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On the Toss of a Penny

By Cecil de Thierry

HE leant back among the fern, tired out with his day’s tramp.
Beside him rested his swag, too small and light for prosperity,
and behind him his battered wideawake hat, which had fallen off
when he threw himself down. All about him lay the mellow
radiance of the setting sun.

He should have been pushing on to the township, whose square
outlines peeped out from the trees in the hollow ; but the rest was
a luxury too tempting to be resisted. For the moment the
drowsy silence of late afternoon, so soothing after the heat and
dust of the many miles he had walked since early morning, lulled
to sleep his most crying necessities. The spring of the fern, too,
was as grateful to his tired limbs as the finest upholstered couch ;
and its scent he would not have exchanged for the most costly
perfume in the world.

But presently the gnawing sensation of hunger began to assert
itself again, and he slowly drew himself into a sitting position.
Hard experience told him that, to get a meal, he must reach some
habitation before nightfall. Later on he would be regarded with
suspicion, and warned off as a thier.

But still he lingered. Perhaps it was the characteristic weak-
ness of the man, or it may have been he was loth to cut short hi


                        130 On the Toss of a Penny

dreams in the open to face the realities of the settlement. Rebuffs
were as familiar to him as the sunshine. The prosperous farmer
in the country and the sleek tradesman in the town, alike, showed
him contempt. They had got on in the world, and so, if they
were only honest and industrious, could any one else, he as much
as read in their looks and words. He had not got on in the world,
therefore it was impossible that he should be either.

A few paces from where he sat the road forked. One branch
ended in the settlement, the other continued in a straight line to
the gum field, for which he was bound. Indeed it was his
uncertainty as to whether he should go on, or seek food and shelter
for the night, that had induced him to halt.

With a curious expression of countenance and the movement or
a child about to produce a treasure, secretly regarded with super-
stitious affection or awe, he drew from his breast a penny, very
much dented, and with a hole in it, through which had been run a
blue ribbon, now faded and creased almost beyond recognition. It
was the only coin he possessed, and had it not been refused by
every storekeeper in the district, would have been parted with long

” Which o’ them shall it be ? ” he said aloud ; and then a trifle
bitterly, “so far as comfort goes, either. But let the copper say :
the open, heads ; yonder, tails.”

Then, with the ease of practice, he spun it round and tossed,
catching it deftly in his palm.

” Heads,” he murmured, sighing ; “I might ‘a known it.”

Twice he repeated the process, and each time the result was the

But he made no attempt to go. For another hour he sat in the
sunshine, toying idly with the penny and whistling snatches of a
bush ballad. Then he lumbered to his feet as if crippled by age


                        By Cecil de Thierry 131

or rheumatism, put on his battered hat and, shouldering his swag,
set briskly forward.

But, as he had done all his life, he took the easiest road. The
omens had been in favour of the other, but indecision will learn
neither from misfortune nor experience. However clearly destiny
or duty indicated the path for him to follow, his weakness led him
in a direction entirely opposite.

He had hardly proceeded a dozen yards when he was startled by
hearing the loud report of a pistol and a smothered cry, sounds on
the quiet afternoon air distinct to painfulness. Afraid without
knowing why, he stood still and listened. But, before he could
ascertain from whence they proceeded, a man sprang into the road
in front of him and disappeared in the scrub.

Hastening his steps the swagger reached a ti-tree gate, from
which a narrow path, bordered by rose-bushes and tall white
lilies, led to a cottage embosomed in greenery. There he paused,
overcome by a curious sense of loneliness he had never felt, even in
the heart of the wilderness. But, in spite of a strong desire to
flee from the spot, a stronger drew him towards the wide-open
door, on the threshold of which he could see the outline of a man’s

It was evidently the owner of the house. He lay on his back,
clutching in one hand a white rose, which he must have caught
when he fell. From a deep wound in his temple blood was still
slowly trickling, and from his fixed and staring eyes horror and
dread looked forth. At his feet lay a pistol, as if the murderer had
flung it down in a hurry at the sound of an approaching footstep,
and on the ground a well-filled purse, fastened by an elastic band.
Beyond these details the swagger’s gaze, now feverishly bright,
saw nothing.

In a dim sort of way he understood that he and the dead were


                        132 On the Toss of a Penny

alone. But it stirred him less than the sight of the purse ; on
that his ideas were clear, though confined to the necessities of the
moment. The young farmer, whose thrift had filled it, the shot
of a murderer had sent beyond the need of it. But to him, hungry
and penniless, the possession of it meant life itself. Not to take
advantage of such a godsend was to deserve starvation or the worst
treatment he might expect in the township. Robbery ? Surely
there could be no robbery in taking what was less than nothing to
the dead ! Like a true son of the wilderness he argued from the
standpoint of his extremity, not from the higher ground or

With a furtive glance on either side of him, he stooped down
and stretched out his hand. But, before he could grasp the prize,
the door of the house creaked on its hinges and closed with a bang.
As if the trumpet of judgment had sounded in his ears, the man
sprang to his feet, and, in a fit of guilty dread, rushed to the gate.
But, in his eagerness, he fumbled at the latch without unfastening
it. The check, slight as it was, sufficed to disarm his fears. But
it was not until he stood in the open roadway, that he paused to
reconnoitre. The wind, indeed, swept through the trees, but there
was nothing else to alarm him. The silence of the hour, intensified
by the silence of death, held the little garden.

Muttering a curse at his folly the swagger slowly retraced his
steps to the body, whose eyes now looked up at him stonily. As
if afraid delay might weaken his purpose, he stooped down for the
second time, and, with averted head, hastily picked up the purse.
But, in doing it, he exposed to view the underside, until then
hidden. On it were three dark stains, which could only have
been made by bloody fingers. From the light brown surface or
the leather they stood out with that cruel insistence the imagina-
tion has grown to associate with human blood. As his eyes fell


                        By Cecil de Thierry 133

on them, the swagger made a movement expressive of the most
intense loathing, and the purse dropped to the ground with a
thud and a clink. The body of the murdered man had only
suggested to him a way of satisfying his hunger ; the discovery of
a ghastly bit or evidence in connection with it filled him with
horror. Situated as he was, perhaps, this was natural. The one
he could leave behind and forget ; the other was a permanent
record of the dead.

The sudden descent of the purse loosened its elastic band,
which had only been tied in a knot, and part of its contents
streamed out on the path. The sight of it quickened the
swagger s faculties, if it did not entirely overcome his disgust.
With a curious guttural exclamation of joy he gathered up all the
silver, which had fallen out, and put it in his pocket. Then he
stood still for a moment or two considering as to the wisdom of
taking the purse also. But constitutional timidity rather than
experience warned him of the danger he would run, and he,
reluctantly, decided to leave it behind.

Foresight was a stranger to this man, whose vagrant blood had
driven him as far as might be from the haunts of his kind, but, as
he turned away, he was suddenly struck with an idea which
closely resembled it. Reason and fastidiousness, too thoroughly
ingrained to be lost by a rude contact with life, alike forbade him
to take the purse just then. But what was to prevent him from
putting it in a safe place so that it would be ready to serve his
necessities on some future occasion ? The prospect stimulated
him to energy ; but, though he traversed the garden from end to
end, he could find no hiding-place both weather-proof and certain
to elude the trained observation of the police. And then, as he
was about to give up the search in despair, his eye fell on the
wall, which ran parallel with the road. It was built of irregularly


                        134 On the Toss of a Penny

shaped stones, dug out of the volcanic soil of the farm, and piled
one on top of the other without any cement. Near the gate they
were small, except the two lower rows, which were unusually
large. After carefully removing one of them, without disturbing
those immediately above it, the swagger dug a hole with his
fingers in the ground where it had lain. This done he went for
the purse, shuddering at the blood stains as he picked it up, and
dropped it in the hollow he had prepared for it ; afterwards putting
the stone back in its place, and marking the spot with a

Then, panic-stricken, he darted out of the gate, never once
slackening his pace until he had put a good quarter of a mile
between himself and the dead.

As he neared the town, houses became more and more frequent.
He heard the laughter and shouts of merry children, and fragments
of the conversation carried on at open windows, or on the creeper-
entwined verandahs of the houses. But, like one half-asleep, he
heard them as it were afar off. Tired and hungry he had but one
thought—to satisfy his craving for food ; with a full pocket, a
matter so simple that his face flushed and his blood flowed faster
in his veins at the very thought.

When he had eaten he was another being. He was no longer
a miserable creature, shrinking from observation like a whipped
cur, but a man even as others are. He sat back in his chair at
the public-house as if he had a spine—and what was more a spine
in good order. He even tried to look the world about him in the
face, but that was beyond his powers, so he gave it up. To exert
himself, physically or mentally, just then was impossible. He was,
so to speak, pervaded by a glow, though his sensations were those
of an old gentleman after his second glass of port rather than
those of a swagger, who has just eaten his first square meal for a


                        By Cecil de Thierry 135

week. His brain moved sluggishly, his life in the open took shape
as a vague memory.

Thus when he was arrested on the charge of murder, he
showed so little surprise as to give an unfavourable impression
to the police from the start. It was true he looked slightly
bewildered, but no more than if he had been mistaken for an
acquaintance by a stranger in the street. The peculiar sleepy
sense of satisfaction, known only in its fulness to those whose
meals are not so regular as they might be, dulled the force of the
blow even more effectually than entire ignorance would have
done. It was the animal, not the man, which was uppermost.

The police were perplexed. As a rule, criminals might be
classed under either of two headings—the coarse and callous, or
the refined and crushed. But this man belonged to neither. He
would have embodied the popular idea of a mild country curate,
but of a murderer, never. The worst that could be said of him
related to his ragged, unkempt appearance. Of evil his counten
ance showed not a trace. Weak it was without a doubt, but weak
with the weakness of childhood or age, rather than of youth or
manhood. Therefore it was without a suspicion of craft, a
confused pain looked out from the sunken blue eyes, and that
was all.

During the succeeding weeks he awakened to a fuller sense of
the gravity of his situation, but either he was indifferent to his
own fate, or incapable of understanding that innocence might
suffer for guilt ; for of all those concerned in the case he was the
least anxious as to its progress. Lawyers argued and pleaded,
remand after remand was asked for and obtained ; witnesses were
examined and re-examined, but his demeanour never altered. He
was more like a man in a trance than a man on trial for his life,
and this the crowd, whose feelings had at first been excited


                        136 On the Toss of a Penny

against him, at last came to see. The resentment, which had
been expressed by fierce mutterings and black looks, died away
ashamed before the forlornness of its object in the dock. More-
over the evidence was as far from solving the problem of his guilt
at the end as it was in the beginning. He was a swagger, and
had in his possession ten shillings in silver for which he could not,
or would not account ; beyond these two facts nothing could be
proved against him. On the disappearance of the purse he could
not be induced to say a word. The story he had told the evening
of his arrest was never shaken in any one particular. Only that
it had been found impossible to fasten the murder on any one
else, the authorities would have been only too glad to let him

But at length a clue to the ownership of the pistol, thrown
into the bushes under the window of the house, was discovered
and, as it could by no chance have come into the swagger’s hands,
there was no longer any reasonable excuse for detaining him a
prisoner. He was, therefore, acquitted with the usual forms,
a piece of good fortune it took him some time to realise

When he did at last grasp the fact, he was alone on the
verandah of the court-house. But this was to him no source ot
anger and bitterness. He accepted it as he accepted every other
ill of his lot—as a matter of course. Nothing else was to be
expected when a swagger was under consideration. Besides, for
the sake of appearances, none of the townspeople would care to be
seen talking to one who had not been entirely cleared of the
charge of murder. That it was less than their Christian profession
demanded, they chose to forget : that it was more than convention
could bear they had no difficulty in remembering.

Stay, there was an exception. As the swagger slouched up the


                        By Cecil de Thierry 137

deserted street from the court-house he met a man—tall, loosely
knit, and dressed in moleskin trousers and a striped shirt who
was lounging in the doorway of a public-house at the corner.

” Looky here,” he said, in a hoarse whisper, ” you’d better git
out o’ this.”

” Yes,” said the swagger, halting ; ” I was thinking about it.”

The other made an impatient movement at this tame reply.

” Because that kind o’ thing sticks to a bloomin’ cuss as long
as he lives—ye-es,” he continued, and his heavy brows met in a
fierce scowl. ” I’ve bin there, an’ I know. Now you git into
shelter before night. See.”

With that he flung a five-shilling piece into the road, and
awkwardly retreated into the house.

The swagger picked it up with more alacrity than he commonly
showed. But the acutest observation would have failed to discover
in him the smallest sign of gratitude. Either he had lost the
power to distinguish properly between kindness or unkindness, or
he had got into the habit of meeting both with the same apathy of
mien. Possibly, also, he was conscious that, under like circum-
stances, he would have done the same.

From habit he walked on without looking back, or he would
have seen that he was followed by a man—a swagger like himself,
but of evil countenance and rough appearance. As long as they
were in the township, it was not noticeable, but, the further they
left it behind, the more striking it became. The Shadow, how
ever, instead of keeping to the road, hugged the hedges of the
farms and the ti-tree of the open.

Instinctively the other proceeded in a direction opposite to that
by which he had entered the town a month before. Lonely
under the summer sun, it was desolate beyond description at this
hour of the evening, and almost impassable, owing to the heavy


                        138 On the Toss of a Penny

rain of the previous few days ; yet to him, after his narrow quarters
in the prison, it was pleasant. Because of the personal discomfort
he noticed the pools of water, into which he plunged, now and
again, with a loud splash, and the heavy clay soil, in which he sank
with a sucking sound at every step. But of the finer features of
the landscape he saw nothing in detail. The sweet perfume of
the ti-tree ; the ominous sighing of the wind ; the gray expanse
of sky, over which dark masses of ragged-edged clouds were flying
—these were not distinct parts of a magnificent picture, but a
perfect whole, whose beauty he felt without attempting to analyse
—perhaps the truest homage it is possible to pay.

When he reached a point in the road where it branched, still
unconscious of the Shadow, he sat down. In front of him the ti-
tree had been cleared, but already a new growth, two feet high,
had sprung up in prodigal profusion, hiding the yellow earth
beneath with a mantle of green. Across it a band of deep orange,
left by the sun in the west, cast a weird shaft of light.

Suddenly, with the curious sound in his throat a horse makes
when it is pleased, the swagger sank face downwards to the
ground. Overcome by the necessity for expression, he hugged
tufts of greenery passionately to his heart, and as heedless of the
damp and spiky shoots as he was ignorant of the two evil blue
eyes, curiously regarding him from an opening in the scrub, buried
his head among it like a child on its mother s breast. When he
lifted it again his eyes were full of tears.

Then, as if tired, he sat up again, and drew from his pocket
the penny, tied with faded blue ribbon, with which he had tempted
fate weeks before. Twirling it slowly between his thumbs, he
fell to reasoning aloud.

” It’s not much good,” he said, ” but better than nothing.
Heads this way ; tails that way.”


                        By Cecil de Thierry 139

So saying he tossed. But the result was unsatisfactory.
Twice tails were uppermost : once heads. To any one else the
former would have decided the point, but to him, being the man
he was, it was the latter.

Rising to his feet in the laboured fashion peculiar to his kind,
he shouldered his swag, and at once struck into the road directly
facing him—as before, followed by the Shadow. It was time, as
he could see by the wrathful sky above him, and heard by the
soughing of the ti-tree on either side. To increase the gloom
rain began to fall, and, before he had gone a quarter of a mile,
the short twilight of semi-tropical regions faded, and night

Difficult as it was to proceed, he walked a mile before he
paused to rest. Then, soaked to the skin and exhausted, he
sought the shelter of a group of trees, standing near the edge of a
field, and glanced about him to discover where he was, the Shadow
halting not six paces distant. So far as he could judge he was no
nearer a settlement than when he started, and could only suppose
that, in the darkness, he had turned off the main road without
being aware of it. What to do under the circumstances he had
no idea. His long inactivity in the prison had enervated him to
such an extent, that he was as unfitted for continuous walking as
he was to stand the hardships of a night in the open. To go on
was, therefore, out of the question ; to stay where he was not less
so. Hence he was forced to think of finding shelter, however

To seek it at any of the farmhouses, whose lights twinkled
here and there through the murky atmosphere, was out of the
question. His appearance was now so well known in the district
that the mere sight of him would not only chill sympathy in the
kindest, but be the signal for an instant order to be off, or for


                        140 On the Toss of a Penny

shutting the door in his face. Necessity is, however, seldom at a
loss. He decided to continue on his way until he came to a
homestead, built near the road, when he would try and creep
into one of the outbuildings, and there lie down.

Fortified by this resolution he splashed forward with a trifle
more energy, and had hardly proceeded a hundred yards when he
was rewarded by hearing the swinging of agate on its hinges. In
another second a great shadow loomed up among the trees, in
whose outlines he recognised the home of a settler. But there
was no light in the windows, and, by the fitful gleams of a moon
struggling with the inky blackness of the clouds hurrying across
it, he saw that it was unoccupied. This was not a new experi-
ence, as, in the more lonely parts of the country, deserted home
steads are not unknown, so that he had no misgivings in taking
possession of it for the night.

The house consisted of two rooms and a lean-to ; but, as he
soon discovered by feeling along the walls with his hands, it was
empty of furniture. He could, therefore, do nothing better than
lie down in a corner furthest removed from the draught of the
front door, which would not close, and get as much rest as he
could before morning. At any rate the floor was dry, and there
was a roof between him and the pitiless storm outside.

But sleep refused to come. In a vain endeavour to find ease
for his tired body, he tossed from side to side, or shifted his
position entirely, until even hunger and cold were forgotten in a
sense of utter prostration. And then, in the subtle way peculiar
to such things, he began to fancy he was not alone to be aware
of another presence beside his own in the house. Instantly he
was sitting bolt upright, every nerve on the stretch, and the very
flesh creeping on his bones. What was it ? He could see
nothing ; could hear no sound other than the howling of the


                        By Cecil de Thierry 141

wind, the sobbing of the rain, and the swish, swish of a branch as
it was swept backward and forward against the roof.

At that instant the door swung forward with a bang, and the
swagger, his hair almost on end, and perspiration dropping from
every pore, sprang up with a loud shriek.

He knew where he was !

In that strange illumination of the mind, which neither
depends on reason nor imagination, he remembered when he had
last heard those same sounds, and the whole scene rushed before
him with a vividness intensified by the hour and the place. Yet
fascinated by the invisible, he stayed where he was, cowering in
his corner like a wild beast in its lair. If he had only known it,
within three paces of him stood the man who had followed him
from the township !

For some minutes—which seemed to him hours, so full were
they of a nameless dread—he gazed straight in front of him, when
all at once a stream of moonlight struck obliquely across the room,
taking shape to his excited fancy as a white-robed figure of giant
proportions and unearthly form. But it disappeared almost
directly, and all was in gloom again.

Half paralysed with fear, the swagger dragged himself along the
floor to the door, which a gust of wind opened wide. He was
thus able to crawl out into the air, and collect his scattered facul-
ties. But the garden was as full of dread for him as the house.
The rain had ceased, but the sobbing of the earth and the rush of
the wind were, in his state of mind, fearsome things endowed with
life. The moon, too, added to his terrors by casting strange and
shifting shadows on the path, and investing the bushes and trees
with terrible shapes. An equinoctial gale was blowing, and the
place was alive with supernatural beings, yet the swagger was
oppressed by its loneliness and silence.

The Yellow Book—Vol. XIII. I


                        142 On the Toss of a Penny

In a panic he resolved to recover the purse he had hidden, and
put as great a distance between himself and this accursed spot as
it was possible to do before morning. He found the stick he had
thrust into the ground to mark where it lay, and, as carefully as
his terror would let him, drew out the stone. Had he turned
round just then he would have seen the Shadow standing immedi-
ately behind him. But he was too absorbed in his task, and too
much afraid to think of such a precaution. Hence the glittering
eyes watched his every movement undisturbed. The moment he
stood up, however, the Shadow shrank back into the yielding
greenery of a passion-flower, which had taken possession of a
young pine-tree. For a moment there was an awful pause. Then
the swagger, forgetting his fears in a triumphant sense of his own
foresight, held up the purse to the moonlight to be certain that he
had it. Instantly the Shadow stretched forth a bony hand, and
seized it, the three fingers of the right hand exactly fitting the
three bloodstains on the leather. With a shriek, which echoed
sadly through the garden, the swagger started back, and rushed
blindly up the path to the house, falling across the threshold with
a heavy thud.

And that was how the man, who had been accused of murder
ing the young farmer, came to be found in the self-same position
on the doorstep as his supposed victim. A judgment said the
settlers, but the doctor said it was heart-disease.

MLA citation:

de Thierry, Cecil. “On the Toss of a Penny.” The Yellow Book, vol. 13, April 1897, pp. 129-142. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.