Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Ninety Nine. Attempted Murder and Suicide

After its second involuntary recess—less prolonged than the first—the Court has once more resumed its functions under the great evergreen oak.

It is now evening; and the sunbeams, falling aslant, intrude upon the space canopied by the tree.

From the golden brightness, displayed by them at noon, they have changed to a lurid red—as if there was anger in the sky!

It is but an accident of the atmosphere—the portent of an approaching storm.

For all this, it is remarked as singular, that a storm should be coming at the time: since it symbolises the sentiment of the spectators, who look on with sullenness in their hearts, and gloom in their glances.

It would seem as if Heaven’s wrath was acting in concert with the passions of Earth!

Maurice Gerald is no longer the cynosure of those scowling eyes. He has been clamorously acquitted, and is henceforth only one of the witnesses.

In the place late occupied by him another stands. Cassius Calhoun is now the prisoner at the bar!

This is the only change observable.

The judge is the same, the jury the same, and the spectators as before; though with very different feelings in regard to the criminality of the accused.

His guilt is no longer the question that is being considered.

It has been established beyond the shadow of a doubt. The evidence is already before them; and though entirely circumstantial—as in most cases of murder—the circumstances form a chain irresistibly conclusive and complete.

There is but one missing link—if link it may be called—the motive.

The motive both for the murder and the mutilation: for the testimony of Gerald has been confirmed by a subsequent examination of the dead body. The surgeon of the cantonment has pronounced the two distinct, and that Henry Poindexter’s death must have ensued, almost instantaneously after his receiving the shot.

Why should Cassius Calhoun have killed his own cousin? Why cut off his head?

No one can answer these questions, save the murderer himself. No one expects him to do so—save to his Maker.

Before Him he must soon stand: for a knowledge of the motive is not deemed essential to his condemnation, and he has been condemned.

The trial has come to a close; the verdict Guilty has been given; and the judge, laying aside his Panama hat, is about to put on the black cap—that dread emblem of death—preparatory to pronouncing the sentence.

In the usual solemn manner the condemned man is invited to make his final speech; to avail himself, as it were, of the last forlorn hope for sentence.

He starts at the invitation—falling, as it does, like a death-knell upon his ear.

He looks wildly around. Despairingly: when on the faces that encircle him he sees not one wearing an expression of sympathy.

There is not even pity. All appear to frown upon him.

His confederates—those payed ruffians who have hitherto supported him—are of no use now, and their sympathy of no consequence. They have shrunk out of sight—before the majesty of the law, and the damning evidence of his guilt.

Despite his social standing—and the wealth to sustain it—he sees himself alone; without friend or sympathiser: for so stands the assassin in Texas!

His demeanour is completely changed. In place of that high haughty air—oft exhibited in bold brutal bullyism—he looks cowed and craven.

And not strange that he should.

He feels that there is no chance of escape; that he is standing by the side of his coffin—on the edge of an Eternity too terrible to contemplate.

To a conscience like his, it cannot be otherwise than appalling.

All at once a light is seen to flask into his eyes—sunken as they are in the midst of two livid circles. He has the air of one on the eve of making confession.

Is it to be an acknowledgment of guilt? Is he about to unburden his conscience of the weight that must be on it?

The spectators, guessing his intention, stand breathlessly observing him.

There is silence even among the cicadas.

It is broken by the formalised interrogatory of the judge?

“Have you anything to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced upon you?”

“No!” he replies, “I have not. The jury has given a just verdict. I acknowledge that I have forfeited my life, and deserve to lose it.”

Not during all the day—despite its many strange incidents and startling surprises—have the spectators been so astonished. They are confounded beyond the power of speech; and in silence permit the condemned man to proceed, with what they now perceive to be his confession.

“It is quite true,” continues he, “that I killed Henry Poindexter—shot him dead in the chapparal.”

The declaration is answered by a cry from the crowd. It is altogether involuntary, and expresses horror rather than indignation.

Alike involuntary is the groan that goes with it—proceeding from a single individual, whom all know to be the father of the murdered man—once more in their midst.

Beyond these sounds, soon ceasing, there is nothing to hinder the confession from being continued.

“I know that I’ve got to die,” proceeds the prisoner, with an air of seeming recklessness. “You have decreed it; and I can tell by your looks you have no intention to change your minds.

“After what I’ve confessed, it would be folly in me to expect pardon; and I don’t. I’ve been a bad fellow; and no doubt have done enough to deserve my fate. But, bad as I may have been, I’m not vile enough to be sent out of the world, and leave behind me the horrid imputation of having murdered my own cousin. I did take his life, as I’ve told you. You are all asking why, and conjecturing about the motive. There was none.”

A new “sensation” makes itself manifest among the spectators. It partakes of surprise, curiosity, and incredulity.

No one speaks, or in any way attempts interruption.

“You wonder at that. It’s easily explained. I killed him by mistake!”

The surprise culminates in a shout; suppressed as the speaker proceeds.

“Yes, by mistake; and God knows I was sorry enough, on discovering that I had made it. I didn’t know myself till long after.”

The condemned man looks up, as if in hopes that he has touched a chord of mercy. There is no sign of it, on the faces that surround him—still solemnly austere.

“I don’t deny,” continues he; “I needn’t—that I intended to kill some one. I did. Nor am I going to deny who it was. It was the cur I see standing before me.”

In a glance of concentrated hatred, the speaker rests his eye upon Gerald; who only answers with a look, so calm as almost to betray indifference.

“Yes. I intended to kill him. I had my reasons. I’m not going to say what they were. It’s no use now.

“I thought I had killed him; but, as hell’s luck would have it, the Irish hound had changed cloaks with my cousin.

“You know the rest. By mistake I fired the shot—meant for an enemy, and fatal to a friend. It was sure enough; and poor Henry dropped from his horse. But to make more sure, I drew out my knife; and the cursed serapé still deceiving me, I hacked off his head.”

The “sensation” again expresses itself in shuddering and shouts—the latter prolonged into cries of retribution—mingled with that murmuring which proclaims a story told.

There is no more mystery, either about the murder or its motive; and the prisoner is spared further description of that fiendish deed, that left the dead body of Henry Poindexter without a head.

“Now!” cries he, as the shouting subsides, and the spectators stand glaring upon him, “you know all that’s passed; but not what’s to come. There’s another scene yet. You see me standing on my grave; but I don’t go into it, till I’ve sent him to his. I don’t, by God!”

There is no need to guess at the meaning of this profane speech—the last of Calhoun’s life. Its meaning is made clear by the act that accompanies it.

While speaking he has kept his right hand under the left breast of his coat. Along with the oath it comes forth, holding a revolver.

The spectators have just time to see the pistol—as it glints under the slanting sunbeams—when two shots are heard in quick succession.

With a like interval between, two men fall forward upon their faces; and lie with their heads closely contiguous!

One is Maurice Gerald, the mustanger,—the other Cassius Calhoun, ex-captain of volunteer cavalry.

The crowd closes around, believing both to be dead; while through the stillness that succeeds is heard a female voice, in those wild plaintive tones that tell of a heart nigh parting in twain!