THE HOUNDS OF FATE

In the fading light of a close dull autumn afternoon

Martin Stoner plodded his way along muddy lanes and

rut-seamed cart tracks that led he knew not exactly whither.

Somewhere in front of him, he fancied, lay the sea, and

towards the sea his footsteps seemed persistently turning;

why he was struggling wearily forward to that goal he could

scarcely have explained, unless he was possessed by the same

instinct that turns a hard-pressed stag cliffward in its

last extremity. In his case the hounds of Fate were

certainly pressing him with unrelenting insistence; hunger,

fatigue, and despairing hopelessness had numbed his brain,

and he could scarcely summon sufficient energy to wonder

what underlying impulse was driving him onward. Stoner was

one of those unfortunate individuals who seem to have tried

everything; a natural slothfulness and improvidence had

always intervened to blight any chance of even moderate

success, and now he was at the end of his tether, and there

was nothing more to try. Desperation had not awakened in

him any dormant reserve of energy; on the contrary, a mental

torpor grew up round the crisis of his fortunes. With the

clothes he stood up in, a halfpenny in his pocket, and no

single friend or acquaintance to turn to, with no prospect

either of a bed for the night or a meal for the morrow,

Martin Stoner trudged stolidly forward, between moist

hedgerows and beneath dripping trees, his mind almost a

blank, except that he was subconsciously aware that

somewhere in front of him lay the sea. Another

consciousness obtruded itself now and then—the knowledge

that he was miserably hungry. Presently he came to a halt

by an open gateway that led into a spacious and rather

neglected farm-garden; there was little sign of life about,

and the farm-house at the further end of the garden looked

chill and inhospitable. A drizzling rain, however, was

setting in, and Stoner thought that here perhaps he might

obtain a few minutes’ shelter and buy a glass of milk with

his last remaining coin. He turned slowly and wearily into

the garden and followed a narrow, flagged path up to a side

door. Before he had time to knock the door opened and a

bent, withered-looking old man stood aside in the doorway as

though to let him pass in.

“Could I come in out of the rain?” Stoner began, but the

old man interrupted him.

“Come in, Master Tom. I knew you would come back one of

these days.”

Stoner lurched across the threshold and stood staring

uncomprehendingly at the other.

“Sit down while I put you out a bit of supper,” said the

old man with quavering eagerness. Stoner’s legs gave way

from very weariness, and he sank inertly into the arm-chair

that had been pushed up to him. In another minute he was

devouring the cold meat, cheese, and bread, that had been

placed on the table at his side.

“You’m little changed these four years,” went on the old

man, in a voice that sounded to Stoner as something in a

dream, far away and inconsequent; “but you’ll find us a

deal changed, you will. There’s no one about the place same

as when you left; nought but me and your old Aunt. I’ll go

and tell her that you’m come; she won’t be seeing you, but

she’ll let you stay right enough. She always did say if you

was to come back you should stay, but she’d never set eyes

on you or speak to you again.”

The old man placed a mug of beer on the table in front of

Stoner and then hobbled away down a long passage. The

drizzle of rain had changed to a furious lashing downpour,

which beat violently against door and windows. The wanderer

thought with a shudder of what the sea-shore must look like

under this drenching rainfall, with night beating down on

all sides. He finished the food and beer and sat numbly

waiting for the return of his strange host. As the minutes

ticked by on the grandfather clock in the corner a new hope

began to flicker and grow in the young man’s mind; it was

merely the expansion of his former craving for food and a

few minutes’ rest into a longing to find a night’s shelter

under this seemingly hospitable roof. A clattering of

footsteps down the passage heralded the old farm servant’s

return.

“The old Missus won’t see you, Master Tom, but she says

you are to stay. ‘Tis right enough, seeing the farm will be

yours when she be put under earth. I’ve had a fire lit in

your room, Master Tom, and the maids has put fresh sheets on

to the bed. You’ll find nought changed up there. Maybe

you’m tired and would like to go there now.”

Without a word Martin Stoner rose heavily to his feet and

followed his ministering angel along a passage, up a short

creaking stair, along another passage, and into a large room

lit with a cheerfully blazing fire. There was but little

furniture, plain, old-fashioned, and good of its kind; a

stuffed squirrel in a case and a wall-calendar of four years

ago were about the only symptoms of decoration. But Stoner

had eyes for little else than the bed, and could scarce wait

to tear his clothes off him before rolling in a luxury of

weariness into its comfortable depths. The hounds of Fate

seemed to have checked for a brief moment.

In the cold light of morning Stoner laughed mirthlessly as

he slowly realized the position in which he found himself.

Perhaps he might snatch a bit of breakfast on the strength

of his likeness to this other missing neer-do-well, and get

safely away before any one discovered the fraud that had

been thrust on him. In the room downstairs he found the

bent old man ready with a dish of bacon and fried eggs for

“Master Tom’s” breakfast, while a hard-faced elderly maid

brought in a teapot and poured him out a cup of tea. As he

sat at the table a small spaniel came up and made friendly

advances.

“’Tis old Bowker’s pup,” explained the old man, whom the

hard-faced maid had addressed as George. “She was main

fond of you; never seemed the same after you went away to

Australee. She died ’bout a year agone. ‘Tis her pup.”

Stoner found it difficult to regret her decease; as a

witness for identification she would have left something to

be desired.

“You’ll go for a ride, Master Tom?” was the next

startling proposition that came from the old man. “We’ve a

nice little roan cob that goes well in saddle. Old Biddy is

getting a bit up in years, though ‘er goes well still, but

I’ll have the little roan saddled and brought round to

door.”

“I’ve got no riding things,” stammered the castaway,

almost laughing as he looked down at his one suit of

well-worn clothes.

“Master Tom,” said the old man earnestly, almost with an

offended air, “all your things is just as you left them. A

bit of airing before the fire an’ they’ll be all right.

‘Twill be a bit of a distraction like, a little riding and

wild-fowling now and agen. You’ll find the folk around here

has hard and bitter minds towards you. They hasn’t

forgotten nor forgiven. No one’ll come nigh you, so you’d

best get what distraction you can with horse and dog.

They’m good company, too.”

Old George hobbled away to give his orders, and Stoner,

feeling more than ever like one in a dream, went upstairs to

inspect “Master Tom’s” wardrobe. A ride was one of the

pleasures dearest to his heart, and there was some

protection against immediate discovery of his imposture in

the thought that none of Tom’s aforetime companions were

likely to favour him with a close inspection. As the

interloper thrust himself into some tolerably well-fitting

riding cords he wondered vaguely what manner of misdeed the

genuine Tom had committed to set the whole countryside

against him. The thud of quick, eager hoofs on damp earth

cut short his speculations. The roan cob had been brought

up to the side door.

“Talk of beggars on horseback,” thought Stoner to

himself, as he trotted rapidly along the muddy lanes where

he had tramped yesterday as a down-at-heel outcast; and then

he flung reflection indolently aside and gave himself up to

the pleasure of a smart canter along the turf-grown side of

a level stretch of road. At an open gateway he checked his

pace to allow two carts to turn into a field. The lads

driving the carts found time to give him a prolonged stare,

and as he passed on he heard an excited voice call out,

“’Tis Tom Prike! I knowed him at once; showing himself here

agen, is he?”

Evidently the likeness which had imposed at close quarters

on a doddering old man was good enough to mislead younger

eyes at a short distance.

In the course of his ride he met with ample evidence to

confirm the statement that local folk had neither forgotten

nor forgiven the bygone crime which had come to him as a

legacy from the absent Tom. Scowling looks, mutterings, and

nudgings greeted him whenever he chanced upon human beings;

“Bowker’s pup,” trotting placidly by his side, seemed the

one element of friendliness in a hostile world.

As he dismounted at the side door he caught a fleeting

glimpse of a gaunt, elderly woman peering at him from behind

the curtain of an upper window. Evidently this was his aunt

by adoption.

Over the ample midday meal that stood in readiness for him

Stoner was able to review the possibilities of his

extraordinary situation. The real Tom, after four years of

absence, might suddenly turn up at the farm, or a letter

might come from him at any moment. Again, in the character

of heir to the farm, the false Tom might be called on to

sign documents, which would be an embarrassing predicament.

Or a relative might arrive who would not imitate the aunt’s

attitude of aloofness. All these things would mean

ignominious exposure. On the other hand, the alternatives

was the open sky and the muddy lanes that led down to the

sea. The farm offered him, at any rate, a temporary refuge

from destitution; farming was one of the many things he had

“tried,” and he would be able to do a certain amount of

work in return for the hospitality to which he was so little

entitled.

“Will you have cold pork for your supper,” asked the

hard-faced maid, as she cleared the table, “or will you

have it hotted up?”

“Hot, with onions,” said Stoner. It was the only time

in his life that he had made a rapid decision. And as he

gave the order he knew that he meant to stay.

Stoner kept rigidly to those portions of the house which

seemed to have been allotted to him by a tacit treaty of

delimitation. When he took part in the farm-work it was as

one who worked under orders and never initiated them. Old

George, the roan cob, and Bowker’s pup were his sole

companions in a world that was otherwise frostily silent and

hostile. Of the mistress of the farm he saw nothing. Once,

when he knew she had gone forth to church, he made a furtive

visit to the farm parlour in an endeavour to glean some

fragmentary knowledge of the young man whose place he had

usurped, and whose ill-repute he had fastened on himself.

There were many photographs hung on the walls, or stuck in

prim frames, but the likeness he sought for was not among

them. At last, in an album thrust out of sight, he came

across what he wanted. There was a whole series, labelled

“Tom,” a podgy child of three, in a fantastic frock, an

awkward boy of about twelve, holding a cricket bat as though

be loathed it, a rather good-looking youth of eighteen with

very smooth, evenly parted hair, and, finally, a young man

with a somewhat surly dare-devil expression. At this last

portrait Stoner looked with particular interest; the

likeness to himself was unmistakable.

From the lips of old George, who was garrulous enough on

most subjects, he tried again and again to learn something

of the nature of the offence which shut him off as a

creature to be shunned and hated by hiss fellow-men.

“What do the folk around here say about me?” he asked

one day as they were walking home from an outlying field.

The old man shook his head.

“They be bitter agen you, mortal bitter. Ay, ’tis a sad

business, a sad business.”

And never could he be got to say anything more

enlightening.

On a clear frosty evening, a few days before the festival

of Christmas, Stoner stood in a corner of the orchard which

commanded a wide view of the countryside. Here and there he

could see the twinkling dots of lamp or candle glow which

told of human homes where the goodwill and jollity of the

season held their sway. Behind him lay the grim, silent

farm-house, where no one ever laughed, where even a quarrel

would have seemed cheerful. As he turned to look at the

long grey front of the gloom-shadowed building, a door

opened and old George came hurriedly forth. Stoner heard

his adopted name called in a tone of strained anxiety.

Instantly be knew that something untoward had happened, and

with a quick revulsion of outlook his sanctuary became in

his eyes a place of peace and contentment, from which he

dreaded to be driven.

“Master Tom,” said the old man in a hoarse whisper,

“you must slip away quiet from here for a few days.

Michael Ley is back in the village, an’ he swears to shoot

you if he can come across you. He’ll do it, too, there’s

murder in the look of him. Get away under cover of night,

’tis only for a week or so, he won’t be here longer.”

“But where am I to go?” stammered Stoner, who had caught

the infection of the old man’s obvious terror.

“Go right away along the coast to Punchford and keep hid

there. When Michael’s safe gone I’ll ride the roan over to

the Green Dragon at Punchford; when you see the cob stabled

at the Green Dragon ’tis a sign you may come back agen.”

“But—” began Stoner hesitatingly.

“’Tis all right for money,” said the other; “the old

Missus agrees you’d best do as I say, and she’s given me

this.”

The old man produced three sovereigns and some odd silver.

Stoner felt more of a cheat than ever as he stole away

that night from the back gate of the farm with the old

woman’s money in his pocket. Old George and Bowker’s pup

stood watching him a silent farewell from the yard. He

could scarcely fancy that he would ever come back, and he

felt a throb of compunction for those two humble friends who

would wait wistfully for his return. Some day perhaps the

real Tom would come back, and there would be wild wonderment

among those simple farm folks as to the identity of the

shadowy guest they had harboured under their roof. For his

own fate he felt no immediate anxiety; three pounds goes but

little way in the world when there is nothing behind it, but

to a man who has counted his exchequer in pennies it seems a

good starting-point. Fortune had done him a whimsically

kind turn when last he trod these lanes as a hopeless

adventurer, and there might yet be a chance of his finding

some work and making a fresh start; as he got further from

the farm his spirits rose higher. There was a sense of

relief in regaining once more his lost identity and ceasing

to be the uneasy ghost of another. He scarcely bothered to

speculate about the implacable enemy who had dropped from

nowhere into his life; since that life was now behind him

one unreal item the more made little difference. For the

first time for many months he began to hum a careless

light-hearted refrain. Then there stepped out from the

shadow of an overhanging oak tree a man with a gun. There

was no need to wonder who he might be; the moonlight falling

on his white set face revealed a glare of human hate such as

Stoner in the ups and downs of his wanderings had never seen

before. He sprang aside in a wild effort to break through

the hedge that bordered the lane, but the tough branches

held him fast. The hounds of Fate had waited for him in

those narrow lanes, and this time they were not to be

denied.