As an earlier mention of William Hope Hodgson having written a western story seemed to arouse some interest, I am presenting it here today.
At first, it seems to be a very odd anomaly in WHH’s oeuvre. After all, we have no evidence that Hodgson ever traveled to the American west. Although he sailed around the world several times during his youth in the Merchant Marine, there’s nothing that says that he ever spent any time in America and certainly not inland. So, why a western?
We can only speculate as to Hodgson’s motives. The story first appeared in the London Magazine in July, 1912. This puts it after his initial burst of creative writing (1903-1910) and a year before his wedding. At the time, Hodgson was looking to expand his publishing income and may have written this as simply a “one-off” to gain some extra cash. However, some of Hodgson’s other themes come to bear in this story most notably that of ‘honor’ and also an unflattering depiction of women.
The namesake of the story is a hard, unforgiving woman who is described as “a hard-faced, big-boned, childless woman”. Her primary motivation in the story seems to be to nag her husband, the Judge, to be harsher in his judgements. This changes when she meets the mother of a boy who is sentenced to hang. Her change of outlook does not entirely convince but it is the underlying message here that, I believe, is more important: MEN are right.
This is a theme that comes up frequently in Hodgson and one which does not age his work well. Men are often portrayed as the bringers of logic and sense while women are emotional and must be shown the error of their ways. There is some work yet to be done in studying this aspect of Hodgson’s work. Was this a belief that he held or had it been instilled in him by the societal customs of the time? Sometime to consider in more depth.
Here, for your enjoyment, is truly one of Hodgson’s strangest (though not in a way he intended) stories.
JUDGE BARCLAY’S WIFE
Mrs Judge Barclay she was called, and no one thought to call her anything less. And at the instant of this tale she sat in the crude, log-built cabin that did temporary duty for a court in the small township of Selville, which lay at the head of what was locally termed the “gold-creek.”
Her husband, assisted by the sheriff and a number of his posse, accompanied by a number of miners, was trying a young miner named Jem Turrill, and the old Judge’s face showed a strong tendency to mercy as he looked down from his raised seat of packing-cases at the sullen face of the young man before him.
On her part, Mrs Judge Barclay was trying to catch the Judge’s eye, to “stiffen his back-bone,” as she would have phrased it; for she had dealt with him often and bitterly concerning his undue tendency to mercy. A hard-faced, big-boned, childless woman of sixty she was, vigorous and a ruler of men, her husband in particular, except on this one point which pertained to mercy. Judge Barclay, however, had once been sheriff, and had practical knowledge that the capital sentence given in court was but the precursor of that dread scene where a rope, and too often a fine man, kicking his life away, formed a dreadful conjunction in his memory. Many and many a man had he seen pass outward this way; yet, with pleasure it may be told that such experiences had not brought callousness.
But Mrs Judge Barclay knew nothing of what I might term the practical side of Justice. She failed in Realisation. She attended constantly at the courts where her husband presided, and would listen with critical severity to her husband’s “handling” of the case, and see no further than the given sentence. Too often, she would listen, with a sort of impatient half-contempt in her heart old Judge Barclay’s constant tempering of Justice with good human mercy; and always after any special evidence of this trait in him, she would consider it her duty to “stiffen his backbone,” as she termed it—a process which occasionally included the unloading upon the Judge of some rather brusque comments, bordering almost on the contemptuous.
As a result of his wife’s constant attitude, old Judge Barclay had more than once found himself dealing out sentences that were sterner than his heart considered the needs of the case to require. This wife of his strung him up, as it were, to a sort of concert-pitch of austerity. But such stringing up was only temporary, in every case; and after the Court had ended the old Judge would have a bad time with his own kindly nature, the while, perhaps, that he would be walking back to his log hotel with his wife, nodding absently to her comments of somewhat grim approbation. Perhaps, once in a way, he would wake up to the whole meaning of the situation, with, maybe, something of a vague half-bitterness towards his wife, and a desire to show her somewhat of the things that lay actually “behind the sentence”—the human agony and shame and degradation of the poor human in the Machinery of Correction.
Once, indeed, he had made the attempt; had silenced her with a sudden sternness that had astounded her, and brought a certain novel respect for him into her general feeling of Proprietorship. But he had failed entirely, as he worked slowly and earnestly, striving to pull up for her inspection the deep roots (the principles) out of which grew the plant of his conduct in life. He had no particular gift of speech and had striven with logic, where only the wand of emotion might have helped him to reach down to the sunk wells of pity that lay so deep in the frozen womanhood of his grim and childless wife.
His effort merely earned the retort that “evildoers must take their physic, or else quit their bad ways,” and further, that if he had not the “stomach for his duty,” he would be better employed doing other work, “maybe nursin’ babbies!” (What an inverted expression of the pain of her denied motherhood lay in this tilt at the Judge; though it is more than probable that the woman never realised it.)
And now she sat in the log-shanty court, and stared with cold eyes of complete condemnation from Jem Turrill, the prisoner, to her husband, the Judge, and so back again to the prisoner, her brain taking the evidence, piece by piece, and her stern reasoning breeding in her an impatient contempt for the look of compassion which old Judge Barclay occasionally turned upon the sullen and youthful Jem.
Jem Turrill was certainly a rather sullen looking young lout; but, for all that, he was possessed of a more wholesome heart and better abilities than a casual look at his face suggested; the poor effect he produced owing itself probably to his constant sullen expression, which put onlookers immediately out of sympathy with him. He was given to occasional heavy drinking-bouts, and he gambled inveterately, but also he worked hard, and he had a very real affection for his old mother, whose love for him had for so long been pitiful in its hungry anxiety to aid and coax him to steady ways, without angering him.
Her affection had brought her West, among the mining towns, that she might be near to him. She had come one evening, a few months prior to the event I am relating, and the son had welcomed her with a curious mixture of honest joy and equally honest shamefacedness, lest the other miners of his acquaintanceship should view the matter from the standpoint of the “maternal apron-strings.” Yet the over-youthful Jem need not have troubled; his comrades neither thought nor cared one way or the other about the new arrival, except, it might be, to envy him the possession of a competent house-keeper and cook in his little, rough shanty. And, as I have said, though a wayward, sullen youth, his affection for his mother was genuine and curiously intense, after its own peculiar fashion.
But of all this Mrs Judge Barclay was unaware. It is to be doubted whether she even realised that the youthful thief and murderer (for these were the counts on which he was standing his trial) so much as possessed a mother—whether, indeed, such a dreadful creature could possibly have been born of woman! If she herself had borne children, she might have understood many things, and she would not have been sitting there. As it was, she sat there, calm and logical and utterly impatient of the “sentimentality!” of her husband’s expression as he viewed the sodden-looking young reprobate before the Court.
And young Jem Turrill was in very sore trouble, indeed; though far less a guilty-souled man than the woman or the Court believed him. Indeed, by the woman and the Court, he was already foredoomed to condemnation; but Judge Barclay saw a little deeper, and was striving, somewhat inefficiently, to elicit such replies from the prisoner as should present his case in a less dreadful light. But young Jem only stood like a clumsy oaf, protesting with sullen earnestness his innocence to the old Judge who desired to believe him; and to the Court that entirely disbelieved him. Once, in the midst of his protesting of innocence he stopped, and looked suddenly at Mrs Judge Barclay—the one woman in the court—as if he had an abrupt thought that she perhaps might understand that he was innocent of the worst. The action was born of a sudden, rather hopeless instinct, that became instantly wholly hopeless, as his look met her grim, unfaltering gaze, as merciless as that of any man present. And with a hopeless little half-drunken shrugging of his shoulders he had turned from her, and once more faced the old Judge, whose leaning towards mercy he perceived dimly.
The details were brief enough. He had been up at the shanty of one Duncan Larsden, playing cards, during the past night (it was early morning still). Pistol shots a little before dawn had brought up the sheriff and a couple of his men, who found Larsden dead, with a bullet-wound in his head. Young Jem Turrill was gone, and with him, as was shortly proved, at least two hundred ounces of Larsden’s gold. The sheriff took up the hot trail, and ran the young man down within two hours, and already he was in the Court, being tried for his life. Indeed, so speedily had events moved that his old mother at that very moment awaited him in the shanty with a newly cooked damper, and a freshly opened tin of salmon, all unaware of the dreadfulness that was falling.
As I have said, Jem sullenly but vehemently protested his innocence. When caught by the sheriff he was found to have on him a one hundred ounce bag of gold-dust, in addition to the nuggets of the dead man. The gold dust he was easily able to prove as his own property; at least, it had been his on the previous evening. His version was that Larsden had lost his two hundred ounces of nuggets to him, and had then staked his claim against the three hundred ounces of gold that Jem held. Larsden had won, but even as he declared himself winner, two aces had dropped out of his sleeve, and Jem had rounded upon him as a cheat—a swizzler. At the accusation, Larsden had drawn on him, but his “gun” had missed fire, and Jem had got home a good useful shot before the other man had time to pull the trigger a second time, and Duncan Larsden had slipped out noisily into the twilight of life. Jem had then got a sick fright that the affair might look bad for him, and, like a silly young fool, had proceeded to make it immediately ten thousand times worse by bolting with the gold. Possibly, if he had been more sober, he would have seen the folly of his action in time, but regrets were useless; he had bolted, and been found with the “stolen” gold upon him.
It is true that, in young Jem’s favour, it was found that a miss-fire cartridge occupied one of the chambers of Larsden’s revolver, but this was not exactly evidence; and against this one favourable item was the fact that the young man had gone off with the two hundred ounces of gold that had not been his the previous evening. This was the thing that condemned him; there was no thought of mercy on the part of the jurors; there had been far too much thieving in the township of late; it was a matter that vitally affected each and every one of them, for some had gold in their shanties or tents, and others hoped some time to be in a like pleasing condition. The result of such interests, dealing with such evidence, was a foregone conclusion—young Jem Turrill was sentenced to be hanged the next morning at dawn; the gallows a tree just outside of the north end of the township. It had been used previously for the same purpose, having a convenient bough.
As Jem was led out of the shanty where the Court had been held, he turned suddenly and stared fiercely at Mrs Judge Barclay; she was, as I have said, the only woman there.
“Hey!” shouted the sullen Jem, with an extraordinary flash of analytical inspiration. “You’m a hard-hearted old brute you be! Sittin’ there an’ thinkin’ proper to have me murdered, you old hag!”
He was hustled away, for old Mrs Barclay was well enough liked, and thoroughly respected; and the only effect of the young man’s outburst was to fix more firmly on her mind, and on the minds of all the others, that he was but a brutish creature, and better hanged soon than late. Even old Judge Barclay was conscious of a momentary flash of anger against him for his address to his wife.
And so the young man went out to the little log-built lock-up, where he was to fret away the hours that remained.
Meanwhile, someone told his old mother.
At daybreak next day, however, when the sheriff visited the lock-up with a number of his posse to lead young Turrill to his own grim version of under-the-greenwood-tree, he found the men he had left on guard comfortably ensconced within the lock-up, in a state of beatific drunkenness, but Jem, the condemned (but soul-guiltless) murderer, was distinctly not there.
Explanations from the guard were confused, and the sheriff twisted the key on him, in turn, whilst he organised search parties for Jem Turrill. The search parties were not a success, and it seemed that Jem had got safely away, but the sheriff was an obstinate man, and having arranged a hanging, was determined that a hanging there should be. He stuck, therefore, to the search, but adopted a new method; he watched the comings and goings of Jem’s old mother.
Meanwhile, old Judge Barclay, having a day of rest before him, chose to go fishing, accompanied, as ever, by Mrs Barclay. He was in a restful and contented frame of mind. He was thoroughly, though secretly, glad that young Jem had escaped. He felt in his heart that, whatever the evidence, the man was less guilty than proof had shown.
It was in the late afternoon, just as old Judge Barclay was having an exciting moment with an exceptionally fine fish, that both he and his wife heard a woman screaming somewhere among the trees on their side of the river. The Judge handed his rod to his wife, and ran off in the direction of the sound. Mrs Judge Barclay consigned the rod to the river-bank, and followed him. The screams continued, and the old Judge began to run, breathlessly, and his wife also, with a sudden, new-born feeling of something that was worse than discomfort stirring peculiar emotions within her. They dashed on among the trees, guided by the screams, and burst through into a small clearing, in the midst of which stood a solitary oak; and so had view of a painful and dreadful sight—Justice, the Fetish of all perfect man, about to accept a victim.
There was a group of men under a great bough of the oak, and one of the men was trying to throw a rope up over the branch; and even as the old Judge and his wife ran across the clearing, he succeeded; whereupon several of the men ran and caught hold of the dangling end, and proceeded to haul the slack over the branch. Mrs Judge Barclay saw then, all in a moment, as it were, that the other end of the rope was fast about the neck of a man who had his back turned to her, and she experienced a peculiar little sick feeling, as Nature began to have birth in her. She was still hastening towards the group as she discovered these details, and in almost the same instant she discovered that the screaming came from a woman who was held by a couple of the men.
Her glance went again to the others. Several of them had stepped back a little from the noosed man, and had their Smith and Wessons in their hands. She recognised the sheriff, and knew that the man with the rope about his neck was Jem Turrill. She did not know that they were going to shoot poor Jem full up with lead as soon as he should have swung sufficiently to get the “taste of the hangin’ into his heart.” Nor, if she had realised the fact, would she have understood that mercy was really at the back of the men’s intention—mercy with the cestus, instead of the gentle fingers of woman, but mercy nevertheless. And so came Mrs Judge Barclay to the group of men intent about their work.
The condemned lad (for he was scarcely more) stood pale and grimly silent, swallowing constantly and dreadfully at the dryness that seemed to fill his throat, and looking with wild eyes at the woman held by the two men, for it was his old mother.
“Help! Help!” she would scream, and fall into a sudden, trembling silence, quivering so that her quivering shook the two brawny men who held her, so callously determined. And again her scream would ring out madly, “Help! Help!” crying to any god that might be listening.
Mrs Judge Barclay stood a moment, looking at it all with wider eyes than she had ever opened before—seeing it, and at last beginning, with a horrible sickness in all her being, to understand something of what old Judge Barclay, her husband, had never been given words or skill to “make seen” to her.
The mother’s crying broke out again, fierce and terrible in its white-hot intensity:—”Help! Help!” And she began to struggle like a maniac, with the two big men who held her. The dreadfulness of it all! … It was she, his own mother, who had innocently led the posse to where her son was hid. They had watched her, as I have told, and had followed her, secretly, as she slipped away quietly through the woods, taking a towelful of damper and tinned goods to Jem’s hiding-place. She it was who had managed the escape for him by conveying drink to the man on guard, and she it was who had found the hiding-place for him, and she it was who had brought him food; and now she had brought him to his death. She began to scream incoherent words and to give out scarcely human sounds, and her struggles became so fierce that her clothing was ripped literally into ribbons of cloth and cotton in the hands of the two unemotional, almost casually determined men who had held her off from going to her son.
Old Mrs Barclay stared, suffering at last in understanding of the stern and deathly intention that informed the group of men “about their business”; and with her heart sick with the horror of pain that seemed suddenly to emanate from that one plague-spot of tragedy, and fill all the earth. Her grim old face had grown ghastly under its pale tan colour…. This was Justice, the Justice that she had so constantly hammered into her husband the need of dealing, without shrinking…. This madly desperate mother, and this lad, barely out of his teens (she was seeing sanely at last), standing noosed within a few yards of her, and already, as it were, looking at his mother from the other side of the Eternity of Death…. And the sheriffs men (the Men of Death they seemed now to her) all around, so dreadly purposeful and obdurate to the Voice of Natural Pity that wailed at them out of the lips of the crazed mother…. This was what she—she, Anna Barclay, had urged her husband towards many and many a time; she had never known; never! Never—NEVER! … She could almost have screamed her denial….
No wonder John (her husband) had been always so inclined towards mercy…. My God, were there often such scenes as these going on in the same world…. Was there often this weight of terror and complete HORROR bred into being by the deliberate doings of Man, for any purpose whatever— call it Justice or by any other name?… This dreadfulness. This dreadfulness that choked her. This … and suddenly she found her voice:
“STOP!” she cried, with a voice as deep and hoarse as a man’s. “STOP!” … She waved her hands a moment incoherently, fighting to take control of the fierce passion of horror and agony of pity that beat through every fibre of her, possessing her. “Stop!” she cried again; and then:
“How dare you! … Oh, how dare all you men be met together here to do this—to do such a thing! To do such a thing…” She stopped abruptly, and stared at the men, as if they were things incredibly monstrous, and they, on their part, looked round at her and the Judge, only then aware of their advent.
“Let him go at once!” said old Mrs Judge Barclay, speaking again, as her voice became once more a controllable possession…. “Let him go to his mother…. Let them both go.”
Across the ring of men the mother had fallen suddenly to her knees; her mouth was gabbering breathless words of prayer, her hands outstretched at arms’ length, her fingers twining and intertwining madly.
“Save … him,” came her voice at last, no louder than a hoarse whisper, yet having a strange quality that seemed to make the very leaves above them stir and rustle. And, with the two completed words, she pitched forward, out of the relaxed hands of the two men who held her, on to her face, with a little thump, her forehead and nose ploughing into the trampled mud beneath the tree.
There came a queer, little inarticulate cry from Jem, and he began to fight desperately, bound hands and feet as he was, towards where his mother lay on her knees and face; but the sheriff and one of the men caught him and dragged him back beneath the over-reaching bough. The sheriff signed hastily to old Judge Barclay, and the Judge put his arm about his wife to lead her away. But she tore from him, and faced the sheriff.
“It’ll be all right, mum,” said that man. “You go along quiet now with the Jedge. We ain’t goin’ to hurt Jem more’n the flap of a fly’s tail. Don’t ye worrit…”
“You’re going to hang that young man as soon as I’ve gone!” burst in Mrs Barclay, very white-faced, but with now a strange shining in her eyes. “That’s what you mean to do!”
“Yep,” said the sheriff, scratching his head, and trying to catch Judge Barclay’s eye. But Judge Barclay was looking only at his wife, with something that was new in the way of his look.
“Yep,” said the sheriff again. “Jem’s boun’ to hang, sure, mum, but we ain’t goin’ to hurt him worth a mench. We’ll turn ‘m off nice an’ easy. You go along of the Jedge now…”
But he never finished his piece of excellent and practical advice; for, with a bound astonishing in so elderly a woman, she came at him, and he gave back helplessly, not knowing how to cope with such an attack. Yet she had no meaning to strike him. Instead, before he knew anything beyond his bewilderment, she had opened his holster and twitched out the heavy Smith and Wesson; then, with a leap, she was back from him, facing the group:
“Hands up!” she screamed, her voice cracking and her old eyes literally blazing, “You shall not murder that boy; not so what he’s done! HANDS UP! I say, or I’ll surely shoot at you.”
The old woman’s expression was so full of a desperate resolve that the men’s hands went up, though maybe a little hesitatingly and doubtfully. Yet, they had gone up, and up they remained, as the muzzle of the heavy weapon menaced first one and then another. For suddenly it was very clear to the men that the woman was wound up to such a pitch of intensity that she would shoot first and do the thinking afterwards. It is true that several of the men held their revolvers in their hands; but what could they do? They could undoubtedly have snapped off shots at the old woman, but they were not going to shoot old Mrs Judge Barclay; the thought was below their horizon of practical things. Neither would it have done to have attempted to rush her, for there would have been, most surely, one or two sudden deaths achieved in the operation, and the after situation also would have to be faced; so, as I have told, they kept up their hands, and watched the old woman with quite as much curiosity as rancour. They were very practical men.
Old Judge Barclay, however, failed to realise the entire earnestness of the situation, and, after a moment of stupefaction, began to run towards his wife in vast distress.
“Anna, Anna!” he cried out. “Anna, my dear, put that down and come away!”
But she ripped round at him:
“Stand back, John!” she shouted shrilly. “I shall shoot!”
But the old Judge still failed to realise, and continued to come towards her.
“Stand back, John, or I shall shoot!” she screamed. “I’m fair wound up, an’ you’ll make me do murder! Stand back, John!”
As she spoke, she fired the pistol to frighten him; and because she had never fired a pistol before, she had no suspicion that the reason her husband’s hat flew off was that the bullet had passed clean through the crown of it, just grazing his bald, old head. If she had thought at all about the displacing of the hat, she would merely have supposed that his sudden start at the shot accounted for it.
The old Judge came to an abrupt stand, his face grown very white; but he said not a word more, and his wife took no further notice of him; not even insisting on his putting up his hands. She wheeled round sharply again upon the sheriff and his posse, and discovered the sheriff half way across the grass towards her; for he had thought to catch and disarm her whilst her attention was taken with the Judge. The old woman’s eyes blazed as she saw how nearly he had succeeded:
“Back!” she screamed at him, and in the same instant fired. The sheriff reeled a moment; then steadied himself, and thrust his hands earnestly above his head. The bullet had struck him full in the stomach, but the huge buckle of his belt had turned it, so that it had glanced out through his shirt again harmlessly, a mere half-flattened little chunk of lead.
“Get back to the others!” ordered the old woman, in a voice high and tense. “Turn your backs, all of you!”
As one man, the posse faced about.
“Go off a bit from the young man!” said Mrs Judge Barclay. “Stop there. Keep there!”
She ran swiftly to the prisoner, whirled him round on his heels with one vigorous hand, and pulled out the sheath-knife, which had never been removed from his belt. She slashed at the thin rope about his wrists, and all the time she kept a strict watch upon the line of masculine backs before her. She cut the rope at last, and his hands also, but not badly; then pushed the knife into his cramped fingers, and the lad proceeded to cut loose the lashings about his ankles.
“Now, GO!” said old Mrs Judge Barclay, fiercely, as he stood free. “An’ mind an’ sin no more. GO!”
She almost shrieked as he stood and stared at her; and she pointed to the horses of the posse. He looked swiftly towards his mother; but the Judge’s wife beat him with her free hand fiercely, pushing him towards the horses. And suddenly, he obeyed, and began to run stiffly towards the animals.
When he reached them he displayed a little of that sense and ability which I have hinted lay cloaked so securely below his somewhat habitually sullen expression, for, having freed all the reins, he gathered them into his hand, and mounted the finest of the horses, which belonged to the sheriff; then, leading the rest, he went off at a fast trot.
The line of silent men began to stir uneasily, and old Mrs Judge Barclay steadied them with her voice. For a space of fifteen minutes, timed by her old-fashioned gold watch, she stood on guard. At the end of that time the mother of Jem came-to, and lifted a muddy face, stiffening sharply into terror with suddenly returned memory. She hove herself up giddily on to her knees, and glared upwards and round her, expecting dreadfully to see something that swayed, writhing, above her from the great branch.
Said Mrs Judge Barclay:
“Your son’s gone, ma’am. He’ll be well down the trail by this.”
Her voice began to shake curiously as she spoke; and suddenly she reached her breaking-point, and collapsed, settling all in a heap on the muddy ground. She never heard the dazed, crazy words of fierce gratitude that the other woman gave out as she bent over her, aiding the old Judge to lay her down straight.
Old Mrs Judge Barclay came round some minutes later, to find her mouth uncomfortably full of bad whisky, and her husband still anxiously loosening garments that Jem’s mother had already loosed quite sufficiently. His clumsy old fingers shook as he fumbled, and she put up a sudden hand of tenderness, and caught the fumbling fingers and held them with an almost hysterical firmness. In a little she rose to a sitting position, and looked round at the ring of men, who stood, each with his whisky-flask in his hand, ready, as it might be thought, to insure that the supply of restorative should not run dry.
Presently Mrs Judge Barclay spoke:
“Now,” she said, turning her white, plucky old face towards the sheriff, “if you must hang somebody, hang me; not a bit of a young boy like that!”
But they hanged neither old Mrs Judge Barclay nor young Jem Turrill; for the latter got clear away. And concerning the former, if the truth must be known, the sheriff and his men entertain for her a respect few women have ever screwed out of their somewhat rugged-natured hearts. Moreover, they kept the affair strictly quiet, for it was not one in which any of them was able to discover undue credit to himself. As for old Judge Barclay, he had nothing of reproach for his wife. In his heart he was unfeignedly thankful that young Jem had got away; and equally glad, in another fashion, that Providence or kind Chance had ordered it that his wife should witness the working of the unmitigated Justice that she had so often upheld.