Thus it happened that at a time when families were gathering cheerily each about a single fireside, Mr. Mitchelbourne was riding alone through the muddy and desolate lanes of Suffolk. The winter was not seasonable; men were not tempted out of doors. There was neither briskness nor sunlight in the air, and there was no snow upon the ground. It was a December of dripping branches, and mists and steady pouring rains, with a raw sluggish cold, which crept into one’s marrow.
The man who was afraid, a large, corpulent man, of a loose and heavy build, with a flaccid face and bright little inexpressive eyes like a bird’s, sat on a bench within the glow of the fire.
“You travel far to-night?” he asked nervously, shuffling his feet.
“To-night!” exclaimed Mitchelbourne as he stood with his legs apart taking the comfortable warmth into his bones. “No further than from this fire to my bed,” and he listened with enjoyment to the rain which cracked upon the window like a shower of gravel flung by some mischievous urchin. He was not suffered to listen long, for the corpulent man began again.
“I am an observer, sir. I pride myself upon it, but I have so much humility as to wish to put my observations to the test of fact. Now, from your carriage, I should judge you to serve His Majesty.”
“A civilian may be straight. There is no law against it,” returned Mitchelbourne, and he perceived that the ambiguity of his reply threw his questioner into a great alarm. He was at once interested. Here, it seemed, was one of those encounters which were the spice of his journeyings.
“You will pardon me,” continued the stranger with a great assumption of heartiness, “but I am curious, sir, curious as Socrates, though I thank God I am no heathen. Here is Christmas, when a sensible gentleman, as upon my word I take you to be, sits to his table and drinks more than is good for him in honour of the season. Yet here are you upon the roads to Suffolk which have nothing to recommend them. I wonder at it, sir.”
“You may do that,” replied Mitchelbourne, “though to be sure, there are two of us in the like case.”
“Oh, as for me,” said his companion shrugging his shoulders, “I am on my way to be married. My name is Lance,” and he blurted it out with a suddenness as though to catch Mitchelbourne off his guard. Mitchelbourne bowed politely.
“And my name is Mitchelbourne, and I travel for my pleasure, though my pleasure is mere gipsying, and has nothing to do with marriage. I take comfort from thinking that I have no friend from one rim of this country to the other, and that my closest intimates have not an inkling of my whereabouts.”
Mr. Lance received the explanation with undisguised suspicion, and at supper, which the two men took together, he would be forever laying traps. Now he slipped some outlandish name or oath unexpectedly into his talk, and watched with a forward bend of his body to mark whether the word struck home; or again he mentioned some person with whom Mitchelbourne was quite unfamiliar. At length, however, he seemed satisfied, and drawing up his chair to the fire, he showed himself at once in his true character, a loud and gusty boaster.
“An exchange of sentiments, Mr. Mitchelbourne, with a chance acquaintance over a pipe and a glass—upon my word I think you are in the right of it, and there’s no pleasanter way of passing an evening. I could tell you stories, sir; I served the King in his wars, but I scorn a braggart, and all these glories are over. I am now a man of peace, and, as I told you, on my way to be married. Am I wise? I do not know, but I sometimes think it preposterous that a man who has been here and there about the world, and could, if he were so meanly-minded, tell a tale or so of success in gallantry, should hamper himself with connubial fetters. But a man must settle, to be sure, and since the lady is young, and not wanting in looks or breeding or station, as I am told—”
“As you are told?” interrupted Mitchelbourne.
“Yes, for I have never seen her. No, not so much as her miniature. Nor have I seen her mother either, or any of the family, except the father, from whom I carry letters to introduce me. She lives in a house called ‘The Porch’ some miles from here. There is another house hard by to it, I understand, which has long stood empty and I have a mind to buy it. I bring a fortune, the lady a standing in the county.”
“And what has the lady to say to it?” asked Mitchelbourne.
“The lady!” replied Lance with a stare. “Nothing but what is dutiful, I’ll be bound. The father is under obligations to me.” He stopped suddenly, and Mitchelbourne, looking up, saw that his mouth had fallen. He sat with his eyes starting from his head and a face grey as lead, an image of panic pitiful to behold. Mitchelbourne spoke but got no answer. It seemed Lance could not answer—he was so arrested by a paralysis of terror. He sat staring straight in front of him, and it seemed at the mantelpiece which was just on a level with his eyes. The mantelpiece, however, had nothing to distinguish it from a score of others. Its counterpart might be found to this day in the parlour of any inn. A couple of china figures disfigured it, to be sure, but Mitchelbourne could not bring himself to believe that even their barbaric crudity had power to produce so visible a discomposure. He inclined to the notion that his companion was struck by a physical disease, perhaps some recrudescence of a malady contracted in those foreign lands of which he vaguely spoke.
“Sir, you are ill,” said Mitchelbourne. “I will have a doctor, if there is one hereabouts to be found, brought to your relief.” He sprang up as he spoke, and that action of his roused Lance out of his paralysis. “Have a care,” he cried almost in a shriek, “Do not move! For pity, sir, do not move,” and he in his turn rose from his chair. He rose trembling, and swept the dust off a corner of the mantelpiece into the palm of his hand. Then he held his palm to the lamp.
“Have you seen the like of this before?” he asked in a low shaking voice.
Mitchelbourne looked over Lance’s shoulder. The dust was in reality a very fine grain of a greenish tinge.
“Never!” said Mitchelbourne.
“No, nor I,” said Lance, with a sudden cunning look at his companion, and opening his fingers, as he let the grain run between them. But he could not remove as easily from Mitchelbourne’s memories that picture he had shown him of a shaking and a shaken man. Mitchelbourne went to bed divided in his feelings between pity for the lady Lance was to marry, and curiosity as to Lance’s apprehensions. He lay awake for a long time speculating upon that mysterious green seed which could produce so extraordinary a panic, and in the morning his curiosity predominated. Since, therefore, he had no particular destination he was easily persuaded to ride to Saxmundham with Mr. Lance, who, for his part, was most earnest for a companion. On the journey Lance gave further evidence of his fears. He had a trick of looking backwards whenever they came to a corner of the road—an habitual trick, it seemed, acquired by a continued condition of fear. When they stopped at midday to eat at an ordinary, he inspected the guests through the chink at the hinges of the door before he would enter the room; and this, too, he did as though it had long been natural to him. He kept a bridle in his mouth, however; that little pile of grain upon the mantelshelf had somehow warned him into reticence, so that Mitchelbourne, had he not been addicted to his tobacco, would have learnt no more of the business and would have escaped the extraordinary peril which he was subsequently called upon to face.
But he was addicted to his tobacco, and no sooner had he finished his supper that night at Saxmundham than he called for a pipe. The maidservant fetched a handful from a cupboard and spread them upon the table, and amongst them was one plainly of Barbary manufacture. It had a straight wooden stem painted with hieroglyphics in red and green and a small reddish bowl of baked earth. Nine men out of ten would no doubt have overlooked it, but Mitchelbourne was the tenth man. His fancies were quick to kindle, and taking up the pipe he said in a musing voice:
“Now, how in the world comes a Barbary pipe to travel so far over seas and herd in the end with common clays in a little Suffolk village?”
He heard behind him the grating of a chair violently pushed back. The pipe seemingly made its appeal to Mr. Lance also.
“Has it been smoked?” he asked in a grave low voice.
“The inside of the bowl is stained,” said Mitchelbourne.
Mitchelbourne had been inclined to believe that he had seen last evening the extremity of fear expressed in a man’s face: he had now to admit that he had been wrong. Mr. Lance’s terror was a Circe to him and sunk him into something grotesque and inhuman; he ran once or twice in a little tripping, silly run backwards and forwards like an animal trapped and out of its wits; and his face had the look of a man suffering from a nausea; so that Mitchelbourne, seeing him, was ashamed and hurt for their common nature.
“I must go,” said Lance babbling his words. “I cannot stay. I must go.”
“To-night?” exclaimed Mitchelbourne. “Six yards from the door you will be soaked!”
“Then there will be the fewer men abroad. I cannot sleep here! No, though it rained pistols and bullets I must go.” He went into the passage, and calling his host secretly asked for his score. Mitchelbourne made a further effort to detain him.
“Make an inquiry of the landlord first. It may be a mere shadow that frightens you.”
“Not a word, not a question,” Lance implored. The mere suggestion increased a panic which seemed incapable of increase. “And for the shadow, why, that’s true. The pipe’s the shadow, and the shadow frightens me. A shadow! Yes! A shadow is a horrible, threatning thing! Show me a shadow cast by nothing and I am with you. But you might as easily hold that this Barbary pipe floated hither across the seas of its own will. No! ’Ware shadows, I say.” And so he continued harping on the word, till the landlord fetched in the bill.
The landlord had his dissuasions too, but they availed not a jot more than Mr. Mitchelbourne’s.
“The road is as black as a pauper’s coffin,” said he, “and damnable with ruts.”
“So much the better,” said Lance.
“There is no house where you can sleep nearer than Glemham, and no man would sleep there could he kennel elsewhere.”
“So much the better,” said Lance. “Besides, I am expected to-morrow evening at ‘The Porch’ and Glemham is on the way.” He paid his bill, slipped over to the stables and lent a hand to the saddling of his horse. Mitchelbourne, though for once in his life he regretted the precipitancy with which he welcomed strangers, was still sufficiently provoked to see the business to its end. His imagination was seized by the thought of this fat and vulgar person fleeing in terror through English lanes from a Barbary Moor. He had now a conjecture in his mind as to the nature of that greenish seed. He accordingly rode out with Lance toward Glemham.
It was a night of extraordinary blackness; you could not distinguish a hedge until the twigs stung across your face; the road was narrow, great tree-trunks with bulging roots lined it, at times it was very steep—and, besides and beyond every other discomfort, there was the rain. It fell pitilessly straight over the face of the country with a continuous roar as though the earth was a hollow drum. Both travellers were drenched to the skin before they were free of Saxmundham, and one of them, when after midnight they stumbled into the poor tumble-down parody of a tavern at Glemham, was in an extreme exhaustion. It was no more than an ague, said Lance, from which he periodically suffered, but the two men slept in the same bare room, and towards morning Mitchelbourne was awakened from a deep slumber by an unfamiliar voice talking at an incredible speed through the darkness in an uncouth tongue. He started up upon his elbow; the voice came from Lance’s bed. He struck a light. Lance was in a high fever, which increased as the morning grew.
Now, whether he had the sickness latent within him when he came from Barbary, or whether his anxieties and corpulent habit made him an easy victim to disease, neither the doctor nor any one else could determine. But at twelve o’clock that day Lance was seized with an attack of cholera and by three in the afternoon he was dead. The suddenness of the catastrophe shocked Mr. Mitchelbourne inexpressibly. He stood gazing at the still features of the man whom fear had, during these last days, so grievously tormented, and was solemnly aware of the vanity of those fears. He could not pretend to any great esteem for his companion, but he made many suitable reflections upon the shears of the Fates and the tenacity of life, in which melancholy occupation he was interrupted by the doctor, who pointed out the necessity of immediate burial. Seven o’clock the next morning was the hour agreed upon, and Mitchelbourne at once searched in Lance’s coat pockets for the letters which he carried. There were only two, superscribed respectively to Mrs. Ufford at “The Porch” near Glemham, and to her daughter Brasilia. At “The Porch” Mitchelbourne remembered Lance was expected this very evening, and he thought it right at once to ride thither with his gloomy news.
Having, therefore, sprinkled the letters plentifully with vinegar and taken such rough precautions as were possible to remove the taint of infection from the letters, he started about four o’clock. The evening was most melancholy. For, though no rain any longer fell, there was a continual pattering of drops from the trees and a ghostly creaking of branches in a light and almost imperceptible wind. The day, too, was falling, the grey overhang of cloud was changing to black, except for one wide space in the west, where a pale spectral light shone without radiance; and the last of that was fading when he pulled up at a parting of the roads and inquired of a man who chanced to be standing there his way to “The Porch.” He was directed to ride down the road upon his left hand until he came to the second house, which he could not mistake, for there was a dyke or moat about the garden wall. He passed the first house a mile further on, and perhaps half a mile beyond that he came to the dyke and the high garden wall, and saw the gables of the second house loom up behind it black against the sky. A wooden bridge spanned the dyke and led to a wide gate. Mitchelbourne stopped his horse at the bridge. The gate stood open and he looked down an avenue of trees into a square of which three sides were made by the high garden wall, and the fourth and innermost by the house. Thus the whole length of the house fronted him, and it struck him as very singular that neither in the lower nor the upper windows was there anywhere a spark of light, nor was there any sound but the tossing of the branches and the wail of the wind among the chimneys. Not even a dog barked or rattled a chain, and from no chimney breathed a wisp of smoke. The house in the gloom of that melancholy evening had a singular eerie and tenantless look; and oppressive silence reigned there; and Mitchelbourne was unaccountably conscious of a growing aversion to it, as to something inimical and sinister.
He had crossed the mouth of a lane, he remembered, just at the first corner of the wall. The lane ran backwards from the road, parallel with the side wall of the garden. Mitchelbourne had a strong desire to ride down that lane and inspect the back of the house before he crossed the bridge into the garden. He was restrained for a moment by the thought that such a proceeding must savour of cowardice. But only for a moment. There had been no doubting the genuine nature of Lance’s fears and those fears were very close to Mr. Mitchelbourne now. They were feeling like cold fingers about his heart. He was almost in the icy grip of them.
He turned and rode down the lane until he came to the end of the wall. A meadow stretched behind the house. Mitchelbourne unfastened the catch of a gate with his riding whip and entered it. He found himself upon the edge of a pool, which on the opposite side wetted the house wall. About the pool some elder trees and elms grew and overhung, and their boughs tapped like fingers upon the window-panes. Mitchelbourne was assured that the house was inhabited, since from one of the windows a strong yellow light blazed, and whenever a sharper gust blew the branches aside, swept across the face of the pool like a flaw of wind.
The lighted window was in the lowest storey, and Mitchelbourne, from the back of his horse, could see into the room. He was mystified beyond expression by what he saw. A deal table, three wooden chairs, some ragged curtains drawn back from the window, and a single lamp made up the furniture. The boards of the floor were bare and unswept; the paint peeled in strips from the panels of the walls; the discoloured ceiling was hung with cobwebs; the room in a word matched the outward aspect of the house in its look of long disuse. Yet it had occupants. Three men were seated at the table in the scarlet coats and boots of the King’s officers. Their faces, though it was winter-time, were brown with the sun, and thin and drawn as with long privation and anxiety. They had little to say to one another, it seemed. Each man sat stiffly in a sort of suspense and expectation, with now and then a restless movement or a curt word as curtly answered.
Mitchelbourne rode back again, crossed the bridge, fastened his horse to a tree in the garden, and walked down the avenue to the door. As he mounted the steps, he perceived with something of a shock, that the door was wide open and that the void of the hall yawned black before him. It was a fresh surprise, but in this night of surprises, one more or less, he assured himself, was of little account. He stepped into the hall and walked forwards feeling with his hands in front of him. As he advanced, he saw a thin line of yellow upon the floor ahead of him. The line of yellow was a line of light, and it came, no doubt, from underneath a door, and the door, no doubt, was that behind which the three men waited. Mitchelbourne stopped. After all, he reflected, the three men were English officers wearing His Majesty’s uniform, and, moreover, wearing it stained with their country’s service. He walked forward and tapped upon the door. At once the light within the room was extinguished.
It needed just that swift and silent obliteration of the slip of light upon the floor to make Mitchelbourne afraid. He had been upon the brink of fear ever since he had seen that lonely and disquieting house; he was now caught in the full stream. He turned back. Through the open doorway, he saw the avenue of leafless trees tossing against a leaden sky. He took a step or two and then came suddenly to a halt. For all around him in the darkness he seemed to hear voices breathing and soft footsteps. He realised that his fear had overstepped his reason; he forced himself to remember the contempt he had felt for Lance’s manifestations of terror; and swinging round again he flung open the door and entered the room.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” said he airily, and he got no answer whatsoever. In front of him was the grey panel of dim twilight where the window stood. The rest was black night and an absolute silence. A map of the room was quite clear in his recollections. The three men were seated he knew at the table on his right hand. The faint light from the window did not reach them, and they made no noise. Yet they were there. Why had they not answered him, he asked himself. He could not even hear them breathing, though he strained his ears. He could only hear his heart drumming at his breast, the blood pulsing in his temples. Why did they hold their breath? He crossed the room, not knowing what he did, bereft of his wits. He had a confused, ridiculous picture of himself wearing the flaccid, panic stricken face of Mr. Lance, like an ass’ head, not holding the wand of Titania. He reached the window and stood in its embrasure, and there one definite, practical thought crept into his mind. He was visible to these men who were invisible to him. The thought suggested a precaution, and with the trembling haste of a man afraid, he tore at the curtains and dragged them till they met across the window so that even the faint grey glimmer of the night no longer had entrance. The next moment he heard the door behind him latch and a key turn in the lock. He crouched beneath the window and did not stand up again until a light was struck, and the lamp relit.
The lighting of the lamp restored Mr. Mitchelbourne, if not to the full measure of his confidence, at all events to an appreciation that the chief warrant for his trepidation was removed. What he had with some appearance of reason feared was a sudden attack in the dark. With the lamp lit, he could surely stand in no danger of any violence at the hands of three King’s officers whom he had never come across in all his life. He took, therefore, an easy look at them. One, the youngest, now leaned against the door, a youth of a frank, honest face, unremarkable but for a firm set of the jaws. A youth of no great intellect, thought Mitchelbourne, but tenacious, a youth marked out for a subordinate command, and never likely for all his sterling qualities to kindle a woman to a world-forgetting passion, or to tread with her the fiery heights where life throbs at its fullest. Mr. Mitchelbourne began to feel quite sorry for this young officer of the limited capacities, and he was still in the sympathetic mood when one of the two men at the table spoke to him. Mitchelbourne turned at once. The officers were sitting with a certain air of the theatre in their attitudes, one a little dark man and the other a stiff, light complexioned fellow with a bony, barren face, unmistakably a stupid man and the oldest of the three. It was he who was speaking, and he spoke with a sort of aggravated courtesy like a man of no breeding counterfeiting a gentleman upon the stage.
“You will pardon us for receiving you with so little ceremony. But while we expected you, you on the other hand were not expecting us, and we feared that you might hesitate to come in if the lamp was burning when you opened the door.”
Mitchelbourne was now entirely at his ease. He perceived that there was some mistake and made haste to put it right.
“On the contrary,” said he, “for I knew very well you were here. Indeed, I knocked at the door to make a necessary inquiry. You did not extinguish the lamp so quickly but that I saw the light beneath the door, and besides I watched you some five minutes through the window from the opposite bank of the pool at the back of the house.”
The officers were plainly disconcerted by the affability of Mr. Mitchelbourne’s reply. They had evidently expected to carry off a triumph, not to be taken up in an argument. They had planned a stroke of the theatre, final and convincing, and behold the dialogue went on! There was a riposte to their thrust.
The spokesman made some gruff noises in his throat. Then his face cleared.
“These are dialectics,” he said superbly with a wave of the hand.
“Good,” said the little dark fellow at his elbow, “very good!”
The youth at the door nodded superciliously towards Mitchelbourne.
“True, these are dialectics,” said he with a smack of the lips upon the word. It was a good cunning scholarly word, and the man who could produce it so aptly worthy of admiration.
“You make a further error, gentlemen,” continued Mitchelbourne, “you no doubt are expecting some one, but you were most certainly not expecting me. For I am here by the purest mistake, having been misdirected on the way.” Here the three men smiled to each other, and their spokesman retorted with a chuckle.
“Misdirected, indeed you were. We took precautions that you should be. A servant of mine stationed at the parting of the roads. But we are forgetting our manners,” he added rising from his chair. “You should know our names. The gentleman at the door is Cornet Lashley, this is Captain Bassett and I am Major Chantrell. We are all three of Trevelyan’s regiment.”
“And my name,” said Mitchelbourne, not to be outdone in politeness, “is Lewis Mitchelbourne, a gentleman of the County of Middlesex.”
At this each of the officers was seized with a fit of laughter; but before Mitchelbourne had time to resent their behavior, Major Chantrell said indulgently:
“Well, well, we shall not quarrel about names. At all events we all four are lately come from Tangier.”
“Oh, from Tangier,” cried Mitchelbourne. The riddle was becoming clear. That extraordinary siege when a handful of English red-coats unpaid and ill-fed fought a breached and broken town against countless hordes for the honour of their King during twenty years, had not yet become the property of the historian. It was still an actual war in 1681. Mitchelbourne understood whence came the sunburn on his antagonists’ faces, whence the stains and the worn seams of their clothes. He advanced to the table and spoke with a greater respect than he had used.
“Did one of you,” he asked, “leave a Moorish pipe behind you at an inn of Saxmundham?”
“Ah,” said the Major with a reproachful glance at Captain Bassett. The Captain answered with some discomfort:
“Yes. I made that mistake. But what does it matter? You are here none the less.”
“You have with you some of the Moorish tobacco?” continued Mitchelbourne.
Captain Bassett fetched out of his pocket a little canvas bag, and handed it to Mitchelbourne, who untied the string about the neck, and poured some of the contents into the palm of his hand. The tobacco was a fine, greenish seed.
“I thought as much,” said Mitchelbourne, “you expected Mr. Lance to-night. It is Mr. Lance whom you thought to misdirect to this solitary house. Indeed Mr. Lance spoke of such a place in this neighbourhood, and had a mind to buy it.”
Captain Bassett suddenly raised his hand to his mouth, not so quickly, however, but Mitchelbourne saw the grim, amused smile upon his lips. “It is Mr. Lance for whom you now mistake me,” he said abruptly.
The young man at the door uttered a short, contemptuous laugh, Major Chantrell only smiled.
“I am aware,” said he, “that we meet for the first time to-night, but you presume upon that fact too far. What have you to say to this?” And dragging a big and battered pistol from his pocket, he tossed it upon the table, and folded his arms in the best transpontine manner.
“And to this?” said Captain Bassett. He laid a worn leather powder flask beside the pistol, and tapped upon the table triumphantly.
Mr. Mitchelbourne recognised clearly that villainy was somehow checkmated by these proceedings and virtue restored, but how he could not for the life of him determine. He took up the pistol.
“It appears to have seen some honourable service,” said he. This casual remark had a most startling effect upon his auditors. It was the spark to the gun-powder of their passions. Their affectations vanished in a trice.
“Service, yes, but honourable! Use that lie again, Mr. Lance, and I will ram the butt of it down your throat!” cried Major Chantrell. He leaned forward over the table in a blaze of fury. Yet his face did no more than match the faces of his comrades.
Mitchelbourne began to understand. These simple soldier-men had endeavoured to conduct their proceedings with great dignity and a judicial calmness; they had mapped out for themselves certain parts which they were to play as upon a stage; they were to be three stern imposing figures of justice; and so they had become simply absurd and ridiculous. Now, however, that passion had the upper hand of them, Mitchelbourne saw at once that he stood in deadly peril. These were men.
“Understand me, Mr. Lance,” and the Major’s voice rang out firm, the voice of a man accustomed to obedience. “Three years ago I was in command of Devil’s Drop, a little makeshift fort upon the sands outside Tangier. In front the Moors lay about us in a semicircle. Sir, the diameter was the line of the sea at our backs. We could not retire six yards without wetting our feet, not twenty without drowning. One night the Moors pushed their trenches up to our palisades; in the dusk of the morning I ordered a sortie. Nine officers went out with me and three came back, we three. Of the six we left behind, five fell, by my orders, to be sure, for I led them out; but, by the living God, you killed them. There’s the pistol that shot my best friend down, an English pistol. There’s the powder flask which charged the pistol, an English flask filled with English powder. And who sold the pistol and the powder to the Moors, England’s enemies? You, an Englishman. But you have come to the end of your lane to-night. Turn and turn as you will you have come to the end of it.”
The truth was out now, and Mitchelbourne was chilled with apprehension. Here were three men very desperately set upon what they considered a mere act of justice. How was he to dissuade them? By argument? They would not listen to it. By proofs? He had none to offer them. By excuses? Of all unsupported excuses which can match for futility the excuse of mistaken identity? It springs immediate to the criminal’s lips. Its mere utterance is almost a conviction.
“You persist in error, Major Chantrell,” he nevertheless began.
“Show him the proof, Bassett,” Chantrell interrupted with a shrug of the shoulders, and Captain Bassett drew from his pocket a folded sheet of paper.
“Nine officers went out,” continued Chantrell, “five were killed, three are here. The ninth was taken a prisoner into Barbary. The Moors brought him down to their port of Marmora to interpret. At Marmora your ship unloaded its stores of powder and guns. God knows how often it had unloaded the like cargo during these twenty years—often enough it seems, to give you a fancy for figuring as a gentleman in the county. But the one occasion of its unloading is enough. Our brother officer was your interpreter with the Moors, Mr. Lance. You may very likely know that, but this you do not know, Mr. Lance. He escaped, he crept into Tangier with this, your bill of lading in his hand,” and Bassett tossed the sheet of paper towards Mitchelbourne. It fell upon the floor before him but he did not trouble to pick it up.
“Is it Lance’s death that you require?” he asked.
“Yes! yes! yes!” came from each mouth.
“Then already you have your wish. I do not question one word of your charges against Lance. I have reason to believe them true. But I am not Lance. Lance lies at this moment dead at Great Glemham. He died this afternoon of cholera. Here are his letters,” and he laid the letters on the table. “I rode in with them at once. You do not believe me, but you can put my words to the test. Let one of you ride to Great Glemham and satisfy himself. He will be back before morning.”
The three officers listened so far with impassive faces, or barely listened, for they were as indifferent to the words as to the passion with which they were spoken.
“We have had enough of the gentleman’s ingenuities, I think,” said Chantrell, and he made a movement towards his companions.
“One moment,” exclaimed Mitchelbourne. “Answer me a question! These letters are to the address of Mrs. Ufford at a house called ‘The Porch.’ It is near to here?”
“It is the first house you passed,” answered the Major and, as he noticed a momentary satisfaction flicker upon his victim’s face, he added, “But you will not do well to expect help from ‘The Porch’—at all events in time to be of much service to you. You hardly appreciate that we have been at some pains to come up with you. We are not likely again to find so many circumstances agreeing to favour us, a dismantled house, yourself travelling alone and off your guard in a country with which you are unfamiliar and where none know you, and just outside the window a convenient pool. Besides—besides,” he broke out passionately, “There are the little mounds about Tangier, under which my friends lie,” and he covered his face with his hands. “My friends,” he cried in a hoarse and broken voice, “my soldier-men! Come, let’s make an end. Bassett, the rope is in the corner. There’s a noose to it. The beam across the window will serve;” and Bassett rose to obey.
But Mitchelbourne gave them no time. His fears had altogether vanished before his indignation at the stupidity of these officers. He was boiling with anger at the thought that he must lose his life in this futile ignominious way for the crime of another man, who was not even his friend, and who besides was already dead. There was just one chance to escape, it seemed to him. And even as Bassett stooped to lift the coil of rope in the corner he took it.
“So that’s the way of it,” he cried stepping forward. “I am to be hung up to a beam till I kick to death, am I? I am to be buried decently in that stagnant pool, am I? And you are to be miles away before sunrise, and no one the wiser! No, Major Chantrell, I am not come to the end of my lane,” and before either of the three could guess what he was at, he had snatched up the pistol from the table and dashed the lamp into a thousand fragments.
The flame shot up blue and high, and then came darkness.
Mitchelbourne jumped lightly back from his position to the centre of the room. The men he had to deal with were men who would follow their instincts. They would feel along the walls; of so much he could be certain. He heard the coil of rope drop down in a corner to his left; so that he knew where Captain Bassett was. He heard a chair upset in front of him, and a man staggered against his chest. Mitchelbourne had the pistol still in his hand and struck hard, and the man dropped with a crash. The fall followed so closely upon the upsetting of the chair that it seemed part of the same movement and accident. It seemed so clearly part, that a voice spoke on Mitchelbourne’s left, just where the empty hearth would be.
“Get up! Be quick!”
The voice was Major Chantrell’s and Mitchelbourne had a throb of hope. For since it was not the Major who had fallen nor Captain Bassett, it must be Lashley. And Lashley had been guarding the door, of which the key still remained in the lock. If only he could reach the door and turn the key! He heard Chantrell moving stealthily along the wall upon his left hand and he suffered a moment’s agony; for in the darkness he could not surely tell which way the Major moved. For if he moved to the window, if he had the sense to move to the window and tear aside those drawn curtains, the grey twilight would show the shadowy moving figures. Mitchelbourne’s chance would be gone. And then something totally unexpected and unhoped for occurred. The god of the machine was in a freakish mood that evening. He had a mind for pranks and absurdities. Mitchelbourne was strung to so high a pitch that the ridiculous aspect of the occurrence came home to him before all else, and he could barely keep himself from laughing aloud. For he heard two men grappling and struggling silently together. Captain Bassett and Major Chantrell had each other by the throat, and neither of them had the wit to speak. They reserved their strength for the struggle. Mitchelbourne stepped on tiptoe to the door, felt for the key, grasped it without so much as a click, and then suddenly turned it, flung open the door and sprang out. He sprang against a fourth man—the servant, no doubt, who had misdirected him—and both tumbled on to the floor. Mitchelbourne, however, tumbled on top. He was again upon his feet while Major Chantrell was explaining matters to Captain Bassett; he was flying down the avenue of trees before the explanation was finished. He did not stop to untie his horse; he ran, conscious that there was only one place of safety for him—the interior of Mrs. Ufford’s house. He ran along the road till he felt that his heart was cracking within him, expecting every moment that a hand would be laid upon his shoulder, or that, a pistol shot would ring out upon the night. He reached the house, and knocked loudly at the door. He was admitted, breathless, by a man, who said to him at once, with the smile and familiarity of an old servant:
“You are expected, Mr. Lance.”
Mitchelbourne plumped down upon a chair and burst into uncontrollable laughter. He gave up all attempt for that night to establish his identity. The fates were too heavily against him. Besides he was now quite hysterical.
The manservant threw open a door.
“I will tell my mistress you have come, sir,” said he.
“No, it would never do,” cried Mitchelbourne. “You see I died at three o’clock this afternoon. I have merely come to leave my letters of presentation. So much I think a proper etiquette may allow. But it would never do for me to be paying visits upon ladies so soon after an affair of so deplorable a gravity. Besides I have to be buried at seven in the morning, and if I chanced not to be back in time, I should certainly acquire a reputation for levity, which since I am unknown in the county, I am unwilling to incur,” and, leaving the butler stupefied in the hall, he ran out into the road. He heard no sound of pursuit.