A thin ray of light shot down between the clouds. In its silvery radiance two figures stood out hard and black, that of the unconscious girl and of the man who crouched like a beast of prey behind her. He made a step forward, which brought him within a yard of her. She may have heard the heavy footfall above the shriek of the storm, for she turned suddenly and faced him. At the same instance she was struck down with a crashing blow. There was no time for a prayer, no time for a scream. One moment had seen her a magnificent woman in all the pride of her youthful beauty, the next left her a poor battered, senseless wreck. The navvy had earned his blood-money.
At the sound of the blow and the sight of the fall both the old man and the young ran out from their place of concealment. Burt was standing over the body, his bludgeon in his hand.
“Not even a groan!” he said. “What d’ye think of that?”
Girdlestone wrung his hand and congratulated him warmly. “Shall I light the lantern?” he asked.
“For God’s sake, don’t!” Ezra said earnestly.
“I had no idea that you were so faint-hearted, my son,” the merchant remarked. “However, I know the way to the gate well enough to go there blindfold. What a comfort it is to know that there is no blood about! That’s the advantage of a stick over a knife.”
“You’re correct there, guv’nor,” Burt said approvingly.
“Will you kindly carry one end and I’ll take the other. I’ll go first, if you don’t mind, because I know the way best. The train will pass in less than half an hour, so we have not long to wait. Within that time every chance of detection will have gone.”
Girdlestone raised up the head of the murdered girl, and Burt took her feet. Ezra walked behind as though he were in some dreadful dream. He had fully recognized the necessity for the murder, but he had never before realized how ghastly the details would be. Already he had begun to repent that he had ever acquiesced in it. Then came thoughts of the splendid possibilities of the African business, which could only be saved from destruction by this woman’s death. How could he, with his luxurious tastes, bear the squalor and poverty which would be his lot were the firm to fail? Better a rope and a long drop than such a life as that! All these considerations thronged into his mind as he plodded along the slippery footpath which led through the forest to the wooden gate.