The Firm of Girdlestone

Chapter XLV.

The Invasion of Hampshire.

Arthur Conan Doyle

WHEN Tom and the major arrived at Waterloo Station, the latter in the breathless condition described in a preceding chapter, they found the German waiting for them with his two fellow-exiles. The gentleman of Nihilistic proclivities was somewhat tall and thin, with a long frock-coat buttoned almost up to his throat, which showed signs of giving at the seams every here and there. His grizzly hair fell over his collar behind, and he had a short bristling beard. He stood with one hand stuck into the front of his coat and the other upon his hip, as though rehearsing the position in which his statue might be some day erected in the streets of his native Russia, when the people had their own, and despotism was no more. In spite of his worn attire there was something noble and striking about the man. His bow, when Baumser introduced him to the major and Tom, would have graced any Court in Europe. Round his neck he had a coarse string from which hung a pair of double eye-glasses. These he fixed upon his aquiline nose, and took a good look at the gentlemen whom he had come to serve.

Bulow, of Kiel, was a small, dark-eyed, clean-shaven fellow, quick and energetic in his movements, having more the appearance of a Celt than of a Teuton. He seemed to be full of amiability, and assured the major in execrable English how very happy he was to be able to do a service to one who had shown kindness to their esteemed colleague and persecuted patriot, Von Baumser. Indeed both of the men showed great deference to the German, and the major began to perceive that his friend was a very exalted individual in Socialistic circles. He liked the look of the two foreigners, and congratulated himself upon having their co-operation in the matter on hand.

Ill luck was in store for the expedition, however. On inquiry at the ticket-office they found that there was no train for upwards of two hours, and then it was a slow one which would not land them until eight o’clock at Bedsworth. At this piece of information Tom Dimsdale fairly broke down, and stamped about the station, raving and beseeching the officials to run a special, be the cost what it might. This, however, could by no means be done, owing to the press of Saturday traffic. There was nothing for it but to wait. The three foreigners went off in search of something to eat, and having found a convenient cookshop they disappeared therein and feasted royally at Von Baumser’s expense. Major Tobias Clutterbuck remained with the young man, who resolutely refused to leave the platform. The major knew of a snug little corner not far off where he could have put in the time very comfortably, but he could not bring himself to desert his companion even for a minute. I have no doubt that that wait of two hours in the draughty station is marked up somewhere to the old sinner’s credit account.

Indeed, it was well that day that young Dimsdale had good friends at his back. His appearance was so strange and wild that the passers-by turned back to have another look at him, His eyes were open and staring, giving a fear-inspiring character to his expression. He could not sit still for an instant, but paced up and down and backwards and forwards under the influence of the fierce energy which consumed him, while the major plodded along manfully at his side, suggesting every consideration which might cheer him up, and narrating many tales, true and apocryphal, most of which fell upon heedless ears.

Ezra Girdlestone had four hours’ start of them. That was the thought which rankled in Tom’s heart and outweighed every other consideration. He knew Kate’s nature so well that he was convinced that she would never have expressed such fears to Mrs. Scully unless she had very assured reasons for them. In fact, apart from her own words, what could this secrecy and seclusion mean except foul play. After what he had learned about the insurance of the ships and the manner in which the elder Girdlestone had induced him to cease corresponding with Kate, he could believe anything of his partners. He knew, also, that in case of Kate’s death the money reverted to her guardian. There was not a single link missing in the chain of evidence which showed that a crime was in contemplation. Then, who was that butcher-like man whom Ezra was taking down with him? Tom could have torn his hair as he thought of his present impotence and of his folly in losing sight of young Girdlestone.

The major has put it on record that those two hours appeared to him the longest that ever he passed in his life, and Tom, no doubt, would endorse the sentiment. Everything must have an end, however, and the station clock, the hands of which seemed several times to have stopped altogether, began at last to approach the hour at which the Portsmouth train was timed to depart. Baumser and his two friends had come back, all three smoking cigarettes, and looking the better for their visit to the cookshop. The five got into a first-class railway carriage and waited. Would they never have done examining tickets and stamping luggage and going through all sorts of tedious formalities? At last, thank God! comes the shrill whistle of the guard, the answering snort from the engine, and they are fairly started upon their mission of rescue.

There was much to be arranged as to their plan of action. Tom, Von Baumser, and the major talked it over in a low voice, while the two Socialists chatted together in German and consumed eternal cigarettes. Tom was for marching straight up to the Priory and demanding that Girdlestone should deliver his ward up to them. To the major and the German this seemed an unwise proceeding. It was to put themselves hopelessly wrong from a legal point of view. Girdlestone had only to say, as he assuredly would, that the whole story was a ridiculous mare’s nest, and then what proof could they adduce, or what excuse give for their interference. However plausible their suspicions might be, they were, after all, only suspicions, which other people might not view in as grave a light.

“What would you advise, then?” Tom asked, passing his hand over his heated forehead.

“Bedad! I’ll tell you the plan,” the old soldier answered, “and I think me friend Von Baumser will agray with me. I understand that this place is surrounded by a wall to which there is only one gate. Sure, we shall wait outside this wall, and one of us can go in as a skirmisher and find out how the land lies. Let him ascertain from the young lady herself if she requires immadiate help, and what she would wish done. If he can’t make his way to her, let him hang about the house, and see and hear all that he can. We shall then have something solid to work on. I have a dog whistle here on me watch-chain, given me by Charley Gill, of the Inniskillens. Our skirmisher could take that with him, and if he wants immadiate help one blow of it would be enough to bring the four of us over to him. Though how the divil I am to git over a wall,” concluded the major ruefully, looking down at his own proportions, “is more than I can tell.”

“I hope, my vriends,” said Von Baumser, “dat you vill allow me the honour of going first, for ven I vas in the Swabian Jager I vas always counted a very good spion.”

“That is my place,” said Tom with decision.

“You have the best claim,” the major answered. “What a train this is! Ged, it’s as slow as the one which Jimmy Travers, of the Commissariat, travelled in in America. They were staming along, according to Jimmy, when they saw a cow walking along the loine in front of them. They all thought that they were going to run into her, but it was all right, for they never overtook her, and she soon walked clane out of sight. Here we are at a station! How far to Bedsworth, guard?”

“Next station, sir.”

“Thank the Lord! It’s twinty to eight. We are rather behind our time. You always are if you are in a particular hurry.”

It was nearly eight o’clock by the time they reached their destination. The station-master directed them to the Flying Bull, where they secured the very vehicle in which Kate and her guardian had been originally driven up. By the time that the horse was put in it was close upon the half-hour.

“Drive as hard as you can go to the Proiory, me man,” said the major.

The sulky ostler made no remark, but a look of surprise passed over his phlegmatic countenance. For years back so little had been heard of the old monastery that its very existence had been almost forgotten in Bedsworth. Now whole troops of Londoners were coming down in succession, demanding to be driven there. He pondered over the strange fact as he drove through the darkness, but the only conclusion to which his bucolic mind could come was that it was high time to raise the fare to that particular point.

It was a miserable night, stormy and wet and bitterly cold. None of the five men had a thought to spare for the weather, however. The two foreigners had been so infected by the suppressed excitement of their companions, or had so identified themselves with their comrades’ cause, that they were as eager as the others.

“Are we near?” the major asked.

“The gate is just at the end o’ the lane, sir.”

“Don’t pull up at the gate, but take us a little past it.”

“There ain’t no way in except the gate,” the driver remarked.

“Do what you’re ordered,” said the major sternly. Once again the ostler’s face betrayed unbounded astonishment. He slewed half-way round in his seat and took as good a look as was possible in the uncertain light at the faces of his passengers. It had occurred to him that it was more than likely that he would have to swear to them at some future date in a police-court. “I’d know that thick ’un wi’ the red face,” he muttered to himself, “and him wi’ the yeller beard and the stick.”

They passed the stone pillars with the weather-beaten heraldic devices, and drove along by the high park wall. When they had gone a hundred yards or so the major ordered the driver to pull up, and they all got down. The increased fare was paid without remonstrance, and the ostler rattled away homewards, with the intention of pulling up at the county police-station and lodging information as to the suspicious visitors whom he had brought down.

“It is loikely that they have a watch at the gate,” said the major. “We must kape away from there. This wall is a great hoight. We’d best kape on until we find the aisiest place to scale it.”

“I could get over it here,” Tom said eagerly.

“Wait a bit. A few minutes can make no difference one way or the other. Ould Sir Colin used to say that there were more battles lost by over-haste than by slowness. What’s the high bank running along on the right here?”

“Dat’s a railway bankment,” said Von Baumser. “See de posts and de little red lights over yonder.”

“So it is. The wall seems to me to be lower here. What’s this dark thing? Hullo, here’s a door lading into the grounds.”

“It is locked though.”

“Give me a hoist here,” Tom said imploringly. “Don’t throw a minute away. You can’t tell what may be going on inside. At this very moment for all we know they may be plotting her murder.”

“He has right,” said Von Baumser. “We shall await here until we hear from you. Help him, my vriends—shove him up!”

Tom caught the coping of the wall, although the broken glass cut deeply into his hands. With a great heave he swung himself up, and was soon astride upon the top.

“Here’s the whistle,” said the major, standing on tiptoe to reach a downstretched hand. “If you want us, give a good blow at it. We’ll be with you in a brace of shakes. If we can’t get over the wall we’ll have the door down. Divil a fear but we’ll be there!”

Tom was in the act of letting himself drop into the wood, when suddenly the watchers below saw him crouch down upon the wall, and lie motionless, as though listening intently.

“Hush!” he whispered, leaning over. “Some one is coming through the wood.”

The wind had died away and the storm subsided. Even from the lane they could hear the sound of feet, and of muffled voices inside the grounds. They all crouched down in the shadow of the wall. Tom lay flat upon the glass-studded coping, and no one looking from below could distinguish him from the wall itself.

The voices and the footsteps sounded louder and louder, until they were just at the other side of the boundary. They seemed to come from several people walking slowly and heavily. There was the shrill rasping of a key, and the wooden door swung back on its rusty hinges, while three dark figures passed out who appeared to bear some burden between them. The party in the shadow crouched closer still, and peered through the darkness with eager, anxious eyes. They could discern little save the vague outlines of the moving men, and yet as they gazed at them an unaccountable and overpowering horror crept into the hearts of every one of them. They breathed the atmosphere of death.

The new-comers tramped across the road, and, pushing through the thin hedge, ascended the railway embankment upon the other side. It was evident that their burden was a heavy one, for they stopped more than once while ascending the steep grassy slope, and once, when near the top, one of the party slipped, and there was a sound as though he had fallen upon his knees, together with a stifled oath. They reached the top, however, and their figures, which had disappeared from view, came into sight again, standing out dimly against the murky sky. They bent down over the railway line, and placed the indistinguishable mass which they bore carefully upon it.

“We must have the light,” said a voice.

“No, no; there’s no need,” another expostulated.

“We can’t work in the dark,” said a third, loudly and harshly. “Where’s your lantern, guv’nor? I’ve got a lucifer.”

“We must manage that the train passes over right,” the first voice remarked. “Here, Burt, you light it?”

There was the sharp sound of the striking of a match, and a feeble glimmer appeared, in the darkness. It flickered and waned, as though the wind would extinguish it, but next instant the wick of the lantern had caught, and threw a strong yellow glare upon the scene. The light fell upon the major and his comrades, who had sprung into the road, and it lit up the group on the railway line. Yet it was not upon the rescuing party that the murderers fixed their terror-stricken eyes, and the major and his friends had lost all thought of the miscreants above them—for there, standing in the centre of the roadway, there with the light flickering over her pale sweet face, like a spirit from the tomb, stood none other than the much-enduring, cruelly-treated girl for whom Burt’s murderous blow had been intended.

For a few moments she stood there without either party moving a foot or uttering a sound. Then there came from the railway line a cry so wild that it will ring for ever in the ears of those who heard it. Burt dropped upon his knees and put his hand over his eyes to keep out the sight. John Girdlestone caught his son by the wrist and dashed away into the darkness, flying wildly, madly, with white faces and staring eyes, as men who have looked upon that which is not of this world. In the meantime, Tom had sprung down from his perch, and had clasped Kate in his arms, and there she lay, sobbing and laughing, with many pretty feminine ejaculations and exclamations and questions, saved at last from the net of death which had been closing upon her so long.

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