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The Hand on the Latch by Mary Cholmondeley

 

    There came a man across the moor,
      Fell and foul of face was he,
      He left the path by the cross-roads three,
    And stood in the shadow of the door.

    MARY COLERIDGE.

She stood at her low window with its uneven, wavering glass, and looked out across the prairie. A little snow had fallen, not much, only enough to add a sense of desolation to the boundless plain, the infinite plain outside the four cramped walls of her log hut. The log hut was like a tiny boat moored in some vast, tideless, impassable sea. The immensity of the prairie had crushed her in the earlier years of her married life; but gradually she had become accustomed to it, then reconciled to it, at last almost a part of it. The grey had come early to her thick hair, a certain fixity to the quiet courage of her eyes. Her calm, steadfast face showed that she was not given to depression, but nevertheless this evening, as she stood watching for her husband's return, for the first distant speck of him where the cart-rut vanished into the plain, a sense of impending misfortune enfolded her with the dusk. Was it because the first snow had fallen? Ah me! how much it meant. It was as significant for her as the grey pallor that falls on a sick man's face. It meant the endless winter, the greater isolation instead of the lesser, the powerlessness to move hand or foot in that all-enveloping shroud; the struggle, not for existence—with him beside her that was assured—not for luxury, she had ceased to care for it, though he had not ceased to care for her sake, but for life in any but its narrowest sense. Books, letters, human speech, through the long months these would be almost entirely denied her. The sudden remembrance of the larger needs of life flooded her soul, touching to momentary semblance of movement many things long cherished, but long since dead, like delicate sea-plants beyond high-water mark, that cannot exist between the long droughts when the spring tide does not come. She had known what she was doing when, against the wishes of her family, she of the South had married him of the North, when she left the busy city life she knew, and clave to her husband, following him over the rim of the world, as women will follow while they have feet to follow with. She was his superior in birth, cultivation, refinement, but she had never regretted what she had done. The regrets were his for her, for the poverty to which he had brought her, and to which she had not been accustomed. She had only one regret, if such a thin strip of a word as regret can be used to describe her passionate, controlled desolation, immense as the prairie, because she had no child. Perhaps if they had had children the walls of the log hut in the waste might have closed in on them less rigidly. It might have become more of a home.

Her mind had taken its old mechanical bent, the trend of long habit, as she looked out from that low window. How often she had stood there and thought “If only we might have had a child!” And now, by sheer force of habit, she thought it yet again. And then a slow rapture took possession of her whole being, mounted, mounted till she leaned against the window still faint with joy. She was to have a child after all. She had hardly dared believe it at first; but as time had gone on a vague hope quickly suppressed as unbearable had turned to suspense, suspense had alternated with the fierce despair that precedes certainty. Certainty had come at last, clear and calm and exquisite as dawn. She would have a child in the spring. What was the winter to her now! Nothing but a step towards joy. The world was all broken up and made new. The prairie, its great loneliness, its death-like solitude, were gone out of her life. She was to have a child in the spring. She had not dared to tell her husband till she was sure. But she would tell him this evening, when they were sitting together over the fire.

She stood motionless in the deepening dusk, trying to be calm. And at last in the far distance she saw a speck arise as it were out of a crease in the level earth. Her husband on his horse. How many hundreds of times she had seen him appear over the rim of the world, just as he was appearing now. She lit the lamp and put it in the window. She blew the log fire to a blaze. The firelight danced on the wooden walls, crowded with cheap pictures, and on the few precious daguerreotypes that reminded her she too had brothers and sisters and kin of her own, far away in one of those southern cities where the war was still smouldering grimly on.

Her husband took his horse round and stalled him. Presently he came in. They stood a moment together in silence as their custom was, and she leaned her forehead against his shoulder. Then she busied herself with his supper, and he sat down heavily at the little table.

“Had you any difficulty this time in getting the money together?” she asked.

Her husband was a tax collector.

“None,” he said abstractedly; “at least—yes—a little. But I have it all, and the arrears as well. It makes a large sum.”

He was evidently thinking of something else. She did not speak again. She saw something was troubling him.

“I heard news to-day at Philip's,” he said at last, “which I don't like. If I had heard in time, and if I could have borrowed a fresh horse, I would have ridden straight on to ——. But it was too late in the day to be safe, and you would have been anxious what had become of me if I had been out all night with all this money on me. I shall go to-morrow as soon as it is light.”

They discussed the business which took him to the nearest town thirty miles away, where their small savings were invested, somewhat precariously, as it turned out. What was safe, who was safe, while the invisible war between North and South smouldered on and on? It had not come near them, but as an earthquake which is engulfing cities in one part of Europe will rattle a tea-cup without oversetting it on a cottage shelf half a continent away, so the civil war had reached them at last.

“I take a hopeful view,” he said, but his face was overcast. “I don't see why we should lose the little we have. It has been hard enough to scrape it together, God knows. Promptitude and joint action with Reynolds will probably save it. But I must be prompt.” He still spoke abstractedly, as if even now he were thinking of something else.

He began to take out of the leathern satchel various bags of money.

“Shall I help you to count it?”

She often did so.

They counted the flimsy dirty paper-money together, and put it all back into the various labelled bags.

“It comes right,” he said.

Suddenly she said, “But you can't pay it into the bank to-morrow if you go to ——.”

“I know,” he said looking at her; “that is what I have been thinking of ever since I heard Philip's news. I don't like leaving you with all this money in the house; but I must.”

She was silent. She was not frightened for herself, but it was State money, not their own. She was not nervous as he was, but she had always shared with him a certain dread of those bulging bags, and had always been thankful to see him return safe—he never went twice by the same track—after paying the money in. In those wild days, when men went armed, with their lives in their hands, it was not well to be known to have large sums about you.

He looked at the bags, frowning.

“I am not afraid,” she said.

“There is no real need to be,” he said after a moment. “When I leave to-morrow morning, it will be thought I have gone to pay it in. Still——”

He did not finish his sentence, but she knew what was in his mind: the great loneliness of the prairie. Out in the white night came the short, sharp yap of a wolf.

“I am not afraid,” she said again.

“I shall be gone only one night,” he said.

“I have often been a night alone.”

“I know,” he said; “but somehow it's worse leaving you with so much money in the house.”

“No one knows it will be there.”

“That is true, except that every one knows I have been collecting large sums.”

“They will think you have gone to pay it in as usual.”

“Yes,” he said with an effort.

Then he got up, and went to his tool-box. She watched him open it, seeing him in a new light which encompassed him with even greater love. “If I tell him to-night,” she thought, “it will make him still more anxious about leaving me. Perhaps he would refuse to go, and he must go. I will not tell him till he comes back.”

The resolution not to speak was like taking hold of a piece of iron in frost. She had not known it would hurt so much. A new tremulousness, sweet and strange, passed over her—not cowardice, not fear, not of the heart nor of the mind, but a sort of emotion of the whole being.

“I will not tell him,” she said again.

Her husband got out his tools, took up a plank from the floor, and put the money into a hole beneath it, beside their small valuables, such as they were, in a biscuit tin. Then he replaced the plank, screwed it down, and she drew back a small fur mat over the place. He put away the tools and then came and stood in front of her. He was not conscious of her transfiguration, and she dropped her eyes for fear of showing it.

“I shall start early,” he said, “as soon as it is light, and I shall be back before sundown the day after to-morrow. I know it is unreasonable, but I shall go easier in my mind if you will promise me one thing.”

“What is it?”

“Not to go out of the house, or to let any one else come in on any pretence whatever, while I am away,” he said. “Bar everything, and stay inside.”

“I shan't want to go out.”

He made an impatient movement.

“Promise me that, come what will, you will let no one in during my absence,” he said.

“I promise.”

“Swear it.”

She hesitated.

“Swear it, to please me,” he said.

“I swear that I will let no one into the house, on any pretext whatever, until you come back,” she said, smiling at him.

He sighed and relapsed into his chair, and gave way to the great fatigue that possessed him.

The next morning he started soon after daybreak, but not until he had brought her in sufficient fuel to last several days. There had been more snow in the night, fine snow like salt, but not enough to make travelling difficult. She watched him ride away, and silenced the voice within her which always said as she saw him go, “You will never see him again; you have heard his voice for the last time.” Perhaps, after all, the difference between the brave and the cowardly lies in how they deal with that voice. Both hear it. She silenced it instantly. It spoke again, more insistently, “You have heard his voice, felt his kiss, for the last time. He will never see the face of his child.” She silenced it again, and went about her work.

The day passed as countless other days had passed. She was accustomed to be much alone. She had work to do, enough and to spare, within the little home which was to become a real home, please God, in the spring. The evening fell almost before she expected it. She locked and barred the doors, and closed the shutters of the windows. She made all secure, as she had done many a time before.

And then, putting aside her work, she took down the newest of her well-worn books, lately sent her from New Orleans, and began to read.

    Oui, sans doute, tout meurt: ce monde est un grand rêve,
    Et le peu de bonheur qui nous vient en chemin,
    Nous n'avons pas plus tôt ce roseau dans la main,
        Que le vent nous l'enlève.

“Que le vent nous l'enlève.” She repeated the last words to herself. Ah no! the wind could not take her happiness out of her hand.

A wandering wind had risen at nightfall, and it came softly across the snow, and tried the doors and windows as with a furtive hand. She could hear it coming as from an immense distance, passing with a sigh, returning plaintive, homeless, forlorn, to whisper round the house.

    J'ai vu sous le soleil tomber bien d'autres choses
    Que les feuilles des bois, et l'écume des eaux,
    Bien d'autres s'en aller que le parfum des roses
        Et le chant des oiseaux.

That wind meant more snow. Involuntarily she laid down her book and listened to it.

How like the sound of the wind was to wandering footsteps, slowly drawing near, creeping round the house. She could almost have fancied that a hand touched the shutters, was even now trying to raise the latch of the door.

A moment of intense silence, in which the wind seemed to hold its breath and listen without, while she listened within. And then a low, distinct knock upon the door.

She did not move.

“It is the wind,” she said to herself; but she knew it was not.

The knock came again, low, urgent, not to be denied.

She had become very cold. She had supposed fear was an emotion of the mind. She had not reckoned for this slow paralysis of the body.

She managed to creep to the window and unbar the shutter an inch or two. By pressing her face against the extreme corner of the pane she could just discern in the snowlight part of a man's figure, wrapped in a long cloak.

She barred the window once more. She was not surprised. She knew now that she had known it always. She had pretended to herself that the thief would not come; but she was expecting him when he knocked. And he stood there, outside. Presently he would be inside.

He knocked yet again, this time more loudly. What need was there for silence when for miles and miles round there was no ear to hear save that of a chance prairie dog?

She laid hold upon her courage, seeing that it was her only refuge, and went to the door.

“Who is there?” she said through a chink.

A man's voice, low and feeble, replied, “Let me in.”

“I cannot let you in.”

There was a short silence.

“I pray you, let me in,” he said again.

“I have told you I cannot. Who are you?”

“I am a soldier, wounded. I'm trying to get back to my friends at ——.” He mentioned a settlement about fifty miles north. “I have missed my way, and I can't drag myself any farther.”

Her heart swung violently between suspicion and compassion.

“I am alone in the house,” she said. “My husband is away, and he made me promise not to let any one in on any pretence whatever during his absence.”

“Then I shall die on your doorstep,” said the voice. “I can't drag myself any farther.”

There was another silence.

“It is beginning to snow,” he said.

“I know,” she said, and he heard the trouble in her voice.

“Open the door and look at me,” he said, “and see if I can do you any harm.”

She opened the door, and stood on the threshold, barring the way. He was leaning against the doorpost with his head against it, as she had often seen her husband lean when he was talking to her on a summer evening. Something in his attitude, so like her husband's, touched her strangely. Supposing he were in need, and pleaded for help in vain!

The man turned his face towards her. It was sunk and hollow, ravaged with pain, an evil-looking face. His right arm was in a sling under his tattered military cloak. He seemed to have made his final effort, and now stood staring dumbly at her.

“My husband will never forgive me,” she said, with a sort of sob.

He said nothing more. He seemed at the last point of exhaustion. Through the dim white night a few flakes of snow fell upon his harsh, repellent face and on his bandaged arm.

A sudden wave of pity carried all before it.

She beckoned him into the house, and locked and barred the door. She put him in her husband's chair by the fire. He hardly noticed anything. He seemed stupefied. He sat staring alternately at the fire and at her. When she asked him to which regiment he belonged, he did not answer.

She set before him the supper she had prepared for herself, and chafed his hard, emaciated, dirty hand till the warmth returned to it. Then he ate, with difficulty at first, then with slow voracity, all she had put before him.

A semblance of life returned gradually to him.

“I was pretty near done up when I knocked,” he said several times.

She dressed his wound, which did not appear very deep, wrapped it in fresh bandages, and readjusted his sling. He took it all as a matter of course.

She made up a little bed of rugs and blankets for him in the back kitchen. When she came back to the living-room, she found he had dragged himself to his feet, and was looking vacantly at a little picture of President Lincoln on the mantelshelf. She showed him the bed and told him to lie down on it. He obeyed her implicitly, like a child. She left him, and presently heard him cast himself down. A few minutes later she went to the door and listened. His heavy, regular breathing told her he was asleep.

She went back to the kitchen, and sat down by the fire.

Was he really asleep? Was it all feigned, the wound, the story, the exhaustion? Had she been trapped? Oh! what had she done? What had she done?

She seemed like two people. One self, silent, alert, experienced, fearless, knew that she had allowed herself to be deluded, in spite of being warned; knew that her feelings had been played upon, made use of, not even dexterously made use of; knew that she had disobeyed her husband, broken her solemn oath to him, plunged him with herself into disgrace if the money were stolen. And in the eyes of that self it was already stolen. It was still under the plank beneath her feet, but it was already stolen.

The other self, tremulous, inconsequent, full of irresistible tenderness for suffering and weakness even in its uncouthest garb, said incessantly, “I could do no less. If I die for it, still I could do no less. Somebody brought him into the world. Some woman cried for joy and anguish when he was born. He would have died if I had not taken him in. I could do no less.”

Through the long hours she sat by the fire, unable to reconcile herself to going upstairs to her own room and to bed.

Once she got up and noiselessly took down her husband's revolver from the mantelshelf, and examined it. He had taken its fellow with him, and apparently, contrary to his custom, he had taken the powder-flask with him too, for it was gone from its nail. The revolvers were always kept loaded, but—by some evil chance—the one that remained was unloaded. She could have sworn she had seen her husband load it two days ago. Why was this numbness creeping over her again? She got out powder and bullets from a small store she had of her own, loaded and primed it, and laid it on the table beside her.

The night had become very still. Her hearing seemed to reach out till she felt she could have heard a coyote move in its hole miles away. The log fire creaked and shifted. The tall clock in the corner ticked, catching its chain now and then as its manner was. The wooden walls shrunk and groaned a little. The small home-like sounds only accentuated the enormous silence without. Suddenly in the midst of them a real sound fell upon her ear—very low, but different, not like the fragmentary inadvertent murmur of the hut; a small, purposeful, stealthy, sound, aware of itself. She listened, as she had listened before, without moving. It was not louder than the whittling of a mouse behind the wainscot, hardly louder than the scraping of a mole's thin hand in the soil. It continued. Then it stopped. It was only her foolish fancy after all. There it was again. Where did it come from?

The man in the next room?

She took up the lamp and crept down the narrow passage to the door of the back kitchen. His loud, even breathing sounded distinctly through the crannies of the ill-fitting door. Surely it was overloud. She listened to it. She could hear nothing else. Was his breathing a pretence? She opened the door noiselessly, and went in, shading the light with her hand.

She bent over the sleeping man. At the first glance her heart sank, for he had not taken off his boots. But as she looked hard at him her suspicions died within her. He lay on his back with his coarse, emaciated face towards her, his mouth open, showing his broken teeth. The sleep of utter exhaustion was upon him. She could have killed him as he lay. He was not acting. He was really asleep.

She crept out of the room again, leaving the door ajar, and went back to the kitchen.

Hardly had she sat down when she heard the sound again. It was too faint to reach her except when she was in the kitchen. She knew now where it came from—the door. Some one was picking the lock.

The instant the sleeping man was out of her sight she suspected him again.

Was he really asleep after all? He had not taken off his boots. When she came back from making his bed she had found him standing by the mantelshelf. Had he unloaded the pistol in her absence? Would he presently get up, and open the door to his confederates?

Her mind rose clear and cold and unflinching. She took up the pistol, and then laid it down again. She wanted a more noiseless weapon. She got out her husband's great clasp-knife from the open tool-box, took the lamp, and crept back to the man's bedside. She should be able to kill him—certainly she should be able to kill him; and then she should have the pistol for the other one.

But he still slept heavily. When she saw him again, again her suspicions fell from her. She knew he was asleep.

She shook him by the shoulder, noiselessly, but with increasing violence, until he opened his eyes with a groan. Then only she remembered that she was shaking his wounded arm. He saw the knife in her hand, and raised his left arm as if to ward off the blow.

“Listen,” she whispered, close to his ear. “Don't speak. There is a man trying to break into the house. You must get up and help me.”

He stared at her, vaguely at first, but with growing intelligence. The food and sleep had restored him somewhat to himself. He sat up on the couch.

“Take off my boots,” he whispered; “I tried, and could not.”

Her last suspicion of him vanished. She cut the laces with her knife, and dragged his boots off. They stuck to his feet, and bits of the woollen socks came off with them. They had evidently not been taken off for weeks. While she did it, he whispered, “Why should any one be wanting to break in? There's nothing here to take.”

“Yes, there is,” she said. “There's a lot of money.”

“Good Lord! Where?”

“Under the floor in the kitchen.”

“Then it's the kitchen they'll make for. You bet they know where the money is, if they know it's here. Are there many of 'em?”

“I don't know.”

“Well, we shall know soon enough,” said the man. He had become alert, keen. “Have you any pistols?”

“Yes, one.”

“Fetch it, but don't make a sound, mind.”

She stole away, and returned with the pistol. She would have put it into his hand, but he pushed it away.

“It's no use to me,” he said, “with my arm in a sling. I will see what I can do with my left hand and the knife. Can you shoot?”

“Yes.”

“Can you hit anything?”

“Yes.”

“To be depended on?”

“Yes.”

“Well, it's darned lucky. How long will that door hold?”

They were both in the little passage by now, pressed close together, listening to the furtive pick, pick, of some one at the lock.

“I don't think it will hold more than a minute.”

“Now, look here,” he said, “I shall go and stand at the foot of the stair, and knife the second man, if there is a second. The first man I'll leave to you. There's a bit of light outside from the snow. He'll let in enough light to see him by as he opens the door. Don't wait. Fire at him as he comes in, and don't stop; go on firing at him till he drops. You've got six bullets. Don't you make any mistake and shoot me. I've had enough of that already. Now, you look carefully where I'm going to stand and when I'm there you put out the lamp.”

He spoke to her as a man does to his comrade.

That she could be frightened did not seem to enter his calculations. He moved with cat-like stealth to the foot of the tiny staircase, and flattened himself against the wall. Then he stretched his left arm once or twice as if to make sure of it, licked the haft of the knife, and nodded at her.

She instantly put out the lamp.

All was dark save for a faint thread of light which outlined the door. Across the thread something moved once—twice. The sound of picking ceased. Then another sound succeeded it, a new one, unlike the last, as if something was being gently prized open, wrenched.

“The bar will hold,” she said to herself; and then remembered for the first time that the rung into which the bar slid had been loose these many days. It was giving now.

It had given!

The door opened silently, and a man came in.

For a moment she saw him clear with the accomplice snowlight behind him. She did not hesitate. She shot once and again. He fell, and struggled violently up, and she shot again. He fell, and dragged himself to his knees, and she shot again. Then he sank gently and slowly down, as if tired, with his face against the wall, and moved no more.

The man on the stairs rushed out and looked through the open door.

“By G——! he was single-handed,” he said.

Then he stooped over the prostrate man, and turned him over on his back.

“Dead!” he said, chuckling. “Well done, missus! Stone dead!”

He was masked.

The dirty left hand tore the mask callously off the grey face.

The woman had drawn near, and looked over his shoulder.

“Do you know him?” said the man.

For a moment she did not answer, and the pistol which had done its work so well dropped noisily out of her palsied hand.

“He is a stranger to me,” she said, looking fixedly at her husband's fading face.

 
 
 

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