"On the contrary," replied Kimberlin, "I shall enjoy it."
"Very well; but let us have another drink before we start. I believe I am growing colder."
They drank again, and this time the starving man took his liquor with relish—at least, it was something in his stomach, and it warmed and delighted him.
The stake was a dollar a side. Kimberlin won. The pale stranger smiled grimly, and opened another game. Again Kimberlin won. Then the stranger pushed back his hat and fixed that still gaze upon his opponent, smiling yet. With this full view of the pale stranger's face, Kimberlin was more appalled than ever. He had begun to acquire a certain self-possession and ease, and his marvelling at the singular character of the adventure had begun to weaken, when this new incident threw him back into confusion. It was the extraordinary expression of the stranger's face that alarmed him. Never upon the face of a living being had he seen a pallor so death-like and chilling. The face was more than pale; it was white. Kimberlin's observing faculty had been sharpened by the absinthe, and, after having detected the stranger in an absent-minded effort two or three times to stroke a beard which had no existence, he reflected that some of the whiteness of the face might be due to the recent removal of a full beard. Besides the pallor, there were deep and sharp lines upon the face, which the electric light brought out very distinctly. With the exception of the steady glance of the eyes and an occasional hard smile, that seemed out of place upon such a face, the expression was that of stone inartistically cut. The eyes were black, but of heavy expression; the lower lip was purple; the hands were fine, white, and thin, and dark veins bulged out upon them. The stranger pulled down his hat.
"You are lucky," he said. "Suppose we try another drink. There is nothing like absinthe to sharpen one's wits, and I see that you and I are going to have a delightful game."
After the drink the game proceeded. Kimberlin won from the very first, rarely losing a game. He became greatly excited. His eyes shone; color came to his cheeks. The stranger, having exhausted the roll of bills which he first produced, drew forth another, much larger and of higher denominations. There were several thousand dollars in the roll. At Kimberlin's right hand were his winnings,—something like two hundred dollars. The stakes were raised, and the game went rapidly on. Another drink was taken. Then fortune turned the stranger's way, and he won easily. It went back to Kimberlin, for he was now playing with all the judgment and skill he could command. Once only did it occur to him to wonder what he should do with the money if he should quit winner; but a sense of honor decided him that it would belong to the stranger.
By this time the absinthe had so sharpened Kimberlin's faculties that, the temporary satisfaction which it had brought to his hunger having passed, his physical suffering returned with increased aggressiveness. Could he not order a supper with his earnings? No; that was out of the question, and the stranger said nothing about eating. Kimberlin continued to play, while the manifestations of hunger took the form of sharp pains, which darted through him viciously, causing him to writhe and grind his teeth. The stranger paid no attention, for he was now wholly absorbed in the game. He seemed puzzled and disconcerted. He played with great care, studying each throw minutely. No conversation passed between them now. They drank occasionally, the dice continued to rattle, the money kept piling up at Kimberlin's hand.
The pale man began to behave strangely. At times he would start and throw back his head, as though he were listening. For a moment his eyes would sharpen and flash, and then sink into heaviness again. More than once Kimberlin, who had now begun to suspect that his antagonist was some kind of monster, saw a frightfully ghastly expression sweep over his face, and his features would become fixed for a very short time in a peculiar grimace. It was noticeable, however, that he was steadily sinking deeper and deeper into a condition of apathy. Occasionally he would raise his eyes to Kimberlin's face after the young man had made an astonishingly lucky throw, and keep them fixed there with a steadiness that made the young man quail.
The stranger produced another roll of bills when the second was gone, and this had a value many times as great as the others together. The stakes were raised to a thousand dollars a game, and still Kimberlin won. At last the time came when the stranger braced himself for a final effort. With speech somewhat thick, but very deliberate and quiet, he said,—
"You have won seventy-four thousand dollars, which is exactly the amount I have remaining. We have been playing for several hours. I am tired, and I suppose you are. Let us finish the game. Each will now stake his all and throw a final game for it."
Without hesitation, Kimberlin agreed. The bills made a considerable pile on the table. Kimberlin threw, and the box held but one combination that could possibly beat him; this combination might be thrown once in ten thousand times. The starving man's heart beat violently as the stranger picked up the box with exasperating deliberation. It was a long time before he threw. He made his combinations and ended by defeating his opponent. He sat looking at the dice a long time, and then he slowly leaned back in his chair, settled himself comfortably, raised his eyes to Kimberlin's, and fixed that unearthly stare upon him. He said not a word; his face contained not a trace of emotion or intelligence. He simply looked. One cannot keep one's eyes open very long without winking, but the stranger did. He sat so motionless that Kimberlin began to be tortured.
"I will go now," he said to the stranger—said that when he had not a cent and was starving.
The stranger made no reply, but did not relax his gaze; and under that gaze the young man shrank back in his own chair, terrified. He became aware that two men were cautiously talking in an adjoining booth. As there was now a deathly silence in his own, he listened, and this is what he heard:
"Yes; he was seen to turn into this street about three hours ago."
"And he had shaved?"
"He must have done so; and to remove a full beard would naturally make a great change in a man."
"But it may not have been he."
"True enough; but his extreme pallor attracted attention. You know that he has been troubled with heart-disease lately, and it has affected him seriously."
"Yes, but his old skill remains. Why, this is the most daring bank-robbery we ever had here. A hundred and forty-eight thousand dollars—think of it! How long has it been since he was let out of Joliet?"
"Eight years. In that time he has grown a beard, and lived by dice-throwing with men who thought they could detect him if he should swindle them; but that is impossible. No human being can come winner out of a game with him. He is evidently not here; let us look farther."
Then the two men clinked glasses and passed out.
The dice-players—the pale one and the starving one—sat gazing at each other, with a hundred and forty-eight thousand dollars piled up between them. The winner made no move to take in the money; he merely sat and stared at Kimberlin, wholly unmoved by the conversation in the adjoining room. His imperturbability was amazing, his absolute stillness terrifying.
Kimberlin began to shake with an ague. The cold, steady gaze of the stranger sent ice into his marrow. Unable to bear longer this unwavering look, Kimberlin moved to one side, and then he was amazed to discover that the eyes of the pale man, instead of following him, remained fixed upon the spot where he had sat, or, rather, upon the wall behind it. A great dread beset the young man. He feared to make the slightest sound. Voices of men in the bar-room were audible, and the sufferer imagined that he heard others whispering and tip-toeing in the passage outside his booth. He poured out some absinthe, watching his strange companion all the while, and drank alone and unnoticed. He took a heavy drink, and it had a peculiar effect upon him: he felt his heart bounding with alarming force and rapidity, and breathing was difficult. Still his hunger remained, and that and the absinthe gave him an idea that the gastric acids were destroying him by digesting his stomach. He leaned forward and whispered to the stranger, but was given no attention. One of the man's hands lay upon the table; Kimberlin placed his upon it, and then drew back in terror—the hand was as cold as a stone.
The money must not lie there exposed. Kimberlin arranged it into neat parcels, looking furtively every moment at his immovable companion, and in mortal fear that he would stir! Then he sat back and waited. A deadly fascination impelled him to move back into his former position, so as to bring his face directly before the gaze of the stranger. And so the two sat and stared at each other.
Kimberlin felt his breath coming heavier and his heart-beats growing weaker, but these conditions gave him comfort by reducing his anxiety and softening the pangs of hunger. He was growing more and more comfortable and yawned. If he had dared he might have gone to sleep.
Suddenly a fierce light flooded his vision and sent him with a bound to his feet. Had he been struck upon the head or stabbed to the heart? No; he was sound and alive. The pale stranger still sat there staring at nothing and immovable; but Kimberlin was no longer afraid of him. On the contrary, an extraordinary buoyancy of spirit and elasticity of body made him feel reckless and daring. His former timidity and scruples vanished, and he felt equal to any adventure. Without hesitation he gathered up the money and bestowed it in his several pockets.
"I am a fool to starve," he said to himself, "with all this money ready to my hand."
As cautiously as a thief he unlocked the door, stepped out, reclosed it, and boldly and with head erect stalked out upon the street. Much to his astonishment, he found the city in the bustle of the early evening, yet the sky was clear. It was evident to him that he had not been in the saloon as long as he had supposed. He walked along the street with the utmost unconcern of the dangers that beset him, and laughed softly but gleefully. Would he not eat now—ah, would he not? Why, he could buy a dozen restaurants! Not only that, but he would hunt the city up and down for hungry men and feed them with the fattest steaks, the juiciest roasts, and the biggest oysters that the town could supply. As for himself, he must eat first; after that he would set up a great establishment for feeding other hungry mortals without charge. Yes, he would eat first; if he pleased, he would eat till he should burst. In what single place could he find sufficient to satisfy his hunger? Could he live sufficiently long to have an ox killed and roasted whole for his supper? Besides an ox he would order two dozen broiled chickens, fifty dozen oysters, a dozen crabs, ten dozen eggs, ten hams, eight young pigs, twenty wild ducks, fifteen fish of four different kinds, eight salads, four dozen bottles each of claret, burgundy, and champagne; for pastry, eight plum-puddings, and for dessert, bushels of nuts, ices, and confections. It would require time to prepare such a meal, and if he could only live until it could be made ready it would be infinitely better than to spoil his appetite with a dozen or two meals of ordinary size. He thought he could live that long, for he felt amazingly strong and bright. Never in his life before had he walked with so great ease and lightness; his feet hardly touched the ground—he ran and leaped. It did him good to tantalize his hunger, for that would make his relish of the feast all the keener. Oh, but how they would stare when he would give his order, and how comically they would hang back, and how amazed they would be when he would throw a few thousands of dollars on the counter and tell them to take their money out of it and keep the change! Really, it was worth while to be so hungry as that, for then eating became an unspeakable luxury. And one must not be in too great a hurry to eat when one is so hungry—that is beastly. How much of the joy of living do rich people miss from eating before they are hungry—before they have gone three days and nights without food! And how manly it is, and how great self-control it shows, to dally with starvation when one has a dazzling fortune in one's pocket and every restaurant has an open door! To be hungry without money—that is despair; to be starving with a bursting pocket—that is sublime! Surely the only true heaven is that in which one famishes in the presence of abundant food, which he might have for the taking, and then a gorged stomach and a long sleep.
The starving wretch, speculating thus, still kept from food. He felt himself growing in stature, and the people whom he met became pygmies. The streets widened, the stars became suns and dimmed the electric lights, and the most intoxicating odors and the sweetest music filled the air. Shouting, laughing, and singing, Kimberlin joined in a great chorus that swept over the city, and then——
* * * * *
The two detectives who had traced the famous bank-robber to the saloon in Mason Street, where Kimberlin had encountered the stranger of the pallid face, left the saloon; but, unable to pursue the trail farther, had finally returned. They found the door of booth No. 7 locked. After rapping and calling and receiving no answer, they burst open the door, and there they saw two men—one of middle age and the other very young—sitting perfectly still, and in the strangest manner imaginable staring at each other across the table. Between them was a great pile of money, arranged neatly in parcels. Near at hand were an empty absinthe bottle, a water-pitcher, glasses, and a dice-box, with the dice lying before the elder man as he had thrown them last. One of the detectives covered the elder man with a revolver and commanded,—
"Throw up your hands!"
But the dice-thrower paid no attention. The detectives exchanged startled glances. They looked closer into the faces of the two men, and then they discovered that both were dead.
The Inmate of the Dungeon
After the Board of State Prison Directors, sitting in session at the prison, had heard and disposed of the complaints and petitions of a number of convicts, the warden announced that all who wished to appear had been heard. Thereupon a certain uneasy and apprehensive expression, which all along had sat upon the faces of the directors, became visibly deeper. The chairman—a nervous, energetic, abrupt, incisive man—glanced at a slip of paper in his hand, and said to the warden,—
"Send a guard for convict No. 14,208."
The warden started and became slightly pale. Somewhat confused, he haltingly replied, "Why, he has expressed no desire to appear before you."
"Nevertheless, you will send for him at once," responded the chairman.
The warden bowed stiffly and directed a guard to produce the convict. Then, turning to the chairman, he said,—
"I am ignorant of your purpose in summoning this man, but of course I have no objection. I desire, however, to make a statement concerning him before he appears."
"When we shall have called for a statement from you," coldly responded the chairman, "you may make one."
The warden sank back into his seat. He was a tall, fine-looking man, well-bred and intelligent, and had a kindly face. Though ordinarily cool, courageous, and self-possessed, he was unable to conceal a strong emotion, which looked much like fear. A heavy silence fell upon the room, disturbed only by the official stenographer, who was sharpening his pencils. A stray beam of light from the westering sun slipped into the room between the edge of the window-shade and the sash, and fell across the chair reserved for the convict. The uneasy eyes of the warden finally fell upon this beam and there his glance rested. The chairman, without addressing any one particularly, remarked,—
"There are ways of learning what occurs in a prison without the assistance of either the warden or the convicts."
Just then the guard appeared with the convict, who shambled in painfully and laboriously, as with a string he held up from the floor the heavy iron ball which was chained to his ankles. He was about forty-five years old. Undoubtedly he once had been a man of uncommon physical strength, for a powerful skeleton showed underneath the sallow skin which covered his emaciated frame. His sallowness was peculiar and ghastly. It was partly that of disease, and partly of something worse; and it was this something that accounted also for his shrunken muscles and manifest feebleness.
There had been no time to prepare him for presentation to the board. As a consequence, his unstockinged toes showed through his gaping shoes; the dingy suit of prison stripes which covered his gaunt frame was frayed and tattered; his hair had not been recently cut to the prison fashion, and, being rebellious, stood out upon his head like bristles; and his beard, which, like his hair, was heavily dashed with gray, had not been shaved for weeks. These incidents of his appearance combined with a very peculiar expression of his face to make an extraordinary picture. It is difficult to describe this almost unearthly expression. With a certain suppressed ferocity it combined an inflexibility of purpose that sat like an iron mask upon him. His eyes were hungry and eager; they were the living part of him, and they shone luminous from beneath shaggy brows. His forehead was massive, his head of fine proportions, his jaw square and strong, and his thin, high nose showed traces of an ancestry that must have made a mark in some corner of the world at some time in history. He was prematurely old; this was seen in his gray hair and in the uncommonly deep wrinkles which lined his forehead and the corners of his eyes and of his mouth.
Upon stumbling weakly into the room, faint with the labor of walking and of carrying the iron ball, he looked around eagerly, like a bear driven to his haunches by the hounds. His glance passed so rapidly and unintelligently from one face to another that he could not have had time to form a conception of the persons present, until his swift eyes encountered the face of the warden. Instantly they flashed; he craned his neck forward; his lips opened and became blue; the wrinkles deepened about his mouth and eyes; his form grew rigid, and his breathing stopped. This sinister and terrible attitude—all the more so because he was wholly unconscious of it—was disturbed only when the chairman sharply commanded, "Take that seat."
The convict started as though he had been struck, and turned his eyes upon the chairman. He drew a deep inspiration, which wheezed and rattled as it passed into his chest. An expression of excruciating pain swept over his face. He dropped the ball, which struck the floor with a loud sound, and his long, bony fingers tore at the striped shirt over his breast. A groan escaped him, and he would have sunk to the floor had not the guard caught him and held him upright. In a moment it was over, and then, collapsing with exhaustion, he sank into the chair. There he sat, conscious and intelligent, but slouching, disorganized, and indifferent.
The chairman turned sharply to the guard. "Why did you manacle this man," he demanded, "when he is evidently so weak, and when none of the others were manacled?"
"Why, sir," stammered the guard, "surely you know who this man is: he is the most dangerous and desperate——"
"We know all about that. Remove his manacles."
The guard obeyed. The chairman turned to the convict, and in a kindly manner said, "Do you know who we are?"
The convict got himself together a little and looked steadily at the chairman. "No," he replied, after a pause. His manner was direct, and his voice was deep, though hoarse.
"We are the State Prison Directors. We have heard of your case, and we want you to tell us the whole truth about it."
The convict's mind worked slowly, and it was some time before he could comprehend the explanation and request. When he had accomplished that task he said, very slowly, "I suppose you want me to make a complaint, sir."
"Yes,—if you have any to make."
The convict was getting himself in hand. He straightened up, and gazed at the chairman with a peculiar intensity. Then firmly and clearly he answered, "I've no complaint to make."
The two men sat looking at each other in silence, and as they looked a bridge of human sympathy was slowly reared between them. The chairman rose, passed around an intervening table, went up to the convict, and laid a hand on his gaunt shoulder. There was a tenderness in his voice that few men had ever heard there.
"I know," said he, "that you are a patient and uncomplaining man, or we should have heard from you long ago. In asking you to make a statement I am merely asking for your help to right a wrong, if a wrong has been done. Leave your own wishes entirely out of consideration, if you prefer. Assume, if you will, that it is not our intention or desire either to give you relief or to make your case harder for you. There are fifteen hundred human beings in this prison, and they are under the absolute control of one man. If a serious wrong is practised upon one, it may be upon others. I ask you in the name of common humanity, and as one man of another, to put us in the way of working justice in this prison. If you have the instincts of a man within you, you will comply with my request. Speak out, therefore, like a man, and have no fear of anything."
The convict was touched and stung. He looked up steadily into the chairman's face, and firmly said, "There is nothing in this world that I fear." Then he hung his head, and presently he raised it and added, "I will tell you all about it."
At that moment he shifted his position so as to bring the beam of light perpendicularly across his face and chest, and it seemed to split him in twain. He saw it, and feasted his gaze upon it as it lay upon his breast. After a time he thus proceeded, speaking very slowly, and in a strangely monotonous voice:
"I was sent up for twenty years for killing a man. I hadn't been a criminal: I killed him without thinking, for he had robbed me and wronged me. I came here thirteen years ago. I had trouble at first—it galled me to be a convict; but I got over that, because the warden that was here then understood me and was kind to me, and he made me one of the best men in the prison. I don't say this to make you think I'm complaining about the present warden, or that he didn't treat me kindly: I can take care of myself with him. I am not making any complaint. I ask no man's favor, and I fear no man's power."
"That is all right. Proceed."
"After the warden had made a good man out of me I worked faithfully, sir; I did everything they told me to do; I worked willingly and like a slave. It did me good to work, and I worked hard. I never violated any of the rules after I was broken in. And then the law was passed giving credits to the men for good conduct. My term was twenty years, but I did so well that my credits piled up, and after I had been here ten years I could begin to see my way out. There were only about three years left. And, sir, I worked faithfully to make those years good. I knew that if I did anything against the rules I should lose my credits and have to stay nearly ten years longer. I knew all about that, sir: I never forgot it. I wanted to be a free man again, and I planned to go away somewhere and make the fight all over,—to be a man in the world once more."
"We know all about your record in the prison. Proceed."
"Well, it was this way. You know they were doing some heavy work in the quarries and on the grades, and they wanted the strongest men in the prison. There weren't very many: there never are very many strong men in a prison. And I was one of 'em that they put on the heavy work, and I did it faithfully. They used to pay the men for extra work,—not pay 'em money, but the value of the money in candles, tobacco, extra clothes, and things like that. I loved to work, and I loved to work extra, and so did some of the other men. On Saturdays the men who had done extra work would fall in and go up to the captain of the guard, and he would give to each man what was coming to him. He had it all down in a book, and when a man would come up and call for what was due him the captain would give it to him, whatever he wanted that the rules allowed.
"One Saturday I fell in with the others. A good many were ahead of me in the line, and when they got what they wanted they fell into a new line, waiting to be marched to the cells. When my turn in the line came I went up to the captain and said I would take mine in tobacco. He looked at me pretty sharply, and said, 'How did you get back in that line?' I told him I belonged there,—that I had come to get my extra. He looked at his book, and he said, 'You've had your extra: you got tobacco.' And he told me to fall into the new line. I told him I hadn't received any tobacco; I said I hadn't got my extra, and hadn't been up before. He said, 'Don't spoil your record by trying to steal a little tobacco. Fall in.' ... It hurt me, sir. I hadn't been up; I hadn't got my extra; and I wasn't a thief, and I never had been a thief, and no living man had a right to call me a thief. I said to him, straight, 'I won't fall in till I get my extra, and I'm not a thief, and no man can call me one, and no man can rob me of my just dues.' He turned pale, and said, 'Fall in, there.' I said, 'I won't fall in till I get my dues.'
"With that he raised his hand as a signal, and the two guards behind him covered me with their rifles, and a guard on the west wall, and one on the north wall, and one on the portico in front of the arsenal, all covered me with rifles. The captain turned to a trusty and told him to call the warden. The warden came out, and the captain told him I was trying to run double on my extra, and said I was impudent and insubordinate and refused to fall in. The warden said, 'Drop that and fall in.' I told him I wouldn't fall in. I said I hadn't run double, that I hadn't got my extra, and that I would stay there till I died before I would be robbed of it. He asked the captain if there wasn't some mistake, and the captain looked at his book and said there was no mistake; he said he remembered me when I came up and got the tobacco and he saw me fall into the new line, but he didn't see me get back in the old line. The warden didn't ask the other men if they saw me get my tobacco and slip back into the old line. He just ordered me to fall in. I told him I would die before I would do that. I said I wanted my just dues and no more, and I asked him to call on the other men in line to prove that I hadn't been up.
"He said, 'That's enough of this.' He sent all the other men to the cells, and left me standing there. Then he told two guards to take me to the cells. They came and took hold of me, and I threw them off as if they were babies. Then more guards came up, and one of them hit me over the head with a club, and I fell. And then, sir,"—here the convict's voice fell to a whisper,—"and then he told them to take me to the dungeon."
The sharp, steady glitter of the convict's eyes failed, and he hung his head and looked despairingly at the floor.
"Go on," said the chairman.
"They took me to the dungeon, sir. Did you ever see the dungeon?"
"Perhaps; but you may tell us about it."
The cold, steady gleam returned to the convict's eyes, as he fixed them again upon the chairman.
"There are several little rooms in the dungeon. The one they put me in was about five by eight. It has steel walls and ceiling, and a granite floor. The only light that comes in passes through a slit in the door. The slit is an inch wide and five inches long. It doesn't give much light, because the door is thick. It's about four inches thick, and is made of oak and sheet-steel, bolted through. The slit runs this way,"—making a horizontal motion in the air,—"and it is four inches above my eyes when I stand on tiptoe. And I can't look out at the factory-wall forty feet away unless I hook my fingers in the slit and pull myself up."
He stopped and regarded his hands, the peculiar appearance of which we all had observed. The ends of the fingers were uncommonly thick; they were red and swollen, and the knuckles were curiously marked with deep white scars.
"Well, sir, there wasn't anything at all in the dungeon, but they gave me a blanket, and they put me on bread and water. That's all they ever give you in the dungeon. They bring the bread and water once a day, and that is at night, because if they come in the daytime it lets in the light.
"The next night after they put me in—it was Sunday night—the warden came with the guard and asked me if I was all right. I said I was. He said, 'Will you behave yourself and go to work to-morrow?' I said, 'No, sir; I won't go to work till I get what is due me.' He shrugged his shoulders, and said, 'Very well: maybe you'll change your mind after you have been in here a week.'
"They kept me there a week. The next Sunday night the warden came and said, 'Are you ready to go to work to-morrow?' and I said, 'No; I will not go to work till I get what is due me.' He called me hard names. I said it was a man's duty to demand his rights, and that a man who would stand to be treated like a dog was no man at all."
The chairman interrupted. "Did you not reflect," he asked, "that these officers would not have stooped to rob you?—that it was through some mistake they withheld your tobacco, and that in any event you had a choice of two things to lose,—one a plug of tobacco, and the other seven years of freedom?"
"But they angered me and hurt me, sir, by calling me a thief, and they threw me in the dungeon like a beast.... I was standing for my rights, and my rights were my manhood; and that is something a man can carry sound to the grave, whether he's bond or free, weak or powerful, rich or poor."
"Well, after you refused to go to work what did the warden do?"
The convict, although tremendous excitement must have surged and boiled within him, slowly, deliberately, and weakly came to his feet. He placed his right foot on the chair, and rested his right elbow on the raised knee. The index finger of his right hand, pointing to the chairman and moving slightly to lend emphasis to his narrative, was the only thing that modified the rigid immobility of his figure. Without a single change in the pitch or modulation of his voice, never hurrying, but speaking with the slow and dreary monotony with which he had begun, he nevertheless—partly by reason of these evidences of his incredible self-control—made a formidable picture as he proceeded:
"When I told him that, sir, he said he'd take me to the ladder and see if he couldn't make me change my mind.... Yes, sir; he said he'd take me to the ladder." (Here there was a long pause.) "And I a human being, with flesh on my bones and the heart of a man in my body. The other warden hadn't tried to break my spirit on the ladder. He did break it, though; he broke it clear to the bottom of the man inside of me; but he did it with a human word, and not with the dungeon and the ladder. I didn't believe the warden when he said he would take me to the ladder. I couldn't imagine myself alive and put through at the ladder, and I couldn't imagine any human being who could find the heart to put me through. If I had believed him I would have strangled him then and there, and got my body full of lead while doing it. No, sir; I could not believe it.
"And then he told me to come on. I went with him and the guards. He brought me to the ladder. I had never seen it before. It was a heavy wooden ladder, leaned against the wall, and the bottom was bolted to the floor and the top to the wall. A whip was on the floor." (Again there was a pause.) "The warden told me to strip, sir, and I stripped.... And still I didn't believe he would whip me. I thought he just wanted to scare me.
"Then he told me to face up to the ladder. I did so, and reached my arms up to the straps. They strapped my arms to the ladder, and stretched so hard that they pulled me up clear of the floor. Then they strapped my legs to the ladder. The warden then picked up the whip. He said to me, 'I'll give you one more chance: will you go to work to-morrow?' I said, 'No; I won't go to work till I get my dues.' 'Very well,' said he, 'you'll get your dues now.' And then he stepped back and raised the whip. I turned my head and looked at him, and I could see it in his eyes that he meant to strike.... And when I saw that, sir, I felt that something inside of me was about to burst."
The convict paused to gather up his strength for the crisis of his story, yet not in the least particular did he change his position, the slight movement of his pointing finger, the steady gleam of his eye, or the slow monotony of his speech. I had never witnessed any scene so dramatic as this, and yet all was absolutely simple and unintentional. I had been thrilled by the greatest actors, as with matchless skill they gave rein to their genius in tragic situations; but how inconceivably tawdry and cheap such pictures seemed in comparison with this! The claptrap of the music, the lights, the posing, the wry faces, the gasps, lunges, staggerings, rolling eyes,—how flimsy and colorless, how mocking and grotesque, they all appeared beside this simple, uncouth, but genuine expression of immeasurable agony!
The stenographer held his pencil poised above the paper, and wrote no more.
"And then the whip came down across my back. The something inside of me twisted hard and then broke wide open, and went pouring all through me like melted iron. It was a hard fight to keep my head clear, but I did it. And then I said to the warden this: 'You've struck me with a whip, in cold blood. You've tied me up hand and foot, to whip me like a dog. Well, whip me, then, till you fill your belly with it. You are a coward. You are lower, and meaner, and cowardlier than the lowest and meanest dog that ever yelped when his master kicked him. You were born a coward. Cowards will lie and steal, and you are the same as a thief and liar. No hound would own you for a friend. Whip me hard and long, you coward. Whip me, I say. See how good a coward feels when he ties up a man and whips him like a dog. Whip me till the last breath quits my body; if you leave me alive I will kill you for this.'
"His face got white. He asked me if I meant that, and I said, 'Yes; before God I do.' Then he took the whip in both hands and came down with all his might."
"That was nearly two years ago," said the chairman. "You would not kill him now, would you?"
"Yes. I will kill him if I get a chance; and I feel it in me that the chance will come."
"He kept on whipping me. He whipped me with all the strength of both hands. I could feel the broken skin curl up on my back, and when my head got too heavy to hold it straight it hung down, and I saw the blood on my legs and dripping off my toes into a pool of it on the floor. Something was straining and twisting inside of me again. My back didn't hurt much; it was the thing twisting inside of me that hurt. I counted the lashes, and when I counted to twenty-eight the twisting got so hard that it choked me and blinded me; ... and when I woke up I was in the dungeon again, and the doctor had my back all plastered up, and he was kneeling beside me, feeling my pulse."
The prisoner had finished. He looked around vaguely, as though he wanted to go.
"And you have been in the dungeon ever since?"
"Yes, sir; but I don't mind that."
"On bread and water?"
"Yes; but that was all I wanted."
"Have you reflected that so long as you harbor a determination to kill the warden you may be kept in the dungeon? You can't live much longer there, and if you die there you will never find the chance you want. If you say you will not kill the warden he may return you to the cells."
"But that would be a lie, sir; I will get a chance to kill him if I go to the cells. I would rather die in the dungeon than be a liar and sneak. If you send me to the cells I will kill him. But I will kill him without that. I will kill him, sir.... And he knows it."
Without concealment, but open, deliberate, and implacable, thus in the wrecked frame of a man, so close that we could have touched it, stood Murder,—not boastful, but relentless as death.
"Apart from weakness, is your health good?" asked the chairman.
"Oh, it's good enough," wearily answered the convict. "Sometimes the twisting comes on, but when I wake up after it I'm all right."
The prison surgeon, under the chairman's direction, put his ear to the convict's chest, and then went over and whispered to the chairman.
"I thought so," said that gentleman. "Now, take this man to the hospital. Put him to bed where the sun will shine on him, and give him the most nourishing food."
The convict, giving no heed to this, shambled out with a guard and the surgeon.
* * * * *
The warden sat alone in the prison office with No. 14,208. That he at last should have been brought face to face, and alone, with the man whom he had determined to kill, perplexed the convict. He was not manacled; the door was locked, and the key lay on the table between the two men. Three weeks in the hospital had proved beneficial, but a deathly pallor was still in his face.
"The action of the directors three weeks ago," said the warden, "made my resignation necessary. I have awaited the appointment of my successor, who is now in charge. I leave the prison to-day. In the mean time, I have something to tell you that will interest you. A few days ago a man who was discharged from the prison last year read what the papers have published recently about your case, and he has written to me confessing that it was he who got your tobacco from the captain of the guard. His name is Salter, and he looks very much like you. He had got his own extra, and when he came up again and called for yours the captain, thinking it was you, gave it to him. There was no intention on the captain's part to rob you."
The convict gasped and leaned forward eagerly.
"Until the receipt of this letter," resumed the warden, "I had opposed the movement which had been started for your pardon; but when this letter came I recommended your pardon, and it has been granted. Besides, you have a serious heart trouble. So you are now discharged from the prison."
The convict stared and leaned back speechless. His eyes shone with a strange, glassy expression, and his white teeth glistened ominously between his parted lips. Yet a certain painful softness tempered the iron in his face.
"The stage will leave for the station in four hours," continued the warden. "You have made certain threats against my life." The warden paused; then, in a voice that slightly wavered from emotion, he continued: "I shall not permit your intentions in that regard—for I care nothing about them—to prevent me from discharging a duty which, as from one man to another, I owe you. I have treated you with a cruelty the enormity of which I now comprehend. I thought I was right. My fatal mistake was in not understanding your nature. I misconstrued your conduct from the beginning, and in doing so I have laid upon my conscience a burden which will embitter the remaining years of my life. I would do anything in my power, if it were not too late, to atone for the wrong I have done you. If, before I sent you to the dungeon, I could have understood the wrong and foreseen its consequences, I would cheerfully have taken my own life rather than raised a hand against you. The lives of us both have been wrecked; but your suffering is in the past,—mine is present, and will cease only with my life. For my life is a curse, and I prefer not to keep it."
With that the warden, very pale, but with a clear purpose in his face, took a loaded revolver from a drawer and laid it before the convict.
"Now is your chance," he said, quietly: "no one can hinder you."
The convict gasped and shrank away from the weapon as from a viper.
"Not yet—not yet," he whispered, in agony.
The two men sat and regarded each other without the movement of a muscle.
"Are you afraid to do it?" asked the warden.
A momentary light flashed in the convict's eyes.
"No!" he gasped; "you know I am not. But I can't—not yet,—not yet."
The convict, whose ghastly pallor, glassy eyes, and gleaming teeth sat like a mask of death upon his face, staggered to his feet.
"You have done it at last! you have broken my spirit. A human word has done what the dungeon and the whip could not do.... It twists inside of me now.... I could be your slave for that human word." Tears streamed from his eyes. "I can't help crying. I'm only a baby, after all—and I thought I was a man."
He reeled, and the warden caught him and seated him in the chair. He took the convict's hand in his and felt a firm, true pressure there. The convict's eyes rolled vacantly. A spasm of pain caused him to raise his free hand to his chest; his thin, gnarled fingers—made shapeless by long use in the slit of the dungeon-door—clutched automatically at his shirt. A faint, hard smile wrinkled his wan face, displaying the gleaming teeth more freely.
"That human word," he whispered,—"if you had spoken it long ago,—if—but it's all—it's all right—now. I'll go—I'll go to work—to-morrow."
There was a slightly firmer pressure of the hand that held the warden's; then it relaxed. The fingers which clutched the shirt slipped away, and the hand dropped to his side. The weary head sank back and rested on the chair; the strange, hard smile still sat upon the marble face, and a dead man's glassy eyes and gleaming teeth were upturned towards the ceiling.
A Game of Honor
Four of the five men who sat around the card-table in the cabin of the "Merry Witch" regarded the fifth man with a steady, implacable look of scorn. The solitary one could not face that terrible glance. His head drooped, and his gaze rested upon some cards which he idly fumbled as he waited, numbed and listless, to hear his sentence.
The more masterful one of the four made a disdainful gesture towards the craven one, and thus addressed the others:
"Gentlemen, none of us can have forgotten the terms of our compact. It was agreed at the beginning of this expedition that only men of unflinching integrity should be permitted to participate in its known dangers and possible rewards. To find and secure the magnificent treasure which we are seeking with a sure prospect of discovering it, we must run the risk of encounters with savage Mexican soldiers and marines, and take all the other dangerous chances of which you are aware. As the charterer of this vessel and the leader of the expedition I have exercised extraordinary care in selecting my associates. We have been and still are equals, and my leadership as the outfitter of the expedition gives me no advantage in the sharing of the treasure. As such leader, however, I am in authority, and have employed, unsuspected by you, many devices to test the manhood of each of you. Were it not for the fact that I have exhausted all reasonable resources to this end, and have found all of you trustworthy except one, I would not now be disclosing the plan which I have been pursuing."
The three others, who had been gazing at the crestfallen one, now stared at their leader with a startled interest.
"The final test of a man's character," calmly pursued the leader, "is the card-table. Whatever there may be in him of weakness, whether it be a mean avarice, cowardice, or a deceitful disposition, will there inevitably appear. If I were the president of a bank, the general of an army, or the leader of any other great enterprise I would make it a point to test the character of my subordinates in a series of games at cards, preferably played for money. It is the only sure test of character that the wisdom of the ages has been able to devise."
He paused, and then turned his scornful glance upon the cringing man, who meanwhile had mustered courage to look up, and was employing his eyes as well as his ears to comprehend the strange philosophy of his judge. Terror and dismay were elements of the expression which curiously wrinkled his white face, as though he found himself standing before a court of inscrutable wisdom and relentless justice. But his glance fell instantly when it encountered that of his judge, and his weak lower lip hung trembling.
"We have all agreed," impressively continued the leader, "that the one found guilty of deceiving or betraying the others to the very smallest extent should pay the penalty which we are all sworn to exact. A part of this agreement, as we all remember, is that the one found derelict shall be the first to insist on the visitation of the penalty, and that should he fail to do so—but I trust that it is unnecessary to mention the alternative."
There was another pause, and the culprit sat still, hardly breathing, and permitting the cards to slip from his fingers to the floor.
"Mr. Rossiter," said the leader, addressing the hapless man in a tone so hard and cold that it congealed the marrow which it pierced, "have you any suggestion to make?"
The doomed man made such a pitiful struggle for self-mastery as the gallows often reveals. If there was a momentary flash of hope based on a transient determination to plead, it faded instantly before the stern and implacable eyes that greeted him from all sides of the table. Certainly there was a fierce struggle under which his soul writhed, and which showed in a passing flush that crimsoned his face. That went by, and an acceptance of doom sat upon him. He raised his head and looked firmly at the leader, and as he did so his chest expanded and his shoulders squared bravely.
"Captain," said he, with a very good voice, "whatever else I may be, I am not a coward. I have cheated. In doing so I have betrayed the confidence of all. I remember the terms of the compact. Will you kindly summon the skipper?"
Without any change of countenance, the leader complied.
"Mr. Rossiter," he said to the skipper, "has a request to make of you, and whatever it may be I authorize you to comply with it."
"I wish," asked Mr. Rossiter of the skipper, "that you would lower a boat and put me aboard, and that you would furnish the boat with one oar and nothing else whatever."
"Why," exclaimed the skipper, aghast, looking in dismay from one to another of the men, "the man is insane! There is no land within five hundred miles. We are in the tropics, and a man couldn't live four days without food or water, and the sea is alive with sharks. Why, this is suicide!"
The leader's face darkened, but before he could speak Mr. Rossiter calmly remarked,—
"That is my own affair, sir;" and there was a fine ring in his voice.
* * * * *
The man in the boat, bareheaded and stripped nearly naked in the broiling sun, was thus addressing something which he saw close at hand in the water:
"Let me see. Yes, I think it is about four days now that we have travelled together, but I am not very positive about that. You see, if it hadn't been for you I should have died of loneliness.... Say! aren't you hungry, too? I was a few days ago, but I'm only thirsty now. You've got the advantage of me, because you don't get thirsty. As for your being hungry—ha, ha, ha! Who ever heard of a shark that wasn't always hungry? Oh, I know well enough what's in your mind, companion mine, but there's time enough for that. I hate to disturb the pleasant relation which exists between us at present. That is to say—now, here is a witticism—I prefer the outside relation to the inside intimacy. Ha, ha, ha! I knew you'd laugh at that, you sly old rogue! What a very sly, patient old shark you are! Don't you know that if you didn't have those clumsy fins, and that dreadfully homely mouth away down somewhere on the under side of your body, and eyes so grotesquely wide apart, and should go on land and match your wit against the various and amusing species of sharks which abound there, your patience in pursuing a manifest advantage would make you a millionaire in a year? Can you get that philosophy through your thick skull, my friend?
"There, there, there! Don't turn over like that and make a fool of yourself by opening your pretty mouth and dazzling the midday sun with the gleam of your white belly. I'm not ready yet. God! how thirsty I am! Say, did you ever feel like that? Did you ever see blinding flashes that tear through your brain and turn the sun black?
"You haven't answered my question yet. It's a hypothetical question—yes, hypothetical. I'm sure that's what I want to say. Hypo—hypothetical question. Question; yes, that's right. Now, suppose you'd been a pretty wild young shark, and had kept your mother anxious and miserable, and had drifted into gambling and had gone pretty well to the dogs. Do sharks ever go to the dogs? Now, that's a poser. Sharks; dogs. Oh, what a very ridiculously, sublimely amusing old shark! Dreadfully discreet you are. Never disclose your hand except on a showdown. What a glum old villain you are!
"Pretty well to the dogs, and then braced up and left home to make a man of yourself. Think of a shark making a man of himself! And then—easy there! Don't get excited. I only staggered that time and didn't quite go overboard. And don't let my gesticulations excite you. Keep your mouth shut, my friend; you're not pretty when you smile like that. As I was saying—oh!...
"How long was I that way, old fellow? Good thing for me that you don't know how to climb into a boat when a fellow is that way. Were you ever that way, partner? Come on like this: Biff! Big blaze of red fire in your head. Then—then—well, after awhile you come out of it, with the queerest and crookedest of augers boring through your head, and a million tadpoles of white fire darting in every direction through the air. Don't ever get that way, my friend, if you can possibly keep out of it. But then, you never get thirsty. Let me see. The sun was over there when the red fire struck, and it's over here now. Shifted about thirty degrees. Then, I was that way about two hours.
"Where are those dogs? Do they come to you or do you go to them? That depends. Now, say you had some friends that wanted to do you a good turn; wanted to straighten you up and make a man of you. They had ascertained the exact situation of a wonderful treasure buried in an island of the Pacific. All right. They knew you had some of the qualities useful for such an expedition—reckless dare-devil, afraid of nothing—things like that. Understand, my friend? Well, all swore oaths as long as your leg—as long as your—oh, my! Think of a shark having a leg! Ha, ha, ha! Long as your leg! Oh, my! Pardon my levity, old man, but I must laugh. Ha, ha, ha! Oh, my!
"All of you swore—you and the other sharks. No lying; no deceit; no swindling. First shark that makes a slip is to call the skipper and be sent adrift with one oar and nothing else. And all, my friend, after you had pledged your honor to your mother, your God, yourself, and your friends, to be a true and honorable shark. It isn't the hot sun broiling you and covering you with bursting blisters, and changing the marrow of your bones to melted iron and your blood to hissing lava—it isn't the sun that hurts; and the hunger that gnaws your intestines to rags, and the thirst that changes your throat into a funnel of hot brass, and blinding bursts of red fire in your head, and lying dead in the waist of the boat while the sun steals thirty degrees of time out the sky, and a million fiery tadpoles darting through the air—none of them hurts so much as something infinitely deeper and more cruel,—your broken pledge of honor to your mother, your God, yourself, and your friends. That is what hurts, my friend.
"It is late, old man, to begin life all over again while you are in the article of death, and resolve to be good when it is no longer possible to be bad. But that is our affair, yours and mine; and just at this time we are not choosing to discuss the utility of goodness. But I don't like that sneer in your glance. I have only one oar, and I will cheerfully break it over your wretched head if you come a yard nearer....
"Aha! Thought I was going over, eh? See; I can stand steady when I try. But I don't like that sneer in your eyes. You don't believe in the reformation of the dying, eh? You are a contemptible dog; a low, mean, outcast dog. You sneer at the declaration of a man that he can and will be honest at last and face his Maker humbly, but still as a man. Come, then, my friend, and let us see which of us two is the decent and honorable one. Stake your manhood against mine, and stake your life with your manhood. We'll see which is the more honorable of the two; for I tell you now, Mr. Shark, that we are going to gamble for our lives and our honor.
"Come up closer and watch the throw. No? Afraid of the oar? You sneaking coward! You would be a decent shark at last did the oar but split your skull. See this visiting card, you villain? Look at it as I hold it up. There is printing on one side; that is my name; it is I. The other side is blank; that is you. Now, I am going to throw this into the water. If it falls name up, I win; if blank side up, you win. If I win, I eat you; if you win, you eat me. Is that a go?
"Hold on. You see, I can throw a card so as to bring uppermost either side I please. That wouldn't be fair. For this, the last game of my life, is to be square. So I fold one end down on this side, and the other down on that side. When you throw a card folded like that no living shark, whether he have legs or only a tail, can know which side will fall uppermost. That is a square game, old man, and it will settle the little difference that has existed between you and me for four days past—a difference of ten or fifteen feet.
"Mind you, if I win, you are to come alongside the boat and I am to kill you and eat you. That may sustain my life until I am picked up. If you win, over I go and you eat me. Are you in the game? Well, here goes, then, for life or death.... Ah! you have won! And this is a game of honor!"
* * * * *
A black-smoking steamer was steadily approaching the drifting boat, for the lookout had reported the discovery, and the steamer was bearing down to lend succor. The captain, standing on the bridge, saw through his glass a wild and nearly naked man making the most extraordinary signs and gestures, staggering and lurching in imminent danger of falling overboard. When the ship had approached quite near the captain saw the man toss a card into the water, and then stand with an ominous rigidity, the meaning of which was unmistakable. He sounded a blast from the whistle, and the drifting man started violently and turned to see the steamer approaching, and observed hasty preparations for the lowering of a boat. The outcast stood immovable, watching the strange apparition, which seemed to have sprung out of the ocean.
The boat touched the water and shot lustily forward.
"Pull with all your might, lads, for the man is insane, and is preparing to leap overboard. A big shark is lying in wait for him, and the moment he touches the water he is gone."
The men did pull with all their might and hallooed to the drifting one and warned him of the shark.
"Wait a minute," they cried, "and we'll take you on the ship!"
The purpose of the men seemed at last to have dawned upon the understanding of the outcast. He straightened himself as well as he could into a wretched semblance of dignity, and hoarsely replied,—
"No; I have played a game and lost; an honest man will pay a debt of honor."
And with such a light in his eyes as comes only into those whose vision has penetrated the most wonderful of all mysteries, he leaped forth into the sea.
Sitting at the open window of her room in the upper story of the farmhouse, on the Rancho San Gregorio, Senora Violante Ovando de McPherson watched, with the deepest interest, a cloud of dust which rose in the still May air far down the valley; for it was evident that the color in her cheeks and the sparkle in her violet-black eyes spoke a language of devotion and happiness. Her husband was coming home, and with him his vaqueros, after a tedious drive of cattle to San Francisco. He had been gone but a month; but what an interminable absence that is to a wife of a year! She had watched the fading of the wild golden poppies; she had seen the busy workers of the bee-hives laying up their stores of honey culled from the myriads of flowers which carpeted the valley; and she had ridden over the Gabilan Hills to see the thousands of her husband's cattle which dotted them. She had been respectful of her housekeeping duties, and had directed Alice, the sewing-girl, in the making of garments for the approaching hot season. Yet, busy as she thought she was, and important as she imagined herself to be in the management of the great ranch, time had dragged itself by in manacles. But now was coming the cloud of dust to lift the cloud of loneliness; and if ever a young wife's heart quickened with gladness, it was hers.
Presently the fine young Scotchman leaped from his horse, clasped his wife in his arms, asked a few hurried questions concerning her welfare during his absence, untied a small buckskin bag which depended from the pommel of his saddle, and, remarking, "I thought you might need some spending-money, Violante," held up the bag containing gold, containing a hundred times more gold than her simple tastes and restricted opportunities would permit her to employ. But was not her Robert the most generous of men? Other eyes than hers saw it—those of Basilio Velasco, one of the vaqueros; a small, swarthy man, with the blackest and sharpest of eyes, in which just then was a strange glitter.
What a handsome couple were the young husband and wife, as, arm-in-arm, they entered the house—he so large, and red, and masculine; she so dark, and reliant, and feminine! Beautiful Spanish girls were plentiful in those youthful days of California; but Violante had been known as the most beautiful of all the maidens between the Santa Barbara Channel and the Bay of Monterey. Hard-headed and fiery-tempered Scotch Presbyterian; gentle, patient, and faithful Catholic; they were the happiest and most devoted of couples.
"Well, little Violante," he said, "take the bag up to your room, and give us dinner; for before we rest we must ride over to the range and look after the cattle, and after that you and I shall have a good, long visit."
These pleasant duties were quickly dispatched, and the dusty men, led by her husband, galloped away. From the open window of her room she saw the receding cloud of dust, wondering at that urgent sense of duty which could make so fond a husband leave her, even though for a short time, after so long a separation. Thus she sat, dreamily thinking of her great happiness in having him once again at home, and drinking in the rich perfume of the racemes of wistaria-blossoms which covered the massive vine against the house. This old vine, springing from the ground beneath the window at which she sat, spread its long arms almost completely over that part of the wall, divided on either side for the window, and hung gracefully from beneath the eaves, embowering their lovely owner in a tangled mass of purple blossoms. It was an exquisite picture—the pretty wife sitting there, in the whitest of lawns, looking out over the hills from this frame of gorgeous flowers—all the more charming from her unconsciousness of its beauty. Behind her, at the opposite side of the room, sat her maid, Alice, sewing in silence.
As the senora looked dreamily over the hills, she became aware of the peculiar actions of a man on horseback, who was approaching the house from the direction in which her husband and the vaqueros had disappeared. That which summoned her attention was the fact that the man was approaching by an irregular route, which no ordinary circumstance would have required. He had such a way of keeping behind the trees that she could not determine his identity. It looked strange and mysterious, and something impelled her to drop the lace curtain over the window, for behind it she could watch without danger of being seen.
The horseman disappeared, and this made her uneasiness all the greater, but she said nothing to Alice. Soon she noticed the man on foot approaching the house, in a watchful, skulking fashion, slipping from one tree or one bit of shrubbery to another. Then, with a swift run, he came near, and, stealthily and noiselessly as a cat, began to ascend to her window by clambering up the wistaria-vine. Her spirit quailed and her cheeks blanched when she saw the naked blade of a dagger held between his teeth. She understood his mission—it was her life and the gold; and the glittering eyes of the robber she recognized as those of Basilio Velasco. After a moment of nerveless terror the ancient resisting blood of the Ovandos sprang into alert activity, and this gentlest and sweetest of young women armed her soul to meet Death on his own ground and his own terms, and try the issue with him.
She gave no alarm, for there was none in the house except herself and Alice. To have given way to fear would have destroyed her only hope of life. Quietly, in a low tone, she said,—
"Alice, listen, but do not say a word." There was an impressiveness in her manner that startled the nervous, timid girl; but there were also in it a strength and a self-reliance that reassured her. She dropped her work and regarded her mistress with wonder. "Look in the second drawer of the bureau. You will find a pistol there. Bring it to me quickly, without a word, for a man is clambering up the vine under my window to rob me, and if we make any outcry or lose our heads we are dead. Place full confidence in me, and it will be all right."
Alice, numb and nervous with fear, found the pistol and brought it to her mistress.
"Go and sit down and keep quiet," she was told; and this she did.
Violante, seeing that the weapon was loaded, cocked it, and glanced out the window. Basilio was climbing very slowly and carefully, fearing that the least disturbance of the vine would alarm the senora. When he had come sufficiently near to make her aim sure, Violante suddenly thrust aside the curtain, leaned out the window, and brought the barrel of the weapon in line with Velasco's head.
"What do you want, Basilio?" she asked.
Hearing the musical voice, the Spaniard quickly looked up. Had the bullet then imprisoned in the weapon been sent crashing through his vitals, he would have received hardly a greater shock than that which quivered through his nerves when he saw the black barrel of the pistol, the small but steady hand which held it aimed at his brain, and the pale and beautiful face above it. Thus holding the robber at her mercy, she said firmly to the girl,—
"Alice, there is nothing to fear now. Run as fast as you can to the west end of the house, about a hundred yards away, and you will find this man's horse tied there somewhere in the shrubbery. Mount it, and ride as fast as God will let you. Find my husband, and tell him I have a robber as prisoner."
The girl, almost fainting, passed out of the room, found the horse, and galloped away, leaving these two mortal enemies facing each other.
Velasco had heard all this, and he heard the horse clattering up the road to the range beyond the hills of Gabilan. The picture of a fierce and angry young Scotchman dashing up to the house and slaying him without a parley needed no elaboration in his dazed imagination. He gazed steadily at the senora and she at him; and, while he saw a strange pity and a sorrow in her glance, he saw also an unyielding determination. He could not speak, for the knife between his teeth held his tongue a prisoner. If only he could plead with her and beg for his life!
"Basilio," she quietly said, seeing that he was preparing to release one hand by finding a firmer hold for the other, "if you take either of your hands away from the vine I will shoot you. Keep perfectly still. If you make the least movement, I will shoot. You have seen me throw apples in the air and send a bullet through every one with this pistol."
There was no boastfulness in this, and Velasco knew it to be true.
"I would have given you money, Basilio, if you had asked me for it; but to come thus with a knife! You would have killed me, Basilio, and I have never been unkind to you."
If he could only remove the dagger from his mouth! Surely one so kind and gentle as she would let him go in peace if he could only plead with her! But to let the dagger fall from his teeth would be to disarm himself, and he was hardly ready for that; and there was much thinking and planning to be done within a very few minutes.
Velasco, still with his gaze on the black hole in the pistol-barrel, soon made a discouraging discovery; the position in which he had been arrested was insecure and uncomfortable, and the unusual strain that it brought upon his muscles became painful and exhausting. To shift his position even in the smallest way would be to invite the bullet. As the moments flew the strain upon particular sets of muscles increased his pain with alarming rapidity, and unconsciously he began to speculate upon the length of time that remained before his suffering would lead him into recklessness and death. While he was thus approaching a very agony of pain, with the end of all human endurance not far away, another was suffering in a different manner, but hardly less severely.
The beautiful senora held the choice of two lives in the barrel of her pistol; but that she should thus hold any life at all was a matter that astounded, perplexed, and agonized her; that she had the courage to be in so extraordinary a position amazed her beyond estimation. Now, when one reflects that one is courageous, one's courage is questionable. And then, she was really so tender-hearted that she wondered if she could make good her threat to shoot if the murderer should move. That he believed she would was sufficient.
But after the arrival of her husband—what then? With his passionate nature could he resist the temptation to cut the fellow's throat before her very eyes? That was too horrible to think of. But—God!—the robber himself had a knife! By thus summoning her husband was she not inviting him to a mortal struggle with a desperate man better armed than he? It would have been easy to liberate Basilio and let him go his way; but she knew that her husband would follow and find him. Now that the mischief of notifying him had been done, it was best to keep the prisoner with her, that she might plead for his life. Therein lay her hope that she could avert the shedding of blood by either of the men. Her suspense; her self-questionings; her dread of a terrible termination to an incident which already had assumed the shape of a tragedy; her fearful responsibility; the menacing possibility that she herself, in simple defence of her life, might have to kill Basilio; her trepidation on the score of her aim and the reliability of the pistol—all these things and others were wearing her out; and at last she, too, began to wonder how long she could bear the strain, and whether or not her husband would arrive in time to save her.
Meanwhile, Velasco, racked to the marrow by the pains which tortured him, and driven by a desire to drop the dagger and plead for his life and by fear of parting with his weapon, was urged to despair, and finally to desperation. All the supplication that his face and eyes could show pleaded eloquently for him, and with this silent pleading came evidence of his physical agony. The muscles of his arms and legs twitched and trembled, and his labored breathing hissed as it split upon the edge of the knife. He was unable longer to control the muscles of his lips; the keen edge of his weapon found a way into the flesh at either side of his mouth, and two small streams of blood trickled down his chin and fell upon his breast. Not for a moment did he take his gaze from her eyes; and thus these two regarded each other in a silence and a stillness that were terrible. A crisis had to come. Here was a test of nerve that inevitably would make a victim of one or the other. The spectacle of the man's agony, the pitiful sight of his imploring look, were more than the feminine flesh of which Violante was composed could bear.
The crash came—Basilio was the first to break down. Whether voluntarily or not, he released his hold upon the knife, which went clattering through the vine-branches to the ground. In another instant his tongue, now free, began pouring forth a supplication in the Spanish language with an eloquence which Violante had never heard equalled.
"Oh, senora!" he said, "who but an angel could show a mercy tenderer than human? And yet, as I hope for the mercy of the Holy Virgin, there are a sweetness and a kindness in your face that belong to an angel of mercy. Oh, Mother of God! surely thy unworthy son has been brought into this strait for the trying of his soul, and for its chastisement and purification at the hands of thy sweetest and gentlest of daughters; for thou hast put it into her heart—which is as pure as her face is beautiful—to spare me from a most horrible end. Thou hast whispered into her mother-soul that one of thy sons, however base and undeserving, should not be sent unshriven to the judgment-seat of the most Holy Christ, thy son. Through the holy church thou hast enlightened her soul to the duties of a Christian, for in her beautiful face shines the radiance of heaven.—Ah, senora! see me plead for mercy! Behold the agonies which beset me, and let my sufferings unlock the door of your heart. Let me go in peace, senora; and you shall find in me a slave all the days of my life—the humblest and most devoted of slaves, happy if you beat me, glorying in my slavery if you starve me, and giving praise to Almighty God if you trample me under your feet. Senora, senora, release me, for time is pressing—I can barely escape if you let me go this instant. Would you have my blood on your hands? Can you face the Virgin with that? Oh, senora—senora——"
Her head swam, and all her senses were afloat in a sea of agonies. Still she looked down into his eyes as he continued his pleadings, but the outlines of his body were wavering and uncertain, and inexpressible suffering numbed her faculties. Still she listened vaguely to his outpouring of speech; and it was not until her husband, with two of his vaqueros, dashed up on horseback that either of these two strangely situated sufferers was aware of his approach. Seeing him, Violante threw her arms abroad, and the pistol went flying to the ground; and then she sank down to the floor, and the brilliant sunshine became night and the shining glories of the day all nothingness.
* * * * *
She awoke and found herself lying on her bed, with her husband sitting beside her, caressing her hands and watching her anxiously. It was a little time before she could summon her faculties to exercise and to an understanding of her husband's endearing words; but, seeing him safe with her, her next thought was of Velasco.
"Where is Basilio?" she asked, starting up and looking fearfully about.
"He is safe, my dear one. Think no more of Basilio, who would have harmed my Violante. Be calm, for my sake, sweet wife."
"Oh, I can't, I can't! You must tell me about Basilio." And, in a frightened whisper, she asked, "Did you kill him?"
"No, loved one; Basilio is alive."
She sank back upon her pillow. "God be praised!" she whispered.
Suddenly she started again and looked keenly into her husband's eyes. "You have never deceived me," she hurriedly said; "but, Robert, I must know the truth. Have no fear—I can bear it. For God's sake, my husband, tell me the truth!"
Alarmed, he took her in his arms, and said, "Be calm, my Violante; for as the Almighty is my witness, Basilio is alive."
"Alive! alive!" she cried; "what does that mean? You are keeping something back, my husband. I know your passionate nature too well—you could not let him off so easily. Tell me the whole truth, Robert, or I shall go mad!"
There was a frantic earnestness in this that would have made evasion unwise.
"I will, Violante; I will. Listen—for upon my soul, this is the whole truth: When I saw you drop the pistol and sink back upon the floor, I knew that you had fainted. I ordered the vaqueros to secure the weapon and make Basilio descend to the ground. Then I ran upstairs, placed you on the bed, loosened your clothing, and did what I could to restore you. But you remained unconscious——"
"Basilio! Basilio! tell me about him."
"I went to the window and sent one of the men to the hacienda for a doctor for you, and told the other to bring Basilio to this room. He came in very weak and trembling, for he had fallen from the vine and was slightly stunned, but not much hurt. He expected me to kill him here in this room, but I could not do that—I was afraid on your account, Violante. He was very quiet and ill——"
"Hurry, Robert, hurry!"
"He said nothing. I spoke to him. He hung his head and asked me if I would let him pray. I told him I would not kill him. A great light broke over his face. He fell at my feet and clasped my knees and kissed my boots and wept like a child. It was pitiful, Violante."
"He begged me to punish him. He removed his shirt and implored me to beat him. I told him I would not touch him. He said he would be your slave and mine all his life; but he insisted that he must make some physical atonement—he must be punished. 'Very well,' I said. Then I turned to Nicolas and told him to give Basilio some light punishment, as that would relieve his mind. Nicolas took him down and lashed him to the back of a horse, and turned the animal into the horse-corral. Then Nicolas came back and told me what he had done. I replied that it was all right, and that as soon as I could leave you I would go and release Basilio. And then I told Nicolas to go to the range and look up Alice and bring her home, for she was too weak to come back with me."
"And Basilio is in the corral now?"
"How was he lashed to the horse?"
"I don't know—Nicolas didn't tell me; but you may be sure that he is all right."
She threw her arms around her husband's neck and kissed him again and again, saying, "My noble, generous husband! I love you a thousand times more than ever. Now go, Robert, at once, and release Basilio."
"I can't leave you, dear."
"You must—you shall! I am fully recovered. If you don't go, I will."
No sooner had he left the room than she sprang out of the bed, caught up a penknife, and noiselessly followed him; he did not suspect her presence close behind him as he went towards the corral. When they had gone thus a short distance from the house her alert ear caught a peculiar sound that sent icicles through her body. They were feeble cries of human agony, and they came from a direction other than that of the corral. Heedlessly, and therefore unwisely, she ran towards their source, without having summoned her husband, and soon she came upon a fearful spectacle.
McPherson pursued his way to the corral; but when he arrived there he was surprised not to find Basilio in the enclosure. The gate was closed—the horse to which he was lashed could not have escaped through it. Looking about, he read the signs of a commotion that must have occurred among the horses, caused, undoubtedly, by the strange sight of a man lashed in some peculiar way to the back of one of their number. The ground was torn by flying hoofs in all directions; there had been a wild stampede among the animals. Even when he entered, possibly more than a half-hour after Basilio was introduced among them, they were huddled in a corner, and snorted in alarm when he approached them. The horse to which Nicolas had lashed Basilio was not to be seen. Annoyed at the stupidity of Nicolas, McPherson looked about until he found the place in the fence through which Basilio's horse had broken; only two of the rails had been thrown down. Alarmed and distressed, McPherson leaped over the fence, took up the trail of the horse, and followed it, running. Presently he discovered that the horse, in his mad flight, had broken through the fence enclosing the apiary, and had played havoc among the twenty or more bee-hives therein. Then McPherson saw a spectacle that for a little while took all the strength out of his body.
The senora, guided by a quicker sense than that of her husband, had gone straight to the apiary. There she saw the horse, with Basilio, naked to the waist, strapped upon his back, the animal plunging madly among the bee-hives, kicking them to fragments as the vicious insects plied him with their stings. Basilio was tied with his face to the sun, which poured its fierce rays into his eyes; for Nicolas was devoted to the senora, and he had been determined to make matters as uncomfortable for the ingrate as possible. Upon Basilio's unprotected body the bees swarmed by hundreds, giving him a score of stings to one for the horse, and he was utterly helpless to protect himself. Already the poison of a thousand stings had been poured into his face and body; his features were hideously swollen and distorted, and his chest was puffed out of resemblance to a human shape, and was livid and ghastly.
Without a moment's hesitation, the senora flew through the gate and went to the deliverance of Basilio, praying to God with every breath. His cries were feeble, for his strength was nearly gone, and his incredible agony, aided by the poison of the bees, had sent his wits astray. For Violante to approach the maddened horse and the swarming bees was to offer herself to death; but what cared she for that, when another's life was at stake? Into this desperate situation she threw herself. With the coolness of a trained horsewoman, she finally twisted the fingers of one hand into the frantic horse's nostrils, bringing him instantly under control. In another moment, unmindful of the stings which the bees inflicted upon her face and hands, she had cut Basilio's lashings and caught his shapeless body in her arms as it slipped to the ground. Then, taking him under the arms, she dragged him, with uncommon strength, from the enclosure and away from the murderous assaults of the bees.
He moaned; his head rolled from one side to the other. His eyes were closed by the swelling of the lids, and he could not see her; but even had this not been so, he was past knowing her. She laid him down in the shade of a great oak, and she saw from his faint and interrupted gasps that in another moment all would be over with him. Unconscious of the presence of her husband, who now stood reverently, with uncovered head, behind her, she raised to heaven her blanched face and beautiful eyes, and softly prayed, "Holy mother of Jesus, hear the prayer of thy wretched daughter, and intercede for this unshriven spirit." She glanced down at Basilio, and saw that he was dead. Feebly she staggered to her feet, and, seeing her husband, cried out his name, stretched out her arms towards him, and sank unconscious into his strong grasp; and thus he bore her to the house, kissing her face, while tears streamed down his cheeks.
An Uncommon View of It
Mr. Clarke Randolph was stupefied by a discovery which he had just made—his wife had proved unfaithful, and the betrayer was his nearest friend, Henry Stockton. If there had been the least chance for a doubt, the unhappy husband would have seized upon it, but there was none whatever.
Let us try to understand what this meant to such a man as Randolph. He was a high-bred, high-spirited man of thirty, descended from a long line of proud and chivalrous men; educated, refined, sensitive, generous, and brave. His fine talents, his dash, his polished manner, his industry, his integrity, his loftiness of character, had lifted him upon the shoulders of popularity and prosperity; so that, in the city of his home, there was not another man of his age, a member of his profession, the law, who was so well known, so well liked, or wielded such a power.
He had been married four years. His wife was beautiful, winning, and intelligent; and she had always had from him the best devotion that a husband could give his wife. He and Stockton had been friends for many years. Next to his wife, Randolph had loved and trusted him above all others.
Such was the situation. At one stroke he had lost his wife, his home, his best friend, his confidence in human nature, his spirit, his ambition. These—and essentially they were all that made up his life, except the operation of purely animal functions—had gone all at once without a moment's warning.
Well, there was something to be done. A keen sense of the betrayal, a smarting under the gross humiliation, urged him to the natural course of revenge. This, as he sat crouched down in a chair in his locked office, he began systematically to prepare. The first idea—always first in such cases—was to kill. That, in the case of a man of his spirit and temperament, was a matter of course. Fear of the legal consequences found no place within him. Besides, suicide after the killing would settle that exceedingly small part of the difficulty.
So it was first decided that as the result of this discovery three persons had to die,—his wife, his friend, and himself. Very well; that took a load from his mind. An orderly and intelligent arrangement of details now had to be worked out. A plan which would bring the largest results in the satisfaction of a desire for revenge must be chosen. The simple death of those two, the bare stoppage of breath, would be wholly inadequate. First, the manner of taking their lives must have the quality of strength and a force which in itself would have a large element of satisfaction; hence it must be striking, deliberate, brutal if you wish, revolting if you are particular. Second, it must be preceded by exposure, denunciation, publication, scorn, contempt, and terror.
That much was good—what next? There were various available means for taking life. A revolver suggested itself. It makes a dark, red spot; the very sight of the weapon, held steadily and longer than necessary, levelled at the place where the spot is to appear, is terrifying; there is a look of fright; then uplifted arms, an appeal for mercy, a protest of innocence, a cry to God; after that the crash, a white face, a toppling to the floor, eyes rolled upward, bluish lips apart, a dark pool on the carpet—all that was very good. The wretched man felt better now that he was beginning to think so clearly.
But there was poison also—poison in variety: arsenic, which burns and corrodes, causing great pain, often for hours; strychnine, which acts through the nerves, producing convulsions and sometimes a fixed distortion of the features, which even the relaxation of death cannot remove; corrosive sublimate, prussic acid, cyanide of potassium—too quick and deadly. It must be a poison, if poison at all, which will bring about a sensible progression through perceptible stages of suffering, so that during this time the efficiency of physical pain may be raised by the addition of mental suffering.
Were these all the methods? Yes—enough for this purpose. Then, which should it be—revolver or poison? It was a difficult problem. Let it first be settled that the three should be together, locked in a room, and that the two guilty ones should suffer first, one at a time.
The revolver won.
Randolph was in the act of leaving his office to go and buy the weapon, when he was startled by what he saw in his office-mirror. It required a moment for him to recognize his own reflection. His face was unnaturally white; a discoloration was under his eyes, which had a glassy appearance; his lips were pressed tightly together, the corners of his mouth drawn down, large dark veins standing out on his temples. Fearing that if, while in this condition, he should apply to a gunsmith for a revolver he would be refused, he stood for some time before the mirror trying to restore the natural expression of his face. He kneaded his lips to remove their stiffness, pinched his cheeks to bring back their color, rubbed down the ridged veins, and scraped a little of the white plaster from the wall and with it concealed the dark color under his eyes. Then he went forth with a firm step, bought the revolver without difficulty, tried it, satisfied himself that it was reliable, loaded it, put it into his pocket, and returned to his office.
For there were certain matters of property to be attended to. He had a considerable fortune, all his separate possession; his wife had brought him nothing. He now felt sufficiently clear-minded to dispose of his estate intelligently. He drew his will—a holographic instrument—devising his wealth to various persons and benevolent societies.
He glanced at his office-clock. There would be four long hours yet before the time for going home to dinner. Fortunately for his plans, Stockton was to dine with them that evening, and neither of the guilty ones knew that they had been discovered. How should Randolph employ these weary hours? There was nothing to do, nothing even to think of. He tried to read a newspaper, then a book, and failed; looked out upon the crowds which thronged the street; counted the passing cars awhile; tried other things, failed at everything, and then sat down.
Something was beginning to work in the wretched man. Let us see: his wife, while pretending the warmest affection for him, was receiving the guilty attentions of a traitor in the house; she had betrayed her husband, had wrecked his life, had driven him to his death. Really, therefore, she had swept aside all the obligations which the marriage relation imposed. In essence she was no longer his wife, but a criminal enemy who, with deliberate and abounding malice, had destroyed him. He could go to the grave with a willing heart, but he could not permit her to live and enjoy his downfall and gloat over his destruction.