Grant Allen.

The Beckoning Hand, and Other Stories



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There was no time to think or hesitate. Before I knew almost what I was doing, I had seized his gun and ammunition, and, standing over his prostrate body, I held the men at bay for a single moment. Then 1247 advanced threateningly, and tried to put his foot upon the fallen warder.

I didn't wait or reflect one solitary second. I drew the trigger, and fired full upon him. The bang sounded fiercely in my ears, and for a moment I could see nothing through the smoke of the rifle.

With a terrible shriek he fell in front of me, not dead, but seriously wounded.

"The boat, the boat," the others cried loudly. "Knock him down! Kill him! Take the boat, all of you."

At that moment the report of my shot had brought another warder hastily to the top of the quarry.

"Help, help!" I cried. "Come quick, and save us. These brutes are trying to murder our warder!"

The man rushed back to call for aid; but the way down the zigzag path was steep and tortuous, and it was some time before they could manage to get down and succour us.

Meanwhile the other convicts pressed savagely around us, trying to jump upon the warder's body and force their way past to the beach beneath us. I fired again, for the rifle was double-barrelled; but it was impossible to reload in such a tumult, so, after the next shot, which hit no one, I laid about me fiercely with the butt end of the gun, and succeeded in knocking down four of the savages, one after another. By that time the warders from above had safely reached us, and formed a circle of fixed bayonets around the rebellious prisoners.

"Thank God!" I cried, flinging down the rifle, and rushing up to the prostrate warder. "He is still alive. He is breathing! He is breathing!"

"Yes," he murmured in a faint voice, "I am alive, and I thank you for it. But for you, sir, these fellows here would certainly have murdered me."

"You are badly wounded yourself, 1430," one of the other warders said to me, as the rebels were rapidly secured and marched off sullenly back to prison. "Look, your own arm is bleeding fiercely."

Then for the first time I was aware that I was one mass of wounds from head to foot, and that I was growing faint from loss of blood. In defending the fallen warder I had got punched and pummelled on every side, just the same as one used to get long ago in a bully at football when I was a boy at Rugby, only much more seriously.

The warders brought down seven stretchers: one for me; one for the wounded warder; one for 1247, whom I had shot; and four for the convicts whom I had knocked over with the butt end of the rifle. They carried us up on them, strongly guarded, in a long procession.

At the door of the infirmary the Governor met us. "1430," he said to me, in a very kind voice, "you have behaved most admirably. I saw you myself quite distinctly from my drawing-room windows. Your bravery and intrepidity are well deserving of the highest recognition."

"Sir," I answered, "I have only tried to do my duty.

I couldn't stand by and see an innocent man murdered by such a pack of bloodthirsty ruffians."

The Governor turned aside a little surprised. "Who is 1430?" he asked quietly.

A subordinate, consulting a book, whispered my name and supposed crime to him confidentially. The Governor nodded twice, and seemed to be satisfied.

"Sir," the wounded warder said faintly from his stretcher, "1430 is an innocent man unjustly condemned, if ever there was one."

II

On the Thursday week following, when my wounds were all getting well, the whole body of convicts was duly paraded at half-past eleven in front of the Governor's house.

The Governor came out, holding an official-looking paper in his right hand. "No. 1430," he said in a loud voice, "stand forward." And I stood forward.

"No. 1430, I have the pleasant duty of informing you, in face of all your fellow-prisoners, that your heroism and self-devotion in saving the life of Warder James Woollacott, when he was attacked and almost overpowered on the twentieth of this month by a gang of rebellious convicts, has been reported to Her Majesty's Secretary of State for the Home Department; and that on his recommendation Her Majesty has been graciously pleased to grant you a Free Pardon for the remainder of the time during which you were sentenced to penal servitude."

For a moment I felt quite stunned and speechless. I reeled on my feet so much that two of the warders jumped forward to support me. It was a great thing to have at least one's freedom. But in another minute the real meaning of the thing came clearer upon me, and I recoiled from the bare sound of those horrid words, a free pardon. I didn't want to be pardoned like a convicted felon: I wanted to have my innocence proved before the eyes of all England. For my own sake, and still more for Emily's sake, rehabilitation was all I cared for.

"Sir," I said, touching my cap respectfully, and saluting the Governor according to our wonted prison discipline, "I am very greatly obliged to you for your kindness in having made this representation to the Home Secretary; but I feel compelled to say I cannot accept a free pardon. I am wholly guiltless of the crime of which I have been convicted; and I wish that instead of pardoning me the Home Secretary would give instructions to the detective police to make a thorough investigation of the case, with the object of proving my complete innocence. Till that is done, I prefer to remain an inmate of Portland Prison. What I wish is not pardon, but to be restored as an honest man to the society of my equals."

The Governor paused for a moment, and consulted quietly in an undertone with one or two of his subordinates. Then he turned to me with great kindness, and said in a loud voice, "No. 1430, I have no power any longer to detain you in this prison, even if I wished to do so, after you have once obtained Her Majesty's free pardon. My duty is to dismiss you at once, in accordance with the terms of this document. However, I will communicate the substance of your request to the Home Secretary, with whom such a petition, so made, will doubtless have the full weight that may rightly attach to it. You must now go with these warders, who will restore you your own clothes, and then formally set you at liberty. But if there is anything further you would wish to speak to me about, you can do so afterward in your private capacity as a free man at two o'clock in my own office."

I thanked him quietly and then withdrew. At two o'clock I duly presented myself in ordinary clothes at the Governor's office.

We had a long and confidential interview, in the course of which I was able to narrate to the Governor at full length all the facts of my strange story exactly as I have here detailed them. He listened to me with the greatest interest, checking and confirming my statements at length by reference to the file of papers brought to him by a clerk. When I had finished my whole story, he said to me quite simply, "Mr. Tait, it may be imprudent of me in my position and under such peculiar circumstances to say so, but I fully and unreservedly believe your statement. If anything that I can say or do can be of any assistance to you in proving your innocence, I shall be very happy indeed to exert all my influence in your favour."

I thanked him warmly with tears in my eyes.

"And there is one point in your story," he went on, "to which I, who have seen a good deal of such doubtful cases, attach the very highest importance. You say that gold clippings, pronounced to be similar in character to the gold Wulfric, were found shortly after by a cleaner at the Museum on the cocoa-nut matting of the floor where the coin was examined by you?"

I nodded, blushing crimson. "That," I said, "seems to me the strangest and most damning circumstance against me in the whole story."

"Precisely," the Governor answered quietly. "And if what you say is the truth (as I believe it to be), it is also the circumstance which best gives us a clue to use against the real culprit. The person who stole the coin was too clever by half, or else not quite clever enough for his own protection. In manufacturing that last fatal piece of evidence against you he was also giving you a certain clue to his own identity."

"How so?" I asked, breathless.

"Why, don't you see? The thief must in all probability have been somebody connected with the Museum. He must have seen you comparing the Wulfric with your own coin. He must have picked it up and carried it off secretly at the moment you dropped it. He must have clipped the coin to manufacture further hostile evidence. And he must have dropped the clippings afterwards on the cocoa-nut matting in the same gallery on purpose in order to heighten the suspicion against you."

"You are right," I cried, brightening up at the luminous suggestion – "you are right, obviously. And there is only one man who could have seen and heard enough to carry out this abominable plot – Mactavish!"

"Well, find him out and prove the case against him, Mr. Tait," the Governor said warmly, "and if you send him here to us I can promise you that he will be well taken care of."

I bowed and thanked him, and was about to withdraw, but he held out his hand to me with perfect frankness.

"Mr. Tait," he said, "I can't let you go away so. Let me have your hand in token that you bear us no grudge for the way we have treated you during your unfortunate imprisonment, and that I, for my part, am absolutely satisfied of the truth of your statement."

III

The moment I arrived in London I drove straight off without delay to Emily's. I had telegraphed beforehand that I had been granted a free pardon, but had not stopped to tell her why or under what conditions.

Emily met me in tears in the passage. "Harold! Harold!" she cried, flinging her arms wildly around me. "Oh, my darling! my darling! how can I ever say it to you? Mamma says she won't allow me to see you here any longer."

It was a terrible blow, but I was not unprepared for it. How could I expect that poor, conventional, commonplace old lady to have any faith in me after all she had read about me in the newspapers?

"Emily," I said, kissing her over and over again tenderly, "you must come out with me, then, this very minute, for I want to talk with you over matters of importance. Whether your mother wishes it or not, you must come out with me this very minute."

Emily put on her bonnet hastily and walked out with me into the streets of London. It was growing dark, and the neighbourhood was a very quiet one; or else perhaps even my own Emily would have felt a little ashamed of walking about the streets of London with a man whose hair was still cropped short around his head like a common felon's.

I told her all the story of my release, and Emily listened to it in profound silence.

"Harold!" she cried, "my darling Harold!" (when I told her the tale of my desperate battle over the fallen warder), "you are the bravest and best of men. I knew you would vindicate yourself sooner or later. What we have to do now is to show that Mactavish stole the Wulfric. I know he stole it; I read it at the trial in his clean-shaven villain's face. I shall prove it still, and then you will be justified in the eyes of everybody."

"But how can we manage to communicate meanwhile, darling?" I cried eagerly. "If your mother won't allow you to see me, how are we ever to meet and consult about it?"

"There's only one way, Harold – only one way; and as things now stand you mustn't think it strange of me to propose it. Harold, you must marry me immediately, whether mamma will let us or not!"

"Emily!" I cried, "my own darling! your confidence and trust in me makes me I can't tell you how proud and happy. That you should be willing to marry me even while I am under such a cloud as this gives me a greater proof of your love than anything else you could possibly do for me. But, darling, I am too proud to take you at your word. For your sake, Emily, I will never marry you until all the world has been compelled unreservedly to admit my innocence."

Emily blushed and cried a little. "As you will, Harold, dearest," she answered, trembling, "I can afford to wait for you. I know that in the end the truth will be established."

IV

A week or two later I was astonished one morning at receiving a visit in my London lodgings from the warder Woollacott, whose life I had been happily instrumental in saving at Portland Prison.

"Well, sir," he said, grasping my hand warmly and gratefully, "you see I haven't yet entirely recovered from that terrible morning. I shall bear the marks of it about me for the remainder of my lifetime. The Governor says I shall never again be fit for duty, so they've pensioned me off very honourable."

I told him how pleased I was that he should have been liberally treated, and then we fell into conversation about myself and the means of re-establishing my perfect innocence.

"Sir," said he, "I shall have plenty of leisure, and shall be comfortably off now. If there's anything that I can do to be of service to you in the matter, I shall gladly do it. My time is entirely at your disposal."

I thanked him warmly, but told him that the affair was already in the hands of the regular detectives, who had been set to work upon it by the Governor's influence with the Home Secretary.

By-and-by I happened to mention confidentially to him my suspicions of the man Mactavish. An idea seemed to occur to the warder suddenly; but he said not a word to me about it at the time. A few days later, however, he came back to me quietly and said, in a confidential tone of voice, "Well, sir, I think we may still manage to square him."

"Square who, Mr. Woollacott? I don't understand you."

"Why, Mactavish, sir. I found out he had a small house near the Museum, and his wife lets a lodging there for a single man. I've gone and taken the lodging, and I shall see whether in the course of time something or other doesn't come out of it."

I smiled and thanked him for his enthusiasm in my cause; but I confess I didn't see how anything on earth of any use to me was likely to arise from this strange proceeding on his part.

V

It was that same week, I believe, that I received two other unexpected visitors. They came together. One of them was the Superintendent of Coins at the British Museum; the other was the well-known antiquary and great authority upon the Anglo-Saxon coinage, Sir Theophilus Wraxton.

"Mr. Tait," the superintendent began, not without some touch of natural shamefacedness in his voice and manner, "I have reason to believe that I may possibly have been mistaken in my positive identification of the coin you showed me that day at the Museum as our own specimen of the gold Wulfric. If I was mistaken, then I have unintentionally done you a most grievous wrong; and for that wrong, should my suspicions turn out ill-founded, I shall owe you the deepest and most heartfelt apologies. But the only reparation I can possibly make you is the one I am doing to-day by bringing here my friend Sir Theophilus Wraxton. He has a communication of some importance to make to you; and if he is right, I can only beg your pardon most humbly for the error I have committed in what I believed to be the discharge of my duties."

"Sir," I answered, "I saw at the time you were the victim of a mistake, as I was the victim of a most unfortunate concurrence of circumstances; and I bear you no grudge whatsoever for the part you bore in subjecting me to what is really in itself a most unjust and unfounded suspicion. You only did what you believed to be your plain duty; and you did it with marked reluctance, and with every desire to leave me every possible loophole of escape from what you conceived as a momentary yielding to a vile temptation. But what is it that Sir Theophilus Wraxton wishes to tell me?"

"Well, my dear sir," the old gentleman began, warmly, "I haven't the slightest doubt in the world myself that you have been quite unwarrantably disbelieved about a plain matter of fact that ought at once to have been immediately apparent to anybody who knew anything in the world about the gold Anglo-Saxon coinage. No reflection in the world upon you, Harbourne, my dear friend – no reflection in the world upon you in the matter; but you must admit that you've been pig-headedly hasty in jumping to a conclusion, and ignorantly determined in sticking to it against better evidence. My dear sir, I haven't the very slightest doubt in the world that the coin now in the British Museum is not the one which I have seen there previously, and which I have figured in the third volume of my 'Early Northumbrian and Mercian Numismatist!' Quite otherwise; quite otherwise, I assure you."

"How do you recognize that it is different, sir?" I cried excitedly. "The two coins were struck at just the same mint from the same die, and I examined them closely together, and saw absolutely no difference between them, except the dent and the amount of the clipping."

"Quite true, quite true," the old gentleman replied with great deliberation. "But look here, sir. Here is the drawing I took of the Museum Wulfric fourteen years ago, for the third volume of my 'Northumbrian Numismatist.' That drawing was made with the aid of careful measurements, which you will find detailed in the text at page 230. Now, here again is the duplicate Wulfric – permit me to call it your Wulfric; and if you will compare the two you'll find, I think, that though your Wulfric is a great deal smaller than the original one, taken as a whole, yet on one diameter, the diameter from the letter U in Wulfric to the letter R in Rex, it is nearly an eighth of an inch broader than the specimen I have there figured. Well, sir, you may cut as much as you like off a coin, and make it smaller; but hang me if by cutting away at it for all your lifetime you can make it an eighth of an inch broader anyhow, in any direction."

I looked immediately at the coin, the drawing, and the measurements in the book, and saw at a glance that Sir Theophilus was right.

"How on earth did you find it out?" I asked the bland old gentleman, breathlessly.

"Why, my dear sir, I remembered the old coin perfectly, having been so very particular in my drawing and measurement; and the moment I clapped eyes on the other one yesterday, I said to my good friend Harbourne, here: 'Harbourne,' said I, 'somebody's been changing your Wulfric in the case over yonder for another specimen.' 'Changing it!' said Harbourne: 'not a bit of it; clipping it, you mean.' 'No, no, my good fellow,' said I: 'do you suppose I don't know the same coin again when I see it, and at my time of life too? This is another coin, not the same one clipped. It's bigger across than the old one from there to there.' 'No, it isn't,' says he. 'But it is,' I answer. 'Just you look in my "Northumbrian and Mercian" and see if it isn't so.' 'You must be mistaken,' says Harbourne. 'If I am, I'll eat my head,' says I. Well, we get down the 'Numismatist' from the bookshelf then and there; and sure enough, it turns out just as I told him. Harbourne turned as white as a ghost, I can tell you, as soon as he discovered it. 'Why,' says he, 'I've sent a poor young fellow off to Portland Prison, only three or four months ago, for stealing that very Wulfric.' And then he told me all the story. 'Very well,' said I, 'then the only thing you've got to do is just to go and call on him to-morrow, and let him know that you've had it proved to you, fairly proved to you, that this is not the original Wulfric.'"

"Sir Theophilus," I said, "I'm much obliged to you. What you point out is by far the most important piece of evidence I've yet had to offer. Mr. Harbourne, have you kept the gold clippings that were found that morning on the cocoa-nut matting?"

"I have, Mr. Tait," the superintendent answered anxiously. "And Sir Theophilus and I have been trying to fit them upon the coin in the Museum shelves; and I am bound to admit I quite agree with him that they must have been cut off a specimen decidedly larger in one diameter and smaller in another than the existing one – in short, that they do not fit the clipped Wulfric now in the Museum."



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