IT might perhaps have been as well for the curtailing of this narrative, and for the interests of the world at large if the blow dealt by the sturdy right arm of the navvy had cut short once for all the career of the junior African merchant. Ezra, however, was endowed with a rare vitality, which enabled him not only to shake off the effects of his mishap, but to do so in an extraordinarily short space of time. There was a groan from the prostrate figure, then a feeble movement, then another and a louder groan, and then an oath. Gradually raising himself upon his elbow, he looked around him in a bewildered way, with his other hand pressed to the wound at the back of his head, from which a few narrow little rivulets of blood were still meandering. His glance wandered vaguely over the table and the chairs and the walls, until it rested upon the safe. He could see in the moonlight that it was open, and empty. In a moment the whole circumstances of the case came back to him, and he staggered to the door with a hoarse cry of rage and of despair.
Whatever Ezra’s faults may have been, irresolution or want of courage were not among them. In a moment he grasped the situation, and realized that it was absolutely essential that he should act, and at once. The stones must be recovered, or utter and irretrievable ruin stared him in the face. At his cries the landlord and several attendants, white and black, came rushing into the room.
“I’ve been robbed and assaulted,” Ezra said, steadying himself against the mantelpiece, for he was still weak and giddy. “Don’t all start cackling, but do what I ask you. Light the lamp!”
The lamp was lit, and there was a murmur from the little knot of employees, reinforced by some late loungers at the bar, as they saw the disordered room and the great crimson patch upon the carpet.
“The thieves called at nine,” said Ezra, talking rapidly, but collectedly. “Their names were Farintosh, Burt, and Williams. We talked for, some little time, so they probably did not leave the house before a quarter past at the soonest. It is now half-past ten, so they have no very great start. You, Jamieson, and you, Van Muller, run out and find if three men have been seen getting away. Perhaps they took a buggy. Go up and down, and ask all you see. You, Jones, go as hard as you can to Inspector Ainslie. Tell him there has been robbery and attempted murder, and say that I want half a dozen of his best mounted men—not his best men, you understand, but his best horses. I shall see that he is no loser if he is smart. Where’s my servant Pete? Pete, you dog, get my horse saddled and bring her round. She ought to be able to catch anything in Griqualand.”
As Ezra gave his orders the men hurried off in different directions to carry them out. He himself commenced to arrange his dress, and tied a handkerchief tightly round his head.
“Surely you are not going, sir?” the landlord said, “You are not fit.”
“Fit or not, I am going,” Ezra said resolutely. “If I have to be strapped to my horse I’ll go. Send me up some brandy. Put some in a flask, too. I may feel faint before I get back.”
A great concourse of people had assembled by this time, attracted by the report of the robbery. The whole square in front of the hotel was crowded with diggers and store-keepers and innumerable Kaffirs, all pressing up to the portico in the hope of hearing some fresh details. Mr. Hector O’Flaherty, over the way, was already busy setting up his type in preparation for a special edition, in which the Vaal River Advertiser should give its version of the affair. In the office the great man himself, who was just convalescing from an attack of ardent spirits, was busily engaged, with a wet towel round his head, writing a leader upon the event. This production, which was very sonorous and effective, was peppered all over with such phrases as “protection of property,” “outraged majesty of the law,” and “scum of civilization”—expressions which had been used so continuously by Mr. O’Flaherty, that he had come to think that he had a copyright in them, and loudly accused the London papers of plagiarism if he happened to see them in their columns.
There was a buzz of excitement among the crowd when Ezra appeared on the steps of the hotel, looking as white as a sheet, with a handkerchief bound round his head and his collar all crusted with blood. As he mounted his horse one of his emissaries rushed to him.
“If you please, sir,” he said, “they have taken the Capetown road. A dozen people saw them. Their horses were not up to much, for I know the man they got them from. You are sure to catch them.”
A smile played over Ezra’s pale face, which boded little good for the fugitives. “Curse those police!” he cried; “are they never going to come?”
“Here they are!” said the landlord; and sure enough, with a jingling of arms and a clatter of hoofs, half a dozen of the Griqualand Mounted Constabulary trotted through the crowd and drew up in front of the steps. They were smart, active young fellows, armed with revolver and sabre, and their horses were tough brutes, uncomely to look at, but with wonderful staying power. Ezra noted the fact with satisfaction as he rode up to the grizzled sergeant in command.
“There’s not a moment to be lost, sergeant,” he said. “They have an hour and a half’s start, but their cattle are not up to much. Come on! It’s the Capetown road. A hundred pounds if we catch them!”
“Threes!” roared the sergeant. “Right half turn—trot!” The crowd split asunder, and the little troop, with Ezra at their head, clove a path through them. “Gallop!” shouted the sergeant, and away they clattered down the High Street of Kimberley, striking fire out of the stone and splashing up the gravel, until the sound of their hoofs died away into a dull, subdued rattle, and finally faded altogether from the ears of the listening crowd.
For the first few miles the party galloped in silence. The moon was still shining brilliantly, and they could see the white line of the road stretching out in front of them and winding away over the undulating veldt. To right and left spread a broad expanse of wiry grass stretching to the horizon, with low bushes and scrub scattered over it in patches. Here and there were groups of long-legged, unhealthy-looking sheep, who crashed through the bushes in wild terror as the riders swept by them. Their plaintive calls were the only sounds which broke the silence of the night, save the occasional dismal hooting of the veldt owl.
Ezra, on his powerful grey, had been riding somewhat ahead of the troopers, but the sergeant managed to get abreast of him. “Beg pardon, sir,” he said, raising his hand to his kepi, “but don’t you think this pace is too good to last? The horses will be blown.”
“As long as we catch them,” Ezra answered, “I don’t care what becomes of the horses. I would sooner stand you a dozen horses apiece than let them get away.”
The young merchant’s words were firm and his seat steady, in spite of the throbbing at his head. The fury in his heart supplied him with strength, and he gnawed his moustache in his impatience and dug his spurs into his horse’s flanks until the blood trickled down its glossy coat. Fortune, reputation, above all, revenge, all depended upon the issue of this headlong chase through the darkness.
The sergeant and Ezra galloped along, leather to leather, and rein to rein, while the troop clattered in their rear. “There’s Combrink about two miles further on,” said the sergeant; “we will hear news of them there.”
“They can’t get off the high road, can they?”
“Not likely, sir. They couldn’t get along as fast anywhere else. Indeed, it’s hardly safe riding across the veldt. They might be down a pit before they knew of it.”
“As long as they are on the road, we must catch them,” quoth Ezra; “for if it ran straight from here to hell I would follow them there.”
“And we’d stand by you, sir,” said the sergeant, catching something of his companion’s enthusiasm. “At this pace, if the horses hold out, we might catch them before morning. There are the lights of the shanty.”
As he spoke they were galloping round a long curve in the road, at the further end of which there was a feeble yellow glimmer. As they came abreast of it they saw that the light came through an open door, in the centre of which a burly Afrikaner was standing with his hands in his breeches pockets and his pipe in his mouth.
“Good evening,” said the sergeant, as his men pulled up their reeking horses. “Has any one passed this way before us?”
“Many a tausand has passed this way before you,” said the Dutchman, taking his pipe out of his mouth to laugh.
“To-night, man, to-night!” the sergeant cried angrily.
“Oh yes; down the Port Elizabeth Road there, not one hour ago. Three men riding fit to kill their horses.”
“That’ll do,” Ezra shouted; and away they went once more down the broad white road. They passed Bluewater’s Drift at two in the morning, and were at Van Hayden’s farm at half-past. At three they left the Modder River far behind them, and at a quarter past four they swept down the main street of the little township of Jacobsdal, their horses weak and weary and all mottled with foam. There was a police patrol in the street.
“Has any one passed?” cried the sergeant.
“Three men, a quarter of an hour ago.”
“Have they gone on?”
“Straight on. Their horses were nearly dead beat, though.”
“Come on!” cried Ezra eagerly. “Come on!”
“Four of the horses are exhausted, sir,” said the sergeant. “They can’t move another step.”
“Come on without them then.”
“The patrol could come,” the sergeant suggested.
“I should have to report myself at the office, sir,” said the trooper.
“Jump on to his horse, sergeant,” cried Ezra. “He can take yours to report himself on. Now then you and I at least are bound to come up with them. Forward! gallop!” And they started off once more on their wild career, rousing the quiet burghers of Jacobsdal by the wild turmoil of their hoofs.
Out once more upon the Port Elizabeth Road it was a clear race between the pursuers and the pursued. The former knew that the fugitives, were it daytime, would possibly be within sight of them, and the thought gave them additional ardour. The sergeant having a fresh horse rode in front, his head down and his body forward, getting every possible inch of pace out of the animal. At his heels came Ezra, on his gallant grey, the blood-stained handkerchief fluttering from his head. He was sitting very straight in his saddle with a set stern smile upon his lips. In his right hand he held a cocked revolver. A hundred yards or so behind them the two remaining troopers came toiling along upon their weary nags, working hard with whip and spur to stimulate them to further exertions. Away in the east a long rosy streak lay low upon the horizon, which showed that dawn was approaching, and a grey light stole over the landscape. Suddenly the sergeant pulled his horse up.
“There’s some one coming towards us,” he cried.
Ezra and the troopers halted their panting steeds. Through the uncertain light they saw a solitary horseman riding down the road. At first they had thought that it might possibly be one of the fugitives who had turned, but as he came nearer they perceived that it was a stranger. His clothes were so dusty and his horse so foam-flecked and weary that it was evident that he also had left many a long mile of road behind him.
“Have you seen three men on horseback?” cried Ezra as he approached.
“I spoke to them,” the traveller answered. “They are about half a mile ahead.”
“Come on! Come on!” Ezra shouted.
“I am bringing news from Jagersfontein——” the man said.
“Come on!” Ezra interrupted furiously; and the horses stretched their stiff limbs into a feeble lumbering gallop. Ezra and the sergeant shot to the front, and the others followed as best they might. Suddenly in the stillness they heard far away a dull rattling sound like the clatter of distant castanets. “It’s their horses’ hoofs!” cried Ezra; and the troopers behind raised a cheer to show that they too understood the significance of the sound.
It was a wild, lonely spot, where the plain was bare even of the scanty foliage which usually covered it. Here and there great granite rocks protruded from the brown soil, as though Nature’s covering had in bygone days been rent until her gaunt bones protruded through the wound. As Ezra and the sergeant swept round a sharp turn in the road they saw, some little way ahead of them, the three fugitives, enveloped in a cloud of dust. Almost at the same moment they heard a shout and crash behind them, and, looking round, saw a confused heap upon the ground. The horse of the leading trooper had fallen from pure fatigue, and had rolled over upon its rider. The other trooper had dismounted, and was endeavouring to extricate his companion.
“Let us see if he is hurt,” the sergeant cried.
“On! on!” shouted Ezra, whose passion was increased by the sight of the thieves. “Not a foot back.”
“He may have broken his neck,” grumbled the sergeant, drawing his revolver. “Have your pistol ready, sir. We shall be up with them in a few minutes, and they may show fight.”
They were up with them rather sooner than the policeman expected. Farintosh, finding that speed was of no avail, and that the numbers of his pursuers was now reduced to two, had recourse to strategy. There was a sharp turn in the road a hundred yards ahead, and on reaching it the three flung themselves off their horses and lay down behind cover. As Ezra and the sergeant, the grey horse and the bay, came thundering round the curve, there was a fierce splutter of pistol shots from amongst the bushes, and the grey sank down upon its knees with a sobbing moan, struck mortally in the head. Ezra sprang to his feet and rushed at the ambuscade, while the sergeant, who had been grazed on the cheek by the first volley, jumped from his horse and followed him. Burt and Farintosh met them foot to foot with all the Saxon gallantry which underlies the Saxon brutality. Burt stabbed at the sergeant and struck him through the muscle of the neck. Farintosh fired at the policeman, and was himself shot down by Ezra. Burt, seeing his companion fall, sprang past his two assailants with a vicious side blow at the merchant, and throwing himself upon the sergeant’s horse, regardless of a bullet from the latter’s revolver, he galloped away, and was speedily out of range. As to Williams, from the beginning of the skirmish he had lain face downwards upon the ground, twisting his thin limbs about in an agony of fear, and howling for mercy.
“He’s gone!” Ezra said ruefully, gazing after the fugitive. “We have nothing to go after him with.”
“I’m well-nigh gone myself,” said the policeman, mopping up the blood from his stab, which was more painful than dangerous. “He has given me a nasty prod.”
“Never mind, my friend, you shall not be the loser. Get up, you little viper!”—this to Williams, who was still writhing himself into the most extraordinary attitudes.
“Oh, please, Mr. Girdlestone,” he cried, clutching at Ezra’s boots with his long thin fingers, “it wasn’t me that hit you. It was Mr. Burt. I had nothing to do with robbing you either. That was Mr. Farintosh. I wouldn’t have gone with him, only I knew that he was a clergyman, so I expected no harm. I am surprised at you, Mr. Farintosh, I really am. I’m very glad that Mr. Girdlestone has shot you.”
The ex-parson was sitting with his back against a gnarled stump, which gave him some support. He had his hand to his chest, and as he breathed a ghastly whistling sound came from the wound, and spirts of blood rushed from his mouth. His glazed eyes were fixed upon the man who had shot him, and a curious smile played about his thin lips.
“Come here, Mr. Girdlestone,” he croaked; “come here.”
Ezra strode over to him with a face as inexorable as fate.
“You’ve done for me,” said Farintosh faintly. “It’s a queer end for the best man of his year at Trinity—master of arts, sir, and Jacksonian prizeman. Not much worth now, is it? Who’d have thought then that I should have died like a dog in this wilderness? What’s the odds how a man dies though. If I’d kept myself straight I should have gone off a few years later in a feather bed as the Dean of St. Patrick’s may be. What will that matter? I’ve enjoyed myself”—the dying man’s eyes glistened at the thought of past dissipations. “If I had my time to do over again,” he continued, “I’d enjoy myself the same way. I’m not penitent, sir. No death-bed snivelling about me, or short cuts into heaven. That’s not what I wanted to say though. I have a choking in the throat, but I dare say you can hear what I am driving at. You met a man riding towards Jacobsdal, did you not?”
Ezra nodded sullenly.
“You didn’t speak to him? Too busy trying to catch yours truly, eh? Will you have your stones back, for they are in the bag by my side, but they’ll not be very much good to you. The little spec won’t come off this time. You don’t know what the news was that the man was bringing?”
A vague feeling of impending misfortune stole over Ezra. He shook his head.
“His news was,” said Farintosh, leaning up upon his hand, “that fresh diamond fields have been discovered at Jagersfontein, in the Orange Free State. So Russia, or no Russia, stones will not rise. Ha! ha! will not rise. Look at his face! It’s whiter than mine. Ha! ha! ha!” With the laugh upon his lips, a great flow of blood stopped the clergyman’s utterance, and he rolled slowly over upon his side, a dead man.