The Vengeance of the Dead by Robert Barr
It is a bad thing for a man to die with an unsatisfied thirst for revenge parching his soul. David Allen died, cursing Bernard Heaton and lawyer Grey; hating the lawyer who had won the case even more than the man who was to gain by the winning. Yet if cursing were to be done, David should rather have cursed his own stubbornness and stupidity.
To go back for some years, this is what had happened. Squire Heaton's only son went wrong. The Squire raged, as was natural. He was one of a long line of hard-drinking, hard-riding, hard-swearing squires, and it was maddening to think that his only son should deliberately take to books and cold water, when there was manly sport on the country side and old wine in the cellar. Yet before now such blows have descended upon deserving men, and they have to be borne as best they may. Squire Heaton bore it badly, and when his son went off on a government scientific expedition around the world the Squire drank harder, and swore harder than ever, but never mentioned the boy's name.
Two years after, young Heaton returned, but the doors of the Hall were closed against him. He had no mother to plead for him, although it was not likely that would have made any difference, for the Squire was not a man to be appealed to and swayed this way or that. He took his hedges, his drinks, and his course in life straight. The young man went to India, where he was drowned. As there is no mystery in this matter, it may as well be stated here that young Heaton ultimately returned to England, as drowned men have ever been in the habit of doing, when their return will mightily inconvenience innocent persons who have taken their places. It is a disputed question whether the sudden disappearance of a man, or his reappearance after a lapse of years, is the more annoying.
If the old Squire felt remorse at the supposed death of his only son he did not show it. The hatred which had been directed against his unnatural offspring re-doubled itself and was bestowed on his nephew David Allen, who was now the legal heir to the estate and its income. Allen was the impecunious son of the Squire's sister who had married badly. It is hard to starve when one is heir to a fine property, but that is what David did, and it soured him. The Jews would not lend on the security--the son might return--so David Allen waited for a dead man's shoes, impoverished and embittered.
At last the shoes were ready for him to step into. The old Squire died as a gentleman should, of apoplexy, in his armchair, with a decanter at his elbow. David Allen entered into his belated inheritance, and his first act was to discharge every servant, male and female, about the place and engage others who owed their situations to him alone. Then were the Jews sorry they had not trusted him.
He was now rich but broken in health, with bent shoulders, without a friend on the earth. He was a man suspicious of all the world, and he had a furtive look over his shoulder as if he expected Fate to deal him a sudden blow--as indeed it did.
It was a beautiful June day, when there passed the porter's lodge and walked up the avenue to the main entrance of the Hall a man whose face was bronzed by a torrid sun. He requested speech with the master and was asked into a room to wait.
At length David Allen shuffled in, with his bent shoulders, glaring at the intruder from under his bushy eyebrows. The stranger rose as he entered and extended his hand.
"You don't know me, of course. I believe we have never met before. I am your cousin."
Allen ignored the outstretched hand.
"I have no cousin," he said.
"I am Bernard Heaton, the son of your uncle."
"Bernard Heaton is dead."
"I beg your pardon, he is not. I ought to know, for I tell you I am he."
Heaton, who had been standing since his cousin's entrance, now sat down again, Allen remaining on his feet.
"Look here," said the new-comer. "Civility costs nothing and----"
"I cannot be civil to an impostor."
"Quite so. It is difficult. Still, if I am an impostor, civility can do no harm, while if it should turn out that I am not an impostor, then your present tone may make after arrangements all the harder upon you. Now will you oblige me by sitting down? I dislike, while sitting myself, talking to a standing man."
"Will you oblige me by stating what you want before I order my servants to turn you out?"
"I see you are going to be hard on yourself. I will endeavour to keep my temper, and if I succeed it will be a triumph for a member of our family. I am to state what I want? I will. I want as my own the three rooms on the first floor of the south wing--the rooms communicating with each other. You perceive I at least know the house. I want my meals served there, and I wish to be undisturbed at all hours. Next I desire that you settle upon me say five hundred a year--or six hundred --out of the revenues of the estate. I am engaged in scientific research of a peculiar kind. I can make money, of course, but I wish my mind left entirely free from financial worry. I shall not interfere with your enjoyment of the estate in the least."
"I'll wager you will not. So you think I am fool enough to harbour and feed the first idle vagabond that comes along and claims to be my dead cousin. Go to the courts with your story and be imprisoned as similar perjurers have been."
"Of course I don't expect you to take my word for it. If you were any judge of human nature you would see I am not a vagabond. Still that's neither here nor there. Choose three of your own friends. I will lay my proofs before them and abide by their decision. Come, nothing could be fairer than that, now could it?"
"Go to the courts, I tell you."
"Oh, certainly. But only as a last resort. No wise man goes to law if there is another course open. But what is the use of taking such an absurd position? You know I'm your cousin. I'll take you blindfold into every room in the place."
"Any discharged servant could do that. I have had enough of you. I am not a man to be black-mailed. Will you leave the house yourself, or shall I call the servants to put you out?"
"I should be sorry to trouble you," said Heaton, rising. "That is your last word, I take it?"
"Then good-bye. We shall meet at Philippi."
Allen watched him disappear down the avenue, and it dimly occurred to him that he had not acted diplomatically.
Heaton went directly to lawyer Grey, and laid the case before him. He told the lawyer what his modest demands were, and gave instructions that if, at any time before the suit came off, his cousin would compromise, an arrangement avoiding publicity should be arrived at.
"Excuse me for saying that looks like weakness," remarked the lawyer.
"I know it does," answered Heaton. "But my case is so strong that I can afford to have it appear weak."
The lawyer shook his head. He knew how uncertain the law was. But he soon discovered that no compromise was possible.
The case came to trial, and the verdict was entirely in favour of Bernard Heaton.
The pallor of death spread over the sallow face of David Allen, as he realised that he was once again a man without a penny or a foot of land. He left the court with bowed head, speaking no word to those who had defended him. Heaton hurried after him, overtaking him on the pavement.
"I knew this had to be the result," he said to the defeated man. "No other outcome was possible. I have no desire to cast you penniless into the street. What you refused to me I shall be glad to offer you. I will make the annuity a thousand pounds."
Allen, trembling, darted one look of malignant hate at his cousin.
"You successful scoundrel!" he cried. "You and your villainous confederate Grey. I tell you----"
The blood rushed to his mouth; he fell upon the pavement and died. One and the same day had robbed him of his land and his life.
Bernard Heaton deeply regretted the tragic issue, but went on with his researches at the Hall, keeping much to himself. Lawyer Grey, who had won renown by his conduct of the celebrated case, was almost his only friend. To him Heaton partially disclosed his hopes, told what he had learned during those years he had been lost to the world in India, and claimed that if he succeeded in combining the occultism of the East with the science of the West, he would make for himself a name of imperishable renown.
The lawyer, a practical man of the world, tried to persuade Heaton to abandon his particular line of research, but without success.
"No good can come of it," said Grey. "India has spoiled you. Men who dabble too much in that sort of thing go mad. The brain is a delicate instrument. Do not trifle with it."
"Nevertheless," persisted Heaton, "the great discoveries of the twentieth century are going to be in that line, just as the great discoveries of the nineteenth century have been in the direction of electricity."
"The cases are not parallel. Electricity is a tangible substance."
"Is it? Then tell me what it is composed of? We all know how it is generated, and we know partly what it will do, but what is it?"
"I shall have to charge you six-and-eightpence for answering that question," the lawyer had said with a laugh. "At any rate there is a good deal to be discovered about electricity yet. Turn your attention to that and leave this Indian nonsense alone."
Yet, astonishing as it may seem, Bernard Heaton, to his undoing, succeeded, after many futile attempts, several times narrowly escaping death. Inventors and discoverers have to risk their lives as often as soldiers, with less chance of worldly glory.
First his invisible excursions were confined to the house and his own grounds, then he went further afield, and to his intense astonishment one day he met the spirit of the man who hated him.
"Ah," said David Allen, "you did not live long to enjoy your ill-gotten gains."
"You are as wrong in this sphere of existence as you were in the other. I am not dead."
"Then why are you here and in this shape?"
"I suppose there is no harm in telling you. What I wanted to discover, at the time you would not give me a hearing, was how to separate the spirit from its servant, the body--that is, temporarily and not finally. My body is at this moment lying apparently asleep in a locked room in my house--one of the rooms I begged from you. In an hour or two I shall return and take possession of it."
"And how do you take possession of it and quit it?"
Heaton, pleased to notice the absence of that rancour which had formerly been Allen's most prominent characteristic, and feeling that any information given to a disembodied spirit was safe as far as the world was concerned, launched out on the subject that possessed his whole mind.
"It is very interesting," said Allen, when he had finished.
And so they parted.
David Allen at once proceeded to the Hall, which he had not seen since the day he left it to attend the trial. He passed quickly through the familiar apartments until he entered the locked room on the first floor of the south wing. There on the bed lay the body of Heaton, most of the colour gone from the face, but breathing regularly, if almost imperceptibly, like a mechanical wax-figure.
If a watcher had been in the room, he would have seen the colour slowly return to the face and the sleeper gradually awaken, at last rising from the bed.
Allen, in the body of Heaton, at first felt very uncomfortable, as a man does who puts on an ill-fitting suit of clothes. The limitations caused by the wearing of a body also discommoded him. He looked carefully around the room. It was plainly furnished. A desk in the corner he found contained the MS. of a book prepared for the printer, all executed with the neat accuracy of a scientific man. Above the desk, pasted against the wall, was a sheet of paper headed:
"What to do if I am found here apparently dead." Underneath were plainly written instructions. It was evident that Heaton had taken no one into his confidence.
It is well if you go in for revenge to make it as complete as possible. Allen gathered up the MS., placed it in the grate, and set a match to it. Thus he at once destroyed his enemy's chances of posthumous renown, and also removed evidence that might, in certain contingencies, prove Heaton's insanity.
Unlocking the door, he proceeded down the stairs, where he met a servant who told him luncheon was ready. He noticed that the servant was one whom he had discharged, so he came to the conclusion that Heaton had taken back all the old retainers who had applied to him when the result of the trial became public. Before lunch was over he saw that some of his own servants were also there still.
"Send the gamekeeper to me," said Allen to the servant.
Brown came in, who had been on the estate for twenty years continuously, with the exception of the few months after Allen had packed him off.
"What pistols have I, Brown?"
"Well, sir, there's the old Squire's duelling pistols, rather out of date, sir; then your own pair and that American revolver."
"Is the revolver in working order?"
"Oh yes, sir."
"Then bring it to me and some cartridges."
When Brown returned with the revolver his master took it and examined it.
"Be careful, sir," said Brown, anxiously. "You know it's a self-cocker, sir."
"A self-cocking revolver, sir"--trying to repress his astonishment at the question his master asked about a weapon with which he should have been familiar.
"Show me what you mean," said Allen, handing back the revolver.
Brown explained that the mere pulling of the trigger fired the weapon.
"Now shoot at the end window--never mind the glass. Don't stand gaping at me, do as I tell you."
Brown fired the revolver, and a diamond pane snapped out of the window.
"How many times will that shoot without reloading?"
"Seven times, sir."
"Very good. Put in a cartridge for the one you fired and leave the revolver with me. Find out when there is a train to town, and let me know."
It will be remembered that the dining-room incident was used at the trial, but without effect, as going to show that Bernard Heaton was insane. Brown also testified that there was something queer about his master that day.
David Allen found all the money he needed in the pockets of Bernard Heaton. He caught his train, and took a cab from the station directly to the law offices of Messrs. Grey, Leason and Grey, anxious to catch the lawyer before he left for the day.
The clerk sent up word that Mr. Heaton wished to see the senior Mr. Grey for a few moments. Allen was asked to walk up.
"You know the way, sir," said the clerk.
"Announce me, if you please."
The clerk, being well trained, showed no surprise, but led the visitor to Mr. Grey's door.
"How are you, Heaton?" said the lawyer, cordially. "Take a chair. Where have you been keeping yourself this long time? How are the Indian experiments coming on?"
"Admirably, admirably," answered Allen.
At the sound of his voice the lawyer looked up quickly, then apparently reassured he said--
"You're not looking quite the same. Been keeping yourself too much indoors, I imagine. You ought to quit research and do some shooting this autumn."
"I intend to, and I hope then to have your company."
"I shall be pleased to run down, although I am no great hand at a gun."
"I want to speak with you a few moments in private. Would you mind locking the door so that we may not be interrupted?"
"We are quite safe from interruption here," said the lawyer, as he turned the key in the lock; then resuming his seat he added, "Nothing serious, I hope?"
"It is rather serious. Do you mind my sitting here?" asked Allen, as he drew up his chair so that he was between Grey and the door, with the table separating them. The lawyer was watching him with anxious face, but without, as yet, serious apprehension.
"Now," said Allen, "will you answer me a simple question? To whom are you talking?"
"To whom--?" The lawyer in his amazement could get no further.
"Yes. To whom are you talking? Name him."
"Heaton, what is the matter with you? Are you ill?"
"Well, you have mentioned a name, but, being a villain and a lawyer, you cannot give a direct answer to a very simple question. You think you are talking to that poor fool Bernard Heaton. It is true that the body you are staring at is Heaton's body, but the man you are talking to is--David Allen--the man you swindled and then murdered. Sit down. If you move you are a dead man. Don't try to edge to the door. There are seven deaths in this revolver and the whole seven can be let loose in less than that many seconds, for this is a self-cocking instrument. Now it will take you at least ten seconds to get to the door, so remain exactly where you are. That advice will strike you as wise, even if, as you think, you have to do with a madman. You asked me a minute ago how the Indian experiments were coming on, and I answered admirably. Bernard Heaton left his body this morning, and I, David Allen, am now in possession of it. Do you understand? I admit it is a little difficult for the legal mind to grasp such a situation."
"Ah, not at all," said Grey, airily. "I comprehend it perfectly. The man I see before me is the spirit, life, soul, whatever you like to call it--of David Allen in the body of my friend Bernard Heaton. The-- ah--essence of my friend is at this moment fruitlessly searching for his missing body. Perhaps he is in this room now, not knowing how to get out a spiritual writ of ejectment against you."
"You show more quickness than I expected of you," said Allen.
"Thanks," rejoined Grey, although he said to himself, "Heaton has gone mad! stark staring mad, as I expected he would. He is armed. The situation is becoming dangerous. I must humour him."
"Thanks. And now may I ask what you propose to do? You have not come here for legal advice. You never, unluckily for me, were a client of mine."
"No. I did not come either to give or take advice. I am here, alone with you--you gave orders that we were not to be disturbed, remember-- for the sole purpose of revenging myself on you and on Heaton. Now listen, for the scheme will commend itself to your ingenious mind. I shall murder you in this room. I shall then give myself up. I shall vacate this body in Newgate prison and your friend may then resume his tenancy or not as he chooses. He may allow the unoccupied body to die in the cell or he may take possession of it and be hanged for murder. Do you appreciate the completeness of my vengeance on you both? Do you think your friend will care to put on his body again?"
"It is a nice question," said the lawyer, as he edged his chair imperceptibly along and tried to grope behind himself, unperceived by his visitor, for the electric button, placed against the wall. "It is a nice question, and I would like to have time to consider it in all its bearings before I gave an answer."
"You shall have all the time you care to allow yourself. I am in no hurry, and I wish you to realise your situation as completely as possible. Allow me to say that the electric button is a little to the left and slightly above where you are feeling for it. I merely mention this because I must add, in fairness to you, that the moment you touch it, time ends as far as you are concerned. When you press the ivory button, I fire."
The lawyer rested his arms on the table before him, and for the first time a hunted look of alarm came into his eyes, which died out of them when, after a moment or two of intense fear, he regained possession of himself.
"I would like to ask you a question or two," he said at last.
"As many as you choose. I am in no hurry, as I said before."
"I am thankful for your reiteration of that. The first question is then: has a temporary residence in another sphere interfered in any way with your reasoning powers?"
"I think not."
"Ah, I had hoped that your appreciation of logic might have improved during your--well, let us say absence; you were not very logical--not very amenable to reason, formerly."
"I know you thought so."
"I did; so did your own legal adviser, by the way. Well, now let me ask why you are so bitter against me? Why not murder the judge who charged against you, or the jury that unanimously gave a verdict in our favour? I was merely an instrument, as were they."
"It was your devilish trickiness that won the case."
"That statement is flattering but untrue. The case was its own best advocate. But you haven't answered the question. Why not murder judge and jury?"
"I would gladly do so if I had them in my power. You see, I am perfectly logical."
"Quite, quite," said the lawyer. "I am encouraged to proceed. Now of what did my devilish trickiness rob you?"
"Of my property, and then of my life."
"I deny both allegations, but will for the sake of the argument admit them for the moment. First, as to your property. It was a possession that might at any moment be jeopardised by the return of Bernard Heaton."
"By the real Bernard Heaton--yes."
"Very well then. As you are now repossessed of the property, and as you have the outward semblance of Heaton, your rights cannot be questioned. As far as property is concerned you are now in an unassailable position where formerly you were in an assailable one. Do you follow me?"
"We come (second) to the question of life. You then occupied a body frail, bent, and diseased, a body which, as events showed, gave way under exceptional excitement. You are now in a body strong and healthy, with apparently a long life before it. You admit the truth of all I have said on these two points?"
"I quite admit it."
"Then to sum up, you are now in a better position--infinitely--both as regards life and property, than the one from which my malignity-- ingenuity I think was your word--ah, yes--trickiness--thanks--removed you. Now why cut your career short? Why murder me? Why not live out your life, under better conditions, in luxury and health, and thus be completely revenged on Bernard Heaton? If you are logical, now is the time to show it."
Allen rose slowly, holding the pistol in his right hand.
"You miserable scoundrel!" he cried. "You pettifogging lawyer--tricky to the last! How gladly you would throw over your friend to prolong your own wretched existence! Do you think you are now talking to a biased judge and a susceptible, brainless jury? Revenged on Heaton? I am revenged on him already. But part of my vengeance involves your death. Are you ready for it?"
Allen pointed the revolver at Grey, who had now also risen, his face ashen. He kept his eyes fastened on the man he believed to be mad. His hand crept along the wall. There was intense silence between them. Allen did not fire. Slowly the lawyer's hand moved towards the electric button. At last he felt the ebony rim and his fingers quickly covered it. In the stillness, the vibrating ring of an electric bell somewhere below was audible. Then the sharp crack of the revolver suddenly split the silence. The lawyer dropped on one knee, holding his arm in the air as if to ward off attack. Again the revolver rang out, and Grey plunged forward on his face. The other five shots struck a lifeless body.
A stratum of blue smoke hung breast high in the room as if it were the departing soul of the man who lay motionless on the floor. Outside were excited voices, and some one flung himself ineffectually against the stout locked door.
Allen crossed the room and, turning the key, flung open the door. "I have murdered your master," he said, handing the revolver butt forward to the nearest man. "I give myself up. Go and get an officer."