The Private Account Book
Fate gave him every card in his hand save one— and that one was held by Conscience
THE Goddess of Chance has strange and varied methods for helping man, and undoubtedly she chose a queer way of aiding young James Bevan at the moment when he paused on the verge of eternity.
Bevan was seated alone in his Bangkok office on a Saturday evening. On a pedestal behind him there reposed the company’s safe of which he was in charge. By rights, according to his cash balance book, that safe should have contained the sum of five hundred iicals as his balance for the end of the month. Instead, it held nothing but his revolver, a few miscellaneous deeds, and a little private account-book all his own.
The horse-racing at the Bangkok Sports Club was young Bevan’s trouble. It fascinated him to such an extent that firstly he had run through the whole of his own money, then, not content with that, he had meddled with some of the company’s cash. Losing again, in a wild effort to recoup he had plunged even heavier, with lamentable results. If only “Sunstar” had won this afternoon! “Sunstar,” however, had badly failed, and now, behold, on Monday the monthly accounts would be inspected bv the manager, and the world would come crashing about his ears.
The manager, though kindly, was counted by all to be a judge of men. How could he, Bevan, face him before the coming disgrace? Then there was Joan, waiting in distant England for him to make good. “Make good?” Ye gods!
He thought of the revolver in the safe; that would provide an easy way out. But should he first destroy the little account-book in which, being somewhat of a methodical turn of mind, he had jotted down his gains and losses at the race-course? The book would tell of losses far heavier than his own wages could have borne, and provide ample proof of the extent to which a man can make an idiot of himself.
No—Bevan smiled grimly—he would let the book remain where it was, so that it might serve as an awful warning to certain other young fools in the firm who were inclined to gamble their lives away.
He rose to his feet and approached the safe, which was of an old-fashioned variety, having no combination but only a key. He felt in his pocket for the key, then paused; it is hard not to pause when on the threshold of another world.
Suddenly a voice sounded behind him; it was a hissing, rasping voice, tense with suppressed emotion. “Hands up!” said the voice.
Bevan whirled. A man was standing at the other end of the room, covering him with a small automatic pistol. The newcomer was a white man, small, meagre, with furtive, shifty eyes, and Bevan’s two years’ experience of Siam told him at once that here was a beachcomber who, tired of loafing, had at last nerved himself to be really bad.
Bevan let the key slide through his fingers into the pocket again, then raised both arms above his head.
“Now put ’em down and open that safe,” the man rasped after a watchful pause.
For answer Bevan merely grinned and made no effort to obey. He felt strangely cool in this crisis, and for the moment the grim humor of the situation appealed.
The thief swallowed hard. “No heroics from you, see? Open that safe,
I tell you. If you don’t,
Bevan narrowed his eyes. The thief was actually threatening to shoot him. Let him shoot! He,
Bevan, had got to die anyhow, and would it
not be better to die by a ruffian’s bullet than by his own? At least the crime of suicide would thus be saved him. The thoughts went like summer lightning through his brain, accompanied by a sense of amazement that he should now feel so callous of his own existence.
Then—“Go to hell,” said Bevan suddenly.
The pistol roared, but the thief was evidently unaccustomed to the use of firearms, for the weapon kicked high and sent the bullet to Bevan’s shoulder.
The shock and pain of the wound knocked him down.
He lay in semi-consciousness, only dimly aware of the man fumbling in his clothes. He heard a grunt of relief as his assailant touched the cold key, and a moment later the hinges of the safe swing open.
The faint rustle of the deeds inside came to his ears, and then young James Bevan heard no more.
BEVAN opened his eyes and
groaned. People were pottering about. A doctor’s face looked at him, smiled and vanished. His manager’s wife swam into his ken. She spoke kindly to him, gave him something to drink, then flitted out of the room. Soon the events of the evening returned to him, and he slowly turned his head to take in his surroundings. He saw that he was in the spare room of his manager’s bungalow, which was situated within a hundred yards of the company’s office.
Presently the manager himself entered and walked toward the bed.
“Better, old chap?”
Bevan nodded. He found difficulty in speaking, for his tongue and lips were dry. Somehow the keen, kindly gaze of his boss hurt more than the stinging flame in his shoulder.
“Doctor says you’re doing famously, and in a few days’ time you’ll be up and about, young feller. Meanwhile, my wife’ll look after you. She’s good at that kind of thing.”
No trace of suspicion sounded in the voice, and Bevan braced himself to speak.
“How did I get here?” he asked.
“I heard the shot and ran like the dickens overt the office, wondering what was on. Then I found you lying on the floor, the safe open, and everything in it gone.”
“Everything in it gone!” Bevan licked his dry lips and repeated the words dazedly.
“Yes,” resumed the manager, “money, deeds, the whole confounded lot had been taken by the thief. And the scoundrel made a clean getaway, so it seems, for none of the watchmen saw him. Still . . . ” the speaker turned from the bed, “I’ll leave you now. Try and get some sleep. You can tell me all that happened later. “So long, old chap.”
The manager vanished. But young Bevan did not sleep; instead, he stared up at the white ceiling above him. The thief had taken revolver, deeds and the racing account-book. In his desperate haste, and hampered by the dusk, the man must have snatched at everything in the safe, and fled, intent on reaching some place where he could examine his booty at leisure.
What would the thief then do? He would suspect the truth, be certain of it, thought Bevan feverishly. The lack of money in the safe, together with the tell-tale account-book, would set the villain thinking. Both of them, therefore, now had a ghastly hold over the other. He, Bevan, was the only man who could identify the thief, while the latter alone was aware of the disappearance of the cash. Such being the case, both their interests lay in neither betraying the other.
Bevan’s mind was made up and when, some hours later, the manager returned, accompanied by a police officer, to them he told his story. Being behindhand in his accounts, he had resolved to work on the Saturday evening, for then the office would be quiet and empty. Along about dusk a Chinaman had appeared, threatened him with a pistol, and ordered him to open the safe. He had refused, whereupon the Chink had fired, and the rest of the story his hearers already knew.
The officer took notes, and the pair went out talking. Left alone, Bevan groaned and turned his head to the
JAMES BEVAN mended slowly, for, though the wound was not serious, his brain would not rest. The knowledge that he was first a thief, then secondly, a liar, haunted him. But a worse ordeal soon came upon him. The story had gone the rounds of Bangkok, and had not lost color in the telling. Bevan had defended the
safe under his care at the risk of his life; Bevan was a hero!
Women brought flowers to his bedside, men books. The women said: “But how splendid of you, Mr. Bevan!” The men said: “Jove, you’ve got guts, young feller. That damned Chinaman ...”
And Bevan felt the veriest cur in all the land. On many occasions he was prompted to confess the whole miserable business to his manager, but the very praise showered upon him made matters so much more difficult. And, worst of all, Joan had come to hear of the matter, for some young ass in Bangkok who had known her at home had written to her a weird and wonderful account of that fateful Saturday night.
“I am so proud of my man.” Thus ran the letter she sent to him on receiving the news. Horror piled upon horror during his long period of convalescence.
When he was cured, Bevan wras promoted to a better post in the office, at a higher rate of pay. Once back at work again, one course was clear to him; if he could not make good by confessing, he could at least throw himself heart and soul into the business. Like one possessed he flung the whole of his energies into the daily tasks of the office. He eschewed games, racing especially, and—he saved. In a few months he had put by out of his wages a sum equivalent to the amount of money he had stolen from the company. This sum he then gave anonymously to a hospital, for he could hardly return it to the company without either falsifying the accounts or giving away the secret.
After twelve months of continuous hard work, his manager, pleased by his labors, sent him up-country to open up a trading store in one of the largest native towns of the north. The store was for the purpose of selling tobacco, tinned foods, and cheap finery to the inhabitants of the surrounding country, and Bevan’s instructions were clear. He was to stay in the post for some six months, at the end of which time, if the business were running smoothly, he was to hand over the management to a trustworthy native clerk and then return to Bangkok.
Bevan boarded the train for the north, and four days later he was comfortably installed in his new quarters,
which had been prepared for him beforehand. His sleeping and living rooms were built above the store, and the whole structure erected in a pleasant compound situated at one end of the town, The town itself stretched along one bank of a mighty, jungle-fringed river that ran clear and smooth opposite Bevan’s compound, though a hundred yards below the compound were a series of rapids. These rapids, so the natives told him, were negotiable by boats at all times save in the rainy season, when the river swelled into flood and the rapids became roaring whirlpools of death.
In this quiet haven, Bevan, being the only white man in the locality, concentrated fiercely upon his work in order to seek refuge from the thoughts that constantly haunted him. As the months passed by, however, and the time for his return to Bangkok drew nearer, he became more and more uneasy, in spite of the fact that the new business was flourishing.
In reality, life and power stretched ahead of him. He had saved money rapidly since he had been alone in the wilds; Joan would soon be able to come out East and marry him; moreover, various of his Bangkok friends had written to him recently, stating that his manager was likely to retire shortly and that he, Bevan, had been mentioned as likely to take the boss’s place. Honor and success beckoned, yet for him they held no promise whatever. He was a thief, a liar and a cad, unworthy of the slightest happiness in life.
Finally, when only a fortnight remained before he left the post, a sense of foreboding enveloped him and kept him awake till far into the night. Perhaps it was the steady rain now falling on the roof, or the sullen roar of the waterfall below the compound; whatever the cause, Bevan tossed restlessly on his bed, till round about three in the morning the sound of a distant shot echoed through the pouring darkness. Vague, confused shouting followed, then silence.
Bevan remained awake till dawn, and when his boy brought in the early cup of tea he heard the news. A rich Chinaman had been shot dead in the upper end of the town by a thief who, after taking some valuables, had made good his escape. One of the Chinaman’s
household had obtained a fleeting glimpse of the robber, and had sworn that the thief was a white man.
THE tidings sent Bevan cold all over. A white man!
Some strange, nameless instinct told him that his own assailant and that of the Chinaman were one and the same. The fellow had, in all probability, left Bangkok long ago, to drift from town to town up-country, living a precarious existence and blasting white prestige. Bevan had heard tales of such wanderers before.
What a fool, a bungling fool, the man was! Evidently surprised by the Chinaman, he had shot and run, and now he was a murderer. Where, Bevan asked himself anxiously, would he be hiding? Probably in the jungle behind the town, was the answer that seemed most likely. The thief would remain concealed in the forest wilderness till the police search had worn itself out, then take the nearest road to the border. But the rainy season had broken, and in the wet weather the man could not stay hidden for long; he would die of leeches and malaria, even had he a plentiful stock of food.
No, mused Bevan wretchedly, the fellow was bound to be caught before the week was out, and then what would follow?
He spent two days of sheer misery, and on the third night after the murder, as he lay awake as usual, he heard the very slightest of sounds come from the store below his bedroom. With his heart thumping, he slid out of bed, grasped an electric torch and the revolver he had purchased to replace the one stolen, and crept downstairs in absolute silence.
Arrived at the bottom, he beheld a dark form, with a candle in its hand, bending over a large packing-case. Being unaware that he, Bevan, was the owner of the building, the thief had evidently broken into the store in a desperate effort to obtain food.
Bevan stood irresolute, and made no effort to switch on his torch. Should he sneak upstairs again and let the villain go free? That, perhaps, would be the best way out of the difficulty.
The thief himself gave the answer, for, as if suddenly Continued on page 54
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conscious of the presence of another human being, he swung round from the packing-case.
Bevan was forced to act; he switched the torch full on to the man’s face and leveled his revolver;
“Hands up!” he said sharply, thus reversing in grim fashion the position of their former meeting.
The thief, taken utterly by surprise and blinded by the light, was powerless; dropping the candle, he raised both arms above his head and blinked in the glare.
Bevan played his torch over the figure. A bulge in the right side-pocket meant that a pistol or revolver lay therein. This was awkward, yet how was he to obtain possession of the weapon? If ordered to throw it down, the man, being desperate, would probably take the chance of a shot. Should he, Bevan, approach and himself take the weapon from the pocket? No; that would mean coming within reaching distance of his enemy, who might grab at his wrist. In fiction gunmen were disarmed with lightning rapidity; in reality the accomplishment of this seemed much more difficult.
After a pregnant pause Bevan arrived at a decision. From the darkness behind the rays of his torch he spoke quietly:
“You are to come up with me to my rooms over the store,” he told his captive. “I will follow you, and remember, keep your arms well above your head. One movement of them, and I shoot.”
He edged sideways, keeping his features in the shadow and covering the thief with both torch and revolver. The thief walked up the stairs, Bevan a few steps behind him. When half-way up, Bevan nerved himself for effort. Quietly placing his revolver on a step, with the hand thus freed he made a dive for the pocket at the side of the man in front of him. A moment later he breathed a sigh of relief, for he now had possession of a second revolver, and one glance at it told him that here was the very weapon stolen from the company’s safe.
They reached the living-room above. The thief was ordered to sit down at a table and lower his arms upon it. Bevan lit an oil-lamp and light flooded the whole room. For the first time the murderer saw his captor’s face:
“You!” said he.
Bevan sat down in a chair at the opposite side of the table, and both men stared at one another, trying to read their respective thoughts. In the room mosquitoes shrilled in thin, whining vibrations; outside the building a sickly moon gleamed and the sullen waterfalls roared; time stood still in the tenseness of that meeting.
The thief was the first to speak. “Well?” he muttered. “What’s the game? What are you going to do?”
Bevan licked his dry lips. What was he going to do? He opened his mouth to frame some sort of reply, but no words came, and the other saw his obvious discomfiture.
“Funny,” said the latter after a pause. “’Funny now, there being no money in that safe, and you so keen to defend it. Funny, I call it.”
The speaker’s white face, evil, vicious, was full of low cunning, and Bevan strove desperately to force his brain to think coherently. He had only to shout loud enough to bring his servants, who lived in a small house at the back of the compound, upon the scene. They could then be sent to the gendarmerie station at the other end of the town, and within half-anhour his companion would be in chains.
By all rights the police should be sent for. True, the wretch had unwittingly saved him from utter disgrace, but now an innocent Chinaman had been killed, and justice must run its course.
Yet where was that private accountbook? Probably concealed on the man’s person, he thought, for the fellow would
be crafty enough to realize its possible value. Even had he thrown the book away, he would still swear on oath at his trial that, in the case of the first offence, no money had been in the safe. The judges would scarcely believe him, of course, but the man would be telling the truth, and truth, mused Bevan anxiously, had a habit of sticking.
Should he let the man go in return for the possible surrender of the accountbook? No, for in that case blackmail would constantly haunt his dreams.
Then, suddenly, the awful way-out of the situation flashed upon him. He would shoot the thief dead where he sat. Then the man’s pockets could be thoroughly searched. If the proof were found, it could be destroyed. If, after all, it had been thrown away long ago, no one on earth would know where it was, while the thief’s own lips would be locked for ever.
Bevan tried to steel himself to the resolve. The man was a dangerous criminal, deserving of death, fated in any case to death should the police be called in. He would, therefore, shoot and inform the gendarmes that he had fired the weapon in self-defence.
Bevan drew a deep breath, and leveled his revolver, though even as he did so he knew the movement to be hopeless. He could not bring himself to slay a man in cold blood.
The thief, however, saw only a strange glint come into his captor’s eyes, and the significance of the raised weapon. For a moment death literally stared him in the face, and, throwing discretion to the winds, he sprang to his feet. In one clean bound he reached the railings of the front verandah, over which he leapt. He landed in the compound unhurt and, seized now with blind panic, began running toward the great river that rolled at the foot of the premises. A chance dug-out happened to be moored to a post sunk in the bank, and into this he jumped. Casting off, the thief paddled desperately across the river in the hope of gaining the safety of the jungle that fringed the opposite bank.
Bevan found himself tearing down the stairs in pursuit. In doing so, no definite object was in his mind; he simply ran after the fugitive as if someone else were directing his actions. He, also, arrived at the river-bank, over which the cold moon was faintly gleaming. The thief was by now in mid-stream, but the current was beginning to seize the frail craft and whirl it straight toward the maw of the rapids.
“Back, you fool!” Bevan’s words were tense and hoarse. Now that death actually loomed gigantic, he almost wished the murderer to live.
But the warning was too late. The dugout crashed against a rock, and a moment later the craft and its occupant were swept into the depths of the tumbling, boiling waterfalls.
Bevan reeled back to the bungalow. There, he sank his head into his arms. By a miracle he was saved again, for even should the body be discovered, the account-book would be torn and sodden out of all recognition. A hysterical laugh trembled on his lips, then choked in his throat. Four words had come to him out of the distant past. Where had he heard, or read, those words? Perhaps in his childhood, yet he remembered them now so clearly. The words were: “God is not mocked.”
'THE following morning he reported part of the previous night’s occurrences to the gendarmes, who, after a few hours search, found the body two miles below the rapids. The corpse, so they told him later in the day, had been stripped well-nigh naked by the force of the water, and no marks of indentification could be discovered. Bevan was saved indeed.
A week later, having turned over the
trading-post to a native clerk, he boarded the south-bound train for Bangkok. Every thrum of the wheels brought him nearer to what should have been happiness. Common gossip stated that he would soon be the manager of his great firm; he had the love of a good girl, whom he would shortly be in a position to marry; prestige and honor held out both hands to him, yet still his soul was in the depths. He knew the truth about himself. He knew that never would he have sent for the police to arrest the murderer. He would not have shot the man in cold blood, thank Heaven, but in his heart of hearts he was certain that the interview would have ended by letting the villain go free. Then Fate had stepped in a second time and aided him, yet he, James Bevan, had done nothing to deserve such help.
He stared out of the window at the country sliding past. On either side of the railway line vast fields of paddyland stretched toward the horizon; the rice crop promised to be good this year, and the long green stalks bowed in stately furrows under the soft caresses of the wind. White egrets flew over the waving panorama. Now and again Siamese villages, with naked brown children and meek water buffaloes, went past. Sometimes great crags of rock lowered up from the plains, resembling huge volcanoes rising up from a sea of green. Beauty was in the world, yet James Bevan saw none of it. He had locked the doors on beauty long ago.
He shifted restlessly in the carriage. Since he had made those early slips at the race-course, life had been sheer hell. In spite of fame, honor, a wife and children, life would continue to be hell, and all because his possessions would be un-
deserved. Though men looked up to him, he looked down upon himself. He, and he only, knew his own despicable soul.
On reaching Bangkok he went straight to the manager. He would free himself from this hell at whatever cost. Joan would suffer, of course, but would it not be better for her in the end? To live with a man who was secretly a cad could not bring happiness to any woman.
He found the manager alone. The latter greeted him affectionately, but Bevan cut him short.
“I’ve something to tell you, Sir.”
And then he related the whole, sickening story from the beginning to the end. He spared himself nothing; he gave no excuses and merely stated facts, and when he had finished he stared with unseeing eyes before him.
The manager, who had not said one word during the tale, coughed. “I’m glad you told me, Bevan,” said he. “Otherwise I shouldn’t have made you manager in my place, as I’m going to do now.”
The boss unlocked a drawer in his desk. Be it remembered, he was accounted by all to be a judge of men; moreover, he was gifted with a certain amount of imagination.
He took an object out of the drawer and held it up. “By the way,” he continued, “I told you a lie, too, on that Saturday evening, for I thought something queer was in the wind. You were a very worried man about that time, you know. Well— in actual fact, Bevan, the thief only took your revolver. Now is this any good to you?”
And he handed James Bevan a private account-book.