The hours following upon the death of Dr. Carmichael were the most dreadful ones I can ever remember. I was literally bowed with woe.
I sat on the stairs there, stunned and paralysed with grief. Only a few feet away the body lay stretched out quiet and still and so close to me I could have touched the dead white face by the simple stretching of my hand.
I thought of the awful tragedy of it all. The great strong man struck down without warning in the prime and pride of life; the giant dwarfed to nothing in a few seconds by the harsh touch of death. The fine keen intellect bereft of power; the mind, a ghost to wander in the shades; and all the knowledge he had garnered, dry and withered and of no further service to his kind.
Then I thought of my own position and my tears dried instantly in the very fever of my fears. I had lost my protector. I had lost the only man who could save me, and I was alone again against the world. I sat with my head in my hands and stared vacantly and with despairing eyes across the hall.
The house was dark and still. The blinds were all down on account of the heat, and only the slits here and there told of the burning sun outside.
I roused myself with an effort. I must do something. I must get away. No one in an Australian summer could remain in a house with a dead man longer than a day. But I must get some money.
I tiptoed into the study and tried the dead man’s desk. It was unlocked. Lifting it up, I went swiftly through the drawers, but there was no money there, only receipted bills and stacks of memoranda about chemical affairs. There was a big safe let into the wall, and I looked around for the key.
Then it struck me horribly that I should have to search the body for it. I believed the doctor carried the safe-key in his belt.
For quite a long while I hesitated, and then at last overcoming my repugnance I returned into the hall.
I knelt by the dead man. How white and waxen the face was, and yet it seemed now he was sleeping, and I fancied almost that I could trace a smile.
I unloosened his belt and pulled it away and, from his breast pocket, I took out his case. I tiptoed back into the study. I could feel a bunch of keys in the belt, but the pocket-case I examined first.
The first thing I came across was a cheque he had made out only that same morning. It was an open bearer cheque for fifty pounds. Breathlessly I held it in my hand. My heart began to beat wildly and I started to think hard. I could cash it over the counter myself. After all, it was mine! Often Dr. Carmichael had told me he had no relations, and his last words to me had been, ‘I give everything to you.’ What a godsend it would be. I could get anywhere with fifty pounds. But dare I? Dare I go out and cash it myself! I stepped hurriedly to the mirror over the mantelpiece.
No, it was madness; my face was not yet properly healed. Anywhere I should attract attention with my face like that.
Suddenly a wild idea seized me. Dr. Carmichael had said the next fortnight would make all the difference to my wounds, and by then it would be quite safe for me to go out. Why should I not wait? What was there to prevent me? Then my knees began to rock and tremble under me. My mind was in a whirl and my thoughts came up like sparks of fire. There was only the dead body between me and safety, I told myself, only that cold white figure in the hall. I could hide it — ah! I could bury it. There was the grave out yonder ready there. It was fate — it was ordained.
I sat down on the couch to get my breath and feverishly asked myself what the dead man would have me do.
‘Courage!’ he had whispered to me in his dying breath; and courage undeniably had only one course to urge.
I would be an arrant coward to bolt — it would be relinquishing all in a panic of fear. Everything in the place was morally mine. He had made me his heir. I must wait, then, and collect my heritage. A little courage and a little patience and I should return into the world as he had wished me to return. I musn’t be an ingrate and a fool. I must be worthy of the friendship he had extended to me and the risks he had undoubtedly run on my behalf.
In a few minutes I had become quite cool, and once my mind was made up I quickly and methodically set about the carrying out of my plans.
First, I went out and shut up the dogs. It gave me quite an eerie feeling to find them, all three, sniffing curiously just outside the hall door. I had never known them there before, and I wondered uneasily what mysterious forces of intuition I should be up against next.
The dogs locked away, I went back into the house and, taking a sheet from the dead man’s room, I rolled it round the body and tied it up at both ends.
I made my mind a complete blank as I was doing this, and also when I was lowering the body into the grave. With the first shovelling in of the earth, however, my numbed brain took on some feeling again, and suddenly I remembered the dead man’s dream. A dreadful fit of sobbing seized me and, even as he had seen, the tears streamed down my face as I stood by the grave-side.
What a friend I had lost, and what a good man he had been. Not good, perhaps, as the world held it, but good in his kindness and in the disdainful courage with which, in the hour of need, he had helped a fugitive-stricken wretch like myself.
What a broken life his was! Once, courted and flattered; once, popular and with a host of friends. Now lowered furtively and with hurry into a nameless grave, almost within an hour of his last breath, no pomp of ritual, no pride of ceremony, and no mourners, save one man, and he a convict under sentence of five years. My sobs were all his requiem as I filled in the grave.
I was nervous and frightened that night and, with the doors all closed, sat huddled in a corner of the room. The house was full of shadows, and many times I heard the noise of ghostly footfalls in the hall. I had pulled in a mattress to sleep where I had had my meals and had brought Diana in to be with me for company. The great bitch was uneasy too, and with mournful eyes stared restlessly round the room. Every now and then she kept standing up to listen, and to my terror it was always at the door leading into the hall that she went. She cocked her ears in warning, and several times she growled as if something told her someone were hiding there. Towards midnight, however, she came and lay down at my side, and together, at last, we dropped into fitful slumber until dawn.
With the sunrise I felt much better, and with my courage back I set about getting the situation well in hand. There were lots of things for me to do.
First I had to make out the daily list for the man who would call at the window by the gates. There were several old lists of the doctor’s lying about, and I had no difficulty at all, first go off, in making a very fair imitation of his handwriting. Indeed, so easily was it to imitate that the possibilities I saw before me raised my heat beats again to dreadful excitement.
I knew all about signatures, and for ten years it had been my life work to examine and verify the signatures on the cheques at the bank. I knew exactly what points were always looked for, and how one judged — almost automatically as it were — as to whether signatures were genuine or not.
I say my heart began to beat in excitement; but it was not the thought of successfully forging any paltry grocery lists that stirred me. I was thinking of the doctor’s banking account and of the large number of securities he had told me he held. What if I could come to handle those?
The very idea for the moment took my breath away, and then the sweat stood on my forehead in big black beads. Hurriedly I possessed myself of the key from the dead man’s belt and, opening the big safe in the wall, breathlessly went through the contents.
The doctor’s pass book was the first thing I came upon, and I saw there was eight hundred and fourteen pounds lying to his credit. Nearly all his withdrawals, I noticed, had been made as he had told me, by open bearer cheques. There was a deposit account book, and he had six thousand pounds lying at short notice at four per cent. Then there was a huge stack of government bonds, bonds to bearer for the most part I saw, with my eyes almost starting from my head. I started to total them up until a small memorandum book on a shelf attracted my attention. It was labelled ‘Investments’, and in a few seconds it told me all I wanted to know.
In securities and investments the estate of the dead man was worth nearly sixty thousand pounds and a good proportion of it was in a liquid and easily negotiable form.
I lay back in the armchair and for a long while gave myself up to my reflections.
What was I going to do — what had I the courage and the nerve to do? It was the parting of the ways.
I became cold and collected and reviewed everything from every angle I could conceive.
To begin with all that the dead man had left was mine, morally. He had given it me as he died, and in justice it was all mine. But in law? In law — I sneered bitterly to myself — not one penny piece was mine. He had died apparently intestate. I laughed mockingly. What did I care about law? I asked myself. I snapped my fingers contemptuously and let my thoughts run on.
Well, if it were all mine, how could I lay hands on it? The bonds to bearer would be easy enough; but for the other monies, Dr. Carmichael’s signature would be continually required. Could I manage it? Could I have the nerve to remain here in this house, week after week, month after month, take on the role of the dead man, forge his signature repeatedly, and gradually, bit by bit, realise the securities and draw in the deposits, until eventually all and everything were secure in my hands. Could I do it? Why not?
I knew all about the dead man’s mode of life. I knew his habits, his inclinations, and his tastes. I knew exactly what he was accustomed to do, to whom he was accustomed to speak, and the few people — the very few people — he was known to by sight. The manager of the bank knew him; but he had not seen him for two years. The postman knew him; but he was old and stupid. The daily tradesman knew him; but for a year he had only seen him very occasionally, and then through the little window by the gate.
For a full hour by the clock I lay back and considered everything carefully, and the more I considered it the easier I thought the whole business would be.
I only had to sit tight, I told myself, be careful, and no one would find me out.
But the signature! I was forgetting that, and yet that was decidedly the most important point of all. Could I forge it successfully? Dr. Carmichael had always used his typewriter for correspondence, and so, fortunately, only a signature would ever be required.
I took out the already filled-in cheque from the pocket-book and very carefully, as a bank official, analysed the signing of the name.
Yes, it would be easy, I told myself. With a little practice I should have no difficulty at all.
Dr. Carmichael had not been dead many days before I realised to the full what strength of character must have been his.
To have lived for five long years alone in that house, nursing the sorrow of his broken life, with not a soul to speak to and thrown back on his own resources, I knew must have been a searching trial for any cowardly weakness that was in him.
The loneliness must have been terrible. I found it so before even a week had passed.
To wander about the gloomy house, to lie watching the distant city from the tower, to sit in silence in the garden all, in turn, brought home to me the utter dreariness of such a life.
And yet I, unlike Dr. Carmichael, had so many things to look forward to.
I had mapped out my future actions in a calm deliberate way, and resolutely had put out of my mind all fear of any untoward happenings.
Three weeks exactly after the doctor’s death, and five weeks after the operation, I was to make my first excursion into the city to cash the fifty pound cheques he had drawn. I was dreading it, and yet, at the same time, I was looking forward to it. I had never been a coward or one to be afraid of taking risks, and yet I knew it would entail every scrap of my resolution to walk calmly along the city and pass unruffled through the doors of the All Australian Bank. But I meant to go through with it boldly, and in the few moments of misgiving that I had I was not a little cheered and buoyed up by thinking how amused and pleased Dr. Carmichael would have been with the course of action I was pursuing. The whole idea of the impersonation would have appealed to his cynical sense of humour, and I could picture the grim smile he would have worn had he been there to see me marching into the bank.
The fateful morning arrived at last and, just before ten, with a quickly beating heart, I let myself out of the gate. I was wearing an almost new lounge suit of the doctor’s and it fitted me very well. If anything, I was a trifle broader in the chest than he had been, and perhaps half an inch longer in the legs. I had got on a light Trilby hat, and was comforted not a little by a pair of the slightly smoked glasses that the doctor had generally made use of when reading in the garden.
Making sure to secure the gates behind me, I walked briskly down the road towards the trams. I met several people but was relieved — they either didn’t notice me at all, or else they gave me only a very passing and uninterested glance.
In less than a quarter of an hour I was in the heart of the city and walking nonchalantly through the crowded streets. With every minute my confidence was increasing and, long before I had reached the bank, I was delighted. I had passed several people I knew without turning a hair.
Pausing before a long mirror in an outfitter’s shop window, it struck me how well dressed I looked. The doctor’s suit was certainly beautifully cut and, as I say, it fitted me very nicely. My hat, however, didn’t quite please me. It looked rather too big, so I went in at once and bought another, paying for it — remembered with a smile — with two of the notes originally intended for the new wing of St. Snook’s Church.
Funnily enough, my conscience pricked me here, and I determined in due course to forward a donation so that St. Snook’s should not in any case be a sufferer.
At last I passed into the bank and with, I flattered myself, a very calm face tendered my bearer cheque for endorsement to the ledger clerk in the window under the letters A to D. At the same time I handed in Dr. Carmichael’s pass book to be made up to date; I wanted to know exactly how the account stood.
The clerk took the cheque casually and then, glancing at the name on the pass book, at once gave me a beaming smile.
‘Should we send it on to you, sir?’ he asked pleasantly, ‘or will you take it next time you come in?’
I felt a sudden pang of uneasiness. Of course, I ought to have posted the pass book. Handing it in, without cover as I had done, the clerk had jumped at once to the conclusion that I was Dr. Carmichael himself. I had to let it go at that.
‘Oh, post it on, please,’ I said casually, ‘but let me have it in a few days, please.’
‘All right, sir,’ he replied. ‘You shall have it tomorrow,’ and he proceeded to initial the cheque.
Crossing to one of the cashiers I handed over the cheque, and at my request he returned me ten five pound notes.
I was just putting them in my pocket-book, preparatory to leaving the bank, when a rather elderly looking man came up and, not a little to my trepidation, addressed me.
‘Dr. Carmichael?’ he asked deferentially with a grave bow.
I bowed haughtily in return. There was a nasty catch in my breath for the moment, I couldn’t have answered him if I had tried.
‘I’m the assistant manager,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Bultitude is very ill and will be away for some weeks. He mentioned to me about your deposit account; and I understand you telephoned you would be withdrawing half of it — three thousand pounds — at the end of the month. The ledger clerk told me you were here, and I just wanted to verify the matter. It’s your wish it should be transferred to the current account?’
My mind jumped with a great bound of relief. What a stroke of good fortune that old Bultitude was away ill! Not that he would probably have remembered Dr. Carmichael very well after two years; but still, it took away the uncertainty of everything, and for the present, at any rate, I felt I was safe.
I pretended to hesitate before replying. ‘Oh, well,’ I said after a moment. ‘Yes, let the arrangement hold good. Transfer it to my current account, please. I shall be using it, I expect, within the next few weeks.’
I left the bank with my head very high in the air. Really, how easy everything was going to be. Chance was certainly coming my way now. All in a moment, and quite by accident, I was established as the dead man at the bank now, and with prudence and without too much haste I should surely be able to carry my plans through.
I was so pleased with myself that I thought I would have lunch at the Grand Australasian Hotel. I regretted my decision, however, ten minutes afterwards for, to my horror, Judge Cartright walked in. For the moment I thought he was actually going to seat himself at my table, but the obsequious head waiter bowed him on, and I heard him sit down just behind me.
I didn’t dare to look around, but all through lunch I could hear the calm, polished voice, as he talked with a companion, and several times the smell of the scent he used came up offensively to my nose.
The lunch was not by any means, however, an unhappy one for me. I was moving in a new world and, added to the novelty of my surroundings, there was the thrill that peril and risk always give to the man who ventures and is not afraid.
That night before I got into bed I took stock of everything and carefully reviewed my prospects of success. I reckoned that in six months at the latest I could realise all Dr. Carmichael’s estate and get quit of the Commonwealth for once and all. Only one thing troubled me, and that only a little. What had the dead man meant when he told me to look out for Angas Forbes?
Who was this Forbes? And when was he likely to appear?
Last updated Tuesday, December 16, 2014 at 13:21