Chapter 160753397

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Chapter Title
Chapter Urlhttp://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article160753397
Full Date1886-05-22
Page Number42
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Word Count4409
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Last Corrected0000-00-00
Newspaper TitleAdelaide Observer (SA : 1843 - 1904)
Trove TitleThe Story of a Bygone Crime
article text

THE STORY-TELLER.

THE STORY OF A BYGONE

CRIME.

[By E. Davenport Cleland.1

During the winter months of the year 18b— I chanced to be staying at a certain seaport town, which shall be nameless. It is located on an extremely rocky part of the coast not many hundred miles from Adelaide. The town, like many other plaoes in South Aus tralia, was small, and the society within its boundaries was neither extensive nor varied. For companions I had John Taurus, an old boy friend (in fact we were both old-bioyiBh), and a dog which had long lain aside puppyish ways and actions.

Why we were staying at this particular place, or what we were supposed to be doing there, is a matter which only concerns our selves. Let it suffice to say that the greater part of our time was occupied in the pleasant duties of eating, drinking, smoking, and sleeping. We strolled about the surrounding country between times, and it was during the progress of one of these strolls that we un earthed a crime which had evidently lain long hidden from human eye.

It was late in the afternoon. We had turned our faces homewards, and were walking in that leisurely fashion which bespeakB a well-filled pocket and body, and a mind at ease.

Even the old dog took life quietly for the moment, and plodded after us with his tail hanging down-behind in the way that the force of gravitation had ordained. little we imagined at the moment that we were on the verge; of a great discovery, though we had noticed a few minutes previously that we were near the edge of the cliffs. Neither did we suppose (how should wet) that when a common rabbit crossed our path it would lead us to hidden wealth. But the rabbit crossed us, sure enough, and the old dog, forgetful in his excitement of rhenmatic twinges and stiffening joints, dashed after in pursuit.'

The example was catching, more so than was the animal pursued, and with a yell which would have done credit to schoolboys we raced after. It tas a short run. The

rabhit bad gone to earth amongst some ferns, and the dog was striving hud to go down the same hole. We were etui running, and when within a few yards of the dog, I tripped and

fell headlong amidst the coarse grass and rushes. 1 put my aims out to break the fall, and to my amazement the left one found no resting-place. There was no earth there, but an opening in the ground. A cool dampish air iBBued from the hole and struck on my heated face. I felt dizzy and weak when I recognised the narrow escape I had run, and I lay still for a few seconds. Then I called to John TauruB, who was helping the dog, and together we made as thorouzn an examination of the place as was possible at

the moment.

The bole was oval in shape, measuring about 3 feet by 2, It pierced a crust of lime stone to a depth of 3 feet, and beneath that and all round was nothing but a void, black as a winter's night. As far as we could tell there were no sides, and it was in vain that with our eyeB we tried to penetrate the gloom. A stone let fall, However, told ua by the sound when it struck the bottom, that the depth was not great. When we arose from our recumbent positions my friend struck his foot against a hard substance in the grass a dozen inches from the edge of the hole. It was an iron pin of considerable thickness driven firmly into the ground, and hanging from it was a wisp of old

hemp rope, and as rotten as tinder. A further examination brought to light a second pin in a line with the first one, and about 12 or 18 inches apart from it.

Our curiosity waB now wrought to such a

Eitch that nothing but an exploration of this

ole or cave could possibly allay it. It was

evident that these pins had had ropes,

or a rope ladder, perhaps, hanging from them, and that people haa used them to do business in deep places. What that business was we solemnly resolved to try, our best to discover, and to do that we must go down

the cave. The pins and the wisp of rope

suggested the best means of gaining our end, but we had first to find the depth so as to provide the proper length of rope, for to " cut your rope according to your well" is as sound an axiom as " cut your coat according to your cloth."

Our pockets were turned inside out in search of string, but not an inch could we find, I don't believe either of us had carried any since the day we were weaned from tops. To have gone to the Port for some would have wasted time and tried onr patience. Necessity again proved herself the mother of invention. We cut the rushes which grew around us to a height of 4 and 5 feet, and splicing one stem to another, we soon made a line that would answer the purpose. We tried it, fastening a stone to the lower end. No bottom; more line wanted. Then came handkerchiefs torn into strips. We lost patience with the rush stems. It took up too much time putting them together. More line—waiststraps, braces, and bootlaces—and still no bottom. This was, no time to pause. Off oame my companion's silk dustcoat,and was converted into strips by bis excited hands more quickly than I can write it down. My ooat was te come next, if necessary, and even our shirts, anything indeed, but those depths should be plumbed. The one coat was suf ficient, the stone "clanked" on rock below, -and wherever we moved it still rock, no midway ledge this, but the bottom. Care fully we hauled our line up, and still more carefully did we measure it off with a long rush stem, and at the end we made good allowance for errors, and then homewards, or lodgingwards rather, fnll of ourmysterions cave, and very determined that no word or hint should betray our discovery to others. If there was anything worth finding at the bottom of that cave we, and we only, should

discover it!

A difficulty now arose how were we,

two visitors, to purchase sufficient rope for our purpose without exciting suspicion and curiosity on the part of the townspeople. Caution was necessary, for in theBe pokey places every one pays more attention to his neighbours' affairs than to his own. But before we went to sleep that night we had succeeded beyond our expectations and had removed the rope ladder, the lanterns, and the other necessaries to a quiet spot in the scrub outside the township.

How we managed all thiB successfully and in secret modesty forbids me to state. We were clever fellows, and we did it cleverly, but beyond that mention of our powers of diplomacy and tact, combined with gin and rum, I shall not go. My friend agreeB with me in detesting people who parade their talents on every occasion.

Our sleep that night was nneasy and dis turbed by dreams. We awoke early, and debated whether we should order break fast at an earlier hour than usual. The " noes" had it, for we argued nothing will more surprise theBe good people than to see us about at an early hour. Nevertheless, that laggard Time crawled on, and brought breakfast and the time to start away. The old dog was left at the inn in case he might be observed lying on watch at the hole while we were down below.

Arrived at the spot we fixed the ladder to the iron pins, and then came the question as to who had the right to go down first. I claimed that right as being the discoverer, and as I was a trifle taller and heavier than John I carried the day.

_ But he wasn't pleasant about it. He didn't give in with a good grace. Just as 1 prepared to descend he Baid, resignedly, " Go first by all means! There is probably foul air below, andiwhen you and your light are bolliBnuffea out I can profit by experience."

That stopped me at once. I had forgotten all about foul air. Then we let one of the lanterns down with some cord. It burned brightly and steadily, and we knew then that we might descend.

We had forgotten to fasten weights to the lower end of the ladder, and as soon as I got below the limestone crust I began to swing and sway about in a very unpleasant manner. The lantern only served to make the dark ness more visible.

I reached the bottom safely, however, and then with a nobleness ot disposition which did me credit, held the ladder while my friend followed down. I had called to him when i landed, and the call had been echoed and re-echoed by the cave in a way that made me shiver, it was so ghostly.

Then we began to explore, but first of all fastened ourselves together with a short length of rope, like Alpine climbers, with the ostensible purpose of helping each other in case of a slip or other accident, but really in our own minds with a view to prevent one getting too far before the other, and making and claiming sole right to important discoveries. Then we set out, the combined light from the two lanterns illuminating the place for a distance of several feet around us.

We had not gone far before we reached a wall of the cave, and made up our minds to follow it around. And here I may as well state that there was nothing wonderful or remarkable in the cave itself. In size we found it to be as large as an ordinary six or eight-roomed house. In shape it was irregular. On one side a tiny stream of clear ice-cold water trickled down the face of the rock and was absorbed in the floor. At two other

points we found openings evidently made by

hand, and concerning which I shall have more to say directly, but as we stood opposite to them we distinctly heard the murmur of the sea as it beat upon the cliff. Surely we must have been very near to it.

Following along the wall and keeping with in touch of it,_ we slowly made our way, narrowly scanning the ground to escape falling into depths we knew not of. Suddenly the wavering light struck upon something white and glistening upon the floor. We lowered the lanterns, and with a sudden throbbing of our hearts beheld the skeleton of a human being, a man we supposed from

the size.

A closer examination showed a gaping, Bplintery-edged fracture in the skull, and close by a hatchet thick with rust.

Silent witnesses these, but bearing unmis takable evidence. My companion, in lowered tones, pronounced the verdict—" Murdered by some person or persons unknown."

Then we went on, bat 1 fancied that the air had beoome close and heavy, and the noise of our feet, and the muttered tones of our voices, seemed to awake echoes which were big with some horrible Becret, and longed to be delivered. Soon we stumbled against a chest made of iron; it seemed very heavy; then close by were other trunks and portmanteaus, rotten and mildewed, and falling to pieces. Here and there npon them conld be seen traces of paint, where the owner's name had once been. Then came all sprts of goods—cases, kegs, small articles of furniture, and other things which, because in their condition they were nselesB to us, we took little notice of. The question uppermost in my mind was, where

is the man who made such terrible use of that hatchet back there? Shall we find any trace of him? Can we bring home the crime to him?

YeB 1 we found him certainly, a mass of bare bones, like his victim. His skeleton was in a sitting posture against the wall, surrounded by the remains of rotting cloth ing and other things now alike useless to the living and the dead.

The skull and other portions of this skele ton still retained their proper positions; but the skull had fallen forward on the breast bone, and gave to the empty frame that appearance of utter despair which must nave fallen upon the man during the last days of his existence. Here, before ub, lay one of the principal actors in a tragedy that had been played in the bowels of the earth, with no audience perhaps to condemn or to applaud. And, unless some further evidence was at hand, the mystery of how these two men came here and to such an end must ever remain un solved. Bnt that " murder will out" is an old saying, and as true probably as most sayings of a like nature. To the right of the skeleton stood an iron despatch box. The lid was just sufficiently open to admit the bony fingers of the dead man. They rested on the edge of the box, ana the lid upon them. The attitude sug gested the idea of one partly lifting a lid,

and sliding in the hand to grasp a paper, the

position of which in the box was too well

known to require search. On the ground by the box stood an old inkpot and the rnstea stump of a pen. The lid of the box was stiff and crated horribly as I wrenched it open. Inside were a number of sheets of parchment, deeds they looked like, and I conld see that

the uppermost one was covered with writing. , It was pale and faint and discolonred with time, but might possibly be read by the exer cise of care and patience.

Here probably was the record of the lives these men had led during their imprison ment. I longed to look through it, but con sented to my friend's wish to finish the in spection of the cave.

Then we came to the place previously mentioned where an opening had been fotmed by band. This we entered, and con tinuing to follow the passage, creeping for the most part on our hands and knees, we suddenly found ourselves back in the cave, and cloBe to the first skeleton. The meaning of this passage puzzled us until we had deciphered the diary. Coming to the centre of the cavet where hung our ladder, looking like a spider-web in the murky light, I kicked against a heap of soft, pulpy material lying on the ground. Turning the light upon it we found a mass of rotten rope, and a little examination showed that it had once been a ladder. This, in connection with the wisp of rope on the iron pins above, revealed to us in a flash the origm of the imprisonment of the men whose bones we had just discovered. Their ladder had either been very weak from the first and had broken with the weight of one of the men, or it had purposely been cut hy another or others on the surface.

We had now explored the cave, and were eager to find some explanation of the strange sights we had met without. Returning to the iron box beside the skeleton I removed

the papers, carefully wrapping them round ' with my handkerchief. Then we made for

our lodgings, and during the next day or two tried to make out the meaning of the records. It has been impossible to make out every word, and in some instances whole sentences are defaced with mildew.

. I had intended to give the greater portion of I this man's diary in his own words, but have

heen forced to abandon that idea for certain reasons, the chief of which were that his references to the main incidents are not in sequence. He had not written them do wn as they took place, but refers to them now and again in a vague and incoherent way. There waB also a quantity of matter not specially bearing upon the subject, and which was not interesting even to us. There was no date affixed to the manuscript, and no names either of men orBhip are mentioned; and it is impossible to say what time had elapsed from the date of his imprisonment to the day of our having discovered the cave. I give his story in his own words as nearly as possible, having done nothing more than to try and arrange the incidents in their proper

order.

"How long have I been in this hole, I wonder, since that cursed ladder snapped and did away with all hope of escape ? 1 can tell night from day by looking up at the opening above, but I have lost count some how. Is thiB the fourteenth day or the twentieth ? What matter ? tbey are all alike now, death alone can release me. I lost hope when I failed to [bore through to the cliffs. They are no distance from here, a hundred yaras at most I suppose. Think of my ill luck, too! Who would have supposed it was so difficult to steer straight underground ? I know I started to tunnel in the right direc tion for the sea. Ah ! how I worked, night and day, day and night, to escape this prison, and—him! It!—and as I worked I fancied I could hear the roar of the Bea closer and closer. Then came a day when the strokes of my pick sounded hollow on the walk At last one blow drove through; another blow or two and I waB out.. Out? Oh, merciful God! had'st Thou no pity on me? I was even as Cain, but I had repented of the deed. He was only driven out from amongBt his kin,

but I—! Maybe I had not yet snffered

sufficient punishment, for instead of coming forth to the great sea I stumbled through

the opening I had made back into this horrible dungeon, this prison, and right npon the body of him who had once called me 'friend,' Am I never to leave him ? Must my living body keep company with his dead one in. thiB world ? And in the next what ? Shall I escape him there ?

" Oh! cruel fate that led-me on, buoyed np with hope, and toiling with hands and pick to pierce my prison,- and then to find that I had worked round in a circle—a loop of death!

" How long is it, I wonder, since the day I first found the ship hard-and-fast upon the rocks below? And then I clambered down to her, and in a cave were the only survivors,

two men.

"One lies beyond there at the far end of the cave. Do all dead men's eyes.keep. open and follow the living with their gaze as do his— It's? And the other man, where is he? Slipped off a rock into the sea and was drowned—so he (the one who is staring at me) said. And what of the other people on board ? Some lay along the shore.; some may have escaped inland. I never saw them— they don'tbother me—only It over there. It was many a mile into the station—not much chance of any one coming down for a time

they knew my sheep were right. I fed those men, took them to the hut. They told me of the treasure the ship carried. It was safe enough wher° she lay, almost dry at low tide. Why should not we have that money ? What matter if any one came to

search for it, even supposing any of the crew

worked their way inland? Had not we as

much right.as any to it? If I could only have got those two men away! I knew of this cave. I could have got all I wanted up

here alone.

" The other man—the old one—did leave us at last; fell in the sea and was drowned—so It told me. How shonld I know ? Bnt he— It—was always watching me—he wanted to kill me. We got the gold and the silver ont of the ship. VTe were to divide it equally. I showed him this cave. We got a ladder from the ship's rigging. We stowed the cold away underground there to the right of the spring. It should stop there until everything was quiet, and we could take it away as we liked. We burnt my hut down. The sheep could run at large. Besides, the overseer wonld be down soon, and would take care of them. I wonder if he thought I had been burnt in the hut ? He didn't know of the cave, though. But he would see the wreck.

" And so we lived underground, coming up at night and working at the wreck and tak ing things out .of her. Plenty of orovisions for a time, and light we had also when we wanted it, and the liquor! It was good stuff that; but it made him over there act badly to me. I remember that. I awoke out of sleep and he was about going up the ladder ; he had a bag over his back. He was stealing part of our, of my money. I sprang up, caught him, polled him back. We struggled and fought, but £ was more than a match for him. I held him down. Hesworeto be faithful after thiB. I let him up. We were friends again. We drank. I only made pretence. Then he slept. ' He talked in his sleep. He spoke of money and escape, and reviled me. Then I went to him ana looked upon him. He was a bad man. Something whispered to me to kill him. I silenced the thought and put it from me. Again came the whisper, and it added that he wpuld kill me and take my money: that he only waited his oppor tunity. I looked at him again. He smiled in his sleep: . to me it looked a

sneer of contempt, of defiance! The hatchet

came into my hand. Then I was alone, and ' It,' with the sneer still on its face lay be fore me. Will that look never leave its face? Ay, I was alone, too much alone now. I could not stay there then. I would come back another time. I sprang to the ladder. I clung to it like a drowning man to the rope which is flung to save him. It swayed terribly; was that It following me ? It seized the ladder and pulled violently; the ropes snapped, and I was a prisoner. Solitary confinement for life, that is my doom. Shall lever escape it?"

Such was the sum and substance of the

manuscripts in the iron box, The last sheets were unintelligible, the mere ravings of a madman—the same sentence repeated again and again. The mouldering bones show that be never escaped from his prison. John Taurus and I sat silent for a little while after reading the manuscript. It was a sad story of crime, but despite the natural horror we felt at the man killing his com panion in cold blood—the treachery of the act—it seemed an awful punishment to bear. We are told that solitary confinement is unendurable; then fancy the position of this man, to whose confinement was added the reproachful presence of his victim.

And now arose the question, what should we do with them—the skeletons, the money, and the manuscript ? We had no clear idea as to the proper course to pursue in cases suoh as these, but dimly sunDOsed that we should inform the nearest Magistrate and

leave the rest to him.

But even that sensible course did not com mend itself to us, for the mention of " Magis trate" brought up visions of long examina tions, and cross-examinations, and deten tions, and who could say but we might be brought in as accomplices ?

We discussed the matter over the bowls of our pipes, and before we had finished the second course John Taurus solved the problem for the time. He pointed out the rambling style of the manuscript, and showed that the man was more than half-crazed when he wrote it. How, then, could we be certain that any money was there ? Let us examine the Bpot mentioned before making any stir in tbe neighbourhood. Good! I agreed to this, and locking the manuscript safely away, we started olL

It was a rough, blustering day, the wind blowing a stiff gale off the sea. As we walked along the cliffs we noticed that the tide was exceedingly high. The immense waves came rolling in in quick succession, and, thunder ing down upon the rockB, made the ground tremble.

We fought our way against the wind, and at last reached the spot among the rushes. For an instant we noticed nothing unusual, but tbe next moment a jet of water spurted up from the cave. What was this ? In an instant we had thrown ourselves on the ground and crawled along until we could look down the opening. We could see nothing, but could hear the foaming and rushing of water, and even as we gazed, up rushed another spout, deluging us as it fell.

The cave was flooded; the sea must have broken in. No doubt in making the tunnel the man had advanced close to the cliffs before making the fatal turn.

We conld not prove the truth of our story now, even if we told it, exoept by the posses

sion of the MS. No examination could be made of the iron chests below, which other wise might have given some clue to the ship and her lnckless passengers.

But I write this story with the faint bone that if any one living can throw more light upon the mystery which surrounds it they will do so.

The End.