Good and Evil striving for his soul, Death clutching at his body —then it was that “Toad” Hedley found his supreme moment
AFTER his third murder, “Toad” Hedley was involved in a frenzied manhunt through the underworld of Montreal in which he played the rôle of fox to the police hounds —and successfully dodged them. A six weeks’ sojourn in a coalcellar had been followed by a panic-stricken bolt for Florida and the Everglades. The only person who expressed any feelings regarding his disappearance —if certain crack shots of the Police Force be excepted—was his wife, Bessie Brenner, whom, after an unusually thorough beating, he had left while on her way to motherhood.
In justice to Toad, it might be said that, generally, he was a homicide more as the result of the exigencies of his profession than by natural inclination. After all, if you intrude into nocturnal skeleton-key and oxyacetylene operations, automatically you invite Death to become a member of the party.
In face of the need to save himself, the Toad had never, even for one brief moment, hesitated to kill. In other words, Death and Toad Hedley had always been, in a manner of speaking, boon companions; and when the latter, one unforgettable and diluvian morning, had come to that refuge of the “Wanted,” the Ten Thousand Islands, they might even be said to have set up house together—for Death crawled, hummed, swam and clambered round him night and day.
Six feet three inches in height, fifty-three round the chest, swarthy, with deep-set dark eyes, and as hirsute as a Himalayan bear, Hedley, with his enormous mouth —the origin of his nickname—was repulsive with that repellent unattractiveness which, when regarded, attracts in the way that snakes fascinate birds and rabbits.
For twenty years following his flight he had lived the life of a hunted animal on one of those numerous islands which the silt-gorged Ouithlacouchee River, emerging
from the mangrove swamps and drowned lands of the interior, has spewed up into its widened bed.
Save that he didn’t live in a tree, he had frankly reverted to "he primitive. He bathed but did not wash, and he wore his clothes, such as they were, until they disintegrated. They were seldom replaced. Clock he had none. The rising of the sun woke him; its setting told him it was time to go to bed. It was then, his traps and lines set, silhouetted like some monstrous Caliban against the vivid orange-and-crimson sunset, he would slouch his heavy-shouldered way through the sand and tangled undergrowth to his shanty in a hollow near a spring.
It was a h-ut built of roughly-hewn logs roofed with bark and palm leaves. Its most unusual features were perhaps its windows. There were two of them, each made of eight white-glass whisky bottles set in a rough wooden frame, four below and four on top, placed neck to neck, the interstices being filled with mud. It also possessed a crooked and very shaky door. A primitive table and a three-legged stool occupied the middle of the small interior, at one end of which, fixed against the wall, stood his bed; a sort of magnified coffin filled with tamarisk branches over which were laid some raccoon pelts. A jumble of traps, lines and nets were littered
around the foot of the walls. Opposite the entrance was its builder's chef d’oeuvre; a fireplace made of pieces of rock and seashells built up in baked mud. A small shelf of unplaned wood held a tin mug, a bottle, and a book. Over this shelf and almost touching the low roof, hung a Winchester repeater.
The presence of the book—it was a Bible—partly accounts for this story.
Once every month the Toad sailed by devious ways and tortuous channels to Marco, where there was a general store from which he and the other scattered and unkempt pariahs of the Islands bought their simple supplies. They traded cocoanuts, clams and pelts for them. Old Cap. Chandler, the storekeeper, kept other things besides flour, oil and tobacco; he was an impregnable, timelock safe depository for the hideous life secrets of half a hundred desperate refugees from justice. Somehow Toad Medley’s story was not numbered among them, but the shrewd old man, who had only, he said, to look at a man’s hands and his eyes to know most things about him, soon had him sized up. In the Toad’s case, the captain’s observations had prepared him to show no surprise when one day the big islander told him that he wanted a Bible. There had been no more mention of the matter than that. One way of starting a shooting match in those parts was to ask a question.
When Hedley opened up his next lot of stores he found among them a cheap copy of the Authorized Version done up in newspaper.
AT THE end of the third year of his voluntary exile a curious change had come over Toad Hedley; it might almost have been called a transformation. The solitude and monotony of things drove his thoughts inward and he became morbidly introspective. The memory of much of his criminal past had faded away in the peace and temptationless stillness of the wilderness, and a savage hatred of what he still remembered of it took its place. Whether this was an atavistic throwback to the godliness of a certain street preacher’s wife who had rested for a brief period—unwillingly enough—in the branches of the Hedley genealogical tree, or whether it was the Spirit of God working in him, we shall never know; but two facts are indisputable: first, that Toad Hedley became religious; and, secondly, that the history of his conversion makes strange reading.
In brief, what happened was this:
Years before one Fanny Forder had contributed an extremely vivid splash of color to the sombre mosaic of the Toad’s existence. Considered by the inclined-tobe-envious connoisseurs in criminality who formed the circle of her friends to be a favorite member of the devil's home circle, she was easily the most adroit storethief in Montreal and the prettiest coco-maniac in the underworld. The inhabitants of the district she haunted knew her as “The Stiff,” in unpleasant allusion to her deathly pallor and colorless lips. Like many of her class, she was superstitious. She kept the tattered remains of a minute prayer book which had belonged to her late sister.
“You don’t have no pain if yer prays—sometimes!” young Vi Forder had told the Stiff shortly before she died in a city ward for consumptives.
Therefore it was that when Fanny stood at the foot of her dead sister’s bed in the hospital a few hours before her burial she took the opportunity of the nurse’s back being turned to pluck the shabby little book from between the rigid fingers.
That same evening, with a solicitous eye to his future if not to his end, she had offered it to the Toad as a mascot, with the not-unexpected result of getting knocked down for her pains. Being, however, one of those who stick to their guns and their men, Fanny had not ceased to impress upon her forceful lover the necessity for not neglecting anything which might make his hazardous life even a fraction safer than it was. But Toad was not by nature superstitious. Having floored her, he told her to “beat it quick!” Which Fanny did; to return to the charge next day. It went on like that for several weeks.
At last, less to please than to get rid of her, he allowed a one-eyed Chinaman to tattoo a two-inch Maltese cross on the back of his right hand. Fanny Forder’s reason for having it done was to provide a kind of spiritual mascot which should perform the onerous duties of preserving Toad Hedley from half-a-dozen different kinds of imminent trouble, ranging from a shot in the back to the place of honor on a gallows. This painful bit of work completed, the Celestial son of sin remarked, as the irascible and lowering giant threw a crushed-up five-dollar bill in his face, “Velly good for makee look see.” By which he had merely meant that, in his opinion, his handiwork was good to look upon. The Toad, however, as will be seen, translated it differently.
ONE day—curiously enough it was the anniversary of the famous tattooing—there broke over his island one of those frequent tropical storms; and Hedley, taking shelter under a cabbage palmette, was running over his extensive vocabulary of blasphemies when suddenly, after a particularly vivid flash of lightning, he had found himself stricken with blindness.
Crazy with fear and clasping his hands over his eyesockets, he had stumbled to his hut and flung himself upon the floor, whimpering unpleasantly. It was while he pressed his palms upon his aching eyeballs that he seemed to see a cross outlined in white fire blazing against a blood-red background. He remembered the Stiff's insistence on his being tattooed; seemed to hear, too, the Chinaman speaking again his assurance, “Velly good for makee look see.”
That was what the Chink had meant! He realized it all now! The cross tattooed on his hand was a charm and a shield against blindness. His recent blasphemies had offended God, and he must appease that justifiable resentment. Whereupon, for the first time in his life, the Toad prayed; prayed to a confused idea of an omnipotent Being to Whom he felt himself to be not so much a stranger as totally and disconcertingly unknown. His agony of pleading that he might be given back his sight shook his great body with its intensity.
“An’ if Yer do give it back ter me, Gawd, I’m Yer man fer keeps! I’ll stand by what I say! I’ll tell Yer so every day ! An’ glad, too ! Oh, Gawd, let me see again !” The following morning had shown him the rising sun; the following evening had found him on his knees.
Then, as time went on, queer things began to happen. He would repeat to himself over and over again for hours on end such phrases as:
“Me and You’se together in this, Gawd!”
Sometimes, as he would have told you, he heard the Almighty reply to him. When that happened he always danced.
He found the sacred volume very difficult to under-
stand in places. Such passages as, “To him who hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away,” seemed to him “trying a man pretty high.”
The Book became an obsession with him. He slept with it under his pillow and chanted verses of it aloud. He seemed to sense the nearness of a gigantic presence, some kind of angelic engineer specially appointed to control the engines of his destiny; and, seated on the shore, he would stare out to sea for hours, pondering over the Apocalyptic vision. It was astonishing how clearly he could see it all before him.
Clad in ragged trousers, tattered shirt open from neck to waist, hair and beard unkempt, his feet bare and his skin tanned deep mahogany by the sun, he would sometimes stand at the water’s edge and thunder out passages from the Scriptures until the frightened Merganser ducks, scattered from their peaceful basking on the shingle, rushed out to sea, piling up the water before their breasts as they shot down into it out of range of that tremendous voice.
In the course of time he felt that he had negotiated a sort of satisfactory treaty with the Heavenly Powers under which and in consideration of his self-redemption, his admission into the angelic companies was finally assured.
He felt the arrangement to be an equitable one.
What follows is the history of a certain twenty-four hours in the Toad’s existence.
rT'HE stillness of the air, heavy with the smell of rotting undergrowth, and the up-piled mass of inky clouds which was rapidly covering the blue heavens from sight, warned him to drag his boat higher up the beach. The passage of his fifty years had not diminished his herculean strength, and his last grunting “huppee!” was given to the sullen accompaniment of a distant peal of thunder.
Straightening his back, the sweating Colossus drew a big hand across his forehead:
‘‘I hears Yer,
Gawd; an’ I thanks Yer!”
Like Moses on Ararat, he had answered.
As he gazed around him, his hairy chest still heaving from his recent exertions, the slow, irregular sputtering of heavy rain-drops on the leaves announced the advance guard of the storm. The sea was glassy and dark almost to blackness. Away up on the top of a tree a mocking-bird was singing, its voice sounding bravely defiant in the tense, ominous stillness. Trilling a few notes and suddenly descending an octave, it laughed and cried, and, too happy to sit still, fluttered up into the air a dozen feet or more, only to descend again to the branch from which it had risen and begin its deep-noted love song afresh.
The dark eyes of the man glittered with a strange light:
“Yer right to praise the Lord, yergawdy fowl,” he said.
When morning came, rain-washed and breezy, his first thought was for his boat, for the storm had been a terrific one.
She lay safely on her side where he had left her.
Then began the usual post-hurricane scrutiny of the miniature coast line; the keen, slow, preliminary searching of the white sandy beach for such treasure-trove of value as the sea might have cast up to him—a hencoop, a barnacled timber with rusty iron bolts in it, or, if he were lucky, even a derelict rudder. There were some things which were “tradeable” although once when he
had found a lifebuoy he had thrown it far out to sea again, smiling sardonically.
There was not much those wicked little eyes missed; from the tiny new sky-patch in the outline of a distant island denoting a tree blown down during the night, to the changed curves in the brownish fringe of seaweed which marked with its long wavering line the high-water level of the last tide.
This time, about a mile away to his right and lying at the water’s edge, his gaze encountered what seemed to him to be the body of an enormous bird. It was of a golden-yellow color, and one wing seemed to be curiously crumpled and broken. The other was stretched out stiffly, its tip a-wash in the shallow, apologetic wavelets of the ebb tide. It looked to him as if it had been killed stone-dead the very moment it had spread its pinions for flight. For a full minute he stared at it, absorbed in thought; then, turning quickly, strode into
the hut and, taking down the Winchester, set out along the beach to investigate. Talking loudly to himself and every now and then tossing his long hair back from his eyes as he strode along, he might have been some zealous actor in the throes of rehearsing an extra-dramatic part.
As he drew nearer to the strange object his curiosity increased and he fell silent. This was no bird but a manmade machine!
A hundred yards aw'ay from the wrecked ’plane he stopped short, standing sidew’ays with head aslant, the rifle held across his thighs. But nothing stirred. The screaming of the black-headed gulls and the irregular breathing of the tide alone broke the silence. The safetycatch of the Winchester clicked sharply. Raising the weapon waist high, he walked nearer, circled the wreckage, and then very cautiously looked down over the edge of the fuselage.
It has already been said that Death and Toad Hedley were boon companions. It was therefore no shock to him to see some more of his cadaverous crony’s handiwork. A man and a woman this time. “He” was lying between two long bubbles of brownish silk, which, as the waves ran shoreward under them, moved slowly on the surface of the water—as if the parachute were expressing a goblin sense of humor at the expense of the shattered body of the mortal who had failed to use it; lazy, contemptuous humor that did not include the ropes twisted about the dead man’s legs nor the sinister bunch of cord wound so tightly round the propeller-base.
The instinct of self-preservation caused the Toad to make sure of the male first. Living the life of a hunted animal for twenty years makes one wary of visitors. The waxy look of the face and the unnatural twist of the body told him he had nothing to fear from the dead.
Then, resting his rifle against the side of the ’plane, he turned his attention to the woman. She was lying across one corner of the cockpit. Reaching down, he raised her head, looking at her with avid interest, his mouth half-open. The suppleness of her neck and the body-warmth which he sensed through her clothing told him she lived. To clamber on to the fuselage and draw her out from the deep-sunken seat was the work of a few moments; then, slipping down on to the sand, he
took her inert form in his arms and carried her back to the hut.
Laying her in the coffinlike sleeping box, he began slowly and with infinite care to take off the heavy flying suit and airman’s helmet. His great fingers were blind and clumsy over the later hooks and buttons.
The complicated task finished, he looked down upon his handiwork, somewhat dazed by conflicting emotions. The sight of this slim girl with the dark curly hair cut like a boy’s filled him with an indefinable sensation; a feeling in which pleasure, bewilderment, and a faint sense of danger were inextricably mixed with a desire to fall on his knees and pray God to save her life. He wanted her to open her eyes and look at him.
Taking down the bottle from the shelf above the fireplace, he poured some rum into the tin mug and, slipping a hand under her head, trickled some of it between her teeth.
With a choking gasp she pushed his hand away and the heavy lids slowly raised their black fringes till she was looking full into the Toad’s small eyes.
For some seconds the girl and the man stared at each other in silence. Towering over her, he was fascinated by her dark, flashy beauty. He wondered what he ought to do and say to keep her from being frightened.
Confidently she looked up at him, and in her great brown eyes there was no fear, but an alluring, luminous softness.
“Thank God you are not hurt, Roy!”
Her voice was infinitely tender, and her red lips curved slowly into a smile as she spoke.
The Toad pinched himself. Was he mad, or dreaming one of those vivid dreams which came to him so frequently? He was not left long in doubt. Placing her two hands on the sides of the bed and pulling herself into a sitting position with a supple grace, she swung a pair of long legs to the floor and stood upright. A second later, with a wild abandonment, half crying and half laughing, she threw her arms round his neck.
“Roy darling, I dreamed there had been an accident and that you could not come for me.”
Her warm, soft youthfulness clung to him convulsively. Whatever the state of his mind was about religion, Toad Hedley was sane enough in other ways. He saw at once that the girl was out of her mind. Temporarily, at any rate, her memory had gone, and she knew nothing of what had happened.
He wondered how she was to be kept occupied until he had buried “him,” and, when he had done so, what he was going to do with her. These and several other difficulties connected with her presence on his island were conveniently solved for the time being by her suddenly sagging limply in his arms in a dead faint.
Laying her gently back in his bunk, the Toad took a spade from behind the shaky door, and, spitting upon the palms of his hands, went out into the sunlight.
'HE young moon had set and the frogs and peepers in the marsh filled the stillness with their shrill call, forewarning of the rain that was coming up with the easterly wind. Masses of damp fog were rolling in from the sea, leaving the walls of the hut and the coarse dune grass wet with its clammy breath. It was drawing toward morning.
All night the Toad had wrestled with temptation. Ills desire for the girl had first awakened when he saw her for the second time, after he had buried the other man. Her nearness and her beauty, like devouring flames, had licked up the thin veneer of religion which introspection had spread like a film of inflammable oil on the muddy waters of his nature.
He had done his best to fly temptation. For hours he had walked furiously, blindly, round and round his four miles of island coast. But each time that he found himself before the unlocked and unlockable door of his hut his smoldering lust declared itself; leapt out upon him and turned all his body into a raging hell of torment.
Now, oppressed by a false sense of physical exhaustion, he sat with his mighty shoulders up against the walls of the shanty, cross-examining himself with savage concentration. Did he really believe — he asked himself—that what he wanted to do was wrong? Was it his honest belief that the deep-welling spring of a man’s passion was something other than a simple impulse of human nature, something evil and abhorred of the Lord Almighty? When this woman in her delirium had called him to go to her, as she had done half a dozen times that night, had he truly been glad to recall the words of the Book? Had he been comforted by the thought of offering God continence and self-denial? Was this woman a companion sent to comfort him in his lonely Eden, or was she an abomination in the eyes of the Lord?
The Toad groaned in the travail of his spirit and wrung his enormous hands between his knees until the cartilages cracked. Do what he would, it was impossible for him to forget the sound of her voice when she had called to him. After all, someone w'ould get. her some day. The blood drummed in his ears and suffused his eyes. Clenching his fists, he rose to his feet and stood rigid, listening.
Somewhere in the darkness a heron sprang into the air, its great wings fanning the cool night with measured beats that could be heard long after it had passed out of sight. As the sound died away the girl’s voice came to him again, borne on the light breeze like the intoxicating perfume of some exotic flower and making his senses reel with the overwhelming power of its sensuous magic:
“Come to me!”
God, morals, and religion vanished in a thick, choking smoke of desire. With every vein a-throb, he strode toward the door and softly opened it. She sensed his presence, and murmured something that sounded like the cooing of a dove.
Slowly he moved toward her, his hands outstretched in the semi-darkness. Suddenly his left foot slid forward out; of his control. Something cold and smooth under it rolled.
lie recoiled, swearing coarsely, but not before the snake’s fangs had buried themselves in the hollow under hi* ankle bone.
Madly, blindly, he stamped the reptile into the mud flo.or till the whole shanty shook. Then, stumbling forward, he fell heavily on the girl.
She did not cry out. As a vigorous arm tears back the curtain from a window and lets in the sunlight, the sho>ck gave her back her memory with blinding clearness. With a desperate effort she pushed the frighterazpd giant away from her, and, slipping from the bed, ran to the fireplace. Seizing a burning faggot, she held it torch-wise above her head.
“Who are you? Where am I? You beast!” she cried. Her voice, beginning in a strained whisper, rose to a scream.
The flickering light revealed the Toad, half-sitting, half-reclining against the side of the bed, his face grey, his great hands shaking horribly as they felt round his ankle.
Their eyes met, blazing with mutual hatred. A yard away from him lay the crushed body of the snake. It was a red and yellow Flaps, one of the most deadly of its species. Before she could speak again he saw it, and knew he had not half an hour to live. Choking down a whimper, he turned terror-stricken eyes on her.
“Rum!” he gasped. “In that bottle-quick !” Throwing down the burning faggot, the girl filled the tin mug till it spilled and gave it to him, dripping, her eyes wide with fear.
Tossing down its contents, he tried to rise; but already paralysis of the lower limbs had set in and he slipped back helplessly.
“More!” he gasped hoarsely. “The judgment o' Gawd has fallen on me. I’m downed fer me sins—like Lucifer wuz. ‘Take heed lest ye fall !’ th’ Book sez.”
' i TIERE was a brief silence. Then the bottle-neck clinked against the tin cup as her hand shook. Once more he emptied it at a single gulp. His mind seemed to be very clear now; ásense of untold acuteness of thought exhilarated him.
“Wot’s yer name?” The words were barked at her. Something in his gaze dominated her, in spite of all she could do to tear herself free from it. She answered him mechanically:
“D'yer run them machines for yer livin’? Ther machine wot I found yer in, I mean?”
“No, I—I dance; solo dances.” The pride was pathetically childlike.
“Dance, do yer! Wot's yer other name?” His tones were savagely eager.
Mastering an almost overpowering desire to scream and keep on screaming, she pitted lier will against his and succeeded in forcing herself to ask the question she had been longing to put:
“Where is—my friend? Is—is he hurt?”
She felt with sickening certainty that she knew' the answer.
“Be&sie wot, I arst yer!” said the Toad thickly. Something stronger than he was driving him on to know' who this girl could be. From his waist downward all feeling had left him. He felt drunk: sillily drunk. “Bessie wot else? Can’t yer speak?”
The reply rang out like a pistol shot. Then she pressed her closed fists to her mouth and shrank against the wall. The Toad wras not a pretty sight.
“Brenner! My Gawd! Bessie Brenner’s kid! The sweat was standing out on his forehead. Momentarily he closed his eyes, then:
“Where w-as yer born?”
“An’ yer mother?”
The Toad’s knotted arms, stretched out rigidly behind him, held his swaying body upright like massive timbers shoring up a tottering wall. His lips were blue and he was breathing heavily. The girl had sunk down by the side of the fire, a lissom heap of pink silk and white skin, sobbing convulsively.
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“Sisters? . . . Brothers? ...” The words were gasped out.
Dumbly the girl shook her head.
“Are yer Butcher Brenner’s—family?” Each word was born with pain and he was finding it more and more difficult to move his tongue.
She nodded quickly, shaking warm tears on to her knees.
“Oh, what can I do to help you? If only someone would come!” she cried,
I not knowing how cut off they both were.
I “Do? , . . Nothin’! . . . Listen! . . , j You’re me daughter all right . . . I’m j th’rough , handin’ in my checks in j five minutes. And I’m glad—the feller j fr’m the island to Westward’s coinin’ terday . . . goin’ ter Marco. Yer’ll go instead of me, see? There’s three hundred 'n' twanny dollars ’n that box up there. Take it with yer—it’s your’n.” His teeth were chattering.
Some faint memory she could not seize started her frightened mind scrambling over the rubbish heap of her past in search of something. A vision of her mother’s face telling her of a dreaded father whom she had hoped she would never see, rose before her.
“Get him when he’s sweet, and Toad’s good; cross him, and it’s murder,” she i had said.
i Her fear of this man was giving place to pity. Vaguely she sensed something ‘of his terrible craving to atone for being what he was. She met his effort bravely, but her full red lips fought into quivering defeat an heroic attempt to smile, and all the nightmare scene swam distorted in a mist of scalding tears.
“That feller—your feller—’im as I buried—was he yer ’usband?” The Toad’s eyes seemed to look into her very soul, demanding her acknowledgment of his right to question her.
“No—father!” The word stuck, but she got it out.
“Wot was yer both doin’ then?”
“We were just—going away.” As she uttered the words she realized that death was sometimes not the worst thing we escape from.
The Toad was looking his old companion, Death, in the eye-sockets for the last time. The tremendous vitality of the man flared up in a final effort.
“Ever pray, Bess? . . No? . . , Then yer’ve got to pray now !”
His eyes closed. Incoherently, as it seemed to her, he began a prayer. Suddenly his voice cleared.
“ . . . Lead us not into temptation. . ” The grand old words were full of triumphant meaning; as if the dying man realized that the supreme moment which was shortly to be his was coming in kindly answer to seventeen years of crazed but earnest prayer. Gallantly the failing voice went on:
“ . . . but deliver us from all evil.” The “Amen” was more a sigh than a word.
Outside, the mist which all night had been rolling in from the sea had cleared. The first rays of the rising sun shone on the sails of a small boat heading toward the island.
And through the open door a ribbon of golden light fell on the gorgeous coloring of the snake, lighting it into prismatic glory.