A Hunt to Death (1892)

A HUNT TO DEATH.

A Beautiful Nihilist’s Contrivance to Elude Justice.

I had settled myself in my corner and the train was already swinging at a good pace down the “Golden Valley” before I noticed, first, that I was not alone, and, second, that I was not in a smoking compartment.

My fellow-traveler was a lady, clothed from head to foot in a traveling ulster with a deep cape, and closely veiled. I wanted a smoke very badly, and so I ventured to ask her if she had any objection.

Imagine my astonishment when, instead of replying to my question, she sobbed out something utterly incoherent and burst into tears. This was startling enough, but when I saw that she made no attempt to take out a handkerchief to dry her eyes, but simply sat still with her hands folded under her cape, surprise very quickly gave place to bewilderment.

In such a situation a man does not reason; he simply acts on instinct

In a moment I was at the other end of the carriage begging her in a clumsy, masculine fashion to tell me what was the matter with her. For an answer she suddenly parted her cape, and held up two tiny clasped and daintily-gloved hands. As she did so, I heard the clink of steel, and something bright shone in the lamplight

My fair traveling companion was handcuffed!

Before she attempted any explanations, she opened her right hand, and showed me one of the regulation screw-keys which alone will open the steel bracelets that restrain the exuberance of the unruly or dangerous criminal.

“Please unlock these horrible things for me, and thou I will tell you everything,” she said, and the request vas supplemented by a beseeching glance from a pair of tear-dewed eyes to whoso witchery many an older man than myself would have succumbed.

I took the key, and after a little fumbling about the strangely-contrived locks, set free the dainty little hands that were stretched so appealingly towards me.

Not knowing exactly what to do with the handcuffs, I slipped them for the time being into the side pocket of my ulster.

As soon as she got her hands free she unbuttoned her ulster, and threw it back a little. As she did so, I noticed that she wore a strikingly curious brooch at the neck of her dress. It was formed of two thick gold serpents, coiled as if ready to spring, with their heads thrust forward side by side, and their emerald eyes gleaming with an unpleasantly life-like expression.

It was a pitiful tale, and to a great extent one which the newspapers have of late years made all too commonplace. Forced by social and pecuniary considerations into a marriage with a man old enough to be her father, and possessing no single taste in common with her, she had, under sore temptation, broken her forced troth, and fled from his house.

Too proud to follow her himself, and yet mean enough to punish her by making her submit to an unheard-of-indignity, be had put a private detective on her track, told him she was tainted with a dangerous mania, and given him strict orders to bring her back to London, when caught, handcuffed like a felon.

The detective, when he overtook her at Hereford, had given her a letter from her husband in which ho told her that if she did not submit to his instructions he would prosecute her for stealing one or two articles of jewelry—the brooch that she was wearing among them—which she had unwittingly taken away with her in the hurry of her flight To avoid the disgrace and public shame, she had submitted to the brutal but private tyranny of his revenge.

At Gloucester her escort had got out to telegraph to her husband to meet them, and had lost the train through a porter telling him that the stop was five minutes instead of three, and she had just seen him run on to the platform as the train left the station.

As she looked round the carriage in which she now found herself free, but shackled, she saw the key of her handcuffs, which must have fallen from his ticket-pocket as he jerked his overcoat on. She tried hard to open the locks, but of course had been unable to do so.

Didcot and Swindon were passed as she told her tale; we conversed upon the strange occurrences of the night, and the only stop before Paddington was now Reading. Here my traveling companion decided to leave the train, as by no other means could she avoid running into her husband’s arms at the terminus.

Despite her gentle, winning manner, I felt instinctively that persuasions would be useless, and so I opened the door, got out, and helped her to alight from the carriage, and with a few murmured words of repeated thanks she was gone.

When I got back into the carriage I lit a cigar and lay back on the cushions to think over my adventure. By the time the train drew into Paddington I had exalted my beautiful unknown into a heroine of romance, and, I regret to say, myself into something like a knight errant of the days of chivalry.

—————–

“This is it, twelve-ninety. Are you there, Fred?” The train had stopped, and a lamp flashing into the carriage woke me up from my day dream to hear these strange words, and to see a couple of men in police uniform and a railway inspector peering into the compartment.

“Hullo! This must be wrong; they aren’t hero, and yet this is the right number. Excuse me, Sir; how far have you come in this carriage?”

“From Stroud,” I replied, a bit dazed by drowsiness and my strange reception.

“Have you come all the way alone?”

Some mad idea connected in a confused way with the beautiful woman whose soft, clinging clasp I could still feel on my hand, stopped the truth that rose to my lips, and instead uttered the foolish lie:

“Yes; I have been alone in the carriage all the way.”

A moment later I would have given all I possessed to have recalled my words; for, as I uttered them, the railway inspector turned his lamp under the seat opposite to me, and said in a hoarse whisper:

“Good heavens! what’s that?”

My eyes followed the glare of the lamp, and I saw the too of a man’s boot on the floor of the carriage a few inches back from the front of the seat

A minute later and the corpse of a somewhat undersized man, whose face was still drawn in the agony of a violent death, was dragged out, lifted up, and laid upon the seat

Of course I spent the night in the cells; for if I could have procured bail to any amount it would not have been accepted.

Not only was I charged with the most terrible of all crimes, but the charge was supported by prima facie evidence that looked practically conclusive. The handcuffs had been found in my pocket, and I was accused of procuring the escape from justice of the notorious Marie S——-, the wife of a member of the Nihilist Inner Circle, then serving a life sentence in Siberia.

No fewer than four murders had been traced to her, and now I was charged with complicity in a fifth, that of well known English detective who had sought to make a brilliant coup by taking her alone.

She seemed to have the power of fascinating men with her beauty till they became her slaves, and then striking them dead by some terrible and mysterious agency that loft no trace save death behind it

Once she had actually been seen to use this horrible power, whatever it was. A wealthy young Frenchman, whom she had enslaved in Paris for political purposes, escorted her home from the theater one evening, and was seen by her maid to lean forward to admire a curious brooch she wore as he took his leave of her in the salon.

As he did so Marie drew herself up a little, and suddenly the man uttered a choking scream and foil back writhing to the floor. The horrified girl fell down in a fit, and when she recovered the murderess had vanished and left no trace behind her.

There is no need to dwell on the horrors of the time that followed my arrest. Everything that money and skill could do for me was done, but I was committed for trial on the circumstantial evidence to answer the charge of murder. While I lay in jail awaiting my trial the search for Marie S—— became an absolute hunt to death.

Despite all this, so perfect was her skill in disguise and so unlimited her fertility of resource that she might have evaded pursuit, after all, had it not been for one of those slips that the cleverest of criminals seem to make sooner or later.

A smart young chemist’s assistant at a fashionable watering-place one evening on the pier made the acquaintance of a very pretty girl, who said that she was studying chemistry for the science and art examinations.

This turned the conversation on chemicals, and she ended by asking him to get her a quantity of a very poisonous substance, which she wanted for an experiment, and which she could not buy because she was a stranger in the town.

The chemist’s assistant was a sharp young fellow, and he saw the chemical she asked for was not in the syllabus of the science und art department

He told his employer of the occurrence the next day, and in the evening took the girl some crystals of a harmless salt, which resembled what she had wanted somewhat closely.

“This is not what I asked you for,” she said as soon as she looked into the packet.

“No, you can’t make prussic acid out of that, miss, but it’s safer to play with,” coolly replied the youth, and as he spoke, a man who had been leaning over the rail of the pier a few yards away moved silently up behind the girl, pinioned her arms to her side and held her down to the seat.

The detective called a cab on the esplanade, and the three got in and drove to the police station, pulling up the windows to avoid any possible observation as they went through the streets.

When the cab reached the station there was no sign or sound of movement inside it. The cabman got down and opened the door, and as ho did so ho staggered back, and fell gasping for breath to the pavement

Inside the cab, Marie S——- sat with her two would-be captors—dead, and on the face of each corpse there was the same expression that there was on the features of the dead man who was taken out of the carriage at Paddington.

When the clothing of Marie S—— came to be searched, the mystery was solved by the discovery of one of the most infernally ingenious contrivances that over served the purpose of murder. Inside the dress, just above the waistband on the right-hand side, were found two small rubber-ball pumps, such as are used for ordinary spray producers. From these two tubes led up to a bottle suspended around the neck.

This had two compartments, and two necks closed by rubber corks, through which ran thin tubes, which ouded in the mouths of the two golden serpents coiled in the form of a brooch.

The horrible apparatus was so arranged that, on working the ball-pumps by pressing the right arm against the side two jets of vapor could be projected from the serpents’ mouths. These jets when united formed what was practically a vapor of prussic acid, which would be blown directly in the face of any one within a couple of foot of the brooch, and would of course kill them almost instantly.

To the wearer of the brooch there would be little or no danger, provided she held her breath for a couple of minutes and moved quickly away, as the gas mixes very rapidly with the air, and is soon lost. In a confined space like the cab the atmosphere could soon be so saturated that it would be death to breathe it

All this was, of course, told to me after my release, which was effected immediately after the mystery was cleared up.


The National Tribune (Washington, DC) 11 no. 50 (Thursday, July 14, 1892): 3.

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