THE INSTRUMENT OF DESTINY
Was it love for Jim, that vagrant soul, or was it thwarted motherhood that steeled her arm for that stark blow? Was it her debt to pay, or his?
H. W. LEGGETT
THE unending surge of conversation in the public bar of the Falcon’s Nest flowed round and over Alice Western but hardly ever reached her consciousness.
She stood, day after day, behind the mahogany counter, tall and slender, with great, dark eyes that sometimes shot a startled glance at the swinging door of the bar, but then immediately veiled themselves under her long lashes.
Her hands flew from glass rack to beer pump, from counter to till. All her thoughts seemed concentrated on her work, except for those rare, vivid glances. She never chatted with customers. If any of them addressed her, she seemed rather confused and answered in a monosyllable that gave little opening for further talk. But she had a miraculous power of hearing. In all that raucous din she could pick out the merest mumble of a demand for liquid refreshment and supply it instantly or a little later, as the ease might be, but always according to formula.
The swing doors of the Falcon’s Nest opened upon the Port down side of the Westport-Portdown Ferry. Every few minutes throughout the day a little crowd of people debouched across the narrow gangway on to the foreshore and, after lingering uncertainly for a moment, dissolved into and were lost among the population of the waterside. One or two generally found their way into the public bar of the Falcon’s Nest and added their quota to the day’s takings and their voices to the general din.
He had come that way, once, nearly two years before — soon after she had become barmaid at the Falcon’s Nest. He had stayed the night there, and meeting her in the corridor the next morning had invited her to go with him to the pictures that afternoon.
She had gone. Afterwards he had taken her for a walk in the country. They had had tea at a little cottage.
He had not wanted her to return to work that evening, but she had insisted, against her desires. That was the only time she had ever been late in commencing her duties behind the bar.
HE HAD gone away in the evening, promising to return. But he had not returned. Yet she clung to the idea that some day he would come back. She had fallen in love with him, and loving him. believed in him,
Or rather, she believed in love. She could not imagine that love such as hers could go unsatisfied forever.
She loved the very thought of him—of his big body and great, strong hands and tanned face and blue, boyish eyes. Sitting on a gate that afternoon he had put his arm round her waist and kissed her on the lips. The faint smell of beer and tobacco had been not in the least offensive for his body was a perfect machine and his breath was clean and wholesome, not acrid and stale like the breath of most of the men who muttered their husky demands to her across the bar of the Falcon’s Nest.
Every night when she got
into bed she hugged the thought of him to her—in default of anything more tangible. Often she lingered at her undressing to go over again her memory of that afternoon.
She brushed and plaited her hair—for him. She softened the skin of her hands with cream—for him. As she took off her garments one by one she hummed one or other of the crooning nursery songs that every woman knows— and longed to draw his head down on to her shoulder and stroke his crisp brown hair. And after she had turned out the little gas jet over the bed, she pulled up the blind and looked out. From her window she could see one narrow patch of sky, but that was sufficient to convey to her an impression of vast distances and so, by contrast, of the narrowness of the earth. The star that twinkled down on her, twinkled down on him though he were hundreds of
miles away. It helped tp make vivid to her the fact that he was somewhere on this little ball of a world.
' I 'HAT is how she came to hear the moan of the man in distress out in the alley that ran along behind the Falcon’s Nest. Her bedroom jutted out over a scullery into the back yard of the public house. The alley ran nearly under her window.
Her quick ear, or intuition, told her that this was not a belated drunkard, taken in sudden self-pity at his writhing stomach and throbbing head. She seemed to remember dimly the sound of staggering footsteps a' moment earlier. She visualised the man as lying in a heap against the wall, unable to rise..
She slipped across to the door of her room. The corridor outside was in darkness, but from the further end a pencil of light shewed under the door of the private dining room. Mr. and Mrs. Corbett were entertaining friends to supper; she could hear muffled voices. On the next floor was a double row of tiny, shabby “guests’ ” bedrooms. Below, a gas jet burned for the benefit of any of the occupants of the bedrooms above who might return late.
She went back and put a thick outdoor coat on over her nightdress and walking shoes on her bare feet. Then she crossed to the door again. She could not bring herself to face the little gathering of people iii the dining room.
Even if she had been dressed, her courage would have been insufficient for that. So after a moment’s hesitation she stole out and down the narrow staircase; then along a short passage and through the kitchen. In the darkness she felt along the dresser hooks for a bunch of keys, found them and unbolted and unlocked the back door. She walked unhesitatingly across the yard and unlocked the heavy padlock on the door that opened into the alley. Then she lifted the bar, pulled the door open and stepped through.
And in stepping through that door, she stepped out of her old life into a new life that destiny had prepared for her.
THE light on the wall of the alley showed her the figure of a man stretched out on the ground almost at her feet. She bent down. Then she straightened herself suddenly, pressing her arms into her sides. The man moved his head and looked up at her. His face was streaked with blood. “Jim!” she whispered.
He seemed to shrink away from her, and made a futile effort to get to his feet. But he was too weak and sank back with a little shuddering sigh.
“It’s "all right, Jim,” she said softly. “You stop where you are. I’ll go and fetch somebody.”
“No!” For a moment he was master of his senses. Then he relapsed into semiconsciousness again, with just enough strength left to mumble an incoherent jumble of words, from the general drift of which it appeared that all he wanted was to be left alone.
But she would not abandon him like that. With a great deal of persuasion she induced him to let her help him into the yard. When he heard the heavy door shut on him, he seemed to breathe more easily.
She propped him up against the wall of the scullery and brought out from the kitchen an iron basin of water and a rag. Kneeling on the ground beside him, she washed the blood from his face and bathed his head as well as she could in the darkness.
Presently she heard the guests of Mr. and Mrs. Corbett descending the stairs with a great deal of noisy chatter. He heard the sounds also and became excited—almost distraught in a feeble way. She got up and shut the kitchen door. Then she took her place beside him again.
He began to talk to her after a time—not quite sensibly, rambling off, leaving sentences incomplete. But she gathered that he had been in a row with the police over on the Westport side.
After a time he ceased talking and his head lolled sideways. Then she sat down on the ground by him and gently lowered him so that his head was in her lap. In that position he fell asleep, his slumber interrupted by sudden fierce mutterings and sharp twitches of his great limbs.
She continued to bathe his head until she was satisfied that the blood had ceased to flow. She undid his collar and his shirt and wiped the dried stains from his neck and shoulders and chest and from his hands where he had touched the wound in his head.
Then she sat very still, indifferent to aching muscles and burning eyelids, and the chill of the cold ground.
He had come back to her.
TjTERY slowly the stars paled in the sky and objects in ' the yard which had been invisible became visible. Footsteps sounded along the street at the end of the alley and in neighbouring gardens cocks began to crow fitfully and spasmodically. It must be nearly five o’clock. In another hour, Dick, the potman, would come down to clean any boots that might have been left out for him in the upper corridor.
The sky was quite light in the East, though the sun had not risen, when he turned uneasily and after a few minutes opened his eyes and gazed up at her. He did not speak, and she could not tell whether he recognized her. Probably not, with her hair in plaits. The steady gaze of his blue eyes, however, embarrassed her.
“Feel better. . . .Jim?” she murmured.
He gave her a half puzzled, half reminiscent look.
“Why, it’s—” He fumbled in his memory for her name.
“Alice,” she whispered.
“Alice!” He turned his head to look round him. It was not quite certain that he recalled her now. “Where
am I?” he demanded. He put his hand up to his head, but she prevented him from touching the wound.
“It isn’t bleeding now,” she said, “but it wants binding up. You’ve had an—an accident.”
“Alice!” he exclaimed again in a different tone. Recollection seemed to have flooded his mind. He turned slightly and met her eyes again. The pressure of his great shoulders on her aching legs and the shifting weight of his head on her arm gave her a sense of ineffable joy and power and responsibility She had tended him, nursed him, this great strong man, through the night. She pressed his head tighter against her breast. The dread of losing him again sent a little pain through her heart.
But he seemed in no hurry to move from the warm, comforting cradle of her arm and body. He simply lay there and gazed at her.
“How’d I get here?” he asked at length.
“You were out there—in the alley,” she said. “I brought you in.”
Presently he put one hand on the ground and tried to raise himself. He was unexpectedly weak and giddy, but with an effort he struggled to his feet, supporting himself against the wall and her shoulder. He smiled at the scared look on her face.
“All right in a minute, little girl,” he said jerkily. He looked curiously at her. “Why, you ain’t dressed!” he exclaimed.
She flushed. “I was just going to bed when—when I heard you out there,” she explained.
“You been settin’ out here with me all night? My! but you’re a sport.”
She stood before him meekly, secretly overjoyed at his appreciation.
“Your head ought to be bandaged,” she remarked. “You better come in and let me do it.”
T2TIS expression changed instantly. Something like terror appeared in his eyes. While he had been lying gazing up at her he had mentally gone over what he remembered of the previous night’s happenings. If he were caught, he knew' they’d give him anything up to six months for his part in the affair.
“I got to get away,” he said, glancing round nervously. In reply to her questions he gave her a rather coloured version of what had happened. She had heard in the bar during the evening that an unemployed demonstration over on the Westport side had come into conflict wnth the police. Jim and another man—"a cove with a voice like a foghorn,” Jim described him—had between them put three constables out of action. The other man had used
his heavy boots rather freely too. It was the other man who had brought Jim across the creek in a rowing boat.
“You could stop here until you’re well,” she said thoughtfully. “Nobody need known You could come right up now. I’d explain to the chambermaid. She was out last night. She’d think you come in during the evening. I’d bring your food up to you. Nobody bothers about anything here.”
He shook his head doubtfully. He daren’t risk it, though he didn’t quite know what, in his state, the alternative was. But at the possibility of losing him again a panic seized her and she clutched his arm.
“Jim, dear,” she begged, “I don’t wrant you to go. I want to look after you. I’ve wmited so long for you to come back.”
The memory of that afternoon nearly two years ago was buried deep under the debris of successive experiences in his casual, roaming life, but it had had some particular savour of its owm that came back to him under the stimulus of her self-abandonment. He put his arms round her and still leaning wreakly against the wall, drew her close and bent his head and kissed her on the lips.
His w'hole body wras feverish and racked with pain and hers was soft and cool and yielding. He caught up one of her plaits of hair and kissed it and then pressed its fragrant softness against his cheek. She was tremendously young and unspoiled and beautiful, and in a wTay he wras unspoiled too, for nothing had ever bitten into his.soul deeply enough to mark it. He made love facilely and so had always been popular wdth wmmen. But his owm emotions had never been properly aw'akened.
Not until this moment. Nowr something stirred in him. He wanted to speak and could find no words that had not been sullied by use already on unworthy objects, or at least, in unwmrthy circumstances. He held her tightly, therefore, without speaking.
She was deliriously happy. The dawm was cool and fresh and lovely, like her body; and their realization of love wras like the dawn—tender and restrained, almost w'istful.
They stood there until the rumble of a passing lorry w'arned her that soon Dick w'ould be coming dowmstairs.
“We must go in now,” she said softly, taking his assent for granted. She preceded him into the kitchen and locked and bolted the door. Then they stole up the two flights of stairs and crept along the corridor until they reached the door of a vacant bedroom. To their ears the floor boards seemed to creak noisily, but nobody appeared to have been disturbed.
She stood for a minute in the doorwray, while he sunk
wearily on to the single, enamelled-iron bed. Then she stepped outside without a word and pulled his door to softly after her.
HE WAS too weak to undress and stretching himself oa top of the bedclothes, he dropped almost at once into a restless doze.
In the intervals between hideous dreams, he was conscious during the morning of people passing backwards and forwards outside his door. At nine o’clock, Alice had brought htm a cup of tea. which he had swallowed greedily. He had insisted that he could eat nothing and she had gone out. locking the door behind her.
After he had drunk the tea and she had left him, he had taken off his boots and then his coat and waistcoat and trousers and got under the top blanket. He lay more Msiiy with his outer garments removed.
Just before mid-day Alice came in again with a plate of cold ham and a glass of milk. He drank the milk, but left the food She dtd not stay long.
Alt he wanted was to be left in peace. His head was gradually becoming clearer, less painful. By the evening he would be able to get up. He hoped Alice would come and unlock his door before it got quite dark, so that he could sneak out under cover of the dusk and get away into the country. Then he would walk all night and by the next morning be sufficiently far away to make it safe to take a tram for the rest of the journey home.
He dozed intermittently, but in the middle of the afternoon h* was aroused to svidden alertness by the sound of a key turning gently in the door. He was relieved when he saw that st was only Alice again; but it appeared from her cautious, rapid movements that she was put out by something She closed the door and moved quickly across to the bedside.
“There are two men downstairs, with Mr. Corbett,” she smd m a strained whisper. “I believe they’re the
He jerked the clothes off his shoulders and sat up. "Good God'" he exclaimed, "where can I go? What can I do?” He sprang out of bed and stood on the floor in his stockinged feet. "Caught like a rat in a trap,” he muttered distractedly.
"Get your clothes on,” Alice said. “I’ll go to the top of the stairs. They’re in the dining room. There may be a chance to slip past.” She had assumed an unexpected masterfulness.
XI 7HEX she went out, he seized his clothes and * * scrambled into them. Then he waited. It was a great strain, every nerve alert. His crime assumed a degree of recklessness and audacity at this moment that it had not had before, and, in fact, that he did not recognise as belonging to his character. And the police were downstairs looking for him, and here he was. shivering—or on the verge of it—in this wretched cubicle, with no means of escape, no room even to put up a fight, merely waiting to be handcuffed and led off. It was incredible and at the same time perfectly plain and credible. But he had never conceived that such a thing could happen to him.
Somewhere along the passage there was a muffled crash, and he nearly jumped out of his carelessly laced boots. It was coming now. Doubtless somebody had crept along behind Alice and flung her to the ground. He listened intently for footsteps outside his door.
He heard none; and yet suddenly the door began to move open. He cowered back against the bed, not because he was a poltroon and feared to take his punishment, but because the w'hole affair was so strange and unexpected.
But it was Alice again, her eyes smouldering with that flame that so rarely leapt to the surface, her breath coming rather faster than usual.
"Come!" she whispered in a way that thrilled him. "They've gone out in the yard, all together.”
She turned and he hurried behind her on his toes out into the corridor, down a flight of stairs to the dining-room floor, down another flight of stairs to the narrow passage which led to the side entrance of the Falcon’s Nest, along the passage to the door itself. She paused with her hand on the knob, and looked him over.
/~XX A peg knocked into the wall of the passage was an V* old cap belonging to Mr. Corbett. She motioned to him to put it on. He did so, and with deft fingers she twisted it this way and that till at last it looked as though no head but his had ever worn it, so characteristic were its wrinkles and so inevitable the angle of its peak.
"Follow a few yards behind me,” she said in a low voice, "and don't look behind. Don’t forget to shut the door.”
She opened the door and stood in the entrance a moment to catch up a stray wisp of hair. Then she stepped out and pulled the door to after her. He counted ten under his breath; then he too stepped out. He drew the door to with meticulous care and listened for the click of the lock. Then he sauntered along the street in the wake of Alice, finding a tremendous difficulty in keeping his
eyes in front of him. He wanted to turn, to look behind.
As soon as they were out of the main street she waited for him to catch up,
"We better not try to get too far until it’s dark,” she said. "Don’t want anybody to know which road we’re going."
"Ain’t you goin’ back?” he asked in surprise.
She gave him a curious look. “No,” she said quietly, "I’m never going back there.”
'T'HEY had been married a year and were living in two A furnished rooms in a back street of Cardiff when Alice's baby was born. Jim had a job at the docks and earned good money: but Aliceiwas a provident housewife and a good half of his weekly earnings went into the savings bank.
The baby came just in time. With her uncanny instinct for discounting the future, Alice might have arranged it almost to the day. For Jim was getting restless, shewed signs of asserting his independence. Alice made life so comfortable for him, while keeping it within such narrow bounds, that it was becoming monotonous.
The baby altered all that.
Alice herself was unprepared for the interest he showed in his son. The tiny bundle was a perpetual source of almost incredulous wonder to him—a wonder that also embraced the boy’s mother. He deferred to her humbly in everything. '
Never before had he been so tenderly solicitous. In the earlier days of their marriage, his love had been a thing of fits and starts, erratic, spasmodic. Now it burned steadily. His very manner of addressing her was a caress.
, And she no longer needed it; he was no more all her world. Subconsciously he was aware that the baby had supplanted him, that he took but second place now. But it made no difference. He almost worshipped her, worshipped the two of them. He was prepared to subdue his own egotism to minister to them, to live on the crumbs of affection his wife and Jimmie the younger flung to him from their mutual store. There was no doubt where Jimmie’s attentions were focused. It was enough for his father that the mite occasionally deigned to gnaw his
forefinger, tug at his hair, drag out his tie, while his mother was busy cooking or ironing his miniature garments. It was enough for him that, tired out at the end of a long day, Alice sometimes consented to cradle herself on his knee and his arms, as once she had cradled him. He was no longer restless, bored. There were so many things in the house for him to do, so many ways he could be useful.
ONE evening, when the baby was about six months old, he came home in high spirits. During the day he had been appointed ganger over a group of labourers working at a new dock his firm were opening. For once, Alice granted him the privilege of talking about himself and his affairs ,for half an hour on end. Not that he had much to say. But once started he didn’t like to stop and meandered off into a mass of unimportant details about the new dock and the firm he worked for and the men who were now under him.
“By the way,” he observed as an afterthought, when his material threatened to give out, “d’you remember me telling you about the man that rowed me across the harbour that night of the shindy at Westport? The loudestvoiced cove I ever knew. Well, I saw him to-day. In the town. He was just going into a shop to buy a paper, so I didn’t have a chance to speak.”
There was a startled note in his wife’s reply. “Did he. see you?” she demanded.
“No. But we’re bound to meet, run across one another, sooner or later. Reckon he’s got a job here.”
The baby who had been playing contentedly with his toes began to whimper just then. She,picked him up and less ceremoniously than usual undressed him and put him to bed in the next room. Then she came back and stood for a few minutes gazing out of the window.
When she turned round her face was white and drawn and her eyes gleamed with that hidden fire that Jim rarely saw nowadays.
“I suppose I ought to have told you before,” she said in a low, tragic voice. “I mean, about that day at the Falcon’s Nest, after the police came. But I was afraid you’d be upset.” 1
“Upset! What about?” he asked innocently.
C*HE did not answer him directly, and stared over the ^ top of his head in a way that made what she said sound very impersonal.
“There were rijro of them—in with Mr. and Mrs. Corbett. Presently they all started to go down into the yard—I think they thought you might be hiding in the coal shed. Then one of them said something and started to come upstairs. I ran into a bedroom and watched through the crack of the door. I had some vague idea in my head what I’d do. When he got to the top he looked round, and then went into the first room. He was very quick in the way he moved, but very quiet. When he came out I saw he was going into, the opposite room. Evidently he was coming to look into all of them. The one I was in was the next one.
“There was a glass match stand on the mantel piece— one of those round things like a ball, rough on the outside to strike on, very heavy, you know. Over the end of. the bed there was a pair of men’s socks. I dropped the match stand into one of the socks and stood behind the door.
“Instead of coming straight into the room he stuck his head in first. He had hardly any hair—all cropped short, you know. The sock with the match stand in it was hanging over my shoulder. Just as I swung it, he turned his head and the match stand hit him on the temple. He fell down flat on his face like • a horse that’s been pole-axed.”
She gave a shudder and stopped. But before he had time to think of anything to say, to express his consternation, she went on abruptly:
“I turned him over. His eyes were open, staring. I undid his coat and shirt and put my hand inside. I couldn’t feel his heart beating. Then I dragged him right into the room and went out, shutting the door behind me.”
There was a moment of horrified silence. Then Jim ejaculated, “Good God!” and stood up, half turning his back on her, afraid to meet her eyes.
“P’raps he wasn’t dead after all.” he said at last. “It’s hard to tell.”
“He was dead,” Alice replied sombrely. “D’you remember me stopping outside a news agent’s shop in Southampton the next day? There was a poster there. It said: ‘Mysterious murder of police inspector at Portsdown. Disappearance of Assailant. Reward Offered.’ I nearly told you then.”
“Good God!” he said again.
FTER a time Alice began to busy herself about the little household duties that needed to be done in the evening. Jim went over to the window. He stood staring out until supper was prepared. Then they sat down facing each other across the small deal table. Neither said another word about Alice’s revelation, but it hung over them like a heavy cloud, blotting out the sunshine of life, destroying their peace and happiness.
And not merely for that evening. With the passing of the days their gloom deepened.
It was not in Jim’s case the fear of apprehension. Even if his one-time ally recognized him, he did not see what difference it would make. The loud-voiced man did not know Alice—could not know that Alice was his wife. But that he was married to a murderer, that the mother of little Jimmie, might, sooner or later—for “Murder will out”—die on the scaffold—that was the terrible, unbelievable thing, the grim reality that for days he could not completely grasp. When he did grasp it at length, his love for her turned to hate. It was of Jimmie that he was principally thinking. That she could have dared to bring Jimmie into the world with that crime on her conscience!
They began to quarrel; and it was always over Jimmie
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«that they quarrelled. He hated to see her 'touching the child, hated to have to realize that Jimmie was dependent on her, that each day the bond between themgrew -closer and that his resentment against the mother served only to separate him further from his son. He meditated a project for running away with Jimmietaking a boat across the Channel or round the coast. Somehow he thought that would be the best way of hiding his trail. He got so far one Saturday afternoon as to consult the mate of a small tramp steamer about a passage.
On his way home that evening he passed the loud-voiced man again and this time was certain that he had been seen. He ' mentioned the matter ca ually to Alice and then provocatively added:
“I ain’t going to keep on running away »from him. Next time I see him I’m going to speak. Don’ t see what difference it can make. How’s he to know anything about you?”
He picked up his son out of the cradle and perched him on his knee. Against all Alice’s regulations, he dipped his finger in a basin of sugar and rubbed it along Master Jimmie’s gums. The baby crowed gleefully and he glanced at his wife with •an expression of triumph. Something in her answering look held his gaze.
“I suppose you wouldn’t care much if he did know, would you?” she said. Her mouth drooped contemptuously.
“No, I don’t suppose I should,” he retorted in sudden unreasoning anger. (
“Neither should I,” she murmured. Hè shrugged his shoulders and she added menacingly :
“You think it’s me they want! You •think they imagine that I killed him! How silly! They’d never believe me if I told them. They’d think I was trying to shield you. They’d believe I’d confess to a crime I’d never committed to shield my husband. But they’d never believe that I’d killed a man to save another man I’d ■only met once before. The law knows so little about women.”
“Büt—’but—” he stammered. He saw in à flash the logic of what she said without being able to bring himself to acknowledge it. He gazed foolishly at her.
THE baby began to whimper forlornly and she took it up in her arms and quieted it with a few murmured words.
“I may be wrong,” she said tonelessly, “but I don’t think so. It’s only since you saw that man that I’ve thought about it. Then I remembered the newspaper pla• card. If they’d suspected a woman they’d have said so. Newspapers always make a lot of athinglike that.”
“There—there’d be something. Besides—” He dropped back in his chair as another thought occurred to him. “You wouldn’t let ’em take me—for what you did?” he gasped.
She was murmuring tothe baby, “There there! Hush!” and seemed not to hear him.
He wished he had not said that. It sounded disgustingly cowardly. And it made no difference. He knew that she would not hesitate to sacrifice him now as once she had not hesitated at anything to save him. She had but one purpose in life and he had been a necessary instrument then. He glanced at her standing at the table ironing, one eye constantly on the baby, kicking up his feet in the cradle. :She gave him a glance in returnand looked away at once, her mouth set, even while her eyes smiled at young Jimmie—maternal and implacable!
His mind went back to the loud-voiced man. v
“He saw me right enough this evening,” he reflected. “But for the sake of a measly reward, he wouldn’t.... ”
But he couldn’t be sure. Men had been known to betray their best friends for insignificant sums of money. The police might have offered a big amount too—a hundred pounds, perhaps. To some men a hundred pounds would be a fortune. He wouldn’t feel safe again ever, in the same town with the loud-voiced man.
And there was his wife, ready to betray him in defence of her motherhood! He would never any more feel safe with her. It seemed to him suddenly that he was -surrounded by enemies, his wife, the loudvoiced man and the whole police force of the country. He felt very lonely and
miserable. The weight of his wretchedness seemed as though it would crush him—as though it would never lift and allow him to be his old cheerful, happy-go-lucky self again—ever. He dropped his head into his hands.
And yet in tne back of his mind something told him insistently that Alice was right, that now it was his duty to take up the burden of Alice’s crime—not for her sake, but for the child’s. For years to come Jimmie would not be able to do without his mother. The loss of his father would matter far less.
Not that for Jimmie’s sake he should stop meekly where he was and wait for them to take him and adjudge him guilty before the world. That would be hanging a millstone round the child’s neck. He must assume the burden, but escape with it out of reach of the police. That was the only thing to do, get away. Once he was out of the country, he would be safe, for on the mere word of the loudvoiced man—they hadn’t even got his name to identify him by—they could never extradite him.
HE MUST get away. And there was no time to lose.. At this very moment the loud-voiced man might be laying information against him, unctuously telling his story to a police officer, licking his lips at the thought of the reward coming to him.
The friendly mate had mentioned to him a collier which was leaving that night for Portugal, shorthanded. The mate’s own boat did not go until Monday. That was too long to wait.
He stood up and leaned against the mantelpiece. He turned over in his mind how he should broach the matter to Alice. But while he pondered, she put down her , iron and, taking up Jimmie from the cradle, went with him into the next room to undress him and put him to bed.
As the door closed behind her, Jim the elder suddenly bent down and picked up his cap from a chair. Then with slow heavy steps he went downstairs. As he opened the street door, he heard from above the sound of Jimmie’s crying, and Alice’s crooning voice soothing him to sleep. He stood uncertainly on the threshold a moment. Then with a shrug he moved away.
Neither of them needed him. There was three hundred pounds in the savings bank—some of it had belonged to him before ever he had known Alice, but it was all in her name now. He himself had his week’s wage in his pocket—nothing more. It was enough. He would earn a few pounds on the voyage to Lisbon. But it hurt him that they were not even dependent on him for food and a roof, that his going would mean nothing to them—a relief perhaps.
He walked desolately in the dusk to the desolate waterside. But as he stood there, his mood began to change. He drew a deep breath and set back his shoulders. After all, much as he had sacrificed, he had gained something. He had regained his freedom. A load seemed to be lifted from his spirit. He became almost lighthearted and a little light-headed.
A watchman mumbled a “Good-night” in passing.
“Fine evening!” he returned briskly. “Fine night for a sail!”
Doubtless the watchman thought he was drunk. And so he was—drunk with the knowledge of his unexpected freedom.
He turned and gazed back to where the thousand lights of the town gleamed against the dark background of the hills. Somewhere there his wife was crooning over their child—her child now. But only for a few years until Jimmie was a man. Jimmie and he would meet some day along the narrow highways of the world. For Jimmie would be a rover as his father was —as every man is at heart. It was they who had most in common, Jimmie and he. They would clasp hands, man to man. He did not grudge Alice her temporary ascendancy. She had used him blindly, instinctively, for her own purposes; but in the bigger scheme of things it was ehs who was the instrument—the instrument of Destiny—not he. He almost felt sorry for her.
With a wave of his hand to the lighted town he turned and sought in the gloom of the wharves for his grimy collier.