Expiation - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

Expiation ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim

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Opis

A solitary cabin stood far away in the backwoods of Canada, outside all tracks of civilization, in a region which only the native Indians and a few daring trappers cared to penetrate. Rudely built of pine logs, it was ill-calculated to withstand the piercing cold and frost which, for nine months out of the twelve, holds this region in an iron grip. Around it, a small clearing had been effected, but the ground was many feet thick in snow, which, save where in front of the door it had been cut away, surrounded the frail little building, and reached up to the rude window.

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Liczba stron: 393

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Contents

I. THE REFUGEES

II. THE WELCOMING HOME

III. THE SIN OF OMISSION

IV. THE CLIMBING ROSE AROUND THE FIGURE OF STONE.

V. THE SON'S JUDGMENT

VI. A NIGHT'S DARK WORK.

VII. "DIED OF A BROKEN HEART"

VIII. GODFREY IS ENAMOURED

IX. A COUNTY DINNER PARTY

X. IF MAN COULD AND WOMAN WOULD

XI. 'TWIST PEER AND PARSON

XII. A SUPPRESSED PAGE OF THE FAMILY HISTORY

XIII. TWO HEADS ARE. BETTER THAN ONE

XIV. LA PARTIE CARRÉE

XV. IN OUR AMERICAN DOMINION AGAIN

XVI. THE WRONG MAN

XVII. THE MORNINGTONS MEET

XVIII. THE ELDER MORNINGTON'S MORE PROFITABLE QUEST

XIX. THE STRANGER GUEST

XX. THE VOICE OF NATURE

XXI. THE FIRST STROKE

XXII. A TRAGEDY OF THE RIVALS

XXIII. O GRAVE, WHERE IS THY STING?

XXIV. ONE WAS CALLED AND ANOTHER TAKEN

XXV. THE THIRD STROKE

XXVI. PAIRING OFF

EPILOGUE.

I. THE REFUGEES

A solitary cabin stood far away in the backwoods of Canada, outside all tracks of civilization, in a region which only the native Indians and a few daring trappers cared to penetrate. Rudely built of pine logs, it was ill-calculated to withstand the piercing cold and frost which, for nine months out of the twelve, holds this region in an iron grip. Around it, a small clearing had been effected, but the ground was many feet thick in snow, which, save where in front of the door it had been cut away, surrounded the frail little building, and reached up to the rude window.

A wild and lonesome spot, in the very thick of an almost impenetrable forest, little wonder then that the two men who had built this dwelling-place lived undisturbed, and all but undreamt of.

The two inmates were seated within on pine log segments, crouching over a fast dying-out fire, its decaying embers casting a fitful glare around on the little there was to show. Bare, uneven walls, against one side of which stood a rough cupboard, the only apology for furniture, save the seats and a longer stump set up as a table. Some furs, flung together in separate heaps, were evidently their beds; two long rifles standing in a corner, and a few trifles scattered carelessly about; this was all the feeble glimmer could reveal.

The men’s faces were strangely alike, and yet, in another sense, strangely dissimilar: their features might have been cast in the same mould, but the expression of each face was totally different. He who appeared to be rather the younger of the two–though their stature agreed, and it was not by that means one distinguished any variation–was leaning forward, supporting his face with his hands, and gazing with a look of settled despair, indicating thoughts of an unenviable past, into the feeble remains of the fire. Now and then his lips moved, and a feeble smile played upon them, soon to vanish, as if chased away by darker broodings, and to be succeeded by the former expression of hopelessness.

His companion appeared to be steadily watching him through half-closed eyes, in which shone a restless, anxious light, contrasting markedly with the other’s almost sullen look. A nervousness beyond his control seemed to have taken complete possession of him, and showed itself by the frequent changes of position, and restless movements of limbs. The one act to which he remained constant was the watch upon his companion, and in whose slightest motion he betrayed a keen interest.

The hours passed slowly on; but, as if unheedful, or perhaps unconscious of the flight of time, the two men maintained their positions unmoved. The only disturbing sound outside was the dull roar of the icy wind as it shook the tops of the pine trees, and passed on through the forest. Within the hut perfect silence reigned, unless when the ashes dropped softly off from the log fast burning out on the hearth.

At last the younger man rose slowly from his seat, but only to sink down with a weary sigh upon one of the heaps of furs, and stretch himself out for sleep. His mate flung another log upon the embers, but continued his watch. After a short time, when its object showed all the signs of sleep, the other arose and, moving on tiptoe, approached the sleeper, over whom he bent to study him narrowly. Apparently satisfied by the closed eyes and regular breathing that the slumber was no feigned one, he resumed his seat He drew from his pocket a newspaper, and after a cautious glance round, commenced to read. One article alone claimed his whole attention, and this he read with an air of eager interest three or four times. Thus it ran:–

EXECUTION OF JAMES DALTON EXTRAORDINARY CONFESSION OF THE CRIMINAL

This morning, at eight o’clock, James Dalton, under sentence of death for the murder of Robert Harrison, policeman, suffered the extreme penalty of the law at the borough gaol.”

After giving details of the execution, the reporter proceeded to dilate upon the last confession of the criminal, as follows:

"About six o’clock, Dalton, who appeared calm and resigned, pleaded for an interview with the governor, alleging that he wished to make confession of a crime committed by himself, for which, he had reason to believe, some innocent person had been suspected. Immediately on the request being conveyed to the governor, he, in company with the chaplain, and attended by his shorthand clerk, proceeded to the prisoner’s cell, and received this confession of the unhappy man, given verbatim.

"At eight o’clock,” he said, “I shall pass into another world. I have lived a life of crime from my youth here. The chaplain tells me that even now, if I confess everything and repent, I may be forgiven. That’s what I can’t take whole; but it’s neither here nor there on what’s on my heart. I want to tell you this straight. As near as I can remember, what I am going to clear off happened some twenty odd year’ ago in the month of November. I was then one of a gang of burglar, whose chief lay it was to mark empty houses, when the owners were away, you see. We weren’t doing much in the more desperate line then, as this paid us better, especially in the swell parts. It was a dark night, and me and a pal had to go on to some plate left for one night only in a house in Upper Sleeke Street, off Park Lane, London. Two menservants were kep’, but only one was to be left in the house, and it were him what blew the thing to us on promise of half the metal when melted. He was to leave the scullery window open, and when we had got in, we was to knock him about a bit and tie him up, to make the thing look square. Howsomever, when we gets to the corner of the street, we meets him skulking about for us, and we l’arnt that, during the day, the plate had been removed, and so there warn’t no go. As we talked this bilk over, we heard the tramp of a policeman t’other side of the street, and my pal and the footman naterally cut their lucky. Being in the shadow, I knew he would not see me, so I stood bolt up against the wall, and he passed on, in course, without noticing o’ me. While I waited for him to get a safe distance off, I saw a light in the second-floor window of the house exactly opposite me. What possessed me I don’t know, but even after the copper were out of hearing, I stood watching that ‘ere light. It struck me that there were something wrong up there; what for I don’t know, for it warn’t partic’lar late. I ain’t superstitious as a rule, but a sort of a kind 0’ creepiness come over me that something would happen in that house, if I waited, and something did happen for true. I hadn’t been there above five minutes, and was jist a making up o’ my mind to step it, when I see a hand pull the window open, and I skipped back into the shadow and squeezed myself up against the wall. Soon I see a man put his head and shoulders cautiously out and look carefully up and down. There warn’t a soul about but me, and not a sound to be heard, and presently he stepped out on to the little balcony, and listened again. I saw him plainly then, though he couldn’t see me, and by the awful scared look on his face I could guess something was queer. He looked jist wild-like; pale as a ghost, and an awful look in his big black eyes. He was dressed like a swell, but his collar was torn open, and his bit of white tie hanging down. After he had stood there listening for a, minute or two, he stepped back into the room, leaving of the window open. I waited, holding my breath, and crouching down in the dark still. He was back in a moment, and another swell with him.

"I could not see this gentleman so well as him, as afore coming out again he had lowered the lamp, but I could see they was both of a height, and about the same build. They whispered together for a bit, then one climbed over the balcony and dropped into the flower-beds below. The rails wasn’t high, and the ground was soft with rain, so it wasn’t no hard job, and in a moment the other was down, too. They opened the gate and turned down the street, walking very fast; but as they passed under the street lamp opposite me, I could see them plain. Lord! how scared they looked, both as pale as whitewash, and one of them shaking so as if he couldn’t scarcely walk. They was both much alike, tall and dark. The one as seemed least put about, took the other’s arm, and hurried him round the corner, out of sight in a twinkling.

"While I were hesitating whether to follow them or not, I noticed as how they hadn’t shut the window, and I see as how it was easy to get up, by stepping on the first-floor window ledge, and swinging up by the balcony rails. In a jiffy I had screwed up my thinker to get into that room; and I did. What I see, though I had expected summat of the sort, almost took my breath away. Stretched on the floor in the far corner was a man whom I took for corpsed, for he was lying quite still, and I could see a drop or two of dark red blood streaming down his temple, and staining his hair, which was a light colour. I had seen many a stiff-un afore, but coming on him so suddent-like, clean took my nerve away, and I had half a mind to cut out again quicker’n I’d come; but then I thought as how, as I’d run the risk, I might as well lay my hands on some goods or other, and, spying some silver hornyments on the chimbley piece, I stepped up to it and stuffed them into my pocket. The room was richly furnished, and as I heerd no sound in the house, I opened a cupboard, too, and ‘found’ a silver cigar-case, and some other knickery-knacks. After I’d helped myself to about as much as I could carry away convenient, I was turning to go, when I heerd a noise behind me, and, turning round, sees the man whom I took for dead, on his feet and looking round in a dazed sort of way, until his eyes rested on me, and then he stared at me frightened-like. Seeing him up on his feet so unexpected startled me, and my senses seemed clean to go, and instead of making myself scarce at once, I jist stood and stared back at him until at last he spoke.”

"What are you doing here!” he said.

"The sound of his voice brung me to myself, and I leapt for the window, but he was in front of it and caught me in his arms, and in a moment we were wrestling together. I was rayther weak at that time, jist getting over the fever, and he were a big, strong man, so he was copping the best of it, and there was nothing for it but to use my life-preserver. I got it out all right, no fear, and as he snatched at it, I dodged him, and brought it full force on to his temple. He guyve one deep groan and he sunk back, and I knowed by the way he fell that he was done for this time, and no error. I snatched the things that I had took out of my pockets, and put them all back agin, reckoning they would say the swells had done the job if there was nothing missing, and then I got through the window and on to the balcony. There was no one in the street, and in a moment I had swung myself down and had got clean off. As I never heerd nothing more of it, and none of our lot was looked after for it, I suppose the police fixed it on them two swells. I don’t think they were nabbed, though, or I should have heerd of it, cos an’ why we allers has a good read of the Sunday paper after bein’ out on the job, and there was no mention that I come across. If them ‘ere swells has had to go on the strict q.t., on the Continong, f’r instance, why, like as not they may hear of this, and know they only stunned their friend, and that it was me who settled him. There’s nowt else I think on, ‘cept the letters on the cigar-case, I remember, was a H and a h’M. That be all, governor.”

So far the word for word confession. The report concluded:–

"There is no difficulty in connecting this revelation with a mysterious murder at Mr. Mornington’s London house, No. 6, Upper Sleeke Street, on the 20th of November, twenty-two years ago. On that night, the proprietor and a friend, Mr. Cecil Braithwaite, left the house, and no intelligence of them ever came to hand. The evidence before the coroner’s jury, which sat on a body found in the house, implicated one or both of the gentlemen so deeply that warrants were issued for their apprehension. Upon this burglar murderer’s confession, the Home Secretary was communicated with, and its corroboration being easy and immediate, we believe that these warrants have been already cancelled, and every effort will be made by the families concerned, no doubt, to discover the fugitives and apprise them of the proof of their innocence.”

This was the article which seemed so much to interest the man who read it by the light of the pine logs. It further inspired him with a decision, for, after he had put the paper back into his pocket, he crossed the room, and once more bent over the sleeping man. His deep, regular breathing, and other evidences of sleep, encouraged the viewer, for with a firm hand he drew a small key out of the loose waistcoat pocket of the sleeper, and crossing the hut with careful tread, and every now and then a stealthy glance behind, he fitted the key into a small black box in the furthest corner, and pushing the lid up, took out two or three bundles of papers, and with them crossed again to the light of the fire. Here he glanced rapidly through them, pausing in his task at intervals, to bestow an anxious gaze at his companion. His task did not occupy him long; in a few minutes he came to the end of the little pile, and carefully thrusting selected ones into his inner pocket, he replaced the others precisely as he had found them. Then he relocked the box, and carefully replaced the key in the sleeping man’s pocket. He breathed more freely now, as if the most difficult part of his task were accomplished; but he never for one moment relaxed his wary watch on the slumberer. He dragged out a pair of snow shoes from a corner, and placed them in readiness for use by the door; wrapped some thick furs around him, and slung his rifle across his shoulder by its strap as if about to leave.

On the threshold, he deliberated for a moment, turned back, and tearing a leaf out of an old pocketbook, yellow with age, wrote these few words:

"Going into the back country for some months; expect me back when the frost gives.”

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