Chapter XXII: Robbers and Robbed

The Firm of Girdlestone

It might perhaps have been as well for the curtailing of this narrative, and for the interests of the world at large if the blow dealt by the sturdy right arm of the navvy had cut short once for all the career of the junior African merchant. Ezra, however, was endowed with a rare vitality, which enabled him not only to shake off the effects of his mishap, but to do so in an extraordinarily short space of time. There was a groan from the prostrate figure, then a feeble movement, then another and a louder groan, and then an oath. Gradually raising himself upon his elbow, he looked around him in a bewildered way, with his other hand pressed to the wound at the back of his head, from which a few narrow little rivulets of blood were still meandering. His glance wandered vaguely over the table and the chairs and the walls, until it rested upon the safe. He could see in the moonlight that it was open, and empty. In a moment the whole circumstances of the case came back to him, and he staggered to the door with a hoarse cry of rage and of despair.

Whatever Ezra’s faults may have been, irresolution or want of courage were not among them. In a moment he grasped the situation, and realized that it was absolutely essential that he should act, and at once. The stones must be recovered, or utter and irretrievable ruin stared him in the face. At his cries the landlord and several attendants, white and black, came rushing into the room.

“I’ve been robbed and assaulted,” Ezra said, steadying himself against the mantelpiece, for he was still weak and giddy. “Don’t all start cackling, but do what I ask you. Light the lamp!”

The lamp was lit, and there was a murmur from the little knot of employees, reinforced by some late loungers at the bar, as they saw the disordered room and the great crimson patch upon the carpet.

“The thieves called at nine,” said Ezra, talking rapidly, but collectedly. “Their names were Farintosh, Burt, and Williams. We talked for, some little time, so they probably did not leave the house before a quarter past at the soonest. It is now half-past ten, so they have no very great start. You, Jamieson, and you, Van Muller, run out and find if three men have been seen getting away. Perhaps they took a buggy. Go up and down, and ask all you see. You, Jones, go as hard as you can to Inspector Ainslie. Tell him there has been robbery and attempted murder, and say that I want half a dozen of his best mounted men—not his best men, you understand, but his best horses. I shall see that he is no loser if he is smart. Where’s my servant Pete? Pete, you dog, get my horse saddled and bring her round. She ought to be able to catch anything in Griqualand.”

As Ezra gave his orders the men hurried off in different directions to carry them out. He himself commenced to arrange his dress, and tied a handkerchief tightly round his head.

“Surely you are not going, sir?” the landlord said, “You are not fit.”

“Fit or not, I am going,” Ezra said resolutely. “If I have to be strapped to my horse I’ll go. Send me up some brandy. Put some in a flask, too. I may feel faint before I get back.”

A great concourse of people had assembled by this time, attracted by the report of the robbery. The whole square in front of the hotel was crowded with diggers and store-keepers and innumerable Kaffirs, all pressing up to the portico in the hope of hearing some fresh details. Mr. Hector O’Flaherty, over the way, was already busy setting up his type in preparation for a special edition, in which the Vaal River Advertiser should give its version of the affair. In the office the great man himself, who was just convalescing from an attack of ardent spirits, was busily engaged, with a wet towel round his head, writing a leader upon the event. This production, which was very sonorous and effective, was peppered all over with such phrases as “protection of property,” “outraged majesty of the law,” and “scum of civilization”— expressions which had been used so continuously by Mr. O’Flaherty, that he had come to think that he had a copyright in them, and loudly accused the London papers of plagiarism if he happened to see them in their columns.

There was a buzz of excitement among the crowd when Ezra appeared on the steps of the hotel, looking as white as a sheet, with a handkerchief bound round his head and his collar all crusted with blood. As he mounted his horse one of his emissaries rushed to him.

“If you please, sir,” he said, “they have taken the Capetown road. A dozen people saw them. Their horses were not up to much, for I know the man they got them from. You are sure to catch them.”

A smile played over Ezra’s pale face, which boded little good for the fugitives. “Curse those police!” he cried; “are they never going to come?”

“Here they are!” said the landlord; and sure enough, with a jingling of arms and a clatter of hoofs, half a dozen of the Griqualand Mounted Constabulary trotted through the crowd and drew up in front of the steps. They were smart, active young fellows, armed with revolver and sabre, and their horses were tough brutes, uncomely to look at, but with wonderful staying power. Ezra noted the fact with satisfaction as he rode up to the grizzled sergeant in command.

“There’s not a moment to be lost, sergeant,” he said. “They have an hour and a half’s start, but their cattle are not up to much. Come on! It’s the Capetown road. A hundred pounds if we catch them!”

“Threes!” roared the sergeant. “Right half turn—trot!” The crowd split asunder, and the little troop, with Ezra at their head, clove a path through them. “Gallop!” shouted the sergeant, and away they clattered down the High Street of Kimberley, striking fire out of the stone and splashing up the gravel, until the sound of their hoofs died away into a dull, subdued rattle, and finally faded altogether from the ears of the listening crowd.

For the first few miles the party galloped in silence. The moon was still shining brilliantly, and they could see the white line of the road stretching out in front of them and winding away over the undulating veldt. To right and left spread a broad expanse of wiry grass stretching to the horizon, with low bushes and scrub scattered over it in patches. Here and there were groups of long-legged, unhealthy-looking sheep, who crashed through the bushes in wild terror as the riders swept by them. Their plaintive calls were the only sounds which broke the silence of the night, save the occasional dismal hooting of the veldt owl.

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