a torment to me, and this fat beast, with his perfect contentment of drink and food, quite put the cap on my misery—I could have killed him.
In the afternoon there were more visitors, more "I fired twice"—more lager beer, and, oh heavens!—cups of tea.
The sun was pitiless and my eyes began to swim in faint and heat. Suddenly, as in a flash, there came to me the distinct memory of green leaves upon the trellis round the hall door. My mind went back to that second when I had first suggested to myself that the lintel over the door might give me the hiding place that I required. Yes—I was sure there had been leaves there, and big leaves, too. Oh, if only they grew upon a vine.
I turned over on my side and, quite mad with suffering, stretched my arm down recklessly over the wall. Almost instantly, to my amazement, I touched a bunch of grapes. I tore it off anyhow and in a second was crunching the sweetest grapes that ever passed through mortal lips. It was quite a large bunch I had pulled up and although I could, of course, have eaten more, I was refreshed beyond measure when I had consumed them.
I felt quite a different being almost at once, and hope and confidence began to revive. I would diddle them yet, I thought, and I had only now to wait till dusk to slip down and get away.
Before dusk—I knew it would be quite hopeless. All day long, on and off, curious little groups had gathered in the front of the house, staring with eyes as big as saucers.
I didn't know what the silly fools expected to see, but they evidently derived some sort of morbid pleasure, gaping at a place where an attempted murder had occurred.
During the afternoon, thank goodness, the sun went in and clouds began to gather for a shower of rain. All good fortune seemed now to be coming my way, but—I found there was yet another peril to get over.
A good many times during the day I had noticed a pretty pair of pigeons flying round about the roof. They had made several attempts to alight on the gutter near by, but each time, seeing me, they had shied off in swift and startled curves.
Just about five, the little boy Jack came out into the garden with the fat man and, with the strange observance of little children, noticed at once that something was wrong.
"Why don't my pigeons sit down today, Daddy?" he asked. "Kafferleen won't tum near the roof."
"Oh, blow your pigeons," his father replied brusquely; "a jolly good thing if they don't. They only fill up the gutters with their rubbish and bits of straw. They want their necks broken, I say."
The little boy ignored his father's lack of interest, and his mother coming out presently, he tried plaintively to enlist her sympathy in his distress.
"Mummy, I fink Kafferleen's got a sore toe, like wot I had the other day. She won't sit on the roof with Joe."
"No, dear, I don't think it's that," his mother comforted, "the poor birdies have been so frightened by all the noise we've had today. Tomorrow they'll be quite all right again, you'll see."
The little boy looked puzzled still, but, thank goodness, at the suggestion of his mother, went in to get his tea.
Just as dusk was drawing down it began to rain.
The last remaining spectators in the road cleared off and someone inside the house started a noisy jazz tune on the gramophone.
Now was my opportunity, I thought. I crawled painfully along the gutter to the verandah post, and, with great difficulty, slid down it to the ground.
I was so stiff and cramped that for quite two minutes I could only stand and cling helplessly to the post. Then I started vigorously to rub down my legs and the blood soon began to flow easily again.
I hobbled slowly and very softly to the gate, devoutly hoping no one would come out of the house as I was on my way. I was almost safe now, I knew, but even at that last moment misfortune still tried to throw another hand against me. Just when a few yards from the garden gate, it clicked open and a man came in. I pulled myself painfully erect and gave an off-hand good-night. He replied shortly and passed by, but I saw him turn round to stare inquisitively before he reached the house. He couldn't have seen much of me in the dark, I knew. I thought it must have been the whiteness of my face that interested him.
Directly I got into the road I bustled along quickly and it was with an intense sigh of relief that I finally settled myself in a corner of the Prospect tram.
I was too tired and worn out to rejoice much. I was wondering, now, what on earth I could say to Mrs. Bratt. I had never been away all day before without giving her notice, and how to explain my general bedraggled appearance I couldn't think.
When I reached home, however, I found all the place locked up and I had to use my key to get in. I switched on the lights and, with great astonishment, found everything exactly as I had left it the previous evening after tea. Mrs. Bratt, I realised, couldn't have been in at all since the previous afternoon. Depressed and tired as I was, I chuckled happily to myself. Even the stars in their courses were now fighting for me, I thought, and if Meadows at any time suspected me, he would never get the slightest inkling from Mrs. Bratt of what I had been doing during the past twenty-four hours.
I got myself together some sort of scratch meal and turning into bed, without any desire at all for my usual dose of paste, slept heavily and thankfully the whole night long.
Next morning early, Mrs. Bratt brought me the usual cup of tea. She was red-eyed, weeping and apologetic. Her sister had died the previous afternoon, and all day she had never left the sick room. She was sure I would understand.
I tried to be as nice as possible to the old girl, and told her quite truthfully, too, that she had done perfectly right in stopping away.
She hadn't seen anything of Meadows, I heard.
I went up to the office soberly and quietly that morning. Something, I felt, had happened to me, but I hadn't had time to realise what it was, yet.
I met Waller just as I was going in, and to my astonishment found myself speaking nicely and friendly to him. I asked him how the gee-gees were going and told him I wished I could find another winner like The Boss.
He seemed quite embarrassed with my attention, and I almost fancy addressed me in parting as "Sir."
Soon after I had settled down to work, Mr. William came into my room for a chat. He was very interested in the affair at Prospect, and suggested our both going up to the house to have a look. He said he would drive me up just before lunch in his car.
My heart began to beat furiously directly he mentioned it, but I couldn't well refuse and, in a way, I was anxious to go myself. I wanted to understand more fully than I did how I had been able to evade all the perils that I had been faced with.
Arriving at the house just before one we could not possibly have come at a more awkward time.
The very moment I opened the garden gate several people at once came out of the front door, and in a second I recognised the Chief Commissioner of the Police, Inspector Wedlake and Meadows. There was also a reporter from 'The Register,' a press photographer, and the master of the house—the fat man with the revolver.
Evidently they had been taking the Chief over the scene immediately upon his return to the city from Eudunda.
He smiled rather spitefully when he saw me.
"Ah, now," he called out loudly, "now we shall know everything. Here's our sapient friend, Mr. Peter Wacks. He'll explain everything to us for sure. You haven't met Mr. Wacks, Mr. Podsley. Mr. Sam Podsley, Mr. Peter Wacks," and he introduced us with a mocking assumption of great regard.
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Wacks," said the fat man cordially and extending a large, flabby hand. "I wish we'd had you here on Saturday, I do. You'd have helped us then, I'm sure. I've heard you speak several times and I know a man when I see one."
I introduced Mr. William and we all stood round.
"Well, Mr. Wacks, aren't you going to do anything for us?" went on the Chief still mocking. "We confess we're quite at a standstill now." The Chief's sneering words had a very strange effect on me. I had come up to the house almost timid and trembling. Somehow I had got all the kick taken out of me and I just loathed the whole crime business as much as the most nervous creature in the city. But the Chief struck an old chord in me and my anger rose at his contempt. I looked at him coldly.
"Have you discovered nothing at all then?" I asked incredulously.
"Nothing at all, sir," interrupted the fat man volubly, delighted evidently at the prospect of a new audience. "We're just as much out-generalled now as we have been all along from the very first moment when we saw him."
"You saw him plainly?" I asked interestedly.
"Quite plainly, He's a spare sort of man like you. It was like this. That's where I was lying, and that's where Boxer was killed. He saw the man first and growled. He——"
I shut my eyes and mentally groaned. It was the same awful tale I had heard so many times through my agony on the roof. He recited it again, word for word, like a horrible litany and now it was stringing up my nerves almost to breaking point.
"Yes—yes," I interrupted irritably, at last unable to bear it any more, "but who saw him get into the house over the way?"
"That's it—that's it," he exclaimed excitedly. "No one saw him. He got over with a man staring up and down the road all the time. No one saw him leave the garden even."
"Well, then, he never left it—that's clear."
"But—man—the window there—he broke the window."
"His bit of iron broke it, you mean. He needn't have been there. Why couldn't he have thrown the thing?"
"Oh, but he couldn't aim as straight as that; besides, look at the distance."
I sniffed contemptuously and looked across to the house opposite.
"Bah!—the distance is nothing with the curved iron he used. Nothing would have been easier than for him to have thrown it across. I don't suppose for a moment he aimed at the window. It was just chance that he hit it. Good gracious, if he were trying to escape and had got into the garden there, surely the very last thing he would have wanted to do would have been to advertise the fact. He wouldn't want to start breaking windows and bring everyone down on him in a rush."
They all stared very hard at me and the fat man hummed and hawed in a rather crestfallen sort of way.
"Well, what the devil did happen?" he said at length.
"Oh, I don't know that," I replied still irritably, "but tell me—what exactly were you doing when you heard the crash of the breaking glass."
"We were looking for him here."
"Oh, yes—I know that—but where exactly were you? I mean where were you in the garden here?"
He thought for a moment.
"Well, there's no difficulty at all in remembering that. We were stretched out in a line, over there on the lawn. There were four of us and we thought the beggar was hiding in those bushes in the dark. I had just shouted to them to walk up carefully when—bang went the window opposite and off we rushed."
"And if you hadn't rushed off," I went on, "in another quarter of a minute or so you would have been round those bushes and laid hands on anyone if he were hiding there?"
"Jolly sure we should, and given him hell, too."
"Exactly—and no doubt our friend realised that, if he were in those bushes, as he probably was. So he just threw his iron over to take your unpleasant attentions away and off you all went, like a pack of goats. It's as plain as the roof of this house. You bungled badly there."
The fat man again looked very crestfallen and didn't seem to know exactly how to make any reply, but the Chief, who had put up a great affectation of being very bored, came to his rescue promptly.
"There, what did I tell you?" he said sarcastically. "I was quite sure Mr. Wacks would unravel all. In a few minutes we shall be knowing everything—even the rascal's name and address."
But the fat man was thinking deeply. "By Jove, sir," he said, quite respectfully to me at last. "I do believe you're right. But still," and his voice took on a triumphant tone again, "if he was in the garden as you say—how the devil did he get out again?"
"I didn't say he did get out," I replied bluntly. "I believe that when your backs were turned he just hid here."
"But where, man, where? Not an inch was left unturned. We all searched everywhere."
I shrugged my shoulders as if the matter had nothing to do with me and the Chief again broke in sarcastically.
"Stumped, Mr. Wacks, stumped like we poor policemen here!"
"Well, Chief," I replied smiling, "it strikes me this way. If he was in here and didn't get out of here and yet couldn't be found—well, then, it follows naturally that he must have hidden somewhere. He couldn't vanish like air—now could he?"
"Yes, but Mr. Wacks," asked the fat man still politely, evidently chastened by the passage of arms we had already had, "where on earth could he have hid—where was there we didn't look and the police here as well?"
I made to cast my eyes round carelessly over me place.
"What about the roof?" I asked sharply. "Did you search there?"
"No good," he grinned bluntly. "We could see if a cat was there, from the ground."
"Oh, I don't know so much about that," I went on stubbornly. "What about the lintel over the door here, for instance? I'm sure there'd be good hiding there for a spare man, such as I, for instance. There's a good ten inches anyhow, and that's quite enough if he lay down close."
There was a sudden dead, hard silence after I had said this, and I could hear more than one person take in a deep breath. I didn't dare myself to look straight at them, and inwardly I cursed my folly for beginning such a dangerous game. It was only the sneers of the Chief Commissioner that had egged me on.
It was the fat man who first recovered himself—perhaps because he had less at stake than any of the others.
"But how the devil could he have got up there," he asked, "even if he did?"
"Easy as pot," I sneered contemptuously. "Why—as I stand here now I can see scratches plainly on the verandah post there."
"Good Lord, and that's where the bloodhounds went every time," he almost cried. "The men kept pulling them back because they thought it was poor old Boxer's blood they were after—Oh my hat! My hat!"
Again, there was a tense and awkward silence. The wire door pushed suddenly open and the little boy Jack ran out.
"Daddy," he called out in his pretty childish voice, "Daddy, my pigeons is all right today. Kafferleen's been sitting on the roof again with Joe, all this morning."
"Darn that kid," shouted his father in great excitement. "He knew that something was wrong yesterday. All day long, he kept whining that his damned birds wouldn't go near the roof anyhow, and I guess now we know why. Yes," he shouted in still more excitement, "and I'm a dead man if someone hasn't been and sneaked a big bunch of grapes off the top—off the top, mind you. Bring out the steps quickly, Maria—we'll soon find out."
I had perfect command of myself now, and I set my face rigidly for the explosion that I knew was coming.
I looked round coolly and took in the varying expressions of them all.
The Chief was frowning sternly. The sneering banter had all left him now, and he looked worried and annoyed.
Inspector Wedlake looked far more than annoyed. He was positively frightened, and breathed heavily like a man about to undergo some fearful punishment.
Meadows—well, Meadows was cold and impenetrable as ever, but I fancied his eyes had an evil gleam. He too, sensed something of what was about to come.
There was a minute's waiting and a high pair of steps was banged and bumped out of the front door and finally placed in position. The fat man went up in a rush and, clinging to the lintel, looked over the top.
"Lord! Lord!" he almost shrieked. "The man was here right enough. He's torn up all the lead and there's grape skins all over the place."
On a sign from the Chief, Meadows squeezed up the steps, too. He got right on to the roof at once and, after a moment's intense looking round, beckoned grimly to the Chief to come up.
The fat man made way and, for three or four minutes Meadows and the Chief stood whispering on the roof. Then they came down and we all of us in turn mounted the steps and looked over—I with a heart that I know was almost bursting with the bitter memories that surged up.
The reporter went up last. When he came down he shook me solemnly by the hand and said feelingly, "A most remarkable piece of deduction, Mr. Wacks. Very fine—very fine indeed—great credit to you."
The Chief heard him speak and turned on me savagely. He was white and choking and glad to find anyone on whom to vent his rage. He made no pretence of hiding his dislike, and looked as if he could have killed me where I stood.
"Yes, very fine, Mr. Whacks," he snarled spitefully, "and perhaps now—as you're so fond of poking your nose in everywhere when it's too late to do any good—you'll very kindly oblige with the name of the murderer and his address. In fact—as you're so clever you might let us know everything right from the very beginning, and tell us just who was the gentleman who killed Boulter's rabbits."
I heard someone draw a deep sharp breath behind me, and, half-turning, saw that it was Meadows. His mouth was wide open, and there was a look of sheer and startled amazement on his face. Incredulity and surprise were struggling for the mastery, and his eyes seemed bulging from their head. For one second he had lost control of his thoughts.
I looked at him, startled in my turn, but he saw me looking and, as in a flash, his face closed down and took on its old expression of impassive calm. He dropped his eyes to the ground.
I felt myself trembling. I knew quite well what had happened. The meaning of everything was clear to him and he was sure now that the MAN—was I.
But the Chief was still claiming my attention and his sneering went on.
"What, run dry, Mr. Wacks?" he asked insistently. "Surely the source of inspiration hasn't dried up already—so soon too. When, pray, did your friend up there get away?"
"Look here, Chief," I said, stirred up at last. "Be a sport and don't grudge me this little success. You're always down on us specials, and you never give us any credit for anything we do. Everything here was as plain as day to a mind that came in fresh. How the devil you all missed it I don't know! The wretch up there," I went on, pointing to the roof, "must have lain out all yesterday under that burning sun and slipped away at dusk when the rain came on. That seems the first chance he had of getting away."
"A bull's-eye again, Mr. Wacks," enthusiastically burst in the fat man, who at that moment had come round the house with a tray of drinks. "That's just when he did get away and I know for sure now. A friend of mine—a chap named Biggar—called here yesterday just after dusk and he asked me later on in the evening who was the white-faced looking beggar he had met at the gate when he was coming in. I didn't know what he meant then, but I do now. Lord! Lord! what fools we've all been. The worst of it was, Biggar couldn't describe him at all—it was so dark. All he saw was that the man had got a white face and limped a bit."
Mr. William and I drove back a few minutes later in the car. I was greatly relieved it was all over. Of one thing I was fully determined; that morning should mark the turning point about the paste. I would never touch the little that was left again.
The newspapers next day were most exciting and a regular paean of triumph for me.
'The Register' got its knife deeply into the police and made any amount of cuts, too. It was bitter and sarcastic in its attack and plainly hinted that a change of personnel at head-quarters would be a good thing.
It made a fine story of the whole affair at Angas Terrace, and pictured the perplexities of the official police as being all cleared up and made plain by a five minutes' touch of my magic wand.
Strange to say, when I next met the Chief, however, he had quite recovered his good humor, and remarked with his same old smile that, after all, perhaps only one lamp-post would be required, but, enigmatically, he didn't say for which of us it would be.
I SHALL always date the actual hour of my complete freedom from the slavery of the red paste from that awful day I spent on the roof.
Whether it was the actual physical torture that I had endured those long hours under the burning sun, or whether it was the long and uninterrupted time that I had been given up to the horror of my own thoughts, I do not know, but at any rate from that Sunday evening I never had the very slightest desire to partake of the drug again.
Not only was I quite freed from its desire, but in forty-eight hours after the last dose was as sane and rational as I had ever been in my life.
The strange part of it was, too, that it had apparently left no evil after-effects on my mind. All the dreadful impulses and desires that had come to me with its use had all utterly passed away, leaving only the good qualities that I had derived from it behind.
Like a tornado, it had passed into me, with its mania, its confidence and its lust of crime, and like a tornado, too, it had passed away, leaving only its great confidence and strength behind.
Something of the power and sweetness of life had come to me in the intervals of that dreadful time, and the grasp I had had of them I did not relax now that I was sane again.
At first I had no great remorse at all. I was only very sorry for all the dreadful things that I had done, and very frightened, too, that I might possibly be found out, but I did not somehow blame myself. I blamed the drug, and just regarded myself as an unhappy instrument in the hands of Fate. I believed it had been ordained that all these crimes should happen, and I had simply been the unfortunate one chosen to carry them out.
I was terribly afraid of punishment, because now I had so much to live for, and I was determined to use to the very utmost all those new-born faculties that I had acquired to escape the penalties that I knew would at once follow, were I once found out.
I was quite aware that Meadows suspected me, and knew it could be only a matter of days, perhaps almost of hours, before his suspicion took some practical and unpleasant form. But I was not in the very slightest degree unnerved, and I was quite prepared to deal with any situation that might arise, with coolness, courage, and resource.
After all, I thought, they could never have anything definite against me. They might suspect, suspect, and suspect, but that would be as far as they would ever get. I couldn't see how any actual proof existed anywhere.
So I started to live out my daily life, just as if no crimes, so far as I was concerned, had ever happened at all—and looking back now, I really don't think I was very much worried in the early days that followed.
But in the meanwhile, I soon got news in many ways that the authorities were very busy.
On the morning after I had been up to Prospect with Mr. William in the car, I had a call at the office, from Mr. Sam Podsley. He, of course, knew that I worked for Winter and Winter, and he had no scruples at all about calling upon me there.
He was quite friendly and as voluble as ever.
"That was a real treat, Mr. Wacks," he said heartily, "you taking us all down yesterday. I enjoyed it immensely, although it showed us all up as a lot of mugs. Oh! how waxy the police were! You should have heard the slating the Chief Commissioner gave them, after you had gone. He called them swabs, and told them it was a disgrace that they should be shown their business by a paltry little office clerk. You don't mind my telling you, do you?"
"Not at all—not at all," I replied laughing, "I'm very interested. Go on—tell me everything that happened."
"Nothing much more, except that the dark, thin chap, Meadows, I think they called him, was most anxious for my friend Biggar's address. Biggar was the chap, you remember, who met the white-faced man coming out of the gate."
"Well," I said feeling a little bit uncomfortable, "but Biggar said he wouldn't recognise him again, didn't he?"
"Sure, he said he wouldn't know him from me except that he was white-faced, and thin. But, Lord! these police are messers any way. Just hear what's been and happened today.
"At ten minutes to seven this morning the darned telephone bell started to ring like blazes. I was in bed, but, of course, hopped out at once. It was a message from the police station in Victoria Square, and a pretty curt one, too. They were sending up two men to look over the house, and would I please afford them all facilities, &c. Of course, I said 'yes,' and told Mrs. Sam they were coming. She was in an awful state at once—you know what women are—and said the place wasn't fit for anyone to see. Such a lot of people have been messing about, these last two days. So up she gets in an awful hurry, and commences to clean up. She washes all round the verandah, and pays special attention to the verandah post, up which that beggar must have climbed; several of us had shinned up yesterday, to show how easily it could be done.
"Well, hardly had she finished, and before even any of it was really dry, up come two strange chaps with the detective fellow Meadows, again! What do you think they came for?— Finger-prints, my boy, finger-prints. Oh! wasn't there just a rumpus. My wife had been and washed them all out! You should have seen their faces and the scowl that detective had. I tell you their jaw just put my back up and I told them so, straight."
"'Why the tarnation didn't you say what you were coming up for, and everything would have been all right,' I told them. It's just that damn secretive want of confidence in anybody, that always spoils the police. One thing, they didn't stop long when I answered back."
"Did they take any photographs," I asked, a great deal more interested than he imagined.
"Not a damn one," he replied, picking up his hat, "they never even undid their bag of tricks. But I must be going now, Mr. Wacks, I'm in the building line, you know, and fairly pushed just now. If you ever want a cozy home, by-the-by, just ring up Sam Podsley—will you? I'll do you well, I promise, and throw in a couple of coats of paint or so for the pleasure you have given me over this affair. Good-bye—my boy—good-bye," and off he trotted in high good humor with himself.
His visit set me wondering what another near escape I must have had. I had never thought of finger-prints and there were sure to have been some on the verandah post before the energetic Mrs. Podsley had washed them off. Thank goodness, I thought, there would have been none on the roof—the Sunday evening rain would have seen to that. What a sell for Meadows again.
Meadows—on and off—was a lot in my thoughts that day, and directly I got home that evening he loomed up large again.
He had been searching my bedroom. I was quite certain about it the very moment I first opened the door. I have always a very keen sense of smell and the room smelt as if it had been lately occupied; stuffy and close.
It had been a piping hot day and Mrs. Bratt was always most particular, as I knew, to keep all the doors and windows tightly closed until well after sundown, to keep out the heat.
There was a strange smell about that did not belong to me. I opened the door of my cupboard, where I kept my clothes. Exactly, they had all been moved and taken off their pegs.
I had expected something of this was going to happen, and, in preparation for it, had that morning most carefully noted the position of all belongings in the room. My coat and trousers I had hung up in a certain way and my boots and shoes, although apparently all carelessly disposed, had each their own particular and peculiar position that I had impressed upon my mind.
Everything had been moved and examined. Even the linoleum on the floor had been lifted up all round the edges and the grating in the chimney had been taken down.
I made a most interested and careful scrutiny of everything to see how far he might have gone, but nothing seemed to have been altered or abstracted until almost at the last, I found something had been done to the heels of my two pairs of shoes.
It was only a very little thing, and if I had not been looking purposely for something of the kind I should not have stood the ghost of a chance of noticing it.
A little piece of each heel, where it faced the instep, had been sharply cut away on one side. It was only a very little piece that had been taken out, but it made the heel unsymmetrical, and to anyone who was expressly looking for it the impression of the heel would make in the ground would very easily be recognised anywhere, out of many thousands of others.
Evidently, I thought, friend Meadows hoped to find this peculiar imprint of my heel upon the scene of some future crime.
My discoveries amused me not a little, but at the same time, they brought home to me the determined nature of the man I had up against me.
I didn't go to head-quarters at all that evening. I knew Meadows would be expecting me to go up there as usual, and would probably be arranging to have me followed for the night.
I went to see Lucy and took her out for a walk in the dark.
Dear little Lucy; she flushed so prettily when she saw me, and when I bent to kiss her she strained me close and whispered she had been wanting me all day.
"You know, dear," she said later with her face very near to mine. "I didn't want anyone at all, until the day you put your arms round me for the first time. Then the way you kissed me gave me such delicious thrills, and I seem to have been quite different ever since. When I don't see you now, I'm so lonely and unsatisfied, and I just long for you to come every evening."
I kissed her fondly as we sat under the trees in the park, and full of delightful thoughts we brooded over all the happiness that would be ours when we were married. I wanted our marriage to come very soon and with sighs and trembling and long silences, Lucy, at length, agreed it should be just after Easter, in about six weeks.
I was radiantly happy with Lucy all that evening and, turning into bed just before eleven o'clock, my last waking thoughts were of the sweet, gentle face that for so long had been upturned to mine.
I couldn't have slept much more than an hour, however, when I was suddenly awakened by someone quickly turning the handle of my door, and before I had time even to call out, in my surprise, up went the light, and I saw Meadows standing just inside the room.
"Oh, I beg your pardon, Mr. Wacks," he said, staring hard at me and looking very startled and surprised, "but you called, didn't you?"
"No, I never called," I gasped out, half-choking with the fright of seeing him in my room. "I was fast asleep. Oh, how you frightened me! What on earth do you mean?"
"Someone shouted, and I thought it was you. Don't you lock your door at night, though?''
"Of course I don't," I replied crossly, my anger at once beginning to get the better of my fear. "The hall door's always locked, isn't it?"
"Yes—that's right enough but still," and he shrugged his shoulders and let his eyes rove round the room.
What the devil does he want? I thought. He never believed he had heard me shout. He just thought I shouldn't be home yet, and for some reason, wanted to see into my room. What was his game?
I watched him narrowly. He seemed in no hurry to go away, and went on talking with an assumption of friendliness that sat awkwardly on him.
"Well, I'm very sorry I disturbed you. I was just off to bed myself, but made sure you called out; perhaps it was in your sleep anyhow."
I didn't trouble to answer, but just sat up in bed and yawned fearfully, as a hint for him to go.
He picked up a pair of shoes that were lying on a chair at the end of the bed. They were the ones I had worn that evening and I had left them just as I had taken them off.
"Nice shoes these, Mr. Wacks," he said, and he put his hand right inside one and turned it round and upside down, to the light. "I must get a pair like these when my courting times come. Can't afford them now; we poor policemen have to be content with this heavy stuff the Government gives us."
Oh, the great ninny, I thought. If I weren't suspicions already, the way he was carrying on would soon make me so. Of course, he was putting his hand in the shoe to see, if by any chance, I had just taken it off and it were still warm.
"Well, good-night," he said, after a long minute's pause. "I hope you'll get to sleep again soon," and he pulled the door clumsily to and went off in the direction of his own room.
But I didn't go off again to sleep soon. His visit was worrying me, and, puzzle as I would, I could think of no reason for his coming to my room. He must have been quite certain, I thought, that he wouldn't find me there, for he had burst in so cocksure, and switched on the light as if he were absolutely sure of his ground.
I gave up thinking at last, and dropped off uneasily into sleep, but this time it was Meadows's ugly face, and not Lucy's pretty one, that came to me in my dreams.
Directly I woke next morning, I started puzzling again, but I had not to puzzle for long. The answer to the riddle came to me before even I had started dressing.
There was an imperative knock on the hall door and Mrs. Bratt came hurriedly to tell me there was a gentleman who wanted to speak to me at once, very urgently.
I went out into the hall, just as I was, in socks and pyjamas, and found it was Spicer, one of the Woodville patrol men. He looked very white and scared.
"Mr. Matthew Russell's killed," he burst out abruptly, "last night at Woodville—by the Baptist Chapel on the Port Road. He was bludgeoned on the head. When we found him he was still alive, but he died without speaking. The beast who killed him rifled his pockets this time; they had all been turned out and most of his things taken."
Matthew Russell killed! A black film came over my eyes. He was one of the most influential members of the city patrol, and one of the most loyal friends I had. He was one of the best known men in the Stock Exchange and a very rich one too. He had taken up his share of patrolling the city in a fine spirit of loyalty to the community and had worked as hard and as unobtrusively as the humblest clerk in his employ.
The news stunned me and I could not say a word.
"I knew it would shock you, Mr. Wacks," went on Spicer feelingly. "I won't stop now, but I thought you ought to know immediately."
I went back slowly into my bedroom, and then a sudden and horrible fear struck through me.
Had I killed him, I thought? Had I done it unconsciously? Had I got up again after I had gone to bed, and with the baleful drug still stirring in me, gone out anew on that fearful quest of blood?
I covered my face with my hands and tried hard to think. I knew I had come home directly after leaving Lucy, and remembered distinctly going straight to bed. I remembered, too, carefully brushing my clothes, putting my trousers on the stretcher, and hanging up my jacket methodically upon its particular peg.
Hurriedly and anxiously I opened the cupboard door.
Yes, there they all were—just as I had left them, and not a speck of dust upon them anywhere. No, I could not possibly have left the house again, and this time, at any rate, my conscience was clear.
I closed my eyes in the thankfulness and relief of it all.
But who could have done it if not I? Was there a new murderer abroad and were yet more horrors now to descend upon this poor, bowed, stricken city?
I could not understand it.
Then, I suddenly remembered Meadows, and the reason for his midnight visit stood out clear.
He had heard of this new crime, and rushing quickly here had expected to find my room empty, with me away somewhere, to come home, however, later, and, no doubt, to exhibit on me traces of this new deed of blood that he was quite sure I had done.
He would have been waiting for me with adequate help, and, of course, would have thought to catch me red-handed, for sure, this time.
I wondered grimly what he would make of it now.
Matthew Russell was buried next day and, as was his right, the city of Adelaide accorded him a public funeral.
All business places were closed during the burial hour, and the ceremony was one of impressive pomp and solemnity.
All the special patrol men were on duty, and, with over five hundred of them in the procession, the city, perhaps for the first time, realised the extent of the organisation we had built up.
They marched six deep, white-armletted, and with their patrol officers at the side.
I was alone in front of them all, just behind the Government officers and the official dignitaries of the State.
The streets were lined with solemn and silent crowds.
I had no pride, however, in the prominent position in which I had been placed.
I was uneasy and choked with grief, only thinking of the horror of it all.
As we passed up King William Street, the mournful strains of the Dead March came up softly on the air. Brooding—beautiful and rich in dreadful sadness—they struck like a surgeon's knife into my composure, and I burst impulsively into tears.
I pulled my face up rigidly, but the tears blinded me, and I could hardly see which way to walk.
The crowd could not but notice how deeply I was affected, and I could hear mutters of sympathy as I passed along.
I suddenly hated myself for it all. This was not my deed of blood, I knew—but it was surely my weakness in first tasting the paste that had led to it, and morally I felt I was responsible for it all.
When the funeral was over, and just before the patrol men were dismissed, an impulse that I could not resist came over me to address them.
They stood round me in a hollow square and, speaking solemnly to them, I tried to put some of the beauty of the dead man's life into words. I told them that we had just laid to rest a great and good man. Great, because he had put his public duty before his private ease, and good, because he was unselfish and thought of others before himself. He had been rich, as riches went in this world, and it would have been easy for him to have shown his appreciation of our work by just handing over a sum of money which he wouldn't in any way have felt, and have left the hard part for someone else to do. But no; he had felt it was an hour when the individual duty of everyone was called for, and unstintingly and ungrudgingly he had given of his best for the common weal. He had come down amongst us, night after night, to work as we all had worked and to take on the risks that we all had taken on. Perhaps, to none of us had life been sweeter than it must have been to him, and perhaps to none of us had it given greater or more generous gifts. Yet—and yet—he had given us everything, even as those of us who had least in life to cling to.
He had offered all and in return had met a dreadful death. We must remember that. The memory of his death must be an inspiration and an added incentive to all of us to lift for ever the dark and dreadful cloud that for so long now had hung over our fair city. We must avenge our dead.
I spoke for about ten minutes, and every word came from the sorrow and sincerity of my own heart. Not even the baleful and malevolent face of Meadows, whom I noted standing within earshot all the time, could detract, even ever so little from the earnestness that I really felt.
THE murder of Matthew Russell continued to upset me terribly, and night and day I could not keep my thoughts away from it. He had been a man of such lovable character and such a general favorite with everyone. Mixing in all the best society of the city and on intimate terms with the highest persons in the State, he had nevertheless worked whole-heartedly under me. Apparently in complete forgetfulness that while he had been an important man in the community, I, after all, was still only a poor office clerk, he had taken orders from me just as the humblest and most insignificant of my patrols, and although many years my senior, had always treated me with the respect and deference due to a superior officer.
I felt his loss terribly and I learned afterwards that it added not a little to my popularity with the special service men that everyone could see how genuinely grieved I was. It made them realise the spirit of camaraderie that there was amongst us.
It was a good thing for me, too, that I was popular with my men, for otherwise I should never have got to know, in the manner that I did, how suddenly the clouds of suspicion had gathered up against me at head-quarters.
Two days after Matthew Russell's funeral I had just arrived at the office when one of the city patrols, a man called Fraser, rang me up. He said he wanted to speak to me urgently about a very serious matter and asked if he could come round at once.
I was rather annoyed, because I had a lot to do that morning, but still I thought it best to tell him he might come, and so within ten minutes at most he was ushered into my private room.
He was very particular to make sure that the door was shut securely behind him, and then he advanced almost on tiptoe to my desk.
"Mr. Wacks," he said very quietly when we had shaken hands, "I'm sorry to bother you in business hours, but I'm sure when I've told you everything you'll say I was quite right to come."
"What is it then?" I asked, feeling almost inclined to smile at the air of mystery in which he was enveloping himself. "For anything urgent you can always come any time."
He hesitated for a moment, as if not knowing how to commence, and then he blurted his words out as rapidly as he could, at the same time keeping his voice down almost to a whisper.
"It's those damned police with their jealousy again—they're trying to make out now that it's you who are the murderer."
I almost collapsed.
His words struck at me like a blow; a dreadful shudder ran through my body and my knees shook horribly under the desk. A clammy sweat came over me and my heart hammered so fiercely that I felt as if my very head would burst. But I don't think my face altered at all. I just stared at him stonily, without the flicker of an eyelash and without saying a word.
"It's that brute Meadows," he went on hoarsely. "I heard him tell the Chief Commissioner that you were the man on the roof last Sunday, and that it was you who had committed every murder that had been done."
I looked at him very calmly, and it was then the beating of my heart seemed suddenly to ease a little. Almost a flutter of relief ran through me and I could almost feel, too, the ghost of a weak smile beginning to gather round my lips. Why should I be so startled, I asked myself? After all, his news was only what I had been expecting, and the mercy of it was that it had come to me from friendly lips. It was no hostile audience that faced me now—no shrewd and critical gathering of my enemies, waiting gleefully to see how I would take the first blow. Just a blundering, honest, and indignant friend, whose very indignation would blind him from the recognition of any guilty feelings I might possibly show.
My luck again! The smile on my face strengthened just a little and I moistened my dry lips with my tongue.
"Dear me," I said quietly, "and when did you hear all this?"
"Last night," he replied promptly. "I was hidden in the cupboard of the Specials' room. Listen and I'll explain everything."
"But first sit down comfortably," I told him, now much more at my ease. "Don't be in a hurry, I'm most interested, of course." He sat down at once and leaned towards me over the desk.
"Last night," he began slowly, "I was late in getting to head-quarters—more than quarter of an hour. I was lucky in meeting no one in the passage and slipped into our room hoping to get my cap and armlet and make off without being seen. I was particularly anxious not to be seen, because I had been late for duty one night also last week, and the Chief had seen me coming in then and jacketed me soundly in front of the grinning policemen in the hall. Last night I saw at once I was the last special to arrive, for our room was in darkness. I didn't switch on the lights, because I had, of course, my electric torch with me, and, with that I knew I could easily find my things. Well, I was just groping in the cupboard for my cape when suddenly I heard footsteps in the passage and then the voice of the Chief himself. 'No I can't see you now,' I heard him say sharply. 'I've got some people in my room and I shall be very busy for at least an hour.' 'But I must see you, sir, at once,' replied another voice, and I recognised that it was the detective Meadows speaking. 'It's extremely urgent or I wouldn't press it.' The Chief grumbled something, their voices came nearer, and then I heard him say crossly, 'Well, come in here.' I had just time to jump into the cupboard and pull the door to when up went the lights and through the chinks of the door I saw the Chief and Meadows standing in our room. 'Now, Meadows, be quick,' said the Chief irritably. 'I give you two minutes, that's all,' and then Meadows came out with what I've just told you. The Chief seemed to just gasp in astonishment.
"'What the hell do you mean?' he asked, 'Wacks, the murderer! You silly ass'; but Meadows was as excited as he was, and poured out a long rigmarole of a tale about you. I can't remember a quarter of what he said, but he told the Chief he had been keeping a diary for ever so long and there were a lot of things in it about you. He said he had just been reading it over and he saw there were seven nights last January when you had come home very late. He said he had been comparing dates, and these late nights of yours all fitted in exactly with some of the nights on which the first murders had been committed. He said there could be no possible mistake about it. Then he went on about your killing someone's rabbits next door to where you lived and why some dog hadn't barked because, of course, it knew you. Then he told the Chief that after killing these rabbits—I never heard such a tale—you went mad up at the office here and tried to kill several of the clerks by throwing inkstands at them. He said a man called Waller had told him all about it, and that you had also been seen drinking beer that day. But why don't you laugh, Mr. Wacks? You look quite pale."
At last the good fellow was noticing my condition, but it was happy for me that I had now got myself completely under control. I smiled, though I could feel it was only a very sickly smile.
"I should like to laugh," I replied, "except that it's really too tragic to be comic. But tell me, what did the Chief say?"
"Oh, at first he didn't seem to believe a word, but afterwards Meadows had quite talked him over. Meadows kept on insisting that several times you had got hold of inside information that only the police or the murderer himself could possibly have known. He said you must have been there, for instance, on the park lands that night when Police-Constable Holthusen was killed, or you couldn't possibly have told the Premier what you did when you went up on the deputation. Then the Chief broke in:—'And, damn it all, that's how he knew a police bicycle had been stolen that night outside Government House. I can see it all now. He stole it himself. It was a dead secret all along from everyone except the parties actually concerned, and then up gets that Peter Wacks at the public meeting and gives everything away as if he knew all about it, which no doubt the beggar did. Oh damn!"
Fraser's imitation of the Chief Commissioner was very realistic and for the moment I felt almost amused at what he was telling me.
"So the Chief worked himself up into quite a rage, did he?" I asked my informant, when for a second he paused to take breath.
"A rage? By cripes you should have seen him when Meadows said you were the man hiding on the roof at Prospect last Sunday. He just danced up and down like a cat on hot bricks. 'No wonder he made us the laughing-stock of the city,' he swore. 'Oh, the damned swine!' Then he went on to give Meadows a good jaw. They must never let you out of sight now, he said, for one single second after nightfall. You must be shadowed everywhere. But they must take damned good care not to make any mistake, for just now you were a sort of idol in the city, and if they made a bloomer it would be good-bye for all heads at Victoria Square. The Chief also said that, meanwhile, he should try to pump you tonight.
"But isn't it absurd, Mr. Wacks? Doesn't it just show to what lengths jealousy will take anyone? How they must hate all us specials!"
I shrugged my shoulders contemptuously. "It's childish," I said rather bitterly, "but then it's no good making a fuss about it anyhow." I held out my hand impulsively: "You're a good fellow, Fraser, and this must be a secret between us two. No one else must hear a word of it, you understand."
The man flushed to the roots of his hair with pleasure. It was praise indeed from his chief to be spoken to like that, for he knew quite well that I was a powerful man in the city then.
"All right, Mr. Wacks," he replied warmly, "you can depend on me. I've said nothing to a soul and I shan't either."
We chatted confidentially for a few minutes longer, and then with another handshake he left.
Long after he had gone I sat thinking. So I was under suspicion at last. All eyes would be watching me henceforth; one false step and I should be undone. But weren't they too late with their suspicions, and what had I to fear? Surely I had left no clues behind me. I could see nothing now to connect me definitely with the crimes. Of course, they would try to trap me somehow, but thank goodness, I was prepared. No, I had only to keep a stiff upper lip and they could scowl at me and do their worst. I was not afraid.
Turning resolutely to my work, I put Meadows scornfully out of my mind.
I was rather late in arriving at head-quarters that evening, and I sensed danger immediately I drew near. Even as I was crossing the Square I saw Inspector Wedlake looking at me out of the tail of his eye with his whole manner suggestive of the over-careless effect of a man who wanted to appear unconcerned and off-hand.
"Good evening, Mr. Wacks," he said lightly as I got up to him, "piping hot again—hasn't it been? I wish to goodness some rain would come, but there, I don't suppose we can expect it yet. Oh, by-the-way, the Chief was asking just now if you'd been in. I'm not sure, but I fancy he wanted to speak to you. Perhaps you had better go in; I'll find out where he is for you."
I followed him unconcernedly, but I could feel the thumping of my heart. I had steeled myself resolutely for the ordeal that I knew lay before me, and I was wondering only as to the exact manner of its coming.
The Chief was seated at his desk and hovering somewhere in the back of the room were Meadows and another man.
They all looked up casually when we entered, but the Chief's face took on at once a look of animated interest.
"Oh, I wanted to speak to you, Mr. Peter Wacks," he said half grimly, and with just a trace of banter in his tone. "I've got two or three small bones to pick with you, young man. Now what do you think the duties of a special are—what is your idea?"
I looked at him coldly as if without the very slightest idea of what he meant. The nature of my reception was so unexpected that inwardly I was puzzled and rather taken aback.
"Come, sir," he went on genially, "surely you know what your duties are. For one—you're supposed to help us a bit—now aren't you?"
"Quite so," I replied, determined not to be drawn into too much talking; "well, we do, don't we?"
"As a whole—yes, but some of you are a hindrance at times, and some of you are very indiscreet too. You are one of the latter."
"What do you mean?" I said, fencing for time and quite unable to follow the drift of his questions.
"You give away information sometimes, Mr. Wacks," went on the Chief, speaking very sternly; "information that might be very important, and quite defeat the end we are all supposed to have in view."
"I don't know what you mean," I replied bluntly. "You never tell me anything, so I've nothing to give away."
He bent forward impressively and said slowly with the cold anger he showed only when he was rating his men.
"Why, then, did you tell the reporter of the 'Register' about Sullivan being in the hospital with snakebite?"
"Why shouldn't I have told him?" I replied, looking him straight in the face.
His voice became very stern. "You knew it was a matter that concerned the police."
I shrugged my shoulders.
"Well, what if it did? Everybody knew it, didn't they?"
He just glared at me. "You know they didn't," he snapped angrily. "It was a breach of faith on your part to mention it."
"I don't see it," I replied calmly. "I didn't learn it in the course of my duties and, besides, directly afterwards I was told it wasn't true. I just passed it on for what it was worth. That was all."
"How did you learn it in the first instance, pray?"
"Sir Bartle told me; I met him in the street."
"And who told you that it wasn't true?"
"Inspector Wedlake here. I asked him purposely that evening if any of his men were sick, and he at once said, 'No.'"
Inspector Wedlake looked rather uncomfortable, and the Chief puckered up his forehead in a frown.
"One day, Mr. Wacks," he went on sarcastically, "you'll perhaps learn that it isn't the business of any member of the force to furnish information generally as to what's going on. But now, then, well come to another thing. Please explain why you didn't tell me you lived next door to Boulter? Your memory will be quite good enough, I am sure, to remind you that the matter cropped up when we were having lunch that day with the Governor. You remember, don't you?"
"Oh, perfectly well," I replied; "you told us all about his rabbits then."
"Yes—and you sat mute and said nothing—why, please?"
I put as much scorn as I could muster into my voice.
"Because I thought it was piffle. I thought the idea utter rot. I think so now, too."
I looked squarely at Meadows, hoping to drag him in, but he was looking out through the window as if everything were of no interest whatever to him.
The Chief was furious. He was too straightforward and to blunt a man to hide his feelings much at any time, and my words evidently galled him to the quick.
"Be careful, sir, be careful," he blurted angrily—"don't add impertinence to your usual want of tact."
I shrugged my shoulders again and was just thinking what to reply when the telephone rang sharply on the table just behind him. He made a curt sign to Inspector Wedlake and the latter picked up the receiver at once. There was a moment's silence and then the Inspector rapped out sharply.
"Message from Carlton, sir—a man's been killed on the Torrens Road—bludgeoned again. The murderer was seen running away."
It will always be difficult for me to remember what exactly happened then.
The Chief looked thunder-struck. He just glared at Meadows as if the detective had done him some great and mortal wrong. Meadows was ghastly, like a gambler losing everything on a single throw—his jaw dropped dismally, and his face had the pleading of a beaten dog.
The Chief snatched savagely at the receiver.
There was a tense silence. Meadows partially recovered himself—he dropped his eyes. Inspector Wedlake of us all seemed the most undisturbed; he stared interestedly at me and I—well, I was more horrified than any of them there. I was in a perfect sweat of horror, and felt sick almost to nausea with the sudden shock. I was dazed, too, and trying hard to think. Was it in nightmare only then that I had committed all my crimes? Was it in dreams alone that I had roamed the city on my quest of blood? What if I were innocent after all? For the moment I was so perplexed that I was ready to believe anything. I dropped into a chair so that I might not faint.
I heard the Chief giving some directions on the phone—then he hung up the receiver sharply and turned round.
He seemed to half open his mouth to speak to Meadows, but catching sight of me huddling in the chair he checked himself abruptly and crossed over to me.
"Feeling faint, man?" he asked not unkindly. "Put your head low down—would you like a nip of brandy?"
I shook my head at once. The extreme faintness had passed and ashamed now of my weakness I pulled myself together and sat up.
"Good Lord," I asked brokenly, "another death now? When's it all going to end?"
"Ask me another," replied the Chief briskly putting on his cap, "but, goodnight now—we're going out. Wedlake here will look after you. Don't leave until you feel all right," and off he went with Meadows at his heels.
FOR a long time that night I rolled and tossed in bed before I at last finally got off to sleep. What was going to happen now, I asked myself a hundred times? Undoubtedly there was another madman taking on the dreadful role of crime.
Was it because I had set him the example? If so, upon what a ghastly trail of blood had I not set the feet of the poor stricken city. Was there any punishment in the whole world that could be bad enough for me? Could I ever in any way atone?
My sleep was light and broken and I was glad when morning came.
THE days of the ensuing fortnight were terrible ones indeed to me. Crime upon crime was perpetrated, and almost every night the news of some dreadful deed of violence was telephoned up to head-quarters. Robbery was now added to murder, and upon every occasion when the murderer had time he thoroughly and systematically rifled the pockets of his victims, taking everything of value away.
The murderer seemed to bear almost a charmed life. Time after time, he escaped only by the skin of his teeth. Three times he was seen close at hand, and twice he was actually interrupted when bending over the dead. But he got away always, and the description that we received of him was meager and unsatisfactory to a degree. He was described as dressed in dark clothes, as of slim build and of about medium height; but he was wearing some kind of gray cloth over his face and nothing of his features was seen.
He was well armed and when chased, as upon two occasions he was, he used an automatic freely. One of the Norwood patrols was shot, both in the arm and in the thigh.
His victims were of any class and one of my own patrol-men was killed in Norwood his pockets picked and his armlet taken.
Apparently the murderer was abroad every night, and apparently, too, there was no part of the city that was not within the scope of his operations.
The public was roused to a dreadful pitch of anger, and the specials now came in for almost as much adverse criticism as the regular police. The Chief used to smile grimly when he met me and, if he did not say anything, he would pretend to handle his neck very gingerly, as if he were already feeling the noose he had so often prophesied for us both.
Apparently, suspicion had now been entirely diverted from me, and I was no longer being shadowed. I was so often now actually under the very eyes of the police when trouble was occurring in another part of the city, that it would have been absurd, on the face of it, to connect me in any way with the crimes.
But if the police no longer worried me, I was a terrible grief and torture to myself. As time went on, I blamed myself more and more for all the horrors that were taking place, and I was fully convinced that it was my own evil example that had inflamed and set in action the awful proclivities of the wretch who was now terrorising the city.
I made myself quite ill over the matter, brooding over it night and day; to the exclusion even of Lucy it filled my thoughts.
But my unrest was not for one moment the barren grieving of a man who had done wrong and is just weakly sorry for it. I was determined to atone for it as far as lay within my power, and, indeed, towards the end it became quite an obsession with me that Fate had somehow destined me to track out and rid the city of this new monster, as part atonement for my crimes.
Over and over again, I wondered who the man could be and from what part of the city he emerged at night to carry on his crime.
Hour upon hour I used to sit with a large ordnance map before me and weigh up the probabilities as to where he would live.
For many days it seemed hopeless. Then gradually the idea began to crystallise in me that he would be living by the sea. I never knew quite what made me first think of it, but I was perhaps helped on by the appearance in one of the morning papers of a very ordinary letter complaining about someone who had been shooting sea-gulls on the sands. The writer of the letter—I think he wrote from Semaphore—was very angry.
Two mornings later, he wrote, he had noticed when bicycling along the sands that some blackguard had been wantonly shooting a number of these beautiful birds, about a mile and a half north of the jetty at Grange. Upon each occasion he had counted more than a dozen of them lying dead just by the margin of the waves, and upon examination he had found they had all been shot with bullets of a very small calibre. Probably a little .22 rifle, he thought, had been used. It was disgraceful, he argued, that it should be allowed, and in some hopefully expectant way he called upon the police and public to interfere.
There was nothing particular in the letter itself, but it brought up vividly to me what I had done in the beginning of my crimes. I remembered the first lust of taking life when I had killed Boulters rabbits, and I wondered hazily if the death of these poor birds were part, too, of the awful drama now taking place under our very eyes.
What if the murderer lived somewhere near Grange? It was very lonely about there on the north side of the sandhills, and it would fit in so well with everything else.
He would almost surely be living by himself, for otherwise his continual outings at night must certainly have been noticed. He would also have to be living in some lonely spot where he could slink in at any time without being noticed; the countryside was so thoroughly roused by now that any suspicious action on anyone's part would be commented upon at once.
Then, too, there was the question of his getting home at night. The train service on the Grange line would dovetail in admirably with all the times the crimes had been committed in the other suburbs of the city. They had never occurred later than eleven at night—the time the last train left Adelaide for Grange—except once, when a man had been attacked at Alberton just before midnight. Alberton, however, was well within walking distance of Grange, and to anyone who knew his way across the sandhills the journey could be done easily under the hour.
Then again—the two first murders had both taken place at points served by the railway going to Grange, and, thinking again of my own horrors, I remembered how I had first given way to my impulses within easy distance of my own home.
It was a Sunday morning when the idea first struck me definitely about the possibility of the murderer being at Grange, and that afternoon Lucy and I had a long walk along the sandhills by the sea.
As I remembered, it was very lonely beyond Grange. The district was not without habitations, but in some places the bungalows were very few and far between. Some, indeed, were quite a quarter of a mile from each other and one in particular I noticed as surrounded on every side by a wide lonely belt of undulating sand. In was a fine big place, however, and, perched high upon a rather large sandhill, enjoyed quite an extensive view of the surrounding country. Built evidently by some rich man, I thought, who wanted to live quite by himself, and yet be quite near to the comforts and refinement of civilisation.
We could see no sign of any inhabitants, but the hoarse barking of dogs when we passed showed clearly that the place was inhabited.
Next morning I did not go up to business. I rang up the firm and said I was not feeling very well. I asked if I could be spared for two or three days until I felt better.
Mr. William was exceedingly nice and told me at once to take a week if necessary, and be sure to go out and get plenty of fresh air.
I felt more hopeful that morning than I had been for many days. At last I had some settled plan in my mind, and I wanted to put my theories to the test.
There were four stations adjoining the sea on the Grange line, and at each I in turn made the same enquiries. I went straight to the point at once. I told them who I was, and what I wanted to know. Did they remember anyone who had got out by himself upon the arrival of the last train from Adelaide on the Friday night previously, and had they noticed anyone in particular who had lately been habitually using the last train to come home by?
Full of my idea, I tried Grange itself first, and my enquiries immediately evoked a broad grin of amusement from the ticket collector there.
"Bless your heart, Mr. Wacks," he said pityingly, "why there's been lots here on that stunt already. Back six or seven weeks there were 'tecs here, on duty, every night—meeting everybody who came by the last train, questioning them and following them up and finding all about them and where they lived. But it was no good—nothing happened and in a few days they gave it all up. No—I haven't seen anyone unusual lately, and I am quite sure there wasn't anyone on Friday that I didn't know."
The reply was certainly very disheartening, but I had my own reasons for knowing the difference of things six weeks ago and now, and so continued my enquiries along the line. But nothing resulted, and I was returning very dispiritedly to the city when as a last resort I thought I would try a fifth station—the one before Grange and quite two miles from the sea. It was surrounded almost entirely by long sandy stretches of flat waste-land that stretched monotonously away until, on the seaward side, they ultimately reached the belt of sandhills between them and the sea. It was a very lonely place and, except for the golf club-house in one direction, there were no houses at all until within a few hundred yards of Grange itself. So unimportant was the station that there was no booking office—tickets being issued and collected by the guard upon the train.
It was not until I had watched the passing of two trains that I was enabled to light upon the guard who had been on duty the previous Friday night. Then I had to travel back with him to Grange in his van in order to elicit the information that I required.
But it was well worth it, as I soon found. Fortunately, he was an intelligent young fellow, and quite appreciated the possible importance of my enquiries.
"Yes,"—he knew me well by reputation, he said; he had heard me speak at Hindmarsh and his brother was in the patrol there. He remembered Friday night perfectly well. Two persons had got out at the little station and he didn't think they were together. One was Wendover the grocer, who had a little shop at the cross-roads, about a hundred yards away, and the other, Porteous, the caretaker for Mr. Silas Magrath at the Grange. He was afraid, however, they wouldn't either of them be much good to me, for they were both of them most respectable men. "Yes,"—he had certainly seen the caretaker several times lately by that train. He used to get out there, because, he said, it was almost as near as going on to Grange.
Mr. Magrath's house was the last one on the sea front at Grange and nearly two miles north of the jetty. The walk over the sandy field land wasn't at all bad if you only knew the way. You could follow the railway for nearly a mile and then turn straight off across the sand tracks direct to the house. Of course it was lonely, but when the moon was up it would be quite a nice walk. Mr. Magrath was away—he had been abroad for some months. Yes, his house was the big one on the rise, and he kept two large and fierce dogs. He was an eccentric old chap.
All this I took in quickly as the train rattled on to Grange. I thanked my informant for all he had told me and he promised most religiously to hold his tongue and say nothing, to the caretaker, least of all.
I was rather excited and very interested in what the guard had told me. Of course, it might all mean nothing in the end, but still I thought it was quite well worth going on with. Although very tired already with so much walking, I cheerfully set out to have a closer look at the house.
It was then about three in the afternoon. As I approached the house I saw a man, whom I at once guessed to be the caretaker, sitting on the broad low wall that completely surrounded the house and garden at the back. The house was built right on the top of the sandhill, and the garden behind sloped downhill away from the sea. In addition to the wall—there was a wide, deep ditch all round, with a fence of stout barbed wire in front.
Directly I got near, two huge, fierce-looking dogs appeared out of an outhouse in the yard, and commenced to growl and stalk menacingly along the wall in my direction.
Their master swore angrily at them and they stopped their advance reluctantly, but they still continued to growl fiercely and eye me with obvious disfavor.
My heart beat just a little quicker when I saw the caretaker was a man near to my own build, except that possibly he was just a little bit shorter. He was about thirty, very dark, and had the unmistakable yellow skin of a man who has lived in the tropics.
He scowled at me—very much as the dogs had done, I thought, and asked me roughly what I wanted.
I asked him politely how far it was to Semaphore, and when he replied abruptly that he didn't know I asked him for a glass of water. He refused point-blank, and bade me rudely go back along the path I had come.
"You're trespassing," he shouted; "you've no right to be where you are. This is all my land here. Go off at once or I shan't be able to keep the dogs in any longer."
I turned away reluctantly, but looking back when I had gone about a hundred yards, I saw he was still watching me. He was seated in the same position, but now he had got a rifle in his hand. I supposed he wanted to frighten me.
Sitting at home that evening I was very puzzled about what to make out of my interview. One thing I was certain stood out clear—the man couldn't be in a normal state of mind, for such a little had so soon roused his temper, and bringing out the rifle, as he had done undoubtedly to intimidate me, was a certain indication of the unbalanced state he was in.
He seemed the very type of man I was looking for, and I determined to find out more about him.
The next morning I was up very early and long before six was securely hidden among the grass of an adjoining sandhill not three hundred yards from the residence of Mr. Silas Magrath. I had got a good pair of binoculars with me and could plainly rake every part of the garden and yard and a good part of the house itself.
The caretaker was a long while in appearing, but the two dogs were in evidence all the time. They prowled restlessly to and fro about the yard, but they were held safe on very long chains and I was thankful they could not get away. They made no noise, but many times, when for a few moments they stood still, I though I could see through the glasses that they were intently peering in my direction. It could be only imagination I knew, but I was so close that I could plainly see the bloodshot whites of their fierce and dreadful eyes.
About nine o'clock the caretaker himself appeared, and, greatly to my consternation, propped himself against the wall, and for quite a quarter of an hour intently studied every yard of the landscape around with a pair of binoculars that strangely seemed very similar to my own.
He turned the glasses in every direction, and I was fearful every moment that they would rest on me, but I huddled low down in my bed of sand and trusted hopefully that my screen of grass would hide me.
Apparently he found nothing to disturb him, and after some time he went back into the house. He came out again presently and fed the dogs. Then I saw nothing of him until well past noon.
It was blistering hot where I lay, so hot that I did not dare touch the sand around with my bare hand. A hundred and ten in the shade at least, it must have been, but I stuck it out grimly, and at last I got my reward. The caretaker came out in a skimpy old bathing suit to have a bathe.
I held my breath at the bare idea of the possibilities of it all. If only he would take the dogs with him, I thought, I would get down and have a nearer inspection of the house.
Everything favored me. He brought out the inevitable binoculars again and had a good stare round in every direction, except in the one in which I lay. Then he threw his towel over his shoulder and, bending down, unloosed the dogs. I noticed he took their collars off, and I rejoiced that they, too, were going to participate in the bathe. Finally, he locked the back door, and, oh joy, put the key under a pail in the corner of the yard.
The dogs rushed off before him, jumping and barking in delight, and a few seconds later the house stood quiet and solitary by itself.
I did not lose any time, and did not even stop to think either. It seemed to me the most natural thing possible to go and search the house. I never counted the risks. I had a revolver on me, and wasn't in the least afraid.
He couldn't have left the place three minutes before I was down and inside the house.
I closed the door behind me very gently, determined not to be taken unawares if he came back unexpectedly.
There were a lot of rooms in the house, but I soon saw that only one of them—the kitchen—was being used.
The back door opened directly into the kitchen, and I at once noticed an untidy, unmade bed, with positively filthy sheets, under the window. There was part of a loaf and a piece of Bologna sausage on the table, a single cup and spoon, and the usual paraphernalia for making tea. There were crumbs and the remains of other kinds of food lying about, and altogether it was quite plain to see that the caretaker was not of a particular or fastidious turn of mind.
I passed quickly into the hall, and there I certainly had a surprise. It was a sort of large lounge hall and had been turned into a perfect armory for guns and rifles. Some were hanging on the wall, but far more were stacked in proper gun racks round the side. They all seemed modern and in good condition. All round the walls were trophies of the chase. Over the mantelpiece there glared down the largest bison head I could ever have imagined, and picturesquely curved above the hall door were the sinuous folds of a monster stuffed snake.
It was not difficult to determine what was the life hobby of the owner of the place. 'Big game hunter' stuck out everywhere in capital letters.
I looked into several of the rooms, but in all of them the furniture was stacked in the middle and covered over with dust cloths—so I didn't linger for a moment longer than just to look in. I went back into the kitchen.
There was a brand new portmanteau under the table, but there was nothing in it. Standing at the bottom of the bed was a big trunk. I pulled eagerly at the lid, and it at once came open. There were some boots inside, a suit of clothes, and several odd undergarments, but nothing in particular to interest me. There was a large cupboard in the corner. The door was shut, and I looked round hurriedly for the key. I needn't have troubled myself, for it was in the lock.
A great wave of disappointment went through me. I had counted so much on some secret and hidden mystery in the house, and now to find all things so carelessly open and left about just took the edge off my expectations.
I pulled open the door with a jerk, and immediately got all the shock I had ever hoped for.
A big gold chronometer was hanging right in front of me, and I recognised it instantly as Matthew Russell's. With shaking fingers I took it off the nail and looked at the back. Yes, the monogram M. R. was there.
For quite half a minute I stood still in numb surprise. It was difficult for me to breathe, and I could hear the beatings of my heart. Thoughts surged like lightning through me. This man, then, was the murderer. It was I who had found him, and my dream of atonement was coming true.
But uncertainty then at once took hold of me. The watch didn't prove anything; perhaps he had found it; perhaps he had picked it up and it might be only coincidence after all.
I looked hurriedly round upon the other things on the shelf. There were two automatics, a diamond ring, two more watches, three pocket books, a silver cigarette case—a lot of miscellaneous odds and ends and the armlet of a special constable with Unley marked on it.
No, there could be no mistake; it was the man right enough. There were two jackets, hanging up on a peg below the shelf. There were dark stains all down the front of one and the right sleeve of the other was caked over with what looked like dried blood. Lying down in a corner on the floor was a thick, short bar of iron.
I waited for no more, but quickly shut the cupboard door, and, now in an agony of suspense that I should be caught before I could summon help, tiptoed stealthily back across the kitchen floor.
Unfortunately, in turning round, I stepped on a plate that lay just behind me, and it broke with a loud crack. There were some scraps of food on it, and it had evidently been placed there for the dogs.
I swore at myself for my carelessness, and for a moment had half a mind to take the broken pieces away; but, I thought, then the caretaker would be sure to suspect something, and so I left them, chancing that he would imagine he had broken the plate himself.
I got safely out of the house; there was no sign yet of the caretaker, and from the distant barking of the dogs I judged he was still enjoying what I hoped would be his last bathe in the sea.
In half an hour I was on Grange station, but it was another half-hour fully before a train came in for Adelaide, and in my feverish and impatient state it seemed a terribly long wait for me.
I had made up my mind what I would do. I would go straight to the Chief Commissioner at once, and tell him all I had discovered—leaving him then to do what he thought best.
To my great dismay, when I got to Victoria Square the Chief was out. Inspector Wedlake and Meadows were, however, both there, and the former, at any rate, was intensely curious as to what I wanted the Chief so urgently for.
"Found out anything, Mr. Wacks?" he asked grinning. "Are you going to wipe our eye again, like you did over that Prospect affair?"
"Oh, dry up, Inspector," I replied rudely. "Didn't the Chief tell us only the other day that we weren't to blab anything to outsiders, and you're an outsider to me—so cut it out, please."
The Inspector got nasty at once. "One thing I will say, Mr. Wacks," he remarked unpleasantly, "there's no one I'd rather put a pair of handcuffs on than you. No one in the State, sir."
"I dare say," I sneered, and, disdaining any further conversation with the man, sat down impatiently to wait for the return of the Chief.
It was close on four before he returned, and I could see at once that something had disturbed him, and that he was in a great hurry. We met in the passage, outside his room.
"I've hardly a moment," he said quickly, but quite politely to me. "I'm fearfully busy, but I hear you've something urgent. What is it?"
"I've found out something, Chief," I replied, bursting with excitement, but trying hard to speak calmly. "I know who the murderer is at last."
"Oh, you do, do you?" And to my astonishment he grinned broadly. "Now I suppose his name doesn't happen to be Meadows, by any chance, does it?"
I didn't see the joke, and told him so flatly. His grin watered down at once ominously at my rudeness, but my next words instantly drove all the amusement from his face.
"I've seen Matthew Russell's gold watch," I went on sharply. "I've seen the automatic stolen from the man killed at Medindie on Friday, and I've seen the armlet taken from the murdered special in Unley."
"What," he exclaimed excitedly, "where have you been, man? Is that really so? Come in here quick," and he almost dragged me into his room. "Now, tell me quietly, and we'll see if your tale's really different to the usual mare's nest I've been treated to lately, almost every day."
I sat down opposite to him as I had done once before, and a little resentfully, but as impressively as I could, told him everything that had happened to me in the last few days.
He listened to me intently without interruption. Then when I had finished he was quite silent for a minute or two.
"Look here, Wacks," he said presently with just a tinge of sadness in his voice, "there's some damned fate about this. You're always butting into our affairs, as I told you once before. Now you've found out about this caretaker, and as I sit before you here I swear to you solemnly, man, that I was just about to visit the very gentleman myself. That's why I was in such a deuce of a hurry. It's hard lines, Wacks, for it ought to have been a clear win for you, but it's only a dead heat for you, after all. No, we didn't unhappily find out as you did. What you've done reflects great credit on you and honestly I'm proud, after all, that you're an Adelaide man. We've got our knowledge in quite a different way. I'll have no secrets from you now." He took a letter out of his breast pocket. "I've had this letter not two hours ago. It's from Silas Magrath himself. It comes from somewhere in America and was written almost a month ago. Magrath says he has just got the Australian papers and he bids us look up his caretaker on the Grange estate. He's sorry to write it, but he thinks possibly the trouble might be all his work.
"He has found out, since he left Australia, that the caretaker was once in an asylum, ten years ago. Since then he learns, also, that the man was strongly suspected once of continual horse maiming in Kentucky. It was never proved against him, and he disappeared. He advises us to ascertain how the man is and in passing, also he asks us—damn his cheek—kindly to have a look round and see if any of his guns are rusting. Now you know everything and it just fits in with what you say. How do you suggest we should approach the man, as you know the ground? It looks an awkward job to tackle anyway."
The chief's disclosure had had quite a chilling effect on me. That, after all, they should have had their attention directed to the same man seemed to me nothing short of miraculous, and that they would ultimately have been able to lay hands upon him without any intervention at all on my part, in my mind detracted from the value of the atonement I was thinking I had at last accomplished.
I felt quite sick with disappointment.
The chief noticed my chagrin but, mistaking the motive for it, at once very nicely set himself to soften things down for me.
"Of course, what you have discovered will be very valuable to us now. But for what you have learned, we should have rushed blindly in and most probably have all got bullets or broken heads for our pains. Now we're prepared, and you can help us a lot. Do you think we can rush the place?"
"No, I don't think so for a moment," I replied. "He's been suspicious already, and that broken plate will now make him more so. If the dogs go into the kitchen, too, they'll smell a stranger's been in there at once."
"Well, what do you suggest?"
I thought for a moment. "I suppose it wouldn't do to wait until tomorrow and chance it that he goes out for a bath again—we shall have him defenceless then?"
The Chief looked very stern. "No, Wacks—after this letter and what you've told me, I should be wanting in my duty if we delayed a single hour in trying to get the man. Remember, too, that new portmanteau that you saw—he may be going to slope off at once, as he did over there in Kentucky."
"Well—we'd better approach the place on both sides—from Semaphore as well as from Grange. A car can get much nearer to the house on the Semaphore side."
Less than a quarter of an hour later I got with the Chief into his official car. It amused me immensely to see the amazed faces of Meadows and Inspector Wedlake, when I sat down at his side. Evidently the Chief had told them nothing of my investigations, and neither of them had the faintest idea of how things stood. The Inspector's eyes widened in surprise, and even the inscrutable Meadows looked puzzled and uncomfortable. They were to follow with some others in a car behind.
It was just five o'clock when we passed the Post Office. We had nearly two hours of daylight before us.
I shall always remember that drive. The Chief was quite chatty and affable and took me into his confidence in a most friendly way.
What a relief it would be to him, he told me, when this affair was over! He had never had such a worrying three months in all his life before, and he wouldn't go through it again for all the wealth of the rich city of Adelaide. He expected I should be glad, too, but then—and he shrugged his shoulders whimsically and smiled boyishly at me—it was an ill-wind that had blown nobody good, and I had certainly come out of this trouble a made man. I ought to have a great future before me, he said, for I could yap, and yapping was what the people liked.
"Make the best of your talents, my boy," he concluded, "and get a rich wife quickly. Australia's a democratic country right enough, but nowhere in the wide, wide world have they a greater respect for money than they have here."
We reached Grange at last and turned round at right angles into the Military road. This road runs round the coast and always parallel to it—with a high belt of sandhills about two hundred yards wide between it and the sea.
In a couple of minutes or so we came in sight of the Magrath house, and I at once pointed it out to the Chief.
"Whew!" he whistled thoughtfully as he took in the situation. "A very awkward place to take if we've got to rush it—no cover at all except the sand. I wonder now if the beggar's at home."
But he didn't have to wonder long. We must have been still nearly half a mile away from the house when the distant crack of a rifle came up on the air. Another and another followed.
"By Jove," cried out the Chief excitedly, "there's firing going on somewhere, and from the reports we shall be in it jolly soon. I wonder who's firing and what the devil they're aiming at."
There was a sudden hiss—another report—then a loud ping just near us, and a cloud of steam burst up in front of the car.
"Good Lord! it's us he's aiming at," roared out the Chief, "and he's hit the radiator. Accelerate quickly, man—we'll go right by. It's safer, anyway, than turning—quick, quick, or he'll hit some of us here."
The car leaped forward like an unleashed dog. Faster and faster it went until with every lurch over the rough, uneven road I trembled for the holding of the springs. The engine roared like a quick-firing gun and we had to hold on to the sides of the car to retain our seats.
In a few seconds almost, it seemed to me, we drew level with the house, and then five times in quick succession I heard that horrible ominous crack. Twice we were struck, I was sure, and once the hiss of a bullet appeared to pass just over my head. But we got by in safety at last and two minutes after were standing ruefully regarding each other in the road. We were hidden from view from the house by a friendly hummock of sand.
"A nice pickle we're in now," snorted the Chief. "I wonder where the devil's the next car. They must have seen what's happened to us. Hullo, here they are."
There was another roar, much such as our car had made—the fearful hoot of a horn warning us to stand clear and, in another minute, round swung the second police car. It was a much roomier car than ours and in it were packed eight rather white and frightened looking men.
The driver pulled up directly he saw us. Their experience had been much the same as ours, but, unhappily, one of their number had been hit.
He lay back ghastly in the back of the car, with the front of his tunic soaking fast in blood. He had been shot through the chest somewhere and was unconscious when we lifted him out. He coughed with dreadful consequences as he was being laid upon the ground and, even as we watched him, his jaw dropped horribly, and he was dead.
The Chief looked very white and stern, and there was sweat on his face that was not the sweat of heat.
"There'll be a settling, sure, for this," he snarled between his teeth. "There's no mistake about it now."
A minute later and the third car that had come by way of Semaphore drew up. The new arrivals were quickly apprised of what had happened, and the driver, receiving directions, immediately bundled back towards the city.
"We'll have no more bungling," said the Chief curtly as he looked at his watch. "We'll have to approach the house systematically, but there's no chance now of getting up enough men before dark. All we can do is to picket the place until help comes."
In a few minutes the police were so disposed all round that the caretaker couldn't possibly leave without being at once perceived. They all had strict orders not to show themselves.
The Chief and I crawled cautiously to the post of observation I had occupied on the sandhill earlier in the day.
I explained to him the surroundings of the house. There was no sign of life anywhere, but we could plainly hear the dogs growling somewhere in one of the sheds.
"I wonder what the beggar'll do next," whispered the Chief, as we lay close down in the sand. "He might do anything now—come out and meet us in the open perhaps. He must be clean off his nut, or sure he wouldn't have fired on us in the cars without any provocation."
"Oh, but he would have seen us with his glasses, a good two miles before we turned into the road here, and he'd have seen there were policemen in the cars, too."
"Well, it can't be helped now at any rate, but still——" There was a sudden splash of sand just by the Chief's head and his "damn" came simultaneously with the rifle crack from the house.
"Roll over sideways, man," he hissed sharply in my ear: "he'll keep his sight on the same place—quick."
Splash after splash came from the sand close near where we were lying, and every second I thought we should be hit.
"Lie still," whispered the Chief, "wait till he's fired ten and then we'll wriggle back. It's a Lee-Enfield he's using and it'll go ten."
Two minutes later we were back in safety and the Chief was shaking the sand off his tunic.
"Quite a vigilant man, our friend," he remarked. "He must be pretty sharp to have spotted us where we lay—I thought we'd taken on something tough."
Just before seven, reinforcements began to arrive from the city, and as dusk fell the whole place was completely surrounded.
It was decided not to attack before daylight. The Chief considered the risks too great. I had pointed out to him the difficulty of successfully negotiating the barbed wire in the ditch and the wall in the dark and how completely we should be at the man's mercy, even when once over the wall, if he were firing in safety from the house. It was arranged, therefore, that the place should be rushed on all sides with the first streak of dawn. Men with rifles would, as far as possible, cover the attackers from the back by preventing the caretaker from showing himself and hampering him in firing on them as they ran up.
The main attack would have to be over the yard and garden at the back, but the firing was to commence first at the sea side in the hope that the caretaker might be lured to the other side of the house.
Volunteers were called for to lead the attack, and the only difficulty was to keep the number down to ten. I took it for granted at once that I should be one of the chosen, and bluntly told the Chief so.
He refused point-blank at first, but I insisted strongly that I alone of any of them had been inside the house and knew where, if we once got in, the caretaker would probably be hiding to hold us up with his fire.
He gave in at last but implored me, half seriously and half in fun, not to run any unnecessary risks.
"Damn it all," he finished up frowningly. "If you get killed everyone will blame me, sure. 'Saint Wacks,' you'll be for certain, but I'll be 'that old devil, the Commissioner,' right enough. You'll get the glory and I'll be staying behind to get the sack. I'll let you go, still, because, after all, I think it partly your right. But please play fair, and think of me all the time."
I promised to take care and he went off pretending to be greatly relieved.
The night was very dark and quiet, and although not myself on picket duty, I didn't get a wink of sleep. I lay back in the sand and thought of what the future might perhaps hold for me.
Once this were all over everything would be clear and I could put the whole business out of my mind and forget everything.
But I hoped to goodness the man would be killed and not taken alive. He knew too much, or rather, he didn't know enough, and it would never do for him to confess everything. The police would learn at once that he could be responsible for only the latter part of the crimes, then would come all the suspicion over again, and the hunting for the other man.
I should be under suspicion again, of course, and the horrible nightmare of detection would undoubtedly rise up over and over again, even after I were safely married to Lucy.
But if the man were killed—if his lips were closed for ever without his having spoken to anybody—no one would ever dream that he was not the author of everything and responsible for every one of the crimes that had occurred.
Everyone would feel confident and safe again and in every way it would be, for all, the happy ending.
Of course, if it were not for Lucy I might have given myself up and confessed all. But what would have been the good of it to anyone, I argued? A feast of horror for the public and that would have been all. No confession could have brought back the dead, and my disclosures would only have involved more pain to all concerned.
Why, too, should I have thought of so punishing myself? I was no longer any danger to the community. I had been mad when I committed all my crimes—mad with that dreadful drug. But I was mad no longer; I had thrown away the paste and was as sane as anyone in the State. I was all on the side of law and order, and the criminal that had been in me was as surely dead and harmless as if he had been hanged weeks ago in the Stockade.
Just before dawn the Chief came up to me and told me to get ready.
"Not afraid, Wacks?'" he asked curiously—he stretched his hand out and put his fingers on my pulse. "You're a rum chap for a damned office clerk—aren't you? Good steady pulse—aren't you afraid of death?"
"I don't seem to bother about it," I said wearily. "I must be a fatalist, I think."
"Well, you'll be a good fellow to have in a scrap, anyway. You won't lose your head. Now look here. All you chaps are to start off together and keep together, mind. I don't want you all arriving up there, one by one, to be picked off like a lot of fowls. Keep together as much as possible, all in a line, and if I blow my whistle once, lie down instantly until I blow it again twice. You quite understand—well, now go and take your places—the light will be up in five minutes. Start the instant you hear firing on the other side, and if you use your automatics, for the Lord's sake, aim low."
I crouched rather sullenly in the sand. I wasn't in the least frightened, I just felt numb and fed up with the whole business. I really think I was bored.
The light was a long time coming, and the Chief's five minutes ran into at least twenty before a sudden burst of firing over by the sea brought us all instantly to our feet with a rush.
We had about a hundred and fifty yards to run up over the sand towards the wall, and it was hard going—rising all the time. Quite a third of the distance, however, was covered before anything happened, and then one of the policemen on my left lurched forward heavily and dropped with a faint cry. A second later, and the man next to him fell on his knees and rolled over sideways in the sand.
Instantly a fierce volley of shots broke out behind, and the crash of breaking glass told us they were well peppering the back of the house.
My apathy left me in a flash, and a red mist of fury rolled before my eyes. I tore desperately up the sand, stumbled, fell over and picked myself up again.
A loud piercing whistle shrieked between the rifle shots, but I doubt if I should have taken any notice of it if a sudden burning stab in my left leg hadn't told me I was hit.
I tottered shakily for a moment and tried hard to keep myself up, but it was no good and I fell weakly to the sand, feeling very faint and sick.
It could have been only for a few seconds that I lay, for the whistle just ceased blowing as I sat up. I looked down at my leg. I had been hit about mid-way up the thigh and the blood was already soaking through my trousers on to the sand. I wasn't in any pain, but I felt dizzy and my head swam. My mind was perfectly clear, however, and my chief feeling, I remember, was one of anger that I had been hit.
The blood seemed to be flowing very freely and common sense told me I should very soon go off entirely if it weren't stopped.
Half mechanically I undid my tie and, twisting it as tightly as I could round my leg, was relieved at once to see that the blood had stopped spreading on the sand.
Then I looked round to see what had happened. Four of the others at least were down too, for they were lying openly about and making no attempt at any sort of cover. The other five I could not see.
Then it struck me suddenly that I was not myself in a very pleasant position. Sitting up, I was in full view of the house, and inviting another and more effective shot. I dropped down instantly on my side and then, I thought, better still, I would move on. I was only then about ten yards from the wall and, once right up, knew I should be completely under cover and safe from any firing from the house.
I started to drag myself along, but with my first movement, I became faint again. My wound began to hurt terribly. I waited a few seconds and then tried again. This time it was a little better and then gradually and very slowly I approached the wall. I could move only inch by inch, and left a bloody trail behind me as I crawled, but I reached the ditch at last, and, slipping down under the barbed wire, propped myself thankfully up against the wall.
I rested for a minute or two and then began again to take an interest in what was going on.
What the deuce was up, I thought. There was a dead silence everywhere and no sign of life at all either in the house or on the road below.
I began at last to think I must have been unconscious for some hours when I was hit, instead of only for some seconds, as I had before imagined. Perhaps the fight was all over; they had gone away and I had been forgotten or left for dead.
The idea began to worry me, and I was just about to crawl out of the ditch again and make sure, when suddenly I heard the chief's whistle, followed immediately by the answering clash of rifles, as before.
Someone, too, was now firing just over my head—evidently the caretaker was only just over the other side of the wall.
For about a minute the firing went on violently. Then it stopped abruptly; there was almost the same uncanny silence, except that I could now plainly hear someone walking about in the yard.
Then came the sound of splashing water and my curiosity began to get the better of my pain. What on earth was the caretaker doing now, and could I possibly take him unawares?
He couldn't for a moment have an idea that anyone was so near him, and I might perhaps get him off his guard.
Slowly and painfully I hauled myself up the side of the ditch. My thigh hurt me terribly, but I bit hard on my lip to keep back the faintness, and, holding my automatic ready, at last I got my head above the wall.
The caretaker was having a drink of water. He was not five yards from me, and the wonder was he had not heard my groans as I climbed up. The falling of the splashing water had evidently deadened them.
He was bending down with his mouth close to the tap, but with his right hand was still grasping his rifle.
There seemed to be blood all over the yard, and close to the back door, in two huge pools, lay the stretched out bodies of the great hounds that had threatened me the previous day. One was facing towards me, and appeared to have had its throat cut. Its great tongue was lolling out. The windows had been smashed to atoms, and there were bullet-marks all down the walls of the house.
All these details I took in automatically. Suddenly then I felt my thoughts beginning to wander, and it was with difficulty I turned my eyes again to the man and covered him over the heart with my automatic.
The movement must have caught his eye for he looked up, and saw me. He dropped the rifle instantly and put up his hands.
"All right, mate," he said quickly, "don't shoot. I'll give in. I'm fed up and want some sleep."
I just eyed him dreamily, and he went on.
"I'll hang—but I've had a bonzer time. Look at the blood there's been."
My eyes had almost closed in weakness, but his words brought all my wits together with a snap.
I thought rapidly. In any case the man was doomed. He was a murderer, and as a murderer he would have to die. I, too, had been a murderer once, but I was one no more. No one knew yet what I had been, and only this man here held the secret of my guilt. If he spoke—then I might hang as he would hang—but in his silence I was safe. The sweetness of the hope thrilled through me. Yes—safe! Safe to live a new life—to live in honour and respect—to hold the warm and clinging form of Lucy in my arms—perhaps to have children by her and perhaps one day to hear the little feet come pattering to my side.
Oh! it was more than I could chance to lose. I grew cold and steady all at once. I ceased to tremble and I was no longer faint. My wound hurt me no more and the blood that spurted from my thigh crimsoned unnoticed down the wall.
I held the automatic straight before me, and aiming just below the heart—resolutely pulled the trigger.
The man fell instantly in a great sea of blood, but, coldly and confidently, I put two more bullets in him as he lay. I was taking no risks.
Then—all the blackness of the world descended on me and with a hoarse cry for help I fell tottering from the wall.
My consciousness came back partly as they were lifting me into the ambulance. The chief was bending over me. "Man, man," I heard him say, "you may be only a damned office clerk, but in this poor little play of ours you've a perfect genius for taking on all the principal parts, and acting jolly well in them, too."
I WAS four weeks in the Adelaide Hospital, but of the first days I remember very little. The earliest memory that I have is of waking up and thinking I was in a church. It was night and my eyes opened to the dimness of great high walls. It was almost still, but there was the far-away whispering, as of people at their prayers. I was in great pain and I could hear that I groaned.
Immediately a white-clad figure glided up, and something icy cold went on my head. Then I felt the prick of a needle and the shadows deepened and everything faded quickly away.
Then I was in a great deep pit fighting with a lot of devils; I thought I was being killed, but a grave-eyed man jumped down into the pit and threw me up over the side. I seemed to have a lot to do with that man in those days. He was cold and stern to look at, but when he touched me—his touch was the touch of a lover. He seemed always to be my master, deciding whether he should give me life or death.
Then one day—oh day, glorious to remember!—I awakened to spring and sunshine and the smell of beautiful flowers. I was getting better.
The great surgeon who had operated on me—I learnt afterwards I had fractured my skull in falling from the wall—came and sat by my bed and talked very kindly to me. He told me I was going to get quite well and strong again. I had had a very near shave, he said, but there was no reason now why I should not be as well again as I had ever been in my life. He told me I had been a very good patient and he smiled on me like a judge who had forgiven me my sins.
Directly I was well enough a lot of people came to see me. First there was the Chief Commissioner of the Police. He gave me all the news. He smiled whimsically and, in mock relief, informed me the special constables had all been disbanded, and he hoped he might never see them again. He was very nice and friendly and told me he would sure be coming to my wedding.
Oh, yes—all the world knew I was going to be married, and there would be no church or chapel large enough in Adelaide to hold all who wanted to come. Then he grinned broadly and asked me if I would like to have Meadows for my best man. When I declined laughingly, he got up to go with the final promise that if I couldn't get anyone else—he'd be best man himself.
Then there was Sir Bartle Elkin. He was kind and chatty.
"You know, Mr. Wacks," he said. "I don't suppose I shall ever strike a more interesting study than yourself. All along you have interested me, and right up to the very last, you have given me things to think about and problems to solve. The hallucinations of your delirium, for instance, were most peculiar.
"If you remember, the last image to strike upon your retina before you became unconscious was that of the man you shot. Probably at the moment of his falling you would have noted the immediate effect of your bullet on his chest. Well, all the time you were delirious that last impression of yours was uppermost in your mind to the exclusion of everything else. The color seemed absolutely to obsess you.
"Somehow you confused it with a paste, but it was always red paste you kept referring to. Red paste, everything with you was red. The redness of blood was the last thing you saw, and through all your wanderings, through all your delirium, that color was always in your thoughts. Everything else was wiped out. It is most interesting to me that this last impression was the only one to survive. I must have another talk about it with you later."
I was very glad when the great man left—and privately determined in future to give him a wide berth. He would be bringing up to me the very things I wanted to forget.
Then there was Matthew Brickett.
He came in breathing very hard, ponderous, paternal and in his Sunday black. He took a solemn interested stare at one of the nurses who was very pretty, and then settled down to a careful scrutiny of my appearance.
"You're looking better than I should have thought, Peter," he said at length, "but I do hope they're not giving you anything that isn't strictly teetotal. It I could see the doctor now for a few minutes I could put him in possession of some facts that would prove absolutely that alcohol is a curse. Is he anywhere about, do you know?"
Fortunately I was able to say with truth that the doctor never visited us at that time of the day and, much to Brickett's disgust, he had to be content with the delivery of a long homily to the patient in the next bed. The man was almost stone deaf, but he seemed to me very gratified with the attention he was receiving, for he shook old Brickett warmly by the hand when at last he got up to go.
Then there was Lucy. Dear little Lucy—she came to me without a word and, not minding who saw, flung her arms round my neck. I thought I had never seen her look so pretty. She whispered tenderly to me of the anxious times she had been having, but how all now would so soon be forgotten in the glorious days that were to come. With much blushing, she told me she wanted to be married at once so that she could take me away for a long holiday to get well and strong again.
She said that all that happened that last morning at Grange had caused a tremendous sensation in the city, and, directly it was known I was going to get better, over ten thousand pounds had been raised by public subscription to be given me for a wedding present. Also Mrs. Matthew Russell, now that her husband was dead, was going back to her people in England and she had made over to me, completely and just as it stood, their beautiful little home at Victor Harbor. We were to go there, Lucy said, for our honeymoon.
I hardly like to remember exactly what my thoughts were after Lucy left me, but in the end I know I silenced my conscience by insisting to myself that after all it was only Fate again, and that everything was happening just as it had been ordained it should happen right from the very beginning of the world. I was only a pawn, again I told myself, but this time a very happy and a very fortunate one. I made up my mind not to bother any more but just to take what the gods were giving me. I should only live once.
SHE woke up thinking of her marriage, and Life called to her as the birds call to one another at waking morn. The virgin angels smiled down tearfully upon her, but the mothers of Heaven blessed her and God made her queen in the kingdom of one man.
IN the last week of May we were married—in the little chapel on the Port Road, where for so many years Lucy had knelt to pray in her sweet, untroubled maiden days.
She said that after all the time she had been going there, it would be very mean for her to be married anywhere else, and with the love that I saw in her eyes I could refuse her nothing. So I agreed at once, and accordingly it was the noisy Pitchfellow who read—or rather shouted—the marriage service over us.
I quite think the reverend gentleman must have had a real bonzer time, and he just swelled over with the importance of it all.
The little chapel was packed full with the notabilities of the city, and in the address that he gave us Pitchfellow shouted to his heart's content. The voice that breathed o'er Eden was indeed a strident one on this occasion, and I can recall now the amazement on the faces of some of the congregation when Pitchfellow let himself fairly go.
Old Brickett was intensely proud of all the noise he made, and kept on looking round to see how the people were taking it. I am sure it must have been quite a novelty to them.
Lucy was pretty as any bride could be, and I could conceive of nothing sweeter or more entrancing than the gentle face which peeped out shyly from under the bridal veil.
The service was soon over, but the city authorities gave a reception in our honor at the Town Hall, and it was fully two hours later, before the car set out for Victor Harbor.
It was in the falling dusk that we reached home.
What can any man write of his honeymoon?
O Youth!—O Love!—O Paradise! In all life's happenings can there be anything more hallowed than those first memories of wedded days.
The Plumbing absolute of the deeps of joy. The full fierce realization of all those hopes and longings that at all times have been at once the goad and ecstacy of humankind. The fulfilment of love's dream. The heady draught of love's desire. The trust, the sweetness and the surrender of the bride. The giving up of everything to the man she loves. The fevered placing in his keeping of all that innocence and honour she can never give to anyone again. The whole sacredness and mystery of it all.
Surely, never, never, in a man's life can he climb again so nearly to the great white summit of all earthly joy.
FOR three years I was supremely happy. Before the first had quite spent its course, the call of a new life touched on Lucy and the great rapture of parentage came to us. It was a little son.
Oh! how I loved that little boy, and how proud I was of him, too! He was a bold and fearless little chap, and people said he was like me. Sometimes when he smiled I caught a look that reminded me of myself, but I always saw his mother in his eyes.
A year later another boy came, and in all the wide world through there could not have been anywhere a family happier than was ours.
Being now quite independent I had resigned my post at Winter and Winter and had taken to the thorny paths of literature. I was not without some gifts in that direction, and began to make headway in the Commonwealth Press.
Life seemed all happiness to us then. The past troubled me no more. I never allowed myself to dwell upon it, and by tacit but unspoken agreement Lucy and I never referred to it at all. She, because the doctors had told her, after my illness, that I had best forget it, and I—because I never wanted to recall the faintest memory of those dreadful days.
Well, time rolled on and we had been married just over three years and a half, when a well-known revivalist preacher came to Victor Harbor and in an evil hour I went to hear him.
I went more out of curiosity than anything else, and at first I was only rather amused. He was not a patch on me as far as oratory was concerned, and the abrupt way in which he generally ended his sentences jarred horribly on my nerves. Some of his ideas too were very crude and narrow and there was too much of that smug certainty about the next world, which so many preachers always affect.
But he was a man of great earnestness and sincerity, and in spite of myself I came under his thrall. His great theme was—repentance. Who had sinned must one day repent, he insisted, or God would surely punish him—punish him either in himself or in them he loved best. No one could escape. However deep and long-forgotten were the sin, God had remembered it, and in His own good time would exact punishment—punishment sure and certain.
I had gone alone to hear him, and I left the chapel that night, very disturbed and most uneasy in my mind. What if my Paradise were after all but the vain Paradise of fools! What if all the happiness that then was mine were but to prepare me more fully for the punishment that was about to fall. How would the punishment come? Might it, indeed, be Lucy or my little sons who would suffer? The very thought affrightened me and I hurried home in fear.
Directly I got home I thought Lucy looked ill. She was much whiter than usual and very quiet. She hardly talked at supper and ate nothing at all. Next morning she was too ill to get up, and I was in a perfect fear of dread.
In a great hurry I fetched the doctor. Lucy had a high temperature and he could say nothing for certain. In two days, however, pneumonia had definitely set in and in a week she was going to die.
Grief unutterable came upon me, and my mind almost gave way. All the reserve that I had built up against the memories of the past broke down, and I frankly recognized all that was now happening as the punishment for my dreadful crimes. Lucy was to be the scapegoat—Lucy and the little sons. Lucy was going to die, and motherless for ever would my children be.
I threw myself upon my knees in an agony of grief and, choking back my tears, burst into prayer.
Never had I prayed so before; never had prayer touched me as it touched me then. I promised my life if Lucy were spared, all that I had. All that was in me, all my life long, should be consecrated and given up to the saving of men's souls. The pleasures and the happiness of this world should no longer tempt me and I would live only for the conversion and salvation of others.
I almost fainted with the intensity of my emotion and I rose dazed and giddy from my knees, but I rose in faith and hope too.
Lucy would live now and mine alone would be the cross and crown of thorns. I had sown and I should reap and the innocent would go free.
Lucy got better. Slowly but surely she threw off her sickness. Gradually health returned, and in a month she was almost her old self again. A little thinner, perhaps, a little paler, but the same old Lucy, with the gentle face and smiling ways.
It was I that had altered more. I had grown stern again. I was pre-occupied and seldom smiled. When I played with the children I did it as a matter of duty and never allowed myself any happiness in their games. I had not forgotten my vow. One day I told Lucy I was going to train for the ministry, but she laughed merrily and told me she disliked ministers, and if I became one she would never make love to me any more. She said nearly all good ministers of religion were 'softs' and, while the people tolerated them publicly, in private they always held them, at best, in more or less good-natured contempt. She tried to laugh me out of it, but I was not to be denied, and a month later entered a training college to prepare.
The restraint there, however, chafed upon me, and I found, too, that many of my views of life were too unorthodox to be acceptable to the governing bodies.
Their creeds seemed cold and narrow to me, and they made such harm of little things. They frightened people away.
After six months' residence in the college I resigned and came away; but full of my resolve I became a free-lance and offered my services to whomsoever would care to make use of them. I called myself a travelling evangelist.
It was not long before I had more preaching than I could do. Sorrow and fear had purged my soul; and I was in deadly earnest in all I said. The gift of oratory was mine naturally, and all the added tricks I picked up quickly as I went along. I soon got a reputation. In less than a year, whenever I was announced to preach anywhere the place would be packed long before the meeting had begun. When I stood up to speak there was always that tense expectant hush, as when men look for great things. I could hold a congregation for an hour without them tiring. I could bring tears upon their faces and make them sob and cry. I could put fear into their hearts, and terrify them with visions of the wrath to come. Then I could comfort them in their sorrow, and bring golden rays of hope and faith into their drab lives. I could lift them up in frenzied exultation and then bring them, silent and quaking, to their knees.
Repentance was always what I preached about. Repentance—and the atonement that must follow after.
As time went on I was called to all parts of the Commonwealth and sometimes for weeks on end was away from home. I never spared myself, for it had become more and more an obsession with me that if I relaxed my efforts, even in the slightest degree, evil would fall at once again upon those I loved.
Yes, I still loved Lucy and my little sons, but remorse and fear had quite got possession of me, and I dared not give in. Often I wanted to die, so that my sin at last might be expiated to the full.
IT is two years now since I wrote the above, and I take up my pen again to add a few words. I am much saner now. I think I almost went mad. I am still a deeply religious man, but I believe now my sins are forgiven me. I gave up preaching because at last it came to an absolute breakdown. I had so worked myself up that in the end I could do no public speaking at all. When I stood up I could only stutter and stammer and find no speech for my thoughts. So I went back to Lucy and my sons and I am happy and at peace again.
But I have never been unmindful that I owe some reparation to my country, and tomorrow I sail for Europe in a unit of the Army Medical Corps.
England has called to us in her peril, and I shall always like my children to remember that their father was one of the first to respond to her call.
I am sorry at times that I ever penned anything of these happenings, and often have been inclined to burn the manuscript. I shall let it be, however, for the present, but I shall take good care it may be so placed as to never see the light until all concerned in it have passed away.
THE foregoing MS. came into my hands under circumstances that were quite accidental and that are unnecessary in the public interest to disclose.
Peter Wacks is dead. He died heroically on the occasion of the landing at Suvla Bay and the manner of his death is known to all the world.
Mrs. Wacks left the Commonwealth with her two sons over four years ago, and we are given to understand she has married again. A prominent resident of this city, when in the United States the year before last, recognised her when on holiday in the Rocky Mountains. He does not remember her new name, but he brought back the news that she was very happily married to a wealthy South American rancher, and that there was another child now of this second marriage. She was always a very charming woman.
I have very carefully gone into this so-called confession of the dead man, and I admit at once that I find it very difficult to know exactly what to say.
To begin with—anything at all written by Wacks must be received with a certain amount of suspicion and reserve.
In his confession Wacks does not tell us—indeed, perhaps he himself was not aware of the fact—that for six months he was an inmate of a Mental Asylum. His was an extreme case of religious mania, and his detention followed immediately upon his two years' crusade, as, so he called himself, a travelling evangelist.
His mind completely broke down, and at first it was believed his condition of mania would be permanent.
It is true, as he says, that he was a great preacher. His oratory was at all times of a very high order, and the command that he had of his audiences was marvellous. Wherever he went he was received by great crowds of admirers—and, towards the end, there were no buildings large enough to accommodate all who desired to hear him. His preaching, however, was of a most frenzied and emotional nature, and in the course of his two years' ministry, he was undoubtedly responsible for dispatching a good many down the path he ultimately went himself. He played on the fears and terrors of his listeners in a most unhealthy way.
In regard to the crimes that he lays so unsparingly at his own door—the authorities have for a long time been aware of all that he credited himself with.
During his detention at the Mental Asylum he repeatedly declared himself the author of the crimes enumerated in his MS. and of many other crimes as well.
It is most difficult to separate the false from the true. To some extent one is inclined at first to dismiss at once any idea of Wacks' complicity in the perpetration of those dreadful murders that shook this city just over eleven years ago.
But, on the other hand, his confession discloses at times so intimate and accurate a knowledge of all the details of the bloody happenings of those days, that I am reluctantly compelled to believe there must be at least some truth in what he writes.
For myself, I had always a suspicion at the time that the second half of the murders were of quite a different order to those of the first, and that they were, moreover, carried out by quite a different kind of assassin.
Also, I was always quite certain that the caretaker of Mr. Silas Magrath could not have been the man who made off with the policeman's bicycle at Government House, and subsequently disposed of it in the gravel pit off the Torrens Road. His legs were quite three inches too short.
Then, too, much which Wacks tells us of other happenings that can be checked and verified are perfectly true.
For example, there is no doubt he broke into my room and went through my diary. I have looked up some of the entries and they are exactly as he says. Then again—he admits burning his suit because of the blood-stains down the front. I knew at the time he had done it, and informed my superiors. Again, he solves clearly the puzzle of Boulter's rabbits and explains the quietness of his dog, Nell.
Everything dovetails in the most accurately, and time after time Wacks shows himself the possessor of inside knowledge. How, for instance, could he have known of the theft of the policeman's cap and cape, unless, indeed, he had taken them himself? Their loss was never reported, and was known only to Policeman Hogan, the Chief Commissioner, and myself.
Then there is that reference to the iron bar that we seized and that he affirms he had used with such deadly effect on his poor victims. He says it was part of the handle of an old-fashioned linen press. Here he is quite right. I have had inquiries made recently and the handle of an old Lissom press was brought to me. It is the very facsimile of the weapon the would-be murderer threw away that Saturday night at Prospect.
Altogether there are many things that point almost with certainty to the truth of at least some portion of what he writes.
I have shown the MS. to Mr. Frederick Waller, the new Chairman of the Stipendiary Stewards. He knew Wacks personally for several years and distinctly remembers the affair of 'The Boss.' He says everything happened exactly as Wacks describes, and that there is no exaggeration.
Sir Bartle Elkin also, has read the MS. He altogether discredits the idea that Wacks could in any way have been the perpetrator of the murders he describes. He believes his confession to be, as he says, only the pathological fantasy of a very imaginative mind. He informs me that he is well acquainted with the Malayan preparation so constantly referred to by Wacks, and he admits, curiously, that it is generally exhibited in the form of a red paste, but he denies positively that it could have preserved its properties for twenty years. He says in three months, at longest, it would have been harmless. He refuses to admit also the possibility that Wacks could by any chance have been under the influence of the drug upon the many occasions when he had conversations with him. He says he was always most interested in Wacks, and took particular note of everything about him. He is sure there were no signs then of any mental aberration, and his pupils were always quite normal.
In conclusion, he believes the entire motive of Wacks' confession to be the desire, so often exhibited in cases of like mania, vicariously to take upon himself the burden of other people's crimes. It was Wacks' obsession, he says, that he was ordained to offer himself as sacrifice for the sins and shortcomings of the world.
The report Sir Bartle furnished me with was most interesting, but I shall always disagree with him on a great many points. I think he regards the whole matter from the too-narrow standpoint of purely medical knowledge. He brushes aside all the many damning facts that to my mind indisputably link Peter Wacks in some ways with the murderer.
But there I must leave it now.
Whether Wacks was really the murderer or not, it will be always impossible to decide absolutely.
The pros and cons will no doubt always be emphatically discussed, for in an age when all the world is striving feverishly after ideals, it is a sad commentary on the frailty of our nature that the contemplation of things evil should be of far more interest to us than the contemplation of things good.
Crime may indeed repel, but—it fascinates, always.
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