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.
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 existencewith him beside
her that was assurednot 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
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?
Her husband was a tax collector.
None, he said abstractedly; at leastyesa 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
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 safehe never went twice by the same
trackafter 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.
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
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 hernot 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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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, butby some evil chancethe 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 earvery 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 fromthe door. Some one was picking the lock.
The instant the sleeping man was out of her sight she suspected him
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 himcertainly 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
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?
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?
Can you hit anything?
To be depended on?
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 oncetwice. 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
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
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