In the Silence of the Sleep-Time
In the Silence of the Sleep-Time.
By ETHEL TURNER.
SOMETHING waked her—the oppression of the hot summer night, perhaps—perhaps a mosquito within the nets, circling around her face till the faint breath of its wings could actually be felt.
She sat up in bed, an instinct of something wrong turning her hot in the darkness. The next second a hand lighted a candle with a silent match and surrounded it with a large, open book to cut oft most of its light. In the faint gleam left, she saw her husband, partially dressed and busy with something in his hand.
"What is it?" she said in terror.
He took a step te the bedside—put his hand over her mouth.
"H'sh—don't move—don't speak," he whispered. "Someone has broken in—I'm going down."
"Elsie!" she gasped, leaping up.
He forced her back on the bed.
"He won't go near her—do you hear?—be quiet! He is in the dining-room; it is the silver he wants, of course."
She flung her arms round him, clung to him.
"Let him have it; what do I care for hateful silver? He will have a revolver, too; he will shoot you." Her clinging became frenzied. "Let him have everything we've got, only stay here, stay here."
It was quite a strange face that was bent over her in the faint candlelight; not in the least like the good-humoured, light-hearted husband she knew. He was almost rigid with anger.
"Let go," he said. "Stay there and be quiet! There is no danger to me at all—unless you make it by letting him hear us. Let go—do you hear?"
He flung her off, then stooped and gave her a desperately hurried kiss.
"Don't be such a miserable little coward, Laura," he said.
The next second he had moved noiselessly from the door, his revolver held in a hand hanging motionless but tense by his side.
She moaned beneath her breath; trembled till all the lace canopy of the bed was a-quiver. Obey and lie still! How could she? She crept up and flung round her her dressing-gown, that lay ready for the visits she sometimes paid to her children in the night.
Her children! The little boys had just developed whooping-cough, and were sleeping in a room opening out of her own, where she could hear their slightest movement. But the one little girl who was delicate had been put to bed temporarily in the downstairs day-nursery, until she could be sent away from the infection; and in the servants' sitting-room, which opened into it, a nurse was sleeping on a sofa, to be near if she needed anything.
What if the man should pass the nursery—if a shot should be fired there!
She crept on to the landing—peered downward into the frightful darkness.
Her brain was bursting with distorted memories of the newspaper reports and the neighbours' excited tales. For some time this retired suburb, with its big houses and stores of silver and jewellery, had been the hunting-ground of a gang of clever and desperate burglars. They had got away on no less than four occasions with their booty intact. They had recklessly injured property, struck senseless a gardener who had obstructed them, and, last of all, had gagged and tied up a terrified girl who was flying from her room to give the alarm. Not a householder but slept with a revolver under bis pillow, and a grim determination not to be niggardly in using it.
For a couple of weeks now, however, all had been quiet, and the talk of engaging a night watchman came to nothing. The one constable who, for a short time, had seen nightly visions of bis stripe, became dull of eye once more, and kept only a resigned and mechanical vigilance over the shadowy houses that lay in their spacious gardens well back from the road.
Laura clung to the banister-rail, every nerve astretch. The silence was frightful—a hot, brooding horror, that only by biting her lips could she keep from tearing with a wild shriek.
Where was her husband? Creeping, creeping through the black hall to the dining-room, and perhaps a second shadow creeping after him from the smoking-room.
She must shriek—shriek till the darkness parted and showed her starting eyes what was going on.
The very house seemed to shiver—to rock on its foundation. The feltlike blackness cracked about her head, then floated here and there in choking masses, disintegrated from the great body of darkness by the explosion.
She was on her knees now, clinging to the rails like a maniac drowning at sea. Jim was dead. A gang of men—they had all shot together. Jim was dead!
She forced her body down the staircase; her legs utterly refused to support her, but by clinging to the rails she huddled herself along that she might go to him.
Then the yellow light of the hall gas flashed in her eyes. Jim had lighted it himself, and was standing under it—right under the orange-coloured glass shade. Jim, in his tennis flannels, unhurt, with the revolver that he had transferred to his left hand still smoking.
Her heart rocked with a joy that was more fiercely painful than the terror of a moment back.
" 'S'allright, Laura," be said, iu a thick voice, and hardly looking at her.
His jaw seemed to have widened; you saw his teeth.
She gave a little, trembling, shuddering cry.
"" 'S'allright," he muttered.
She looked where he looked and saw a big, prostrate figure—a blot of ugliness in the yellow harmony of her beautiful hall. A dark stream coloured the white bearskin rug on which he had dropped. Beside him lay some things fallen from his pocket—a silver cream-jug she had used at her merry afternoon tea-table not eight hours ago; the little boys' heavy christening-mugs; a massive knife-rest. All splashed with red.
The man began to groan heavily. He rolled over on to his back.
A shudder ran over the one who had fired—all the colour dropped out of his face. He had the look of physical sickness—absolute nausea, that Laura had seen him wear once before, when he had been forced to cut off the head of a fowl that a dog had half killed.
He lurched rather than walked over to the telephone and gave the handle a turn.
By this time the dishevelled and terrified heads of the servants were peeping through doorways; they framed his words for him, each one of them—police-station, of course. But he said "99," and that was, as they all knew, the doctor's number.
"Charlton speaking," he said. "Hurry down. Frank, old man, and bring the right remedies. I've s—shot a man."
Then police-station. They were evidently sleepy-headed down there. He had to repeat the message. "A burglar—yes—I've got him in my hall. I shot him. Bring an ambulance.
On the bearskin, the enemy of society, one of the vermin that men feel themselves at liberty to shoot down like dogs, lay and listened and writhed and groaned with pain and futile wrath.
Chariton saw that his head was lower than his chest, and pushed a cushion beneath.
"Would you like a drink?" he said.
"No, curse you!" growled the man, and looked him in the face.
"Why, it's Wilkins!" said Charlton in surprise, seeing the ill-favoured face clearly for the first time.
"So it is," said the man, with a bitter sneer.
Charlton had taken him on a mouth ago to help him with some work in the garden, on his representing that he had been out of work for mouths and was next door to starvation. He had paid him good wages and received a fair meed of work, and there was an end to the matter for him.
For his part, Wilkins had found out all be wanted, and departed not ill-pleased with his fortnight, for he had been comfortably housed and fed in the empty coach-house, and gardening was one of the few things in the way of honest work that he was not actually averse from.
And here he was now, right over the threshold of the big house, right in the hall he had caught glimpses of, and actually spoiling one of the "Missus's" fine floor-rugs. The latter fact gave him a savage pleasure.
Yes, here he was, caught like a rat in a trap; lying quietly soaking in his own blood, while every moment there came nearer and nearer the great hand of the Law to thrust him behind the stone walls again.
Caught, too, by the class he hated far more bitterly than the class hated him, and against whom he had ever had his hand raised.
What chance had he ever had?
He looked balefully round the hall be was lying in. Velvet curtains of a golden colour draped all the doorways, the furniture was of rich carved oak, beautiful pictures covered the walls, copper and bronzes gleamed in the yellow light.
These were the manner of walls that brooded over the comings in and goings out of the two boys who had shouted in the garden he was digging, and hidden his wheelbarrow and played other tricks on him.
But what of the walls that had seen his as tender years?
What chance had he ever had?
A few feet away from him stood the figure of the man who had shot him: well proportioned, athletic, graceful in its light flannels; he felt the wild contrast between it and his own bulking, sprawling shape. On the stairs was a woman in a pale blue, trailing gown, with waves of shining hair falling all round her shoulders; he saw her frightened eyes gazing at him as if he were some wild animal from a jungle. From the doors peeped the heads of terrified servants, who gazed at him with the same expression.
A murderous hatred of them all swelled his heart. He groaned again like the wild beast they thought he was.
Jim turned his eyes away from the sight and fretted himself at the time that must elapse before the doctor could arrive.
The man continued to writhe. He worked one hand under him until it had grasped the revolver in his pocket. He worked the revolver free of his coat, but kept it hidden in the long hair of the rug.
He moved his finger along till it touched the trigger, and he had the muzzle pointing straight at the breast of the woman in the blue gown. It would do the "class" good to feel what it was like to lie and welter in one's own blood. And better hit the woman for that would be a harder hit for the man. He fell he could lie there and laugh himself sardonically to death if he could thus rake the decks of the "class."
His finger trembled on the trigger.
But even as it trembled, a child burst out from a doorway some distance down the hall—a child in a nightgown—a very indignant, small child, for her nurse was going on in a most ridiculous fashion, it seemed to her, who had no experience of hysterics subdued from terror into stifled sobs and laughter.
Wilkins recognised her as the one of the three children the permanent gardener had had the greatest "down" upon, for she had a maddening habit of putting a whole family of microscopic china dolls, that she called fairies, to bed in the heart of his roses and lilies, and then getting them up in a morning with the aid of a bit of stick.
Wilkins, himself, bad not disliked her during his brief time of service in the garden. She was such a queer youngster. She used to flit about the beds for all the world like a big, white, starched butterfly, and he had often seen her kiss a pansy's face, and had once been made quite uncomfortable because she had dropped down and wept her heart out over some daisies that were dead, some rubbishy little pink daisies that he had forgotten to water.
And she had done something even queerer than that. She had actually fluttered right up to him one day when he was sweeping up leaves. She had a bath-towel tied on behind her for a train, and a wreath of leaves on her head.
"Oh," she said beseechingly, "do be the prince, will you? I'm Cind'rella, and nobody will be the prince."
And there had come to him then a faint, faint gleam of the days when his own life had been just such a little span. And someone, probably the nurse within the walls of one of the many charitable institutions that had bounded his childhood, had read him a fairy tale.
He had looked at her dumbly one moment. The next he was ashamed of his emotion, and gruffly told her to get out of the way of his broom.
There she was now, standing at a door in the hall, wrathfully complaining that nurse was "so silly."
A distorted memory of that far-away fairy story gleamed once more across the dark crannies of his brain. "And they all lived happily to the end of their days!"
He looked again ab the "queer little youngster."
"Well, who's stopping them?" he growled to himself, and let the muscle of his right arm soften again.
Laura took several hasty steps down the stairs to go to the child and save her baby eyes the horror of the sight on the rug. But Charlton waved her resolutely back, and called out that he would get the child. He could not bear his wife to step across the rug.
He strode hastily down the hall to the nursery door, and the child made a glad dart to him; but he pushed her off a moment. How dare he lift her while he had his revolver still at full cock in one hand? He pushed her aside with one hand and laid the deadly thing down for a moment on a lamp-bracket a few feet still further away.
Then he went back and picked her up and walked with her to the banisters, and lifted her up above his head for mother to take, and so avoid the way by the bottom of the staircase where the rug began.
He had not quite freed his arms from her warm little body—Laura had just grasped her, was lifting her over—when the servants, watching on the upstairs landing, shrieked hideously in sudden chorus. He pushed the child over and sprang round.
With a sudden drop all the blood went out of his heart—the capacity of movement deserted him. His man had struggled up to his feet and was standing in the middle of the hall, his arm held out, his revolver pointed directly at the blue figure that was grasping in utter unconsciousness the little white one.
Too late to get his own revolver—too late to leap forward and strike that other one down—time enough in the attempt for both lives to be snuffed out!
"Wilkins!" His voice had a screaming note in it—the thin, shrill note of a hysterical schoolgirl. "Anything I've got—anything!"
The man gave a great laugh, lowered bis weapon, and dropped down on the carved chair near the telephone.
"Only thought I'd make you sweat a bit, Gov.," he said, and mopped his own damp brow. "All I got up out my reclinin' position for was to give you this."
"This" was the revolver which he now held out, the barrel in his own hand, the handle turned to Jim. Jim took it, his whole arm trembling like a leaf.
"Th—th—thank you, Wilkins," he stuttered.
Wilkins gave his arm a benevolent wave, as much as to say: "Don't mention a trifle like that." "You can keep it as a little shoovenir, Governor," he said; "it'll come in 'andy when your own's wored out with the 'ard work you give it."
"Th—th—thank you, Wilkins," repeated Jim, and this time his voice trembled.
Wilkins was ashamed of his magnanimity.
"Didn't want to get me neck stretched," he growled.
When the police arrived, Charlton elaborately explained that his mind was so intent upon getting his wife and child upstairs, and out of danger from a possible second revolver, that he quite forgot the front door had been left open.