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A short story by James Runciman

The Suspected Man

Title:     The Suspected Man
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

A tall girl used to wander about from village to village down the coast. Strangers did not know what was the matter with her, but all the people who lived round the bay knew that she was out of her mind. Her clothes were not very good, but she kept herself clean, and when she was in the humour she would help the neighbours. She had no relations living, but she never went short of food, for the fishers and the farm people, and even the pitmen, took care to give her shelter and enough to eat. She was mostly bare-headed, but in September, when the cotton-grass grew feathery, she liked to make herself a head-dress out of the grey plumes. When her Sunday hat, as she called it, was on, she was fond of putting the red fronds of the dying bracken into her belt, and with those adornments she looked picturesque.

She was always humming to herself, but she never got beyond one silly old song which is common enough in the north country. As she walked along the links she used to move her hands in a stupid way to the rhythm of her music. The words that she sung are known to the people who live on the border, but nobody has ever completed the lyric to which they belong. The two verses which she sang were:--

"Oh have you seen my bonny lad,
And ken ye if he's weel, O!
It's owre the land and owre the sea
He's gyen to moor the keel, O!

"Oh yes, I saw your bonny lad,
Upon the sea I spied him,
His grave is green, but not wi' grass,
And you'll never lie beside him."

The tune to which she sang her lines was rather merry than otherwise, and sometimes she would dance to the measure. The boys were kind to her, and she liked to enter a school-yard during play time, because the young people used to share their sweets with her.

Whenever the weather was very stormy she walked about the sands and tore at her hair. If a ship stood into the bay to escape the northerly wind, she was violently excited; and, when vessels anchored a good mile out, she would scream warnings to the captains.

She had been a very fine girl in her time, and many of the fisher lads would have been glad to have married her. The sailor-men too from the colliers' port used to come after her. But she went mad when she found the lad whom she liked best lying dead on the beach, and so she never married.

The story of her sweetheart's death was one of the ugliest that ever was known on the shores of the bay. He was a smart fellow, who went mate of a brig that ran to Middlesborough for iron-stone. The brig was not much of a beauty, and, when she had to go round, the odds were always about two to one that she would "miss stays."

In coming northward from Middlesborough, one bad winter's day, she missed stays once too often, and when the captain found that she would not come round, he let go one anchor. But the chain was of no more use than a straw rope: it snapped, and the vessel came ashore, broadside on to the rocks. It was about dusk when she struck, and nothing could be done to help the men.

Mad Mary's sweetheart swam ashore, but it seemed that he must have been very much exhausted when he got to the sand, and somebody was waiting for him who had better never have seen him.

A man who stood under the cliffs while the poor struggling swimmer fought southward, had a bad reputation in every village from Spittal to Cullercoates. He was a sulky fellow, and did not make his living by legitimate ways. None of the men cared to associate with him, for he had once violated every instinct of kindness that the fishermen and sailors held dear.

He had found an abandoned vessel to the north of the Dogger Bank, and he boarded her. Finding no one on deck, he determined to sail the vessel into port and get the salvage on her. A retriever dog came floundering along the deck and fawned upon him. Now the man had heard that if any living thing is on board a vessel no salvage-money can be claimed when the ship is picked up, and he believed the story, so he coaxed the dog, patted him until he got the chance of a fair hold, then put his arms round the poor beast, and pitched it overboard.

The story was told everywhere by the other smacks-men, and the children used to cry, "Who drowned the dog?" whenever the doer of this wicked act appeared in the street. The fellow who drowned the dog was certainly close by when the brig touched, but beyond this we know nothing that could prove a crime. In the morning, when a troop of fishermen walked along the beach to see if anything could be picked up, they found Mary sitting on the sand beside the dead body of a man. The dead sailor's head was bruised, and his waistcoat had been torn open. A rat-catcher who had crossed the moor said that he saw the man who drowned the dog skulking up the hollow from the place where the corpse lay, but no one brought any definite accusation, for, after all, the bruise on the head might have been caused by a blow on a stone. Still the suspected man had a bad life after this occurrence. Mary lost her senses completely, but she recognized him always, and whenever she saw him she crooked her fingers like the claws of a cat, and showed her teeth. Why she did so could only be guessed: perhaps she had seen more than the rat-catcher, but she never said anything.

The fellow who had earned this suspicion stayed in the village until one memorable winter night, when some youths waylaid him as he came sneaking off the moor with his lurcher. They put a lantern under a sheet and waited till their scouts told them that the victim was near. As soon as he had passed the marsh that borders the waste, the practical jokers pushed up a pole with the lantern on top, and with the sheet over the lantern. The poacher lay down on his face and shouted for mercy. He never came into the village after this, but went to an inland town and lived by his old mysterious industry. No crime worse than poaching was ever brought home to him, and, as he left the seafaring life, the unpleasant memory of him soon died away. Mad Mary wandered the countryside for a long time: some kind people wanted to put her in an asylum, because they feared she might get drowned as she walked the shore where the unhappy little brig went to pieces. But she was never put under restraint, and her innocent life passed amid kindness and pity.

[The end]
James Runciman's short story: Suspected Man