EZRA GIRDLESTONE had given many indications during his life, both in Africa and elsewhere, of being possessed of the power of grasping a situation and of acting for the best at the shortest notice. He never showed this quality more conclusively than at that terrible moment, when he realized not only that the crime in which he had participated had failed, but that all was discovered, and that his father and he were hunted criminals. With the same intuitive quickness which made him a brilliant man of business, he saw instantly what were the only available means of escape, and proceeded at once to adopt them. If they could but reach the vessel of Captain Hamilton Miggs they might defy the pursuit of the law.
The Black Eagle had dropped down the Thames on the very Saturday which was so fruitful of eventful episodes. Miggs would lie at Gravesend, and intended afterwards to beat round to the Downs, there to await the final instructions of the firm. If they could catch him before he left, there was very little chance that he would know anything of what had occurred. It was a fortunate chance that the next day was Sunday, and there would be no morning paper to enlighten him as to the doings in Hampshire. They had only to invent some plausible excuse for their wish to accompany him, and get him to drop them upon the Spanish coast. Once out of sight of England and on the broad ocean, what detective could follow their track?
Of course upon Sampson’s return all would come out. Ezra reckoned, however, that it would be some time before the fisherman got back from his journey. What was a favourable wind going would be dead in his teeth coming back. It might take him a week’s tacking and beating about before he got home. By that time Ezra hoped to be beyond the reach of all danger. He had a thousand five pound Bank of England notes sewn into the back of his waistcoat, for knowing that a crash might come at any moment, he had long made provision against it. With this he felt that he could begin life again in the new world, and with his youth and energy he might hope to attain success. As to his father, he was fully determined to abandon him completely at the first opportunity.
Through the whole of that wintry night the fishing-boat scudded away to the eastward, and the two fugitives remained upon deck, drenched through with rain and with spray, but feeling that the wild turmoil around them was welcome as a relief to their own thoughts. Better the cutting wind and the angry sea than the thought of the dead girl upon the rails and of the bloodhounds of the law.
Ezra pointed up once at the moon, on whose face two storm wreaths had marked a rectangular device.
“Look at that!” he cried. “It looks like a gallows.”
“What is there to live for?” said his father, looking up with the cold light glittering on his deep-set eyes.
“Not much for you, perhaps,” his son retorted. “You’ve had your fling, but I am young and have not yet had a fair show. I have no fancy to be scragged yet.”
“Poor lad!” the father muttered; “poor lad!”
“They haven’t caught me yet,” said Ezra. “If they did I question whether they could do much. They couldn’t hang three for the death of one. You would have to swing, and that’s about all.”
About two in the morning they saw a line of lights, which the fisherman informed them was from the town of Worthing. Again before daybreak they scudded past another and far brighter and larger area of twinkling points, which marked the position of Brighton. They were nearly half-way upon their journey already. As the dawn approached the dark storm-clouds gathered away to the northern horizon and lay in a great shadow over the coast. On all other points the sky was clear, save that here and there a single puff of white vapour sailed along like the feather of some gigantic bird floating in the ocean of air. These isolated clouds, which had been pearly grey in the dim light of early day, gradually took a lilac tint, which deepened into pink, and then blushed suddenly to a fiery scarlet as the red rim of the sun rose majestically over the horizon. All the heaven was filled with colour from the palest, lightest blue at the zenith to the most brilliant crimson in the east, as though it were nature’s palette on which she had dashed every tint that she possessed. The sea reflected the rich glow, and the tossing waves were gashed with scarlet streaks. “It looks like a sea of blood,” the merchant remarked with a shudder, as he gazed at the wonderful spectacle.
By the returning light the two fugitives were able to notice each other’s appearance. Both were pale, haggard, dishevelled, with bloodshot, dark-rimmed eyes and anxious, weary faces.
“This won’t do!” remarked Ezra. “If Miggs sees us like this he’ll smell a rat.”
He dipped a bucket overboard, and after some search a small piece of soap and a broken comb were extracted from one of the lockers. With these materials they managed to perform their toilets. They re-arranged and cleaned each other’s clothing too, and Ezra purchased a yachting-cap from Sampson for his father, the jaunty nature of which contrasted strangely with the old man’s grim angular visage.
“There’s a fine view!” Sampson observed, pointing towards the land, just as his two passengers had finished their toilet.
They were passing a high range of cliffs which ran along for a great distance. Some were of chalk and others were brownish, as though consisting of some sort of earth. There was one which terminated the line towering up above the rest, and as remarkable for the boldness of its outline as for its height. A lighthouse stood upon the summit, and the whole showed up so clearly in the bright morning air that the fugitives could see the green grass round the house and the coastguardsman at the signal station, who was strolling leisurely about and looking down from his elevation at their little craft. To the eastward of this chalk promontory was a large fine-looking town, which stretched in a wide semicircle round the shores of a curving bay.
“That’s Beachy Head,” said Sampson, pointing at the cliff. “It’s the hoiest p’int down Channel, and they have a look-out place up there to report ships as pass. It was a Muster Lloyd as put it up. I doan’t know who he be, that same Muster Lloyd, but he do seem to take a powerful deal of interest in everythink which has to do wi’ shipping. He’s an admiral belike, or something o’ the sort.”
Neither of the Girdlestones appeared inclined to enlighten him upon the point.
“What’s the town?” asked Ezra.
“Eastbourne,” the fisherman answered shortly, and lounged away into the bows, while his son remained at the tiller.
The two fugitives had their breakfast; but as it consisted of nothing more appetising than tinned corned-beef and ships’ biscuits, and as neither of them had much inclination for food, it was not a very lengthy meal. Then they sat in the sheets once more, watching the grand panorama of green woodland and swelling down and towering cliff, which passed before them on the one side while on the other the great ocean highway was dotted with every variety of vessel, from the Portland ketch or the Sunderland brig, with its cargo of coals, to the majestic four-masted liner which swept past, with the green waves swirling round her forefoot and breaking away into a fork of eddying waters in her wake.
Ezra cautioned his father to sit down, for he observed a row of curious faces gazing at them over the quarter of one great vessel.
“Our dress isn’t quite what you would expect to see in a fishing-boat,” he said. “There is no use setting tongues wagging.” There was still a fresh breeze, and the little boat continued to fly before it at the rate of six or eight knots. “This wind is a lucky chance,” Ezra remarked, rather to himself than to his companion.
“It is the working of Providence,” answered John Girdlestone, with an earnestness which showed that his mind still retained its habitual peculiarity.
By ten o’clock they were abreast of the long stone terraces of Hastings; at half-past eleven they saw the masts of the fishing-smacks of Winchelsea. By one they were rounding the sharp bold promontory of Dungeness. They kept further to sea after that, so that the long white wall and the spires of Folkestone and of Dover lay far on the horizon. On the other side a dim haze upon the blue water marked the position of the French coast. It was nearly five, and the sun was beginning to sink down again in the west, when the fisherman, after gazing steadily ahead for some time, with his horny hand shading his eyes, touched Ezra on the sleeve.
“See them breakers over there,” he said, pointing over the starboard bow. Far away Ezra could see a long roll of foam breaking the monotony of the broad stretch of ocean. “Them’s the Goodwins,” he went on; “and them craft ahead is at anchor in the Downs.”
The vessels in question were miles away, but Ezra brightened up at the sight of their destination, and he once again arranged his toilet and that of his father.
“Thank goodness!” he muttered, with a long sigh of relief as he peered at the ships, which were growing clearer and larger every moment. “That outer one is the Black Eagle, or I am much mistaken. He’s not gone yet!”
“That is the Black Eagle,” his father said with confidence. “I know her by the cut of her stern and the rake of her masts.”
As they came nearer still, any lingering doubt was finally dispelled.
“There’s the white paint line,” said Ezra. “It’s certainly her. Take us alongside that ship which is lying to the outside there, Sampson.”
The fisherman looked ahead once more. “To the barque which has just got her anchor up?” he said. “Why, we won’t be in time to catch her.”
“Her anchor up!” screamed Ezra. “You don’t mean to tell me she’s off!”
“Look at that!” the man answered.
As he spoke they saw first one great square of canvas appear above the vessel, and then another, until she had spread her white wings to their fullest extent.
“Don’t say we can’t catch her!” cried Ezra, with a furious oath. “I tell you, man, that we must catch her. Everything depends on that.”
“She must take three short tacks before she’s out from the Goodwins. If we run right on as we are going, we may get near her before she’s free.”
“For God’s sake! clap on all the sail you can! Get these reefs out!” With trembling fingers Ezra let out the sail, and the boat lay over further under the increased pressure. “Is there no other sail that we could put up?”
“If we were running, we could rig up a spinnaker,” the fisherman answered; “but the wind has come round three points. We can do no more.”
“I think we are catching her,” John Girdlestone cried, keeping his eyes fixed upon the barque, which was about a mile and a half ahead.
“Yes, we are now, but she hain’t got her way on yet. She’ll draw ahead presently; won’t she, Jarge?”
The fisherman’s son nodded, and burst into hoarse merriment. “It’s better’n a race,” he cried.
“With our necks for a prize,” Ezra muttered to himself. “It’s a little too exciting to be pleasant. We are still gaining.”
They had a clear view of the dark hull and towering canvas of the barque as she swept along in front of them, intending evidently to take advantage of the wind in order to get outside the Goodwins before beating up Channel.
“She’s going about,” Sampson remarked. As he spoke the snow-white pile lay over in the opposite direction, and the whole broadside of the vessel became visible to them, every sail standing out as though carved from ivory against the cold blue sky. “If we don’t catch her on this tack we won’t get her at all,” the fisherman observed. “When they put about next they’ll reach right out into the Channel.”
“Where’s something white?” said Ezra excitedly. He dived into the cabin and reappeared with a dirty table-cloth. “Stand up here, father! Now keep on waving it! They may see you.”
“I think as we are overhaulin’ of them,” remarked the boy.
“We’re doing that,” his father answered. “The question is, will we get near enough to stop ’em afore they gets off on the next tack?”
The old merchant was standing in the bows waving the signal in the air. His son sprang up beside him and flourished his handkerchief. “They don’t look more than half a mile off. Let us shout together.” The two blended their voices in a hoarse roar, which was taken up by the boatman and his son. “Once again!” cried Ezra; and again their shout resounded over the sea—a long-drawn cry it was, with a ring of despair and of sorrow. Still the barque kept steadily on her way.
“If they don’t go about we shall catch them,” the fisherman said. “If they keep on another five minutes we are right.”
“Do you hear that?” Ezra cried to his father; and they both shouted with new energy and waved their signals.
“They’re goin’ about,” George burst in. “It’s all up.” Girdlestone groaned as he saw the mainyard swing back. They all strained their eyes, waiting for the other to follow. It remained stationary.
“They have seen us!” cried the fisherman. “They are waitin’ to pick us up!”
“Then we are saved!” said Ezra, stepping down and wiping the perspiration which poured from his forehead. “Go down into the cabin, father, and put yourself straight. You look like a ghost.”
Captain Hamilton Miggs had found the liquor of the Cock and Cowslip so very much to his taste, in spite of its vitriolic peculiarities recorded in a preceding chapter, that he rejoined his ship in a very shaky and demoralized condition. He was a devout believer in the homoeopathic revelation that like may be cured by like, so he forthwith proceeded to set himself straight by the consumption of an unlimited quantity of ship’s rum. “What’s the good of having a pilot aboard if I am to keep sober?” he hiccoughed to his mate McPherson. After which piece of logic he shut himself up in his cabin and roared comic songs all the way from London to Gravesend. He was so exhausted by his performance that he fell fast asleep, and snored stertorously for fifteen hours, at the end of which time he came on deck and found that the Black Eagle was lying off Deal, and that her anchor was just being hoisted for a start up Channel.
Captain Hamilton Miggs watched the sail-setting with his hands in his pockets, and swore promiscuously at every one, from the mate downwards, in a hearty comprehensive way, which showed a mind that was superior to petty distinctions. Having run over all the oaths that he could think of, he dived below and helped himself from the rum bottle, a process which appeared to aid his memory or his invention, for he reappeared upon deck and evolved a new many-jointed expletive at the man at the wheel. He then strode in gloomy majesty up and down the quarter-deck, casting his eyes at the sails and at the clouds in a critical way calculated to impress the crew generally with a sense of their captain’s extraordinary sagacity.
The Blank Eagle had gone about for the second time, and was just about to free herself from the Goodwins and reach out into the Channel, when Miggs’ eye happened to fall upon the fishing boat in pursuit and the white flutter in her bows. He examined her with his glass, steadying it as well as he could by leaning it across the rail, as his hand was very shaky. After a short inspection, a look of astonishment, followed by one of resignation, stole over his features.
“I’ve got them again, Mac,” he remarked to the mate.
“Got what, sir?”
“The diddleums, the jumps, the visions. It’s the change of air as has done it.”
“You look all right,” remarked the mate in a sympathetic voice.
“So I may; but I’ve got ’em. It’s usually rats—rats, and sometimes cockroaches; but it’s worse than that this time. As I’m a livin’ man, I looked through the glass at that fishing-boat astern of us, and I saw young Muster Ezra Girdlestone in it, and the old boss standin’ up wi’ a yachtin’-cap at the side of his head and waving a towel. This is the smartest bout that ever I have had. I’ll take some of the medicine left from my last touch and I’ll turn in.” He vanished down the companion, and having taken a strong dose of bromide of potassium, tumbled into his bunk, cursing loudly at his ill luck.
The astonishment of McPherson upon deck was as great as that of Captain Miggs, when, on looking through the glass, he ascertained beyond all doubt that both of his employers were in the fishing-boat. He at once ordered the mainyard to be hauled back and awaited their arrival. In a few minutes the boat was alongside, a ladder thrown down, and the two Girdlestones were on the deck of their own ship.
“Where’s the captain?” asked the head of the firm.
“He’s below, sir. He’s no very salubrious.” The mate’s love of long words rose superior to any personal emotion.
“You can square the yard,” said Ezra. “We are going with you.”
“Ay, ay, sir. Square away that yard there!” It swung round into position, and the Black Eagle resumed her voyage.
“There is some business to be looked after in Spain,” Girdlestone remarked to McPherson. “It came up suddenly or we should have given you notice. It was absolutely necessary that we should be there personally. It was more convenient to go in our own vessel than to wait for a passenger ship.”
“Where will you sleep, sir?” asked the mate. “I doubt the accommodation’s no very munificent.”
“There are two settees in the cabin. We can do on them very well. I think we can’t do better than go down there at once, for we have had a long and tiring journey.”
After they had disappeared into the cabin, McPherson trod the deck for the remainder of his watch with a grave and a thoughtful face. Like most of his countrymen he was shrewd and long-headed. It struck him that it was a very strange thing for the two partners to be absent at the same time from their business. Again, where was their luggage? Grave misgivings arose in his mind as to the reason of it all. He kept them to himself, however, and contented himself with remarking to the carpenter that in all his experience he had never met with a more “monumentous episode.”