The Long Arm by Richard Harding Davis
The safe was an old one that opened with a key. As adjutant,
Captain Swanson had charge of certain funds of the regiment and
kept in the safe about five thousand dollars. No one but himself
and Rueff, his first sergeant, had access to it. And as Rueff proved
an alibi, the money might have been removed by an outsider. The
court-martial gave Swanson the benefit of the doubt, and a reprimand
for not taking greater care of the keys, and Swanson made good the
Swanson did not think it was a burglar who had robbed the safe.
He thought Rueff had robbed it, but he could not possibly prove
that. At the time of the robbery Rueff was outside the Presidio,
in uniform, at a moving-picture show in San Francisco. A dozen
people saw him there. Besides, Rueff held an excellent record.
He was a silent, clerk-like young man, better at "paper work" than
campaigning, but even as a soldier he had never come upon the books.
And he had seen service in two campaigns, and was supposed to
cherish ambitions toward a commission. But, as he kept much to
himself, his fellow non-coms could only guess that.
On his captain's account he was loyally distressed over the
court-martial, and in his testimony tried to shield Swanson, by
agreeing heartily that through his own carelessness the keys
might have fallen into the hands of some one outside the post.
But his loyalty could not save his superior officer from what was
a verdict virtually of "not proven."
It was a most distressing affair, and, on account of the social
prominence of Swanson's people, his own popularity, and the name
he had made at Batangas and in the Boxer business, was much
commented upon, not only in the services, but by the newspapers
all over the United States.
Every one who knew Swanson knew the court-martial was only a
matter of form. Even his enemies ventured only to suggest that
overnight he might have borrowed the money, meaning to replace it
the next morning. And the only reason for considering this explanation
was that Swanson was known to be in debt. For he was a persistent
gambler. Just as at Pekin he had gambled with death for his number,
in times of peace he gambled for money. It was always his own money.
From the start Swanson's own attitude toward the affair was one
of blind, unreasoning rage. In it he saw no necessary routine of
discipline, only crass, ignorant stupidity. That any one should
suspect him was so preposterous, so unintelligent, as to be nearly
comic. And when, instantly, he demanded a court of inquiry, he
could not believe it when he was summoned before a court-martial.
It sickened, wounded, deeply affronted him; turned him quite savage.
On his stand his attitude and answers were so insolent that his
old friend and classmate, Captain Copley, who was acting as his
counsel, would gladly have kicked him. The findings of the
court-martial, that neither cleared nor condemned, and the
reprimand, were an intolerable insult to his feelings, and, in a
fit of bitter disgust with the service and every one in it, Swanson
resigned. Of course, the moment he had done so he was sorry.
Swanson's thought was that he could no longer associate with
any one who could believe him capable of theft. It was his
idea of showing his own opinion of himself and the army.
But no one saw it in that light. On the contrary, people said:
"Swanson has been allowed to resign." I n the army, voluntarily
resigning and being "allowed to resign" lest greater evils befall,
are two vastly different things. And when it was too late no one
than Swanson saw that more clearly. His anger gave way to extreme
morbidness. He believed that in resigning he had assured every one
of his guilt. In every friend and stranger he saw a man who doubted
him. He imagined snubs, rebuffs, and coldnesses. His morbidness
fastened upon his mind like a parasite upon a tree, and the brain
sickened. When men and women glanced at his alert, well-set-up
figure and shoulders, that even when he wore "cits" seemed to support
epaulets, and smiled approvingly, Swanson thought they sneered. In
a week he longed to be back in the army with a homesickness that made
every one who belonged to it his enemy.
He left San Francisco, where he was known to all, and travelled
south through Texas, and then to New Orleans and Florida. He
never could recall this period with clearness. He remembered
changing from one train to another, from one hotel to the next.
Nothing impressed itself upon him. For what he had lost nothing
could give consolation. Without honor life held no charm. And
he believed that in the eyes of all men he was a thief, a pariah,
and an outcast.
He had been in Cuba with the Army of Occupation, and of that
beautiful island had grown foolishly fond. He was familiar with
every part of it, and he believed in one or another of its pretty
ports he could so completely hide himself that no one could
intrude upon his misery. In the States, in the newspapers he
seemed to read only of those places where he had seen service, of
those places and friends and associates he most loved. In the
little Cuban village in which he would bury himself he would cut
himself off from all newspapers, from all who knew him; from
those who had been his friends, and those who knew his name only
to connect it with a scandal.
On his way from Port Tampa to Cuba the boat stopped at Key West,
and for the hour in which she discharged cargo Swanson went
ashore and wandered aimlessly. The little town, reared on a flat
island of coral and limestone, did not long detain him. The main
street of shops, eating-houses, and saloons, the pretty residences
with overhanging balconies, set among gardens and magnolia-trees,
were soon explored, and he was returning to the boat when the martial
music of a band caused him to halt. A side street led to a great gateway
surmounted by an anchor. Beyond it Swanson saw lawns of well-kept
grass, regular paths, pretty cottages, the two-starred flag of an admiral,
and, rising high above these, like four Eiffel towers, the gigantic masts
of a wireless. He recognized that he was at the entrance to the Key
West naval station, and turned quickly away.
He walked a few feet, the music of the band still in his ears. In
an hour he would be steaming toward Cuba, and, should he hold to
his present purpose, in many years this would be the last time he
would stand on American soil, would see the uniform of his country,
would hear a military band lull the sun to sleep. It would hurt, but
he wondered if it were not worth the hurt. A smart sergeant of marines,
in passing, cast one glance at the man who seemed always to wear
epaulets, and brought his hand sharply to salute. The act determined
Swanson. He had obtained the salute under false pretenses, but it had
pleased, not hurt him. He turned back and passed into the gate of the
From the gate a grass-lined carriage drive led to the waters of
the harbor and the wharfs. At its extreme end was the band-stand,
flanked on one side by the cottage of the admiral, on the other
by a sail-loft with iron-barred windows and whitewashed walls.
Upon the turf were pyramids of cannon-balls and, laid out in rows
as though awaiting burial, old-time muzzle-loading guns. Across
the harbor the sun was sinking into the coral reefs, and the spring
air, still warm from its caresses, was stirred by the music of the
band into gentle, rhythmic waves. The scene was one of peace,
order, and content.
But as Swanson advanced, the measure of the music was instantly
shattered by a fierce volley of explosions. They came so suddenly
and sharply as to make him start. It was as though from his flank
a quick-firing gun in ambush had opened upon him. Swanson smiled
at having been taken unawares. For in San Francisco he often had
heard the roar and rattle of the wireless. But never before had he
listened to an attack like this.
From a tiny white-and-green cottage, squatting among the four
giant masts, came the roar of a forest fire. One could hear the
crackle of the flames, the crash of the falling tree-trunks. The
air about the cottage was torn into threads; beneath the shocks
of the electricity the lawn seemed to heave and tremble. It was
like some giant monster, bound and fettered, struggling to be
free. Now it growled sullenly, now in impotent rage it spat and
spluttered, now it lashed about with crashing, stunning blows. It
seemed as though the wooden walls of the station could not
From the road Swanson watched, through the open windows of the
cottage, the electric bolts flash and flare and disappear. The thing
appealed to his imagination. Its power, its capabilities fascinated
him. In it he saw a hungry monster reaching out to every corner
of the continent and devouring the news of the world; feeding
upon tales of shipwreck and disaster, lingering over some dainty
morsel of scandal, snatching from ships and cities two thousand
miles away the thrice-told tale of a conflagration, the score of a
baseball match, the fall of a cabinet, the assassination of a king.
In a sudden access of fierceness, as though in an ecstasy over
some fresh horror just received, it shrieked and chortled. And
then, as suddenly as it had broken forth, it sank to silence, and
from the end of the carriage drive again rose, undisturbed, the
music of the band.
The musicians were playing to a select audience. On benches
around the band-stand sat a half dozen nurse-maids with knitting
in their hands, the baby-carriages within arm's length. On the
turf older children of the officers were at play, and up and down
the paths bareheaded girls, and matrons, and officers in uniform
strolled leisurely. From the vine-covered cottage of Admiral
Preble, set in a garden of flowering plants and bending palmettos,
came the tinkle of tea-cups and the ripple of laughter, and at a
respectful distance, seated on the dismantled cannon, were
marines in khaki and bluejackets in glistening white.
It was a family group, and had not Swanson recognized among the
little audience others of the passengers from the steamer and
natives of the town who, like himself, had been attracted by the
music, he would have felt that he intruded. He now wished to
remain. He wanted to carry with him into his exile a memory of
the men in uniform, of the music, and pretty women, of the gorgeous
crimson sunset. But, though he wished to remain, he did not wish
to be recognized.
From the glances already turned toward him, he saw that in this
little family gathering the presence of a stranger was an event,
and he was aware that during the trial the newspapers had made
his face conspicuous. Also it might be that stationed at the post
was some officer or enlisted man who had served with him in Cuba,
China, or the Philippines, and who might point him out to others.
Fearing this, Swanson made a detour and approached the band-stand
from the wharf, and with his back to a hawser-post seated himself
upon the string-piece.
He was overcome with an intolerable melancholy. From where he
sat he could see, softened into shadows by the wire screens of the
veranda, Admiral Preble and his wife and their guests at tea. A
month before, he would have reported to the admiral as the
commandant of the station, and paid his respects. Now he could
not do that; at least not without inviting a rebuff. A month
before, he need only have shown his card to the admiral's orderly,
and the orderly and the guard and the officers' mess and the
admiral himself would have turned the post upside down to do
him honor. But of what avail now was his record in three
campaigns? Of what avail now was his medal of honor? They
now knew him as Swanson, who had been court-martialled, who
had been allowed to resign, who had left the army for the army's
good; they knew him as a civilian without rank or authority, as an
ex-officer who had robbed his brother officers, as an outcast.
His position, as his morbid mind thus distorted it, tempted
Swanson no longer. For being in this plight he did not feel that
in any way he was to blame. But with a flaming anger he still
blamed his brother officers of the court-martial who had not
cleared his name and with a clean bill of health restored him to
duty. Those were the men he blamed; not Rueff, the sergeant, who
he believed had robbed him, nor himself, who, in a passion of
wounded pride, had resigned and so had given reason for gossip;
but the men who had not in tones like a bugle-call proclaimed his
innocence, who, when they had handed him back his sword, had
given it grudgingly, not with congratulation.
As he saw it, he stood in a perpetual pillory. When they had
robbed him of his honor they had left him naked, and life without
honor had lost its flavor. He could eat, he could drink, he could
exist. He knew that in many corners of the world white arms would
reach out to him and men would beckon him to a place at table.
But he could not cross that little strip of turf between him and
the chattering group on the veranda and hand his card to the
admiral's orderly. Swanson loved life. He loved it so that
without help, money, or affection he could each morning have
greeted it with a smile. But life without honor! He felt a sudden
hot nausea of disgust. Why was he still clinging to what had
lost its purpose, to what lacked the one thing needful?
"If life be an ill thing," he thought, "I can lay it down!"
The thought was not new to him, and during the two past weeks of
aimless wandering he had carried with him his service automatic.
To reassure himself he laid his fingers on its cold smooth surface.
He would wait, he determined, until the musicians had finished
their concert and the women and children had departed, and then--
Then the orderly would find him where he was now seated, sunken
against the hawser-post with a hole through his heart. To his disordered
brain his decision appeared quite sane. He was sure he never had been
more calm. And as he prepared himself for death he assured himself
that for one of his standard no other choice was possible. Thoughts
of the active past, or of what distress in the future his act would bring
to others, did not disturb him. The thing had to be, no one lost more
heavily than himself, and regrets were cowardly.
He counted the money he had on his person and was pleased to find
there was enough to pay for what services others soon must render
him. In his pockets were letters, cards, a cigarette-case, each of
which would tell his identity. He had no wish to conceal it, for of
what he was about to do he was not ashamed. It was not his act.
He would not have died "by his own hand." To his unbalanced
brain the officers of the court-martial were responsible. It was
they who had killed him. As he saw it, they had made his death
as inevitable as though they had sentenced him to be shot at
A line from "The Drums of the Fore and Aft" came back to him.
Often he had quoted it, when some one in the service had suffered
through the fault of others. It was the death-cry of the boy officer,
Devlin. The knives of the Ghazi had cut him down, but it was his
own people's abandoning him in terror that had killed him. And so,
with a sob, he flung the line at the retreating backs of his comrades:
"You've killed me, you cowards!"
Swanson, nursing his anger, repeated this savagely. He wished he
could bring it home to those men of the court-martial. He wished
he could make them know that his death lay at their door. He
determined that they should know. On one of his visiting-cards he
"To the Officers of my Court-Martial: 'You've killed me, you
He placed the card in the pocket of his waistcoat. They would
find it just above the place where the bullet would burn the cloth.
The band was playing "Auf Wiedersehen," and the waltz carried
with it the sadness that had made people call the man who wrote
it the waltz king. Swanson listened gratefully. He was glad that
before he went out, his last mood had been of regret and gentleness.
The sting of his anger had departed, the music soothed and sobered
him. It had been a very good world. Until he had broken the spine
of things it had treated him well, far better, he admitted, than he
deserved. There were many in it who had been kind, to whom he
was grateful. He wished there was some way by which he could let
them know that. As though in answer to his wish, from across the
parade-ground the wireless again began to crash and crackle; but now
Swanson was at a greater distance from it, and the sighing rhythm of
the waltz was not interrupted.
Swanson considered to whom he might send a farewell message, but
as in his mind he passed from one friend to another, he saw that to
each such a greeting could bring only distress. He decided it was
the music that had led him astray. This was no moment for false
sentiment. He let his hand close upon the pistol.
The audience now was dispersing. The nurse-maids had collected
their charges, the musicians were taking apart their music-racks,
and from the steps of the vine-covered veranda Admiral Preble was
bidding the friends of his wife adieu. At his side his aide, young,
alert, confident, with ill-concealed impatience awaited their departure.
Swanson found that he resented the aide. He resented the manner in
which he speeded the parting guests. Even if there were matters of
importance he was anxious to communicate to his chief, he need not
make it plain to the women folk that they were in the way.
When, a month before, he had been adjutant, in a like situation he
would have shown more self-command. He disapproved of the aide
entirely. He resented the fact that he was as young as himself,
that he was in uniform, that he was an aide. Swanson certainly
hoped that when he was in uniform he had not looked so much the
conquering hero, so self-satisfied, so supercilious. With a smile
he wondered why, at such a moment, a man he had never seen
before, and never would see again, should so disturb him.
In his heart he knew. The aide was going forward just where he
was leaving off. The ribbons on the tunic of the aide, the straps
on his shoulders, told Swanson that they had served in the same
campaigns, that they were of the same relative rank, and that
when he himself, had he remained in the service, would have been
a brigadier-general the aide would command a battle-ship. The
possible future of the young sailor filled Swanson with honorable
envy and bitter regret. With all his soul he envied him the right
to look his fellow man in the eye, his right to die for his country,
to give his life, should it be required of him, for ninety million
people, for a flag. Swanson saw the two officers dimly, with eyes
of bitter self-pity. He was dying, but he was not dying gloriously
for a flag. He had lost the right to die for it, and he was dying
because he had lost that right.
The sun had sunk and the evening had grown chill. At the wharf
where the steamer lay on which he had arrived, but on which he
was not to depart, the electric cargo lights were already burning.
But for what Swanson had to do there still was light enough.
From his breast-pocket he took the card on which he had
written his message to his brother officers, read and reread it,
and replaced it.
Save for the admiral and his aide at the steps of the cottage,
and a bareheaded bluejacket who was reporting to them, and the
admiral's orderly, who was walking toward Swanson, no one was
in sight. Still seated upon the stringpiece of the wharf, Swanson
so moved that his back was toward the four men. The moment
seemed propitious, almost as though it had been prearranged. For
with such an audience, for his taking off no other person could be
blamed. There would be no question but that death had been
Approaching from behind him Swanson heard the brisk steps of the
orderly drawing rapidly nearer. He wondered if the wharf were
government property, if he were trespassing, and if for that reason
the man had been sent to order him away. He considered bitterly
that the government grudged him a place even in which to die.
Well, he would not for long be a trespasser. His hand slipped
into his pocket, with his thumb he lowered the safety-catch of
But the hand with the pistol in it did not leave his pocket. The
steps of the orderly had come to a sudden silence. Raising his
head heavily, Swanson saw the man, with his eyes fixed upon him,
standing at salute. They had first made his life unsupportable,
Swanson thought, now they would not let him leave it.
"Captain Swanson, sir?" asked the orderly.
Swanson did not speak or move.
"The admiral's compliments, sir," snapped the orderly, "and will
the captain please speak with him?"
Still Swanson did not move.
He felt that the breaking-point of his self-control had come.
This impertinent interruption, this thrusting into the last few
seconds of his life of a reminder of all that he had lost, this
futile postponement of his end, was cruel, unhuman, unthinkable.
The pistol was still in his hand. He had but to draw it and
press it close, and before the marine could leap upon him he
would have escaped.
From behind, approaching hurriedly, came the sound of
The orderly stiffened to attention. "The admiral!" he warned.
Twelve years of discipline, twelve years of recognition of authority,
twelve years of deference to superior officers, dragged Swanson's
hand from his pistol and lifted him to his feet. As he turned,
Admiral Preble, the aide, and the bareheaded bluejacket were
close upon him. The admiral's face beamed, his eyes were young
with pleasurable excitement; with the eagerness of a boy he waved
aside formal greetings.
"My dear Swanson," he cried, "I assure you it's a most astonishing,
most curious coincidence! See this man?" He flung out his arm at
the bluejacket. "He's my wireless chief. He was wireless operator
on the transport that took you to Manila. When you came in here
this afternoon he recognized you. Half an hour later he picks up
a message--picks it up two thousand miles from here--from San
Francisco--Associated Press news--it concerns you; that is, not
really concerns you, but I thought, we thought"-as though
signalling for help, the admiral glanced unhappily at his aide-
"we thought you'd like to know. Of course, to us," he added
hastily, "it's quite superfluous--quite superfluous, but--"
The aide coughed apologetically. "You might read, sir," he
"What? Exactly! Quite so!" cried the admiral.
In the fading light he held close to his eyes a piece of paper.
"San Francisco, April 20," he read. "Rueff, first sergeant, shot
himself here to-day, leaving written confession theft of regimental
funds for which Swanson, captain, lately court-martialled. Money
found intact in Rueff's mattress. Innocence of Swanson never
questioned, but dissatisfied with findings of court-martial has
left army. Brother officers making every effort to find him and
The admiral sighed happily. "And my wife," he added, with an
impressiveness that was intended to show he had at last arrived
at the important part of his message, "says you are to stay to
Abruptly, rudely, Swanson swung upon his heel and turned his face
from the admiral. His head was thrown back, his arms held rigid
at his sides. In slow, deep breaths, like one who had been dragged
from drowning, he drank in the salt, chill air. After one glance the
four men also turned, and in the falling darkness stood staring at
nothing, and no one spoke.
The aide was the first to break the silence. In a polite tone, as
though he were continuing a conversation which had not been
interrupted, he addressed the admiral. "Of course, Rueff's written
confession was not needed," he said.
"His shooting himself proved that he was guilty."
Swanson started as though across his naked shoulders the aide had
drawn a whip.
In penitence and gratitude he raised his eyes to the stars. High
above his head the strands of the wireless, swinging from the
towering masts like the strings of a giant Aeolian harp, were
swept by the wind from the ocean. To Swanson the sighing and
whispering wires sang in praise and thanksgiving.