Fiction

The Pull of the Finger

Theodore Goodridge Roberts August 1 1913
Fiction

The Pull of the Finger

Theodore Goodridge Roberts August 1 1913

Editor’s Note.—A story with a perplexing end, wherein careers in Western Canada are regulated in a peculiar manner. The author is a well-known American writer, whose “Falling in at Simpsey’s,” and “Captain Pike” may be known to many of our readers.


ALFRED BECKHAM’S disgrace is an old and discredited story now. In its day it was a black and bitter thing. It estranged kinsmen and friends, broke a heart or two, and would have ruined a less courageous and honest man than young Alfred Beckham.

But it is not my intention to tell that old story, or even to give the revised and true version of it. It is enough for me to say that Beckham went to prison for three years. At this time he was a cashier in the firm of Rudd & Jordan, Bankers and Brokers. Jordan as the world knows, now that he is dead—was the man who should have gone to prison.

While serving his sentence, Alfred Beckham drifted into terms of friendship with a fellow prisoner of the name of Denis Paul. Paul was an older man than Alfred by twenty years, and, to a casual observer, would have seemed to be his opposite in everything. To begin with, Denis Paul admitted that he was guilty of the charge for which he was suffering. He had shota fellow woodsman with the intention of killing him, but had missed a vital point by an inch or so. He told this to Beckham.

“Must há’ bin the light,” he said. “The light warn’t good in the woods that day. Thar ain’t a man livin’ I wouldn’t track down an’ shoot for that same reason. Thar ain’t no justice in this law that don’t let a man protect his own women folk. The pull of the finger—that’s the best iedge an’ jury I knows of!”

He raised his right hand and bent the forefinger of it, as if upon a trigger.

Beckham maintained that Paul should have fought his enemy openly ; but the old woodsman only grinned at that.

In the course of time the younger man told his story, and mentioned his suspicions of Jordan. Paul listened with a dangerous glint in his gray eyes.

“I believe ye, lad,” he said. “There’s no thief about you, nor nothin’ dirty. The only medicine for that thar skunk who done the trick on you be the pull of the finger. I’d give ’im a dose of it, some day, if I was you!”

In due course Denis Paul received his liberty and vanished from the knowledge of the prison. Six months later Alfred Beckham was set free.

Beckham was wise enough not to appear among the people whom he had thought to be his friends before his disgrace. He wrote to an uncle, and in reply received five thousand dollars from his mother’s estate. Then he changed his name and went West.

The old life was dead, the disgrace was hidden, and only the cruel sting of the injustice remained to him. But as time passed even this sting lost a little of its bitter fire. Poor Alfred Beckham was dead; but Walter Scott was alive and doing, with a future to make in a land that looked only to the future.

Scott—do give him his new name— prospered in the West. His capital, in dollars, was small; but his good education, his sound temper, energy, honesty, pleasant manners, and business training all proved to stand for capital. He opened a real estate office in a new town. He invested in land. Conditions were favorable, and his business grew.

He opened another office in a larger town—a city ten years of age—and took up his abode there. His reputation for square dealing, ability, and good-nature went ahead of him. Every one seemed willing, even anxious, to become his friends.

In the West a man works and plays with the same people; and so it happened that Walter Scott met the girl and entered into partnership with the girl's father. The name of the people was Scovil. There were only two in the family—the father and daughter.

Captain Scovil had been an officer in the American navy, had retired after a useful career, and had moved to the Canadian West to try to double his modest savings. But he had proved himself a child in business; and when Walter Scott took him into partnership, along with the dwindled savings, their mutual friends complimented Scott on his astonishing good-nature. I am not sure whether it was the helpless captain or the beautiful daughter who inspired Scott to this step. However that may be, he made a success of the partnership.

The captain, like Scott, was the soul of honor; but the captain’s honor was of the variety that will make no concessions, brook no delay, shy at no obstacle. Such was his way in business as well as in private life.

His failures in business transactions had often been due to this extreme nicety of conscience. Many a time, fearing that a natural advantage lay upon his side of the deal, he had made another advantage and passed it over to the other side. This, of course, was not business at all. The moment he and Scott joined forces, Scott undertook to protect them both by keeping to himself the authority to conclude all deals. This worked satisfactorily.

Walter Scott admired his partner’s abnormal sense of honor, and at the same time he feared it. The captain’s creed was that every man must tell the whole truth about himself, whether asked for it or not, particularly if the truth were not entirely pleasant. This, he held, was the safeguard every man owed to the world.

You can imagine that Scott had no desire to make known the truth of his past to the Scovils, or to the world at large. The world certainly, and perhaps the Scovils, would believe only part of his story—would take* the word of the law for the truth, instead of Scott’s word. So Scott kept his past to himself, worked hard and honestly and day by day fell more hopelessly in love with the captain’s daughter.

The girl’s name was Jean. Fear that the captain’s abnormal sense of honor would some day blunderingly overthrow this palace of love which he was building often gripped the young man’s heart with the most poignant sensations. It would be wiser to tell all, he reflected, in agony ; and yet he could not find the courage to risk toppling his dream of happiness to ruins with his own hand. Surely it was more than could be expected, or fairly asked, of any man. Surely he had suffered enough already from the blindness and injustice of life. '

One day Scott told the captain of his love for Jean. The elder man took it very quietly and kindly.

“I like you Scott, and I trust you,” he said. ‘T think you have won my girl’s heart; but I must ask you not to speak to her just yet. Wait a month —let us say until we have concluded this deal with the big Eastern syndicate. We shall have plenty of time then to talk things over.”

They shook hands on this, Scott experienced a feeling of intense relief. The captain was with him; and knew, though he had not asked her in words, that Jean loved him.

The deal of which the captain had spoken was likely to be the biggest thing in land-selling that the partners had as yet undertaken. The land involved was a wooded valley on the eastern slops of the Rockies, measuring some twenty miles in length and from two to seven in width. Scott and his partner were acting in the matter simply as agents, fiffie owners were English people, and the prospective buyers were New York men.

Scott had agreed to go East and meet one of the directors of the syndicate at a hunting-camp in the Adirondack^. There he was to conclude the business and hand over the title-deeds. At the last moment, the captain made known his intention of accompanying Scott.


II.

SCOTT and Scovil arrived at the camp early in the evening, after a drive of twenty miles over half-made roads. The place astonished them. It was a mansion built of logs. Half a dozen cabins, for the accommodation of guides and servants, stood about in the clearing, within convenient reach, but at a respectful distance from the main camp.

The woodsman who had guided them in whistled on his fingers in front of the big house. A door opened, and a man in evening clothes, with side-lights and a polished chin, appeared and bowed.

“Come right in, gentlemen, if you please,” he said. “Mr. Watson is expecting you.”

Mr. Watson, the director of the syndicate, met them in the wide, low hall adorned with moose heads and the pelts of bobcat and bear. He was a very cordial person. He shook hands heartily, helped to remove their overcoats, and then told the steward to show them to their rooms.

“Dinner in about three-quarters of an hour,” he said. “Timmins will show you the baths. Hope you’ll be comfortable. Ring for anything you want.”

The partners from the West followed Timmins up-stairs; and Mr. Watson sent wrhisky and soda up after them.

“And they call this a huntingcamp!” murmured the captain.

Scott, after a warm bath and a change into evening clothes, left his chamber to find his way below stairs. The captain, in the room next door, was still engaged with a very high and stiff shirt-collar.

Scott wandered down a long, heavily carpeted hall illuminated by little globes of light. Doors stood closed, or half open, on his right and left. He felt comfortable, hopeful, ready and able to enjoy himself and do business to advantage.

He had the long hall to himself. He had almost reached the head of the stall's when a door opened on his right, and a man stepped into the hall immediately in front of him and turned to face him. This person was a middleaged gentleman, blockily built and faultlessly attired, with a pink face, heavy chin, gray hair and mustache. But the expression of the pink face and

square jaw was unpleasant, and the gray eyes were as lifeless as stone.

“Why, it is yourself, Alfred,” he said.

Scott’s face went deadly white, with a hint of blue about the lips and gray shadows down the lines from cheekbones to jaw. He did not speak. He put out a hand and steadied himself against the wall.

“Brace up, my boy!” said the other quietly, with an outward note of concern in his voice, but an inner twang of derision. “Brace up, or your partner and my friend Watson will wonder what is the matter with you.”

Scott stood straight, and a little of the original color returned to his cheeks; but his face still looked as if it had suddenly grown thinner and older.

“That is better, Alfred,” said the other. “By the way, you must be doing pretty well in the West.”

Scott’s eyes flashed, and his strong frame trembled from head to foot.

“Haven’t you done me enough harm already?” he asked, in shaking but guarded tones. “Do you mean to—to ruin me again? Before, it served your purpose— saved you from your just deserts ; but now—why should you want to crush me again? Have a care! I warn you to have a care. My blood sweats with that disgrace and injustice like a fever—like the poison of a fever!”

“Don’t get excited, Alfred,” returned the other. “I have no intention of making an unpleasant scene—just now, at any rate. I arrived only yesterday, and must get my moose to-morrow. A painful scene would put me all off in my shooting. I am not so young as I used to be, and must be careful,”

Fear and disgust of the man went through Scott’s veins like the fire and frost. In the same instant of time he shivered with heat and cold, hate and terror. He passed on and down the broad staircase without another word.

He saw things as through a drifting mist. The little globes of light shone dim and distant before his stricken eyes, like the lights of a ship seen in a fog. The great overhanging heads and ponderous antlers along the walls swam before his vision. The game was !one! The love that he had won and the life that he had reclaimed would fall to pitiful ruins at the touch of that faultlessly garbed man behind him!

His innocence, and the unjust sufferings of the past, would count as nothing. Even if his word should prove good against the word of that strong old man and the judgment of the judges— and his word was that of a fugitive from the old life, living, working, and loving in a new land, under a name that he had made his own without benefit of law or parents—even if the naked truth should prevail, still the damning fact remained that he had kept it from the captain and from the girl he loved. He had lived his lie before them, with them, in the heart of their generous friendship. The captain might find pity in his heart; but what excuse for the lie could be found in that simple, iron-hard old heart of honor and pride?

“Buin!” breathed Scott, huskily, as he set his foot upon the bottom step.

Timmins confronted him, a bulky shadow in the mist of despair.

“I beg your pardon, sir? Did you speak, sir?” asked Timmins.

“No,” said Scott.

The mist cleared from eyes and brain, leaving only the bitter cold at the heart and the aching dryness in the mouth.

“A hard journey, sir. A tiring journey,” said1 the steward considerately. “This way, sir. Mr. Watson is in here by the fire.”

Scott saw things now with a terrible clearness—with such a clearness as is supposed to come to men who face death in unheated action or who await, idly, some shattering crisis that neither prayer nor protest can avail to stay or turn aside. He found Watson standing with his back to a wide and glowing hearth.

“Sherry and bitters, or a cocktail?” inquired Watson; “and will you have it now or wait for the captain and Jordan?”

“I’ll wait, thanks,” replied Scott, his voice so steady and precise that it astonished him and gave him a desperate, hopeless kind of confidence in himself.

He would finish the game like a man, anyway, as he had played it.

“They will be down soon,” he said, “The captain had reached his collar some time ago, and I passed Mr. Jordan at the head of the stairs.”

“So you know Jordan?” queried Watson. “I am glad of that. He is a member of our syndicate, and also of this little shooting-club.”

“I never knew him very well,” replied Scott. “To-night is the first and only time we have met in five or six years.”


III.

AT that moment Captain Scovil and Mr. Jordan entered the room together. Scott turned and gazed at the captain’s face with desperate calm. The captain returned his partner’s anxious gaze with a passing glance. His weather-beaten, clean-cut face was grim. Mr. Jordan was beaming; but' his beams were scarcely convincing to the analytical eye.

“Watson,” he cried, “what do you think of this for a piece of luck? Scovil here is my brother-in-law. I didn’t know he was coming to this camp— hadn’t the faintest notion of it. Haven’t seen him for years—not since he left the service and went West.”

“Why, now, that is certainly pure luck,” replied the kindly Mr. Watson. “Fine! This turns our little business into a picnic. And I hear from Mr. Scott that he has met you before, too.”

Jordan looked sharply at Scott; but the young man’s face was as expressionless as a mask. Bewilderment and despair were masters of his heart and mind; and so stunned was he that it was easy to show a blank face.

Captain Seovil and this old devil were brothers-in-law ! Lord, what next? And why that hardness and hint of sorrow on the captain’s face? What did he know? What had Jordan told him already? But why ask himself these things? The end would come all in its own good time.

“Why, yes,” said Jordan, pleasantly. “Mr Scott and I met at the top of the stairs.”

Mr. Watson looked slightly perplexed at this, and even Scott's eyes showed a fleeting gleam of inquiry.

“I think Mr. Scott mentioned the fact that he had known you slightly in New York,” said Watson.

“Why, of course he did!” said Mr. Jordan. “Bless me, I always lose what little wits I have when I get into the woods! Scott — Walter Scott — of course !”

Captain Scovil gazed at the speaker with something like a shadow of pain in his clear, kindly eyes. Scott glanced from the captain to Jordan. He felt cold as ice, yet reckless. Here was a game to be played—a game of life and death—and no rules to play by.

“We met in business, Mr. Jordan,” he said quietly.

“In business—yes, of course we did,” returned Jordan, nodding his gray head, as if he was very happy to remember it, but with the best intentions could not grasp it very clearly. Then Timmins arrived with the cocktails on a silver tray; and, a moment later, Mr. Watson led the way to the diningroom.

Sir Walter Raleigh wrote some very fine verses on the night before the gray morning of his legalized murder. Young Scott, with ruin worse than death impending, distinguished himself at the dinner-table. He had decided that Jordan meant to keep his word and make no malicious move before the conclusion of the next day's expedition after moose'.

The relief he felt at this astonished him. He knew that it was out of all proportion to the cause. Here were a few hours of respite given him—a night and a day, perhaps—and hope glowed in him as in a man just escaped from the shadow of a falling cliff. To-night was his, and to-morrow was his; then why try to account for the day after that ? Life is a dear thing to the man who sees the end of it; and a day of life is as dear to him who runs from death as a score of years.

# So Scott talked throughout the meal with even more than his usual charm. Mr. Watson supported him, and what little Mr. Jordan said was in perfect

accordance with the trend of the young man’s conversation. But Captain Scovil was very quiet. He watched his partner and his brother-in-law with covert glances.

“Let us play a rubber,” suggested Mr. Watson, after dinner.

And then, swift as lightning, the horror of despair struck again upon Scott's heart. He got from his chair.

“Yes, a rubber,” he murmured, “but if you'll excuse me for a moment, I'll just take a breath of fresh air.”

He left the room, passed through another room and the hall, and stepped out upon the broad verandah. A slice of moon and a spangle of stars threw mysterious half-lights down into the clearing. Scott moved along the verandah, calling desperately upon his courage that had so suddenly failed him.

A man was seated upon the steps at the end of the verandah. This fellow stood up and faced Scott.

“Hullo, partner !” he said, in a voice at once joyful and cautious. “Lay it thar!”

He thrust out a gnarled, brown hand. It was Denis Paul.

“I wasn’t expectin' to meet ye here,” continued Paul, pressing the -other's hand. “Ye've done well, lad—as you had ought to. But what the devil? Yer face shines white as birch-bark.”

“Yes, the devil, true enough,” he said bitterly. “He is here, Denis—my own particular devil. It’s Jordan. I told you about him. He is here—and the game is finished!”

The woodman scratched his chin.

“That's the gent I'm takin' up Berry Brook way to-morrow, after moose,” he said. “So that's yer enemy ! Well, lad, it do beat thunder how these here things fall out, an' come round, if only ye give ’em enough time! But I guess I'll be steppin’ over to my bunk. " I got to be up bright an’ ’arly.”

He turned, and was lost t-o Scott in the uncertain light.

Scot went back to the others. Something of his courage had returned to him. He sat down at the card-table across from Captain Scovil.

“Suppose we play as we sit,” said

Scovil. “I am not a good player; but L know that my partner will overlook any slips I may be guilty of.”

The others laughed pleasantly at this; but Scott felt a pang of self-pity, and a glow of gratitude to the captain, which were no laughing matter.

The evening passed pleasantly — at least, it would have seemed so to an onlooker none too keen of vision.

“Sleep well,” said Watson to his guests. “We’ll settle that little business after breakfast.”

Jordan wished the captain and Scott a very hearty good-night. His brief, unveiled glance into the latter’s eyes shook the young man’s heart to its depths.


IV.

JORDAN had been gone for several hours before Scott, Scovil, and Watson met for breakfast the next morning. After breakfast, the business of the sale was put through without a hitch.

“Now you will stay four or five days and get some shooting,” invited the hospitable Watson.

Scott had no answer ready. He looked inquiringly at the captain.

“I should like nothing better,” said Scovil. “You are very kind. Walter, we can spare a few days, I think?”

Scott bowed. What was the use of running away, after all? No, whatever might be the issue, he would stay right here until the bitter end I

They did not go after moose that day; Mr. Watson entertained them assiduously, and plied them with the best from cellar and larder. They played billiards, pool, and chess, and went around the nine-hole golf-course that skirted the big clearing. Scott went through the day like a dreamer wading, with clogged feet, through a nightmare.

The three gentlemen were at dinner, with a fire on the hearth, when Timmins brought Denis Paul into the room. The guide, who seemed excited, wore high-legged moccasions that were slimed with mud. He held his fur cap in his hand.

“I come to ask ye, Mr. Watson, what ever has become of Mr. Jordan,” said Paul. “I left ’im up on the right branch, an’ he ain’t here yet. He said as how he’d be home before me. He was sot on layin’ right thar for a moose, an’ sent me on to see if the beavers ain’t bin troubled up on Moon Lake. He said as how he’d come home by himself in the canoe you-alls left up to the right branch.”

Mr. Watson looked at Timmins. “Are you sure that Mr. Jordan has not arrived?” he asked.

“I have been to his room, sir. I have looked everywhere,” replied Timmins.

“We must get the men and go up stream,” said Mr. Watson. He turned to the captain. “You will excuse me, I know,” he went on. “You two need not go. Sit right where you are, and finish your dinner in comfort.”

He drained his glass of claret and arose from his seat with a sigh.

Scott sat like one stunned, staring over tue captain s ¿^mulder at the guide. Paul had raised his hand a little, swiftly and covertly, and made a little motion with the forefinger of his right hand, suggestive of the hook and pressure of finger upon trigger. What was the meaning of that?

Scott’s brain toiled back through a mist to the days of his living death in prison, and to an old story that Denis Paul had told him there.

“If you will allow us, we will go with you,” said Captain Scovil.

They found Jordan lying by the stream, where the guide had left him. He was dead. His rifle lay beside him, with an empty shell in the breech and nine loaded shells in the magazine.

“I don’t see how he could have done it,” said Watson. “He knew how to handle firearms as well as any man.” The light of the little lanterns was dim and shifting in that place of death, rippling water, and looming forest shadows. Scott glanced at Denis Paul ; and again he saw that swift and furtive movement of the man’s forefinger. The guide’s eyes were upon him, with a look that said, almost as plain as print: “Don’t worry any more, lad. You’d do the same for me, I guess !”

Then a wave of black obscured Scott’s eyes for a moment, lie reeled slightly, and steadied himself against a tree. He heard Watson’s voice, as if from miles away, saying:

“Paul will have to explain this to the coroner. Yes, he’ll have to explain it. I can’t understand it. Paul—where is Denis Paul?”

But Denis Paul had gone.

Captain Scovil laid his hand on Scott’s arm.

“I think it has happened for the best,” he said. “A great weight of responsibility has been taken off my shoulders, at any rate. Yes, I have known your story from the beginning, my boy. And of this man, who married my sister—I have suspected the truth about him for years. You have not fully trusted me; but I do not hold that against you. My heart has ached with pity for you, Walter. I was going to act this time, lad, on your behalf, no_ matter what the cost to family pride ; but a greater hand has struck— and it is for the best. Tell me, shall we clear your old name, at the cost of the dead and the living? Or are the new name, and the new life, all that you want?”

“The new life,” replied the young man, in a dazed voice. “The new life —is all I ask for!”

Mr. Watson hustled up to them.

“Denis Paul has lit out,” he exclaimed. “He knows these woods like a fox. It looks fishy. He’ll be clear away by morning. I can’t understand poor Jordan mishandling a rifle and shooting himself!”

“And yet I have heard of plenty of similar cases,” said the captain.