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Justly to narrate all that befell me during my flight and journey to London, would fill many pages, and therefore, as this book of mine is already of a magnitude far beyond my first expectations, I shall hurry on to the end of my story.
Acting upon the advice of the saturnine Jeremy, I lay hidden by day, and traveled by night, avoiding the highway. But in so doing I became so often involved in the maze of cross-roads, bylanes, cow-paths, and cart-tracks, that twice the dawn found me as completely lost as though I had been set down in the midst of the Sahara. I thus wasted much time, and wandered many miles out of my way; wherefore, to put an end to these futile ramblings, I set my face westward, hoping to strike the highroad somewhere between Tonbridge and Sevenoaks; determined rather to run the extra chance of capture than follow haphazard these tortuous and interminable byways.
It was, then, upon the third night since my escape that, faint and spent with hunger, I saw before me the welcome sight of a finger-post, and hurrying forward, eager to learn my whereabouts, came full upon a man who sat beneath the finger-post, with a hunch of bread and meat upon his knee, which he was eating by means of a clasp-knife.
Now I had tasted nothing save two apples all day, and but little the day before--thus, at sight of this appetizing food, my hunger grew, and increased to a violent desire before which prudence vanished and caution flew away. Therefore I approached the man, with my eyes upon his bread and meat.
But, as I drew nearer, my attention was attracted by something white that was nailed up against the finger-post, and I stopped dead, with my eyes riveted by a word printed in great black capitals, and stood oblivious alike of the man who had stopped eating to stare at me, and the bread and meat that he had set down upon the grass; for what I saw was this:
G. R. MURDER L500------REWARD WHEREAS, PETER SMITH, blacksmith, late of SISSINGHURST, in the county of Kent, suspected of the crime of WILFUL MURDER, did upon the Tenth of August last, make his escape from his gaolers, upon the Tonbridge road, somewhere between SISSINGHURST and PEMBRY; the above REWARD, namely, FIVE HUNDRED POUNDS, will be paid to such person, or persons who shall give such INFORMATION as shall lead to the ARREST, and APPREHENSION of the aforesaid PETER SMITH. In the furtherance of which, is hereunto added a just and close description of the same--VIZ.--He is six foot tall, and a sizable ROGUE. His hair, black, his eyes dark and piercing. Clad, when last seen, in a worn velveteen jacket, kneebreeches buckled at the knees, gray worsted stockings, and patched shoes. The coat TORN at the RIGHT shoulder. Upon his wrists, a pair of steel HANDCUFFS. Last seen in the vicinity of PEMBRY.
While I yet stared at this, I was conscious that the man had risen, and now stood at my elbow; also, that in one hand his carried a short, heavy stick. He stood very still, and with bent head, apparently absorbed in the printed words before him, but more than once I saw his eyes gleam in the shadow of his hat-brim, as they turned to scan me furtively up and down. Yet he did not speak or move, and there was something threatening, I thought, in his immobility. Wherefore I, in turn, watched him narrowly from the corner of my eye, and thus it chanced that our glances met.
"You seem thoughtful?" said I.
"Ah!--I be that."
"And what might you be thinking?"
"Why--since you ax me, I was thinkin' as your eye was mighty sharp and piercin'."
"Ah!" said I; "and what more?"
"That your coat was tore at the shoulder."
"So it is," I nodded; "well?"
"You likewise wears buckled breeches, and gray worsted stockings."
"You are a very observant man!" said I.
"Though, to be sure," said he, shaking his head, "I don't see no 'andcuffs."
"That is because they are hidden under my sleeves."
"A-h-h!" said he, and I saw the stick quiver in his grip.
"As I said before, you are a very observant man!" said I, watching the stick.
"Well, I've got eyes, and can see as much as most folk," he retorted, and here the stick quivered again.
"Yes," I nodded; "you also possess legs, and can probably walk fast?"
"Ah!--and run, too, if need be," he added significantly.
"Then suppose you start."
"Anywhere, so long as you do start."
"Not wi'out you, my buck! I've took a powerful fancy to you, and that there five hundred pounds"--here his left hand shot out and grasped my collar--"so s'posin' you come along o' me. And no tricks, mind--no tricks, or--ah!--would ye?" The heavy stick whirled up, but, quick as he, I had caught his wrist, and now presented my pistol full in his face.
"Drop that stick!" said I, pressing the muzzle of the weapon lightly against his forehead as I spoke. At the touch of the cold steel his body suddenly stiffened and grew rigid, his eyes opened in a horrified stare, and the stick clattered down on the road.
"Talking of fancies," I pursued, "I have a great mind to that smock-frock of yours, so take it off, and quick about it." In a fever of haste he tore off the garment in question, and, he thrusting it eagerly upon me, I folded it over my arm.
"Now," said I, "since you say you can run, supposing you show me what you can do. This is a good straight lane--off with you and do your best, and no turning or stopping, mind, for the moon is very bright, and I am a pretty good shot." Hardly waiting to hear me out, the fellow set off up the lane, running like the wind; whereupon, I (waiting only to snatch up his forgotten bread and meat) took to my heels--down the lane, so that, when I presently stopped to don the smock-frock, its late possessor had vanished as though he had never been.
I hurried on, nevertheless, eating greedily as I went, and, after some while, left the narrow lane behind, and came out on the broad highway that stretched like a great, white riband, unrolled beneath the moon. And here was another finger-post with the words
"To Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, and the Wells.--To Bromley and London."
And here, also, was another placard, headed by that awful word: MURDER--which seemed to leap out at me from the rest. And, with that word, there rushed over me the memory of Charmian as I had seen her stand--white-lipped, haggard of eye, and--with one hand hidden in the folds of her gown.
So I turned and strove to flee from this hideous word, and, as I went, I clenched my fists and cried within myself: "I love her --love her--no doubt can come between us more--I love her--love her--love her!" Thus I hurried on along the great highroad, but, wherever I looked, I saw this most hateful word; it shone out palely from the shadows; it was scored into the dust at my feet; even across the splendor of the moon, in jagged characters, I seemed to read that awful word: MURDER.
And the soft night-wind woke voices to whisper it as I passed; the somber trees and gloomy hedgerows were full of it; I heard it in the echo of my step--MURDER! MURDER! It was always there, whether I walked or ran, in rough and stony places, in the deep, soft dust, in the dewy, tender grass--it was always there, whispering at my heels, and refusing to be silenced.
I had gone on, in this way, for an hour or more, avoiding the middle of the road, because of the brilliance of the moon, when I overtook something that crawled in the gloom of the hedge, and approaching, pistol in hand, saw that it was a man.
He was creeping forward slowly and painfully on his hands and knees, but, all at once, sank down on his face in the grass, only to rise, groaning, and creep on once more; and, as he went, I heard him praying:
"Lord, give me strength--O Lord, give me strength. Angela! Angela! It is so far--so far--" And groaning, he sank down again, upon his face.
"You are ill!" said I, bending over him.
"I must reach Deptford--she's buried at Deptford, and I shall die to-night--O Lord, give me strength!" he panted.
"Deptford is miles away," said I.
Now, as I spoke, he lifted himself upon his hands and stared up at me. I saw a haggard, hairy face, very thin and sunken, but a fire burned in the eyes, and the eyes seemed, somehow, familiar.
"You!" he cried, and spat up in the air towards me; "devil!" he cried, "Devil Vibart." I recoiled instinctively before the man's sudden, wild ferocity, but, propping himself against the bank, he shook his hand at me, and laughed.
"Devil!" he repeated; "shade!--ghost of a devil!--have you come back to see me die?"
"Who are you?" I cried, bending to look into the pale, emaciated face; "who are you?"
"A shadow," he answered, passing a shaking hand up over his face and brow, "a ghost--a phantom--as you are; but my name was Strickland once, as yours was Devil Vibart. I am changed of late--you said so in the Hollow, and--laughed. You don't laugh now, Devil Vibart, you remember poor John Strickland now."
"You are the Outside Passenger!" I exclaimed, "the madman who followed and shot at me in a wood--"
"Followed? Yes, I was a shadow that was always behind you --following and following you, Satan Vibart, tracking and tracking you to hell and damnation. And you fled here, and you fled there, but I was always behind you; you hid from me among lowly folk, but you could not escape the shadow. Many times I would have killed you--but she was between--the Woman. I came once to your cottage; it was night, and the door opened beneath my hand--but your time was not then. But--ha!--I met you among trees, as I did once before, and I told you my name--as I did once before, and I spoke of her--of Angela, and cried her name --and shot you--just here, above the brow; and so you died, Devil Vibart, as soon I must, for my mission is accomplished--"
"It was you!" I cried, kneeling beside him," it was your hand that shot Sir Maurice Vibart?"
"Yes," he answered, his voice growing very gentle as he went on, "for Angela's sake--my dead wife," and, fumbling in his pocket, he drew out a woman's small, lace-edged handkerchief, and I saw that it was thickened and black with blood. "This was hers," be continued, "in her hand, the night she died--I had meant to lay it on her grave--the blood of atonement--but now--"
A sudden crash in the hedge above; a figure silhouetted against the sky; a shadowy arm, that, falling, struck the moon out of heaven, and, in the darkness, I was down upon my knees, and fingers were upon my throat.
"Oh, Darby!" cried a voice, "I've got him--this way--quick--oh, Darb--" My fist drove into his ribs; I struggled up under a rain of blows, and we struck and swayed and staggered and struck --trampling the groaning wretch who lay dying in the ditch. And before me was the pale oval of a face, and I smote it twice with my pistol-butt, and it was gone, and I--was running along the road.
"Charmian spoke truth! O God, I thank thee!"
I burst through a hedge, running on, and on--careless alike of being seen, of capture or escape, of prison or freedom, for in my heart was a great joy.
I was conscious of shouts and cries, but I heeded them no more, listening only to the song of happiness my heart was singing:
"Charmian spoke truth, her hands are clean. O God, I thank thee!"
And, as I went, I presently espied a caravan, and before it a fire of sticks, above which a man was bending, who, raising his head, stared at me as I approached. He was a strange-looking man, who glared at me with one eye and leered jocosely with the other; and, being spent and short of breath, I stopped, and wiping the sweat from my eyes I saw that it was blood.
"How--is Lewis?" I panted.
"What," exclaimed the man, drawing nearer, "is it you?--James! but you're a picter, you are--hallo!" he stopped, as his glance encountered the steel that glittered upon my wrist; while upon the silence the shouts swelled, drawing near and nearer.
"So--the Runners is arter you, are they, young feller?"
"Yes," said I; "yes. You have only to cry out, and they will take me, for I can fight no more, nor run any farther; this knock on the head has made me very dizzy."
"Then--take a pull at this 'ere," said he, and thrust a flat bottle into my hand. The fiery spirit burned my throat, but almost immediately my strength and courage revived.
"Much better," I answered, returning the bottle, "and I thank you--"
"Don't go for to thank _me_, young feller," said he, driving the cork into the bottle with a blow of his fist, "you thank that young feller as once done as much for me--at a fair. An' now --cutaway--run!--the 'edge is good and dark, up yonder--lay low a bit, and leave these damned Runners to me." I obeyed without more ado, and, as I ran up the lane, I heard him shouting and swearing as though engaged in a desperate encounter; and, turning in the shadow of the hedge, I saw him met by two men, with whom, still shouting and gesticulating excitedly, he set off, running --down the lane.
And so I, once more, turned my face London-wards.
The blood still flowed from the cut in my head, getting often into my eyes, yet I made good progress notwithstanding. But, little by little, the effect of the spirits wore off, a drowsiness stole over me, my limbs felt numbed and heavy. And with this came strange fancies and a dread of the dark. Sometimes it seemed that odd lights danced before my eyes, like marsh-fires, and strange, voices gabbled in my ears, furiously unintelligible, with laughter in a high-pitched key; sometimes I cast myself down in the dewy grass, only to start up again, trembling, and run on till I was breathless; but ever I struggled forward, despite the throbbing of my broken head, and the gnawing hunger that consumed me.
After a while, a mist came on, a mist that formed itself into deep valleys, or rose in jagged spires and pinnacles, but constantly changing; a mist that moved and writhed within itself. And in this mist were forms, nebulous and indistinct, multitudes that moved in time with me, and the voices seemed louder than before, and the laughter much shriller, while repeated over and over again, I caught that awful word: MURDER, MURDER.
Chief among this host walked one whose head and face were muffled from my sight, but who watched me, I knew, through the folds, with eyes that stared fixed and wide.
But now, indeed, the mist seemed to have got into my brain, and all things were hazy, and my memory of them is dim. Yet I recall passing Bromley village, and slinking furtively through the shadows of the deserted High Street, but thereafter all is blank save a memory of pain and toil and deadly fatigue.
I was stumbling up steps--the steps of a terrace; a great house lay before me, with lighted windows here and there, but these I feared, and so came creeping to one that I knew well, and whose dark panes glittered palely under the dying moon. And now I took out my clasp-knife, and, fumbling blindly, put back the catch (as I had often done as a boy), and so, the window opening, I clambered into the dimness beyond.
Now as I stumbled forward my hand touched something, a long, dark object that was covered with a cloth, and, hardly knowing what I did, I drew back this cloth and looked down at that which it had covered, and sank down upon my knees, groaning. For there, staring up at me, cold, contemptuous, and set like marble, was the smiling, dead face of my cousin Maurice.
As I knelt there, I was conscious that the door had opened, that some one approached, bearing a light, but I did not move or heed.
"Peter?--good God in heaven!--is it Peter?" I looked up and into the dilated eyes of Sir Richard. "Is it really Peter?" he whispered.
"Yes, sir--dying, I think."
"No, no--Peter--dear boy," he stammered. "You didn't know--you hadn't heard--poor Maurice--murdered--fellow--name of Smith--!"
"Yes, Sir Richard, I know more about it than most. You see, I am Peter Smith." Sir Richard fell back from me, and I saw the candle swaying in his grasp.
"You?" he whispered, "you? Oh, Peter!--oh, my boy!"
"But I am innocent--innocent--you believe me--you who were my earliest friend--my good, kind friend--you believe me?" and I stretched out my hands appealingly, but, as I did so, the light fell gleaming upon my shameful wristlets; and, even as we gazed into each other's eyes, mute and breathless, came the sound of steps and hushed voices. Sir Richard sprang forward, and, catching me in a powerful hand, half led, half dragged me behind a tall leather screen beside the hearth, and thrusting me into a chair, turned and hurried to meet the intruders.
They were three, as I soon discovered by their voices, one of which I thought I recognized.
"It's a devilish shame!" the first was saying; "not a soul here for the funeral but our four selves--I say it's a shame--a burning shame!"
"That, sir, depends entirely on the point of view," answered the second, a somewhat aggressive voice, and this it was I seemed to recognize.
"Point of view, sir? Where, I should like to know, are all those smiling nonentities--those fawning sycophants who were once so proud of his patronage, who openly modelled themselves upon him, whose highest ambition was to be called a friend of the famous 'Buck' Vibart where are they now?"
"Doing the same by the present favorite, as is the nature of their kind," responded the third; "poor Maurice is already forgotten."
"The Prince," said the harsh voice, "the Prince would never have forgiven him for crossing him in the affair of the Lady Sophia Sefton; the day he ran off with her he was as surely dead--in a social sense--as he is now in every sense."
Here the mist settled down upon my brain once more, and I heard nothing but a confused murmur of voices, and it seemed to me that I was back on the road again, hemmed in by those gibbering phantoms that spoke so much, and yet said but one word: "Murder."
"Quick--a candle here--a candle--bring a light--" There came a glare before my smarting eyes, and I struggled up to my feet.
"Why--I have seen this fellow's face somewhere--ah!--yes, at an inn--a hang-dog rogue--I threatened to pull his nose, I remember, and--by Heaven!--handcuffs! He has been roughly handled, too! Gentlemen, I'll lay my life the murderer is found--though how he should come here of all places--extraordinary. Sir Richard--you and I, as magistrates--duty--" But the mist was very thick, and the voices grew confused again; only I knew that hands were upon me, that I was led into another room, where were lights that glittered upon the silver, the decanters and glasses of a supper table.
"Yes," I was saying, slowly and heavily; "yes, I am Peter Smith --a blacksmith--who escaped from his gaolers on the Tonbridge Road--but I am innocent--before God--I am innocent. And now--do with me as you will--for I am--very weary--"
Sir Richard's arm was about me, and his voice sounded in my ears, but as though a great way off:
"Sirs," said he, "this is my friend--Sir Peter Vibart." There was a moment's pause, then--a chair fell with a crash, and there rose a confusion of excited voices which grew suddenly silent, for the door had opened, and on the threshold stood a woman, tall and proud and richly dressed, from the little dusty boot that peeped beneath her habit to the wide-sweeping hat-brim that shaded the high beauty of her face. And I would have gone to her but that my strength failed me.
She started, and, turning, uttered a cry, and ran to me.
"Charmian," said I; "oh, Charmian!" And so, with her tender arms about me, and her kisses on my lips, the mist settled down upon me, thicker and darker than ever.
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