Dead Men Tell No Tales by E. W. Hornung - HTML preview
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In the year 1858 I received a bulky packet bearing the stamp of the Argentine Republic, a realm in which, to the best of my belief, I had not a solitary acquaintance. The superscription told me nothing. In my relations with Rattray his handwriting had never come under my observation. Judge then of my feelings when the first thing I read was his signature at the foot of the last page. For five years I had been uncertain whether he was alive or dead. I had heard nothing of him from the night we parted in Kirby Hall. All I knew was that he had escaped from England and the English police; his letter gave no details of the incident. It was an astonishing letter; my breath was taken on the first close page; at the foot of it the tears were in my eyes. And all that part I must pass over without a word. I have never shown it to man or woman. It is sacred between man and man.
But the letter possessed other points of interest - of almost universal interest - to which no such scruples need apply; for it cleared up certain features of the foregoing narrative which had long been mysteries to all the world; and it gave me what I had tried in vain to fathom all these years, some explanation, or rather history, of the young Lancastrian's complicity with Joaquin Santos in the foul enterprise of the Lady Jermyn. And these passages I shall reproduce word for word; partly because of their intrinsic interest; partly for such new light as they day throw on this or that phase of the foregoing narrative; and, lastly, out of fairness to (I hope) the most gallant and most generous youth who ever slipped upon the lower slopes of Avemus.
"You wondered how I could have thrown in my lot with such a man. You may wonder still, for I never yet told living soul. I pretended I had joined him of my own free will. That was not quite the case. The facts were as follows: "In my teens (as I think you know) I was at sea. I took my second mate's certificate at twenty, and from that to twenty-four my voyages were far between and on my own account. I had given way to our hereditary passion for smuggling. I kept a 'yacht' in Morecambe Bay, and more French brandy than I knew what to do with in my cellars. It was exciting for a time, but the excitement did not last. In 1851 the gold fever broke out in Australia. I shipped to Melbourne as third mate on a barque, and I deserted for the diggings in the usual course. But I was never a successful digger. I had little luck and less patience, and I have no doubt that many a good haul has been taken out of claims previously abandoned by me; for of one or two I had the mortification of hearing while still in the Colony. I suppose I had not the temperament for the work. Dust would not do for me - I must have nuggets. So from Bendigo I drifted to the Ovens, and from the Ovens to Ballarat. But I did no more good on one field than on another, and eventually, early in 1853, I cast up in Melbourne again with the intention of shipping home in the first vessel. But there were no crews for the homeward-bounders, and while waiting for a ship my little stock of gold dust gave out. I became destitute first - then desperate. Unluckily for me, the beginning of '53 was the hey-day of Captain MelviHe, the notorious bushranger. He was a young fellow of my own age. I determined to imitate his exploits. I could make nothing out there from an honest life; rather than starve I would lead a dishonest one. I had been born with lawless tendencies; from smuggling to bushranging was an easy transition, and about the latter there seemed to be a gallantry and romantic swagger which put it on the higher plane of the two. But I was not born to be a bushranger either. I failed at the very first attempt. I was outwitted by my first victim, a thin old gentleman riding a cob at night on the Geelong road.
"'Why rob me?' said he. 'I have only ten pounds in my pocket, and the punishment will be the same as though it were ten thousand.'
"'I want your cob,' said I (for I was on foot); 'I'm a starving Jack, and as I can't get a ship I'm going to take to the bush.'
"He shrugged his shoulders.
"'To starve there?' said he. 'My friend, it is a poor sport, this bushranging. I have looked into the matter on my own account. You not only die like a dog, but you live like one too. It is not worth while. No crime is worth while under five figures, my friend. A starving Jack, eh? Instead of robbing me of ten pounds, why not join me and take ten thousand as your share of our first robbery? A sailor is the very man I want!'
"I told him that what I wanted was his cob, and that it was no use his trying to hoodwink me by pretending he was one of my sort, because I knew very well that he was not; at which he shrugged again, and slowly dismounted, after offering me his money, of which I took half. He shook his head, telling me I was very foolish, and I was coolly mounting (for he had never offered me the least resistance), with my pistols in my belt, when suddenly I heard one cocked behind me.
"'Stop!' said he. 'It's my turn! Stop, or I shoot you dead!' The tables were turned, and he had me at his mercy as completely as he had been at mine. I made up my mind to being marched to the nearest police-station. But nothing of the kind. I had misjudged my man as utterly as you misjudged him a few months later aboard the Lady Jermyn. He took me to his house on the outskirts of Melbourne, a weather-board bungalow, scantily furnished, but comfortable enough. And there he seriously repeated the proposal he had made me off-hand in the road. Only he put it a little differently. Would I go to the hulks for attempting to rob him of five pounds, or would I stay and help him commit a robbery, of which my share alone would be ten or fifteen thousand? You know which I chose. You know who this man was. I said I would join him. He made me swear it. And then he told me what his enterprise was: there is no need for me to tell you; nor indeed had it taken definite shape at this time. Suffice it that Santos had wind that big consignments of Austrailian gold were shortly to be shipped home to England; that he, like myself, had done nothing on the diggings, where he had looked to make his fortune, and out of which he meant to make it still.
"It was an extraordinary life that we led in the bungalow, I the guest, he the host, and Eva the unsuspecting hostess and innocent daughter of the house. Santos had failed on the fields, but he had succeeded in making valuable friends in Melbourne. Men of position and of influence spent their evenings on our veranda, among others the Melbourne agent for the Lady Jermyn, the likeliest vessel then lying in the harbor, and the one to which the first consignment of gold-dust would be entrusted if only a skipper could be found to replace the deserter who took you out. Santos made up his mind to find one., It took him weeks, but eventually he found Captain Harris on Bendigo, and Captain Harris was his man. More than that he was the man for the agent; and the Lady Jermyn was once more made ready for sea.
Now began the complications. Quite openly, Santos had bought the schooner Spindrift, freighted her with wool, given me the command, and vowed that he would go home in her rather than wait any longer for the Lady Jermyn. At the last moment he appeared to change his mind, and I sailed alone as many days as possible in advance of the ship, as had been intended from the first; but it went sorely against the grain when the time came. I would have given anything to have backed out of the enterprise. Honest I might be no longer; I was honestly in love with Eva Denison. Yet to have backed out would have been one way of losing her for ever. Besides, it was not the first time I had run counter to the law, I who came of a lawless stock; but it would be the first time I had deserted a comrade or broken faith with one. I would do neither. In for a penny, in for a pound.
"But before my God I never meant it to turn out as it did; though I admit and have always admitted that my moral responsibility is but little if any the less on that account. Yet I was never a consenting party to wholesale murder, whatever else I was. The night before I sailed, Santos and the captain were aboard with me till the small hours. They promised me that every soul should have every chance; that nothing but unforeseen accident could prevent the boats from making Ascension again in a matter of hours; that as long as the gig was supposed to be lost with all hands, nothing else mattered. So they promised, and that Harris meant to keep his promise I fully believe. That was not a wanton ruffian; but the other would spill blood like water, as I told you at the hall, and as no man now knows better than yourself. He was notorious even in Portuguese Africa on account of his atrocious treatment of the blacks. It was a favorite boast of his that he once poisoned a whole village; and that he himself tampered with the Lady Jermyn's boats you can take my word, for I have heard him describe how he left it to the last night, and struck the blows during the applause at the concert on the quarter-deck. He said it might have come out about the gold in the gig, during the fire. It was safer to run no risks.
"The same thing came into play aboard the schooner. Never shall I forget the horror of that voyage after Santos came aboard! I had a crew of eight hands all told, and two he brought with him in the gig. Of course they began talking about the gold; they would have their share or split when they got ashore; and there was mutiny in the air, with the steward and the quarter-master of the Lady Jermyn for ring-leaders. Santos nipped it in the bud with a vengeance! He and Harris shot every man of them dead, and two who were shot through the heart they washed and dressed and set adrift to rot in the gig with false papers! God knows how we made Madeira; we painted the old name out and a new name in, on the way; and we shipped a Portuguese crew, not a man of whom could speak English. We shipped them aboard the Duque de Mondejo's yacht Braganza; the schooner Spindrift had disappeared from the face of the waters for ever. And with the men we took in plenty of sour claret and cigarettes; and we paid them well; and the Portuguese sailor is not inquisitive under such conditions. "And now, honestly, I wished I had put a bullet through my head before joining in this murderous conspiracy; but retreat was impossible, even if I had been the man to draw back after going so far; and I had a still stronger reason for standing by the others to the bitter end. I could not leave our lady to these ruffians. On the other hand, neither could I take her from them, for (as you know) she justly regarded me as the most flagrant ruffian of them all. It was in me and through me that she was deceived, insulted, humbled, and contaminated; that she should ever have forgiven me for a moment is more than I can credit or fathom to this hour ... So there we were. She would not look at me. And I would not leave her until death removed me. Santos had been kind enough to her hitherto; he had been kind enough (I understand) to her mother before her. It was only in the execution of his plans that he showed his Napoleonic disregard for human life; and it was precisely herein that I began to fear for the girl I still dared to love. She took up an attitude as dangerous to her safety as to our own. She demanded to be set free when we came to land. Her demand was refused. God forgive me, it had no bitterer opponent than myself! And all we did was to harden her resolution; that mere child threatened us to our faces, never shall I forget the scene! You know her spirit: if we would not set her free, she would tell all when we landed. And you remember how Santos used to shrug? That was all he did then. It was enough for me who knew him. For days I never left them alone together. Night after night I watched her cabin door. And she hated me the more for never leaving her alone! I had to resign myself to that.
"The night we anchored in Falmouth Bay, thinking then of taking our gold straight to the Bank of England, as eccentric lucky diggers - that night I thought would be the last for one or other of us. He locked her in her cabin. He posted himself outside on the settee. I sat watching him across the table. Each had a hand in his pocket, each had a pistol in that hand, and there we sat, with our four eyes locked, while Harris went ashore for papers. He came back in great excitement. What with stopping at Madeira, and calms, and the very few knots we could knock out of the schooner at the best of times, we had made a seven or eight weeks' voyage of it from Ascension - where, by the way, I had arrived only a couple of days before the Lady Jermyn, though I had nearly a month's start of her. Well, Harris came back in the highest state of excitement: and well he might: the papers were full of you, and of the burning of the Lady Jermyn! "Now mark what happened. You know, of course, as well as I do; but I wonder if you can even yet realize what it was to us! Our prisoner hears that you are alive, and she turns upon Santos and tells him he is welcome to silence her, but it will do us ne good now, as you know that the ship was wilfully burned, and with what object. It is the single blow she can strike in self-defence; but a shrewder one could scarcely be imagined. She had talked to you, at the very last; and by that time she did know the truth. What more natural than that she should confide it to you? She had had time to tell you enough to hang the lot of us; and you may imagine our consternation on hearing that she had told you all she knew! From the first we were never quite sure whether to believe it or not. That the papers breathed no suspicion of foul play was neither here nor there. Scotland Yard might have seen to that. Then we read of the morbid reserve which was said to characterize all your utterances concerning the Lady Jermyn. What were we to do? What we no longer dared to do was to take our gold-dust straight to the Bank. What we did, you know.
"We ran round to Morecambe Bay, and landed the gold as we Rattrays had landed lace and brandy from time immemorial. We left Eva in charge of Jane Braithwaite, God only knows how much against my will, but we were in a corner, it was life or death with us, and to find out how much you knew was a first plain necessity. And the means we took were the only means in our power; nor shall I say more to you on that subject than I said five years ago in my poor old house. That is still the one part of the whole conspiracy of which I myself am most ashamed.
"And now it only remains for me to tell you why I have written all this to you, at such great length, so long after the event. My wife wished it. The fact is that she wants you to think better of me than I deserve; and I - yes - I confess that I should like you not to think quite as ill of me as you must have done all these years. I was villain enough, but do not think I am unpunished.
"I am an outlaw from my country. I am morally a transported felon. Only in this no-man's land am I a free man; let me but step across the border and I am worth a little fortune to the man who takes me. And we have had a hard time here, though not so hard as I deserved; and the hardest part of all ... "
But you must guess the hardest part: for the letter ended as it began, with sudden talk of his inner life, and tentative inquiry after mine. In its entirety, as I say, I have never shown it to a soul; there was just a little more that I read to my wife (who could not hear enough about his); then I folded up the letter, and even she has never seen the passages to which I allude.
And yet 1 am not one of those who hold that the previous romances of married people should be taboo between them in after life. On the contrary, much mutual amusement, of an innocent character, may be derived from a fair and free interchange upon the subject; and this is why we, in our old age (or rather in mine), find a still unfailing topic in the story of which Eva Denison was wayward heroine and Frank Rattray the nearest approach to a hero. Sometimes these reminiscences lead to an argument; for it has been the fate of my life to become attached to argumentative persons. I suppose because I myself hate arguing. On the day that I received Rattray's letter we had one of our warmest discussions. I could repeat every word of it after forty years.
"A good man does not necessarily make a good husband," I innocently remarked.
"Why do you say that?" asked my wife, who never would let a generalization pass unchallenged.
"I was thinking of Rattray," said I. "The most tolerant of judges could scarcely have described him as a good man five years ago. Yet I can see that he has made an admirable husband. On the whole, and if you can't be both, it is better to be the good husband!"
It was this point that we debated with so much ardor. My wife would take the opposite side; that is her one grave fault. And I must introduce personalities; that, of course, is among the least of mine. I compared myself with Rattray, as a husband, and (with some sincerity) to my own disparagement. I pointed out that he was an infinitely more fascinating creature, which was no hard saying, for that epithet at least I have never earned. And yet it was the word to sting my wife. "Fascinating, perhaps!" said she. "Yes, that is the very word; but - fascination is not love!"
And then I went to her, and stroked her hair (for she had hung her head in deep distress), and kissed the tears from her eyes. And I swore that her eyes were as lovely as Eva Denison's, that there seemed even more gold in her glossy brown hair, that she was even younger to look at. And at the last and craftiest compliment my own love looked at me through her tears, as though some day or other she might forgive me.
"Then why did you want to give me up to him?" said she.