At the Pistols Point

E.W. Hornung

At the Pistol's Point E. W. Hornung
The Strand, 1897

THE church bells were ringing for evensong, croaking across the snow with short, harsh strokes, as though the frost had eaten into the metal and made it hoarse. Outside, the scene had all the cheery sparkle, all the peaceful glamour, of an old-fashioned Christmas card. There was the snow-covered village, there the church-spire coated all down one side, the chancel windows standing out like oil-paintings, the silver sickle of a moon, the ideal thatched cottage with the warm, red light breaking from the open door, and the peace of Heaven seemingly pervading and enveloping all. Yet on earth we know that this peace is not; and the door of the ideal cottage had been opened and was shut by a crushed woman, whose husband had but now refused her pennies for the plate, with a curse which followed her into the snow. And the odour prevailing beneath the thatched roof was one of hot brandy-and-water, mingled with the fumes of some rank tobacco.
Old Fitch was over sixty years of age, and the woman on her way to church was his third wife; she had borne him no child, nor had Fitch son or daughter living who would set foot inside his house. He was a singular old man, selfish and sly and dissolute, yet not greatly disliked beyond his own door, and withal a miracle of health and energy for his years. He drank to his heart's content, but he was never drunk, nor was Sunday's bottle ever known to lose him the soft side of Monday's bargain. By trade he was game-dealer, corn-factor, money-lender, and mortgagee of half the village; in appearance, a man of medium height, with bow-legs and immense round shoulders, a hard mouth, shrewd eyes, and wiry hair as white as the snow outside.
The bells ceased, and for a moment there was no sound in the cottage but the song of the kettle on the hob. Then Fitch reached for the brandy-bottle, and brewed himself another steaming bumper. As he watched the sugar dissolve, a few notes from the organ reached his ears, and. the old man smiled cynically as he sipped and smacked his lips. At his elbow his tobacco-pipe and the weekly newspaper were ranged with the brandy-bottle, and he was soon in enjoyment of all three. Over the paper Fitch had already fallen asleep after a particularly hearty mid-day meal, but he had not so much as glanced at the most entertaining pages, and he found them now more entertaining than usual. There was a scandal in high life running to several columns, and sub-divided into paragraphs labelled with the most pregnant headlines; the old man's mouth watered as he determined to leave this item to the last. It was not the only one of interest; there were several suicides, an admirable execution, a burglary, and--what? Fitch frowned as his quick eye came tumbling down a paragraph; then all at once he gasped out an oath and sat very still. The pipe in his mouth went out, the brandy-and-water was cooling in his glass; you might have heard them singing the psalms in the church hard by; but the old man heard nothing, saw nothing, thought of nothing but the brief paragraph before his eyes.
'The greatest excitement was caused at Weymouth yesterday morning on the report being circulated that several convicts had effected their escape from the grounds of the Portland convict establishment. There appears to have been a regularly concerted plan on the part of the prisoners working in one of the outdoor gangs to attempt to regain their liberty, as yesterday morning three convicts bolted simultaneously from their party. They were instantly challenged to stop, but as the order was not complied with, the warders fired several shots. One of the runaways fell dead, and another was so badly wounded that he was immediately recaptured, and is now lying in a precarious condition. The third man, named Henry Cattermole, continued his course despite a succession of shots, and was soon beyond range of the rifles. He was pursued for some distance, but was ultimately lost to view in the thick fog which prevailed. A hue and cry was raised, and search parties continued to scour the neighbourhood long after dark, but up to a late hour his recapture had not been effected. Cattermole will be remembered as the man who was sentenced to death some years ago for the murder of Lord Wolborough's game-keeper, near Bury St. Edmund's, but who afterwards received the benefit of the doubt involved in the production of a wad which did not fit the convict's gun. In spite of the successful efforts then made on his
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