CHRIS HAMMOND stood before his study fire, his head erect, for he had found the way out, and the credit of the firm was saved. He was like the man who slipped down the mountain crevasse to find himself face to face with a slow and lingering death. There had only been one way out, and that by means of a stream appeared to run into the very heart of the mountain. And the man who had fallen knew that the stream had to emerge into a valley somewhere, and, taking his courage in both hands, he had dived for it. So Chris Hammond had dived for it. The odds on tragedy were long, but he had come up at length in the smiling valley, spent and exhausted and at the last gasp.
Hammond has taken this risk financially, and at the eleventh hour relief had come. If he could get over to Sedgley before the bank opened in the morning, the men would be paid, and all the ominous rumours silenced. Once the week-end was passed, then all was smooth as far as the future was concerned. The money for the American contracts was due on Wednesday, and after that date Hammond would see the open sea.
He had the money there in his safe in gold, for it was useless to expect the bank people at Sedgely to honour a cheque. There were two thousand hands at the Sedgely works, and three hours ago it was odds against them getting their week's wages--in other words Hammond & Son were of the verge of suspending payment. Usually Hammond himself went over to Sedgely in his car with the weekly money. Sometimes it took the form of a cheque, but latterly there had been trouble with the bank and gold had been necessary. There were other creditors who insisted on being paid in cash, too, and one of them would be waiting at the works by appointment as soon as the doors were open. And this man must not be disappointed. It would he far better to run over in the car there and then, and get Martin, the manager, to place the money in the office safe.
"Isn't it rather a risk?" Mrs. Hammond asked. "These things get talked about. And I don't like the idea of you taking that lonely road with all that money upon you."
Hammond laughed at his wife's fears.
"Fancy you talking like this," he said. "What would your people say if they heard a Ravoli talking in this fashion?"
Mrs. Hammond laughed, though her clear olive skin was faintly tinged with red. She was very small and very dark, with a suggestion of the East in her black eyes. Nobody knew exactly where Sheila Hammond had come from, and people were content to believe that Hammond had found her during his mining experiences in Eastern Europe. There was an certain suggestion of the gipsy about her--she had it in her lithe and graceful walk, she had a phenomenal hearing, and her knowledge of the ways and moods of Nature was amazing. But if she had been a daughter of the wild, the ways and manners of civilisation had come to her gracefully and naturally. She sat there now, coiled up in a big armchair before the fire, her eyes gleaming as brightly as the tiny diamonds in her ears.
"Don't you see, I must go," Hammond said. said. "The credit of the firm is saved. We We shall get over Terry's defalcations now. Once confidence is restored, the rest is easy. I dare not wait till to-morrow. If anything happened to me in the meantime,the hands at Sedgley would not be paid, and you know what that means."
Mrs. Hammond raised no further protest. Hammond kept no chauffeur now, and, indeed, his car was perfectly safe in his confident hands, and just now every expense had to be considered. He was rather looking forward to his trip across the twenty miles of lonely heath and moorland which lay between his house and Sedgely. It was not a bad road; the night was clear, with a moon riding high in the sky, as he set himself going. With any luck, he would he back by midnight.
There were no police traps in these parts, so that he set the car in motion, rising higher and higher till the whole of the country opened out before him. There were certain portions of the road cut between overhanging cliffs, and it was at the foot of one of them that Hammond pulled up his ear with a jerk. Half a dozen big boulders lay right across the track. Probably, there had been a bit of a landslide, for these things did happen sometimes. They were big and heavy stones, and would take a bit of moving even for a strong man like Hammond, But there was no help for it--it was useless to waste his time cursing his unlucky fate. He got out of the car, throwing aside his coat and vest, and went to it with a will. He had scarcely stooped down to the first boulder, when a figure arose from the roadside and barred his way. Almost unconsciously, Hammond's hand went to his hip-pocket. He scented danger as a wolf scents is prey. But there was no revolver in his pocket, for that was in the car under the seat.
The man opposite grinned in sinister fashion. He was dark and swarthy, a mass of black hair was matted on his head, and Hammond could see that there were rings in his ears. Evidently the fellow belonged to some wandering gipsy tribe which passed the summer on the moorlands, living in some mysterious and devious fashion, a pest to the countryside and the inveterate foe of every gamekeeper for miles around.
"Did you put those stones there?" Hammond demanded.
"I did," the man replied promptly-- "at least, I and my mates did between us. You're Mister Hammond, aren't you?"
"At your service," Hammond said grimly.
"Well, I don't mind saying that we've been waiting for you. You may just as well take it quietly, We don't want to hurt you, if we can help it. It's the money we're after."
"Oh, indeed! And you expect to get it?"
The man showed his teeth in an evil grin.
"We've been waiting for this chance for weeks," he said. "You're going over to Sedgely, and you've got over four thousand pounds in gold in the car. It was brought over from Westerham by special messenger, and reached your house just before dinner-time to-night. Question is, are you going to take it quietly, or shall we have to use force?"
Hammond bent down and rolled one of the stones away. He was thinking furiously. What a fool he had been to come here all alone like this! He could easily have got one of his friends to accompany him. One man of pluck now with a revolver in his hand would have been worth the credit of Hammond's firm. If he yielded to threats, ruin stared him in the face. Almost better death than a disaster like that. He might he lucky enough to get these big boulders out of the way, and, once the road was clear and Fate was kind, he might make a dash for it. The engine was still running, the money was in the car, and, so far as he could see for the moment, he had only one antagonist to deal with. The man set on the roadside watching Hammond until the last of the obstacles were cleared away. He could see that Hammond's hands were cut, he could see the perspiration rolling down his face.
"What are you going to gain by that?" he scoffed. "Come on, Mister Hammond, the game's up!"
"I'm glad you think so," Hammond said between his teeth. "Do you suppose I've got the money in my pocket?"
"No, but it's in the car, mister. You stay here while I go and find it. In little leather bag, isn't it?"
The road was clear now, at any rate. Hammond made s dash for the car and laid his hand on the brake. He felt a grip upon his shoulder. In a blind rage he rose to his feet and struck out right an left. The gipsy clinched, and together the pair rolled ever into the road, struggling and snarling like dogs. The gipsy was antagonist fit enough for any athlete to tackle, but Hammond was fighting with the courage of despair, fighting for his home and his honour an his reputation. He shook off the other's grip and flung him violently on the roadside. He turned to the car again, filled with a wild exultation and the joy of victory. If he could once get the car moving, he was safe.
Then another figure seemed to emerge from the shadows, something gleamed in the moonlight, and Hammond rolled over in the road, absolutely lost to his surroundings.
He opened his eyes again presently, wondering where he was and what had happened. His head was racked with pain, earth and sky and moon reeled before his eyes in one wild panorama. What was he doing there, and what was that warm fluid trickling down the back of his neck? And who were all these people, and where did they come from? Somebody was shouting something shrilly, but really nothing mattered just at that moment. All Hammond wanted to do was to go to sleep and forgot all about it, But gradually, in spite of the racking pain things became more clear. Hammond found himself kneeling in the middle of the road by the side of the car. He saw, almost subconsciously that the locker under the seat was still intact. Up to now, at any rate, these ruffians had not succeeded in their errand.
Somebody was standing behind Hammond, issuing orders in a shrill, childish voice. Opposite her, a few yards up the road, were three men and a woman. Hammond recognised his late antagonist by the rings in his ears, which was his only method of identification, for the three men were wonderfully alike, and, indeed, the woman might been a fourth man but for her clothing. They danced and gesticulated wildly. They seemed to be beside themselves with impotent fury. They were hurling torrents of execrations in some lurid foreign tongue at someone who appeared to be behind Hammond's shoulder. He was getting a proper grasp of the situation now. He looked eagerly behind him. And there, as a terrier might stand guard over here young, was a tall slip of a girl with a mass of black hair streaming wildly over her shoulders. She was dressed in a red blouse and skirt, which served to render her picturesque beauty still more striking. Her slim legs were bare, and in her hands she was holding a gun. She was handling it, too, quite after the manner of a master. I was a poacher's gun with a short barrel, the type of weapon that Hammond had seen a score of time. A similar gun lay at her feet, loaded and capped, as Hammond did not fail to note.
"What's the meaning of all this?" he asked
"Oh, don't you worry, mister," the girl said. "I hear what they were saying last night. If they hadn't have found it out, I should have come and warned you. But, they tied my hands and feet and kept me in one of the tents. I managed to get away just in time. Then I came here with the guns, and--well, that's all about it. And if they dare lay hands on you again, I'll shoot! Yes, I will, if they cut the life out of me!"
"You're a plucky girl," Hammond said admiringly. "But why should you take all this trouble for me?"
"Ask Sheila," the girl said simply.
Hammond begun to wonder if he was dreaming again. But that fine, lively pain at the back of his brain was took keen for that. But what on earth could this ragged wayside waif know of his wife? Why should she speak of her in this familiar fashion? Still, the danger was too acute and vivid for the wasting of time on problems like these. There were three desperate men in front, ready for anything, not even short of murder, now that their batteries were unmasked, and others might come up at any moment. Hammond did not fail to grasp the situation. These people would kill him now if they got the chance. They would probably kill the girl, too. Once that was done, and the car got out of the way, the tragedy might remain a mystery for all time. More than one man knew that the firm stood on the verge of ruin, and they would assume, naturally enough, that Chris Hammond had fled abroad with all the money he could scrape together, rather than face his creditors. Probably no search would even be made for him. And here he was, on a lonely road, ten miles from anywhere, with nothing between him and certain death beyond a slip of a girl with two charges in a pair of ancient shot-guns.
"I'm sorry you took this risk," Hammond said. "It doesn't so much matter about myself--I've faced death too often to be afraid of it--but you are over-young to die."
"I did it for Sheila," the girl said.
It was very strange to hear this out in the open country, face to face with a terrible peril--to hear the girl speak as if she and Sheila were lifelong friends. The jabbering and gesticulating down the road had ceased for a moment, and it was evident that the ruffians were planning some new method of attack. It was fortunate, perhaps, that they could only advance towards the car, for the high cliffs on both sides prevented any onslaught from the rear. Suddenly the foe commenced shouting and gesticulating; then they came with a swift dash. Hammond struggled to his feet and reached down for the other gun. He saw the girl's weapon go like a flash to her shoulder, there was a loud report, and one of the men dropped by the way, his right arm hanging helplessly by his side. It was all bravely and magnificently done, but Hammond did not fail to realise the fact that only one shot remained now between himself and a certainty of absolute defeat.
"That was bravely and magnificently done," he said. "But we shall have to be careful. I ought to have a revolver somewhere in the car. Once I can show them that, we shall be free. I suppose you can keep them off a few minutes longer."
The girl showed her teeth in a flashing smile.
"They won't want any more for a bit," she said. "Better get your revolver."
Hammond came back from the car white and savage. The revolver was not there. It might have been snatched from its place when he was lying unconscious in the road, or it might have been stolen earlier in the day. As these people had laid their plans so carefully, the latter was more probable. Anyway, the fact remained that the weapon was gone, and the situation stood unchanged. Hammond caught his teeth between his lips. He was savagely set upon getting away now. Dimly he began to see an avenue of escape opening out before him.
"Jump in the car," he whispered. "Jump in, and I'll set her going. We'll make a dash and go clean through them."
He did not wait to see whether his companion obeyed him or not. That she was behind him he took for granted. Then the car gathered way, until Hammond was nearly over the men who barred his progress. The ear swayed perilously to one side of the road, and a second later the danger was past. But Hammond's triumph was short-lived. He glanced over his shoulder, to find that the girl was not there. He heard a report and saw the flash of a gun; then in the moonlight he could make out the figure of the girl dashing at full speed across the moor. He could also see two figures in hot pursuit.
"I can't leave her like that," he told himself. "Dash it all, I should be little less than a murderer if I did! Here goes, whatever the consequence is!"
He steered the car across the moorland, praying that nothing might happen to check him now. The car bumped and thrashed over the heather. The girl was getting nearer and nearer now. There was just time to pull up as she passed, and lift her, panting and breathless, into the seat by Hammond's side. She lay almost unconscious, with her eyes closed, whilst Hammond carefully picked his way back to the high-road again. The danger was past and done now, the figures of the gipsies had receded into the background, and the twinkling lights of Sedgely lay ahead.
"We shall be back home in a couple of hours," Hammond said. "But I think it would be prudent to take the lower road on our return. Don't you worry about those people. They're never likely to trouble you again. And your welfare will be my concern in the future. You're the bravest girl I ever met."
It was past one o'clock in the morning before the car pulled up in front of Hammond's house. The light was still burning in the lower rooms, and Sheila Hammond, with a white, anxious face, came to the door.
"I've been most terribly alarmed about you, Chris," she said. "I could not get it out of my head that something had happened to you. But who is this?"
"Well, something very nearly did happen to me," Hammond said. "If it hadn't been for this child here, I very much doubt if I should have got home again; and, even if I had, it would have been our home for very little longer."
"Why, it's Karma," Sheila Hammond cried, "little Karma, who was in hospital here so long with a broken leg!"
"She was very good to me," Karma explained. "I got hurt in the winter, and my people didn't know what to do with me, so they sent me to the hospital here. And Sheila used to come and see me every day. She was so good to me."
"It was when you were in Austria all that time, Chris," Sheila smiled. "I forgot to tell you anything about it. When Karma got better, I wanted her to stay with me altogether."
Karma shook her head almost sorrowfully.
"I couldn't do it," she said--"at least, not for long, I loved Sheila because she's one of us. Directly she came to see me in the hospital, I knew she was one of us. We wander about all over the world, and we speak all sorts of languages, but when we meet, even when we cannot understand one another, we know the Zingari. And Sheila told me that there was a time, years ago, when she wandered about the woods bare-footed as I am now. And she told me how you met her and made her love you, and how, because she loved you, too, she went to school and tried to forget all about the woods and the fields. Oh, I understand!"
"This is all very amazing," Hammond said. "Sheila, do you ever feel inclined to go back to it again?"
Sheila looked up with tears in her eyes.
"Oh, often and often!" she said. "I wake up in the night, and the longing comes upon me. Did I ever tell you that I can see in the night like a cat? Well, I can. And I don't mind telling you that it was very bad at first. Sometimes it was dreadful--before the boy came. And now it's quite different."
"Well, this has been a day to remember," Hammond said. "Now take that child in the dining-room and give her something to eat while I put the car away, and than I'll come hack and tell you all about it. You are going to have your way as far as Karma is concerned, for it will he no fault of mine if she ever leaves us again. You little know what she has done for us to-night."
Sheila sat listening to the story presently. It was all very strange and very wonderful. Karma sat there, not in the least elated, not in the least like one who has done something out of the common, and not in the least impressed by the comfort and luxury of her surroundings.
"Mean you want me to stay with you?" she asked. "Always?"
"As long as you like," Sheila smiled. "I want you to remain and he our adopted daughter. You shall have pretty dresses to wear and good food to eat, and you shall no to school and become a fine lady like I did."
Karma shook her head doubtfully. There was something appealing in the neat, sweet-scented bedroom in which she presently found herself, but, all the same, there was an eager alertness in her eyes and a suggestion of being on the defensive, as one sees in the actions of a dog in a strange house for the first time.
"I should love to he with you, for some things," she whispered, "because you are very good to me, And I'll try hard, Sheila. And if I happen to break away--"
Sheila bent over and kissed the quivering lips.
"My dear child, I quite understand," she said. "I have been through it scores of times myself. Now, good night, and don't forget that I am your friend, now and always."
It was the fifth day before the child was missing. She had left, apparently, early in the morning, with the break of day. She had taken nothing with her besides the scarlet blouse and skirt in which she had arrived. Even the boots and stockings were laid neatly on her bed, and with them a little ill-spelt note, asking forgiveness and telling them, in simple language, that the fields and the birds were calling, and that there was something that made her obey. It was a genuine grief enough to Sheila, but it had been nothing more than she had expected.
"I knew it was no use," she told Hammond. "It is rarely that one of us breaks away from the wild like I did, and I'm not really cured, even now."
"It is disappointing, though," Hammond said. "I only hope the poor child hasn't fallen in the hands of those people again. If she does, they will kill her, to a certainty. I'm going out in the car to see what I can do."
But a month elapsed before they heard of Karma again, and then indirectly through paragraph in a newspaper. A child had been found seriously injured by the roadside, and had been conveyed to the hospital at Slagborough. She had refused to give any account of herself or to say to what her accident was due. Hammond passed the paper across to his wife at breakfast-time, and went off without another word to get the car. They found Karma very still and very white, lying in a hospital bed. Her head was bandaged, and all the wealth of luxuriant black hair had been cut away. Sheila glanced at the nurse, who shook her head.
It needed no knowledge of surgery to see that Karma's end was near at hand. The wound and the shock to the system, to say nothing of the exposure, had done its work. Sheila leaned over the bed and kissed the child tenderly."
Tell me how it happened," she asked. Karma smiled up in return, but there was a certain suggestion of defiance in her black eyes.
"It was an accident," she said. "I love you, and I would die for you; but if it's the last word I ever say, it was an accident. Don't you get it into your head that anybody hurt me on purpose, because I know more about it than anybody else, and I say it was an accident. And when I'm dead, and people speak to you about it, you are not to forget what I'm telling you now."
"It's all very distressing and very sad," Hammond said, as he and his wife left the hospital an hour later. "I should like to believe the child, but I can't. Some blind, irresistible impulse must have taken her back to her own people, and one of those blackguards must have attacked her. They probably left her at the roadside, thinking that she was dead. It makes one's blood boil to think about it. And what can one do?"
"Nothing," Sheila said, tearfully. "You'll never get her to say anything else. She's loyal to the blood to the core. She will die as she has lived, and the secret will die with her."
And Sheila's words proved true.