OUT WEST : NUMBER SEVEN
Saved By The Belle
Shilton! End of the line! Shilton! End of the line! The conductor needn’t have bothered to bawl out his message. All the passengers knew that this was the terminus and everyone was already standing and more than ready to disembark after an uncomfortable journey. As the locomotive gasped to a halt I dawdled, allowing all the other twenty or so people to alight before I did.
My name is Owen Price and I was returning to Shilton after four years in prison. I was innocent of course. So many of them say that, don’t they? In my case it’s true and I hope this account of the matter will demonstrate that point to anyone who might be interested, though I’m writing it as much to get things off my chest as for any other reason.
Shilton isn’t my hometown and I had only one purpose in coming back. I was not and am not concerned with rehabilitating myself because I don’t intend to stay here. I wanted justice and knew I wouldn’t get it through legal channels. My route would be vengeance.
The tale began when I had few sharp words with John Handley. Both of us were attracted to Rita Hart, widely regarded as the most attractive young woman in town. I won’t go over the conversation we had. It was a little juvenile for a couple of fellows in their middle twenties, especially as Rita had never said or done anything to encourage either of us, though we had no doubt she was aware of our interest in her. We parted late in the evening. Two days later, Handley was found sprawled in an alley. He’d been attacked and had taken a beating that left him paralysed from the waist down.
To my amazement I was arrested later that day, accused of carrying out the assault. I was even more astounded when two men came forward, claiming that they’d seen me give the fallen man a last kick, then leave the spot. They said they had rushed to see whether they could help Handley but weren’t able to do anything for him, so had summoned the town’s doctor.
I was tried for the crime, found guilty and given the four-year sentence. The prospect of life in prison filled me with foreboding. It was indeed a grim existence, but I fared better than most of the inmates. For one thing, the guards soon grasped that I had had a good education and to my surprise they seemed to respect that. I also taught two of them to play chess. They became fascinated with the game and passed on to some of their colleagues what they’d learned from me. With about a dozen of them taking up the pastime, they set up a club. For obvious reasons, I couldn’t be a member, but I was asked to offer some offer some of the players tips from time to time.
When the Handley incident occurred, I had been in Shilton barely a year. Apart from my parents, who lived in New England, much too far away to travel to the Southwest on my account, I had no family, nor had I any close friends. During my confinement, I received only one visitor – and that was a big surprise. The man turned up eight months after I’d started serving my sentence. He was no more than a casual acquaintance. I’m not going to reveal his identity here and nobody will be able to trace it at the prison because he gave a false name there.
My case had been preying on my visitor’s mind since the trial and he could no longer keep what he knew to himself. What he said astounded me. I hadn’t been aware that Rita Hart was in the sights of one of Shilton’s most prominent businessmen, Jacob Fenner. It was he who had orchestrated my downfall. Somehow he’d learned that both John Handley and I had designs on Rita. He’d hired two thugs to beat up and cripple Handley. They were of course the same pair who’d claimed to have seen me in the alley and whose testimonies had led to the guilty verdict.
An intentional aspect of the horrible scheme was that the assault on Handley put an end to any ambition he had as far wooing was concerned, so Fenner had disposed of two birds with one stone and left the way clear for himself. Less than a year after the start of my incarceration, he had married Rita. Well, I could hardly blame her for choosing the path of security and affluence, even though it was with a man nearly twice her age.
I was almost beside myself with fury when I heard my visitor’s story. He gave me the additional information that the two men Fenner had engaged to thrash Handley and frame me had disappeared from Shilton a few days after my trial. He also said that he intended to leave the town in due course. I’m not saying here whether he did or not, and anyway, many people have come and gone in the meantime.
In the three years and four months that passed between that man’s visit and my release, my anger remained unabated. I was determined to get even with Fenner as quickly as possible, then leave Shilton right away. There was no accommodation awaiting me. I didn’t even expect to book a room in the hotel or either of the two boarding houses.
The train had arrived shortly before eight in the evening. Fenner lived in a vast, luxurious house three miles out of town. I had no means of getting there other than on foot, and by nine o’clock I was standing in front of the massive oak door of my quarry’s mansion. They say that revenge is a dish best taken cold but I paid no heed to that dictum, and I was soon to realise that I should have done so, for I was far too impetuous.
My idea was to bypass or overpower any servants Fenner might have and get to him as quickly as possible. I hadn’t even stopped to consider that he might not be at home. I was prepared to break a window if necessary, but the door was unlocked, so I went inside and found myself in a long, wide hall. On either side of it were two doors, the first pair facing one another, both about ten feet from me, the second pair twenty feet or so further along. Directly ahead of me, around twenty-five feet away, was a staircase.
The first door to my right was open, revealing a room in darkness. The one to my left was ajar. I gave it a push and stepped into a dining room, unlighted and unoccupied. I moved to the second door on the left, opened it and there was Fenner sitting behind a large desk in what was clearly his study. He'd been poring over some papers. When he saw me, his eyes widened and his mouth fell open. “What the hell are you doing here?” he barked.
I took a couple of steps towards him. “I'm here to make you pay for what you did to me and John Handley,” I answered. “And don't pretend ignorance. I know the whole story.”
He was quick on the uptake. “I won't say I don't know what you mean, Price,” he said. “I thought it was quite a neat operation to get you and Handley out of the way at the same time. Now, I have to say you seem to be an even bigger fool than I took you for. If it's killing me you have in mind, what makes you think you could get away with it?”
“I don't propose to kill you, Fenner,” I replied. “I spent some of my time in prison helping the doctor and I picked up quite a lot of knowledge about anatomy. I'm going to give you the kind of beating your hirelings gave Handley and leave you in the same state he's in.”
That was where my rashness was exposed. In my desire to get to Fenner at top speed, I hadn't stopped to think that he might be on the alert in his own home. He whipped open a desk drawer and pulled out a handgun. “You'll be dead before you reach me,” he said. “Come to think of it, I might as well send you to the next world no matter what you aim to do. I mean, I'll only be protecting myself against a violent intruder in my house.” He trained the gun on me.
"No!" Rita's voice came from behind me. I hadn’t heard her coming in. Her tone had the cracked edge that denotes extreme stress. Fenner bellowed at her to get out and leave him alone with me. She moved to my side and I saw that she also had a gun, a big forty-four that looked incongruous in her slender hand. She told me later that she’d been in the room with the opened door, sitting in darkness. She’d heard me entering the house and seen me walking towards the study. Recognising me, she guessed that something serious was about to happen. Following her intuition, she’d gone back into the darkened sitting room, picked up the gun Fenner kept there and steeled herself to take a hand in the matter.
I stood speechless as Fenner again yelled at Rita to get out. She responded by steadying her gun with her left hand under the barrel as she stared wild-eyed at her husband. “I said no, Jacob. Your days of ruining lives are over. I’ve just heard you admit that you were responsible for crippling John Handley and getting Owen sent to prison. You’ve also done your best to destroy me. Since our wedding, you've virtually kept me as a captive in this house. You cut me off from my friends. You've beaten me repeatedly and humiliated me in a dozen ways. Now it’s finished.”
Fenner directed his gun at Rita. “Do I need to get rid of you, too?” He sounded almost bored, as though disposing of his wife was just another unexpected little chore.
Without replying, Rita shot at him twice. The first bullet missed, the second struck him in the right arm. His gun fell to the floor. She stepped right up to the desk, leaned across it and fired once more, this time getting him in the heart. Then she threw down the gun, turned and hurled herself into my arms, sobbing.
I don’t know how long it took Fenner to die. Perhaps only seconds. But with him slumped back in his chair, Rita poured out everything, at times almost gabbling. She told me that she’d hoped that I would make some overtures to her before my misfortune, that any approach would have been well received and that she’d later responded to Fenner’s advances because he’d shown her only his charming side. She’d been seduced more by the prospect of a comfortable future than by any genuine attraction to him.
Since the marriage, Rita been kept in seclusion, confined to the house and grounds, watched continuously by a married couple, the wife being Fenner’s housekeeper, the husband his gardener. Fenner had regarded Rita as no more than a trophy. She had no relatives to help her. Three friends had tried to contact her and had been rebuffed without getting into the house. Sadly, and to my mind reprehensibly, none of them had pressed the matter. It was an astonishing and distressing tale.
Rita was taken into custody and a trial was arranged in short order. There was never much chance of an acquittal, but witness after witness came forward, testifying to the fact that Fenner must have held his wife in isolation. The clincher came when first the housekeeper then her husband broke down under questioning, admitting that they’d been under instructions to keep Rita confined to the house and grounds. In view of her mental state at the time she killed Fenner, the mitigating circumstances included diminished responsibility. The outcome was a custodial sentence of five years, with the possibility of parole. Rita asked if I would be prepared to wait for her. I think I shall. After all, but for her intervention Fenner would surely have killed me, so I guess you could say that I was saved by the belle.
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