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   Chapter 19 AFTER ALL

Hell's Hatches By Lewis R. Freeman Characters: 18107

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


I had not planned by what route I should go to the South Seas, and it was only because an Orient-Pacific liner chanced to be the most convenient connection at Brindisi that I went by Australia instead of by India and Singapore. I was rather glad, on the whole, that I was going to have an opportunity to learn something at first-hand of Hartley Allen-or, Sir Hartley, as he had become since I left Australia. That much I had been able to gather from an item I had read in The Times shortly after my arrival in Paris. This stated that Sir James Allen, Bart., Agent in London for New South Wales, had just died of pneumonia. Being without male issue, it was understood that the title would pass to his younger brother, formerly a well-known racing man, and more recently in the public eye through his heroic action in navigating a labour schooner full of plague-stricken blacks through the Great Barrier Reef to Queensland.

Nothing was said in the local item of the outrage aboard the Cora Andrews, but the day following a dispatch from Sydney stated that Sir Hartley Allen was recovering his health and strength at a sanitarium in the interior, from which, however, it was not expected that he would be in a condition to be discharged for several months. The shock to his nervous system from the mysterious attack upon him in Townsville three months previously had been so great that only time could obliterate the traces of it. He had not yet been allowed to see any of his old friends, but the correspondent affirmed on good authority that Sir Hartley's reason, so long despaired of, had been fully regained.

From the fact that the attack was still spoken of as "mysterious," I took it that Allen, for some reason of his own, had refrained from revealing the identity of the person who had left him to die lashed to the wheel of the Cora. What that reason might be, was one of the things I hoped to learn when I should see him in Australia.

Hartley Allen was still in a sanitarium in the Blue Mountains, I learned on my arrival in Sydney, but of late there had been little news of him. He was believed to be getting stronger, slowly but surely, though no hope was held out that he would appear in the saddle again for at least another season. It was unlikely that I would be permitted to see him, but there would be no harm in trying. I should, of course, communicate with his physicians, not with Allen himself.

By a lucky chance, in wiring the head of the institution where Allen was under treatment, I stated that I was a former friend of his from the Islands. A reply arrived the same day, telling me to come on at my earliest convenience. The eminent nerve specialist in charge of the case drove down to meet me at the train. It was very fortunate indeed, he said, that I had mentioned in my telegram that I had known Sir Hartley during his residence in Melanesia. He had failed, very stupidly, to recognize my name as that of the famous artist who was about to paint Sir Hartley's picture when the attack upon him occurred. As a consequence, he was about to wire a refusal to my application, when he recalled that news from the Islands was the one thing in which his patient had shown any great interest. Accordingly, he had asked Sir Hartley himself if he cared to see a certain Roger Whitney, lately arrived in Sydney. The eager interest manifested by his patient was the most encouraging symptom the latter had shown since his mind had cleared. If I would carefully refrain from introducing any subject calculated to excite Sir Hartley nervously, he was confident that my visit would be productive of nothing but good. It was even possible, should it prove convenient to me, that he would want me to remain for several days. Sir Hartley was quite sound in brain and body. What he needed was increased vigour of both, and to this end he would have to develop a greater interest in living than he had yet shown. It was just possible there was something on his mind....

After leaving my coat and bag in the reception-room, the doctor led me out across a bright solarium. We would find Sir Hartley out of doors, he said, probably playing polo. He seemed to hate the very thought of having a roof over him, even to sleep under. It was a strange sight that met my eyes as we came round the corner of the veranda. In the shade of a grove of blue-gums and stringy-barks a wooden horse had been erected, saddled with a light pigskin, and provided with snaffle and curb reins running back from the angling bit of board that served as "head." Astride the saddle, in the famous short-stirruped "Slant" Allen seat, booted, spurred, and in immaculate whites, slashing smartly at grass-stained and dented bamboo-root balls that were alternately tossed in and chivied by a pair of bare-footed youngsters, was a familiar figure. Save for the white hair (which I had already seen) and the absence of the former coat of tan, he did not, from a distance, appear greatly changed. It was not until his eyes met mine at close range that I was conscious of the weary listlessness which, like a bed of ashes, smothered the coals of his old fire.

Allen had just poked away the first of two successively thrown balls in a sweet-running dribble, and sliced off the other in a sharp-angling "belly cross," when he raised his eyes and caught sight of the doctor and me coming down the steps. Swinging a bit uncertainly out of the saddle, he came toddling in a swaying childlike trot across the grass. His grip was firmer than I had expected, and the thought flashed through my mind that this was the very first time I had ever shaken hands with him.

"I've been wondering when you were going to turn up, Whitney," he exclaimed eagerly. "There's something I've been waiting to talk to you about." He spoke in generalities while the doctor lingered, saying that he had given up his old idea of returning to the Islands, and that, instead, he was hoping to get away before long to a back-blocks station he owned and ride the boundaries for a year or two. But when the specialist, evidently assured that his experiment was getting under way properly, quietly excused himself, Allen led me over to the wooden horse and launched at once into a subject which had doubtless occupied his mind for many days. From ancient habit he leaned, as he spoke, now on the hollow pigskin of his "pony," now on the flexible Malacca handle of his polo mallet.

"You're the only man in the world I can talk to about this now, Whitney," he said with a queer new quaver of weakness in his voice. "I suppose that's because you're the only person I ever talked to about it-before. I take it, Whitney, that you had no great difficulty in making up your mind as to who was responsible for-for my night of contemplation on the Cora?"

"Well," I began evasively, "I had such grave doubts about Ranga's guilt that I went to some little trouble to get him away. Mostly old 'Choppy' Tancred's work, though."

"Good old 'Choppy'!" said Allen with an appreciative grin; "on hand at the right time as usual." Then, with serious interest: "But the girl-how did she manage to get clear?"

"Just turned up and helped herself to a place in the launch I was sending Ranga off in," I replied, a bit worried at my failure to lead the conversation away from subjects "calculated to excite Sir Hartley nervously."

"And you were also convinced of her innocence, I suppose," he said, eyeing me with a strange smile across the leather-bound handle of his mallet.

"On the contrary," I answered; "I knew that she was guilty. I had taken your throwing-knife away from her the same night. I knew that Ranga was quite innocent, even though the police, through a silly ball-up, tracked him down with their dogs."

"Then why did you let the girl go?" he pressed.

"Because I thought I knew Rona well enough," I replied evenly, "to feel sure that she wouldn't have done-what she did, unless she was convinced in her own mind that she had a good reason for it." It was a stiff jolt for a sick man, that; yet, for the life of me, I couldn't have made an evasive answer.

But there was a smile of untold relief on Allen's face as he leaned over and laid his hand on my arm. "You were right, Whitney," he said in a voice that trembled with the depth of its fervour. "You were right. She did have good reason. I ought to have seen it all along."

"I don't quite understand," I said, greatly puzzled. "Do you mean that all you told me about your-your having nothing to do with Bell's death was not true?"

"Not at all," he replied, with unexpected vigour. "Everything that I told you that afternoon at the Australia was true-according to my understanding of the moment, I mean. But later my understanding broadened a bit, you must know. A chap doesn't spend a night tied up alone with the spirits of three or four white men, and Gawd knows how many blacks, without coming to comprehend some things that have eluded him before. I didn't go all the way off my chump till well along toward mornin

g, you see; and I was broadening my understanding all the time."

"I was never able to make out," I remarked somewhat irrelevantly, "how the girl managed to get the best of you the way she did."

"Oh, that," he said lightly, in a voice that indicated he rated it as a negligible incidental to the "broader understanding" that had come to him as a consequence. "Well, I suppose you have a right to know if you are interested in that phase of the affair. I simply got tired of holding out against the girl, that was all. Her relentlessness wore me down. It was not long after our return to Townsville that I realized that her picture stunt was only a blind. She counted on it to get me away to the schooner, where she could finish me off on the scene of-of my offence. I won't need to tell you that hit me jolly hard. Training out Yusuf and making a clean-up for Doc Oakes' mission with him helped while it lasted; but I gave up as soon as that was over and there was nothing to do but wait and brood. Since I knew she'd have her way in the end, I told myself that the sooner it was over the better. That was the reason I finally consented to go off to the schooner with her when she waylaid me on the north road, the day after I paid you my last visit.

"She must have planned the whole thing in advance for the place at which she intercepted me was at the point where the road ran nearest to the wreck of the Cora. As it was low tide, we were able to walk on the sand to within fifty yards of the heeling hulk. Careless of consequences as I was, I readily enough consented to her suggestion that I wade the remainder of the way, carrying her in my arms. For the rest, it was more or less of repetition of her little coup at Kai. She pinched the knife from my belt while I was wading out with her, keeping it carefully out of sight while we were walking round the deck of the schooner. I missed it presently, but thought it had fallen from its sheath while I was clambering over the side. Leaning over to look for the knife in the water, I felt the point of it on my neck. Same old place-just over the jugular. Trick she learned from the Malays.

"I told her to hurry up and get the job over. She coolly replied that this wasn't the place she had had in mind for it, and would I mind coming aft to the cockpit? Confident that she knew how to do the thing with decency and dispatch, and heartily glad to get life's fitful dream over anyhow, I went. Just like a lamb to the slaughter, Whitney. It sounds foolish, but I assure you that's just the way it happened. The idea was so fixed in my mind that a plain every-day throat-cutting was all she was figuring on, that I let her get three or four hitches of the log-line around my shoulders before it occurred to me that she might have a few refinements in pickle. I started to put up a fight at that, trying to force her to use the knife straightaway. Do you think she would do it? No fear. She wouldn't deviate from her set program by a hair. Rather than risk having the joint jolted into my jugular so that I would bleed to death quickly and painlessly, she dropped the knife and used both hands on the log-line. We had a hell of a tussle, Whitney, but she wore me down. Those three or four well-thrown hitches she had to start with were too much of a handicap.

"When she finally had me bound fast, she sat down on the rail of the cockpit to recover her breath. I tried to argue with her, pointing out the certainty that I would be seen and rescued in the morning if she left me as I was; whereas, if she would cut my throat then and there, it would finish things for good and all. I also reminded her that dead men tell no tales; that she would be much less likely to get into trouble herself if there was no one to bear witness against her. (Fancy a man having to rack his brain for arguments like that, just to get his throat cut, Whitney.) The girl admitted the soundness of my contentions, but declared she was willing to run all the extra risk for the sake of cleaning up the job 'good an' propa.' (One of Bell's expressions, that, wasn't it?)

"Then-I must have begun losing my nerve a bit, I think-I told her I had never yet been able to twig why she had a grudge against me at all; said I'd only done for Bell what I'd be jolly glad to have another man do for me under similar circumstances, and probably a lot more twaddle along the same line. She listened for a while, as though she rather enjoyed hearing me rattle on in that vein. Then she got up and disappeared down the half-open companionway. When she came back on deck she had an empty whisky bottle in her hand, probably one of a stack left in my cabin. This, with some effort on her part and much to my further discomfort, she wriggled under the lashings about my chest until she seemed satisfied it was held securely. Then, binding a filthy gag of oakum in my mouth, she stood off and looked me over critically. 'I the-enk you will twe-ig ver-ee much pu-retty soon, Mista "Slan',"' she finally chirruped with a knowing nod of her head. Without once looking back, she stepped to the side, jumped over, and waded ashore. I never saw her again-in the flesh, I mean. It took a deal of squirming to shake that bottle out. The satisfaction of hearing it break when it hit the deck was the only comforting thing that happened in the whole night."

"And you say that you understand why she did it?-that you believe she was justified?" I exclaimed incredulously, shuddering at the horror of a cold-blooded cruelty that even Allen's deliberately matter-of-fact recital could not obscure.

"Most assuredly," he replied with an enigmatic smile. "I'm just a bit surprised that you don't see it yourself, Whitney. It seems to me that a chap like you ought not to miss a point like that. But then, you haven't had a night alone on the Cora Andrews to broaden your understanding like I have."

"What was it?" I asked bluntly, completely mystified and not a little awed.

"Just this," he answered, growing suddenly serious. "That bottle I shoved along to Bell the night he died had been partly emptied-by me, of course. Well, the first thought that entered the girl's head, when she came across it on the deck near his body, was that he had been drinking from it. In spite of all my assurances to the contrary, it seems that she was never able to rid her mind of that idea. That was-"

"But couldn't she see why you offered him the whisky?" I interrupted. "What if he did drink some of it? She must have known it was the one thing that would have saved his life."

"Ah, that is just where you miss the point, Whitney," he cried. "And that was just where I always missed it until-she showed me the way to a broader understanding. Don't you see that Rona realized that keeping away from whisky, as he had sworn he would, had come to mean more to Bell than even a new lease on life? Well, she did. But, even so, one would hardly have expected her to fall in with the idea. And yet, don't her actions prove that she even did that? Whitney, I've never come across anything comparable to the straight physical passion of those two for each other. And, if anything, hers was the hotter flame of the two. There must have been something of the impetuousness of her rages in her loving,-for.... Well, the most maddening of all the thoughts I tried so long to stifle in Kai was the one that those frequent welts and abrasions appearing on Bell's neck and cheeks and arms were not from the bites of no-nos or mosquitoes. And yet, loving his body like that, she loved his soul enough more to be willing to give up the body that the soul might pass in peace. It was because she thought I had intervened to destroy that peace of soul, Whitney, that she-well, the effect of it was to pave the way to my broader understanding."

THE END

Woods & Sons, Ltd., Printers, London, N. 1.

* * *

Transcriber Notes:

Throughout the dialogues, there were words used to mimic accents of the speakers. Those words were retained as-is.

Errors in punctuation and inconsistent hyphenation were not corrected unless otherwise noted.

On page 34, "dispayed" was replaced with "displayed".

On page 67, "skin-kicking" was replaced with "shin-kicking".

On page 74, an apostrophe was added in 'Slan'.

On page 102, "Ulupua" was replaced with "Utupua".

On page 159, a period was added after "he was going through".

On page 176, "its" was replaced with "it's".

On page 188, a quotation mark was added before "On the off chance".

On page 203, "at the botton" was replaced with "at the bottom".

On page 205, "twentyfive" was replaced with "twenty-five".

On page 233, "back of the easel" was replaced with "back off the easel".

On page 238, "in no may" was replaced with "in no way".

On page 241, "ejaculted" was replaced with "ejaculated".

On page 246, "Marbare" was replaced with "Mambare".

On page 282, "firsthand" was replaced with "first-hand".

On page 285, "listnessness" was replaced with "listlessness".

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