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Title: A Rogue by Compulsion
Author: Victor Bridges
Release Date: December 21, 2003 [eBook #10511] Most recently updated: September 9, 2008
***START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK A ROGUE BY COMPULSION***
E-text prepared by Kevin Handy, Dave Maddock, Josephine Paolucci, and the Project Gutenberg Online Distributed Proofreading TeamA ROGUE BY COMPULSION
An Affair of the Secret Service
By VICTOR BRIDGES
With Frontispiece By JOHN H. CASSEL
[Illustration: "A CURTAIN AT THE END OF THE ROOM WAS DRAWN SLOWLY
ASIDE, AND THERE, STANDING IN THE GAP, I SAW THE SLIM FIGURE OF A
Drawn by John H. Cassel.]TO THAT BEST OF FRIENDS HUGHES MASSIE CONTENTS CHAPTER I. A BOLT FOR FREEDOM II. A BICYCLE AND SOME OVERALLS III. A DUBIOUS REFUGE IV. ECHOES OF A FAMOUS CASE V. AN OFFER WITHOUT AN ALTERNATIVE VI. THE FACE OF A STRANGER VII. A KISS AND A CONFESSION VIII. RT. HON. SIR GEORGE FRINTON, P.C. IX. THE MAN WITH THE SCAR X. MADEMOISELLE VIVIEN, PALMIST XI. BRIDGING THREE YEARS OF SEPARATION XII. A SCRIBBLED WARNING XIII. REGARDING MR. BRUCE LATIMER
XIV. A SUMMONS FROM DR. McMURTRIEXV. A HUMAN "CATCH" XVI. CONFRONTING THE INTRUDER XVII. THE WORKSHOP ON THE MARSHES XVIII. A NEW CLUE TO AN OLD CRIME XIX. LAUNCHING A NEW INVENTION XX. APPROACHING A SOLUTION XXI. SONIA'S SUDDEN VISIT XXII. THE POLICE TAKE ACTION XXIII. IN THE NICK OF TIME XXIV. EXONERATED XXV. A LITTLE FAMILY PARTY CHAPTER I A BOLT FOR FREEDOM
Most of the really important things in life—such as love and death—happen unexpectedly. I know that my escape from Dartmoor did.
We had just left the quarries—eighteen of us, all dressed in that depressing costume which King George provides for his less elusive subjects—and we were shambling sullenly back along the gloomy road which leads through the plantation to the prison. The time was about four o'clock on a dull March afternoon.
In the roadway, on either side of us, tramped an armed warder, his carbine in his hand, his eyes travelling with dull suspicion up and down the gang. Fifteen yards away, parallel with our route, the sombre figure of one of the civil guards kept pace with us through the trees. We were a cheery party!
Suddenly, without any warning, one of the warders turned faint. He dropped his carbine, and putting his hand to his head, stumbled heavily against the low wall that separated us from the wood. The clatter of his weapon, falling in the road, naturally brought all eyes round in that direction, and seeing what had happened the whole eighteen of us instinctively halted.
The gruff voice of the other warder broke out at once, above the shuffling of feet:
"What are you stopping for? Get on there in front."
From the corner of my eye I caught sight of the civil guard hurrying towards the prostrate figure by the wall; and then, just as the whole gang lurched forward again, the thing happened with beautiful abruptness.
A broad, squat figure shot out suddenly from the head of the column, and, literally hurling itself over the wall, landed with a crash amongst the thick undergrowth. There was a second shout from the warder, followed almost instantly by a hoarse command to halt, as the civil guard jerked his carbine to his shoulder.
The fugitive paid about as much attention to the order as a tiger would to a dog whistle. He was off again in an instant, bent almost double, and bursting through the tangled bushes with amazing swiftness.
The charge of buckshot whistled after him, spattering viciously through the twigs, and several of the bolder spirits in the gang at once raised a half-hearted cry of "Murder!"
"Stop that!" bawled the warder angrily, and to enforce his words he quickened his steps so as to bring him in touch with the offenders.
As he did so, I suddenly perceived with extraordinary clearness that I should never again get quite such a good chance to escape. The other men were momentarily between me and the warder, while the civil guard, his carbine empty, was plunging through the trees in pursuit of his wounded quarry.
It was no time for hesitation, and in any case hesitation is not one of my besetting sins. I recollect taking one long, deep breath: then the next thing I remember is catching my toe on the top of the wall and coming the most unholy purler in the very centre of an exceptionally well armoured blackberry bush.
This blunder probably saved my life: it certainly accounted for my escape. The warder who evidently had more nerve than I gave him credit for, must have fired at me from where he was, right between the heads of the other convicts. It was only my abrupt disappearance from the top of the wall that saved me from being filled up with lead. As it was, the charge whistled over me just as I fell, and a devilish unpleasant noise it made too.
I didn't wait for him to reload. I was out of that bush and off up the hill in rather less time than it takes to read these words. Where I was going I scarcely thought; my one idea was to put as big a distance as possible between myself and the carbine before its owner could ram home a second cartridge.
As I ran, twisting in and out between the trees, and keeping my head as low as possible, I could hear behind me a hoarse uproar from my fellow-convicts, who by this time were evidently getting out of hand. No sound could have pleased me better. The more boisterous the good fellows became the less chance would the remaining warder have of worrying about me. As for the civil guard—well, it seemed probable that his time was already pretty fully engaged.
My chief danger lay in the chance that there might be other warders in the immediate neighbourhood. If so, they would doubtless have heard the firing and have come running up at the first alarm. I looked back over my shoulder as I reached the top of the plantation, which was about a hundred yards from the road, but so far as I could see there was no one as yet on my track.
My one chance lay in reaching the main wood that borders the Tavistock road before the mounted guard could come up. Between this and the plantation stretched a long bare slope of hillside, perhaps two hundred yards across, with scarcely enough cover on it to hide a rabbit. It was not exactly an inviting prospect, but still the place had to be crossed, and there was nothing to be gained by looking at it. So setting my teeth I jumped out from under the shelter of the trees, and started off as fast as I could pelt for the opposite side.
I had got about half-way over when there came a sudden shout away to the right. Turning my head as I ran, I saw through the thin mist a figure in knickerbockers and a Norfolk jacket vaulting over the low gate that separated the moor from the road.
I suppose he was a tourist, for he had a small knapsack fastened to his back and he was carrying a stick in his hand.
"Tally-ho!" he yelled, brandishing the latter, and then without hesitation he came charging across the open with the obvious intention of cutting me off from the wood.
For the first time in three years I laughed. It was not a pretty laugh, and if my new friend had heard it, his ardour in the chase might perhaps have been a trifle cooled. As it was he came on with undiminished zest, apparently quite confident in his ability to tackle me single-handed.
We met about ten yards this side of the nearest trees.
He rushed in on me with another "whoop," and I saw then that he was a big, powerful, red-faced fellow of a rather coarse sporting type—the kind of brute I've always had a peculiar dislike for.
"Down you go!" he shouted, and suiting the action to the word, he swung back his stick and lashed out savagely at my head.
I didn't go down. Instead of that I stepped swiftly in, and striking up his arm with my left hand, I let him have my right bang on the point of the chin. Worlds of concentrated bitterness were behind it, and he went over backwards as if he had been struck by a coal-hammer.
It did me a lot of good, that punch. It seemed to restore my self-respect in a way that nothing else could have done. You must have been a convict yourself, shouted at and ordered about like a dog for three weary years, to appreciate the full pleasure of being able once more to punch a man in the jaw.
At the moment, however, I had no time to analyze my feelings. Almost before the red-faced gentleman's shoulders had struck the ground I had reached the railing which bounded the wood, and putting one hand on the top bar had vaulted over into its inviting gloom.
Then, just for an instant, I stopped, and, like Lot's wife, cast one hasty glance behind me. Except for the motionless form of my late adversary, who appeared to be studying the sky, the stretch of moor that I had just crossed was still comfortingly empty. So far no pursuing warder had even emerged from the plantation. With a sigh of relief I turned round again and plunged forward into the thickest part of the tangled brake ahead.
It would have been difficult to find a better temporary hiding-place than the one I had reached. Thick with trees and undergrowth, which sprouted up from between enormous fissures and piles of granite rock, it stretched away for the best part of a mile and a half parallel with the main road. I knew that even in daylight the warders would find it no easy matter to track me down: at this time in the afternoon, with dusk coming rapidly on, the task would be an almost impossible one.
Besides, it was starting to rain. All the afternoon a thick cloud had been hanging over North Hessary, and now, as scratched and panting I forced my way on into the ever-increasing gloom, a fine drizzle began to descend through the trees. I knew what that meant. In half an hour everything would probably be blotted out in a wet grey mist, and, except for posting guards all round the wood, my pursuers would be compelled to abandon the search until next morning. It was the first time that I had ever felt an affection for the Dartmoor climate.
Guessing rather than judging my way, I stumbled steadily forward until I reached what I imagined must be about the centre of the wood. By this time I was wet through to the skin. The thin parti-coloured "slop" that I was wearing was quite useless for keeping out the rain, a remark that applied with almost equal force to my prison-made breeches and gaiters. Apart from the discomfort, however, I was not much disturbed. I have never been an easy victim to chills, and three years in Princetown had done nothing to soften a naturally tough constitution.
Still there was no sense in getting more soaked than was necessary, so I began to hunt around for some sort of temporary shelter. I found it at last in the shape of a huge block of granite, half hidden by the brambles and stunted trees which had grown up round it. Parting the undergrowth and crawling carefully in, I discovered at the base a kind of hollow