IT was the effigy of an old gypsy woman in red cloak, and it had been set up outside a cottage standing alone amid the billowing expanse of Dartmoor, by an artist who wanted to copy it into the foreground of a sketch he had made elsewhere.
Since time immemorial, as it is well known, all painters with any claims to be regarded as true disciples of Art have considered it a point of honour, when they condescended to portray a landscape, to place an old woman in red in the forefront of the same.
Dwellers in towns who but seldom wander into the country, and who take their ideas of what is to be seen there from the painted pictures on view in shop windows or exhibitions, must be under the impression that old women in red cloaks are almost as common in rural places as blackberries; or at least as sheep and cows. Wherever, apparently, an artist happens to make a sketch, such an individual is always to be seen, seated complacently on a piece of rock, an old tree or fallen log, or, failing those convenient perches, upon the bare ground.
But to those who actually travel to and fro in the land it is known that these gaily-garbed old dames are not by any means so common as the picture-makers would have us believe; and this is what Jack Brandon, the artist staying at the cottage in question, had discovered. Disappointed in his hopes of finding a few—or even a single living example—anywhere within reach of his temporary quarters, he had fallen back upon the happy device of making one of his own out of a lay figure, a glaring red shawl, and a wax mask.
And here she was as large as life, and looking almost as real, sitting on a stool in the most natural manner in the world, complete even to the essential detail of a discoloured clay pipe placed between the grinning lips.
And there, a little way off, under the shade of a group of overhanging trees, sat the artist himself, on another stool, before his easel, busily painting into the foreground of his picture a likeness of the most particularly attractive figure he had manufactured.
It was in the glorious summer weather, upon the morning of what had already become a "piping hot" day. The sun poured down with almost torrid heat. The cottage stood on a knoll in the midst of the moor, and it commanded views around for miles; and in whatever direction one looked nothing was to be seen but heather and gorse and bracken and rocks, until, in the distance, it all faded into a rosy-hot-looking haze.
A well-favoured, well-built young fellow was Jack Brandon. Honesty was written in his face, and good-nature and good-humour lurked in his eyes and round the corners of the mouth that held the briarwood pipe.
So busy was he that he never once looked round; and little did he dream of a stealthy form that was wriggling along amongst the heather and bracken behind him.
Little did he guess that the crawling object was the figure of a man whose dress indicated that he was a prisoner escaped from the great convict prison a few miles away. A man driven nearly mad by hunger and thirst, and ready to do almost any desperate deed in order to obtain what he so badly needed—food, drink, a change of clothes, and money.
This man had arrived near the cottage blindly in the darkness of the preceding night, knowing nothing of the little dwelling so near at hand, and too dead beat to struggle on further. There he had dropped down, crept in among the bushes, and slept the sleep of utter exhaustion.
When he had woke up, the dawn had come and, peeping cautiously out from his hiding-place, he had found himself confronted by the cottage. Then he knew that he durst not move; all he could do was to lie there and wait and watch. Four hours, now, while the sun had risen and mounted higher, and it had grown hotter and hotter, he had lain there, watching the habitation, hoping that whoever lived in it would go out presently and leave the place deserted.
And as the time had dragged by, to his fevered imagination the cottage wall with its two windows had become a horrible nightmare. It had shaped itself into the likeness of a hideous face of ghastly pallor, with two sinister eyes staring out and keeping watch and ward over the wild moor. Some dark patches, where the plaster had fallen away, bore a fanciful resemblance to an ugly nose and a big grinning mouth; the brown thatch was like unto a heavy mass of hair, and the two chimneys, one at each corner, became upturned ears.
How he had chafed and fretted, and cursed those two staring eyes which had prevented him from crawling even so far as the nearest pool for a drink of water to quench his raging thirst!
He had heard people moving about and going in and out of the cottage door, but had not been able to see them, or form an idea as to what manner of people they might be, for the door was on the opposite side. All he could guess at was that there were two of them, and that they could not be ordinary working folk, for the reason that the morning had been well advanced before they had shown any sign of going abroad.
At last, however, he had seen one of them walking across the moor. He had gone some distance before coming into the watcher's line of vision, and some rocky hillocks had hidden him quickly from sight again.
Then the half-maddened fugitive had resolved that he would take his chance with the one now left alone, and he commenced to crawl stealthily towards him. In each hand he carried an ugly looking piece of rock. With such weapons a desperate man can do much, especially when—as was the case here—he is endowed with a muscular frame beyond the average, still powerful despite the privations and sufferings of a prison life.
So the artist painted on, while the man in prison dress crawled nearer and nearer, like a queer-shaped drab coloured snake—crawled on till he found himself quite close. Then he paused and glared through a bush at the scene on the other side.
Just then the artist rose up and stepped back, as artists are fond of doing, to criticise their work, A slight rustling sound caused him to turn, and he found himself confronted by an apparition which seemed to rise suddenly out of the ground itself.
For a space the two stared at each other. Neither moved; the fugitive, half-crazy as he was fierce and savage as he had felt just before, did not spring upon the artist as he intended. Indeed the pieces of rock dropped from his hands.
"Jack!" he gasped, in amaze.
"Dick! By all that's blue. It must be Dick Harding!" cried the artist.
He did not hesitate. He stepped forward, laid hold of the fugitive, and pulled him along with him into the cottage. Then he stood and stared at him.
"Then you are the prisoner we heard had escaped!" he exclaimed. "It wouldn't do for you to stay outside there! But for the matter of that, you're very little better off inside. This place is sure to be searched by and by. Besides—"
"Besides what? Out with it!"
"Why—Dick! What evil destiny led you here—of all places?"
"Why—how do you mean?"
"This cottage belongs—for the time-being—to one whom you regard, I know, as your enemy. Your cousin, Sydney Tracey, took it for the summer, and he invited me down to do some sketching. I am only his guest here."
"What!" cried the fugitive, in a voice that was almost a shriek. "Sydney? That vile scoundrel? That wretch? He here? He is the one I want to see then! Let me see him! Let me put these hands on him, and I will wring the truth from his accursed lips. It was his plot—the whole vile thing was his planning! 'Twas he who caused me to be falsely accused of my uncle's murder. 'Twas through his false evidence that I was convicted and sentenced to death. Aye—and he counted on that sentence being carried out, too, to come into the property. But in that he has been disappointed. For myself I would rather it had been carried out—far rather than live the awful existence I have been enduring! But one thing, the one thing only, has buoyed me up and kept me from being utterly crushed—the knowledge that as I live he cannot touch my fortune. In spite of what he has done he is not a penny the richer, and I may hope yet to see him in my shoes—for—Jack"—here the speaker dropped his voice, and became suddenly calm and stern. "As there is a heaven above us, I believe it was Sydney Tracey himself who killed our poor old uncle!"
"Well," returned Brandon, "I've heard others say the same thing. As for myself, I don't want to say anything about that; but I do know that I never thought you guilty, old chap. And," he paused and looked pityingly at the man before him, "there is one other at least who has never wavered in her belief in your innocence."
"You mean—" began Harding; and then stopped as though he were choking.
Brandon nodded slowly. "I see you know who I mean."
"You would say Edith—Miss Finlayson?
"Aye: Miss Finlayson. I saw her a few weeks ago, and she asked me if ever I got a chance of sending you a message to tell you so."
The man in prison dress turned away and buried his face in his hands. He muttered some broken expressions to himself, of which the only words "Thank God! Thank God!" could be distinguished.
"But you must have something to eat," urged Brandon. "I'll get it out, and while you are feeding I'll watch and talk by turns."
A moment later the fugitive was eating and drinking ravenously while his friend chatted, and went restlessly up and down the stairs to keep a look-out from the upper windows.
"For the life of me I don't know what's to be done, Dick!" he said in one of these intervals. "Tracey will he back presently. Then he is going out again and will not return till late to-night. That's all right so far—I could hide you in my room till after he's gone, and you could get away in the dark before he gets back. That could be managed; but the deuce of it is that this place is sure to be searched. A party of warders may arrive at any moment—they're almost certain to come during the day—and then they will ransack every nook and cranny. The cottage has only four rooms, and there is absolutely nowhere I could put you where they would not be certain to find you."
"I know, I know," muttered the fugitive, despondently. "I'm afraid I've no chance, after all. I could creep back into the bracken and gorse, but they're pretty sure to beat up every square yard of it."
"H'm! Let me put my thinking cap on," murmured Brandon. "If only you were not such a big chap! I'm afraid even my clothes won't fit you. And I've no others here—no disguise. By Jupiter! But I've got it, Dick. Do you think you could double yourself up a bit and crouch down inside yonder old woman's red shawl? If you could I fancy we may be able to cheat 'em yet! Some of the warders know my old woman's figure; they often stroll past here and have seen it and laughed at it many a time. They'll never think of looking there for their missing prisoner!"
"It's a good idea!" mused Harding. "But what will you do with the lay figure underneath?"
"I've got a cupboard upstairs in my room that I could chuck it into. They'll see it, of course. If they do; so long as Tracey doesn't see it too, it is not likely to raise any suspicion in their mind."
A quarter of an hour later the artist was back at his easel, painting away, seemingly, as hard as ever. All signs of the surreptitious meal had been cleared away, and the lay figure was in the cupboard upstairs, while the man in prison dress had taken up its place, and was sitting on its stool doubled up under the red shawl, staring out through the slits in the mask.
The two friends talked together, trying to evolve some plan for enabling the fugitive to eventually get clear away. Between whiles, Brandon went upstairs and looked out on all sides over the moor, and from one of these little excursions he returned with a grave, perturbed face.
"He's coming—Tracey," he said. "And confound it, he's got a warder with him!"
The man under the shawl started.
"Have they tracked me here already?" he exclaimed. "Can they suspect?"
"No, no, keep still; I do not think so. I fancy—I hope it may have been an accidental meeting. But now, see here. Can I trust you to keep still, d'you think, if I leave you alone with these two?"
"I'll keep as still as the old wooden dummy you took away. But why leave me?"
"I'll tell you, old chap. The warder is sure to want to search the place. If Tracey goes round with him, and sees the figure in my cupboard, he'll know at once something's up. If the warder sees it alone, he won't. Now I wanted to write a letter for Tracey to post, and I'll set to work on it. That will be a hint to the warder that I don't want to be disturbed more than can be helped, and a hint to Tracey that he needn't come bothering and worrying me as well as the other fellow. See?"
"Ay, ay. I only hope it will answer."
"We must hope for the best. If I can only keep Tracey out of the room while the other fellow is in it, and you can keep quiet here, you may come out of it all right after all. Now I'm off to my room."
For a while all was quiet. The sun poured down rays that seemed hotter than ever, but Harding, fortunately for his comfort, was in the shadow thrown by the cottage wall. Insects hummed as they flew past, the cry of a startled bird came across the moor, then voices were heard, and soon after two men appeared.
One was a dark and not particularly pleasant-looking man of thirty or thereabouts, in Norfolk jacket and knickerbockers. With him came one in warder's dress—an individual of saturnine aspect, with a set scowl on his face, and a hard, square jaw.
"Sit down over there in the shade, while I go and fetch a drink and see where my friend has got to," said Tracey.
The warder sat down beside a table, near the easel, and glanced keenly round, first at the figure in the red cloak, which he regarded with amused curiosity, and then at the picture on the easel.
Meanwhile, Tracey's voice could be heard in the house calling for Jack.
Jack sallied forth from his room and sang out cheerily in return to the effect that he was busy writing a letter for Tracey to post.
"I want to speak to you for a moment," Tracey answered. "Here's one of the prison chaps who are out searching for a missing prisoner. He wants to take a look round. He must go in your room."
Jack came down and appeared in the doorway. He nodded to the warder, who stood up and made a sort of salute.
"There's a party of us out, sir," he explained. "They'll be here presently, and 'll want t' make a search. Now I met this gentleman by chance, an' as I knows him by sight like, an' as I knows you're both respectable gents, I thought it might he more agreeable if I came an' took a look round myself. Then, when the others come, I can say as I've done all there is to be done, and they'll go on. I shan't be so rough an' want to turn the place upside down, and poke me nose into everything like they would."
"Jolly good-natured of him, isn't it." said Tracey to Jack.
"Very. It's a piece of courtesy I'm sure we both appreciate," was the polite reply. "Do you mind coming upstairs with me and going through my room first? Then I shall be able to shut myself up and finish my letter. It's rather a particular matter, and will take me some little time."
The warder went upstairs, marched into the artist's room, and looked round in a formal way. He opened the cupboard door, where he saw the wooden figure sprawling on the floor. It did not convey anything to his mind, and expressing himself satisfied, he saluted and marched out; and the way the door was slammed to after him suggested that the occupant of the room was well pleased to get rid of him.
Tracey, meantime, had been pacing up and down outside, with downcast eyes and a gloomy brow, little dreaming that his every movement was watched by a pair of eager eyes behind the wax mask of the supposed lay figure.
When the warder, after a brief inspection of the rest of the house, came forth, Tracey invited him to sit down in the shade and partake of some refreshment.
Jack Brandon, anxious to know whether all was well with his friend, opened his door softly, and stole out on tip-toe to a window overlooking the scene. There he saw the two men seated under the tree engaged in talk, and taking no sort of notice of the figure.
"It's touch and go," he murmured under his breath. "A dangerous game to play. I wonder how it will all turn out?"
He set to work to finish his letter, and had just got to the end of it, when he heard a loud outcry from below.
Shouts, oaths, curses, fell upon his ears, and sounds as of men fighting and struggling together.
"Heaven help Dick, poor chap! They've found him out!" was his thought.
Scarcely knowing why he did it, he pulled the drawer open, snatched up a revolver lying there and rushed down to the scene of strife.
His astonishment was great indeed at what he saw. Instead of finding his friend in the grasp of the other two, as he had expected, it was they who were struggling in his iron grip. He had a hand on each, and his fury and indignation seemed to have given him, for the time being, the strength of three or four, for he was shaking them as a dog shakes up a rabbit.
"Give me those papers! Give them to me, I say, you vile scoundrel," he thundered. "Give them to me, or I'll choke your wretched lives out of the pair of you!"
"Hands up!" cried Brandon, putting his revolver under Tracey's nose. "Dick, leave them to me! Hands up, both of you!"
The three fell apart, and Harding pointed an accusing finger at Tracey.
"I saw him," he declared, "give this warder fellow a hundred pounds in bank notes. The man has them in his pocket now. That was part of a bribe to bring about my death—by driving me to suicide, or in whatever way he could manage it! I heard it all, and what's more, a thousand times more, that man," pointing now at the warder, "has on him the written confession of a man named Runter, proving my innocence! I heard the whole infernal plot—"
Just then there was a sound of voices. Amid a chorus of "There he is! There he is!" a party of warders rushed on the scene and laid hold of the man now standing, for all to see, in his prison dress.
"Keep cool, keep cool! Don't resist, Dick," Jack said to his friend, at the same time slipping his revolver into his pocket. "Who is the officer in charge of this party? I call upon you to seize that man!" and be pointed to Turner.
"What for?" asked the officer blankly.
"Search him and you will see. He is a villain, and has the proofs of his villainy on him! There is another villain here; but we will deal with him later."
Wondering greatly, but impressed by Brandon's authoritative manner, the officer ordered his men to search the warder. Thereupon Turner tried to break away, and another fierce struggle ensued.
While this was going on. Brandon kept his eye on Tracey, who looked very much inclined to try and break away too.
"You've got to stop here and face the music, Tracey," Brandon said to him significantly. "You're caught! And I'll see to it that you don't bolt."
By this time Turner had been overpowered, and the officer was examining a budget of papers which had been taken from his pocket.
"Let us explain," said Harding. "In that envelope you will find a hundred pounds in notes. I saw them handed to him by that man who stands there," pointing to Tracey.
"Now then," Brandon asked of the officer, "why should one of your warders have a hundred pounds paid to him surreptitiously?"
"Looks fishy, I must say." muttered the officer, after he had opened the envelope and handled the bank notes it contained. "What else is there?"
"That's enough for the moment as regards him." said Brandon. "Those two men are evidently conspirators; and it is clear that that money was paid over as a bribe. Now allow me to look at the other paper."
The officer handed them to him, and Jack ran his eyes over them, muttering comments as he did so.
"Dying confession of James Runter—appears to be all in order; duly witnessed, and so on. Declares that Richard Harding—that's your re-captured prisoner yonder is innocent of the crime of murdering his uncle, Mr. Philip Stanley Harding, for which crime he was sentenced to death, the sentence being afterwards commuted to imprisonment for life. It accuses Sydney Tracey—that's our friend over there—of being the real murderer, and declares that the writer of this confession aided and abetted him. In consideration of a sum of money, which, by the way, he complains he has been cheated out of by the said Sydney Tracey. The document refers to other papers, which it says will prove that this confession is—Hah! Would you!"
These last words were jerked out suddenly, as Brandon turned sharply round.
While he had been engaged in reading the document, and the rest had been attentively listening, Tracey had stolen up, and slipping his hand into Brandon's pocket, had snatched away his pistol. He was now taking aim at Dick Harding as he stood a short distance away, held by two warders.
Jack seized his wrist, and a short, sharp tussle ensued. There was a report, and one of the two sprang away while the other fell to the ground. It was Tracey who fell.
"I don't know how it happened!" cried Brandon, panting from his exertions, "but somehow—he shot himself!"
They carried him into the cottage, where he lived just long enough to admit, in the presence of them all, that the man Runter's confession was true. Then he passed on to take his trial at a Higher Court.
IN a quiet country village, which nestles cosily in a sylvan vale in the Midlands, not far from one of our great provincial towns, a wedding took place recently.
The proud and happy bridegroom was the "Young Squire" who had not long before succeeded to his property, one Richard Stanley Harding by name. The bride was a Miss Edith Finlayson, daughter of the Lord Lieutenant of the county, while the best man was an artist named Jack Brandon.
Such was the ending of this story, an ending brought about through the lay figure that had been dressed and set up outside the little lonely cottage in the far-off wilds of Dartmoor.