A ROGUE BY COMPULSION
An Affair of the Secret Service
By VICTOR BRIDGES
With Frontispiece By JOHN H. CASSEL
[Illustration: “A CURTAIN AT THE END OF THE ROOM WAS DRAWN SLOWLY ASIDE, AND THERE, STANDING IN THE GAP, I SAW THE SLIM FIGURE OF A GIRL.”
Drawn by John H. Cassel.]
THAT BEST OF FRIENDS
I. A BOLT FOR FREEDOM
II. A BICYCLE AND SOME OVERALLS
III. A DUBIOUS REFUGE
IV. ECHOES OF A FAMOUS CASE
V. AN OFFER WITHOUT AN ALTERNATIVE
VI. THE FACE OF A STRANGER
VII. A KISS AND A CONFESSION
VIII. RT. HON. SIR GEORGE FRINTON, P.C.
IX. THE MAN WITH THE SCAR
X. MADEMOISELLE VIVIEN, PALMIST
XI. BRIDGING THREE YEARS OF SEPARATION
XII. A SCRIBBLED WARNING
XIII. REGARDING MR. BRUCE LATIMER
XIV. A SUMMONS FROM DR. McMURTRIE
XV. A HUMAN “CATCH”
XVI. CONFRONTING THE INTRUDER
XVII. THE WORKSHOP ON THE MARSHES
XVIII. A NEW CLUE TO AN OLD CRIME
XIX. LAUNCHING A NEW INVENTION
XX. APPROACHING A SOLUTION
XXI. SONIA’S SUDDEN VISIT
XXII. THE POLICE TAKE ACTION
XXIII. IN THE NICK OF TIME
XXV. A LITTLE FAMILY PARTY
A BOLT FOR FREEDOM
Most of the really important things in life–such as love and death–happen unexpectedly. I know that my escape from Dartmoor did.
We had just left the quarries–eighteen of us, all dressed in that depressing costume which King George provides for his less elusive subjects–and we were shambling sullenly back along the gloomy road which leads through the plantation to the prison. The time was about four o’clock on a dull March afternoon.
In the roadway, on either side of us, tramped an armed warder, his carbine in his hand, his eyes travelling with dull suspicion up and down the gang. Fifteen yards away, parallel with our route, the sombre figure of one of the civil guards kept pace with us through the trees. We were a cheery party!
Suddenly, without any warning, one of the warders turned faint. He dropped his carbine, and putting his hand to his head, stumbled heavily against the low wall that separated us from the wood. The clatter of his weapon, falling in the road, naturally brought all eyes round in that direction, and seeing what had happened the whole eighteen of us instinctively halted.
The gruff voice of the other warder broke out at once, above the shuffling of feet:
“What are you stopping for? Get on there in front.”
From the corner of my eye I caught sight of the civil guard hurrying towards the prostrate figure by the wall; and then, just as the whole gang lurched forward again, the thing happened with beautiful abruptness.
A broad, squat figure shot out suddenly from the head of the column, and, literally hurling itself over the wall, landed with a crash amongst the thick undergrowth. There was a second shout from the warder, followed almost instantly by a hoarse command to halt, as the civil guard jerked his carbine to his shoulder.
The fugitive paid about as much attention to the order as a tiger would to a dog whistle. He was off again in an instant, bent almost double, and bursting through the tangled bushes with amazing swiftness.
The charge of buckshot whistled after him, spattering viciously through the twigs, and several of the bolder spirits in the gang at once raised a half-hearted cry of “Murder!”
“Stop that!” bawled the warder angrily, and to enforce his words he quickened his steps so as to bring him in touch with the offenders.
As he did so, I suddenly perceived with extraordinary clearness that I should never again get quite such a good chance to escape. The other men were momentarily between me and the warder, while the civil guard, his carbine empty, was plunging through the trees in pursuit of his wounded quarry.
It was no time for hesitation, and in any case hesitation is not one of my besetting sins. I recollect taking one long, deep breath: then the next thing I remember is catching my toe on the top of the wall and coming the most unholy purler in the very centre of an exceptionally well armoured blackberry bush.
This blunder probably saved my life: it certainly accounted for my escape. The warder who evidently had more nerve than I gave him credit for, must have fired at me from where he was, right between the heads of the other convicts. It was only my abrupt disappearance from the top of the wall that saved me from being filled up with lead. As it was, the charge whistled over me just as I fell, and a devilish unpleasant noise it made too.
I didn’t wait for him to reload. I was out of that bush and off up the hill in rather less time than it takes to read these words. Where I was going I scarcely thought; my one idea was to put as big a distance as possible between myself and the carbine before its owner could ram home a second cartridge.
As I ran, twisting in and out between the trees, and keeping my head as low as possible, I could hear behind me a hoarse uproar from my fellow-convicts, who by this time were evidently getting out of hand. No sound could have pleased me better. The more boisterous the good fellows became the less chance would the remaining warder have of worrying about me. As for the civil guard–well, it seemed probable that his time was already pretty fully engaged.
My chief danger lay in the chance that there might be other warders in the immediate neighbourhood. If so, they would doubtless have heard the firing and have come running up at the first alarm. I looked back over my shoulder as I reached the top of the plantation, which was about a hundred yards from the road, but so far as I could see there was no one as yet on my track.
My one chance lay in reaching the main wood that borders the Tavistock road before the mounted guard could come up. Between this and the plantation stretched a long bare slope of hillside, perhaps two hundred yards across, with scarcely enough cover on it to hide a rabbit. It was not exactly an inviting prospect, but still the place had to be crossed, and there was nothing to be gained by looking at it. So setting my teeth I jumped out from under the shelter of the trees, and started off as fast as I could pelt for the opposite side.
I had got about half-way over when there came a sudden shout away to the right. Turning my head as I ran, I saw through the thin mist a figure in knickerbockers and a Norfolk jacket vaulting over the low gate that separated the moor from the road.
I suppose he was a tourist, for he had a small knapsack fastened to his back and he was carrying a stick in his hand.
“Tally-ho!” he yelled, brandishing the latter, and then without hesitation he came charging across the open with the obvious intention of cutting me off from the wood.
For the first time in three years I laughed. It was not a pretty laugh, and if my new friend had heard it, his ardour in the chase might perhaps have been a trifle cooled. As it was he came on with undiminished zest, apparently quite confident in his ability to tackle me single-handed.
We met about ten yards this side of the nearest trees.
He rushed in on me with another “whoop,” and I saw then that he was a big, powerful, red-faced fellow of a rather coarse sporting type–the kind of brute I’ve always had a peculiar dislike for.
“Down you go!” he shouted, and suiting the action to the word, he swung back his stick and lashed out savagely at my head.
I didn’t go down. Instead of that I stepped swiftly in, and striking up his arm with my left hand, I let him have my right bang on the point of the chin. Worlds of concentrated bitterness were behind it, and he went over backwards as if he had been struck by a coal-hammer.
It did me a lot of good, that punch. It seemed to restore my self-respect in a way that nothing else could have done. You must have been a convict yourself, shouted at and ordered about like a dog for three weary years, to appreciate the full pleasure of being able once more to punch a man in the jaw.
At the moment, however, I had no time to analyze my feelings. Almost before the red-faced gentleman’s shoulders had struck the ground I had reached the railing which bounded the wood, and putting one hand on the top bar had vaulted over into its inviting gloom.
Then, just for an instant, I stopped, and, like Lot’s wife, cast one hasty glance behind me. Except for the motionless form of my late adversary, who appeared to be studying the sky, the stretch of moor that I had just crossed was still comfortingly empty. So far no pursuing warder had even emerged from the plantation. With a sigh of relief I turned round again and plunged forward into the thickest part of the tangled brake ahead.
It would have been difficult to find a better temporary hiding-place than the one I had reached. Thick with trees and undergrowth, which sprouted up from between enormous fissures and piles of granite rock, it stretched away for the best part of a mile and a half parallel with the main road. I knew that even in daylight the warders would find it no easy matter to track me down: at this time in the afternoon, with dusk coming rapidly on, the task would be an almost impossible one.
Besides, it was starting to rain. All the afternoon a thick cloud had been hanging over North Hessary, and now, as scratched and panting I forced my way on into the ever-increasing gloom, a fine drizzle began to descend through the trees. I knew what that meant. In half an hour everything would probably be blotted out in a wet grey mist, and, except for posting guards all round the wood, my pursuers would be compelled to abandon the search until next morning. It was the first time that I had ever felt an affection for the Dartmoor climate.
Guessing rather than judging my way, I stumbled steadily forward until I reached what I imagined must be about the centre of the wood. By this time I was wet through to the skin. The thin parti-coloured “slop” that I was wearing was quite useless for keeping out the rain, a remark that applied with almost equal force to my prison-made breeches and gaiters. Apart from the discomfort, however, I was not much disturbed. I have never been an easy victim to chills, and three years in Princetown had done nothing to soften a naturally tough constitution.
Still there was no sense in getting more soaked than was necessary, so I began to hunt around for some sort of temporary shelter. I found it at last in the shape of a huge block of granite, half hidden by the brambles and stunted trees which had grown up round it. Parting the undergrowth and crawling carefully in, I discovered at the base a kind of hollow crevice just long enough to lie down in at full length.
I can’t say it was exactly comfortable, but penal servitude has at least the merit of saving one from being over-luxurious. Besides, I was much too interested in watching the steady thickening of the mist outside to worry myself about trifles. With a swiftness which would have been incredible to any one who didn’t know the Moor, the damp clammy vapour was settling down, blotting out everything in its grey haze. Except for the dripping brambles immediately outside I could soon see absolutely nothing; beyond that it was like staring into a blanket.
I lay there quite motionless, listening very intently for any sound of my pursuers. Only the persistent drip, drip of the rain, however, and the occasional rustle of a bird, broke the silence. If there were any warders about they were evidently still some way from my hiding-place, but the odds were that they had postponed searching the wood until the fog lifted.
For the first time since my leap from the wall I found myself with sufficient leisure to review the situation. It struck me that only a very hardened optimist could describe it as hopeful. I had made my bolt almost instinctively, without stopping to think what chances I had of getting away. That these were meagre in the extreme was now becoming painfully clear to me. Even if I managed to slip out of my present hiding-place into the still larger woods of the Walkham Valley, the odds were all in favour of my ultimate capture. No escaped prisoner had ever yet succeeded in retaining his liberty for more than a few days, and where so many gentlemen of experience had tried and failed it seemed distressingly unlikely that I should be more fortunate.
I began to wonder what had happened to Cairns, the man whose dash from the ranks had been responsible for my own effort. I knew him to be one of the most resourceful blackguards in the prison, and, provided the civil guard’s first shot had failed to stop him, it was quite likely that he too had evaded capture. I hoped so with all my heart: it would distract quite a lot of attention from my own humble affairs.
If he was still at liberty, I couldn’t help feeling enviously how much better his chances of escape were than mine. In order to get away from the Moor it was plainly necessary to possess oneself of both food and clothes, and I could think of no other way of doing so except stealing them from some lonely farm. At anything of this sort I was likely to prove a sorry bungler compared with such an artist as Cairns. He was one of the most accomplished cracksmen in England, and feats which seemed impossible to me would probably be the merest child’s play to him.
Still it was no good worrying over what couldn’t be helped. My first job was to get safely into the Walkham woods; after that it would be quite time enough to think about turning burglar.
I sat up and looked out into the mist. Things were as bad as ever, and quite suddenly it struck me with considerable force that by lying low in this fashion I was making a most unholy idiot of myself. Here I was growing cold and stiff, and wasting what was probably the best chance I should ever have of reaching Walkhampton. In fact I was playing right into the hands of the warders.
With an impatient exclamation I jumped to my feet. The only question was, could I find my way out of the wood, and if I did, how on earth was I to strike the right line over North Hessary? It was quite on the cards I might wander back into Princetown under the happy impression that I was going in exactly the opposite direction.
For a moment I hesitated; then I made up my mind to risk it. After all the fog was as bad for the warders as it was for me, and even if I failed to reach the Walkham Valley I should probably find some other equally good shelter before it lifted. In either case I should have the big advantage of having changed my hiding-place.
Buttoning up my slop, I advanced carefully through the dripping brambles. One could see rather less than nothing, but so far as I could remember the main Tavistock road was on my right-hand side. This would leave North Hessary away to the left; so turning in that direction I set my teeth and took my first step forward into the darkness.
I don’t suppose you have ever tried walking through a wood in a fog, but you can take my word for it that a less enjoyable form of exercise doesn’t exist. I have often wondered since how on earth I managed to escape a sprained ankle or a broken neck, for carefully as I groped my way forward it was quite impossible to avoid all the numerous crevices and overhanging boughs which beset my path.
I must have blundered into about fourteen holes and knocked my head against at least an equal number of branches, before the trees at last began to thin and the darkness lighten sufficiently to let me see where I was placing my feet. I knew that by this time I must be getting precious near the boundary of the wood, outside which the warders were now doubtless posted at frequent intervals. So I stopped where I was and sat down quietly on a rock for a few minutes to recover my breath, for I had been pretty badly shaken and winded by my numerous tumbles.
As soon as I felt better I got up again, and taking very particular care where I was treading, advanced on tiptoe with a delicacy that Agag might have envied. I had taken about a dozen steps when all of a sudden the railings loomed up in front of me through the mist.
I put my hand on the top bar, and then paused for a moment listening breathlessly for any sound of danger. Except for the faint patter of the rain, however, everything was as silent as the dead. Very carefully I raised myself on the bottom rail, lifted my legs over, one after the other, and then dropped lightly down on to the grass beyond.
As I did so a man rose up suddenly from the ground like a black shadow, and hurling himself on me before I could move, clutched me round the waist.
“Got yer!” he roared. Then at the top of his voice–“Here he is! Help! Help!”
A BICYCLE AND SOME OVERALLS
I was taken so utterly by surprise that nothing except sheer strength saved me from going over. As it was I staggered back a couple of paces, fetching up against the railings with a bang that nearly knocked the breath out of me. By a stroke of luck I must have crushed my opponent’s hand against one of the bars, for with a cry of pain he momentarily slackened his grip.
That was all I wanted. Wrenching my left arm free, I brought up my elbow under his chin with a wicked jolt; and then, before he could recover, I smashed home a short right-arm punch that must have landed somewhere in the neighbourhood of his third waistcoat button. Anyhow it did the business all right. With a quaint noise, like the gurgle of a half-empty bath, he promptly released me from his embrace, and sank down on to the grass almost as swiftly and silently as he had arisen.
I doubt if a more perfectly timed blow has ever been delivered, but unfortunately I had no chance of studying its effects. Through the fog I could hear the sound of footsteps–quick heavy footsteps hurrying towards me from either direction. For one second I thought of scrambling back over the railings and taking to the wood again. Then suddenly a kind of mischievous exhilaration at the danger gripped hold of me, and jumping over the prostrate figure on the ground I bolted forwards into the mist. The warders, who must have been quite close, evidently heard me, for from both sides came hoarse shouts of “There he goes!” “Look out there!” and other well-meant pieces of advice.
It was a funny sort of sensation dodging through the fog, feeling that at any moment one might blunder up against the muzzle of a loaded carbine. The only guide I had as to my direction was the slope of the ground. I knew that as long as I kept on going uphill I was more or less on the right track, for the big granite-strewn bulk of North Hessary lay right in front of me, and I had to cross it to get to the Walkham Valley.
On I went, the ground rising higher and higher, until at last the wet slippery grass began to give way to a broken waste of rocks and heather. I had reached the top, and although I could see nothing on account of the mist, I knew that right below me lay the woods, with only about a mile of steeply sloping hillside separating me from their agreeable privacy.
Despite the cold and the wet and the fact that I was getting devilish hungry, my spirits somehow began to rise. Good luck always acts on me as a sort of tonic, and so far I had certainly been amazingly lucky. I felt that if only the rain would clear up now and give me a chance of getting dry, Fate would have treated me as handsomely as an escaped murderer had any right to expect.
Making my way carefully across the plateau, for the ground was stiff with small holes and gullies and I had no wish to sprain my ankle, I began the descent of the opposite side. The mist here was a good deal thinner, but night was coming on so rapidly that as far as seeing where I was going was concerned I was very little better off than I had been on the top of the hill.
Below me, away to the right, a blurred glimmer of light just made itself visible. This I took to be Merivale village, on the Tavistock road; and not being anxious to trespass upon its simple hospitality, I sheered off slightly in the opposite direction. At last, after about twenty minutes’ scrambling, I began to hear a faint trickle of running water, and a few more steps brought me to the bank of the Walkham.
I stood there for a little while in the darkness, feeling a kind of tired elation at my achievement. My chances of escape might still be pretty thin, but I had at least reached a temporary shelter. For five miles away to my left stretched the pleasantly fertile valley, and until I chose to come out of it all the warders on Dartmoor might hunt themselves black in the face without finding me.
I can’t say exactly how much farther I tramped that evening. When one is stumbling along at night through an exceedingly ill-kept wood in a state of hunger, dampness, and exhaustion, one’s judgment of distance is apt to lose some of its finer accuracy. I imagine, however, that I must have covered at least three more miles before my desire to lie down and sleep became too poignant to be any longer resisted.
I hunted about in the darkness until I discovered a small patch of fairly dry grass which had been more or less protected from the rain by an overhanging rock. I might perhaps have done better, but I was too tired to bother. I just dropped peacefully down where I stood, and in spite of my bruises and my soaked clothes I don’t think I had been two minutes on the ground before I was fast asleep.
* * * * *
Tommy Morrison always used to say that only unintelligent people woke up feeling really well. If he was right I must have been in a singularly brilliant mood when I again opened my eyes.
It was still fairly dark, with the raw, sour darkness of an early March morning, and all round me the invisible drip of the trees was as persistent as ever. Very slowly and shakily I scrambled to my feet. My head ached savagely, I was chilled to the core, and every part of my body felt as if it had been trampled on by a powerful and rather ill-tempered mule.
I was hungry too–Lord, how hungry I was! Breakfast in the prison is not exactly an appetizing meal, but at that moment the memory of its thin gruel and greasy cocoa and bread seemed to me beautiful beyond words.
I looked round rather forlornly. As an unpromising field for foraging in, a Dartmoor wood on a dark March morning takes a lot of beating. It is true that there was plenty of water–the whole ground and air reeked with it–but water, even in unlimited quantities, is a poor basis for prolonged exertion.
There was nothing else to be got, however, so I had to make the best of it. I lay down full length beside a small spring which gurgled along the ground at my feet, and with the aid of my hands lapped up about a pint and a half. When I had finished, apart from the ache in my limbs I felt distinctly better.
The question was what to do next. Hungry or not, it would be madness to leave the shelter of the woods until evening, for not only would the warders be all over the place, but by this time everyone who lived in the neighbourhood would have been warned of my escape. My best chance seemed to lie in stopping where I was as long as daylight lasted, and then staking everything on a successful burglary.
It was not a cheerful prospect, and before the morning was much older it seemed less cheerful still. If you can imagine what it feels like to spend hour after hour crouching in the heart of a wood in a pitiless drizzle of rain, you will be able to get some idea of what I went through. If I had only had a pipe and some baccy, things would have been more tolerable; as it was there was nothing to do but to sit and shiver and grind my teeth and think about George.
I thought quite a lot about George. I seemed to see his face as he read the news of my escape, and I could picture the feverish way in which he would turn to each edition of the paper to find out whether I had been recaptured. Then I began to imagine our meeting, and George’s expression when he realized who it was. The idea was so pleasing that it almost made me forget my present misery.
It must have been about midday when I decided on a move. In a way I suppose it was a rash thing to do, but I had got so cursedly cramped and cold again that I felt if I didn’t take some exercise I should never last out the day. Even as it was, my legs had lost practically all feeling, and for the first few steps I took I was staggering about like a drunkard.
Keeping to the thickest part of the wood, I made my way slowly forward; my idea being to reach the top of the valley and then lie low again until nightfall. My progress was not exactly rapid, for after creeping a yard or two at a time I would crouch down and listen carefully for any sounds of danger. I had covered perhaps a mile in this spasmodic fashion when a gradual improvement in the light ahead told me that I was approaching open ground. A few steps farther, and through a gap in the trees a red roof suddenly came into view, with a couple of chimney-pots smoking away cheerfully in the rain.
It gave me a bit of a start, for I had not expected to run into civilization quite so soon as this. I stopped where I was and did a little bit of rapid thinking. Where there’s a house there must necessarily be some way of getting at it, and the only way I could think of in this case was a private drive up the hill into the main Devonport road. If there was such a drive the house was no doubt a private residence and a fairly large one at that.
With infinite precaution I began to creep forward again. Between the trunks of the trees I could catch glimpses of a stout wood paling about six feet high which apparently ran the whole length of the grounds, separating them from the wood. On the other side of this fence I could hear, as I drew nearer, a kind of splashing noise, and every now and then the sound of somebody moving about and whistling.
The last few yards consisted of a strip of open grass marked by deep cart-ruts. Across this I crawled on my hands and knees, and getting right up against the fence began very carefully to search around for a peep-hole. At last I found a tiny gap between two of the boards. It was the merest chink, but by gluing my eye to it I was just able to see through.
I was looking into a square gravel-covered yard, in the centre of which a man in blue overalls was cleaning the mud off a small motor car. He was evidently the owner, for he was a prosperous, genial-looking person of the retired Major type, and he was lightening his somewhat damp task by puffing away steadily at a pipe. I watched him with a kind of bitter jealousy. I had no idea who he was, but for the moment I hated him fiercely. Why should he be able to potter around in that comfortable self-satisfied fashion, while I, Neil Lyndon, starved, soaked, and hunted like a wild beast, was crouching desperately outside his palings?
It was a natural enough emotion, but I was in too critical a position to waste time in asking myself questions. I realized that if burglary had to be done, here was the right spot. By going farther I should only be running myself into unnecessary risk, and probably without finding a house any more suitable to my purpose.
I squinted sideways through the hole, trying to master the geography of the place. On the left was a high bank of laurels, and just at the corner I could see the curve of the drive, turning away up the hill. On the other side of the yard was a small garage, built against the wall, while directly facing me was the back of the house.
I was just digesting these details, when a sudden sigh from the gentleman in the yard attracted my attention. He had apparently had enough of cleaning the car, for laying down the cloth he had been using, he stepped back and began to contemplate his handiwork.
It was not much to boast about, but it seemed to be good enough for him. At all events he came forward again, and taking off the brake, proceeded very slowly to push the car back towards the garage. At the entrance he stopped for a moment, and going inside brought out a bicycle which he leaned against the wall. Then he laboriously shoved the car into its appointed place, put back the bicycle, and standing in the doorway started to take off his overalls.
I need hardly say I watched him with absorbed interest. The sight of the bicycle had sent a little thrill of excitement tingling down my back, for it opened up possibilities in the way of escape that five minutes before had seemed wildly out of reach. If I could only steal the machine and the overalls as well, I should at least stand a good chance of getting clear away from the Moor before I was starved or captured. In addition to that I should be richer by a costume which would completely cover up the tasteful but rather pronounced pattern of my clothes.
My heart beat faster with excitement as with my eye pressed tight to the peep-hole I followed every movement of my unconscious quarry. Whistling cheerfully to himself, he stripped off the dark blue cotton trousers and oil-stained jacket that he was wearing and hung them on a nail just inside the door. Then he gave a last look round, presumably to satisfy himself that everything was in order, and shutting the door with a bang, turned the key in the lock.
I naturally thought he was going to stuff that desirable object into his pocket, but as it happened he did nothing of the kind. With a throb of half-incredulous delight I saw that he was standing on tiptoe, inserting it into some small hiding-place just under the edge of the iron roof.
I didn’t wait for further information. At any moment someone might have come blundering round the corner of the paling, and I felt that I had tempted Fate quite enough already. So, abandoning my peep-hole, I turned round, and with infinite care crawled back across the grass into the shelter of the trees.
Once there, however, I rolled over on the ground and metaphorically hugged myself. The situation may not appear to have warranted such excessive rapture, but when a man is practically hopeless even the wildest of possible chances comes to him like music and sunshine. Forgetting my hunger and my wet clothes in my excitement, I lay there thinking out my plan of action. I could do nothing, of course, until it was dark: in fact it would be really better to wait till the household had gone to bed, for several of the back windows looked right out on the garage. Then, provided I could climb the paling and get out the bicycle without being spotted, I had only to push it up the drive to find myself on the Devonport road.
With this comforting reflection I settled myself down to wait. It was at least four hours from darkness, with another four to be added to that before I dared make a move. Looking back now, I sometimes wonder how I managed to stick it out. Long before dusk my legs and arms had begun to ache again with a dull throbbing sort of pain that got steadily worse, while the chill of my wet clothes seemed to eat into my bones. Once or twice I got up and crawled a few yards backwards and forwards, but the little additional warmth this performance gave me did not last long. I dared not indulge in any more violent exercise for fear that there might be warders about in the wood.
What really saved me, I think, was the rain stopping. It came to an end quite suddenly, in the usual Dartmoor fashion, and within half an hour most of the mist had cleared off too. I knew enough of the local weather signs to be pretty certain that we were in for a fine night; and sure enough, half an hour after the sun had set a large moon was shining down from a practically cloudless sky.
From where I was lying I could, by raising my head, just see the two top windows of the house. About ten, as near as I could judge, somebody lit a candle in one of these rooms, and then coming to the window drew down the blind. I waited patiently till I saw this dull glimmer of light disappear, then, with a not unpleasant throb of excitement, I crawled out from my hiding-place and recrossed the grass to my former point of observation. Very gingerly I lifted myself up and peered over the top of the paling. The yard was in shadow, and so far as I could see the back door and all the various outbuildings were locked up for the night.
Under ordinary circumstances I could have cleared that blessed paling in about thirty seconds, but in my present state of exhaustion it proved to be no easy matter. However, with a mighty effort I at last succeeded in getting my right elbow on the top, and from that point I managed to scramble up and hoist myself over. Then, keeping a watchful eye on the windows, I advanced towards the garage.
I found the key first shot. It was resting on a little ledge under the roof, and a thrill of joy went through me as my fingers closed over it. I pushed it into the keyhole, and very carefully I turned the lock.
It was quite dark inside, but I could just see the outline of the overalls hanging on the nail. I unhooked them, and placing the coat on the ground I drew on the oily trousers over my convict breeches and stockings. I could tell by the feel that they covered me up completely.
As I picked up the coat something rattled in one of the side pockets. I put my hand in and pulled out a box of wax matches, which despite the dampness of the garment still seemed dry enough to strike. For a moment I hesitated, wondering whether I dared to light one. It was dangerous, especially if there happened to be a window looking out towards the house, but on the other hand I badly wanted a little illumination to see what I was doing.
I decided to risk it, and closing the door, struck one against the wall. It flared up, and shading it with my hand I cast a hasty glance round the garage. The bicycle was leaning against a shelf just beyond me, and on a nail above it I saw an old disreputable-looking cap. I pounced on it joyfully, for it was the one thing I needed to complete my disguise. Then, wheeling the bicycle past the car, I blew out the match and reopened the door.
Stepping as noiselessly as possible on the gravel, I pushed the bike across the yard. There was a large patch of moonlight between me and the end of the drive, and I went through it with a horrible feeling in the small of my back that at any moment someone might fling up a window and bawl out, “Stop thief!” Nothing of the kind occurred, however, and with a vast sense of thankfulness I gained the shelter of the laurels.
The only thing that worried me was the thought that there might be a lodge at the top. If so I was by no means out of the wood. Even the most guileless of lodge-keepers would be bound to think it rather curious that I should be creeping out at this time of night accompanied by his master’s bicycle.
Keeping one hand against the bushes to guide me, and pushing the machine with the other, I groped my way slowly up the winding path. As I came cautiously round the last corner I saw with a sigh of relief that my fears were groundless. A few yards ahead of me in the moonlight was a plain white gate, and beyond that the road.
I opened the gate with deliberate care, and closed it in similar fashion behind me. Then for a moment I stopped. I was badly out of breath, partly from weakness and partly from excitement, so laying the machine against the bank I leaned back beside it.
Everything was quite still. On each side of me the broad, white, moonlit roadway stretched away into the night, flanked by a row of telegraph poles which stood out like gaunt sentries. It was curious to think that they had probably put in a busy day’s work, carrying messages about me.
There was a lamp on the front bracket, and as soon as I felt a little better I took out my matches and proceeded to light it. Then, wheeling my bike out into the roadway, I turned in the direction of Devonport and mounted. I felt a bit shaky at first, for, apart from the fact that I was worn out and pretty near starving, I had not been on a machine for over three years. However, after wobbling wildly from side to side, I managed to get the thing going, and pedalled off down the centre of the road as steadily as my half-numbed senses would allow.
For perhaps a quarter of a mile the ground kept fairly level, then, breasting a slight rise, I found myself at the top of a hill. I shoved on the brake and went slowly round the first corner, where I got an unexpected surprise. From this point the road ran straight away down through a small village, across a bridge over the river, and up a short steep slope on the farther side.
I took in the situation at a glance, and, releasing my brake, I let the old bike have her head. It certainly wouldn’t suit me to have to dismount in the village and walk up the opposite slope, and I was much too exhausted to do anything else unless I could take it in a rush.
Down I went, the machine flying noiselessly along and gathering pace every yard. I had nearly reached the bottom and was just getting ready to pedal, when all of a sudden, I caught sight of something that almost paralyzed me. Right ahead, in the centre of the village square, stood a prison warder. His back was towards me and I could see the moonlight gleaming on the barrel of his carbine.
A DUBIOUS REFUGE
I was going so fast that everything seemed to happen simultaneously. I had one blurred vision of him spinning round and yelling to me to stop: then the next moment I had flashed past him and was racing across the bridge.
Whether he recognized me for certain I can’t say. I think not, or he would probably have fired sooner than he did: as it was, my rush had carried me three quarters of the way up the opposite hill before he could make up his mind to risk a shot.
Bang went his carbine, and at the same instant, with a second loud report, the tire of my back wheel abruptly collapsed. It was a good shot if he had aimed for it, and what’s more it came unpleasantly near doing the trick. The old bike swerved violently, but with a wild wrench I just succeeded in righting her. For a second I heard him shouting and running behind me, and then, working like a maniac, I bumped up the rest of the slope, and disappeared over the protecting dip at the top.
Of my progress for the next mile or so I have only the most confused recollection. It was like one of those ghastly things that occasionally happen to one in a nightmare. I just remember pedalling blindly along, with the back wheel grinding and jolting beneath me and the moonlit road rising and falling ahead. It must have been more instinct than anything else that kept me going, for I was in the last stages of hunger and weariness, and most of the time I scarcely knew what I was doing.
At last, after wobbling feebly up a long slope, I found I had reached the extreme edge of the Moor. Right below me the road dropped down for several hundred feet into a broad level expanse of fields and woods. Six or seven miles away the lights of Plymouth and Devonport threw up a yellow glare into the sky, and beyond that again I could just see the glint of the moonlight shining on the sea.
It was no good stopping, for I knew that in an hour or so the mounted warders would be again on my track. So clapping on both brakes, I started off down the long descent, being careful not to let the machine get away with me as it had done on the previous hill.
At the bottom, which I somehow reached in safety, I found a sign-post with two hands, one marked Plymouth and the other Devonport. I took the latter road, why I can hardly say, and summoning up my almost spent energies I pedalled off shakily between its high hedges.
How I got as far as I did remains a mystery to me to this day. I fell off twice from sheer weakness, but on each occasion I managed to drag myself back into the saddle again, and it was not until my third tumble, that I decided I could go no farther.
I was in a dark stretch of road bounded on each side by thick plantations. It was a good place to lie up in, but unfortunately there was another and more pressing problem in front of me. Half delirious as I was, I realized that unless I could find something to eat that night my career as an escaped convict was pretty near its end.
I picked myself up, and with a great effort managed to drag the bicycle to the side of the road. Then, clutching the rail that bounded the plantation, I began to stagger slowly forward along the slightly raised path. I think I had a sort of vague notion that there might be something to eat round the next corner.
I had progressed in this fashion for perhaps forty yards, when quite unexpectedly both the trees and the railings came to an end. I remained swaying and half incredulous for a moment: then I began to realize that I was standing in front of an open gate looking up an exceedingly ill-kept drive. At the end of this drive was a house, and the moonlight shining full on the front of it showed me that the whole place had about as forlorn and neglected an appearance as an inhabited building could very well possess. That it was inhabited there could be no doubt, for in the small glass square above the hall door I could see a feeble glimmer of light.
No one could have called it an inviting-looking place, but then I wasn’t exactly waiting for invitations where a chance of food was concerned. I just slipped in at the gate, and keeping well in the shadow of the bushes that bounded the drive, I crept slowly and unsteadily forward until I reached a point opposite the front door. I crouched there for a moment, peering up at the house. Except for that flickering gas jet there was no sign of life anywhere; all the windows were shuttered or else in complete darkness.
At first I had a wild idea of ringing the bell and pretending to be a starving tramp. Then I remembered that my description had no doubt been circulated all round the neighbourhood, and that if there was any one in the place they would probably recognize me at once as the missing convict. This choked me off, for though as a rule I have no objection to a slight scuffle, I felt that in my present condition the average housemaid could knock me over with the flick of a duster.
The only alternative scheme that suggested itself to my numbed mind was to commit another burglary. There was a path running down the side of the house, which apparently led round to the back, and it struck me that if I followed this I might possibly come across an unfastened window. Anyhow, it was no good waiting about till I collapsed from exhaustion, so, getting on my feet, I slunk along the laurels as far as the end of the drive, and then crept across in the shadow of an overhanging tree.
I made my way slowly down the path, keeping one hand against the wall, and came out into a small square yard, paved with cobbles, where I found myself looking up at the back of the house. There was a door in the middle with two windows on either side of it, and above these several other rooms–all apparently in complete darkness.
I was beginning to feel horribly like fainting, but by sheer will-power I managed to pull myself together. Going up to the nearest window I peered through the pane. I could see the dim outline of a table with some plates on it just inside, and putting my hand against the bottom sash I gave it a gentle push. It yielded instantly, sliding up several inches with a wheezy rattle that brought my heart into my mouth.
For a moment or two I waited, listening intently for any sound of movement within the house. Then, as nothing happened, I carefully raised the sash a little higher, and poked my head in through the empty window-frame.
It was the kitchen all right: there could be no doubt about that. A strong smell of stale cooking pervaded the warm darkness, and that musty odour brought tears of joy into my eyes. I took one long luxurious sniff, and then with a last effort I hoisted myself up and scrambled in over the low sill.
As my feet touched the floor there was a sharp click. A blinding flash of light shot out from the darkness, striking me full in the face, and at the same instant a voice remarked quietly but firmly: “Put up your hands.”
I put them up.
There was a short pause: then from the other end of the room a man in a dressing-gown advanced slowly to the table in the centre. He was holding a small electric torch in one hand and a revolver in the other. He laid down the former with the light still pointing straight at my face.
“If you attempt to move,” he remarked pleasantly, “I shall blow your brains out.”
With this he walked to the side of the room, struck a match against the wall, and reaching up turned on the gas.
I was much too dazed to do anything, even if I had had the chance. I just stood there with my hands up, rocking slightly from side to side, and wondering how long it would be before I tumbled over.
My captor remained for a moment under the light, peering at me in silence. He seemed to be a man of about sixty–a thin, frail man with white hair and a sharp, deeply lined face. He wore gold-rimmed pince-nez, behind which a pair of hard grey eyes gleamed at me in malicious amusement.
At last he took a step forward, still holding the revolver in his hand.
“A stranger!” he observed. “Dear me–what a disappointment! I hope Mr. Latimer is not ill?”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but his voice sounded very far away.
“If you keep me standing like this much longer,” I managed to jerk out, “I shall most certainly faint.”
I saw him raise his eyebrows in a sort of half-mocking smile.
“Indeed,” he said, “I thought–“
What he thought I never heard, for the whole room suddenly went dim, and with a quick lurch the floor seemed to get up and spin round beneath my feet. I suppose I must have pitched forward, for the last thing I remember is clutching wildly but vainly at the corner of the kitchen table.
* * * * *
My first sensation on coming round was a burning feeling in my lips and throat. Then I suddenly realized that my mouth was full of brandy, and with a surprised gulp I swallowed it down and opened my eyes.
I was lying back in a low chair with a cushion under my head. Standing in front of me was the gentleman in the dressing-gown, only instead of a revolver he now held an empty wine-glass in his hand. When he saw that I was recovering he stepped back and placed it on the table. There was a short pause.
“Well, Mr. Lyndon,” he said slowly, “and how are you feeling now?”
A hasty glance down showed me that the jacket of my overalls had been unbuttoned at the neck, exposing the soaked and mud-stained prison clothes beneath. I saw that the game was up, but for the moment I was too exhausted to care.
My captor leaned against the end of the table watching me closely.
“Are you feeling any better?” he repeated.
I made a feeble attempt to raise myself in the chair. “I don’t know,” I said weakly; “I’m feeling devilish hungry.”
He stepped forward at once, his lined face breaking into something like a smile.
“Don’t sit up. Lie quite still where you are, and I will get you something to eat. Have you had any food today?”
I shook my head. “Only rain-water,” I said.
“You had better start with some bread and milk, then. You have been starving too long to eat a big meal straight away.”
Crossing the room, he pushed open a door which apparently led into the larder, and then paused for a moment on the threshold.
“You needn’t try to escape,” he added, turning back to me. “I am not going to send for the police.”
“I don’t care what you do,” I whispered, “as long as you hurry up with some grub.”
Lying there in the sort of semi-stupor that comes from utter exhaustion, I listened to him moving about in the larder apparently getting things ready. For the moment all thoughts of danger or recapture had ceased to disturb me. Even the unexpected fashion in which I was being treated did not strike me as particularly interesting or surprising: my whole being was steeped in a sense of approaching food.
I saw him re-enter the room, carrying a saucepan, which he placed on a small stove alongside the fireplace. There was the scratching of a match followed by the pop of a gas-ring, and half-closing my eyes I lay back in serene and silent contentment.
I was aroused by the chink of a spoon, and the splash of something liquid being poured out. Then I saw my host coming towards me, carrying a large steaming china bowl in his hand.
“Here you are,” he said. “Do you think you can manage to feed yourself?”
I didn’t trouble to answer. I just seized the cup and spoon, and the next moment I was wolfing down a huge mouthful of warm bread and milk that seemed to me the most perfect thing I had ever tasted. It was followed rapidly by another and another, all equally beautiful.
My host stood by watching me with a sort of half-amused interest.
“I shouldn’t eat it quite so fast,” he observed. “It will do you more good if you take it slowly.”
The first few spoonfuls had already partly deadened my worst pangs, so following his advice I slackened down the pace to a somewhat more normal level. Even then I emptied the bowl in what I think must have been a record time, and with a deep sigh I handed it to him to replenish.
I was feeling better–distinctly better. The food, the rest in the chair, and the comparative warmth of the room were all doing me good in their various ways, and for the first time I was beginning to realize clearly where I was and what had happened.
I suppose my host noticed the change, for he looked at me in an approving fashion as he gave me my second helping.
“There you are,” he said in that curious dry voice of his. “Eat that up, and then we’ll have a little conversation. Meanwhile–” he paused and looked round–“well, if you have no objection I think I will shut that window. I daresay you have had enough fresh air for today.”
I nodded–my mouth was too full for any more elaborate reply–and crossing the room he closed the sash and pulled down the blind.
“That’s better,” he observed, gently rubbing his hands together; “now we are more comfortable and more private. By the way, I don’t think I have introduced myself yet. My name is McMurtrie–Doctor McMurtrie.”
“I am charmed to meet you,” I said, swallowing down a large chunk of bread.
He nodded his head, smiling. “The pleasure is a mutual one, Mr. Lyndon–quite a mutual one.”
The words were simple and smooth enough in themselves, but somehow or other the tone in which they were uttered was not altogether to my taste. It seemed to carry with it the faint suggestion of a cat purring over a mouse. Still I was hardly in a position to be too fastidious, so I accepted his compliment, and went on calmly with my bread and milk.
With the same rather catlike smile Dr. McMurtrie drew up a chair and sat down opposite to me. He kept his right hand in his pocket, presumably on the revolver.
“And now,” he said, “perhaps you have sufficiently recovered to be able to tell me a little about yourself. At present my knowledge of your adventures is confined to the account of your escape in this morning’s _Daily Mail_.”
I slowly finished the last spoonful of my second helping, and placed the cup beside me on the floor. It was a clumsy device to gain time, for now that the full consciousness of my surroundings had returned to me, I was beginning to think that Dr. McMurtrie’s methods of receiving an escaped convict were, to say the least, a trifle unusual. Was his apparent friendliness merely a blind, or did it hide some still deeper purpose, of which at present I knew nothing?
He must have guessed my thoughts, for leaning back in his chair he remarked half-mockingly: “Come, Mr. Lyndon, it doesn’t pay to be too suspicious. If it will relieve your mind, I can assure you I have no immediate intention of turning policeman, even for the magnificent sum of–how much is it–five pounds, I believe? On mere business grounds I think it would be underrating your market value.”
The slight but distinct change in his voice in the last remark invested it with a special significance. I felt a sudden conviction that for some reason of his own Dr. McMurtrie did not intend to give me up–at all events for the present.
“I will tell you anything you want to know with pleasure,” I said. “Where did the _Daily Mail_ leave off?”
He laughed curtly, and thrusting the other hand into his pocket pulled out a silver cigarette-case.
“If I remember rightly,” he said, “you had just taken advantage of the fog to commit a brutal and quite unprovoked assault upon a warder.” He held out the case.
“But try one of these before you start,” he added. “They are a special brand from St. Petersburg, and I think you will enjoy them. There is nothing like a little abstinence to make one appreciate a good tobacco.”
With a shaking hand I pressed the spring. It was three years since I had smoked my last cigarette–a cigarette handed me by the inspector in that stuffy little room below the dock, where I was waiting to be sentenced to death.
If I live to be a hundred I shall never forget my sensations as I struck the match which my host handed me and took in that first fragrant mouthful. It was so delicious that for a moment I remained motionless from sheer pleasure; then lying back again in my chair with a little gasp I drew another great cloud of smoke deep down into my lungs.
The doctor waited, watching me with a kind of cynical amusement.
“Don’t hurry yourself, Mr. Lyndon,” he observed, “pray don’t hurry yourself. It is a pleasure to witness such appreciation.”
I took him at his word, and for perhaps a couple of minutes we sat there in silence while the blue wreaths of smoke slowly mounted and circled round us. Then at last, with a delightful feeling of half-drugged contentment, I sat up and began my story.
I told it him quite simply–making no attempt to conceal or exaggerate anything. I described how the idea of making a bolt had come suddenly into my mind, and how I had acted on it without reflection or hesitation. Step by step I went quietly through my adventures, from the time when the fog had rolled down to the moment when, half fainting with hunger and exhaustion, I had climbed in through his kitchen window.
Leaning on the arm of his chair, he listened to me in silence. As far as any movement or change of expression was concerned a statue could scarcely have betrayed less interest, but all the time the steady gleam of his eyes never shifted from my face.
When I had finished he remained there for several seconds in the same attitude. Then at last he gave a short mirthless laugh.
“It must be pleasant to be as strong as you are,” he said. “I should have been dead long ago.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Well, I don’t exactly feel like going to a dance,” I answered.
He got up and walked slowly as far as the window, where he turned round and stood staring at me thoughtfully. At last he appeared to make up his mind.
“You had better go to bed,” he said, “and we will talk things over in the morning. You are not fit for anything more tonight.”
“No, I’m not,” I admitted frankly; “but before I go to bed I should like to feel a little more certain where I’m going to wake up.”
There was a faint sound outside and I saw him raise his head. It was the distant but unmistakable hum of a motor, drawing nearer and nearer every moment. For a few seconds we both stood there listening: then with a sudden shock I realized that the car had reached the house and was turning in at the drive.
Weak as I was I sprang from my chair, scarcely feeling the thrill of pain that ran through me at the effort.
“By God!” I cried fiercely, “you’ve sold me!”
He whipped out the revolver, pointing it full at my face.
“Sit down, you fool,” he said. “It’s not the police.”
ECHOES OF A FAMOUS CASE
Whatever my intentions may have been–and they were pretty venomous when I jumped up–the revolver was really an unnecessary precaution. Directly I was on my feet I went as giddy as a kite, and it was only by clutching the chair that I saved myself from toppling over. I was evidently in a worse way than I imagined.
Lowering his weapon the doctor repeated his order.
“Sit down, man, sit down. No one means you any harm here.”
“Who is it in the car?” I demanded, fighting hard against the accursed feeling of faintness that was again stealing through me.
“They are friends of mine. They have nothing to do with the police. You will see in a minute.”
I sat down, more from necessity than by choice, and as I did so I heard the car draw up outside the back door.
Crossing to the window the doctor threw up the sash.
“Savaroff!” he called out.
There came an answer in a man’s voice which I was unable to catch.
“Come in here,” went on McMurtrie. “Don’t bother about the car.” He turned back to me. “Drink this,” he added, pouring out some more brandy into the wine-glass. I gulped it down and lay back again in my chair, tingling all through.
He took my wrist and felt my pulse for a moment. “I know you are feeling bad,” he said, “but we’ll get your wet clothes off and put you to bed in a minute. You will be a different man in the morning.”
“That will be very convenient,” I observed faintly.
There was a noise of footsteps outside, the handle of the door turned, and a man–a huge bear of a man in a long Astrachan coat–strode heavily into the room. He was followed by a girl whose face was almost hidden behind a partly-turned-back motor veil. When they caught sight of me they both stopped abruptly.
“Who’s this?” demanded the man.
Dr. McMurtrie made a graceful gesture towards me with his hand. “Allow me,” he said, “to introduce you. Monsieur and Mademoiselle Savaroff–our distinguished and much-sought-after friend Mr. Neil Lyndon.”
The big man gave a violent start, and with a little exclamation the girl stepped forward, turning back her veil. I saw then that she was remarkably handsome, in a dark, rather sullen-looking sort of way.
“You will excuse my getting up,” I said weakly. “It doesn’t seem to agree with me.”
“Mr. Lyndon,” explained the doctor, “is fatigued. I was just proposing that he should go to bed when I heard the car.”
“How in the name of Satan did he get here?” demanded the other man, still staring at me in obvious amazement.
“He came in through the window with the intention of borrowing a little food. I had happened to see him in the garden, and being under the natural impression that he was–er–well, another friend of ours, I ventured to detain him.”
Savaroff gave a short laugh. “But it’s incredible,” he muttered.
The girl was watching me curiously. “Poor man,” she exclaimed, “he must be starving!”
“My dear Sonia,” said McMurtrie, “you reflect upon my hospitality. Mr. Lyndon has been faring sumptuously on bread and milk.”
“But he looks so wet and ill.”
“He is wet and ill,” rejoined the doctor agreeably. “That is just the reason why I am going to ask you to heat some water and light a fire in the spare bedroom. We don’t want to disturb Mrs. Weston at this time of night. I suppose the bed is made up?”
Sonia nodded. “I think so. I’ll go up and see anyhow.”
With a last glance at me she left the room, and Savaroff, taking off his coat, threw it across the back of a chair. Then he came up to where I was sitting.
“You don’t look much like your pictures, my friend,” he said, unwinding the scarf that he was wearing round his neck.
“Under the circumstances,” I replied, “that’s just as well.”
He laughed again, showing a set of strong white teeth. “Yes, yes. But the clothes and the short hair–eh? They would take a lot of explaining away. It was fortunate for you you chose this house–very fortunate. You find yourself amongst friends here.”
I didn’t like the man–there was too great a suggestion of the bully about him, but for all that I preferred him to McMurtrie.
It was the latter who interrupted. “Come, Savaroff, you take Mr. Lyndon’s other arm and we’ll help him upstairs. It is quite time he got out of those wet things.”
With their joint assistance I hoisted myself out of the chair and, leaning heavily on the pair of them, hobbled across to the door. Every step I took sent a thrill of pain through me, for I was as stiff and sore as though I had been beaten all over with a walking-stick. The stairs were a bit of a job too, but they managed to get me up somehow or other, and I found myself in a large sparsely furnished hall lit by one ill-burning gas jet. There was a door half open on the left, and through the vacant space I could see the flicker of a freshly lighted fire.
They helped me inside, where we found the girl Sonia standing beside a long yellow bath-tub which she had set out on a blanket.
“I thought Mr. Lyndon might like a hot bath,” she said. “It won’t take very long to warm up the water.”
“Like it!” I echoed gratefully; and then, finding no other words to express my emotions, I sank down in an easy chair which had been pushed in front of the fire.
I think the brandy that McMurtrie had given me must have gone to my head, or perhaps it was merely the sudden sense of warmth and comfort coming on top of my utter fatigue. Anyhow I know I fell gradually into a sort of blissful trance, in which things happened to me very much as they do in a dream.
I have a dim recollection of being helped to pull off my soaked and filthy clothes, and later on of lying back with indescribable felicity in a heavenly tub of hot water.
Then I was in bed and somebody was rubbing me, rubbing me all over with some warm pungent stuff that seemed to take away the pain in my limbs and leave me just a tingling mass of drowsy contentment.
After that–well, after that I suppose I fell asleep.
* * * * *
I base this last idea upon the fact that the next thing I remember is hearing some one say in a rather subdued voice: “Don’t wake him up. Let him sleep as long as he likes–it’s the best thing for him.”
Whereupon, as was only natural, I promptly opened my eyes.
Dr. McMurtrie and the dark girl were standing by my bedside, looking down at me.
I blinked at them for a moment, wondering in my half-awake state where the devil I had got to. Then suddenly it all came back to me.
“Well,” said the doctor smoothly, “and how is the patient today?”
I stretched myself with some care. I was still pretty stiff, and my throat felt as if some one had been scraping it with sand-paper, but all the same I knew that I was better–much better.
“I don’t think there’s any serious damage,” I said hoarsely. “How long have I been asleep?”
He looked at his watch. “As far as I remember, you went to sleep in your bath soon after midnight. It’s now four o’clock in the afternoon.”
I started up in bed. “Four o’clock!” I exclaimed. “Good Lord! I must get up–I–“
He laid his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t be foolish, my friend,” he said. “You will get up when you are fit to get up. At the present moment you are going to have something to eat.” He turned to the girl. “What are you thinking of giving him?” he asked.
“There are plenty of eggs,” she said, “and there’s some of that fish we had for breakfast.” She answered curtly, almost rudely, looking at me while she spoke. Her manner gave me the impression that for some reason or other she and McMurtrie were not exactly on the best of terms.
If that was so, he himself betrayed no sign of it. “Either will do excellently,” he said in his usual suave way, “or perhaps our young friend could manage both. I believe the Dartmoor air is most stimulating.”
“I shall be vastly grateful for anything,” I said, addressing the girl. “Whatever is the least trouble to cook.”
She nodded and left the room without further remark–McMurtrie looking after her with what seemed like a faint gleam of malicious amusement.
“I have brought you yesterday’s _Daily Mail_,” he said; “I thought it would amuse you to read the description of your escape. It is quite entertaining; and besides that there is a masterly little summary of your distinguished career prior to its unfortunate interruption.” He laid the paper on the bed. “First of all, though,” he added, “I will just look you over. I couldn’t find much the matter with you last night, but we may as well make certain.”
He made a short examination of my throat, and then, after feeling my pulse, tapped me vigorously all over the chest.
“Well,” he said finally, “you have been through enough to kill two ordinary men, but except for giving you a slight cold in the head it seems to have done you good.”
I sat up in bed. “Dr. McMurtrie,” I said bluntly, “what does all this mean? Who are you, and why are you hiding me from the police?”
He looked down on me, with that curious baffling smile of his. “A natural and healthy curiosity, Mr. Lyndon,” he said drily. “I hope to satisfy it after you have had something to eat. Till then–” he shrugged his shoulders–“well, I think you will find the _Daily Mail_ excellent company.”
He left the room, closing the door behind him, and for a moment I lay there with an uncomfortable sense of being tangled up in some exceedingly mysterious adventure. Even such unusual people as Dr. McMurtrie and his friends do not as a rule take in and shelter escaped convicts purely out of kindness of heart. There must be a strong motive for them to run such a risk in my case, but what that motive could possibly be was a matter which left me utterly puzzled. So far as I could remember I had never seen any of the three before in my life.
I glanced round the room. It was a big airy apartment, with ugly old-fashioned furniture, and two windows, both of which looked out in the same direction. The pictures on the wall included an oleograph portrait of the late King Edward in the costume of an Admiral, a large engraving of Mr. Landseer’s inevitable stag, and several coloured and illuminated texts. One of the latter struck me as being topical if a little inaccurate. It ran as follows:
WHEN NO MAN
Over the mantelpiece was a mirror in a mahogany frame. I gazed at it idly for a second, and then a sudden impulse seized me to get up and see what I looked like. I turned back the clothes and crawled out of bed. I felt shaky when I stood up, but my legs seemed to bear me all right, and very carefully I made my way across to the fireplace.
The first glance I took in the mirror gave me a shock that nearly knocked me over. A cropped head and three days’ growth of beard will make an extraordinary difference in any one, but I would never have believed they could have transformed me into quite such an unholy-looking ruffian as the one I saw staring back at me out of the glass. If I had ever been conceited about my personal appearance, that moment would have cured me for good.
Satisfied with a fairly brief inspection I returned to the bed, and arranging the pillow so as to fit the small of my back, picked up the _Daily Mail_. I happened to open it at the centre page, and the big heavily leaded headlines caught my eyes straight away.
ESCAPE OF NEIL LYNDON
FAMOUS PRISONER BREAKS OUT OF DARTMOOR SENSATIONAL CASE RECALLED
With a pleasant feeling of anticipation I settled down to read.
_From our own Correspondent.
Neil Lyndon, perhaps the most famous convict at present serving his sentence, succeeded yesterday in escaping from Princetown. At the moment of writing he is still at large.
He formed one of a band of prisoners who were returning from the quarries late in the afternoon. As the men reached the road which leads through the plantation to the main gate of the prison, one of the warders in charge was overcome by an attack of faintness. In the ensuing confusion, a convict of the name of Cairns, who was walking at the head of the gang, made a sudden bolt for freedom. He was immediately challenged and fired at by the Civil Guard.
The shot took partial effect, but failed for the moment to stop the runaway, who succeeded in scrambling off into the wood. He was pursued by the Civil Guard, and it was at that moment that Lyndon, who was in the rear of the gang, also made a dash for liberty.
He seems to have jumped the low wall which bounds the plantation, and although fired at in turn by another of the warders, apparently escaped injury.
Running up the hill through the trees, he reached the open slope of moor on the farther side which divides the plantation from the main wood. While he was crossing this he was seen from the roadway by that well-known horse-dealer and pigeon-shot, Mr. Alfred Smith of Shepherd’s Bush, who happened to be on a walking tour in the district.
Mr. Smith, with characteristic sportsmanship, made a plucky attempt to stop him; but Lyndon, who had picked up a heavy stick in the plantation, dealt him a terrific blow on the head that temporarily stunned him. He then jumped the railings and took refuge in the wood.
The pursuing warders came up a few minutes later, but by this time a heavy mist was beginning to settle down over the moor, rendering the prospect of a successful search more than doubtful. The warders therefore surrounded the wood with the idea of preventing Lyndon’s escape.
Taking advantage of the fog, however, the latter succeeded in slipping out on the opposite side. He was heard climbing the railings by Assistant-warder Conway, who immediately gave the alarm and closed with the fugitive. The other warders came running up, but just before they could reach the scene of the struggle Lyndon managed to free himself by means of a brutal kick, and darting into the fog disappeared from sight.
It is thought that he has made his way over North Hessary and is lying up in the Walkham Woods. In any case it is practically certain that he will not be at liberty much longer. It is impossible for him to get food except by stealing it from a cottage or farm, and directly he shows himself he is bound to be recaptured.
Considerable excitement prevails in the district, where all the inhabitants are keenly on the alert.
THE MARKS MURDER
ECHOES OF A FAMOUS CASE
The escape of Neil Lyndon recalls one of the most famous crimes of modern days.
On the third of October four years ago, as most of our readers will remember, a gentleman named Mr. Seton Marks was found brutally murdered in his luxurious flat on the Chelsea Embankment. It was thought at first that the crime was the work of burglars, for Mr. Marks’s rooms contained many art treasures of considerable value. A further examination, however, revealed the fact that nothing had been tampered with, and the next day the whole country was startled and amazed to learn that Neil Lyndon had been arrested on suspicion.
At the trial it was proved beyond question that the accused was the last person in the company of the murdered man. He had gone round to Mr. Marks’s flat at four o’clock in the afternoon, and had apparently been admitted by the owner. Two hours later Mr. Marks’s servant returning to the flat was horrified to find his master’s dead body lying in the sitting-room. Death had been inflicted by means of a heavy blow on the back of the head, but the state of the dead man’s face showed that he had been brutally mishandled before being killed.
The accused, while maintaining his innocence of the murder, did not deny either his visit to the flat, or the fact that he had inflicted the other injuries on the deceased. He declined to state the cause of their quarrel, but the defending counsel produced a witness in the person of Miss Joyce Aylmer, a young girl of sixteen, who was able to throw some light on the matter.
Miss Aylmer, a young lady of considerable beauty, stated that for about a year she had been working as an art student in Chelsea, and used occasionally to sit to artists for the head. On the afternoon before the murder she had had a professional engagement of this kind with Mr. Marks. There had been a visitor in the flat when she arrived, but he had left as soon as she came in. Subsequently, according to her statement, the deceased had acted towards her in an outrageous and disgraceful manner. She had escaped from his flat with difficulty, and had subsequently informed Mr. Lyndon of what had taken place.
In his re-examination, the accused admitted that it was on account of Miss Aylmer’s statement he had visited the flat. Up till then, he declared, he had had no quarrel with the deceased.
This statement, however, was directly contradicted by Lyndon’s partner, Mr. George Marwood. Giving his evidence with extreme reluctance, Mr. Marwood stated that for some time bad blood had undoubtedly existed between Mr. Marks and the accused. He added that in his own hearing on two separate occasions the latter had threatened to kill the deceased.
Pressed still further, he admitted meeting Mr. Lyndon in Chelsea on the night of the murder, when the latter had to all intents and purposes acknowledged his guilt.
On the evidence there could naturally be only one verdict, and Lyndon was found guilty and sentenced to death by Mr. Justice Owen.
A tremendous agitation in favour of his reprieve broke out at once. Apart from the peculiar circumstances under which the crime was committed, it was urged that Mr. Lyndon’s services to the country as an inventor should be taken into consideration. Within twenty-four hours over a million people had signed a petition in his favour, and the following day His Majesty was pleased to commute the sentence to one of penal servitude for life.
There is little doubt, however, that Lyndon would have been released at the end of ten or twelve years.
THE ESCAPED CONVICT’S CAREER
Neil Lyndon is the only son of the well-known explorer Colonel Grant Lyndon, who perished on the Upper Amazon some fifteen years ago. He was educated at Haileybury, and Oriel College, Oxford, where he took the highest honours in chemistry and mathematics. Coming down, he entered into partnership with his cousin Mr. George Marwood, and between them the two young inventors met with early and remarkable success. Their greatest achievement was of course the construction of the Lyndon-Marwood automatic torpedo, which was taken up four years ago, after exhaustive tests, by the British Government.
Lyndon is a man of exceptionally powerful physique. He successfully represented Oxford as a heavy-weight boxer in his last term, and the following year was runner up in the Amateur Championship. He is also a fine long-distance swimmer, and a well-known single-handed yachtsman.
Mr. George Marwood, whose painful position in connection with the trial aroused considerable sympathy, has carried on the business alone since his partner’s conviction. Quite recently, as our readers will recall, he was the victim of a remarkable outrage at his offices in Victoria Street. While he was working there by himself late at night, a couple of masked men broke into the building, bound and gagged him, and proceeded to ransack the safe. It is said that they secured plans and documents of considerable value, but owing to the non-arrest of the thieves the exact details have never come to light.
So ended the _Daily Mail_.
I finished reading, and taking a long breath, laid down the paper. Up till then I had heard nothing about the news contained in the last paragraph, and it sent my memory back at once to the big well-lighted room in Victoria Street where George and I had spent so many hours together. I wondered what the valuable “plans and documents” might be which the thieves were supposed to have secured. In my day we had always been pretty careful about what we left at the office, and any really important plans–such as those of the Lyndon-Marwood torpedo–were invariably kept at the safe deposit across the street.
From George and the office my thoughts drifted away over the whole of that crowded time referred to in the paper. Brief and bald as the narrative was, it brought up before me a dozen vivid memories, which jostled each other simultaneously in my mind. I saw again poor little Joyce’s tear-stained face, and remembered the shuddering relief with which she had clung to me as she sobbed out her story. I could recall the cold rage in which I had set out for Marks’s flat, and that first savage blow of mine that sent him reeling and crashing into one of his own cabinets.
Then I was in court again, and George was giving his evidence–the lying evidence that had been meant to send me to the gallows. I remembered the cleverly assumed reluctance with which he had apparently allowed his statements to be dragged from him, and my blood rose hot in my throat as I thought of his treachery.
Above all I seemed to see the fat red face of Mr. Justice Owen, with the ridiculous little three-cornered black cap above it. He had been very cut up about sentencing me to death, had poor old Owen, and I could almost hear the broken tones in which he had faltered out the words:
“… taken from the place where you now stand to the place whence you came–hanged by the neck until your body be dead–and may God have mercy on your soul.”
At this cheerful point in my reminiscences I was suddenly interrupted by a sharp knock at the door.
AN OFFER WITHOUT AN ALTERNATIVE
With a big effort I pulled myself together. “Come in,” I called out.
The door opened, and the girl, Sonia, entered the room. She was carrying a tray, which she set down on the top of the chest of drawers.
“I don’t know the least how to thank you for all this,” I said.
She turned round and looked at me curiously from under her dark eyebrows.
“For all what?” she asked.
“This,” I repeated, waving my hand towards the tray, “and the hot bath last night, and incidentally my life. If it hadn’t been for you and Dr. McMurtrie I think my ‘career,’ as the _Daily Mail_ calls it, would be pretty well finished by now.”
She stood where she was, her hand on her hip, her eyes fixed on my face.
“Do you know why we are helping you?” she asked.
I shook my head. “I haven’t the faintest notion,” I answered frankly. “It certainly can’t be on account of the charm of my appearance. I’ve just been looking at myself in the glass.”
She shrugged her shoulders half impatiently. “What does a man’s appearance matter? You can’t expect to break out of Dartmoor in a frock-coat.”
“No,” I replied gravely; “there must always be a certain lack of dignity about such a proceeding. Still, when one looks like–well, like an escaped murderer, it’s all the more surprising that one should be so hospitably received.”
She picked up the tray again, and brought it to my bedside.
“Oh!” she said; “I shouldn’t build too much upon our hospitality if I were you.”
I took the tray from her hands. “I would build upon yours to any extent,” I said; “but I am under no illusion whatever about Dr. McMurtrie’s disinterestedness. He and your father–it is your father, isn’t it?–are coming up to explain matters as soon as I have had something to eat.”
She stood silent for a moment, her brows knitted in a frown.
“They mean you no harm,” she said at last, “as long as you will do what they want.” Then she paused. “Did you murder that man Marks?” she asked abruptly.
I swallowed down my first mouthful of fish. “No,” I said; “I only knocked him about a bit. He wasn’t worth murdering.”
She stared at me as if she was trying to read my thoughts.
“Is that true?” she said.
“Well,” I replied, “he was alive enough when I left him, judging from his language.”
“Then why did your partner–Mr. Marwood–why did he say that you had done it?”
“That,” I said softly, “is a little question which George and I have got to discuss together some day.”
She walked to the door and then turned.
“If a man I had trusted and worked with behaved like that to me,” she said slowly, “I should kill him.”
I nodded my approval of the sentiment. “I daresay it will come to that,” I said; “the only thing is one gets rather tired of being sentenced to death.”
She gave me another long, curious glance out of those dark brown eyes of hers, and then going out, closed the door behind her.
For an exceedingly busy and agreeable quarter of an hour I occupied myself with the contents of the tray. There was some very nicely grilled whiting, a really fresh boiled egg, a jar of honey, and a large plate of brown bread and butter cut in sturdy slices. Best of all, on the edge of the tray were a couple of McMurtrie’s cigarettes. Whether he or Sonia was responsible for this last attention I could not say. I hoped it was Sonia: somehow or other I did not want to be too much indebted to Dr. McMurtrie.
I finished my meal–finished it in the most complete sense of the phrase–and then, putting down my tray on the floor, reverently lighted up. I found that my first essay in smoking on the previous evening had in no way dulled the freshness of my enjoyment, and for a few minutes I was content to lie there pleasantly indifferent to everything except the flavour of the tobacco.
Then my mind began to work. Sonia’s questions had once again started a train of thought which ever since the trial had been running through my brain with maddening persistence. If I had not killed Marks, who had? How often had I asked myself that during the past three years, and how often had I abandoned the problem in utter weariness! Sometimes, indeed, I had been almost tempted to think the jury must have been right–that I must have struck the brute on the back of the head without realizing in my anger what I was doing. Then, when I remembered how I had left him crouching against the wall, spitting out curses at me through his cut and bleeding lips, I knew that the idea was nonsense. The wound which they found in his head must have killed him instantly. No man who had received a blow like that would ever speak or move again.
The one thing I felt certain of was that in some mysterious way or other George was mixed up in the business. It was incredible that he could have acted as he did at the trial unless he had had some stronger reason than mere dislike for me. That he did dislike me I knew well, but my six years’ association with him had taught me that he would never allow any personal motive to interfere with a chance of making money. By sending me to the gallows or into penal servitude he was practically ruining himself, for with all his acuteness and business knowledge he was quite deficient in any sort of inventive power. And yet he had not hesitated to do it, and to do it by a piece of lying sufficiently cold-blooded and deliberate to make Judas pale with envy.
If there had been any apparent chance of his being able to rob me by the proceeding, I could have understood it. But my business interests as far as past inventions went were safe in the hands of my lawyers, and although I had told him a certain amount about the new explosive which I had been working at, it was quite impossible for him to turn it to any practical use.
No, George must have had some other reason for perjuring his unpleasant soul, and the only one I could think of was that he had purposely turned the case against me in order to shield the real murderer. He had been fairly well acquainted with the dead man, I knew–their tastes indeed ran on somewhat similar lines–and it was just possible that he was aware who had committed the crime.
The thought filled me, as it always had filled me, with a bitter fury. Again and again in my cell I had fancied myself escaping from the prison and choking the truth out of my cousin’s throat with my fingers, and now that the first part of this picture had come true, I vowed silently to myself that nothing should stop the remainder from following it. Whatever McMurtrie might propose, I would see George once again face to face, even if death or recapture was the price I had to pay.
I had just arrived at this conclusion when I heard the sound of footsteps in the passage outside. Then the handle of the door turned, and McMurtrie appeared on the threshold with Savaroff looming up behind him. There was a moment’s silence, while the doctor stood there smiling down on me as blandly as ever.
“May we come in?” he inquired. “We are not interrupting your tea, I hope.”
“No, I have done tea, thank you,” I said, with a gesture towards the tray.
Why it was so, I can’t say, but McMurtrie’s politeness always filled me with a feeling of repulsion. There was something curiously sinister about it.
He stepped forward into the room, followed by Savaroff, who closed the door behind him. The latter then lounged across and sat down on the window-sill, McMurtrie remaining standing by my bedside.
“You have read the _Mail_, I see,” he said, picking up the paper. “I hope you admired the size of the headlines.”
“It’s the type of compliment,” I replied, “that I have had rather too much of.”
Savaroff broke out into a short gruff laugh. “Our friend,” he said, “is modest–so modest. He does not thirst for more fame. He would retire into private life if they would let him.”
He chuckled to himself, as though enjoying the subtlety of his own humour. Unlike his daughter, he spoke English with a distinctly foreign accent.
“Ah, yes,” said Dr. McMurtrie amiably; “but then, Mr. Lyndon is one of those people that we can’t afford to spare. Talents such as his are intended for use.” He took off his glasses and began to polish them thoughtfully. “One might almost say that he held them in trust–in trust for Providence.”
There was a short silence.
“And is it on account of my talents that you have been kind enough to shelter me?” I asked bluntly.
The doctor readjusted his pince-nez, and seated himself with some deliberation on the foot of the bed.
“The instinct to assist a hunted fellow-creature,” he observed, “is almost universal.” Then he paused. “I take it, Mr. Lyndon, that you are not particularly anxious to rejoin your friends in Princetown?”
I shook my head. “Not if there is a more pleasant alternative.”
Savaroff grunted. “No alternative is likely to be more unpleasant for you,” he said harshly.
The touch of bullying in his tone put my back up at once. “Indeed!” I said: “I can imagine several.”
McMurtrie’s smooth voice intervened. “But ours, Mr. Lyndon, is one which I think will make a very special appeal to you. How would you like to keep your freedom and at the same time take up your scientific work again?”
I looked at him closely. For once there was no trace of mockery in his eyes.
“I should like it very much indeed, if it was possible,” I answered.
McMurtrie leaned forward a little. “It is possible,” he said quietly.
There was a short pause. Savaroff pulled out a cigar, bit off the end, and spat it into the fireplace. Then he reached sideways to the chest of drawers for a match.
“Explain to him,” he said, jerking his head towards me.
McMurtrie glanced at him–it seemed to me a shade impatiently. Then he turned back to me.
“For some time before Mr. Marks’s unfortunate death,” he said slowly, “you had been experimenting with a new explosive.”
I nodded my head. I had no idea how he had got his information, for as far as I was aware George was the only person who had any knowledge of my secret.
“And I believe you were just on the point of success when you were arrested?”
“Theoretically I was,” I said. “These matters don’t always work out quite so well when you put them to a practical test.”
“Still, you yourself were quite satisfied with the prospects?”
I nodded again.
“And unless I am wrong, this new explosive will be immensely more powerful than anything now in use?”
“Immensely,” I repeated; “in fact, there would be no practical comparison between them.”
“Can you give me any idea as to its strength?”
I hesitated. “According to my calculations,” I said slowly, “it ought to prove at least twenty times as powerful as gun-cotton.”
Savaroff uttered a hoarse exclamation and sat upright in his seat.
“Are you speaking the truth?” he asked roughly.
I stared him full in the face, and then without answering turned back to McMurtrie.
The latter made a gesture with his hand. “Leave the matter to me, Savaroff,” he said sharply. “I understand Mr. Lyndon better than you do.” Then addressing me: “Supposing you had all the things that you required, how long would it take you to manufacture some of this powder–or whatever it is?”
“It’s difficult to say,” I answered. “Perhaps a week; perhaps a couple of months. I could make the actual stuff at once provided I had the materials, but it’s a question of doing it in such a way that one can handle it safely for practical purposes. I was experimenting on that very point at the time of my arrest.”
McMurtrie nodded his head slowly. “You have been candid with us,” he said, “and now I will be equally candid with you. My friend M. Savaroff and myself are very largely interested in the manufacture of high explosives. The appearance of an invention like yours on the market would be a very serious matter indeed for us. On the other hand, if we had control of it, we should, I imagine, be in a position to dictate our own terms.”
“You certainly would,” I said; “there is no question about that. My explosive would be no more expensive to manufacture than cordite.”
“So you see when some exceedingly convenient chance brought you in through our kitchen window it naturally occurred to me to invite you to stay and discuss the matter. You happen to be in a position in which you could be useful to us, and I think that we, on the other hand, might be of some assistance to you.”
He leant back and watched me with that cold smile of his.
“What do you say, Mr. Lyndon?” he added.
I did some rapid but necessary thinking. It was quite true that the new explosive would knock the bottom out of the present methods of manufacture, and McMurtrie’s interests in the matter might well be large enough to make him run the risk of helping me. There seemed no reason to doubt that he was speaking the truth–and yet, somehow or other I mistrusted him–mistrusted him from my soul.
“How did you know about my experiments?” I asked quietly.
He shrugged his shoulders. “There are such things as trade secrets. It is necessary for a business man to keep in touch with anything that may threaten his interests.”
I hesitated a second. “What is it that you propose–exactly?” I inquired.
I saw–or thought I saw–the faintest possible gleam of satisfaction steal into his eyes.
“I propose that you should finish your experiments as soon as possible, make some of this explosive, and hand the actual stuff and the full secret of its manufacture over to us. In return I will guarantee you your freedom, and let you have a quarter interest in all profits we make out of your invention.”
He brought out these somewhat startling terms as coolly as though it were an every-day custom of his to do business with escaped convicts. I bent down from the bed, and under cover of picking up my second cigarette from the tray, secured a few useful moments for considering the situation.