At length all was done—the raft finished, all the goods and chattels belonging to the ill-assorted pair placed upon it, and they fully prepared for their voyage.
It was past noon when they found themselves in this state of readiness, and the question was raised whether it would not be the wiser plan to remain where they were until morning, and begin the journey with the new day.
Kindly offers of hospitable entertainment were made by more than one neighbor, but Mr. Himes refused to consent to the least delay. They could travel several miles before sundown, he said, and it would be just so much gained.
This suited the conspirators exactly. McManus had been engaged to assist in propelling the raft; he would see that it was moored for the night at a spot which they had selected as well fitted to be the scene of their intended crime—a lonely and secluded place some six or seven miles down the river.
Belinda stumbled in stepping aboard, and had nearly fallen into the water.
“The very awkwardest critter I ever see!” was the sneering remark of her husband, as he caught her by the arm and saved her from a wetting.
Phelim, standing near, muttered a curse under his breath, but the woman bore the rebuke in silence. A vision of her reprover lying there stiff and stark, with fast glazing eyes and gray hairs all dabbled in blood, seemed to come before her, and she had no heart to resent his unkindness—could scarce refrain even now from shrieking out to him to beware of these men, for they were seeking his life.
She sat pale and trembling while they loosed from the shore and dropped slowly down the stream, McManus laughing and exchanging coarse jests with his intended victim, while his two accomplices waved their hats, cheered the departing voyagers, and shouting good-bye, turned and walked rapidly away in the direction of the highroad.
Belinda followed them with her eyes till distance and intervening trees shut out the sight; then, utterly oblivious of everything but her own guilty, miserable thoughts and fears, dropped her face into her hands with a shudder and a sigh that was half a moan.
“Frettin’ arter that there handsome young Irishman, be ye, eh?” sneered Himes’s voice close at her side. “Well, ye needn’t; ye won’t never see him no more. I begun to suspect, this last day or two, that ye had most too big a likin’ fer each other, and I’ll look out that he don’t git near ye again.”
She made no reply, nor even lifted her head; and after regarding her a moment with silent scorn, he walked away to the other side of the raft.
Subsequently he twitted her several times on her excessive pallor, her silence and abstraction, attributing them to the fright of her narrow escape from falling into the river, and telling her she was an arrant coward, even for a woman.
“Oh, do let me alone!” she said at length, wearily. “You seem determined to make me hate the very sight of you, the very sound of your voice.”
“And what do I care if you do?” he returned, with a mocking laugh; “you can’t get away from me, and I ain’t afeard o’ you.”
“Go away! go away!” she cried, covering her ears with her hands and turning her back upon him, while she shuddered from head to foot and her face grew ghastly in the dim light, for the sun had set and darkness was slowly creeping over the earth.
He lighted his pipe, turned from her with an air of supreme indifference, and passing around to the farther side of the rude cabin, which occupied the centre of the raft, sat down for the smoke with which he was accustomed to finish the day, little dreaming that it might be his last.
She sat where he had left her, with her elbows on her knees, her face in her hands, her mind in a tumult of horror, fear, and remorse, mingled with an intense hatred and disgust toward him, the man to whose destiny she had voluntarily linked her own for life.
But she could not contemplate without a shudder the cruel fate awaiting him. “Why should he be slain?” she asked herself. Phelim wanted her and the money; let him take both and carry them away, but spare the old man’s life—spare himself the staining of his hands with innocent blood. The crime would be great enough without that.
The raft was now moored to the shore. She lifted her head. How quiet everything was! not a sound to break the almost oppressive stillness save the slight ripple of the water at her feet, and the evening song of the frogs. There was not a house, road, fence, or any other sign of man’s occupancy within sight, but on the top of a slope not far away a solitary figure stood out in relief against the sky for a single instant, then vanished. They were there waiting for—what? To murder an innocent old man in his sleep, and possess themselves of his hard-earned savings.
Some one drew cautiously near and touched her on the shoulder.
“The byes is there,” whispered McManus, “an’ ye mustn’t be afther betrayin’ us. I was feart more’n oncet yer white face an’ shakin’ hands ud give ’im warnin’. Ye know we ain’t a goin’ to harrum ye—no, niver a bit av it. He thrates ye loike a brute baste, he does, the raskil; but Phalim ull be good till ye, an’ mak’ ye a rich lady wan o’ these days. I’m a goin’ to lie down and slape a bit, an’ ye’d betther thry the same, fer they’ll not be comin’ till toward mornin’, whan folks slapes the soundest. Ye’ll moind ye don’t do nothin’ to rouse the ould man’s suspicions!”
“I hate him! You may trust me,” she answered, in low, husky tones, without lifting her head or looking round.
He went away, and again she was left to the companionship of her own thoughts. Conscience was loud in its upbraidings. What was she doing? What would be the end of all this? Even should she escape the strong hand of the law, would not the spectre of the old man with his gray locks all dabbled in blood haunt her all her life?
And he had been good to her once—before she alienated his affections by her slatternly, careless ways and indifference to his comfort.
She could not look upon his death; she must make an effort to save him, but without betraying his would-be assassins. She rose and crept around to the place where he sat. She crouched at his side.
“Don’t let us stay here to-night,” she said, in a hoarse whisper; “let us go ashore and get lodging in some house. You have money, and those burglars may have got a hint of it; they always do find out somehow, and they may come on us in the night and—”
He interrupted her. “There! I knowed ye was a coward; but I’m not. Let ’em come. I’m ready for ’em.”
She drew away from him in discouragement and disgust. Where was the use of trying to save so besotted a fool—one who seemed bent on his own destruction? If he perished that night by the hand of violence, it would not be her fault. She had done all she could; for any further effort, any plainer speech would expose herself to suspicion and violence from him.
She went back to her former station on the other side of the raft, and resuming the old posture, with her elbows on her knees and her face in her hands, tried to steel herself to the coming fate of the man who was so persistently abusive to her.
But in vain; it was too horrible; and she could not forget that she had consented to it. Yet what more could she do? Ah! could she herself rob him before the burglars came, and steal away with the money to Phelim, he surely would consent to run away with her and it, and leave the old dotard his life. Surely it would be much the better plan for all; but how to accomplish it? for Himes had his money in a belt which he wore day and night about his waist.
He had finished his pipe, and she heard him retire to the cabin. When she thought sufficient time had elapsed for him to be sound asleep she crept softly in and stretched herself by his side—for the last time! Oh, what an awaking his would be! She could not sleep; her heart beat almost to suffocation, and she trembled like an aspen leaf.
At length, when his perfect stillness and regular breathing seemed to speak of profound slumber, she cautiously put out her hand and touched the belt.
He started up instantly, asking, with an oath, “What’s that fer? what are ye after? would ye dare to rob me?”
“No; why should I? ain’t I your wife?” she asked, bitterly. “But I want you to take it off and hide it somewhere. You’d better lose yer money than it and yer life too. If they come they’ll have it at all costs; and if it’s on you, they’ll kill you to get it.”
“’Twon’t be no great loss to you if they do; you’d like to be a gay young widder—you needn’t deny it,” he said, with a sneer. “I’ll resk it, anyhow; and don’t you touch my belt agin.”
It was her last effort to save him. Oh, how long the hours seemed while she waited! yet how gladly she would have detained them in their flight, that thus the coming of the dreaded event might be retarded.
She had at last fallen into a doze when a hand touched her, and Phelim’s voice whispered in her ear, “Go! lave the ould divil to us; we’ll take care o’ ’im. Run an’ give the alarum, but don’t ye be in too big a hurry.”
She was on her feet before he had finished his sentence. Himes, too, had roused and started up. She heard the two grapple with oaths and curses as she dashed out of the cabin through the midst of a group of dark forms that stepped aside to let her pass, and sprang ashore.
She ran a few paces, then paused for breath, pressing her hand upon her wildly beating heart. Her husband’s voice came to her in an agonized shriek: “Help! help! murder! murder!” with it the sharp report of a pistol, and echoing the cry, she sped onward, fear, horror, and remorse quickening her flight.