The Firm of Girdlestone/Chapter 47
LAW AND ORDER.
The ruffian Burt was so horror-stricken at the sight of the girl whom he imagined that he had murdered, that he lay grovelling on the railway lines by the side of his victim, moaning with terror, and incapable of any resistance. He was promptly seized by the major's party, and the Nihilist secured his hands with a handkerchief so quickly and effectively that it was clearly not the first time that he had performed the feat. He then calmly drew a very long and bright knife from the recesses of his frock-coat, and having pressed it against Burt's nose to ensure his attention, he brandished it in front of him in a menacing way, as a hint that an attempt at escape might be dangerous.
"And who is dis?" asked Baumser, lifting up the dead woman's head, and resting it upon his knee.
"Poor girl! She will niver spake again, whoever she may have been," the major said, holding the lantern to her cold pale face. "Here's where the cowards struck her. Death must have been instantaneous and painless. I could have sworn it was the young lady we came afther, if it were not that we have her safe down there, thank the Lord!"
"Vere are those oders?" asked Von Baumser, peering about through the darkness. "If dere is justice in de country, dey vill hang for the work of dis night."
"They are off," the major answered, laying the girl's head reverently down again. "It's hopeless to follow them, as we know nothing of the counthry, nor which direction they took. They ran like madmen. Hullo! What the divil can this be?"
The sight which had attracted the veteran's attention was nothing less than the appearance at the end of the lane of three brilliant luminous discs moving along abreast of one another. They came rapidly nearer, increasing in brilliancy as they approached. Then a voice rang out of the darkness, "There they are, officers! Close with them! Don't let 'em get away!" And before the major and his party could quite grasp the situation they were valiantly charged by three of those much-enduring, stout-hearted mortals known as the British police force.
It takes courage to plunge into the boiling surf and to carry the rope to the breaking vessel. It takes courage to spring from the ship's side and support the struggling swimmer, never knowing the moment at which a flickering shadow may appear in the deep green water, and the tiger of the deep turn its white belly upwards as it dashes on its prey. There is courage too in the infantryman who takes a sturdy grip of his rifle and plants his feet firmly as he sees the Lancers sweeping down on his comrades and himself. But of all these types of bravery there is none that can compare with that of our homely constable when he finds on the dark November nights that a door on his beat is ajar, and, listening below, learns that the time has come to show the manhood that is in him. He must fight odds in the dark. He must, single-handed, cage up desperate men like rats in a hole. He must oppose his simple weapon to the six-shooter and the life-preserver. All these thoughts, and the remembrance of his wife and children at home, and of how easy it would be not to observe the open door, come upon him, and then what does he do? Why, with the thought of duty in his heart, and his little cudgel in his hand, he goes to what is too often his death, like a valiant high-minded Englishman, who fears the reproach of his own conscience more than pistol bullet, or bludgeon stroke.
Which digression may serve to emphasize the fact that these three burly Hampshire policemen, having been placed upon our friends' track by the ostler of the Flying Bull, and having themselves observed manoeuvres which could only be characterized as suspicious, charged down with such vehemence, that in less time than it takes to tell it, both Tom and the major and Von Baumser were in safe custody. The Nihilist, who had an unextinguishable hatred of the law, and who could never be brought to understand that it might under any circumstances be on his side, pulled himself very straight and held his knife down at his hip as though he meant to use it, while Bulow, of Kiel, likewise assumed an aggressive attitude. Fortunately, however, the appearance of their prisoners and a few hurried words from the major made the inspector in charge understand how the land lay, and he transferred his attention to Burt, on whose wrists he placed the handcuffs. He then listened to a more detailed account of the circumstances from the lips of the major.
"Who is this young lady?" he asked, pointing to Kate.
"This is the Miss Harston whom we came to rescue, and for whom no doubt the blow was intended which killed this unhappy girl."
"Perhaps, sir," said the inspector to Tom, "you had better take her up to the house."
"Thank you," said Tom, and went off through the wood with Kate upon his arm. On their way, she told him how, being unable to find her bonnet and cloak, which Rebecca had abstracted, she had determined to keep her appointment without them. Her delay rendered her a little late, however; but on reaching the withered oak she heard voices and steps in front of her, which she had followed. These had led her to the open gate, and the lighting of the lantern had revealed her to friends and foes. Ere she concluded her story Tom noticed that she leaned more and more heavily upon him, until by the time that they reached the Priory he was obliged to lift her up and carry her to prevent her from falling. The hardships of the last few weeks, and this final terrible and yet most joyful incident of all, had broken down her strength. He bore her into the house, and laying her by the fire in the dining-room, watched tenderly over her, and exhausted his humble stock of medical knowledge in devising remedies for her condition.
In the meantime the inspector, having thoroughly grasped the major's lucid narrative, was taking prompt and energetic measures.
"You go down to the station, Constable Jones," he ordered. "Wire to London, 'John Girdlestone, aged sixty-one, and his son, aged twenty-eight, wanted for murder. Address, Eccleston Square and Fenchurch Street, City.' Send a description of them. 'Father, six feet one inch in height, hatchet-faced, grey hair and whiskers, deep-set eyes, heavy brows, round shoulders. Son, five feet ten, dark-faced, black eyes, black curly hair, strongly made, legs rather bandy, well dressed, usually wears a dog's head scarf-pin.' That ought to do!"
"Yes, that's near enough," observed the major.
"Wire to every station along the line to be on the look-out. Send a description to the chief constable of Portsmouth, and have a watch kept on the shipping. That should catch them!"
"It vill," cried Von Baumser confidentially. "I'll bet money dat it vill." It was as well that the German's sporting offer found no takers, otherwise our good friend would have been a poorer man.
"Let us carry the poor soul up to the house," the inspector continued, after making careful examination of the ground all round the body.
The party assisted in raising the girl up, and in carrying her back along the path by which she had been brought.
Burt tramped stolidly along behind with the remaining policeman beside him. The Nihilist brought up the rear with his keen eye fixed upon the navvy, and his knife still ready for use. When they reached the Priory the prisoner was safely locked away in one of the numerous empty rooms, while Rebecca was carried upstairs and laid upon the very bed which had been hers.
"We must search the house," the inspector said; and Mrs. Jorrocks having been brought out of her room, and having forthwith fainted and been revived again, was ordered to accompany the police in their investigation, which she did in a very dazed and stupefied manner. Indeed, not a word could be got from her until, entering the dining-room, she perceived her bottle of Hollands upon the table, on which she raised up her voice and cursed the whole company, from the inspector downwards, with the shrillest volubility of invective. Having satisfied her soul in this manner, she wound up by a perfect shriek of profanity, and breaking away from her guardians, she regained the shelter of her room and locked herself up there, after which they could hear by the drumming of her heels that she went into a violent hysterical attack upon the floor.
Kate had, however, recovered sufficiently to be able to show the police the different rooms, and to explain to them which was which. The inspector examined the scanty furniture of Kate's apartment with great interest.
"You say you have been living here for three weeks?" he said.
"Nearly a month," Kate answered.
"God help you! No wonder you look pale and ill. You have a fine prospect from the window." He drew the blind aside and looked out into the darkness. A gleam of moonlight lay upon the heaving ocean, and in the centre of this silver streak was a single brown-sailed fishing-boat running to the eastward before the wind. The inspector's keen eye rested upon it for an instant, and then he dropped the blind and turned away. It never flashed across his mind that the men whom he was hunting down could have chosen that means of escape, and were already beyond his reach.
He examined very carefully the rooms of Ezra and of his father. Both had been furnished comfortably, if not solidly, with spring mattresses to their beds and carpets upon the floor. The young man's room had little in it beyond the mere furniture, which was natural, as his visits were so short. In the merchant's chamber, however, were many books and papers. On the little square table was a long slip of foolscap covered with complex figures. It appeared to be a statement of his affairs, in which he had been computing the liabilities of the firm. By the side of it was a small calf-bound diary. The inspector glanced over one of the pages and uttered an exclamation of disgust. "Here are some pretty entries," he cried. "'Feel the workings of grace within me!' 'Prayed that I might be given a livelier interest in the Holy Scriptures!' The book's full of that sort of thing!" he added, turning over the leaves. "The fellow seems to have played the hypocrite even with himself, for he could never have known that other eyes would rest upon this."
"Dere'll be some queer company among de elect if he is dere!" Von Baumser remarked.
"What's all this?" asked the inspector, tumbling a heap of clothes out of the corner with his foot. "Why, here's a monk's dress!"
Kate sprang forward at the words. "Then I did see him!" she cried. "I had almost persuaded myself that it was a dream."
"What was that?"
Kate told her story as well as she could, and the inspector made notes of it.
"The crafty old dog!" he cried. "No doubt he could reconcile it with his conscience more easily to frighten you to death than to actually kill you. He told you that cock-and-a-bull story to excite your imagination, and then, feeling sure that you would sooner or later try and escape by night, he kept guard in this rig. The only wonder is that he didn't succeed in either killing you or driving you mad with fright."
"Never mind now, dear," Tom whispered, as he saw the look of fear spring into her eyes at the recollection of what had passed. "Don't think of these terrible things. You will soon be safe in Phillimore Gardens in my mother's arms. In the meanwhile, I think you would be the better for some sleep."
"I think I should, Tom."
"Are you afraid to sleep in your own room?"
"No; I am afraid of nothing, now that I know you are near me. I knew so well that you would come. I have been expecting you all the evening."
"I can never thank my good friends here enough for the help which they have given me!" Tom exclaimed, turning to his companions.
"It is I who should thank them," said Kate earnestly, "I have found friends, indeed. Who can say now that the days of chivalry are past?"
"Me dear young lady," the major answered, bowing with all the innate grace of an Irish gentleman, "ye have warmed us by what ye say. I personally was, as ye know, under orders which left me no choice but to come. I hope, however, that ye will believe that had Mrs. Scully not occupied the place in me affections which she does, I should still be as prompt as me friends here to hasten to the rescue of a lady. Tobias Clutterbuck may be ould, Miss Harston, but his heart will niver grow so hardened but that it will milt at the thought of beauty in distriss." With this beautiful sentiment the major placed his fat hand over his heart, and bowed again, even more gracefully than before. The three foreigners behind made no remark, but they all stood in a line grinning in a most amicable fashion, and nodding their heads as if to intimate that the major was expressing their united sentiments to a nicety. Kate's last recollection of that eventful evening was the smiling visages of Von Baumser, Bulow, and the nameless Russian as they beamed their good night at her.