IT would be impossible to describe the suspense in which Tom Dimsdale lived during these weeks. In vain he tried in every manner to find some way of tracing the fugitives. He wandered aimlessly about London from one inquiry office to another, telling his story and appealing for assistance. He advertised in papers and cross-questioned every one who might know anything of the matter. There were none, however, who could help him or throw any light upon the mystery.
No one at the office knew anything of the movements of the senior partner. To all inquiries Ezra replied that he had been ordered by the doctors to seek complete repose in the country. Dimsdale dogged Ezra’s footsteps night after night in the hope of gaining some clue, but in vain. On the Saturday he followed him to the railway station, but Ezra, as we have seen, succeeded in giving him the slip.
His father became seriously anxious about the young fellow’s health. He ate nothing and his sleep was much broken. Both the old people tried to inculcate patience and moderation.
“That fellow, Ezra Girdlestone, knows where they are,” Tom would cry, striding wildly up and down the room with unkempt hair and clenched hands. “I will have his secret, if I have to tear it out of him.”
“Steady, lad, steady!” the doctor replied to one of these outbursts. “There is nothing to be gained by violence. They are on the right side of the law at present, and you will be on the wrong if you do anything rash. The girl could have written if she were uncomfortable.”
“Ah, so she could. She must have forgotten us. How could she, after all that has passed!”
“Let us hope for the best, let us hope for the best,” the doctor would say soothingly. Yet it must be confessed that he was considerably staggered by the turn which things had taken. He had seen so much of the world in his professional capacity that he had become a very reliable judge of character. All his instincts told him that Kate Harston was a true-hearted and well-principled girl. It was not in her nature to leave London and never to send a single line to her friends to tell them where or why she had gone. There must, he was sure, be some good reason for her silence, and this reason resolved itself into one or two things—either she was ill and unable to hold a pen, or she had lost her freedom and was restrained from writing to them. The last supposition seemed to the doctor to be the more serious of the two.
Had he known the instability of the Girdlestone firm, and the necessity they were under of getting ready money, he would at once have held the key to the enigma. He had no idea of that, but in spite of his ignorance he was deeply distrustful of both father and son. He knew and had often deplored the clause in John Harston’s will by which the ward’s money reverted to the guardian. Forty thousand pounds were a bait which might tempt even a wealthy man into crooked paths.
It was Saturday—the third Saturday since Girdlestone and his ward had disappeared. Dimsdale had fully made up his mind that, go where he would, Ezra should not escape him this time. On two consecutive Saturdays the young merchant had managed to get away from him, and had been absent each time until the Monday morning. Tom knew, and the thought was a bitter one, that these days were spent in some unknown retreat in the company of Kate and of her guardian. This time at least he should not get away without revealing his destination.
The two young men remained in the office until two o’clock. Then Ezra put on his hat and overcoat, buttoning it up close, for the weather was bitterly cold. Tom at once picked up his wide-awake and followed him out into Fenchurch Street, so close to his heels that the swinging door had not shut on the one before the other passed through. Ezra glanced round at him when he heard the footsteps, and gave a snarl like an angry dog. There was no longer any pretence of civility between the two, and whenever their eyes met it was only to exchange glances of hatred and defiance.
A hansom was passing down the street, and Ezra, with a few muttered words to the driver, sprang in. Fortunately another had just discharged its fare, and was still waiting by the curb. Tom ran up to it. “Keep that red cab in sight,” he said. “Whatever you do, don’t let it get away from you.” The driver, who was a man of few words, nodded and whipped up his horse.
It chanced that this same horse was either a faster or a fresher one than that which bore the young merchant. The red cab rattled down Fleet Street, then doubled on its tracks, and coming back by St. Paul’s plunged into a labyrinth of side streets, from which it eventually emerged upon the Thames Embankment. In spite of all its efforts, however, it was unable to shake off its pursuer. The red cab journeyed on down the Embankment and across one of the bridges, Tom’s able charioteer still keeping only a few yards behind it. Among the narrow streets on the Surrey side Ezra’s vehicle pulled up at a low beer-shop. Tom’s drove on a hundred yards or so, and then stopped where he could have a good view of whatever occurred. Ezra had jumped out and entered the public-house. Tom waited patiently outside until he should reappear. His movements hitherto had puzzled him completely. For a moment the wild hope came into his head that Kate might be concealed in this strange hiding-place, but a little reflection showed him the absurdity and impossibility of the idea.
He had not long to wait. In a very few minutes young Girdlestone came out again, accompanied by a tall, burly man, with a bushy red beard, who was miserably dressed, and appeared to be somewhat the worse for drink. He was helped into the cab by Ezra, and the pair drove off together. Tom was more bewildered than ever. Who was this fellow, and what connexion had he with the matter on hand? Like a sleuth-hound the pursuing hansom threaded its way through the torrent of vehicles which pour down the London streets, never for one moment losing sight of its quarry. Presently they wheeled into the Waterloo Road, close to the Waterloo Station. The red cab turned sharp round and rattled up the incline which leads to the main line. Tom sprang out, tossed a sovereign to the driver, and followed on foot at the top of his speed.
As he ran into the station Ezra Girdlestone and the red-bearded stranger were immediately in front of him. There was a great swarm of people all around, for, as it was Saturday, there were special trains to the country. Tom was afraid of losing sight of the two men in the crowd, so he elbowed his way through as quickly as he could, and got immediately behind them—so close that he could have touched them with his hand. They were approaching the booking-office, when Ezra glanced round and saw his rival standing behind him. He gave a bitter curse, and whispered something to his half-drunken companion. The latter turned, and with an inarticulate cry, like a wild beast, rushed at the young man and seized him by the throat with his brawny hands.
It is one thing, however, to catch a man by the throat, and another to retain that grip, especially when your antagonist happens to be an International football player. To Tom this red-bearded rough, who charged him so furiously, was nothing more than the thousands of bull-headed forwards who had come upon him like thunder-bolts in the days of old. With the ease begotten by practice he circled his assailant with his long muscular arms, and gave a quick convulsive jerk in which every sinew of his body participated. The red-bearded man’s stumpy legs described a half-circle in the air, and he came down on the stone pavement with a sounding crash which shook every particle of breath from his enormous body.
Tom’s fighting blood was all aflame now, and his grey eyes glittered with a Berserk joy as he made at Ezra. All the cautions of his father and the exhortations of his mother were cast to the winds as he saw his enemy standing before him. To do him justice, Ezra was nothing loth, but sprang forward to meet him, hitting with both hands. They were well matched, for both were trained boxers and exceptionally powerful men. Ezra was perhaps the stronger, but Tom was in better condition. There was a short eager rally—blow and guard and counter so quick and hard that the eye could hardly follow it. Then a rush of railway servants and bystanders tore them asunder. Tom had a red flush on his forehead where a blow had fallen, Ezra was spitting out the fragments of a broken tooth, and bleeding profusely. Each struggled furiously to get at the other, with the result that they were dragged farther apart. Eventually a burly policeman seized Tom by the collar, and held him as in a vice.
“Where is he?” Tom cried, craning his neck to catch a glimpse of his enemy. “He’ll get away after all.”
“Can’t ’elp that,” said the guardian of the peace phlegmatically. “A gen’elman like you ought to be ashamed. Keep quiet now! Would yer, then!” This last at some specially energetic effort on the part of the prisoner to recover his freedom.
“They’ll get away! I know they will!” Tom cried in despair, for both Ezra and his companion, who was none other than Burt, of African notoriety, had disappeared from his sight. His fears proved to be only too well founded, for when at last he succeeded in wresting himself from the constable’s clutches he could find no trace of his enemies. A dozen bystanders gave a dozen different accounts of their movements. He rushed from one platform to another over all the great station. He could have torn his hair at the thought of the way in which he had allowed them to slip through his fingers. It was fully an hour before he finally abandoned the search, and acknowledged to himself that he had been hoodwinked for the third time, and that a long week would elapse before he could have another chance of solving the mystery.
He turned at last sadly and reluctantly away from the station, and walked across to Waterloo Bridge, brooding over all that had occurred, and cursing himself for his stupidity in allowing himself to be drawn into a vulgar brawl, when he might have attained his end so much better by quiet observation. It was some consolation, however, that he had had one fair crack at Ezra Girdlestone. He glanced down at his knuckles, which were raw and bleeding, with a mixture of satisfaction and disgust. With half a smile he put his injured hand in his pocket, and looking up once more became aware that a red-faced gentleman was approaching him in a highly excited manner.
It could not be said that the red-faced gentleman walked, neither could it be said that the red-faced gentleman ran. His mode of progression might best be described as a succession of short and unwieldy jumps, which, as he was a rather stout gentleman, appeared to indicate some very urgent and pressing need for hurry. His face was bathed in perspiration, and his collar had become flaccid and shapeless from the same cause. It appeared to Tom, as he gazed at those rubicund, though anxious, features, that they should be well known to him. That glossy hat, those speckless gaiters, and the long frock-coat, surely they could belong to none other than the gallant Major Tobias Clutterbuck, late of her Majesty’s 119th of the Line?
As the old soldier approached Tom, he quickened his pace, so that when he eventually came up with him he could only puff and pant and hold out a soiled letter.
“Read!” he managed to ejaculate.
Tom opened the letter and glanced his eye over the contents, with a face which had turned as pale as the major’s was red. When he finished it he turned without a word, and began to run in the direction from which he had come, the major following as quickly as his breath would permit.