Chapter XLVI: A Midnight Cruise

The Firm of Girdlestone

If ever two men were completely cowed and broken down those two were the African merchants 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.”

| Next Page »