Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
TWO men stood at the garden gate of a mellow old Devon farm and watched a third, who, gun on shoulder, went slowly down the lane. Presently the younger of the two turned to the elder:—
"'Tisn't a bit o' use, father," he said despairingly. "He ain't a going to shoot. He won't even see a rabbit if it runs across under his nose."
Ezra Chowne nodded. "You be right, Roger. The Captain don't seem to take no interest in anything. Thinking o' that there young lady, I take it."
Roger Chowne's square face darkened.
"Brat her!" he said harshly. "I only hope she be pleased with herself. She've spoilt the life of as fine man as God ever made."
He swung away and tramped heavily towards the house, and his father followed. Meantime the object of their talk walked slowly away from the house. A well-knit man with clean cut features heavily tanned good gray-blue eyes, a close cropped moustache and curly brown hair with a touch of gold in it—the sort any woman would look twice at.
Yet his head was bent, and he looked neither to right nor left, but only at the rutted track in front of him. Presently a rabbit scuttled across not twenty yards away offering as pretty a snapshot as anyone could wish, yet, just as young Chowne had said, Captain Hugh Lytton never so much as saw it.
Reaching the end of the lane, he stopped and looked around. He half turned, then stepped again.
"No!" he said aloud. "I mustn't go back yet. It'll upset the Chownes. I must be out for an hour at least."
A half whimsical smile curved his lips.
"Hugh Lytton," he said, "you are an ass. You're wasting your days. It isn't good enough. Buck up. D'ye hear?"
He started off at a brisker pace. Crossing the rood, he climbed a stile and found himself on a foot path leading through a spinney.
Before he had gone far he stopped again.
"I'm off the track," he observed. "This isn't Chowne's ground. I do believe I'm on Vixen Holt."
"You are quite right, Hugh," came his answer. "This is Vixen Holt land." And out from behind a thick growing thorn a girl stepped into the path.
Hugh Lytton stood as if struck to stone. His face had gone oddly white, while his eyes wide open and fixed like those of a man who sees a ghost.
Yet there was nothing ghost like about the girl. Her figure, if slim and dainty, was sufficiently material. Her charming face, a trifle thinner than it should have been, was yet perfectly clear against the background of green foliage, and her eyes, wide, deep and golden brown, were fixed full on Lytton's face. For the rest she was dressed in a neat coat and skirt of rough brown tweed, and wore heather mixture stockings, and stout but well made tan shoes.
"Nancy!" said Hugh at last, in a hoarse whisper.
The girl watched him quietly.
Hugh sprang forward with arms outstretched. "Nancy," he cried. "Oh, Nancy, you have not forgotten? Don't say that you have forgotten me?"
She drew back a little. "Is it not I who should ask the question, Hugh?" she said with quiet dignity.
"What, when you never answered a letter after the first! You, who left me to all those lonely months and years in Mesopotamia!"
No woman with a soul in her body could doubt the intense earnestness of Hugh Lytton's voice. A troubled look came into Nancy Damer's golden eyes.
"I—I don't understand. It was you who stopped writing."
"I never stopped," Hugh answered passionately. "I wrote by every mail. When you did not answer I wrote to Monty, and when I got nothing from him I wrote to the Postmaster at Worthingham, begging him to send on my letters if you had left The Gables. Do you mean to tell me you did not get my letters?"
"I do, Hugh, I never had one single letter from you after that one of October 7, 1915, which told me you were on your way from Malta to Egypt."
"Where were you?"
"I wrote and told you when we left Worthingham, but that was not until April, 1916."
"I never heard. I had no single letter from you after the one I found waiting for me at Cairo."
"You swear?" she said, breathing very quickly.
"Do I need to?" asked Hugh gravely.
"Forgive me, Hugh." It was she who stepped forward this time. In an instant his arms were round her, and he strained her close to his breast. In those precious moments the past font years, with all their long drawn miseries and disappointments were gone, and two souls were lifted from lonely misery to the heights of passionate happiness.
At last she drew away a little. "Hugh," she said, "there is a great deal to say and none too much time to say it. Come and sit down, I must tell you all about it."
She led the way to a fallen tree, and seating herself made a place for him beside her.
"It is Mr. Strickland who has done this," she began, and though her tone was quiet enough Hugh felt the strong emotion which stirred her. "He kept your letters from me, and mine from you."
"Strickland!" repeated Hugh.
"I forgot," said Nancy, quickly, "Of course, you don't know. He had not come upon the scene when you left. He is my step-father."
"You don't mean—" began Hugh, but Nancy silenced him with a gesture.
"Yes. Mother married him. He got hold of her—fascinated her. Monty and I both detested him and tried to warn mother against him. It was no use and only resulted in making a breach between mother and ourselves. Then Monty was ordered out and I was left to fight alone. Remember, I was only eighteen. What chance had I against a clever man of the world like James Strickland? I could do nothing. He and mother were married almost at once."
"You poor dear!" said Hugh softly, and slipped his arm around her.
"Within a month I knew that I was right, and I think she did, too. He had married her for her money. Worthingham was too dull for him and we moved to London. It was then that I tried to induce mother to let me join the V.A.D., but she begged me to stay with her, and indeed I felt that I could not leave her to his tender mercies. Besides, Hugh, I was so unhappy, myself, that I hardly cared what became of me. Brute as Strickland was, it had never occurred to me that he was interfering with my correspondence, but now I understand it all."
"I'll break his neck for him when I meet him," growled Hugh.
"We can do better than that," answered Nancy quietly, "but wait. I must tell you the rest. A year ago mother began to be ill. I think it was unhappiness more than anything else. Mr. Strickland was not actively unkind, but she could see that he cared nothing for her. Besides, she was miserable about Monty."
"I got in a doctor, and he said it was pernicious anaemia. I could do nothing—just had to watch her fade away. She died last January."
Nancy choked a little. Hugh held her quietly until she recovered.
Presently she continued. "On top of that came the news that Monty was missing."
"Monty missing?" repeated Hugh sharply. "But it was long after the Armistice."
"Yes, but they had sent him to Russia. He was wounded in a skirmish, and made prisoner by the Bolsheviks. There is no hope, Hugh. Those horrible people kill their prisoners."
"Good heavens!" muttered Hugh. "Poor Monty."
"It finished me, Hugh," said Nancy. "I did not care whether I lived or died. I did not even make any objection when Mr. Strickland, for some reason which even now I cannot guess, suddenly left London and came down here. Unless—that is, it had anything to do with Ellis Lant."
"Who is he?" demanded Hugh.
"The man that Mr. Strickland is trying to force me to marry."
Hugh sprang up. "Of all the infernal," he began.
Nancy drew him down.
"Don't waste energy, Hugh, dear," she said. "Even If you had not come back to me, nothing under heaven would have made me marry Ellis Lant. I dislike him even more than I do my step-father. I loathe him."
"Who is he? What is he?" demanded Hugh.
"It is not easy to say, Hugh. Ellis Lant is a distinctly mysterious person. He is young, not bad-looking, dresses well, seems to talk on almost any subject. He has good manners, yet makes himself quite charming, yet there is something beneath the surface which makes me shiver. I am not exaggerating when I say that I can hardly stay in the same room with him."
"Sounds cheerful," said Hugh. "And where does he live?"
"He is staying at Vixen Holt. He has been there a week."
"What—you and he under the same roof? See here, Nancy, we'll settle this thing right here and now. We'll get married at once."
Nancy stared, then laughed.
"My dear Hugh, you speak as if the church, the clergyman, and the bridesmaids were round the next corner."
"Bother the church! No, I don't mean that. We'll have a proper church wedding later on. But what's the matter with the nearest registry office? You will, Nancy, won't you?"
There was that in Nancy's eyes which thrilled her lover.
"Hugh, I would marry you this minute if I could, but for one thing. I am not of age yet, and until then Mr. Strickland has absolute control over all my money. By mother's marriage settlement, he was made my guardian until I was twenty-one."
"But your birthday is on the 23rd. It's next week."
"Just so," Nancy answered, "and on the 24th Hugh, I shall be quite ready to marry you."
"Eight days," said Hugh. "Must we wait?"
"My dear, we must," said Nancy firmly. "After what I have been through, I have no intention of leaving my money in the hands of my step-father, for that, I firmly believe, has been his object all the way through."
"But he wants you to marry Lant. In that case Lant would get your money."
"I know. And it puzzles me. But, Hugh, Lant has some hold over my step-father. What, I don't know, but I am quite sure that it is so."
ROGER CHOWNE flung open the door of the kitchen at Mericombe farm and came in at a pace so unlike his usual stolid movements that his father, seated by the window, mending some harness, looked up in surprise.
"He've found her again, father," announced Roger. "Either he've a found or he've a heard from her."
"You're meaning the captain?" said the elder Chowne, slowly.
"Surely I be. I tell you 'tis like a miracle. You see'd him go out. I were a-watching for him to come in, and first I heard was a whistle. Him that couldn't hardly speak out loud, a whistling of a tune. Then I see'd him come out along. His head were up and him walking like a king."
"Aye, he's surely found the leddy," said the Old man.
"But where've he done it, dad?" demanded Roger. "He've a looked all over London, for I were with him. How'd he find her in a back-a-long place like this?"
Old Chowne laid his harness down. "Would she be the gal as lives to Vixen Holt?" he suggested.
"Be there a girl there?"
"Aye. Lives with that there Mr. Strickland as took the place back in the spring."
"Then that's she, you be bound," declared Roger. "What sort of folk be they, dad?"
"She be a sweet pretty thing, Roger, but the gent himself I don't know naught about. He don't fish, or shoot or farm. Folk can't think what he come here for."
"It don't matter so long as the captain's right again," said Roger joyfully. "I'm that pleased, I don't know how to hold myself."
"And I be pleased too," agreed his father. "It were fair heart-breaking to see a fine man like that a-moping his heart out." He considered. "I reckon they'll be married soon, Roger."
"I hopes so. Tell Anne to get a good supper, dad."
"She be roasting a proper duckling," replied his father.
When Roger Chowne saw Hugh eat his supper with an appetite to which he had long been a stranger, Roger's suspicions were changed to certainty, and the smile on his face attracted Hugh's attention.
"I've found her, Chowne," he said.
"I knowed it, sir, the minute I heard you whistle."
Hugh looked at his ex bat-man with real affection. "It's a wonderful luck, Chowne. And in away I owe it to you, for I should never have come down here to Mericombe unless you had suggested it."
"I be main glad, sir," said Roger simply. "Likely you'll be getting married now, sir."
"Very soon, I hope," replied Hugh, with a smile. He got up as he spoke. "I'm going out now, Roger. I may be late. Don't sit up for me. Good-night."
"Good-night, sir, and good luck." And with these words ringing in his ears Hugh went out into the soft dusk of the August evening, and took his way through the spinney towards Vixen Holt.
He felt a little guilty. Nancy had laid strict injunctions upon him that he was not to visit her at her step-father's house. These orders he meant to obey. He would not go into the house. But he could at any rate look at it from outside. The mere feeling that he was close to Nancy would be sufficient.
To reach the house he had to cross the River Strane by a fisherman's bridge. Then he could see the lighted windows little more than a hundred yards away, up the hill side. He stopped at the bottom of the lawn and looked about him. The night was dark but still and warm.
The grounds of the house were thickly shrubbed. Hugh, accustomed as he was to night expeditions in the East, it was child's play to approach unseen. He knew from Nancy that there was no dog on the place.
As he came nearer he heard voices and presently became aware that two men were sitting on the verandah smoking.
Lant and Strickland, of course. Hugh worked softly nearer. Part of the verandah was covered with a mass of clematis, which formed an impenetrable screen, and presently Hugh was standing close behind this, within a score of feet of the pair who had wrought so much harm for Nancy. He could not only hear every word, but by peeping round the far end of the creeper, actually see them. Light from a lamp within the room behind shone out through an open French window and revealed them both plainly.
Hugh was not in the least ashamed of his position of eavesdropper. "If all's fair in love and war, I've double excuse," he said to himself, as he settled down quietly.
The younger of the two men took a fat cigarette from a case, tapped it on the table at his elbow, and struck a match. The glow revealed his features plainly, and Hugh's first impression was one of astonishment. Lant was no vulgar fortune hunter. Not outwardly, at least. He was quite astonishingly good looking, though in a rather un-English way. He was a very fair man with extremely good features, large blue eyes and fair hair. He had good hands, too. But two things Hugh caught while the match lasted. The eyes were of a peculiarly pale, cold blue, and the lips were thin and closely compressed. Also Lant's nose was too sharp. It was hooked, too, giving him the appearance of a bird of prey.
Lant flung the match down, and stretched himself comfortably in the deep wicker chair.
"Where is Nancy!" he asked.
Hugh's blood boiled. To hear this fellow coolly calling Nancy by her Christian name sent a wave of anger through him. But Hugh had had four years' hard army training, and he had learnt the art of self-control.
"In the house, I suppose," Strickland answered, and Hugh noticed there was an edge to his voice. So far as Hugh could see, Nancy's step-father was a big, handsome, but rather dissipated-looking man of about fifty. He had his back to the light, and his face was in deep shadow.
There was silence, then Lant spoke again:—
"Strickland, I am getting a little tired of this," he observed. "I've been here a week, and I'm no forrader. I see Nancy at meals, but at no other time. I'm a patient man, but I can't stay here much longer, and the thing has to be definitely settled before I leave."
"Then settle it," snapped back Strickland. "I'm sure I've given you every chance. If you can't make the girl listen to you, it's your fault, not mine."
"Oh yes, it is," replied Lant in his cool, clear voice. "Passive help is of no use. I want advice. You must put the screw on."
"Put the screw on," repeated Strickland sourly. "What do you mean? How can I put the screw on? You can't lock a girl up on bread and water in these days, especially when she's twenty years old, and has the devil's own temper, like Nancy."
Hugh smiled grimly. Nancy had plenty of character. It pleased him to think that her step-father was afraid of her.
"No," said Lant quietly. "I don't you to try any tricks of that sort, but I do want you to speak plainly."
"Speak to her." exploded Strickland. "Haven't I talked till I was black in the face, painting your virtues? I tell you I might as well talk to a gate-post. She listens to me without saying a word, and goes on her way as before."
"You are tactless. You do not go about it in the right way," replied Lant. He was silent for a moment, letting the smoke trickle slowly between his thin lips. "You will please remember, Strickland, that I intend to marry Nancy, and that it is much to your interest that this happens as soon as possible."
"What's the use of repeating what I know already?" retorted Strickland sullenly. "I've done all I could. If there's anything else I can do, it's up to you to suggest it."
Lant considered again, then seemed to take a sudden decision.
"Very well. Bring her out here."
Strickland rose heavily from his chair. In spite of what he had heard from Nancy, Hugh was amazed to see how absolutely he was under the thumb of the younger man.
"If she'll come," he said, and went into the house.
Two or three minutes passed. Then Strickland came out again and with him Nancy, in a black lace, half evening dress, she was a sight to stir any man's blood.
She faced Lant. "What do you want with me, Mr. Lant?" she asked, and her voice was perfectly steady and cold as ice.
Lant stood up. "I think you know, Miss Damer," he said courteously. "But I wish to ask you plainly, and in the presence of your guardian, to do me the honor of becoming my wife."
"Then in his presence," replied Nancy, "I will tell you with equal plainness that I would rather go and drown myself in that river than marry you."
Strickland broke in hurriedly. "Nancy, don't talk like that; Mr. Lant is my friend and partner. For my sake, I ask you to reconsider your decision."
Nancy turned upon him. Not angrily, but with a quiet decision wonderful in a mere girl.
"For your sake! Let me tell you that next to Mr. Lant you are the last person in the world for whom I would make any sacrifice whatever."
Lant stepped quickly forward. "No, but perhaps you would for your brother's sake!"
"My brother—Monty! He is dead!" cried Nancy.
"I beg your pardon. He is alive," said Lant. "I can prove that to you."
NANCY'S face went white as paper, and Hugh saw her stagger slightly. Of the three men present only he knew how great a shock Lant's words must have been to her, for though Lant no doubt suspected, only Hugh knew how strong had been the devotion which existed between Nancy and her brother. Mrs. Damer had been a weak woman, and Monty had depended much more on Nancy than on his mother. It was that no doubt which had strengthened the tie between the brother and sister.
But Nancy faced Lant dauntlessly.
"You say you can prove that my brother is still alive!" she said slowly. "I should require strong proofs—from you."
The scorn in her quiet voice made spots of color rise in Lant's pale cheeks, but otherwise he showed no sign of discomfort.
"My proofs are conclusive," he answered. "Your brother was wounded in the skirmish at Baratka, but not killed, he was not even seriously injured. He was taken prisoner by the Reds, and brought South to Petrograd, where friends of mine have seen and spoken to him. By their influence his life was spared, but he was, of course, kept in close imprisonment. He was quite well when I last heard of him less than ten days ago, and it is within my power to restore him to you."
"So you are a Bolshevik? You confess yourself to be in alliance with these horrible people, these enemies of everything that mankind holds dear?"
"I confess nothing of the sort," replied Lant, unmoved. "I merely tell you that I have information denied to the blind Government of Great Britain."
Nancy was silent a moment. Hugh's heart was beating hard as he watched her from his hiding place. He longed to step out and take his place beside her, yet knew that the time was not yet.
Presently Nancy spoke again. "Then being a loyal Englishman, Mr. Lant, you will, of course, restore my brother to liberty with the least possible delay?"
"Not so fast, Miss Damer. However loyal I may be, I am selfish enough to think of myself first. Please remember that I am a man very deeply in love. Remember, too, that the treatment I have had from you so far is not the sort to encourage me to abandon the small advantage which I have over you, and to throw myself upon your mercy."
"In other words," said Nancy bitterly, "you claim your price for doing an act of the most ordinary decency and justice?"
"Not quite that, Miss Damer. To obtain your brother's release will entail considerable sacrifice on my part, and knowing what his freedom will mean both to you and to himself, I think I am justified in asking a price."
"I came of age with a few days," said Nancy. "Then I shall be mistress of a considerable sum of money. I will give you ten thousand pounds to secure my brother's release."
Lant showed his white teeth in a smile. But it was a smile without a particle of mirth about it.
"You mistake me entirely, Miss Damer. My price is not to be paid in money. My price is what I have asked for in vain already—your hand in marriage."
When Hugh Lytton heard Ellis Lant demand the hand of Nancy Damer as the price of her brother's freedom, every drop of blood in his body seemed to rush to his head. He shook with anger. His hands crooked, he craved to leap forward and dash his fist into Lant's evilly handsome face.
Yet somehow he restrained himself. He felt that he must wait until Nancy was off the scene before catching Lant by the throat and choking the truth out of him.
Nancy stood very straight. She was pale as death, yet still faced Lant fearlessly.
"That," she said, "is the one price which my brother would refuse to allow me to pay."
"Mr. Lant, I have told you that I do not love you. More—that I do not even like you. Do you mean to say that you would willingly marry a woman who hated you?"
Land fixed his gaze upon her, and for once allowed signs of real emotion. There was a strange fire in those curious pale eyes of his.
"I do not care what your feelings towards me are now," he said. "It does not make the slightest difference to me. Whatever they are, I can change them. I can make you love me. I know it!"
"You have a very good opinion of yourself, Mr. Lant," replied Nancy, and quiet as her tone was it was full of biting scorn. "I will tell you on my part that you are entirely mistaken, and that the more I saw of you the less I should like you, or—rather—the more I should dislike you."
"You are evidently a man of ambition," she went on again. "You require money. Take mine. I will not grudge it to you. You shall have it all—every penny of it—if you will only give back to me my brother."
"You are quite right, I am a man of ambition," said Lant. "Ambition such as you do not understand, yet which I have it in me to realise. It is true, too, that I require money to carry out my plans. But not your money. That you can keep for yourself to use as you please."
"Nancy," his voice changed; the hard restraint which he had placed upon himself slipped away. "Nancy, cannot you understand? I love you. Be my wife and with you beside me I will rise to such heights as you cannot dream of. Money, power, everything you can desire shall be yours. You shall be a queen, if you so wish."
It was the first time that Hugh had seen the man's mask lifted, and he was conscious of a vague wonder as to whether Lant was really in earnest or merely trying to carry Nancy off her feet. If the latter, however, he was destined to disappointment.
"I have no desire whatever to be a queen," replied Nancy, coldly, "still less, if at the price of marrying you, Mr. Lant. Once more I offer you everything I have in return for the life and liberty of my brother."
Lant's thin lips tightened. "No," he said curtly, "Even if you offered me a million, my answer would be the same. It is you I want, not your money. Promise to marry me, and within a week I will restore your brother to you, safe and sound."
Nancy stood silent. Hugh could not see her face, but he realised most poignantly the struggle that was going on within her. Again the temptation was almost irresistible to leap to the verandah and seize Lant. Yet once more he fought it down.
At last Nancy raised her head. "I must have time," she said, in a low strained voice. "I cannot give you your answer yet, Mr. Lant."
"I am content to wait," Lant answered quietly. "To-morrow I shall be leaving here. Before I go I shall ask you again."
Nancy turned towards the French window and went quickly into the house.
Taking a box of matches from the table, Lant relit his cigarette which had gone out. Hugh, still watching, noticed that Lant's long fingers were not quite steady, and realised that the man had not been merely acting, but was actually and deeply in love with Nancy.
Now Strickland spoke.
"Will she do it, Lant? Will she yield?"
"It will be no thanks to you if she does," retorted Lant harshly. "That appeal of yours to her pity was the limit in idiocy. Surely you know by this time that, if there is one person in the world whom she thoroughly dislikes, it is you."
"There is no reason why she should," snarled Strickland. "Curse the minx! I have always been good to her—much kinder than she has deserved."
"Yes, I have no doubt you think so," sneered Lant.
He turned away, and Hugh had just time to duck down behind the friendly shelter of his bush before Lant's feet were on the steps leading down from the verandah into the garden. With his hands behind his back, the man strolled slowly away across the lawn in the direction of the river.
Hugh had not waited in vain. Now was his chance, and rising cautiously from his hiding place he followed silently across the dewy grass through the gloom of the soft autumn night.
LANT paced down the slope. Once he stopped, slightly changed his direction, and presently Hugh saw that he was making for a summer house which stood at the edge of the lawn and at a distance of about a hundred yards from the house.
He went straight in, and by the glow of his cigar Hugh saw that he had seated himself. Lytton crept closer, making a half-circle so as to be sure that Lant would not see him. He was now near enough to smell the smoke of the cigar. He looked back towards the house, and was relieved to find that it was almost hidden by the screen of bushy evergreens. At any rate, there was no risk of Strickland seeing him. Lant, of course, might shout for help, but even so, Strickland had some distance to come, and Hugh now cool as ice, calculated that he could deal with Nancy's principal enemy before her step-father could reach the scene of action.
Coming up to the side of the summer house, he waited an instant. Lant was lying hack on a rustic seat, with his hands clasped behind his head. The glow of his cigar showed his position quite plainly.
Hugh stepped into the summer house.
"Sit where you are, Mr. Lant," he said, quietly, but there was a note in his voice which no one but a fool could have mistaken.
Lant, being very far from a fool, did not move.
"Who the devil are you?" he inquired, with a coolness which was admirable.
"I'm a friend of Miss Damer. That is enough for you," returned Hugh curtly. "I am here to find out from you the whereabouts of her brother, Monty Damer."
"So you've been eavesdropping, my friend," said Lant lazily. "But, tell me, what reason have you for supposing that I am fool enough to give away my secrets?"
"It is just because I feel sure that you are not a fool that I know you will tell me," Hugh answered. "No, pray don't move. I have you at a disadvantage, and I mean to keep you so."
"I don't know so much about that, my mysterious friend," said Lant. "Kindly remember that my voice will carry as far as the house."
"Yes, but before help could reach you, I should have finished with you," Hugh replied.
"That would not help you to my secret."
"That would come out at your trial, Mr. Lant. British law does not look favorably upon Bolsheviks, let alone blackmailers."
"So that's your game?" said Lant.
"That is my game, as you put it. Miss Damer's evidence joined to mine will be sufficient to send you to the ten years' penal servitude which you so richly deserve."
"I take it the price of your silence is my secret."
"That is so. Much as I dislike the idea of turning a wolf like you loose on society, I am prepared to promise you immunity on condition that you at once hand over Captain Monty Damer to his sister."
"And his sister to you, I presume?"
"That is neither here nor there," said Hugh sternly.
"And if I refuse?" suggested Lant.
"You are wasting time. I have told you already."
"Then I presume you have a policeman hidden outside?" sneered Lant.
"Your answer, at once!" Hugh ordered.
"Are you not a little hasty?" asked Lant. "Even I gave Miss Damer a night to think over my proposal. Cannot you be equally considerate?"
It came to Hugh that the man was deliberately playing for time. "I am tired of this," he said shortly. "If you do not answer at once, I shall take you by the throat and wring your answer from you."
"Do it!" snapped Lant, and quick as a striking snake was out of his chair and at Hugh.
But Hugh had been looking for some such move, and was just as quick as Lant. He leaped back and sideways as if on springs, and Lant's long fingers clutched empty air. The force of his rush took Lant off his balance for a second, and before he could regain his poise, in shot Hugh's left and reached Lant's jaw.
The blow brought Lant up all standing, and on the instant Hugh was in under his raised arms, and had hit him again, this time flush between the eyes, sending him reeling backwards. His legs caught the edge of the low chair, and he went over backwards falling with a heavy crash on the boarded floor.
Quick as thought, Hugh kicked the chair aside, and flung himself on his fallen adversary. Kneeling on his chest, he caught him by the throat, checking the cry that rose to his lips.
"Now," he said crisply, "out with it. Tell me where Damer is, or I'll choke it out of you."
For a moment or two Lant struggled violently. He was a man of strength quite equal to Hugh's, and was amazingly hard and wiry. But Hugh had him at a disadvantage, and had no compunction about using his position. He tightened his grip until ugly clucking sounds began to come from Lant's throat, and all of a sudden his struggles ceased, and he lay limp as a rag. Even then Hugh, fearing treachery, did not altogether relax his hold.
"Had enough?" he asked grimly.
"You're choking me," Lant whispered hoarsely.
"I shall finish the job if I don't get my answer pretty quickly."
"Let go then I'll tell you," gasped Lant. Hugh slackened his grip.
"Quickly," he warned.
It was too dark for him to see the stealthy shadow that crept in at the door of the summer house, yet some sixth sense warned Hugh of danger. He turned too late! With a sound like a carpet beater a stick striking a rug, something thudded down upon his head, and stretched him limp and senseless across Lant.
Lant rolled sideways, pushed Hugh's body aside, and struggled unsteadily to his feet.
"I hope you have been long enough, Maunder," he said. "The swine had nearly finished me. Who the deuce is he?"
"I don't know," replied the other in a harsh voice. "But we'll soon see."
Taking an electric torch from his pocket, he switched it on, and by its light began to turn out Hugh's pockets.
Lant dropped on a chair and sat watching.
"Careful with that light, Maunder. We don't want Miss Damer to see what is going on."
The searcher lifted his head. He was squat and square as an Eskimo, and with somewhat the same cast of countenance. His nose was flat and broad, and his cheekbones high, while his skin was dirty brown. His eyes, however, were not Mongolian, for they were greenish gray in color and deep set under shaggy eyebrows. He had arms almost as long as those of an ape and rounded shoulders. Altogether a most unattractive personality.
"Better shut the door then," he said, and went on with his work.
Lant said something under his breath, but got up and closed the door of the summer house. He was still pale from his struggle, and the marks of Hugh's fingers showed blue upon his throat. There was blood, too, upon his face, and his eyes were rapidly darkening as the result of the second blow which he had received.
"Here's his card," said Maunder. "Lytton's his name. Captain Hugh Lytton, R.A.F."
"Lytton—Lytton," repeated Lant. "Why, that's the chap that got the M.C. in the Waziri business in India. I never saw him before, but I've heard of him."
"Some old flame of the girl's," said Maunder. "Strickland will know."
"Any letters?" asked Lant presently.
"Here you are," said Maunder handing over a letter case. "Don't seem to be anything in the girl's writing, though."
"I'll look through them afterwards. Is he alive?" asked Lant.
"Oh, he's alive right enough. What shall we do with him—dump him in the river?"
"And have his friends all over us to-morrow? You're not such a fool as that, Maunder," said Lant.
"I don't know what it signifies. They'll come to look for him anyway. We'll have to pack and clear in any case."
"I suppose you're right," Lant said slowly. "Yes, we shall have to go. Not that it matters much. You and I were leaving to-morrow."
"What about the girl?" asked Maunder, rising to his feet. "You'll have a job with her. She ain't going to shift so long as she thinks her fancy man is waiting for her."
"That's true," allowed Lant. "We shall have to think of some plan."
"Dope her," suggested Maunder with brutal directness. "Then you can shove her in the car and take her where you've a mind to."
"And have her raising Cain as soon as she comes to. My good Maunder, your mind lacks subtlety. We can do better than that."
"Think of something better then, if you can," retorted the other. "Question now is what we're going to do with this."
As he spoke he stirred Hugh's unconscious body with his heavy boot.
"We must get rid of him somehow. What about that old mine shaft up the hillside above the house? It's any depth you like and they'd never think of looking for him there."
"That'll do as well as anything," agreed Maunder, "but it's going to be a job to get him there."
"You and I can manage it between us," said Lant, "but we must wait till Strickland has turned in. For the present you'd best tie and gag him, in case he comes round. Then you can go and tell Strickland that I've gone to bed. Wait about until he goes up; then come to my room. We shall have to arrange the plan for getting Miss Damer out of the way as well as for the disposal of this fellow."
Maunder nodded, and stooping, set to work as though he enjoyed it. He tied Hugh up and gagged him in such a way that he could neither move nor utter a sound.
"He's said his last word," he remarked with callous brutality. "Now we can push along."
BEFORE Lant could open the door of the summer house someone else did so from outside. Strickland came in.
His eyes took in the scene before them.
Maunder with the sandbag in his hand, Hugh lying tied and gagged and to all appearance dead on the floor.
"What's this?" he demanded in a hoarse voice. "Who is this man?"
"That's what I was going to ask you," replied Lant. "Don't you know?"
"I never saw him before."
"His name is Lytton—Hugh Lytton—and he's a flying man. I've found out that much from his card case," said Lant.
"Lytton!" Strickland repeated. "It's the man who was in India, the man who used to write to Nancy."
"Used to? Then he hasn't recently?"
"No. I thought she'd lost sight of him. But how comes he here?"
"He's been hiding up somewhere close to the house and he has heard every word we said. Then he come in here and tackled me. Luckily Maunder was in time."
"B-but he hasn't killed him?" stammered Strickland.
"Unfortunately not. But, of course, he can't be allowed to go—now," replied Lant.
"You are going to kill him? But, that's murder," exclaimed the elder man.
"Why use ugly names for a necessity?" said Lant quietly. "It's he or us. Surely you realise that."
"I won't have it," Strickland declared violently, "I won't have murder on my premises. You'll kindly understand that, Lant."
"You should know better than to take that tone with me," returned Lant significantly. "Clear out. Maunder and I will arrange this matter. We must all leave this before morning."
"I don't care what you do. You shan't kill this man on my place," said Strickland. "It's one thing to do—what I have done. Murder's another. It you kill this man I'll go straight to the police and tell them every last thing. I mean it."
Lant looked at him venomously. As for Maunder, he fingered his sand-bag as though ready for a second victim. Maunder was a born killer.
"You are impossible, Strickland," said Lant, and angry as he was his voice was still under perfect control. "You swallow a camel and strain at a gnat. Cannot I make you understand that with this man alive, and knowing what he does know, none of us are safe? It is absolutely necessary to put him out of the way."
"You shan't kill him," replied Strickland, doggedly. "I'm not going to put my neck into a noose for you or for anyone else. That's flat."
"You say we have to leave here before morning," he went on. "I suppose you are right. Who is to know where we have gone? Not Lytton. Leave him here or in the house while we escape. He'll never find us again."
"Lytton's not the sort of man to give up easily," Lant said. "Even if we put him off the scent, he may find it again. You're a fool, Strickland."
"I may be, but not fool enough to run my neck into a noose. If there is a risk we must take it."
"On your head be it then. But in any case we can't leave him here. The first person who happens along in the morning will find him. Where shall we put him?"
"In the cellar. You can take him in by the side door. The cook will have gone to bed, and Nancy's room is at the other end of the house. Leave him there. He will be quite safe."
"That will do as well as anything else," replied Lant. "Come on, then, Maunder. Take his heels, I will take his head. No—no light. We can easily see to carry him across the lawn."
Hugh was still unconscious, though breathing less heavily.
"Some time before he's fit to make trouble," said Lant significantly, as he and Maunder lifted Hugh, and carried him out of the summer house.
"Longer afore I've done with him," growled Maunder under his breath.
Vixen Holt was built like a foreign house, being raised on stone pillars. The cellar was at the back and cut in the rock of the hillside.
Strickland, clearly afraid of what Maunder might do, insisted on accompanying Lant and Maunder to the cellar and seeing their prisoner laid in safety on a heap of old sacking in a corner. More than that, he saw them out first, and when they were outside, carefully locked the door behind him and put the key into his pocket.
Lant made no remark, but taking Maunder with him, went up to his own room.
Maunder was furious with Strickland.
"The old fool!" he said, in his harsh voice. "But don't you worry, Mr. Lant. I'll find a key and make all safe before we leave here."
"That matter can be arranged later," replied Lant, who was bathing his damaged face. "What we have to do now is to arrange to get Miss Damer away without exciting her suspicions."
"Don't see how you're going to do it unless you dope her," said Maunder. "Tell her she's got to pack up and clear out, and see the fuss she'll raise. Women haven't got no reason."
"And how would you propose to dope or drug her?" inquired Lant, sarcastically. "For all you know, she may be in bed by now."
"All the better. Wait till she's asleep and try a sponge of chloroform."
"The last thing I should dream of," returned Lant, sharply. "This is a case for strategy. We shall have to use this man Lytton's name in order to induce her to leave."
"How?" demanded Maunder.
Lant was drying his face with a soft towel. Standing before the glass, he daubed some preparation from a stoppered battle on his bruises, then turned to Maunder again.
"We have his letters," he said coolly, as he laid them on the table. "We have his address. Here it is Mericombe Farm. Also we have specimens of his handwriting. My idea is to write a letter which shall appear to come from him, warning Miss Damer of danger, and asking her to join him."
"Do you reckon you can imitate his writing well enough?" inquired Maunder.
"Easily. She will be too anxious and excited to be critical."
"Who's to deliver it?" asked Maunder. "'Tisn't no good one of us handing it in. And old Strickland's the same. She sized him up long ago."
"You have struck the weak point," said Lant. "It won't do to send it by the maid either, for she will know well enough that no one has called at the house."
"You might get Foskett," suggested Maunder.
The lamplight showed a quick gleam in Lant's eyes.
"The very man. But can we get him in time?"
"I don't see why not. He's on the telephone. See here. Tell him to bring his 'plane. It's better than a car. Can't be tracked, or traced either for that matter. He can alight in the upper meadow, and the letter can tell the girl to go straight there. Foskett can take her anywhere you like to tell him—to headquarters itself, if need be."
Lant's eyes glowed again.
"The plot thickens," he said quietly. "The idea is excellent. All the more so because Lytton himself is an airman. Telephone at once, Maunder, and give the password so that Foskett may know it is special business. Tell him not to waste a moment, and to fly high, so that his engines won't be heard too plainly. Say we will put lights to guide him in landing. You had better go to the upper meadow and meet him. When he arrives bring him straight to the house. Meantime I will get the letter ready."
"Right!" said Maunder, harshly, and getting up, went straight into a small inner room where the telephone was fixed. Strickland had taken very good care that the instrument should be in a part of the house where there was no danger of conversation being overheard.
LANT lighted a reading lamp and sat down at the table. He look out Hugh's letters, ran through them quickly, then, selecting a specimen of Hugh's own writing, set to work to copy it.
His deftness at this task seemed a proof of previous practice at the same sort of thing. Inside ten minutes he was satisfied, and, taking a blank sheet, headed it "Mericombe Farm, Wednesday night," then drafted the following letter:
I have been at Vixen Holt to-night. I was hidden behind a shrub close to the veranda during your interview with that scoundrel Lant. I waited until after you had gone in, and heard Lant and your step-father talking. You are in danger—very great danger. They mean to drug you and carry you away to some secret place known only to themselves. Your only chance is to get away before morning. I have no car here, but I am sending a message at once by my own man to Oxeter Aerodrome. A pal of mine, Foskett, is there. He will bring a 'plane, which will come down in the upper meadow on the hilltop above the house. He will bring this note to you. Unluckily I can't. I got a little damaged on my way home. Foskett will take you to my sister's near Tiverton, and there I shall join you to-morrow.
Lant smiled cynically as he read through this precious production. "That ought to do nicely," he said to himself. "And the hand is good enough. She'll be too excited to be critical."
Maunder came back into the room.
"It's all right," he said in his harsh, unpleasant voice. "Foskett'll be along in quick time. He says the flying conditions are all right. How I'll push along and set the landing lights for him. You got the letter?"
"Yes. I'll give it to him when I see him, You'll bring him straight here."
Maunder nodded, and went off. It was noticeable that, in spite of his ungainly build, he moved as silently as a wild cat.
"Things are moving," said Lant with a satisfied air. He went into his bedroom and began packing a suit case.
His window was wide open, and when he had finished he sat by it, listening. Less than an hour had passed before he heard from the darkness above the faint yet unmistakable drone of an aeroplane engine.
"Good man!" he murmured. "I can always depend on Foskett."
He rose, went quietly downstairs, took a hat from the hall rack, and slipped out into the night.
Half-way up the hill he met two men. They were Maunder and Foskett. The latter was as tall as Lant himself, a thin, lantern-jawed, angular fellow.
Lant shook hands with him. "Good for you, Foskett," he said. "You certainly have not wasted any time."
"The 'plane was ready, sir," said Foskett. "I keep her that way in case you want her."
Foskett's manner was a curious contrast to that of Maunder. It was almost servile. The man was an intense admirer of Lant, and Lant was clever enough to keep his devotion and to make full use of it.
"We want her pretty badly on this occasion," Lant answered. "You, too. See here, Foskett, can you climb up to a bedroom window? There's plenty of ivy."
"If the ivy'll hold," said Foskett.
"It will hold all right. How, listen. There is a lady here who, for her own sake, must be got away at once. There is no time now to tell you the whole story, and all I am going to do is to give you exact directions as to how you will get her away.
"You will take a note, which I will give you, you will climb to her window, which I will show you, and tap on the pane. When she comes to the window say, 'This is from Captain Lytton. Read it at once, please.' You understand?"
"That's simple enough," Foskett answered.
"Yes, and the rest is equally simple. Tell her to dress warmly and to came down. Wait for her outside. When she comes out, take her straight to the 'plane. You will rise at once, and make for Number Two."
"I won't have petrol enough for that, sir. It's a long flight."
"Then you must go to Number One, first. But whatever you do, remember that your passenger must not be allowed outside. Remember these points, too—that you are a friend of Captain Lytton, and that you are taking the lady to Lytton's sister at Holsworthy House, near Tiverton. There will be no need for much talking once you are up."
Foskett sniggered. "Not a lot, sir," he answered.
"Here we are at the house," continued Lant in a lower tone. "That is the window. You must understand, Foskett, that I know nothing about this. You are Lytton's friend and my enemy.
"Hee! Hee!" chuckled Foskett. "All right, sir. I'll see to it."
"One more point, Foskett." Last's voice was suddenly earnest. "You are to take the greatest possible care of the lady. When I tell you that she is to be my wife you will realise what I mean."
"Depend on me, sir," replied Foskett seriously. "I'll take care of her. What's her name, sir?"
"Miss Damer. I think you know all that is necessary now."
"Enough to go on with, anyhow," said Foskett. "I'll go up at once."
"Right. You can tell her that everyone is in bed and asleep. I can promise you at any rate that there will be no spectators visible when she comes down."
Foskett swung himself lightly up into the ivy. He climbed as easily as a spider monkey, a creature which he strongly resembled.
Maunder laid his hairy hand on Lant's arm. "Best get back under the trees," he said. "Then we can see if he does his job proper."
Lant nodded, and they moved back under the shadow of a tall clump of a rhododendron.
Foskett climbed with extraordinary ease. It was hardly a minute before he was at the window. It was a casement window, and one side was open. He tapped upon the closed side and waited.
He had not long to wait. Nancy, it was clear, had not even gone to bed, for next moment her figure showed at the window. She was wearing a white wrapper or dressing-gown, so although she had not lighted a candle, the watchers below could see her plainly. They could hear her, too:—
"Is that you, Hugh?" came her quick whisper.
"I'm from Captain Lytton," Foskett answered. "Here's a note, Miss Damer. It will explain. But draw your blind before you light a candle. I'll wait here."
"Thank you—thank you," said Nancy fervently. "Are you sure you are safe there?"
"I'm all right, but be as quick as you can, please."
She disappeared, the blind was drawn quickly down, but almost instantly a faint glow appeared through its dark green fabric.
Lant and Maunder waited in silence. Lant was conscious that he was breathing a little more quickly than usual. A deal depended on whether his stratagem succeeded or not.
Again there was but a very short interval before the light was put out and the blind raised again.
"I will come at once," breathed Nancy, "but is it safe?"
"Yes, it's quite safe. There's not a light in the house anywhere. I'll be waiting behind that bush close to the veranda. You'd best come out by the French window. And see here, Miss Damer, dress warmly, and put on your heaviest coat. It's cold up above to-night."
"Can I bring any luggage?" she asked.
"A bag. Anything you can carry in your hand. But be as quick as you can."
"Five minutes," said Nancy. "Oh, I shall be so glad to get away."
The blind was dropped again, and Foskett climbed leisurely back to firm ground, and went straight to the hiding place he had mentioned.
Within the stipulated five minutes Nancy came stepping ghost-like down the veranda steps. Foskett joined her, and the pair went softly away up the slope towards the upper garden gate.
Lant drew a deep breath of relief. "That's all right," he said. "I can trust Foskett for the rest. Now you'd best get the car ready, Maunder. The sooner we are out of this the better."
Maunder grunted. "Yes, I'll get the car," he answered, "and you see that Strickland gets in and stays in. You'd best drive away a bit, and wait for me. You can easily make some excuse."
"What do you mean?" asked Lant.
"You know what I mean just as well as I do myself," replied Maunder with horrid significance. "Dead men tell no tales."
ROGER CHOWNE got up out of the stiff wooden armchair in which he had been sitting, and glanced at the old grandfather clock which ticked slowly and steadily in the corner of the farmhouse kitchen.
He frowned. "Half-past 11," he said, in an undertone. "It's late for the master to be out."
He considered a moment, then a slow smile replaced the frown.
"I reckon it's not to be wondered at. Likely he and the young lady ain't thinking of the time. A lot they must have to say to one another, meeting again after all these years."
He sat down again, picked up a copy of the "Western Weekly News" and began scanning through the advertisements. He had read everything else in the paper.
The house was very quiet. His father and the housekeeper had gone to their beds hours ago. Only the solemn ticking of the old clock, and a mouse gnawing somewhere behind the wainscot, disturbed the silence.
Another half-hour passed, and the clock, with wheezy preparation, began striking midnight.
Once more Roger got up, and this time he went into the passage, and, opening the back door, stepped out into the night. It was chilly, but wonderfully clear and fine for the time of year. The stars twinkled in a frosty sky; there would be a white rime on the a grass by sun up. Not a breath of wind was moving, and the silence seemed even more intense without than within the house.
Then, as Roger stood listening, hoping to hear Captain Lytton's footfall along the wood path, another sound came to his ears. It was a buzzing no louder than that of a bee. He stiffened slightly, and stood still as a statue, listening with the utmost intentness.
The buzzing grew to a low, constant drone, and Roger's eyes sought the sky. He had not spent three years in France for nothing. "A 'plane!" he muttered. "Coming right over, too. Now, that's funny. I don't know as there's ever been one over here before. And in the dead of the night, too!"
"Louder the sound grew and plainer, yet still very distant.
"She's a terrible way up," he said half aloud as he stood with his eyes fixed on the skies. Roger Chowne had wonderful sight, and presently he was able to see a bright star eclipsed for an instant by some dark body, no larger than a bird, which flashed across it.
Next moment the droning of the engine ceased abruptly, and all was silent as before.
"Coming down!" said Roger. "And there's no aerodrome higher than Standen. This is a funny business."
For some reason he could not define a feeling of uneasiness came over him. He tried to shake it off, but could not. All of a sudden he swung round, and went back into the house. He took a cap from the rack and a stout ash stick from behind the door. Then he went out again, and, closing the door behind him, strode steadily away in the direction of Vixen Holt.
"If I sees him coming, I'll just dodge aside," he said to himself. "He shan't think I be spying on him."
He crossed the stile, and went down the wood path, and dipped into the river valley below. Arrived on the bridge, he was facing Vixen Holt, and the first thing he saw was a light moving across the front of the house, which otherwise was all dark.
Roger Chowne, be it remembered, was no longer a mere south country yokel. The men and matters with which he had mixed in France had sharpened his faculties, and he was able to think, and to draw deductions from what he saw. It struck him at once that there was something queer about this light which moved, while all the house itself was plunged in utter darkness.
Walking softly, he crossed the bridge, and following Hugh's footsteps of some hours earlier got into the grounds of Vixen Holt, and worked quietly up among the shrubs towards the house.
Half way up he stopped again. A new sound had reached his ears. It was the low purring of a motor car engine throttled down, so that it was only just turning over.
Roger's vague uneasiness became acute. "Surely to goodness, he can't be going to run away with the young lady," he muttered. "He wouldn't do a thing like that without telling me first."
He went nearer, stealing from bush to bush, just as Hugh had done earlier. The sound of the engine was plainer but he noticed that she had no headlights. The light which he had seen previously seemed to have disappeared. Then he heard a voice.
"Come on, Strickland. Don't be all night. Your bag is in."
"Where's Nancy?" came Strickland's answer.
"Come on. I told you so. She's all right, I give you my word. I shouldn't take any risks so far as she is concerned. You must know that."
The voice—Lant's, of course—was clear and smooth as usual, yet there was some tone in it which jarred on Roger. He came closer still, so that in the starlight he could see the outline of the car, which was a large open touring machine, with a bonnet of length, which promised plenty of power. He could even make out the figure sitting at the steering wheel, though, of course, he could not distinguish the features.
He could also see that a second man stood beside the car, close to the driver.
"Very well," said the latter, "I'll take your word for that, but where is Maunder?"
"Just fetching my despatch case. He will lock up, too. He will be here in a minute. Do get in."
"No," returned Strickland. "I'm going back to look for him. I don't trust that fellow. For all I know, he is after Lytton again."
Roger pricked up his ears, and his strong fist tightened on his stick. His suspicions had been correct after all, and though he had not yet pieced them together, he felt certain that something was seriously wrong.
"You locked the door yourself," said Lant, and this time there was an undertone of impatience beneath his quiet words. "How can Maunder do anything? As I told you, he has merely gone for my despatch case. For goodness sake get in and make yourself comfortable."
"No," exclaimed Strickland, sharply. "I won't get in until I know what is happening. I'm going after him."
Roger saw Lant rise swiftly to his feet and make a spring from the car. Lant grasped at Strickland, but the latter turned and ran along the gravel path leading along the front of the house.
Lant dashed after him.
As the two shadowy figures passed he, too, started to run, but kept to the grass so that, in spite of his heavy boots, his feet made no sound.
He ran parallel with the others, and quite close, but both were too occupied to notice him.
At the corner of the house, just where the gravel path made a sharp angle to the right, Lant caught Strickland. Strickland swore savagely and struggled with all his might. In spite of his age, he was still a powerful man, and Lant had all he could do to hold him.
Leaving them to fight it out, Roger fled past and ran up along the east end of the house.
There were trees here, and under their shadow it was very dark. Roger stopped and listened. He was tingling with excitement, yet like the rest of his sturdy breed, cool enough outwardly.
Behind him he could still hear the sounds of the struggle, between Lant and Strickland, and for the moment nothing else. He had a conviction—a certainty—that Hugh was not far off, and that this man Maunder was after him, but not knowing the house, he could not tell where to look for him.
Quite suddenly the scuffling behind him ceased, there was a groan—then silence. And almost immediately Roger was conscious of a clinking which came from the side of the house almost exactly opposite the spot where he was standing.
At once he began to steal forward.
On this side of the house there was no verandah, but the first door windows above each had a sort of balcony projecting a good way from the wall. In the deep shadow under the furthest, to the left of these, someone was busy, and though it was far too dark for Roger to be able to see any details he made up his mind at once that this was the man Maunder.
Very quietly he stole nearer. Since his master's safety was in the balance he meant to take no risks.
He was still some ten feet from the busy figure when the clinking ceased, and the door on which he now saw that Maunder had been working, swung open. The hinges creaked as it did so.
Instead of going straight inside, Maunder paused a moment, and took something from his pocket. There was a little click, and the beam of a small electric torch flashed upon the darkness.
In an instant Roger saw the short, broad shouldered figure of the man, and the sandbag ready gripped in his right hand. The light flung forward into the cellar showed, too, the form of Hugh Lytton, lying helpless tied and gagged on the pile of sacks under the opposite wall.
Every drop of blood in Roger's sturdy body boiled, and he made a dash at Maunder.
Maunder heard. Quick as a cat, he turned, and, swinging up his sandbag, dealt a terrific blow at Roger.
INSTINCTIVELY Roger flung up his stick to save his head. The sandbag struck it fair, and so great was the force of the blow and the weight of the bag, that it beat the stick down, while the loaded bag fell heavily on to Roger's shoulder, bringing him to his knees.
Instantly Maunder sprung back and swung up his deadly weapon again, meaning to finish his opponent with a second blow.
Now a sandbag, which is the pet weapon of the New York tough, will knock out the strongest man with even a half-arm blow. But its disadvantage is its weight. It cannot be recovered or brought into action so quickly as a club. Quick as Maunder was, it took him just a fraction of a second longer to deliver his blow than if he had been using a stick. And that infinitesimal space gave Roger time to fling himself sideways. The sandbag missed his head by a bare inch and thudded on the ground. The force of his blow took Maunder off his balance. Before he could recover it Roger was on his feet again.
The next thing Maunder was aware of was a fist as hard as a piece of oak planted straight on the bridge of his nose, and amid the display of shooting stars which dashed before his eyes he heeled over, and measured his length upon the ground.
Roger picked up his stick and stood over him for a moment. If Maunder had moved, Roger would probably have scattered his brains with as little compunction as he would have killed a rabbit. But the man lay like a log, and leaving him where he lay, Roger picked up the electric, which fortunately had escaped damage in the struggle, and went straight into the cellar.
Hugh's eyes were open. Roger could see the gladness in them, but he saw, too, that his master could neither move nor speak.
In a flash he had his knife out, and was slashing away the cords. He cut the gag first, but even then it was a moment before Hugh could speak.
"Nancy—Miss Damer," he said thickly. "Have you seen the young lady, Roger?"
"No, sir. There's two men with a car outside, and one was trying to get in here after you. Wanted to kill you, I believe; but I don't reckon he'll do any killing yet a while. But you're hurt, sir," he broke off, as he caught sight of a great black-and-purple mark on Hugh's forehead.
"The fellow hit from behind and stunned me. It's nothing much. Help me up. We must find Miss Damer at once."
He struggled to his feet, but only to sway dizzily. He would have fallen again if Roger had not caught him.
"Giddy—that's all," he said hoarsely. "Got anything to drink, Roger?"
"I'm sorry, sir. I haven't got nothing with me, but I'll soon get something out of the house. No, I ain't going to leave you here, sir," he added. "You keep still, if you please; I can carry you easy."
Taking no notice of Hugh's remonstrances, the sturdy fellow stooped down and was in the act of swinging the other up on to his shoulder when suddenly the door banged to, and there was a click of a key turning in the lock.
"I clean forgot them other chaps," cried Roger in dismay, and dropping Hugh back upon his sacks, he was across the room in two jumps and hurled himself at the door.
It was too late. The door was locked from outside, and Roger and his captain were prisoners in the cellar.
When Hugh Lytton found that he and his man, Roger Chowne, were imprisoned in the cellar, the door having just been locked from the outside he struggled to his feet again.
"The brutes!" he cried, "Roger, we've simply got to get out of this. Those scoundrels will be off and take Miss Damer will them."
Roger hurled his eleven stone of bone and muscle against the door. But it was a solid affair with a good lock. Though he tried again and again he could not burst it.
"The dratted thing's too strong, sir," he said. "But you bide a minute. I'll find something to break him with."
Torch to hand, he made a circle of the cellar, probing in every corner.
"Ah, here's a bit of a post like," he said, as he lifted a length of scantling which lay close under the wall. It was four by four and about five feet long. Using this as a battering ram, Roger went for the door with all his might. The crash of the blow resounded through the place, but the lock still held. Roger tried again, but still without success.
"The lock is terrible strong," he said. "I'll have to try and burst up a panel."
Another tremendous blow was followed by a cracking sound.
"That's it," cried Hugh. "In the same place again."
At the third blow the end of the scantling went clear through the panel. But even then it took half a dozen more blows to beat out a hole large enough for Roger to get an arm through.
"They've took the key, sir," he announced. "But you wait a minute. It won't be long before I knock the whole panel out."
No one could have done the job more quickly, yet to Hugh every second seemed a year. At last Roger dropped his battering ram.
"She'll do now, sir," He said, breathing hard. "There's room to get through." Then, as he saw Hugh come staggering towards him, he stepped forward quickly and caught him.
"You're hurt bad, sir," he said. "You'd better let me go along and try to catch them afore they starts."
"No," gasped Hugh. "No, I'm all right. Get through yourself, and help me."
Roger did as he was ordered, and presently the two stood outside.
"Can you hear the car?" demanded Hugh.
"No, sir. It was round at the front, this way."
There was nothing there. All was darkness and silence.
"Too late!" Hugh said hoarsely.
"There she be!" cried Roger, pointing to where, through the trees, the head lights of a car flashed in the darkness. "They're just a-going out of the drive gate."
Hugh started to run, but before he had gone six yards he stumbled, and again it was Roger's arm that saved him from a fall.
"Steady, sir," said Roger. "'Tisn't no use trying anything like that. There isn't nothing would catch that car, except maybe a motor bike."
"They've got Nancy," groaned Hugh, who seemed on the point of collapse.
"The young lady, sir? I don't believe they have. I didn't see nothing of her when I came up. There was a tall man and an older one, and they were fighting when I came by. Then I didn't see no one else till I got to the cellar door, where that chap they call Maunder was trying to open the door."
"But they would never have left her behind. That scoundrel Lant said he meant to carry her off. Go into the house, Roger. Hunt everywhere."
"Wait a minute, sir! Was any friend of yours a-coming here in a 'plane?"
"No. No, of course not. What do you mean?"
"Well, sir, I heard a 'plane come over just about half an hour ago, or maybe a bit more. It was that as started me over. She lit somewhere near here, for I heard when the pilot cut out the engine."
Hugh stared blankly. The blow on his head had made him half stupid. He felt as though his brain were numbed.
"Could Lant have got a 'plane in the time? Yet, it is possible," he muttered. "In that case—but no, Nancy would never have gone in a 'plane."
"They might have forced her, sir, or maybe knowing you was in the flying Corps they told her you was bringing the 'plane."
Hugh passed his hand across his forehead. "It's possible," he said, "but where did the 'plane came down, Chowne? We must find her quickly."
"She might have lit in the upper meadow, sir. That's the only likely place. 'Tis about half a mile off."
"Then come on. We must go there at once."
"Come!" said Hugh sharply.
Roger caught him by the arm. "'Tis too late, sir. Listen! Don't you hear her?"
Sure enough, the unmistakable drone of an aero engine boomed through the night.
"There she be!" said Roger, pointing to a dim shape against the stars.
Hugh stared a moment. "Nancy!" he shouted at the pitch of his voice, and started to run.
Roger caught and held him.
"Nancy!" Hugh cried again, and the agony of his voice made Roger's heart ache.
Then Hugh collapsed. Roger, picking him up bodily, carried him into the silent, empty house.
LANT'S calculations were perfectly correct. Nancy was completely deceived by the letter which he had written, and which purported to come from Hugh. She had skimmed through the letter by candle-light, and in any case she had not seen Hugh's hand-writing for nearly four years.
Knowing, too, that Hugh was a flying man, it did not occur to her as strange that he should use an aeroplane to rescue her from Lant and her step-father, and it was with a feeling of the deepest relief and gratitude that she followed Foskett up through the garden and out by the upper gate.
"We are safe now," she said softly, as they entered a path which led up the hillside towards the field known as the upper meadow.
"Don't crow till you're out of the wood," replied Foskett. "If anyone has heard the 'plane, they'll know where to look for us. Put your best foot forward."
His voice was harsh and his manner brusque, but Nancy paid no particular attention. She merely thought that he was nervous and anxious about getting away.
"How did Captain Lytton hurt himself? Do you know?"
"Lytton," said Foskett vaguely. "No, I don't know. I don't suppose it's much."
"It can't be if he's to come to Tiverton to-morrow," agreed Nancy. "Were you with him in the East?"
"No, I only knew him in England," Foskett answered.
"He's not very communicative," thought Nancy, and no more was said until they reached the upper meadow. This was a good-sized field lying on top the slope running from the river, and Nancy, straining her eyes through the gloom, caught sight of the pale wings of the 'plane which lay near the centre of the meadow.
Foskett led the way straight to the machine.
"Get in please," he said, and taking her bag from her dropped it into the fuselage. Then he helped Nancy to climb in.
Nancy felt suddenly nervous. She had never been up, even for a joy ride. The 'plane seemed a frail thing of struts and wires. Her heart was beating hard as she took the seat behind the pilot's.
Foskett left her and walked forward in order to assure himself that there was no obstacle in the way of his run. Even for a trained pilot to rise at night on unknown ground is nervous work.
Presently he was back, scrambled in taking the seat just in front of Nancy. There was the click of the switch, then the engine burst into a sudden, startling roar. Nancy was conscious of a blast of wind as the great tractor began to spin dizzily.
Instantly the machine commenced to taxi forward, and Nancy clung desperately to the side of the fuselage as they bumped over the uneven ground. Suddenly the bumping ceased, and Nancy's heart was in her mouth as, facing them, she saw a line of dark trees. It seemed to her that they must crash straight into them. But the 'plane was rising faster than she knew. It skimmed just over the topmost branches, then wheeled and headed North-east.
Between the deafening roar of the engine, and the furious rush of wind past her ears, Nancy was half dazed. By degrees, however, her native pluck reasserted itself, and at last she settled into a less rigid position, and presently dared even to glance over the side.
The 'plane was now quite three thousand feet up, and travelling at great speed. All that Nancy could see beneath were a few scattered lights and here and there the stars reflected in sheets of water. It was bitterly cold, and with numbed fingers she turned up the collar of her coat and decided to double her fur around her neck.
Foskett paid no attention to her whatever. All his energies seemed to be concentrated on the switch-board in front of him, which was illuminated by a small electric lamp.
By degrees Nancy became a little accustomed to the fierce rush through the night, and in spite of the cold began to almost enjoy it.
Her brain began to work more clearly, and the first thing that occurred to her was that, at this speed, the journey to Tiverton could be a matter of minutes only, and that she would arrive at Hugh's sister's house in the small hours of the morning.
She leaned forward, and spoke into Foskett's ear.
"Mr. Foskett, how long will it take to get to Tiverton?"
He did not hear her; indeed, so tremendous was the roar of the exhaust that she herself could not hear her own voice. She repeated the question, shouting at the top of her voice.
This time he looked round, but only shook his head. Nancy was not to be beaten. In her little handbag was a small note book with pencil. She scribbled her question and tearing out the sheet held it in front of the pilot.
He read it, and took it. Then, taking his hands off the controls for a moment he put the slip on the ledge in front, and scrawled an answer, which he handed back. Nancy read these words:
May have to cruise till daylight, for I do not know where landing is possible.
Time passed, and it seemed to Nancy that the 'plane was driving straight ahead at unabated speed. She saw the lights of two large towns swing past beneath her. The first she thought was Exeter, but the second she could not place. Forty minutes later she saw that they were approaching another town much larger then either of the others. There was a great glare of light over several square miles.
Presently she noticed Foskett glance back at her quickly. As he turned back to his switch-board she began to took out again. To the west the lights ceased abruptly, but against the darkness was a very brilliant light which winked at regular intervals. The conviction came to her that this was a lighthouse, and this grew to certainty as she distinguished the bright lights of a large steamer passing at some distance beyond the fixed light.
Soon they were over the town, and Nancy, looking down, saw that it was even larger than she had supposed. There were miles of lighted streets running in every direction; also there were docks, and to the left a large river.
Much too large a river for anything in Devonshire, while the town itself was larger than Plymouth. It came to Nancy that this town could be nothing else but Bristol, and that the river was the Severn, and that the 'plane therefore was the whole length of Somersetshire beyond her destination.
The shock of the discovery was paralysing. She leaned bock, breathing hard, her brain in a whirl. But her pluck asserted itself. She soon saw that they had crossed the Severn. To the west lay the glare of Welsh iron furnaces, and straight ahead dark mountains rose against the stars.
Now it was quite clear to her that Foskett had been lying, and that he had never had the faintest intention of taking her to Tiverton. She began to put two and two together, and inevitably came to the conclusion that the whole business was a swindle and that this had been a plan of Lant's to decoy her away.
She took out Hugh's letter again, and dim as the light was, read it through carefully. In a very short time she was convinced that it was a forgery.
This discovery was the last straw. She lay back in her seat in a state approaching collapse. The bitter cold had brought her physical energies to a very low ebb, and the feeling that she was miles away from Hugh and completely in the hands of her enemies, was positively terrifying.
Most girls would have collapsed completely, but Nancy was not of the weeping, clinging kind. She was naturally plucky, and her experiences since her mother's second marriage had done a deal to strengthen her already strong will. As soon as the first shock had worn off, her mind turned to the problem of escape.
Obviously the first thing was to let Hugh know. There was only one hope in that direction, namely, to get a letter to him. If one thing was more certain than another, it was that she would not be allowed to communicate once she had reached her destination. If anything was to be done it must be done at once, and she blessed the forethought which had provided her with paper and pencil.
At once she began to scribble notes.
"I am being taken away across Wales in an aeroplane. Anyone finding this, please send it to Captain Hugh Lytton, Royal Air Force, Mericombe, Devon, who will reward you—Signed, Nancy Damer."
She had money in her little bag and also half a dozen spare handkerchiefs. Each note, as she finished it, she wrapped in a handkerchief, weighted it with a coin, and tying it tightly, flung it over. She knew, of course, that the chances were enormously against any of these notes being found, yet small as the chance was, it was her only one, and she was bound to take it.
She had finished three, and was busy on a fourth when Foskett turned again, and saw what she was at. His long arm shot out, and he snatched away the paper.
She saw him read it, then he turned again, and now he was scowling savagely. His arm shot out once more; he tore the notebook from her and flung it over the side.
NANCY sprang to her feet. It was too late to save her pocket book, but she saw a little writing pad on the tiny shelf under the switch-board, and made a grasp at this. Foskett swept her back with his left arm, she stumbled, and barely saved herself from going overboard by a snatch at a stay. Even then she was more angry than frightened, and felt perfectly capable of making a fresh attempt to seize the pad. But her strong common sense came to the rescue, and she decided to wait on events. She sat down. Foskett looked round again, but Nancy returned his angry glance with scorn. She was not afraid of him. He was only a tool of Lant's. It was Lant himself who inspired her with terror, for she realised the man's overwhelming ambition, and the length to which he would go to secure his ends.
Meantime the 'plane sped on through the night. The light of Bristol died to a ruddy glow in the sky, then faded out altogether. To the south-west the furnaces of Glamorgan still blazed dully, but they too were sinking below the horizon. So far as Nancy could judge the 'plane was travelling north-west, running up through the heart of Wales.
A train crawled beneath them. Nancy saw its toy-like progress, and came to the conclusion that it was moving along the line from Abergavenny to Hereford. If that was so then they were almost across Monmouthshire, and going to cross Brecknockshire. She wondered for what point they were bound, but could make no guess whatever.
On and on, with the engine roaring steadily. Whatever Foskett was as a man, he was undoubtedly an able pilot. He seemed to hold the wide winged machine on a perfectly level keel, and a perfectly steady course.
Now the lights became fewer and dotted at wide distances. Nancy knew that they were crossing one of the loneliest and wildest stretches to be found in the British Isles, a tangle of wild hills, mountain streams, and great peat bogs, tenanted only by isolated sheep farmers.
She looked up. The stars which had been more brilliant than she had ever before seen them, were beginning to dull a little, and turning her head she saw, behind the 'plane, the ebony sky paling to grey.
Dawn came at last, and with the first pink flush the stars died, and the mountain tops showed ruddy, rising out of a sea of frost mist.
The scene was exquisite, for the great flood of mist which filled the valleys shone like a sea of pearl, while the sky above was tinged with bold and delicate salmon pink.
Ahead, miles to the south-west, rose a mountain larger than any of its neighbors, and Nancy who, a few years earlier, had spent some summer weeks with a girl friend near Aberystwyth, recognised it as the lonely pyramid of Plinlimmon.
This, she soon saw, was the landmark for which Foskett was making, but they were still a long way from it when quite suddenly he cut out, and the 'plane went shooting earthwards in a long swift slant.
The sudden cessation of the thunder of the engine was a most amazing relief. Yet for the moment it left Nancy half dazed.
But the hill tops were rising swiftly to meet them, and she felt that she must seize her opportunity.
"Where are you taking me?" she demanded, leaning forward.
"You'll know soon enough," was the brusque answer.
"I suppose you are a servant of Lant?" said Nancy, scornfully.
"I am Mr. Lant's friend," replied Foskett, in an accent of intense pride.
"A friendship that will land you in prison," said Nancy with spirit.
"I'll chance that," said Foskett curtly.
There was nothing to be got out of the man. Nancy saw that clearly. She determined to hold her peace.
They shot down into the mist. From above it had looked like a solid sea, and Nancy was surprised to see how thin it was, once they were in it. She could see the ground below, a wide, flat, desolate-looking expanse. It had the appearance of a peat bog, yet in the distance she saw buildings and a derrick. Also a tall chimney from which smoke curled lazily into the still, cold air of the autumn morning.
Foskett headed the 'plane towards the buildings, and Nancy saw that the nearest was a large hangar with, in front of it, a considerable stretch of close-cut grass now white with frost rime.
Another minute, and the wheels of the 'plane touched ground. The machine rolled smoothly forward, and came to rest quite close to the great double doors of the hangar.
Very deliberately Foskett rose from his seat and scrambled stiffly out on to the framework.
"You get out here," he explained to Nancy, with brutal directness.
When Foskett announced to Nancy Damer that they had come to the end of their journey, she rose from her seat, realising that there was nothing to be gained by opposition. She was half frozen and so stiff that she could hardly move. Foskett offered his hand, but she refused it, and managed to climb out.
By this time several people were in sight, approaching the 'plane. The first, a tall, swarthy man wearing an oil-stained overall came forward.
"Hulloa, Foskett," he said, in a loud, jocular voice. "This is a surprise. And who's your pretty passenger? She's a bit of all right, eh?"
"She is Mr. Lant's fiance," replied Foskett stiffly. "So you'd better mind your manners, Foyle."
Foyle muttered something under his breath, but his manner changed in a way that was almost miraculous. "You are very welcome, Miss," he said, with a civility which Nancy felt to be only a degree less repulsive than his coarse and open admiration. "You must be cold after your trip—and hungry too, I guess. My daughter will be glad to see you and look after you."
"Thank you," said Nancy coldly. On the instant she had made up her mind not to deny Foskett's lie. If she did so, she would be treated as a prisoner, while, if she tacitly allowed it to be supposed that she was engaged to Lant, she might find some chance of escape.
Foyle led the way to the house, a bare brand new frame building, with an iron roof. The air was full of the piercing odor of raw petroleum, and Nancy, using her eyes, saw that the derrick was over an oil well. If she wanted further proof, the puddles underfoot were scummed with an iridescent film.
It came to her with a fresh shock that Lant was owner of a British oil well.
The mist was rolling up before a rising breeze, and the air was clearing. Before they reached the house it was clear enough for Nancy to see that house, hangar, well and works, were all surrounded by a ring fence. It was an eight foot fence of corrugated iron, topped with two strands of barbed wire. So far as she could see, there was only one entrance.
Her brave spirit sank in spite of herself. Truly she was in prison.
"IT'S poor accommodation for a lady, and that's a fact," said Foyle, as he and Nancy reached the door of the house. "You see, it's all new, and there hasn't been time to make it pretty yet."
"Not that anyone could do much that way," he went on with a chuckle. "You see, oil and beauty don't go together—present company always exempted."
He pointed his compliment with the laugh which Nancy already disliked so intensely. She glanced at the man again, and saw that he was older than she had at first supposed. He was quite forty-five. She put him down as an Irish American of the most obnoxious type, a man who had lost the Irish virtues and gained none of the saving graces of the American.
"Come in, Miss. Come in," he continued, with effusive hospitality. "Clodagh!" he called.
A girl appeared from a room to the left of the narrow entrance passage, a girl so startlingly handsome that Nancy stopped short and almost stared. It was like stumbling upon a brilliant orchid in a dank and hideous tropical swamp.
Clodagh Foyle was tall and slight, and appeared to be not more than twenty. She had her father's blue black hair, and something of his high color, but there the resemblance ceased. For her features were almost perfect, and her eyes quite wonderful. They were the true Irish blue, deep and dark, and fringed with long silky lashes.
Yet beautiful as the face was, it was almost spoilt by the expression of sullen resentment which marred it and there was suspicion, almost hostility in the glance she bent upon Nancy.
"Clodagh, this is Miss Damer," said Foyle. "Mr. Lant's fiance. Foskett has just brought her over by 'plane. She's cold and hungry. I reckon you can give her some breakfast, eh?"
Nancy, watching Clodagh, saw the girl's face change. Suspicion gave place to open hostility. For some reason which Nancy could not at present divine, Foyle's daughter suddenly hated her.
But Clodagh was not without power of self control. Next moment her beautiful face had become perfectly expressionless.
"Breakfast will be ready in a few minutes," she said, tonelessly. "Please come in, Miss Damer."
She took her visitor through the passage and up the stairs, which were covered with matting. The place was clean enough, yet dreadfully bare. On the landing above, Clodagh opened a door. "This is our guest room," she said, in the same perfectly expressionless voice. "When you are ready, please come down."
She went out, closing the door behind her, and Nancy, resisting a strong impulse to drop into the nearest chair and burst into tears, took stock of her surroundings. Like the rest of the house, the room was clean enough, yet bare beyond words. There was a small bed, a chair, a washstand, a chest of drawers with a looking glass, and that was all. Not a picture, a flower, an atom of color or any attempt at ornament.
"What a place for that poor girl!" said Nancy to herself; then opening her bag, which she had carried up with her, she proceeded to repair as best she might the ravages of her night journey.
The water in the jug was bitterly cold, yet a wash freshened her, and having redone her hair, she went down again. A smell of frying bacon came from the back of the house, and Nancy realised that she was very hungry. The door of the room to the right of the front door stood open, and she went in.
It seemed to be the living-room of the house, and a table was laid for breakfast. Like the rest of the place, utility rather than ornament seemed to be the main consideration.
Nancy dropped into a chair, and a minute later Clodagh came in with a tray. She did not even look at Nancy, but silently laid the meal. There was a loaf, a square pat of butter, a large dish of fried bacon, a pot of tea, a jug of milk. That was all.
Foyle came in. He had discarded his dirty overall, and washed his hands. His hair was sleek with brilliantine.
"I guess you're hungry, Miss Damer," he said, with a coarse chuckle. "Gives you an appetite up aloft. Draw up. Plain fare, but Mr. Lant didn't warn us to expect you, or we'd have done better.
"Clodagh, give the lady some bacon," he went on.
Clodagh obeyed in stony silence. She herself never opened her lips during the meal, and Nancy would have given much if Foyle had followed his daughter's example. Instead, he kept up a running fire of conversation of a coarsely jocular type, but at the same time making efforts to pump Nancy as to her acquaintance with Lant and her antecedents generally.
It was clear to Nancy that he had never before heard of her, and that he was intensely curious about her. But she had little difficulty in parrying his questions, and even succeeded in getting a little information out of him. She gathered, for instance, that Lant was his chief, and that Lant was at the head of the whole organisation, which was apparently either Bolshevik or Sinn Fein—perhaps both.
The food, such as it was, was good, and the hot tea was very reviving. Nancy made a very fair meal, and felt the better for it. She knew that she must take care of herself physically, for she could not tell what ordeals were in store for her.
Breakfast over, Foyle got up.
"You'll excuse me, Miss," he said. "I've got to go out and see how the boys are getting. I'm Mr. Lant's overseer, you know. Just you make yourself at home. Clodagh will look after you. And if you're tired you go right up to your room and have a nap."
He took out a pipe and pouch, and filling the former, went off. The front door banged behind him, and Nancy was left alone with Clodagh.
Clodagh began to collect the dishes.
"Can I help?" asked Nancy gently.
Clodagh flashed a glance at her—a glance of such venomous hatred that Nancy was almost appalled. "No," she answered, in a hard voice. "Washing up is not for a lady like you."
Nancy was utterly puzzled. Yet she would not give up. She felt that her one hope lay in this girl.
"I have often cleaned tables and washed up," she said quietly.
"You won't do it when you've married Mr. Lant," retorted Clodagh, bitterly.
A gleam of comprehension came to Nancy. Could it be jealousy on Clodagh's part? She hesitated a moment, then made up her mind to risk it.
"But I shall never marry Mr. Lant," she answered.
Clodagh stopped with the tray of used dishes in her hands. She stared at Nancy with her great eyes full of doubt and suspicion. "You are engaged to him—you said so," she declared fiercely.
"No—I never said so," replied Nancy, firmly. "It was Mr. Foskett, the man who stole me away and brought me here, who said so."
"Stole you?" repeated Clodagh, standing as if frozen.
"Yes. He decoyed me away by means of a forged letter."
Clodagh's face was still full of suspicion. She laid her tray down, came across and stood in front of Nancy where she sat by the fire.
"Is that true?"
"Perfectly true. I will show you the letter if you like. But before I do so, I must know where I stand. If I can prove to you that I have no intention of marrying Mr. Lant, will you tell me if there is any chance of my escaping?"
"None at all," was the discouraging answer. "Even if I wanted to help you to get away, I couldn't. I couldn't leave myself. It's just like a prison."
NANCY'S heart sank again, and for the moment she could find nothing to say. Her lips quivered slightly. Perhaps it was this which touched Clodagh. Her face assumed a less forbidding expression.
"I can't get you away," she said. "That is out of the question. But if it's true—what you say, I'll help you any way I can."
Nancy pulled herself together. She even managed to smile.
"It is so true," she said, "that I am actually engaged to another man, a captain in the Air Service."
Clodagh considered a moment. Then the suspicious look came back into her eyes. "But if you are, what does Mr. Lant want with you?" she demanded.
"He, or rather my step-father, wants my money," replied Nancy.
"I have money—good deal—coming to me under my mother's will," she continued. "My step-father married my mother for her money, and now he is planning to get mine. I don't know what there is between him and Mr. Lant, but he has got Mr. Lant to help him."
"More like Lant has got your step-father to help him," said Clodagh bitterly. Then seeing Nancy's look of surprise. "Oh, I'm not a fool," she said. "I may be fond of Ellis, but I don't deceive myself about him. He'd steal the coat off his mother's back for the Cause."
"The Cause? I don't understand," said Nancy.
Clodagh looked hard at her, but Nancy's sincerity was unmistakable.
"Then you won't expect me to tell you," Clodagh said curtly.
"I had much sooner you did not," said Nancy, "I feel like a fly tangled in a spider's web. Miss Foyle, what shall I do? How shall I get out of it?"
Clodagh stood silent a while. She was twisting her fingers together. "You have friends?" she questioned, "this—this gentleman you speak of?"
Nancy blushed a little. "Captain Lytton, the man to whom I am engaged. He is practically my only friend. But he does not know where I am. If I could only let him know!"
"Yes," said Clodagh. "Yes, but I am almost as helpless as you. None of as are allowed out without a special permit."
"A letter. Could you not get a letter out?" begged Nancy.
"I might try. But what would be the use?"
"He will come and take me away."
Clodagh laughed bitterly. "Easier said than done. You have no notion of what forces you are against, or of the power of the organisation of which Ellis is the head. Besides they won't keep you here. You will probably be taken away tonight."
Nancy choked down a cry of despair. "Where to?" she managed to ask.
"I cannot tell you. Frankly I do not know. The truth is"—she lowered her voice—"I know very little. My father is deep in this business, but he tells me nothing. I myself only came over from America a little more than three months ago."
Nancy was silent. There seemed to be nothing more to say.
Clodagh pitied her evident distress. "I will do my best for you," she laid. "No, don't thank me," she went on bitterly. "It's pure selfishness of my part. You have guessed already that I want you out of the way. Give me the address of Captain Lytton."
She turned and took a slip of paper and a pencil from a drawer, and gave them to Nancy.
"I can't promise anything," continued Clodagh, while Nancy quickly wrote the address, "but if a chance comes I will send him a letter to say you are safe so far. That is all that I can do."
"It will be everything," said Nancy, earnestly.
"I am afraid it won't. They may take you a thousand miles from here for all I know, and you will have to rely upon yourself. But I suppose Lant can hardly force you to marry him without your consent?"
"Nothing will make me marry anyone but Hugh—that is, Captain Lytton," declared Nancy. "I would sooner drown myself."
Clodagh rewarded her with a certain approval. "I believe you would," she answered and turning, picked up the tray of dishes again.
"If I were you," she said, "I would get a few hours' sleep. You look as if you needed it."
Nancy hesitated. She would much soon have stayed to talk, yet she felt that Clodagh was right. She was desperately tired, and it was all she could do to keep her eyes open.
"Very well," she said, meekly, and went upstairs.
Cold and blank as the room was, there were good blankets on the bed, and partially undressing, Nancy rolled herself up warmly and lay down in spite of everything, it was not five minutes before she was sound asleep.
How long she slept she did not know, but a low autumn sun was shining in at the window which faced west, when she was roused by a tapping at the door.
"It's I, Clodagh," came a voice, and Nancy answered, "Come in."
Clodagh came in quickly. There was a troubled look on her handsome face.
"You must dress and come down to tea," she said. "Foskett says he is going to take you away to-night."
ROGER CHOWNE and his father sat together in the kitchen at Mericombe Farm. Grey dawn was just breaking, and though the fire had been lighted the room was still very cold.
"So it's all to do again, dad," said Roger. "They've took the young lady clean away, and who can tell where we'll find her?"
There was a puzzled face on the grizzled face of the elder man. "But what would they want to do that for?" he asked.
"That's more'n I can tell," responded Roger gloomily. "I reckon 'tis the young lady's step-father has took her away, but why, and for what, I'm certain sure I don't know."
"'Tis a bad job," allowed his father soberly.
"A terrible bad job. What the Captain will say when he comes to himself is what is troubling me. He'll be near off his head I'm thinking."
"A good job he be asleep," said the other.
"That's the stuff the doctor give him. What they call a sleeping draught. But 'tis only putting off the evil time, so to speak."
"Maybe 'twon't be so difficult for him to find her again this time," suggested the old man, with an attempt at comfort. He rose as he spoke. "Reckon I'll go and start the milking, Roger. You bide here and watch for the Captain waking."
But the sleeping draught kept Hugh quiet until about ten in the morning, and even when he woke it was some minutes before recollection came back to him.
Roger, standing by the bedside, kept a stolid face, but inwardly was desperately anxious. Knowing well how bitterly his master had suffered during the past three years, he was terrified at the thought of the effect this new misfortune would have upon him.
Hugh opened his eyes and fixed them on Roger. He stirred, then suddenly sat up.
"Any news, Roger?" he said.
Roger got the shock of his life. Hugh's voice and manner were perfectly calm and collected.
"None as yet, sir," he answered.
"Have you informed the police?"
"No, sir. I thought you'd rather keep it quiet like."
"Quite right. Besides, we have no proof of kidnapping or indeed of anything illegal."
"How do you feel?" ventured Roger.
"My head aches a little, but I am wonderfully well. Get me some breakfast, Roger, and I will think what is to be done."
Roger went down a deal more happily than he had gone up. "He's taking it fine, dad," he said. "A lot quieter than you or me."
Roger was no psychologist. He did not realise that the reason why his master had suffered so greatly in the past was that he had believed that Nancy had ceased to care for him. Now that he was assured of her love, he felt that he had only to find her, and then all would be well. And thought he was of course very anxious, yet he did not for a moment believe that Lant would be able to hide her for long.
He ate with a fair appetite, and meantime talked with Roger of the events of the previous evening.
"Yes," he said thoughtfully, "this man Lant must have decoyed her away. Perhaps he sent her a message that I was waiting for her. Tell me, Roger, which way did the 'plane go?"
"Exeter way, by the look of her, sir, but it was so dark I couldn't rightly tell."
Hugh nodded, and considered a little.
"Get me a telegraph form, Roger; then I want you to go down to the village, send a wire, and order a car to be here as soon as possible. I shall drive straight to Exeter, and get the two o'clock express for London."
"London, sir?" said Roger.
"Yes. Don't worry, Roger. I am quite fit to travel, and I must not lose a minute in beginning to trace Miss Damer. Luckily I have a friend who can and will help me. You remember Major Challice?"
"Why, yes, sir. I remember him well, The officer as was caught up in that wood at Mareilles, and you took the ammunition to in the 'plane."
"Yes, and he told me at the time that if ever I was in trouble I was to call on him. Now I am going to."
"But how can he help you, sir?"
"He is a Colonel now, and one of the biggest men in the Secret Services. If anyone can trace an aeroplane in any part of the kingdom, he can."
"YOU, Lytton? Why, I thought you were ruralising down in Devonshire? But I'm very glad to see you."
As he spoke, Colonel Challice rose from his office chair, and stepped forward, with outstretched hand. He was a tall man—fully six feet. With his fair hair, long fair moustache, blue eyes that women envied, he had more the look of a cavalry leader than of any other branch of the service.
"Sit down here," he said, pulling a chair to the fire. "Have a cigarette, and tell me what you have been doing since we last met."
Hugh lit his cigarette. "It's a long story," he answered. "Are you busy, sir?"
"Never too busy to listen to you, Lytton. No, I am not rushed to-day. I see by your face that this is not merely a call. Let's hear all about it."
Hugh told him. Beginning with his chance meeting with Nancy Damer, he gave the other the whole story, so far as he knew it, ending with the departure of the aeroplane and his own collapse.
Challice listened with growing interest.
When Hugh finished, he nodded.
"I have heard of this fellow, Lant," he said, "but I confess that I had no idea that he would go to such lengths. Of course you know as well as I do that there is a section in this country whose ideas are purely revolutionary, and whose avowed object is to get rid of all constitutional Government, including the monarchy. It is they who are at present causing us more trouble than any foreign enemy.
"Lant is one of their leaders, but I confess we do not know as much about him as we should. From what you tell me, it is quite plain that he is after Miss Damer's money. She is, I presume, quite well off?"
"She comes in for about £80,000 by her mother's will, while her brother Montgomery, if he is alive, will have nearly double that," answered Hugh.
Challice nodded again. "It would be interesting to know whether her brother is still alive, or whether Lant's story was purely a fabrication."
"I am inclined to think that, in this case, Lant was telling the truth," said Hugh. "After all, it is quite possible that Damer is a hostage in the hands of the Reds."
"Perfectly. It is also quite on the cards that Lant is hand and glove with some of these scoundrels. Quantities of Russian money and propaganda have reached this country, and we are constantly busy keeping their emissaries out."
"To come down to this particular case of yours, Lytton, Lant evidently has a strong hold over Miss Damer's step-father. Have you any idea of its nature?"
"Not the slightest—unless Strickland has been playing ducks and drakes with his ward's money, and Lant knows this."
"Is Strickland extravagant? Does he gamble or race?"
"Nancy—that is, Miss Damer—did not say so."
"Well, I don't think it is likely," said the Colonel. "If the money were gone, it seems to me that Lant would have no particular object in forcing his attentions on Miss Damer, or in kidnapping her. No, I think there must be something else in the background, some dark spot in Strickland's past life, of which Lant has knowledge.
"But that may rest for the minute. It is after all a matter for the police rather than for us. The immediate necessity is to trace Miss Damer, and I promise you that I will set all my machinery to work for that object."
"It's most awfully good of you," began Hugh fervently, but the other cut him short.
"No need for that, Lytton. I owe you a very big debt, and it happens my attempt to pay it will coincide with my own duty. Now, I am going to set the wires in motion, but I want you to come back at one and lunch with me."
Hugh left the office, feeling decidedly happier in his mind. During the next three days he saw the Colonel at least once during each twenty-four hours, but so far there was no news of the missing aeroplane or its passenger. Nor could the whereabouts of Lant, Strickland, or Maunder be discovered.
The rest of Vixen Holt had been paid in advance, no bills were owing to tradesmen, there was nothing illegal in their night flitting. Their car had been traced as far as Tranton in Somerset, but from that on there was no sign of it, and Challice's agents could not get upon its track.
When a fourth day came, and still no news, Hugh's spirits began to sink. As Challice himself told him, they were up against a very powerful and perfect organisation.
That fourth morning Hugh came down after a bad night, with very little inclination for breakfast. Half-a-dozen letters lay by his plate. He turned them over, but there did not seem to be anything of interest. The last of the little pile, however, was addressed in an unfamiliar hand, and this he picked out. The envelope, he saw, had been redirected from Mericombe in old Chowne's crabbed fist.
He opened it, and unfolded a sheet of plain and rather common while paper. There was no address, but the date was three days earlier. This is what he read:—
Miss Damer has asked me to write and say that she is well. She was here yesterday, but they took her away last night by aeroplane, and I fear they may have gone to the Continent, but I do not know. I dare not tell where I write from, or what my name is, but I wish you well in finding her. To prove that this letter is genuine, I enclose the slip on which Miss Damer wrote your address.
For a moment Hugh sat gasping. Then he recovered himself sufficiently to examine the slip. It was Nancy's writing beyond a doubt. Next he picked up the envelope to search for the post mark.
It was that of Bristol.
"That tells me nothing," he muttered. "The writer has probably sent the letter under cover to a friend there. Yes, it's a woman's hand without a doubt."
He read the letter over again.
"Gone to the Continent!" he groaned. "That means Russia, I suppose."
Suddenly he sprang to his feet and pealed the bell. Roger was almost instantly in the room.
"A taxi, Roger—quick as you can. I must go and see Colonel Challice at once."
Roger gave one reproachful look at the untouched breakfast, then hurried out.
Colonel Challice was not yet at his office. Hugh had to wait nearly an hour. Even when the colonel did arrive, he could say little to reassure Hugh. He agreed that the letter was probably genuine.
"Since it was posted in Bristol it was probably sent from the Midlands or Wales," he said. "By-the-bye, have you heard that a new strike has broken out in the Midlands? All the men on the Mid-Southern are out, and there is every prospect of serious trouble."
Hugh paid little attention to this news. All his thoughts were concentrated on Nancy.
"Do you think they could have taken her to Russia?" he asked.
"It is possible," Challice answered, "possible, but not probable. We have been keeping a very sharp look out on that sort of thing for months past. No, I think Miss Damer is still in England."
This comforted Roger a little, but only a little. The uncertainty was killing. As he drove back again to his rooms he felt almost desperate.
Roger met him at the door. "A wire for you, sir," he said, "came just after you left."
Hugh tore it open.
SERIOUS TROUBLE AT NORCHESTER. THREAT OF STRIKE IN THE ROLLING MILLS. CAN YOU GO DOWN AT ONCE, (SIGNED) MAYNE AND CROSSING.
MAYNE and Crossing were the firm of engineers for whom Hugh worked and to whom he had returned when demobilised. During the past few days he had almost forgotten their existence.
For the moment, so sick and disheartened was he that he was almost inclined to send back a message. "Regret. Impossible."
But this phase passed. Whatever his own troubles, he could not leave his firm to the lurch. They had bean uncommonly good to him, not only keeping his place open, but also making him an allowance all through the time he had been fighting.
Besides, he was the only man who was likely to be able to do any good at Norchester. These were the works of which he had been in charge before the war. The men knew and liked him. Once before he had been instrumental in stopping a strike. It was up to him to go. That was certain.
"Any answer, sir?" asked Roger.
"Yes, I'll write it at once."
He sat down, and took a form. "Leaving at once," he wrote, and signed and addressed it.
"Come back as soon as you can, and help me to pack, Roger," he said. "Oh, and get me a time-table. We go to Norchester to-day."
"Very good," replied Roger stolidly, and went off with the message.
The train left St. Pancras at 11.40, and it was all that Hugh could do to catch it. Once settled in a first smoker, he felt happier. It was better to do something than to waste the time loafing in London, paying endless visits to Challice, and getting nothing out of it. Now, at any rate, he would have his hands full. There would be less time to think and to brood.
Besides—he had not thought of this before—he was going into a country which was the very heart and centre of the revolutionary agitation. It was on the cards that he might discover something on his own account. And he felt that he could trust Challice and Challice's agents to do all that was possible from London.
To reach Norchester, Hugh had to change at Rugby. When he got out of the London train the first thing he heard was that there was not a single train running on the Mid-Southern.
He had half expected it, and had wired ahead to secure a car in case of emergency. Luckily he knew Rugby well, and big as the demand was, the proprietor of a certain garage whom Hugh knew personally, had kept a good car for him. Roger loaded Hugh's portmanteau on to this and the two set off on a drive of over forty miles.
The roads were good, the weather, though cold, was fine, and they saw little sign of the strike until they neared Norchester. Then they passed a company of infantry marching into the place and Hugh pulled up to speak to the officer in command.
"There's the deuce and all to pay," the latter told him. "It's the Liverpool business over again, but worse. I hear they've raided some of the pubs and started on the shops. All the shop-keepers are barricading their places. If I were you, I'd keep out of the main streets and go round by Northgate. It'll be safer, and much more comfy."
Hugh thanked him, and they drove on.
Presently a distant popping was heard.
"Shooting, sir," said Roger briefly.
Hugh nodded. "I expected as much. They are a tough lot, these hooligans from the slums of Norchester. And no doubt the whole thing is organised. We keep to the right here, Roger."
By dint of dodging through side streets and avoiding the main ones, they managed to reach the house of Mr. Soames, the works manager. He was out but his wife received Hugh, and gave him tea, while Roger put up the car.
Presently Soames came in. He was an older man than Hugh, and his face was full of trouble. But it cleared a little at sight of Hugh.
"This is good of you, Lytton," he said warmly, "I was wondering if the firm could possibly get hold of you. How did you get through?"
Hugh told him.
"It's a lucky thing you did not try Main-street," said Soames. "The mob is absolutely in charge there. I hear they've smashed nearly every window and looted badly. The troops have driven them back, but there are not nearly enough soldiers in the place, and I'm afraid to think what will happen to-night and to-morrow."
"Do you know anything about the organisation behind it?" asked Hugh.
"Only enough to be quite sure that the whole business has been organised," replied Soames bitterly. "There's Bolshevik money behind all this."
"I know it," said Hugh. "And what about the works?"
"We are carrying on," said the manager. "Most of the older men are standing by us, though some have been scared into staying away. But"—he lowered his voice—"Timmings told me this afternoon that there is a plot afoot to wreck the works."
Hugh gave a low whistle. "Any details?" he asked.
"None. Timmings had it from old Adams. He is a pensioner, but has a son in the works. It seems the son told him to warn us on the quiet."
"We shall have to keep our eyes open," said Hugh. "These people don't like us. Our men are too contented to strike."
"That's the fact," agreed Soames. "Of course I have a good guard on."
Hugh considered a little. "I wonder if I could see this young Adams," he said presently. "What we want to do is to get at the local headquarters of this organisation. Once smash that, and we have scotched the whole thing."
Soames shrugged his shoulders. "You can see Adams easily enough, I should imagine, But I doubt if he knows much. And as for getting at the gang's headquarters, I have been trying that myself for weeks past, and so has Nicholson, the chief constable. But they probably meet in some secret haunt down in Lower Town, and so far we have discovered absolutely nothing."
"I'll try, anyhow," said Hugh quietly. "Give me Adams' address, and I'll go down at once."
WEARING an old tweed cap, a shabby ulster, and carrying a heavy stick, Hugh got through into Lower Town without attracting attention. On his way he saw plenty of evidence of what had been going on during the day. Broken windows, boarded up doors, overturned vehicles, and once a barricade which had reached right across the street, but was now broken down.
For the moment the place was fairly quiet, for the troops had cleared the principal streets, But it was a dangerous, sullen quiet, like the hush that precedes a storm. Here and there at street corners knots of rough-looking men stood talking together in low, hoarse voices. There was not a woman or a child to be seen abroad. While as for the police, there were none on point duty. The only ones Hugh saw were moving in a squad a dozen strong.
Knowing the town as well as he did, Hugh had no difficulty in finding Adams' house, which was a tidy enough little place in a small side street. Old Adams himself came to the door, but at first would only open it a crack, keeping his foot behind it.
"Don't you know me, Adams?" asked Hugh, and at sound of Hugh's voice the door was flung open instantly.
"My!—but I'm glad to see you, Mr. Hugh!" exclaimed the old man, who had known Hugh for years, "But it's a bad time you've picked to come here. Norchester's in a pretty state this day."
"Just why I've come down," Hugh answered, trying to speak cheerfully. "We've got to look after the works, you know. How are you, and how's your boy, Bob?"
"Well enough, Mr. Hugh, but both troubled about the way things are going in the town."
"Is Bob at home?" inquired Hugh. "I'd like to see him."
The old chap hesitated a little. "Aye, he's in the house. I'll call him."
"Wait a moment," said Hugh. "I'm going to be quite straight with you. I learn from Mr. Soames that it's through Bob we got the warning that an attack is to be made on the works. I'm not going to ask how he got hold of this bit of news, but I badly want him to tell us all he knows."
Adams looked troubled. "He's not in with those chaps," he said earnestly. "They tried to get him, but he stuck out against them. Now they're all down on him, and I hardly dare let him go through the streets alone for fear of what they might do to him."
"I quite understand that," Hugh answered quietly. "And I give you my word that no one shall ever know what you and he have told or are going to tell us. What's more, if you think Norchester isn't safe for him I'll get him shifted to Tarnmouth, and you with him."
Adams looked enormously relieved. "That would be fine, sir. I'd be a deal happier in my mind if we were both out of this. I'll go into the kitchen and tell him. But mind you, Mr. Hugh, it isn't much he knows—only something he happened to overhear last night."
He went off at once, and presently was back with his son, a rather quiet, decent-looking youth of twenty two.
Hugh shook hands with him.
"Bob," he said, "your father will have told you what I want of you. Can you give me any idea at all of what these ill-conditioned beggars mean to try on up at the works?"
Bob shuffled his feet nervously.
"It's not a deal I can tell you, sir—only what I happened to hear last night. I'd gone out to buy some fish for supper, and I came on a sharp shower, so I slipped into an archway in Big Lane. It was dark in there, and I never knew there was anyone else there till I heard voices.
"Two chaps were talking about the strike and about getting everyone out in the town. The other said that the only ones as would not come out were Mayne and Crossings.
"Then they'll be brought out," said the first in a sort of a snarling voice. "We'll have the roof down over their heads before they're many hours older."
"How are you going to do that?" asks Number One. "You can make your oath that Soames'll keep his eyes open. They don't let anyone in very easy."
"No need to get in," says the other. "It's a job we can do from the outside easier than in."
"By that time I was listening with all my ears, sir, but as luck had it, the rain came down a regular rush just then, and their voices was so low I missed most of what came after. All I did hear was something about a truck of ammonia, but what that's got to do with it all fair beats me."
"Ammonia!" repeated Hugh, and paused a moment, frowning.
He started, and an expression of horror crossed his face.
"Ammonia—no! It's ammonal they must mean. And they're right!—they are right. There is a truck of the horrible stuff up in the goods shed behind the works."
AMMONAL, one of the worst explosives known! Fifty pounds of it would be enough to wipe the works off the face of the earth. And there was a truck load in the goods shed.
Reckless as to whether he was followed or not, Hugh Lytton ran as he had seldom run before. Luckily, he knew every short cut and alley, and he met few people in the darkened streets.
It was the better part of a mile to the works, and Hugh was breathing hard as he neared them. Roger was awaiting him there, and Hugh would have given much to have had Roger with him. But there was no time to fetch him. For all he knew the strikers might be in the shed already. In his mind's eye he could see them removing the chocks from under the wheels and setting the fuse.
The private siding ran from the goods shed right into the works. There was a slope all the way, and once the truck was started there would be no stopping it. It made Hugh cold to think of the result. Not only the works, but everything within half a mile would be simply wiped out of existence.
Keeping behind the works, Hugh cut through a side alley and came out on a piece of waste land. To his left front was the goods shed where the truck was stored; in front was the line of rails running into the works, which latter, were some four hundred yards down the slope to his right.
Hugh paused a moment as he came to the edge of the open space, and strained his eyes through the darkness. But he could neither see nor hear anything suspicions. As a matter of fact it was much too dark to see. The only lights visible through the foggy autumn night were from windows at a distance and from the works themselves. The firm had their own electric installation, and were independent of the town supply which had already been cut off by the strikers.
He went forward again. The ground was rough, being littered with heaps of stone and rubbish, and he could not go so fast. Soon he could see the goods shed plainly bulking against the dark sky. One man, he knew, had been left on guard there, but one was not enough. It would be easy enough for these plotters to slip up quietly and overcome the solitary watchman.
He stopped again for an instant, listening keenly, but there was no sound, and he felt a little easier in his mind as he hurried along the line towards the shed. He was still some fifty paces from it when a clanking noise came to his ears. Next instant something came rolling slowly and heavily out of the dark entrance of the shed into the open.
It was the truck!
When Hugh Lytton saw the truck come rolling out of the dark entrance of the shed he stood motionless. His faculties were literally paralysed with horror. The truck gained speed rapidly, and came lumbering down the slope straight towards him. With its load, a weighed seven or eight tons, it was an irresistible colossus of metal over which he had no more power of control than a frog would have over a steam roller.
Too late! Too late! were the words that rang through his numbed brain. A minute—just one minute earlier, and he might have stopped it. Now the works were doomed, and not only the works, but every living thing within a wide radius. The truck, unbraked and gradually gaining speed, would go roaring down into the works to crash into the stop blocks at the end. The shock would explode the detonators which the gang had no doubt set in position, and—
Hugh's faculties returned to him, and with a gasp he began to run straight towards the approaching truck. For a sudden idea had flashed through his brain, an idea which, if he could carry it out, might still result in saving the works from the destruction which threatened them.
The truck had brakes. If he could only board it and get at the lever he could set them in action and check the way of the juggernaut.
The question was whether it was not too late? Short as had been Hugh's hesitation, the truck, favored by the slope, had already gained considerable speed, and its pace was increasing every second. It seemed that he had hardly started to run towards it before it was on him, and he was forced to leap aside in order to prevent himself from being crushed under the grinding wheels.
He spun round and raced alongside. Never in all his life had he run so fast. He kept level, he gained, he sprang on to the permanent way behind the truck, and with half a dozen tremendous strides caught it up. Then with one great jump he gripped the back of it and hauled himself upwards.
If it had been a box truck his efforts would have been useless, but happily it was an open one, its contents, which had been purchased from the government stores, being covered with a heavy tarpaulin.
This tarpaulin Hugh had to shift in order to get at the brake lever. There was only one way to do it, and snatching out his knife he ripped away the tough black fabric.
Quick as he was, the work took time, and with every second the truck was gaining speed and thundering faster and faster towards its goal.
In moments like these one does not think. If Hugh had had time to think his brain could not have stood the strain. He must have fainted or gone mad.
The tarpaulin burst apart under his knife blade with a harsh ripping sound, disclosing the heavy metal drums containing the explosive. There was the brake lever, and Hugh flung himself upon it like a crazy creature.
He heard a grinding as the blocks tightened against the steel tyres. The truck jumped and jarred beneath him, and for a sickening second was almost off the metals. Would the brakes hold? The works were terribly near. The truck was already under the roofing and in the glare of the electric lamp.
A man leaped up alongside the truck.
"Stop her!" cried Hugh, in a choking voice. "At any cost stop her!"
The man ducked down, to reappear an instant later staggering under something which he flung down in front of the truck. A mass of sacking into which the truck, already slowed to a crawl, bumped softly. Hugh pulled over the brake an extra notch, and she stopped completely.
Dripping at every pore, and shaking so that he could hardly stand, Hugh clambered down.
"It's the ammonal," he explained hoarsely. "The strikers let it loose. Take all the men you can up to the goods shed and try to catch them."
"Very good, sir," came the reply, and it was only then that Hugh realised that his helper was Roger. "And you take this, if you please," added Roger. "You need it, sir."
"This" was a flask, and its contents neat whisky, were exactly what Hugh was most particularly in need of. The raw spirit stopped his shivering fit, and pulled him together, and as Roger, with three other men, went running swiftly up through the darkness towards the goods shed. Hugh was back in the truck engaged in rapidly disconnecting the detonator from the front case of ammonal.
HAVING finished this all important piece of work, Hugh breathed a sigh of relief and got down to firm ground again. He glanced at the stop blocks. They were hardly a score of yards away, and again he drew a deep breath, and, taking out a pocket handkerchief wiped his wet forehead.
"A clone call!" he muttered, then turned back up the track. "I wonder if Roger will get them," he said, and almost as he spoke he heard the sharp snap of a pistol and a distant shout.
Desperately anxious, he began to run. But the tremendous exertions of the past few minutes combined with the effect of the blow on the head which he had received a week earlier at the hands of Maunder had nearly exhausted his strength. He was forced to stop, and stood listening hard for further sounds of struggle.
There were none, but a few minutes later he heard steps, and out of the foggy darkness there appeared four men, two of them dragging a fifth between them.
Hugh's relief was great when he saw that neither Roger nor any of his assistants seemed the worse. Roger, however, was looking anything but pleased as he came forward into the white glare of the electric lights.
"We've only got one, sir," he said gruffly. "They must have known there was something wrong when the truck didn't explode. When we got into the shed there was only this one left, and though he did pop off a pistol at us, I don't think he's of much account."
Hugh looked at the prisoner, and decided that Roger's opinion was probably correct. The man was weedy, under-sized, wild-eyed, and shock-headed. He did not look to be much more than twenty. And at the moment his knees literally quivered beneath with fright.
"If that's the stamp of Lant's followers, we needn't worry," he said drily.
"There's worse than him," returned one of the works' men.
"Bring him into the office," said Hugh. "I'll have a few words with him."
"I've took his pistol away," said Roger, as he led the quaking youth towards the private office.
Hugh made the man sit down opposite, and in such a position that the light of an electric was full on his face. The fellow was shivering as if he had ague.
"What is your name?" queried Hugh.
"G-Gordon," answered the other between chattering teeth.
"Your real name, I mean," said Hugh, curtly.
"That's more like it," said Hugh, dispassionately. "I presume you are employed by Mr. Ellis Lant?"
"I n-never heard the name," answered Zalinski, and Hugh, watching him keenly, was tolerably convinced that he spoke the truth.
"Who paid you to go into this murderous business?"
"No one paid me." This time Zalinski's voice was firmer.
"Then what did you do it for?"
"Because the men have been bribed by you dirty capitalists to betray their fellows," returned Zalinski fiercely. "Because they won't join us or help us."
"So for that crime you meant to murder a score or two and leave the rest with their wives and children, to starve?"
"It would serve them right," said Zalinski sullenly.
"And what do you think you deserve for to-night's performance?" asked Hugh.
The other was silent.
"I can tell you what you will get," Hugh continued. "That is, twenty years' penal servitude—more than half the rest of your life in prison!"
"Who were the men with you?" went on Hugh, short and sharp.
Zalinski's eyes had the look of a trapped cat, but he did not speak. For a moment Hugh was half sorry for the wretched creature, who, if contemptible otherwise, had the one virtue of being faithful to his partners in iniquity.
But the issue was too desperate for him to show any mercy. He must at any cost force information from his prisoner. It was the only way to save the works, perhaps the whole town and district from destruction.
"Are you married?" he asked.
Zalinski's face twisted. "Yes," he said.
"And what will your wife do when you go to prison. Do you think, these good friends of yours will keep her?"
Zalinski writhed, but did not answer.
"You know they won't," Hugh went on, "Why, they had not the decency to wait for you and help you to get away from the shed. They left you and bolted the moment they heard our men coming. You know they did. And when you come up for trial at the Assizes, do you imagine that they will come forward and pay far your defence?"
Sweat stood out on Zalinski's forehead. Hugh watched him keenly.
"See here, Zalinski. I'm going to offer you a chance. I won't ask you for the names of your accomplices. All I want from you is the meeting place of your head centre—the committee of the strike, I mean. Tell me that, and you shall go—go free."
Zalinski raised his eyes to Hugh's, then dropped them again. "Much good that will do me," he snarled. "They'll know I've blabbed, and it'll be a knife between my shoulder blades to-night or to-morrow night."
"Perhaps, if you stay here, but what if I keep you here till morning, then send you away in a car? You can take your wife with you."
Zalinsky weakened. Hugh could almost see his heart fluttering.
"You shall be taken clean away from Norchester," he said. "I give you my word and I shall keep it."
"All right," the man said in a voice that was little more than a whisper. "It's down in Mould-lane, the place that used to be a chapel, and afterwards was a rag and bone warehouse. That's the house."
"I shall go there to-night," Hugh said. "If you have told me the truth you are safe. If not—"
"It's the truth," declared Zalinski with an oath.
WHETHER Lant were in Norchester or not Hugh Lytton had no means of knowing, yet as he and Roger Chowne walked together through the darkened streets on the raw autumn night, he had a conviction amounting to a certainty that his enemy was not far away.
It was now past ten o'clock, and the knots of men who had been visible earlier in the evening had mostly disappeared. The chill mist and darkness had driven them under cover. Even so there were still a few strikers about, but they paid little attention to the two men who—as roughly dressed as themselves—walked steadily down into Lower Town.
Lucky for Hugh that he knew Norchester as well as he did, for Mould-lane took a deal of finding. It was a narrow, noisome thoroughfare, running down to the river. Tall, dark buildings, many of them half ruinous, rose like cliffs on either side, and the cobbled roadway was greasy with the river mist.
Hugh kept to the narrow strip of pavement, and walked with cautious silence. Roger who, like his master was carrying a heavy stick, moved silently behind him.
At last Hugh came to a narrow archway, and slipped under it. Roger joined him.
"That's the place—just opposite," Hugh whispered.
"There ain't no light, sir," said Roger.
"There wouldn't be. The police would give a lot to know where these fellows are. I wish I knew how they enter."
"There's a door right across the street," suggested Roger.
"They'll not be using that. Most likely they get in from the back, or perhaps through the cellars of another house. You must remember, Roger, this is no Trade Union Committee. It is purely Red Flag and revolutionary."
"Are you sure they're sitting, sir?" question Roger. "Maybe there ain't no one there at all."
"I don't know whether they are sitting or not, but you may be quite sure that some of them are there day and night."
"I'd have thought the best thing would have been to call in the police and surround the whole show," ventured Roger.
"The police will have their chance later," Hugh answered. "I have arranged for that. I want my turn first. I believe that Lant may be here."
"Him as stole the young lady?" Roger said eagerly.
"Yes, Roger," Hugh answered. "I know that Lant is a Bolshevik as well as a kidnapper, and I believe that he is head of this whole dirty business though perhaps under another name. If we could get hold of him we might kill two birds with one stone."
"I understand, sir," replied Roger, and by his tone it was very clear that he was as keen as Hugh himself.
"What about trying to find a way in, sir?" continued Roger.
"I think we had better wait until someone comes out."
"Very good, sir," said Roger.
It was bitter cold there in that entry. The damp seemed to pierce to Hugh's very bones. He was tired, too.
The long minutes dragged by in an uncanny silence. There were no trams moving, no traffic of any sort. The whole town might have been dead and deserted for any sign there was to the contrary.
And when at last steps were heard, the footfalls on the cobbles sounded startlingly loud.
"Can you see him, Roger?" Hugh whispered.
"Yes, sir. He's coming from the river end. There, he's just across from us now. He's stopping."
Hugh waited breathless. He, too, could see the man, and realized that he was short and stocky.
The fellow had pulled up. He was fumbling in his pocket. What was he doing—getting a key?
Suddenly came a scratching sound—a flicker of light. The man had struck a match. He was lighting a cigarette.
The red glow of the match illumined a heavy face, high cheek bones, a blunt nose.
"Maunder!" muttered Hugh under his breath, "It's Lant's man, Maunder."
HUGH was just in time to seize Roger's arm as he was in the act of making a dash out of the archway.
"Steady!" he said, in a quick whisper. "We don't want to catch him. We want to see where he goes."
Roger, obedient as ever, pulled up. But Hugh could see that he was horribly disappointed. The good fellow was aching to get back on the man who had done his best to murder his master.
"He'll probably take us to Lant, or to where Lant lives," explained Hugh in a quick whisper. "Now Roger, imagine you are stalking a Boche. Keep just behind me."
Maunder, having got his cigarette alight, had moved on, and was walking at a brisk pace up the valley towards the main street. Hugh gave him plenty of law—then followed. If the two had come quietly down the lane, it was nothing to the caution they now exercised. It was all important that Maunder should not suspect that he was being followed. If he gained the idea that anyone was on his track, he was quite cunning enough to lead them off the trail, or to dodge them by some crafty method.
The utter silence of the deserted streets made the task of the trackers a very difficult one, but there was one point in their favour. Maunder's cigarette, a pin point of light in the gloom, gave them a beacon to follow.
At the top of the alley Maunder turned to the right, and continued straight onwards through the slummiest part of Lower Town. Hugh, treading like a cat, wondered much what his destination could be. In the excitement of the chase, he had forgotten all about his fatigue. Never, even when on night patrol in France, had all his faculties been so alert at they were at this moment. The more he considered the matter, the more certain he was that Maunder must be leading him to Lant's abode, and once he was face to face with Lant—!
At this point he pulled himself up short. He was almost frightened at the thrill of fury that ran through all his veins.
On and on went Maunder, keeping due west. His cigarette burned out, but he stopped to light another.
All the way he had been following a street running parallel with the river. Now he turned to the left along another which ran up at a steepish slope, and in a minute Hugh realised his destination.
In front of them was some of the highest ground in or around the town. In the old days before the discovery of coal had turned Norchester into a great manufacturing city, Halsey Hill had been the site of the best houses in the place. But foundries and factories had smoked out the original owners; many of the comfortable villas had been replaced by workmen's dwellings, while the few that remained were shabby and grimy, and, for the most part, empty and ruinous.
It was years since Hugh had been in this direction at all, but he knew the place, and as Maunder turned up the hill it flashed across him that his was just the haunt that Lant might have chosen.
Near the top of the hill Maunder pulled up short. He turned and looked round. Hugh flattened himself against the wall. For an ugly moment he feared that Maunder had heard footsteps.
So no doubt he had, for at that moment a man came out of a door to the right and a little way up the street, and started down it. He was evidently tipsy.
He came down the very middle of the street, past Hugh and Roger, but he was too drunk to notice anything. Breaking into a snatch of hoarse song he went staggering on his way.
Maunder started once more, and Hugh and Roger took up the trail again.
Maunder reached the top of the hill, and turned to the left. Now Hugh's suspicion turned to certainty. This was the road at the end of which stood the few remaining villas.
The rows of ugly little dwellings broke away, and were succeeded by stone walls beyond which thick clumps of intended evergreens showed dark against the night sky. Up here on the hilltop the air was much clearer. Behind the shrubberies Hugh could see the outlines of good-sized houses.
The tiny red glow of Maunder's cigarette was seen to stop; there was the clank of an iron gate latch, followed by the creak of rusty hinges. Then the red spark vanished altogether.
Hugh quickened his pace, and a few moments later he and Roger were standing outside the gate through which Maunder had passed.
"Better get over, sir," whispered Roger in his ear. "If if creaks like it did before, he's bound to hear it."
The advice was sound and Hugh ran his hand across the top of the gate to make sure it was not spiked. Then he swung himself up, and was over in a moment. Roger following him as swiftly and silently.
There was no danger of being seen from the house. The shrubs almost met across the drive, which was covered with dead leaves on which their feet made no sound. The drive curved, and suddenly they were on the ring in front of the house. As they reached it there came the scratch of a key searching for a key hole in the darkness.
"Let me, sir," whispered Roger in Hugh's car. "I won't make no noise about it." And hardly waiting for Hugh's permission, he dashed past, straight for the front porch.
Considering his stocky build, it was amazing how quietly Roger went. But quiet as he was, Maunder must have heard something, for Hugh, close behind, saw him spin round, and the starlight gleamed on a steel blade as Maunder struck furiously at Roger.
There was a sharp click, and at the same time a howl of pain from Maunder. With an upward blow of his stick, Roger had knocked the knife clean out of his assailant's hand, the force of the blow numbing the man's fingers completely.
Before Maunder could recover the use of his hand or draw any other weapon Roger had him.
"You murdering rat!" he growled, shaking the man till his teeth rattled. "You're worse than a Boche."
Maunder still struggled, so Roger kicked his legs from under him, and his head rapped against the stone steps with a force that took the fight out of him.
"Steady, Roger!" said Hugh. "Don't kill him. He may be useful later.
"Where's the key!" he added.
"It dropped out of his hand, sir," explained Roger. "I heard it clink on the steps. Light a match, sir, and you'll soon find it."
Hugh hesitated, but only for a moment. "If there's anyone else in the house, they must have heard the row already," he said, and struck a match.
He found the key at once, and slipped it into the lock. It turned noiselessly, and the door opened.
Roger dragged Maunder in, and Hugh closed the door again. It was not dark inside. An oil lamp, turned low, burned in a bracket on the wall, and showed a wide entrance passage, fairly clean, but perfectly bare. There was not even any covering on the floors or on the rather flat broad staircase. The walls were damp, and there were bad cracks in the plaster and in the ceiling. The place had certainly been empty and neglected for years, but lately some attempt had been made to clean and tidy up.
Hugh took all this in while Roger, using a length of cord which he had taken from his pocket, tied Maunder neck and crop, then having rendered him helpless as an oyster, dumped him down unceremoniously on the bare boards close under the wall.
"He won't murder no one yet a while," he remarked, with a degree of vindictiveness which he rarely displayed. But Roger had not forgiven Maunder for his brutal attempt to murder his master.
"That's good, Roger," said Hugh. "Now stand here and keep a look out while I explore. I've a notion we may find something interesting before we have finished."
But even Hugh had no shadow of an idea what he was to find before he had finished his exploration of this long empty house.
TWO doors opened one on each side of the hall. Roger first tried the right hand one. The large, once handsome room, had evidently been the main room when the house was occupied. It was now empty and bare as the hall. It was also deep in dust and the floor littered with dead leaves which had blown in through the broken panes of the big, bow window in front.
He tried the floor to the left, but with equally little result, for this room, too, was empty and forlorn. The very floor boards were rotting with damp and neglect.
Hugh was not disappointed. "They wouldn't be likely to use the front rooms," he said to Roger. "The lights would be seen from the road. Let's try the back."
On the same side as the drawing-room, to the right of the foot of the staircase, was a third door. This Hugh tried, only to find that it was locked.
Roger soon solved this little difficulty. With a rusty old poker that he discovered in the drawing-room, he lost no time in forcing the lock, and with a sharp crack the door flew open.
"Oh!" said Hugh with a touch of excitement in his voice, and calling to Roger. "This is more like it. Bring the lamp from the bracket, Roger."
The lamplight showed a small room which might once have been a study or a smoking room, but which was a complete contrast to the two front ones. There was a carpet on the floor, a fire banked with slack in the grate, there were chairs, a dining-table and a writing desk.
The furniture in the room, such as it was, was sound enough, but of poor quality. It was just what might have been purchased in a hurry in a local second-hand shop.
For all that, the fire and the carpet gave the room an air of comfort which was in strong contrast with the two front rooms.
Hugh stepped quickly across to the writing table, and began to search for papers. There was a blotting pad, there was stationery, but not one letter or atom of written paper.
He turned away with an impatient exclamation. "They're too cute for us, Roger," he said. "But Lant lives here—that I'm sure of. I must search the rest of the place. You stay in the hall, Roger. I don't want to be taken by surprise. I'll try the kitchen first," he added.
A swing door from which hung tattered fragments of what had once been red baize led into the back regions, and here Hugh found ample evidence of recent occupation. The kitchen table had on it the remains of a substantial supper, which had not yet been cleared away. The old range, rusty and beyond use, had been superseded by a large oil stove. There were pots and sauce-pans on a shelf, and crockery on the dresser.
In a larder beyond hung a joint of beef and a ham, on the shelves were butter, vegetables and other foods.
"More than one living here," said Hugh to himself. "Three or four by the look of it. But no documentary evidence. I must try upstairs."
He came back to find Roger solemnly on guard in the hall. Maunder lay where he had been left, against the wall. He had come round and the scowl on his uncouth face was appalling in its hideousness.
Hugh noticed that the man was gagged and Roger saw that he noticed it.
"He would talk, sir," explained Roger, jerking a contemptuous thumb in Maunder's direction. "I told him what would happen if he didn't stop."
Hugh could not repress a smile. "Just as well," he said. "Keep an eye on the front, Roger. I'm going upstairs."
His feet echoed hollow on the bare hoards as he climbed the stairs. Above was a landing of similar size to the hall below, with bedrooms opening out of it. As below, the two front rooms were empty. Next, he tried the one over the study.
This was furnished. There was a camp bed, table, chair, and washstand—also a portmanteau. It was on this latter that Hugh swooped.
It was locked, but Hugh made no bones about that. Flap locks are frail things at best, and in a minute he had wrenched it open, and was investigating the contents.
They were clothes—clothes much too good and, as Hugh saw at a glance, much too large for Maunder. Not one bore a mark of any description, but Hugh felt perfectly certain that they were the property of Ellis Lant.
He thrilled with excitement. Alone, he had done more than Challice and all his agents, for he had tracked the Bolshevik leader to his secret hiding place, and now he had only to wait and spring the trap when Lant returned to his sleeping place.
He searched the pockets of each suit, but found nothing in the way of papers or letters. If there were such about the house they were hidden in some secret place. It was certain that Lant was too clever to take chances. Most likely, Hugh thought, all papers connected with the strike business were kept at the committee's headquarters in Mould-lane. Well, the police would see to them. Before he left the works Hugh had written a letter to the Chief of Police, which would be delivered at six in the morning.
So eager and interested was Hugh that, for the time, he almost forgot that there was still a part of the house which he had not been over. But presently he remembered, and putting the clothes back in the portmanteau and closing it he picked up the candle, which he had found in the kitchen, and went out again on the landing.
Below, Roger had found a chair and lit a pipe.
"All clear, Roger?" asked Hugh.
"No sign of anyone yet, sir. I've just been outside to see."
"That's good. Give me a whistle if you hear anything."
Turning again, Hugh tried the next room to Lant's. It was empty, but the remaining room on the first floor had a cot in it, and some rough furniture. This was Maunder's room without a doubt, for some of his coarse, ready-made clothes were hung on a nail behind the door.
Here, again, were no papers or anything likely to be useful, and Hugh came out once more on to the landing.
There was still a floor above, and Hugh made his way up to it. The treads of the stairs and the passage above were deep in dust and in plaster, which had fallen from the ceiling. But in the dust were many footmarks besides splashes of grease from carelessly carried candles.
Hugh felt a fresh thrill of excitement. Was it up here that Lant kept his papers? With his eyes upon the footmarks, the first thing that Hugh noticed was that they all led to one door. To this there was a regular trackway through the dust.
This door was exactly opposite the head of the stairs. Reaching it, Hugh stood a moment, listening hard. He could hear nothing, so quietly turned the handle, only to discover that the door was locked.
Since, however, the key was in the look, this was a matter easily remedied, and in a moment he was inside.
The candle flicked in a cold draught, and he closed the door hastily to prevent it from blowing out. He found himself in a good-sized room, but low in the roof. It was furnished as a bedroom, but the furniture was as cheap and poor and scanty as in Maunder's room below.
Exactly opposite was a window looking out on the back of the house, and across this window which was open were three iron bars which evidently had been quite newly fixed.
To the left of the window, against the wall, was a cot, and in it, the head so covered with bedclothes that he could not see the face, a man.
"GOT one of the gang anyway," said Hugh to himself, and quick as a flash pulled out his pistol. He was not taking any chances with Lant's followers.
"Up with you!" he said sternly, "Put your hands up!"
There was no movement, not a sign of life from the bed. The utter stillness of its occupant gave Hugh something of a shock. Was the man asleep, was he foxing, or was he—was he dead?
Keeping his eyes on the bed, Hugh laid his candle on the wash stand, which was close by the door, and pistol in hand, went across to the bed.
Still there was no movement, and Hugh paused a moment at the bedside. Watching closely, he saw the blankets moving slightly and realised that, whatever might be wrong, the man was at any rate not dead. He was breathing slowly, but steadily.
"Either he's a pretty sound sleeper or he is very drunk," was his thought, and putting out his left hand he pulled the clothes quickly away from the face which they covered.
For a moment he stared wide-eyed. Then a queer hoarse cry escaped his lips. "Monty!" he gasped. "Monty!"
The man in the bed opened his eyes, eyes of almost the same wonderful color as Nancy's own, but now sunk in deep hollows above cheeks that were terribly thin. And these eyes held an expression of terror not good to see in any man's eyes, and shocking to Hugh, who remembered their once fearless, merry glance.
The terror faded, and was replaced by a puzzled look.
"You—you are not Maunder," he said, in a painfully weak, far-away voice. "Who are you?"
Between horror and pity Hugh was as overcome that for the moment he found it almost impossible to answer. With a strong effort he steadied his spinning brain and managed to speak calmly and quietly.
"It's Lytton, Monty. Don't you know me?"
Poor Monty's forehead furrowed in a puzzled frown. "I remember the name," he said, in that thin, weak, voice which was so unlike his own. "But—but it's a long time ago."
"A shocking long time ago—nearly four years, old man," replied Hugh. "You've been ill, you know, but now it's all right. I've come to fetch you away."
Monty looked hard at him. "It's no use," he said, shaking his head slightly. "That doctor chap won't let me go."
"Lant, do you mean?" asked Hugh.
"I don't remember what his name is but he said I had to stay here till I'd finished the treatment."
Hugh was boiling. The "treatment" was already clear enough to him. These people had been keeping Monty under drugs. The waxen pallor of his skin, his terrible thinness, and the fact that the pupils of his eyes were shrunk to mere pin points—all these symptoms told their own story.
All the same Hugh managed to keep calm. "This doctor of yours doesn't understand your case, Monty," he said gently. "I am going to take you to a much more comfortable place. This is a horrid, cold, dark room you are in."
Monty looked round vaguely. "I suppose it is," he said feebly, "but it will do. I'm too tired to move."
"What—wouldn't you like to see Nancy again?" asked Hugh. "Nancy is longing to see you."
"Nancy." Monty's face brightened a little as he repeated the name. "Sister Nancy. Yes, I'd like to see her. Can she come here to see me?"
"No, Monty, she can't come here, and you wouldn't like her to see you in a place like this. But I will take you to her."
Monty's little spurt of interest had died away. His eyes half closed again. "I'm tired," he said, fretfully. "I want my medicine."
Hugh was almost in despair. It was plain to him that Nancy's brother had been so soaked in drugs by Lant, or more probably Maunder that all his will and strength were gone. Physically, as well as mentally, he was incapable of any initiative. Lant's had been no empty boast when he had said that only he could restore her brother to Nancy.
One thing was clear to Hugh. He must get Monty away at once, and place him somewhere in safety and under proper medical care.
The question was how to do it. This place was more than two miles from the works—nearly three from Soames' house where Hugh was staying. Monty was too weak to walk across a room, and it was quite certain that, even with Roger's sturdy aid, they could not carry him across the town to safety.
There was only one thing to be done—send Roger for Soames' car. With any luck, he ought to be back in a little over an hour. Meantime he, Hugh, must stay with Monty.
He turned to Monty. "I'm going downstairs a minute, old chap. I'll be back quite soon."
Monty paid no attention at all. He had sunk back into the same comatose state in which Hugh had found him.
Hugh went down, to find Roger still on guard. Roger looked sharply at Hugh as the latter came towards him. "You've found something, sir," he said.
"I have, Roger. Mr. Monty Damer, Miss Damer's brother, is lying in bed on the top floor. They've been filling him up with morphine or some dope of that sort, and he's perfectly helpless. We've got to get him away, and to do it quickly, too. I think the best thing will be for you to go straight back to Mr. Soames' and fetch his car."
Roger looked seriously. "And leave you here alone, sir?" he said gravely.
"I've got a pistol. I think I can keep any one from getting in. Besides, you won't be much more than an hour. The streets are empty, and I don't suppose the mob will he abroad again before daylight, if then."
He looked at his watch. "Just on three," he added. "If you are back by half past four it should be all right."
Roger looked anything but happy. "Suppose this chap Lant, comes back, sir, and perhaps, half a dozen of his Bolshies along with him? And you with a prisoner and a sick man?"
"If anyone tries to get in while you are away I shall shoot—that's all there is in it," answered Hugh sharply. "It's no use making difficulties, Roger. Go ahead quickly, and come back as soon as you can."
"Very good, sir," said Roger, and went to the door. As he opened it he turned:—
"You'll be careful, sir," he begged earnestly.
Hugh was touched. "I will, Roger. I'll be very careful indeed. I give you my word you need not worry on that score. As you know, yourself, it's not only for my own sake I shall look out sharply, but for Mr. Damer's too. It will make all the difference in the world if we can get him safely away, for it will deprive this scoundrel Lant of the hold he has at present over Miss Damer."
"I quite understand that, sir," said Roger, who, indeed, had by this time a pretty good grasp of the whole situation.
"With any luck I'd ought to be back in about an hour and a quarter. Goodbye, sir."
The door closed behind him, and Hugh, left to himself, had a sudden feeling of stark loneliness. He had not yet by any means recovered from the effects of the savage blow which Maunder had dealt him that night at Vixen Holt, and at present he was deadly tired. He was cold, too, and as he realised presently, hungry as well. He had left for the works immediately after tea, and since then had been at it hard without food or refreshment of any sort.
When a man is below par, physically, his spirits are never as good as when he is fresh and well fed, and Hugh, knowing that his depression was largely from physical causes, bethought him of the food in the kitchen. It occurred to him that a cup of hot tea or coffee and a slice of bread and butter would do him all the good in the world.
There was poor Monty, too, to be considered. Hot coffee would be the very best thing to pull him round and bring him to his senses.
The question was whether it would be safe to leave the front of the house long enough to light the oil stove and put a kettle on. Though the front door was locked, there was no means of preventing anyone from entering by the broken drawing-room window.
He compromised by wedging the drawing-room door, so that it could not be opened from within except by the use of great force, and he treated the opposite door in the same way. He had already shot up the bolts of the front door, so that even if Lant had a latchkey, he could not get in.
Maunder, still lying on the bare boards, watched these operations with a sullen rage, which was not pleasant to see. Hugh, looking down at him, had an uncomfortable feeling that the man knew more than he did—that he had something up his sleeve, as it were.
It was, however, useless to anticipate trouble, and after glancing at his automatic to make sure that the magazine was full, Hugh hurried back into the kitchen, lit the oil stove, put on a kettle full of water, and making a quick search discovered a tin of ground coffee, a sugar basin, and a tin of condensed milk.
On the table were bread and cheese. He cut two slices of bread, made himself a rough sandwich, and went buck into the chill of the hall to eat it.
There was no sound either within or without. The night was absolutely calm and windless. From the town itself came none of the casual night sounds of railway waggons, shunting, or the whistle of distant trains. The silence was absolute, and had an uncanny quality which was distinctly daunting.
Hugh finished his sandwich and waited. He had left the kitchen door open, and at last he heard the kettle boiling. He went in and made the coffee. It was strong black stuff, and a big cupful did him a world of good.
He went back through the hall, into the dark drawing-room, and listened again. Still no sound. The place might have been in the backwoods for any sign of life about it, yet within a hundred yards there were inhabited houses.
He decided to take a cup of coffee up to Monty, and after making sure that everything below was as safe as he could leave it, went up.
Monty was awake this time. He was tossing about.
"Where is my medicine?" he demanded fretfully. Hugh knew that he meant the morphia or whatever drug these fiends had been giving him. He wondered how long Lant had been keeping him here in this wretched state, and once more his anger burnt hot against the man who was the author of all his troubles.
"I've brought you some coffee, Monty," he said. "Good hot stuff. Drink it down. That's a good chap. It will do you heaps of good."
Monty did not want it. He turned away like a spoilt child. The drugs had robbed him of all his manhood, and it was a pitiable sight to one who remembered him, as Hugh did, a smart, well mannered youngster, full of fun, and as nice a boy as ever breathed. Humoring him like a child, Hugh persuaded him at last to drink the coffee.
Its effect was apparent almost at once. It roused him out of his torpor.
"Good stuff," he said. "I say, Lytton, I feel better. I can remember you now. Where's Nancy?"
"Down in Devonshire," Hugh lied calmly. "She sent me after you. I'm to take you down there as soon as you're fit to travel. How long have you been here?"
"I—I don't know," replied Monty vaguely. "A beastly long time."
Hugh saw it was no use worrying him with questions. At the same time he decided that it was best not to leave him up here alone any longer. Yet he himself could not remain with him for if Lant came back there was no one to prevent the man from getting into the house.
"Monty," he said, "would you like to try another room? There's a better one than this downstairs—warmer and nicer altogether. What do you say?"
"Yes, I think I should like that," replied Monty, "but—I don't know whether I can walk. I—I get giddy if I try."
"No need to walk, old chap. I'll carry you," said Hugh lightly. And without giving the other time to change his mind, he wrapped him in a blanket and lifted him out of bed.
He had just reached the ground floor when he heard steps in the porch outside, and the sound of a key being pushed into the lock.
FOR a moment, a moment only he paused. Then he hurried on into the room at the back, where he had found the fire still burning in the grate. He put poor Monty down in the one comfortable chair, and rolled the blanket well round him.
"You stay there, Monty," he said, and though his heart was thumping his tone was perfectly quiet and collected. Monty did not answer. The stimulus of the coffee was passing, and he was sinking back into his previous drowsy condition. Closing the door behind him, Hugh passed quickly but quietly out into the hall.
It was not Roger at the door. Four had not struck yet, and there was not time for him to have reached his destination and returned with the car. In any case he would have knocked. He and Hugh had a code of signals learned long ago in France.
The chances were that the man outside was Lant, and if he was alone Hugh felt perfectly equal to tackling him. Indeed, he was eager to do so. But it was necessary to make certain, so Hugh took the wedge from under the drawing-room door, meaning to look out through the broken window.
The scratching sound of the key had ceased, Clearly its owner had discovered that the door was fastened from inside. Hugh was in the act of softly opening the drawing-room door when he heard a knock.
He stiffened, but the knock was not Roger's. It was a signet of sorts, but not one he knew. Maunder, however, knew it. Hugh saw the man writhing in his bonds, fighting savagely for liberty to answer. But Roger had done his work too well, and the ruffian remained silent and helpless.
Without further delay, Hugh passed through into the drawing-room, and trending on tip-toe reached the window. The night had cleared, and stars shone in a frosty sky, so that here was light enough to distinguish objects at some yards' distance.
Two of the large plate-glass panes of the window were broken, but in neither case were the holes large enough for Hugh to get his head through. Still he was able to see that a man was standing on the steps of the front door, also that the man was tall and rather slight. He was wearing a long, dark overcoat and a soft hat. Although there was not light enough to distinguish his features. Hugh had little doubt but that this was Lant himself. His heart beats quickened; he was filled with a sudden murderous longing to fling himself on his enemy.
Hugh, however, had far too much sense to let feelings of this sort run away with him. Forcing down his natural rage, he began to consider rapidly what was best to do.
Lant, so far as he could see was alone. It was a heaven sent opportunity. If he could only get hold of him—capture him—it seemed to him that all his troubles would be at an end. Scotch its leader, and the strike would fall. Then, with Lant in his own hands, it was hard if he could not force from him the secret of Nancy's hiding place.
The question was how to do it, and the sound would most certainly alarm Lant.
The first alternative that occurred to Hugh was to open the front door, let Lant in, and catch him as he entered. But Hugh was aware that Lant was a very powerful man, while he himself was tired out and none too fit. If it came to a hand-to-hand struggle he had to acknowledge that the chances were against him.
For Monty's sake, for Nancy's, he must run no unnecessary risks, but must, if possible, take his enemy by surprise. The only way in which to do this was to go out by the back of the house, steal quietly round, and get the drop on Lant before the latter was aware of anything wrong.
All this train of reasoning passed through Hugh's mind like a flash, and he had barely glanced at the tall figure outside the front door before he was turning back again towards the drawing-room door.
Quick as a flash, he was through the hall and into the kitchen. There was a passage beyond and at the end of this the back door. It was locked and bolted, and it took him a moment or two to turn the key and slip back the bolts.
Without the slightest suspicion of what was going to happen, he pulled it open.
Instantly an electric bell began to ring violently. The door had been wired so that, the moment it was moved the bell was set in action.
The fat was in the fire with vengeance. Lant and everyone else within a hundred yards could hear that warning, Any further attempt at concealment was useless, and Hugh went round the corner of the house with one wild rush.
Too late! Lant had already taken alarm. Hugh reached the front of the house just in time to hear the outer gate shut. He raced down the short drive, flung the gate open and rushed out into the road. Quick, light steps were pattering down the street, but Lant was already too far away for Hugh to catch even a glance of him.
Off he started in chase, but it did not take him a minute to realise that it was perfectly useless. Lant was going twice as fast as he. He pulled up, panting and listened to the sound of the steps dying in the distance then, in a state of mind not easy to describe, walked back towards the house.
It was all he could do to steady his nerves as he came back into the hall and the glance of malignant triumph which Maunder shot at him did nothing to relieve his feelings.
That the whole business was no fault of his own did not console him in the least. He had been almost face to face with Lant and had lost him. It was the best and biggest chance he was ever likely to have—the last most probably—for now Lant knew that his secret retreat was known, and would take measures accordingly.
Hugh tried to consider calmly what these measures would be, but the problem was beyond him. Lant might, of course, return in force, with a crew of his blackguards big enough to retake the place. But Hugh did not think this likely. Lant could not, of course, know whether one or a dozen men were in the house, and though no doubt he would be furious at losing Monty, he had bigger things to consider, and would hardly be likely to risk his liberty in an effort to regain his prisoner.
Yet Lant had big forces behind him. Hugh knew that. Hundreds of the rabble of Norchester were ready to do his bidding. The more Hugh thought of it, the more likely it seemed to him that the events of the night would force Lant's hand and precipitate the trouble. The word would be passed to gather the mobs, and tomorrow—to-day rather—might be a black one indeed for Norchester.
Yet Hugh himself could do nothing. He had no means of giving warning to the authorities. Had he been alone, he would have taken his chances and started off at once. But the presence of Monty tied his hands. Monty was his first consideration. There was nothing for it but to wait for Roger and the car. But Roger did not come.
Time passed, the first grey dawn dimmed the stars. It was past five, and still no sign of Roger.
HUGH could not keep still. He wandered up and down the house restlessly. First, he would go into the kitchen, and make up the fire, then go and glance at Monty, who dozed uneasily in his chair, and sometimes woke to beg miserably for his medicine.
Knowing something of the risk of depriving a man in Monty's state of the drug to which he has been accustomed, Hugh went upstairs to the wretched attic room and, searching, found some tablets which from his experience in France, he recognised as morphia. He gave Monty one of these, and it was painful to see the eagerness with which the poor fellow snatched and swallowed it. After taking it, he went sound asleep, and Hugh was able to leave him alone for a time.
More than once Hugh went outside. It was a clear dawn, but bitter cold. The coarse grass of the neglected lawn was white with hoar frost. The road was empty. With no work in progress, there was no object in rising early. The inhabitants of the mean, grimy little houses were saving coal and food by remaining in bed.
And still no sign of Roger or the car.
Hugh tortured himself with a thousand guesses as to the reason of the long delay. It had been quiet enough when he started. He ought not to have had any difficulty in getting to the Soames' place, and once there Mr. Soames would, of course, have sent the car at once. The more Hugh thought of it, the more convinced he became that Roger must have been hung up on the way back.
The cold yellow in the east brightened to gold, and the rays of the rising sun struck upon little fleecy cirrus clouds swimming peacefully in the high blue overhead. The river valley below was still shrouded in mist which covered most of the town. The silence which had hung all night over the great manufacturing city was beginning to be broken by various sounds. But there was none of the usual rumble of wheels or clang of rolling stock; nor any whistle calling to work at the big factories.
Hugh went back into the house. He was shivering, and in his mouth was the sour taste which comes from over fatigue.
"I shall be cracking up if I am not careful," he said, and going straight into the kitchen, made fresh coffee, and drank two steaming caps. He could not eat. He was too anxious.
He bethought himself of Maunder, who had laid tied all night on the bare floor. Brute as the man was, Hugh felt that he could not torture him. He carried a cup of coffee into the hall, took the gag out of the man's mouth, and put the cup to his lips.
Maunder drank it in gulps, but said no word of thanks. Hugh was not disappointed, for he had not expected gratitude.
"I'll leave the gag out so long as you keep your mouth shut," he said. Maunder's only reply was a scowl.
Hugh took the cup back into the kitchen. He was in the act of putting fresh coal upon the fire when he heard something which made him drop the shovel, and dash back to the front.
It was Roger's knock on the front door.
Hugh's hands shook as he unlocked the door. He flung, it open, and there stood Roger—Roger looking paler than Hugh had ever seen him, and with a blood-stained handkerchief tied round his head.
"It's all right, sir," he said quickly, as he saw a look of horror on Hugh's face. "Just a cut on the head with a bit of stone. Nothing to signify..."
But even as he spoke he had to catch at one of the pillars of the porch to keep himself up.
Hugh put an arm round him and led him inside
"Are they after you?" he asked.
"No, sir, and I've got the car." Then he stumbled, and Hugh guided him into the kitchen, where he put him in a chair, and hastily administered coffee.
The hot stuff brought the colour back to Roger's face.
"I'm sorry to be such a fool, sir," began Roger, but Hugh cut him short.
"Nonsense, Roger! You've done splendidly. Here, let me look at this head of yours."
"No, sir," replied Roger earnestly. "I give you my word it's no more'n a cut. If you unties it, it'll only start bleeding again. And we haven't no time to lose. There's hell to pay down below there, and we got to get ourselves and Mr. Damer out of it quick as ever we can or likely we won't make it at all."
Hugh paused a moment, but Roger was no alarmist, and he felt he was right.
"Very well," he said, "you stay here, and eat some breakfast. There's bread and butter and cheese, and plenty of coffee. I'll see Mr. Damer into the car."
"No," he added quickly, as Roger began to remonstrate. "These are orders, Roger."
He hurried off. Monty was still asleep. He was in a dirty suit of pyjamas, but there was no time to dress him, so Hugh hunted about, found some stockings and slippers and helped himself to a warm greatcoat of Lant's, bundled Monty into these things, picked him up bodily, and carried him out to the car.
The car, a good-sized touring machine, stood in the road outside, and by the fresh scars on its paint, Hugh saw that Roger must have had a very rough passage.
He turned back to the house to fetch Roger, but here was the good fellow already at the front door.
"I'm all right now, sir," he protested. "The grub's done me a power of good. I'll give you a hand with this here chap." As he spoke he jerked a contemptuous thumb in the direction of Maunder.
Hugh hesitated for an instant. "Yes, I suppose we must take him," he said, and stooping, laid hold of the man. Between them they carried him out to the car and dumped him down in the bottom of the tonneau. Monty, drowsy again, was on the back seat well wrapped in a big rug.
Hugh got into the driving seat, and Roger climbed in beside him and started up. Roger had left the engine running.
"Can we get through to Mr. Soames?" inquired Hugh. "That's the question, Roger."
"Yes, sir, we'd ought to. But we'll have to go all round to make it. You see, sir, that's where I messed it up. I tried to come straight through to you, and found Church-street barricaded right across. There wasn't room for a bicycle to pass, let alone a car. I backed out up into a side street, and first thing I knew I was all in a mess of broken glass and got one back tyre cut all to pieces.
"I had to jack her up and put on the spare wheel, and then when I'd finished that, I found all the air was out of one of the front tyres. So, as I hadn't another spare, I was obliged to put in a new tube. That's what hung me up so long."
While Roger talked, Hugh was driving quietly along the road in the opposite direction by which they had come.
"But what about the stoning?" he asked.
"I was going to tell you, sir. Just as I'd finished, and was starting her up two chaps came along and began asking me questions—wanted to know whose the car was and where I was going. Some o' Lant's crew, I reckon, so I didn't wait to answer, but shoved on. They began to shout, and before I could get clear there was a dozen running after me, throwing everything they could find at me. Worst of it was it was uphill, and the engine was cold, and I couldn't get her to shift properly. So that's how they came to hit me."
Hugh could picture it—the car grinding slowly up the hill, and Roger sitting stolidly at the steering wheel under a shower of stones and brickbats.
"They'll pay for it when the troops get here," he said. "Meantime, if we can get as far as Mr. Soames, or even to the barracks we shall be all right. I want to put you and Mr. Damer in the doctor's charge; then I propose to take a hand in the game myself."
"You ain't leaving me out, sir," said Roger significantly. "I've got a bit of my own to get back if you please."
Like all Devon men, Roger was slow to rouse, but Hugh, glancing at him out of the corner of an eye had an idea that any of Lant's followers who ran against Roger Chowne were going to have a decidedly thin time of it.
For the present, however, all was going well. The road was open, and though it was now broad daylight there were very few people about.
"I think we ought to make it, Roger," said Hugh more cheerfully. "By this time the police will be raiding Lant's headquarters in Mould-lane, and that will give the mob something to think of down at that side of the town. The south end ought to be fairly clear."
"I hope it will, sir," replied Roger rather doubtfully, "All the same I wish we were back at Mr. Soames'. Mr. Damer here looks as if he wanted a doctor pretty bad."
Roger was right. Monty's face was leaden in its pallor. Hugh felt a pang of fright. Suppose the poor boy died before he could let Nancy know that he had saved him.
They came to a street leading to the left, and Hugh slackened the car's pace to a crawl.
"This is Lampson-street, Roger," he said. "It takes you down into Main-street, then about a hundred yards up Main-street you turn up into Abbey-road, and after that it's plain sailing. I wonder if it's safe to try it. It means another two miles and running all through Pottery-lane if we go farther before we turn."
"Just as you think, sir," said Roger. "Seems all quiet down this way so far as I can see."
"Right," said Hugh briefly, and turned the car. Lampson-street was narrow but straight, and was one long and rather steep slope all the way. There were more people about now, and they were beginning to gather in knots. They stared at the car, and some scowled. There was not another vehicle to be seen, not even a milk cart or a bicycle. Such was the state of the town after these days of mob rule that not a tradesman dared send a cart out.
But though they glared and scowled no one interfered and the party reached Main-street quite safely.
It was just as they turned into it that a sharp crackle of firing came from the distance.
"That's Mould-lane way," said Roger in Hugh's ear. "Now there'll be trouble."
Trouble there was. Like magic men came pouring out of every side street. In a moment the pavement were thick with them.
"Shove her on, sir," said Roger sharply. Hugh's foot was already on the throttle pedal. The car leaped forward and went racing up the street.
"I can't take the turn at this pace," said Hugh.
"Don't try it, sir," answered Roger swiftly. "Keep straight on."
FOR a moment there had been a shower of stones, but Hugh's quickness had saved them from all damage, and almost instantly they were out of the centre of trouble, where the roads met, and were speeding up Main-street.
They were long past the turning into Abbey-road, but Hugh did not much mind. There was another turn further up, and the street seemed clear—at least so far as barricades went. The trouble was that the firing seemed to have roused the whole town, and that men were flocking out of every bye-way and side alley.
A rough lot, too, and many of them clearly ready for any sort of mischief. But they were mostly on the pavements, and now the car was going too fast for any of them to stop it—at least without serious risk to themselves.
There was this about it, however. Hugh dared not slacken up to take one of the sharp turns to the left. There was nothing to do but to keep going straight ahead and trust to luck to be able to run clear out of the crowds and out of the town.
They had gone about half a mile, and Hugh was just beginning to congratulate himself on getting out of it when a woman's scream rang out, and almost involuntarily Hugh lifted his left foot from the throttle and pressed his right on the brake.
"Up there to the right," said Roger swiftly.
But Hugh had seen as quickly as Roger, and as he brought the car to a standstill he leaped out. Snatching up the heavy stick which he had carried the previous night, he made a dash up the side street to the right. Roger, armed with a heavy spanner, was close at his heels.
Some fifty paces up this street a woman was struggling among a knot of ruffianly looking fellows. There were four of them, and uglier looking scoundrels you would go far to find. But in days like these, a great manufacturing town flings up a scum unseen in more peaceful times.
The woman had only screamed once, now she was silent and almost helpless. Two men had hold of her, a third was tearing her coat from her shoulders, while a fourth had wrenched from her her handbag.
All four were so busy over their plundering that they never saw Hugh or Roger until the latter were right on top of them.
Then the man with the bag spotted them, and with a hoarse shout of warning bolted up the street.
Hugh sprinted, flung out his stick, and caught the fellow's ankle in the crook of it, and brought him down on his head on the pavement with a force that left him limp as a dead fish.
As Hugh spun round there was a howl of pain, and another of the robbers reeled against the wall, holding on to his right arm with his left hand. Roger's spanner had cracked the bone above the elbow.
The one anxiety of the remaining two was to get away as quickly as possible, but Hugh and Roger were not minded to let them go unpunished, and the force with which Hugh's stick fell across the shoulders of the nearest made the man yell with agony, while Roger caught the last a kick which literally lifted him off his feet, and deposited him on hands and knees on the street.
He scrambled to his feet again in a desperate hurry and bolted for dear life, while the other two also made off as rapidly as possible, leaving their insensible companion to his fate.
Hugh picked up the handbag and turned to restore it to its owner.
"I do hope you are not hurt," he said anxiously.
"No, but if you had not come when you did I most certainly should have been," she answered. "What dreadful men!" She shivered as she spoke, and Hugh, seeing that, in spite of her pluck, she was very near to collapse, gave her his arm.
"We have a car here. We had better get away as quickly as we can," he said. "The streets are not safe."
"And you are wondering what brought me out into them at this hour of the morning," she answered. "I will tell you, but in the meantime, I shall be only too glad of a lift. I live at Buckhurst, if you know where that is."
"About two miles out," said Hugh. "Yes, we can take you there." As he spoke he was helping her into the front seat of the car, while Roger took his place beside Monty at the back.
The lady was right. Hugh was wondering very much what could possibly have brought her into such a dangerous position and at such an early hour in the morning. For now that he was able to get a good look at her, he saw that she was very much a gentlewoman. She seemed to be between forty and fifty. She was tall but still slight, and her face showed traces of what must once have been great beauty. Her hair was still fine and abundant, and her features remarkably good, but her complexion had failed and she looked like a woman who had seen much trouble.
"I see you have a prisoner," she said, with a quick glance at Maunder. "Are you sure you can manage to take me home."
"Quite," replied Hugh courteously. "We are bound to make a round to reach our destination. The main streets are already unsafe.
"I am very grateful to you," she said simply. "You see, I had hoped to have got away home long before daylight, and then I think I should have been safe enough. I was called to a house in that street late last night. An old servant of mine sent word by her daughter that she was dying and that she particularly wanted to see me. It was true, and I have been with her all night. She only passed away half an hour ago, and was sensible to the end. Though I knew of the risk, I could not bring myself to leave her."
Her voice was soft, her manner quiet and commencing. Hugh felt drawn to her at once.
"I can only say I am very glad that we happened to come in time," he told her.
"And I that I am more grateful to you that I can say," she replied earnestly. "But here we are in Buckhurst. My home is in Christ Church-road, just to the right here. It is called Martenhoe."
Following her directions, Hugh pulled up presently at the gate of a small, but prettily built villa. This suburb was quite out of the radius of the rioting, and had a peaceful, well-kept appearance, in pleasant contrast to the dirt, litter and commotion through which they had passed.
Roger had the door open in a minute, and stood ready to help the passenger out. But she paused, with her eyes on Monty.
"That gentleman looks very ill indeed," she said with decision. "He is shivering, too. I do not think he ought to be exposed to the cold any longer. If you are not in too great a hurry, you had much better bring him in to the fire, and let me give him something hot to drink. I was a nurse during the war," she added. "I know what I am talking about."
Hugh looked at Monty. It was true. His appearance was dreadful. He seemed on the point of collapse.
"I believe you are right," he answered, "if it is not trespassing too much on your kindness, I will bring him in."
"Don't speak of kindness. The debt is all on my side," she answered quickly, and opened the gate.
Hugh and Roger, between them, carried poor Monty in. He was shivering miserably.
Their hostess opened the door with a latch key, at the same time ringing the bell. She took them straight into a bright little sitting room where a good fire was burning, and wheeled a large chair close to the fire.
"Put him here," she said—then as a neat maid appeared, she turned and gave her quick, concise directions.
"I will make him comfortable first," she continued, speaking to Hugh. "Your man can put the car into the garage, then you must both have some breakfast."
But Hugh was paying no attention whatever. His eyes were fixed upon a picture—a large photograph hanging on the wall.
"Who—who is that?" he demanded.
"That is my late husband," she answered, in a surprised tone. "His name was Strange."
"Strange," repeated Hugh. "That is the man I knew as Strickland."
FOR a moment or two there was complete silence. Hugh and Mrs. Strange stood staring at one another without speaking.
"But he is dead," she said at last. "My husband is dead. He was drowned at sea in the Durban Castle on the way to South Africa, seven years ago. You are making some strange mistake, Captain Lytton."
Hugh shook his head. "That is the portrait of Mr. Strickland," he said, "step-father to the girl I am going to marry, and to this boy here in the chair."
Mrs. Strange went very pale. She caught at the chair in which Monty was lying, half insensible.
"You cannot be right."
Hugh was suddenly very sorry for her. "I hope I am not right," he answered. "Yet in my own mind there is no doubt at all. That is either Mr. Strickland or his double."
With an effort she collected herself. "We must talk of this presently," she said, "Meanwhile, I must see to your friend, here. You have not told me what his name is."
"He is Monty Damer, Mrs. Strange. We will see to him first."
The maid returned with a hot water bottle and a large blanket. Mrs. Strange and Hugh between them rolled Monty in the blanket and put the bottle to his feet. The maid came back with hot milk and they got some of this down Monty's throat. But he still remained in a half insensible condition, and his lips and fingers were quite blue.
"We must get him to bed," said Mrs. Strange with decision. "And we must send for a doctor. I have a telephone and can ring up my own medical man."
Hugh knew that she was right. Without a doubt Monty was in a very bad way.
"It is most good of you," he said earnestly. "He and I are both greatly indebted to you."
"I will go and get a bed ready," she said. "Then Bessie, my maid, shall help to carry him up."
Everything was done with a quiet quickness which impressed Hugh with the feeling that Mrs. Strange was as competent a woman as he had ever met. Within half an hour Monty was comfortably in bed, in a charming bedroom, with a good fire burning, and a few minutes later Dr. Duggan was announced.
Hugh told him something of the circumstances, and the doctor who seemed thoroughly capable, examined Monty.
When he came down he looked rather grave. "The poor fellow has been half starved, and more than half poisoned with opium," he told Hugh. "What I am afraid of now is pneumonia. Nothing but the most careful nursing can save him."
"But that," he added, "is just what he will get here. I don't know of anyone more competent than Mrs. Strange. I will go back to my surgery now, and send the necessary medicines. I will call again later in the day."
When Dr. Duggan had left, the maid came into the drawing room. "Breakfast will be ready in a few minutes, sir," she announced. "The mistress said you might like to have a wash and shave first, sir. Or a hot bath, if you like it."
Hugh accepted the offer gratefully, and in the bathroom found razors, shaving brush, and everything else that he could possibly need. He looked and felt a hundred percent better when he entered the dining-room, to find Mrs. Strange already pouring out the tea.
The meal was very simple, but good and excellently served. Hugh found himself admiring her more and more. To think of this perfectly-mannered English woman as the wife of a blackguard like Strickland was incredible, yet never for a moment did Hugh doubt the identity of the portrait with Strickland.
It was not until breakfast was over that Mrs. Strange returned to the subject of the photograph.
"You still feel certain, Captain Lytton?" she asked, and her voice was steady as ever.
"I am, Mrs. Strange."
"And I—I am beginning to fear you may be right," replied his hostess. "I know that some passengers were rescued from the Durban Castle, but Mr. Strange's name appeared among the missing."
She paused. "It is just what I have expected of him," she said, with suppressed bitterness. "He had spent all of my money that he could get hold of. He was tired of me."
She went on more rapidly.
"Captain Lytton, it is no use mincing matters. He was a bad man, thoroughly unscrupulous, caring for nothing but money and what money would bring. He made my life a perfect misery. It is a terrible blow to me to think that he is still alive."
"But he cannot molest you," replied Hugh quickly. "I don't think you quite understand. He married again."
"Married again?" she repeated. "No I did not realise. And yet, of course, you said that he was step-father to Mr. Damer and to his sister. But tell me all you know."
Hugh told of his first meeting with Nancy, of how he had lost her and then of his return from the war, his stay at Mericombe and of his chancing upon Nancy in the wood opposite to Vixen Holt.
He went on to describe his evening expedition to Vixen Holt, how he had hidden under the shrubs by the verandah and listened to the conversation between the two who sat there.
"One," he said, "was Mr. Strickland, as he now calls himself; the other was a man named Lant."
"Lant—not Ellis Lant?"
"That is his name. He is a revolutionary leader, and is actually in command of the extremists who are at present trying to wreck Norchester. Do you know him, Mrs. Strange?"
Mrs. Strange had gone very pale. "I do. To my sorrow, I do. Ellis Lant is my nephew. My maiden name was Lant."
"But that explains it all," Hugh said. "I see daylight, Mr. Strickland then is Ellis Lant's uncle by marriage. He must have happened upon him and recognised him at some date after his marriage with Mrs. Damer, and being aware that you were still alive, knew that he had committed bigamy. Now we have the whole secret," Hugh continued eagerly. "I understand how Ellis Lant has the whip hand of his uncle, and now he has been able to use him in order to force his own attentions upon Miss Damer."
"What! Is Ellis Lant trying to marry Miss Damer?"
"He is," replied Hugh grimly. "But listen, I will tell you the rest of the story, so for as I know it."
Hugh went on to relate the events of that evening, the attack upon himself, his rescue by Roger, the flight of Lant and Strickland and Maunder in the car, and the carrying away of Nancy in the 'plane.
Mrs. Strange listened in silence, but her face showed something of her feelings. And even Hugh, sore as he was, was not too much carried away by his own injuries to feel sorry for this sweet-faced, kindly woman, whose ill lot it was to have had life ruined by these scoundrels.
He finished by telling briefly of what had happened since, of the anonymous letter telling of Nancy being carried away—to Russia, as the writer seemed to fear—of his own arrival at Norchester, of the attack on the works, and of his finding of Monty in the deserted villa at Halsey.
"Lant," he said, "has been holding Monty there as hostage. His idea all along has been to use him as a means to coerce Nancy into marrying him."
"It is exactly what he would do," said Mrs. Strange, with a bitter note in her quiet voice. "Indeed, Captain Lytton, I am under no illusions with regard to my nephew. If my husband is a bad man, Ellis is that and more. He is not only unscrupulous, but dangerous. My husband wants money, but Ellis Lant wants power. He is of the same stuff as those terrible people who plunged Russia into a bath of blood. I believe he would wreck a world if he could be head of its ruins."
"So you know something of him, Mrs. Strange?"
"More than I wish to know," she answered sadly. "When Ellis was a boy I was his only relative who had the slightest influence over him, and even now if he has any affection for anyone but himself, it is for me."
"Yet you see," she went on, "how little it is. Knowing that my husband is alive, he has not even told me."
"I am half sorry that I have done so," said Hugh.
"No, do not say that. I am, after all, perfectly safe from him. And I am no longer young. I have cultivated most of my hopes and fears, and I have enough money left to keep me in modest comfort. To say the truth, Captain Lytton, it is your own affairs that trouble me most."
"I need hardly tell you how intensely grateful I shall be if you can help me in any way," said Hugh earnestly. "This suspense as to Nancy's fate is nearly driving me mad."
"It must be. Tell me, Captain Lytton, have you any idea of how far the authorities—your friend Colonel Challice, I mean, and the Secret Service—have knowledge of Ellis Lant's activities?"
"I don't think their knowledge goes very far," replied Hugh. "Challice would have told me. Lant is extraordinary cunning, and has covered his tracks right through."
Mrs. Strange considered a moment, then she raised her head, and her tired eyes met Hugh's. "I am going to be quite frank with you," she said. "In spite of everything I still have a certain affection for my nephew. Before I tell you what I can tell you, I want your promise that you will use any information I can give you not to bring Ellis to justice, but merely to recover from him the girl you love."
"I promise so," replied Hugh unhesitatingly. "After all, I am not a policeman, nor do I belong to the Secret Service. If I can only get Nancy back, that is all I ask."
MRS. STRANGE still kept her eyes on Hugh's face.
"I know I can trust you. Sooner or later he must reap what he has sown. But I should not like to feel that I had had any hand in delivering him over to justice."
She paused. Hugh waited breathlessly. At last she spoke:—
"You yourself, Captain Lytton, are evidently under the impression that Ellis Lant is working hand and glove with the Russian revolutionaries. Is that not so?"
"Yes," said Hugh, "that is what I have thought."
"You are mistaken. Ellis is much too long-headed to believe in Lenin, Trotsky, and Peters, and their methods of wholesale terrorism and slaughter. He is not above using them and their money, but I happen to know that the lever by which he intends to upset the present regime, is Ireland. He is one of the secret leaders of Sinn Fein, and is deep in their counsels. For years he has been organising rebellion in Ireland—more particularly in the west. I know that he was strongly against the Dublin rising, He considered it premature. Now he is secretly collecting arms at an island base, and preparing for a sudden, simultaneous rising all over the country. You must not ask me how I know these things, but you may take it that they are true."
"Then Nancy is in Ireland?" said Hugh breathlessly.
"If she has been taken out of England I should say that Ireland was certainly her destination. Ellis is not such a fool as to have sent her to Russia. Even he could not guarantee that she would be safe there, and besides he could not see her there. He would want her under his eye."
"I see. You are right," answered Hugh eagerly. "And he could send her there so much more easily." Then his face fell. "But Ireland is a big place, Mrs. Strange, and searching for her there would be a good deal like looking for a needle in a hay-stack. And I am always so afraid that Nancy may yield simply in order to save her brother."
"I do not think you need fear that, Captain Lytton. From what you have told me of Miss Damer, she does not seem to be that kind of girl. She would know that her brother would be the last to allow her to do such a thing. She would give all her money, but not herself."
"Thank you, Mrs. Strange," said Hugh earnestly. "You give me fresh hope. But now comes the crucial question. Can you give me any idea of the whereabouts of this secret base of Lant's. For that, no doubt, is where he would have hidden her."
Mrs. Strange did not hesitate this time.
"Yes," she said, "I can guess at it, though I tell you honestly, I have no definite information. I believe it to be an island off the coast of Galway."
"Do you know which? There are a quantity of islands off that coast."
"No, but I will try to find out for you."
"But I must not waste a day, Mrs. Strange."
"You are afraid of what Ellis may do in the way of putting pressure on Miss Damer?"
"That is it. I must find her or somehow get word to her that her brother is safe. Once she knows that Monty is alive and in our hands, I am not afraid of any of Lant's threats, so far as she is concerned."
"I do not think that there is such need for haste," expostulated Mrs. Strange. "As you have told me, Ellis is still in Norchester. And even he cannot be in two places at once."
"He will not be here long," Hugh answered. "The police raided the revolutionary headquarters early this morning. It is hardly likely that they have caught Lant, for knowing that his secret retreat is discovered he will have cleared out at once. I should not wonder if he is already on his way to Ireland."
Mrs. Strange looked grave. "I had not thought of that. Perhaps you are right. But how do you propose to get to this island? You may be quite sure that, even if you can ascertain exactly where it is, no boat will dare to land you there."
"I don't suppose it will. I shall get there some way or other," declared Hugh.
Mrs. Strange glanced at him. She noted the dogged set of his jaw, and a slight smile curved her set lips.
"I believe you will," she said. "I do believe you will. Go, and you have my sincere hopes that you will bring back Miss Damer safely."
"Thank you a thousand times," Hugh answered. "It has indeed been good fortune for me to have met you like this. But what about Monty Damer? I cannot possibly leave him on your hands indefinitely."
"You surely do not propose to take him with you to Ireland?" she asked, with gentle sarcasm.
"I propose to put him in a nursing home, Mrs. Strange."
"Are you afraid to trust him with me, then, Captain Lytton?"
"I would trust you with anything—even with Nancy," said Hugh quickly.
"Then leave Mr. Damer here, and I assure you that he will be as well looked after as in any nursing home. I mean it. Indeed I mean it, and if I can in that way undo a little of the harm which Ellis Lant has done, it will make me feel happier."
"You have made me feel much happier," said Hugh heartily. "You have taken a great burden off my shoulders, and I am very grateful to you.
"And now may I ask for my man, and the car, please, Mrs. Strange. I ought to be getting on my way."
Roger, much refreshed by a good breakfast, and with his hand properly bandaged, came round with the car and presently he and Hugh drove away.
From this part of the town they had no difficulty in getting round to the manager's house, and they met Mr. Soames himself at the gate.
"So you are safe, Lytton," he exclaimed in evident relief. "I was dreadfully anxious about you. Where is Mr. Damer?"
Hugh told him quickly what had happened, and where he had left Monty.
"And Lant," he went on. "What about Lant? Have they caught him? The police did raid Mould-lane, didn't they?"
"They raided it all right, and got two of the leaders and a quantity of papers," Soames answered. "But Lant was not there. The rumor is that he has escaped by aeroplane. A large biplane was seen going west just after daylight, so there may be some truth in it."
"Gone by 'plane has he?" said Hugh quickly. "And west. That's it. It all fits in. Soames, where is the nearest aerodrome?"
"At Holton, I believe," Soames replied.
"Holton. Yes, I know where that is. See here, Soames, can you let me have the car a bit longer?"
"Of course, but what are you doing to do?"
"See if I can borrow a machine and go after him."
"But, man alive, you've been up all night. And you're looking like a ghost. Better have a few hours' sleep first."
"Not while Lant is loose," said Hugh briefly. "Good-bye, Soames. I'll get someone to bring the car back."
Holton was five miles out of Norchester, and Hugh got there in very little over ten minutes. The place had been a big Government aerodrome during the war, but now there was only a small force quartered there.
Hugh asked for the commandant, and found him a rather starchy person, a Wing Commander named Cumberland. He told him of Lant's escape, and begged the use of a 'plane to follow him.
"But what have you to do with it?" he demanded. "You are not in the police, are you?"
"No, nor in the army, though I was demobilised only three months ago. Here is my card."
Cumberland glanced at it. He shook head. "I am sorry, Captain Lytton," he said formally, "but it is impossible. We do not lend army 'planes to civilians."
"Then will send one of your own pilots and let me go with him?" begged Hugh. "I am the only man in England who knows where this fellow Lant has gone. It is all important to catch him."
"I cannot do that either," replied Cumberland drily. "It would he necessary to have an order from headquarters. Personally I have no authority in the matter. Good morning, Mr. Lytton."
Hugh was up against red tape, and he knew what that meant.
FLYING at a tremendous height, the big 'plane, piloted by Foskett, crossed a broad river, which the dawn light turned into a riband of steel.
Behind him Nancy crouched shivering in her low seat. It was the second morning in succession that she had seen the sun rise from the air.
But now she was in little doubt as to her destination. She had realised from the first that she was being taken west of east, and bad as it was, she was deeply grateful that her destination was not, as Clodagh Foyle had feared, the continent of Europe.
This country which they were crossing she knew to be Ireland, and the river, broader than any English river, she had already recognised as the Shannon.
To the west stretched the wilds of Galway, a county of wide lakes, great heather-clad moors, and in the distance, pink in the rays of the newly risen sun, that beautiful group of peaked mountains known as the Ten Pins, To the south-west lay the sea, the immense Atlantic, and dotted among the horizon, reefs, islets, and islands, with the everlasting swell ringing them with faint lines of cream.
To the right, and already well behind the rushing 'plane, lay a group of toy-like buildings which Nancy knew must be the town of Galway. Beyond the town, curving around the low hills, ran the railway, with a tiny tram crawling towards Oughterard.
It was a heavenly morning, with hardly a cloud in the sky, and in spite of the bitter cold, Nancy was spellbound at the beauties above and below.
Foskett altered his course a trifle to the southward, and the 'plane flashed on towards the coast. Though no one had told her, Nancy felt almost certain that they were bound for one of those rock rimmed islands lying out in the blue.
As the minutes went by suspicion grew to certainty. They passed a tiny fishing village lying in the bight of a deep estuary, then crossing the bare granite of the outer cliffs were over the ocean.
High enough before, Foskett was driving the 'plane higher still. Nancy fancied that he must be anxious to escape observation, or perhaps that he wished to make sure that no warship was watching him.
The sea, however, was empty. Barring a faint smudge of smoke from a liner many miles out, there was no sail in sight. There was not even a fishing boat. Connemara fishermen are not keen on night work.
The cold was intense. Though much more warmly wrapped than on the previous night, Nancy was nearly perished. She was very thankful when Foskett, seeming at last to be satisfied, cut out his engine and started on a long, steady glide towards an island which lay some five miles out to sea.
From this immense height the island looked tiny, yet Nancy could see buildings on it. Raw roofs of galvanised iron caught a bluish gleam from the rising sun.
The inland seemed to grow in size as the wide-winged 'plane swooped towards it, and Nancy gazed at it with the keenest interest. With the everlasting surf beating on its bone-bare cliffs, it had a stern, inaccessible appearance. It was, she thought, just the place that Lant would have chosen for his secret haunt.
Nancy read her newspapers. She knew quite well the state of Ireland, more particularly of the south and west, and as soon as she had realised that she was being taken to Ireland she had begun to reckon up the situation. She had already suspected that Ellis Lant had more than a little to do with Sinn Fein, and now her suspicions had crystallised to certainty. It thrilled her a little to feel that she was being taken into the very heart and nerve centre of the rebel camp.
At the same time she knew that it would make escape far more difficult. It was highly unlikely that these people would ever take the risk of letting one who had seen their secrets get away. Had it not been for her intense belief in Hugh and his ability to help her, she would have been in the very depths of despair. As it was, she trusted that Clodagh Foyle would in some way manage to set Hugh on the track, and that sooner or later he would find her.
She had not much time for thought. At the tremendous speed of the volplane, it was a matter of but a few minutes before they were right over the island. Looking down, Nancy's heart failed her. The whole place seemed one mass of granite boulders projecting through the thin turf. It did not seem possible for a 'plane to land.
But Foskett evidently knew what he was about. He carried on steadily, and presently Nancy saw that in the centre of the island was a small plain, no bigger than an ordinary paddock, yet flat and fairly smooth. It was this for which Foskett made, and it was here that, with his customary skill, he landed in perfect safety.
The place was not unlike the Welsh rendezvous from which she had just come. True, there was not the same ugly reek of oil, nor was there any fenced in ground. But here were the same sort of wooden buildings, with iron roofs, the same rough aeroplane sheds, and the same raw, untidy, unfinished appearance to everything.
Early as it was, the 'plane had been seen, and quite a dozen men were standing outside. They were staring hard, and Nancy felt that it was not the 'plane, but herself who was the object of all eyes.
A short, slight man, bare-headed, with a shock of untidy, blue-black hair and burning dark blue eyes, came hurrying up to the 'plane as it slowed to rest.
"Good morning, Mister Foskett," he said. "I'm glad to see ye."
Foskett got up stiffly and climbed out. "Good morning, Slaney," he grunted, and going up to the man, whispered something in his ear.
Slaney at once climbed up and offered hand to Nancy.
"It's glad we are to see ye, Miss Damer. Welcome to Mourne Island," he said, speaking with a strong brogue. "'Tis a rough place, but we'll make ye kindly welcome."
Nancy gathered that Foskett had merely told this man that she was engaged to Lant, and, as on the previous day, resolved to smother her repugnance. She did not mean to neglect any chance which might lead to escape.
She answered civilly, and Slaney, talking hard, escorted her across towards one of the huts which stood in a line with the hangar.
"'Tis poor quarters for one like yourself," he said. "But sure the chief did not warn us to be expecting a lady. But we have food in plenty, and ye'll be needing your breakfast after all that ride through the sky."
"I shall be glad of breakfast," Nancy answered, but even as she spoke she was taking in all her surroundings. Slaney, she noticed, seemed a cut above his companions. They were a rough lot, with hard faces, and they eyed her, she thought, with suspicion, and even with a certain hostility. There was one black-browed giant of a man who positively glared at her, but whether because she was a woman or a Saxon she had no means of knowing.
The house had none of the cleanliness of Clodagh Foyle's. It was dirty and untidy. The windows of the little square room into which Slaney led her were tight shut, and the air within heavy and unwholesome. A peat fire smouldered in the grate; in the middle of the room stood a plain deal table covered with a cloth that had once been white, but now sadly needed washing.
"Sit ye down, Miss," said Slaney, pulling a chair to the fire. "I'll be telling ould Sheila to get your room ready for ye, and to be hastening with the breakfast."
Stuffy as the room was, the heat of the fire was most grateful, for Nancy was stiff with cold. She sat over it, warming her feet which were like lumps of ice and trying to get some feeling back into her numbed fingers.
Nancy nodded, and taking her dressing bag which Slaney had brought in for her, went upstairs. The room made her shutter. It was not only miserably small and bare but visibly unclean. However, there was clean, cold water and she was thankful for that.
When she came down again breakfast was ready. There were hot soda cakes soaking in rank butter, there was bacon in thick rushers, and tea black as ink and nearly as nasty.
Still Nancy contrived to make some sort of a meal, and then retired upstairs again and spreading her own heavy coat on the bed lay down. She was tired to exhaustion, and was asleep almost at once, nor did she wake again until well on in the afternoon.
The long rest had refreshed her physically, and, getting up, she went to the window and looked out. Now she saw that these buildings and the little aerodrome lay in a hollow in the centre of the island, and were invisible from the sea. At least she imagined they must be for she herself could not see the sea, even from this upper window.
The 'plane, she noticed, was gone, and barring two men who were digging a potato patch, there was no one about.
Putting on her hat and coat, she went down. Sheila was busy in the little kitchen at the back, but paid no attention to her, and the front door was open. Nancy walked outside.
No one interfered. True, the two men digging stopped and stared at her for a moment, but then resumed their work. Nancy hardly knew what to make of it, but presently it dawned upon her that her guardians considered that there was no need for surveillance. They knew she could not escape, or else perhaps they did not imagine that she wanted to.
On second thoughts, however, she dismissed the latter supposition. Foskett, at any rate, knew the real state of her feelings. It was very unlikely that he would have left without giving Slaney a word of warning.
Still it seemed clear that she was to be allowed to wander without let or hindrance, so leaving the aerodrome she walked slowly up towards the highest point of ground that she could see. This was a small conical hill covered with an outcrop of bare grey granite. It was only five minutes' walk to the top, and reaching this Nancy found that she had a splendid view of the sea. The sun was setting red as fire behind the great stretch of gently rolling swells, and in the crimson path which lay between the island and the great glowing orb a ship was visible. It was a small craft, resembling a tiny torpedo boat, but had no funnels, and was evidently motor driven.
Nancy thrilled all over. She knew at once what it was. A motor launch, one of the same swift, sturdy little vessels that did such splendid service at Zeebrugge and elsewhere. Small as she was, she was a unit of the British navy. What was more, she was evidently patrolling. Even as Nancy watched, she came about, and returned on her leisurely course.
The sight of her did more to cheer Nancy than anything she had seen during the past two days. As she walked back through the soft twilight her brain was busy with plans for escape.
NEXT day it rained. Nancy had nothing to read and nothing to do. Slaney came in to mid-day dinner and talked politely. But he was very guarded in his manner, and Nancy felt certain that Foskett had told him things.
It cleared a little towards three, and Nancy hurried out, and went up the hill again. Again the saw the M.L. pursuing her unhurried course far out on the grey water—much too far to allow of the slightest chance of signalling.
As Nancy returned again she became aware that she was being watched by the black-haired giant, whose name, she knew, was Heggarty. Clearly, she was under suspicion. That night she lay awake for hours, racking her brain for some idea for communicating with the M.L., but finding none.
The third day fog lay heavy on land and sea, and so it was on the fourth. Nancy's spirit fell lower and lower. It was an effort even to eat. She felt more and more like a mouse in a trap.
Then came a spell of fine weather, and on the fifth day there was the M.L. patrolling as usual. Nancy felt sure that she was watching the coast to prevent any landing of arms. But the little craft never came within a mile of the island. Nancy saw the reason. Dangerous reefs ran far out to sea. At low tide the swells spouted over them in geysers of snow-white foam. There was a passage, however. She knew that, for a big sailing ketch arrived from the mainland, loaded with turf. Besides, her gaolers had a fishing boat in which some of them went out whenever weather permitted, and used a trawl. They brought in quantities of fresh fish, which was the only really eatable food so far as Nancy was concerned.
On the sixth morning Nancy rose to see a 'plane lying by the hangar. Foskett was back again, having arrived before daylight. He was about all day, but never came near Nancy.
In the evening he began to make preparations for leaving, and from her window Nancy watched his tank being filled with petrol. The tins were being brought from a small, solidly built shed on the far side of the hangar. The door of this shed was open, and Nancy could see inside it. The place was full of two-gallon tins which were stacked to the very roof.
Suddenly Nancy stiffened. Her gaze became intent. An idea had flashed suddenly through her mind, and the very daring of it almost made her gasp.
Here was material for a beacon, the blaze of which would be seen for miles. If she could only fire that petrol surely the people in the M.L. must see it and come to seek the cause of such a fire.
The tank was filled, the empty tins were laid aside, the door of the magazine was closed, and Nancy saw Slaney himself lock it. She noticed that it was a padlock only. After all, she thought to herself, there was no need for anything more solid. Since there were none but Lant's men on the island, there was no danger of theft.
The more Nancy considered the matter the more excited she grew. Then old Sheila called to her from below that tea was ready, and Nancy had to wait a little before she could steady her quivering nerves.
Slaney came in to tea, and Nancy had to talk to him. It was a perfect ordeal, for she had a sort of feeling that the man must be able to see her intentions written plainly on her face.
Slaney talked about Lant. He did not tell her anything that she did not know already. Indeed, he was very guarded in all he said to her. Then just as he got up to go, he suddenly announced that Lant would be coming over soon.
"You'll be glad to see him, Miss Damer," he said, and Nancy realised that he was looking hard at her. It was all she could do to repress a shiver, but she made some commonplace reply, and the man went out.
Lant coming! The news drove Nancy to the necessity for direct and immediate action. If only she could fire the petrol and bring the launch in, its crew could take possession of the island. Then, when Lant came, he would be made prisoner, and once he was in the hands of the law, she believed that he would be forced to give up the secret of Monty's hiding place.
Sitting alone in her room, she began to plan how to carry out her idea.
No one else but old Sheila slept in the house, and the old woman was so deaf that there was not much risk of her overhearing any movement, in or about the house. On the other hand, the doors, she knew, were locked at night. There was no real reason for it, but the old woman did it as a matter of habit.
Locks or not, there would, however, be no great difficulty in getting out. The sitting-room window was easily opened. No, the danger would come from outside. The padlock had to be levered off, and that might mean time, delay, and noise.
But there was this in Nancy's favor. The petrol shed was on the far side of the hangar, while the huts where the men slept were all on the near side. If she could reach the shed unobserved, Nancy felt that the rest ought to be fairly easy.
There was a moon, but it was nearly new. It would be down by ten. In any case she must wait until midnight before starting, so as to be sure that everyone was in bed and asleep.
She looked at her watch. It was only eight. Four hours to wait. To a highly-strung girl waiting of this sort is torture, and those next four hours were like four years.
They passed at last, and a few minutes after twelve found Nancy stealing down into the kitchen. Here she secured a short poker, an old newspaper, and a box of matches. They were the only implements she would need.
In the passage she stood listening. All was quiet above, so she went straight into the sitting room and opened the window. The night was dark enough. A thin film of cloud covered the sky, and the only sound was the slow boom of the breakers on the iron-bound cliffs.
A moment later and she was outside. Though her heart was pounding she was steady enough, and all her senses alert. Without any hesitation she walked away, circling behind the huts.
There was no light in any of them, and her spirits rose a trifle. It seemed that her task was going to be easier than she had believed.
Presently she was outside the hut, and feeling in the gloom for the padlock. To her great relief, she found herself able to get the end of her poker inside the large staple which had been driven into the lintel.
She put on strain, and the whole thing drew with almost ridiculous ease. Next moment the door was open.
It was at this moment of triumph that a thought came to Nancy that turned her almost sick with sudden apprehension. Suppose the M.L. patrolled by day only—suppose that at the present moment she was safely moored in some harbor many miles away?
IT was a terrifying idea, and for some seconds Nancy was on the point of abandoning the whole thing.
But her courage came back to her. After all, she considered, arms might be run by night as well as by day. The patrol would be useless unless kept up during the whole twenty-four hours. Besides, she had gone too far now to turn back. She had burst the lock, and when that was discovered they would know that she must be the culprit.
No, she had burnt her boats, and would carry it through.
Nancy knew enough about the inflammable qualities of petrol to be aware that she had now to exercise care. She went in, got a full tin, unscrewed the stopper, and dashed the contents against the outer wall of the hut. She soaked the timber thoroughly, then after making sure that she had none of the stuff on her dress, took a piece of newspaper which she had brought with her, made a ball of it, and poured a few drops of the spirit upon it.
Standing at a safe distance, she struck a match and lit her paper. As it blazed up she tossed it against the wall.
The burning paper had hardly touched the wall before the whole side of the building flashed up into a blue glare. Nancy took to her heels, and ran as she had never run in all her life.
She had planned her route before hand, but even so she had first to clear the rising ground, and before the reached the top of it the whole place was lit like day by the glare of the fast rising flames.
Nancy stumbled on a projecting rock nearly fell, recovered herself, cleared the top of the ridge and ran panting down the far slope towards the sea.
Each instant the flames mounted higher. They were roaring in a most terrifying fashion, and now to their steady boom was added the shouts of Lant's men who had been roused out of their beds by the crackle and blaze.
Nancy knew that it could be a matter of minutes only before her disappearance was known, and that then the whole pack would be spread in pursuit. Still running at the top of her speed, she made for the landing place where the turf boats came in and the fishing smack lay moored.
It was just the place where they would look for her but on the other hand it was the only one at which the M.L. could approach the island. Nancy's idea was to get behind the shelter of the cliffs and hide in some cave or crevice among the rocks until the rescue she longed for arrived. She had been down to the landing stage before, and knew that the cliffs behind it, though of no great height, were very broken.
There was a path down the steep slope to the landing. She had to keep to this; for the rest of the ground was a mass of rocks which would have been most difficult to cross in the darkness. Her great fear was that someone might be in the boat, but evidently this was not the case. She met no one, and reached the beach in safety.
It was but a narrow strip of steep shingle at best, and at high tide was covered. Luckily it was now only half flood, and there was some twenty yards width still bare between the cliff foot and the water. Turning sharp to the left, Nancy ran like a hare across the weed-clad rocks which bounded the little cove on that side.
They were frightfully sharp and ragged and dreadfully slippery, but under the spur of excitement Nancy scrambled like a cat across them.
Even here it was not dark. The flames from the petrol shed leaping fully a hundred feet into the air had turned the night into day. Reflected from the cloud above, the glare bent down on the bench itself, and lit the sea for miles.
To Nancy that mad clamber over those broken rocks was a nightmare. Each moment she expected to hear the shout that meant she had been viewed from above. But the shout did not come, and she crossed the ridge and pressed in close under the higher part of the cliff beyond.
It was dangerous work here. There was no beach below. If she slipped, it was to drop straight into the great irresistible swells which swung slowly in from three thousand miles of ocean. And to drop was to be ground upon the under-fangs of these pitiless rocks.
On the other hand, she was now far safer from observation by her enemies, for here the upper cliff overhang somewhat, and Nancy crawling along a ledge beneath was quite invisible to anyone standing at the top.
Yet they were hot on her track. Two men were shouting to one another up above. One, by his voice, was not fifty yards away.
The ledge narrowed, and Nancy realised that she could go but little further. The knowledge filled her with despair. If only there was some crevice or cleft deep enough to hide her. But she could find nothing of the sort.
The ledge ended, and in the deep shadow she almost stepped beyond it. It was only by a desperate clutch at a projecting point that she saved herself.
Getting as firm a hold as possible she rose to a standing position, and pressed herself as closely as possible against the cliff behind. From the above she was quite sheltered by the overhang of the cliff, and from the bench itself she was invisible. The curve of the cliff hid her from anyone standing on the beach itself.
So much was in her favor, but on the other hand, if any of the men took out a boat they could hardly fail to discover her, while if one of them took it into his head to climb along the ledge by which she had come there was no help for her at all. She was absolutely cornered.
The petrol store was still blazing to heaven, and the sea for a mile or more from the shore glowed like blood. It was from the sea that Nancy hoped for help, but strain her eyes as she might, she could see no sign of the M.L.
The little boat might, for all she knew, be miles away, at the further end of her beat. Still, wherever she was, her people could hardly fail to see the glare of the signal fire, and Nancy tried to feel that they were already speeding to her rescue.
Minutes passed, and the glow began to die down a little. Nancy was certain that Lant's men could never put it out. Probably they were not even trying to do so.
Now a fresh fear assailed Nancy. If the launch did not arrive before the fire had died down, how would she see it, or how were the people aboard to see her? She would have to go back to the beach, when no doubt Slaney and the rest would be waiting. She felt that she would do anything rather than risk that. She looked down at the sea below, wondering if it would be possible to swim out, but had to confess that anything of the sort was utterly out of the question. No one could live for a minute in those heavy surges which rose and fell among the black rock fangs beneath.
"I tell ye she went to the bench, Where else would the crayture go?"
The voice was startlingly near. Nancy recognised it as Heggarty's, and was aware that he was on the top of the cliff, immediately above her. She flattened herself back and crouched silent, hardly daring to breathe.
"On the beach is it?" came a second voice, raised in an angry tone. "And why didn't we find her then?"
"Because we didn't be looking properly," growled Heggarty. "'Tis myself is going down there again and this time I'll make sure."
WING COMMANDANT CUMBERLAND, having dismissed Hugh from his presence, had also dismissed him from his mind.
Consequently he got a considerable shock when, crossing the aerodrome to one of the hangars, early in the afternoon, he came upon Hugh in full flying kit, standing talking to a junior officer.
Cumberland pulled up short, and glared at Hugh.
"What are you doing here, sir? Did you not understand me when I told you this morning that I could not supply you with a 'plane?"
"I understood perfectly," Hugh answered coldly. "So I am waiting for one which is being sent from Farnborough."
Cumberland's stiff cheeks went a dull brick color.
"From Farnborough?" he repeated.
"Yes," answered Hugh, looking the other full in the face. "And if you wish to know who is sending it, you will be able to tell from a glance at this."
He took an envelope from his pocket from which he extracted a folded sheet of thin, tough paper. This he handed to Cumberland.
Cumberland glanced at it, and the change that came over his face was startling.
"I—I did not know," he stammered. "I did not know you were in the—that is, that Colonel Challice was a friend of yours."
"You did not give me a chance to explain when I called on you this morning," Hugh answered. "It was absurd to say that you were unable to let me use one of your machines. In any case, if you had any doubt on this matter you could have called up London, and you could have done it much more quickly than I. If Lant escapes the fault will lie largely with you."
Cumberland collapsed tike a pricked bladder. "I—I did not know," he muttered. "I—I am very sorry. I hope, Captain Lytton, that you will accept my apologies."
Hugh eyed him doubtfully. "I would if I thought you would be a little more civil to the next poor devil who comes your way," he said. "It's merely because I am no longer in the Air Force that you took the tone you did. Six mouths ago I was your superior officer."
"Here's your 'plane, sir."
The young lieutenant who had been standing at a little distance, staring up at the sky through his field-glasses, came quickly and pointed to a speck sweeping across the blue from the south-east.
Hugh took the glasses from him and focussed. Then he gave a sigh of relief. "Thanks be, they've sent a Condor," he said.
The 'plane, a giant, double-engined machine, glided smoothly to the ground. She had an enclosed body, and from it stepped out a tall man with fair hair, a long fair moustache, and blue eyes as clear as a boy's.
Cumberland stood like a statue. "Colonel Challice!" he said below his breath, then pulling himself together, saluted.
The Colonel returned his greeting, but his eyes were on Hugh. "Lant's away?" he said.
"Yes, sir, and to Ireland. It's an island off the west coast. I know that much, but I don't know which."
"We shall have to find it. This is a big business, Lytton. Are you fit to start?"
"This minute, sir. I've been resting since you told me the 'plane was coming."
"Good, then as soon as the tanks are refilled, we'll get on. I have Harvey with me, and a mechanic."
"There's no better pilot than Harvey, sir, and it may be a long trip."
Cumberland spoke. "Can I offer you anything before you start, sir?"
"Thanks. We have everything aboard, and every minute is precious," replied the Colonel, and if his manner was polite enough, his tone was very cool indeed. Cumberland looked so unhappy that Hugh felt sorry for him.
"I should be grateful if you could lend me a heavy coat," he said. "It's going to be cold again to-night."
"Of course I can. I'll get it," Cumberland answered quickly, and hurried off.
Five minutes later, wrapped to the ears, Hugh was seated with the Colonel in the comfortable fuselage of the big 'plane.
"Contact!" cried the pilot, and an instant later the twin engines roared, and they were away.
It was something new to Hugh to lean back and rest while another man piloted the 'plane. Yet his mind was too busy to give him leisure to enjoy the sensation. All his thoughts were of Nancy.
Putting two and two together, he was fairly certain that Lant had carried off Nancy to this Irish retreat of his, and now had followed her there. If he only knew definitely where the fellow had gone. What he dreaded was the pressure that Lant might put upon Nancy. By this time Lant knew that Monty was definitely out of his clutches, and this knowledge would force him to instant action. The man was clever as a fiend, and it made Hugh sick to think with what stories he might terrify Nancy into yielding to him.
Presently he became aware that Challice was speaking.
"I suppose we may take it that this place of Lant's is somewhere off the Mayo coast, Lytton?"
"I don't know. It's just as likely to be off Galway, it's it?" Hugh answered.
Challice looked worried. "I wish I knew," he said. "But I think we'd best go north first."
"I dare say you are right. You know more of it than I do. But there are a fearful lot of islands off Mayo as well as to the north. How are we to know which is which?"
"Have to take our chances. If we don't see any signs off Mayo, we'll try south."
"Buck up Lytton," he added, noticing the other's wrung face. "I've a notion we are going to do the trick all right."
Hugh did not answer. He was in deep waters. Now that he had nothing to do but sit still and wait, his anxiety for Nancy became an agony hardly to be borne. The thought of the girl he loved in the clutches of this unscrupulous scoundrel nearly drove him mad.
Challice opened a basket, and took out a thermos full of hot chocolate, and packets of sandwiches. He made Hugh eat and drink, and the food did him good. He had had nothing since breakfast at Mrs. Strange's.
The big 'plane roared on, crossing high above the Welsh mountains, and the dusk of autumn evening was falling as they saw the pale gleam of the Irish Sea beneath them.
It was pitch dark when they descended just outside Dublin. Here they left the big 'plane and bundled into a car. Challice had wired for a sea-plane to be ready. It would, he knew, be extremely unlikely that they would find a landing place for anything else on the rock-strewn surface of any of these western islets. If they came down it must be on the water.
The sea-plane awaited them in the harbor, and it was not much after eight when they were off again.
West-nor'-west was their course, and they travelled high through the quiet night, the steady roar of their engine rousing the cottagers in their cabins dotted across the great Bog of Allen. There was no wind, and as the big machine under Martin's capable control covered the sky at the rate of fully eighty miles an hour, it was barely midnight before they had crossed the whole width of the island, and saw the stars reflected in the heaving waters of the Atlantic.
They struck the coast at The Mullet, which is the nor'-west point of County Mayo. It was many, many miles from Mourne Island, but that they had no means of knowing.
Martin turned in his seat and spoke to Challice.
"What now, sir? Which way?"
"Turn south and keep over this fringe of islands. I'll tell you if I see anything."
"What do you expect to see, Colonel?" asked Hugh rather hopelessly.
"Lights. These people use 'planes. I am hoping to spot the flares of Lant's aerodrome."
"But he will have been in long ago," said Hugh, "and surely they won't keep flares going after he has arrived."
"That's true, but there is always the chance. If we see nothing, we must just come down and wait till morning in some sheltered bay. There are plenty all along this coast."
The 'plane droned on, but lights were few and far between. These islands are but scantily inhabited, and every soul was in bed long ago.
They passed Achil, and were over the broad mouth of Clew Bay, when Hugh called Challice's attention to the lights of a small craft immediately beneath, a vessel which was travelling much too fast for any fishing craft or tramp.
"A patrol boat," replied Challice quickly. "Not a doubt about it. She is one of our M.L.'s looking out for gun runners. Tell you what, Lytton, we'll go down and ask her her if she can give us any news."
He leaned forward and spoke in Martin's ear. Then he searched in a locker, found something which looked like a rocket, lit the fuse, and dropped it over, A red flame lit the night and flung a crimson glare over the long, slow swells beneath. In its glow the M.L. showed up toy-like on the lonely waste of waters.
Martin had already cut out the engine, and the sea-plane glided downwards in a long swift slant. Another minute, her floats splashed upon the top of a swell and she came to rest not two hundred yards from the M.L.
The latter at once came up alongside, and her skipper, a smooth-faced youngster who looked no more than twenty, hailed them from his little boxed-in bridge.
Challice wasted no time in giving his name and explaining the situation. "This man Lant," he said, "started some hours ahead of us. Have you seen anything of him?"
"Not a thing, sir," was the answer. "Haven't seen a 'plane at all for a month of Sundays. But I'll tell you what. I had a wireless half an hour ago from Scott, of M.L. 597, saying that there was a rare blaze down on Mourne Island and that he's off to investigate, so I thought I'd lend a hand. Of course I don't know whether it has anything to do with this business of yours or not."
"A big fire, you say?" asked Challice.
"Yes, sir. Too big for a turf fire, Scott says. He vows it looks more like an oil store."
Hugh and Challice exchanged glances.
"A petrol store," said Hugh quickly. Then to the M.L. man: "Where is Mourne Island?"
"About sixty miles south. Right round the corner. Not far from Arran Island."
"Would the other patrol be there now?" asked Challice, of the M.L. officer.
"He ought to be, sir. Are you going?"
"We are," replied Challice. "As quickly as we can get there. You had better follow. Start her up, Martin. Every minute may be precious."
IT was impossible for Nancy to go a step further. Had there been even the shadow of a foothold, she would have tried.
Yet to stand where she was on the open ledge and wait while Heggarty came out and caught her was equally out of the question. In sheer desperation, she turned and began to make her way back towards the cove. There was just the ghost of a chance that somewhere between her and it, she might find a cleft big enough to hide her.
The glow from the blazing petrol magazine was now dying down a little, but there was still light enough to see a long way in every direction. And Nancy in the act of clambering over a rugged shoulder of rock suddenly caught sight of a vessel appearing within the radius of the dull red glare which lit the sea.
She crossed the shoulder, got foothold on the far side, and stood quite still, staring out at the little sloop in the distance, her heart thumping so that it nearly suffocated her.
It was the motor launch at last, and it was all that Nancy could do to keep back the cry of delight which rose to her lips.
Yes, here came the stout little craft tearing towards the island with a great cushion of white foam under her bows. She was travelling at her full twenty knots, and though still more than a mile away Nancy could plainly hear the roar of the twin 250 h.p. engines.
The revulsion of feeling was so great that for the moment Nancy forgot all about the danger of her position. She was standing right out in the open at the edge of the shoulder of rock, and so far from the rim of the cliff that her figure was clearly visible in the glare flung from above.
On came the launch. It seemed to Nancy that she was travelling at a most dangerous speed. Nancy herself had been long enough on Mourne Island to be aware that the whole approach to the cove was sown with ugly rocks and reefs now hidden by the rising tide. The pilot, however seemed to know what he was about. He was dodging in and out at all sorts of angles and curves.
The launch was no more than five hundred yards away, and Nancy had actually opened her lips to cry for help when a great arm clasped her round the waist and dragged her violently backwards, while at the same moment a huge, hard hand was pressed over her mouth, cutting off the cry that was on her lips.
Heggarty's fierce eyes glared into hers. "So 'twas that ye were afther?" he growled in her ear. "But 'tis mesilf knew it from the first, ye spy!"
As he spoke he dragged her back into the shadow formed by the angle of the projecting rock. "Lie still now," he threatened. "Spake a word only, and 'tis into the sea I'll throw ye."
The savagery of the man and the brute force which, he had used paralysed Nancy. She felt as if she was in the grip of a tiger. For the very life of her, she could not have uttered a sound.
Holding her down with one hand, Heggarty crouched beside her, his eyes fixed upon the launch.
"Come in, is it?" he muttered hoarsely. "And if ever they do get in 'tis nothing they'll find."
Yet to Nancy it sounded as if he was frightened, and trying to reassure himself.
From her position flat on the ledge she could not even see the launch. Yet in spite of everything she still hoped. Once the blue-jackets were landed, surely they must realise what was going on, and take measures accordingly.
Her capture by Heggarty and what had happened since had been a mutter of seconds only. Nancy could hear the deep note of the motor launch's petrol engines growing louder and nearer. Then suddenly the sound ceased and from the sea she heard a shouted order.
Next instant there was a dull crash.
Heggarty gave a cry, a hoarse crow of triumph.
"The luck's wid us. She's on the reef. Ah 'twas mesilf shifted the buoy, and 'tis that has done the trick."
He turned his head towards Nancy, and the ugly joy on his face made it worse to her than before.
"Look at her!" he jeered. "Sit up, will ye, and look at her. Shout if ye like, and much good may it do ye!"
Nancy moved, she sat up, and the sight made her heart like lead. The launch lay, with her bows cocked tipsily in the air, at a distance about three hundred yards from the shore. She was hard and fast on a rock.
The men, she saw, were launching a dinghy. But whether they hoped to get her off or whether they were abandoning her, Nancy had no idea.
The light was growing more dim. It became difficult to see what the motor launch people were doing. Heggarty watched for a while then quite suddenly rose to his feet.
Stooping, he took hold of Nancy and picked her up as easily as if she had been a small child.
"Ye'll mind what I tould ye," he hissed. "Make the slightest noise and I throw ye into the sea. 'Tis what ye desarve, no less."
With Nancy across his shoulder, he strode away across the rocks towards the cove. His strength was terrifying. Even in crossing the slippery reef he did not stumble or falter. He reached the narrow strip of beach and stalked on up the cliff path, up the slope beyond and down into the hollow beneath, which was still lit strongly by the glare from the fire.
Nancy was aware that every soul on the island was grouped around the burning ruins, to the number of nearly a score. As Heggarty came up, the men turned, and their faces lit by the crimson glow were savage with rage.
"I've found her," announced Heggarty, briefly. "Here's the spy for ye. And the launch is on the Shark Reef and like to stay there."
There was a growl of rage, and the men leaving the fire gathered round. Heggarty lowered Nancy, and placed her roughly on her feet.
"And now what will ye do wid her?" he asked.
Nancy drew a quick breath. She realised that she was in desperate danger. These men regarded her as a spy, and the Irishman of this type, once really roused, sticks at nothing. It seemed more than likely that they would murder her.
"Put her on the fire," cried one, a wild-eyed, shaggy-haired fellow. "'Twas she lit it. Why wouldn't she burn on it?"
Slaney, who had been standing a little aloof, now made up his mind to interfere. He came forward.
"Leave the lady alone, boys. What do ye think Mr. Lant will be saying to ye if ye mishandle her?"
"Lant is it?" retorted Heggarty. "'Tis nothing to do she has wid Lant. Black shame to ye for saying it!"
"'Tis thrue!" In his anxiety Slaney's brogue was as pronounced as Heggarty's. "'Tis thrue, I tell ye. Lave her alone. Haven't I given my word to kape her safe till he comes?"
"Much we care for your word, Slaney," retorted the wild-eyed man. "Hasn't she bethrayed us all to the Saxon?"
He strode forward, but Slaney, who was evidently more afraid of Lant than even of this gang of ruffians, stepped in front of Nancy.
"Ah, wait till Misther Lant comes," he begged. "He'll be here before the morning."
His words had no effect. These wild men were beyond argument. There was a sudden rush. Nancy's knees shook under her, but she still kept a brave front.
There was a quick patter of feet, and between Slaney and Nancy and the advancing mob a tall figure appeared.
"Back, you dogs! Back! The first of you that takes another step, I'll blow his brains out."
It was Lant. All eyes had been centred on Nancy, and not one of them had seen the 'plane drop softly from the skies on the little aerodrome behind.
Lant's voice had a deadly ring, and it did not need the automatic in his hand to make the men understand that this was no idle threat. They fell back a little.
All but Heggarty. He stood up to his leader.
"And is it yoursilf knows what she's done?" he said fiercely. "Look at that, will ye?"
He pointed as he spoke to the burning ruins.
"And who allowed her to do it?" retorted Lant harshly. "A fine watch you must have been keeping to let a girl get round the lot of you."
The wild eyed man cut in:—
"Didn't Slaney tell us she was your friend—the lady ye was going to marry? Would we be watchin' her thin?"
Lant looked round on the semi-circle of lowering faces. He realised that the men were dangerous, and perhaps beyond even his control. He gave a whistle.
At once Foskett came running up. Behind him Nancy glimpsed another figure. To her surprise it was that of her step-father. He had grown older in the last week. He looked grey and flabby.
Foskett, like Lant, had a pistol in his hand.
Lant spoke again.
"Whatever Miss Damer has done, it is my business, not yours," he said, with cold deliberation. "Your work now is to go down to the bench and prevent those navy men landing. You understand?"
They hesitated, but Lant's bold front daunted them. Though the odds were long they knew the advantage their automatics gave to Land and Foskett. One after another, they went slowly away, muttering and scowling as they went.
Lant turned to Nancy. "You have landed us in a pretty mess, Miss Damer. We have no petrol now to get away. I am afraid you will suffer with us. We shall have to take to the boat."
"And what then?" asked Foskett, who was glowering angrily at Nancy.
"It will be Russia," said Lant curtly. "The game is blown on. We shall have to clear out altogether."
NANCY'S heart sank lower than ever. She felt physically sick, and for a moment a wild impulse came over her to turn and run.
It was madness. There was no refuge of any sort, no one to aid her. That horrible sensation of being trapped and helpless overwhelmed her again, and brave as she was she was very near to despair.
Foskett stared at Lant as though he could not believe his ears.
"You don't mean you are going to chuck your Irish plans?" he gasped.
"For the time I must," Lant replied. He spoke with an effort, and his voice was oddly harsh. "The police have got hold of our headquarters in Norchester. Someone gave us away. I shall have to clear out for the present, but it will be only for a time. We shall be back in stronger force than ever before three months are out."
He paused a moment.
"You must burn the 'plane, Foskett," he went on. "Put a match to her. Then we must take what food we can get down to the boat. You know she has motor power, and we shall be picked up at the agreed place."
He spoke calmly enough, but Foskett's face was a mask of despair. Without a word, he turned to do Lant's bidding.
"You will come with me, Miss Damer," said Lant. "You too, Strickland. Have you got your pistol? Those fellows down on the beach are in an ugly mood. We may have to shoot."
"Are you going to take me to Russia?" demanded Strickland.
"I suppose I must," sneered Lant.
"I don't want to go. I won't go. I don't want my throat cut by a pack of Bolsheviks."
"You prefer an English prison, I suppose?" jeered Lant.
Suddenly he changed his tone. "You'll do as you're bid. You know too much for me to leave you behind."
There was a sudden blaze behind them. Foskett had fired the aeroplane, and the flames shot high in the air.
Lant took hold of Nancy's arm. "Come!" he ordered.
His touch drove Nancy frantic. Wrenching herself free, she turned and ran. So sudden was her action that she was half way to the house before Lant started in pursuit. She gained the entrance, slammed the door in Lant's face, and darted up to her room, where she locked herself in and began to pile the furniture against the door.
Next moment she heard Lant's voice outside. "Nancy, you are mad. You are endangering our lives. For all our sakes come out at once."
Nancy did not answer. She had got the bed against the door and knew that she was safe for the moment.
Lant flung himself against the door, but it did not yield an inch.
"Nancy," the man's voice quivered with intense earnestness. "I did not mean to frighten you. My only wish is to make you happy. I will take you to America if you prefer it. For your sake, I will give up all my ambitions. I will do anything you wish, only come out."
Nancy drew a long, quivering breath. "I would rather kill myself than let you touch me again," she told him.
There was a moment's pause, then Lant's voice again, but only wild and deadly.
"And I would rather kill you than let Lytton have you."
She heard him turn and ran downstairs. Instinctively she knew he was going to fetch Foskett and that between them they would break the door down. She did not pause a moment, but opening the window looked out. It was only ten feet to the ground. She got out on the sill, took a firm hold with both hands, swung down, and let herself drop.
The ground was soft. She reached it unhurt. Turning, she glanced round. Lant and Foskett were not visible. The only person she could see was her step-father standing, undecided, close by the still smouldering petrol shed.
At this moment shots rattled out along the beach. She could not see what was happening, but felt certain that the M.L. men were trying to land.
The beach then was impossible, and suddenly Nancy took her decision and ran straight towards Strickland. Worthless as he was, surely he had manhood left to help her.
He saw her coming, but did not move.
"Help me," she begged. "Lant says he will kill me."
"I—I, what can I do?" stammered.
There was a shout from Foskett. "There she is!"
He and Lant came running. Suddenly Strickland drew himself up. "Get behind me," he said curtly to Nancy.
"Keep off, Lant," he shouted, and his voice had a new tone. "I've stood enough from you. Get back, or I'll shoot."
Lant never paused. Clearly he had nothing but contempt for the man who for so long had been under his thumb. He did not believe that he had even a spark of manhood left in him.
Suddenly Strickland fired. To Nancy it did not seem that he took any aim at all, yet at the very first shot Lant staggered, his knees bent under him and without a sound he collapsed on the ground.
Foskett gave a yell of rage, and lifting his pistol shot Strickland. He fell with a groan.
Nancy dropped on her knees beside him.
"Get up," snarled Foskett, menacing her with his pistol. "Get up, or I'll do the same to you."
The death of Lant had driven the man quite mad.
There was a patter of feet. Slaney came tearing up.
"Get away from here Misther Foskett. The bhoys has drove off thim sailors, and they're coming back here. Heggarty swears he'll finish the lot o' ye."
Sure enough, Heggarty's wild crew were in sight coming rapidly over the rise. Their dark faces and fierce eves showed red in the light of the still flaming aeroplane.
They saw their victims. "Death to the thraitors!" roared Heggarty.
His voice was drowned in a tremendous rattle, and right overhead a great sea-plane, which had been planing down out of the night, swooped upwards again. A machine-gun burst out with a fierce crackle, and Heggarty and half a dozen of his men toppled over. The rest turned and ran for dear life.
The engines were cut off, and the 'plane, gilding seawards, dropped lightly on the water close in shore.
Foskett stood staring blankly until Nancy touched his arm.
"It's a Government 'plane," she said swiftly. "Go and bring them here. Do this, and you can depend on me to say nothing about your part in this business."
Like a man in a dream, he turned and went, and Nancy bent again over Strickland.
He was dying, but his eyes were open.
"It's Hugh," she said. "I'm sure of it. And you saved me for him."
He smiled—actually smiled. "Glad I did one decent thing," he said in a hoarse whisper. "And—and I'm glad it was I finished Lant. He—he had the whip hand of me for a good many years, but I think I'm square on balance."
He paused, then looked up.
"Good-bye, Nancy," he said quietly, then drew one long shuddering breath and was still.
As Nancy rose to her feet someone came running down the slope from the direction of the landing place.
"Hugh!" she cried. "Oh! Hugh!"
"Nancy, my darling. At last!"
Then she was in his arms, and all her troubles slipped away and were forgotten.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page