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The Australian authoress Mary Helena Fortune (ca. 1833-1911) was one of the first women to write detective fiction, and probably the first to write it from the viewpoint of the detective. Her opus includes several novels and over 500 stories, many of which feature a detective by the name of Mark Sinclair. She wrote under the pseudonyms "Waif Wander" and "W.W."
IN the pursuit and arrest of criminals in every corner of the world, what a powerful assistance has the art of photography been to policemen of every grade. Before its perfection and dissemination to every quarter of the globe, the detective had little to guide him save the imperfect and stereotyped description in the Police Gazette, of the verbally given impression of some not over-observant victim, perhaps. Now it is different. In almost three cases out of every five the first mail puts us in possession of a facsimile on paper of the object of our search, and we are in a position to pounce upon him at once, with a certainty as to his identity of which nothing can deprive us.
When I promised to give to the public the police histories of some of the pictured forms and faces in my detective album, I had not duly considered the task I was about to undertake. It will be a harrowing one. There is not one of those portraits that does not bring vivid remembrances to me; and some of them most terrible ones, that are calculated, even at this distance of time, to make me shudder, and the blood run colder in my veins.
The album generally lies in the drawer of my office desk at my headquarters; and it is not kept for the amusement of visitors, or, indeed, for anyone's inspection save my own. It has a horrible fascination for me, and one which is very strange in a person so used to such scenes as those in which the originals of my portraits have played the principal part. And so deeply interesting, at least to my recollection, are every one of the episodes connected with those pictured faces that I have turned the leaves over and over again for many minutes without being able to decide which of its pages I should first unfold. But selection would be only invidious, and I shall take the simplest way, relating my acquaintance with the history of each leaf as it comes, commencing with the first page.
I could not have done better, I think; for the tale of crime connected with this one will take me back to the early days of the Victorian diggings, and to the scenes which are already becoming a recollection of the past, and which are not likely to be renewed. There are many who will read these pages to whom the localities into which my reminiscences will lead me will be familiar, but they will recognize no topographical correctness in the names I shall apply to the places I shall have to describe. There remain still, in many of the scenes I shall find it necessary to portray, persons to whom my stories must bring terrible memories, and with whom the real names must inevitably connect the tragedies. Under these circumstances, it will be more charitable to select colonial names at random, and without attempting to locate them at proper distances from each other.
It is, let me see, twelve years ago now, since I was riding, one lovely spring day, through one of the prettiest bits of wild country in Victoria. A most beautiful and perfect specimen of the "bush track" led over plain and through gorge, and by winding creek; now but lightly marking its rarely-travelled path through an old box forest, and anon emerging upon a broad and rolling plain, where the scattered trees flourished restingly, like the old oaks in an English demesne. Sometimes it climbed tortuously up a steep and rooky range; sometimes it vanished entirely on the arid side of a sloping sun-browned eminence. Sometimes it carried me on through a perfect richness of soft, green wattles, or stopped lazily at a deep, still water pool; but always beautiful, and always enjoyable in the soft genial brightness of an Australian September day.
I had just reached such a spot—a still, dark-bosomed waterhole, that lay but a little distance from the faint track. That wayfarers had made it a resting-place was evident from the marks of hoof and foot that trampled one place at its edge, and from the bits of half-burnt wood and white ashes that lay at the foot of a near tree. But there had not been enough of this to destroy the natural beauty of the spot; and the soft bushes around were green and fresh-looking, and the lordly trees as grand, and the dark water as restful, as if the eye of man had never looked upon the scene.
My horse seemed to have an inclination to drink, so I turned him, or rather let him take his own course, towards the pool; and then I dismounted, and while he satisfied his thirst by long draughts of the cool water, I stood by his side holding the bridle in my hand, and admired the surroundings of the quiet bush waterhole.
Every one at all familiar with Australian country scenery knows the value of these deep pools in a country so ill-watered as ours is. They are generally to be met with on the beds of dry creeks, where their steep edges, worn away by many a winter torrent, are fringed by the spring-blossomed wattle, or guarded by the old gnarled gum-tree, that stands like a silent sentinel over the secrets of the pool. Of what value they are in the hot and droughty summer of our eastern land, let the foot-sore swagsman tell, who, faint and weary, at last reaches one to refresh and to cool.
I was not faint and weary, yet the dark water pool had an attraction for me that I did not attempt to resist. "What a dark hiding-place for the victim dead," I thought; "and if it were even so, not less placidly would its surface reflect those feathery wattle boughs laden with their clusters of golden down, and not less sweetly would that joyous magpie warble his notes as he plumes himself, with the water for a mirror."
At this moment my horse lifted his head from the water with a long sigh of content, but as he did so he pricked up his ears and started. Looking behind me to see what had alarmed him, I saw something that startled myself, being, as I was, unaware of the presence of a living being.
It was a man seated upon a dead log by the water's side, with his elbows on his knees, and his face buried in his bands. The usual swag lay beside him, and he was dusty and way-worn looking; but he did not seem like a digger, but, to my accustomed eyes, like a new chum, viz., one who had not been long in the colony.
His whole attitude was one of the deepest dejection. If he had heard my approach, he must have paid no attention to it, for his bowed head remained upon his hands even as the horses feet began to shift in the water preparatory to his dipping his lips in a fresh part of the pool. I don't know how it was, but my heart was drawn towards this lonely man, sitting there so desolate by the bush waterhole, and I did what I would not perhaps have done in a less lonely place—I addressed him.
"Hallo, mate! What's the matter with you? Not sick, eh?"
The stranger lifted his head slowly, and as if with an effort, and when he did so I perceived that the face was that of a young man of evident gentle breeding.
"You are not ill, or in want any way, I hope?" I asked again, as he did not immediately answer.
"No, I am only thoroughly tired out, and—and low-spirited," he added, hesitatingly. "Can you tell me how far the Bridge Hotel is from this?"
"Well, I have never been here before," I replied, "but I think I can make a tolerably good guess. The Bridge Hotel is about a mile and a half from Carrick police-station, and Carrick police-station is about two miles from where you sit. You are some three and a half miles from the Bridge Hotel."
"It's a good walk yet," he said, with a sigh of weariness.
"I'll tell you what you can do to shorten the road," I observed, impulsively. "Come with me to the camp—company will lighten the way, and you can have a rest there and start fresh."
"Are you going to the police camp?" he asked, with interest, looking me all over quickly as he spoke.
I was in plain clothes, having only recently been removed into the detective force.
"Yes—I am going straight there."
"You are not a policeman? You have nothing to do with the force?" he inquired eagerly.
"I have quite enough to do with it to insure you a welcome at any rate," was my evasive reply, "if you are coming with me; and if you are not, why I must be going, for the sun dips fast in Australia when he gets as low as he is at present."
At this moment occurred one of those apparently simple incidents, the life and death consequences of which it is too hard for materialism to account for. Upon such simple things hang the whole issue of a person's future life. The delay of a moment—the breaking of a strap—the falling of a few raindrops—the stumbling of a foot against a stone—upon these, and such things as these, have rested the issue of life in how many recorded and unrecorded instances.
The animal I had ridden, being satisfied with his long draught of the refreshing element, at this moment withdrew his forefoot from the clayey brink of the pool. As he did so, I turned to recover a firmer foothold, a something caught in his foot, or rather around it, and tripped him. It was apparently a black string, one end of which was embedded in the mud; but the horse's foot detached it, and he climbed to the sward by my side with it hanging, limp and dirty, yet dripping with water, around his ankle.
I stooped down and removed it, lifting it at the same time to examine it more closely. It was a black silk necktie, with an embroidery in what had once been richly-colored floss in the corners; but the action of the water had left only faint hues where had once been a brilliant imitation of natural flowers. Satisfied with my inspection, I threw it from me—was it chance that made it alight upon the foot of my new acquaintance? His eye followed it from my hand—I saw that as I cast it away—and when it rested on his boot I was looking into his face, and saw a lividness spread over it too decided not to be noticed. Following my example, he stooped and raised the dripping rag from the ground, and examined it closely, with a head so bent down that the brim of his hat shaded his face from my eyes. But I could see the hands that held the bit of silk, and the long delicate-looking fingers trembled like leaves in a breeze.
Apparently the sight of this rag, dragged from the muddy edge of an Australian bush waterhole, recalled memories or feelings which the traveler could not bear; his legs trembled under him, his very lips grew ashen hued, and he fell back upon the log from which he had arisen at his last question to myself. He clasped the necktie firmly in his fingers, and once more bent his head over them, and groaned as one in agony of mind that could not be given utterance to.
My curiosity as well as my pity was deeply aroused. What could this stranger have possibly found in this dirty, soiled string to arouse such evident distress? "What on earth is the matter, my good friend?" I asked, laying my hand kindly on his shoulder. "That dripping thing that my horse has unconsciously pulled out of the mud has affected you strangely. Won't you tell me what it is?"
"It is murder," he replied, hoarsely, "and a murder that I have come half around the globe to find. Oh God," he added, rising to his feet and excitedly lifting the hand that held the bit of black silk, in an attitude of invocation, "help me to discover and avenge! But why should I doubt? Hast Thou not led me here, all unconsciously, to the very spot—to the very spot? I thank thee, Oh my God!" and he sat down once more and burst into a passion of tears.
I was glad to see the tears—painful as it is at all times to see them flow from a man's eyes—for I knew they would act as a safety-valve to the intensity of his feelings, of whatever nature they might be. And so I did not attempt to interrupt him until the first burst was over, and his grief had subsided into deep sobs that seemed to tear him. Then I spoke to him kindly.
"My dear fellow, I do not know the cause of your trouble, of course, and I do not ask to know it, if you do not wish to tell me; but I do not like to leave you here alone in this state. You have spoken of murder. Can I not help you? I am an officer of detectives, and I am on my way to Carrick Police Station. Here, put your swag on my horse, and I will walk with you. We may help you. Come, now."
"A detective! Oh, yes, I will go with you! Surely heaven is ready to help me, since you are sent to throw at my feet the first clue to the lost. I am ready;" and looking a long look first at the cold deep water we were about to leave, he lifted his swag and be able to threw it over my saddle.
I daresay we walked half a mile before the silence was broken between us, the stranger walking on one side of the horse, with his hand resting on the swag to steady it, and I on the other, carelessly holding the bridle of my well-trained animal. The man seemed almost completely absorbed in thought, and I don't believe that he was conscious in any degree of the nature of the country we were journeying over. He still held the necktie in his hand, and every now and then he looked at it sadly; but at length he folded it up, placed it in his breast, and then spoke to me.
"Shall we go near the Bridge Hotel at all on our way to the camp?"
"No—it is a mile and a half from the station. Are you anxious to get there? Do you expect to meet anyone?" I asked, wishing to get him into conversation.
"I expect to meet a murderer," he answered, hurriedly; "but, see, I'm going to tell you my story now. Mine is a retiring disposition at any time, and by-and-bye I may not be inclined to speak in the presence of your companions. Pray, listen to every word, for I do not speak from any motive but one, which requires your help as a detective."
And, as he concluded, he arranged the swag more securely, and letting the horse move on until he passed him, placed himself by my side.
I had already noticed what a handsome young fellow he was. His features were aquiline, and his hair and beard a dark brown. He had large, dark, melancholy-looking eyes, and his face was deathly pale; and his years might have numbered twenty-five, but not more.
"It is three years ago now," he began, "since the news of the great gold finds of Australia reached the quiet country town where our widowed mother shared the home and the affections of her two only children. We were both boys. Edward was two years younger than I; and when he heard of the suddenly-acquired fortunes of the land of gold, ropes would not have held him at home.
"'Why should I not go and make money?' he asked. 'We may plod on here in poverty for ever. No, mother, do not say me nay. I shall soon return to fill your lap with a golden shower, and then George need not grow any paler at that weary desk.'
"And so he went, and I was left alone with our mother, keeping on still my situation to support us both. Edward was even more fortunate than he had dreamed, for the first letter we received from him brought home a handsome sum, the produce of his first gold-mining speculation in the colony.
"I will not tire you with a description of my mother's delight when, at the end of the first year of his absence, we received a letter from Edward stating his intention of returning home at once. He had been so fortunate that a handsome fortune was to be shared with us; and the boy's letter was like a burst of sunshine, it was so full of delight and joy, and it made my poor mother's heart young again. Edward was her favourite too, and he was worthy of her love.
"Well, months passed away wearily, and we heard no more of my brother, and my mother began to droop and pine, and to fancy all sorts of evil had befallen the lad. He had told us in his letter that he was on his way to Melbourne when he wrote it, and that he carried his gold with him. A 'heavy swag' he called it; determined to entrust it to no one, so fearful was he of losing it. At last, yielding to my poor mother's entreaties, I wrote a note to the postmaster at Reid's Creek—the place where my brother had been working—acquainting him with the particulars of our anxiety, and requesting that he would try to gain any particulars that he could for us.
"By the very next mail came a reply from a mate of poor Edward's, who had fortunately happened to be at Reid's Creek when the postmaster got mine. His tidings fell like a thunderbolt upon us, and from the very hour of its receipt my mother sank rapidly.
"It stated that the writer had accompanied Edward on his way to town until they reached the Bridge Hotel, at Coghill Creek. There he had heard such news as induced him to say farewell to Edward, and turn his steps in the direction of the new rush at McIvors.
"Things at McIvors not proving as he had anticipated, he had retraced his steps without loss of time, but only to find that Edward had left the Bridge Hotel.
"He went on to say that he had followed the Sydney-road to town, step by step, and inquired in every direction for his late mate, and all to no purpose. He was certain that he had not sailed in any vessel that had left the port, and from the large quantity of gold he carried on his person, and the great temptation it would have proved to the cupidity of anyone of the many bad characters to whom his simplicity might expose his gold after he had parted with his more prudent mate, that mate dreaded the worst.
"I have told you," continued the speaker, forgetting weariness and pace in the trouble of his own words, and walking on rapidly—"I have already told you that this letter grievously affected my mother—it killed her. From the moment of its receipt she conjured up continual pictures of her boy lying in a bloody and hidden grave—a martyr to the gold he had gone to procure for her sake, and she died gladly, in the full certainty of meeting him all the sooner.
"I am afraid, stranger," continued the young man, pausing, and looking sadly into my face, "that I could not in a year make you understand the deep love I bore for this young brother. People said that our faces were so similar that strangers might well mistake the one for the other; but there was no similarity in our dispositions. I was always quiet, and, it may be, moody, and he was full of life and life's sunshine; but my heart was not moody towards my brother Edward, and I loved him with a 'love passing the love of woman.'
"Yes," cried the traveler, passionately, and stopping in his walk to hold my arm excitedly, "I loved him more as a father would love an affectionate son, than as one brother feels for another; and I have come sixteen thousand miles to find the necktie his dead mother's fond fingers wrought for him lying at my feet! Tell me, what does it mean? You who live in an atmosphere of such things and read them, tell me, does this mean murder, or only madness?" and he dragged the wet silk rag again from his breast, and held it at arm's length before my eyes.
He asked me if it meant murder or madness, and, sooth to say, I did not know what to answer him. The wild light in his eyes made me dread that his mind was unsettled, but that he had told me a true story, and had good reason to dread the murder of a brother, I had my own reasons for believing.
"Listen to me, my dear fellow," I said gently, looking kindly into his craving, anxious eyes meanwhile. "You have come a long distance to find out a cruel secret and to discover the guilty, and will you now render further efforts hopeless by encouraging an excitement which will be pernicious to your objects as well as to your own health? I am able, believe me, to sympathize with your feelings and affection for your lost brother, but I shall be obliged to cease doing so if you give way to weakness in the matter. There, give me your hand, and accept mine, as that of one in every way willing to help you to discover the truth so long as you will try to be calm and to trust him. Will you?"
He laid his hand frankly in my own, looked searchingly into my eyes once more, and then pressed my hand in a firm grasp.
"I will—I will try," he said, walking; onward again, and so permitting me to do the same; "but it is very hard to be quiet with a burning heart, and every footstep following the track of a murdered brother."
"Now listen to me again," I continued, "while I tell you something that will deeply interest you. By a strange coincidence, my business at Carrick Police Station is so nearly connected with the object that drew you from your English home, that I might just as well have been dispatched up here for the very purpose of elucidating your mystery. About a month ago, a man of property was lost track of in the vicinity of this very Bridge Hotel, and as he had a large sum of money in his possession, his friends have naturally become very anxious about him. I have been sent up to try for any trace that might be discovered of him in this neighborhood, and I meet with you, come so very far to tell me, as it were, of a lost brother at this same Bridge Hotel. You are sure your brother has been here, since you find his necktie lying at your foot, and I am sure that the woman who keeps this hotel is an intriguing, unprincipled creature, whose inordinate love of dress and display might urge her to any crime of which cupidity is capable. Now, what do you think of all this, my friend?"
"I think that the hand of God is in it," he replied, solemnly. "And see," I added, opening my pocket-book and producing from it a carte, which I handed him, "here is a likeness of this landlady of the Bridge Hotel. Look at it and see if it seem like the portrait of a woman base enough to assist in murder for the sake of gold."
"Must it of necessity be this woman?" he said, with a shudder. "It is the portrait of a bold yet handsome woman, of a low intellectual type, and a fierce untamable temper; but I hate to believe it possible that one of the same sex as my dead mother—the gentle and the good—should be even suspected of so horrible a deed."
"And yet such deeds they do," I replied, "and do with a coldness and a cruelty at times that men cannot do more than equal. I have come up with a strong suspicion against this Mrs. Henry, as she calls herself. She has been living at this house now five years, passing as a widow, and in such a style that she must have some other source of wealth than the hotel, which to the certain knowledge of the police, does not pay her license. She drives a buggy and pair, and rides a blood horse fit for a queen. There is not a lady in Victoria can outshine her in dress, and she exhibits it far and near on every opportunity. She has been known to spend eighty pounds with a travelling jeweler on a single ornament, and we must find out where the gay lady gets her money."
"It is your province to be suspicious," said the young traveler, as he handed me back the portrait of Mrs. Henry; "but a woman who enjoys the frivolities of life would be the last I would suspect of blood-spilling, and yet somebody murdered our boy."
"Bah!" I answered, looking with a sneering lip at the picture, ere I replaced it in my pocket. "I am suspicious, and that is a bad, bold, vicious countenance."
Will you have a look at it, reader? It is the portrait that I have chosen from my detective album to illustrate this story with. Would you ever suppose that the original of that regal figure, with the beautiful face full of consciousness of its own beauty, could have lured men to death with as little pity as a ghoul? Or those soft-looking rounded fingers, loaded with rings, could have been remorselessly dabbled in the warm blood of a dozen victims? There is a tragic air in the attitude in which the artist has depicted her in her heavy silken robes. She stands with half averted face, one hand grasping the back of a rich arm-chair, the other hanging carelessly by her side, and contrasting its whiteness with the dark hue of the dress. Her hair is a wealth of gloss and waves, but it is pushed carelessly back from a broad, smooth brow, and the face seems half turned toward the watcher with an expression of haughty astonishment at your presumption in daring to scan it.
Such was the portrait of one of the most remorseless criminals Victoria has ever produced.
My companion and I walked on with but few words more until we came within sight of Carrick Station. It was one of those up-country stations that seems to have been planted in the most out-of-the-way spots, in total defiance of common sense. There were not three houses within as many miles of it; and the constables who were unfortunate enough to be stationed there passed a most wretched and lonely time of it.
The sun was just dipping behind the tops of the trees as we approached the camp, and the low beams tinged with a last flush the salient points of the landscape. Grey rooks were ruddy with his warm tints; long, pendant branches of box swayed in the evening breeze, catching ever and anon the red flush as they momentarily escaped the shadow of their own foliage. Long shadows lay on the soft grass, and made but the greener every bit of herbage by the dark contrast. Carrick was a pretty spot under such influences.
And so my companion seemed to think; he stood still for a moment when the beauty of the scene appeared first to strike him, and then he strode on again silently. Suddenly, however, he started again, and, turning a white face toward me, asked abruptly, "Who is that?"
Following with my eye the direction of his pointing finger, I saw my old friend, Sergeant Thomson, leading a horse toward the stable, and in earnest conversation with a man who was walking by his side. The two figures were only about thirty yards from us, and I could see that the stranger was of a slight, delicate-seeming figure, and walked as one who was either weakly or much fatigued.
"The policeman is Sergeant Thomson," I answered, "a very clever fellow, and one who will be of great assistance to us in managing Mrs. Henry. The man who is with him I do not know; he is evidently a stranger who is going to stop at the camp all night."
As I spoke, the constable went on alone, and his companion turned on his track and came directly toward us. His eyes were bent upon the ground as in deep thought, and he was entirely unaware of our approach. He was, as a nearer view further convinced me, very delicate, but there was another fact that struck me still more vividly when he had come within a distance of twenty yards, and that was his astonishing likeness to my new friend. At the same moment that this likeness attracted my attention the approaching young man lifted his eyes and perceived us, and as he did so, he uttered an exclamation of astonishment, and darted forward hastily.
My companion stopped short and lifted his hand as if to ward off the contact of the stranger. But as he stared wildly into his face, the hand dropped, and the arms of the young man were around my new friend. There was a muttered, smothered, half-choked cry of "Edward! My brother!" that told its own tale, and I passed on, leaving the brothers to exhibit their feelings in solitude. What those feelings were I could well guess, for to one, at least, it was the recovery of the dead.
I daresay you will either feel, or affect to feel, very much shocked when I tell you that I felt most heartily disappointed at this disappointment to the tragedy I had already interwoven with my visit to the bush water-hole.
Before I recalled the memory of my companion's deep affection for this young brother, I would have much preferred that he should have been waiting in the bottom of the hole for me to pull him up, so that he might have been, dead although he was, a witness against Mrs. Henry. Better feelings, however, soon got the mastery over the hard heart of the detective, and I was prepared to reciprocate the kindly expressions of my new friend when he shortly after introduced his brother to me, with a deep joy in his eyes, and in the very tones of his voice that one must have been of adamant not to have sympathized with.
Talking of being introduced, I think it is almost time that I introduced you to the name of these young men. They were called Mansfield, and that knowledge, shared between you and me, will facilitate the course of my story considerably.
The night had closed round the station when the "quartette," composed of the two brothers, myself, and Sergeant Thomson, were gathered in one of the little barrack rooms, interestedly listening to the strange story by which Edward Mansfield at once accounted for his suspicious disappearance and his unexpected arrival in the vicinity of the Bridge Hotel. The brothers had spent some time in intercourse, which the sergeant and I took care not to interrupt, after supper; but when at length the darkness had fallen densely down upon forest and plain, they came in together, and I could see in the sad eyes of the lad that his mother's memory had not been tearless.
"Let us sit close," said the elder, drawing chairs forward, "Edward has a wild story to tell you. If," he added, vehemently, as he turned to me with the same wild light in his eyes that I had seen at the waterhole—"if God permits to go unpunished the inhuman woman who murders for gold, and brought the widow's grey hairs with sorrow to the grave, then is He not a God of justice!"
With strongly excited curiosity we seated ourselves, and prepared to listen to the young man's tale. It was a tale that deeply affected even me at the time, and one which urged me on the track of the murderess, as the smell of blood might the sleuth hound; and if it does not thrill your hearts to listen to it now, I don't know what hearts are made of.
"I can't take time to tell you day and date, my friends," commenced the youth with the pale, sad face, as he sat with his hand on his brother's shoulder, and his eyes fixed on that older, yet similar face, as if he feared he might again lose it, "but it is unnecessary. You all know when I left the Ovens diggings, and how I came here to the Bridge Hotel, carrying gold that was to make my poor mother rich and happy. It seems but yesterday that I shook Bob's hand as he started for McIvors, and yet a twelvemonth of such heaviness has passed since as might well build up a barrier of forgetfulness between me and it.
"It had been well for me had I gone with him and left the Bridge Hotel and its siren mistress far behind me, but I couldn't—I couldn't do it, George. You know how susceptible I was always to female influence; and the happiness induced by my great success, and my near prospect of returning to the comfort of home, and the society of its beloved inmates, rendered me even more liable to be imposed upon by the allurements of this woman.
"You have seen her likeness, George, but it can give you no idea of her diabolical fascination of manner. I was as helpless as a child in her hands—nay, more than helpless, for I was a willing slave. Oh, may heaven curse her!" ejaculated the youth, clenching his hand while a red flush mounted angrily into his white face, and a fierce light glowed in his dark eyes, "and the fascination that allures men to death.
"By why do I so speak? Is she not already accursed? The demon with the fair face and the devil's heart, bought with blood dabbed hands full of gold? It kills me to feel," he added vehemently, "that, by this indulgence of a criminal weakness, I lost the light of my mother's old age, that I had so long worked for; and that to punish me God saw fit to take her away without her boy's hand to press in death. But I was only a lad, George," he added, pleading, as if begging for his brother's forgiveness—"was only a lad, and like putty in the hands of this inhuman woman."
"My poor Edward, you were in nothing to blame," said the elder, soothingly, as he pressed his brother's band in a warm grip. "You were sinned against, my poor boy, but in nothing have you sinned. Be calm, Edward, retribution is coming..."
With an effort the young man continued, "In but a very short time I had confided to this creature every hope and aspiration of my heart—my love for you, George, my devotion to my widowed mother. I had told her of the delight I anticipated in pouring my gold into my mother's lap, and telling her that we should feel trouble or want no more. And she, the vile thing, feigned to sympathize in feelings which she understood no more than the animals in her stable. Good God! How she must have laughed at the fool who spoke of his deep consciousness of a mother's holy affection, and yet permitted himself to be molded by a word from such a woman as she!
"I don't know how many days had passed, but they were not many, when the end came. They were days full of the delight of young and foolish passion—days spent in the woods around the Bridge Hotel, or in the luxurious private rooms of her own cottage. I longed to go toward the home of my affections, but an invincible chain appeared to bind me to the siren's side.
"Every morning I rose with the determination of proceeding, only to meet with wooings and smiles that bound me to her side like iron. She had installed me in the best room of the hotel and given me the key of a safe which it contained; and there I placed my gold, and did not fail to often assure myself of its safe keeping.
"And in this room I retired to rest on the last frightful night of my stay at the hotel. They called it the red room, from, as I supposed, the colour of its furniture and decorations. God knows, it might well be called the room of that sanguinary hue; for although every luxury that could gratify the senses and minister to sleep was gathered there, it was the room of blood.
"Oh, the recollection of that night is more than I can bear; it seems to bring me face to face with a violent death once more!"
The wine which I poured out and offered the young narrator at this moment was not unneeded. The perspiration was gathering in heavy drops on his pale forehead, and every limb trembled as he ceased. His brother sat and listened with clenched hands and corrugated brow, the picture of fierce determination; and even Sergeant Thomson, the phlegmatic, showed unmistakable symptoms of deep interest.
As for myself, I was more than deeply interested; I was craving for a further confirmation of my suspicions respecting Mrs. Henry, and beginning to see a strange ending to my young friend's story. I already hated this woman's character, but if she had done as my expectations led me to believe from the tendency of Edward Mansfield's tale, it was a satisfaction to me to feel assured that no punishment the law could adjudge would be sufficient to expiate her crimes.
"You will think me childishly weak," continued young Mansfield, after he had recovered himself enough to proceed; "but you can have no conception of the sufferings of that terrible night. The terror and the pain I then endured have weakened me, mind and body, for life. But I must go on, or your patience will be exhausted.
"I don't know what had come over me that night, but I could not sleep. I had retired earlier than was my wont, because a traveler had arrived at the house, and taken up so much of Mrs. Henry's attention that there seemed little left for me. I was jealously disposed, and sought my room in a huff; and fully determined to leave for Melbourne in the morning of the following day.
"With the weakness of a spoony feeling, however, I was no sooner in bed than a thousand thorns seemed to be under me, and I regretted that I had left the society of the woman who had such influence over me, and half determined to re-seek it.
"Under these feelings I rose and assumed my clothes again; as I buttoned my vest, however, I felt the key of the safe that contained my gold. An invincible inclination to see it was aroused by the contact of the key, and I had soon lighted my candle and drawn from the closet the chamois bag containing the metal so precious to me. The very touch of the nuggets brought home, and the prospects the wealth had opened, so vividly before me, that a complete revulsion of feeling was the consequence. The wretched cause of my infatuation was as totally forgotten as if she had never existed.
"I threw myself once more on the bed, dressed as I was, and with the long bag of gold laid on my chest, and my hands laid on it, I abandoned myself to a delightful picture of home that my imagination conjured up before me. The very weight of the gold that lay on my breast, a precious incubus, was so far from being oppressive that, instead of being a discomfort, I positively enjoyed the sensation. There was over forty pounds in weight of the precious metal, all the result of my own digging. It would have been a heavy load to carry many tens of miles had it been iron or flour, or indeed anything but gold; but we never felt it, neither Bob nor I, save as a delightful certainty of our future independence.
"And so I lay there and caressed it, and built such fond castles in the future air, as boyhood and youth will build, though death is standing at the threshold. And I pictured my mother's sweet smile, and George's beloved face, without a care that my gold would not smooth, until the candle flickered and went out, and left me alone in the darkness.
"But I scarcely noted the change, so full of the absent was I; and I only gathered up the gold closer to my face with both hands, as if it held light as well as all other blessings; and in this instance it was more to me, for it was life itself. Had it not been for the gold laying as it did in so unlikely a spot, I should never have sat here to tell you how they murdered me, brother George.
"Unconsciously I fell asleep. The soothing influence of dear home thoughts had banished the unholy unrest that had kept me awake hitherto. I had no intention of sleeping when I lay down there dressed to think of you and mother, but I did sleep; and only wakened as one wakens from sleep to die.
"Oh, it was terrible, brother George, to wake up with the consciousness of a fearful and unavoidable death certainly at your heart, and a sense, though but a momentary one, that never—never again would your eyes rest upon the features of a loving face.
"It was what seemed to be a sharp tug that awoke me—a tug that appeared, at the same time, to wrench and to smother me; and—oh, God!—I felt as if my eyes were burst open to see for only one moment a sight that I shall recall with horror to my dying day.
"My first consciousness was, as I have said, suffocation; and simultaneously with the opening of my eyes, I involuntarily lifted my hand to my throat. A strong cord encircled it, but it also encircled the bag of gold that I had gathered up caressingly over the lower part of my face, and that fact was the saving of my life, since it partially nullified the effects of the strangling rope that was momentarily compressing my throat more and more.
"Just as I opened my eyes, life seemed leaving me, but the one frightful stare I was enabled to give, as my apparent last, showed me a scene that cannot be forgotten.
"The whole wall behind the red-curtained bed had disappeared, and in the illuminated opening were two figures that I knew only too well. One was that of Mrs. Henry, and the other Karl Schwitz, a German, surly and silent, who seemed to be factotum at the Bridge Hotel. The man held in his hand the end of the cord which was throttling me, and which, by some mechanical contrivance, was tightly stretched from side to side of the bed.
"The woman was anxiously watching my face, and I encountered her bloodthirsty eyes as mine opened in the last agony of consciousness.
"'How hard he dies!' said the monstrous woman in a whisper, that I heard as if it had been shouted in my ears. 'Ah! Look at this—this is it! That will finish it, Schwitz!'
"And she dragged the bag of gold from under the cord.
"Immediately it tightened. I tried to scream—to beg, to implore, for a second, but my brain, for one horrid moment, seemed wrenching from my skull, and I felt the blood gush from my nose, and mouth, and ears, and a flood of blood seemed to rush between my eyes and the woman's face, and it was all over; I was unconscious.
"It could not have been for very long that I remained so, and it was with an almost unbearable sense of agony that I partially regained my senses. The cold night air was fanning my face, over which I felt the dabbling blood as it dripped slowly over my forehead. Over my forehead! Yes; for my head was hanging down, and I looked strangely at the apparently inverted heaven, with its dark expanse and bright, twinkling stars, that hung above me so silently. As consciousness slowly returned, I became aware that I was lying strangely over the back of a horse, and that some one was mounting behind me.
"At that moment I felt a hand, warm and life-like it seemed, against my pained frame, stealing up against my heart, where it rested for a moment, ere that woman's remorseless whisper was again heard.
"There is no fear, Schwitz; he is quite dead. But be sure and sink him well."
"My God, the agony of that moment! Like lightning it flashed over me that my only chance of life was to feign death—one groan, one sigh, nay, one breath, and I was lost! And I was going to be sank—where...?
"How I ever lived daring that fearful ride through the dark bush heaven only knows. I was in the most fearful pain, yet dared not move, when my very position was the most acute torture. I formed a hundred plans, but my sense of utter prostration rendered them all futile. Had I possessed but my ordinary strength, how easily I could have fallen from the horse, and grappled with my intended murderer, or fled into the hiding of the night; but I felt my entire helplessness, and that, should I fall, it would be but to lie on the grass, and be dispatched by the knife of him whose life mine would too certainly endanger.
"And yet, could I have known the fate before me, I think I would have tried even to grapple with a death in the dark to avoid it. After an apparently interminable ride, the animal was pulled up, and his living rider dismounted. As for me, I was a corpse only—a thing but to be hidden in the deep bush waterhole; and so I was tossed to the ground, and fell with the weight of death to the earth.
"With a celerity induced by fear, the German assassin commenced attaching to my body by means of a strong cord, some object which I could only guess to be a heavy one, for the purpose of sinking me to the bottom of the hole.
"Oh! good heavens, George, if I could only make you understand one tithe of what I felt in that agonized moment! The inertness of a half-death was pressing on my brain like an iron weight; and yet I was fully conscious of my own helplessness, and of the sounds of earth around me. I could hear the lonely soughing of the night air among the branches that waved in the darkness above me, and through the leafy branches of which I could see faintly the twinkle of far away stars. I could hear the sad ripple of the water far down below the steep brink where I lay, as some overhanging limb dip-dipped into it with the swaying motion of the wind; and more than all—louder than all, could I hear the quick, hard breathing of the murderer above me, as he bound my helpless form with his accursed rope.
"I couldn't think: I tried to pray, but ineffectually. Oh, it was dreadful. I knew that my moments were numbered, and already I seemed to feel the suffocating water pressing me down—down to eternity, while my weighted body was dragged helplessly to the slimy bottom of my last resting-place.
"There was no longer any necessity that I should feign death, for I was as helpless as any dead man could be, save only that my mind was alive to my position, and my brain maddened with a sense of my hopeless condition.
"All at once I remembered that I had a knife in my pocket, and it was as if a ray of heaven had entered my almost bloodless heart. George, do you remember us reading Dumas' tale of the prisoner's escape from the terrible Château D'If? He was sewn up in a sack and a weight attached to his feet, and he was thrown into the sea from the high rocks near the chateau. Bat he had purposely provided himself with a knife and managed to extricate himself from his shroud before he was stifled by the waves. What if I could manage to do the same? There was no terrible depth of air for my helpless body to cleave. Was there a shadow of a hope for me!
"As this thought surged painfully through my brain, Schwitz rose to his feet; the task was completed.
"There was no time for consideration now, and, with one last effort, I lifted my arm and plunged my hand into my pocket. I had gained the knife, opened it, and held it with a grip like death, ere the assassin had drawn a long breath, and once more stooped over me, and gathered me up roughly in his arms with a hideous strength. A moment more, and I was flung out into the darkness—was gasping for breath in the swiftly-divided air—met the water with a deathly rush, and was sinking down, down coldly, like a stone, to oblivion.
"I can hardly tell you how I cut the rope that bound the iron to my waist; it was all done with the instinct of desperation. However, it could not have been many seconds ere I found myself, weak and panting, and gasping for breath at the surface, and grasping for life the heavy branch that I had heard but a little before dipping desolately in the dark water.
"Weak and trembling as I was, and hard as I found it to retain my clutch of the yielding branch, I knew that the least noise would betray me. My limbs seemed freezing, and my helpless hands incapable of a moment's grasp, when my quickened sense of hearing caught the sound of a horse's feet quickly leaving the scene of my terror. The murderer was gone, and I managed to crawl along the branch; and at last finding grass beneath my feet, I fell forward on my face and wept, and prayed, and offered up such thanksgiving as my almost inanimate frame could devise.
"And there I lay, without once thinking what I should do, or how punish the wretches who had treated me so vilely. I was conscious only that I had escaped, and was thankful, when a quick sound of wheels nearing the water fell upon my ear. It ceased almost close to me, and voices, in no low tone, greeted my gladdened senses.
"'It used to be here, at any rate; turn the lamp this way, Mac. Oh, I'm sure the water is here, I can feel the cold air of it. Damn it! What have we here?'
"The speaker had seen me lying at his feet, and a picture of wretchedness I must have appeared. Two men stooped over me, and ruddy, although with a softness of voice more in accordance with my condition than their own natures, asked me what had brought me there and thus.
"'I have been strangled and thrown into the water for dead,' I managed to whisper. 'For God's sake, and if you have the hearts of human beings, take me out of this, or they will find me again.'
"I remember no more—I fainted; and it was many miles distant that I once more became conscious. The rest of my story is soon told, my friends. It was into the care of two noted bushrangers I had fallen, and they were on their hurried route to the border. They dared not, had they been ever so much inclined, stop to get any assistance for me; and in one of their rocky hiding-places I remained until but a week ago, entirely helpless, and a hoverer between life and death. My story won their commiseration, and when I was once more able to travel, they furnished me with a horse, and means, to return and punish the would-be murderers. I came for vengeance, and to recover my gold, and I have found my brother."
And the young man stretched out his hand and grasped that of the brother who had sought him so far and so hopelessly.
"You shall win both!" I exclaimed, starting to my feet; "if man's help can do it, you shall have both revenge and your gold! Come, Thomson, I want a yarn with you, and, if you take my advice, you two young men will turn in and get all the rest you can; you both need it."
The tale of this poor young fellow's sufferings made a deep impression on me, and intensified, if possible, my feelings of hatred against the vile woman I had come to entrap. There was no need of watch or trap now, it was true, since such a witness had arisen from the dead, as it were, to testify against her; but I couldn't be satisfied with simply going in my official capacity and arresting her and her accomplice for murder. I wanted to see more of her—to observe the wiles of the enchantress which she used as nets to entrap the unwary traveler. Besides, I had the death or loss of the man whose fate I had come especially to ascertain to lay at her door, and prove against her, if I could, and so I could not rest until my course of action was commenced.
It was yet early in the evening, and it did not take too long to assume my disguise, which was simply the complete dress of a man of fashion with every evidence of wealth about it that custom would permit of my displaying; and in less than an hour the sergeant and I were on our way to the Bridge Hotel. Our plans were all laid, at least so far as we could lay any, where so much depended on chance, and no lover ever felt the road longer between him and his inamorata than I did that which separated me from Mrs. Henry.
"I hope there will be no travelers to take her attention off," I said. "I do hope that she will take a fancy to me, just such a fancy as she took to poor Edward Mansfield—the she devil!"
No wonder I spoke strongly, humanity could not help it after having listened to the lad's sad tale.
"There is little danger of company," answered Thomson; "but very rarely indeed is the Red Room called upon. By George, I want to overhaul that room, Sinclair! I have many a time admired the rich appearance of it when, on rare occasions, I have been admitted to the adjoining luxurious drawing-room; but you are sure to get it made over to your use; rich fellows like you are sure to be patronized."
And my mate's jolly laugh sounded strangely in the quiet bush. It was not long ere our quick pace brought us to the door of the Bridge Hotel, and we dismounted. Our horses were taken in charge by a man whose appearance the darkness did not permit me to examine, but a whisper from my companion assured me that it was Schwitz, the midnight murderer.
"Welcome, gentlemen! Welcome to the Bridge Hotel! Ah! It is you, Thomson; I'm delighted to see you! Pray, bring the gentleman in."
Those were the first words I heard Mrs. Henry utter, and in a voice as sweet and clear as the sound of a silver bell. She had one of those rare musical voices that linger long in the memory—one that once heard will repeat itself to the memory years after, with a freshness unaffected by time. And such a face and form! As she stood there under the full blaze of a brightly-burning lamp, with her lips wreathed in a winning smile, and face aglow with welcome and expectation, I thought I had never seen such a beautiful creature. Her portrait had scarcely prepared me for such a soft, lovable expression as seemed incorporated with every lovely feature; and yet—and yet she was a murderess!
"I have brought you a gentleman that would be lost at the camp, Mrs. Henry," observed the sergeant as we entered—"an old friend who has, although so fortunate, not forgotten the unlucky policeman. But we can't be all rich, Mrs. Henry, and the station is no place for a gent accustomed to such comforts as Mr. Murray, Mrs. Henry, Mr. Murray. He is going to stop a week or so, Mrs. Henry, and I know you can give him rooms fit for a prince."
"Faith, Thompson, you'll have to spend your time with me then, instead of me passing it with you," I said, as I bowed gallantly to the hostess. "The attractions of the Bridge Hotel will be greater than those of old friendship, I foresee."
"I hope so," responded Mrs. Henry, frankly, presenting her hand to my clasp.
It was a soft, warm, and jeweled hand, but I shuddered as I forced myself to press it warmly; yet the pressure increased the rich colour of Mrs. Henry's cheeks. "How strange that such a creature should still know how to blush!" I thought, as her eyes fell beneath a gaze that I tried to make as ardent as possible.
"I shall have the pleasure of showing you to your rooms. You are not going to leave us, Mr. Thomson?"
"I am sorry to say I must not stay now, but I'll be down bright and early in the morning;" and bidding us good-night, the sergeant took himself away, and left me to form my own opinion of the fascinating criminal.
And I formed it; but no words can describe my varied feelings as I sat for hours in her society within the enchanted precincts or the richly-furnished sitting-room, from which opened the terrible Red Room. It was impossible—utterly impossible, to resist the influence of a manner in which every allurement of tone and gesture and apparent sweetness assisted to overcome. She was fascination—its very self-possessor of the terrible fatal power of the brilliant serpent, that forces to destruction the victims of its gleaming eyes. In spite of my knowledge of this woman's character—in spite of the bloody memories that enveloped her as a mantle—in spite of the shudder that occasionally awoke me as from a dream, only to sleep again but too willingly, I was overpowered by this woman's presence, won by her sweet, affectionate voice, and bewildered by the liquid eyes that looked deeply into mine.
It was with an effort that I at last dragged myself away, and entered the Red Room, escorted by my fair hostess.
"I hope you will be comfortable here," she said laughingly, as she placed a candlestick on the luxuriously-appointed and lace-draped toilet; "and indeed you must be, unless, indeed, a ruffled heart as well as the couch want making!"
"And how else?" I exclaimed, seizing both fair hands as she was leaving the chamber—"how can it be else? Who could rest after spending an evening with you?"
"Flatterer!" she answered, bending towards me as I drew her with both hands, but trying to disengage herself at the same time, "Flatterer! There now—let me go!"
"Until to-morrow. Thank heaven, only for a few hours!" I said passionately, as I released her, and she closed the door behind her rustling silks.
Yes, it's true! On my word as a man, it's as true as that I tell it! And I was in earnest; my blood was at fever heat, and my brain on fire with the glamour this accursed woman had cast over me. But it was quickly over; no sooner had the door closed and the influence of her presence been withdrawn, than I became faint with very shame for my own weakness, and fell like a child for support against the door that separated me from her.
There I leaned, and the red hue of the chamber seemed to cry out murder against me; the crimson Turkish carpet, the deep-red satin paper, with its cornice of gold, that decorated the walls; the heavy satin damask curtains that clouded the windows and fell around the couch like palls; all seemed to cry out blood against me, who had so soon forgotten the murderer in the woman, and found delight in her smile! I tell you I was faint, and had it not been for death, I would have lain down upon that bed for the rest that my sinking body required.
That couch! My God! who could rest there? Where the dying victims had writhed in agony, and from whence had gone up to heaven such aspirations for mercy and for vengeance. Could any human being sleep in such a haunted room? I went over to the splendid mirror and looked at my white, damp face, and the disordered hair, and the diamonds that gleamed and glistened in my shirt and on my fingers, and an idiotic wonder possessed me if I was myself at all, and had not been transformed by the spell of a sorceress into something infinitely worse than herself.
"I'm mad!" I thought, "Or I'm a coward! But this must not be. Rouse up, man, and do your work! Remember poor Edward Mansfield!"
I passed a most miserable and wretched night, sitting in a deep arm-chair, where I longed for light and morning as I had never longed before. Let a man be ever so little of a coward, he must feel uncomfortable in such a position. When the candle had burned itself out the darkness was intense, and every sound startled. I knew that midnight had witnessed murder in that fated chamber, and that I was myself at the mercy of the assassins every moment, but I did not fear attack as yet, since I had exhibited nothing to tempt their cupidity sufficiently, yet a strange horror drove sleep far away for hours.
But at length I slept, and was awakened by a peculiar knock at the door. I knew the signal, and admitted young Edward Mansfield.
"Is it so late?" I asked. "And Thomson and your brother?"
"Are outside. All is prepared." The lad was pale as death, and he trembled violently as he looked on the bed of crimson hue, "My God, what I suffered there!" was his exclamation, as he fell into a seat.
Hurriedly, I freshened my toilet a little, and leaving Edward in the chamber, I went out.
How comfortable everything looked in the handsome sitting-room! A bright fire burned in the grate, and close to it was drawn a breakfast-table set for two, and glittering with whiteness of china and gleaming of plate and damask of linen. We were to breakfast together then—my enslaver and I. Ah!
I passed out towards the other building—for that in which I had slept was an attached cottage entirely shut out from the hotel save by one door of communication. In the bar I found Thomson and George Mansfield, who had his face as much concealed as possible, to hide his likeness to his brother. Schwitz was attending in the bar—a heavy-faced man, with a suspicious, silent manner, and a furtive look, that would have told against him anywhere.
"I leave Schwitz to you," I said to Thomson in a low tone; "and for God's sake, don't let him escape. Cheer up, Mansfield—we are near the end."
Hastily swallowing the drink which my friend had ordered—and of which, truth to say, I stood much in need—I returned to the breakfast-room to meet Mrs. Henry just entering the door. How fresh and lovely she looked! Attired in a floating muslin, with every addition in lace and ornament that could add to the attraction of her appearance, her beauty was almost irresistible, had I not been so fearfully changed from the fool of the previous night. Even as it was, it went hard with me to meet the winning, and apparently sincere smile with which I was greeted, and to know that my act was about to drive smiles from that face forever.
"Ah! You are then up, Mr. Murray. I have been quite longing for your appearance. I thought you squatter gentlemen were very early risers. Shall we have breakfast? But how pale you do look! I am afraid you have rested badly."
She said this with that dangerous conscious smile that had so fettered and bewildered me the previous evening. There was in her arch look an evident allusion to my complimentary words on parting at the bedroom door, but she met no answering look in my stony face. I was adamant once more. God knows what she saw in my face to arouse her conscience however, but she did see something, and her face grew pale as a corpse as she still gazed at me, with the light fading out of her eyes, and an unspeakable terror growing into them.
"You have not slept," she murmured, unconsciously as it were.
"No, I have not slept," I answered, bending down over her, and looking more closely into the trembling woman's face. "Could you sleep in there?"
And I pointed with my finger at the door of the Red Room.
She did not answer; she only raised her hand and clutched convulsively at her white throat, as if she were choking.
"Come with me," I continued, "and I will show you the thing that kept me from sleeping in your red chamber."
And I led her helplessly to the door of the bedroom, and almost lifted her inside.
Edward Mansfield was sitting in the scarlet arm chair opposite the door as I pushed the murderess in before him; but at the first sight of the heartless fiend, he started to his feet, and held out both hands, as if to ward her off. As for Mrs. Henry, who doubtless saw in Edward's pale face, contrasted as it was by the deep red of the dimly lighted apartment, that of one risen from the dead, she threw up her arms in the very extremity of terror, and cried out a cry sufficient to curdle the blood in a fainthearted man's veins.
"Oh, God! The dead—the dead—the dead!"
"No, the living!" I interposed—"the living whom He has preserved by an almost miracle to work out His earthly vengeance against the murderer. There Edward, the criminal is secured."
And I clasped the handcuffs on the rounded wrists I had so lately admired.
She never spoke afterwards, at least during the day and night which followed. She was as one crushed under the weight of Almighty justice. I doubt if, from the moment of her arrest she was ever fully conscious of all the horrors of her position, but only as one who lived in a terrible dream, from which only a violent and fearful death awaited her.
Long ere this scene in the Red Room was enacted, Schwitz had been secured, and acted the part of the absolute coward, pleading for mercy, whining, sobbing, tearing his hair, and accusing his accomplice of inciting him to do it all. He confessed to everything, and revealed murders that had never been suspected. With his assistance, a goodly "plant" was discovered buried in a secure place, and with the rest, Edward's bag intact.
Sergeant Thomson had the satisfaction of overhauling the secret of the chamber of horrors, when a most complicated arrangement of machinery to assist the work of murder was brought to light. The back of the bed was indeed moveable, and the cord, that terminated the sleeping victim's life almost instantaneously, was worked by a small windlass, that the fair hand of Mrs. Henry had often turned. Altogether it was a frightful trap, and enough to make the greatest believer almost lose faith in the humanity which could practice such cruelty for gold.
The murderers were both hung. Schwitz was believed to have died of fear before the drop fell, and his partner in guilt suffered as one utterly unconscious of what is passing around her. Pray turn over the leaf, and hide that fear-recalling face in the "Detective's Album."
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