The Firm of Girdlestone

Chapter XLVI.

A Midnight Cruise.

Arthur Conan Doyle

IF ever two men were completely cowed and broken down those two were the African merchant and his son. Wet, torn, and soiled, they still struggled on in their aimless flight, crashing through hedges and clambering over obstacles, with the one idea in their frenzied minds of leaving miles between them and that fair accusing face. Exhausted and panting they still battled through the darkness and the storm, until they saw the gleam of the surge and heard the crash of the great waves upon the beach. Then they stopped amid the sand and the shingle. The moon was shining down now in all its calm splendour, illuminating the great tossing ocean and the long dark sweep of the Hampshire coast. By its light the two men looked at one another, such a look as two lost souls might have exchanged when they heard the gates of hell first clang behind them.

Who could have recognized them now as the respected trader of Fenchurch Street and his fastidious son. Their clothes were tattered, their faces splashed with mud and scarred by brambles and thorns, the elder man had lost his hat, and his silvery hair blew out in a confused tangle behind him. Even more noticeable, however, than the change in their attire was the alteration in their expression. Both had the same startled, furtive look of apprehension, like beasts of prey who hear the baying of the hounds in the distance. Their quivering hands and gasping breath betrayed their exhaustion, yet they glanced around them nervously, as though the least sound would send them off once more upon their wild career.

“You devil!” Ezra cried at last, in a harsh, choking voice, taking a step towards his father with a gesture as though he would have struck him. “You have brought us to this with your canting and scheming and plotting. What are we to do now—eh? Answer me that!” He caught the old man by the coat and shook him violently.

Girdlestone’s face was all drawn, as though he were threatened with a fit, and his eyes were glassy and vacant. The moonlight glittered in them and played over his contorted features. “Did you see her?” he whispered with trembling lips. “Did you see her?”

“Yes, I saw her,” the other answered brusquely; “and I saw that infernal fellow from London, and the major, and God knows how many more behind her. A nice hornets’ nest to bring about one’s ears.”

“It was her spirit,” said his father in the same awe-struck voice. “The spirit of John Harston’s murdered daughter.”

“It was the girl herself,” said Ezra. He had been panic-stricken at the moment, but had had time during their flight to realize the situation. “We have made a pretty botch of the whole thing.”

“The girl herself!” cried Girdlestone in bewilderment. “For Heaven’s sake, don’t mock me! Who was it that we carried through the wood and laid upon the rails?”

“Who was it? Why that jealous jade, Rebecca Taylforth, of course, who must have read my note and come out in the other’s cloak and hat to hear what I had to say to her. The cursed fool!”

“The wrong woman!” Girdlestone muttered with the same vacant look upon his face. “All for nothing, then—for nothing!”

“Don’t stand mumbling to yourself there,” cried Ezra, catching his father’s arm and half dragging him along the beach. “Don’t you understand that there’s a hue and cry out after you, and that we’ll be hung if we are taken. Wake up and exert yourself. The gallows would be a nice end to all your preaching and praying, wouldn’t it?”

They hurried along together down the beach, ploughing their way through the loose shingle and tripping over the great mats of seaweed which had been cast up in the recent gale. The wind was still so great that they had to lower their heads and to put their shoulders against it, while the salt spray caused their eyes to smart and tingled on their lips.

“Where are you taking me, my son?” asked the old man once.

“To the only chance we have of safety. Come on, and ask no questions.”

Through the murkiness of the night they saw a single light flickering dimly ahead of them. This was evidently the goal at which Ezra was aiming. As they toiled on it grew larger and brighter, until it resolved itself into the glare of a lamp shining through a small diamond-paned window. Girdlestone recognized the place now. It was the hut of a fisherman named Sampson, who lived a mile or more from Claxton. He remembered having his attention attracted to the place by the curious nature of the building, which was constructed out of the remnants of a Norwegian barque stranded some years before. The thatch which covered it and the windows and door cut in the sides gave it a curiously hybrid appearance, and made it an object of interest to sightseers in those parts. Sampson was the owner of a fair-sized fishing-boat, which he worked with his eldest son, and which was said to yield him a decent livelihood.

“What are you going to do?” asked Girdlestone, as his son made his way to the door.

“Don’t look like a ghost,” Ezra answered in an angry whisper. “We’re all safe, if we are only cool.”

“I am better now. You can trust me.”

“Keep a smiling face, then,” said Ezra, and knocked loudly at the door of the hut. The occupants had not heard their approach owing to the storm, but the instant that the young merchant struck the door there was a buzz of conversation and the sharp barking of a dog. Then came a dull thud and the barking ceased, from which Ezra concluded that some one had hurled a boot at the animal.

“We hain’t no bait,” cried a gruff voice.

“Can I see Mr. Sampson?” asked Ezra.

“I tell ’ee we hain’t no bait,” roared the voice in a more irritable tone.

“We don’t want bait. We want a word of talk,” said Ezra.

As he spoke, the door flew open, and a burly middle-aged man, in a red shirt, appeared, with a face which was almost the same colour as his garment. “We hain’t got no—” he was beginning, when he suddenly recognized his visitors and broke short off, staring at them with as much surprise as it is possible for human features to express.

“Well, if it ain’t the genelman from the Priory!” he exclaimed at last, with a whistle, which seemed to be his way of letting off the astonishment which would otherwise remain bottled up in his system.

“We want a minute’s talk with you, Mr. Sampson,” said Ezra.

“Surely, sir—sure-ly!” the fisherman cried, bustling indoors and rubbing the top of two stools with his sleeve. “Coom in! ’Ere, Jarge, pull the seats up for the genelmen.”

At this summons, a lanky, big-boned hobbledehoy, in sea boots, pushed the stools up towards the fire, on which a log of wood was blazing cheerily. The two Girdlestones sat warming themselves, while the fisherman and his son surveyed them silently with open eyes and mouth, as though they were a pair of strange zoological curiosities cast up by the gale.

“Keep doon, Sammy!” the fisherman said hoarsely to a great collie dog who was licking at Girdlestone’s hands. “What be he a suckin’ at? Why, sure, sir, there be blood on your hands.”

“My father scratched himself,” said Ezra promptly.

“His hat has blown away too, and we lost our way in the dark, so we’re rather in a mess.”

“Why, so you be!” Sampson cried, eyeing them up and down. “I thought, when I heard you, as it was they folk from Claxton as comes ’ere for bait whenever they be short. That’s nigh about the only visitors we ever gets here; bean’t it, Jarge?”

George, thus appealed to, made no articulate reply, but he opened his great mouth and laughed vociferously.

“We’ve come for something which will pay you better than that,” said Ezra. “You remember my meeting you two or three Saturdays ago, and speaking to you about your house and your boat and one thing or another?”

The fisherman nodded.

“You said something then about your boat being a good sea-going craft, and that it was as roomy as many a yacht. I think I told you that I might give it a try some day.”

The fisherman nodded again. His wondering eyes were still surveying his visitors, dwelling on every rent in their clothes or stain on their persons.

“My father and I want to get down the coast as far as the Downs. Now we thought that we might just as well give your boat a turn and have your son and yourself to work it. I suppose she is fit to go that distance?”

“Fit! whoy she be fit to go to ’Meriky! The Downs ain’t more’n hunder and twenty mile. With a good breeze she would do it in a day. By to-morrow afternoon we’d be ready to make a start if the wind slackens.”

“To-morrow afternoon! We must be there by that time. We want you to start to-night.”

The seaman looked round at his son, and the boy burst out laughing once again.

“It ’ud be a rum start for a vyage at this time o’ night, with half a gale from the sou’-west. I never heard tell o’ sich a thing!”

“Look here,” said Ezra, bending forward and emphasizing his words with his uplifted hand, “we’ve set our minds on going, and we don’t mind paying for the fancy. The sooner we start the better pleased we shall be. Name your price. If you won’t take us, there are many in Claxton that will.”

“Well, it be a cruel bad night to be sure,” the fisherman answered. “Like as not we’d get the boat knocked about, an’ maybe have her riggin’ damaged. We’ve been a-fresh paintin’ of her too, and that would be spoiled. It’s a powerful long way, and then there’s the gettin’ back. It means the loss of two or three days’ work, and there’s plenty of fish on the coast now, and a good market for them.”

“Would thirty pounds pay you?” asked Ezra.

The sum was considerably more than the fisherman would have ventured to ask. The very magnificence of it, however, encouraged him to hope that more might be forthcoming.

“Five-and-thirty wouldn’t pay me for the loss and trouble,” he said; “forbye the damage to the boat.”

“Say forty, then,” said Ezra. “It’s rather much to pay for a freak of this sort, but we won’t haggle over a pound or two.”

The old seaman scratched his head as though uncertain whether to take this blessing which the gods had sent or to hold out for more.

Ezra solved the matter by springing to his feet. “Come on to Claxton, father,” he cried. “We’ll get what we want there.”

“Steady, sir, steady!” the fisherman said hastily. “I didn’t say as I wasn’t good for the job. I’m ready to start for the sum you names. Hurry up, Jarge, and get the tackle ready.”

The sea-booted youth began to bustle about at this summons, bearing things out into the darkness and running back for more with an alacrity which one would hardly have suspected from his uncouth appearance.

“Can I wash my hands?” asked Girdlestone. There were several crimson stains where he had held the body of the murdered girl. It appeared that Burt’s bludgeon was not such a bloodless weapon after all.

“There’s water, sir, in that bucket. Maybe you would like a bit o’ plaster to bind up the cut?”

“It’s not bad enough for that,” said the merchant hastily.

“I’ll leave you here,” the fisherman remarked. “There’s much to be done down theer. You’ll have poor feedin’ I’m afraid; biscuits and water and bully beef.”

“Never mind that. Hurry up all you can.” The man tramped away down to the beach, and Ezra remained with his father in the hut. The old man washed his hands very carefully, and poured the stained water away outside the door.

“How are you going to pay this man?” he asked.

“I have some money sewed up in my waistcoat,” Ezra answered. “I wasn’t such a fool as not to know that a crash might come at any moment. I was determined that all should not go to the creditors.”

“How much have you?”

“What’s that to you?” Ezra asked angrily. “You mind your own affairs. The money’s mine, since I have saved it. It’s quite enough if I spend part of it in helping you away.”

“I don’t dispute it, my boy,” the old merchant said meekly. “It’s a blessing that you had the foresight to secure it. Are you thinking of making for France now?”

“France! Pshaw, man, the telegraph would have set every gendarme on the coast on the look-out. No, no, that would be a poor hope of safety!”

“Where then?”

“Where is the fisherman?” asked Ezra suspiciously, peering out from the door into the darkness. “No one must know our destination. We’ll pick up Migg’s ship, the Black Eagle, in the Downs. She was to have gone down the Thames to-day, and to lie at Gravesend, and then to work round to the Downs, where she will be to-morrow. It will be a Sunday, so no news can get about. If we get away with him they will lose all trace of us. We’ll get him to land up upon the Spanish coast. I think it will fairly puzzle the police. No doubt they are watching every station on the line by this time. I wonder what has become of Burt?”

“I trust that they will hang him,” John Girdlestone cried, with a gleam of his old energy. “If he had taken the ordinary precaution of making sure who the girl was, this would never have occurred.”

“Don’t throw the blame on him,” said Ezra bitterly. “Who was it who kept us all up to it whenever we wished to back out? If it had not been for you, who would have thought of it?”

“I acted for the best,” cried the old man, throwing his hands up with a piteous gesture. “You should be the last to upbraid me. It was the dream of leaving you rich and honoured which drove me on. I was prepared to do anything for that end.”

“You have always excellent intentions,” his son said callously. “They have a queer way of showing themselves, however. Look out, here’s Sampson!”

As he spoke they heard the crunching of the fisherman’s heavy boots on the shingle, and he looked in, with his ruddy face all shining with the salt water.

“We’re all ready now, sirs,” he said. “Jarge and I will get into our oil duds, and then we can lock up the shop. It’ll have to take care of itself until we come back.”

The two gentlemen walked down to the edge of the sea. There was a little dinghy there, and the boat was anchored a couple of hundred yards off. They could just make out the loom of her through the darkness, and see her shadowy spars, dipping, rising, and falling with the wash of the waves. To right and left spread the long white line of thundering foam, as though the ocean were some great beast of prey which was gnashing its glistening teeth at them. The gale had partially died away, but there still came fitful gusts from the south-west, and the thick clouds overhead were sweeping in a majestic procession across the sky, and falling like a dark cataract over the horizon, showing that up there at least there was no lull in the tempest. It was bitterly cold, and both men buttoned up their coats and slapped their hands against each other to preserve their warmth.

After some little delay, Sampson and his son came down from the hut with a lantern in each of their hands. They had locked the door behind them, which showed that they were ready for a final start. By the lights which they carried it could be seen that they were dressed in yellow suits of oilskin and sou’wester hats, as if prepared for a wet night.

“You ain’t half dressed for a cruise of this kind,” Sampson said. “You’ll be nigh soaked through, I fear.”

“That’s our look-out,” answered Ezra. “Let us get off.”

“Step in, sir, and we’ll get in after.”

The dinghy was shoved off into the surf, and the two seamen clambered in after. Ezra and his father sat in the sheets, while the others rowed. The sea was running very high—so high that when the dinghy lay in the trough of a wave they could see neither the boat for which they were steering nor the shore which they had left—nothing indeed but the black line of hissing water above their heads. At times they would go up until they hung on the crest of a great roller and saw the dark valleys gaping beyond into which they were forthwith precipitated. Sometimes, when they were high upon a wave, the fishing-boat would be between the seas, and then there would be nothing of her visible except the upper portion of her mast. It was only a couple of hundred yards, but seemed a long journey to the shivering fugitives.

“Stand by with the boat-hook!” Sampson cried at last. The dark outline of the boat was looming immediately above them.

“All right, father.”

The dinghy was held alongside, and the two gentlemen scrambled aboard as best they could, followed by their companions.

“Have you the painter, Jarge?”

“Ay, ay.”

“Make it fast aft then!”

The lad fastened the rope which held the dinghy to a stanchion beside the tiller. Then he and his father proceeded to hoist the foresail so as to get the boat’s head round.

“She’ll do now,” Sampson cried. “Give us a hand here, sir, if you don’t mind.”

Ezra caught hold of the rope which was handed him and pulled for some time. It was a relief to him to have something, however small, which would distract his mind from the events of the night.

“That will do, sir,” the skipper cried, and, leaning over the bows, he seized the anchor which Ezra had hauled up, and tumbled it with a crash on the deck.

“Now, Jarge, with three reefs in her we might give her the mains’le.”

With much pulling at ropes and with many strange nautical cries the father and the son, aided by their passengers, succeeded in raising the great brown sail. The little vessel lay over under the pressure of the wind until her lee bulwark was flush with the water, and the deck lay at such an angle that it was only by holding on to the weather rigging that the two gentlemen could retain their footing. The wild waves swirled and foamed round her bows, and beat at her quarter and beneath her counter, but the little boat rose gallantly to them, and shot away through the storm, running due eastward.

“It ain’t much of a cabin,” Sampson said apologetically. “Such as it is, you’ll find it down there.”

“Thank you,” answered Ezra; “we’ll stay on deck at present. When ought we to get to the Downs?”

“At this rate we’ll be there by to-morrow afternoon.”

“Thank you.”

The fisherman and his boy took turn and turn, one steering and the other keeping a look-out forward and trimming the sails. The two passengers crouched huddled together against the weather rail. They were each too occupied with thought to have time for speech. Suddenly, after passing Claxton and rounding the point, they came in full sight of the Priory, every window of which was blazing with light. They could see dark figures passing to and fro against the glare.

“Look there,” Girdlestone whispered.

“Ay, the police have not taken long,” his son answered. John Girdlestone was silent for some time. Then he suddenly dropped his face upon his hands, and sobbed hoarsely for the first and last time in his career.

“I am thinking of Monday in Fenchurch Street,” he said. “My God! is this the end of a life of hard work! Oh, my business, my business, that I built up myself! It will break my heart!”

And so through the long cold winter’s night they sat together while the boat ploughed its way down the English Channel. Who shall say what their thoughts were as they stared with pale, rigid faces into the darkness, while their minds, perhaps, peered even more cheerlessly into the dismal obscurity which lay over their future. Better be the lifeless wreck whom they have carried up to the Priory, than be torn as these men are torn, by the demons of fear and remorse and grief, and crushed down by the weight of a sin-stained and irrevocable past.

The Firm of Girdlestone - Contents    |     Chapter XLVII

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