By MARJORIE BOWEN
THE highwayman raised himself from behind the clump of gorse bush, which showed the smooth yellow flowers bursting from the velvet pods in among the dangerous spikes.
With a look of discontent on his face, which had been coarsened, hardened, and ever disfigured by a grim life and sundry hard fights, he handled his heavy wooden-handled pistol, and looked up and down the long twist of road, that one way dipped to Portsmouth, and the other way rose over the hill to London.
On the summit of this hill, and clear against a disturbed grey autumn sky, stood the gallows. A skeleton hung there, tarred and in chains. When the highwayman's eyes, lifted from the road, roved round the landscape and glanced at the gibbet, they did not rest there a second, nor did any change take place in his expression. He was too well used to the sight, too well aware of what his own end would be, if caught, to trouble in the least about the ghastly object hanging on Gallows Hill, though only a year ago those bones had been clothed in flesh—flesh and blood—a living man, who had crouched, as he now crouched, at the edge of the Devil's Punch Bowl, and looked, as he now looked, greedily up and down the road for some traveller to London.
The whole of the Frindhead,and particularly this lonely sweep of road round the great hollow known as the Devil's Punch Bowl, had a very ill repute, and was not the fine hunting-ground for robbers and footpads that it once had been. Travellers from Portsmouth to London came in parties and armed; very few came at night, and fewer still alone.
The highwayman was reflecting on this with some bitterness as he cautiously hoisted his long body over the edge of the hollow and stood erect on the dusty road.
This caution on the part of the travelling public had rendered a precarious and dangerous living even more precarious and dangerous. Yet few of the ruffians plying their black trade in these stretches of Surrey heath-land had forsaken their chosen cover, and somehow they made their profit from poor sailors travelling on foot with their little store of foreign gains, from the timid, the helpless, and the lonely—and more than one traveller had got no further on his journey than the edge of the Devil's Punch Bowl, and more than one rough-made grave was hidden in among the gorse bushes that lined that ugly hollow.
It was the big prizes that were far to seek now—the hauls that made a gentleman of the road go like a gentleman, in velvet and a French peruke, that enabled him to swagger it in London taverns, and excite the envy of lesser rogues, until the last spoils were spent, and the black mask was donned, and the fleet steed mounted and turned in the direction of the Portsmouth Road.
The ragged man now standing lonely in the autumn afternoon could remember when he had flung down his guinea for a pint of wine and his five-pound piece for the cards. He cursed himself at the recollection, and gripped his heavy-handled pistol the tighter. He had not murdered yet, but his mood was near to murder.
Now, as he stared towards Portsmouth and at the little group of cottages round the lonely inn "The Sign of the Huts," and a change house for the London coach, the highwayman's face assumed a lowering expression of rage and impatience, until he looked like an ugly mastiff dog. He was known as Black Harry, from the great swarthiness of his skin, which, always dark, was now burnt bronze by wind and sun.
No one was in sight.
The man pulled out of his torn waistcoat a stolen watch and glanced at the time.
It was nearly the hour for the London coach; but that went armed and escorted, and was no prey for such as Black Harry. He awaited another victim.
His very good friend, the landlord of "The Huts," had advised him of the arrival of a rich and seeming foolish stranger, newly landed at Portsmouth and returning home after long years abroad.
This gentleman appeared to have valuables in his possession, made a show of gold, had no servant, and travelled alone on horseback, having a dislike for the slowness and jolting of the coach. And this afternoon he was due to start on his journey Londonwards.
Black Harry smacked his lips at the prospect of such a prize, but he had, of late, but little faith in his own luck. He felt morosely suspicious that the victim's heart would fail him at the last minute—that he would take the coach or come accompanied, or even go by some other road.
As he was speculating thus dismally, the coach, turning a bend in the road, came into view. Black Harry dropped instantly back into his hiding-place among the gorse and waited, hidden then at the lip of the Punch Bowl, until the heavy coach, laden with passengers and luggage, with the guard grasping a cocked blunderbuss and an armed man beside the driver, had toiled up the rising road that ran under Gallows Hill.
As soon as it was out of sight, Black Harry resumed his post of observation, and his dark eyes glinted wrathfully and keenly down the road.
Presently he gave an exclamation of relief and satisfaction, and, drawing from his pocket a greasy, shabby square of black crêpe, in which two holes had been cut, fastened it over his face, tying the dirty strings at the back over his rough hair. Then, pulling his torn hat down over his brows, he carefully withdrew into ambush, concealing himself now behind the milestone that told the distance to London.
His sharp, practised eye had seen a horseman in the distance coming slowly round the turning where the road twisted to "The Huts."
Black Harry waited patiently; his body was immobile, his mind active with murderous thoughts. He meant murder this time; if the traveller resisted or shrieked for help. Black Harry meant to knock him on the head or put a bullet through him. Indeed, he was debating whether this course would not, in any case, be simpler and safer, when the traveller, seeing the loneliness of the road and wishing to overtake the coach, put spurs to his horse, and was soon alongside the milestone.
Black Harry, nimble as a youth, was out of his hiding-place, with his pistol presented at the other's head, in a twinkling.
"Dismount!" he said curtly, and his eyes gleamed greedily on to the stout valise strapped to the back of the stranger's saddle. "Dismount!" he repeated, and added a curse.
"Confound you for a fool!" said the traveller angrily. "What do you want?"
As he spoke, he flung himself sulkily from the saddle. The highwayman was restored almost to good nature by the easiness of his victory.
"You are the fool," he answered, "to be travelling alone round the Devil's Punch Bowl."
The other shrugged his shoulders.
"I meant to keep in the lee of the coach," he answered, "but was delayed in starting, and I was informed that the road here was perfectly safe."
"You would be," said Black Harry.
He still held his pistol at cock and closely surveyed his victim. He beheld a young man of pleasing good looks, wearing a reddish peruke and a plain but fine suit of steel-blue cloth; his appointments were rich, a pearl was in his cravat, a good paste buckle in his hat, which was cocked, with some jauntiness, à la Pasnilies. His complexion was swarthy, his eyes black, his expression pleasant.
Black Harry knew at once that he had seen him before, but could not remember where—probably in London, he thought, in his better days.
The young man returned his scrutiny with impatience.
"Well, fellow, what do you want?" he demanded, with some hauteur.
"You carry it off well, my young cock, I must say," returned the other. "What do you suppose I want? All that you have, and you should be thankful that I don't slit your silly windpipe and send you down among those gorse bushes, where better men have gone before you."
At these words the traveller turned pale, but preserved his composure.
"You have a fine impudence," he remarked, and his eye travelled up and down the road uneasily.
Black Harry saw his intention to call for help, and clapped the muzzle of his pistol to his forehead.
"If you raise your voice, I shoot!" he said.
An ugly gleam flashed into the other's eye, and his face took on an expression that made him more than ever familiar to the highwayman; his hand went round to his belt, where his own pistol hung uselessly, then he let it fall and shrugged and gave a short laugh.
"The game is yours," he said. "Take what there is—I pay for being a fool. I have been abroad so long that I have forgotten English ways."
Sourly, yet with a certain air of philosophy, he took out his watch, pocket-book, purse and chain, a fob with seals, then uncovered and pulled the buckle from his hat.
Black Harry watched him with an expression of genial satisfaction.
"Been abroad long, have you?" he remarked. "Now, that's strange, for it seems to me that I have seen your face before."
"Scarcely likely, my friend," returned the other, taking the pin from his cravat. "I have not been in this country since I was a lad. Landed at Portsmouth the other day."
"Going home?" asked Black Harry. The sense that he not only had known, but been familiar with, the other was puzzling him and filling him with a vague uneasiness.
"Home!" repeated the other, with a peculiar intonation. Then he added: "What are my affairs to you, you rascal?"
"They might be something," said the highwayman, pouching the stolen goods. "Answer me civilly, and I will give you your stage fare to London."
"A fine bargain!" was the sneering answer.
"There might be a worse. I know your face, and I want to know your quality."
The stranger looked at him curiously.
"My name is Edward Somerville," he answered. "I have come from Jamaica, where I made a little—only a little—money. I am here to settle in the Old Land. A little place in Kent has been left me by a relative."
"Kent?" said Black Harry. "I am from Kent myself. Any relatives there?"
"Where is your new place?"
"Near Rye, on the Sussex border."
As he spoke, he was bitterly eyeing the other, who was unstrapping the valise from the saddle.
"I do not remember any Somervilles in that part," said he, not pausing in his task, "and I know all round there well enough, or used to. Many a time I've played at highwayman on the marsh there. If your story is true, perhaps we played together there, and that is how I came to know your face. That would be a strange thing, would it not?"
"An unlikely one."
"Oh, I mingled with the quality then!" said Black Harry. "And because of your story, lie or truth, I'll give you back your horse, which is better than your coach fare to London."
"And suits you better," returned the other quickly. "The beast would betray you—be traced—and you know it."
The highwayman laughed and, still fondling the pistol, kicked the valise behind the milestone. On top of it he laid the pistols he had taken from the traveller.
"To think of Kent, and Rye, and Romney Marsh," he said, in a kindly tone, "and you and I playing there as children, and never guessing that it would come to this between us!"
"What is your name?" asked Mr. Somerville shortly.
"That would be telling! Yet, if I said it, 'twould leave you no wiser, the same as you leave me foolish, talking of Edward Somerville. There aren't any Somervilles in that part of Kent."
The conviction with which he spoke seemed to take the other man aback.
"You know that, do you?" he muttered.
Black Harry was still struggling over his identity.
"Who are you, now—a Neve, a Curtis, a Martin, a Carter?"
"And who are you, in Heaven's name?" cried Mr. Somerville, in agitation.
"You are not a Burr," continued the highwayman. "There are only two of them, and one's dead, and I know where the other be——"
The traveller interrupted him.
"Tell me," he said, "the meaning of this word—cuckoo pint."
Each now regarded the other with great intensity.
"Cuckoo pint?" repeated the highwayman slowly. "Why, that is a little flower that comes in the spring—a lilac flower on a slender stem—grow in among the primroses they do. Plenty of them in Kent and along those Sussex lanes by Romney Marsh."
"So many of them," returned Mr. Somerville, "that those boys playing at highwaymen there, and robbing coots' nests, and hunting for plovers' eggs, used them as a badge——"
Black Harry interrupted.
"By Heavens, so they did! Wore them in their caps and in their lapels, and the password was——"
"Cuckoo pint," finished Mr. Somerville.
"It was—so it was."
"And when the little flower was over—for 'tis a bloom of earliest spring—they wore a lilac fairing—a ribbon or a thread."
The highwayman peered eagerly into his face.
"Which were you?" he demanded. "Which of those boys? It is over twenty years ago, but I knew at once I had seen you before."
Mr. Somerville appeared moved and agitated.
"Answer me a question, and I will answer yours. You remember John Burr, the leader of the boys?"
"You said just now one of the Burrs was dead, and that you knew where the other was. Now, which is dead?"
The other grinned.
"It isn't John—he is alive."
"Frank, then. Frank is dead?"
"This ten year and more."
The traveller smiled, then said coolly
"You have been sadly misinformed. It must be John who is dead."
"That he isn't."
"No more is Frank, my friend."
"How do you know, to be so sure and positive—eh?"
"I am Frank Burr, that is why. I'm Frank, my good fellow!"
"And I am John, and so we meet. I thought you were dead."
He pulled off the dirty black mask, and the two brothers stared at each other.
"A strange meeting," said the younger dryly, "an unpleasant meeting! When I returned to England, I did not think to find my own brother clapping a pistol to my head!"
John looked sullen. He lowered his weapon, but did not cast it away.
"How did you come to this?" added Frank.
"That is a long story."
"It must be a strange one."
"No stranger, maybe, than the story of how you came to be a fine gentleman with a horse and broadcloth, and gold in your pocket and a buckle to your hat."
"I have prospered," returned the other composedly. "I have worked and saved—sugar-planting in Jamaica."
"That is vague enough. How did you get to Jamaica?"
"I worked my passage."
"But there was a man wrote from London you were dead fifteen years ago."
"By my request that was; I wished to be dead to all of you."
The younger brother replied with some fierceness—
"Because of the bad blood in us, that was coming out in you all—you with your ill name for a rogue, Kitty going as a strolling player, another sister running off to London with squire's son, the little farm falling to pieces. You know, John, why I left home!"
The elder man looked abashed, his glance travelled uneasily from his own ragged attire to the neat elegance of the other.
"Well, you have done better than any of us," he remarked sadly. "Poor Kitty went off in consumption, and Nan died in Bridewell, and for me"—he jerked bis head towards Gallows Hill and the gibbet—"I suppose there is that!"
Frank made a gesture of horror.
"Do you mean to persist in your miserable life after this? Has it given you no shock to think you might have had a brother's blood to answer for?"
John shuddered; he remembered that he had contemplated murder when he had gazed up and down the lonely road, waiting for his victim.
"You were always cleverer than I," he answered. "I'll not deny that I've made a failure, but I've had my fine days, my pleasant times."
"Will you not repent?"
"Repent? Best forget me, Frank. I'll not disgrace your name, for none knows who I am. For the matter of that, you have changed it, too."
"Because of you," returned the other sternly—"because of you, and Nan, and Kitty!"
"No need to be afraid of us," said John sombrely. "Take back the honest name of Burr and make it respected; I shall not trouble you."
The younger man raised his hand and let it fall with a gesture of despair; his head sank on his breast, and he stood like one humiliated.
"A fine home-coming for me," he said—"a fine home-coming!"
John kicked back the valise into the middle of the road. "Take it," he said.
Frank smiled sadly.
"It contains but a few papers, some mementos, my little savings. I am in your power, if you like." He shrugged his shoulders.
For answer, the highwayman lifted the valise and restrapped it on the saddle.
"You had the password," he answered. "‘Cuckoo pint,' eh? Those who had that sign did not rob each other."
He unpouched the personal belongings of the other and thrust them into Frank's hands.
"This shows good in you, John; you are not wholly hardened or lost. Take some of this money?" And he held out his purse.
The highwayman spurned the proffered gift with the back of his rough hand.
"’Tis honest money; keep it to spend honestly. As for me, forget me; that is the only service I ask of you."
"Can I not help you, for the sake of old days, in any way?"
"In no way," responded John fiercely. "Get on your road to London before the dark comes."
For a second the two men looked at each other, then the highwayman picked up the other's pistols and handed them to him.
"Good luck!" he said shortly.
The younger brother held out his hand in silence. John did not take it; he turned away abashed, then stopped and looked back over his shoulder.
"You might—sometimes—pray for me," he said jerkily, and then plunged hastily down the sides of the Devil's Punch Bowl.
Frank Burr mounted and, putting his horse to a trot, disappeared in the autumn dusk that was gathering over the London road.
John went down and down among the gorse bushes until he reached the very bottom of the great pit, where he could no longer see the gibbet on Gallows Hill.
Sunk in gloom, he seated himself on a boulder and turned over in his mind the difference between his brother and himself. In that moment he wished that he had led a virtuous life, that he was honoured and respected, like Frank. Very passionately he wished it; he began even to think of God, and to reflect very uneasily on some of the ugly deeds of his ugly career.
He was roused by the appearance of a gaunt companion, who came hurrying cautiously through the brushwood and heath.
John eyed him with distaste. Russet Tom he was known as, and his dirty and villainous countenance seemed typical of all the combination of the outcast's life.
"Well?" said John sourly.
The other was panting with haste and excitement.
"Slim Dick is due to pass here!" he gasped. "Got a little portmanteau full of gold and jewels—alone—our chance!"
John was interested now. Slim Dick was a thief and swindler, a gentleman rogue far beyond in craft and cunning such as himself and his companions—a master-villain of many disguises, who had always eluded capture, and successfully carried through many daring frauds and robberies.
"Slim Dick near here?"
Russet Tom explained rapidly.
"Heard this morning. Been all day getting to know the rights of it. He is here, at 'The Huts,' travelling as a private gentleman. All the booty of his last deal in gold and diamonds in a little valise. Bow Street runners after him. Going alone to disarm suspicion. You and I could lighten his load—eh?"
An awful look came into John's eyes.
"What does he call himself?" he asked hoarsely.
"Mr. Edward Somervillle. Just landed from Jamaica, he says."
John remembered the valise he had actually had in his possession, the watch and chain and purse that he had returned, his abasement before his brother—his brother who was Slim Dick!
"What is the matter with you?" cried Russet Tom angrily. "Come along and waylay the prize!"
"He has gone," groaned the highwayman—"gone! Frank always had the luck!" He stared before him mazed, then he added in the tone of one confounded: "And I asked him to pray for me!"