There is a garden in Cawnpore, where once was a well and the house Bibi-garh
Twenty-two years old and a subaltern of Engineers, John Henry Crichton MacLean was tried by court martial at Simla for a grave misdemeanour and duly cashiered, and the most brilliant student who ever came out of Woolwich was flung beyond the pale of decent men. Thirteen years later, at the close of the Great War, he again left the Service, but with honour, his name John Crichton, his rank sergeant-major of infantry. A fortnight after his discharge, he was breaking into a house on the Bayswater side of the Edgware Road. He had returned to his pre-war calling, and John Henry was his name.
This was the name, at any rate, indexed against certain finger-prints in the possession of Scotland Yard, got from a man twelve years before who had served a short term of imprisonment, the convicted scapegoat of a gang of international thieves. John Henry had disappeared since then. In the wastes of a northern moorland he had found himself a dwelling, where he could live unnoticed, whence he could sally, whither retire; and here he had developed his bright talents; the promise of his youth had fructified. He had become a rumour, a myth, a will-o’-the-wisp in crime; a master crook, whose existence was only vaguely suspected, whose identity was unknown even in the underworld. Always he worked alone; no one had ever seen him; the traces he left behind him might have been made by any of half a dozen well-recorded gangs.
No. 16 Carbrick Terrace, Hyde Park, W.2, was the full address of the house into which he was breaking.
It was a four-storey mansion in a street of four-storey mansions, big, sombre, unwieldy dwellings, more than half of them to let. A quiet square was at one end of the street, a quieter byway at the other. Around, were other byways, other squares, a maze of them, shutting it in; few people passed that way, and little traffic—a tradesman’s cart or two, an occasional private vehicle. He himself had been led thither by chance; the chance of an aimless evening saunter from the Paddington hotel wherein he was staying ere travelling north to his secret home. He had come thither many times afterwards, by design. A limousine had drawn up opposite No. 16 as he was passing, out of which a well-known politician had handed two superbly beautiful, wondrously jewelled girls. Their beauty had mattered nothing to him; their jewels much. He had seldom seen any so fine.
In quest of them he had resumed his trade, and taken up his quarters in an attic of No. 15, the house next door.
No. 15 was an unoccupied house, though from the outside it did not look unoccupied. No “To Let” board protruded above its doorway, or hung from any of its windows. The windows were curtained, and, as soon as dusk fell, blinds were lowered and lights lit behind them; lights that burned first in the lower rooms, and last in the upper as though lighting a retiring household to bed. And each morning the blinds were raised; precisely at nine o’clock the front door opened, a man walked out dressed for the City; precisely at six in the evening he returned. Nevertheless, the house was unoccupied—except for John Henry, who had lived undisturbed in it for three days.
He was quite aware of the existence of his morning and evening visitor—and of something else; just such another man, he knew, walked in and out of No. 17. This house, too, had mobile lights and blinds and an appearance of habitation. Nevertheless it was no more inhabited than the one in which he had taken up his quarters. They were strange dwellings, and a stranger dwelling lay between.
He had made these discoveries on the very first evening that he went prying on the back premises of No. 16 in search of a means of entry.
Precisely at six o’clock, as he stood peering cautiously about him in the garden, he heard the front door of No. 15 open and close on the first City gentleman’s arrival, heard his footsteps sound in the house, through the house, out by the back door, then across the yard. Warned by some premonition of what was about to take place, he hurriedly sought shelter in the shade of an outhouse that leaned against the garden wall. Hardly had he reached it when its door swung open, the first City gentleman appeared, and without hesitation walked on and into No. 16. He had come through the wall. In the wall was an opening, screened on either side by adjoining outhouses, as John Henry quickly discovered; and in the garden wall opposite was a similar opening, similarly concealed. Through it, scarce a minute after the first, came the second City gentleman, and he, too, walked into No. 16.
There in fact, they stayed. Their entering through the flanking houses was only a blind.
He made sure of this by watching in the garden on the following evening, when the performance was repeated. The same evening yielded him the explanation of the mobile lights and blinds. For as soon as the first City gentleman had traversed it, he broke into No. 15; and a blind descended, a light flashed out as he peered into an empty room.
It was a startling experience.
The explanation, however, was very simple, as an examination of the fittings revealed. Both lights and blinds were controlled from some point outside the house, and he had not the slightest doubt that the controlling station was in No. 16, the mysterious house between. Something more than fine jewels was awaiting him there. Clearly the sole use to which the flanking houses were being put was to add to its privacy, and such privacy was certainly peculiar in a house frequented by a prominent and most respectable politician. But it was characteristic of John Henry that he did not feel unduly curious concerning the reason. The lives lived by other people concerned him only to the degree to which they affected his methods of working. He was a burglar, a master-burglar; to blackmail he had never sunk and never could sink. At once he had collected his gear and ensconced himself in his attic, and half-past four of his fourth evening there found him wakening up from a day of as peaceful slumber as he had ever enjoyed. He had not even troubled to shut the attic door.
He lay very comfortably on a camel’s hair sleeping-bag on top of several strips of carpet. On the floor by his side was a small Colt revolver. The deft, almost imperceptible motion of his fingers as he unbuttoned the sleeping-bag to give him greater room for rising, showed how delicate his senses were; how little need there had been to close that door. The slightest sound would have roused him. . . . He would have made a formidable antagonist, a slim strong man, still young.
A handsome man. A man—no physiognomist would have hesitated an instant—of the highest intellectual powers; of ideas and invention, of resolution and will; yet without a soul, a silent mysterious being, a creature of the wild among men. Mice were playing about the neat pile of tinned foodstuffs at the foot of his bed. His movements did not disturb them, not even when he leaned forward and took away two of the tins. They sniffed and squeaked about his elbows as he ate; they had no fear of him; they recognized him as kin. Yet once, men must have envied him his future; women must have loved him. Again no physiognomist would have hesitated. Ere the lines of his finely moulded mouth and chin had hardened, the flash and fire of boyish genius died out in his eyes, John Henry must have been a man of rare charm and feeling, hyper-aesthetic, hyper-sensitive, generous and kind.
Some great bitterness had eaten the zest out of bis life; the love or the envy had burned. His meal finished, and an hour still to pass before the arrival of his visitor, before he could begin his nightly toil, he but sank back on his couch and waited, without the slightest sign of impatience, without either a rustle or a sigh. And only to those who hope for nothing, to whom life is nothing, is waiting easy. Enough for them that their time will come.
The early winter darkness had fallen fog-laden, there was a blackness in the attic, when at last a neighbouring clock struck the hour.
While yet the resonance of its sixth stroke lingered in the roof beams, and distant bells called to others more distant all over the city, he heard his visitor arrive and pass on. The faint slam of the back door of No. 15 came up over the housetops; the chimes still livened the heavy air; and save for the squeak and patter of the mice the attic stirred to no other sounds. Save for the mice it was tenantless. Like a shadow of the night John Henry had stolen from his corner and started to descend the stairs.
Down he went, treading noiselessly, while the blinds whirred around him, the lights flashed on; down till he reached the cellar. A deep crypt-like place it was, extending the whole length and breadth of the house.
A glimmer of light through a pavement scuttle marked the street end. Thence sounded the sombre tread of a patrolling policeman, the purr of a limousine waiting outside No.16. He paused to listen. Vaguely he was conscious of a certain symbolism in the situation and, still more vaguely, of something of which the symbolism was the cause—of an apprehension, subtile and faint as the light glimmer, yet as real. Without, two powers, or sounds of powers; within, himself! . . . Into the cellar’s farther darkness he strode, a master criminal breaking into a house of crime while ponderously the Law paced by.
His outstretched hand came into contact with a barricade of barrels and lumber, along which he felt his way to an opening, through which he crawled. He had reached the scene of his labours; he had built the barricade to mask it during the day, during the night to hide his light, from any casual visitor. The floor within was littered with mortar and fragments of brick and stone. A yard away was the wall. He switched on his light. Deep into one of the barrels the lamp had been placed, a barrel sighted horizontally. As though flung by a projector, the radiance crossed the narrow space in a solid beam and poured into the breach in the wall through which he was making his way into No. 16.
He had decided on this as the best method of effecting his entrance, and laborious though the way had proved, by the end of his second night’s labours he had had reason to congratulate himself; for he had come on a second and stouter wall, built recently against the first, obviously as a further protection to the mysteries of the dwelling. Such a house would never have yielded its spoils to a visitor pressed for time. Many visits might be necessary. Through his tunnel he could pay them all, pay them safely, almost when he pleased, for his comings and goings would be shrouded and concealed by the very privacy with which the house had been girt.
That very evening he intended the first should be paid; he had reached the facing of the inner wall. Early that morning, just before he ceased his labour, a brick had given before his thrusting chisel; and warned that his task was nearly done, he had struck work immediately, deeming it wise to delay the final breaching till the long hours of darkness were before him. Without the slightest difficulty his hand found the brick now and gently he withdrew it. Still with it in his grasp, he peered through the hole.
Blackness met his gaze. The adjoining cellar was unlit, as he had expected, and instinctively he knew it was untenanted. But he waited, listening for a while. Even the movements of a mouse he would have heard. Not even a mouse stirred.
Nor did his wariness lessen when he continued the breaching, convinced though he was that no one was there to hear. A feeble rat might only have been at work for all the noise he made. Thus he had been working from the beginning, yet his tunnel was fully six feet long. He was a strong deft workman, highly skilled in the use of his tools. Working upward in fear of a downfall, he quickly enlarged the gap, and though he laboured in his shadow not the smallest trickle of mortar escaped the scoop of his palm.
Soon the arch was cleared and trimmed, every inch of it felt and tested, all loose matter rubbed away. He stooped to work on the lower half. And now a strange thing happened.
For the first time the light shone past him and fell on the hole, and instantly the blackness beyond the wall became a red haze, blood-red and ominous, startling, as weird and unexpected a manifestation as ever had been revealed to him in all his thrilling career of crime. He stopped and stared at it: he blinked his eyes as though to rid himself of an optical illusion. Then forward into its midst went his hand, and instantly he was withdrawing, backing out of the tunnel as swiftly as he could go. Out he switched the light and quietly returned, and for a long time knelt listening, warier than before. For the adjoining cellar was being put to strange uses, a hint of which he had fortunately received in good time. No true haze that blood-red apparition. It was tangible and stationary: nothing less than the shimmer in the lamplight of rich crimson brocade—costly hangings for cellar walls.
And the air of the place was dry and warm. Heated by his exertions, he had not noticed its warmth before. Someone had occupied it recently, or meant to occupy it soon—someone who might come at any time.
Nevertheless, he at length resumed his labours, convinced a second time that he had not been overheard. Now that his tunnel was so nearly completed, it did not matter whether the cellar was wont to be occupied or no. The hangings would conceal him, whoever might come. Fortune was favouring him in an extraordinary way, the very house conspiring with him to undo its inmates. But for some slip on his part he would never be discovered, nor would the manner of his burglary be learned, perhaps, until long after it was done. Good care he took to make no slip that would slight his good fortune. Though he worked in utter darkness, the mortar diminished under his touch as silently as if it were dissolved; the bricks came away in his hands as though floating away of their own accord; and often he paused, listening. During one of those pauses, when nearly the last brick was gone, a second strange thing occurred, as unexpected as the first, but of far greater alarm.
A draught began to blow.
Not on his face or hands did he feel it, keen though his senses were; the air in the tunnel seemed quite still—the hangings gave the warning. Motionless an instant before, his forehead lightly touching them, they had suddenly begun to tremble. . . . A door had opened. Someone was coming. Stronger and stronger the draught blew.
Soon, but for their weight, the hangings would have bellied into the tunnel. They pressed back as he leaned expectantly forward, his ears strained to catch the slightest sound. Then as suddenly as it had begun the draught ceased blowing, the hangings became still. The door had closed—without a sound, as without a sound it had opened. In the interval he had heard nothing, not a creak, not a footfall. Yet in the interval the cellar had filled with men.
He felt their presence within a few feet of him, a silent watchful company. Watchful of what? . . . Had he been heard?
He feared so. Slowly and noiselessly he withdrew to about the middle of the tunnel, and there knelt close against the wall, his revolver out, prepared for attack, expecting attack from either direction. If it were that he was discovered, his escape would be cut off already. From front and rear attackers would come. He could but wait until they disclosed themselves. Then he could act—perhaps spoil their surprise.
Yet the minutes passed. The silence remained unbroken. The waiting began to grow trying even to his iron nerves.
More trying the sudden easing of the strain: the revolver nearly fell from his hand. From behind the hangings a man’s voice cut the stillness. Many voices answered; the tunnel crashed with their sound. Back to the face he swung, stumbling as he did so; not in alarm, but in surprise. The mysteries of the strange dwelling were beginning to reveal themselves. It sheltered dwellers stranger than he had supposed. . . . In an ancient sacred language that first speaker had spoken. In the responses, his ear had detected the accents of a dozen and more Eastern peoples and tribes.
A light had flared up in the cellar, tingeing the thick brocade of the hangings with faint phosphorescence. There was the sound of movement, the falls of naked feet, the swish of loose garments; and still the voice of the first speaker, high-pitched, authoritative, kept calling forth responses. He was undiscovered. The men who had gathered so silently were concerned only with their own affairs—whatever these might be. Carefully he took a pinch of the hangings between his fingers, cut a hole and looked through. A man of lesser self-control might well have pitched forward in fright, or amazement, at what he saw.
He looked into an inferno; into a swirling red chaos of light and shade, fed, illumined and energized by a crescent-shaped group of flaring crimson centres, with masses of blackness pressing in all around like rough-hewn furnace walls, out of which, like stars in a void, glimmered a multitude of tiny specks of fire. He could see nothing else at first, nothing more definite; everything was nebulous and shifting, except the centres of fire, which never ceased to flicker and flare and cast off into the confusion their spouts and puffs and swirls of crimson fumes. It was the hell of his boyhood fears.
But gradually his sight became more accustomed to the glare. A cosmos emerged. The scene became less fearsome, though even more amazing.
He saw the dim outlines of an underground chamber, similar in shape and size to the cellar from which he had come, but richly adorned. Heavy rugs carpeted the floor. The ceiling was panelled with a deep-toned polished wood, in which were inlaid mirror fragments, arranged to reflect fantastic designs. The glimmering specks were spangles in the hangings. The crimson centres were brazier fires. . . . He was looking into the temple of some unknown pagan deity, the practice of whose cult had just begun.
Round a small high stage that protruded from the deepest shadow of the chamber, the fires were grouped, and a priest was tending them, a tall, dignified figure, who passed from one to the other, feeding each with a fuel which burst into crimson scintillations and flared till his return. His was the voice that kept calling forth the responses. Those that made them knelt some distance away; first two naked men alone, garlanded with marigolds, their bodies shining from anointment—at least one of them was a Hindoo; then, well past the centre of the room, twenty or thirty others, all garbed in loosely-fitting calico robes. Their eyes gleamed through the glare, excited, watchful. Eagerly they were snuffing the fumes that floated way from the fires. Fragrant those fumes; the air was laden with perfume, sweet and alluring; he found himself snuffing also, and as he breathed of the fragrance, felt an ecstasy growing within him, his heart thrilling with queer, intimate desires. And it seemed that some part of the meaning of the ceremony was clear to him. Whatever the purpose, fanatics were being bred before his eyes.
What was being said, he could not understand, though the words sounded familiar. Once he had known them.
Once he had known many Eastern dialects; he had had the gift of tongues, and their acquisition had been easy; but the gift had atrophied, and his knowledge was gone; deliberately he had set himself to forget, that the past might be forgotten. Now he set himself to remember, and slowly, word by word, he began to understand.
Before complete understanding could come, the priest ceased speaking; for a minute or two he stood bowed before his fires. The kneeling men stopped their strainings and snuffings, and bent forward till their foreheads touched the floor. In the silence the process of remembrance worked more swiftly in John Henry’s brain. When again the high-pitched voice broke forth, it was as though someone were speaking in a well-known tongue.
“The great bird spreadeth its wings over the land. It cometh. Yea! it cometh. Blessed are ye, oh ye Children of the Vulture.”
Clear and distinct the words fell on his ears. As clear came the response: “We are blessed.”
He had remembered just in time. A climax of the ceremony was approaching. The fires had burned low. The chamber was almost in darkness. But in spite of the darkness, he saw the worshippers craning eagerly forward, as pilgrims looking for an expected sign; and when the priest’s voice rang out again, its note of certainty was unmistakable. A prophet was delivering a prophecy whose fulfilment was at hand.
“It shall fill the land with blood. Ye who are worthy shall drink and wax strong. The great bird calleth its children to the feast. It cometh. Yea, it cometh. Ye who are worthy shall see it revealed.”
Shouting wildly, he started to whirl back and forward in front of the stage, pouring handful after handful of fuel into the braziers as he passed. Flames shot up through his fingers, great crimson tongues that licked the ceiling. Like a demon at the furnace door of hell, he danced before them. Their glare filled the chamber; their fumes became almost overpowering. Yet swifter and swifter he whirled at his stoking, louder and louder he howled.
Then all at once the flames went out, blackness swirled into the room, and his voice was silent, his frenzy cut short as though a beast of the night had leaped with the blackness and slain him. . . . The thud of his body sounded loud as he fell to the floor.
The effect was tremendous. The blackness seemed charged with evil. A howl came from the worshippers. Sharply it ceased, cut short also, as a new terror stalked info the chamber. A low wailing began to rise from them. John Henry felt his scalp stiffen, his feet and hands grow cold. High over the stage a horrid shape was manifesting itself. As clearly as ever he had heard anything clearly, there sounded the beating of great wings. And as at their impact the blackness was broken. It tossed and swirled round the shape—round a glowing, formless Thing, that steadily grew as though sucking life from the turmoil, until, leaping forth from the midst of dead shadows, it hung revealed against a motionless background, a gleaming red bird, a huge vulture settling on its spoil.
A moment it hung there, a living, evil presence; then it was gone. John Henry blinked and blinked his eyes, and looked into darkness. It was the cleverest piece of stage trickery he had ever seen, and a master actor in the guise of a priest had prepared the way for its playing. Even he himself, an onlooker, an unbeliever, not in the least susceptible to the priest’s appeal, had felt startled for a little while. To the superstitious half-drugged pagans who knelt in that chamber it was, what obviously it was meant to be, a personal manifestation of their god. Not a murmur came from them, not a rustle. Even their breathing was stilled. . . .
At last a brazier burst into light. The priest appeared, bending over it and stoking.
When its flame burned dim but steady, on he passed, igniting all the others and tending each in the same way; and as he lit, and stoked, and lit, he crooned a melody that woke answering harmonies from unseen singers and players, until the chamber was filled with music, strange and barbaric, with long languorous cadences full of sex appeal.
Another spell was being cast, another and baser depth stirred in those worshippers. Tracking the music to its source, John Henry saw two sections of the hangings on the wall opposite his spyhole being slowly drawn aside, and as he watched in wonder a space was disclosed, a tiny room behind the hangings that might have been reconstructed from an opium-eater’s dream; an alcove of soft blue light, with couches half-hid in slumbrous shadows, and houris, beautiful girls who came tripping out into the chamber, their bodies swaying to the music, bells tinkling about them as they swayed.
Into the dim light of the braziers they danced, and thence round the two garlanded figures. On the verge of the radiance the two men lay prone, drugged sleepers. As sleepers wakening in the paradise of their dreams, they reared up suddenly on their knees, hands flung out wildly, eyes glaring; and a howl broke from them, instantly echoed from the midst of the fevered eyes that shone in a cluster behind. Their bodies started to quiver. They clutched at the flying draperies as the girls swayed within their reach; clutched and missed, clutched and missed, and went lolling on their backs, on their sides, on their faces, half-stupefied, helpless, yet gripped by uncontrollable desires.
John Henry turned away from the sickening sight and sat down in his tunnel. The girls were white, the men were coloured—and he had served in India. It was the beginning of an orgy, an evil rite that would make those two devotees capable of any madness, any act of violence, whatever their superiors decreed. That was its purpose, he had no longer any doubt. He had stumbled on the nest of some secret religious association; he had been witnessing the preparation of two of its members for some deed of crime.
And up above was a house visited by a prominent politician!—and by half a dozen other men not a whit less prominent and respectable.
He had seen the latter as he spied on the place before taking up his quarters in No. 15. Sometimes they entered alone, more often accompanied by those beautiful girls. These were the nautch girls of the upper chambers, the counterpart of the dancing girls below. What was the counterpart of the entertainment, he wondered, to which those men came, or were lured? And what was the association of which they were members, or the dupes?
Again he felt that vague apprehension which had seized him as he listened to the purr of the limousine and the tread of the passing policeman. It came to him now as a warning to go. Whatever the gang might be, they were powerful; he was on no safe hunting-ground. And there was something else bidding him go, something vaguer than the apprehension, yet more potent.
The music was still sounding, the cries of the men, the tinkling of the bells, the inviting laughter of the girls. Hence this second warning came. His disgust at the scene had been but the forerunner of a deeper and more personal feeling. Fate was fingering again the pages of his past and threatening to write where a story had been left unwritten. His remembering of tongues that once he had used had set other memories stirring. The longer he stayed the more potent those stirrings would become. And for twelve years his sole object had been to keep them confined! . . .
He rose, his face turned towards his barricade, his intention formed to go. But as he rose the babel ceased, the priest began another invocation. A moment or two he stood listening. Then he turned. Deliberately he walked to the spyhole and looked into the chamber once more.
Hands upraised, his face uplifted to the darkness above the stage, the priest stood in front of his fires, which were burning feebly. His invocation was finished. He had called for another manifestation, and was waiting. Behind him the worshippers waited also, motionless, eyes fixed and staring. Round the two garlanded men, and supporting them, knelt the girls.
Two beams of light flashed out suddenly, one from either side of the stage. Round the chamber they flickered. Then immediately below where the vulture had appeared they transfixed each other and remained steady, and in the heart of their illumination, cloaked and veiled, her garments shimmering as of silver, a woman was revealed, a woman of wondrous grace and dignity. Proudly she glided forward. The light beams followed her to the edge of the stage, and there withdrew. In the glare of the fires she stood disclosed. Her cloak fell from her. With a sudden gesture she tore aside her veil, and the light beams shot out again and rested on her face. Then the red flames leaped up from the braziers to the ceiling and hid her behind their glare. When their power was consumed she was gone.
Shrill cries filled the chamber, hyena-like, bestial. To a tinkling of bells the girls raised the two garlanded men and led them away. The hangings dropped behind them, hiding the alcove and leaving the chamber in darkness. The cries ceased. Instead there sounded the short loud breathing of excited men. This ceased also as the priest began chaunting. With him the worshippers joined, and when the last note was sung there fell a silence. The ceremony was at an end.
But deaf and blind to it all John Henry remained by his spyhole, staring into the darkness at the spot where the woman had been. The warning had been justified, the threat made real; he had dared Fate to write, and Fate had written—written on a new page what had been left unfinished on an old, continuing a story that he had long thought closed. And with exquisite craftsmanship the years had been bridged with the material that the years had wrought. A boy and a girl had parted, and by separate paths reached the same broad highroad. John Henry, master-burglar, had burgled his way to the woman who had made him what he was; who had sent him down the path of crime—to find her reaping what she had sowed. . . .
The hangings trembled against his face. The door had opened; the draught was blowing, the chamber emptying as silently as it had filled. In a little while he knew that he was alone. The knowledge bred only one idea in his mind, a mind almost paralysed, still stunned by the shock of that scene; the idea that now all danger of discovery was gone. He put his lips to the spyhole and murmured a name.
No answer came.
“Clara,” he repeated.
Still no response; the heavily draped chamber sent out not even an echoing murmur. Vaguely disappointed, he formed his lips to call the name again. But the call was not uttered. Quickened by the sting of the disappointment, his mind had suddenly cleared; he could think—he could remember; his lips twitched as though burned by the name. Reeling away from the hangings, he stumbled out of the tunnel, checked like a wild thing at the barricade, and like a wild thing checked and overtaken, flung himself inert on the cellar floor.
Fate had not merely worked a dramatic confronting, not merely drawn together two long diverging threads.
In a masterly linking paragraph the chapters of the years had been traversed, a past embalmed by the hand of time raised in the inspiration of a phrase. As though only of yesterday the boy and the girl had met and parted, a man had given his honour to save a worthless woman’s name. In the darkness of the cellar, as once in the darkness of despair, John Henry lived the agony of a great betrayal, and heard around him the crash of his falling ideals.
Some woman holds the master-key of a man’s soul, and in every man’s soul is a chamber which only she can enter. Other women may have dwelt in the outer courtyards, dancing-girls mocked by its doorway; but here he has worshipped her from afar, raised his altar to the Unknown Goddess, his Girl of a Dream, and on the altar set to burn the sacred fire of his faith in the Ideal. Here is her throne, her shrine, and her citadel. His manhood lies on guard across the door. Once she has entered, he is hers to rule; empress and queen she reigns; in her hand is his destiny. Once she has gone—! Fortunately for most men she seldom comes until another woman holds the gate who will not let her in.
No woman held the gate for John Henry when Clara Woolfenden came. No woman had entered even the outer courtyards. His chamber was swept and garnished. The light of the sacred fire illuminated his whole soul. “Lucifer, Son of the Morning”—so had a master once addressed him; a master wont to caricature his pupils by the skilful gift of ancient names; a sarcastic man, who yet had grown confused as though the name had sprung from him involuntarily, a much more generous feeling than sarcasm its cause. For men had always warmed to John Henry. He had very many friends. But women had always sought him in vain. The announcement of his engagement to Clara was the sensation of the year.
Nor was this merely because hitherto he had remained so conspicuously heartwhole, so unsusceptible to the charms of the fairest. The news was heard with dismay. Clara Woolfenden was the last girl in India who should have been sought in marriage by a subaltern ambitious of a career.
Everybody liked her. A more lovely and charming girl there could not be found. But her father had brought their name into great disrepute: a retired civil servant who had not returned home, he had entirely lost caste. All sorts of rumours were afloat concerning him. Much that was ugly had been confirmed. He was drunken and dissolute; he had played a prominent and disgraceful part in several unpleasant scandals in which young officers, newly out, had been involved; and his associates were undesirable, the chief of them a particularly sinister person, Eli Carse, a Eurasian moneylender in whose debt he was thought to be. While old friends of her dead mother might still continue to receive his daughter, no one thought of receiving him. Scarcely anyone recognized him. From the day of the first visit to the Woolfendens’ shabby home, John Henry felt his seniors begin to look at him with disapproving eyes.
Nor was he suffered to go on his way without more definite warning. In hints, in innuendoes, in straightforward statements, women genuinely and sincerely concerned for his welfare foretold the inevitable cancelling of his staff appointment and the ruin of his career; and to a man his brother officers told him not to be a fool. It made no difference. All he had, all he had hoped for, he was willing to sacrifice. His Dream Girl had come. He only wished to serve her. He served too well.
There came a note from her one day asking for the immediate loan of a large sum of money. The time had been well chosen. His bank account was exhausted, nor could he replenish it for several days, but in his care were certain mess moneys, given to him that day to discharge several outstanding bills. Out of them he made the loan; and an hour later the chief creditor was complaining to his superior officer that the mess account was still unpaid.
Without asking a single question or saying a word to anyone, this officer, a colonel who liked John Henry, paid what was owing; but the story was abroad that evening, spread no one knew how, and in such an ugly version that the matter passed beyond his friendly control. Not only had the mess funds been misappropriated; John Henry, it was alleged, had secretly frequented an out-of-bounds establishment, and used the money to square his debt.
The keeper of the establishment swore to it, swore to pressing for payment and to sending his servant to collect the sum due; and the servant, the man who had brought Clara’s letter, corroborated his evidence; the very notes used were produced and identified. Only Clara’s testimony could have rebutted such allegations. Clara kept silent and John Henry made no mention of the loan. He met the perjury with a curt denial and was cashiered. It was almost a pleasing sacrifice to him.
Not for a moment did he think reproachfully of Clara. He knew how near to breaking the girl’s fine spirit had been brought by her father’s notoriety; he did not wonder at her shrinking from admitting responsibility for her lover’s. Nor would he have had her act otherwise. He preferred to pay. An enthusiast in everything, he almost welcomed such a chance of showing his zeal.
Once free of his confinement he had hastened to her home, so full of hope for the future as to be scarcely conscious of his disgrace. They would go away together; he had won her by ordeal; he could offer her a modest competence; he was well fitted for a civil career. . . . But her home was shut up. She had married Eli Carse. She, her father, and her husband, had disappeared.
The darkness had settled on John Henry then, and had never lifted. He had wandered away, not knowing, not caring whither. With no ties near to stay him, he had fallen among thieves; in the pursuit of a vocation calling for the utmost from his mental and physical powers, striven to alleviate the bitterness of his disillusionment, to assuage his sense of wrong. And the years had aided his own strong will; the hurt had calloused; the pain had been subdued. But still the bitterness had lived, deep down, a torpid cancer that had eaten his zest of life away and left him but a soulless man, and embodied mind; that had waked again, at the sight of her who had wronged him, with such virulence, and sudden pang that his strength had left him; he had only been able to stagger away and fling himself limp, and helpless, down.
And at length, when he was able to think a little, there came a far greater agony, brought by the thought that she whom he had worshipped as his ideal had sunk so low.
He writhed under the new torment. A mass of solid brick crunched and crumbled in the clutch of his clenching hand, and though the jagged fragments bruised and pierced his flesh, he felt no pain.
But the movement was the turning point, for it broke his physical inertness, and slowly but steadily his mind reacted, the fit passed away; not wasted was the discipline of the years; the mental dynamic long directing all his thoughts and actions stirred in the midst of the clamour of his senses, and in stirring restored him his control. He rose to his feet. Still unsteady, he leaned against the cellar wall and waited for his strength to return. A purpose had formed in his mind. His face was grim with it. He drew his revolver, palmed himself upright and re-entered the tunnel, and cautiously approached the spyhole.
Behind the hangings a light was shining again; now shed by two ordinary electric glow-lamps, and without its barbaric fires and their crimson glare, the chamber was entirely changed; it was nothing more than a ballroom furnished with a stage. Couches and chairs were placed here and there. The hangings were drawn back in several places, showing the alcove—and other alcoves, where those unseen musicians must have played and sung; all empty now, and but shelter niches whither dallying dancers might have escaped from the throng. Yet he was scarcely conscious of any change. On a couch only a few feet away from him a woman reclined, and though her face was turned from him, though he saw only her hair, he knew by the quick leap of his pulses, the tremulous recrudescence of an old thrill, that she was Clara Woolfenden, his lost love, the girl who had betrayed.
He stepped down out of his tunnel and into the chamber, lifted the hangings over his head and let them fall behind him. The heavy material dropped with a rustle and a thud, and continued to rustle; but she did not stir. He stood and gazed at her. Now he was conscious of the change in the place, and could scarcely believe that what he had witnessed an hour ago had happened; his personality swung like a pendulum over a gap of twelve years. Then she turned her head and saw him. Forward he strode. She rose and faced him.
“John!” she whispered.
He stretched out his hand to her.
“Clara,” he murmured. “Come away.”
This was the purpose which had formed in his mind; even as his greatest agony swept over him, as he thought of her standing before that ravening mob of coloured men, it had come to him that he could not leave her there. His faith might have been extinguished; but his love had never died. It stirred in the wave of pity that flooded into his heart as he gazed at her and saw how greatly she had changed. Time had given to the beauty of the girl, but taken away from her soul. Only for that instant when she recognised him and whispered his name had she shown the slightest emotion. Now she stood silent and perfectly still. There had been no shrinking away from him, no defiance. The wrong she had done him might never have been done. Again that feeling of unreality obsessed him. This woman was a stranger. Yet the pity remained.
“Clara,” he repeated. “Come away!”
“With you?” Quite calmly she put the query.
“With me,” he answered.
He made no reply; he could make none. Here was a woman for whom the past was dead—he was nothing to her; a woman for whom life held no surprise—it was nothing to her even how he had come. She too had sunk. She too had suffered disillusionment. Anger began to mingle with his pity. But not against her.
“Is Carse here?” he asked grimly.
His glance swept swiftly round the chamber in quest of the entrance.
“Go away, John MacLean!” she exclaimed, divining his intention.
She caught his arm and held him as he would have moved past her, searching.
“John MacLean! Will you go away,” she said sharply. Go, before it is too late.”
“No,” he answered. “I won’t go. Carse and I have too long an account to settle. A long, long account, Clara.”
He gazed at her steadily and she met his gaze.
“I will call,” she threatened.
“Very well. Call,” he bade her. “It will save me searching.”
Her fingers tightened on his arm. She tried to draw him away—tried wildly. Fear was gripping her. His anger deepened as he saw it.
“You don’t know what you are saying,” she gasped, breathless with her exertions. “You don’t know what kind of a house this is, or you would never have entered it.”
“Oh, yes, I do,” he answered. “I know he is pretty well guarded. But if this were hell itself I would not go now without searching him out. Clara!” he exclaimed almost savagely, as that hideous scene on the stage flashed again into his mind. “Don’t you see what he has done?—To you?—To me? Don’t you remember what we were?” He flung off her clasp, seized her by the arms, and shook her. “Don’t you realize what we are now? . . . He did it, and he’ll pay. Then you will come with me. I won’t leave you here.”
She started to tremble in his grasp. As though for support her hands caught at his forearms. All colour had left her face. Into her eyes had come an expression whose nature he could not diagnose.
“You are a burglar, aren’t you?”—she whispered the words.
“Yes,” he answered.
“How did you come here?”
“I tunnelled through that wall.”
“Yes,” he said bitterly, before she could complete the query. “The girl I once worshipped.”
The colour flooded back into her cheeks. With a sudden jerk she tore herself free, and stood a pace off from him, erect and scornful.
“The girl you worshipped! . . . You liar!”
He stared at her in amazement.
“You liar,” she repeated. “You will not leave me here? . . . You?”
The past lived for her again. Some word of his had raised it; and with it a bitterness—that was the nameless expression he had seen in her eyes—an anguish as great as his own. And akin to his own! He saw her reel as he had reeled.
“Oh, why have you come!” she sobbed.
Stumbling away from him, she flung herself down on the couch—as he had flung himself down, and as helpless as he had been.
Realization came to him then—-slowly. Slowly, very slowly, the misunderstanding of the years rolled away. A numbness beset him. The lights of the room seemed to go out; without knowing it, he had closed his eyes. But from far away, down a long black tunnel, a light was travelling towards him, rushing, turning and turning, waxing as it came. In a blinding, scorching blaze it burst over and around him. The numbness fled. He opened his eyes. The room was bright—brighter by far than if had been before. A darkness, an old darkness had lifted, and he knew: that rushing whirling light had been his returning soul. Past, Present, and Future were calling to him in a hundred voices: calls of anger, hate,sorrow, joy, and pain. And one voice there was that called above the clamour—his own, calling Clara by name.
He saw her raise herself upright in response and turn slowly in his direction. He ran to her, caught her by each shoulder, and held her.
“Oh, Clara,” he murmured.
She gazed at him, her eyes heavy with misery, but questioning.
“You thought I was not true to you?” he exclaimed. You thought I used that money as they said I did? . . . Tell me I am right, Clara,” he besought her, his new-found belief waning for an instant as still she gazed at him, still questioning but dumb.
“Carse said you did,” she whispered; then, as the field of her consciousness broadened under the stimulus of his appeal—”What is it?” she enquired eagerly. “What is it you have to say?”
“Wait! . . . Much!”
He hardly heard himself speaking. A tremor had seized him. His eyes were burning. The identity which his mind had established between her state and his own had been confirmed by her words. The cause was the same. She, too, had been brought low by the loss of her ideal. She had done him no wrong. She, too, had been deceived, as he had been deceived.
With quick eager fingers he drew out and opened a pocket-book. It contained but one letter, the paper brown, the writing faded.
“Read,” he said, handing it to her.
And while she read he watched and watched, his glance fastening on every quiver, every change of expression of her features. He saw her amazement, her horror and dismay
“I did not write this!” she exclaimed. “It is my handwriting, but I did not write it. John!—I did not write it.”
“I know, Clara,” he said. “I know. Everything is clear now.”
She gazed at him, tragedy in her gaze, but wonder also, almost adoration.
“You took that money—you gave up everything, for me!” she whispered. “And while you suffered, I betrayed, I failed you—you! the most wonderful lover ever woman was given.”
“Hush, Clara,” he said. “You did not betray me.”
But she would not be silent. She rose and faced him, a figure now of tragedy, wild-eyed, tense with her horror.
“Listen to me, John,” she said. “You must listen. You must hear what little I can say. . . . For months they had been whispering to me that you were not true—Carse and my father. From the day that they knew we loved each other, they gave me no rest, Carse wanted me. He had bought my father. He threatened and lied, and my father begged and lied. I did not believe them, John. I did not even tell you what they said. I was so sure that you were not like other men. And then it seemed true. You were accused. I wrote to you. You did not reply. . . . Nothing mattered then.”
“I got no letter, Clara,” he said quickly.
“I sent my father with it, but I ought to have known,” she said bitterly. “He is dead now. If only he had ended his miserable life sooner! I ought to have known that he had deceived me, that you could never have done as they said. And yet you come to me—thinking me faithless, degraded—you come to take me away!”
Her hands stole out and gently clasped his head. She leaned forward and gazed at him earnestly.
“Oh, John!” she whispered. “Never man was like you.”
“Never woman was like you, Clara—My Dream Girl,” he murmured. “My Dream Girl come back to me. Oh, Clara girl! Life seems glorious now. We will go away together, and the wasted years will never have been. . . . Forget them, dearest,” he begged her, drawing her into his arms. “Forget them. Life is still ours, still young. . . . Clara!”
No smile had come to her lips, no joy, no hope to her eyes; tense she remained in his clasp.
“Clara!” he exclaimed in sudden alarm. “What is the matter?”
Gently she broke away from him.
“Life is over for you and me,” she said mournfully. “You must go away and leave me here. I cannot come with you.”
“You cannot come! Why? . . . Is it because of Carse?” he demanded, his face darkening with the old anger. “Take me to him. I’ll soon settle matters with him. Take me to him,” he repeated. “Do you think I’ll let him stand in our way? . . . Is it his gang? You need not be afraid of them. Besides, what is danger or death now, Clara?”
“Nothing. Less than nothing,” she answered swiftly. “If that were all, I would come. I would beg you to take me with you. Do you think,” she exclaimed passionately, “do you think that only fear of death has kept me in this place all those years. No, John. He has held me by a very different threat. He has someone else in his power as well. You remember my sister Betty? She went home to England just before you met me. One of his creatures has brought her up. She has grown a beautiful girl. She knows nothing of what happens here. I have been able to protect her. But they would make her a decoy, a dancing girl! . . . I cannot let them. I cannot go. You must not ask me. Oh, John! You must not ask me to go.”
“Do you know where she is?” he enquired eagerly.
“Then I can rescue her. You needn’t be afraid,” he said confidently. “There is no place that I cannot break into.”
“They would find us,” she said hopelessly. “We could never escape them.”
“No, they wouldn’t! I have a safe hiding place, Clara!” he urged, as he saw the hope spring into her eyes. “I know what I am saying is true. Won’t you trust me?”
But still she hesitated.
“Clara?” he entreated.
“John, dear,” she said very earnestly. “Do you realize what you are undertaking to do? Carse is not the head of a mere gang of murderers and thieves. Do you realize that they are almost strong enough to overthrow an empire, that half the East would rise at their bidding, that even in this country they do as they please. You saw those two men? . . . They were assassins. An enemy was to be killed. By this time he is killed. A hundred like them could be sent forth in a day, and next day a thousand more. Their agents and spies are everywhere—even in the police. You simply have no idea of their power. They have made dupes of very powerful men. You must listen to me, John,” she insisted, as he would have interrupted. “You must realize clearly what they are. I am very useful to them—almost a goddess to their followers. The Daughter of the Vulture!” she exclaimed scornfully. “Did you hear that priest? . . . They cannot afford to let me go. They would search the whole world for us. If they caught us, it would mean worse than death for you. They are terrible, John. I know.”
“I’m not afraid, Clara, and you needn’t be, either,” he said simply. “I have baffled the police of Europe, and I can baffle them. Don’t worry. With you I can do anything. I know I can do what I am saying. You simply don’t need to be afraid.”
His earnestness convinced her. Her eyes began to shine, the faith in them plain. He waited, watching her eagerly; and in a little while she said, “I am not afraid—not any longer.”
“And you will come with me?”
“But not now,” she added quickly. “They would discover my absence immediately if I went just now. There is another meeting upstairs. I must be present at it. They are waiting for me now. When I come back. . . . Oh, John!”
She came to a stop, trembling with sudden excitement.
“What is it?” he asked anxiously.
“John! There is another, a better way,” she exclaimed. “All their principal leaders are here to-night. If the police came and captured them we would be safe. John! Go to the police. There is a man in the Special Service, Inspector Branluk. Ask for him. Tell him what you have seen. He will know what to do.”
He glanced at her doubtfully.
“Go, John,” she urged. “They are afraid of him. I know. He suspects them. They have tried to kill him. He will act. Go to him, John. Go at once.”
But he shook his head.
“I am not going to leave you,” he said. “Not now, after all these years. My way is best, Clara. Come with me.”
“It isn’t. It isn’t, John,” she urged earnestly. “They would discover my absence too soon. Go to Branluk. He will welcome your news. I am right. I know I am right. Go at——! That is for me!”
From behind the hangings an electric bell had rung, thrice, in quick succession, as though the user were impatient.
“Quick, John. You must go now. Someone will come if you delay. . . . John, dear! You must go!”
“You think it best, Clara?” he asked, still doubtful.
“I don’t like leaving you. I would . . .”
“Yes!” Fear had come into her eyes. “Branluk has all Britain behind him. They are terrible. Quick! Someone is coming. You will be discovered.”
Her importunity overbore him. Swiftly he embraced her, then she ran with him to the tunnel, and held up the hangings as he clambered up into its entrance. “God bless you, darling,” he heard her whisper; then the hangings fell and he stood in the darkness once more. But not immediately did he depart on his mission. He looked through the spyhole and watched, apprehensive of what might happen and anxious to be at hand should she need him. For her hearing had not deceived her. The draught was blowing. Someone was coming. Calmly she walked to the couch and lay down, and pretended to be sleeping. Hardly had she become motionless, when a slit in the hangings in the far corner opened, and into the chamber strode the second City gentleman, the pseudo-inhabitant of No. 17.
He entered frowning, a man in haste.
“Madame!” he called.
Having caught sight of her, he hurried to the couch and shook her by the shoulder.
“Madame!” he shouted again.
Slowly she raised herself.
“Well?” she enquired.
“They are waiting for you, Madame.”
“You have been here a long while?”
Suspicion and dislike of her was plain in his manner and tone. But just as plain was the fact of her power. She rose to her feet and glanced at him haughtily, and he cringed before her.
“You forget yourself, Smeaton,” she said sternly. “I will have you whipped if you are not careful. Leave the room.”
He bowed and hastily withdrew. John Henry saw her turn and smile in his direction, then the hangings hid her also, the lights went out, and he was left alone.
And now it was that he scarcely knew his whereabouts; both tunnel and barricade seemed strange. He was dazzled, and more than dazzled: he had wakened in the daylight of the future from the darkness of the past, and from a dream. Not the old John Henry would have crossed the cellar so clumsily, or stumbled so often on the stairs.
The splash of heavy raindrops in the street outside was sounding through the house when he reached the hall. A clock struck one. The chime brought him a warning that the night was wearing on; and with the need for haste apparent, the need for caution was plain—quietly and quickly he glided to the front door, and with his ear to the main keyhole listened for sound of any passer-by. Only the swish of the rain could he hear. The street seemed deserted. He opened the door an inch or two and listened intently, still on his guard. Still only the raining. Out he sidled. His finger holding back the Yale bolt till the last moment, the door closed and locked with scarce a sound, and across the street his eye had already marked the beginning of a sideway, down which he could hurry. He took a first step forward—and leaped. But too late! . . . Out from the shadows at the side of the porch a shadow pounced on him. Even as his feet left the ground, two powerful hands fastened on his arms at the elbows in a hold that he knew he could not break.
He was checked and dragged back. The hold was changed and doubled; a second assailant had come to the assistance of the first. Gripped by each arm, he was held securely between them—between two big London policemen, a sergeant and constable, who had been sheltering in the porch from the rain. They had been standing quite still, as policemen are wont to stand, and all his listening had failed to warn him of their presence. His very precautions had warned them.
“Quick, constables,” he whispered, in a desperate effort to retrieve the situation. “Take me to the station at once. I have news for Inspector Branluk.”
They turned him round to the light of the nearest street lamp and looked him over in ironic silence.
“Ah, ma mannie”—his heart sank as he heard the Highland accent, that of the Law’s most intractable servant. “Ay, ay, ma mannie. You sail go to the station, I’m thinkin’. But first we sail chust be seein’ what a dirty-like callant you has been doin’ in here. Hold him, Neilly, while I knock.”
The sergeant let go as he spoke, and turned towards the door. John Henry snatched at the only chance left to him. Down came his heel on the constable’s toes. His head went back in a smashing butt. A sudden simultaneous jerk and prod of his elbows and he was clear and leaping to the pavement. But he got no further. The Highlander’s skilfully flung truncheon took him on the back of the head and stretched him senseless across the kerbstone. When consciousness returned to him, he was lying handcuffed in the hall of No. 15, and the warning had been given that meant failure to his and Clara’s plans.
Worse than failure—danger, great danger. His tunnel would be discovered. That devil’s gang who had Clara in their power would suspect that he had spied on their devilries. And he had asked for Inspector Branluk, the man whom they feared. And she had been the last of them to leave the chamber. If they should suspect that he and she had spoken! . . . The thought of what would happen to her was agony to him.
Still more agonizing the thought that he could do nothing to serve her. He was helpless. He had failed.
He lay still, simulating unconsciousness, too weak, too wretched even to open his eyes. On guard nearby stood the constable, the only other person in the hall. But from upstairs came the sound of movement. There, three people were going from room to room, searching evidently for sign of his expected depredations. It looked as if his tunnel was not yet discovered; he drew some little comfort from the thought. Higher and higher the searchers mounted. At last a cry and a hasty tramping! His lair in the attic had been found. Down the stairs presently came the sergeant and the first City gentleman. A valet-like person brought up the rear.
“The impudence of the fellow, sergeant,” the City gentleman was saying. “He must have been in the house quite two days, and neither my man nor myself knew. It is very fortunate that you caught him when you did. Stealing out, no doubt, to seek the help of confederates?”
“Very probably, Sir Weeilium,” said the sergeant. “Sir William!” thought John Henry in amazement.
“Here, you! Get up,” said the constable, having noticed his slight start.
“Has he come-to?” called the sergeant.
“Get him up.”
The constable seized John Henry by the shoulders and pulled him into a standing position.
“Bring him under the light,” commanded the City gentleman.
John Henry was pushed nearer the hall lamp, and both master and valet surveyed him. Their clothing, he noticed, was in disorder, as though hastily put on; they were nervous, agitated; he could easily picture their panicky rush from the back premises of No. 16 in response to the untimely knocking—but never had he been subjected to a harder, a more pitiless stare. Their eyes were Eastern. Sinister they looked, and menacing, and for the first time thought of his own danger occurred to him. He saw that it was indeed real.
“They’ll be having his finger-prints at the Yard, I’m thinkin’,” ventured the sergeant, as the scrutiny became prolonged.
“You don’t know him, then?” enquired the City gentleman sharply.
“No, Sir Weeilium.”
John Henry did not like the sound of that Oh, or the look which master and valet exchanged immediately afterwards. He saw the latter steal away, and felt that his mission was hostile.
“And I think you said he mentioned Inspector Branluk, sergeant?” the questing voice continued. “That name seems a very famous name to me. I am interested in criminology, you know, sergeant. And his motive? . . . It would interest me greatly?”
“Bluff! Sir Weeilium. Nothing more. We get them claiming——”
“You could not find out from him? You could not ask him?”
There was a rasping note in the City gentleman’s voice as he put his interrupting queries, and the sergeant smiled apologetically.
“Hardly,” he murmured. “They will be doing that at the station. . . . And it is there we had better be going the now,” he added, somewhat bluntly, beginning to take offence, Highlander that he was, at the City gentleman’s manner of addressing him. “You are quite sure that he has done no other damage?”
“Perfectly sure, sergeant,” said Sir William, much more graciously. “I will follow you as soon as I can make myself presentable. Thank you very much. I will make a point of letting the authorities know how much I appreciate your services and those of your assistant. . . . Good-bye.”
He opened the door to them and showed them out, his manner now grown cordial, all trace of its late suspiciousness vanished. Greatly gratified, sergeant and constable led their charge away. But the cordiality had not deceived John Henry or disarmed him of his fears. With an effort of will he conquered his weakness and held himself watchful and ready; for he had seen an expression on the City gentleman’s face as he went out past him which had called to his mind the memory of a snake that he had once seen in India, a cobra, staring out of its hole at a baby mongoose at play with his colonel’s children. He had flung a stone at the reptile and driven it away—but it had returned and killed the mongoose. Not till he saw the straighter, better-lit thoroughfare of London Street in front of him did he relax his guard. Of the silent byways and sombre squares through which they had passed, every shadow, every turning had been the possible lurking place of a foe.
At the end of the street glimmered the lights of Paddington Station. Dim though they were they comforted him with their suggestion of men, ordinary men, awake and at their normal tasks. And right of them a coffee-stall hung out its cheery lure against the night, its oblong patch of brightness fringed with the heads and shoulders of its feasting guests. A belated cab rattled across from Praed Street and on towards Westbourne Grove. Nearer, under the island lights fronting Oxford and Cambridge Terrace, a policeman stood listening good-humouredly to the drunken confidences of an opera-hatted reveller from the West End. Before such evidences of the night life of the City his sense of personal danger began to grow less acute, the tenseness left his muscles, his weakness returned. He suddenly felt very lifeless and tired.
“Ay, ma mannie. You are no’ so far from the nick now,” said the sergeant, deceived concerning the cause of the change in him. “Hand up, man.”
He had stumbled. The sergeant took firmer hold of him and he leaned heavily on the supporting arm.
His nerves were but beginning to show the effects of all the astonishing changes of that astonishing evening. A reaction was fast setting in. Also, he was a little light-headed as a result of the severe blow the truncheon had dealt him; and eased of the sanctions whereby normally it was circumscribed, his mind began to wander. Into the medley of thoughts and notions filling his consciousness from the Present, his memory introduced older notions, older thoughts, from the Past. For he knew this street well, none better in the whole of London. Near almost every one of its doorways a ghost leaned against the area railings, a ghost of himself or of a friend.
Once it had been one of the two main avenues to his home in Lancaster Gate; rather, to the house of his uncle, his sole remaining near relative, the only near relative he had ever known; and often in his boyhood he had traversed it. Down it often, with a college friend, he had stolen away from the cold hard man, his uncle, to spend a convivial hour in “The Bath and Cheltenham”, or “The Norfolk” across the Square. He had revisited these ancient hostelries since; he knew that the kent faces were gone from the one, that the other was a boarding house, where a hundred douce single gentlemen were well and cheaply housed and fed; he knew that his uncle had left the neighbourhood, and all his former friends; but it made no difference. The old memories came.
Even that West End reveller was a familiar. He himself, under that very lamp, had often paused to tell a constable what a fine fellow he thought him. He, too, had come carolling down the pavement as that reveller was coming—a long, long time ago, when life was full and warm.
“Whoa, ma mannie!”
The sergeant’s voice broke across his dreams. The reveller was lurching sideways in front of them. A deft swing of the Highlander’s arm fended him off and on; he lurched sideways behind. . . . John Henry suddenly woke to the knowledge of something untoward. Down the street, swift hasty footsteps were pattering—the reveller in flight, recovered, his drunkenness, his pretended drunkenness, gone. There was an instant of startled silence, in which the pattering ceased; in which he thought he heard the rasp of a turning door-key. Then the sergeant exclaimed in amazement——
“My Cod, Neilly! That drunk tried to use the knife on me.”
From hip to spine his tunic had been gashed by a knife-point, carried along in a glancing blow.
“Just missed,” he said coolly. “Another quarter inch and he would have rippit me, I’m thinkin’. Some dirty devil has been nursing it up for me, Neilly. Blaw your whustle, man! He’ll be getting clear.”
But all the whistling and running about that at once began yielded no sign of the reveller. He had disappeared. One of the tall houses lining that part of the street had admitted him:, whoever he was, he had powerful friends. John Henry was glad when the swing-door of the police station closed behind him. He knew who those powerful friends were, or with whom they were in league. Not at the sergeant but at himself had that knife-point been aimed. Only an instinctive start forward as the reveller lurched had taken him out of range.
The manner of the City gentleman when he came to make the charge was more snakelike than ever, the menace lurking behind his glances, beneath his tones, more manifest, more clearly defined. Other attempts were to be made against him. It was obvious that he had been proscribed; that not a moment longer was he to be allowed to live than that gang at No. 16 could contrive. And a disquieting revelation of their power and extent was given him in the City gentlemen’s name.
“Sir William Crahmyil,” the charge sergeant murmured deferentially, beginning his task. That name, he knew, was borne by one of the greatest Orientalists of the day.
The proceedings in the charge-room were brief; he was soon in his cell. He had pricked up his jaded wits to the task of playing simple burglar, caught in the midst of his crime; and all the time the savant had watched him, and all the time he had watched the savant. Nothing had been said of his tunnel; that it existed, he was almost certain, had yet to be learned. What had worked all the mischief was his mentioning Inspector Branluk. Great, obviously, was the fear of the gang for this man.
It entered his mind that he might do well if still he sought the inspector’s assistance. Already this idea had occurred to him. He rejected it a second time. He had failed once through seeking assistance. Henceforth he meant to rely on himself alone. He ought never to have left Clara. For that, he would never cease to blame himself.
But he had sounder grounds for his attitude than a mere dislike or distrust of working with others: sooner or later his tunnel would be discovered; Clara was bound to be suspected; intervention by Branluk would only confirm the suspicion, possibly without effecting anything else.
By keeping silent, he would serve her best.
Only by maintaining the part of a simple burglar could he hope to disarm their suspicion and preserve her from the vengeance that would assuredly fall, did they know they were betrayed—a difficult part. As he saw what it entailed a fury descended on him, chased away his weariness, and sent him rushing to the window of his cell to clench his hands round the bars and pull and pull and pull. The Law had spoilt his plans; it held him and would hold him; he would be sent to prison; he would be prevented from helping her—but to neither of them would it give protection in return. She was in the power of Carse and his associates. He was in their power also. They would snipe and snipe. He would be unable to defend himself, to retaliate—until he escaped. . . . Then!
The fury burnt up the remnant of his strength. He slid away from the bars and fell asleep before he touched the floor.
The first grey light of dawn was stealing through the window when he awoke. His hands and wrists were aching where the rough iron of the bars and the rougher stone of the window facings had bruised and bled them; he was stiff and sore with the cold. But his weariness and weakness had gone. His old alert self again, he was conscious of his power.
Up he got and moved about the cell, silently, yet working his muscles with such vigour that his body heat was soon restored; and while he moved, his mind worked also, calmly reviewing the situation—-what he had done—what he could do.
How to escape was the important problem for him, for, once free, he could return to Clara, and he would have little to fear from that gang. They would have much to fear from him, he thought revengefully. Even if the removing of their menace meant the slaying of every one of their number with his own hands, their menace would be removed. But look at the problem as he might he could see on way of effecting a speedy solution. That morning he would be brought before the magistrates; he would be remanded, or committed straight away for trial. In either case it meant a return to prison, and in the light of past experience the prospect of speedy escape seemed distant. Not till he began to serve his sentence was his chance likely to come. Meantime anything might happen to him, or to Clara. . . .
Nevertheless, the future did not disquiet him. Indeed, he felt ridiculously confident—ridiculously, because he could determine no certain basis for his confidence. It was simply that a factor had entered his calculations that he had never permitted to enter before—the odd chance, working in favour of himself.
That such a thing should have happened was to him extraordinary, and the more he thought of it the more he wondered. Hitherto, he had always striven to eliminate the odd chance; he had looked, not for help, but for hostility from circumstances which his mind had not controlled. This had been his point of view, his notion of things. Now he realized that his whole outlook on life was changed. With his love, his soul, his faith, Hope had returned.
A thrill of expectancy passed through his heart at the sound of someone coming along the corridor. He knew at once that the visitor was for him, and at once had begun to wonder greatly what was about to happen. A policeman appeared, opened the cell door, and led him away. His expectancy increased. But the moment he entered the room which was his destination and saw the man seated there who waited him, he dropped all speculation and ordered every bit of caution he possessed to his aid. The man motioned the policeman to retire, looked him up and down without appearing even to look in his direction and then said quietly, “Well, young fellow? I’m Inspector Branluk.”
A big, bull-necked man with a tiny hairless head, and little sleepy-lidded eyes which yet were very bright; a man large of hand and foot, well-fleshed and heavy, yet with quick insinuating ways; a super-policeman with the strength, obstinacy, and craft of the wild boar; a master sleuth whose sole aim in life was the tracking down of his fellow men—this was the inspector. John Henry had guessed his identity immediately: he had felt that here was a man whose enmity anyone, however powerful, might well fear, and without hesitation he had reaffirmed his decision. Here was a man who would be a master—an ally, therefore, whose help must be refused. Swiftly and unobtrusively he had judged him, as swiftly and unobtrusively as he had been judged himself; and just as he had been aware of the inspector’s scrutiny, the latter was aware of his.
“You’re a clever fellow, John Henry,” he admitted, “and you have me all right. Now, tell me why you mentioned my name last night.”
John Henry’s manner became dour and uncommunicative.
“Come, come, man! A fellow like you doesn’t go and lie up in a strange house for nothing. What were you after? Why did you ask for me?”
“To try and get clear.”
John Henry nodded.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Don’t you?. . . I don’t mind.”
“I don’t suppose you do, but I hope to make you—that is, I hope to make it clear to you that it’s to your advantage to care a whole lot. . . . You are in a pretty tight corner, aren’t you?”
“I’m expecting two years!” said John Henry, coolly.
The detective grinned.
“I’m taking nothing to do with that,” he said, still grinning, “and I’m not trying to evidence against you, as I think you know. This is a little enquiry of my own. Nothing to do with what’s laid up for you. Anything you say, I keep to myself.”
“For just as long as it suits you, I suppose.”
The inspector grinned again, in quite a friendly way.
“I said you were clever,” he admitted. “And you are clever enough to know, I reckon, that anything you say can’t be used as evidence against you. I haven’t cautioned you. I don’t intend to. I tell you again, this is a private line. I’ve nothing to do with the people outside. . . . Don’t like them! . . . Just as soon give you a hand to do them down! . . . I might! . . . I will, if you help me. I want your help! . . . Why did you tell that sergeant you had news for me?”
“I’ve told you.”
“No, you haven’t. You had something for me last night, young fellow. What’s made you go and change your mind.”
“Nothing. And I had nothing.”
“Quite sure? . . . Eh? I think not. . . What?”
Instead of replying John Henry looked indifferently away, but beneath his unconcern he was astonished, very much on his guard. Far more formidable was this inspector than he had thought; his mental powers were of an extraordinary kind. Even though he, John Henry, had been caught coming from the house of so eminent and respectable a person as Sir William Crahmyil, somehow or other the inference had been made that he was coming with tidings of that gang. How had it been made, he wondered, and as though answering his unvoiced enquiry the inspector proceeded to explain. Only with difficulty did he conceal his interest in the explanation. It was the further history of one of those two garlanded figures whom he had seen led away by those girls.
“There was an assassination last night,” said the inspector quietly. “One of several committed in the last year or two, all by the same people. An Indian border prince, rather a big pot, very friendly to Britain, made himself obnoxious on that account to a certain society not at all friendly to Britain. And not feeling too safe among his own— You are rather overdoing the indifference stunt, young fellow!”
Sudden though the challenge was, it did not take John Henry unawares.
“Sorry, inspector,” he countered, sarcastically. “I am really and truly bored. Hadn’t you better tell the rest of your little story to the solicitor I mean to engage? You seem to me to have been talking to the moon a long time.”
“Do you think so?” countered the inspector in turn. “Really and truly? Then with your permission I’ll go on talking to the moon a little longer, but you can lay on it I’ll get to earth presently.”
His little eyes had become pig-like with sudden malevolence, for the sarcasm had ruffled him. But his voice remained insinuating and smooth.
“I’ll get down to earth presently,” he repeated, the sleepy lids falling and hiding the expression. “But meanwhile I’ll go on with my prince. He judged it wise to clear out to England for a while. Put the yarn about that he needed to consult a specialist or two. But everybody out East knew he had fled to save his skin. And the very first night of his arrival, a fellow walks into his hotel, knifes him, walks out, disappears. . . . Excellent advertisement! Serves the Government right! London was just about the last place on earth she should have come to. I could have told them that. But India Office doesn’t condescend much to Ernest Branluk, nor any other Office. Think him a nuisance! . . . Mad! . . . So he is! . . . On one subject. That’s why he connected up that fellow with you. Were you coming to warn me about him?”
“I certainly wasn’t.”
“And that’s about the first bit of truth you have told me,” said the inspector, after a pause. “So, young fellow. You weren’t coming to warn me of that. Then what were you coming to warn me about? . . . And what had made you change your mind?”
His tone and manner showed that he was expecting no answer to these queries; he was thinking aloud.
“I am wondering how to get at you,” he frankly admitted, bringing his gaze back to John Henry, from whom it had strayed. “You know something about that dirty gang, a whole lot, or I’m very far mistaken.”
“What gang?” John Henry could not help asking.
“The Children of the Vulture.”
“Never heard of them.”
“And that’s a kind of half-truth by the way you say it,” remarked the inspector, thoughtfully. “You’ll be a very hot man at most things, young fellow, but you are not a good liar. . . . Not good enough. . . . Not good enough for me. . . . I’m used to liars. . . . Clever ones. I’ll tell you something about those Children. They are the East against the West—against the world. They are badly up against this country—your country. They are out to bring the Empire down as the first step to setting the East up. And you and I are the only ones who believe it, and who are working against it——”
“Leave me out,” John Henry interrupted. “I don’t see the connection at all.”
The inspector sighed, and, having turned away from him, bent over a folder lying on the desk at which he sat, and began looking through its papers. It was the docket containing John Henry’s crime history. His finger-prints were there, and all that the police knew about him.
“Nothing known before conviction, mumbled the inspector, reading. “Out second September, nineteen seven. . . . What have you been doing since then?” Turning quickly, he put the query: “Been in the War, eh? You look an Army man. Damn! I believe you are a Regular. You were in the Army before the War. Oh, damn!”
His disappointment was plain. Some theory that he had been evolving, a speculation, John Henry guessed, concerning the occupation he had been following since his imprisonment, had obviously broken down.
“Come here,” he ordered.
He took John Henry’s hand, examined the fingers, the tips especially, then felt his arm and the texture of his shirt-sleeve.
“No,” he said. “You didn’t enlist after serving that term, and you couldn’t be an officer after it, either. You have been accustomed to live on the best, to dress well, to look after yourself. . . . How have you done it?”
“That’s pretty cool, isn’t it?” John Henry suggested.
“It isn’t! Get out of your head, man, that I’m trying to hunt up a conviction against you——”
“Then to hell with you,” interrupted John Henry, roughly. “I’d like to know what you mean by lugging me in here to run such a rigmarole of rubbish over me?”
“Don’t serve me up with any rough stuff,” the inspector said quietly, and with a certain dignity, the dignity of the very strong man. “It won’t wash. And talking of washing,” he said, abruptly changing the theme. That’s curious muck in your finger-nails. Been handling bricks and mortar, haven’t you? You are not used to it. I’ll need to go round to see what you were really doing at Crahmyil’s. . . . Excuse me!”
He rose suddenly, and with remarkable speed and noiselessness darted to the door, opened it, and looked up and down the passage outside.
“Hear anything?” he asked, returning. “No? Possibly my imagination. . . . I don’t think you quite realize the danger you are in, young fellow,” he said, resuming his inquisition. “By the way, I didn’t stage that bull rush just now just to impress you.”
“It looks very like it.”
“It does,” admitted the inspector. “All the same, I fancied I heard someone sniffing about out there, and I don’t let impressions like that simply fade away. Here’s something that I didn’t stage. Do you see that?”
He held up his left hand. The middle finger had been lately bandaged.
“Lost the point of it,” he said coolly. “Shot away. Just outside. They have every approach of this place picketed.”
“The Children of the Vulture,” replied the inspector patiently. “They tried to stop me coming here. Isn’t that a pretty good reason for me connecting you up with them? They have been laying pretty frequently for me lately, I’ll admit, but they had no reason to expect me in this quarter at such a time of the morning, apart from you. Now I’ll try you once more. I’ll tell you frankly the theory I’ve got about you. Great believer in the method! Wonderful what I pick up with it sometimes. You have been mixed up with those damed Children in some way, in their pay or something. You broke with them. You were in hiding. And when those fools of policemen caught you, you were coming to me to give them away. Am I right?”
“You are not.”
“Where do I go wrong?”
“Oh, no. I admit I haven’t been round to Crahmyil’s to see whether you really weren’t doing something besides hide there. That’s an assumption I’ll confirm or correct presently. The in-their-pay business is another assumption, which I can’t confirm or correct unless you help me, leastways not at present. But the rest is independent of you or me. It’s fact, and you know it. Why else did they lay to stop me coming here? Why else did they lay for you? You needn’t think that swell knife-man was after the sergeant. Sergeant’s a fresh transfer from The Ditch and never been up against a swell in his life. He was after you! You know something and they mean to close your mouth. You’re up against it. Look here, young fellow,” he said earnestly—the telephone bell rang at his elbow but he ignored it. “For your own sake you had better put me wise. They’ll get you here. You can do nothing to stop them. I can. . . . Oh, dash the thing!”
He jerked the receiver out of its catch and flung it down, angered by a renewed ringing and John Henry’s blank stare.
“I can,” he repeated, resuming quite calmly. “What are you afraid of. I’ll guarantee to keep you safe and to clear you if you are mixed up with them. And I’m the only man who can do it.”
“Thanks—for nothing,” said John Henry, with deliberate sarcasm. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“Get out,” said the inspector contemptuously. . . . I simply can’t understand you,” he continued. “You served in the War. Oh, yes, you did. Don’t you realize that you are shielding a lot who want to do m the whole giddy Empire? And you are whitearistocrat, if I m not mistaken. They are mostly tar-brush—dirty.”
“Not that it matters to me what they are,” he admitted candidly, as he saw John Henry’s dry smile. “I’m only trying to touch you up with what I think will touch you up. Black, white, or colour, there’s only criminal and non-criminal to Ernie Branluk. And one tries to keep out of his way when he’s on duty, and”—he began to smile also, slyly, ruefully—“the other does the same when he’s off. So folks like you have to provide him with company, or what would the poor fellow do?”
“Meanwhile anyone might be listening at the other end of the phone,” John Henry remarked.
The inspector’s big hand at once covered the transmitter.
“Thanks,” he said. “I’d have noticed that myself, ordinarily. But the Children are my great big game, and you are the hottest trail I’ve ever hit. Come now. Are you going to take me in with you on what you are trying to do? . . . You see,” he said, grinning, “I’ve tumbled to you, all right. You’re after them, too, but you want to go solo. You had far better give me the chance to come in. I’ve got more tricks than you. Gosh!” he exclaimed and his grin disappeared. “I’ll spoil your hand if you don’t. They struck at me before I knew that I was doing them any harm. . .. At me! . . . Do you hear? They’re mine!” His malevolence had suddenly possessed and transfigured him; he was snarling. “You either come in with me, or—I’ll let them have you. . . . Sure! . . . I’ll let them have you.”
Seeing the fury of the little pig eyes, John Henry realized that the hatred of this man against Carse and his gang was genuine and almost greater than his own, so great in fact that it had become an obsession —because they had struck at him before he knew he was doing them any harm! Not to such a man could Clara’s welfare be entrusted. Therefore he held his peace and maintained his blank stare.
Still he made no reply. Someone knocked at the door.
“Come in,” snarled the inspector.
A staff sergeant entered: “Beg pardon, Inspector,” he said apologetically, “but I don’t think you have answered that call yet. It’s for you from the Chief. I switched it straight through.”
“Damn! What do they want now?” Branluk muttered, waving the sergeant away and taking up the instrument. “Hello, hello. . . . Yes!”
His expression underwent an instant change. He seemed to listen with very great intentness.
“Right,” he muttered at last. While replacing the receiver, he said grimly—”There’s been another assassination.”
“District Commissioner, home on leave,” he continued, turning to face John Henry. “Distinguished himself by suppressing a native riot a few weeks ago. Now they’ve got him. Same people. We’ve got the man. . . . That seems to interest you?”
The last words seemed a challenge. He rose as though for another and more determined attack. . . . Instead, he walked out of the room, far and away the most impressive revelation of character that he had given. John Henry could hardly realize that he had gone.
A policeman, entering to take him back to his cell, saw his bewilderment and winked.
“Funny old bird, isn’t he?” he remarked confidentially. “What has he been quizzing you about?” John Henry’s bewilderment departed and instantly he was on his guard. There was more than simple curiosity in the policeman’s manner and tone. Yet artlessly he blinked at him, still apparently bewildered.
“Wanted to know why I asked for him last night,” he replied.
“And why did you?”
“First name that entered my head.”
“It will be a bad name for you,” the policeman said, grinning. “He’ll never leave you. Ever have anything to do with him before?”
“No. But he bagged a pal of mine.”
“And so he isn’t a pal of yours any more?”
“No. He isn’t.”
The policemen grinned more broadly.
“Funny how you fellows get it in for us,” he said. “The old bird would only be doing his duty. But come on. Here’s the Staff.”
He hurried John Henry out of the room at the sound of the staff sergeant stirring, and locked him up in his cell. But he had evidently temporarily taken over the duties of the regular turnkey, for shortly afterwards he came with the breakfast and he had more questions to ask, then.
“You are not being brought before the beak this morning,” he said. “Did you know?”
“No. I didn’t,” said John Henry in surprise. “Why?”
“Funny, isn’t it?”
“Dashed funny. What’s the game?”
“Dunno. Thought Branluk might have arranged it with you?”
“He didn’t,” said John Henry with so manifest sincerity that the policeman was satisfied. “But I shouldn’t be surprised if you are right,” he muttered to himself as soon as the man had gone. “And I wonder why you wanted to know.”
It was curious, very curious, this policeman questioning him in such a way: here was the cause of that swift visit of reconnaissance; Branluk had sensed a hostile presence in the building, even although at the moment the passage had held no loiterer; the fellow was a spy, in the pay or in the power of Carse and his associates; well for him was it, well for Clara, that he had held his peace concerning what he knew. And just as curious was the fact that he was not to be brought before the magistrates that morning! This must be the inspector’s doing: Branluk had not done with him yet, for all his abrupt departure; other attempts would be made to worm from him his knowledge: not so easily would such a man as the inspector be denied. But he would be ready, he determined, and more on his guard than before. All morning he lay waiting, expecting something to happen: but the morning passed without incident; and dinner-time came—though it brought the same curious policeman he was served in silence; and all the afternoon he was left alone.
He lay on his bed husbanding his strength for what was before him; for that another ordeal was being prepared, one far more strenuous, he was now sure. Two facts had come to be: not only had there been no official visit to offer him facilities for obtaining legal assistance, but he had been denied the usual period of exercise in the prison yard.
Both were significant. Both showed sign of the inspector’s hand. And the first seemed to denote that the charge of housebreaking would be departed from; that he was being held for another purpose—for whatever purpose the inspector and his superiors might decree. But the second was doubly significant in that it hinted of a fight behind the scenes, a fight between the inspector and others, those others, himself the bone of contention between. For he had no doubt whatsoever that the keeping of him indoors was a precaution, and that a guard had been put on him. High buildings overlooked the prison yard; he was being kept purposely out of view. Something was brewing. As well as the inspector those others would soon be moving. Even of more value to them than to the inspector, he would be fought for with every ounce of the great power at their command.
Counting the trains passing by on a neighbouring tube railway, he fell into a light doze towards the late afternoon. But the rhythmic thunder of the hurrying wheels followed him into his stupor and held his ears attuned. Thus it was he heard an alien sound.
Wakened, wary, he watched with half-closed eyes. Along the corridor towards his cell the sound was coming—circumspect footfalls, that steadily drew near; footfalls that he recognized. It was the curious policeman returning, but on no official visit. Nearer the stealthy fellow came, and nearer, until the footfalls fell still by the door. Then through the inspection slit appeared a stealthy hand, disappeared; again the footfalls sounded, hastily stealing away; he was off the bed and at the door in a single bound. A small piece of paper had fluttered from the hand. He caught it ere it fell, bore it nearer the window, and read:
“You are in great danger. Friends will try to rescue you to-night. Trust them.”
The note bore no signature, but the handwriting was Clara’s.
Slowly and carefully he worked the paper into minute wisps of fibre, and flicked them one by one in different directions through the window; then he lay down. The air in the cell grew very still, he seemed not to breathe. It had come—the sign of those others! Life or death would lie across the threshold that evening, and he had chosen. Hurrying past on the heels of each other to meet the City’s evening rush home, more and more insistent grew the thunder of the trains, but for them he had now no ears. He was listening for another sound. At last it came, men tramping down the corridor. Up he sat, ready. Into the cell marched the staff sergeant and a policeman, who handcuffed him and led him away. And what he had expected was coming to be: he was being transferred—the inspector’s doing, without a doubt, but others knew. During the transfer they would come.
Down into the entrance-hall he was led, and there all was ready. Three other prisoners were waiting. Drawn up outside, its sinister shadow darkening the lower half of the window, was the Black Maria. But his companions were taken, the van drove off, and he was left, much to his surprise. And his first thought was that the plot to rescue him having been discovered, his removal had been countermanded. Then he saw that special arrangements had been made concerning him. Dressed in plain clothes, the Highland sergeant entered and looked at him significantly: he was being transferred in another way. Great was his disappointment, far greater than his surprise. For the plot was nipped before it could develop. Whether with knowledge or inadvertently the inspector was acting, unless they knew, those would-be rescuers were foiled.
The sergeant approached and took off his handcuffs.
“You and me are goin’ for a wee bit daunder,” he said, smiling. “But chust you be mindin’ that there’s waur in ma pocket than a bit baton. Come on, ma mannie.”
Following him, John Henry walked through the doorway, out of the prison and into the open street, as though he were a free man. It was a clever move. He and the sergeant might have been two plain-clothes policemen out for an evening stroll. But a third man, loitering on the pavement a little way off from the entrance, fell in behind them as they passed, and he saw that he was well guarded.
“Ay. There’s him behind,” said the sergeant slyly, having noticed his backward glance. “And there’s more, forbye. . . . Hey!”
At his hail a passing taxi-cab checked and drew up by the kerbstone. The man behind closed on them. All three got in, and without being given any instructions the driver started. It was no chance hire.
“Now, ma mannie,” said the sergeant, producing a pair of handcuffs, and he suffered himself to be handcuffed again.
“Might I ask where you are taking me?” he enquired, when it was done.
“You might. And I’ll tell you. But that’s a’,” said the sergeant: it was more than he had expected—more than the constable had expected also, as his sniff showed. “We are gaun doon by Whitehall.”
“You’re in charge, sergeant,” muttered the constable sarcastically.
“I am,” snapped the sergeant. “Chust mind that.”
Silenced but resentful, the constable turned away and looked out of his window. Out of the one on his side stiffly looked the sergeant. In silence they drove past Paddington Station and on.
The hot air from the tube entrance played into the cab as the driver slowed in a traffic crush, but quickly he put on speed again, darted through a clear space, and managed to cover the whole sordid length of Praed Street without once throttling down. With his front wheels in the Edgware Road, however, he had to draw up, the points policeman having signalled, past a rush of heavily-laden buses. Thereupon he took advantage of the pause to light his lamps, for all along the long line of the great highway shops were lighting up their windows, the darkness fast coming down. In a sudden blaze the Old Met illuminated its face as a warning to the early stream of workers that it would soon be ready to open its doors for their entertainment. John Henry could not help looking in its direction. Only a week ago he had passed that way and paused to read its playbills, attracted by a big-lettered name of an old-favourite, now a star. Only a week ago! It seemed more than a year.
“Paper, guv’ner?” A daring newsboy had clambered up on the cab and was peering in through the window. “‘Orful bloomin’ murders, guv’ner,” he urged, shoving his paper forward. “’Indoo hassassin.”
John Henry took the paper.
“Sorry, I’m out of change, sergeant,” he said whimsically. “I’d like to read about that ’Indoo.”
The sergeant was already searching for the money. “Gor’blimey,” exclaimed the newsboy, suddenly recognizing into what company he had thrust his wares. Didn’t fink you ’ad two blurry ole cops wiv yer. Tell ’im to keep ’is quid. That paper’s from me, guv’ner. And mind you bash ’em when you gets the chawnce.”
The gamin disappeared from the window and darted back to his pitch.
“’Orrid murders,” he could be heard calling. “’Indoo hassassin.”
The sergeant grinned.
But the other policeman was staring more pointedly out of the window. He disapproved of the boy, and, still more, of the conduct of his superior. Even John Henry was surprised at the favour being shown him. In spite of all the harm which the big fellow had caused to his plans, he felt a liking for the Highlander—a new thing for him. Yesterday, he would have been incapable of such a feeling towards any man. But he was waking, and felt himself waking. For the first time in twelve years he saw men and women in the thronging Edgware Road.
Such perceptions and sensations, however, were barely other than subconscious. His field of consciousness was wide, but intense; he was expectant, and the culminating point of his expectancy was reached. Was he to be rescued? Ever since leaving the prison he had been asking himself that question. Here was the limit, beyond which he need question no longer; hence onward to Westminster stretched broad, well-lit, well-patrolled thoroughfares, in none of which could he conceive of an attempt being made. Very different had been the route through the purlieus: of Paddington Station, through Westbourne Grove, through Praed Street, right up to this point where now they were halted. If the cab proceeded unchallenged, it must mean to him that the rescuers were baffled; that the last-moment change had taken them by surprise. And the passing stream of traffic was fast thinning. Another second or two would decide. . . . “’Orrible murders! ’Ind—!”
The clutch was in; the cab shot towards the centre of the road and swung round in the direction of the Marble Arch, the limit passed.
Now whatever the inspector had decreed lay before him. Perhaps it was as well, was his thought. That unsigned note in Clara’s handwriting—he had seen in it Fate dealing him out the last hand of a game that had started a long, long time ago; for whoever had written it had expected him to recognize the handwriting, and only Clara could do that—or someone who knew him as John Henry Crichton Maclean.
Yet he had been eager to take up the hand and play ready to face all risks on the chance of being able to call. Perhaps it was as well!
He raised the paper, bent close, and began reading the report of the assassinations. Both were ascribed to the one man, an Indian student, who for over four years had been resident in London. His motive was unknown. Friends thought him insane. A short biography was given of the Commissioner; a long one of the Prince. The latter had always been a staunch son of Empire. He had had a salute of seven guns, priceless jewels, a faithful bodyguard of native troops, and powers of life and death in his own State. And so on, to the extent of nearly three columns, two on the front page.
At the foot of the incomplete third column were two line-advertisements, between them a twenty-word summary of the speech of a retired Anglo-Indian Judge, who had told a club of Hampstead highbrows that grave trouble was brewing in the East. It was only a fill-up, the quick smudge of a sub-editor on half an inch of blank space; but as soon as he saw it, the whole wordy story of the assassinations was blotted out in his mind. The summary had more significance by far. He had seen other such warnings; he had overheard men home on furlough talk; and there was his own experience out East besides, on which he could draw for greater understanding. Trouble was brewing—he had not the slightest doubt. From afar, the East had smelt blood and listened yearningly to the echoes of war. Now it was stirring.
He put down the paper and gazed thoughtfully out at the hurrying crowds.
Down the whole length of the Edgware Road and round into Oxford Street that cry was echoing, and many people were buying papers in response to it and pausing to read them, while every newsboy’s stand had a curious throng. Yet not one of them knew, not one would even suspect, that to those staring headlines, not the murder twaddle, but the foundling news-note was the lawful heir!
Here in London were those who could and would control the East’s myriads. Here at the very heart of Empire the Vulture had built her a nest. There was something ominous in that. At the very heart of Empire, in the midst of those hurrying, unapprehending crowds, some far more awful blow was planned to fall. Again the scene in that underground chamber presented itself; again that ill-omened shape grew out of the darkness before his eyes; again he heard a dire sound. Above the nonchalant roar of the traffic he heard it, the beating of great wings.
He leaned back in his seat and listened, his eyes half-closed. The two policemen beside him were still silent. Each still looked out of his window. The cab was nearly midway between the Marble Arch and Oxford Circus, and travelling swiftly, half the journey already done. Soon they would be traversing Regent Street, soon past Piccadilly and nearing Trafalgar Square—-and then Whitehall. Thought of his destination made him think of the inspector. What was wanted of him, he wondered. Was he to be confronted with that captured Hindoo? Other suggestions occurred, but this seemed the most likely. . . . And all the time he heard the beating. Then suddenly he heard it stop.
“Gracious!”—it was the sergeant who spoke.
Something was wrong. The driver had stopped the car. And around them other cars were halted. All traffic had come to a standstill. In the midst of one of London’s busiest centres, at one of its busiest hours, had settled an uncanny calm.
“Something funny happening,” muttered the constable. “Lor’, sergeant, look at that!” he suddenly exclaimed.
He had twisted round in his seat and was staring through the forward glazing. All three of them stared in momentary awe.
Just ahead was Selfridge’s building, its windows ablaze, its long straight cornice outlined cleanly against the dark, gleaming, winter sky. Solid and massive that cornice, yet being eaten away. Right down to the pavement the great building was disintegrating, vanishing without a sound. Directly opposite on the other side of the street another building was disappearing. Between them, where had been a vista of brilliantly lit shop-windows, was a lightless void. A void that was advancing. A bus, pulled up in the middle of the street, and from which the passengers were pouring, was suddenly engulfed by it. A woman screamed.
“Cod! Whatefer iss th’ matter?” gasped the sergeant.
“It’s fog!” John Henry exclaimed.
“He’s right,” said the policeman. “That’s fog coming down the street.”
The sergeant poked his head quickly out of the side-window. “Here,” he shouted to the driver. “Round with you and—Oh, my Cod!”
He dodged back into the cab.
“There iss fog coming town the other way,” he exclaimed. “And such fog!”
It was on them as he spoke. Past each side-window drifted advance masses of white vapour. Wreaths of it swirled into the cab. One of them broke in the sergeant’s face. He started to cough violently.
“Cod!” he gasped, grabbing at the window-strap nearest him and pulling up the panel with a bang.
“Shut your window, man,” he yelled to the constable. “Hurry up! We’ll be suffocated.”
But another wreath had burst into the constable’s face and started him coughing; he was too overcome to obey. The sergeant leaned over and shut the window himself, just as the main mass poured by. All lights immediately disappeared, blotted out by the dense vapour. The darkness caused him to stumble in turning, and his foot becoming entangled in the floor rug, he went plunging into his corner, coughing and coughing, as helpless as his companion. Easily John Henry could have taken advantage of their confusion to break clear and escape from them, handcuffed though he was. But he sat still. Nor was he coughing. The moment he had felt the bite of the air he had covered his mouth and nostrils with his handkerchief and the fog did not trouble him. He knew what it was, and how to deal with it—no honest mist. He had become familiar with it during the War, and several times had charged through its shrouding vapours towards the enemy trenches. It was a smoke screen—a smoke screen laid down in Oxford Street. He was waiting for those who had laid it to come. His rescuers were at hand.
A light shone dimly on the window-pane. The door was opened. Expectantly he glanced at the newcomer. But it was only the driver come with one of the cab lamps, which he set down on the floor. Over his mouth and nostrils was wound his muffler. He also seemed to know.
“It’s all right,” he growled in response to the sergeant’s wild gesture for the door to be closed. “Breathe through your hanky and you’ll find it don’t choke. It’s only F-type Admiralty smoke, like what Old Brock used to make down at Stratford. I’ve handled it many times. Looks as if some fool has gone and ignited a tenderful up the street. It’ll blow away presently.”
He stepped down from the door and disappeared—rather abruptly, John Henry thought; it seemed to him almost as if the man had been jerked backwards, as if an instant later, out of the fog, had come a half-stifled exclamation of alarm. Handkerchief round his mouth, the sergeant began to mumble something to him; but he paid no heed. He was straining his ears to catch sound of what was happening outside. Men were gathering there. Tense with expectation, he listened. Then the other door of the cab was suddenly wrenched open. In each doorway appeared a masked man.
“Cod!” gasped the sergeant at the sight of the levelled revolvers.
His rescuers had come.
At the sharp order of the man nearest him he followed the example of his companions and put up his hands.
“That’s all right,” he was gruffly assured, and he lowered them.
He recognized the speaker by his voice as the second City gentleman, the individual whom Clara had called Smeaton—a dangerous man, a well-chosen leader for so dangerous an undertaking.
“Get the cops out,” Smeaton ordered. . . . “You fool!” he snarled at his companion. “How can they get out if you keep in the way?”
Thus chidden, the man immediately stepped down from the doorway. Hands still above his head, the constable clambered gingerly out after him. The sight seemed to rouse the sergeant from the astonishment that had held him helpless, and one of his hands came swiftly down towards his pocket. Well for the sergeant was it that John Henry sat between him and Smeaton, for he was able to knock the latter’s arm up as the revolver was fired, and through the roof the bullet sped harmlessly.
“Don’t be a fool, sergeant,” he said, pinning down with his elbow the Highlander’s pistol arm. “Put your hands up.”
“He had better,” Smeaton said grimly. “Go on! Get out, you great ass.”
The Highlander glowered at him, but put up his hands and slowly made his exit. In the doorway he turned and nodded to John Henry.
“Thanks, ma mannie,” he said, then he was twitched away and the fog hid him.
Smeaton hastily pocketed his revolver, produced a key, and unfastened the handcuffs.
“You got Madame Carse’s letter?” he enquired.
“I did,” said John Henry.
“Good. Come along.”
John Henry followed him. The game had begun, the first hidden card was disclosed. In the power of the Vulture’s brood he might be, but his fate was not to be instant assassination. So much he had bargained for. Perhaps, even, his rescuers were friends! He would see.
Outside, the smoke-screen filled the street, and the cab ceased to be as soon as he took a pace away from it, even the glimmer of its lamps being blotted out, so dense had the vapours become. He stood alone. Smeaton had disappeared and all the men with him, the sergeant, the policeman, the driver. Again he could have broken away, his chance of escape far better. Again he waited. Whether Smeaton were a friend or not, the fellow would lead him to Clara. For that he was playing, willingly facing all hazards. That achieved, it was for him to call the game.
Only for a few seconds was he left alone, however, and then Smeaton’s hand closed on his arm; he let himself be led away through the darkness, through the confusion that was all around. Horses were plunging and kicking and neighing, people calling out and yelling in torment and fear; yet swiftly they went, their course not checked for a moment. Clear of all obstacles he was led by his guide, as though the latter could see.
There were many such in the way, buses, vans, cars, fallen horses; and already scores of policemen had been rushed to the scene. From every quarter their whistles were blowing. Out of confusion they were bringing order, and round them were collecting men, women and children, to whom they were explaining how to breathe. Large though some of these refugee crowdlets were, they were as easily avoided as any of the other obstacles. But one of them, one of the largest, which stretched well across the thoroughfare, caused the secret to be disclosed how so surely both pace and direction were being maintained. Other hands touched John Henry and passed him on. Soft voices whispered instructions. With extraordinary thoroughness and resource had the rescue been planned. All along Oxford Street, as well as the smoke barrage, a line of points had been laid down for the purpose of guiding the fugitives clear.
Scouts were out on all sides, moreover; means had been provided for communicating their intelligence, as John Henry was quickly to learn. Immediately after making a sharp turn to the left, into what he rightly guessed to be Orchard Street, his guide checked and halted, and someone whispered sharply close beside them; and when the course was resumed it was at a run. A warning had been given, the purport of which became manifest fifty yards or so further on. There, the smoke screen thinned sufficiently to allow objects to be dimly visible, and a little further on still a line of policemen had been drawn across the road.
“It’s that revolver-shot,” Smeaton whispered. “Damn that fool sergeant!”
Nevertheless he boldly approached the cordon, and it was passed without challenge.
“The trouble’s ahead,” he muttered. “They are stopping everybody. I don’t think they quite know what has happened yet, however. There’s a chance we’ll get clear without any more bother. Here’s the car. In you go.”
He had halted by a big Rolls limousine drawn up by the pavement, whose chauffeur had already opened the door to them and was starting up the engine. Confidently the big car bore them out into the middle of the road and purred forward. John Henry caught sight of another line of policemen, a much stronger cordon, and felt that their progress was indeed barred.
Even to break through he saw would be impossible. Everyone was being stopped, whether coming or going, and the road beyond was almost blocked by the held-up traffic and the crowds of sightseers who had flocked to the scene. Yet his companion did not seem unduly anxious—not without good cause. For with scarce a pause the barrier was passed. An inspector climbed up on the footboard, glanced at the card calmly handed to him, saluted, and instantly proceeded to usher them through. It was but another example of the power of the Children, and of the influential names on their membership roll.
“We are clear now,” Smeaton said. “You had better change.” Out from beneath the seat he drew a suitcase and opened it. “Here are some togs that should fit you. Get into them, and as soon as you can. I have a use for that suit you are wearing.”
John Henry began the change, and the car purred past Baker Street Station and on towards the Regent’s Canal. By the time they were nearing the park entrance he had finished. Smeaton gathered up the discarded clothing, rolled it up into a ball, waited till they were on the canal bridge, then neatly lobbed it through the window, over the parapet down on to the bank.
“That should put them off the scent a bit,”he said. “Good shot, wasn’t it? Now for Madame.”
“We are going there?” John Henry enquired.
“Yes. First making a goodish detour. We have a long way to go. Didn’t she tell you in her note?”
“Yes,” said John Henry, coolly.
“She told me you would understand. Lord,” Smeaton yawned, “I am tired. You mustn’t mind if I drowse a bit. That smoke screen took a devil of a lot of arranging.”
He curled himself up in his corner and closed his eyes. It was all very natural. John Henry, watching him from the other corner, saw that he really was worn out and tired; that very quickly he fell asleep. And what had been said was artless enough. Perhaps Clara had sent him. . . . He, too, curled himself up in his corner. But he did not close his eyes. The car swung round from St. John’s Wood Station into Wellington Road. On his left was Lord’s, its long drab wall warm and living with scenes of his eager boyhood. But on the right, a warning contrast, the gravestones of the Marylebone Cemetery glimmered whitely underneath their trees.
Swiss Cottage passed, the car held the Finchley Road, climbed up to Hampstead by Frognal and dipped down towards Golders Green. There it turned to the left in the direction of Hendon, and on the long, straight, level road, gathered speed. Time was evidently pressing. Scarce touching his throttle, the driver took the sharp descent to the Brent in a plunge and drove full tilt up the slope of Old Hendon Hill.
The lurch roused Smeaton.
“Are we at Hendon?” he asked.
“I think so,” said John Henry, “though it’s a long time since I have been this way.”
“Yes. That’s where we are,” Smeaton remarked after peering out of the window for a little while. “Lord, it’s always dark up here. We get out at the top, and we’ll have to walk some. It took us longer to get out of that smoke than I bargained for.”
“I didn’t think Madame stayed at Hendon?” said John Henry, in simulated surprise.
“Neither she does. She is up river, where we are going. We’re merely breaking our tracks here. There’s another car waiting across the Goodyer Park—unless the fool has cleared out. We are nearly an hour overdue. Come along.”
They had halted at the entrance to a bottle-neck lane, leading off the high road on the brow of the hill. On either side loomed two gloomy looking buildings, and high retaining walls, and a big chestnut tree spreading its branches overhead made the narrow pass almost as dark as in that smoke screen; yet without trepidation John Henry stepped out into the roadway; the car at once backed and drove away. Off up the lane went Smeaton at a smart pace. He followed close on his heels, holding himself ready to spring at the first sign of an ambush, as for such it was excellent ground. And well he had marked his guide’s revolver pocket. With one swift snatch he could have armed himself. But presently the lane both lightened and broadened and no danger had manifested itself. On his right he saw a high-standing row of semi-detached villas; on his left the public park, across which they were to find the other car.
Nor did any peril threaten during the crossing. In just such another lurking place as the bottle-neck the car was awaiting them, only a yard or two from the lower park entrance; a powerful open touring car, drawn up in a narrow road overhung heavily by trees. The detour had been as well planned as the rescue, and their trail was effectually blanketed. So apparently thought Smeaton. Once in his seat, he promptly went to sleep. The car dropped down through dark narrow ways to the valley of the Welsh Harp, and was soon beating back towards London along the Edgware Road.
At Cricklewood, however, it turned more directly south and traversed Willesden; through Acton they passed; at last, little more than an hour after leaving Hendon, the Thames was struck at Kew.
With a leaping of his pulses John Henry saw the driver turn westward. It was the road to Hounslow; the road up river—to Clara; Smeaton had spoken the truth after all. He turned and looked at him as he slept on in his corner and wondered if he could be a friend.
It did not matter. His plans were made, and the man had almost played his allotted part in them. It did not matter whether he were acting for Clara or for Carse, let him only point out their abiding place. Then he himself would act. His only fear had been that he might be slain on the way, that Fate might turn up the last card too soon. Life or death was before him. Life or Death! the engine seemed to murmur as the car travelled swiftly along the dark smooth road. And death meant anything that Carse might devise. But life was Clara, and the rich promise of youth. Life or Death!—another hour or two and he would decide. Fate had dallied too long. His was the hand that would turn up the last card, and with such a prize at stake, how could he lose!
Through Hounslow the car proceeded, and on, mile after mile, through open country, through villages and towns. At each checking of the speed his muscles grew tense and his glance fixed itself covertly, hardly, on the man sleeping in the other corner. But each time the speed was unthrottled, the journey continued and his companion slept on.
Several times he saw the river. It was in flood and noisy. Often, from its rushing, he knew it was near, though invisible; no moon had risen to set its troubled surface glistening, and the night, though clear, was dark. In a long bright cone of light the headlights lit up the road and lent phosphorescence to trees, walls, and hedgerows more than a quarter of a mile distant. Always the main road, he noticed. Then at last the main road was left behind, and he knew his destination was near.
Along a winding country road the car twisted and turned. In pauses of the engine note, during changes of gear, he heard more clearly the murmur of the river. The road straightened. Far ahead he saw trees, and, high in their midst, a light shining. A house was there; a house by the river—his destination. The driver sounded three warning blasts on his siren. Smeaton wakened.
“We’re there,” he said sleepily, and smiled.
He leaned his head slightly over the car edge to clear his view of the windscreen, and peered through the night at the distant light-shot trees. There was still nothing untoward in his manner, nothing furtive or sinister. But whether or not—a terrific blow behind the ear felled him and he crumpled up without a sound— whether or not he were a friend, John Henry was done with him, and having quickly possessed himself of his money, electric torch and revolver, he dropped him over the back of the car into the road. The driver heard nothing. The car sped on.
Soon it was in the shadow cast by the trees and running along by the side of a high park wall. Into a tree-lined avenue it swung. He caught his first sight of the house, a large mansion, built on a terrace, with broad balustered steps leading up to the front door.
Only a glimpse, however, the trees becoming denser and shutting out the view. Their old arms interlinking overhead filled the avenue with a cavernous gloom, in which even the driver became invisible. He rose and stood up on the seat and waited. The trees thinned; the house reappeared—upward he leaped, clutched at a branch, swung himself astride of it, and swiftly climbed to an eyrie whence he could look down on the door. Again the driver heard nothing. The car drove on.
From his eyrie, high up in the topmost branches, John Henry saw it draw up by the steps; and immediately rose the driver’s shout of alarm. In answer, too quickly to have been gathered there for any friendly purpose, nine or ten men rushed out both from the house and from the side of the drive, and surged around. A score of questions were shouted, the voices high- pitched, ululatory. Helplessly the driver pointed to the empty seats, and they yelled and gesticulated. One of them struck him; two others jumped into the car and began tearing up the cushions; others ran round and round peering under the body—all were frantic. One man set off suddenly in an aimless excursion along the drive, only to rush back again before covering twenty yards, nothing accomplished. But a sharp command from him who had struck the driver brought all to order.
With three companions he got into the car, which at once set off down the drive.
John Henry saw it hurtle beneath him, its speed in that dark and narrow way almost a fearsome token of the rage and disappointment of those it carried. So badly the back wheels skidded at the turn into the road, he thought both car and occupants had come to disaster. But the engine note rose clear and steady, and swiftly receded. Haste was being made, he guessed, towards that point in the road where last he and Smeaton had been seen by the driver. He had marked the road against such a search party. As suddenly the note ceased and the brakes crunched horridly he knew his mark had been discovered. Another shrill chorus. Back they came pounding. Smeaton had been found, and—what he had planned—the supposed starting point of his escape from the car.
The branches flickered around him as the glare of the headlights struck up through the trees. Close he clung to the shelter of the trunk until they had passed, for many bright eyes were abroad in the night. Out of the house was pouring a multitude of men.
In twos and threes they had started to come, then in a continuous stream. By the time the car drove up and halted, they had crowded the terrace and filled the head of the drive. Some big ceremony had evidently been in progress. Very much it looked as though he had been destined the victim of some vulturish sacrifice. Certainly not by chance had so many been assembled, nor for any simple purpose; and he began to fear, not for himself, but for Clara; for he felt that she could scarcely have escaped, when such preparations had been made for him. Carse must have planned to confront them; to extract from one or other of them some information that he thought they had.
For Carse his keen eye vengefully searched the multitude, but his enemy was invisible, and that he was absent he soon became convinced, even although in so great a throng an error could easily have been made. Hundreds were assembled, drawn from many races, but all Eastern. Quietly they stood. Impassively they watched Smeaton’s limp form borne past them; and without the slightest compunction he watched also. For his victim was white, the sole white among them, a renegade. Strongly his sahib’s instinct stirred, and suddenly it flamed up within him in rage at the thought of Clara in the power of such men. But he checked his fierceness immediately. A cool hand, a cooler head, would be required for what he meant to do, and the time of action was near.
Dogs were being brought, a dozen or more of them, big wet-mouthed bloodhounds. Three other cars appeared. At a soft-spoken order the crowd arranged itself and sub-divided. Into each car climbed half a dozen men. Off down the drive they went, one after the other. Plain what was happening. Points were being set out at a distance. He was looking down on the beginning of his own shikar.
In a long silent line the beaters filed beneath him, the dogs straining at their leashes, but as silent as the men. No one was left behind. All were going on the false trail. As soon as the last disappeared, he quickly descended, and, hugging the deepest shadow, he stole up the drive. At last, crouched behind a clump of evergreen, he was able to survey the doorway. No one was visible; no one stirred—now was the moment. A shadow detaching itself from a shadow, he left his cover, mounted the steps and entered his enemy’s hold.
No one was in the hall. He paused on the threshold and listened. The house was deathly still. It was an Eastern home, though the furnishings were English; a place suggestive of soft voices and softer foot-falls. And a curious odour hung in the air. He advanced sniffing it, and remembering. It was the same sweet fragrance that had floated away from the brazier fires in the cellar of No. 16. Here was another underground chamber. He looked around him, head up, scenting and scenting, and saw in the heavy oak panelling covering the walls a panel drawn aside. He glided towards it. Out of the opening the perfume was pouring. Luck was with him. At the first trial, and at a time when her guardians were away, he had discovered the place where Clara would be.
One quick glance he cast round the hall to make sure that no one was watching him, then he pushed the panel further aside, and stepped through the opening. A narrow circular stairway wound away from his feet. He drew the panel back to its former position and began to descend.
With the first round of the stairway the light disappeared and he walked in darkness; but he left his torch unused in his pocket; no need for him to use it. Years spent in stealthy pursuits had given him the trick of noiseless walking, and much of the steering sense that guides creatures of the wild. Without making a sound that would have betrayed him, without more than lightly brushing his shoulder now and then against the winding wall, further and further he descended, until, at what he judged a depth of nearly eighty feet, the descent at last came to an end. Before him was a passage, so narrow as scarce to give him room to walk in ease. But at the end was a wider space, the antechamber to his goal. From it, through an inclined shaft, mounted a short flight of stairs. He looked up the shaft, and again saw the red glare.
All the way of his descent the fumes had been growing denser. Densest in the passage, they had intoxicated his senses; and from the moment that he had felt himself on the way to Clara, more and more had been growing within him an eagerness to arrive. Yet more and more had stirred his control. With very great caution, he climbed up the stairway and peered over the lip of the trap, and around.
The fires which made the glare were burning low. The chamber into which he was peering was only partially illuminated; but he saw that it was vast, much vaster than the one at No. 16. There was space enough for several hundred worshippers.
To his right, sloping upwards, that those in front might not block the view of those behind, was the floor where they were wont to kneel. On his left was the stage, around it the braziers. But no priest walked before them. He, too, had gone to the chase, and all the worshippers. No one was in the chamber. What was on and above the stage, however, he could not see, for its front was high. That he might discover, he climbed out of the trap and stole a pace or two up the sloping floor, and there, in spite of what had brought him thither, he stood for a moment or two spellbound at the splendour of the spectacle that met his gaze. The chamber was pear-shaped. The wall on which he gazed was twice the height of the one behind him. Fifty or sixty feet high, from top to bottom, it was overlaid with some transparent stone, that shone and shimmered and glistened, fairy-like, elusive, transfused with ruby tint of the fires, yet shot mysteriously with every rainbow hue. Cunning workmen had wrought it. Wealth, grandeur, power were there both incarnate and deified. Not Austin’s Wall could e’er have looked one-half so magnificent, even in the heyday of Shah Jahan.
The ceiling arched up to its highest point, and here was hung a light, beneath which was a niche, furnished with a small balcony that overlooked the whole chamber. He guessed from that what place he had entered. It was the chief temple of the Vulture, the Diwan, the hall of private audience, where the head of the Children was wont to appear before the chosen and take part with them in their most solemn rites. And beneath the balcony was the Vulture itself, a gigantic blood-red image of the bird at the end of its swoop. Its wings were flung high, yet they spanned the wall. Its huge body hung out over the stage and filled half the broad expanse with deep shadow.
He advanced to the stage and pulled himself noiselessly on to it. Its vastness amazed him. Alone it was far greater in extent than that Chamber at No. 16; and above, like a cliff, towered the great wall, the monstrous bird swooping down its gleaming face upon him. He seemed a pigmy in some hall of ogre gods. Dread and awe looked out at him from every corner. Yet all he felt was disappointment. Clara was not there. Dim in the shadow cast by the bird was a broad flight of steps leading up to a throne—throne of the Daughter of the Vulture, where she would sit. It was empty. He had dared in vain. And he had been so sure!
Whipped by his disappointment, his caution wilted.
“Clara,” he called. “Clara? Are you here?”
In the vastness of the place his call sounded little more than a whisper. He stood listening for a response, but for a little while the silence remained unbroken.
Then with a suddenness of a thunderclap on a summer morn, burst forth a chorus of mocking cries. High up, as though from watchers in the balcony, they sounded; as though at his disappointment, the chamber rang with ghoulish glee. But it was his own voice, his own call, caught by the sloping roof and sped to the apex, thence echoed cunningly and reechoed; and this he understood at once, so that he scarcely started. Yet he drew out his revolver, all his caution returned. In the midst of the echoes his ear had detected a sound that was not an echo. Draperies had rustled near him. Someone had drawn a quick breath, either of alarm or of surprise.
And as he listened expectantly a light shone out behind him. Under the breast of the Vulture it glowed. Round he twitched at the ready; and he saw the steps, the dais, the empty throne—in front, a newly awakened sleeper, raised on one arm, the other stretched out to where her finger pressed the switch which had set the light shining.
“Clara,” he called joyously, instantly hastening towards her. . . . And then dread came.
Clara it was, but she made no reply. Ere he had reached the first step she had sunk back again as though still oppressed by her weariness. He leaped up the steps and dropped on his knees at her side. High above, the mocking echoes of his call burst forth; the chamber rang with glee. . . . She lay smiling up at him, weakness, not weariness, weighing her down. He had come too late. She was dying, and death was very near.
“You have escaped them,” he heard her murmur, and the gladness of her tone wrung his heart: she thought only of him. “Oh, dearest, I am so happy. So happy, and until you called I was so afraid. They meant to torture you—and me. I was to watch them. When I knew why they were gathering here, I took poison. I was praying to die before they brought you. I could not see you suffer. Dear, dear John.”
She tried to caress his face, but failed from weakness. He took her hand in his own and held it pressed against his cheek. He could not speak; he tried, but his voice would not come. In anguish he gazed down at her, his breath coming in sobs though his eyes were dry. Yet still her face was radiant with the joy of his escape. He could scarcely bear to see it. Remorse was biting at every fibre of his being, self-reproach rending his heart. He was the cause.
“Dear, dear John,” she murmured.
The tenderness of her tone broke the constraint holding him dumb.
“Don’t, Clara,” he whispered. “I failed you. They suspected you through me, and now “
“No. It was this,” she whispered earnestly, drawing down his hand and guiding it to a point in her scarf where his fingers felt something hard. “Take it, John. I got it that night when they broke up after hearing of your capture next door. Carse missed it in the morning and only then suspected us. He meant to make one of us speak. He was terrible. It is his diary. The keyword is my name. Let me see you take it. At once, John! I will soon be gone.”
Gently he raised her and took the scarf from her shoulders. Her head sank on his breast.
“Hold me a little while, darling,” she murmured, and he held her as though she were a tired child.
But deep down in the primordial depths of his being a mighty anger was welling. The last and greatest wrong had been done. His girl had been struck down. No reparation could be made, no redress was possible; there remained only expiation, expiation and revenge. And but a little while ago Hope had been pointing him the way back to what he had been, to the deep broad channel where once his life had flowed, full and clear, on the other side of the desert sands. His regeneration had begun. Love had lit his life with the old flame; kindlier impulses had been stirring; he had been casting back to softer traits. Now—now was waking a more terrible John Henry! He glanced round slowly towards the stage. Down in front of the steps was an altar, strewn with sacrificial blades. There he had been destined to suffer. He eyed the blades wolfishly. . . .. Thought came to him of that narrow passage where only one man could walk with ease, and involuntarily his muscles tautened. The dying girl stirred in his arms, glanced up at him, and read his thoughts.
“You must not stay here, John,” she whispered. “You must not. You must save Betty. They will put her in my place. Darling! Do you hear me?”
The fierceness of his spirit dismayed her, and dismay rallied for an instant her failing strength. She raised herself, and clasped his head in her hands and gazed steadily into his eyes.
“You will save her. Promise me, darling,” she entreated. “I have only you. You will take care of her for me . . . John? You will take care of her for me? Promise.”
“I promise,” he said, his fierceness all gone away. “Oh, my girl, my girl,” he murmured. “You are leaving me. My Dream Girl.”
“We were not for each other, John,” she whispered.
“No woman could be given such a love as yours.”
With a sigh she sank back into his arms, her head fell on his breast, and the strength seemed to leave her slim frame. He thought Death had claimed her. But she looked up at him again, and in response to the bidding in her eyes he bent his head, and she whispered in his ear. Her voice was very faint, but he grasped the purport of her message, and when her eyes questioned him, he nodded.
“I understand, Clara,” he assured her. “I will find her.”
Then he took a ring from her finger and put it on his own.
“She will recognize it and know you come from me,” she whispered, the flame of her life flickering up for the last time. “Go quickly, John. She knows. Go quickly.”
The flicker died down. She lay in his arms, looking up at him. Just before the end her lips moved. He bent down his head: “Never man was like you, John,” she whispered, and smiled.
He smiled down at her, and saw the end come.
Voices sounding from afar aroused him with their warning. For long he had knelt with the dead girl in his arms before the empty throne—-for how long, he did not know; an eternity seemed to have passed. Gently he laid her down, and descended the steps to the stage. Like a blind man he walked; as though led, he moved forward. Yet in the centre of the stage he turned and stood looking upward. He was barely conscious of his surroundings. The great darkness had settled on him again. But out of it, high above his head, the Vulture glared down at him, its gleaming beak poised to strike, yet held. His hands rose clenched; and it was as though the bird were afraid, as though, instead of swooping, it were rising from its spoil.
Nearer sounded the voices; the tunnel and shaft were bellowing with them; the first of his foes had started to mount the last stairs. He glided back under the Vulture’s breast and leaped swiftly up the steps to the dais. An instant he bent over Clara, and his hand caressed her cheek. Then he sped on his way. As the first of the Children climbed out of the trap, he slipped behind the throne from their view.
Between the throne and the wall was a space screened from the rest of the chamber by the stout partition on which the Vulture was poised. This space was fitted as a shrine. Fixed to the wall was a large image of a god, fiend-like and of many arms. He caught hold of one of them and pulled. The god swung out towards him, along with it the part of the wall to which it was fastened. Behind, was the beginning of a wide passage, a tunnel. Clara had whispered this means of escape to him. He passed through, drew the god back into position, and passed on.
A few yards from the entrance he entered the well of a staircase, a broad space, dimly illuminated by light transfused from some upper source. On the other side gaped the entrance to the further length of the tunnel. But he did not continue his journey thither; he started to climb the stair instead, urged on by a desire to find out all that he could concerning the ways of the place—some day he would return.
As he had expected, the stairway rose to a passage that served the balconied niche of the chamber, and from the chamber came the light that lit the well. But the passage did more than give thoroughfare between balcony and stairhead. Sloping upward, it passed on in the opposite direction; and this further extent was in darkness, so that he could not see where it led. He guessed that it would lead to the mansion, but, to make sure, he switched on the light of his torch and stole forward, reconnoitring, and came at last to a wall where the passage ended, a massively masoned wall, obviously a foundation, against which was built a small flight of stone steps that mounted to an arched opening, closed by a stout door.
Up he climbed, treading with very great caution. He had become aware of movement on the other side of the door; thence muffled footfalls and voices were sounding. Only the former were audible, however, when he reached the top. Backward and forward someone was going, up and down, some angry, agitated man. His face grew grim as he listened, and he brought his shoulder against the door as though about to try to burst it open; for whoever was wont to sit in that niche must use this doorway; Carse must come this way, must occupy this room—the lust for revenge in him grew. But he exerted no great pressure, nor tried to force an entrance. Not for such a purpose had Clara bade him hasten. Before he sought to wreak revenge her dying charge must be fulfilled. He withdrew.
The movement saved him.
A sudden cry from the chamber, followed hard by a loud chorus of wailing, and the footfalls ceased; the door was suddenly pulled open—he had just time to drop from the stone landing and crouch in the shadow of the buttress before two men came hurrying through.
The first was Crahmyil, the second his valet; Carse had not been there after all. Neither saw him. Along the passage towards the niche they hastened. Stealthily he followed. They were entering the niche when he stole down the stairway and out of their line of view; and again he was only just in time. As he reached the foot he heard them leave the niche and begin to descend in unconscious pursuit of him. Before the stairway could bring them into sight he was able to glide across the well and plunge into the tunnel’s further gloom. And he had learned what he had set out to discover. Through that opening door he had caught a glimpse of a book-lined wall. The room was a library. Two entrances to the chamber were thus unmasked. . . . The third was before him.
The passage rose steeply, but remained broad, and its sides and floor were smooth. A quick, easy way of escape had been planned for the Children should ever they need to leave that chamber hastily. He guessed the way led towards the river. Boats could be kept there to bear them away.
Soon his progress was stopped by a stout brick wall, fungus-grown, and damp, and sloped like a dam; and not very far away was the river, its roar sounding loud and clear.
He switched on his torch.
The light revealed an iron ladder that scaled the face of the dam; and in the roof above his head was a trap-door, which lifted to his touch. He climbed and rose into darkness, his light extinguished; into a confined space that proved to be a cupboard, which gave access in turn to a boathouse, in whose haven two motor-launches and several smaller craft were moored. A large structure, built fairly stoutly, obviously on the bank of a creek some distance away from the main stream, the house was yet quivering and thrumming to the rush of the river, and the boats were moving uneasily, fretting their mooring-chains.
In the roof was a broad skylight, which gave a little light to the place—all the light he required to show him what to do. He took from one of the launches a waterproof envelope, a cockpit fitting, and in it carefully stowed away the pocket-book wherein he had placed Clara’s scarf. Into his bosom he thrust the package. Without wasting a second in looking for another exit, he slipped into the water, swam to the gates, and dived.
He easily cleared the lower edge of the door and came up in the creek on the other side. At once he dived again. On his right the bridge, carrying the towpath across the creek, had loomed big against the sky, and on the bridge he had seen the blurred figure of a man on guard. The chase was still on; fortunate for him his habit of noiseless movement—an unwonted sound in the boathouse and the sentinel would have been warned.
Not till he was in the shadow of the bridge did he come to the surface again. Then, a thin crescent moon was peeping through a cloud rift. Wan and feeble though its radiance was, the greatest light seemed to fall immediately in front of his shelter, and with the sentinel standing by the river rail he dared not go further until the rift closed. Arm round a pile he waited, and listened to the river rushing by. Swift, deep and fierce it sounded. He was glad of that. It must bear him to safety ere the morning dawned, and he had far to go.
For what seemed to him a long time he lurked there, sunk to the shoulders in the cold creek waters, and instead of closing, the rift grew wider, while not once from his dominating position did the watcher move. Not once did he hear him move at all; Well versed in the ways of hunting and hunted men, he knew the man was very much on his guard.
But at last he heard him stir, and soon afterwards, from some distance along the towpath, came the sound of footsteps, and a dog barked. Deeper he sank at the sound till the eddies were brushing his lips, and with heels hooked against a ledge in the water wall, prepared, if need be, to dive. A search party was approaching—he was afraid of the dog.
One of those bloodhounds which he had seen straining down the drive, it came on ahead and at once began snuffing round above him in a narrow circle. Presently it growled, uneasy and suspicious. Soon he feared it would scent him. Yet still the wan light lit the stream, and still perforce he held his cover. To his great relief, the sentinel departed to meet the searchers, calling the dog off with him. But it followed unwillingly, whining and growling, and in a little while back he heard it coming, its great paws splashing through the puddles left by the rain on the path. Just then the rift closed and the light vanished from the waters. Seizing his chance, he slipped under the surface and struck out for mid-stream.
Outside the shelter of the creek the current was tremendously powerful; it flung his arms and legs together, and bent his body like a bow; he could not keep his course.
In an effort to make better progress, he veered into a slant, still under water and swimming strongly; but when his head broke surface the bank was slipping past only a few feet away. Nevertheless the boathouse was more than a hundred yards distant, so swiftly the river had borne him along.
A mighty baying was sounding. Clear above the rush and strum of the waters he heard it, and looking back he saw a broad oblong patch of light close above his starting point. Certainly his lucky star was ascendant. That illuminated oblong was the boathouse skylight. The searchers had entered; the hound had picked up his scent and was giving tongue. Would they understand, he wondered. A yelp of pain gave him answer, and the baying ceased. They had refused the warning. He turned, and with long, slow, noiseless strokes sought the swift-flowing centre of the stream.
In the first bend of the river he turned again, impelled to look for the last time at the house where his dead love was lying. Through the trees he saw its lights, far, far away, the haze of distance shrouding them thickly; and ever further the river was bearing him, the abutting bank thrusting its bulk athwart the stream. Involuntarily he took a stroke to keep his position, for yet a little while to hold the view. Soon he was swimming; soon furiously contending; but he strove with the current in vain. As inevitably as in life they had been held from each other, in death they were borne apart. The bank thrust its bulk completely across the river; the lights disappeared from view; around him was the gloom of the night, spectral shapes, and a rushing stream in which he swam alone; and it seemed to him that here was life explaining its riddle—man striving through darkness towards a light, spending his strength for a promise of something worth while, and striving and spending in vain.
He let the floods bear him round and carry him away. Blacker than the waters was his heart’s despair. Yet he kept afloat, and mile after mile dropped down stream.
Sometimes he heard the echoes of the far-flung pursuit, the bay of a dog, the shout of one point hailing another. Once he saw a knot of dark forms at the river’s edge, and immediately he dived and kept under until the current carried him past. But in time the pursuit was left well behind; he swam without fear of being discovered. A strong swimmer, he kept his head above water with little exertion and let the floods bear him on.
At length the growing thunder of a weir and a faint greyness in the fore-sky warned him that the time had come to take to land. The river was racing for its leap over the barrier. Almost he thought that his leaving had been delayed too long, so furiously did the current buffet and tear at him as he struck out for the side. Of design, moreover, he had chosen the falls side to avoid the towpath and all chance of a hostile patroller, and the current was swiftest there. But at last he managed to catch hold of a containing pile and to drag himself ashore; and in the shelter of the high weir-bank he lay resting, waiting for the strength to come back to his numbed muscles, the life to his heavy limbs. He had swum over ten miles, and fully clad, in a tempestuous stream.
His mind was still keen, however, and as he rested he made his plans for the remainder of his journey. They were simple. He must make for London, and by train, the first morning train, could he but secure dry clothing in time; tor although he would have preferred to proceed by a less obvious route, he had no choice. Clara’s sister was housed in a northern town, and only from London could he travel speedily thither.
There was need of haste, moreover. Not only might the Children be sending for her, perhaps to take the place of her sister—she was bound to bear a strong resemblance to Clara—but now she was warned of the fate in store for her, she might herself take action to avoid it—the only action possible. Spurred on by the thought, he cut short the period of his resting, and compelling his weary limbs to move he clambered up the bank and stumbled forward, his goal a farmhouse whose lights shone a field or two away. Far more dangerous even than his escape from that house by the river was the journey before him; he had both police and Children to elude; but the start was favourable. A sleepy farmer, impressed by his voice and manner, thought him but a gentleman in distress and hastened to minister to him. He had been out for an early morning walk; he had fallen into a flooded creek and had come to the nearest shelter; he was in a hurry to proceed ere his absence caused anxiety to his friends; this was the story he told, and it was believed.
Within an hour he was stepping out toward the nearest town, a place little more than a mile from the farmhouse. Nor was he a solitary traveller. Workmen were on the road, walking in little groups to the scene of their daily toil. He thought it wise to travel in company, even though darkness still filled the Thames valley; so he joined a group. Yet he would have readily passed as a workman himself—under close examination, as a groom or gardener off work for the day.
He was wearing the farmer’s second-best suit, his best boots, a stiff collar and a stiffer-looking black tie, and over all a long coarse ulster; while on his head was a cap with ear-flaps, which he had pulled down; a countryman’s cap, and he walked with the heavy slouch of a tiller of the soil—he was well disguised. Certainly the workmen thought him one of their order. They hailed him familiarly, and he answered in their own slang. They told him the time of the train, and assured him he would catch it easily. In their midst he walked into the town. When they left him he could not but feel fairly confident that he would pass almost anywhere without attracting undue notice. Two of his late companions had kept him in conversation all the way, without ever suspecting that he was other than he seemed. They had even discovered mutual friends.
The moment he entered the station-yard, however, he felt that his disguise was to be tested. Not that he was surprised. At every station in the neighbourhood watchers were certain to be waiting. And close to idle booking-hall entrance a car was drawn up which strongly reminded him of one of those that had sped down the drive.
Yet of the two men who had come with the car, neither was familiar or suspicious-looking. One sat in the driving seat; the other stood in the bookinghall entrance as though waiting for someone to arrive with the train. He could not tell what they were from their appearance. Each wore a long leather driving-coat, gloves, airman’s hood and goggles; nor did they seem to take the slightest notice of him. Determined to run no risks, however, when it came to his turn to take his ticket, he asked for one, not for London, but for a township two stations up the line.
Without a backward glance he wandered out on to the platform, and slouched up and down, stamping his feet as though both cold and impatient; but all the while he was watching those motorists, watching for some indication that would show him what they really were.
He had his course planned out and decided upon, whatever might happen. If his suspicions were confirmed to the slightest degree he would get out at the township to which he had taken the ticket, for he knew the country there, and could easily elude pursuers. If otherwise, he would pretend to sleep past the intervening stations, and at Waterloo pay excess fare. Nothing untoward happened, however; no hostile sign manifested itself all the time he awaited his train. Once, indeed, when he passed by the booking-hall, the waiting motorist was standing with his back to him, stretching his arms and yawning as though bored with the delay, while his companion seemed sunk in slumber—in spite of which testimony to their innocuousness, he continued to be conscious of a great need for caution, and very much he wished the train would come.
Several minutes overdue, it at last steamed into the station; he took his seat, and not a single curious glance seemed to have been cast at him; nor of the dozen men who followed him into the compartment was there one whose appearance or manner woke in him the slightest alarm.
They were typical early morning travellers—three artisans, four clerks, a couple of students. The students at once became busy with their books. The others tallied weather and allotments. He was drawn into the conversation and his opinion asked on various problems. The man opposite wanted to know his opinion concerning the correct time for pricking out calliopsis, the man by his side, concerning the making of an artichoke hotbed. He answered by agreeing with what they said, and they seemed very pleased. It was evident that they all thought him a gardener, and his confidence in his disguise grew.
The start of the train put an end to the conversation, and allowed him to begin his pretence of drowsing. Papers were opened and refolded. The man opposite him, he noticed, was short-sighted and had forgotten his glasses; he held the paper very close to his eyes. The man on his left held his at arm’s length. After a brief interval of reading the latter boomed out his solution for the Reparations difficulty, sought support for his views from John Henry, and getting none, sought, not in vain, from the man on his other side.
The pair were still amicably settling international affairs when the train drew up at the next station. With the cessation of its rumble they moderated their voices a little, and round the fringe of their gabble a timid, little bespectacled clerk poked a timid little question—whether peat or straw litter manure was the better material on which to rear mushrooms. A friend had told him——?
John Henry drowsed on. He had determined to drowse to Waterloo. The way was clear.
A friend had told him——? The little man was persistent. John Henry began to take a dislike to him.
“Your friend don’t know what he’s talking about,” he said with calculated gruffness that secured his end, his questioner hastily subsiding.
Further down into his corner he slipped and closed his eyes again, and no one asked him any other question. The train resumed its journey, the statesmen their booming—but not so amicably; they were beginning to tread on contentious ground. As more and more heated their argument became the little bespectacled man began to smirk and giggle maliciously. “Just what he would do,” thought John Henry, and his dislike of him grew greater. Dispeace filled the compartment. He felt irritated, and not a little ill at ease. Slowly the sun rose in his face—slowly against his reddening lids appeared an image of danger; and suddenly he saw the cause. He sat with a foe.
Subconsciously he had detected a familiar figure and his mind had reacted to the stimulus of a hostile association. His drowsing had been his salvation; through it, by accident, he had applied the draughtsman’s test for proper perspective, the detective’s trick for eliminating a disguise. Through his half-closed eyelids he had seen objects in their fundamental form, and in his darkened field of vision all minor tones, all minor attachments had been obscured. And minus his coat, gloves, hood, and goggles, was seated opposite him that motorist who had waited in the booking-hall, the short-sighted pricker out of calliopsis, who was not short-sighted at all. His holding the paper so close to his eyes was only a ruse. Through a hole in it, a printer’s tear, he had been keeping watch on him all the while.
Not a muscle of his face twitched as he made the discovery. He sat perfectly still. That watcher was not sure of him yet. His one chance lay in keeping him guessing a little longer. . . . He drowsed on.
Nor was much effort required of him to maintain the pose, for physically he was very tired. But never had his mind been more alert; it had grasped completely the situation; he knew what he would do. When the train drew up at the station he rose and got out, and not with fear, but with delight, he saw the other motorist, waiting outside in the yard with the car.
It was what he had hoped for, yet hardly dared to expect; his disguise had been nearly perfect after all. They only suspected him. The ticket he had taken had added to their doubt, and one had followed him by train, the other by road, to keep watch on what he would do.
Without once turning his head to see if his fellow traveller had left the train also, he passed through the exit, rounded the bonnet of the waiting car and sauntered into the town. He might have been a countryman in from the neighbouring district for the day, for all the hurry he showed. Once he stopped to buy cigarettes, a second time to admire a hosier’s window display and so on—thus he traversed the town; nor did he ever glance backward. Past the outskirts, however, under pretence of drinking from a wayside well, he surveyed the road he had come. Two hundred yards away, the car was being driven slowly towards him, his fellow traveller, motoring kit donned, seated in front with his companion. He let them pass.
Round a bend of the road they disappeared, and then he resumed his journey. Round the bend they were waiting for him, both men out of the car and busying themselves on some imaginary breakdown. What was the distance to Egham, the driver inquired of him. He gave the information, and slouched by at his ease.
Yet inwardly an excitement was beginning to lay hold of him; for not merely to elude a pursuit was now his aim. From the moment he had seen that waiting car he had staked for a bigger prize. And they were accepting his game. Let them only accept it a little while longer!
Imperceptibly his pace quickened. Once round another bend he strode out at a great rate; but when he heard the car start, he slowed again. When it came round the bend he was slouching along as before. Up behind him it dawdled, the driver changing and changing his gears as though the engine were still running badly. He felt that he was to be tackled this time, though still his pursuers were puzzled. Nearer they crept, and nearer. He let them come to within fifty yards, then his nerve seemed suddenly to go. He ran.
But in a stride he was off the road and racing down a by-path. A cry of surprise, of gratification, an acceleration roar, and they were after him. In their eagerness, however, they overshot the entrance to the side-track, and by the time they had backed and successfully taken the turning he had more than doubled the distance between them. Well he knew his ground. Ahead and left of the path was a covert, whither he was making. Still holding his lead, he reached its margin and ran on for a few yards more; and now the lane had narrowed and passed between tall impenetrable hedgerows. But on the covert side there at last appeared a section of wall, built by a prudent landlord across what had been an incipient right-of-way. Over this he vaulted and disappeared from view.
Down the lane came the car, and checked with a mighty skidding. Out jumped its occupants and leaped the wall, close on his heels. In front of them was the derelict path, on either side a belt of high and thick undergrowth. Beyond was the hint of a clearer space. Then came the wood’s dense heart.
Thither they rushed, disregarding entirely the nearer cover, for though nothing was to be seen of their quarry, in the heart of the covert game had been disturbed and was rising affrighted as though someone had just forced his way through. John Henry it was who had caused the disturbance—but with a stone, flung the moment before they appeared. He rose behind them from his ambush on the verge of the clearer space. Another stone his weapon, he bounded in pursuit. He smashed it down on the head of one, flung it into the face of the other whipping round in alarm, and both dropped without a sound. Nearly his shout of triumph sounded with the cackle and crash of the game. He had won his throw, a magnificent prize. Right to the very door of the house where Clara’s sister was held, his way was clear.
Not only had he laid low his two pursuers: he had possessed himself of a very powerful car.
But he restrained his exultation, though it cost him no little effort, highly emotional as his state had become. Only three days ago, and he was still breaking into that cellar, still without his first glimpse of that murderous gang!
In that short space of time life had begun again for him; he had renewed his love, his faith, his ideals; he had flung himself into a maelstrom of dangers; he had felt death reaching for him with a hundred hands; mentally and physically he had given of his best, and given of his best in vain—in that sinister house where his dead love lay, he had met the greater darkness, life had ended: three hectic heroic days, in which he had climbed from hell to Heaven but to see the door close! Only his indomitable will now held the balance of his faculties. But it held the balance well.
Quickly he dragged his two trackers from the path, and out of sight from the wall; and from each he took what he wanted; from the one his puttees and driving kit, from the other—the driver—his note-case and licence; then one after the other he carried them to a bracken-filled hollow and flung them into its heart.
Over their bodies the bracken closed and hid them from view. Not till one or other recovered his senses could they be discovered. He would have finished with their car by that time; if his luck only held, he would have rescued Clara’s sister, and reached the safe hiding-place whither he meant to go. Without wasting a second he began to gird himself for the road.
In a clump of rhododendrons just within the marge of the undergrowth he did his dressing, well screened from observation all around. The game settled down; peace reigned once more in the covert; above him, in the lofty branches of a tree that reared itself from, his shelter, a pigeon cooed to its mate a promise of spring; a bold cock pheasant clucked defiantly into the open; a rabbit darted across its path; the tender scents of the shrubs rose to his nostrils like the incense of a sanctuary; the rough ulster that had dropped in a bundle at his feet seemed a pillow of rest; he could have lain himself down in that thicket and found in its quiet and freshness sleep and sweetness and oblivion—but in vain Nature called. Out from her stillness a voice whispered haste, and his nimble fingers never ceased their toil.
It was well he acted with such celerity. The panicking game had attracted attention. As he was winding on the last roll or two of the puttees, a stealthy footstep sounded from the lane.
Such a sound was the last stimulus needed to establish completely the mental and physical control that his will had been striving to re-inspire; before the sudden sense of danger that it brought he became alert and strong, and the last dregs of his exultation drained away. He remembered that far-flung pursuit and again saw in true perspective the power behind it. He had thought that he had slipped from its path a second time; that the two points who had detected him had been acting out of touch with the main body, or at best had summoned the meet for Waterloo. Now he felt the presence of other trackers, and saw the likelihood of the possibility that the Vulture had sighted him from afar. If so, if more of the Children had to be encountered, his flight must begin again, his great plan spoiled. He crouched grimly down in the thicket and listened. Nevertheless his fingers completed the last puttee roll.
The stealthy footstep sounded in the lane again and continued to sound, nearer and nearer, as though the intruder, when standing still, either listening or watching, had sighted the car and was now coming to examine it.
Round and about the inspecting footsteps meandered.
There was only one man, and his hopes steadily rose. Presently he heard him approach the wall, and having risen cautiously, he held away an obstructing branch and watched, his other hand on his revolver—on the muzzle; as a club he meant to use the weapon, lest other enemies might be within earshot. Then he saw the intruder. Up above the wall had popped the red healthy bovine face of a village policeman. Only a policeman! Almost gaily he left his cover, struck the path, and went forward, to greet him.
“Good morning, constable,” he said. “Early afoot, I see.”
“Morning, sir,” replied the constable civilly, apparently not in the least suspicious.
He had seen the birds go up. Suspecting poachers, he had hastened to the scene. But first the expensive car, and now the dress, manner, and accent of the trespasser had reassured him. John Henry hastened to take advantage of the good impression, both to beat his retreat and to lure the constable away. Luckily he knew to whom the covert belonged. In happier days he had more than once shot round it.
“Couldn’t resist having a peep at Mr. Julian’s birds,” he said easily. “Egad! But they have wintered well.”
He climbed over the wall as he spoke, and approached the car, the policeman going with him.
“’Tis a fine car you’ve got, sir,” the man ventured admiringly. “I’ve seed it before, I think. Seems a bit familiar, somehow.”
“Bound to be, constable,” John Henry replied, busying himself with magneto switch and petrol tap. “I have had it down with me twice at Mr. Julian’s place in the last month or so. Got no power worth speaking of in the back drive, though. I m afraid I’ll have to ask you to help me out of the lane with her. Simply no room to turn. Do you mind?
“Mind, sir! Not me. Only too pleased to oblige a gentleman. I’ll give ee a shove, and willin’.”
John Henry started the engine, climbed to the driving seat, and began slowly to back. The policeman placed a palm on either side of the bonnet, dug his toes into the ground and pushed. John Henry could have driven that car out of the lane almost as easily as it had been made to enter; but he manipulated his levers and left the policeman to provide most of the motive power, so that his dupe was almost exhausted by the time they debouched on the high road—the end desired.
“Thanks very much, constable,” he said heartily. “I’m much obliged to you. That’s not your station by any chance?” he added, pointing to a village more than a mile away along the road.
“It be, sir,” gasped the policeman.
“Then jump in. I’m going through there. Up you come.”
Murmuring his thanks, the policeman climbed into the vacant front seat and was driven contentedly away from the danger zone. He had never been in such a car before. His spiritual satisfaction soon had effect on his physical distress, and by the time the village was reached he was sitting up in his seat, erect, dignified, and very proud. Half the population turned out to witness his triumph. He was only too pleased to be conveyed through their midst to the further outskirts before being set down. There, the gift of ten shillings completed his bliss. Well pleased himself, John Henry thundered away.
He had fooled and placated the Law, and his more sinister foes were silenced. Only some outlying picket had he now to fear, who might recognize the car and challenge him. And this fear grew very present as he neared Beaconsfield and the Oxford road. But he traversed the wide spacious streets of the pleasant little town, crossed the broad highway, and headed north to Amersham without a single hostile sign revealing itself; and when that quaint old townlet itself was safely passed, and he had climbed the northward rise and caught his first glimpse of the watercress flats round Chesham, he had begun to think that he had broken through the picket line.
Nevertheless, he proceeded on his guard. He was crossing the Chilterns, and there were many lurking places around him, many difficult bits of road where a careless driver might easily have been stopped by a couple of resolute boarders. But once on the Birmingham Road, his fear altogether departed. He boldly entered Tring, despite its thronging market. Thence he drove for Dunstable.
It was Downs country now. Only an occasional spur of the Chilterns disturbed the gradients. But the road was greasy with the chalk overlay of the floods, and he did not travel as quickly as he had anticipated.
With the St. Albans highway behind him, however, and the last formidable spur of the Chilterns surmounted, he made fine progress, the car going better and better, its engine revealing more and more power. It soared with him up the low ridge by Ampthill, and swooped him down into the valley of the Ouse. On the stroke of one he entered Bedford, nearly seventy miles of road covered, two and a half hours his time.
At the Bridge Hotel he refurbished and snatched a meal. Not since leaving prison had he eaten. He ate voraciously, and felt refreshed and strong. Though he grudged the time, he went out into the town and bought chocolate and oxo cubes; yet over a hundred and thirty miles to go, he did not mean to make another stop until reaching his destination. How he could stand the strain of such a journey, overwrought as he was, it never occurred to him to wonder. A very strong well-trained man, he had great reserves of energy, and in none of the many formidable undertakings hitherto attempted by him had he ever reached anywhere near the limit of his powers. But a crowded bar that he entered gave him place immediately, and he saw himself in a mirror as a gaunt, tight-lipped man whose eyes were very fierce and bright. If the police had posted his photograph all along his route, was his only thought, he would not be recognized. He scarcely recognized himself.
Half an hour’s driving brought him into the Ferrers country, and on to a long stretch of road where he could proceed at little more than a crawl. From Rushden to Higham Ferrers the highway was populated; at Finedon it was bad, cut up, and encumbered — with wagon trains from some new colliery workings; and thence onward to Kettering and for some miles beyond it he was constantly slowing down for the lumbering traffic of the market day. Not till he neared the Welland Valley was he driving at all at ease, but thereafter he did well. Through Uppingham he passed, through the Cottesmore district, through Melton Mowbray. He swerved away from Nottingham at the Leicester cross-roads, and entered the Trent lowlands. Three hours from Bedford, at Newark, he struck the Great North Road.
He was well spent then, yet a third of the journey was still before him. His lips were cracked; the skin of his face was tight as a drum and smarting; despite the chocolate antidote, his mouth and throat were raw from continued sucking of the cubes; and for all the protection that an excellent pair of goggles had afforded, his vision had become distorted. After the long confinement of the roads, Newark’s spacious market-place seemed so immense that it made him feel giddy. He had to cross it with eyes nearly closed.
Had the “Saracen’s” or “White Hart” been open he would have stopped, even although with every passing mile, more and more imperative had seemed the need to hurry: others were travelling north, he was certain, others with the same object in view. But the Old English wayside hospitality was no more, and he could not refresh himself. Fortunately the Great North Road remained. Along its broad surface the car drove almost automatically, and from East Retford to Doncaster he dozed.
In Doncaster he had his first contact with the Law. There an officious policeman stopped him, took his number and called for his licence, because, still dozing, he had swerved across the road. For many miles afterwards he drove oppressed by dread of the consequences, and at every village through which he passed he kept wary watch on the police station. He would have run down any challenger; he was too near his destination now to be lightly stayed in his course. At Selby, when he came to the crossing of the Ouse, he indeed thought he was to be challenged. But he remembered the bridge toll in time, paid his ninepence, and departed on his way; and dusk began to settle down.
At last, through the darkness of a moonless night, he saw the lights of his destination, the loom of a great city, the glitter of a broad river drawing in by the road.
He had performed a wonderful feat of endurance and skill. A sleepless, half-starved, overwrought man, in less than eight hours, with but one short stop for rest, he had driven a strange car over more than two hundred miles of road, rain-sodden, broken with neglect during the War. Yet he thought nothing of what he had done. He had begun the battle of his senses again, his sole consideration how to key himself up for the final endeavour, how to throw off the weariness that, like a colossal press, pinned and pinioned him on every side.
As always, his nerves reacted to the stimulus of danger and grew steady and strong; before the need for action his fevered brain became cool. By the time he had driven through the suburbs and reached the narrow mediaeval streets within the city wall the weariness was lifting, and excitement born of the nearness of the decisive moment was giving him his old strength, and more. And just as he was feeling refreshed and ready he was tested. The Vulture swooped again. Held up for a little while by a traffic block at the first important street junction, he was in the act of throwing in his clutch and moving away when two dusky-skinned strangers stepped out from the crowds on the pavement, and started climbing into the back of the car.
Always a brave man, since his disgrace John Henry had ceased to be conscious of fear; the effect of sudden danger on him was sudden and tremendous increase of his physical and mental powers. Once, when taken by surprise, he had been able to see in a dark room as clearly as though a shutter had been opened and the light of day let in. And now, like a flash of light, his intelligence illumined his mind and showed him what he might do. Though he could have summoned to his aid a policeman curiously watching the proceedings from the kerbstone, though he could have shot down his two accosters and at least made the attempt to break clear, he did neither. He calmly continued his starting and glided away from the pavement towards the middle of the road. Two well-known acquaintances might have climbed aboard his car for all the surprise that he showed.
The two strange men made good their entrance and sat down in the back seat of the car. One sat leaning forward, however, a man who had something to say; who was only waiting till a less crowded portion of the thoroughfare was attained, that he might not distract his driver’s attention. Driving become easy, he leaned forward still further and spoke in John Henry’s ear.
Harsh his voice sounded, though pitched little above a whisper. John Henry listened and nodded. Satisfied apparently with his ready acquiescence, the man sat back; the car bore them on—it was a curious drive! A unit of the traffic filling the busy city street they drove together, three strange men, deadly enemies, yet unremarked upon, perhaps unobserved, though crowds were on the pavements, the usual city evening crowds, and every lighted shop-window had its men and women gazers, men and women, doubtless, who would presently go in and buy. A curious drive, epitome almost of life, the heedful life of unheeding man, the intent individual way!
For nearly a quarter of a mile they proceeded; then, at a touch of his shoulder, John Henry slowed and halted. His mentor got out and disappeared in the crowds. In less than a minute he reappeared, accompanied by two other men. Who they were, John Henry could easily guess, for ahead was another street junction, where passed another highway, a branch of that by which he had come. There, also, his coming had been waited. This was the picket called in. The newcomers climbed into the back seat. Their summoner seated himself in the seat by his side. Once more he started and drove on, one of five impassive men, not the least impassive of the five.
Indeed, he very soon became aware that the man by his side was nervous or ill-at-ease, and that his uneasiness was increasing as the minutes passed by, though only to an Oriental would the signs have been apparent, or to one like himself to whom the Mask of the East was no mask at all: the man was eager to be done with his mission, anxious to arrive at his destination before something that he dreaded intervened.
Somehow and somewhere, panic had descended on the Children. Branluk had been at work, or else his own exploits had filled them with alarm. Into his eyes stole a gleam, into his heart a glow. A gambler was seeing a great game come his way. Not tamely had he surrendered himself into the hands of his foes.
At length in a long broad residential road he began to slow again. On either side were mansions, set well back and surrounded by extensive, strongly-fenced grounds. In one of them was the Vulture lair where Betty Woolfenden was held. Which one, he could not tell, though he knew the number and had easily found his way to the road; but so black had the night become, neither numbers nor names were visible on the gate-posts.
Inquiringly he turned to his companion.
“Four blasts,” the man bade him.
He sounded his siren four times.
It was a signal. In answer to it, almost immediately after it had been made, there came the rumble of heavy iron gates swinging apart, and about fifty yards ahead he saw a gaping gateway; still further along the road, another; entrance and exit respectively to some crescent-shaped drive. And one other thing he noted or inferred from the fact of these two gateways opening simultaneously—they were worked, not by hand, but by mechanical means; once within, he could be kept within at the will of whomsoever held the lever of control. But he passed within, and drove up the entrance half of the drive, a fairly stiff incline. Had it been his own home that he was approaching he could not have acted more coolly. With his engine just ticking over, he came to rest beside a broad white flight of steps that rose to a sombre front door.
With difficulty he saw the house, nor could he make out its main outlines, for he had switched off his lamps as he entered lest their light should betray him, and tall trees girt it close and overshadowed it.
It loomed above him, one with their gloom, unlit and silent. Tenantless it seemed, or sleeping; yet he felt many eyes watching, and now, at last, his hand stole to his pocket and clasped the revolver nestling there. But the clasp was light and only precautionary, one as easy unclosed as closed. Little the weapon could avail him—beyond the lives of six men: six where there might be sixty, perhaps more. In guile he had come, by guile he must go; the time for violence was past, and he had wilfully let it go by.
“Quick!” he said to the man beside him. “No fuss, and I want nothing. Branluk is behind.”
The man faded from the car; those behind had already gone. In the sinister darkness, John Henry sat alone, watched by the watching eyes. Tense he sat and eager, though outwardly calm, a master-player a gigantic bluff played. Now was the instant of failure or success, or very soon. . . . Now! Up by the sombre door men were speaking softly. Down the steps came a little white-haired man, who halted at the foot and bowed.
John Henry ignored him.
“Who is it, please?”
Quick John Henry turned at the query.
“Did you not get my message?” he demanded roughly, and it might have been that cellar priest who spoke, so accurately was his language spoken, so exactly copied his tone—so speedily the little man paid heed.
There was discipline in this vulturish association, and fear of those who led! He bowed, turned, and spoke a nervous order. The sombre door opened. Soft-footed men appeared. Down from the house they came bearing burdens, and John Henry knew that his bluff was well played. First of the burdens was the muffled-up form of a girl.
He had snatched at a chance, and the chance had proved a certainty; of an obscure and dangerous situation he had accepted an instantaneous interpretation from his mind, staked his hopes, his life, on its correctness, and won. The Children of the Vulture were sending for Clara’s sister: Clara dead, a new priestess was required. And either in alarm at his escape or from fear of the inspector, they were sending by road; by the road which he had come. He had sensed those other travellers; he had hurried to outstrip them; and the men who had come to meet them, had met him instead; deceived by the familiar car, they had guided him in. Almost without question the girl was being delivered to him. It only remained to escape before the real emissaries arrived.
The bearers placed the girl in the seat beside him, the other burdens, her luggage, in the back of the car. She did not speak, and once settled in her seat she did not stir; he thought she had fainted; as they lifted her in he had caught a momentary flash of her eyes, and as well as inquiry there had been terror in the glance, as well as terror, despair. Desirous of reaching as quickly as possible a place where he might safely reassure her, he made ready to start. But the little man approached and stayed him.
“Have you no instructions for us?” he asked, and his tone and manner showed that he was nervous, more nervous and uneasy than the man who had led John Henry in had been. “No news of any kind?”
“None,” said John Henry shortly.
“We are expecting word.”
“Then go on expecting it. Who are you to inquire for instructions before they are given you? What news do you think I can have I have been travelling all day. . . . Have you any news?”
“None since the raiding of the Carbrick houses, but the general alarm signal came through an hour ago.”
“Then you will be told what to do when your services are required. I told you Branluk was coming north. Stand clear!”
It was well spoken and coolly done. Exulting to his finger tips, he saw his questioner obey. His way was clear, the last obstacle removed. So he thought. But he was wrong. . . . Down the road, one after the other, there sounded four blasts of a motor horn.
Stolid in the moment of his triumph, stolid he remained before what, but for the utmost resource and daring on his part, would be his defeat. In surprise the little man had started at the signal. Now he was staring at him. As though nothing unlooked for was happening, he changed from neutral and set the car on the move. Yet he watched his enemy the while, out of the tail of his eye. He knew he was to be challenged. He was ready, cool.
“Who’s that?”—suspicious the query.
“The other car,” he replied.
“What other car?”
The little man climbed up on the footboard and peered at him closely.
“We were warned of only one?”
Jerking on his brakes in pretended anger he came to a standstill, greatly disconcerting his challenger by the action, for hurriedly the latter leaned away and stepped down.
“You fool!” he snapped, swinging round at him. “Do you think I came here alone? My driver is behind. He has his instructions. Tell him there is no change, if he asks. Do you understand? No change.”
His coolness prevailed again. The little man bowed and backed a pace or two, completely reassured. But out on the roadway, now very close, another car was changing gear preparatory to entering the drive. The real emissaries were arriving. He himself was departing in the nick of time. Yet still he made no hasty movement and showed no eagerness to depart. A false move now and all that he had gained would be gone.
He eased his brakes and slowly glided forward, his engine almost noiseless, almost his entire momentum drawn from the slight decline. A loud engine note within those grounds and that other car would never have entered!—not before swooping to the exit to challenge; he would have been cut off, caught between two foes.
Crawling, he passed along the house frontage. Still crawling he passed beyond. Then the front wheels dipped to the drive’s steeper slope. Quickly he began to gather way.
Quickly the trees drew towards him. Once among them he would be completely hidden, a few precious seconds gained. . . . Only half-hidden he was disclosed. A blaze of light suddenly burst across the grounds from the headlights of the entering car, a gap in the trees by the entrance letting it through, and though immediately afterwards the darkness swirled round him again as the swinging car swung the twin beams away, he had been seen; a loud voice challenged. Instantly from the group by the doorway arose a shrill clamour. Instantly he was opening out and giving his engine full power.
Down the drive he hurtled, through the cavernous blackness of the trees, growing fast ahead of him—his guiding mark—-the light patch of the open gateway and the spreading glimmer of the road. Behind him the little man was yelling for the gates to be closed. They were closing as he neared them. As he darted through and clear, they closed; they grazed the back of the car. Brakes full on, he bounded and scraped across the broad thoroughfare, and came to a stop, his front wheels half-way over the pavement on the other side. And in his ears was a tremendous roaring. The other car was swooping down the drive.
It had come in pursuit immediately its occupants had sighted him. Without stopping it had swept past the house and was now on the steepest part of the decline. Furiously its headlights seemed to glare through the trees, not fifty yards distant; and his own engine was silent, choked of its life in the struggle to check the terrific way. Fortunately it had taken no harm.
Out he leaped, and the heated cylinders banged instantly. Back he scrambled, backed and slewed. . . . Another instant and he was gone.
And in a quiet square a mile away an inquisitive policeman noted and wrote down the number of a passing car whose driver was laughing drunkenly. It was John Henry, joining in the jubilation of the impish little gods who make game of the confounded counsels of men. Deaf to the warnings of their panic-stricken confederates, who saw too late the danger that their own futile attempt to entrap him had caused, his pursuers had come at him, crashed through the stout gates of the closed gateway, and overturned on the road. Behind him the glare from the burning car was mounting higher and higher into the sky.
Clear of the city, the open road in front of him, and nothing behind that could have been a pursuing car, he lessened his speed and turned to the girl. She had not spoken nor altered her position; nor did she speak nor move as he turned. But he saw her eyes enquiring of him, all that was visible of her outside her mufflings.
“I am a friend,” he said.
She did not speak.
“I am a friend,” he repeated. “Do you understand?”
“Can I do anything for you?”
She shook her head.
“You are sure?”
She nodded again.
Puzzled a little by her silence, but glad that there was no need for delay, he increased speed and proceeded, driving hard. Northward he went, through sleepy villages and the silent outskirts of towns. Nobody challenged him, nobody pursued. He had harried the Vulture’s nest and escaped in the confusion of the harrying, the darkness shrouding his way. Daylight was all he had to fear—daylight and his own nest not attained.
He passed at last beyond all zones of habitation and drove in a wild country. The darkness increased; the air grew colder, and into its breath crept the tang of the sea. Three hours after leaving the city he drew up on the shoulder of a long low ridge, gorse-covered moorland stretching on all sides, here and there the blur of a thicket, the glimmer of a tarn; and from far away, intermingling with the rustling of the undergrowth, a steadier note than the louder soughings of the hill winds, was coming the murmur of breaking waves. A storm was brewing, the wind rising. The lumbering lightless heavens were promising heavy rains.
He descended and took out the luggage. The girl turned her head and watched him, the only movement that she made. Staggering under his burden, he crossed the road and disappeared into the wilderness on the higher side of the hill. Empty-handed he returned, the luggage hidden; but he staggered a little still as he crossed to the car, and without a word he restarted the engine, climbed into his seat and drove on. He was past speaking—except to himself, and to himself he kept repeating what he had still to do. This was well-nigh all that was left to him of consciousness: the knowledge of a task, the set purpose that it should be done.
About an hour later he stopped again. They had been approaching the sea; and loudly and angrily the waves were sounding, beating at the foot of cliffs whose edge was not more than a hundred yards away. Still on the other side of the road the same gorse-covered high ground, now with the loom of distant hills beyond. He had been rounding it in a wide swinging detour, as though following an orbit whose centre was its heart. There also was his refuge; in the heart of the wild.
He got out of the car and motioned the girl to descend.
“Please hurry,” he muttered as she tarried, for he was anxious to be gone; for the road on which he had now debouched was a highway along which their enemies might come, and as it cut diagonally across a considerable portion of the route which he had been pursuing, it afforded them a much shorter way.
Yet the long journey had cramped her limbs, and she rose but slowly in spite of his urging; and she would have over-balanced and fallen against the steering-wheel, had he not leaned forward and caught her. At the check of his clutch she over-balanced towards him and fell into his arms. But not from stiffness her clumsiness. As soon as he clasped her he knew the true reason; why also she had sat so silent and motionless during the drive. She was gagged and bound, swathed like a mummy beneath her cloak, from ankle to chin. Someone had secured her well—from what she had meant to do when her sister’s warning came; and deliberately she had kept her plight concealed from him, enduring bravely and long that their flight might not be delayed. Despite the weariness clogging his brain, he understood, caught his first insight into her character, and admired. But time was pressing. He sensed the nearness of danger. Hurriedly he carried her to a bank by the side of the road and returned to the car.
A sound attracted his attention as he climbed to the driving seat, a sound made neither by the wind nor by the sea.
He stood up, listening.
Athwart the wind it came, faint from the distance, the hum of an approaching car. He dropped into his seat and drove away, and from her resting-place by the roadside the girl watched him wonderingly.
Ere his engine-note rose true, however, she heard that other engine-note and knew pursuers were coming, and with this terrifying thought came another more terrifying, that he was leaving her to those who came, and escaping alone.
Fear gave her strength; she rose to her feet and stood gazing after him. He was racing from her, full speed already attained. And less than two hundred yards distant was a bend in the road where the thoroughfare swerved away from an inland sweep of the sea. Something happened there. Instead of turning, the car held on. She heard it bounding and racketing over the rougher ground, a runaway, heading headlong for the cliff-edge and the sea; and a flicker of moonlight shone out from a quick-closed rift and showed her the end. Upreared on the cliff-edge, silhouetted against a vista of tossing glittering waters, it stood for an instant ere hurtling over and down. . . .
John Henry found her lying in a faint when he returned, as return he did; he had leaped from the car before it took its plunge. Thus had he got rid of it and blinded their trail; thus had he planned to get rid of it and baffle such as those now coming. The note of pursuit was very near. He picked the girl up and disappeared with her into the wild, and the strange car passed by and on.
From the ridge-top he saw its lights, now many miles away. On the same road, miles behind, were other lights. On another, converging, were others, and all were speeding northward. The Vulture had roused its brood; the search had begun—in every corner of the land he would be sought for, he and the girl. He looked towards the distant hills and smiled. They would hide him. For years he had lived in their midst unsuspected; for years he could live there unknown. He pressed on to their sanctuary, and the ridge rose behind him, shutting off the peering lights from view. A long, low, black mass against the lighter seaward sky, it lay like a rampart between him and his foes.
By a mountain pool, about a mile further on, he stopped and unpinioned the girl, and sank her fastenings in the deep black waters. This was the last thing he was conscious of doing, the last item of the flight that his memory recorded; for the excitement born of the nearness of the chase had died, and exhaustion claimed his soul. Thereafter he walked as a man who slept, a man ruled by his insensate will.
Sometimes he followed rough pathways, the tracks of summer herdsmen, or the rain-bitten remnants of roads made in the ruder age when man and the wilderness fought for what the sterile soil could yield; more often he walked where no human foot seemed to have trodden. Wild-fire playing about the peaks disclosed him. Bowed with his burden, he was stumbling onward, head bent down on his bosom, eyes closed, yet picking his way as surely as a stag its path, as much a part of the wild as any wild thing. A fox stood aside to let him pass, and unconcernedly went its way. The very storm seemed to wait before breaking till he should reach his lair. Mile after mile he thus traversed, and the girl lay unconscious all the while in his arms. He laid her down at last in his sanctuary, and she slept on for a time. . . .
A shriek was sounding in her ears when she awoke, the long drawn-out wail of a squall, the first of the storm.
Wondering, she raised her head and gazed around her.
First her gaze sought the source of the light.
It came from a paraffin lamp set on a table. She lay covered with blankets on a bed in a bare little room. She saw a chair. What other furniture there was, was swathed in white damp-cloths, melancholy drapings, suggesting forlornness and chill; suggestions which the shriek of the squall blent into fear; she looked towards the window, and the terror of her last waking thoughts leaped into her heart anew; she remembered herself deserted on a road along which came men who pursued. They had come and captured her! She was in prison! The window was closed by a shutter that might have served as a fortress door. Massive, metalled, and forbidding, it confronted and menaced her. Needless emphasis of its sinister purpose, or so to her, it was bolted and padlocked, top, bottom, and sides.
With a mighty bellow, through which the shriek still sounded, a high note but distant, the cry of a nymph in flight before a ravening god, the storm loosed its main onset just as she struggled with her terror and the balance wavered between panic and control. In a hollow among the highest hills John Henry had chosen his sanctuary. Caught within the girdling peaks the war-cry of the elements was magnified a hundredfold. Straight over her head broke out so demoniacal a din that mountains seemed falling on each other, fiends yelling in glee. Panic-stricken, she flung herself down, dragged the blankets over her, and hid herself in their folds. Only a day ago, a nineteen-year-old girl, she lived among friends in a happy comfortable world. Now, she was——?
She did not know!
Awfulness had stalked into her life. Her world had split and broken about her as suddenly as the storm.
From very early childhood she had lived with the little white-haired man; she had thought him her uncle; there had been nothing to warn her, nothing to suggest that things were not what they seemed. Rich, a scholar, member of several learned societies, he had seemed a man of assured position; he had been a man of many friends. Scarcely able to remember her parents, she had never missed them; Clara had mothered her; the little man had always been kind. Nor even had she thought it strange how very rarely she was wont to see her sister’s husband. A savant like her uncle, a great traveller, he was seldom at home. A well-educated, winsome, accomplished girl, she had been at the beginning of a brilliant social career, an heiress, already courted and admired. Then her old nurse had spoken—told her Clara was dead—offered her poison. In a trice the pit had opened. Incredulous, affrighted, she had rushed to her uncle. In a trice she found herself surrounded by demons, once her friends. . .. Then the strange man had come, her rescuer, who had later left her to her foes—and perished ere his flight had well begun.
She flung the blankets from her and sat up.
It was absurd!
With her mind’s eye she saw again that daring, skilful rescue. Such a man could never have deserted her at the mere threat of being pursued, nor lost his life in such a clumsy fashion! He, only, could have brought her thither!
Off the bed she slid, bent on seeking him, and stole toward the door, and there she stood listening, still fearful. But the storm bellowed and yelled without; she could hear no sound of him, no footfall, no stirring, not even when she bent and placed her ear to the keyhole. She heard another sound, however, a homely, comforting note to be struck in such a din, one that made her raise her head with a little half-hysterical laugh—the clatter of a kettle-lid and the brisk splutter of escaping steam. Without further hesitation she opened the door and stepped over the threshold. Before her was a kitchen, a moorland-cottage kitchen, its walls and ceiling much oaken-beamed, its floor of stone, warmly spread with home-dried skins. But for what else there was of furnishing in an instant she had no eyes; for she had caught sight of John Henry. Forward she ran and dropped on her knees by his side. He lay where he had fallen immediately his set task was done; a man utterly exhausted. So wildly his arms were flung from him, so hunched up, so twisted he lay, she thought at first he was dead.
Quickly, however, she understood what was the matter, and she tried to lift him. Weary herself, she could scarcely raise his shoulders. But she was able to make his position more comfortable, and with blankets brought from her room she covered him and pillowed his head. Then she knelt close by, regarding him, relief and thankfulness in her heart—and wonder.
Who was he? Whence had he come? Why had he, an unknown man, rushed to her aid?—risked his life for her, spent himself—for her, an unknown girl?
She burst into tears.
What the shock and horror of her sister’s disclosure had prevented her from properly comprehending, that she should have had to depend for so much on a stranger made her now realize—how bereft and forlorn she had suddenly become. What was to happen to her? Her fate was entirely in the hands of this unknown man.
Earnestly she bent closer and gazed into his features, endeavouring from them to learn what manner of man he might be. Haggard and lined, bearing plainly the stamp of his magnificent endeavour, it was a terrific face, terrifying in its fierceness and power. Were he but her friend she had indeed a champion. . . . Were he but her friend? . . . Pressing on her consciousness, its horde of nightmare thoughts and memories, was the phantasmagoria of her immediate past. After that, she dared not be certain, even though he had rescued her, even though he had by word assured her. Why should he be?
A sudden movement that he made provided an answer. His hand went to his neck and tore open his collar fastenings; an instinctive action, done as he slept; once done, his arm dropped towards his side again. But ere it could fall she caught his hand. On the little finger was the ring Clara had given him, and this she had seen and immediately recognized; and now as she gazed at it, her heart divined its purpose, and she knew Clara had sent this man to rescue her, and that he was a friend. Again she broke down. Touched to the depth of her soul by this last proof of her sister’s devotion, she gave way to her grief unrestrainedly, and for long knelt there holding his hand, wetting it with her tears.
At last a lull in the storm allowed the kettle-lid to clatter into her attention and she woke to other needs. Not for hours had she eaten; she was desperately hungry. The clattering lid suggested preparations for a meal.
Only then did she notice the dresser of the kitchen and the state of disorder it presented. A huge piece of furniture of many cupboards and drawers, all its drawers and cupboards had been opened; one drawer had been pulled right out and had fallen, spilling contents on the floor. Obvious the purpose behind the disorder. Thus the food-stocks of the dresser had been brought into view. Again she came near to weeping. The stranger had done this also for her, the weary man, before falling overcome by his weariness.
She took of the food-stuffs and made a meal, and as she ate she looked around her, pondering. She sat at a stout deal table, which occupied the middle floorspace, and on it was the paraffin lamp whose light lit the kitchen; set on the hearthstone of a roomy old-fashioned fireplace was the paraffin stove above whose flame the kettle had boiled. On either side of the hearth was a doorway, one the doorway into her room, and that the cottage contained three rooms besides the kitchen seemed to be indicated by the presence in the opposite wall of a third doorway, near the dresser end. The door behind her, she guessed, gave access to the back entrance. Immediately in front of her was the front entrance, and to this was built a kind of inner porch that protruded sufficiently into the room to make an alcove of the space on either side. In the alcoves were the two windows of the kitchen. Both were shuttered, and with a slight recurrence of her former dread she noticed that the shutters were similar to the one in her room. And all the doors were very strong. It was a strange dwelling—a stronghold. Despite the whirlwind blasts that buffeted and scoured it without, within nothing rattled, and she could feel no draught.
Its staunchness suggested danger. Its stillness grew eerie. She wished her rescuer would waken. At length she tried to rouse him, but failed. And her own weariness was growing; scarcely could she keep her eyes from closing. Yet she shrank from going to her room to lie down. She was afraid.
She went thither at last, but not to rest. It had grown very cold—the chill of the dawn. With a blanket wrapped round her, she returned to her chair; and very soon afterwards Nature overcame her. She sank forward on the table and slept.
The dawn came, the day, the evening; the storm raged and bellowed without pause. Deaf to its din, the two slept on.
The lamp was still burning, though dimly, when she wakened, and she wakened suddenly and to the sound of a wild cry. Up she started in alarm, and saw the strange man. He had risen and was standing beside her. Before she could spring away from him he had caught her in his arms. Before she could call out he was covering her face with kisses. . . . Before she could struggle to resist him he had let her go.
She fled from him to her room, the bitterness that leaped into his features ere he released her driving her from him in fear. He had been dreaming of Clara; he had dreamed they were together; he had wakened and thought his dream true. For the girl was the image of her sister—not of the sad beautiful woman of the underground chamber, but of Clara as she had been, years ago, before their separation, in those halcyon days when he, and she, and their love, was young.
The likeness of the two was extraordinary. He had been completely deceived. And the bitter years had never been, the old love leaped in his heart and filled his veins with fire. Then had come memory, and bitterness, a terrible disappointment, a fresh and greater realization of his loss; and then a greater passion still, that tore at his heart with the others, and sucked life where the others tore—the lusting fury of revenge. The girl, coming bravely to confront him, opened the door of her room and saw his face, and recoiled. No tiger bereft of his mate could have looked fiercer. Quickly she closed the door and bore against it, half-dead with terror but ready to attempt to stay him should he try to enter. . . . This was the man whom Clara had sent to her succour! The notion gibbered in her brain.
Hysteria took the place of fear, and urged her to laughter. But the sound of his footsteps gave her calm. She stood away from the door and waited him. He did not come, and presently his footfalls were silent. After waiting a little while longer she opened the door and entered the kitchen; and he was not there.
“I should like to speak to you,” she called.
Heavy rain was falling; but the wind had dropped considerably, and neither its soughing nor the strumming of the rain-drops was loud enough to prevent her voice from being clearly heard; yet he did not reply.
She repeated her call, speaking more loudly. Still receiving no answer, she strode from door to door, knocking on them insistently, determined to come to an understanding with him, and without delay. But as with her calling, so with her knocking. She took the lamp and searched at last, but without avail. The room on the same side of the kitchen as her own was a store-room; the third was a big bare chamber, whose only furnishings were a table, a couch, and a chair; and the door that had been behind her as she sat at table opened on a narrow porch, which led, as she had guessed, to the back door—in none of these places was there sign of him. He had gone from the cottage, locking the front-door behind him. In a sudden thunder-plump the rain drummed the roof. . . . Gone into that!
She set the lamp on the table, sat down, and listened to the rain. There was nothing else for her to do, until his return. Louder and louder it thundered, a torrential downpour, the tumultuous grief of the long-racked heavens.
Out in the midst of the deluge he was hastening away, away from the cottage and the girl it contained. He had seen her as she opened her door and looked out at him. Shrinking from meeting her, he had hurriedly departed as soon as she had withdrawn, only the storm fit company for him in his present mood, only in its wrath the sympathetic chord that could give his conflicting passions calm.
A dense pine forest came down the ridges close to the back of the cottage. Not to it did he turn. He followed the exit path from the hollow instead, a rude track, that led in the opposite direction, direct from the cottage door. Men had made that path; men had worked in the hollow, along, long time ago. The cottage was the sole building remaining of a once flourishing hematite mine. Along the path had gone the rich hill ores, up out of the hollow, and on through a gully between two hills, thence over the moorland and down to the smelters in the plains by the sea. But he followed it no further than the beginning of the gully. There he turned aside and climbed the highest hill—climbed into the storm to a point where winds always blew, and there sat down, facing the rain and the gale.
Here was his eyrie, his round tower, his place of retreat in such times as this when his strong spirit was troubled. Often he came hither. Here he looked out on the wild, and felt its power; here he could draw of the strength of great heights and wide expanses; and here at length the violence of his fury passed; he began to consider, to think and to plan—became his old self of a yesterday, the supremely intelligent, indomitable, audacious man. He had need of the clearest thinking, he saw, the strongest control, the sternest marshalling of all his faculties, were he to succeed in the task, in the mastering of the problem before him. Immensely difficult in its first setting, it was now complicated to the nth degree by the coming of the girl.
But for her he could have taken wing like an avenging bird of prey, hung on the trail of his enemies, swooped and followed, swooped and killed and killed, his range the whole world, wherever they nested, his resting-place here, there, wherever chance willed. This was a part that he could have played well; that he longed to play. One against thousands, he would have backed his strength and cunning to enable him to endure. Nerved by the memory of a great love—a great wrong, he would have surely cut his way to the presence of the master enemy, and in the Vulture’s heart claimed reckoning and wreaked revenge. Instead, he was tied to a nest of his own, and rendered practically immobile by the necessity of guarding what it contained.
He could never leave it for long, nor foray afar—perhaps not at all. The girl might refuse to stay with him; gaoler he might have to be, as well as guardian and protector. He had yet to come to an understanding with her and find out her point of view.
Whatever her attitude, however, he was condemned to the greatest circumspectness to avoid making known his whereabouts to their foes. Paradoxically, the need for ensuring her safety would be the greatest obstacle in the way of making her secure, for not till the Vulture’s brood was extirpated would her peril be removed. There was no other refuge for her, no other place where she might hide while he pursued his vendetta to the end.
Her own friends and acquaintances—every one of them was suspect. His own—the friends of his youth—of them to one only would he have thought of turning—the kindly colonel who had tried to shelter him, a general now holding very high command; and even this man, much in the public eye as he was, probably already under observation by the Children, could scarcely give her adequate protection, however willing he might be. Later, perhaps, when all danger was gone, in his home a home might be found for her. Meanwhile, she must stay in the cottage—for years, if need be—he and she together. He and she! A man and a girl. A man who had loved, and a girl in whom his dead love was re-incarnated. A man who had loved and sacrificed all, and a girl who, hourly, daily, would remind him of his bitterness, his humiliation, his wrongs—his revenge!
Bitterness grew in his heart at the thought; he was filled with the lust to spring and tear. But the cool brow of the ancient hill gave him of its coolness. . . . It was Clara’s dying charge to him, and therefore must be.
Of one thing he was certain: he had brought her to a sure refuge.
No one ever came near the cottage, no one lived within miles. Nor would his presence attract the slightest attention from those who dwelt nearest. He was known to them—he had been known to them for years—as a hermit, a man who shunned his kind. Silent folk themselves, solitaries many of them, shepherds and rangers, or members of small communities secluded in the hills, they had respected his silence, his obvious desire to be alone. No talk of theirs, no expression of curiosity or surprise, would reach the ears of any stray emissary of the Children and lead to the searchers descending on his hold.
Nor did he fear the possibility of the searchers coming thither of their own accord. They would follow the car; its exact northward track could not long be concealed from them. But the trail was doubly blinded. If they discovered the wreck, they would think disaster had happened. If they missed it and passed on, they would be led to a great seaport city, and think that thence the quarry was endeavouring to escape overseas. Nearly ten miles lay between the hollow, moreover, and the point where he had struck from the road. They would scarcely cast so far, supposing they searched the neighbourhood. And even if they did, even if they came and knocked at the cottage door——! Not merely for its remoteness had he chosen his refuge. It would still hide.
How to strike back at them, hampered as he was; how to destroy their power; how to get his hands on Eli Carse—this was the difficulty. Somehow it must be overcome.
He put all else from his mind and on it concentrated his attention. Ideas came steadily. Definite schemes formed. He even thought of Branluk. Here was an ally for him—a man, at least, whom he might well use.
And there was the book that Clara had given him—Carse’s diary. She had said this would help him; she had told him her name was the key-word to its code. Still in his bosom, where he had placed it before diving under the boat-house door, he would examine it as soon as he returned. Yet from such a source he did not expect a great deal of assistance, Carse was not the man to commit much to paper that could be easily read and understood even though the cipher were known. There would be hints, perhaps, aids to memory; but hints and aids that only the writer himself could interpret, whose meaning depended on his content of mind. Nevertheless he did not dismiss it as negligible. Nothing could be negligible that had any bearing whatsoever on the end in view. In this first searching investigation, however, he took no account of expectations, only of facts. Thus he reviewed the whole situation, swept up and sorted every relevant detail, recorded each parcel in his memory, then slipped the lot into his subconsciousness as the feel of the night warned him that another object must instantly be pursued. Hours had passed since he left the cottage. Before the dawn there was something that he must do.
The rain-water splashed from the folds of his clothes as he rose; he was soaked to the skin, stiff and chilled. With the movement, however, his blood seemed at once to run faster, and a glow spread over his frame. He set off down the hill.
There was more of the wild in his nature and being than even he himself realized. He had learned of its wisdom—set himself to learn; it had given him more of its own free will—its strength and endurance, its instinctive cunning and skill—its mysterious recuperative powers. By the time he was half-way down the slope he was warm, his stiffness gone, each limb, each muscle moving easily, his foot finding sure hold though the ground was steep and slippery, much cumbered moreover with boulder and outcrop and the tangled vegetation of the moor.
He went down the further side of the hill, away from the cottage. Not yet was he returning to the girl.
Nor did he seek the path through the gully, the old ore road that led towards the sea. He was heading away from it at a wide angle, and once his descent was completed he held his direction, following no beaten track, moving through pitch darkness, but sure of his way. The rain still fell steadily, the sky was overcast; but the wind had fallen, the fury of the storm passed on; and down in the hollows of the moor and between the hills the air was sluggish and heavy, laden with bog vapours beaten up by the spattering showers.
A mile or two from the hill he came to a flooded marsh that lay, like a broad mere, between two low hog-backs. Distant on his left, a torrent snored and murmured, sucking the flood waters away. But the surface was still unbroken by mound or tussock; of solid foothold there was not a sign. Yet he pushed across. And though the water steadily deepened till he waded immersed to the knees, he moved without hesitation, treading some tortuous under-water way. Once, indeed, did he come to a halt, and seemed to feel about him cautiously; but only because the path had altered since last he made the crossing. An irrupting spring had disintegrated and dissolved the secret causeway, causing a dangerous breach, deep and wide. He leaped this breach—leaped out strongly over the blank surface, so sure his instinct that he splashed down on to the continuation of the path on the other side, and was able to make good his crossing without further delay. In less than two hours he had covered eight miles and lay on the brow of a ridge looking down towards a road. The rain had ceased falling then; the last breath of wind had blown; a wan moon was struggling slowly through the breaking clouds.
The road was a part of the track of his detour, and immediately beneath him was the point where he had stopped and taken the luggage from the car. He had come to recover the luggage. In a cleft in the rocky bank of a tarn he had made his cache; the mouth of the cleft over-grown and well-hidden, he had had no fear, and still had no fear, of it being discovered. But he lay for many minutes before descending. Although he could not see them, there seemed to be prowlers below.
The wan light grew stronger and showed him the road, a sodden livid streak traversing the wet glittering gorseland.
Nothing stirred that he could see.
There were shadows athwart it, however, where his keen sight was baffled. Suspicious still, he crawled further down the brow away from the sky-line, and from his new position made a more earnest survey. At last he began to descend, crawling stealthily and warily, a lynx stalking a kill, a wild man a foe; and he headed, not towards the tarn, but towards a point further on, where was a thicket on the other side of the road.
There the ground dipped steeply, and in the hollow thus formed the rain-water had gathered, the tail of the flood half-across the thoroughfare. As he drew near, sounds became audible—soft splashings, breakings of twigs and the rustling of disturbed vegetation.
His instinct had not misled him.
Men were searching the thicket.
Twenty yards away he heard their voices, accents of ill-omen, sibilant, Oriental. . . . He continued his crawl. It was odd the Vulture’s brood had settled there, so near the tarn.
The search was finished when he reached the edge of the gorse; the searchers were gathered in a group on the verge of the flood, looking down at the water. There were five of them, all with bicycles, obviously a tracking party set to hunt out and follow the actual trail of the car. And what had made them stop and search by the wayside he saw for himself before their whispered conversation gave him any clue. The flood-water was covered with oil.
The oil had dropped from the car during his halt by the tarn, and the rains had washed it down the dipping road. A broad iridescent patch, gleaming brightly in the open, phosphorescing in the gloom of the trees, it could not but attract attention and lead to such searchers as these exploring on chance of making a find. But that was all. His cache had not been discovered, nor its presence suspected. At a word from one of their number, the trackers presently moved on.
Still peering cautiously from his cover he watched them till they disappeared. Nor did he rise when they had gone. He retreated as he came, crawling still wary; and he had not gone a dozen yards before he stopped and turned. Somehow he felt that there were other prowlers whose presence had not yet been disclosed, though neither from the road nor from the moor was there the slightest sound.
Back to his vantage-point he stole and thence peered up and down the road. For about a hundred yards either way he could see, left, as far as the further edge of the thicket, right, as far as the tarn; but no one was visible: the stillness remained unbroken. A minute passed, two minutes. He grew uneasy. Now he was sure, with the instinct of the wild. Somewhere there was another prowler, a lurker, a spy—-a clever, cunning man, well practised in the game, for of his whereabouts he gave no sign.
Then a swishing sounded up by the tarn, and his uneasiness disappeared.
Low he crouched and waited.
The swishing grew louder.
A sixth man came cycling down the road, passed his lurking-place and on, a big man bent low over his handle-bars, though not travelling fast—another tracker. He watched him also till he disappeared. When at length he backed into the gorseland and headed for his cache, he was smiling grimly. The Vulture’s brood were not alone on the road that night. The sixth man was Inspector Branluk, following on their trail.
Dawn was about to break when he returned to the cottage. The girl did not hear him come. She had gone to her room and was dozing. Not till he knocked on the door was she aware of his presence; nor did she immediately answer his summons. She first tidied her dress and hair. When she did open the door he was gone, but her luggage lay before her, two large cases, one on top of the other on the kitchen floor.
They formed an unexpected and welcome sight, one curiously reassuring to her, and by a big stage a process was advanced that had been steadily going on in her mind—the lessening of her fear. His absence had given her time to recover from the shock of his strange behaviour. Sleep had refreshed her; her brain was clear. Far more plainly she had begun to realize the awfulness of the fate from which he had saved her, and the tremendousness of the task he had faced and carried out on her behalf. His audacity had thrilled her—he was indeed a man! And much of her faith in her sister’s providence had returned, her belief that Clara had sent him to her aid. Even his strange behaviour she was disposed to think could be explained. He had at least let her go. . . . and gone out into the storm to bring her luggage in.
She stooped over the top case and with a great effort lifted it, marvelling the while at the strength of the man who had carried them both, doubtless a very long way. Having heard her stirring, he came out of his room on the other side of the kitchen and approached her, so quietly that she did not hear him come.
“I will carry them in for you,” he said, and he took the case out of her hold, picked up the other, and carried the two into her room.
Taken completely aback, she did not utter a word. Involuntarily she stepped back a pace, and, as though for support, leaned her hand against the wall. She was still standing thus when he returned.
“Won’t you sit down,” he said, and he reached for a chair and placed it for her. “There must be a whole lot of things that you will want me to explain.”
His ease and courtesy did much to relieve her feeling of constraint, and with a slight motion of her head in acknowledgement, she seated herself. She saw that she had to deal with a gentleman; and rough though his appearance was—he still wore his sodden muddy clothes, and his thick black hair lay lank and disordered—-the fierceness, the haggard stamp of weariness had gone from his face; she was struck by the fact that he was an extraordinarily handsome man. Nor did she feel overlooked, though he remained standing. He might have been seated also, so free from awkwardness, so natural was his poise. His gaze was steady, but not embarrassing. His eyes, she noticed, were very bright—the eyes of a man who saw much and far, and comprehended what he saw.
But he looked away from her when he continued speaking, pretending to busy himself with some slight readjustment of the lamp, and she understood and appreciated his consideration.
“I can’t tell you how sorry I am for startling you as I did last night,” he said, “and I simply don’t know what you can be thinking. I did not realize who you were. I had just wakened. I thought you were someone else—I’m afraid I can’t quite explain. But I would like you to try to understand that you have nothing to fear from me.”
“I am very grateful to you,” she murmured, the last of her constraint dissipated by the grace and sincerity of his apology. “You were very——”
She stopped in momentary dismay.
For the first time he had heard her speak, and she might have been Clara speaking, her voice the same rich low music as had always thrilled him from the lips of the dead girl. Startled, he had nearly sent the lamp crashing to the floor. Actually, it was off the table and falling when he reached out and dexterously retrieved it.
“That’s the worst of living in the wilds,” he remarked, looking up with a smile. “Paraffin lamps are necessary nuisances. . . . I am afraid I interrupted you?”
“I would like to know who you are, and why you came to rescue me,” she continued, taking immediate advantage of the opening. “You are wearing my sister’s ring?”
He nodded gravely.
“She sent me to help you,” he said, “and she gave me it so that you would know I came from her. I was with her when she died. I was her friend.”
“You are not—you were——?”
“No,” he said with emphasis, answering the incomplete enquiry. “I was not one of those people with whom she was living. Anything but! I only discovered her five days ago—and by accident. I tried to save her. I was just too late.”
Her glance dropped to the ring; her eyes filled with tears, and her lips began to tremble.
“I don’t want to distress you any more than I can help,” he continued gently. “But if you could tell me how much you know——?”
“I know that she poisoned herself, and—and the kind of people with whom she was living—with whom I was living, too.”
Bravely she kept back her tears.
“Then there is very little else for me to tell you. Miss Woolfenden.”
He saw her start at the name, and paused.
“I am not Miss Woolfenden!” she exclaimed, and consternation as well as surprise was in her tone, for a wild panicky idea had flashed across her mind that a mistake had been made: that neither had Clara sent him, nor was she the girl he had meant to aid.
“Yes, you are,” he assured her.
“But I am not. My name is Armit.”
“It is not your real name.”
“It has always been my name.”
“No, not always. Perhaps for a very long time—so long that you cannot remember any other. Nevertheless, Woolfenden is your real name. They would give you the other to hide your identity.”
“But are you sure?” she persisted. “Did Clara tell you?”
He shook his head.
“Then how do you know? . . . Tell me, please,” she added as he hesitated.
“I knew your father a long time ago,” he replied slowly. “Your sister, also. In fact, I just missed meeting you.”
She looked at him with sudden interest. On guard immediately, he added lightly—“You see, I am quite an old friend.”
But her intuition had glimpsed an intimate point of contact with him, and she was not to be so baffled.
“I know who you are!” she exclaimed. “You were in the Army—in the Engineers. . . . Weren’t you?”
He did not answer.
“Your name is John MacLean?”
This was a turn to the conversation that he had not anticipated. The directness of the attack nearly pierced his guard. He was amazed at her shrewdness and the keenness of her insight. He wondered what, she knew—what he should tell.
“It is my turn to ask questions?” he parried.
“I am right, am I not?”
“How did you know?”
“I just guessed.”
“Yes,” she admitted. “I saw your name once in a book of Clara’s, and she told me you were someone she used to know in Simla. I—I think you were quite good friends?”
“Did she tell you that?”
“No. I just thought so at the time from the way she spoke and looked, and I have always kept remembering.”
“We were engaged.”
“You and Clara! . . . Oh!”
She gazed at him wonderingly.
“And she married that man instead of you! . . . Oh, why did you let her?”
It was a turning of a knife in a wound. But he said very quietly: “What has happened, has happened, Miss Woolfenden. You may be quite certain that whatever mistake I made has been paid for in full.”
“Oh, I did not mean that,” she exclaimed. “I did not mean to reproach you. I—I——” She wanted to say that she could not understand how such a man as he had been out-rivalled, but words failed her. She could not express herself so frankly to him. His reserve abashed her. Not the slightest quiver had passed over his features, not the slightest change taken place in his expression, yet she knew she had wounded him deeply. “I’m so sorry,” she murmured.
“You need not be,” he told her. “Please don’t be. I want you to understand clearly what the position is,” he continued evenly. “I think you know enough about me to realize that I am at least an enemy of your enemies. I will do my utmost to show you that I am your friend. Your sister asked me to take care of you. I will take care of you. You are quite safe here, and while all necessary precautions are observed, you——”
“But I am not to go on staying here, surely?” she interrupted in dismay. “Are you not going to inform the police?”
He shook his head.
“The police could do nothing,” he told her.
“The police!” she repeated incredulously. “They would arrest those people? . . . They are criminals?”
“They would never find them.”
“But they must!”
“They can’t. That house will be empty now, and the people with whom you stayed will have gone, leaving no trace. . . . You must make up your mind that you have nothing to hope for from the police, Miss Woolfenden. It may be disquieting to you, but it is the truth. Those people are powerful enough to defy the Law, not only of this country, but of any country. The only way to keep out of their clutches is to hide from them. You can hide here. They will never find you here. But once you communicate with the police, you give away your whereabouts, for through their spies they would immediately get to know. And once they knew——! It would not be the police who would prevent them recapturing you. They could take you out of prison, if they made up their mind.”
“But what are you going to do?” she exclaimed, convinced of the truth of what he was saying and very greatly alarmed. “You are surely not proposing that I stay here for ever?”
“Until I deal with those people and make it safe for you to go.”
“You expect to succeed in what you think the police cannot do?”
“I don’t know yet,” he admitted. “But I will. I must. Though, frankly, it will not be easy. It may take a long time.”
“And meanwhile you suggest that I stay in hiding here? . . . Oh, I can’t! I simply can’t!”
She flushed, but continued to meet his gaze.
“I think that ought to be obvious to you.”
“It is not. Please forgive me for speaking plainly, but where else would you propose remaining in hiding—I think you are convinced of the necessity of doing that?”
“I don’t know,” she answered, after a slight pause. “I—don’t seem to have anywhere else to go. . . . You knew my father! Had he no relatives?”
“I don’t think so. I never heard either he or Clara mention any.”
“Then my position seems to be a most unfortunate one for any girl to be in,” she said wistfully. “I am sorry to appear so unreasonable. I—I Oh, dear!”
She drooped a little in her chair. Her gaze dropped to the floor, and thence began to wander slowly round the room, resting on the shuttered windows, on the shadowy comers.
“I will do everything to make your stay as comfortable as possible,” he endeavoured to assure her. “I have not lived here for some time, so the place has become rather uninhabited-looking. But——”
“It is not that,” she interrupted drearily. “You have been very, very kind. . . . It is the hopelessness of the whole outlook for me. I wish I were—— Oh, why did you not rescue Clara instead of me?”
Involuntary her exclamation, and closely though he had been watching her expression, he was taken completely off his guard.
“Why?” he muttered, unable to restrain his bitterness. “But for you——”
She looked up at him suddenly, startled.
“But for me?” she repeated, as he checked himself. “Were you going to say that but for me Clara would have been rescued?”
“Yes,” he said harshly. “I think you require to be told that now.”
“A way of escape was open for her. But she would not take it, because while she stayed—while she went on living the life she was living, she was protecting you. She had protected you for years.”
“There is something more?”
“There is much more. . . . Instead of escaping with me, as she could easily have done, she sent me for the police. I was seen leaving the house where she was. The police arrested me as a burglar. I was put in prison. What had happened was discovered by her husband and the others. Twenty-four hours later I made my way to her again. I arrived too late —just a minute too late. She died in my arms. . . . Don’t you understand? She lost her chance, her life—and I lost her—because of her consideration for you.”
She was looking at him no longer. She had bent her head. Her elbows were resting on her knees, her face was buried in her hands.
“Don’t you think you might well disregard any scruples you may have, and do what I know she would wish you to do? She left you to my care. I promised to look after you. I am trying to keep that promise. That is why I say you must stay here. You will feel it awkward. You are bound to do so. But there is no other way.”
He saw the tears welling from between her fingers, and his heart softened.
“Come and let me see your room,” he said, turning away abruptly. “I think we can make things much better there.’
He took a pace or two towards her door. Then she called to him, and he turned. She had risen. One hand held out in appeal, she paused a moment, her glance meeting his entreatingly; then she ran to him and caught him by the arm.
“You must hate me!” she exclaimed impulsively. “I am hateful—wickedly ungrateful. You and Clara have done so much! Don’t be angry with me! I will do whatever you wish. . . . Please!”
Clara was appealing to him, Clara distressed and tearful. Into his expression crept all the rare kindliness and charm that had been his long ago, and under the influence of something that she did not understand, nor yet he, her tears stopped flowing, and she smiled.
“I don’t wonder at you feeling depressed,” he said gently. “Come along. You will find things are not so bad as they seem.”
She went with him, and they entered her room together, and both felt a little strange; both felt that a first link of comradeship and understanding had been forged between them; that from now onwards their lives were to be connected for a long time. He stole a glance at her, and caught her stealing a glance at him. She flushed; he looked away; and to him the room seemed suddenly to have grown bare—too bare for so lovely and winsome a girl.
“What an awful hole it is,” he muttered. “But we’ll have these off,” he said, pointing to the dampcloths, “and you will show me where you want the furniture put. I think I can add some more. I’ve got a paraffin stove somewhere, too. I’ll hunt it out. And plenty of extra rugs for the floor. And I’ll get you another lamp—a stronger one. There’s plenty of oil, so you can burn them both. The windows will have to remain shuttered, you know—at least for a bit. We want to lie very low here.”
“They look as if they had never been unshuttered,” she said candidly.
“They haven’t been for a long time.”
“I thought I was in prison at first,” and this she said with almost a trace of mischief in her tone.
“Wait till you see the inside of a prison before passing such a judgment,” he answered, in his voice a sombreness of which he was unconscious, but which made her glance at him curiously. “But I will hide that one with a curtain,” he added, thus diverting her gaze to the shutter. “I have bits of almost everything stored here. I’ll get busy at once. First the cloths.”
“Let me take them off,” she begged him. “Let me do all the altering. Please! I can manage, and it will be something for me to do. You bring me the things. And that curtain first, if you don’t mind.”
Glad to see her so interested and cheerful, he yielded to her request; he gathered all his promised additions and brought them to her, along with such other things as he thought she might use; but before he let her begin her task he prepared some food and they ate it together. Then he left her. . . . And in the big bleak chamber where she had sought for him he sat down by the table and waited; waited for his new-found impressions to fade away from his soul. Clara was very near to him—too near. In his heart was sweetness which he dared not recognize. He had reverted in part to what he had been. With ease he could have sloughed the overlay of the years, reached out and recaptured the old standards and attributes, resumed the old sensibilities and ways. He dared not. That way greater bitterness lay, a re-fighting of old fights, a re-girding of arms and armour, needed, needlessly thrown aside. He had man’s work to do. He waited for the years to confirm him. Yet the years were slow.
At length he took out the package wherein was Clara’s scarf, and slowly unfastened it. The envelope had served its purpose. Not a drop of water had penetrated. The long fine silken web flowed at his touch from its folding and spread its rare colours, shining; shimmering, glowing in the lamplight, soft and light as a wreath of swan’s-down, delicate and fresh as the petalled profusion from a rose. And then the sweetness grew cold in his heart. The vision of Clara changed.
The girl sensed the difference in him when he answered her summons and came to view what she had done. He smiled; he even talked lightly. But in his aspect there was a wildness, that she felt more than saw, a hint of the fierceness that she had seen once before there disclosed. She sat down on her bed when he had gone, and pondered for a while. Deep down in her heart was doubt of him again. He was a very strange man.
Back in his room again, he took up the scarf and felt down its length till he came to the slight thickness that indicated where Carse’s book was concealed. The material was double where the insertion had been made. He searched the seam for the break; but cunningly the re-stitching had been done, and for some little time he could not be certain that he had found it—he did not want to undo what Clara’s fingers had wrought. He broke the stitching at another place and drew out the prize, but dropped it immediately as though the contact burned.
It was Carse’s book, a thing that Carse had handled and sat before, as close as he was sitting. Palms against the table-edge, he bent over it—bent over it as though over the prostrate face of his foe. Had he attempted immediate examination he would have tom it in pieces.
A small book it was, curious, Eastern, no greater than a stamp booklet in surface, as thin as one of the bindings; yet bound itself in some fine skin, sleek to the touch, but firm, dun-brown in colour; as delicate an example of the bookbinder’s craft as he had ever seen.
Within the narrow compass were twelve pages, two of which had been used, and filled with lines of very tiny figures; but the paper was pure white, and opaque for all its thinness, and Chinese ink had been employed and a fine pen; so that what had been written was easily legible. What had been written looked like a succession of arithmetical equations—
(10 - 1) + 1 + 7 + 11 + 3 + 2 + 1 + (8 + 2) = 5 + 8 + 3
(14 + 1) + 6 + 13 + 11 + 2 + (7 - 1) + (15 + 1) + 9 = 22 + 8 + 6
(8 - 1) + 2 + (5 - 2) + 3 + (9 + 3) + (6 + 1) + 7+ 3 + 13 = 9 + 9 + 2
And so on, twenty lines in all; not true equations, but a cryptogram, written with what was to him a fairly obvious word-cipher.
The use of the bracketed numerals pointed strongly to this, at any rate, the first pair indicating the letter in alphabetical precedence to the tenth letter of the key-word, the second pair the second letter in alphabetical succession to the eighth of the key. Similarly with the others. The arithmetical form of the cryptogram was only an attempt to make the purpose of the brackets less plain.
And Clara had said that the key-word was her name! He thought this highly probable: CLARAWOOLFENDEN was almost an ideal combination for such a purpose. In it, the three most frequently-used letters in the English language, e, a, and o, were in duplicate, and, therefore, one among several advantages, the frequency of their symbols in the cryptogram would be reduced by half. There were two other letters in duplicate moreover, l and n, the latter high in the list of frequency ratios. Altogether the task of an investigator attacking the cipher from the cryptogram would be rendered exceedingly difficult, even if further obstacles had not been created by the use of a code within a code; and that this in fact had been done, there were indications. At least it was manifest that no simple use of the combination had been made, for in Clara’s name there were only fifteen letters, while the symbol third from the end of the second line of figures was 22. Nor was this the only symbol apparently beyond the key-word’s limits. In succeeding lines other high numbers appeared. Nevertheless he assumed a simple use in the first instance, and cutting short his speculations he took pencil and paper and made his initial essay.
He wrote out and numbered the combination thus—
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 C L A R A W O O L F E N D E N
Deciphered according to this scheme, the three first equations yielded—
E C O E A L C Q = A O A F W D E L N O L = 2 2 O W N L . . . .
He went no further; it would have been waste of time, for even supposing 22 a double letter, the third symbol of the third line, namely (5 - 2), was unsolvable, unless the alphabet were used in cyclic form. In any case the decipherings were unintelligible enough to make the inference obvious: either a code within a code had been employed, or the combination was wrong.
If the latter, if Clara had erred and a new combination had to be found, then his task was a formidable one. But he was far from accepting the fact of her error. Indeed, he felt that the balance of probability was all the other way, and that she had become aware of the key through seeing Carse use it, or by discovering the datum-sheet either of a deciphering or of a cryptography, for how else she had come by her knowledge he could not imagine. Straightway he began a strict scrutiny of the equations to the end of discovering the inner code. And several significant points he noticed. But before he could correlate and develop into any definite theory the ideas and notions to which they gave rise, the girl knocked on his door. . . . She had cooked a meal.
“I was so hungry,” she confessed frankly, “and I had pottered about my room until there was simply nothing else for me to do.”
She was trying to make the best of the situation, and, recognizing her pluck, he tried to help her, unwelcome though her interruption had been.
“Both hungry and bored, in fact?” he suggested. . . . Then he caught a full view of her and stood motionless, staring, tongue-tied.
“Yes, both,” she replied in the same light tone, unconscious of the effect her appearance had caused on him, for she had moved off towards the table, and for the moment was not looking at him. “And I don’t know which was the worse. Do you know you have been away hours and hours——? . . . Mr. MacLean!”
She had turned and found him staring, and the intensity of his gaze had made her speak his name in appeal. He could not but stare at her. She had changed her dress, and was wearing the skirt of a greyish-brown Harris tweed costume, stockings to match, greyish suede brogues, and a pale brown sailor blouse tied with a tie of slightly darker material; a garb which suited her well, for her hair was like burnished copper in colour and sheen; she looked very smart, very girlish, very lovely—and just such a colour scheme Clara had been wont to wear, Clara alone of all the women he had known.
“Did Clara help you to choose that dress?” he asked abruptly.
He motioned her to a chair, and sat down also when she was seated. They ate the meal in silence, she, thoughtful and still embarrassed, he, inscrutable. Not once did he look at her.
“I am very sorry to be so rude,” he said at the end. “I am making it very awkward for you.”
She rose and came towards him impulsively, and laid her hand on his shoulder.
“I am very sorry for you,” she murmured. “I remind you of Clara. I——”
“You do,” he said simply.
Flushing under the gaze he cast at her, she drew away. Now she knew the reason for that strange awakening. She was glad to see him rise and go. But he returned immediately—to offer to help her clear the table. She refused.
“Please don’t,” she urged, as he seemed reluctant to acquiesce. “I would much rather clear away myself.”
But, on his way out of the kitchen again, he stopped, looked round at her doubtfully, then went to one of the windows and from about the middle space of the shutter drew out a knot-like piece of wood that discreetly masked a spyhole.
“Do you see?” he said, holding out the knot. “You will find one of those in every one of the shutters. You must be feeling very cooped up, and I am afraid it will not be safe for you to go out for a little while yet. This will at least let you see out.”
He replaced the knot and climbed down from the sill.
“Be sure you don’t leave the spyholes open,” he warned her; then he went to his room.
She gazed after him wistfully. He must have been very nice once, she thought—years ago, when Clara knew him. She wondered what had come between them. Something terrible! Clara would never have made the choice she had made, nor married the man she had married, unless for a very good cause; there must have been some warp in his nature; he must have done wrong; yet his love had lived through the years, and still lived, hungering and desolate amidst the husks of the past. She felt very, very sorry for him.
Mingling with her pity, however, were other and far less welcome emotions, and she crossed to the window and climbed up to the spyhole, giving leash to her eagerness to see outside the cottage to keep the others at bay. But it was a comfortless view. The evening was approaching, shadow already filling the hollow. The daylight was yet still strong enough to form a masked contrast to the yellow luminance of the kitchen, and she felt as though she were peering from a dungeon after long confinement in its gloom. She peered through iron bars, moreover, which extended from lintel to sill.
Beneath her the path stretched away across the level bottom, until, two hundred yards or so distant, it rose steeply; and, following it with her glance, she saw the mouth of the gully, on either side the hills. They were very steep and high. One of them cliffed. Peer as she might she could not see their crests, nor a vestige of the sky. Disappointed, she went to the spyhole in her room—only to peer from it into the pines, which came so close, and grew so densely, that their tops were invisible, and in the narrow space between the dusk had come.
She was cooped up with a vengeance; in a prison within a prison. And without were her enemies. Within, she was alone with a man, who had once loved her sister and saw in herself the living image of the girl he had lost and now mourned; a mysterious embittered man of the wilds, an outlaw, who was trying to be good to her, and finding it hard. . . . An unexpected clatter of the dishes as she cleared away made her start so violently that she nearly dropped the pile she was carrying, and so great was her trembling at the narrowness of the escape, she had to set down her burden and stand immobile for, a while. The strain of her position was telling. She was nervous. In the stillness that followed the finishing of her labours, as she sat waiting for him to make a move, her nervousness grew.
Yet it was only with the coming of this stillness that he began to settle down to his task. Disturbed as he was, tortured by conflicting thoughts and passions, the necessary mental detachment persisted in eluding him while ever her light footfalls came echoing into his room.
Once calm of mind was attained, however, he quickly picked up the threads of his investigation and recommenced the unravelling of the tangled scheme of the code. And what he examined was the right-hand portion of the system of equations, where all the significant points already noticed appeared. Here there were always three numbers, and only three. Here, also, were all those larger numbers that seemed beyond the limits of the code. Each of them held first place in its quantity. This was the point that impressed him most. He suspected that the quantities were dates: their first numbers fell within the limits 1 and 30—days of the month; their second, within the limits 3 and 12—months of the year.
Thus interpreted, 5 + 8 + 3 became “5th August, 1903”, and 22 + 8 + 6, “22nd August, 1906”. The third date was “9th September, 1902”; the next, “16th September, 1912”; and the next——
He stopped and considered. There seemed something amiss again, something inconsistent in the fact of the years occurring so irregularly, when, judged by the days and the months alone, the dates were so steadily progressive. He began to doubt whether the last numbers represented years at all. And then he noticed that they fell within the limits 1 and 15. And fifteen was the number of the letters in the combination! In a flash of inspiration he glimpsed the whole scheme. They were key-numbers, not years—keynumbers of the code within a code. Without pausing once to test against one of the equations, so sure was he that at last he had found the master-clue, he extended the combination thus—
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 1 C L A R A W O O L F E N D E N 2 L A R A W O O L F E N D E N C 3 A R A W O O L F E N D E N C L 4 R A W O O 13 D E N C L 14 E N C L A R A W O O L F E N D 15 N c L A R A W O O L F E N D E
Deciphered, each from its proper line, the first by line 3, the second by line 6, and so on, the equations became, not mere jumbles of letters and figures, but definite dates and names—
So tremendous was the discovery, he could not continue for a while; Clara had not been mistaken—it was in his power to decipher the whole cryptogram. But what the names implied he had yet to discover, and for some time after he resumed the decoding this was far from manifest, although he had a strong suspicion what the implication was—on which suspicion, however, he dared not allow his mind to dwell, so great and far-reaching was its significance. So he worked on steadily, confining his attention strictly to the realities of the code; and with the eleventh deciphering enlightenment came—the name yielded by the equation was Acacia, a familiar name—familiar as Acacia Road. . . . Acacia Road was that broad residential thoroughfare, where was that mansion out of which he had rescued the girl.
The twelfth name was “Carbrick”.
After that he had no doubt left whatsoever; his suspicion had been justified and confirmed. And the date told him far more. It was the date of his breaking into No. 16—the date when those dusky-skinned devotees had gathered and that hellish orgy been held. Natural the inference, and with no uncertainty he made it: already he could see it proved. The names were names of Vulture strongholds, the dates the corresponding times appointed for meetings of the gang.
Hence the cryptogram.
From all over the world members would be summoned to attend those meetings; a written record would be required to keep the leaders in mind of the arranged places and times. This was Carse’s record. And that his inference regarding its contents was right he could prove out of his own experience. For he knew the time of another meeting. One day later, the night after his burglary, he had been guided by Smeaton to that house by the river and seen there the Children gathered together, the red fires set to burn. . . . One day later fell the cryptogram’s next date.
“Lodge” was the name.
“The Lodge”, or “ —— Lodge”, must be the name of that ill-omened dwelling, a useful enough discovery. But his mind left it immediately and leaped ahead. Feverishly he deciphered, a way to strike at Carse becoming plain; for after that meeting in the house by the river the cryptogram passed into the future, its remaining meetings yet to be, and could he identify but one of the meeting-places, there could he find his enemy.
Name after name he deciphered and wrote down, all unknown to him; and then a greater eagerness beset him—a greater secret was revealed, greater by far than he had been anticipating; he noticed this—how steadily the proximity of the dates to each other had been increasing. They were crowding together now. From first to last they seemed to have been hurrying along—as though to some purposed end. It dawned on him suddenly that the cryptogram was a definite plan of campaign.
He was in a position at once to test and confirm his supposition. After the Carbrick meeting he knew what had happened. Then, two men had gone forth to kill. What, if anything, had happened after the others? Had assassins gone forth from them also? . . . Yes. He could call to mind a long list of mysterious crimes, each of which had been committed after one or other of the cryptogram times. This was what Carse had planned, a terror campaign. Each of the victims had been prominent in Eastern affairs, and to the East their destruction was a sign of the Vulture’s power.
What was to happen after the last date ? . . . To what were those dates hurrying?
He deciphered the last.
It was only nine days ahead—nine days, and then? Then assuredly the last blow was to fall, the last act of terrorism to be done; the last and greatest of all; that was to be a signal as well as a manifestation of power, a harbinger of an Empire’s disruption and doom. For the cryptogram was not finished though the dates had come to an end. After the last date came three other lines of cipher—three groups of names—names of places, villages, and towns, all of which he knew. He raised his head and sat staring at the wall. Into his mind had come the memory of his drive through London. Again he was listening to the ominous reverberation of the traffic. In this solitary mountain cottage, as clearly as in those thronging metropolitan streets, he was hearing the beating of great wings. It was all plain to him now.
In London the stage was being set for a great imperial drama; the actors were assembled or on their way. From all the great Dominions statesmen were gathering to conference. In ten days’ time the first of their conferences was to be held—a conference which the King would open in person; which all the elder statesmen of the kingdom would attend. . . . And into their midst would come the assassins, frenzied fanatics lusting to kill!
That was the plan; he knew he had not misinterpreted—it could not but be. Those villages and towns were Eastern garrison stations, strategic points of prime importance in the long imperial line. There, the myriads of the Children were mustered and waiting. There the East would rise and strike when given the appointed sign—when the Vulture swooped in the heart of Empire, and the breath of a great disaster travelled afar. Not easily affected by surprising circumstances, nonchalant as he was from long training in hazardous ways, he was awed. The machinations of his enemy were so astounding, their scope so tremendous, their design so daring, so superb.
And the time was so near.
At thought of this his awe departed. Swift his action must be were the danger to be averted. And what to do was obvious to him: he could not act alone, not successfully, in so short a time. The Government must be warned, the aid of the police invoked to unearth that last secret place of meeting. A dramatic counter-blow could be struck. On the very eve of their triumph, in the midst of their final preparation, the gang could be captured or destroyed. More than that, all danger to the girl would be removed and his obligation to Clara discharged. But there was a price that he must pay, and because of the price the prospect caused him no exultation. Rather he viewed it with disappointment and regret. The police, he knew, would deny him his enemy. The revenge that he so much desired would be taken out of his hands.
Had there been the slightest chance of him succeeding unaided, he would have taken it; he was hesitant and unwilling, convinced though he was. A little more hopefully he thought of the inspector. With Branluk, some bargain might be driven. . . . Then he thought of the girl. “Balcowrie” was the name against the last date, the name of the last place of meeting, where those hellish rites would be performed. The girl might have heard of it; Clara must have stayed there several times, and thence might have written to her sister—so quickly and eagerly he got to his feet, the chair reeled away from him and with a loud clatter toppled over on to the stone floor.
The clatter echoed through the cottage and roused the girl, who had been sitting in a semi-trance, become almost part of the stillness, so long had it remained unbroken. Its sudden breaking unnerved her. She started up all of a tremble, and when he came striding in she shrank back from him.
But he was too intent on his quest to notice her perturbation.
“Do you know of a place called ‘Balcowrie’?” he demanded. “A place or a house?”
“Balcowrie?” she stammered. “Balcowrie?”
“Yes! Somewhere where Clara stayed at times? Or did she ever mention it to you?”
“Do you mean Balcowrie Lodge?”
“Balcowrie Lodge!” he almost shouted. ”Lodge! . . . Where is it? . . . Good God, be quick, girl!”
“I’m not sure. I’ve never been there. But Clara has. It’s——”
She could not continue. He was hanging on her words, but she thought he was glaring at her.
“It’s not up-river? Up the Thames?”
But he was gone from her before she could utter the second word of her further explanation. It was the house by the river, and Carse was delivered into his hands.
The door crashed behind him. Before the lock could slip and hold it, it had rebounded off the jamb, and hung half-open, humming on its hinges, so violent his closing swing. Impelled by the curiosity of fear she stole forward and peered round its edge. He was sitting by the table, slewed round a little in his chair, grinning into the emptiest corner of the room. Exultation for the time being was making him insane: Carse was there, shrinking from him. He was looking into the past with eyes that had seen the future. From the midst of scenes and things that had been, his avenging mind was dragging his enemy to confront him with what would be.
A tall, spare, silent figure, sinister, mysterious, standing just without an open doorway, looking into a room, yet not seeming to look; a swift-passing reflection on a mirror of a sallow hawk-like face; a shadow in the gloom of a veranda; a vaguely-outlined presence along a darkened corridor—thus he had seen Carse in the past. He had never spoken to him, never caught his gaze; who he was, he had scarcely known. But now he knew. At one end of the long vista of the intervening years burned the white flame of hatred, at the other, the lurid fires of revenge, and all between was plain. And it seemed he was hounding his enemy from one end to the other, holding him imprisoned for a space at points of greatest bitterness, there to gloat over and taunt him; then forcing him on, to view the final scene—a red glare, a glittering wall, high up a niche, within, a seated figure triumphing and in the nether darkness, the avenger, the man who had stolen in from the river by a way already explored—himself. And Carse seemed to fight against him, and break from him and flee. Back again he would hale his foe. Fiercer and fiercer the struggle, wilder his mania grew. . . . And in the kitchen the girl listened.
There came another phase where Carse turned on him defiantly and mocked him, raised an image of Clara as a symbol of his wrongs, and pointed to it, forced it on his attention, goading him. Clara was lost to him, Clara could never return, let him win the last throw as he may! In turn he shrank away, and strove to shut his eyes to the vision, his ears to the gibes; for what his enemy said was true.
But the mocking voice sounded louder; his closed eyes saw. Goaded beyond endurance, he at last sprang up and rushed at his tormenter, and tried to snatch the image away. Carse but jerked it out of his reach and eluded him; jerked it away again, held it dangling in another corner, again eluded him, again, again and again, foiling all his furious rushes, though sometimes he got so close that his clutching fingers seemed to graze the prize. Then suddenly the vision was gone, the scene was changed. Again Carse cowered before him in the emptiest corner of the room. The image of Clara had disappeared.
He sat down grinning, and gloated. . . . Then suddenly he was sane.
Up he sprang in dismay. The doorway of his room was gaping, a cold draught blowing—in a cottage where no draughts blew. Into the kitchen he hurried, and on into the girl’s room. It was empty. The kitchen was empty. Furious with himself, he returned to stare at an open front door. Only too obvious what he had done. Not an image of Clara had he been pursuing in his frenzy, but a living terrified girl, who had fled.
After her he darted, out into the night, and with long swift strides crossed the hollow. No time he wasted in looking around or in wondering whither she had gone. Terror, he knew, would make straight her flight, and in the soft clay of the gully-mouth would be whatever confirmation he required. . . . In the soft clay were her footprints. Thence for many minutes he continued without halting, running faster, still following the old ore path, out from the gully, from between the guardian hills, and on over the moor. When he paused the path was ended, overgrown and obliterated by the encroaching wilderness.
He had hoped to overtake her before coming so far, and had done his utmost, anxiety spurring him. In front was dangerous ground, much pitted and bogged, and though the sky was clear, no moon had yet risen; the moor was draped in blackness as with a garment, woven of the night and its own tangled shades. To him there was no blackness. He could have traversed the whole moor blindfold. But to her! He picked up her further course and followed! And often he paused listening, fearful of hearing her wail of fear as the morass claimed her, or her startled cry as she felt herself suddenly plunging down. . . . He came on her unawares as she leaned exhausted by a boulder. To her he seemed a silent stalking beast emerging from the wild.
She screamed and fled from him, and the peaks caught and echoed her cry. So swiftly she sped, he could not immediately overhaul her—she was deaf to his calls. Then she stopped of her own accord. One further step he took, and stopped also, rigid, a stag checked in its course, a new enemy appeared. Then he walked up to her and gently clasped her arm.
“You are safer with me, girl,” he said grimly.
Behind them the peaks were echoing another sound, the sound which had stopped them. Faint from the opposite direction it had come, weird in that waste, eerie and menacing—”Ai! Ai! Ai! . . . Mees Armeet! . . . Ai! Ai! Ai!”—the call of a hunting Vulture pack, giving tongue at her cry.
The girl turned at his touch and clutched at him, a new and far greater fear completely ousting the old.
“They are coming for me!” she gasped, almost breathless from panic and exhaustion.
He slipped his arm round her waist, a protecting, comforting clasp.
“Then they won’t get you,” he said, as though she were a nervous child shrinking from the bogies in the darkest nursery corner. “Just keep quiet for a moment or two. We’ll easily give them the slip.”
His coolness took the edge off her terror, and she turned and stared with him into the darkness; still retaining her hold, however, for dread was abroad; faintly, weirdly, the echoes of that call still sounded, banshees hailing each other on distant hill-tops; over the moor had settled the death stillness, which even she, unskilled in Nature’s ways, could feel—that stillness which falls when the wild folk hear and crouch and wait, and all sound and movement ceases, till the destroyer strikes, and passes on.
She began to tremble.
“Why don’t we hide?” she whispered.
He was still peering into the darkness and she could not understand for what he waited. Intuitively she knew that those unseen hunters were drawing near. And there came surer warning of their coming. From close at hand a bird of prey shrieked defiantly, and rose into the night on loudly flapping wings.
“Ai! Ai! Ai!” Again the call came questing, much more distinct and menacing.
“Why don’t we hide?” she repeated, turning and tugging at him as though to waken him into activity. “What are we to do?”
For answer, he picked her up in his arms and bore her swiftly away.
Into a rougher patch of the wilderness he glided, where the gorse grew high in wind-matted clumps and thickets, a natural maze, rendered almost impermeable by granite fragments whose masses blocked many of its likeliest ways, or made of them, where the ground was low and deep pools girdled the weighty bases, overflowing creeks and ferny seepages where was no sure foothold. Yet through it he passed, and up the steep scarp of an overhanging spur whence the boulders had rolled, his speed increasing with the ascent rather than diminishing. Not till the break of the scarp was reached did he halt. There he turned, and thence kept watch for a while. Silence continued to hold the moor, and out of it came no hostile sound as minute after minute passed by.
She stirred uneasily in his arms, and seemed about to renew her questionings.
“Hush,” he whispered. “They are below, and listening.”
Startled, she craned out to see; and as though her movement had caused its dislodging, a stone slid from under his foot and rolled down.
“Oh!” she exclaimed in a whisper of dismay.
Only a few yards the stone rolled, a shrub cutting short its career; but its noise had been heard and interpreted; below, men stirred, the sound of their stirring clear in the still air. She clung to him.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered. “I did that on purpose. There are only three of them.”
He turned and bore her off again; and in his arms she lay wondering.
No longer was she afraid of the men who pursued; in the face of such coolness as his it was impossible to fear them. She was calling to mind that earlier terror scene—when he had raved in his room, and turned on her as she gazed in at him, and chased her till she fled—and wondering whether it had ever been. It seemed incredible now: the man thus rescuing her from her enemies could never have meant her ill. She felt very safe in his arms. They were so strong; so easily he carried her. With something of the excitement of the chase in her heart she raised herself a little and peered over his shoulder. Feeling the greater virility of her form, and, understanding, he held her higher that she might the better see.
Along the brow of the spur he raced, along its saddle, and up to the top of the first ridge of the parent high ground. Here he paused and looked back again. The moon was slowly lifting her lamp. The landscape was growing brighter.
“Are they coming?” she whispered, and he recognized the tremulous note of expectancy in her voice; she was sitting up in his arms, one hand resting on his shoulder, eager as a child watching a game.
“Yes,” he answered. “They will sight us in a moment. Be ready to scream.”
“Yes. You must make them think I am running away with you. I want to lead them to another part of the moor. Here they are! . . . Now!”
Her young voice rose in a lusty yell.
At once came an answering hail—“Ai! Ai! Ai! . . . We are coming, Mees Armeet!”
“Come, you fools!” he muttered, resuming the flight, his pace quicker than before.
She was just beginning to distinguish the forms of the trackers when his speed forced them back into the darkness. He was a very fine runner. With no little shrewdness she could estimate athletic excellence and skill, for games had held a prominent place in the scheme of her education, and many fine athletes had she seen—never such as he. Up from her subconsciousness with this train of thought came memory after memory of eager sports days; and as she saw again the excited admiring girls, her friends, with whom she had watched some favourite hero in action, romance bespangled the night for her and softened the grim face of the moor. How those girls would have idolized this man had they witnessed but a part of what she had seen him do! What would not any one of them have given to be carried thus in his arms, his strength and fleetness put to the test, not by rivals, but by foes! He spurted suddenly. Her excitement grew. The moor seemed to move, not they. With ease he avoided obstacles, or leaped them. . . . and that train of thought worked on. Into a truer perspective it threw him, wherein even his late frenzy ceased to be a source of disquiet—became rather a source of comfort; for she saw that his terrors were of himself, alike with his strengths and of them, a clearer manifestation of his power to save, a greater guarantee of her security. A weaker man might never have shown her such fierceness: a weaker man could never have dared as she had seen him dare.
With an abruptness that made her think he had fallen, he leaped down into a narrow gully, one of many that scarred the plateau; but lighting softly, he turned at once and pushed along it, his new direction at right angles to the old. Very quickly she saw why he had spurted so furiously. The gully became a crevasse whose bottom sloped so steeply that he was forced to pick his way with the greatest of care. It was a crack in the rock of a cliff flanking the plateau, down which might have tumbled a cascade. It let them out at the foot. Close pressed against the rocky wall he waited; and above she heard the trackers go by.
When all sound had ceased he left the lurking place and held on through a brake of willow, which, filling the space between and densely grown, gave him cover from the cliff-top until he climbed out on the neighbouring rise. With a good running stretch again in front of him he stopped and set her down.
“We will wait here till they discover they are on a bad scent and cast back,” he said. “They won’t be long. Better lie down and rest.”
He lay down himself and began to ease his strained lungs with slow deep breathing.
“Haven’t you drawn them off far enough?” she asked him. “We seem a long way from your house now? . . . That’s what you want, isn’t it?” . . .
“Not so far as you think, and not far enough,” he answered, ignoring her second query, and the answer sufficed; she did not probe further for his intention.
“Then I wish you would let me run instead of carrying me,” she suggested. “You must be awfully tired. I could, you know. I’d like to try.”
“You couldn’t—not fast enough, anyhow. Some bits of the ground we have passed over would give you a fright if you saw them by daylight. Really and truly you couldn’t. Those fellows must be jolly good to keep up as they are doing, and very much in earnest. It would mean a lot to them if they recovered you.”
“No. They won’t.”
“You are sure?”
“You are very strong,” she murmured, the spasm of fear caused by his remark completely dissipated by his assurance. But as a secondary effect of that fear she suddenly broke into a little gurgle of laughter. “It seems so funny to me now,” she hastily explained—“sitting here waiting for you to carry me, I mean. I suppose you know you were terrifying me out of my wits not very long ago?”
“Yes,” he answered. . . . “That will not happen again,” he added after a pause.
“I should hope not,” she remarked, a trifle dryly, and seemed to expect him to say something more; but he made no further explanation—he could not; and presently he sat up and bent his gaze on the plateau.
“They have turned back,” he said, and the announcement changed the trend of her thought and renewed her excitement.
“Can you see them?” she exclaimed.
“Yes. You will hear them presently. . . . There!” Across the low ground had come a questioning hail. “Answer if they call again,” he bade her, and he rose and stood by her side.
The hail came. She opened her lips to answer. Scarcely had she uttered a sound, however, when he clapped his hand over her mouth and stifled her cry.
“More pretence,” he explained. “Sorry to startle you, but you could not have done that so naturally had I warned you what I was going to do. Listen to them! It has taken them in completely.”
The trackers were loudly giving tongue, yelling out encouragement to her, but threatening and execrating him whom they thought her captor. Down from the plateau they made their way, their chorus diminishing into isolated calls as the descent became perilous, but breaking out more loudly than before once they gained the level ground and felt the full power of their stride. Suddenly it ceased; a leader had spoken, bidding them husband their resources. To the girl waiting for the flight to be resumed, and being kept waiting while nearer and nearer they drew, their silence was more menacing than their cries.
“Take me away,” she whispered at last. “They are horrible.”
He picked her up and she snuggled into his arms; and in spite of her nervousness her memory proved wayward again. Back to those girls it took her, with whom she had stood so short a time ago—so short, in weeks and days; so long, so tremendously long, in experience. What was in her mind was the wondering thought that she had known very little about the feel of a man’s arms then. . . .
The moon had risen; the moor was flooded with its light—the trackers were plainly in view when they topped the rise from the willow-brake, although fully half a mile distant; and they remained in view for more than a mile, till the dip into another stretch of low ground hid them.
Till then she watched them all the while. They held her gaze. Confident as she was in the prowess of her champion, she did not like the steady easy way in which they covered the ground.
They were trained men, she saw, staunch runners, no longer handicapped, moreover, by the darkness; they could run free without risk of accident, the moonlight making clear their path. She had begun to be uneasily conscious of their ability before she lost sight of them. She knew that they were at least holding their own. But for some stubborn discounting on her part of the effect of her uneasiness on her judgement, almost she would have said that they gained.
The break in the view gave her an opportunity of testing the exactness of her discounting. The valley into which the course had dipped was densely grown, as were most of the larger hollows of the moor, and not till the opposing rise was reached and climbed did the cover cease and the view become clear. Then the trackers had disappeared. They had entered the undergrowth and were somewhere in the valley bottom, yet the valley was not more than half a mile wide.
“I am afraid they are gaining on us,” she could not help murmuring. “Can’t you throw them oft the scent again?”
“We’ll do that on the next rise,” he assured her.
She looked ahead.
The ground to which they had come was not a plateau, but a long gradual descent. The next rise seemed a great distance away.
“Don’t worry,” he said, as he sensed her doubts. “We’ll manage.”
Somewhat reassured, she turned her head to resume her watch over his shoulder, and immediately she started and gasped inarticulately her surprise and dismay. Not a quarter of a mile behind was the lip of the valley—and already three hurrying forms had come into view.
Time had been lost in the crossing of the low ground. There the trackers had spurted; half the intervening gap had been closed. Warned by her perturbation he stopped and looked back, and as though at this, to them a sign of hesitation, loud and triumphant rose their view-halloo.
“Go on, please,” she entreated. “Don’t waste any more time.”
She had seen their eager bound forward as they sighted their quarry, their quick picking up of speed as they tore over the ridge-top to close, and the panic which the sight had invoked had forced from her her entreaty—the sole further sign, however, that she gave of her disquiet. Off he had leaped the instant he had heard it. With relief she noticed his undiminished vigour, the ease with which he seemed to hold his own. But no longer was there the joy of the chase in her heart. From the shock of that unexpected appearance her shaken confidence never revived. There came instead a period of growing anxiety, when she watched the balance of the hazards alter, and the handicap that her weight imposed become more clear; for steadily the advantage of his special knowledge passed from him; easier and easier the ground they traversed became; and only very slowly did the heights he sought come nearer—or so it seemed. She saw soon the outcome depended on time—on whether or not he could keep ahead until those heights were gained.
She took her gaze from the trackers at length, and set it on the hills, seeking in the change of view some greater reassurance. The change but served her with greater cause for disquiet. Surely the notion grew in her mind that he was not now so sure of his way.
Now he seemed to be heading towards one rise, now towards another; three times in all the change of direction was made, the third time after a pause and what seemed to her an anxious survey. And each time the trackers cut diametrically across part of the detour, and gained. He began to run wild, moreover; no longer did he seem to choose his path with his former skill and discretion. Nearly fifty yards he lost in rounding a tarn, the trackers taking the other and shorter way; and a patch of rocky ground through which he passed they avoided altogether and made as great a gain. Thus he was deceiving them, thus luring them on—thus she comforted herself. Yet ever more eagerly her gaze sought the chosen high ground, a steep bare ridge, now looming near; and more eagerly still as at last she felt him grow weary, his pace begin to slow. The trackers had drawn to within a hundred yards of them when he took the first step of the rise.
They had lessened that distance by half when in turn they began to ascend. She could see their faces plainly, their eager, almost frenzied expressions; the evilness of their features turned her blood cold. Never had she seen more repulsive-looking men. They were demons. What of softness, or sobriety, or reserve, might have made their ordinary mien more pleasing had been burnt up by the fury of pursuit and their lust to take and slay.
But the slope told on them also and they gained no more; rather they fell behind. It struck her that for an exhausted man her bearer was climbing with extraordinary power. Could it be that even in this he had pretended?—that his tiredness was but another lure to that balk where the trackers were again to be confounded—for the last time?
Her faith grew stronger as more and more he gained from them. . . . Then her faith was shattered, with such violence that consciousness itself reeled into darkness before the blow. A banished fear returned yelling, yelling in her ear that this man whom she had trusted had failed. For they had reached the top of the ridge; she had looked down its further side—a bare slope, barer by far than that ascended, where no hiding-place, no by-pass to security, could be found—whence even further flight was impossible. They were trapped. He had mistaken his high-ground and come the wrong way. At the foot of the ridge a broad lake lay, on whose marge the pursuers could not but run them down.
Yells, shrill and triumphant, broke into her darkness and dragged her back to a dim perception of what was going on. He was bounding down to the lake with her; half the descent was already done. And up on the ridge-top, whence the yells were coming, she saw the three trackers, devilish figures, dancing in devilish glee.
Little need for them to hurry! Far too broad that lake for a man so burdened to escape them by swimming. But on he still bounded. Down they came after him yelling louder and louder, and those yells followed her into the unconsciousness that now mercifully supervened; changing at the last into dreadful screams—screams that marked the end to her; that were the end for them; for scathless he passed through the waters, and that flooded marsh between the hogbacks took toll of those who did not know its secret way. . . .
He was half-way up the hogback on the further side when she drifted back to consciousness, and the terror was lifted from the moor. Near by a moonstruck black-cock was derisively crowing, calling its mates to the uplands. But the memory of the terror was still with her. The peaks still held the echoes of its end. She lay for a while, a half-awakened sleeper, motionless, scarce breathing, fearing to awake to the reality of a dream.
Then she felt the clasp of his arms about her, the sensation of being carried, and, opening her eyes, she saw his face, pale as marble in the moonlight, pale from contrast with the lustrous black of his thick, uncovered hair; impassive as marble, the clean-cut features in perfect repose. On he was going, steadily, his gaze straight in front of him, his gait the easy gait of one neither hurried nor tired. After the hurry of the pursuit, the flurry of that last desperate plunge down, he did not seem real. Scarcely knowing what she was doing, she put up her hand and touched his cheek. He started. His dark eyes suddenly aglow, he looked down at her.
“Well, girl!” he asked, and she knew from his tone her touch had startled; deep down in her woman’s heart the knowledge caused a thrill. Calmly she questioned him, the while wondering at her own calm. Of the dread which had chased her into oblivion, and wakened with her, not a vestige remained.
“What has happened?” she said. “Where are those men?”
He turned towards the lake.
“There,” he answered; then he told her as much as he thought it good for her to know. “Those men had to be prevented from leaving the moor with what they had discovered,” he concluded grimly. “I did not know a better way of stopping them.”
She did not speak. She had not shuddered as she listened to his tale and heard how the men had died. Of awe, she felt none. Her gaze remained resting on the lake. Silent and still it lay between its ridges, a darkling sheet of silver unruffled by any breeze. Implacable she had thought it—and it had proved a friend: and in this implacable man she had found a friend also. It seemed to her that in the wild, and in all wild things, she had found a friendly soul. And as she watched, from out the blackness of the further marge two long thin ripples stole and slowly passed across her field of view, sign of the passage of two swimming birds, the stronger leading its startled mate home; and as she realized their import, involuntarily she looked up at him. But he turned at the instant and bore her away. So he missed the sudden flash that had lit her eyes.
Towards the peaks he bore her, towards the old ore road; and she lay very still in his arms. He misconstrued her silence. When the road was reached he said gruffly: “I had left my revolver behind, you know.”
It was his defence of the manner in which he had rid her of her enemies, his apology for the hazards to which he had subjected her while luring them on; and she knew that he thought her angry, frightened and nervous, doubtless appalled; but she did not undeceive him. Too difficult for her to tell him what was in her heart—that not for worlds would she have missed sharing those hazards with him! When he spoke again they had entered the cottage, of the approach to which she had not been aware; drowsiness had claimed her; she wakened up only as he set her I down.
“You are very tired,” he said. “Sit still while I make you some tea.”
She was too tired to say “Yes”, or “No”.
Yet she could feel that he had become more anxious to serve her, more eager to apologize and reassure.
The reason was that he had found his revolver lying on the kitchen floor; lying where he had flung it (after threatening her with it and driving her out to the refuge of the moor. What the reason was, however, she neither thought nor cared. That he should wish to serve her afforded her a keen enough satisfaction; that he should be ill-at-ease concerning her was to her a secret joy—he, who had been so ruthless to others but a little while ago!
“It is very good of you,” she murmured sleepily as she took the tea from him. “I can hardly keep my eyes open.”
She drank the tea and bade him good night. On the way to her room she turned. He was watching her. She smiled.
“I don’t know what to think of to-night, yet,” she said. “I can’t think, just now. But I’m not the least bit shocked, and I’m not angry, and I’ll never, never be frightened of you again. You were wonderful.”
So unexpected was what she said, he stood tongue-tied. She smiled again and withdrew. He went to his room, sat down at the table, and stared at what lay there, Clara’s scarf, Carse’s book, all his handiwork of an hour or two ago; he did not see a single item. He was seeing again, as she stood just without the threshold of her room, the lovely, flushing, sleepy-eyed girl, whom he had held in his arms. That was what they had robbed him of! . . . They!
His face had grown very hard when he began to sort and gather up the decipherings, and now and then he stopped and read, and meditated vengefully. Yet he did not allow his bitterness to obsess him, nor his fierceness and desire for revenge to unsettle too greatly his mind. He had need of sleep; he, too, had begun to feel the strain of that wild career over the moor. Besides, he had need to be wary. With the bogging of those three pursuers he doubted whether the peril was at an end. There might have been others near at hand, who had not yet disclosed themselves. Five trackers had been on the road, following the trail of the car.
With a sudden exclamation of annoyance he dropped the papers which he happened to be holding, and rose from the table, as thought of the trackers reminded him of something that he had meant to do before the girl retired—which he still must do although it meant intruding on her; no risks could be taken. Unwilling but unhesitating, he crossed to the door and knocked.
She was already asleep, but she heard his summons and rose immediately; she lit the lamp, and having wrapped herself in a blanket she opened the door to him. Her bare feet peeped from beneath her gown, but she showed no confusion, only enquiry, in her gaze.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said, hardly daring to look at her. “I want to examine your window. I’m awfully sorry for not having seen to it before. I won’t keep you long.”
Hastily he passed by her and climbed up on the sill. Each bar and lock of the shutter he tested, quickly but with care, bearing with his whole weight on some of the padlocks, and straining the main bars to the utmost of his power. They were immovable. The shutter could have long withstood the blows of a heavy battering-ram.
“I needn’t have worried you, after all,” he apologized, “but I felt I had to make certain. I am testing all the shutters and doors, so please don’t get thinking that I am expecting any intrusion, I’m not. It’s only a precaution I am taking. There’s no danger. . . . Good night.”
She ran after him a pace or two into the kitchen.
“But there is?” she said. “You are afraid of something? What is it?”
“I’m not,” he assured her. “Honestly. But after those fellows turning up so unexpectedly, anything might happen, and I had to make sure we were ready for anything. That’s all.”
“Oh, dear,” she murmured. “I do hope none of those dreadful men come trying to get in at my window.”
He was in the room with her while she dressed, standing so close that once, in the pitchy darkness, her bare arm touched his hand; standing on guard and listening, his arms a little outstretched, ready to catch her up and snatch her away at the first sound of anyone breaking in. She had only to incline herself a little when she had finished and she was in his clasp. He lifted her up and with a cat-like tread crossed to his room.
Just within, he set her down and stood waiting, hand on her arm. It seemed to her that somehow the danger had been made less imminent, their further retreat secured; that his anxiety had been lest those without should strike before he reached his room—certainly, though watchful and on his guard, he no longer was so tensely wary; and now, for the first time since he had wakened her, she began to tremble, the reaction of her keyed-up nerves the crisis past. Thinking her frightened, he slipped his arm round her waist and drew her to him, which made her tremble more. He felt her heart pound furiously against his palm. And she leaned on him, one hand passed up under his armpit and resting on his shoulder.
“Don’t worry,” he said to reassure her, his lips again close to her ear. “We are quite safe now. We can easily get away from here, if we need to go.”
“I’m not frightened,” she whispered, even in such a plight not too well pleased at his misinterpretation. But immediately she had spoken she wished she had held her peace, her voice in that deathly stillness sounded so loud.
“Hush!” he admonished her. “Don’t speak again. They are close outside. They tried to open the door, and that wakened me. They have been right round the cottage since. I’m waiting to see what happens. If there are only two or three of them——”
He did not finish his sentence; but the grimness of his tone told her what would happen, if only two or three of their enemies dared to attack this man of hers in his den.
There was a probability, he knew, of there being only two—the two of those five trackers who had somehow come to be separated from their comrades at the beginning of the chase over the moor; who might only have followed the hue-and-cry from afar, and come to the cottage not knowing what had happened, without having sent warning to the main body of their friends. If so, he had but to deal with them as with the others, and the secret of his hidingplace was secure. And as the stillness continued, his belief in the supposition grew. He knew the ways of dangerous men. The immobility of those without suggested weakness and uncertainty. Gently he began to disengage his clasp. The day was near. A glance through one of the spyholes might suffice to tell him what he wanted to know. But she clung to him, unwilling to let him go. It had been a sinister stillness to her. From every corner of the cottage her fancy had begun to draw creeping sounds. Yet it was for him she feared, as a girl for her betrothed about to dare some enterprise.
“What are you going to do?” she whispered.
He told her.
“Be careful,” she entreated, as she let him go.
But he was back to her very quickly; he had opened the spyhole and peered into blackness, the day not yet.
“We’ll have to wait till dawn, he whispered. “It won’t be long now. Keep watch on the spyhole. I’ve left it open to show when the light comes in. Yes, they are still there,” he added. “I don’t think they mean to move either till the dawn.”
Close she pressed to him again and wished the dawn would not come. They stood in utter blackness; no speck of light from the spyhole broke the void; and now it was a sinister darkness, more sinister than the stillness, a mortcloth beneath which lurked a living Death waiting to spring as soon as it was removed. Her intuition warned her of danger in this trip to the spyhole.
But at last the faint speck appeared, and he left her, the dawn at hand. There was a greyness in the hollow, through which he could discern the loom of the guardian hills. But a miasma had risen from the rain-drenched soil, nourished by the still bottom air, the topmost vapours almost on a level with his point of observation, and light and tenuous though it was, given by what darkness remained a sombre substance, it hid the ground and all of man’s stature that stood thereon. A second time he had climbed too soon; not for several minutes would there be light enough for his purpose. Nevertheless he kept his stance, and sent his glance here, there, towards whatever he could see. He looked across the vaporous sea and scanned the gully’s deeper gloom. He looked upwards in involuntary survey of the hills as a lightening of their upper slopes betokened crests set glowing by the first caress of the morn. . . . Then he found himself looking into the eye of another man.
Pressed close against the window-pane on the other side of the spyhole the eye stared into his own, an unexpected, disconcerting apparition. Up from below the window-sill, up out of the miasma, the man had climbed, suddenly and without sound, the sole warning of his coming a shadow thrusting through between the outer bars and blotting out the view—then the living gleam. And it was the eye of the East into which he looked, the eye of a foe. He could not prevent an involuntary flicker of his eyelids. . . . In that flicker the man was gone, a shadow dropping back into the miasma and fading from view. An instant later a revolver cracked, a bullet crashed through the shutter a foot below the spyhole. An instant before, he had flung himself sideways to the kitchen floor.
He fell flat on his shoulders and took no hurt, heavy though his fall was. Before he could rise the girl was by his side, her soft touch on his temples. He reached up and swept her down beside him, and slithered with her to the shelter of the wall; and the revolver cracked again.
He rose with her in his arms.
“I am not hurt,” he assured her. “That bullet missed me.”
She was all of a tremble, clinging to him as she had never clung before.
“I thought they had killed you,” she whispered.
“I knew—— Oh!”
Four shots had rung out in quick succession and stopped her telling him of her premonition. . . . To her utter amazement he began to chuckle.
“What is it?” she exclaimed.
After the shooting, there had fallen a stillness, in which his chuckling sounded uncanny.
“The tail of a procession,” he answered, “and I’ve only just remembered it. . . . I thought as much!”
The silence outside had suddenly been broken.
“Light the lamps,” he ordered, speaking out loud. “There’s no danger now”; and he strode to the door. Outside, Inspector Branluk was calling him by name.
Light had come to the hollow and the miasma was thinning fast when he got the door open. A little way along the path stood the inspector, on either side of him two recumbent men whose outstretched hands still grasped the weapons that had failed them. His own revolver was still in his grasp. At sight of the man he had hailed, he slipped it into his pocket and advanced, grinning—the same lumbering elephantine walk; the same dangerous man.
“When they started loosing off their guns, I thought I would take a hand,” he said, by way of greeting “Been watching them for some time. Hope you don’t mind.”
He showed no surprise at seeing John Henry—the man who had so suddenly and so dramatically been taken out of his power. Contact between them might never have been broken. It was as though he had set a process in motion that would, as a matter of course, achieve the result which was now achieved. Nor was John Henry surprised. He had seen that process at work in that dip of the road below the tarn. The inspector’s arrival was the natural outcome of the presence of those trackers on the moor. He was glad to see the man. He needed him; needed someone to undertake a duty which he could not himself discharge; and than the inspector no one could have suited him better, a man who, as eagerly as himself, desired a certain end; whose utmost help could be ensured by the proof he could give that through him, and only through him, the end would be attained. He took the hand outstretched to him and shook hands. A warm hand-grip it was he received. That surprised him. He had not associated cordiality with such a one as the inspector.
“You are hotter stuff than I thought,” said the latter, unconsciously furnishing the explanation. “And that means a lot, young fellow. Just finished taping out your little itinerary. You’ll not mind an old hand like me congratulating you? . . . We’re pals, aren’t we?”
“Perhaps,” said John Henry guardedly.
“Oh, I think So.”
“It all depends. I am willing to deal, but only on conditions. You had better begin by understanding that.”
“We’ll talk, you and me,” grunted the inspector, his grin disappeared. “But before we start, take me in and give me some food. I’m about all in.”
He was haggard and weary from long pursuing. He looked as though he had been crawling and doubling for hours over the moor. His boots were cut and broken; he was drenched to the skin, and muddy; his hands and face, as well as his clothes, were torn. John Henry ushered him in. The lamp was lit in the kitchen. Quickly, inquisitively, the little pig-eyes glanced around, first at the windows, then at the doors. Then they lighted on the girl, and stared— not inquisitively.
“My ward, Miss Woolfenden,” John Henry announced. “Betty, this is Inspector Branluk of the Special Police, who has very kindly relieved us of the presence of those men who were outside. He may be working with me in future.”
From the doorway of her room the girl had been surveying the newcomer doubtfully. At the mention of his title, however, she at once advanced and shook hands with him.
“I’m so glad you are going to help us,” she said.
“So am I,” replied the inspector, recovered from his surprise at the sight of her, his tone such that some of the welcome disappeared from her face and manner. “I seem to have arrived in time to get you out of a very nasty hole, even though your guardian here is such a superior young gentleman.”
“Get that idea out of your head, Inspector,” interrupted John Henry sharply. “Your help was quite gratuitous. . . Go to your room, Betty.”
The girl withdrew, closing the door of her room behind her. Rather an impudent look had come into the inspector’s face. He glanced at John Henry curiously.
“Nice little private gaol you have here, he remarked. “Funny place to keep a girl like that in—if I may say so?”
The veiled challenge of the last clause John Henry ignored. He set food on the table and motioned the detective to eat; nor did he speak until the meal was over—quite a long time; Branluk had not tasted food for over thirty-six hours.
So he said, when he leaned back, finished and satisfied.
“You can quit now, if you like,” said John Henry coolly.
“Oh? . . . Can I?”
Deliberately the inspector took from his pocket a packet of cheap cigarettes, put one in his mouth and lit it.
“Have one?” he asked, holding out the packet.
“I don’t smoke,” said John Henry.
The two gazed at each other across the table, the one pugnaciously, as though at the beginning of a battle for supremacy, the other with the nonchalance of a master gambler in whose hand are all the winning cards.
“This place sort of reminds me of the place where we had our last conversation,” remarked the inspector significantly.
“Rather a long way away, don’t you think, Inspector?”
There was silence between them for a little while.
“And that house-breaking charge is rather washed out, isn’t it?” John Henry suggested apathetically.
“That’s so,” the inspector agreed, but after a pause and a hard survey by the little eyes. “But there are others,” he added.
“The affair in Oxford Street. Those two half-dead-uns in Lapsley Copse. Driving a car with a fake number. Might even add drunk in charge of it. A pretty good show-down, don’t you think?”
“I’d like to hear your yarn. Start after your raid in Carbrick Terrace.”
Slowly the inspector began to grin.
“Wonder how you got to know that?” he said. . . . Strikes me you are sitting on something pretty good. . . . Are you taking me in?”
“It all depends.”
“Let’s hear your yarn first. Did you get anything out of that raid?”
“Nothing,” grunted the inspector. “Except proof for the Sir Know Alls above me that I wasn’t so mad as they thought. Bit of a one-up for Ernie Branluk, making a pot like Sir William Crahmyil disappear! What!”
The little eyes gleamed with sudden glee.
“That and the Oxford Street affair on top of the murders, with the suicide of the murderer as a little bit extra, put the wind up them properly. Civility!—I had it by the barrow. They sprawled and they crawled. Tin gods don’t look dignified when they are on the run, young fellow, eh? Had any experience? . . . It was ‘Inspector, tell us all you know,’ and ‘What would you advise, Inspector?’—from stiffs who a day or two ago were thinking of retiring me before my time! Gee, and Oh-dear—Oh-dear! A fine time for Ernie!”
His glee stopped him. He chuckled and chuckled at the memory of his triumphs after the long series of official snubs and humiliations.
“They had been keeping me practically with my hands tied,” he continued. “Wouldn’t listen to me. Had to work away on my own, and watch my job all the time. I got it all back when I told them I wasn’t sure of a thing. How could they expect me to be sure! And they knew it. What a moment! Left them thinking about calling out the reservists or something, and started out to try and find you. Don’t mind admitting I hadn’t much hopes of finding you—I’ll want to hear your yarn when I’m done! Thought you were a goner. That Oxford Street business one in the neck for me. Was shifting you to safer quarters and meaning to try you with some queer fellows I’d roped in, and they nipped in and lifted you. Clever bit of work. Darned clever! I had men all around. Was there myself. Short of lining the route with troops, couldn’t have made it safer. I reached that taxi-cab just thirty seconds after you had gone. That smoke-screen beat us. Great bit of work! We found your old clothes, and that was all. Then that fool of a village constable sent in a winner. Got on your trail through him. Tracked you north. Found Crahmyil. . . . Dead. . . . Frizzled. That interests you! Killed in a motor-car accident. Know anything about it?”
“Did you raid that house in Acacia Road?”
“Thought you were in that! Sure, I raided that house, but got nothing again. Empty. Left no address. . . . Tracked you further north. Flit on a bunch who were tracking you also. Followed them.”
“I’m interested now,” said John Henry. “I saw you followed them—just after they stopped to search that flooded thicket by the side of the road. What happened afterwards? How did they come so near here?”
“Purely by accident, if that’s what you want to know?”
“I was hoping so. Were they hunting you?”
“They were. You saved me, young fellow. They were doing a nice little turning movement that had me at least making a fight for it—two by three of them, when you appeared and drew off the three. . . . Didn’t you? . . . And the two followed the row, thinking their pals were after me. And I followed the two, and landed here. . . . That was a clever move of yours!” he exclaimed, looking at John Henry admiringly.
“Shoving the car over the cliff into the sea.”
“You see? Oh! Thought as much. Those howls were something clever too, then? . . . What was your line before the War? . . . Crooked, eh? I’d like to know. You’re something new. . . . Well, anyhow, that was the best blinding of a trail I’ve ever seen,” he continued, as John Henry took no notice of his interjected queries. “It took them in. It took me in. It gave me a shock. You may know it did, because I let them spot me, and before I knew what was happening they had turned and were chasing me over that blasted moor. I was real sorry to think you had come a cropper. I was, young fellow. Had begun to see you were something extra special. . . . You and me could work well together, and you are the first I would have said that of. You’re my weight. Perhaps a bit over. . . . What do you say?”
“Perhaps it is a fortunate meeting, Inspector,” said John Henry, smiling at the naive way in which the suggestion of a working agreement had been introduced again. “As a matter of fact, I was thinking of getting into touch with you, and wondering how I could manage it.”
“Were you?” exclaimed the inspector. “Shake on it.”
He extended his hand across the table, then suddenly let it fall.
“Were you?” he repeated, but in a different tone. “Then why did you stall me off before?
Full of suspicion, his glance fixed itself on the man opposite him.
“Eh?” he prompted pugnaciously.
“I was coming for you——”
“And then turned it up?”
“Yes. The police had spoiled the show. I was not coming for them.”
“There’s a difference,” the inspector admitted, his suspicions somewhat allayed. “What was it you were bringing me that night?”
“It doesn’t matter now.”
“But I’m still curious, young fellow?”
“Very well. I was coming to tell you that all the chief men of that gang were in the house next——”
“Gosh!” interrupted the inspector. “Oh, my God!” he exclaimed, furious with chagrin. He glared at John Henry. “But you could still have put me wise,” he roared.
“Thought that would make you pleased,” said John Henry coolly. “Just cool off a bit or you’ll hear no more. . . . I could not put you wise. I was not what you thought I was, a member of the gang. That’s where you went wrong. I had never heard of them before that night. But the girl to whom I was once engaged was a member. I had just discovered her, and she told me about you. Once they were warned, thanks to those policemen, that I had been on their premises, I had to hold my tongue to try and keep suspicion from falling on her.”
“She’s not with them still, is she?” exclaimed the inspector, his chagrin giving place to an eagerness as intense.
“It’s not her?”
“No!” John Henry almost snarled at him; but recovering his control with a quickness even more impressive than the sudden revelation of his ferocity, he added: “Her sister. And she is dead.”
The inspector did not speak until he had lit another cigarette. The last statement had produced a effect on him. At last he said very quietly: “So they killed your girl, did they, young fellow? So! . . . They were foolish. . . . I think so. . . . What are your conditions, and what do I get?”
It was his submission, given in his own way.
“You get what I leave.”
“Hell! . . . You don’t mean to say that you have them where you want, already?”
“I have them like that,” said John Henry, and his index finger came down towards the table as though about to crush an insect.
“Deal us out a hand,” said the inspector, breathing heavily.
He had grown very quiet when the tale was told. He, too, was appalled. He had never suspected so gigantic a conspiracy, a plot so far-reaching and bold. To each item of what he was expected to do he merely nodded. He was to set out that evening to warn the authorities of the peril threatening abroad; he was to take a letter to the friendly colonel and return with a reply; as a reward for his services he was to go with John Henry to the house by the river—and act after the avenger had acted. Where that house was, however, and when they would go, he was not told, nor did he seek to know. And he understood perfectly well why that part was kept secret. It was an agreement between two men who did not trust each other. Yet it was a perfect agreement. Each had the power to ensure the other’s fidelity.
“You’ve got me with that place and date, young fellow,” he said at the end. “And I’ve got you by knowing you are here. It’s a deal.”
“Can you place that warning where it is sure to be taken notice of?” John Henry asked of him.
“Then that’s everything, except those five men. Something must be done to explain their disappearance. Can you suggest anything? A big search will certainly be made for them in this district—which might have awkward consequences.”
“Meaning callers here? Leave it to me,” said the inspector confidently. “I’ll get your untimely end duly announced, and see that it is taken notice of also. ‘Car over a cliff. Inspector Branluk discovers five suspicious men round a wrecked car!’ A few lines like that in a paper or two will explain everything.”
“You mean you will publish a yarn to that effect?”
“Sure, I will.”
“Then you don’t come back here.”
“Don’t I? . . . After I do your job for you, you will never lose me. You are thinking I’ll attract too much attention and bring it back here with me, I suppose? Make your mind easy. They have been giving me all the attention they can for over a year, and here I am.”
Nevertheless, John Henry had his way, and a rendezvous was fixed, some miles from the cottage where the two were to meet on the inspector’s return. And that was all that was said.
In her room the girl had heard them talking together, and when their conversation ceased, she knew. She sat waiting for him to come for her; she expected him; so greatly had her sense of their comradeship developed, she thought that that would be the first thing he would do as soon as he was disengaged. When he did not come she felt both disappointed and hurt—offended with him, childishly, ridiculously so as she was well aware, and sharply she chid herself. But that such a feeling should have risen within her was merely a symptom of her strained nervous condition. For her a crisis was very near. She had scarcely been able to endure the waiting in her room, while in the next those two talked and planned.
As a result of her repressive effort, however, save that her eyes were very bright, her manner and demeanour seemed quite natural when she rose and went seeking him. He was seated at the kitchen table, writing, and alone, so absorbed in his task that he did not know of her entrance. For him, too, a crisis was near, though of a different kind. He was writing the letter which he wished the inspector to take to the friendly colonel, and the past had claimed him. It was more the boy, John MacLean, than the man, John Henry, whose attention she at last attracted, and she roused him from his absorption by picking up the heavy kettle-lid and letting it fall clattering on the stone floor.
“Hullo, Betty!” he exclaimed, looking up with a start; then he burst out laughing at her manner of attracting his attention, such was the appeal to him of her freshness and charm.
“Feeling forgotten?” he enquired almost gaily.
She nodded, as might have nodded a reproachful child.
“It’s a shame, isn’t it? Come and sit down.”
“Where is he?” she asked, and a certain dainty drollness of her manner and inflection set him laughing again.
“Next door,” he told her. “He’s asleep. The moor has been playing all sorts of tricks with him.”
“And he is really a police inspector?”
“Oh, yes. A very famous one.”
“I would not have thought it.” Her expression became serious. “I don’t trust him. I don’t think you should, either.”
“Everyone may be trusted within limits, Betty, he answered, “and only within limits. And I know his limits.”
“You mean that he knows he had better not be untrustworthy with you?”
“Scarcely that. And you really don’t flatter shouldn’t think of trying. I am more interested in knowing whether or not you mean me to starve?”
“I say! I’m awfully sorry!” He started to his feet and began to bustle about. “You poor hungry girl. I’ll make the breakfast. You sit and watch me work.”
“Righto,” she said.
Nevertheless she helped him, and they chattered together; yet there was something in her apparent light-heartedness that made him vaguely suspicious, and once or twice he looked at her earnestly, fearing that hysteria was not very far away.
At the end of the meal she asked for news, and he told her a little of what he had discovered. What he told came as a complete surprise to her, and when he would have gone on to tell her more of what was planned, she would not listen.
“You have found a way to—to deal with these people?” she questioned, her voice trembling, and so low as almost to be inaudible.
He nodded gravely; he could not but be solemn.
In her wide-open eyes, the soberness of her expression, the tautness of her features, was the evidence of the strain she had been enduring; in the greatness of the change from the apparently light-hearted mood of a little while ago, the revelation—the truer revelation, of the courage, the worth and staunchness of character that had enabled her, a young unsophisticated girl suddenly confronted with nightmare perils and savageries, to endure.
“And we will be free?”
“Yes, Betty. You are out of the wood now, or very nearly.”
Obeying a sudden impulse, she ran to him, threw her arms round his neck and kissed him.
A dim sense of propriety moving her, she stepped away and stood looking at him, her cheeks flushing; yet her eyes were dancing with glee.
“I couldn’t help it!” she exclaimed. “I’m so glad! Oh, so glad!”
She laughed gleefully. Off she darted, pirouetting, dancing, transfigured, the spirit of joy released from the bondage of fear. He could not look at her—dared not. Hands gripping the table, he kept his gaze down, even for a little while after she had fallen quiet. Then caution spoke, and he looked at her suddenly.
“Betty—” he exclaimed, starting up in alarm. “Don’t!”
She was opening the cottage door. Quick though he was, she had slipped the last fastening and pulled the door ajar before he could draw her away.
“I simply had to,” she confessed, as her misdemeanour was being remedied. “I felt if I did not see the sun again I should die. Don’t be angry. It was only a tiny peep. And see!—it has cured me. I’m not silly any more.”
“It is quite impossible to be angry with you,Betty,” he answered. “But don’t open this door again.”
“I won’t. I won’t want to. And it is ever so nice of you not to be angry with me. I’m afraid I have been behaving awfully. . . . Have I?”
“It is good of you to say so. Now I won’t bother you any more. You were busy, weren’t you? I have something to do that will keep me quiet until you are done. Good-bye.”
She went to her room, and, carefully though he had watched her, she had deceived him. Not for the sake of enforcing a general precaution had he tried to prevent her from opening the door. Outside, the two dead trackers still lay on either side the path. He had pulled her away just in time—so he thought until the stillness warned him. He rose and tiptoed to her door. He knocked. No answer coming he entered. She had seen. Face downward on the bed she lay, shuddering and shaking. Before this last stroke of horror her nerve had entirely given way.
“Betty! . . . Betty!”
She rose at his call and came running to him; and she ran blindly, her eyes tightly closed. Dread had been in the room with her like a living thing. He caught her to him and held her, held her tightly, checking by force the tremors passing and re-passing through her frame, that in the darkness of her fear she might feel the strength encompassing her and know that in his arms there was safety and aid; and in a little while she ceased to tremble; though she kept her face hidden against his breast, the darkness had lifted, the worst of her panic was past. He clasped his hand round her brow and pressed her head gently backward.
“Look at me, Betty,” he bade her. “Betty! Open your eyes.”
“I’m so frightened,” she whispered.
But she opened her eyes and looked into his own, and there found calm; for be it for woman or child or beast there is healing and strength in the gaze of whosoever has suffered and understands.
“Why has it happened to me?” she wailed; then came tears, then weariness.
He laid her on the bed and sat with her, still holding her in his arms.
“Don’t let me go,” she had whispered drowsily.
But as soon as she slept he covered her up and left the room. And a little before him, on tiptoe back to his own room, went Inspector Branluk. Aware even in his slumber of something unusual happening, he had risen and come suspiciously into the kitchen, and thence caught a brief view of the scene.
“Wonder why he said she was dead?” he muttered, as he laid himself down again. “You’ll stand watching, Mr. John Henry—queer fellow.”
A partially closed door told John Henry of the inspector’s spying, but he gave no heed; such an action was too much in keeping with his judgement of the man’s character for him either to be angry or in the least surprised. He went out into the hollow and hid the two dead men; he returned and finished his writing; then he sat still, and the afternoon passed before he stirred.
The wild had given him this power to be immobile, and long trance-like stillnesses were almost natural to him. He had been wont to enter them at will to while away a period of waiting, to balk a bitterness or deaden a pain; he had been able to send his soul to sleep, to turn down the light of his consciousness till all that was left was the glimmer that was his wariness. But this was not such a stillness; his soul was awake, the field of his consciousness vivid, intense and full. Nor had he caused it deliberately. It had stolen upon him, stimulated direct by what had hitherto but warned his will. For a great sorrow had entered his heart; he was seeing what he was and sorrowing over what he saw—-seeing with the immense mature perception of John Henry, sorrowing with the generous heart and soul of the boy John MacLean. His crisis was upon him, and the girl was the cause.
In that underground chamber where his faith had been restored, the boy had wakened, stretching out eager hands, only to be banished, pushed behind the years, by a twice-embittered ravening man; then the girl had come, calling in turn to each to live, and last, to each in one. He had become a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief at her need; he had understood her anguish, and, understanding, had been able to heal and console. But the spring of compassion that had welled up from his depths had watered his blasted humanity and made it whole; he had even echoed her cry—what had he done that such calamity should have come upon him? The cry had died on his lips. Her innocence made his guilt plain. He stood convicted in himself and in the evil he had wrought.
Wrong had been done him, but he had made the wrong absolute; he had been hurled from the heights, but in the depths he had cast down his eyes and made his heart believe the heights had never been. He had flung his faith to the four winds, let go without an effort the one thing to which he should have clung, the one thing which could have saved—which whatever the stress, whatever the storm, can save. And now he was seeing the cost, what he, what others, had paid.
The glowing vision of his youth was made hideous before his eyes—and his was the hand. He had burrowed with the talents wherewith he should have climbed, sought his jewels of price with the toad; and the fungus of the darkness had grown upon him thickly; he had poisoned himself with the fetid waters and the bitter grains of the sunless vales. This in the bitterness of his spirit he had done to himself. To others. To Clara! A girl had come made in her image, and the anguish which he had seen, and which he had assuaged, had been but a little of the anguish she had suffered, alone. He had failed her. He could have saved her, had he only believed. . . . So he sat with his sorrow among the ruined years, and with his sorrow sat despair. There was nothing he could do to redeem the past—nothing. He had failed. He had turned his own strength to water, led his own life astray.
Near evening the inspector wakened and entered, famishing.
“Food, young fellow. Food,” he said, with the breeziness of a strong man whom sleep had refreshed.
John Henry motioned him to the cupboards and he helped himself without demur; and as he ate he watched his silent companion, covertly, curiously, his little eyes taking much in. Several times they rested on the letter.
“Do you mind me seeing that?” he asked at length.
It was passed over to him immediately, and he took it and read it through.
“So,” was all he said, passing it back again.
And now he sat for a while in silence but his eyes still turned towards John Henry, and there was much they seemed to understand.
“Did you hit up against any of that bunch in India?” he asked suddenly, so pertinent the question that John Henry started, roused to reply.
“Why do you ask?”
“Because you’re not the sort of fellow that would go wrong on your own account, not without a good big shove, neither. And by that letter you have gone wrong a whole lot. That’s why. Mixed, perhaps, but clear enough. Think you’ll understand.”
“Clear enough,” said John Henry. “I hit up against the chief of the gang.”
“Gosh!” the inspector exclaimed, then he whistled. “And now you have got him, after all. God help him, that’s all I can say. . . . You’ll be feeling pleased, aren’t you?”
John Henry burst out into bitter laughter. Pleased! Here was something found for him! The years had not been fruitless, his splendid gifts not wasted after all! This was the price of his birthright. A revenge!
“That’s better,” remarked the inspector, who had been watching him more closely. “You have been a lot too quiet. If I had tumbled to what you have tumbled to, this blasted moor would not have held me. When we have got this business nicely tucked away, you and I will celebrate, and it will be some celebration. Oh yes. Gosh! I can scarcely believe we’ve got them yet. It’s great, you know, young fellow. I’m feeling obliged to you. Proper!”
“What’s your grudge against——?”
Impelled to put the query by sight of the inspector’s rapidly increasing avidity, John Henry checked himself, impelled by his quickly succeeding dislike of seeking to know anything whatsoever of his ally’s feelings. Nevertheless he was answered.
“Difficult to say,” said the inspector. “But the grudge is there. You bet it is. Had to stand a lot off them lately, and I’m not built that way—and through them, off some other people who ought to have known better,” he added wrathfully. “Yes. I’m going to be very much up on them through you. Thanks. Then there’s some criminals you like,” he said, continuing, “and some you don’t like. I’ve been after a man before now whom I’d rather have seen escaping, if anybody else had been after him. And I’ve been after others that I wouldn’t have minded playing executioner to. But this bunch! They nearly got me before I knew anything about them. Gosh! I’d go to the bottom of the sea after them. And I never thought I was going to get them! . . . Don’t like your expression, young fellow. What’s in your mind about Ernie Branluk, may I ask?”
“A bit mad, aren’t you?” John Henry replied, his voice harsh.
Jarred out of his stillness he could scarcely bear the presence of a companion.
“Don’t mind you thinking that,” remarked the inspector, his equanimity quite undisturbed. “I am. My head’s too small for all that’s in it. Can’t help that. Not my fault. Now, your head isn’t small, but——”
“Yes, I do think so, young fellow,” he said doggedly, checked only for a moment by the dark look cast at him. “Thought so the first time I saw you. Far too much back o’ your eyes. You’ve been nursing something. Bad thing to do. But I’ll cut out now. When do we start? . . . Yes, we, though you said nothing. You surely don’t think I’m going to find my own way out, with you sitting here knowing the district as well as I know Regulations. ’T wouldn’t be wise, either.”
“I’ll see,” said John Henry. “I may not be able to come with you.”
Wise it would be, he admitted, for him to guide the inspector safely and quickly over the moor, nor would it take him long to show the way to a road whereon the rest of the journey could be done unguided; but he was doubtful about leaving the girl alone, even for a very short time, for such a nervestorm as had so lately beset her could not but leave as an after-effect very great nervousness. And thought of her in this respect made him think of her in others. He rose and began to prepare some food for her. Glad, also, was he of the excuse to break off the conversation. As he cooked, the inspector sat smoking his cheap cigarettes and watching, but no further word passed between them.
When he entered her room the girl was asleep, still lying in the same position as when he left her; which was a sign of strain to him, or of great exhaustion; yet she slept very peacefully, and her features were in repose, a healthy flush on her cheeks that was visible even in the lamplight. Somehow, he it was who felt nervous, ill-at-ease, at being in her room. The tray he had brought he set down on the table and stole towards the door, his intention to waken her by knocking, once he was out of the room. But she opened her eyes before he could retire, wakened by a sense of his presence, not by any incautious footstep, for he was stealing out without a sound.
“Hullo!” she called softly. “Oh!”
She had remembered.
He turned guiltily. To him she came, her eyes soft and shining, the flush on her cheeks deepened ever so slightly—came close, until she was touching him.
“You were very good to me,” she murmured, looking up at him. “You have been good to me. What would I have done without you? Does that tell you how grateful I am? I would have been mad had you not come when you did. Did you know?”
“I guessed. You should have told me. Put it entirely out of your mind now, Betty. You have been a very brave girl.”
She shook her head.
“I haven’t,” she said.
Then her eye caught the tray, and she looked at him half-reproachfully, some of her gay spirit returned.
“I am not going to let you make me an invalid,” she said with mock firmness. “Why did you trouble?”
He nodded significantly towards the open doorway.
That droll expression came into her face, and though she did not speak he knew she understood that the inspector was in the kitchen. He smiled, only the result of a subconscious process of association; yet when he realized what he had done, he was amazed—amazed at the influence which this girl so easily exercised over him; over one so lately afflicted by a master-despair.
“You are a wonderful girl, Betty,” he said, with such spontaneity that she looked at him quickly and questioningly. “Come and be fed. You must be very hungry.”
“I am,” she admitted. “I am always hungry here. How long have I been asleep?”
“Hours and hours.”
“Really and truly?”
“Hours and hours. Really and truly. You have been sleeping all day.”
“Oh, dear! How dreadful of me.”
“Best thing you could have done. Sit down here.”
He made ready a chair for her and served her, and made pretence to serve her after, all her real needs had been supplied. Not now did he want to go away. Far better company than either the inspector or his own mordant thoughts was this young girl, made though she was in the image of the girl he mourned, a living symbol of his sorrow; and weakness though it was to him, a surrendering of his own accord of a self-reliance hitherto impregnable, his stricken soul yearned after the comfort that she could give—a blind yearning, born of her charm, that was suddenly illumined by an understanding, which lit up his darkness like a beacon light the darkness of a storm. He saw that in her was personified something that he had achieved, something that he had been able to save from the havoc he had made; she was Clara’s trust, something that he had striven to keep, and striven well. At the thought a brightness came into his glance, aware of which, and misinterpreting, she fell silent. Aware of her silence, he prepared at last to go.
“Don’t go,” she said.
“Am I not rather oppressing you?” he asked.
“No. I’ve been wanting to talk to you, but”— that droll look came again—”I’ve been afraid. I can hear him listening.”
In the kitchen the inspector stirred, and dismay, much of it mock, overspread her features.
“Has he heard me?—and I thought I was whispering.”
He could not help smiling.
“I’m afraid he has,” he answered. “At any rate, he seems to think he isn’t wanted. That was him nipping off into the other room.”
“What a terrible man,” she murmured. I don’t care whether he heard me or not—I hope he did. I don’t like him. He makes me want to show him that I don’t like him, too.” She laughed a little. “He makes me feel all claws. Is he staying here?”
“No. He is leaving very soon. He wants me to guide him over the moor. Do you think you could stand being——?”
“Oh, don’t leave me alone!” she interrupted, her dismay patent and genuine. “You must not.”
Then her courage asserted itself and swept all sign of her panic away. Almost without pause, she added: “Of course you must go with him. It was silly of me to speak like that. I don’t mind being left alone one little bit.”
“No, Betty,” he said, not deceived. “It wouldn’t be fair to leave you, and I’m sorry now that I mentioned it. We’ll let him find his own way out. And you needn’t worry. He will do it with only a little extra trouble.”
“No, no, no,” she protested. “You would not have mentioned it to me if you had not thought it better for you to go with him. You know you wouldn’t. You must not let a foolish remark of mine interfere with your plans. I’m awfully sorry for being so silly.”
“You were not silly. You were quite right. He has just got to go alone.”
“Over that dreadful moor! Oh, no. . . . But why not take me?” she suddenly suggested. “Oh, do take me!” she exclaimed, her eagerness alight and blazing up. “Won’t you? . . . Yes? . . . You can show him the way then? I’m sure you think you ought to show him the way. . . . Do take me! . . . Please! I should so much like to go.”
“But you couldn’t do it, Betty.”
“Yes, I could. And you know you think it a good idea?”
“It’s a suggestion, anyway,” he admitted. “If only I thought you could do it. It means a twelve-mile tramp, you know, and some of the going will be pretty awful.”
“Carry you over these bits?” he suggested, in his expression a flicker of amusement at her candour and impulsiveness.
It was what she had been going to say, but she would not admit it.
“No. I was going to say you could help me,” she protested, flushing so deeply that he was afraid she was indignant at his suggestion.
“Of course, I could,” he hastened to say. “And it is a jolly good idea. Put on your heaviest shoes—boots if you have them. It will be just the thing for you.”
“No. I shouldn’t have suggested coming, either. I’ll only be in your way——”
“Don’t be silly, Betty.”
“I won’t be silly. I won’t come. I shouldn’t——”
“Put on those shoes,” he said firmly, and he was eager for her to come now. “I could carry you all the way without any trouble. And I will carry you, when you get tired. I don’t know why I didn’t suggest you coming with us myself. It’s a splendid idea. Go on. We’ll be starting immediately. I’m off to tell him.”
As though to prevent her from further protest, he hurried away, leaving her hesitating.
“Does he think me forward?” she asked herself as the door closed. “Was I forward?”
She went to the mirror for answer, and got it, the answer she feared. How could she have come to suggest that he carry her?—and to do all the other things that she had done? What had happened to her? All her former standards had altered. She hadn’t any. All that was left to her of her old social code was a dim sense of propriety, a kind of halfasleep conscience, that did not wake up in time to prevent her from doing the things—over which it tried to make her worry when they were done. “Not much of a guide to heed if that’s all it can do,” said the girl in the mirror, and she nodded. There was a far truer guide deep down in her heart: something which told her that, no matter what she did, however unconventional and outrageous, she was safe with this man; the man who had saved her, the one man in all the world who could continue to save. And there was something else—her dread: that which had come stealing into the room to seize and affright her after she had seen the two dead men; which yet had not gone away. High up behind the curtain athwart the shuttered window it lurked, ready to pounce down on her, let her nerve but show the slightest sign of wavering. He had banished it once. He could do so again. She must cling to him from very fear. Not a second time would she dare to try to face that terror, that darkness, single-handed. If succour were in his arms, should she not run to them?—boldly she put the question. The girl in the mirror nodded.
She took his arm when they walked away together and he crooked it to give her hand good anchorage. But only as he felt her stepping out beside and in time with him, they two together, the inspector by himself, did he realize the tremendous thing that had happened, all the trust, all the intimacy and comradeship, that her action implied. After fourteen years a girl had taken his arm again, without thought or hesitation, and of her own accord. And everything is relative in its effects, every word, every action, every thought; and molehills are mountains. More by her simple action than by anything else she had done, she had pulled him back into the world of men.
Along the old ore road he headed until it met the wilderness, then he struck out over the moor in a direction opposite to that of the chase of the night before; and he sought and held the high ground as much as possible, the crests and gentler slopes of ridges, for there the going was easiest; also he made many detours in preference to traversing ground which, though passable, was difficult; for he did not want to carry the girl. There was something new in their relationship which was mysterious to him and made him wish to keep her at a distance, or, rather, to keep himself from going nearer. She was no longer only a charge to him. She had become a personality, able to affect him by her very presence, in diverse ways; a factor influencing both his actions and his thoughts, and the latter, not as formerly, merely in the direction of what he might do, but of what she might lead him to do; a much subtler, more complex problem altogether, on the fringe of which he preferred to delay. Too much was happening too quickly. Although it was not an uncomfortable feeling, vaguely he felt they were drawing too near.
They were a silent trio all the way, he self-absorbed; she, soon feeling the strain of the journey severely enough to wish to keep from talking; while the inspector saw that his conversation was not wanted, and held his peace. He was odd man out, awkward and restless; suspicious and puzzled, moreover, concerning the relationship of the pair. Now he walked on one side of them, now on the other, more often behind, always his glance going this way and that, and all around, quickly, shiftily; but whatever he did he was ignored.
Conscious though she was of his watchfulness, and at first inclined to feel resentful, before the journey was done the girl had begun to think more kindly of him. There was a vein of consideration in his nature, she discovered, and a certain modesty, all the more remarkable disclosed in one such as he.
He, being near her once on a stiff ascent, put out his hand suddenly as though to help her; as suddenly withdrew it, as though fearing he presumed. Her intuition told her that he was a very lonely man; her intelligence, that his faults and oddnesses, many of them, were the results of his loneliness, the weeds that grow on the human self without the sight of human eyes. Also she saw that, physically and mentally, he was a very strong, very formidable, man, one who approached more nearly the calibre of her rescuer than she had thought possible for any man to do; and with a sudden stirring of her interest, even a sense of satisfaction, she realized that Fate had thrown her into the company of two extraordinary men, the like of which she had never seen before, and never again would see. Nevertheless, in time she was looking forward very keenly to the end of the first part of their journey, when she would be rid of one of them, when she would be left alone with the other. . . . who might carry her then. She was becoming very tired; her feet were pinched and sore. Physical discomfort adding to the distraction of a mind already nearly overborne, her thoughts confused, her emotions a medley, even she found herself beginning to cherish a grievance that two such men should calmly expect her to go on uncomplainingly, on and on over such a moor.
But at last the end of the outward trip was near. They came to a ridge above a great dip of the ground, across which, miles away, were the lights of a town; still further on, rising above some high land, the glare of that manufacturing city by the sea.
There was a sense of the sea’s nearness, also, the long dip letting the salt airs through; but it was still far away. They had reached another march of the moor. On their left was the ragged marge of a forest, that forest of pine behind the cottage, which came down many miles from the hills at this point, and spread into the dip below. Into the outlying growth John Henry led them—a precaution. Hidden by the trees, they came to a road. He touched the inspector on the shoulder and pointed. The inspector nodded and left them, without a word of farewell.
Watching him walk away so calmly, John Henry liked the man. Well hidden he himself was among his hills. Not so the inspector, the most marked of men to their foes. The audacity of his conduct appealed to him strongly—the audacity that was his conduct; the utter fearlessness, the supreme imperturbability, daily shown. He watched him till the darkness fell between.
Turning, he saw the girl.
Half-screened by a dwarf shrub, she stood awaiting him just within the forest border, and the instant their glances met, the thought came to each, obsessing each, the thought that they were alone. Awkwardly he approached her, and they did not speak; they went away together, and she did not offer to take his arm. For this there was an excuse, however, in the cramped and tortuous way which prevented them from walking comfortably together—an excuse which ceased to be when they emerged from the trees and began to climb the more open ground to the ridge-top. Shyly she took his arm then, tentatively, her hold scarce a hold at all.
“Come along, Betty. You will need my help here,” he said gently, and drew her arm through his own; and the constraint was gone; she leaned on him, holding with both hands, the fingers interlocking; a confiding, intimate attitude, but she did not break the silence, nor did he, till the climb was done.
“We’ll rest here for a bit,” he then said. “The ground is quite dry now.”
She laid herself down immediately, and they rested near each other, she, elbows on the ground, her chin in her palms, looking away across the dip towards the twinkling lights of the town. So thoughtful she seemed that he wondered.
“Are you sorry you came?” he asked, after a pause.
“No. Oh, no!”
“What are you thinking about?”
“That he might at least have said good-bye.”
“I do think so,” she said solemnly.
He nearly burst out laughing, surprised and amused at the subject of her thoughts, still more amused at her manner of expressing them.
“Old Branluk is too wily a fox,” he answered, “to bark near an unknown road.”
“But he would not have said good-bye in any case?”
“Perhaps he wouldn’t,” he admitted. “Still, it was caution that kept him quiet down there. I did not say anything, either. Hunted men talk as little as they can when they are on the move.”
“But he is not hunted?—not as you, as we are?”
“He is! . . . I don’t think you realize that he has been fighting that gang for over a year—the only man to be doing so, too. They have been trying their hardest to finish him off, and now they will be after him harder than ever.”
“I did not know that,” she murmured; then she asked: “Is he coming back?”
“I am meeting him over there four nights from now.”
“Over at that town?”
Silent for a little while, she said, almost in a sigh: “I do wish you hadn’t to go.”
“Why?” he asked, quickly, afraid that she was again apprehensive of being left alone.
“Because I feel you will be running a risk,” she answered. “Will you?”
“No. I know this country too well.”
“I wish he had never come.”
“I’m not worrying. I’m only feeling. And what a shame it is!” she exclaimed, abruptly changing the subject, whether involuntarily or purposely he could not be sure. “This would simply be ripping, if we were not so—so hunted.”
She turned and sat up, and sat for a while, her back to the dip, her gaze wandering over the wilderness, lingering long at times as though loth to pass on. Soon he was convinced that all thought of the inspector was out of her mind, and he was glad: he had been afraid that she might ask why the rendezvous had been fixed so far away: explanation of that would have given backing to her fears. Also he had been afraid that her quick wit would have enabled her to detect his own foreboding, for foreboding he had. Sure of himself being able to avoid all notice of the Children, however close the watch their scouts might be keeping, he was none so sure of the inspector; and what might only be one man’s danger before their meeting, afterwards——
He shut his mind to the thought and watched with her . . . and saw the beauty of the moor for the first time.
A moon was rising. The mass of the central high lands hid the orb, but the light was in the sky, and such a magic glow had fallen upon earth that all substance was taken from the lower lands; the hills, the little hills, the loftier ridges, floated like fairy isles adrift in a deep, blue, darkly-shimmering sea. Near them was an outpost peak, whose spreading base formed the ridge on which they rested. A monstrous, precipitous bulk he knew it by day, rudely shouldering the forest aside and lowering down on the more fruitful lands that lay at its feet, beyond the moor’s marches. Now it was a purple cloud, ethereal, translucent, the aura of a lesser hill rising to Heaven. And a moonbeam touched its crest as he watched—hand of the night god blessing its aspirations.
“Just look at that hill!”—her voice was low and thrilling. “Isn’t it—beautiful!”
Unaware of his answer, she turned and looked at him, and added, half-apologetically: “Of course, you have seen this often.”
“I haven’t,” he answered.
“Haven’t you been here before?—by night, I mean, when it was like this?”
“Yes, often. . . . It’s the wildness of the moor that I’ve seen before,” he added in response to her puzzled scrutiny, “and its loneliness. I needed you to come to show me how beautiful it is, Betty. I came here first, you know, because it was so wild and lonely, and I have just gone on thinking of it that way. Old impressions are long in passing. I’m wondering at myself now.”
Her hand stole out and rested on his, a sympathetic touch, a caress that thrilled him. Then that warning instinct stirred. He took alarm. Wondering at himself now still more, and wishing he had left unsaid what he had spoken, he rose, her hand in his, and raised her.
“We’ll get behind that hill before the moon goes any higher,” he said. “We are much too near the road.”
And more than a mile had been covered before he looked at her again; more than two before they spoke.
Valiantly she trudged along beside him, not at all perturbed by his aloofness, not at all displeased. She was elated. Well she knew what was the matter: she had been able to affect him, as herself, not in virtue of a resemblance. A triumph of her personality—a woman’s triumph! What it would lead to she neither knew not cared. It more than satisfied her that he had not been indifferent to her, and could no longer be. But neither pluck nor elation could prevent the hardships of the way prevailing, and she stopped at last and stood still. When he turned, she held up her arms to him as a tired child.
“Please!” she appealed.
He lifted her up at once and carried her, and as a tired child she sighed contentedly.
She looked up at him suddenly.
“You are laughing at me!” she exclaimed.
“I’m not,” he said.
“You are. I can see you. . . . What are you laughing at?”
“At a thought.”
“What kind of a thought?”
“Just that there is an awful lot of Betty about you.”
“Well, I was tired,” she said defiantly, though no other answer could have filled her with greater joy.
He made no remark in response, and the conversation ceased; but some little while passed before the gleam died out of his eyes. . . .
It grew again, a gleam, not of amusement. Neither knew when they reached the old ore road; they were half-way along it before either of them realized that the greater part of their journey was done. Both were sorry. He walked more slowly, though the going was much easier and he was very far from being tired. Yet his limbs wanted to run. Into the gully he went, between the hills, where it was very dark, the bright moonlight above making the shadow of the depths the more profound. She nestled closer to him. Out into the hollow they. came. Sharply the gully debouched. One moment they were in darkness. The next—— He halted. Both were spell-bound. Above the peaks the moon had risen. The hollow was a blaze of light, pure white, in which everything was clear; in which everything was transfigured—to their eyes.
She sat up straight in his arms.
“Surely,” she whispered, “there is nothing so wonderful as this, so fine. . . . What has happened?”
He shook his head.
“It is fairyland,” she murmured. “The cottage is the cottage of crystal. The trees! Have you ever seen it like this before?”
“Never. . . . It is the Pearl Mosque of Agra. Have you seen it, Betty?”
“No. Tell me about it.”
“You go up a steep rude stairway, against a dirty wall. You go through a gateway. Then suddenly you see—this. All the beauty of the world and the hereafter, Betty. And I have only seen it now.”
She had turned as he was speaking, drawn to him. Her face was close. He leaned the little forward and kissed her. . . . And a cloud slowly passed across the moon.
Slowly she sank down into his arms, and turned her face away from him. She closed her eyes. For the witchery was leaving the hollow, and she could not bear to see it go. The supreme moment of the night had come for them—and gone. He had let it pass by. He had not spoken. On he walked, stumbling. When they entered the cottage she slipped away from him into the darkness, and, fumbling, clumsy, unwontedly clumsy, he shut out what was left of the moonlight, and bolted and barred. She waited by the door, though he did not know she was there.
“Betty,” he called.
“I am sorry. . . . You—you remind me very much of Clara.”
A lame faltering excuse—he knew; and she knew. There was nothing faltering in her reply. It cut.
“You have given me plenty of proof of that, John MacLean,” she said, and she went into her room and closed the door.
To his own room he went, and laid himself down on the rude couch that he had there. He did not sleep. The sorrow had fallen on him again, and the hopelessness. He had walked through the shadow of the gully and come to the light of the hollow, and the light had died; he had found an allegory in what he had thought a simple tale. For he had climbed his toilsome flight of stairs and come to his gateway, and looked within—in at the beauty of the world and the hereafter, with this girl by his side; and he had not been able to enter; the gateway was barred. For him there was no future. For him the darkness and an end that was soon; an end foreordained, that would come in that underground chamber when he struck the blow he had planned. In that thought there was consolation: the time was so near. Eight days, and then oblivion, a long, long sleep for one who was very tired. . . . The morning came. He rose wondering what the girl would say.
She met him gaily, mischief in her glance, and what she had dreaded, what he had feared, did not come to be. There was no constraint.
“There was a moon last night,” she said. “A very bright moon. But now it is day.”
He looked at her, admiring and amazed. Easy for him to play up to such a lead! And though outwardly he showed no sign of what he was feeling, she had her reward. She felt suddenly glad and pleased. Whatever last night might have meant, in her own woman’s way, she knew he respected her—respected her more.
“Would you like to go out and see the day?” he suggested.
“Oh, I should!” she exclaimed eagerly. “But——?”
“Isn’t it dangerous? You didn’t want me to go out before? You are not doing this just to——?”
“Not even just to please such a girl as Betty Woolfenden,” he answered, smiling. “It is safe now. By this time our friends will have found the car and imagined us drowned in the sea. Old Branluk will have word of our accident in the morning papers, and you may be sure they will have seen.”
“How splendid!” she murmured. “I do wish I had been nicer to him. I had no idea he was going to be so useful. Do let us go at once?”
He shook his head in mild reproof of her eagerness.
“Breakfast first,” he said. “Do you know the time? It is nearly noon. That is one thing we will be able to do now—keep normal hours. Our scheme of meals and things has so far been weird.”
She hurriedly began setting the table. So excited was she, she could scarcely eat a mouthful, and they did not clear away. She refused.
“Take me out at once,” she ordered. “At once!” He took her out into the wood at the back of the cottage, and there they spent the afternoon. It was a glorious day. Spring was near. From a cloudless sky the sun blazed down. The air of the hollow was warm, windless, and stifling; but among the trees there was shade. Ants were busy. Game rustled the undergrowth. Birds sang; their trills, their pipings and twitterings, aloft, near, further away, afar; single notes, many making harmony; holy music in a holier stillness, echoes of angelic laughter and of angels’ happy sighs; simple choristers singing their praise and thanksgiving for the good weather, for the wellbeing and beauty the God of their creation had brought into their simple lives. From the rich moist earth rose fragrance. Down the forest aisles stole mysterious winds, eddies from the uplands and the hills, in their breath the scent of the pines.
She walked by his side, entranced and silent. To the further wall of the hollow he guided her, and traced out with her its line. A formidable barrier, it rose from among the trees, sheer, green, wet rock, the more massy for its many weaknesses, its huge spreading gravel slides; its enormous chines, fern-filled; its canyon-like cracks and crevices. Only in one place was it completely breached, and there by a gully, twin to that which held the old ore road, but broader and deeper; and darker, for here, like an invading horde, the forest poured through.
“Thus far,” he said, pointing to a boulder in the pass. “Never beyond that stone. I have learned that by experience. Beyond is a dangerous country.”
“How is it dangerous?”
“Because once through the gully you are almost certain to lose your way, and may get a very nasty fall or two into the bargain. The ground is all undermined, simply honeycombed with old workings which are always falling in, and the surface is altering by the square mile. You might think that one had only to keep on descending or climbing to trail a pretty straight course to somewhere, but it is not nearly so easy as that. It is jolly difficult to tell which is the rising ground and which is the low.”
“But you can tell, surely?”
“Yes. But I prefer to keep away. Had it been safe I would have taken you this way last night, instead of going all that distance round, for that road we went to runs only about four miles from here. But the ground isn’t safe, not for a hundred yards. It is not even shot over, though game simply swarms. We are well barred in all round,” he added. “However, there is plenty of room on this side the stone, and the hollow is wooded enough to hide a hundred picnic parties from each other. We have not seen everything yet. Come along.”
He showed her all the forest ways, and darkness was gathering before they went indoors. Next morning they were in the wood again. In the afternoon he let her go alone, that she might gain in confidence and banish the further her nervousness and fears. Next day it rained, and he would not let her go. She protested in vain. Mist was swirling in the hollow, and among the hills cold winds blew.
“You would only be disappointed, Betty,” he told her, “and perhaps frightened. I know. This mist might thicken at any moment, and you would be lost for hours; and there are lots of nasty cracks and holes, too, into which you might fall. I have something to do to-day, and can’t go with you, and until it clears I won’t let you go out alone.”
She spent most of the morning tripping between the spyholes, seeking in vain for a sign of good portent. For the fresh air was in her blood. She was disappointed as a child on a rainy holiday. Tired out and disgruntled, she went to her room and lay down when the afternoon came, bringing thicker mist swirls. . . . But that afternoon she made a discovery. For, overcome by her boredom, she rose and knocked at his door, seeking his company; and, receiving no answer, she opened the door and peeped in; and he was not in his room. He was not in the cottage, though both doors were locked and barred, from the inside.
There was only one inference which she could draw from this, and once she had drawn it she realized that she had more than half-suspected the truth already: the cottage must have a third means of exit and entrance, which led to and from his room.
That was why he had been so confident of escaping from all intruders; why he had been so eager to get her across his threshold, when the two intruders came; why he had halted there so confidently, until their strength was disclosed. Yet the discovery greatly impressed her. Wondering, she went back to her room. And nothing would content her a little later but that she should return to make certain that he was not there, and to look about her curiously. . . . And he had returned. He was lying on his couch, weary, his eyes closed. Before she could retreat he had seen her.
“Hulloa, Betty!” he called.
She withdrew in confusion. But he followed her. “Bored stiff—is that the trouble?” he asked, smiling. “Awfully,” she murmured, flushing guiltily.
He ignored her confusion.
“What can we do?” he said. “I wonder.”
He had nothing in the cottage with which to entertain her, neither books nor papers, no games; but he checkered off the table and played chess with her for the rest of the evening, and it was the happiest evening she had ever spent. There was a gentleness and charm in his manner that gave to each moment its own touch of sweetness, to each response that she made to him, each word, look, or movement, each thought, its own joyous thrill. She was under a spell. She felt very near to him. She forgot her situation, and all that had been. She even forgot the girl in the mirror, and her light went out that night, leaving her happiness undimmed.
But back of a woman’s mind is some subtle semiconsciousness that functions independently, some hidden under-self that sees and records facts and impressions unabsorbed by the main conscious flow; which sooner or later it divulges in half-formed wandering notions, that excite her suspicion and set her thinking, or, working in her sleep in some unknown phagocytic way, present her with a clear and correct impression that she immediately recognizes as true. So in the morning the girl was aware of the melancholy which had been behind his gentleness and charm of the night before, and when they met she looked for it in his demeanour, watched for it during the morning walk that he took her, and saw it plain. Pensive and silent it made her. She wondered why it was there.
The sun up, the rain and the mist gone, and the cold winds, there was a promise of good weather; but the wet yesterday had left behind a dankness of soil, air, and tree, and a general suggestion of discomfort. Seeing her pensiveness, and misconstruing, he strove to cheer her.
“Wait till the sun gets properly over the hills, Betty,” he said, “and you will see a change. The hollow drains almost as quickly as a sieve, and so catches the sun that the hour before noon on a good clear day is sufficient to dry it up even after a week of rains. You will have a fine walk in the afternoon.”
She answered with a smile: all the answer she could give. Her heart was sore. What a wealth of fine feeling and consideration had lain fallow in this man all these years! She wanted to comfort him, and did not know how. Near she might have drawn to him, far, far nearer than anyone had done since he and Clara were together; but in such a matter she knew he was still unapproachable, impregnable his inner reserve; so pensive and silent she remained.
In the afternoon he let her go out alone, but thought of him went with her, and she boldly grasped the problem and tried to force it out from its enveloping obscurity. That night after they had guided the inspector over the moor—he had been happy with her! She had felt the more intimate pressure of his arms; she had seen and interpreted the gleam in his eyes. He had kissed her. He had nearly spoken. Then something had fallen between, pushing them asunder, in his mind.
Hence his melancholy? She wondered. What then?
Was it thought of Clara, his loyalty, or an old love not yet dead, that had stopped him? She did not think so. She was Clara to him; thus she had drawn him; Clara lived to him in her, and the love he could give her was the love already given. Rather was it that which had fallen between him and Clara, forcing them asunder, and spoiling both their lives; a barrier which still existed and over which he sorrowed; but of which he could not tell her. . . . What could the barrier be?
She harked back to her former ponderings concerning him; to that time when, in his consideration for her, he had come back to show her the spyholes—when she had concluded that he must have done wrong. Now, she knew him better. Out of her fuller knowledge, could she not tell what wrong he was likely to do? Surely nothing mean and low, nothing sordid! Yet something. He was no ordinary hermit, no ordinary misanthrope fleeing the haunts of men.
Well trained she had been by the man who had posed as her uncle—trained for the fate he and his kin had decreed. Concerning the women and men met during the day he had been wont to question her every evening, amplifying her judgements, correcting where wrong. For her age she knew much. His perfidy had taught her more. He had thereby introduced her to a new type, an old type on which a new light was thrown; to men like himself and his associates, sinister men, men with shadows before and behind—men without the Law. And that this man of hers was an outlaw, she knew; at least he was a man with a past which overshadowed him, with a menace never far away. Some violent deed he had committed, from the consequences of which he had had to flee. She could think of nothing else: she would think of no other cause or explanation. He lived in a cottage that was a fortress, furnished with a secret way and set in the heart of an unfrequented moor. Almost it seemed to her that he was pursued by a vendetta, and that more than from the Law he had fled from secret foes.
Her head went up proudly, and her strong little mouth grew firm, though she was flushing. She would have this man of hers! She would not allow him to let anything stand in their way. If in the fierceness which she had seen, he had slain, that fierceness could never have been called forth without some good reason. Thus she was ready to excuse him. If it were that danger threatened him, and his life was therefore one that he could not ask her to share—! Whatever it was, he should tell her! And she would tell him that nothing mattered, that whatever their peril, she would share it, and remain by his side alway. . . . And musing and determining thus, she wandered afar, and stopped with a start in a part of the wood which she did not know.
What had stopped her was a sudden realization that at her feet was a step-down, just as though she had been walking absent-mindedly along a pavement and had come to a standstill, poised on the brink of the curbstone of an intersecting road. Then she saw and staggered backwards, and stood staring, horribly frightened. Circular, fifty feet in diameter, its rim ledge-like, in front of her was a curious depression not unlike the mouth of a huge filled-up well, the filling earth badly sunken, the surface drooping in the centre and round the rim fissured, flaky, and insecure; and in the centre was a tree—a curious tree, a pine, its long clean trunk disappeared in the ground, nothing but its tufted top visible. She was on the verge of a subsidence, one of those fallen-in mine workings that lay in that dangerous country whither he had warned her not to go.
Unwittingly she had wandered through the forest gully and passed by the boundary stone. The wood seemed suddenly to have grown silent, the birds no longer to be singing. The shock of her discovery had made her deaf, and for a little while she heard no sound.
Then a faint note sounded, then many notes, her fear passing away. Loudly and joyously the little choristers suddenly carolled, bringing her comfort. After all, she reflected, she had done nothing very dangerous; she could not have come very far; she had only to turn about and retrace her steps; a straight course would bring her to that massive barrier which walled the hollow in, by following which with little difficulty the gully could be found; and the ground was soft in many places; for most of the way her footprints would guide—she turned about and retreated. Before she had gone twenty yards the footprints had failed her—failed her doubly, disappearing—disappearing after describing a course so erratic that as a pointer, a guide to direction, they could but lead her further astray.
Fear looked down at her from a tree-top as she made this discovery, slipped to the ground and began to steal stealthily around from tree to tree. But she kept her head and refused to be affrighted. She thought out and determined on a plan.
Resolutely she went forward straight before her, her gaze bent down; and when again she saw her shoes begin to mark the soil, the dry patch traversed where her tracks had disappeared, she marked the spot and walked off at right angles, searching for, hoping to intersect, the missing footprint line; but she searched in vain. After going a long distance, she turned and searched in the opposite direction; on past her mark, and again in vain. And this time she did not return to her starting-point—her second serious error. Induced by a rise in the ground to abandon systematic effort, eagerly climbing, thinking that she was attaining the heights that were her goal, she was led through difficult hummocky country, bone dry, where no tracks showed, and when the ascent failed her, changed into a descent, she was lost completely, not a footprint to point her a way of withdrawing, all sense of direction gone. Thereafter she wandered, blind chance her guide, a prey to all those dreads and fears with which the forest, its mysterious shapes and shadows, silences and sounds, can afflict those reared in towns.
There was no tree which she could climb, from which to look around and find her bearings. Planted close together, the pines rose straight and tall, their lowest branches fifty, a hundred feet above her; and even where they were climbable from falling aslant, the earth having subsided beneath them, they were too low; and where they flung out branches near the ground, trees sprung from wind-blown seeds in clearings, they were overshadowed by their elder brethren. Nor from the highest ridge or hill she climbed was there a view. Terror of the night in such a place drove her on, or she would have stopped and waited for John Henry to find her. . . . She came at last to the road on the further side of the forest. . . . On the road, two hundred yards or so distant, were two men who turned and stared. . . .
Repression is a dangerous method of dealing with any trouble; and with nothing is it more dangerous than with protesting nerves, those delicate mysterious fluencies of power and personality. It never moulds. It breaks or destroys, and by the individual so unwise as thus to employ his will, there is a penalty, sooner or later, to be paid. Men faced the unwonted peril of the trench area and forced themselves to endure the strain involved, and to most there came the time when the nerves grew jangled, when for honour’s sake a stern effort was demanded to dragoon the self to a state meet for the duties required. These men have paid; many are paying still. And some there were to whom the payment was no long drawn-out process, but an instant demand—complete breakdown; nor caused by some great smashing event of battle; such events as a rule brought their own antidote, their own nervous anaesthesia; but by little things: a drop of water falling on a sleeper’s brow; a rat snuffing suddenly near his ear; a dream; perhaps a thought—then the snap within, and the blindness!
To this girl, nerve-racked from her first coming to the cottage, constantly schooling herself, consciously and unconsciously, to bear successive strains, bravely keeping control, repressing her fears in this last dread experience among the perils and traps of the undermined country, the sight of those two men on the road was the little thing—two ordinary looking men, but turning to stare, as well they might! She darted back into the forest, and fled at break-neck speed through the trees.
She was unconscious of what she was doing, reckless of the risks she ran, ignorant whither she was going. She fled, her one idea to flee; a fleet mad thing, there was none to overtake her but such as she. And some instinct kept her foot from slipping. She passed through that tangled forest like a bird through the foliage of a tree.
Exhaustion brought her down at last, and she fell inert, but unharmed. Then she asked herself why she was fleeing. Her mind cleared and she remembered the men.
She had summed them up instantly as foes, she remembered, as rangers of the Vulture who had recognized her as their prize. Why had she done so? She did not know. She could not think of any good reason. They had seemed just two simple countrymen walking along a country road: the kind of men who would have turned and gaped at anything unusual, anything the slightest bit strange.
She sat up, her fear departed, not a little angry with herself, and contemptuous. Quickly she recovered from her exertion and felt herself strong. She rose to her feet. . . . Then off she ran again; For an overwrought mind is a curious thing, and a great fear never sweeps through it without some repercussion.
The feeling of strength, the motion of rising, was sufficient suggestion to set her running as blindly as before.
And when again she stopped exhausted, she asked herself why she was fleeing, and her mind cleared, as before. She could answer. Out of the wood had come a feeling that she was being pursued. And no sooner had she given herself that answer than she rose and staggered on, not yet recovered; but not blindly, for her feeling had now become a conviction. A menace was behind her. Those men were following on her trail. . . .
She came at length to the verge of a clearing in the forest, a broad natural avenue, running straight and stretching far; and this gave her a far clearer view than she had had in all her wanderings; she saw a long expanse of sky, and to her great joy—almost a mirage it seemed at first—looming above the tree-tops at the head of the avenue, a blue peak that she recognized. By accident she had done what she had failed to do by design. She had run towards the hollow. She had only to follow the avenue and safely it would guide her home. But she did not forget those men. Were they pursuing she would lead them to her refuge, a thing she must not do. She must first make sure; besides, she was very tired. Resting, watching, and listening, she waited for a while.
Now that the certainty of escape from the forest was with her, her conviction that those men were pursuing had grown very dim, and as time passed without an untoward sign being manifested, the birds singing all around her, the game feeding and playing in the open spaces and stealing from covert to covert without undue haste or caution, it grew fainter still until it almost ceased to be. But something of the wariness of John Henry had descended upon her; moreover, the most delicately nurtured of human beings, when set down in some solitude of Nature, under the spur of peril will quickly assume the ways of the wild. She crossed the avenue and entered the further trees; and having penetrated as far as gave her cover, she turned and circled back until she reached an outlook position in an undergrowth clump, a salient of the woodland, which held either way of the avenue under view; hence she watched for about an hour, lying lazily; and no one came.
She was satisfied her fears were groundless when at last she began to withdraw. Indeed, she had ceased to consider them. It was comfort of her couch that had kept her lying latterly, not wariness. And then the peril fell—not that expected; and without warning it came. In the centre of the clump the ground gave suddenly beneath her, and she felt herself plunging down.
In the midst of a cloud of dry choking earth she went down, but, though dazed by the shock, she did not lose consciousness all the time she was falling, nor when she struck, the soft fallen soil receiving her gently. She came to rest half-buried in an almost upright position, half-way down the slope of a huge debris cone. It rose above her, a pile of fresh earth in which worms were wriggling; with sods protruding here and there, and webs of undergrowth and tiny trees; a mighty subsidence, so mighty that she felt thankful at first at escaping without harm—but this feeling soon waned. She was seized with dismay. She was trapped. High above her head was the circle of light where the surface had broken—a small orifice in comparison with the size of the hole. She was in a huge neckless bottle, whose sides could not be climbed; an oubliette, not within a dozen feet of whose entrance reached the apex of the debris cone. Round the rim the undergrowth grew thickly, sunlight on its leaves, and birds still sang.
The sight of those leaves, the sound of the birds—the sense that they brought of security only a little distance from her, nerved her to an effort to extricate herself. She looked carefully around for a way, and saw one means of escape, and one only, in a matted mass of dislodged undergrowth that depended from the lip of the orifice and almost brushed the cone.
Higher up than where she was and further round the cone it hung. Desperately insecure it seemed. But perhaps it might bear her! She began to free her limbs from the soil—and in horror discovered that even this frail chance was likely to elude her. For a fissure appeared near her shoulder. The debris beneath her slowly began to move. . . . Her movements were starting a slide.
Instantly she became perfectly still; she held her breath—she prayed. . . . The sliding ceased, the fissure fell in and was obliterated; but she felt as though she were hanging by a thread over an abyss, or clinging to the face of a precipice by a tuft that was breaking, as in a dream.
Unable to bear the strain, almost suffocating, she stirred and gasped for breath. The horrible stealthy moving beneath her began again; another fissure appeared. Slowly it widened. She felt the earth slipping with her, carrying her down—slowly, insidiously. She screamed. Throwing all pretence of inertia aside, she flung herself face forward and dug her hands and arms into the soil, striving frantically for a hold.
And for a moment or two the sliding grew less; like an indolent monster relapsing into quiescence after stirring uneasily in slumber the mass became still. Then slowly, relentlessly, once more it stirred; the slide began again, this time unstayable, greater and greater its momentum. Dig as she might she could not check it. Down she was carried, down into the darkness at the bottom of the cone; down under an arching ledge that scraped her shoulders as she was hurried by; and away above her head she saw the long sliding slope, the top of the cone, the lip of the orifice, and those sunlit leaves—saw them through a narrowing slit, the space between arch and soil—a glimpse, then utter darkness. The slide stopped. The earth poured past her and ceased pouring. Under some overhang, into some cranny in the lowest depth of the subsidence, she had been carried, into some obscure hole; and the base of the debris pile, swollen by the down-slip, had swelled up and closed the mouth, leaving her entombed.
Free of the encumbering soil she tore herself. Madly she scrambled up the slope, sinking knee-deep but dragging herself clear again; on and up till her head touched the roof of the cranny and she could go no further, there to dig and dig in a frantic attempt to win her way back to the day. And easily the loose earth slid away before her scooping fingers. She slipped with it, clawed her way back, and dug and dug; light appeared, a tiny chink; she redoubled her efforts. But all she did was to start a new great slide, which bore her before it irresistibly, further into the cranny, helpless as a log before the crest of a breaking ocean wave.
A huge slide, it forced her so far backwards, and poured down upon her and past her for so long a time, that she thought the whole cranny was about to be filled and she herself buried in a grave that would never be found. But the momentum exhausted itself; the earth at last ceased pouring. And again she freed herself. Again she climbed towards the overhang to make another endeavour to burrow out her way. But the menace of another peril stopped her. Above her head an ominous crack sounded. Another instant, and she had turned and was retreating, while behind her the roof of the cranny split and fell in a second subsidence, a wider and greater downfall.
Other thunderous notes broke out behind her, other ominous crackings heralding each fall; and after the last major bellow there were still minor cracks and crashes for what seemed to her a long time—each sound, loud or subtle, adding to her terror, urging her on to flee. Then deathly, the stillness gathered at last, all-pervading and full; the deep-down stillness of the dead-end of a mine-shaft, the bottom of a sea, through which she heard, as something weird, the swish of her own garments, her own hurrying footfalls. And then she realized that she was running—only then.
What that meant broke later still on her mind—after she had halted and sunk gently down on her knees, robbed of all strength by the astonishing fact that the cranny should be extending so far. . . . It was not a cranny! What she had tumbled into, what she was in now, was a long mine-gallery, part of whose roof had collapsed and caused the downfall. She was actually resting in the centre of the old bogey track, along which, from face to shaft or adit, had been carried the ore. Her knees were on a sleeper. Her hands grasped the old rusty rails. Hope stirred in her bosom. Perilous her plight might be, hopeless, perhaps, unknown to her, but at least she had space to move and strength to make an effort for her freedom; and those rails might prove a guide. Once they had led to the day!
Up she rose.
And no sooner had she risen than she saw that which seemed to crown her hopes; which made her set the working ringing with a cry, loud and glad. For light was before her, a small patch of radiance, faint and far away, but sure; sure promise of a breach in the walls of her dungeon, up which she might be able to climb.
Towards it she hastened, running as before. Very quickly, however, she had to slow down, despite her eagerness and excitement; for what she had been able to do with ease when instinct was guiding her solely, she could not do now without the utmost care.
There were all manner of obstacles to be avoided, inequalities of surface, broken sleepers, rails askew, and fallen rock and rubble, past which she had to feel her way; and as though drawn by a magnet, always she tended to collide with the natural stoops and shores on either side the gallery, whereby the old-time miners had protected their thoroughfare. Twenty yards traversed, however, and the going became easier. She passed beyond the zone of the working-places, and entered a tunnel cut through solid rock, narrow, but cleanly carved. Then, the light was only about another twenty yards ahead of her; it had not been nearly so far away as she at first had supposed. And now she went with even greater caution. She stole along. For as soon as she entered the tunnel she had made a discovery. . . . The light was not the light of day, either direct or diffused. It was yellow, flickering, and smoky—candle- or lamp-light. She was not alone in the mine.
Once, in a book, she had read of a tribe of ancient miners who lived in an ancient mine, descendants of a long-forgotten race, cruel heathen men who barbarously murdered all intruders and so preserved the secret of their existence. Thought of such was in her mind. Her first glimpse of the place into which the tunnel debouched seemed to afford confirmation.
It was a large cavern, formed in the living rock, partly by Nature’s hand, partly by man’s. Cut almost perfectly cylindrical in shape, forty or fifty feet in diameter, though its floor and lower walls were tooled and smooth, it rose up to such a height as Nature alone would have dared to plan. Several tunnels entered it, about a dozen. These had been carven. In two other places, however, diametrically opposite each other, the walls had been breached by a far greater power than the chisel; and from cleft to cleft, dividing the floor fairly in two, ran a broad crevasse, from whose depths came the murmur and rush of a cascading stream. Spanning the crevasse was a bridge formed of unbarked tree-trunks, parapeted with unbarked branches—an outlandish structure. An outlandish place!—fit habitat for those ancient miners. Hanging from one of the branches, however, source of the light, was a modern lamp, sight of which effectually dispelled her fancy. She had seen its like before, and recently several lamps similar. Joyously she hastened forward, deliverance certain. She crossed the bridge and entered the tunnel facing it, whence came another yellow glow. There, in a little room to the side, sat John Henry. . . . Hither that third exit from the cottage led down into this mine.
His back was to her. He had not heard her coming, for the murmur of the waters had drowned the sound; nor in such a place could he possibly have expected anyone else to be. She nearly rushed in and hugged him, so glad was she. But she did not. She did not enter. She withdrew. Worked up as she was, weary, overwrought, she yet could comprehend that here she was not wanted; hither he had come to be alone. Back to the mouth of her tunnel she went, silently. Thence she called.
Out he came at once.
“Betty!” he exclaimed in amazement.
He ran across the bridge to her.
“Good heavens, girl! What have you been doing?” He caught her by the shoulders and surveyed her.
“I got lost in the wood, and the ground fell in with me,” she told him.
“You’re not hurt?”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m not hurt one little bit, except scratches.”
“Stay here a minute,” he bade her, and ran back to his room.
Out went the light there. Across the bridge he came again, and in passing, he lifted the lamp from the branch and brought it with him. Holding it above her head he gazed at her earnestly. She noticed his arm trembled a little, and that he was very greatly concerned.
“You came by that tunnel, didn’t you? he asked. She nodded.
“Good God!” she heard him murmur, in far greater alarm.
“What’s wrong?” she inquired.
“I’d better not tell you,” he answered. “You have had a far narrower escape than you think. Let’s get to the cottage.”
He took her arm and led her towards another of the tunnels; but in its mouth he changed his mind and told her what had made him more fearful.
“They are all blocked,” he said, swinging the lamp round to indicate the circle of tunnel mouths. “I brought their roofs down as soon as they showed signs of falling of their own accord—except in this one here, and that one over there were I was working, and the one you came down. And I was just about to block it where it meets the rock. I have all the stoops mined there, ready to touch off. A few minutes later and you would have been buried for good. What took you out of the hollow, girl?” he demanded, his voice sharp with his alarm. “I warned you.”
“I was thinking, and never noticed,” she answered, almost bursting into tears.
His manner changed immediately.
“All right, Betty,” he said gently. “I’m not scolding you. It’s only that you have given me the biggest fright I have ever had. What an experience for you! Good heavens! Are you sure you’re not hurt?—really and truly? I can hardly believe it,” he added, when she had nodded. “Come along. We’ll be in the cottage in a little over a minute. Thank goodness I was here.”
Along the tunnel he hurried her. In good repair, though rising steeply, it was easy to traverse. In less than a minute they had reached the bottom of a small shaft.
“An air-shaft,” he said. “The cottage is right above. Do you think you can climb?”
He pointed to an iron ladder fastened to the side.
“It’s over sixty feet, you know?”
“Yes. I am quite all right,” she assured him.
“I doubt it. . . . Take the lamp and wait for me.”
Up the ladder he climbed and was lost in the darkness beyond the lamp rays; but quickly he returned, a coil of rope slung athwart his shoulders.
“I’m taking no risks,” he explained, looping the end of the rope round her. “You might easily get giddy after such a fall as you have had. Now, give me the lamp and wait till I get to the top. Then you can start climbing. Sing out if it’s too much for you, and I’ll pull you up.”
She had called to him before she had climbed halfway; her limbs had seemed suddenly to grow leaden. Up he hoisted her, so gently and steadily that she scarcely felt the strain—up on to a small square landing at the top of the shaft. The roof of this landing was heavily timbered, and obviously bearing a great weight of earth upon it; the walls, too, were strongly shored, except one, which was of brick. And no way of entrance or exit, apart from the shaft, was visible, though the lamp lit the small space brightly. But in one of the bricks was an iron ring, which he gripped and bore upon—a section of the wall swung open like a door. He motioned her through and followed her. As though worked by a spring or a weight and pulley, the section swung-to behind them, leaving an unbroken stretch of wall.
“How do you open it from this side?” she asked abruptly, as he would have passed on.
He turned at once and explained.
“You press, so,” he said, touching a brick, which gave a little under the pressure. “That withdraws the catch, then you have only to bear a little harder and the whole thing moves. . . . . There’s another trick here. Come, and I’ll show you it.”
They had entered a cellar-like apartment, a space half-filled with a variety of stores, tins, boxes, and barrels; out of which, unlike the space from which they had come, a way was indicated by a flight of stone stairs, whither he was walking as he spoke his last sentence. At the top, set in the brick arches which formed the roof, was a large stone slab, ponderous-looking even in its setting. He drew back a bolt. Pivoted near the line of its centre of gravity, the slab slowly turned on the axis, the heavier portion sinking gently downward, the lighter rising up out of sight into the chamber to which the steps led.
“Up you come, Betty,” he called, climbing through.
She followed him. They were in the cottage, in his room. The slab was one of the many which paved the floor; and so nicely was it balanced that a slight pressure of his foot brought it back into position; and so craftily it fitted—that such a slab was there could not be told.
“And there is no hollow sound even if you jump on it,” he said. “The stone is too thick, and the floor too heavy and well-laid. Here’s how it works.” He went to the hearth of the room and forced down a small projection there: the slab immediately revolved. “That withdraws the catch and up it comes. A bit theatrical, but very effective. . . . You must think all this very strange?”
“I’m afraid you are too dazed to think about anything yet. Off to your room. I’ll get you hot water and some food, then you must lie down. You can’t possibly have escaped without some harm, you know, Betty.”
He looked at her anxiously.
“I have. I am only shaken a little, and scratched,” she assured him. . . . In the doorway, on her way to her room, she turned and said: “It’s to-night that you go to meet the inspector, isn’t it?”
He nodded. “And I must go,” he said, his face troubled. “I’ll have to meet him.”
“Of course you must go,” she interrupted. “And there is nothing to prevent you going, either. You need have no fear about me. . . .” “He must go,” she said to herself, when she had left him and reached her room. But her expression was different to the expression that she had let him see. There was something feverish in it, something fearfully expectant, as though she were eager for him to go—that he might be out of her way.
All the power of which she was capable, all the resources at her command, she employed to speed his going, and to prevent herself manifesting any weakness that might make him wish to stay. She washed off the dirt of the subsidence. She changed her clothes, dressing with such care that but for a scratch or two on her cheek and forehead, the slightly paler tint of her skin, she showed no sign of having undergone her late experience: the effect of that was not yet. Thought of it was scarcely in her mind. Another thought had engaged all her attention, another desire and design, which had come, the desire, when she stole away from that room where he had been sitting, down in the mine; the design, the instant before she inquired how to open that secret door in the cellar wall.
Stiff she was, but she hid her stiffness; sore and harassed, but when she saw him watching her she smiled. She lulled him into believing that all was well with her; at least, that he might go to his rendezvous with a fairly easy mind; and when she went back to her room to lie down after they had eaten the meal duly prepared by him, the one thing that he had thought a little odd about her was her showing neither surprise nor curiosity concerning so surprising and curious a place as that cavern in the mine. She was a very clever girl; also the necessity for keeping his appointment with the inspector was urgent, the mere suggestion of a difficulty in the way enough to be a disquiet, or he might have noticed more. He was very greatly relieved. Somehow his appointment would have had to be, kept—even though its keeping meant his carrying her with him all the way.
He departed at last, the darkness down an hour. In six he would return, so he told her. Six hours, and all she needed was one!
In the darkened kitchen she stood for a little while after he had gone, and on her face shone a thin beam of light from her room whose door was slightly ajar. In the beam her eyes glittered strangely, excited and eager; yet she was trembling and beset by fear.
Now was her opportunity. Now she could confirm what she had seen—what she could not believe without confirmation—what she dreaded was true. To her room she went, however, and closed the door, and stayed there some time. The lamp burned low. It needed more oil; but she did not notice. She took it up at length and went out into the kitchen. Its faint radiance limned her in the darkness, a tragic figure, a pale affrighted girl. She crossed to his room and went down the mine. And more than an hour passed.
The second hour was nearly sped when she returned. She returned to darkness, bringing no light with her. It had gone out. Blazing up in a brilliant flicker before the end, it had lit her to that tunnel across the crevasse, to that chamber in the tunnel side, and there, having served her purpose, it had expired. She had fainted—not from fear of the sudden darkness. From another cause. She was near fainting again as she came up the steps to his room. She felt for his table and supported herself to his chair; she sat down and leaned forward until her brow rested on the table-top, between her outflung arms. Now the aftermath of her afternoon adventure had broken upon her. And there was another stress, one more difficult to bear by far. Her world had split and fallen in ruins a second time—the new world which she had here been creating in place of the old—the world of herself and the man. She had found out something about him; and she was dazed. . . .
Cunning weavers are the three fatal sisters, and however intricate the pattern, their fingers pick truly, and the last weft meets the last warp where they decree. John Henry had gone down the mine that afternoon to complete a task that would end for ever his career in crime: and she had come. In that chamber across the crevasse he had stored his stolen jewels. He had been packing them up to return them to their owners—he had been making the last package: and she had looked in. She had found him out, this man of hers, her Atlas. Had she been told, she would never have believed.
Outlaw she had known him to be. That in some fit of generous indignation he had committed violent crime, she had been prepared to believe. But that he should steal, that he should be a common malefactor, a thief! . . .
She had sought confirmation in the mine, and found it—beyond dubiety. On the last package was a name, still uncovered was a jewel, both of which she knew. Years ago, in Acacia Road, in a house not far from her home, there had been a burglary, a daring theft, the perpetrator never known. She could remember the excitement, the talk, the newspaper stories. And he had been the man! And after all those years, she had found him—she!
This was what had come between him and Clara. This was why Clara had let him go. Even in these early days he had proved himself a criminal. Thus he had come to be an outlaw, a man who shunned his fellow men. And now she, the other sister, had fallen in love with him. She was faced with the same problem as Clara had had to solve. Could she solve it in the same way? Could she let him go? . . .
She raised her head and repeated the question aloud, wonderingly, wondering at herself for putting it. She would not let him go! . . . How could she!
Dazed she was still, but unalterable formed her decision. She even considered and planned. He had not spoken to her. This was the reason. . . . She would make him speak now!
She would tell him that she knew, and show him that she did not care. She felt angry with herself for letting her discovery shock her so—after what he had done. After what he had done!—it seemed incredible that he should be what he was. But she had proved it. Proved or no, what did it matter? One thing was certain in the upset, and she clung to it—she loved him. She would not let him go. It was only the part of her that was still what she had been, the remnant of the Betty Woolfenden of old, that was shocked and dumbfounded. She had no right to be shocked. She loved him! She would cling to her love, let him be what he might. She would share with him the life he had won for her. She——! More and more incoherent grew her thoughts and resolutions. The faintness stole on her. Her head sank down.
The faintness changed to a natural sleep, and in the sleep she dreamed of the two men from whom she had fled.
She dreamed that they had pursued her and come to the cottage door. She woke because of the dream, woke remembering and regretting that she had not told him about them. She had been too intent on that other object. She had been too intent to do something else that she ought to have done, and which he had trusted to her doing. She had not locked the cottage door after his departure, though he had bidden her do so immediately. She rose hastily to repair the omission. . . . And there was moonlight in the kitchen. The door was opening. Some stealthy person was coming in.
On the ridge above the road where he had rested with the girl, above the dip, with the lights of the town in view, John Henry paused moodily. He had covered half the distance of his outward journey—about another six miles lay between him and his rendezvous; and all the way he had been afflicted with a growing unease, now nearing its crisis and evolving definite fears. He felt all was not well. Danger seemed to threaten from several quarters. That his wider plans had gone astray—those arrangements whose making he had entrusted to the inspector; that with the meeting before him some misfortune was to come; that potent evil lay behind him with the girl—these were his fears. It was the last that took the centre of his consciousness as he stood on the ridge-top, the associations of the spot giving it prominence in his mind. Only now did he remember that he had not waited to make sure she locked the cottage door. And through remembering this, he opened a wider vista on his uneasiness, down which he looked, past all the more obvious anxieties, and saw what was most to be feared—something that he had not seen before nor comprehended: the fact that he was losing his power. He was not the man he had been, that dangerous omniscient man of the wild, who had wakened up in the attic of that strange Carbrick dwelling such a short time ago.
A fortnight ago and he would never have been guilty of such an omission. Not that he thought the girl would not carry out his bidding—had he thought so he would have gone back immediately; not that he apprehended any ill consequences should she not have done so—had he foreseen the slightest possibility of their foes coming to the cottage—-had he known of those two men—he would never have left her; but that he should have failed to evince such an elementary token of caution, that he should have come so far before becoming aware of his failure—this was the disturbing fact, the serious symptom, the weakness for which he could not readily forgive himself. . . . He was letting his power go, just as the time was imminent when his utmost would be required.
What had happened to him? Irritated and annoyed he asked himself the question.
He could still strike as swiftly as any beast of the wild, his strength was undiminished, his courage undimmed. But the complete, implicit, effortless control that had once been his, was gone. A blight had fallen upon him, a rot set in; and he could point out the cause. All manner of weakening influences had been making him their prey—and he had let them. Now he took stock of himself and determined. These influences must be exorcised.
Not for him the luxury of vain regrets and longings. For him one purpose and an end. A charge had been laid upon him by a girl who was dead. Anger came over him, and fierceness. How had he been keeping it? Given a chance of laying low an almost omnipotent foe, of carrying out a sacred obligation, of preserving a girl, a second Clara, from becoming what Clara had become, he was in danger through weakness and repining of throwing it away. He must hark back to the old ways and force himself to follow them. Only the man he had been was fit for the task in view. Down the ridge-side he went and across the road, a stealthy sinister shadow. The need disclosed, the need had been supplied. One of the denizens of the moorland might have been foraying out of its fastness, so grimly, so warily he descended. From his mind every thought had been eliminated, except such as bore directly on the hazards of his enterprise.
Even his uneasiness had gone. Not so his apprehension. He encouraged the latter feeling, pondered over and examined it. He felt so certain that it was justified.
Peril lay before him; nor merely the general threat of watchful foes into whose midst he was going—some far more definite menace, which the inspector would bring. Branluk had drawn attention to himself to keep suspicion from falling on the moor. A watch would be set on him, a vengeance decreed; and though such a man, with the start he would have from the Children, would certainly reach London and discharge his two missions unhindered, very soon thereafter the watch would fall and he would be shadowed night and day. Did the shadowers but keep the trail, they too would be at the rendezvous!
His associating with the inspector had been a weakness, the one weakness in his scheme. But it had been unavoidable. Not only had the inspector’s arrival at the cottage enforced a compromise; he had been under the necessity of providing for the future of the girl. He had taken a risk, knowing it to be a risk, the advantages seeming to outweigh the disadvantages. Could he but safely meet the liability all would be well. Nothing else could interfere with his progress to his end. But he felt, as nearer and nearer he drew to the rendezvous, that the disadvantages had somehow been weighted. The night held a secret peril. Alert, his old wary self, every instinct, every centre of feeling, attuned and keen to catch those mysterious influences which guide and warn the wild’s children and those who know the wild’s ways, he felt from afar the presence of expectant foes.
It was no delusion, no vague apprehension, product of a mind disturbed and ill-at-ease. It was a definite warning, such as had come to him many times before; such as whose worth and validity he had many times proved. But it did not deter him. Warned, he was armed and instructed; whatever the peril, when the time came, the time for action, he would know what to do.
The moorland stretched for about half a mile beyond the road, then came rough grazing country, dyked and bare, then cultivated fields. At length he was walking through a pleasant rural district, high hedgerows bordering the fields and lanes, with many a stiled path and right-of-way to give him wide passage of the dwellings and haunts of men. He passed unnoticed. He knew his route well. It was the route that he was wont to follow when coming out of the moor for supplies. He was never at a loss though the darkness had settled thickly, the opaque country darkness when no moon has risen, when, mingling with the night, is the mistiness following on a good day.
Once a lover and his lass startled him. Themselves startled and on watch, against, perhaps, the attentions of the local village gossip, the alert bend-forward of their shadowy forms made him think they were foes. He passed them by, and they did not know. Soon afterwards he heard a bird’s cry—-a mimicked note, far away.
He pressed on more swiftly after hearing it.
This was a sinister sign to him, a single note and therefore a signal, not merely the call of some playful country boy, for such a one would almost certainly have repeated the effort. But the sound did not startle him or cause him any surprise. Were enemies gathering, some such signal was to be expected: that they were gathering had become a fixed idea. Not till he had come within half a mile of the rendezvous, however, did he hear further sound of them. Then he heard the call again. Immediately afterwards he became aware of lurkers and knew he had reached the danger zone.
He was approaching a stile at the time. By the stile grew a tree, close to whose trunk were two shadowy forms—men watching the path.
They had not seen him, for the lane was bordered by two high hedgerows, so thick and bushy that the gloom between was impenetrable. He slipped through a gap, detoured, and stole on.
The next stile was unwatched, but he avoided it also. And now the path had ceased to be a lane, and ran, a bare unbordered strip of roadway, through a lush meadow. Very, very cautiously he proceeded, walking on the worn short marginal grass and making no sound. When near the middle of the field, which was broad, he felt men in motion behind him. He stopped and listened—and heard them. Almost simultaneously he heard others closing on him from the right. At once to the left he glided, across the field, and presently was approaching another and parallel pathway. As he neared it, the bird cried, and at the sound two men stirred and whispered on the further side.
But again he had not been seen. He crouched in some tall grass and watched them. He was puzzled—not alarmed. He knew he was safe for the time being, still undetected; those men who had been closing on him, and from whom he had slipped away, had been closing on him inadvertently. Yet he had need to take heed of the situation. Great was the risk of his making a wrong move.
Very near now was the rendezvous, barely two hundred yards distant. On the outskirts of the town he had fixed it, in some public ground, through which led both the pathways; and that the inspector was keeping it was obvious from the signs of enemy activity—from the fact of those mimicked cries. But what he could not understand was the game the man was playing. All the approaches were picketed, and guards were on the move—not Vulture guards! The men at the stile, the men in front of him, all the men he had so far seen or heard, were plain-clothes policemen.
Was it a precaution his ally had taken, or was it treachery ? Had he planned a surprise? . . . Surely not the latter?
He lay for a while considering. As well as being confused, the situation was uncanny. Where were those men who made and answered those cries? What were they doing? . . . What did they mean to do?
Back through the grass, away from the watchers in front of him, he at last began to worm his way; a safe distance attained, he turned and bore down on the rendezvous. Both the Vulture and the Law were present. Both he must avoid. But approach the inspector he must, and learn from him what he could learn—this was imperative, whatever the risk to be run. Little the risk from the Law. With ease he could elude those policemen. From the Vulture? This was a peril undisclosed. But he wished very much that he knew where the Children were lurking, and what was the meaning of that cry.
He heard it again, close in front of him as he turned, and there was now a difference in its note, subtle, but such as made it far more menacing and sinister. Some blow was about to be struck. It was a summons, an order: even these watchers had been made to feel uneasy. He heard one of them steal cautiously further down the path and stand hesitating. . . . And then he began to fear for the inspector. Branluk’s was the danger. His attempt to avoid it, this clumsy picket line. . . . He suddenly began to move forward as quickly as he could go. He had come on an ominous sign—come on another track in the tall grass such as he himself was making, but broader, and made by many crawling men. And it led towards the rendezvous. The Vulture was through the inspector’s guard and about to deliver its blow.
The crushed-down grass was rising in his face. But a minute or two ago had those crawling men preceded him. He was led to a hedge in which a gap had been cut, through which he passed into a long narrow planting, a woody screen that marked the public ground border; and in the thick grass at the roots of the trees men had lain close together—a mustering; men who had newly passed on. Only a hundred yards away was the rendezvous. Without hesitation, he leaped to his feet and yelled
“Look out, Inspector!”
A revolver spoke twice as though in answer. Out of the darkness came the sound of sudden scuffling. Then more revolver shots; snarlings. Caught in the midst of his guards, the inspector was engaged in a grapple with his foes.
Forward he darted to lend his ally assistance. As he left the planting, a man sprang.
Up from the ground the man rose, lunging savagely. But the effort failed. Side-stepping, turning instantly, John Henry kicked out at him—lashed out. Long ago, long before the War, he had come to know that the fist was the poorest of man’s natural weapons. It was a terrible blow that he landed. His assailant dropped with a gasp and lay still. On he darted, and no one else challenged him. But all around, whistles had begun to shrill; the pickets had taken alarm and were closing. He beat them all. Only a few seconds it took him. Yet the scuffle was over when he arrived on the scene, and the attackers were gone, called off by another mimicked cry; and so dark was the night, so quick were they in withdrawing, he did not see one of them—except those who could not go. In a trampled circle of turf three men lay, two close together. At the sound of his footsteps the third man slowly rose—the inspector.
“Foolish of you, young fellow,” he said coolly. “But thanks. You gave me a chance. I was watching this fellow.” He prodded one of the men. He played decoy. Made me think it was you coming. Then that lot dropped on me from behind, just as you called. Made sure of him.”
He lurched forward and laid his hand on John Henry’s shoulder.
“What are you going to do?” he demanded earnestly.
“I’m going to clear out,” John Henry answered him. “What’s your news?”
“I’ll tell you when I see you getting clear,” growled the inspector. “Meanwhile——”
He caught John Henry suddenly by the wrists and held him.
“I’ll get you clear—perhaps,” he promised. “Meanwhile I’m not going to let you play the fool. You can’t getaway just yet. You’re spotted. Listen to them. Gosh! we’ll have to be slick or they’ll get us all yet.”
All round the borders of the park and away into the distance those uncanny bird cries were sounding. Some intelligence was being communicated, an order given, another muster called.
“Sounds healthy for a break away, doesn’t it? Well, you’re not going to try. . . . Grip this fellow, two of you, and don’t let him slip you.”
The pickets had come.
The inspector’s orders were carried out instantly, and held in the midst of four stalwart policemen John Henry stood helpless; but now he did not wish to break away—not yet; for his safety was with the Law. About thirty strong, the policemen formed a compact group on the scene of the scuffle. Not a compact group were others, only a short distance away —men keeping watch—not policemen; men standing perfectly still, invisible in the darkness to all eyes less keen than his own, but forming a picket line very different to that which had been flung out by the inspector; he could never have broken through. And there was a suggestion of moving mass beyond them also, of a mighty gathering of his foes. Even in the midst of his stalwart bodyguard, he felt that he was threatened. Some mischief was brewing; some change had been determined upon in the enemy plans. The men so lately withdrawing were now assembling. It could only be that his presence had become known.
“Better get a move on, Inspector,” he called. “It looks as though a rush was coming.”
No answer came from the inspector, who had disappeared; but he felt his warning affect those near him and make them uneasy.
“The Inspector’s done in,” growled one of those who were holding him.
He twisted round and saw the inspector on the ground, several men bending over him, busy bandaging. The sudden sense of insecureness that he experienced at the sight was his tribute to the worth of his ally, as was his sudden and great relief as he saw him stir and slowly rise. He heard him grunt the order to withdraw.
“Where’s that other man?”—sharp and angry his question.
“What other man, sir?”
“The other man! I winged two of them.”
“There’s only one, sir.”
“Hell! So that’s it! . . . All right. Bring the one. Get a move on. Together.”
In an ordered phalanx the policemen began to move at the double towards the line of lights that marked the road to the town, their front so formidable that the threatened rush was not delivered; but John Henry saw those jackal forms on the flanks keeping pace with them, and though they were suffered to pass undisturbed into the thoroughfare, he had been sure that a second or two before men were massed by the park entrance preparing to dispute the way—a fact of which none of his companions seemed aware, save only, perhaps, the inspector. They might have been beset by a phantom army, so easily and noiselessly their foes were manoeuvring. It was a most impressive manifestation of mobility, order and power. The best of the Vulture’s brood, must be present; all the more must he look to the inspector for his way of escaping—for himself he could see none. Every lurking place into which he might have slipped he was sure was already occupied.
“It’s going to be a bit of a job to get you clear, young fellow,” said the inspector, drawing up alongside of him and taking his arm. “One of those two stiff-uns woke up and crawled away, and I guess they know all about you now. I think I can manage. But why the deuce did you come? Didn’t you see there was something wrong? I shoved pickets out to try to stop you, but of course they were no use. All I could do, short of giving your place away.”
“I struck the trail of that rush and followed up,” said John Henry.
“Did you! Hell! More than I’d have done for you. Though I suppose you wanted my news?”
“So. . . . Strikes me you think a godalmighty lot of that girl to worry. It’s all right. Your old Army pal will be where you want him—eager to see you. There’s a lot coming for you over this. But gosh! they have given me a time. Sniped me all the way back from town. Couldn’t slip them. More than a hundred in the district.”
“Are you hurt?”
“Badly. Stopped half a dozen bullets, to say nothing of the knives. But I’ll manage to keep up for a bit. They left me for done. So I would have been, if I hadn’t learned long ago to wear steel. And you didn’t give them time to make sure. I’m much obliged.”
“But why did you give them their opportunity when you knew there was trouble coming?” John Henry asked bluntly. “I would have kept clear if I had not known you were there.”
The inspector growled, but did not reply.
“They have cut my blasted ear off,” he muttered after a while.
Nor was this any more intelligible. But listening to him growling away to himself, ferocious as a wounded old boar, John Henry guessed the answer to be, that nothing on earth would deter Ernest Branluk from attempting whatsoever he willed.
He did not like the sound of the growling, which grew steadily more and more ferocious. For he was in the inspector’s power, practically a prisoner, and Branluk seemed to be in no good mood for the making of concessions. Was he really to be released and helped to escape, he wondered? And he wondered still more once they reached the police station, the end of their journey. Into a little room the inspector ushered him, where they were left alone, they two, and the dead man. He saw then that the inspector was badly wounded. There was pain in the little eyes, and the very firmness of his mouth was a confession of weakness, his pallor a hint of greater weakness to be. But he surveyed John Henry grimly.
“Hadn’t you better see a doctor at once?” the latter suggested.
“That’s the point. I’m going to be on the shelf for a month or two. What about it?”
“What about it?” said John Henry, instantly taking up the challenge. “You drop out, don’t you?
“Easy for you to say. It’s not easy for me to accept it. Gosh, no!—after what they have put me through.”
“Your one sure chance of haying them wiped out is to get me clear, Inspector,” said John Henry quietly.
“I know. I know, young fellow. I’ve got your measure, and you’re the man for it. But I can’t let you simply slip away and nothing more to it. Its more than I dare do. You must see that. You’ll have to show me more of your cards. Even then, if I let you go, I’m risking my whole career—which I value somewhat, young fellow.”
“Can you get me away?”
“I can give you a start—and that’s about all you should want.”
“Right. I’ll tell you a bit more. But not all?”
“Let’s hear you.”
John Henry leaned forward and whispered for a little while. The inspector listened to him intently—listened and agreed.
“Well?” John Henry asked at the end.
There was admiration, great admiration, in the inspector’s expression, but all he said was: “Gosh!”
He drew paper on to the desk by which he was seated, and wrote painfully on it.
“That address will find me certain,” he said, handing the sheet to John Henry. “Send word to me there, and I’ll clean up behind you.” He gazed at John Henry regretfully. “But I’m sorry that it is to be the way out for you, young fellow. Very sorry. I was hoping to see more of you after this was over. Shake! You’re a man. . . . Now, you just listen to me.”
“Well?” he asked in turn when he had finished speaking. “Do you follow?”
John Henry nodded.
“Will that do your turn?”
“Then I’ll get my men. I’ve fixed them.”
The inspector rang a bell. Entered two policemen, bringing a stretcher on which to bear off the dead man. Out they went with their shrouded burden. With sombre tread they crossed the courtyard surrounding the police station. Fifty yards and more away was the mortuary, built against the rear courtyard-wall. Thither they went. Thence they returned, their burden deposited. Out of the mortuary, on their heels, stole the dead man—John Henry, who had thus been carried beyond ken of those watching the gaol. He had only to glide a few yards in the shadow of the wall before coming to a doorway, through which he passed into a garden, through which he passed into the night’s gloom. In ten stealthy minutes he was in the open country, and free, and behind him, far away, a faint sound, rose a mimicked bird’s cry, that told of a deception but discovered—that might have been a cry of baffled rage. As he hurried off in the direction of the moor, he thought of the inspector: of all that had passed between them from beginning to end. They were kindly thoughts. The man who had come on the scene the object of his distrust and aversion, had ended by trusting him.
When he climbed out of the dip and entered the fastness of the moorland, he had passed beyond the limit of pursuit, and all was well. His risk had been more than justified. The end that he had planned was now sure. But he walked in no exultant fashion. He held to the shadows and kept his gaze down. The nearness of the end was oppressing him. His kindly thoughts had softened the fierceness, bred of his own resolve and the events of the evening; and the way thus made easy, his melancholy had returned. And a blatant moon made him think of the night when he had passed that way with the girl; and this made him think of the night to come, the night following—when she would leave him. He had found a home for her. His way was clear. But where was the exultation with which he had once viewed the prospect? It had gone. Eluding him always the joy of attaining. He had spent his life striving, and the striving had never been worth while. So let it be! The end was soon. . . .
He reached the old ore road and traversed it; he passed into the hollow; he came to the cottage door. His hand up to knock, as he had said to the girl he would, he let it fall without knocking. He opened the door, entered, and locked it behind him, and stood in the porch, looking in. The inner door was open. The lamp was lit in the kitchen. In the yellow radiance his eyes glowed, wolfish and cruel. A wolf had returned to his rifled home. He knew the enemy was within—before he heard the girl cry.
From his room the cry came, and it was a cry of warning. Intermingled an angry snarl, as from one disconcerted by its sound, an ambusher his ambuscade disclosed in sight of the intended victim. Sounded a patter of feet, such as sounds when a lighter wrestler is swung off the ground and down again by a heavier opponent. The girl was in grips and clinging desperately. . . . Then, loud, piercing, and terrible rose a second cry. Not three seconds after the first it sounded, yet it was the cry of the man on whom John Henry’s grip had fastened—the cry of a man who knew he was doomed.
No wolf could have darted more swiftly, more silently to the rescue of his mate, nor found his enemy more surely in the darkness. So suddenly the savage clutch about her was released, so completely the power was taken from her foe, the girl reeled backwards overbalancing, until brought up violently by the wall. Back against it she remained, rigid and staring, staring into the darkness, into the corner where down on the floor something was being done. Her man was there, in grips with another. He was winning. She knew. She had warned him—and who was there who could stand against him, not taken unawares! No cavewoman could have waited more expectantly the result of the contest. She was worked up, wildly excited, hours of fear behind her; in her heart vengefulness and hatred against him who had caused the fear. She had fled to the cellar from the sight of that sinister moonlight, and hidden beneath that great slab from the stealthy foe opening the cottage door. But she had emerged when her man came home emerged to save him. Now he was saving them both, her terrible, invincible man! . . . The scuffling in the corner ceased.
She ran to him. He had won.
Nothing she recked of the anxiety in his call. Victory was what it meant to her, victory and safety. Round his neck went her strong young arms, clasping him so tightly that she drew herself off the ground.
Thus he carried her into the kitchen.
Now she felt his anxiety. Back went her head and she smiled.
“I’m not hurt,” she exclaimed. “You came so quickly—oh, so quickly!” She looked at him proudly. “You are so strong.” Then, fear in her glance, she added: “He was going to shoot you. He was standing by the door in the darkness—there!”
“But what happened, Betty?”
“He came in.”
“In by the front door.”
He stopped, remembering his foreboding. And there came a greater foreboding still. His lair had been found.
“Oh, I didn’t lock it,” she murmured, releasing her clasp: her emotional state kaleidoscopic, guilt had come. “I—I forgot, and then I was so frightened. I hid in the—that place underneath, hours and hours. And then I thought of you coming back. I saw him waiting to shoot you—ever so long. And—and——”
She burst into tears.
“And then you came out and called?”
Round her went his arms. In spite of her fear she had come out of her hiding-place and sprung at the would-be assassin—this brave terrified girl!
She clung to him again, sobbing now, sobbing and sobbing, hysteria rending her, stalking through the hysteria the fear of what had threatened to be. He held her and soothed her, gently caressing her hair On the skin of her neck he suddenly noticed four angry weals, the marks of the fierce clutch that had been put upon her. He stooped and kissed them. It had been for him! She looked up through her tears and smiled.
“Try to bear up, Betty,” he murmured, seeking to take advantage of her greater calm. “You must tell me more.”
But she broke out sobbing as violently as ever.
“Betty!” he said gently. “Do you realize that we are in very great danger?”
That steadied her somewhat. She glanced quickly towards the door of his room, then back at him inquiringly.
“Was he alone?”
“I—I don’t know. I didn’t see. He searched and searched. I—I think there was another who went away. Oh, there must have been! I forgot to tell you.”
She told him of those two men whom she had seen on the road.
And as she told him she gained in control, and the effect of her announcement upon him made her calm assured. She felt him stiffen. She saw the wariness sweep over and darken his features, as a sudden wind the sea. No time this for tears or tenderness. She, as much as he, felt the greatness of their peril, and the need for instant action to escape from what threatened to befall. . . .
“I am sure it was the same men! she exclaimed.
“Both of them.”
“Yes and both would be here. There are never less than two of them together. The other has gone to warn his friends that we are found. They will be down on us any time now. We haven’t a moment to lose. Go to your room and pack a few things, Betty, enough for a day or two. Leave the rest behind. And keep your door shut. Don’t come out until I come for you. I’m going to do something.”
What a man he was, she thought! He had spoken so coolly. He seemed to have everything in control, whatever might occur.
To her room she went, and packed as she was bidden. One part of his instructions she disregarded, however. Before he summoned her, she left her room. . . . Hurriedly she withdrew. He had been out into the hollow and was bringing in burdens—burdens which he had hidden there, several days before. The kitchen was dark and his room was dark also, purposely so, when he called her. He led her through, down into the cellar and left her there, and up above she heard him busy with some preparation, but she did not spy. She had had her lesson. To her he came presently and asked for her watch and the brooch she was wearing—a curious request, with which nevertheless she complied without a curious look or query. Up above he went on with his preparation. Then at last it was done. So swiftly and suddenly he retreated to the cellar, she exclaimed: “Have they come?”
He shook his head.
He was busy fastening the great slab by a bolt which she had not noticed before, and which she now noticed could only be worked from below.
“Not yet, Betty,” he said, coming down the stairs. “But they are near. We are only just in time. Come along.”
They went down the mine.
Where the tunnel debouched on the great central cavern he paused again, and she saw him reach up to a little niche cut in the wall. In the niche was a small leather-bound box from which two wires led—a battery. Something cracked in the tunnel. Out of the mouth blew a puff of smoke, then a slowly drifting cloud. There came a loud sigh and the sound of a fall, as of a weary giant stumbling and sinking down.
“We are safe beyond question, now,” he said quietly “Not that they will ever get beyond that slab. It will hold and they will never know. But this makes sure.”
“Yes,” he added in response to her unspoken question. “I have brought the roof down, and the tunnel is blocked completely. I kept several of the stoops mined, just to be ready. And everything else is ready. We could stay down here for a year.”
He took her arm and led her towards the bridge across the crevasse.
“You are very brave, Betty,” he murmured, pausing, struck with her calm.
“Only with you,” she answered, looking at him steadfastly. “Were I alone I would drop down there. It seems calling to me. I feel as though I had to keep on going down—down and away from those awful men.”
Hastily he led her across the. bridge to the little room.
“Keep saying to yourself that you are very brave,” he bade her earnestly, afraid of her hysteria returning, “and that there is no need to be afraid of them. There is none now. And you are brave.”
“I won’t be afraid while I am with you,” she answered. “But you must not go away from me. You must not let me go. . . . You will not let me go now?”
She laid her hands on his shoulders.
“You will not?”
Peril had stripped her of the last conventional scruple. She was woman, reaching out for him who had shown his strength and goodness, who had upheld her, who could uphold. And as he looked down at the lovely young face so close to his own his heart cried out within him. How could he let her go? Here was love and loveliness offered to him. Why could they not always stay together here in the midst of his moor, down in this mine? they two, the world far away. She was willing. She was pleading with him, she, who had shared his peril, proved herself—fought for him in the end. He had only to take her, only to fold her in his arms and she was his, alway. And loud his heart cried, urging him. . . . And deliberately he told his heart no. Of the granite John Henry, the master-crook, the ruthless slayer of men. Not for the darkness and the solitudes, this girl, but for light and laughter and joy—which he could only give her by letting her go—which she should have!
“I will only let you go when it is safe for you to go, Betty,” he said gently.
She laid her head against his breast, and in a whisper, said: “You must never.”
She felt his arms go tenderly round her. She rested in them. She was content. She knew that what was for her good he would assuredly do; that he desired her good before all things—this much of his resolve she had divined. What she could not conceive was that her good could lie apart from him. Apart from him was nowhere. He could not let her go. They would aways be together. Where could she go? He was her refuge. She would always have need of him. . . . Always!
She started suddenly in his arms—started in terror, reached up and caught him, her need disclosed and emphasized. A cry echoed through the mine.
Down the tunnel it seemed to come, a long drawn-out yell of hatred and rage, growing in volume as the echo sped, made a thousand times more menacing and awful by the great cavern into which the sound burst and resounded.
“They have found us!” she exclaimed. “They are coming. What shall we do?”
He smiled to break her fear, and seeing his smile she smiled also.
“I’m not afraid,” she whispered.
“We are quite safe, Betty,” he told her “That was only our friends arriving and finding we had escaped them. They are in the hollow. There is an entrance up above, which let their row through. Pretty awful, wasn’t it? But that was the effect of the mine.”
“They won’t find the entrance? They won’t be able to come down here?”
“No, never. Come along. We will go and have a look at them.”
“Oh, no! Don’t go,” she begged him fearfully.
“There’s no danger, Betty.”
“Mightn’t they see us?”
“No. You know that hill above the gully, the one that cliffs? . . . The entrance is there, high up. It is invisible from the hollow. This tunnel leads up to it, right through the hill. Come on, Betty. We must see what happens.”
Still fearful, still inclined to hang back, she went with him; she was curious too.
He turned out the light and they went along the tunnel, into the darkness, he, one arm round her waist, one hand clasping her arm, holding and guiding her, lifting her aside, lifting her forward, making easy and sure her way and saving her from all harm. Into the base of the hill they went, then up, the tunnel rising steeply, into its heart. Presently the tunnel ended. Up they still climbed, still in the darkness, still in the hill. Soon they were clambering, as up a steep mountain side, now helped by a ladder, now by what seemed a narrow chine; and she felt space behind her, and would have been giddy but for the certainty of his arm. They were scaling the side of a huge fissure within the mountain, like to that cavern but sloping and not so formed. They came at last to the top, to a cave, whose entrance was in the cliff, a narrow way, which let in light enough for them to see. And the light was a soft red glow. She looked through the entrance and down, down many hundreds of feet, and saw the cottage below—in flames.
“The cottage! Look! . . . The brutes!” she exclaimed. “They have set it on fire.”
The flames were leaping upward, lighting all the hollow, a furious bonfire; already the roof was fallen in, the fire feasting greedily on the debris and the rich, stores. Not in the few minutes they had taken to climb to their outlook had such progress been made, and she realized this immediately she had spoken.
“I set it on fire,” he said, telling her that which she was about to inquire. “That is why I had to hurry so. I had soaked all the rooms with paraffin. Doesn’t it burn? It will burn itself out soon.”
“Your home!” she murmured.
He shook his head.
“Where I stayed, and it is serving its purpose—better than I thought it ever would. Do you see them?”
“Straight below us. . . . There.”
She sighted along his pointing finger and saw, kneeling together, and so still that they had seemed but a shadow of the hollow, five men.
“Are these all?” she whispered. “I thought there were, ever so—oh!” she exclaimed in alarm, as up from beneath, as though from the base of the cliff, itself, rose another fierce cry.
“That’s more of them coming,” he said reassuringly. “We’re not discovered. They have just sighted the fire, and feel as angry as the others. Here they come.”
Into the hollow, in a long loping line, came thirty or forty men. They drew up near the five in an ordered body, trained men, waiting for orders. Presently they knelt down to wait and watch like the others. Towards them, out of the wood, came a single man, who approached the five and conferred with them, and then departed whence he came. As though summoned by him, from the wood soon afterwards broke a straggling crowd.
“That’s the crowd that yelled first,” he said. “They have been searching the wood and found it too much for them by darkness.”
“What a lot of them there are,” she murmured, nestling closer to him.
“Sit down here, Betty,” he said. “You will see just as well. No. Here’s a better place. Let me help you.”
He lifted her up on to a ledge where she could sit and see, and once he had got her comfortably ensconced, he climbed up beside her. High up, seated well back in the gloom of the cave, they were safe from view. But they could see.
“What a lot of them there are,” she repeated, unable to rid her mind of its notion of the power of their foes. “Will they search when day comes?”
“They will search what is left of the cottage—and then they will go away.”
“Away?” She turned and looked at him inquiringly, he spoke with such conviction. Then, suddenly enlightened, she exclaimed: “What a wonderful mind you have got! You think of everything, and so quickly.”
He had blinded their trail again.
Now she understood the nature of the preparation he had made, the reason for his bringing in those burdens that had made her so hurriedly, withdraw from the sight of them. Three people their foes had expected to find in the hollow—the two they had sought for so eagerly, and the man, the would-be assassin, who had stayed behind in the cottage while his colleague went for aid. They would search the burnt-out cottage for trace of him, at any rate—and they would find trace of three. And one would be wearing her jewellery, her watch and her brooch. It was so simple, yet so convincing; so easy to reconstruct the scene—a return of the wanted pair to the cottage where the watcher waited, a fight, an upsetting of the lamp, a fire, and then those traces. . . . Yes, they would go away! The peril was at an end.
Contentedly she leaned more against him, relaxing with the passing of the strain under which she had been labouring. He passed his arm around her. It was very nice, she thought, to sit up there with him, looking down on their baffled foe. She felt very comfortable, very secure. He was such a source of strength and comfort, such a certainty. Those hundred or so men down there, what were they to him! . . . Softer and softer grew the glow of the fire. More and more comfortable she became. She slept. When she awakened it was near evening of the following day.
She awakened in darkness and called for him. At once he replied. He lit a lamp. She looked around and saw the room down in the mine. Then he explained. He had carried her down.
“And we are safe now,” he continued. “They have gone away.”
“All of them?”
“All of them, hours ago.”
“And the cottage?”
“Is nothing but ash and stone now. It burned itself out soon after dawn. There was so much paraffin, and it burned quickly. Then there was rain for an hour or so, and that let them begin searching quite early. They went away—perfectly satisfied.”
“How splendid!” she murmured.
He made some food ready, and they ate it together. She was very thoughtful during the meal.
“Well?” he asked, inquisitive after a long silence.
“What a shame it is that the cottage had to be burned,” she answered.
“It was a stout little place, but I have no regrets,” he assured her. “And look what its burning has done!”
“I liked my little room.”
He flashed her a quick glance of gratitude. She had liked her room! She had been happy with him He had wanted her to be happy.
“We are meeting friends to-night,” he told her later. “You will need to come with me—a long way Nearly eight miles. Do you think you will manage? I can’t leave you here.”
“Of course I will manage. Look how I managed the last time?”
He smiled at her archness, but his heart was heavy.
“We are meeting General Manby.”
“General Manby! I know him,” she exclaimed. “Is he going to help?”
“I thought at first it was to be the inspector. He did not come back with you last night. Isn’t he coming? You met him, didn’t you?”
“Yes, but he is not coming back. General Manby is the result of his activities. The big move against our friends is beginning, Betty. I think they will be feeling very sorry for themselves in a little while.”
“I’m sure I hope so,” she murmured. “Is the General coming here ? . . . . Of course he is not, as we are meeting him! But what is he going to do?”
“You wait and see, Miss Pry,”he answered, smiling. “I haven’t asked you much,” she said reproachfully. But she asked no more, and soon afterwards they left the mine. They left by the way of the cave in the cliff, he climbing out ahead and pulling her up by means of a rope to the top of the precipice. She was trembling when she reached the top. It had seemed to her a sheer wall.
“There is quite an easy way up,” he assured her, conscious of the effect the ascent had on her though she had not spoken and had thought the darkness had concealed her perturbation. “Had it been daylight, I don’t know that I would have needed to hoist you.”
“It is the getting down again that is worrying me more now,” she murmured.
“You don’t need to worry the least little bit about that,” he answered; and she sensed no guile in the reply.
They crossed the moor to the road by the tarn. Near the road he left her well hidden, and scouted through the gorse down the dip towards the thicket.
“The General is there,” he said. “I do not want to see him. Will you go, Betty? Give him these letters. You needn’t be afraid. He is a friend.”
“I’m not afraid. Certainly I will go.”
He gave her two letters. One was addressed to herself. Little she knew!
“He is standing by his car about fifty yards along,” he told her. “If he has any instructions, carry them out.”
She left him. He stole away from the road. It was better this way, he thought. Much better! How could he tell her? Could he ever have said good-bye! But he waited, listening, hidden in the moor. He heard her quick footsteps as she raced back to where he had been. He heard her cry, the bitter, incredulous, heart-broken cry of a child deceived by a friend. There followed silence, her cry cut short of her own accord. Soon he heard the engine purring. To the road he hurried and crouched by its margin. Above the noise of the passing car he heard her sobbing. He lay still among the gorse and wet grasses a long time, a lonely man.
At last he rose and headed over the moor, his face towards the mine. And he hurried. He had much to do, and that night must see him beginning a journey, the long way south to his enemies’ hold. He was free and unfettered. The way was clear. In the midst of his loneliness and desolation his fierce spirit stirred . . . he would strike hard.
He lay on the bank of the Thames in the darkness, the darkling river rippling above his knees. A mighty flood had broken among the hills; the river had risen and was rising fast; but he had not stirred—it was a friend, its touch a touch of fellowship and understanding, a promise of aid. For there is that in a night-bound river that makes it a friend of the heavy-laden, and kin to them. It is an honest weary heart, toiling on; it is an earnest seeking soul, still seeking, toiling on in the darkness for what the day has not given, seeking there, coming at last to the sea, where all is lost, where nothing is found. There is that which soothes, for it goes on. It is a symbol of eternal endeavour, of ceaseless striving. Through light, through darkness, it goes on. . . .
From light through darkness his life had flowed, and he had striven; he had lived, when Life was hostile and Death a friend; he had toiled on. Now he was reaching his sea, the end to his striving, perhaps rest and quiet, perhaps forgetfulness. A mile downstream was a house whose lights shone through trees, his enemies’ hold where his enemies were assembled, he had watched them come by dark and silent ways, silent men, a throng. Presently he would go to them, borne on this friendly river’s bosom. It was calling on him to come; it was pulling him, its clamorous rush and strum a summons and an assurance—one effort more, and then the end. To his waist its waters rose, pulling stronger. He slid into their embrace. The time had come. Turning quickly, he stroked into mid-stream, and was carried down.
Quickly he travelled, quickly neared his goal. Nearer the other bank he drew, until, one strong stroke would have carried him within arm’s length. Under the surface he slipped from view, having judged his distance well. He slid with the eddy into that boathouse creek. No guard on the bridge, he dived under the boathouse door. Unchallenged, unseen, he climbed down into the beginning of that secret way that led to his enemies’ lair; and as he climbed down he breathed of the fragrance, that sweet familiar perfume, and on his ears the sound of chaunting fell. In the great Chamber of the Wall and the Great Bird, those vulturish rites were being performed; the Children were assembled for the last time.
To-morrow they had planned to strike. To-night he would strike at them. Then the inspector would come to clean up behind him; in the morning he would come, or send. In the morning John Henry’s letter would be delivered, his promise fulfilled, the whereabouts of this house on the river made known. To-morrow the Law would come pacing ponderously in, following the way that the master-crook had wrought!
He remained at the head of the tunnel for several minutes, crouching down by the river barrier, while louder and louder grew the voice of the river, promising, assuring him of aid. He seemed to wind up his watch when the minutes were sped, for there sounded the sharp crick-crick of ratchet and cog-wheel. He seemed to be leaving his watch behind, for something ticktick-ticked at his feet when he rose—a subdued sound, subdued by the river’s roaring, only audible to him because he knew what was there. He stole away, and down near the foot of the ladder that scaled the dam the tick-tick-ticking went on.
Down the tunnel he stole, towards the underground chamber, growing more and more vociferous the chaunting, thicker the brazier fumes. But such a din met his ears, when he came to the well where rose that stairway, that he stopped. Not men, but ogre gods seemed worshipping—or men and ogre gods.
High-pitched, authoritative, a single voice, that priest’s would speak. Sonorous, forth would break the responses, the swelling murmur of many worshippers answering, the waxing roar of a breaking sea. Then the gods would speak—the echoes of the vaulted hall—many voices, high-pitched, authoritative, many times magnified; then the echoed responses, booming stentorian; an uncanny, appalling hubbub, yet with an intoxicating influence of its own as potent as that of the perfume from those brazier fires. Here was the purpose of that pear-shaped chamber, here its design explained. It was a temple of sound, a place where the stunned dazed minds of its worshippers might be played upon and lured into communion with the master-mind. And up in that niche! There the master-mind would be enthroned, the master man—his foe.
He stole up the stairs.
At the top a light burned.
It lit the passage from niche to mansion; it showed him that the rearward way was empty. One quick glance sufficed, a glance taken as he mounted the last step and turned without pause in the other direction. There, thick hangings closed the entrance to the alcove, soft and velvety. Soft-footed he approached them. He drew them gently aside and slipped within. Within was an inner screen of corded crystal, that shone many-coloured, transfused by the light of the chamber. He made an aperture and looked.
There sat his foe.
A tall, spare, silent figure, sinister, mysterious; a lurker sallow of skin and hawk-like of feature—thus he had seen Carse in the past. Now he saw him in the flush of his triumph, an Oriental despot, regally clad. Silken his robe, brocaded, bejewelled, his throne a divan, on his head a turban flashing with the fire of gems, he sat giving audience, removed from, set high above his creatures, an imperial figure, demanding from them awe and reverence. A bright white light, shed by the lamp above, flooded the alcove. Through the red haze they would see him, a shining resplendent form, Pomp, Power, and Majesty personified, a demigod.
Through the red haze John Henry saw them—a massed multitude of men.
He withdrew his finger, and the aperture closed.
He stood between the two screens.
Before him was the man who had blasted his name and reputation, robbed him of his happiness and brought bitterness into his heart. He had only to leap and his strong fingers would have him; he could crush out the viperish life, exact his due, and fling the dross of his vengeance down into the midst of that multitude before a preventing hand could be raised. But the leap was not made. He waited—waited with a purpose. Up at the tunnel-end that ticking thing had yet to tick away a little while, the little while allowed by him in which to make certain his enemy had come. Easy to wait when all was so sure. At hand, his hour. In the nether darkness the avenger stood, as in that frenzied dream. In the chamber waxed the pulsing hubbub; the strange cries, the stranger echoes, growing wilder, more triumphant, more assured; tenser the silences. In a silence his hour struck. He pulled aside the screen.
The tinkle of the crystal carried a warning. The man he sought heard and turned round. Unexpected the sound; not thus, nor here, was he wont to be approached by those who served him; on his face was pride and sternness; pride of power, sternness against the so daring intruder. But as he saw and recognized, fear came, and amazement. He started up. . . . “MacLean!” he whispered.
After all those years he remembered the face of the boy he had wronged.
His hand withdrew beneath his robe. John Henry saw the stealthy movement and leaped. Broke out the strident clamour of the echoes, drowning the noise of the revolver discharges. From beneath his robe Carse fired, and twice his bullets struck home.
John Henry felt their numbing buffets, but the power of his leap carried him on. He crashed into his enemy, overthrowing him completely. Down he went with him. Together, in violent collision, they struck the balcony balustrade. Under the shock it collapsed and broke away, the whole length of it. They were left struggling on the verge of an unprotected ledge, in full view of the multitude. Over Carse rolled, and fell. Out darted John Henry’s hands and clutched him. Lying on the balcony floor, head and shoulders out over the chamber, he held his enemy by the throat —with hands that would not hold. Carse slipped from between his stiffening fingers and dropped down.
But the tail of the great image was only a few feet beneath him. Upright, he alighted. Unharmed, he ran down the back of the bird, and slid under its breast from view. Safely he descended. John Henry saw him stride forward on the stage below. And the multitude rose in rage.
So suddenly had his attack been launched, so quickly it had ended, the overcast minds of the worshippers had not been able to comprehend what had happened until their leader appeared before them. Now a roar burst from their throats, a furious bellow, that blotted out the last thunderous boom of the echoed responses. Up on to the stage they swarmed. In two surging columns they rushed forward and began to pour round on either side the screen. They were coming for him yet he could not stir; helpless, he watched them, yet he smiled. Another sound that roar had made inaudible to them! Up in the niche he had had heard it. Up at the tunnel-end it had sounded, another bellow—now another roaring, growing louder and louder. That ticking thing had done its work. It had blown up the dam in the nick of time, and down the tunnel the river was rushing to his aid.
The god that barred the secret way was torn from its pivot as the first of his would-be assailants reached for its arms to swing it round. It hurtled forward. After it, like a devouring monster springing and pawing the victim down, poured a huge foaming belch of brown water, that leaped across the shrine and banged like a solid mass against the partition on which the Vulture was poised. The stout structure quivered and staggered. Over went the great image, and down.
But the gleaming steel beak imbedded itself in the floor of the stage and acted as a stay, and like an island on the lip of a fall the image stood immovable, while round on either side poured the flood and rushed over the stage in two tossing, roaring, raging streams, mountain torrents in spate, dam bursts alive with drowning men, those attackers, overborne and overwhelmed by a force as great as they were great compared to the one wounded helpless man.
Prone on the balcony floor, unable to move, he watched them go; watched the greater mass attacked, the huge, heaving, wriggling human slides that the twin onslaughts thrust into its midst, the spreading quivers as the gushes swirled over the floor of the chamber to merge and coalesce—all the first sudden signs of debacle. Then he forgot the general overthrow and saw the end of one man alone—the end of Carse, fallen in his own pitfall, slain by his own gin—judged by his own gods. For the Vulture had swooped and struck, and its great beak was pinning down its spoil. Face downwards on the platform, writhing, but held, Carse was impaled. . . . The merciful waters flowed over his head and he drowned.
The light died then in John Henry’s eyes and the chamber grew dark; he did not see the end. He did not see the clawing pyramid of human forms which formed against the further wall, whose summit shrank, but rose with the rising waters, until it could rise no more. He did not hear the last wild despairing cry. But when all was over he woke for a little while and saw the waters only a few feet beneath him. Soon he, too, would drown. The thought brought no fear. Nothing stirred on the black gleaming surface; he had wreaked his revenge. The thought brought no exultation. What was in his heart was gladness—that, for he had made the world safe for a girl.
After many hours he woke again, and the black gleaming surface of the flood was still below him. It was motionless. Into his languid mind the notions struggled that the water had ceased to rise, and would rise no further, its level now the level of the river. Then what had wakened him claimed his attention, and he knew that the police had come. He was aware of movement in the alcove and of cautious voices, then of an exclamation as his prone form was seen. Gentle hands lifted him on to the divan. Over him bent a queer figure, at sight of whom his mind nearly grew dark again, for it was the figure of a dream, a man whose head was gnome-like with bandages, whose body was strapped and misshapen, whose arm was bound to his side; a man almost as sorely wounded as himself, who had yet come to this house by the river, out of his eagerness—out of his anxiety and regard.
“Got you, young fellow,” said the figure. “I’ve been hoping. Gosh!”
It was the inspector.
Laughing, John Henry slipped into the darkness.
Thereafter came many awakenings, but first he lay for a long time unconscious, while a grim fight was waged. Death struggled fiercely for him. Despair sat by his bedside in the hearts of those who watched the struggle and strove to lend aid. Only the strength of him pulled him through, his strength of body and will. For he willed to live, Sometimes the shadow lifted and then he dreamed, and from the dreams came power; for in them a fair girl seemed to stand at his bedside, smiling down on him, soothing him tenderly; a girl whom he called by the name of a dead girl and who answered to the name; and in her presence was an old promise, in her tenderness an old joy—with the eagerness and zest of a boy, he fought for life and won. He awoke, remembering, and in his first waking moments he called for her by her name.
A nurse answered the call. Many days were to pass before the girl could come. She had nursed him past his crisis. Worn out with the strain, and the earlier strain, she had collapsed as soon as his danger was gone. She was very ill. But she wrote to him—two words, “I knew.” They were an answer to his letter. He had told her what his later life had been. And she had known! That day of the downfall she must have discovered his secret, was his thought. And afterwards, in spite of her discovery, she had laid her head on his breast and told him he must never leave her! . . . He lay wondering, growing strong, waking more each day.
They came to him, the familiar folk of his youth, the grey, the middle-aged, the men of his year. Old friendships were renewed—which had never been broken; much had been done for him that he had not known. Much more would have been done had he not disappeared. That he had been guilty of disgraceful conduct had not been believed. He had left Simla suddenly—unexpectedly—going straight from the place of his confinement to Clara’s home—and straight on, anywhere. Had he delayed an hour he would never have been suffered to go. The truth had been suspected; efforts were being made to clear his name before his dishonour was spoken. And afterwards—! Many things had been done shining out amongst them his uncle’s endeavour. At first John Henry could scarcely believe. The cold hard man, the stern guardian of his boyhood, had gone out India and died, searching the bazaars.
And now the whole truth was known. Clara had written to General Manby before she died, telling the story, and enclosing in her letter the note that had betrayed. . . . “And she knows,” General Manby said to him. “She told me to tell you.” A bluff old fellow this General, gruff but kindly. In his home John Henry lay, in his son’s room, an only son, dead in the War. “There’s a future yet for you, my boy,” he had added. . . . “Have you decided yet?”
It was a question he had often asked. The future was open to John Henry, whichever way he chose. Great men had come bringing thanks and offerings. His warning had been acted upon, and the peril of the Vulture stayed. What his reward should be, he had only to say.
He had made his decision; but he had kept it in his heart.
He would go away.
For there were things in his life which men might overlook, which he could never. He had made restitution. His outlawry was unknown. But—it had been. He would go away, for a time, at anyrate: to his moor, perhaps, perhaps further, unless—? Day after day he lay, wondering.
Often he said the word aloud, questioning himself, but he could not complete the condition. He did not try. He had ceased his striving. He was in a haven where he might be quiet for a little while, quiet in body and mind and soul, and he was glad to lie quiet—just wondering.
Thoughts came to him, and he let them come: queer thoughts, sometimes. He remembered his struggle with the river, when he turned and strove to keep those lights in view, his promise of something worth while— when the river had borne him on. He had always been borne on, away from whatsoever he had striven to gain. Yet he had kept striving; he had kept afloat when he might have let himself drown. And it seemed now that he had the riddle of life clearer—man striving in a rushing stream, striving towards a light, and being borne somewhere while he strives; not to the goal desired—but somewhere: into a quiet backwater, perhaps, where he might rest, where he might refresh himself, perchance for further strivings—but always the greater power cribbing his inclinations, always the greater purpose modifying his desires.
So in the haven whither he had been borne he was content to lie for a time, resting, growing stronger, waiting. Sorrow came to him, vain regrets, little twinges of bitterness; for there were scars on his heart that could never be effaced, old wounds whose pangs would never die; yet peace was entering into his soul, also, and softening his sorrow was sweetness. In Cawnpore there is a garden where once was a well and the house Bibi-garh. The well was once a charnel pit, the house a house of woe; there are many little mounds which tell the tale. Yet where the horror stalked are pleasant lawns, and flowers grow, and trees cast shade. It is a lovely place. Memory lingers wistfully but Time smiles. And in every wounded heart Time can plant such a garden, and over the deepest scars——
She came one morning when the scent of early roses was in his room, a radiant girl. She bent above him and smiled through tears. Gently she caressed his wasted cheeks.
“John,” she murmured. “Dear, wonderful John.”
And his wondering ceased. She raised him in her arms and laid his head on her bosom, and mothered him.
And over the deepest scars, Love may set flowers to bloom.