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Title: Selected Short Stories
Author: Victor L Whitechurch
A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook
eBook No.: 1300081h.html
Date first posted: December 2012
Date most recently updated: December 2012
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|THE SLIP COACH MYSTERY
A PERILOUS RIDE
THE CONVICT'S REVENGE
IN THE ROCKHURST TUNNEL
A WARNING IN RED
A JUMP FOR FREEDOM
SPECIAL WORKING INSTRUCTIONS
PIERRE COURNET'S LAST RUN
BETWEEN TWO FIRES
THE TRIUMPH OF SETH P. TUCKER
A POLICY OF SILENCE
THE ROMANCE OF THE "SOUTHERN QUEEN"
IN A TIGHT FIX
If it were possible to write the secret history of a European Ambassador what a revelation would stand before the eyes of the astonished public! We read our newspapers and form our opinions on great international questions from their pages, or from speeches in the House of Commons, while all the time those "behind the scenes" are smiling to themselves at the very small amount of knowledge which the press and public are really permitted to obtain; or else, while the people are flattering themselves over the prospect of a "peaceful political outlook," as contained in the "leaders" of the daily paper, those in whose hands the "outlook" is really placed are trembling with anxiety lest some piece of delicate diplomacy should fall through. Nor is the public aware of the plots and counterplots which take place among a class of men chosen especially for their diplomatic faculties, and often pitted against one another in a warfare that demands more brains than the most skilful military leader in Europe.
The incident I am about to narrate forms a small part of the secret annals of the diplomatic service, though at the same time soother equally secret element entered into the plot.
It will be remembered that in 189- there were rumours going the
rounds of the press concerning friction between some of the great
Powers of Europe, nor were there wanting those who prophesied "wars
and rumours of wars." The centre of the agitation was that great
field of international trouble and dispute vaguely known unto us as
"The East." Some fresh troubles had arisen in the "Eastern
Question," owing to the unexpected attitude of one of the smaller
Powers, which appeared to be setting her more powerful neighbours
at defiance, and encouraging them to quarrel among themselves. The
Prime Minister was harassed on every side. Questions were asked in
the House, but cleverly evaded, and the foreign policy of this
country seemed for a few weeks to be wrapped up in sphinx-like
mystery, until suddenly the crisis was at an end, the stocks rose
merrily, and the public once more breathed freely. But it is little
known that a far different result might have been the case; and
therefore the incident about to be chronicled will be of all the
more interest. One stipulation must be made, and that for obvious
reasons. The names of those who took part in the adventure must not
be disclosed, for it was from one of these that the facts of the
case will be set down. There is no fear of his discovery, and I
have permission to publish his story, which runs as follows.
It was during a prolonged stay in the East of Europe that I first became aware of the existence of a secret society which has its members spread through many countries, and which I will refer to under its Anglicised name of "The Watching Brotherhood." Why and how I became a member myself matters little in the incident I am about to narrate. Perhaps I was young and foolish, and fired with false ideas of "Liberty." Perhaps it was because, being a cosmopolitan, I had few patriotic instincts, and was the more ready to devote myself to the cause which "The Watchers" professed to have in hand. On my return to England I found a little handful of the "brothers" in London. Perhaps it will be better understood when I say that most of these were of Russian extraction, and probably exercise more influence even in this country than might be supposed. Among the few who constituted our branch of the society the most important was a man whom we will call Koravitch, a fine muscular fellow of English descent by his mother—a man who would stick at nothing, and the narration of whose exploits would form a volume in itself. Koravitch was our chairman, and one evening, when we met at his summons in a quiet house not a hundred miles from Tottenham Court-road, he came into the room with a more serious expression than I had ever seen him wear.
"Comrades," he said, an soon its he had taken his seat, "we have serious business before as to-night, and before long some of us may be called upon to act."
"What is it?" we asked breathlessly.
"The peace or the war of Europe, perhaps," he answered. "Great things are being weighed in the balance. But listen while I read you this message from B—"
B— was one of the heads of the society, and a word from him meant much. We anxiously listened while Koravitch read the following:—
"To our brothers, greeting! The time has come and the great opportunity has arisen. The Powers of Europe are looking one another in the face in anger and in terror. Irresolution characterises three Governments, and peace is threatened with destruction. Let there be war! Let the nations fight, for then shall follow the rising for Freedom."
The explanation was this: If Europe could be involved in an Eastern war it was determined to light the torch of a great revolution in Russia and other countries in sympathy with such a movement. How far such a rising would be successful it is difficult to judge, but "desperate men use desperate means to attain their ends."
"Now," went on Koravitch, "there is something more. I have a most important matter to put before you. Two of the Powers are bringing pressure to bear on the British Cabinet to induce England to act with them independently of Russia. If they are successful the chances for war will be increased tenfold. So grave has this political outlook been considered at St. Petersburg—for, somehow or other, the affair has leaked out—that it has been determined to send an Extraordinary Embassy from the Tsar's Government, armed with a treaty of a private nature, by the signing of which England will agree to act with Russia, in agreement with certain proposals the latter Power intends to make—the end of which will be peace. So important does the Tsar consider the question that this embassy is being kept a dead secret, and even the Russian Ambassador in this country is unaware of it."
"Is this true?" asked one of the "brothers."
"Did you ever know me to lie?" asked Koravitch, sternly. "Of course it is true. Our society has its agents everywhere—and evens the Tsar's palace is not free from them."
"And who is the Ambassador chosen?"
"Sklavotski," said the chairman.
"What! Sklavotski?" we echoed.
"Ay—none other. A pretty good handful to cope with, eh?"
For the name carried terror with it. Sklavotski had been one of the cleverest secret police agents in Russia. Then he was appointed to diplomatic service of a dangerous character, and it was commonly reported that no one had ever got the better of him.
"Yes," continued our chairman, "it is none other. And now comes the point that concerns us. It is ordered that every possible delay be placed in the way of his journey here. Right across the Continent our agents are at work, and no pains have been spared. Even a railway accident has been planned on one of the lines on which he has to travel. But one thing has been strictly ordered, and that is that his life is not to be attempted. The question stands thus: His interview with the British Prime Minister must be prevented until the representatives of the other two Powers have prevailed upon him to take the other course. Also, if possible, the private treaty which he carries must be obtained. Now you may be sure that he will take every precaution, for no man knows the risk he is running better than himself."
"And how does this affect us?" asked a "brother."
"Well, you see, in the event of his slipping through the hands of our friends on the Continent we must try to got the better of him on this side of the water."
"Which way will he come?" I asked.
"It is not quite certain, but in all probability via Kingboro', coming on to town by the 'Catton and Slowbridge' line. If he doesn't meet with any accident abroad, he ought to be on our shores on Friday evening. Now, listen, and I'll tell you what our plans had better be. First of all, which of you knows Sklavotski by sight?"
"I do," I replied. "I shouldn't seen forget him, with that scar over his eyebrow and his big white moustache and imperial."
"Very well. Then you and the 'Lynx' (a sobriquet for another "brother") and myself will go down to Kingboro' on Monday, and I'll arrange to have a cipher telegram sent to me there detailing movements abroad. I'll leave you, G——, in charge here, and wire you instructions if he doesn't come by that route. But remember, all of you, be faithful to your oath, and do your duty."
It in not worth while to mention the details of the meeting which followed. Suffice it to say that on Monday night we three above mentioned found ourselves meeting by appointment in a road outside the East Coast seaport of Kingboro'.
"Hold yourselves to readiness to act to-morrow," said our leader. "My advice states that the Ambassador's all right so for—he's a clever one, he is—and he may get over here after all. Now the boat is timed to arrive at seven to-morrow evening. It's dark at six, so we'll meet in the road at the back of the station."
"Have you got any plan?"
He shook his head.
"I simply can't think of anything. But if he comes we'll have to nab him somehow. Perhaps we'll do it in town. Anyway, we'd better separate now. So, goodnight."
At six o'clock the next evening we met as arranged.
Koravitch had important news for us.
"I've had cipher telegrams to-day," he said, "which make the affair more pressing than ever. Sklavotski is on his way. There's to be an attempt to tamper with the boat's engines, though they don't think it will come off. But on Ambassador Extraordinary from one of the opposition Powers is making for England, and will be in London early to-morrow morning, arriving at Dover by the first boat. At all risks he must have some hours' start of Sklavotski, or else the whole thing falls through."
"That means that Sklavotski must be prevented from getting to London tonight," I said.
"Aye, not only presented. He must be kidnapped, and kept till midday to-morrow."
"How is it to be done?"
"We must get him on the train, somehow."
"Are ordinary passengers allowed to travel by it?"
"Yes—you go and take first-class singles to London. And
we'll keep an eye on each other, and on him."
The boat was late in arriving that night. We heard that some of the machinery had got out of gear during the passage, but after a short delay had easily been set right again. Anxiously we three watched the passengers as they disembarked from the boat. There was the usual medley—groups of laughing foreigners, two or three phlegmatic Dutchmen, pale-faced ladies, oven to the inevitable clergyman, an old man who was evidently nervous of the landing platform, and who slipped at the end of it. I stepped forward and helped him to his feet, receiving his thanks in a voice choked with a cough. Presently we three spies instinctively glanced at one another as an individual appeared on the landing platform, a man wearing a heavy fur-lined coat, conspicuous for his large white moustache and imperial. His soft hat was drawn down over his forehead, but not no closely as to prevent a scar over his eye from showing. It was Sklavotski! He appeared to have no luggage except a handbag, and when this had been examined by the Customs officers we followed him to the platform.
The train was drawn up—rather a long one—and behind the rear brake-van was an extra coach containing a luggage, two first, and two second compartments. The bulk of the passengers made for the centre of the train, but Sklavotski, casting a searching glance around him, walked straight to the last carriage and got into the first-class compartment nearest the back of the carriage, tipping the guard to lock him in.
It was at this moment Koravitch suddenly exclaimed:
"Oh, the fool—he's played right into our hands! Now, quick, you two, get in that carriage."
"No, you can't do that. Get into the other first-class compartment—the one at the front end of the carriage, and get the guard to reserve it. I'll be with you in a minute."
We got in, and, curious to know what our leader was about, I leaned out of the window to watch him. First he carefully observed the space between the last carriage and the one in front of it. Then he walked to the end of the train and gave a glance behind. His next move was to run down the platform, and, looking round to see if he were unobserved, he darted into a room, the door of which opened on to the platform. In a moment he had emerged, apparently holding something beneath his great coat. Then he joined us in the carriage, and the guard locked us in.
"No stop before London, guard, is there?"
In five minutes we were off, and Koravitch produced from under his coat a railway lamp.
"What on earth are you going to do with that?" we asked.
"Well, it isn't worth while to make big accident out of this trip, and I want the train itself to go on," he replied.
"What do you mean?"
"You'll see presently—there's a big job before us. Now, do you think you two can tackle Sklavotski?"
"Well, you'll have to go along the footboard, and get in with him. Then, somehow or other, you must persuade him to drink this little refresher" (and he took out of his pocket a small bottle); "you needn't be afraid, it will only make him sleep comfortably."
"But what are you going to do?"
Koravitch first proceeded to light the lantern, and to turn on the red glass. Then he answered:
"Well, I've got a very dangerous job. I'm going to uncouple this carriage, and let the rest of the train go on. I shall put this lamp behind the coach in front of us, for if the train ran on without the tail light, she'd be pulled up pretty soon by a signalman, and I want to leave the light on behind our carriage, so that the next trains on the 'up' line will pull up at the red light ahead of her, and so there won't be a smash. As to the uncoupling, it's a difficult job, of course, but I know how to go about it. It's lucky he did not travel by the opposition route, as those trains are fitted with the auto-vacuum brake, and I should not have been able to work it. But the 'Canon and Slowbridge' use the 'Westinghouse,' and I can turn off the cocks, and manage all right. I know how that works. Then there's the electric communication to unfasten. Then there are the safety chains on each side of the coupling—they'll be easy enough—and lastly, the actual coupling itself. There'll be just footing enough, or I'll manage to hold on somehow while I unscrew the coupling, manipulate the brake, and then when the coupling gets slack I'll slip it off the hook as we go down a gradient. The train will go on, and we shall slowly pull up. I know just the spot where it had better be worked, so that we shall pull up in a quiet place. But there isn't any more time for talking now."
"One moment," I said. "What do you propose doing if you manage to stop the coach?"
"Oh, we'll get Sklavotski out of it."
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Then we'll think of further developments. Sufficient to the moment is the danger thereof—quite sufficient. Now, then, off you go. Stop, here's a railway key in case his door's locked. Take care not to let those people in the other compartments see you. Good luck, and I'll be with you presently. Steady, now. One out of each door, so as to take him on each side!"
So saying, he put the lamp under his coat, so as not to be seen by anyone as he walked along the footboard, while "the Lynx" and I stepped out, one on either side of the carriage, I taking the key, as it was on my side that the guard had locked the door. Very stealthily I crept along the footboard, carefully avoiding being seen by the occupants of the second-class compartment I had to pass. At length I arrived opposite the door of the compartment in which Sklavotski was travelling, and ventured to look in at a corner of the window. He was lying down on the seat, with his bag for a pillow, apparently fast asleep. At this moment I caught sight of my companion's face at the opposite window, and saw that he was ready for the attack. Quickly and noiselessly I inserted my key and unlocked the carriage door. To open it and spring in was the work of another instant, and simultaneously my companion entered by his door. Sklavotski sprang up and uttered a curse in Russian; but in less time than it takes to tell the story we were on him, and, holding him down firmly to the seat, notwithstanding his violent struggles we managed to force his mouth open by holding his nostrils, and to pour the contents of the little bottle down his throat. A shudder or two ran through him, his struggles grew less and less, and very soon he was resting quietly, to all intents and purposes fast asleep.
Then we turned our thoughts to Koravitch. He had not yet appeared, and we were still rushing along at 50 miles an hour. I looked out of the window, craning my neck to see as far as possible, and then to my joy observed that the train in front of our carriage was leaving us, and that a red light was gleaming brightly behind as she sped into the darkness. At the same moment a dark figure appeared creeping along the footboard, and Koravitch entered our carriage.
"Bravo," he said, "capital! You fellows have managed it splendidly."
"It was a terribly tough job, but I meant to do it. The screw coupling was the difficulty. I've got my left wrist sprained holding on—lucky I've gone in for gymnastics, for I couldn't have managed it else. But there's no time to talk now—we're slowing down. There's a bit of an up gradient here that will soon pull us up."
"What's the next move, then?"
"To get this fellow out of it. Ah, the handbag." He ran hurriedly through its controls. "No, it's not in that. I'll pitch it out, then. Now—we're slowing up. Open the door on this side. Good! We're on an embankment. As seen as we stop, I'll get out, and you drop him and follow. We must chance those people in the 'seconds' seeing us, but it's precious dark, and I don't think they will. As soon as the carriage pulls up it will begin to roll back down the incline, and from what I know of the line will go half a mile before stepping. We're stopping—I'll jump," and he sprang out into the six-foot way. We had got the sleeping ambassador ready on the floor, and in half a minute we were all out of the carriage, just before it stopped.
"Lie down," said Koravitch.
We did on. The carriage, surely enough, began at this moment to roll back. A window was opened and a head thrust out. The speed increased as the coach passed us, and we heard a voice say in German:
"Ach Himmel! we've broken loose!"
That was all, and we waited for no more. Then we carried the ambassador down the embankment, and found ourselves in a field. "What shall we do now?" I asked.
"Well, the first thing is to get as far away from the line as possible," answered Koravitch, "and we must take him with us—better carry him by turns. He's not extra heavy; who'll take first?"
"I will," I said. So Sklavotski was hoisted on to my shoulders, and we started off. Presently we struck a narrow country lane, which led us away from the railway. We had gone nearly three miles down this lane, carefully avoiding a little row of houses in it, when Koravitch, who was carrying the ambassador, suddenly stopped, and exclaimed:
"Look here, we can't go on like this. We must hide the fellow somewhere. He'll come to presently."
"But what are we to do?" asked "the Lynx."
"Where can we hide him?"
"Shall we get him to some wood?" I said.
"But it's precious cold, and we ought to stick to him for some hours yet; in fact, he ought not to be allowed to get free till well on in the morning. Now let's think. Hullo! I've got a plan. What's that building in front of us?"
"Looks like a church," I said.
"Exactly so; it is a church—I know the country now. It's Little Prebbleton Church, and there isn't a house to speak of within a quarter of a mile of it. It's the last place anyone would dream of entering this time of night, for it's nearly nine o'clock; so let's make for it. We shall be safe inside, and I've got a little dark lantern with me that will help us look over things a bit."
So saying, he led the way to the church, and we were soon picking our way over the churchyard, among the tombs, which stood out in ghastly dimness. Koravitch made for one of the windows, and after some little trouble, managed to force it open. He got in first, and then we lifted Sklavotski through the window and followed ourselves. It was a grim, uncanny feeling that possessed us as we stood in the church. After fumbling about for a few moments we found our way to the vestry, a snug little carpeted nook divided from one of the side aisles by a heavy curtain. Then Koravitch lit his lantern, carefully turning it away from the one window which the vestry possessed.
"Are you going to stay here all night?" I asked.
"Well, perhaps it might be as well," he answered, "unless we tie him up, and leave him here. To-morrow's Saturday, and I should think someone would find him then—they're pretty well sure to come in and get the place ready for Sunday. If not, he won't die if he isn't found till Sunday morning, for we could give him a feed before we go. But the first thing to do is to search him, and to see if we can find anything of importance."
So saying, Koravitch went carefully through the ambassador's pockets. He found some money of various nations, and at length brought out a pocket-book.
"Here it is," he exclaimed, and we gathered round him eagerly as he opened it. But disappointment awaited us; beyond a few receipted hotel bills and unimportant papers, the pocket-book was empty.
"Where can it be?" said Koravitch.
"In London with Monsieur Sklavotski!" said a voice, which made us start and look round. The ambassador had risen upon his feet, and was smiling at us.
"What?" we exclaimed. "How—"
"Pardon, gentlemen," said the other, "I have awakened before you were quite ready for me. No, you needn't attempt to attack me, for I am not going to run away. There is no need. You were asking, I think, for the whereabouts of a certain little paper you thought I had in my possession. I replied that it is now probably in London, and in the safe keeping of Monsieur Sklavotski, whose person it has not left since he started from St. Petersburg. I see I astonish you. Gentlemen, you have been labouring under a slight misapprehension, and I will now make things clear to you. Allow me to introduce myself as Monsieur Klaboulf, a servant of the Ambassador."
And so saying he tore off his moustache and imperial, wiped the scar from his forehead with a handkerchief, and bowed to us with a smile. We were too much astonished to utter a word, and he went on:
"You see, gentlemen, it was only to be expected that Monsieur Sklavotski would find his journey dangerous and inconvenient, and so he hit upon a simple little plan. He shaved himself, and managed to paint out the scar, so that no one could possibly recognise him. And then he paid me to take the danger and inconvenience upon myself. Ah, it has been a very troublesome journey, I assure you. I only just escaped six inches of cold steel besides other disagreeable adventures. And when I came on shore to-night I was tired out. But I had my work still. I knew someone was watching me, so, in order to draw attention from Monsieur Sklavotski himself, who was travelling with me. I went ostentatiously to the last carriage."
"And where was the Ambassador?" hissed Koravitch.
"Don't worry, my friend. Didn't you see an old clergyman get off the boat? Ah, you didn't think to notice him, did you? Never mind. Well, as soon as the train started I fell asleep, and was only awakened by the somewhat violent intrusion. Then they kindly sent me to sleep again, and the first thing I remember was being lifted in at the window just now—and that's my story."
Koravitch bit his lip with anger.
"Then it's all up?" he said.
"Exactly so, gentlemen. Monsieur Sklavotski intended going straight to the Foreign Office, where he was expected, on reaching town. Your scheme was a bold and clever one, though how I got here I don't know. And now that you have failed what do you intend to do with me? I presume you bear me no ill-will; and, as we've both played our little part, there's an end of it."
"Curse you," said Koravitch.
"Oh, of course, if you like. Well, gentlemen, I'm in your hands. What are you going to do with me?"
"You take it pretty coolly," said Koravitch.
"Why, yes; I've been accustomed to dangerous predicaments."
"I like your courage."
The man bowed.
"Are you willing to solemnly swear that you will take no steps against us till the morning?"
"My friends, we had better let the matter end here. I don't want to take any steps against you. Why should I?—the game's ours. If you let me go now, I promise to find my way to the nearest inn, and to say nothing whatever about you. Are you satisfied?"
Well, the end of it was that we agreed to let him go, for we didn't want murder on our hands, and we were rather struck with his coolness. So once more we found ourselves outside the churchyard gate.
"Good night, gentlemen," he said. "You will take more care the next time you try to trick Monsieur Sklavotski. I assure you he's not an easy man to be caught napping—but there, you know it."
He walked off in one direction, and we in another. In a couple of hours we found ourselves in the neighbourhood of C—, and arranged to get a lodging for the night.
We heard afterwards that a signalman saw the escaped carriage running back past his box and gave the alarm. The passengers remaining in the detached coach were "intelligent foreigners," so they were politely told that "they had got into a 'slip coach' that did not work to London. Before starting they should have enquired of the guard, who would have put them in the front part of the train for London." Much excitement was caused when it was found that some of the passengers were missing, but the real state of the case was never known. The result is now a matter of history, though few knew at the time how nearly the settlement of peace came to be frustrated.
It is astonishing how at times the wisest and most careful men are befooled into performing acts of considerable trouble to themselves only to serve a purpose useless to them. Everyone knows the story of Sir Isaac Newton, who, being much annoyed by a cat and her kitten continually crying to come into or go out of his study, made two entrances by sawing out pieces from the bottom of the door—a large opening for the cat, and a small one for the kitten! So, in the story about to be related of Koravitch, that astute individual, as will be seen, was once prevailed upon to undertake what proved to be a very dangerous adventure, and certainly by no means to his advantage. But I had better let the chronicler of his exploits relate the details, as follows:
It was on the occasion narrated in a former memoir of my remarkable friend Koravitch—the time when I ran across him in America—that he told me, together with several other personal adventures—some of which have already been narrated—the following extraordinary story. I had been saying to him:
"Well, you certainly seem fated to take part in adventures of the railway. Have you anything else you can tell me in connection with the line?"
He thought for a moment, and then replied:
"Yes; I could tell you several little stories that would interest you. You see, before I turned my hand to political intriguing I had a few years of railway life, mostly in India, where I did a bit of engineering work, besides a few months in Australia. I must tell you some day of an exciting time I had at a little station in the latter country, when some bush-rangers captured the station as a preliminary to boarding the train, and bound the only two occupants—the station-clerk and myself—hand and foot; and another little story of a ride I once had on a locomotive in India, when I was doing driver's duty owing to shortness of hands, and the native fireman 'ran amuck' on the footplate."
"I should think that's about the worst ride you ever had—worse even than the night when we tried to capture Sklavotski, eh?" I asked.
Koravitch removed the cigar he was smoking from between his lips and gazed at it, pondering for a minute or two. Then he said, slowly:
"The worst ride I ever had? Well, not exactly. There was one that beat it, though I'm not very fond of talking about it, because I made such a fool of myself on one occasion. It was a nasty experience, though, and I wouldn't go through it again in a hurry, I can tell you."
"Where was it—India?"
"No, England, on a 'racing' train—the Scotch express."
"How did it—"
"There, don't ask me any more questions about it. I suppose you want to hear the whole yarn, so you may as well have it. You remember the great 'race to the North' of a few years ago, don't you?"
"Rather! I took a great deal of interest in it at the time."
"Humph! Well, there's a little incident connected with that race that may re-awaken your interest when you hear of it, for I don't expect it's known to you. And, moreover, it will serve to explain why one of the racing trains went wrong on one occasion."
"Which—the Great 'North Eastern' or the—"
"Didn't I tell you not to ask too many questions? Now let me begin at the beginning. At the time of the 'race' I was living in the neighbourhood of Tottenham Court Road—the old place, you know—and, if you will mind back to that particular year, you will remember that our 'Secret Society' was more than usually busy. Several important political intrigues were in operation, and some of our most cherished interests were at stake. More than one of the 'heads' of the Society had come over to England, and in one way or another our work was well cut out.
"It was one morning towards the end of August that I received by post—what was not very unusual for me—a mysterious missive, which began with the secret name by which I was known in the Society, and read thus:
"'Use every effort to prevent Scotch Express 8 p.m. from Newston to-morrow (Thursday) arriving at Aberdeen before Great East Northern train. Most important. See papers.'
"This letter was signed by a very influential member of the Society, and I had no doubt that some important interest was at stake. The day on which I received the letter was Thursday, so, if I was to carry out the order, there was certainly no time to be lost. A last night's paper was lying on my table, and, heeding the warning at the end of the letter, I took it up and scanned it. My attention was arrested by the following paragraphs, which seemed to bear on the case in point:
"'The Queen is still staying at Balmoral. She drove out yesterday accompanied by the Princess Beatrice.
"'It is rumoured that the Prime Minister will pay a special visit to Her Majesty, travelling by the Scotch Express to-morrow evening. This visit is said to be occasioned by fresh complications which have arisen in the Bulgarian Question.'
"Not being satisfied, however, with this, I sent out for a morning paper, and found still more to interest me. There was a paragraph something to this effect:
"'Count von Scheuzinger, Envoy Extraordinary from the Austrian Government, is expected to arrive in London late this afternoon. His Excellency will seek the earliest opportunity for an interview with the Queen, and will in all probability proceed to Aberdeen immediately after a brief visit to the Foreign Office.'
"I began to see daylight. Evidently it was wished that this individual should be able to steal a march on the Premier, and the latter had selected the 'West Northern Route' for his journey northward. I turned to Bradshaw, and hunted up the trains from Aberdeen to Ballater. The 'Queen's Special' left the former at 3.50 a.m. That was too early for either express to catch. The next train from Aberdeen was at 7.10, and at the time of the 'race' either express would catch it easily. So the only alternative at which I could arrive was that the foreign ambassador, if he reached Aberdeen before the Prime Minister, would drive to Balmoral. At all events, one thing was clear, and that was that I was ordered to delay the West Northern express. Again I turned to the paper, and read the following:
"'THE RACE TO THE NORTH.
"'Yesterday morning the West Northern express was again to the front in the railway race, arriving at Aberdeen at 5.15 a.m., while its rival from Queen's Cross reached that station at 5.31. Last night both trains started at 8 o'clock, the drivers keenly alive to the work required of them, but, of course, we go to press too early to know the result of their respective journeys. To-night, however, it is anticipated that the race will be more exciting that ever, for the West Northern officials state that they will not only run the express in two portions, but that the first half will only consist of four coaches, and they are pretty well determined that it will not only beat their rival, but also prove a record run. Those who favour the Great East Northern Route will also be interested to hear that every possible pains are being taken in order that to-night's run shall also be a record.'
"Here was a pretty problem for me to work out! I was accustomed to all sorts of intrigues and risks, but to undertake the delaying of a special racing train seemed rather a large order. I sallied forth, trying to hatch some scheme, and wended my way first to Queen's Cross. Here it was my luck, on pretending to be a representative of the Press, to get a brief interview with the man who had been told off to drive the train on its first stage that night.
"'Shall we beat 'em, sir?' he remarked. 'Can't say, I'm sure. It's a ticklish point. They've had the pull of us yet, for, you see, although they've 540 miles to our 523, they've got an advantage in being able to pick up water as they go along, and so their tenderweight's a good deal less than ours. They've got a bit better track, I believe, too, though it's a stiff pull up the Snap bank between Breston and Carline. Of course, we shall do our best, but I wouldn't like to promise you the G.E.N. 'll win.'
"This was discouraging, and I sought the rival terminus. There I managed to learn that every effort was being made to run a record that night, and that it would be very surprising if the G.E.N. got the better of them. I tried to get into the engine sheds in the hope of having a chance to tamper with the locomotive that was going to do the first stage of the journey, or at least to get at the driver. But it was all of no use. The officials seemed particularly reticent, and I could get no information whatever. Tired and cross, I returned to my rooms to rest as best I could and think out the situation. All sorts of ideas presented themselves to my mind: going down the line, capturing some lonely signal-box, and keeping the signals against the express; setting a red light on the line to stop the train, as I did once on the Nord Belge Railway; but nothing seemed feasible, and at length I determined to travel myself on the express, in the hope that some unforeseen opportunity would turn up and help me to delay the train. With this purpose in my mind I started from my lodgings some little time after seven o'clock in the evening. It was darker than usual for the time of year, for the sky had become overcast with heavy clouds, and a severe thunderstorm was threatening to break.
"I was wending my way through some of the back streets in the neighbourhood of N.W. London, where itinerant vendors of fruit and vegetables are apt to expose their wares for sale on barrows, when one of these gentlemen, who was packing up his scales, let a weight slip just as I passed, with the result that it struck my foot in falling.
"'Beg pardon, guv'nor!' he remarked, in answer to my somewhat angry ejaculation. "Ope it ain't 'urt ye, but 'tain't only a two-pounder, and it might have been worse.'
"'Bad enough as it is,' I replied, 'for it caught me a nasty knock.'
"'Better than 'avin' a twenty pun' wyte on yer foot, same as one of my brothers did once—that's enough to lime a bloomin' great elephant.'
"I was about to pass on when a sudden idea struck me, and I turned to the man.
"'What's the biggest weight you have in stock?'
"'Only four pun'. There ain't no use for anything above that on my barrer.'
"'Where can I buy a twenty-pound weight?'
"'Eh! Are yer goin' in fur sellin' coals, guv'nor? Well, on the second turnin' to the right there's an ironmonger's shop, where they sell such things; and let me—'
"I was off to the shop before he had finished, and somewhat astonished the proprietor by purchasing a twenty-pound weight, with a bar-handle let into it, and taking it away with me. It was an awkward thing to carry, of course. I had it done up in brown paper, and grasped the handle through this as well as I could. What did I want it for? Wait a minute and you'll see.
"When I reached the portico of the station the storm had begun to break, and, in spite of the fact that it was still only a quarter to eight, darkness had set in. I was very glad of this, as it favoured my plot—in fact, it was necessary that it should be quite dark. As I strolled on to the platform the engine was just backing in with full steam up—one of the well-known compounds of the 'West Northern' type. Of course there were a number of people looking on, and at first it seemed as though I should not succeed in my plan, which was to travel unobserved on the front of the engine that pulled the 'Scotch Express.'
"Four minutes to eight, and still the opportunity had not come. Then a brilliant idea seized me. One compartment of the train was still unoccupied, except by the light luggage of three passengers, who were standing on the platform, one of whom I recognised as the Prime Minister. To dart into the 'sleeper,' open the opposite door, and get out on the other side was the work of a few seconds, and to my joy I found myself in the six-foot way between two trains—the 'Express' and an 'empty' drawn up alongside, so that my movements were quite concealed from observation. Along in between the trains I crept, lugging my big weight with me, past the tender of the engine, past the cab—the driver and fireman being too much engaged on the other side to notice me—past the two sets of driving-wheels peculiar to this type of engine, until I stood close to its front. How I wished at that moment that the West Northern Railway built their engines on the 'bogie' system, for, of course, that would have given me a much larger space in front of the smoke-box. But I screwed up my courage, placed the weight on the narrow platform in front of the engine, and prepared to spring on myself as soon as she started.
"Nor had I very long to wait, for, punctually to the moment, the driver opened the regulator, and off she steamed on her journey north, with Screwe as her first stopping-place, unless I managed that it should be otherwise. At the same moment I grasped the frame and drew myself up on to the narrow platform in front, taking care to crouch down as much as possible, so as to avoid being seen by anyone on the platform. As we cleared the roof of the terminus the rain pelted down in torrents, and before we reached the first tunnel I was wet to the skin. The darkness had become intense, for which I was only too thankful, as it prevented me from being seen. By the time we ran through Williamsden Junction the speed was very great, and it was as much as I could do to hold on by the vacuum brake-pipe in front as I lay with my knees drawn up on my narrow and jolting resting-place.
"Out into the country and the black night we raced, running against time and our rival of the Great East Northern, with the blast thundering up the chimney close behind me, and the good engine quivering with the strain. No joke even to be on the footplate behind a comfortable cab on such a night; but to be riding where I was might strike a feeling of uneasiness into the heart of many a man bolder than myself.
"Once I was in great peril of being discovered. I happened to raise myself from my crouching position for a moment, holding on to the hand-rail in front of the chimney, when, as I looked back, I saw the fireman coming to the front with his oil-can. In horror I crouched round to the opposite side, stooping as far as possible in case the driver should see me through the weather glass. Fortunately the fireman went back the way he had come, or I must, of course, have been caught.
"But the worst was to come, for I had stationed myself there for a purpose, and, as our head-light shone upon the narrow trough of water between the rails at Thorney, I laid hold of my weight and prepared to act. But, no, we were not to pick up water here; the scoop was not let down, I knew, because I heard no splash. So on we went, until I was chilled to the bone with the rain and rush through the storm, until at length we reached the top of the long gradient that rises more or less all the way between London and Wing, and were dashing down at fearful speed through Sheddington and Laytown.
"When we were through Bletchton I prepared to act once more, and presently I had grasped the weight by its handle and was holding it over the buffer-plate exactly in the centre, as far down as I could possibly reach—right over the middle of the track. It seemed ages, and I thought I could never hold on; but presently I caught a glimpse of something shining ahead, and we were over the water trough at Castledean.
"Splash! The driver had let down the scoop, and there was not an instant to lose. Reaching as far down as possible, I dropped the twenty-pound weight into the water-trough between the rails. A moment afterwards and there was a crash—faint enough beneath the roar of the locomotive, but sufficient to distinguish in it the ripping sound of tearing iron. Immediately the splashing ceased, and I knew the weight had done its work. It had fallen into the trough, and, naturally, the scoop struck it as it came along and was completely destroyed, the effect being that it was impossible to pick up any more water en route, and that the driver would be compelled to stop and replenish his tank before he reached Screwe.
"And stop he had to. I very soon knew by the sound of the engine and her blast that he had notched her up as much as he dared, and was afraid to open his damper much. The speed slackened slightly, and it was evident that it would be a ticklish job for him to get as far as Mugby without his lead plug blowing off. But, as I afterwards heard, he understood his engine thoroughly, and he did it. I was too much occupied in getting off unobserved as we drew up at Mugby to notice things, but I just heard him shout to someone on the platform:
"Look alive there with that water! It's a fine night's work this! What's up? Why, someone must have fouled the road and put a big block of iron or something in the water-troughs. We'll not win the race to-night, that's certain!'
"Nor did they. What the West Northern's record would have been without that stop it's impossible to say, for as it was they ran into Aberdeen at 4.51 the next morning. But the Great East Northern was there already, a good eleven minutes in front of them at Linaber Junction, and for once the West Northern had to take a 'back seat,' for of course it was on their portion of the track that the mishap occurred.
"And what was the result, do you ask? Did Count Scheuzinger reach Balmoral before the Prime Minister, and why was it that the Secret Society wanted him to do so? No, the Austrian Ambassador, as it happened, had travelled down with the Prime Minister by the West Northern Route, and I had been made a fool of. How? Why, the next evening, after arriving back in town utterly done up with my exertions, you may imagine my feelings when a letter came by the last post for me, which read somewhat as follows:
"My dear sir,—I really cannot refrain from writing both to thank you for a service you have, as I suppose, rendered me, and also to congratulate you on what must have been an exceedingly daring exploit. But let me explain myself.
"I may as well state that for some time past I have been acquainted with the methods of your Secret Society, and, in fact, in order to further certain ends of my own have succeeded in more than once penetrating into some of your meetings. It was at one of these that I first became aware of your daring and ability in a certain adventure of the railway undertaken by yourself, and based upon your technical knowledge and skill; and I well remembered how it was said at the time that when any difficult enterprise connected with the line had to be undertaken, you were the man, par excellence, to evolve the scheme and to carry it out. It was this that led me to select you to aid me in a little matter that concerned myself. The fact is, there has been a good deal of betting lately on the 'Race to the North,' and, of course, the odds have been the last few days very much against the East Coast Route. Being myself one of that class of people known as 'prodigal sons,' and not yet having eschewed the husks of fortune for the ways of piety, it occurred to me that there was something in taking heavy odds as above if I could claim your assistance in delaying the West Coast train. I accordingly wrote to you, taking the liberty to sign myself as one of those whom I knew you would obey, suggesting that you should stop the express from Newston, while certain paragraphs in the papers to which I mysteriously alluded probably lent colour to my request
"'At all events, when I saw you at Newston platform last night (for naturally I was there) I felt sure that my little plot had succeeded—especially when I observed that you had chosen a somewhat novel method of travelling northwards, for I just caught sight of you in front of the engine as the train started. What was your exact method of procedure I do not know, but as there was a breakdown I naturally surmise that you had something to do with it. Your journey must have been, to say the least of it, somewhat unpleasant, but you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you have earned the gratitude and substantially increased the wealth of
"Yours very truly,
"East Coast Route.
"P.S.—I am sorry I cannot sign my real name but the reason must be obvious to you.'
"And so," added Koravitch, "you see I had been fearfully and
wonderfully sold. I never discovered who the individual was that I
had unwittingly served; but, at all events, that was the most
terrible ride I ever had on a locomotive, and I don't think I'd
care to undertake such an experience again."
NOTE.-It is worth recording that in the race to the North of 1895 the times of arrival at Aberdeen on the last three days were as follows:—
West Coast. East Coast. August 20th 4.58 5.11 August 21st 4.51 4.40 August 22nd 4.32 6.23
Also I have it on reliable information that on the night of the 21st an L. and N.W. engine broke down in some way between Bletchley and Crewe and considerably delayed the train. I mention the coincidence as a remarkable one. Perhaps "Koravitch" has explained another railway incident!
"Ugh!" said my companion to me, with a shiver and a little clutch at my arm. "That's a thing I hate!"
We were standing by a level-crossing as he spoke. We had almost started to cross the rails, when a rumble and a whistle and the bright glare of the head-lights heralded the close approach of a train. So we stood back for a moment or two to let the iron steed and his load pass. The lights from the carriages flashed out upon us, then there was a swirl of wind as darkness came on once more, and the red tail-light vanished round the curve beyond.
"Why," I remarked with a laugh, as we went on again, "surely an old soldier and ex-prison warder like yourself isn't afraid of a passing train?"
"Ah, sir, every man has his weakness, and I'm not ashamed to confess that I've got mine. And, perhaps, if you'd had an experience that happened to me some ten years ago, you'd flinch a bit when an express train rattled past you."
"Oh, there's a foundation for it, is there?"
"There is, sir, and if you care to step inside my little place and rest for half an hour, I'll tell you the yarn, such as it is."
I expressed myself only too delighted to pick up the proferred information. I must explain before I go further that until the evening in question my companion had been unknown to me. I had been staying for a few days at the little cathedral city of Dullminster, and had been on a day's fishing excursion in the neighbourhood with no companion save my pipe. It was while pensively watching my float in the quiet little stream that a fine-looking old fellow appeared, bent on the same sport as myself, and took up his position close by. As bites were few and far between, we entered into conversation, and when dusk set in, by mutual consent, we packed our traps and set off together over the pleasant fields that lay between us and Dullminster. He told me something of his past history as we trudged along, from which I gathered that he had begun life in the Army, and afterwards he had been a warder in the well-known convict prison of Dartport, from which post he had retired into private life some few years since, and had come to eke out a restful existence on savings and pension in Dullminster, the place of his birth.
A few hundred yards beyond the level crossing we stopped at the door of a little house in one of the streets in the outskirts of the town.
"Come in, sir," said the old fellow. "I'm all by myself—yes, an old bachelor, sir. And if you'll condescend to have a cup of tea, while I spin you the yarn, you're welcome to it."
It was a chilly autumn evening, and the bright fire and singing kettle in the little sitting-room looked very inviting, so I gladly accepted mine host's invitation.
"And now, sir," said he, when we were comfortably settled, "I'll tell you why I don't like to be near an express train at night.
"Of course, as you can imagine, we used to have some queer customers at Dartport. Her Majesty's private hotels take all kinds of folk, and we are not particular as to character. One of the worst gaol-birds that I ever remember was a certain convict whom I will call by his old number-36. He was in for a long sentence—in fact, as far as I know, he's doing time yet; though if there'd been a little more evidence forthcoming at his trial, his term of imprisonment would have been a short one, ending in the prison-yard on the scaffold; but as it was, though his list of crimes was a pretty black one, murder couldn't quite be proved, though there were few that doubted he hadn't stuck at that.
"From the moment I set eyes on him at Dartport I knew there'd be trouble with No. 36. It wasn't only the size and strength of the man, but a certain nasty look about his eyes that told me this. Nor was I mistaken, for he proved to be one of the most unmanageable brutes we ever had. He soon took a particularly strong dislike to me, for, as ill-luck would have it, I was the first to have to report him for misconduct, and it was through me that he had his first taste of the cat. When I went into his cell that night, he broke the strict rule of silence, and hissed out:—
"You devil of a turnkey, I'll kill you before I've finished with you.'
"It was a threat I had heard more than once before, and it didn't affect me very much at the time, though I had good reason to remember it afterwards.
"Two years passed, and No. 36 showed no signs of improving. He had a marvellous physique, and the prison diet seemed in no way to diminish his strength. He had to be most carefully watched in the quarries, and in fact always, for he had a nasty knack of being dangerous in more ways than one. At length, towards the end of the summer of the year of which I am speaking, he suddenly turned over a new leaf, and became quiet and tractable. I felt less sure of him than ever, nevertheless, for I had seen something of this phase of character before, and I knew it generally meant mischief. Nor was I mistaken, for one afternoon, when a fog had come on rather unexpectedly, the sharp crack of a rifle betokened the escape of No. 36. Taking advantage of the mist, he had suddenly struck the nearest warder to the ground, hurled a big bit of stone with deadly aim at one sentry, completely bowling him over, taking the chance of a bullet from another—and was off!
"A search party was, of course, organized at once, but somehow or other he managed to show a clean pair of heels and escape over the moors. As darkness set in, a poor old man was found dazed and half naked, about a couple miles from the prison, and, after being revived, he told how No. 36 had met him and insisted upon having all his upper garments, so that the runaway had an extra good chance of getting clear.
"It was between nine and ten o'clock at night that I, in company with several other members of a search party, halted for a little consultation just by the embankment of the railway, the main 'West Southern,' line to London, that runs through the desolate bit of country some five or six miles north of Dartport Prison.
"'I wonder whether it's any use having a look at Westmoor Station,' said our chief.
"Westmoor Station was about two miles up the line from where we were standing.
"'Aye,' I replied, 'it's just possible that he might be lying around there, looking out for a train; though it's my belief that he's making northward—at any rate, it's more likely.'
"'Well, Davis,' said the chief, after a moment or two's thought, 'suppose you go to Westwood. It may be worth trying. I think we ought to go on to Hartwell, or that direction. What do you say?'
"I'm willing to do as you suggest,' I answered. It's just as well to see the station-master, I think.'
"All right. You slip away, then, Davis. You'd better keep along the line—it's the nearest way.'
"So I started off along the line. It was a very dark night, though the fog had lifted, and it was some moments before I got used to the track. After a bit, however, I made pretty fair progress, walking between the down pair rails on the right-hand side, so that I could see the head-lights of any train coming towards me. I hadn't gone far before I did a very foolish thing. I slung my rifle over my shoulders, so as to leave my hands free.
"I had gone about half a mile or more up the line when a great longing for a pipe came over me. I hadn't had a pipe all day, and as you're a smoker, sir, you know pretty well how I was feeling. As I walked along I took out my pouch, filled my pipe, and then felt in my pocket for a match. After nearly turning it inside out I found one solitary wax vesta. Now, there was a bit of a wind blowing over the moor, and fearful lest I should waste my precious match, I refrained from striking it until I could get behind some shelter. The desired object presently appeared, looming through the darkness, in the shape of a little platelayer's hut on the same side of the line as I was walking, the door facing towards the rails. Getting into the shelter of the doorway, I struck the match, and was just about to light my pipe, when, as I leaned against the door, to my astonishment it opened inwards with my weight, almost precipitating me to the ground, and before I could recover myself the light of the vesta revealed to me the hideous face of No. 36, who was hiding within.
"With a snarl he was upon me, and had clutched me by the throat with his strong, bony hands. It was all done so suddenly that I had scarcely time to think of what was happening, and had hardly realized the situation, when I found myself sprawling on my back with the ugly brute on the top of me. Of course, I made a mighty effort to defend myself, but I was quite powerless in his strong grip.
"Ah,' he growled, with a curse, as he held me pinned to the ground, it's you, is it? Well, I've got a few old accounts to settle with you, and I don't think there could be a better opportunity.'
"'You brute!' I ejaculated, trying to twist myself out of his grasp.
"Ah—would you? Not so fast, Warder Davis. The tables are turned now, and you're the prisoner.'
"At this moment something flashing bright in the dim star-light fell out of my pocket and clanged on the gravel ballast of the railway track.
"'Good,' said No. 36, making a snatch at it; 'these bracelets were meant for me, I suppose. Perhaps they'd prove as good a fit on your wrists. At any rate, we'll try. And as we haven't a cell handy to fix you in, we'll fasten you down to something secure—do you hear?'
"And putting forth all his strength, in spite of my desperate struggles, he half dragged, half rolled me on to the down track close beside us. Then, kneeling on my chest, he forced my right hand beneath the outer rail between the sleepers, and my left arm over the rail, then there was a sharp click, as with a savage chuckle he snapped the handcuffs over both my wrists, and I realized my terrible position. I was handcuffed down to the rail!
"He jumped up in triumph, felt in my pocket, drew out the key of the handcuffs, and hurled it away.
"'How now, you white-livered skunk?' he snarled. 'I could kill you outright with a knock on the head if I chose. But I'm not going to commit murder, oh, no! I'll leave that to the down express. Do you understand? If it runs at the same time as it used to, it ought to come by here about eleven o'clock, and I guess there'll be a little obstruction in its way to-night. Ah! I've got to fix you a bit tighter, my friend, just to make sure, you know.'
"And he went into the hut, reappearing in a few moments with a piece of rope, which he had, I suppose, previously noticed there.
"'You'd feel a little bit more comfortable if I tie your feet down too, eh?' he sneered; and, to my horror, he put a loop of rope round my right leg, drew it underneath the inner rail, and then made the end fast to my left ankle, above the rail. I was thus fixed right across the track, and escape from a hideous death seemed impossible. But the villain had not finished yet.
"'There's just a chance that you might call out,' he said, 'so I'll tie your mouth up. You can say your prayers just as well with it shut as open, and the sooner you say them the better, for you never needed to more.'
"He stuffed part of my handkerchief into my mouth and tied it round with another bit of rope. Then he proceeded to rifle my pockets.
"'Got any loose cash about you? That's right. I'll take care of it, for it won't do you any good now, I reckon, and you'll have the dying satisfaction of having helped me to get off to London. And now, you skunk of a warder, good-night! I told you I'd be the death of you one day, but, by Heaven, I never hoped for such a paying-off of old scores as this. Remember, you'll see the head-lights of the engine coming towards you—you'll hear the roar of the train that's going to squash you. It's a good revenge, isn't it? I'd stay here and see the end of it if I could, only I've no time to spare, so now good-night, Warder Davis, curse you!'
"And with a brutal kick at my defenceless body he started off in the direction of Westmoor. I could see his bulky form for a moment or two in the dim light, and could hear for several minutes the tread of his feet crunching the gravel on the permanent way. I had no doubt in my mind that he had been making for Westmoor previously, and had used the old platelayer's hut as a hiding-place until it was about time to take a chance of getting on one of the up trains.
"My situation was a truly awful one. He was quite right about the down express: it was timed to run through Westmoor just about eleven o'clock. It was past ten now, so that there was not an hour between me and a hideous death. I lay still for some minutes and tried to compose my mind to think a little. Was there anything I could do? Yes! With an effort I might manage to remove the gag. I pushed my head as far as it would go over the metals, and to my joy was able to undo the knots with my chained hands and to get the handkerchief out of my mouth. This was a relief, certainly, but only a very small one, for it soon dawned upon me that if I yelled my loudest there would be no one within hearing on the lonely moor through which the track ran. To get my hands free was impossible, but there might be a chance for my feet. I began to kick them about, and discovered that the wretch had simply passed the rope between my ankles once round the rail, so that by alternately kicking and pulling with each foot I could draw it backward and forward against the rail. With the energy of despair I began to work with all my might to fray the rope against the rail, and so set my feet free.
"I must have kicked away for over half an hour—kicked and pulled till I was stiff and in agony, and still the rope held, but I could feel it rubbing away and getting thinner, and I tried to work it so that the friction took place where the rail rested in the 'chair' on the sleeper, so as to have a sharp corner to cut. Fiercely I struggled to get free, but the rope was a strong one, and it seemed as if it would hold for ever.
"A whistle! Hardly discernible in the distance, but still I knew what it meant. The down express was running through Westmoor Station. A fresh struggle—and still the rope held. Then came an ominous rumble in the distance, and there, half a mile away up the straight bit of track, I could see the glimmer of the engine's head-light. A desperate pull! I hung on to the outer rails with both hands, and pulled with arms and legs like a man on the rack of old—every muscle of the body was strained with the fearful tension. Snap! The rope broke and my feet were free.
"There was not a moment to lose; the train was little over a quarter of a mile away, and in twenty seconds it would be on me. But a desperate man can do a lot in that time. With a quick movement I rolled over to the outside of the track, so that my left arm came under the rail. Then I threw myself at full length parallel to the track, feet towards the approaching train, and as far from the rail as possible. At the same moment I drew down my hands on either side of the rail so that the short chain between the steel wristlets was on the top of the rail, the centre being on the inner top edge of the rail where the wheels would strike.
"With a roar the train was on me. I expected to have one of my hands cut off, and there came a sharp thrill of pain to both wrists as the leading wheel of the engine struck the chain, while the thought flashed across me that I might not be far enough from the rail to escape being struck in my body.
"The passing of that awful train seemed to be an hour. Wheel after wheel ran close to my face with a hideous clatter—until the momentary red glare of the taillight and a big rush of air told me that the danger had passed. For about five minutes I lay perfectly still, and not till then did I discover that my hands were falling further apart.
"Scarcely daring to hope, I drew them slowly towards me. Yes! I was free! The heavy train had snapped the swivel-link that joined the handcuffs, and with the exception of a severe bruising in my wrists, I was perfectly uninjured.
"Well, to make a long story short, sir, I toddled to my feet with the most profound feeling of gratitude to Providence that I had ever experienced. And then, weak and nerve-shattered as I was, there came upon me the intense desire to recapture the brute who had condemned me to such an awful death. My rifle was still with me, and uninjured; so, as well as I could, I set forth in the direction of Westmoor, starting in fright after I had gone a short distance at the noise of a heavy goods train, that rumbled past me on the up track.
"When I got to the station, the platform and offices were closed, but this same goods train was being shunted in the yard, preparatory to making a fresh start on its journey towards London. Two or three trucks, covered with tarpaulins, were detached, and I fancied I caught a glimpse of a dark figure crouching beside one of them.
"I stopped and watched, smiling to myself as I saw No. 36 climb into the truck, and disappear beneath the tarpaulin. Then I went quietly to the brakesman and explained matters. He, the driver of the engine, a couple of shunters, and myself surrounded the truck, and in a few minutes No. 36 found himself brought to bay, with the man whom he had thought dead presenting his rifle within a foot of him. He saw the game was over and gave in, and that's the end of the yarn.
"Yes, of course, he was pretty severely punished, but that didn't compensate me for my terrible experience; and now perhaps you don't wonder why I should give a bit of a shudder when an express train passes me in the dark!"
"Well, sir," said the railway ganger, as he slowly lit the short clay pipe so dear to an English labourer's mouth, "I'll tell you the tale, as you seem bent on hearing it. It was hushed up at the time, d'ye see? but I suppose there ain't any particular harm in letting it become public after all these years.
"I was just an ordinary platelayer on the Mid-Northern Railway when it happened. It was in the Rockhurst Tunnel, and the Royal special was—, but there! I'd better start at the beginning and make a few explanations, or you won't get the hang of the thing."
So we sat down together by the side of the line. He had only
just come off duty and had asked me for a light just as I strolled
over the level crossing. A railwayman of any grade is always worth
talking to, and one thing had led to another until the man had
dropped a hint that he had a story to tell. That settled it, and
here is the ganger's tale.
"When the King or some other person of the Royal Family takes a little run over the line, it ain't a question of just buying a ticket at one end and giving it up at the other, like you or me does. There's all sorts of things to be arranged by the Company beforehand, and when the Royal special's run, a lot of trouble that most people don't dream of is taken, so that nothing shall fall foul of it. Orders are given all along the line for shunting other trains into sidings to let it pass, and on a busy bit of the road this ain't no joke for the traffic super. to arrange.
"A pilot engine is run light'—that's by itself—a quarter of an hour ahead of the train, and nothing's allowed on the metals between the two. Every station-master gets his special instructions, not only for use at the stations themselves, but orders for the protection of every inch of the line.
"At every bridge under or over which the train is to run, at every level crossing, at all 'facing points' and junctions, in every tunnel, a man is stationed long before the Royal train is timed to pass. It is his duty to see that the line is clear, that no suspicious persons are loitering about, and generally to act as sentinel over the Royal safety. Most of these men detailed for special duty are drawn from the permanent way gang. Many a time I've held the green flag when Queen Victoria (God bless her memory!) was a-rushing by, and though she didn't see me I felt as proud as though I'd been a sentry guarding her at Windsor Castle.
"The gang I was working in at the time I'm telling you of knew there was going to be a Royal journey on the London and Mid-Northern, and one morning just as we were going to begin work our ganger told us that the special was to run that afternoon, and that he'd got his orders from the stationmaster in our district for placing the men.
"All that morning we spent in overhauling the five miles of down metals that belonged to our gang. Keys were driven in more firmly between the chairs and rails, fish-plate bolts were tested and the spanner clapped on to all loose nuts to tighten them, and everything was done to make the permanent way as safe as possible.
"'Jackson, Holloway and Stone,' said our ganger, 'you're told off for the Rockhurst Tunnel. You take the south end, Jackson; you the north, Stone; and,' turning to me, 'you'll be in the middle, Holloway.'
"'All right,' I answered.
"'Don't forget your lamp, Holloway,' he went on, 'and be sure you've got enough oil in it. You'd better be in your place before two. The pilot's timed to run through at 2.55.'
"Now, of course, you've heard of the Rockhurst Tunnel. It's just over a mile long, and runs under as wild a bit of moorland as you'd find in a day's march. There's a signal box in the cutting at each end, so the tunnel is a 'block' in itself. It's not quite straight through; there's a slight curve just at the centre, but by standing on the outer side of this curve you can see the spot of daylight—for it's only a spot—at each end. I knew every inch of the tunnel. Many a long day I'd spent in it, working by the light of naphtha lamps, and it was only natural that I should stand a chance of being placed on guard in it.
"I remember well how I chuckled over what seemed to me an easy afternoon's job—just a spell of rest. Folks know little of the work of the P.W. men. The passenger, as he rushes by and glances at a group of chaps leaning on their shovels and picks, doesn't realise that the very rail he's running over has very likely only been keyed into its place five minutes before. He growls at the slowness of his journey when 'reduced speed' is ordered for a P.W. job, little thinking that tons of heavy ballast must be shovelled in and levelled by the despised platelayer before it will be safe to run at sixty miles an hour again. And there's dangers in the life, too, not only from the running of the trains, and fools pitching empty bottles out of windows, and fogs and such like, but lots of other things that you never dream of, sir.
"I had my foot jammed in a facing point once, when it was being closed; lucky for me, the signalman heard me shout in time, or I'd only have troubled the shoemaker for one boot for the rest of my life. This scar on my cheek was cut by a bit of a detonator that flew off the rail when the engine struck it, and it might have cost me an eye. And my teeth—but there, that reminds me, I'm getting clean away from my yarn.
"Well, about a quarter to two, carrying an ordinary railway lamp with a green and red shade to it, and a few detonators, or fog signals, in my pocket in case of accident, I walked through the tunnel from the south end till I reached the centre. It was pitch dark, of course, except for just a dim spot of light that shone over the rails; for just above was a ventilating shaft opening into the moorland.
"Very soon after I'd got to my place the ganger himself came through, making a last examination By his doing this it was impossible that anyone else could be in the tunnel.
"Now, I must tell you exactly what my duties were. They were very simple. Of course, I had to know that the line was perfectly clear ahead. The green lamp that Stone, at the north end, had, would show me this. When the pilot engine entered the south end I was to show a green light towards the driver, and also to wave it in the other direction, so that Stone could see that all was right. Exactly the same precautions were to be observed when the special itself came along. In case of anything wrong happening, I was to show the red light, of course.
"It must have been nearly half-past two. I was standing a few yards away from under the air shaft when I was startled by hearing a noise. I turned round to see what was up, and I tell you my heart gave a sort of jump when I saw the figure of a man close by, while another one seemed to be dropping from the roof of the tunnel.
"'Hullo, what are you doing here?' I said, pulling myself together as well as I could.
"'Look sharp, Bill, drop! Here's our man—right under our very nose!' cried the fellow I had seen.
"I saw something was up, and turned the red shade on to my lamp, hurrying to the side of the tunnel as I did so.
"'Ah, would you?' shouted the man. I saw him lift up his arm, and the next moment I felt a heavy blow on my head, and staggered forward.
"'Quick, Bill, or they'll see the red light. Down with him!'
"The other man had now come up, and the two, springing at me, bore me down to the ground between the metals. I still held the lamp, but it was wrenched out of my hand and the green shade turned on once more.
"Got the cord, Bill?' asked the first speaker.
"'Here it is,' said the other. 'You hold him down and I'll make short work of him.'
"In five minutes they had lashed my arms closely to my sides, cutting my wrists almost to the bone, and bound my legs firmly together.
"'What—what are you going to do with me?' I asked.
"'You'll soon see, my friend,' said the man who had spoken first. 'You never expected visitors, eh? But angels drop from the sky sometimes, and we just slung a rope from the airshaft overhead and came down it, see? Pity your people don't take more pains when they have Royal passengers.'
"'There was a man there—' I began.
"'A clumsy youth, yes! He's in the same case as you now. Listen; we won't kill you outright, because you've not done us any damage, but we'll give you a chance of seeing one of the biggest railway accidents known, and of telling your friends about it—if you're lucky enough to escape yourself, which I doubt.'
"For God's sake, what are you going to do?' I cried. 'Do you know who is travelling? Do you know?'
"'Exactly; that's why we're here. You don't suppose we should have taken so much trouble over an ordinary train, do you? But there isn't any time to waste on you. The pilot engine will be through directly. Hurry up with that bag, Bill. Stow it safely and fix the end of the rope to the up side of the tunnel till we want it again. That's right. Now help me lift this fellow into the manhole in the wall and stick by him there while I work the pilot through. Clap your hand over his mouth if he tries to shout. Afterwards he can yell as much as he likes.'
"They put me into the manhole, propping me up against the sides of the wall. I tell you, I was in a 'blue funk.' I'd guessed pretty well the meaning of the thing. They were a couple of Anarchists, and they meant to wreck the Royal train in the middle of the tunnel. And I couldn't prevent it, for they'd planned it too well.
"Presently I heard a roar from the South end of the tunnel. The pilot engine was coming through. The man who had charge over me laid his hand on my mouth, but I could see what the other was doing. He was holding the green light towards the engine, every now and then turning to wave it in the opposite direction, so that my mate at the other end of the tunnel would think that all was right.
"With a rattle and a roar the pilot engine ran past us. Then the man with the lamp drew a hammer from his pocket and drove a nail in the wall of the tunnel as high as he could reach, hanging the lamp on it, green light towards the south.
"You can't reach that to blow it out,' he said to me with a nasty, chuckling laugh. 'And now we're going to fix a pretty little fog-signal of a patent pattern on to the rails. It's warranted to stop any train!'
"And in the dim light from the shaft I saw them draw something out of a bag, and carefully fix it on to the metals, using some tools as they did so.
"'There,' said the brute when they had done, 'I think that'll settle matters. Quick, Bill! We've not a moment to lose. The train will be through in five minutes or so. Up you get! Good-bye, my friend,' he shouted to me as the other man started climbing up the rope, 'There's an exciting time before you!'
"And then he disappeared, leaving me alone in the tunnel. It was about as ugly a fix as a chap could be in, and you can fancy I felt pretty queer. But even before they went there came to me just a glimmering of an idea, faint as the spot of daylight under the shaft, but a dying man will clutch at a straw, they say, and I was in the same sort of case. Besides, it wasn't only my own life I was thinking of.
"I told you they'd put me, propped up against the wall, in an upright position. Bound hand and foot as I was, in that position lay my last chance. I might yet save the Royal train.
"If only I could get across to the other side of the tunnel, between which and me lay a double set of metals!
"Why? I'll tell you. The Anarchists didn't know, and perhaps you don't either, that the safety of that tunnel didn't only depend on my showing a green light. The Rockhurst Tunnel, like several other long ones in England, such as the 'Box' and the 'Severn,' on the Great Western Railway, is fitted with a special apparatus for giving an alarm signal in case of danger or accident.
"This apparatus is a very simple one; a telegraph wire is fixed in the tunnel and connected with a 'tell-tale' bell in the signal boxes at each end in such a way that if the wire is broken the bells start ringing at once and give the alarm. Then each signalman knows that something is up in the tunnel, and can put his signals against all trains and prevent them coming in.
"This wire, which is a thin one, so that you can easily break it, is fixed to the wall of the tunnel on the up side of the line, about five feet from the ground. I remembered this, and I knew if I could only break it in time the signalman in the box at the south end would never let the Royal train pass without an examination of the whole tunnel.
"As I say, I was tied up. Still, a sort of plan came before me, and I determined to have a good try at it. I was upright, and I felt I might be able to move by short jumps. The worst thing I had before me was the getting over the four rails, for, if I fell down, I knew it would be pretty difficult to get up again.
"I gave one or two hopping jumps forward, very carefully, till I felt my shins against the first rail. Then I pulled myself together, jumped as high as I could, and lurched myself forward. It was a narrow squeak. I felt the heels of my boots just touch the inner edge of the rail, but down I came safely on the other side. A few more jumps and another effort brought me into the 'six-foot way.' Half the battle was over. Then I jumped the third rail and only one was left.
"Whether I was nervous, or over confident like, I don't know, but when I tried to jump that last rail my toe caught in the top of it and sent me lunching forward. My shoulder came an awful bang against the wall of the tunnel, but, luckily, my feet had landed on the ground, and I felt myself sort of propped up in a slanting position against the wall. I managed to get myself upright, and then came the nastiest job of the lot.
"I felt against the wall with my face till my nose touched the signal wire. Then I grasped it—with my teeth.
"Talk about a dentist, sir! It wasn't in it. I bit hard on the wire, and pulled and strained with all my might to break it I thought I never should have stood the pain long enough, but at last the wire snapped, and, at the same time, out flew three of my teeth, torn out of the gums. I was pretty well done up, I can tell you, and had to lean against the wall.
"It might have been a minute or an hour I waited, for all I knew, but anyhow I heard, after a bit, a long whistle from the south end of the tunnel. Then came silence, and I knew the train had stopped.
"A long time seemed to pass, and then I heard voices and saw three or four white lights coming through the darkness.
"'Here's his green light, all right,' said someone.
"'Here I am,' I shouted. 'Look out how you come forward.'
"'What's the matter, my man?'
"'There's something on the line under the air shaft. Take care how you touch it.'
"'Why, he's tied up, and covered with blood,' cried one of the party, as he flashed his lantern on to me, 'whatever's happened? Are you hurt?'
"'Not much sir. Only a tooth or two gone,' I answered.
"It was the loco. super., who had been travelling on the footplate of the Royal engine. With him was a guard, and a couple of officials who had special charge of the train. A penknife soon set me free, and I told them what had happened.
"Then we went up to the thing that had been fixed to the line, screwed on by a bolt passing underneath the rail, so that I could have done nothing there with my teeth.
"'Great heavens!' gasped the loco. super., as he stooped down with his lamp, 'A couple of dynamite cartridges! My man you have saved the Royal train; but for goodness sake keep your mouth shut.'
"Well, the result was that they examined the tunnel from end to end, and then the Royal train was allowed to run slowly through.
"A few days later, I 'trod the carpet' in the general manager's room. He thanked me for what I had done and asked me to keep the whole thing to myself—for the sake of the Company, I expect—and ended by giving me an envelope with a nice little sum in bank notes.
"'Also,' he said, 'you'd better go to a dentist's and get some false teeth put into those gaps. You can send in the bill to the Company.'"
[by VICTOR L. WHITECHURCH AND E. CONWAY]
"Yes," said the Colonel, as he lit another cheroot, "many a man when he is in action is simply mad for the time being, and fights like a demon because he sees red."
"Sees red?" I asked, with a start.
"Don't you know what I mean?"
"Ah, it's a curious psychological problem that I've experienced myself. I was leading a cavalry charge at Joonpore, and suddenly the enemy, the country, everything seemed to fade away into a blood-red mist that blinded me with colour—I could see nothing else. And then the mad desire came upon me to slash and slay. They told me afterwards that I behaved like a fury, and I can believe it, for I've seen many a man in the same condition. It only comes in battle, I believe. That's the only time you can see red.—
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. But what's the matter, Forbes? You look completely startled."
"Oh, it's nothing," I replied, "only a fanciful presentiment I had when I arrived this evening, and you put me in mind of it."
"What! you don't mean to say you saw red," asked the Colonel, with a laugh.
"Not in your sense of the word, Colonel; and you'll only laugh at me if I tell you. It's a mere fancy, that's all."
"Well, drown your fancies in a whisky and soda, and then get a good night's rest after your journey. That's the best thing for you, Forbes. But if you like to tell me what's upset you I won't laugh at you."
So in the end I told him about the strange effect I had experienced in alighting at the station. I had come down from town to spend a couple of days with Colonel Ward at Manningford. Although I had known him for many years, and had often seen him at his club, it was the first time I had ever been to stay at his country house. He expected me by a late train, but judgment being given in a case in which I was professionally engaged as solicitor rather earlier than I had expected, I was able to get away from town in the afternoon, and reached Manningford station about six o'clock. I had not thought it worth while to wire, as I had determined to take a trap if it was far to walk, and surprise him.
Manningford was a tiny little country station, I was the only passenger who alighted, and one solitary official, who seemed to combine the offices of stationmaster, porter, and ticket-collector, met me on the platform.
"Tickets, please," he said, gruffly.
I gave him my ticket. As I did so, the train in which I had been travelling glided off the platform, and I caught a glimpse of the red tail-light showing in the fading day.
Grasping my Gladstone bag, I was about to depart, when the idea struck me that I would ask the stationmaster about a conveyance. He had retired to his office and was standing at the ticket-issuing window, which was open. He had lit the lamp inside, as the office was rather dark.
"Can I get a cab anywhere?" I asked.
He looked up. He was a red-faced man with red hair, and the strong light showed his colour vividly. In accordance with the rules of the railway company he served, he was wearing a red tie.
"No," he said, rather shortly. Perhaps I was staring a little rudely at his illuminated countenance.
"But," I persisted, "surely there is some conveyance to be had near, isn't there?"
"You can hire a dog-cart at the Star," he said.
"Where is that?"
"Cross the line and go out on the other Side of the station. Turn to the right, and it's about five minutes' walk."
And he slammed down the window.
I went on to the platform once more, and slowly crossed the line. I say slowly, because the red colour of my surroundings began to grow upon me. The station itself was painted a chocolate colour of a reddish tinge. The tiles bordering the flower beds were of a deep red colour, enclosing for the most part scarlet geraniums. Looking down the line I caught the crimson rays of the setting sun reflected upon the rails, and glancing in the opposite direction noticed that the red light on the up starting signal was burning brightly. It was a strange, indescribable sensation that attacked me, this predominance of blood-red colouring; and I gave a little shiver as I walked to the inn, which was a good quarter of a mile from the station, though apparently the nearest house. A two-mile drive brought me to the Colonel's, and after dinner his mention of "seeing red" recalled what had happened.
"Well," said Colonel Ward, as he bid me good-night, "I won't laugh at you, because I'll admit that we're none of us accountable for peculiar brain sensations at times. Monk, the stationmaster, isn't exactly a beauty to look at, is he? But he's a capital official. You've been overworking yourself lately, Forbes, and you must take things easy. Good-night, old chap. Pleasant dreams. I hope your red sensation is not the preliminary to a nightmare."
The next morning, as we were sitting at breakfast, a servant burst into the room with a very frightened expression, and told the Colonel that a man wanted to see him at once. He was absent for about a quarter of an hour, when he returned in great agitation.
"Great heavens!" he exclaimed, "my poor friend Geoffrey Anstruthers has been murdered—killed on the line when coming down from town last night. Your blood-red impression had something in it, perhaps, Forbes."
"Tell me about it, Colonel."
"I will. It's upset me dreadfully. Poor Anstruthers was my nearest neighbour, living about a mile off in that big white house you noticed between the station and my place. We were the greatest of friends, for although he was a very peculiar man we got on thoroughly. The poor fellow was to have met you at dinner here tonight."
"How did it happen?"
"Well, they tell me his body was discovered by the side of the line near Barton—about midway between London and Manningford. A platelayer found it early this morning. There were marks of a struggle and a couple of knife stabs, and he seems to have been attacked and killed in the train and then thrown out."
"Have you any idea if there was a motive for the crime?" I asked.
"Unfortunately, yes," said the Colonel. "Poor Anstruthers was a man of most eccentric habits, and one of his fads was that he would bank nowhere but at the Bank of England, and that he would pay nobody by cheque. He also settled all his accounts once a quarter only, and the tradesman who asked for an earlier settlement, or the servant or labourer who demanded monthly or weekly wages, was sure to be dismissed by him. Regularly every quarter we went up to London and drew several hundred pounds in gold out of the Bank of England, bringing it back in an ordinary brief bag. I often warned him that he was doing a very foolish thing, but he only laughed at me.
"Yesterday he went up to town for this purpose. His servants thought that as he had not returned last evening by his usual train, which arrives at 10.15 p.m., he was staying the night in town. But evidently some blackguard got hold of his movements. Poor old Anstruthers!"
"Is anything being done yet?" I asked.
"I hardly know," said the Colonel; "I think his nearest relations are abroad. At all events I'm the greatest friend he had, and I'm going to take the matter up. I shall go to Barton by the next train."
"I'll come with you," I said.
"That's very kind of you, Forbes; your assistance will be most valuable, for I know your hobby—railways. It might help us."
We finished our breakfast quickly and drove into the station. On my way I asked the Colonel a few particulars concerning the train by which Anstruthers had travelled the night before. It ran as follows:—
London (dep.) 8 45 p.m. Muggridge (stop) 9.10 p.m. Barton (stop) 9 37 p.m. Manningford (stop) 10.15 p.m. Porthaven (arrive) 10.30 p.m.
So that the only stops between London and Manningford were Muggridge and Barton. The body, so the Colonel had heard, had been found about two miles on the London side of Barton.
The red-faced stationmaster was in his office when we arrived at the station.
"Sad job this, Mr. Monk," said the Colonel.
"Terrible, sir. It regularly upset me when the down train brought the news this morning. Poor Mr. Anstruthers! I knew him well, sir. I'd seen him go up in the morning, and wondered why he didn't come back by the 10.15 as usual. Are you going by the up train?"
"Yes. We're going to Barton to inquire into this awful affair. Two first returns, please."
The stationmaster reached to his rack for the tickets. Now, as often happens in small country stations where the supply of tickets to various stations on the line is limited and becomes exhausted, he did a very common thing. Selecting two blank tickets he dipped the pen into ink and wrote on their respective halves, "Manningford to Barton," "Barton to Manningford," and the fare, 7s. 8d.
Then he passed them through the window and I took them up. He had written the names in red ink!
"I hope they'll catch the wretches, sir," said the stationmaster a few minutes afterwards, as he opened our carriage door for us.
Arrived at Barton, we took a trap and drove to the scene of the tragedy. The body, we were told, had been removed to an inn close by the railway, but at my request we went first to the line, as I was anxious to see the exact spot where Mr. Anstruthers had been thrown out of the train. We found a local policeman and two platelayers at the place, which was in a cutting. One of the latter told us that he was the man who had discovered the body.
"He was lyin' just here, gentlemen," he said, pointing to the six-foot way between the two lines of metals.
"Of course he was dead when you found him?" I asked.
"Yes, sir, but it's my opinion he wasn't altogether dead when they threw him out."
"'Cause he seemed to have moved afterwards. One of his arms was just restin' on the down rail."
"Well, sir, he couldn't ha' fallen like that in the first place, cause the wheels o' the train would ha' cut his arm."
"Stop a minute," I said. "What time did you find him here?"
"'Tween three and four this mornin', sir."
"And he was thrown out about 9.30 the night before?"
"Was that train the last down one?"
"The last passenger train, sir."
"Was there a down goods train after that?"
"Yes, sir, between half-past one and two."
"Ah, then, why didn't that train crush his arm?"
The question staggered the platelayer and the policeman too. They evidently hadn't thought of this.
"I s'pose 'e must ha' bin alive when the goods train passed, and moved afterwards," said the platelayer presently, and the policeman entered a note to that effect in his pocket-book.
"What are you driving at?" said the Colonel.
"Never mind yet," I answered. Then, turning to the platelayer again, I said, "He was stabbed, wasn't he?"
"In the chest, sir."
"Yes, sir. He was wearin' a white weskit, and it was quite red when I turned him over."
"He was lying on his back, then?"
"Well, where are the blood-marks on the stones here? Have you cleared them up?"
"There wasn't none," said the man.
"Strange!" I murmured to myself, as we left the spot. "You'd make a good detective, Forbes," said the Colonel.
"Not a bit of it," I replied. "It's simply because there is a mystery connected with my hobby—railways. That's what makes me a little extra sharp."
"A mystery?" said the Colonel.
"Yes," I replied, "more than you think. But now let's see the poor fellow."
Mr. Anstruthers was lying on a bed at the inn, just as they had found him. The neighbouring police inspector was there, very imposing and important. The Colonel gave his card, and we were allowed to see the body.
It was a gruesome sight, and my friend turned away to ask some questions of the inspector. I looked at the dead man carefully. There were signs of a struggle. His clothes were torn, and one of his hands was tightly clenched. Then I saw what, apparently, the wily country police had passed undiscovered—a shred of paper clasped in his hand. Without exciting the inspector's attention, I wrested the fingers open and drew from them a tiny scrap of torn paper, evidently clutched by a dying hand. It bore the following in writing:—"ord—on." It was such a tiny scrap, such an insignificant thing to go upon, but I slipped it into my pocket-book nevertheless.
"Come," said the Colonel, "I can't stand this any longer. Well, inspector, I hope you'll get the villain."
"Ah, we're on the track," said the officer, sagaciously. "They got out at Barton, that's about it; and we'll have 'em yet."
"Do you want to see anything else, Forbes?" asked the Colonel.
"Yes. I should like to see the doctor who examined the body."
"It's Dr. Moore," said the policeman. "He lives at Barton."
So we called on Dr. Moore on our way to the station. He declared that he had seen poor Anstruthers at six o'clock in the morning, and was positively certain that he must then have been dead seven or eight hours. The mystery was thickening.
Passing on to the platform at Barton, we had to show our tickets. As I took mine back I gazed at it in a listless sort of way, when suddenly I gave a start. The last three letters of "Manningford"—where had I seen them? That peculiar elongated "o" and the curiously tailed "d"—Ah! I remembered!
Hastily I drew the scrap of paper from my pocket-book, and compared it with the ticket. The "ord" was in the same handwriting! It was part of the words "Manningford station."
In a moment a clue flashed across my mind, and I searched for a porter.
"Is there any official about the station with whom I can have a word? It's about an urgent matter."
"Yes, sir; Mr. Smart, the district superintendent is here; he came down about that murder. You'll find him in the stationmaster's office."
"Come with me, Colonel," I cried, turning to the office. Hastily I introduced myself to Mr. Smart, telling him my errand was connected with the murder.
"Tell me," I asked, "is there any train from Manningford to London after 10.15?"
"Only a goods," he said.
"Exactly. What time does it leave Manningford?"
"It stops here for shunting. Generally starts on about 1.45 a.m."
"Mr. Smart, can you lay your hand on the men who worked that train last night?"
He consulted some return sheets.
"Driver Power and fireman Hussey," he murmured. "They're on the Slinford branch to-day—they don't often run on the main line—and brakesman Sutton. He works a goods back to Porthaven to-day. He'll arrive there in half an hour."
"Does he always work main line trains?"
"For several months past he has."
"He's the man then, Mr. Smart. It's of the utmost importance that you should wire to Porthaven to have him closely watched. I'll explain presently."
The district superintendent hastily scribbled a line on an official telegraph form and rushed out with it. When he returned I said—"Have you any of the company's detectives at hand?"
"Yes, two," he answered.
"Bring them then, and come along."
"My dear fellow," said the Colonel, who had been patiently silent up to this point, "what does it all mean?"
"Yes," said the superintendent, "I'm in a fog."
"I hear the down train coming in," I cried. "We must all return to Manningford—quick, sir—I'll explain everything in the train." A few minutes, and the Colonel, the superintendent, and his two detectives and myself were in the train bound for Manningford. "Now, sir?" said Mr. Smart.
"Well," I replied, "we're going to arrest the murderers, or one of them I think, at all events."
"And who's that?"
"Monk, the stationmaster at Manningford," I answered.
"Monk? Impossible. Why, the murder occurred forty miles away."
"No," I replied, "it occurred at Manningford station last night shortly after 10.15. Listen. Poor Anstruthers came down from town, got out of the train, and was done to death by the stationmaster, who was alone on the station, for the sake of his money. In the struggle the murdered man clutched a letter that Monk had written and was probably carrying in his breast pocket. This scrap of it I found in his hand just now. It is in Monk's handwriting. Look!" and I compared it with the ticket.
"But how about the body being found where it was?" asked the Colonel.
"It was taken there afterwards, probably in Sutton's brake van, and thrown out. This would account for two facts: first, that no blood was found on the permanent way, although Anstruthers had bled; and, secondly, that his arm was lying on the down rail. The down goods had passed before he was thrown from the up goods brake van. That's my theory, gentlemen. Here we are at Manningford, and the least you can do is to arrest the stationmaster on suspicion."
The latter was on the platform when we arrived. I noticed he gave a start as he saw so many of us get out of the train. The superintendent went up to him.
"Mr. Monk," he said, "a very painful duty brings us here. These two gentlemen are members of our police force, and they will have to detain you on suspicion."
"Of what?" gasped Monk, his red face growing paler.
"Of participation in the murder of Mr. Anstruthers last night."
"But he was killed in the train," said the stationmaster.
"That remains to be proved. At all events we are going to detain you, and to search your house."
"I won't submit to it," began the man; but he subsided when a pair of handcuffs were slipped over his wrists. Then we all repaired to his little house, just across the road. Again he proved turbulent, but it was no use. With skeleton keys one of the detectives opened a box in his bedroom.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, as he drew out a brief bag, "this seems rather heavy. No wonder. It's full of money."
"That's Anstruthers' bag," exclaimed the Colonel.
The wretched man saw the game was up, but, wretch that he was, he exclaimed—
"It's not me—it's Sutton—the brakesman of the up goods train. He had as much to do with it as I did. He took the body away; and he's got a lot of the gold."
"All right," said the superintendent, "we're seeing after him. You have to thank this gentleman," pointing to myself, "for unravelling the mystery."
"Curse you!" yelled the stationmaster at me.
Sutton turned against Monk, and between the two of them the whole story came out. Monk's accounts were short, and he owed money all round—the usual story—racing. He had half planned to murder Anstruthers several times, and at last the opportunity presented itself. He was the only passenger to alight that night, and Monk noticed that the guard had not observed him. So he asked him to step into his office for a moment under pretence of something, and then went for him. There was a struggle, but Monk was the stronger man. In this struggle Anstruthers hid grasped the bit of paper, but without the other's knowledge.
Then came the disposal of the body. Sutton was a man of doubtful character, and Monk knew enough about him to ruin him if he disclosed certain cases of goods stealing. So, when the goods train came along, he gave Sutton twenty pounds, and promised him another thirty to take the body in his van and pitch it out so that people would think Anstruthers had been murdered in the train. It was the easiest thing possible on a dark night to halt the train with the brake van opposite Monk's office, and to slip the body in without driver or fireman knowing anything about it.
The sequel was the gallows for Monk, and fifteen years at Dartmoor for Sutton.
"There was something uncanny after all, Forbes," said the Colonel, after dinner on that eventful day, "about your blood-red impression of Manningford station and its master!"
Steady lot, us drivers? Well, we have to be, there's no choice in the matter. Driving wants a clear head, and a man who can make up his mind what to do in a moment. The majority of people don't half realize the work there is to do, or the responsibilities of the "foot-plate."
I often think, myself, the difference there is between us chaps and the captain of a Channel-boat. I used to think of it more when I was on the "Sou'-Western," running the Continental train to Southampton. Maybe I had a couple of hundred lives in tow; but I'll venture to say very few of them thought of the man who had them and the train in sole charge, for though the fireman's along with you, the driver is responsible for everything, including him. Yet when the passengers stepped aboard the Channel-boat, if they got a glimpse of the captain they'd look at him with a kind of awe.
I don't say all this out of jealousy, but I've often thought if we had a uniform, with gold lace round our caps and collars and an engine worked on our shoulders, folks who were going a long journey would think more of us, and say: "That's our driver," just as you hear them remark "That's our captain."
Still, as I say, I wouldn't change. There's a charm about the "foot-plate" and a pride in your engine that only a driver knows. Why, I've seen men get quite affectionate over a favourite engine, and almost cry when they were changed to another. Adventures? Well, the life's full of adventures, more or less; not very interesting to the general public, perhaps, but exciting enough to us. Stop, though. I can tell you one adventure I had years ago, which will interest you—about the most remarkable thing that ever happened to me, and about as curious an affair as you could find in the history of the line, I reckon. It was when I was on the Sou'-Western, and before I became a regular express driver.
Before you can quite understand it, I must tell you something about the line itself. From Clapham Junction to Hampton Court there are four lines of rails, two of them used for up and down "fast" trains, and the others for up and down "slow." You have the same sort of thing on some of the other lines: the London and North-Western, for instance, has four lines as far as Roade, beyond Bletchley, only they are worked differently to the South-Western.
The London and North-Western run their up and down fast trains on the two left-hand lines of rails from Euston, and the up and down slow on the two right-hand, so that, when two trains are going in the same direction, there is always a line of metals between them. But from Clapham to Hampton Court Junction the outer left-hand rail is used for slow, and the next to it, the inner left-hand, for fast, the outer right and inner right being used for up-slow and fast respectively. The "up-slow" extends all the way to Woking, but this has nothing to do with my story.
Thus, you see, if one train passes another going in the same direction, the trains are close together. Sometimes I have known two trains travel alongside each other at the same rate for two or three minutes, and more than once I have spoken from my engine to the driver of another train, and given or received a bit of 'batty when we were going at the rate of forty or fifty miles an hour.
The Northern system is generally considered to be the better of the two, but the South-Western still stick to the other plan.
One day, in the winter of 188-, there had been a special cheap excursion from Portsmouth to Waterloo: I forget what the occasion was; but, anyhow, I was detailed on duty to take this train back to Portsmouth.
We were to start at 9.27, and as far as Hampton Court Junction to run on the outer, or slow, line. The last train before us was the nine o'clock, so you see we expected a clear run. We were not to stop anywhere before reaching Portsmouth.
The train was a heavy one, as a good number of people had taken advantage of the excursion, and it seemed that we should hardly get off to time. As a matter of fact, however, we were only two minutes late in starting, and were soon bowling away merrily towards the south.
The boat-express to Southampton leaves Waterloo at 9.35, and runs from there to Basingstoke without a stop, travelling to Hampton Court Junction on the fast line. We had just passed Rayne's Park when I heard the approaching roar of the express coming down behind us. We were travelling a good forty miles an hour at the time, and the other train began to pass ours very slowly. Presently the express engine was alongside ours, and the driver sang out a cheery "What ho! mate," as the two "cabs" came together. Creeping gradually past us, the carriages of the boat-train became visible, and as I glanced at them I could distinguish the passengers plainly. Five coaches had already passed us, when I stood well on the left-hand side of the foot-plate, furthest from the other train, to allow my fireman to perform his office.
At this moment my engine put on a little spurt, and the two trains were running almost exactly at the same pace, the other just slightly gaining. I happened to glance over my shoulder, when, to my astonishment, I saw a man in the other train deliberately opening the door of his compartment, which was just drawing opposite to the "cab" of my engine. Before I could recover from my surprise he had stepped out on the footboard of the carriage, and in another second he sprang upon the foot-plate of my engine, clutching at the rail on the cab, while the door of the carriage he had left, obeying the motion of the train, shut with a slam.
In an agony of terror, my mate and I seized him and dragged him into a position of safety, while the other train spurted forward and passed us. For a moment or two neither of us spoke. I was the first to recover my presence of mind, and the habit of duty mastered my curiosity for the instant.
"Hold on here," I shouted. "Jim fire her up, man; wait till we get through Woking—then we'll see to him. Steady, sir! Keep over in that corner, please, and thank Providence you're not a dead man."
"Mad, I should think," said my fireman, as he set to work again shovelling on the coals, while I riveted my attention to the mass of red and green lights we were ever and anon approaching and passing.
At Hampton Court Junction we were switched on to the "fast" line, following the boat-express by about six minutes, and in half an hour or so we were through Woking, and then I turned to the stranger. He was a young man, clean-shaven, and well-dressed; deadly pale and trembling, clutching hard at the support. The foot-plate's a bit shaky to a novice.
"Are you mad, sir? Do you know you've had a fearful escape? What, in the name of all that's wonderful, do you mean by it?"
"N-no; I'm not mad. I—I was forced to do it."
"Forced to do it? Why, you were alone in the carriage, as far as I could see."
"Yes, yes, I know that. But I was desperate. I'll explain everything."
"Wait a minute or two; I can't attend now. Tell me when we're through Guildford."
How he started as we entered the Guildford tunnel just beyond the station! I thought he'd fall at first, and my mate had to hold on to him for a minute. When we were clear of the tunnel, I asked him for his explanation.
"I wanted to escape," he said, "and it was the only way."
"Escape? Who from? The police, I suppose? Well, don't you think you've done that, my friend."
"No, no, no! Not from the police. I'm not a criminal. Listen, and I'll tell you. I've got mixed up with a terrible secret society—a set of people composed of the very worst sort of Anarchists—men of several nations. It would be too long a story to tell you how I came to join it, but when once among such people, there is no drawing back. We were pledged with the most awful oaths to secrecy, and terrible penalties were ordained for those who proved traitors. I would have given anything to set myself free, but it was impossible.
"Well, one evening last week, we held a meeting to determine the performance of an awful act. I can't tell you exactly the truth, but I will go so far as to say it was the assassination of a certain great personage on the Continent. We drew lots, in order that the assassin might be chosen. The lot fell upon me. In vain I begged to be excused, the others were relentless, and the president said to me:—
"'George Felton, you have sworn obedience, and obey you must. The lot has fallen upon you, and you must perform the deed. If you refuse, or if you even hesitate, there is only one penalty, and that you know. It is death, and it is useless for you to try to escape from it. This is how you will proceed: Until Thursday you will be carefully watched. The evening of that day you will take the boat-train via Southampton and Havre for Paris. You will travel by that route because it is the less frequented. You will go absolutely alone, but every step you will be watched. The "brethren" will be posted all along the line of route. At Waterloo two of them will watch you into the train. At Basingstoke two others will keep their eyes on you while the train is stopping there. At Southampton you will be watched on board the boat, and the same thing will happen at Havre and Rouen, your only stopping-places. At Paris you will be met by two comrades, who will keep you in view until the final arrangements have been made, when you will be told how to act. So do not think to escape, as every movement will be watched.'"
The train flew on; my mate and I were interested, as you may well guess. He paused for a moment to allow of the engine being coaled once more, then I said:—
"But you might have stopped the train by pulling the communicator, and—"
"I'm coming to that. I had thought of trying to escape thus, but just as the train moved out of the station a little note was thrown in at the window by a 'comrade,' who had been watching me. I opened it and read as follows: 'We never thought the other night that perhaps you might try to escape by stopping the train en route and jumping off. In case such an idea has entered your head, you may as well know that the "brothers" are on the train. You know what that means. You are helpless. Be brave for the sake of the "cause."'"
"Have you got that letter?" said the fireman.
"No; I tore it up. Well, I tell you, I was desperate. I had half made up my mind to jump and risk it, when we gradually began to pass your train. I was alone in my compartment, and could see the well-filled carriages close to me. I sat looking at them mechanically, when the idea suddenly seized me, and I asked myself the question, 'Why shouldn't I change trains?' By this time I was opposite to the guard's van in the front, and there was not a moment to be lost. It was too late to try for that when I opened the door, and my only course was to jump on to your engine. Thank God, I did so safely!"
"Aye, you've had a lucky escape, and you may well thank God. Well, what's to be done now?"
"Where are you bound for?"
"Do you stop anywhere first?"
"Well, look here. Can't I slip off on the outer side as we come into the station?"
"I don't know so much about that. You've come on the footplate uninvited, and you ought to give an account of it to the authorities. If I let you get off without, I'm liable for a row myself. Besides, how are we to know your story's true?"
"Before God I swear it's true. And no one need ever know I was here. I'll make it well worth your while. Besides," he added, piteously, "it's my only chance. When they know I've escaped they'll search high and low. If this isn't kept quiet they'll know about it before I have the start of them, and that means certain death. I couldn't escape. As it is, I've got money enough to get well out of the country before they know."
Well, it seemed rough enough on the poor chap, but my mate stuck out against letting him go. I argued the matter out with him as well as I could, and he was beginning to come round to my point of view when I suddenly exclaimed:—
"Look out, mate, there's a block at Petersfield."
The distant signal was shining with a red light instead of a green, and we put on the brakes until the train was almost at a standstill.
"For God's sake, let me get off," begged the stranger.
My mate and I looked at one another. The train came to a stop close to the signal.
"Don't refuse me. See here," and he held out five sovereigns and literally pressed them into my hand. I looked at Jim again. He nodded.
"All right, get off and keep quiet till we've gone on. Good luck to you. Here, I don't want your money."
But he was gone in a moment. Then the semaphore arm fell with a crash, the green light shone out, and we started once again; nor did we stop till we had reached Portsmouth. Later on, my mate and I talked the matter over between us, and agreed that we would not mention it to anyone, as it was better for all that it should be kept quiet. Then I offered him half the money.
"No," said he, "I won't take it. If his story's true, it's something like the price of blood. They must have given him the cash for his journey and expenses."
I hadn't seen it in that light.
"Well, mate, I believe you're right. I never thought of that. I sha'n't touch it either, I couldn't bring myself to do it. But what shall we do with it?"
Finally, we agreed to send it anonymously to a railway charity, and the next morning we did so.
Two days after that, I was off duty, when the fireman came round to my house, with a curious expression on his face and a newspaper in his hand. "Read that," he said, quickly, pointing to a paragraph. I read as follows:—
"MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF A CRIMINAL.
"On Thursday evening last, a strange occurrence, the facts of which are unknown, must have taken place somewhere on the main line of the South-Western Railway between Waterloo and Basingstoke. Our readers will remember the case of embezzlement and forgery at the head offices of the 'Amalgamated General European and Colonial Exchange,' a forgery on a large scale, in which the under cashier, Charles Winfield, a clever, and unfortunately well-trusted young man, was deeply implicated. Winfield, by some means, managed to escape arrest, and the police have been assiduously following his track since. On the evening in question, Detective Baxter, of Scotland Yard, recognised Winfield in a first-class compartment of the 9.35 boat-train from Waterloo to Southampton. The train was just moving out of the station, and it was impossible for the detective to get in, but he ran along the platform by the side of the window, clearly identified his man, took the number of the carriage, and noticed which compartment it was, and immediately wired to Basingstoke, the first stopping-place. When, however, the train arrived at this place, the police, who had assembled on the platform, found no trace of the criminal. It was ascertained that the train had not pulled up once; the particular compartment was empty, but a thorough search was made throughout the train, it being thought that he might have changed carriages by the foot-board. It is supposed that Winfield recognised the fact that he had been discovered at the last moment on his way to the Continent, and guessing that he would be arrested at Basingstoke, must have jumped off the train in a moment of desperation. Whether the unhappy man was killed or escaped remains a mystery, no trace of him having been discovered."
"What do you think of that?" said my mate.
"Well," I said, "I think he half deserved to escape on account of his pluck. And—well, he was the finest liar I've ever met!"
The fireman nodded his head slowly, and then said:—
"Well, I had my doubts most of the time. He was too fine a liar for me!"
"I really believe," said the station-master, "that the majority of the travelling public imagine that the sum total of my duties consists in wearing a cap with a gold band round it, and strutting about the platforms starting trains and answering questions, many of which would puzzle the general manager of the line himself.
"Now, look here," he went on, pointing to the heterogeneous mass of documents lying on the table of the office, and taking them up one by one as he enumerated them. "This is the sort of thing—from early morning till dewy eve, and often starry midnight—a complaint from some old lady saying she's left her umbrella either in the waiting-room, or on the book-stall, or in a train she travelled in yesterday (she doesn't say which), and will I tell her where it is and send it on at once. A notice from the district superintendent asking for full details why the 12.53 was delayed here yesterday. Instructions for submitting plans for ventilating the cloakroom. Pamphlet of new fog-signalling arrangements, requiring a complete alteration of posting the men. A claim from a local brewer demanding compensation for beer arriving short (it's marvellous how beer casks are always being staved in—accidentally—on our night goods trains). Instructions for working three 'specials'—excursions—to-morrow morning, and so on. It's never finished, and sometimes I'm sick of it."
"This is rather interesting," I remarked, taking the last paper he had mentioned from his hand and glancing at it. "How wonderfully every detail is arranged, down to the names of the guards and the time of passing every little signal cabin!"
"Those working instructions for the 'specials'? Yes, they have to be set down pretty accurately. You see, we have to work them as far as possible without interfering with the ordinary traffic, and that means a lot of detail."
It certainly did. On the printed form was portrayed the running of the trains in question, the number of coaches of which they were to be composed, the class of engines to draw them, the stops for taking in water, the shunting into "refuge sidings" en route to allow of the passage of certain express trains—everything was put down most carefully.
"I'm not sure that I ought to allow you to handle that," went on the station-master, with a laugh. "You know, it's private information, 'For the Company's servants only,' as you see."
"Well, I'll give it up at once—though I don't see what harm it could do for me to know a little more than the outside public about these excursion trains."
"No; as you say, there's no particular harm in anyone seeing these papers. But," he added, musingly, "sometimes we receive certain working instructions that might prove very dangerous if outsiders were to get hold of them."
"How so?" I asked.
The station-master took a key from his pocket, unlocked a drawer, and produced a crumpled and torn paper.
"This is a paper of working instructions for a special train," he said, "which nearly caused a most frightful catastrophe, and which got me that nasty scar you may have noticed over my left eye."
I took the paper. It was headed:—
"Specially urgent and private."
"Instructions for working through down special train from London to Porthaven on March 7th, 189-."
I looked at my companion inquiringly.
"I see you want to know all about it," he said; "so as it's a slack half hour, and I can get through my correspondence afterwards, I don't mind telling you."
Then he related the following startling experience:—
"I suppose that some of our chief railway officials could, if they chose, throw many a light upon the political history of Europe. I mean that often visits of the utmost importance take place between the Ambassadors of different countries, aye, and between those who are higher than Ambassadors—visits that are kept jealously secret and guarded, but upon which hang sometimes the great fates of diplomacy—of war and peace. It is here that the railway companies are often requisitioned to provide swift and secure means of transit. Many a special train has traversed the length and breadth of England, for instance, the identity of whose passengers was only known to a few officials who made arrangements for the journey, and who could be absolutely trusted in the matter. Often it has been the work of a master railway mind to run such trains at the precise time needed, a work of great anxiety when perhaps the traffic superintendent knows an international problem is trembling in the balance, and the solution rests upon the speed with which a diplomatic journey is accomplished. Then, although it is true we do not, happily, have to take the immense precautions which are observed when the Czar travels in Russia, still it is often necessary to arrange as strictly for the safe transit of an important personage as for his speed. For, indeed, those who move in the highest circles have enemies always, including the times when they travel.
"When I received the circular of instructions which you now hold in your hand, I guessed, from the caution and secrecy to be observed, that some person of great importance was about to pass over the line. Who this exalted personage was it matters not; except, perhaps, you might probably call to mind that in the year 189- a certain great Sovereign of Eastern Europe was paying a private visit to the Queen—a visit which, so it is said, formed the basis of a subsequent diplomatic treaty.
"I was at the time the station-master of Millbridge, a small station on our main line some forty or fifty miles from the London terminus. It was a lonely spot at best, especially at night, for no passenger trains stopped there after eight o'clock, though there were plenty of through expresses. The station staff was a very small one, as you will readily imagine.
"The circular in question was delivered to me on the evening of March 6th, inclosed with a letter from the superintendent of the line enjoining me to observe the very strictest caution and secrecy in carrying out its instructions. The instructions were, briefly, these. A special train was to leave London at 10.30 p.m. and was to run to Porthaven. Not only were all pains to be taken to see that she ran to time, but certain precautions, very much like those observed when the Queen travels, were to be put in operation. Twenty minutes before the special's 'time' each block was to be clear, and patrols—chosen in each case from the platelayers of the district—were to be placed along the line at stated intervals two hours before the passing of the train, which, by the way, was timed to pass Millbridge at 11.23 p.m.
"I recognised that somebody of the greatest importance was travelling to Porthaven, which is, as you know, a seaport town from which many vessels sail to the Baltic. The next morning I proceeded to carry out instructions. I arranged with the ganger of the district for the placing of the platelayers. I caused the signals, etc., to be carefully inspected; in fact, I did all that was necessary and sent up a report to town by a late afternoon train.
"Of course I intended to be on the watch to see such an important special through, and I detailed my head porter to be on duty with me at 11 p.m. I must also tell you that I had given orders to my signal-man, in accordance with the instructions, that a down goods train which was due at 10.45 should be shunted into a siding till the special had passed.
"About half-past nine that evening I was seated in my office, making up my accounts. I have told you that the station was a lonely one. My own house was the nearest, and that was a couple of hundred yards away. My office, which opened on to the platform, was, of course, very quiet at that hour. In feet, I was the only person on the station, the signal-man on duty in the cabin just off the platform being the nearest man. There were no more stopping trains that night. The booking clerk and porters had gone home, and, as I have said, the head porter was not to come on duty till eleven.
"I was feeling a certain sense of satisfaction over my arrangements for the 'special,' knowing that the men were properly posted and that everything was clear, when, without a word of warning, my door was suddenly thrown open, and two men, with masks on their faces, entered.
"'Good evening,' said one of them, abruptly. 'You're the station-master?'
"Yes,' said I, in astonishment.
"'Well, we've come on a little matter of business, and if you're quiet we won't hurt you, though we shall have to take strong measures.'
"'What on earth do you want?' I began.
"'First of all we want to see your instructions about a special train that's to run down from London to-night.'
"'You're not going to see anything of the kind,' I cried, attempting to rush through the door and give an alarm.
"But they were too quick for me. In a moment they had tripped me up and sent me sprawling on my back.
"'Give up that paper!'
"'I won't!' I shouted, springing to my feet—'Help! help!'
"'Quiet, you fool!' said the man who had not yet spoken, aiming a blow at me with a heavy stick. It caught me just over the left eye and fairly stunned me for a few minutes.
"When I came to I found myself gagged, my arms bound behind me, and one of the ruffians finishing binding my feet together. The other was eagerly rummaging my pocketbook.
"'Here it is,' he exclaimed.
"'Good!' said the other, as he tied the last knot. 'Now let us hear all about it.'
"'Here we are,' said his companion, as he consulted the paper. 'Head-lights on engine a white one over a green one—'umph, we must bear that in mind. Leaves London 10.30—passes through here at 11.23—passes "Ash signal-cabin" at 11.28, and Frambourne 11.36.'
"'Ah, well, the bridge is about midway between Ash cabin and Frambourne, eh?'
"'Yes—so she'll pass there about 11.33.'
"'Good. What's the time now?'
"I could see the other man first take out his watch and then look at the clock in my office.
"'Why, I'm over five minutes slow,' he said; 'it's three minutes past ten by this clock. I'll set my watch by it, and then we'll be off.'
"Really his watch was right. For many years I have been in the habit of keeping my office clock five minutes in advance.
"'As for you, Mr. Station-master,' he exclaimed a moment later, as they both turned to depart, 'I fancy you'll have to keep quiet for a while. Good-night, and pleasant dreams!'
"So saying he turned out my lamp, and I heard them locking the door on the outside after they had left me. I tell you I was pretty uncomfortable. Not only was I lying bound hand and foot, unable to speak, and suffering from the cut on my face, but I realized that something dreadful was going to happen to the special train—what, I could not guess. Then I remembered how particular the instructions had been, the secrecy, the unusual precautions, and the urgent way in which it had been laid down that the train should not be one minute delayed in any way.
"I began to suffer agonies. What had they meant by the bridge? Were they going to wreck the train? The latter seemed impossible in view of the patrols. There was only one bridge between Ash cabin and Frambourne, and that was over the line where a road crossed it. Close under this bridge a platelayer had been stationed, I knew. It was a mystery.
"And then as regarded myself. When should I get free? The head porter would come on the platform about eleven. He would try the door and find it locked. I should be unable to answer him. He would think I had gone up the line, home—what would he think? I struggled in my rage, but it was useless.
"So the time went by. It seemed hours—I heard the goods train come in. 'Tap, tap!' The head porter was knocking at the door.
"'Are you there, sir?'
"No answer. He shook the door.
"'That's a rum go,' I heard him exclaim, as his steps retreated. Then my clock struck eleven.
"I rolled over on the floor with a final effort, and managed to get my feet against the leg of the table. Why had I not thought of it before? I was wearing elastic side boots. Hurrah! I wrenched one off by the heel, then the other—then, with a supreme effort, I wedged a coil of rope against the table leg and tugged—tugged till I pulled the skin off my heel, but the coil slipped slowly over my foot. That loosened the rope—kick, kick—in a few minutes I had kicked myself free. My hands were still bound, but I could use my feet, and I did. I banged against the door with them with all my might in the hopes of attracting attention from outside. And I did.
"'Are you inside, sir?' It was the head porter's voice.
"Bang—thud'—was all I could answer.
"'All right, sir, I don't know what's up, but I'll smash the door in, so look out!'
"In half a minute he was at work with a platelayer's crowbar. The door came crashing in. A stream of light from his lantern fell upon me. He took in the situation at a glance, whipped out a knife and cut the cords that bound my arms, and the handkerchief which the blackguards had stuffed in my mouth.
"'For Heaven's sake, what's the time!' was my first cry, heedless of his questions.
"He flashed the lantern on the clock. A quarter past eleven! Ten minutes past by the right time. In thirteen minutes the special was due! What followed was an inspiration. The head porter thought me mad for a few minutes, and I could not even now fully explain why I acted as I did. I only felt that at all costs I must send a counterfeit special on first.
"'Rush to the signal cabin and keep back the special till I come. Don't stand there staring like a fool, Gordon. Quick—don't let him take off the home signal!'
"Then, scrambling across the lines and points, I hurried towards the engine of the goods train that was waiting in the siding.
"'Driver—driver!' I cried.
"'Put on fresh head-lights; you've got one white one, get a green lamp lighted. Do you hear? And put the white one over it. Quick, now!'
"'What's the matter, sir?' said the astonished driver.
"'Never mind—only—are you prepared to carry out orders at once?'
"'What are they, sir?'
"'Uncouple your engine, then back into No. 2 siding, take on the three empty passenger coaches there, and run on to Frambourne with them without a moment's delay, at your highest speed.'
"All right, sir,' said the driver, producing the head-light. 'Uncouple her, Jim,' he added to the fireman.
"I was off like a shot to the signal box to direct the slight shunting operation involved. It was wonderfully quick work. At exactly eighteen minutes past eleven the improvised train steamed out of the siding on to the down line. She was five minutes before the special. The signal-man saw something unusual was the matter, and forbore from asking questions, simply sending the 'make ready' signal to Ash cabin, and receiving the usual replies. There was a telephone to Ash, and I seized hold of it and gave some directions.
"'I suspect danger on the line between you and Frambourne,' I said, 'and have sent on a pilot train in front of special. Get ready to receive special directly she has passed, but hold up the special till you hear from Frambourne that all is clear. Tell Frambourne to shunt pilot train immediately on arrival.'
"'All right, sir!' came the reply.
"At the same moment there was an ominous whistling in the distance.
"'She wants the signal taken off,' said the signal-man, referring to the special.
"'She'll have to wait, then.'
"The head-lights appeared, slackening down beyond the home-signal. Then came the message from Ash cabin: 'Line clear.'
"Crash! the lever was pulled, the special came on, gathering speed as she passed. There was a locomotive inspector on the footplate of the engine, and I heard him shout: 'You'll have to answer for this!'
"Then came a period of suspense, minute after minute passed—then, at last, the 'line clear' signal from the block ahead. The special had passed Ash cabin. Several more minutes—then a ring up on the telephone. 'Pilot train has reached Frambourne, but there's something up. Line clear, and have sent on special.'
"Another pause, and then a telegraphic message from Frambourne: 'Your action highly commendable. You have saved special. Engine of pilot train returning on up line for goods train. Driver will give information.'
"You may be sure we waited in a tension of excitement until that engine arrived, travelling tender first. It was some time before it did so, and when it came it carried a detective and an extra driver, for it appears old Goodson had been too much overcome to take his engine in hand. He came into the little office, and told me the following extraordinary story:—
"'When you sent me on with them three empty passenger coaches,' he said, 'I was dazed like. I never even stopped to pick up the brakesman. Then I begun to think it out. I knew by the headlights you wanted me to pretend I was the special, and, thinks I, there's danger ahead, that's it. So I kep' a sharp look-out, not knowin' what might be on the line, though I knew 'twas well guarded. It was fairish dark, too, and I couldn't see far ahead.
"'Well, we passed Ash all right, and was bowlin' along for all the world like a racin' train, when I see as I comes up to it the outline of a couple o' men standin' on the top of a bridge. It was all so sudden like that I can't tell exactly what happened, but Joe, my fireman, sings out, as we passes under the bridge, "Halloa," and I see summat fallin' on top o' the train as I turns round to look. Then there were a couple o' awful explosions, and a splinter o' wood copped me on the head. "Go on," ses Joe, as I put my hand on the regulator, "Go on," 'e ses, "the bloomin' train ain't quite smashed up—she'll run all right." So we ran on to Frambourne, and there we find that two carriages were shivered about frightful. Lor' bless us, sir, if there'd been anyone in 'em they'd ha' been killed for certain. They was a mass o' splinters runnin' on frames, that's what they was. You see what they'd done?'
"'Dropped explosives on the train from the bridge?' I gasped.
"'Aye—they thought we was the special. Ah, that was a sharp bit o' work o' yours, sir.'
"'And the special?'
"'Oh, she come through all right, nearly five minutes late. They won't know what happened till she gets to Porthaven. But you saved her, sir.'
"Yes, it was true, I had saved the train and its Royal—well, er—important occupant. I was ill with brain fever for weeks afterwards, but when I recovered I heard that the wretches had never been caught. They had evidently driven in a dog-cart from my station to the bridge, and, owing to setting their watch to my clock and the changed head-lights on the goods engine, had imagined the 'special' was running to time, and had dropped two dynamite bombs on to the tops of the empty coaches as they passed beneath the bridge. The torn paper of working instructions was found on the bridge, and, as you see, I have it now. The other results of that night were promotion to this junction, and a beautiful diamond scarf-pin that was sent me from—well, er—Russia. Yes, passengers sometimes tip even the station-master!"
Wandering through the old city of Rheims one sultry summer evening, I had lighted upon an insignificant little café in the neighbourhood of the station, and had sat me down to have a cool "bock" and a smoke. At the next table to mine sat a group of two or three workmen, seemingly connected with the railway, more especially one of them, whose smoky blouse and not over-clean visage proclaimed him as an engine-driver; in fact, as I looked at him I remembered having noticed him on the foot-plate of the engine that had drawn my train from Mézières to Rheims the previous day.
I think it was the request on my part for a light, or something equally trivial, that first caused me to enter into conversation with my neighbours; but certain it was that before long we had drifted into a subject that is rather a dangerous one to touch upon, even now, with a Frenchman: the subject of the Franco-Prussian War.
"Ah, yes, monsieur," said one of the men, "I well remember the coming of the Prussians into Rheims, though I was but a lad at the time. It was early in the afternoon of September the 5th, a few days after the Battle of Sedan. I was lounging about in the streets when I heard the clatter of horse-hoofs, and sure enough four Prussian soldiers came riding into the city. Ma foi, how we hissed them!"
"What did they do?"
"Oh, they bought some food at a confectioner's. One old man tried to stop them by taking hold of a horse bridle. The soldier struck him with a pistol, but he would not let go. Then he shot him through the arm. They galloped off directly afterwards, and a shot was fired at them. In a few hours, though, we had twenty-five thousand soldiers, with the King of Prussia at their head, quartered upon us."
"How long did they stay?"
"Oh, they left immediately. They were marching on to Paris, nothing seemed to stand in their way."
"Except old Pierre Cournet," said the man I had guessed to be an engine-driver, taking his cigar from his lips reflectively.
"Ah, but that is true," remarked the other, adding, as he and a third man who had not spoken rose to go, "Monsieur should ask Jean Martin to tell him the story—he is not on duty for another hour yet."
Left alone with Jean Martin, I begged leave to replenish his glass of ordinary wine with a bottle of Burgundy, offered him a more fragrant cigar than the one he had been smoking, and, in return, drew the following extraordinary narrative from him:—
"No, monsieur, I was not in the army at the time of the war, and it is no story of a soldier that I am going to tell you. True, I served afterwards, as every man must do in France, but then I was only eighteen, and yet, although so young, was already a fireman on this very same line where now I drive a locomotive.
"I had only been fireman for a few months before the war broke out. The driver of the engine to which I was attached at the time of which I am speaking was an old man named Pierre Cournet. We were running trains between Rheims and Mézières, and, therefore, were in close touch with the first great battlefield of the war. I shall never forget that terrible time. Every sort of vehicle we had on the line was used for carrying troops. We took over 20,000 men from Rethel to Mézières, men belonging to Marshal MacMahon's army, and among them were Pierre Cournet's two sons.
"They had just time on reaching Mézières to run to the engine and bid their father farewell, for he happened to be driving the very train by which they travelled, when the bugle-call tore them away from him—tore them away for ever. For only a few days afterwards the sword of a Uhlan and the bullet of a Prussian needle-gun claimed the lives of Pierre Cournet's two sons in the awful fight of Sedan.
"When the news was brought to him he almost went mad. He swore he would turn franc-tireur and be revenged ten-fold for their deaths. Ah, monsieur knows well he was not the only parent in France who made such threats, and carried them out, too! And Pierre Cournet would assuredly have carried his out but for that which happened.
"We were at Rethel when the news came. Our countrymen were flying in every direction, and the railway was falling metre by metre into the hands of the enemy. Mézières still remained in possession of the French, and did not surrender for some weeks, but the railway communication was cut off. We tried to get down there with some stores, but our train fell into the hands of the Prussians at a station about twenty kilometres this side of Mézières.
"Then it was that Pierre Cournet's patience was put to the test. A great, bearded Prussian officer came on the foot-plate and addressed him in broken French.
"You will take this train back to Rethel, after we have loaded it with cannon and ammunition. You understand?'
"'I will not,' replied Cournet, trembling with fury. 'I will not take your cursed guns one inch towards Paris.'
"'Oh, very well,' replied the officer, calmly drawing out his watch and making a sign to some of his soldiers to come near. 'I will give you two minutes to decide. If you refuse, why then you will be shot instantly—I have no more time to waste on you. I would not even give you this chance, only there are no engineers with me, and I have no one who can drive a locomotive.'
"He stood, watch in hand, and the old engine-driver, pale with fury, stood beside him. I watched Pierre Cournet's face. For the first half minute it was still, with a set purpose; then a gleam of light seemed to flash into his eyes, and his lips parted in a smile. He had changed his mind.
"'Very well,' he said, as the Prussian closed his watch with a snap. 'I will drive the engine for you.'
"'Good!' said the officer. 'But if you think you're going to play any tricks you're mistaken, for see here!'
"He called to two of his men, who came on to the foot-plate, and gave them some instructions in German. Each of them drew a pistol.
"'Now,' he added to Pierre Cournet, in French, 'these soldiers have orders to shoot you and your young friend on the very slightest suspicion of trickery, and as one of them understands French, you'd better be careful what you say. And now, while we load the train, you get your engine to the other end and be ready to start.'
"Pierre Cournet shrugged his shoulders and told me to get down and uncouple the locomotive and to work the points so that he could shunt it to the reverse end of the train. I did so, one of the soldiers accompanying me and keeping guard over me all the time. We had been running from Rethel tender first, so now the engine stood in its right position, smoke-jack in front. I coupled her to the train.
"It was nearly two hours before we were ready to start, and during that time we watched the Prussians get six guns on to as many trucks and fill all the available waggons with ammunition. There were two old third-class carriages at the rear end of the train, and some fifty artillerymen were ordered into these. Finally, the officer who had spoken to us before came up, and dismissed one of our guards, taking his place instead.
"'I shall travel with you,' he said, cocking his pistol, 'and see that all goes right. Besides, I am not sure yet how far we shall go. Now then, start!'
"I had set the points to bring the train on to the up-line. Cournet laid his hand on the regulator, there were a few sonorous puffs, and we were off.
"I knew by my companion's face that he meant to do something desperate before our journey was over. He had given me one sharp, questioning glance that seemed to mean, 'Will you help me?' and I had nodded in reply, though what his plans were I could not guess. Still, I determined that, if need be, I would strike a blow against the hated Prussians.
"We had gone a few kilometres, and were getting up a fair speed, when the mouth of a tunnel loomed ahead. I saw a strange expression flit across Cournet's face, and I think the Prussian officer must have noticed it too, for he said a few words in German to the soldier, and the latter grasped me by the neck just as we entered the tunnel, while at the same moment I felt the cold ring of his pistol-barrel pressing against my forehead. The officer had seized Cournet in the same manner, and if the old driver thought he was going to do anything in the tunnel he was mistaken. When we were through our guards released their hold. We went on. Presently a smile of triumph shone in Pierre Cournet's face, instead of the disappointed look he had worn as we emerged from the tunnel. I felt instinctively that the moment of action was arriving.
"'Get me a spanner, Jean!' said the driver, quietly; 'a bolt is loose.'
"I opened the tool chest and took one out. The officer's suspicions were aroused in a moment, and he levelled his pistol at Cournet as the latter took the spanner. But Cournet only smiled contemptuously, and began tightening a nut, saying to me: 'More coal, Jean.'
"I took up the heavy shovel and put a few loads on the fire, my guard handling his pistol in a menacing manner all the time. Evidently the slightest movement on our part was being watched with scrupulous jealousy. What was the driver going to do? I asked myself this question as I looked ahead through the weather-glasses after putting on a third shovelful of coal. We were rushing along a high embankment now, and travelling at a much greater pace than we usually went. In a few seconds we should be rounding a very sharp curve, but Cournet did not seem inclined to slacken speed. He was still engaged in screwing up the nut.
"I was just turning towards the tender again for more coal, when a sudden swerve told me we had left the straight and were rounding the curve. At that very moment Pierre Cournet, his back towards the officer, with a very quick movement of his wrist struck the glass tube of the water-gauge with his spanner and sprang on one side.
"In an instant a cloud of steam and a jet of scalding water poured forth on to the footplate, blinding and burning us; at the same moment two sharp reports rang out, and I heard Pierre Cournet shout, 'Strike him, Jean!'
"I was quick to take it in. Notwithstanding what had happened, I never lost my nerve for a moment; in fact, the breaking of the water-gauge was no new experience to me, though this was the first time it had not happened accidentally. My shovel was already half poised in the air, and I brought it down with all my might on the Prussian soldier's head. Reeling backward he fell off the foot-plate, rolled down the embankment, and I saw him no more.
"Meanwhile Pierre Cournet had not been idle. With a second blow of his weapon he had felled the officer immediately after the latter had fired his pistol, and the big Prussian lay unconscious at our feet. All this was but the work of a few seconds, but I shall remember that terrible little fight in the midst of the scalding steam as long as I live.
"The next moment the fearless old driver had rushed to the broken gauge, and, scalding his hands severely in the attempt, had turned off the steam and water-taps. Once more the foot-plate was clear. But this was by no means all. There was a terrible plan formed in Pierre Cournet's brain that day, and he worked it out to the bitter end.
"We were now beginning to rush down an incline, at the end of which, on the level, was a long tunnel. The old driver turned to me:—
"Go back,' he cried, 'over the coals, and uncouple the engine. You can do it, can't you?'
"I'll do it!' I shouted. We were only working with ordinary chain-couplings, and I knew these would be slack as we ran downhill.
"In ten seconds I was behind the tender, astride one of the buffers, stooping down and separating the loose chain dangling between the tender and the leading truck. Then I clambered back over the coals to the foot-plate. I found Pierre Cournet slackening speed with his hand on the regulator.
"'Tie him up,' he exclaimed, with a glance at the officer. 'He's coming to.'
"There was a piece of rope in the tool chest, and I tied the Prussian's arms securely behind his back, making the end of the rope fast to a ring in the footplate. Hardly had I done so when we entered the tunnel.
"We were running very slowly now. Although uncoupled, the momentum given it by the incline had kept the train close behind our engine, and, of course, its leading buffers were still touching our rear ones, because, by slowing his engine, Pierre Cournet had been checking the speed of the train behind.
"In the middle of the tunnel we stopped dead for a moment.
"'Good,' said Cournet, as he immediately opened the regulator once more; 'it is level here, and the train will stay in the tunnel until—until—but you shall see for yourself, Jean. Mon Dieu, grant that I may hold out!'
"Out of the tunnel into the bright daylight we rushed with great speed. Still I had no idea of what Cournet meant to do.
"'Put on the brakes,' he shouted as he shut off the steam. 'Quick and hard, my son!'
"We came to a standstill about three-quarters of a kilometre from the tunnel's mouth. It was a perfectly straight bit of line, and, looking back, I could see the black entrance behind us.
"'Get off, Jean,' said the driver.
"He was reversing the gear of the engine now, and it seemed to me that it cost him a great effort to pull the lever over the sector. Then came another voice, that of the Prussian officer. He had come to.
"For God's sake, what are you going to do?' he asked.
"'Going to do? Why, send you back to your friends as fast as we can. Adieu, monsieur—a speedy and safe journey to you—and the journey ends in the tunnel!'
"So saying, he opened the regulator to the full, and sprang from the foot-plate to my side as the great engine began to move backwards, along the line we had come, towards the tunnel. It was some moments before I grasped the horror of the thing. Then, as I saw the locomotive hastening away from us, gathering fresh speed every moment as it neared the dark opening of the tunnel, I realized the awful nature of Cournet's revenge.
"He grasped me by the arm. I think he had gone mad for the moment.
"See,' he cried, 'André and Jacquet will be avenged by their father. They are caught like mice in a trap, and all their guns and ammunition will be destroyed. Ah, it has nearly reached the tunnel!'
"Horror-struck, I watched the locomotive until at length it disappeared into the dark aperture, and the white steam rolled in cloudy columns from the tunnel's mouth. The next few seconds seemed like hours, but at last, straining every nerve, we heard a dull, muffled sound from the direction of the tunnel, followed by a deep, growling roar. Then all was quiet.
"I turned to Pierre Cournet. He had released his hold on me and had sunk on the grass by the side of the line. His face was an ashen grey, and for the first time I noticed a streak of red running down his blouse.
"'Why, you are wounded!' I said.
"'Yes,' he gasped. 'He hit me when he fired; I hardly thought I could have lasted it out—but—but—I have not died too soon—goodbye, Jean—escape quickly—Ah!'
"In a second or two it was over, and I was running for my life through the wood by the side of the line—for my life, I say, because I knew the country round was infested with Prussians, and it might have been difficult to give an account of myself had I been captured.
"Afterwards? Oh, they thought it was a strategy of some French engineers, this blowing up of the tunnel.* For blown up it was. Probably the engine crashing into the first truck that was full of shells caused the explosion. But the whole train was buried, and with it the bodies of the Prussian artillerymen.
[* Several railway tunnels on the lines which the French knew would prove useful to the Prussians in their advance on Paris were purposely blown up.]
"And now I must wish monsieur goodnight, for it is nearly time for me to take my train to Mézières. Without doubt my journey will be less exciting than the one I have recounted."
It was, at the most, an affair of outposts, but Colonel Baxter was anxious to make the thing successful, although the force under his command was scarcely a thousand, all told, including four guns. For some days the Boers had been retreating northward and had crossed the Zandgolo River, entrenching themselves upon the farther side, after having destroyed the railway bridge over the river. The Colonel's little force had followed closely, and was encamped to the south of Vredeburg, slightly over a mile and a half from this same bridge. Although he hardly had hopes of dislodging the enemy before the arrival of reinforcements, he was determined to push forward as far as possible, and at least worry them if he could do no more. For this purpose a reconnaissance with a hastily-prepared armoured train was ordered.
Now, Major Finch did not believe in armoured trains, and he was the more inclined to grumble on this occasion because one of the precious four guns had been "commandeered" to go to the front on a coal-truck protected with bits of boiler-plate. As an artillery officer he mistrusted the whole arrangement, and made no secret of it; but the Colonel only scoffed at his scruples, and so he had to watch Lieutenant Sangate and a dozen men climb into the truck and disappear behind "that rickety tin armour," as he called it.
There was not much time for growling, however, for the worthy Major had to take up a position with the remaining guns on the summit of a kopje that commanded the railway line as far as and beyond the river. It Was the duty of these guns to protect the advance of the armoured train.
"It's a fool's game," muttered the Major to himself as he swept the veldt with his field-glasses, till his eyes rested on a ridge of hills some three miles from where he was standing, and about a mile and a half beyond the river. "They've got guns there, to a dead certainty, guns that we can't touch; and as soon as that rotten little, tinkered-up fad of Baxter's gets within range she'll draw their fire. It'll be sheer luck if they get out of it, too. If he wanted to send 'em a target why couldn't he have run out a dummy, and not chanced losing my precious barker? Halloa, they're off!"
For as he glanced at the line just below him there came some spurts of steam from the engine as it slowly moved forward on its dangerous errand. Besides the locomotive there were only two trucks, one in front with the gun, and the other behind, containing a Maxim and a score of Tommies. The Major watched the train as it wound its way round the bases of the low hills until it reached Vredeburg "Station," an apology consisting of a platform, a couple of sheds, a few sidings, and a signal-box, the latter being on the other side of the station.
From this point the line ran perfectly straight and on a dead level with the veldt as far as the river, which was distant about a quarter of a mile from the station. It was the object of the reconnaissance to discover how far the bridge had been damaged, and, by drawing the enemy's fire, to unmask his position.
"Now the game will begin," muttered the Major, as he turned his glasses once more towards the distant kopjes.
He was right. A puff of white smoke came from the summit of one of them, and a few seconds later there was another smaller puff a couple of hundred yards in front of the advancing train. Another and another followed, and shells began to drop thick and fast about the little fort on wheels. Then there came a spurt of fire from the leading truck. The enemy's compliment was being returned.
Slowly the train ran on. Half the distance between Vredeburg Station and the river was traversed when, suddenly, another sound arose distinct from the boom of the guns. It was the rattle of Mausers.
"There they are!" cried the Major, "on the other side of the river. Let 'em have it—a little under 3,000 yds!"
The three guns opened fire, and the range was speedily found. Shrapnel began to drop unpleasantly close to the Boer riflemen the other side of the river, who still, however, kept up a withering fire on the approaching train. The latter had now arrived within a hundred yards of the river, when suddenly the Major saw three of the enemy's shells, aimed with splendid precision, fall almost simultaneously apparently right into the train immediately in front of the engine and burst, with clouds of smoke. This was followed by a perfect hail of shells dropping in rapid succession all round and upon the devoted train, supported by a terrific rifle fire from the Boer infantry at a range of little more than 300 yds.
"Why don't she come out of it?" muttered Major Finch. "It's madness trying to stick there." For the train had stopped dead, and the one solitary gun was doing its little best. The enemy had not, at all events, succeeded in silencing it.
"Good," went on the Major, as puffs of steam once more rose from the engine's smoke-stack; "she's coming back—what!—Great heavens, they've left my gun behind!"
For as the train steamed quickly back into Vredeburg it was evident that she was coming away without the front truck, which still remained on the line within a hundred yards of the river, the plucky gunners working their solitary gun for all they were worth.
The enemy's shells had burst between the engine and the truck, completely shattering the couplings. Two men lying dead across the track showed that an attempt to recouple the truck had been in vain, and under the fearful fire the engine had been compelled to retreat. She left her other truck on the British side of Vredeburg Station, and twice attempted a dash to the front, supported by Finch's three guns. But it was no use. The Boer artillery had got the range so perfectly that the engine could not possibly have run within a couple of hundred yards of the gun-truck without being smashed; in fact, she could scarcely show her buffers outside Vredeburg Station.
Then the Major had to watch a gruesome thing through his glasses. The last spurt of fire came from his beloved gun, and the next moment Lieutenant Sangate and his men swarmed over the side of the truck and started running back for dear life. First one bit the dust with a Mauser bullet through the brain, then another stumbled, and a comrade caught him in his arms and hurried on. Then the Lieutenant began to limp on his left leg and had to be supported, and finally eight men reached Vredeburg Station, five of them wounded, leaving three motionless in the truck, beside the abandoned gun, and two more lying by the side of the line.
So the gun was lost, and Major Finch's reflections on the subject of armoured trains had better not be reported.
But the gun, though lost, was not in the hands of the enemy. Before they could actually take it they would have to cross the river, and very soon the sharp eye of Major Finch detected a movement of this nature some quarter of a mile up stream, where apparently there was a drift. But half-a-dozen well-aimed shells from his battery soon put an end to this little game, and they had to beat a retreat.
"Umph," growled the Major, "I suppose we'll try and bring it in after sundown. But if the beggars have search-lights it won't be much use. Fortunately, we've got ours, and the Colonel is sure to fix it up so that they won't be able to show themselves anywhere within range of our little beauties here. By George, I wish we could get that gun back!"
Lifting his glasses once more he gazed long and earnestly at the abandoned truck and its surroundings. As he did so a curious expression stole over his face.
"She's pulled up close to that distant signal," he murmured; "and that signal's worked from the station. Well, it's a tough job, but it might be done, I should think. It's worth trying, too."
As the Major anticipated, when it was dark both sides began to play on the abandoned gun with their search-lights, and it soon became evident that a night attack to rescue it was out of the question.
The Colonel was very gloomy at the rough-and-tumble mess that evening.
"Well, gentlemen," he said to the officers present, "it's been an unlucky day. But we must get that gun back somehow, even if we have to pay heavily for doing so."
"We've paid pretty heavily for sending it there," growled the Major.
The Colonel bit his lip. Then he began discussing a plan of operations. It was his custom to consult the senior officers individually on such occasions, and presently he turned to the Major and said:—
"Well, Finch, what is your opinion?"
"It's a risky plan, sir, that's what I think. I don't see the use of employing the handful of cavalry we've got over this business, and I'm sorry to say I don't agree with you."
"Perhaps you've got a better suggestion?" retorted the Colonel, who was beginning to get angry.
"Well," drawled Finch, who had the reputation of being annoyingly cool in discussions when other men lost their tempers, "I think your plan risks too many men."
"And how many do you think would be enough, pray?"
"Um; well, I should say one man might tackle the job, and—"
"One man!" cried the Colonel. "I don't know whether you're joking, sir, but if you are, all I can say is that it's most ill-timed."
"On the contrary, sir, I meant exactly what I said."
"Then perhaps you'll go and get your precious gun yourself!"
The Colonel had completely lost his temper. The little group of officers started in pained surprise as the Major sprang to his feet.
"Thank you, sir," he exclaimed, quietly, "I will obey your orders. All I stipulate is that you keep that engine in steam till you hear from me. Good-night, all!"
And, to the astonishment of all present, he turned on his heel and walked out of the tent, without another word.
If his brother officers could have followed him they would have been somewhat surprised at his movements. His first action was to divest himself of his sword and to glance at his watch.
"About four hours of darkness left," he said to himself. "Well, I shall want them all." Then he made his way to an armourer's tent and demanded a couple of screw-drivers, a file, and a pair of wire-nippers. Armed with these singular weapons he started along the line in the direction of Vredeburg. Just before he came to the station he was challenged by a couple of vedettes, who allowed him to proceed on giving the password. He paced through the empty station until he was just past the signal-box at the farther end. Then he threw himself motionless on the ground as a blinding flash of light came streaming over the spot.
"They'll scarcely pick out one man in khaki," he muttered, when the light had shifted.
Crawling on his hands and knees to the side of the line, he uttered an exclamation of joy as he found what he had come to seek, the signal wire by which the distant signal near the gun was manipulated from the box. It was carried along the side of the line on small posts about a foot high, and some fifteen yards apart, running over a grooved wheel screwed to the top of each of these posts.
"It's a good thick one," he remarked, as he felt the wire, which was composed of several twisted strands, "and ought to stand a jolly good strain. If it doesn't! But, there, we won't think of 'ifs'; we'll get to work."
First of all he cut the wire through with his file and pliers, then he started crawling along the line, keeping absolutely still every time the light came flashing upon him, until he had passed some five of the little posts. Taking hold of the wire, he commenced to pull it towards him from the direction from which he had come. He thus cleared some seventy yards of wire, which he carefully coiled, from the pulley-wheels.
"The others will have to be taken off," he exclaimed, as he drew out one of his screwdrivers and crawled to the next post. It was the work of some ten minutes to find and extract the two screws which fastened the little grooved wheel through which the wire ran to the post. Then he crawled carefully to the next one, and performed the operation in less time—then to a third—and so on, gradually nearing the gun and freeing the wire from the posts as he did so.
As he could not free the pulleys from the wire without cutting the latter, he had to push them along from post to post, and so they gradually accumulated until he had twenty of them together on the wire in this manner.
"At last!" he exclaimed, as he reached the shadow of the truck, shivering for a moment as he crawled over one of the dead bodies in his path. "It's lucky the signal's beyond the gun, or there wouldn't have been enough wire."
Then he cut the wire, strung off the score or so of pulley-wheels, thus clearing it, stole gingerly to the end of the truck, and, sheltered completely from the enemy's view, fastened the end of the wire securely to the broken coupling.
It had taken him the best part of three hours to perform this little operation, and now he commenced his slow, painful journey back. Whether or no the Boers were suspicious he could not tell, but certain it was that their flash-light glanced more repeatedly along the track, and once they threw a desultory shell that burst unpleasantly near.
By-and-by, however, he reached the spot where he had coiled the end of the wire, found it, and continued his journey, uncoiling the wire as he went, until he came to the end of it. Then he twisted the end into a large loop, which he carefully placed between the rails.
"It's lucky it's a dead level," he exclaimed, "and that it's a straight line. If only the wire stands the strain!"
Then he rose to his feet and hurried back to the camp. Day was breaking as he reached the British lines, and one of the first to encounter him was Colonel Baxter.
"Man alive," he began, "where the dickens have you been? You weren't so foolish as to take me at my word last night, surely?"
"I don't know about being foolish, sir," replied Major Finch, very quietly; "that remains to be seen. But I want my gun back again, and if that engine's in steam I'll go and get it at once."
"What on earth are you going to do? You can't get to the gun, man. It's impossible!"
"Quite so, but I can get the gun to me, I think."
"If you wouldn't mind getting on that little hill, where my three guns are posted, you'll see the gun rescued, if I'm successful, sir. Have I your permission to start now?"
With a grunt of astonishment the Colonel consented, and Finch walked off to the line and found the little locomotive with steam up. Getting on to the foot-plate, he motioned the driver to open the regulator.
"Run her forward as fast as you can, and be prepared to stop and reverse her just the other side of the station," he exclaimed.
The Colonel and a few other officers, who had got wind that something extraordinary was on the move, watched the engine from the top of the kopje. As soon as she drew near the station the Boer guns opened a furious fire, and their shells began to drop about the all-important bit of line in front.
"The fool!" cried the Colonel, "I shouldn't have given him permission to perform such a mad bit of bravado. Ah, I thought so; of course he's had to stop."
For the engine had come to a halt just beyond the station.
"He'll have to come back now," said the Colonel. "Halloa—what's he doing? Why, he's got down! He's gone in front of the engine—He's hit!—No, he's picking something up! Ah, now he's back on the foot-plate! What's his little game, I wonder?"
If the Colonel could have been present on the footplate he would have heard Finch say to the driver:—
"Have you reversed her?"
"Open the regulator slowly then—very slowly mind, or the wire will snap. Do you hear?"
"All right, sir, I understand. We'll get her off, sir."
"Aha!" went on the Colonel. "I told you so. He's beginning to move back. He's precious slow over it, too."
"Look at the truck—look—look!" suddenly shouted the officers by his side.
"By George!" cried the Colonel. "It's moving—it's coming along! How in the name of—Hurrah! Bravo, Finch, bravo! He's got her off!"
For, apparently without any cause, the gun-truck began to move away from the river towards the British lines. Finch was bringing back his own. The wire had held, had stood the strain of starting the truck, and the rest was easy.
Amid a hail of shells that truck came in. The driver increased his speed. He had to stop as he began to round the curve to the south of Vredeburg, but the start and the pace attained had been enough to bring the truck with its precious burden rolling along through the station until the engine was properly coupled to it, and Finch brought his train to the camp in triumph.
"Well done, Finch," exclaimed the Colonel, the first to greet him on his return. "Never mind anything I said."
"I don't, sir," said Finch, with a smile. "I've got my little beauty back."
"Tell you what," shouted another officer, "you deserve—"
"What I hope I'll get," said the Major, "and that's breakfast and a snooze."
"What! You mean to tell me you've been over in the States and never heard of the 'Grand Rocky Hill and Peak City Railway'! Wal, stranger, you surprise me. I guess you Britishers get in such a habit of stickin' your nose in the air over your foolish notions of the value of your forefathers that when you get to a country like the States, where thar is somethin' to be proud of, all you reckon to see is the tops o' the houses or the blue sky. Why, Sir, thar ain't a child o' six years old over thar that don't know the G.R.H. and P.C.R. just as well as he does his triggernometry or any other branch o' book-learnin'.
"You talk about your express trains in England! Why. Sir, you're afraid to get up any speed; and it ain't to be wondered at, considerin' your island's so small that if you ran at anythin' like our lightning expresses, the whole train would be in danger of runnin' into the sea before the driver had space to pull her up. But on the G.R.H. and P.C.R. I guess there's a length o' track that would supply metals for the entire British Isles; and as for speed, why, if one of the engineers ran under a mile a minute on an ordinary train, I reckon he'd hand in his checks and enjoin his relatives to bury him in the middle of a prairie, whar no one 'ud ever hear of him.
"Have I got anything to do with the line? Yes, Siree, I guess I have. Not that I'm a big boss on it, but—wal, thar, I don't mind tellin' you that Caleb B. Luker (that's my name, stranger) is known on every inch of the G.R.H. and the P.C.R., and his opinion ain't sneezed at, neither.
"But what I was goin' to tell you ain't anything to do with this child—it's a yarn about two engineers when the Peak City branch o' the railway was bein' constructed; and when you've heered it, you'll say it's one o' the most astoundin' railway tales as was ever known since the creation of the world. But I guess I'd better begin the yarn without any further ramifications.
"When the idea of bringing on the track from Big Pine Junction to Peak City was started, everyone naturally said that the crossin' o' the Buffalo Horn River would be a tarnation awkward job, however it was done, for though it looks friendly enough in the summer, thar's an ugly lot o' torrents and melted snow comin' down it in winter and spring, and a wood pile bridge stood every chance of takin' a journey down stream, with or without a train on top.
"But Seth P. Tucker, the company's engineer in this particular department, warn't a man to be frightened by such or'nary things as circumstances. It's my belief that if there were any talk of the Old World and America bein' joined by a bridge, Seth P. Tucker would ha' put in two specifications within a month—one for the Atlantic and the other for the Pacific. I've heard him say often that Natur' is a coward at heart, and Natur' certainly had to take a back seat whar he was concerned. Why, Sir, it was Seth P. Tucker who bust up the big obstruction when the San Felippo Railway was being prospected in South America. Thar was a volcano in the line o' route, and as a tunnel couldn't be made through it the track had to cross a deep valley at the foot. It was calculated that a million dollars wouldn't pay for the cost of a viaduct, but Seth P. Tucker jest had a look round, smiled a knowin' sorter grin, and ordered twenty tons o' blastin' powder and a hundred gallons o' nitro-glycerine. He had these taken to the top o' the mountain and fixed up on an electric affair by the edge o' the crater. Then he jest pressed a button at the other end o' three miles o' wire, and the whole show was precipitated at once into the volcano. Talk about a bust-up and the trump of doom! One half o' that mountain was blown clean down into the valley, fillin' it up completely, and only takin' a bit o' leveling to get it ready for the sleepers—while the lava, when broken up, made the best ballast I ever saw.
"But it's about the Buffalo Horn River and the G.R.H. and P.C.R. I was talkin'. Wal, stranger, Seth P. Tucker came down and did a bit of prospectin', and in a few days' time he'd fixed up a plan for a bridge and drawn it on paper, so's you might ha' sworn it must ha' been thar already for him to get so neat a pictur' of it. He sends this plan inter the Company's office at Rocky Hill, calculatin' that in a few days' time he'd get the order for the contract. But thar was a disappointment in store for Seth P. Tucker, one that he hadn't reckoned on either. 'Pears thar was another engineer that owed him a grudge. Ebenezer Finch—that was his name—managed to get hold o' the specifications of the bridge, told the directors he fancied he had a plan in his head for fixin' up the show in a way that 'ud beat it, and asked leave to send in his tender. Then he went down to Buffalo Horn River, sounded the stream a bit, had a shaft sunk on either side, took a few levels and such-like. The end of it was that he sent in a specification for tunnelling that 'ere river. He pointed out that the Thames had a tunnel under it, that the Severn was goin' to have one, that thar was a lot o' talk o' jining England to France by the same means, 'and if,' he said, 'that undertaking can be carried through, why shouldn't you run your cars under Buffalo Horn River? It's safer than torrents and snow and timbers driftin' down stream, and it ain't likely that you'd be behind Europe in such an enterprise.'
"When Seth P. Tucker first heard of this plan he laughed fit to break his neck, but when he knew that the directors were givin' serious consideration to it, he used enough language to bridge the Mississippi with solid oaths. The fact was that Ebenezer Finch had impressed the directors with his scheme. They rather liked the idea of havin' the tunnel; they'd not only be able to crow over every other line o' railway in the States, but it would be a big boom for the G.R.H. and P.C.R. Folks would flock to see it, and the Peak City branch would become famous all over the world. It wasn't so much the necessity of the tunnel as the unique natur' of the idea that fetched 'em. They liked the thought o' saying, 'Any other line would have had a bridge, but not for the G.R.H. and P.C.R.! No, Siree, I guess we've got a tunnel.'
"So the end of it was that the directors sent for both engineers and interviewed 'em together. Thar was plenty o' words bandied about at the meetin', specially when the chairman announced that Ebenezer Finch's scheme had come out trumps.
"Not that we want to say anything against your plans, Mr. Tucker,' he went on, 'but because we think the G.R.H. and P.C.R. ought to have this tunnel.'
"'And so you're all goin' to make fools o' yerselves for the sake of a derned experiment, are ye?' yelled old Tucker. 'Let me tell ye it's as bad as diggin' a grave for the lot o' ye; not but what I wish that Finch 'ud dig one for himself, for it's about all he's fit for.'
"'Go and hang ye'self on one o' yer crazy old bridges, if it'll bear yer weight—which I doubt!' retorted the other engineer, with an amiable sorter grin. Then Seth P. Tucker caught up an inkpot and slung it at him, and in less time than it takes to tell they wos rolling over together on the floor in a lovin' grip and the directors tryin' their best to separate them. The meetin' was talked about for weeks, and was a kinder preliminary advertisement to the great tunnel.
"Wal, Seth P. Tucker swore by some biggish oaths that the tunnel should never be made. He considered it the awfullest insult he'd ever had offered to him, and the doom he wished for himself if the other man ever finished that tunnel and run a train through won't bear repeatin', it was so awful. He hung about the country for a bit, and then he suddenly disappeared. No one knew whar he'd gone to, and as nothin' was heered of him, folks got to reckoning that he'd jumped inter Buffalo Horn River outer sheer disapintment.
"But Ebenezer Finch soon brought along his fixin's, and got to work on the tunnel job. His idea was to commence a cuttin' on each side, about a mile and a quarter away from the river-bank, and to lead the track down by an easy gradient till he got it to a level fit to begin borin' under the water. He began operations pretty well on in the fall o' the year, and by the time spring came round he was about ready with his borin'-machines, and towards the end o' March they had a dinner o' the directors in the cuttin', and began the first stroke o' the tunnellin' work with flags flyin' and an old cannon they'd fished up from somewhere a-bangin' away till it very near got red hot. Finch reckoned he'd have that tunnel bored somewhere along the latter part o' the summer, and things seemed going on pretty merrily all round.
"'Twas a few weeks after this that a stranger appeared on the scenes at the little town called Pine Settlement that had begun to spring up on the south bank o' the river near the tunneling operations. He was a feeble-looking old chap, with a big white bears and long hair—an inoffensive-looking coon, who said he'd come to do some fishin' in Buffalo Horn River. Folks hadn't reckoned as a rule that there was any fishin' worth speaking of in those parts, but the old chap seemed to think otherwise, and nobody took the trouble to contradict him much. So he prospected about the settlement for a bit, and finally fixed on a bit o' land close to the river, for which he paid the Government claim, and commenced running up a shanty right on the edge o' the stream. He was mighty particular about havin' it as close as possible, and he had a sorter little landin'-stage on to it, so's to have a comfortable place for fishin' from or bringing a boat to. He bought a few bits o' furniture at the local store, but a lot o' traps came down in a wagon, and he was so mysterious over 'em that he wouldn't let any o' the boys help him in unloadin' 'em, and folks reckoned he'd brought down some patent fishin' apparatus.
"He 'peared to fish a good deal after this; but, somehow or other, he never had much to show for it. He didn't chum up with anyone much, though now and again he'd answer back when he was spoke to. Once a feller said to him: ''Scuse me, stranger, but p'raps you don't know that this 'ere shanty o' yours is peculiarly placed?'
"'How's that?' says the old chap in an innercent kinder way.
"'Why, I reckon it's right over the tunnel they're borin' under the river.'
"'Is it? Wal, 'tain't no consarn o' mine if it is,' says the other, as if he didn't care a red cent about the tunnel.
"Thar was a curious story got afloat just after this. A little girl, comin' home by the river-bank rather late one night as the moon was getting' up, had a fright that most skeered her to death jest as she passed the little fishin' shanty. She declared she saw Old Nick hisself a-comin' up outer the river with an ugly big head and goggle-eyes. Said he climbed up on the landin'-stage and walked right inter the old fisherman's shanty. It was a funny tale; thar warn't many that b'lieved it; but still it made the old chap and his doin's seem a bit queer, especially as no one could prove he warn't entertainin' the devil.
"But folks soon forgot about the old man and his shanty when the news began to spread that the tunnel was cut at last, and that a trial train from Big Pine Junction would run through it in a fortnight's time. Thar was a powerful lot o' people came along to see things, and even a smatterin' o' Congressmen along of 'em.
"Wal, to make a long story short, the day of opening the tunnel came, and thar was a good show o' folks on either side o' the cuttin' hours before the train was timed to arrive from Big Pine Junction. Ebenezer Finch was in his glory—struttin' about here, thar, and everywhar, and showin' himself off among the crowd. He was standin' near the top o' the cuttin', close to the mouth o' the tunnel, talkin' to someone, when suddenly he felt a hand laid on his shoulder. He turned round, and thar he saw Seth P. Tucker grinnin' in his face.
"Mornin', Finch. I guess this here's a proud day in your existence—ain't it?' he drawled.
"For a moment the other engineer was so taken aback that he couldn't speak. Tucker went on—
"So ye've bored this wonderful tunnel o' yours, and completed it, have ye?'
"'Tucker!' gasps the other; 'why, I heered ye was dead!'
"'Maybe ye did, but I reckon I ain't. Retired inter private life a bit, that's all. Just strolled round now to have a look at this here masterpiece of yours!'
"Wal,' says the other, with a grin, 'I don't say but what I am proud of it. Thar ain't no ill feelin' between us now—eh?'
"'Oh, no, I ain't a bit jealous of ye,' said Tucker very deliberately, and lighting a cigar as he spoke; 'the only thing is that I reckon you'll never get a train to run through this here tunnel o' yours. It's a pity, o' course, but—'
"'What!' yelled Finch; 'not get a train to run through it! Why, thar's one goin' through in less than an hour's time from now.'
"'I reckon not,' said Tucker, blowin' a whiff o' blue smoke out of his mouth and watchin' it curl up to heaven.
"'Not! Why, it's on the track now, comin' along. It's turned half after eleven. At half-past twelve or tharabouts you'll see her run through with your own eyes. You can go aboard her if you like.'
"'Ebenezer Finch,' said Tucker, lookin' at his watch, 'I'll bet you ten thousand dollars that train never runs through your tunnel, the only condition bein' that if it don't you let the matter rest thar.'
"'Done, you denied idiot,' roared Finch; 'are you wantin' to give money away? Done, but on the condition you stop here. I ain't goin' to have you foul the track, or wreck the train, or anything o' that sort.'
"'Oh, I'll stay here,' said Tucker, sittin' down on a bit o' turf. 'You're sure that tunnel's all clear?'
"'Certain. I've been through it twice this mornin'.'
"'And the track's all right, and—'
"'The only thing that's wrong is your silly head. It's cracked!' rejoined Finch.
"'All right,' said the other, with a grin. 'We'll soon see!'
"He went on smoking and gazing at his watch. Presently he pocketed it with an air of triumph, muttering—
"'A quarter to twelve!'
"The words were hardly out of his mouth when there was a dull thud, a roar, and a violent tremor of the earth. An instant afterwards, and two men, who were standing at the mouth of the tunnel, came scrambling up the embankment, yelling—
"'The water's through! Get up—get up for your lives!'
"There was a wild rush up the sides of the cutting, and then a stream of water came out of the tunnel's mouth, a stream that in less than a minute had become a roarin' torrent, sweeping along the cutting like an avalanche, tearin' up the track and swirlin' the gravel about like a sea-beach.
"Ebenezer Finch, who had started to his feet at the moment of the explosion, took a glance round. There was a man close by on horseback, tryin' to quiet the brute. Finch recognised him, and shouted—
"'Quick, George! Ride like fury, and stop the train!'
"The other understood at once and galloped off.
"Wal, Ebenezer Finch, I guess that pile's mine, ain't it?' drawled Tucker.
"You skunk!' yelled the other. Thar'll be a day o' reckonin' for this.'
"'Likely thar will,' said the other coolly, 'but anyway that
train ain't goin' through your tunnel unless you make a divin'
dress for it, and what's more, I don't suppose thar ever
will be a train run through now. It'll be a case o' bridgin'
it over, after all!'
"And so it was, but not before thar wos a most tarnation row about it. You see, the whole thing very soon leaked out, and the facts o' the case became known. The old fisherman and Seth P. Tucker were one and the same person, and the mysterious lot o' goods that had come to his shanty were a divin'-dress, some biggish submarine dynamite mines, and a lot of electrical apparatus. And Seth P. Tucker had actually put on that divin'-suit night arter night, climbed down off his landin'-stage, and got into the bed o' the river, and had worked thar with a pick-axe and a patent excavating tool o' his till he'd sunk a little shaft in the riverbed right over Finch's tunnel. He stacked this with his dynamite cartridges, attached electric wires to 'em, filled up the hole, and waited. On the mornin' of the openin' day he set a 'cute little clockwork machine goin' in connection with his battery in the shanty so as to fire the charge at exactly a quarter to twelve. Dynamite havin' a habit of explodin' downwards, the thing worked just as he expected it would, and bust up Finch's tunnel in a brace o' shakes.
"At first the directors were fairly mad, and threatened all sorter things, while Finch said he'd shoot Tucker. But Seth warn't a bit discomforted, havin' reckoned up the whole thing from the beginnin'. He pointed out that there warn't no law to prevent him diggin' holes at the bottom of an unnavigable river and experimentin' with dynamite cartridges if he chose. If other folks chose to lay tunnels under his experimentin'-ground, that was their consarn, not his. After the bust-up there warn't nothin' else to be done but to build a bridge. Wal, they knew very well that he was the only man who could do it. They couldn't afford to do without him, and he was willin' to act liberally towards 'em. Finch had had a fair bet with him, and owed him ten thousand dollars. Wal, he didn't mind takin' on the contract for the bridge at ten thousand dollars under the price.
"The directors finally saw they were caught in a hole and caved in. Ebenezer Finch had to pay up, for the bet was a fair one. He lay around for a while after, and pot-shotted Tucker occasionally; but he warn't good enough with his weapon to hit him, and when the thing grew monotonous, and Tucker began to shoot back, he left altogether. The line was deviated from the cuttin', the earth that had been dug up from it was used as an embankment to run the train up to the level o' Seth P. Tucker's bridge, which is one o' the finest bits o' engineerin' work on the Buffalo Horn River.
"You want to know more details about how he put the divin'-dress on himself, and why they didn't stop up the hole, and a lot o' other things? No, Sir. If you expec' an American citizen to go inter silly details when he is recountin' veracious hist'ry, you're mistaken. Good evenin'!"
Walter Meriton put the question boldly to Mr. David Cartwright, even as he had promised the latter's daughter he would, and now he waited, looking straight at the stern, business-like face of the assistant superintendent of the line for his reply, but already reading a decided negative therein.
"See here, Mr. Meriton," he said presently, "some men in my position would have been highly offended at this. But I don't want to treat you in that way. Understand that I am not in the least angry with you for asking the hand of my daughter, though I must confess you have taken me by surprise. But my answer must be no!"
"May I ask your reasons, sir?"
"You may. In the first place you are both very young—my daughter especially. In the second place I intend that my daughter shall marry a man who is able to support her in the manner to which she has been accustomed, which you are certainly unable to do at present. And in the third place, you will pardon me for saying so, I do not see any special indications that you will rise to such a position. The C. M. & St. P. R. R. Company, as you very well know, makes no promotion by favoritism. Every man must win his way up the ladder, as I have had to do myself."
"It is absolutely final as far as the present is concerned," he said, "and unless you progress up the ladder it will be final in the future. The fact of your being what is called a gentleman makes no difference. The question is how do you stand with us from a business point of view? Your chief merit is your knowledge of German. There you are useful to us in our correspondence. But do something smart on the line, my lad," he went on kindly. "Do something smart! That's the way to get on."
"I'll try, sir—for Evie—Miss Cartwright's sake."
"Very likely. But understand me that from this moment you must not say another word to her on the subject. She must be left free. Can I trust you?"
"And now to work. I want you to run down to St. Paul tomorrow, and make thorough investigations as to the working of the staff there. I'm not quite satisfied about things, and I want a full report before I go down myself. There's a slack tone about the station and complaints have reached me. We'll go over them now."
He went through a bundle of documents with the young man, and finally dismissed him with the injunction to take the 9:30 express the next morning.
Then he lay back in his chair a minute or two and pondered.
"I like that fellow," he admitted, "and I know Evie's fond of him. But I haven't seen real grit in him yet. Well, time will prove."
Walter Meriton somehow found an opportunity of seeing the assistant superintendent's daughter before the day was over. Possibly the meeting had been arranged beforehand.
"Well," she asked, "did you see him?"
"What did he say?"
Meriton told her.
"Good old dad!" she replied. "I knew he liked you. Then it's all right, Walter."
"I don't see that it's all right at all, dear," said the young man gloomily. "We've got to break off the engagement, and—"
"You silly boy," she interrupted, "just as if it really matters. It's only for a time. I'll wait for you if—if you don't make my wait too long," she added, roguishly.
"Of course I shall try and win you."
There was a resolute look in Walter Meriton's face when he rose next morning. He noticed it himself in the glass. He meant business, did this young man. He had sat up half the night going deeply into the question of the St. Paul station staff, for he intended this report of his to be the first little rung up the ladder before him.
Railway men from guards to superintendent are generally the last to get into a starting train. So, as Walter Meriton walked on to the platform alongside which stood the St. Paul express, the guard was just preparing to wave his green flag. Even then, Meriton did not hurry, but exchanged a word or two with one of the officials.
Then, just as the train began to move, he made a dash at a first-class compartment. It was locked, but the other hastily produced his key and opened it, and Meriton swung himself in. As he looked out of the window to say a last word to the official, he heard a deep voice behind him in German:
"Ach Gott! Curse him, I thought we had the compartment to ourselves! I gave the guard five dollars to lock us in."
He was on the point of turning to apologize when he heard another voice say in the same language:
"Bad luck! But we must settle with him if he is troublesome."
Now Walter Meriton was a thorough German scholar.
He looked for a moment carelessly at his companions. They were two evil-looking men—one short and sandy-haired, with little gray eyes that never kept still; the other big and sinewy, a very powerful-looking fellow. They, in turn looked at him closely. Evidently their suspicions were aroused. So were his, but he never showed it.
Then the short man leaned over and spoke to him in German, asking whether he objected to smoking. By no hint did he betray himself.
He simply shook his head and remarked in English that he did not understand.
"We want to schmoke," said the German in English.
He smiled and nodded. But the other man was not satisfied. Turning to Meriton he let fly a volley of the foulest abuse in German.
Meriton did not turn a hair, though he understood perfectly. He only shrugged his shoulder and looked bewildered.
Then the short man explained, after a pause: "Mine friend shpeaks not English. He ask you for matches!"
"We may speak," said the short man, "he does not understand."
"No, but he will be in the way."
"What shall we do?"
"Don't worry, my friend. We are a match for him, and we can easily tie him up and put him under the seat."
This cheerful bit of information was duly digested by Walter Meriton, but he appeared quite engrossed in his papers. They glanced at him sideways. It was evident he knew no German.
"And now to business," said the bigger man. "You have brought them?"
"Two of them—in the bag," and he jerked his thumb toward the rack.
"Good! Here is the plan."
He called it eisenbahn fahrplan in German, and he pulled a printed paper from his pocket. Meriton gave one little glance toward it, and set himself with a mighty effort to keep his countenance. For he had instantly recognized it as the paper of special working instructions for a train that was to run that morning from St. Paul to Chicago, and which was to carry no less a personage than the Governor of Montana, who, after a visit to the Governor of Minnesota, was on his way to Chicago upon another visit.
He might well recognize it, for he had helped to draw it up himself and had dispatched copies of it to all the principal offices along the line some days before. Somehow or other these men had managed to get hold of a copy, and he guessed it meant mischief.
Just a word or two as to these "special working instructions" which are always issued when any excursions or special trains are run. The train in question is carefully timed from start to finish all along the route, not only the times of running through the stations being put down for the guidance of the driver and station masters, but also the principal signal cabins and other points on the road.
Provision is also made for shunting ordinary trains into "refuge" sidings to allow of the passing of the "special," while instructions are carefully issued as to the number of coaches of which the "special" is to be composed, and in the case of governors, mayors, etc., traveling, the exact position of his salon in the train is laid down.
High officials of the line always travel on such a train, and in this case Meriton knew very well that David Cartwright, his own particular "chief," had gone down to St. Paul by an early "special" that morning in order to accompany the governor on his journey to Chicago.
"Now then," said the bigger man, "we must find out the exact time when our train is likely to pass this one," indicating the special. "You see, it is timed to run through Evanston at 10:55. Now, we don't stop at Evanston, but I have found out from the 'Working Timetable' that we are due there at 10:35. So, you see, it will be about ten minutes or so the other side of Evanston. There's a signal cabin called Pine Tree Box that the special passes at 10:42. That will be about the point where we shall cross it."
"We must keep the time carefully."
"Of course. And one of us must be looking out of the window down the line. The Governor travels in the third salon from the engine. We must have bombs ready in our hands and throw them in as near as we can guess. It will have to be done in a second. I'll throw from the center window, and you throw from the side one at the same time. We'll have to break it first."
"How about this cursed Englishman?"
"I told you, we must tie him up. As for ourselves, well, we knew the risk when we drew lots at the meeting. If our driver hears the explosion and stops we must make a bolt of it. If not, we'll pull the communication cord before we get to St. Paul—in a tunnel if we can—and get clear as best we may."
Walter Meriton had taken in the whole situation, but his face showed no signs of it. These men were about to make a desperate attempt upon the governor's life by endeavoring to hurl a couple of bombs into his salon as the trains passed each other.
Rapidly he reviewed the situation. There was a three-fold reason for action. First, the governor was in danger; secondly, his chief's life was at a like risk, and thirdly, there was the honor of the company at stake.
Suddenly an inspiration struck him. It was more difficult than ever now to appear perfectly oblivious of the other men, but by a great effort he did so. He had his pocket case on his knee, and his hands were holding the papers, upon which he was pretending to take notes, apparently. He took a telegraph blank out of his pocket case, taking care, as he did so, that his traveling companions could not see, and quickly wrote these words:
"From St. Paul Express, 3824, C. Dynamitards in compartment. Mean wreck Governor of Montana special. Stop train at Evanston-Meriton."
Carelessly putting his hands in his pocket he took out four or five coppers, wrapped them up in the telegraph form, held it in his left hand, and prepared for action.
Then he looked out of the window. It was a clean run of six miles to the next station, and the train would pass a signal cabin on that side of the line in half a minute.
Then, as the train neared the box, he waved his arm up and down with a peculiar motion, still keeping it out of the sight of the two men, and glancing at the cabin. To his joy, the man was standing at the open window.
Out flew the weighted bit of paper and fell by the side of the line. The signalman put up his hand with a quick jerk. He had seen it, and understood.
The next moment a violent blow struck upon the young man's head from behind, and he fell senseless.
When he came to himself he found that he was lying on the hard floor of the carriage. His hands and feet were firmly tied with string and handkerchiefs, a bandage was over his eyes, and a gag was fastened into his mouth. The train was still rushing along at full speed.
"Better to have given him a few inches of knife," he heard the shorter man growl.
"Oh, it's all right," said the other. "We've no quarrel against him, and he can't do us any harm. Now, then, we're only a few miles off Evanston, and there isn't any time to lose. Better get that window smashed."
There was a crash of glass as his companion struck at the quarterlight with his stick.
"Now, the bombs. Put them on the seat ready. That's right."
"Are we stopping?"
"Yes—no! The man in the signal box is waving a green flag. We are going on. No—no—we're stopping again. Lucky we gagged the fool. Ah, we're going to step in the station. Curse it! Keep still, my friend!"
Walter Meriton heard, understood and rejoiced. The next moment a voice on the platform exclaimed:
"This is 3824, C!" and the lock clicked.
The villains were completely taken by surprise, as a couple of policemen and a railway official dashed in. They tried to open the other door and escape, but in vain. They were handcuffed before they knew what had happened, and the railway official had opened the bag.
"Bombs!" he exclaimed, "and a broken quarterlight. Going to throw 'em at the special, that's it. Lucky we got the message in time. Where's Mr. Meriton, though? I hope they haven't done for him."
Then a form rolled out from under the seat, and Meriton got his bonds off and his gag out. Directly he had done so he made the captives a mocking speech in excellent German.
"Ach!" shouted the bigger of the two as he shook his handcuffed fists. "I wish I had listened to Heinrich and killed you—you pig!"
Meriton acknowledged the sentiment politely and the train went
on, leaving the prisoners behind.
"Meriton," said the assistant superintendent, "the company won't forget this. Neither shall I, for I owe you something personally over it."
"Which I hope you'll pay, sir," said Meriton demurely.
"Eh? No, I told you the other day I make no personal favoritism and I stick to that. But you've shown yourself a smart man, and I'll give you a promise. When you've got your divisional superintendentship you shall marry Evie. There!"
"Meanwhile? Oh, well, you're on the way to it. The G.M.'s got a post for you over this affair. So—well—you'd better go and make it all right with Evie, my lad. That's what you want, I suppose, eh?"
"Good morning, sir!"
"Why, good morning, Harry! I hardly knew you at first, and I certainly didn't expect to see you here. How are you?"
"Very well, sir, thank you. I've just come off duty for a couple of hours."
"I see. Are you a fireman still?"
"Yes, sir. I've passed as driver, but I haven't got an engine yet. But that will come all in good time."
"That's right! I'm glad you're getting on. I hope you've a good mate on the footplate?"
"Rather better than the last, sir, I'm thankful to say."
"Eh? What was the matter with him?"
"Well, it's rather a long story, sir, but if you've got half an hour to spare perhaps you'd like to hear it?"
The above conversation took place on the platform of that exceedingly bustling railway station, Portsmouth Town. The young man who had accosted me was a fireman in the employ of one of our southern railway companies running into that station, as one might easily see by his smart, copper-mounted cap, a distinguishing feature of the men on the footplate on that company's system. I had known him when he was quite a lad, and, being always on the look-out for railway adventures, was only too glad to be able to pick up the following extraordinary story which he proceeded to tell me, and which I relate as far as possible in his own words, taking the liberty, however, of making them a little more presentable to the reader.
There have been a few exciting stories from time to time on the footplate, and I've noticed that the driver of an engine generally comes in for the biggest share of the thing; but in the adventure I'm going to tell you I fancy the fireman had the liveliest time of it, and that fireman was myself. Soon after I was promoted to the footplate of an express passenger engine it was my lot to serve with Charles Davis, a driver who knew his work and could make as good running out of his engine as any man I've met. He was a youngish chap, too—not more than thirty-six—a quiet, moody sort of fellow, and as strong as a Sandow. We were running Brighton expresses then, and Davis was always at his best on the down journey, for the simple reason that there was someone at the end of the run for him to see when he chanced to get off duty. A signal against him, or a slow down over a permanent-way operation, would quite annoy Davis, because it meant something more than a few minutes late on his time-sheet. That is to say, there was a certain little personage dwelling at Brighton to whom the driver had given his heart. I never thought very much of her myself. She was too flippant for a man like Charles Davis—a fellow who took things as a rule rather more seriously than he ought. But he simply worshipped that blue-eyed, golden-haired little lass, and when at length the day was fixed his joy knew no bounds.
"Only six weeks, mate," he said to me one day, as we bowled along through the fresh green fields of Sussex, "and then she'll be mine! Mine, just as sure as yonder signal shows a clear road ahead!"
It was only a coincidence, but even as he uttered the words the arm of the semaphore rose to danger. Anyhow, his face darkened as he pulled the regulator over and laid hold of the Westinghouse brake-handle. It was nothing—a mere momentary block on the line somewhere ahead—and yet it seemed a nasty omen to his speech.
The next day he was singularly silent on the up journey. Only one or two remarks escaped him.
"Harry, mate, ye've got no girl, have ye?"
"Take my advice and be careful, then. Woman's a rum machine, and you can't regulate her running like you can a locomotive."
"Anything wrong, mate?" I ventured.
"No—not exactly. Only I shall be right glad when we're married, for sometimes I get a bit jealous."
"Any cause to be?"
"Confound you, no!" he cried, turning sharply. "What makes you think that?"
"Nothing—only what you said."
"Look here, mate, if I thought my girl had played me false I'd—I'd go mad or die."
And he set his teeth with an ugly look as he gazed ahead through the weather-glass.
Whether he had any suspicions or not I never knew, but when we got back to Brighton that afternoon a terrible thing happened. A permanent-way inspector who happened to be on the platform—a tactless sort of man—came up to the engine, and, putting his head inside the cab, exclaimed:
"This is a bad business about your girl, Davis. I'm downright sorry for you!"
"What do you mean, man?" yelled the driver.
"What! don't you know? Why, she's bolted with Jimmy Sparshot—married at a registry office only this morning. You must have passed the train they went to town in on your way down."
"My God! is this true?" gasped Davis.
"I'm sorry to say it is—here, hold up, man! Catch him, Harry!"
For my mate had sunk all of a heap on the footplate. The shock had been too much for him, and the end of it was a dangerous attack of brain fever. Over three months passed before we stood on the same footplate once more, and those three months had wrought a sad change in poor Davis. He never once alluded to his trouble. He drove his engine as well as ever, but he spoke but rarely, and there was often a fixed expression in his eyes that I did not like at all.
For several months we continued running the Brighton expresses, and then a change came. Our locomotive superintendent had been engaged for some time in planning and producing a new type of engine for our line, and when the first of them was turned out of the sheds there were murmurs of admiration. The new locomotive was a four-wheel coupled engine with a leading bogie—the first tender engine with a "bogie" that had been built for our line—just the type of locomotive for our heaviest express work.
Charles Davis was envied by many a driver when one of the first of these new engines, named the "Southern Queen," was delivered over to him, and I was not at all sorry to find myself still his mate on the footplate of our brand-new steed. Our line has a practice that might well be followed by others. The driver of an engine has his name painted up in gilt letters inside the cab over the regulator, and this gives him a pride in the special locomotive that he drives, for there is no such thing as change and change about, every man having his own particular engine.
Our run was altered now. We were detailed to bring the special fast train from Portsmouth up to London Bridge in the morning, returning in the afternoon. The run, which is a difficult one on account of the many curves and gradients, had only one stop either way—at Chichester. Davis and I both transferred our lodgings from Brighton to Portsmouth, and prepared for our new duties.
I really thought that the fine locomotive to which Davis was appointed would be the making of the man, it seemed to rouse him from his lethargy so much. When I went down to the sheds on the morning of the first trip I found him there before me, gazing with admiration at the engine, which was standing over the pit.
"Now, isn't she a beauty, mate?" he asked me. "I've seen some fine engines up on the Northern lines, but I'd rather be on the footplate of this than any other I've come across. She's just fine! And what a name—'Southern Queen'! It sounds like some beautiful woman, doesn't it?"
When we drew up at the terminus after the run Davis was more pleased than ever, declaring he'd never travelled so well before, and talking of the "Southern Queen" with the most extravagant praises.
We hadn't been doing this new running more than seven or eight weeks before a peculiar change came over Charles Davis. I noticed it first one day when we were hauled up for a minute by signals just outside Epsom on the down journey. My mate began muttering. At first I thought he was speaking to me, but it soon appeared he was not. I listened, and caught the following: "I can't help it—it's not my fault. I know you want to go on, my girl, but it won't do till they let us. You'd hurt yourself else, and then what should I do? Yes—ask them to let you go on. Speak to them!"
And he blew the whistle. Another moment and the arm fell, and we went on. I didn't think much more about it, but when we got to our destination he began again.
"You can't help it, girl! I know you wanted to be in time; but never mind! You're a bit tired to-night. Have a good rest, and we'll make it up in the morning."
The next day it began again. I had just finished coaling up somewhere past Amberley when Davis muttered:
"You mustn't mind him feeding you. You've mine, you know, anyway. For don't you carry my name? Of course you do. They think you're only 'Southern Queen,' but we know better—eh, Queenie Davis? And you'll be true to nobody else but me, will you? You're not one of the false ones. If you were, my girl, I'd murder you—as I ought to have done the other! Yes, I'd do for you, though you are my lawful wife and bear my name!"
I began to grasp the situation. Davis was imagining the "Southern Queen" was his wife! I'd heard of men getting fond of their engines before, but never such a thing as this. "Those were rather queer things you were saying, mate," I remarked.
"Eh!" he cried, turning sharply upon me. "I suppose I can talk to myself as much as I please without you interfering, can't I! What does it matter to you?"
Then he broke into a loud laugh, and went on:
"Don't take any notice of me, Harry. I'm all right. If I say silly things sometimes I don't mean 'em."
But I watched him narrowly, nevertheless. He was extremely odd for the next few days, constantly addressing his engine with endearing names, and rowing me up if I let the slightest handful of coal-dust fall on the footplate. He'd be down in the sheds long before the "Southern Queen" was ready to go out, and he'd watch the cleaners with a jealous eye, and be loth to give her up to their charge after a run. Once he complained that the coals were not good enough for her; another time he bought a bottle of scent and emptied it into the oil-can, declaring that "Queenie liked to have something sweet about her"; and once I caught him kissing the reversing gear, and afterwards caressing the pressure-gauge, which he declared was "Queenie's pulse."
I thought the matter well over, and came to the conclusion that I ought to tell those in authority that poor Davis was going mad. I certainly should have done so, and I often wish I had, only my mate met with a bit of an accident the very nest day. He was getting off his engine when he stumbled and fell heavily, hurting his leg. The result was that he had to go off duty and lay up for a fortnight. During this period a driver named Simmonds was detailed to run the "Southern Queen," while I, of course, kept my place on the footplate. I went round to see Davis two or three times, and to my surprise he never once alluded to his engine, only to remark one Saturday night that he was well enough to sign on duty Monday morning, and that I should see him at the sheds.
If I had hoped that his peculiar madness had come to an end I was mistaken, for the sight of the "Southern Queen" was like a red rag to a bull. He walked round her, got underneath her with his oil-can, mounted the footplate and examined everything, muttering more or less all the time. When we got off he suddenly blurted out:
"Has she been running while I was laid up?"
"Yes," I answered.
"Who's been driving her?"
"How dared he do it? Didn't he see my name before him?"
"Yes, of course he did, but—"
"Then what right had he got to interfere with her, eh?"
"Why, of course, mate, he was—"
"There, don't talk to me!" he cried. "How would you like another chap to run off with your wife? But she didn't go willingly, I'll be bound—not like you're doing now, eh, Queenie?"—and he took back another notch in the reversing gear. "See! she knows her Charlie's with her! Hark at her! Oh, she's a beauty! Gently, then, my girl, gently!"
When we were getting into London he turned round to me again:
"How's she been running?"
"Splendidly! I never knew her in better trim, and Simmonds understood her down to the ground."
"What do you mean?"
"Why, on Saturday we ran into Chichester over a minute under time, and that after two dead stops for signals. I reckon, too, we worked her on the up journey with a couple of hundredweight less coal than usual."
The next moment I regretted having made these statements, for Davis's face grew livid with rage.
"Is this what you're telling me true?" he yelled.
"Yes," I answered; "but—"
"Oh, the false jade! You've proved unfaithful! Simmonds? How could you—you, with my name on you and nobody's hand on the regulator except mine since the day I married you? You're like the other one—false—false—false!"
"For God's sake, be careful, mate!"
"Ah!" he replied, with a smile. "Yes, it's only a silly bit of foolishness. Have I frightened you, Harry? Don't notice me. We're nearly in now. At any rate, we've run to time. Oh, she's a beauty, ha! ha! ha!"
I confess I felt uncomfortable, and I secretly determined that the afternoon journey should be the last I would take without reporting him—in fact, I made up my mind to do so at Portsmouth that very evening. It would have been well if I had seen someone at the London terminus, but I was foolish enough to wait. Hence the awful experience I am about to explain.
Our train was timed to leave London about five, and to run through with only one stop—at Chichester. We got off punctually enough. Davis was silent, and seemed to settle down to his work quite steadily. The first intimation I had that anything was wrong was when we were running round the Mitcham curve. We ought to have slackened speed to twenty miles an hour, but we went round at a good forty. I thought my mate had forgotten, and sprang to the brake-handle; but he pushed me aside, crying:
"Leave her alone! We'll see who she goes best, for! Coal her up—do you hear? I'll teach her to jilt me!"
We thundered through Sutton pretty safely. Then Davis went to the tool-box and drew out a chisel.
"You've been false to your name, have you?" he yelled, with an awful look upon his face. "We'll soon set that to rights, for you sha'n't end your days with my name on you, you vixen!"
Then he deliberately set to work and scratched out the gold letters of his name.
"Fire her up!" he shouted, turning to me.
"She doesn't want it yet," I replied.
"Never mind if she does or not! She'll have a good deal more than she wants before we get to the journey's end, I reckon."
I put a couple of shovelfuls on. Then I opened the damper.
"Leave it alone!" said Davis.
"But the pressure's over 170," I remonstrated. "She ought to blow off."
"She won't blow off—even if we go up to 200. I've screwed up the safety-valve! See? We'll burst her or smash her somehow—and don't you try to interfere, or I'll throw you over! No you don't!"
For I had grasped the regulator and was trying to shut off steam.
"You fool!" I cried; "there's a signal against us!"
"All the better, then! We'll smash up sooner! Curse it, the road's clear again!"
Davis had gone raving mad! He howled with a wild delight as we plunged into the Dorking tunnel. In less than a minute we were in daylight again, and Davis was dancing on the footplate.
"Fire her up, curse you! She played me false, did she? Ha! ha! ha! we'll all smash together! We'll drive to hell this journey! Did she get up the incline faster than she's doing now? Have a drop of tea, mate! Yes, you fool, this is the right sort of tea, eh?"
He had filled his tea-can with neat brandy!
"Hands off, or I'll murder you!" he hissed, as I tried to get hold of the liquor. "Your health, Queenie! Success to your last run! Ha! ha! ha!"
And he drained the contents of the can. This made him madder than ever, of course. I grew sick and dizzy as we gained the incline down to Horsham, but my demon companion kept me well at work with his threats. As we flew through the station I glanced at my watch. We were then just over five minutes before time. I turned the matter over in my mind and thought of what was best to be done. There was only one guard to our train in the rear brake-van, and there was no chance of reaching him—only the possibility that he might perhaps guess something was up and put the brake on. But as Davis was one of our best and steadiest drivers, it was scarcely probable that he would notice the advance in time yet. There was only one way out of it to my mind, and that was to make a desperate effort to master the madman. With this thought in view I made a sudden dash at the regulator. He was too quick for me, and in a moment I had his bony fingers round my throat, and he held me against the side of the cab.
"Look here!" he cried, "I warned you once before not to interfere with me, and now you'll have to take the consequences. Listen! You and me and this wretch are running to destruction, and there's going to be no way out of it. We'll go on till she bursts or there's a smash, but there's no such thing as stopping. And you, who could stand by and help Simmonds to run her—curse you, you're as bad as she! You shall go first! Get off, I say, get off!"
And he thrust me off the footplate on to the side-step. At first I tried to get along the tender, but he stopped me.
"No, no, go in front—do you hear, in front! I'll push you off altogether if you don't!"
I moved along the engine till I got in front of the cab, holding on by the hand-rail. Suddenly I felt a stinging blow on my arm. The brute was hurling lumps of coal at me!
"Go in front—right in front, I tell you! Go on, you blackguard!"
There was no way out of it. He simply pelted me with huge lumps of coal till I got round on to the little platform in front of the smoke-box. I'd been there often enough before while she was running, but I never felt as I did now. It was an evening in early spring, and dusk was setting in as we dashed through Pulborough and into the open, level country beyond. Above the roar of the engine I could hear Davis yelling madly as every now and then we seemed to give a fresh spurt forward.
I tried to reflect upon the situation. The road was clear as far as the junction with the Brighton branch at Ford, where there might be a block. Between Arundel and Ford there would be a fearful curve, and it was doubtful if we should keep the metals with the awful speed we were running at. Even if we did run round safely there was bound to be a smash later on. It was an awful position to be in. Once I tried to get back to the footplate; but Davis was on the look-out, and directly I showed my head a big lump of coal came whizzing by.
I half hoped some signalman might see us from his cabin and do something, but, of course, it is no uncommon thing for a fireman to go in front of the engine for a minute or two; and, even if he had noticed that anything was wrong, he could not have stopped the train. We were midway between Amberley and Arundel now, and it was getting quite dark. I could just discern the outline of the castle looming on the heights on our right, and in another minute we were dashing through the station, in spite of the fact that there was a red light flashing in our face from the home signal.
What did it mean? It meant that in all probability there was a block ahead at the junction, and, if so, we were doomed. On we rushed through the level country till I saw by the declining light the rails ahead beginning to curve, and with a swing and a lurch we commenced the dangerous piece of road. Ahead was another red light, and just beyond the junction signal-box I saw with horror the glare on the smoke from the open fire-box of an engine! Yes, there could be no mistake, a goods train had left Ford Station and was proceeding towards Brighton, crossing the very points we should be rushing through in another minute or so. A frightful collision was inevitable!
It was just at this awful moment that a plan of deliverance flashed across me—so suddenly that I found myself acting before I had time to think it out. It was this. Just in front of me in the centre of the buffer-plate was the pipe of the Westinghouse brake, used, of course, only when the engine was running tender first. This pipe was closed by a cock, well within reach. Now, by simply turning this cock the compressed air would be free to act throughout the train, and the brake would be applied to every wheel from the cylinders beneath the coaches. This is the simple meaning of the "automatic brake." If the pipe snaps or becomes disconnected the brake is applied at once, the driver having no power to prevent it. I ought to have thought of this before, but even now it was not too late.
Throwing myself down on the narrow platform I grasped the pipe, holding on with all my might, for the motion was frightful. Then I turned the cock. There was a hiss and a jar and a terrible grinding as every wheel throughout the train was suddenly braked. I heard Davis yell with fury. The steam hissed from the cylinders, but its power was mastered. With a fearful rattle and jolt the train slowed down—and then stopped! I shall never forget it! Only three yards from the junction points at the moment when the goods train crossed in front of us—three yards, that was all the distance between safety and death!
I sprang down into the six-foot-way, and the madman was after me in a moment. But it was useless. The guard and half a dozen passengers came rushing along and soon pulled him off me, though it was no easy matter to hold him while I climbed to the footplate and shut the regulator.
"Get off!" he yelled. "She's doomed to die, I tell you! She ran off with another man, and we're both going to hell together. Let me get at her!"
But strong hands carried him along to the guard's van. I brought the train slowly into Ford, and was thankful to find a spare fireman there, who came on with me for the remainder of the journey. Fortunately, Davis had not damaged the engine, though he had let the water run down very low, and very probably if I hadn't have turned on the injector at once we might have had a bad business.
The end of it all was that Charles Davis was put into an asylum, but the poor fellow died shortly afterwards, mad till the last, and mixing up his first love with the "Southern Queen." I had to go off duty for over a week, for I was quite knocked under after that awful ride with a mad driver and hairbreadth escape from a terrible death.
We were strolling through the Paris Salon. Tired of passing through endless galleries and gazing at the pictures, we had descended into the great central hall devoted to statuary, where it is permissible to smoke, and had lit our cigarettes. My companion was only a passing acquaintance, a fellow-countryman I had met at the table d'hôte, and who, like myself, was passing a few weeks in the French metropolis. He was a slight, delicate-looking young man of about five-and-twenty, a well-read and charming companion. As we entered the hall, with its long rows of statues, I noticed that he turned a little pale, but put it down to the heat of the day. Presently we stopped to admire a gracefully-modelled figure by one of the most eminent exhibitors..."A very fine piece of sculpture," said my friend.
"Scarcely that," I replied. "It's made out of an appropriate material—plaster of Paris."
"Plaster of Paris!" he replied, with a nervous start; "how terrible!"
"Why, what's the matter?" I asked, with a laugh.
"Ah!" he replied, "I daresay my exclamation seemed strange to you. But plaster of Paris has an awful meaning to my ears, as you would agree if you heard of an adventure from the effects of which I am only just recovering."
"Have you any objection to telling me?"
"Not the slightest. Come and sit down over yonder, and I'll explain myself; then you'll see why I hate the name of plaster of Paris."
So we sat down and he began his story, which I repeat in his own
words as far as possible.
Jasper Keen and myself were chums during the year we were together at Oxford, and our friendship continued after he had gone down through the two years I remained. He was my senior—three or four years older than myself; and, as is generally the case in strong friendships, my opposite in many respects. I was a reading man; Keen was more noted for the strength of his arm on the river, and as a desperate "forward" in the footer field. My temper was always one of the mildest; Keen would give vent to paroxysms of anger, and weeks of smothered, revengeful passion. He was a tall, magnificently-built fellow, and the men often called us the "long and short of it," so great was the contrast between us.
I do not say that there was nothing intellectual about Jasper Keen. On the contrary, he was a genius; only, like most of his species, he worked by fits and starts. When he did work, however, it was to some purpose, as the examiners knew. And with all his great strength and passion for sport he had a very marked artistic temperament, which showed itself in his love of sculpture and modelling. His rooms were a curiosity. Very few books—he always sold them the instant he had finished reading them—prize oars and "pots" in profusion, and a collection of clay busts, modelled by himself. There was a row of college Dons on his mantelshelf, clever caricatures, his intimate friends—and his enemies. If he liked a man, he made an excellent little bust of him; on the contrary, one who incurred his hatred was modelled in some eccentric or repulsive manner, but still with strict regard to a correct likeness so that it was impossible to mistake the man.
When Jasper Keen left the 'Varsity he set up a studio in London. He was a man of fairly large private means, and did not care about earning money. He devoted himself still to sport during the intervals when he was not exercising his hobby, and lived a generally easy and comfortable life.
In due time I also went to live in town, and plunged into the vortex of literary work, to which I had determined to devote my life. I constantly saw Keen, and our friendship was as great as ever, until—
Yes, "until"—you guess what I mean. There was a woman in it, as there always is, and she stepped in between us. Jasper Keen loved her madly, jealously. Over and over again he was repulsed, for Ivey Stirling never cared for him. He frightened her with the intensity of his devotion. One day he said to her:—
"The truth is, you care for another man."
"And what if I do?" said Ivey, boldly.
"What if you do! Why, this. If I find the man, even if he were my greatest friend, I'd kill him rather than he should win you!"
He was Keen's greatest friend. The man who was accepted by Ivey Stirling was myself, and, in spite of all, I trust she will be my wife before the year is out.
I may well say, "In spite of all." When Keen heard of it, he was furious. I told him myself. I thought it best that he should hear the news first from the lips of his friend, and I hoped from the bottom of my heart that our friendship would not be destroyed. So I went round to his studio and broke the news to him.
He stood for some moments with his whole frame quivering, his nostrils dilated, and his eyes starting forward, like some wild beast held in restraint by a chain. Then he turned to a pedestal on which stood a bust of myself, fashioned by him in the old Oxford days, and dashed it to the ground. The fragments of clay went rattling over the studio.
"Leonard Fendron," he yelled, "as I have broken your bust, so will I break you. You false, traitorous hound, you think you have stolen from me the one object I have to live for. But not yet—do you hear? I could crush you as you stand—I could break every bone in your body with this hand of mine. But that would be too poor a revenge. I will wait—I will make you suffer such agony as you have given me. Go, I say, go, and may the worst of all curses light upon you—the curse of a friend you have wronged."
It was useless to explain, so I went. Ivey was much disturbed when I told her about this interview; but to tell the truth, I thought little of it myself. I had seen Keen in a paroxysm of rage before, and I hoped that in time he would see things sensibly for the sake of our old friendship.
For a year I never saw the man. His studio was shut up, and report said that he had gone abroad. Then I suddenly met him face to face in Fleet Street. I was going to pass him by at first, but he stopped me and shook hands.
"How d'ye do, Fendron?" he said. "Last time I saw you I was in a bit of a temper. But that's all over now, and I can afford to let the past be buried in the past—if you can too."
"Certainly," I replied; "I'm only too delighted to hear our friendship still exists."
"That's right," he said. "And now come and have some lunch with me. There's a restaurant handy where we can talk."
So I went with him. He was most friendly and chatty. He told me he had been abroad, but that the last five months he had spent in England.
"I've been living like a hermit," he said. "The fact is, I'm engaged on a master-piece of work. It will beat anything I've ever done. Oh, it's a grand thing, I can tell you. I fitted up a studio in the country some months ago, and I've hardly stirred out of it since—simply worked and seen no one. But I've had an end in view, as you shall see for yourself. Now, I want you to pay me a visit, and you shall be the first to see my masterpiece. Will you come?"
"Certainly," I said; "what day will suit you?"
"Let me see—it's the 9th to-day. I want a clear fortnight on the work before I finish. Can you come on Friday, the 24th, and stay till Monday? I can easily put you up."
"With pleasure. That will suit me capitally. Only, you haven't told me where to come to yet."
"I hardly think you'd find it if I did," he answered, thoughtfully; "it's not very far from town, but it's a bit awkward to get at for a stranger. So suppose you meet me at Euston at half-past eight on that Friday evening, and I'll take you down. It's rather late, but you shall have a good supper as soon as you get there, I promise you."
To this arrangement I accordingly agreed, and on the 24th I met Keen at Euston. Telling me that he had purchased my ticket, he took me to a local train. We got out at Sudbury, the station near Wembley Park.
"There's some little distance to walk," he said, "so we'd better step it out briskly."
It must have been a tramp of over two miles that finally brought us to a large house, standing quite alone a little way off the road, somewhere in the direction of Edgware. Although not many miles from London, the country about here is very lonely, and there was not a house near. It was about ten o'clock and quite dark when Keen opened the door with a latch-key.
"Welcome!" he cried. "You must be tired and hungry. We'll have supper at once, it's all ready."
And without further ado he led the way into a good-sized room, lit by a lamp, and revealed a table spread with cold viands.
There was a change in his tone of voice that made me feel rather uneasy as he went on:—
"We're all to ourselves, Fendron. I've let the servants out for the evening. But everything's ready for us, so sit down and begin. We must be our own butlers."
It was an excitable meal. The whole of the time Keen talked and laughed and joked. He ran on about old times and our college days; he laughed long and boisterously—once I expostulated with him for his noise.
"What does it matter?" he shouted. "There's not a soul near. That's the beauty of the country. You might yell yourself hoarse in this shanty of mine, and no one would hear you."
He even touched on my engagement. Leaning across the table, he insisted upon grasping my hand.
"I've never congratulated you yet, old chap, you know. Last time we were on this subject I was in a huff. But it's all right now. May you be happy—ha! ha! ha!—as happy as you deserve!"
Supper over, he took up the lamp.
"Come," he said, "we'll adjourn to the studio and smoke there. I've got to show you my great work. It will surprise you. Come along."
He led the way to the very top of the house, and we entered a large room which he had turned into a studio. Lumps of clay, pieces of stone, tools, and half-finished works were lying about in artistic confusion. On a small table was a box of cigars, several decanters of wine and spirits, siphons and tumblers. In one corner of the room was a large bath, filled with a white powder, while a small shovel and a couple of pails of water stood by it. In the centre of the room was a very large, hollow wooden pedestal, shaped like a cylinder, and quite as high as my shoulders, such as is used sometimes for standing heavy busts upon. The top, however, had been removed from this cylinder, and there was nothing on it. The room was evidently only lighted by a skylight, and a thick curtain hung over the door, and stretched across what was apparently a recess at the farther end of the apartment was another curtain, hanging in black folds.
Keen gave me a cigar and sat me down in a chair.
"Well, what do you think of my workshop?" he asked.
"I've hardly had time to look round, yet," I replied. "What's that huge pedestal for?"
"You'll see later on," he said.
Again that ominous change in his voice.
"And what's in that bath?"
"Oh! plaster of Paris," he answered, with a laugh; "but now, watch! I'm going to draw the curtain!"
First lighting a couple more lamps, he drew the curtain aside with a sudden jerk. The result was electrical. There, standing on a small raised plat form, life-size and most exquisitely modelled, was a statue of Ivey Stirling, my betrothed. I sprang to my feet and uttered an exclamation of surprise.
"Yes," shouted Keen, "there stands the image of the woman you love—and the woman I loved once. She whose image was so graven upon my heart that I was able to mould this statue as you see it; to mould it for you, Leonard Fendron, who have won the prize. Did I not tell you it was a master-piece?"
"You did. And so it is," I replied, with an indescribable feeling of terror creeping over me. My companion rushed to the table and filled two glasses. One of them he thrust into my hand.
"A health!" he cried. "Drain it to the dregs. A health to the fair Ivey, your betrothed! Drink it, Fendron!"
"A health to the fair Ivey—my future wife," I said, mechanically, drinking the liquor and gazing at the statue.
"Your future wife!" echoed Keen, with a terrible voice. "Never!"
I turned and gazed at him. He was foaming with madness and rage. At
the same moment my head grew dizzy, and the room seemed twirling
round. I made a wild rush for the door, but fell in a dead faint
before I could reach it.
When I came to my senses again there was an awful feeling of cramp all over me. My whole body with my legs and arms seemed to be held in a vice that was pressing upon me at every point. I opened my eyes. The first thing that met my gaze was the statue of Ivey placed opposite me. I was in an upright position, but I could not move. I looked downwards, but not even then did I realize the horrible truth. I was up to my shoulders in the hollow pedestal. "Halloa! you've come to, have you?" said a mocking voice, and Jasper Keen stood in front of me, the grin of a lunatic on his face.
"For God's sake, what have you done?" I asked.
"I'll very soon tell you," he replied, with a sneer; "I've made a statue of you. Listen. You are up to your shoulders in plaster of Paris. Whilst you were insensible from the effects of that drugged wine you drank I placed you in the pedestal, mixed that bathful of plaster and water, and poured it in with you. It took me some time to do, and it's now four o'clock in the morning. By this time it's thoroughly set, and you cannot move hand or foot."
The terrible situation was dawning upon my mind. My tormentor went on:—
"Did you think, Leonard Fendron, that I had forgotten? Did you expect to get a forgiveness from Jasper Keen? You should have known me better, and not have walked so foolishly into the snare that I set for you. I told you I would have revenge. I have waited and schemed a long time, but now the hour of my vengeance has come. Here, before the image of the woman you love, you shall die, Leonard Fendron—die a slow and an awful death. I shall leave you here, fixed, immovable—a living statue. Don't think to escape, for I have planned it well. My servants were dismissed two days ago; I told them I was going to leave the house for some months. You can shriek and howl as much as you please, but no one will hear you. I've tested that carefully. In short, unless an angel from Heaven comes to set you free, here you'll stay till you starve to death in cramp and agony."
"Have mercy—" I began, but he stopped me.
"Mercy? As soon expect to find it at Satan's hands! Here, I'll put this table with the liquor on it close to you. It will be more tantalizing. And now I must be off. I've planned my escape well. Good-bye, Leonard Fendron. I wish you joy with your bride of clay!"
And the madman, for so he was, I am assured, at that moment struck me a heavy blow in the face, turned on his heel, slammed the door, and I heard his footsteps disappear down the stairs. I was alone and helpless.
I cannot describe the torture as the long hours went by and the light of the lamps slowly faded as the day began to dawn. The cramp in my body and limbs was awful, my throat was parched, and my brain seemed on fire. I yelled and screamed at the top of my voice, listening in anguish for an answering call, but answers came there none. The villain had prepared his plot too well! In my madness I tried to lurch forward and hurl myself to the floor. In vain! The pedestal was fixed! And there, a few feet in front of me, stood the statue of Ivey, so lifelike and beautiful that it seemed at times to my frenzied brain that she was smiling and speaking to me. Then came a time when all was dark. I had fainted. Too soon I returned to the fearful reality, and redoubled my screams. It was fruitless. I was in a mental and bodily agony that was too awful for words. How the hours passed I knew not. It seemed years that I had been fixed there. I seemed never to have lived at all, except in a world of terror.
My God! I cannot describe the anguish...
Suddenly there came a sound...Yes...I was not mistaken...A heavy bang on the roof over-head. I listened with straining ears—ah—a footstep!
"For God's sake, help—help!" I cried.
Then there came a tap at the skylight over-head, and a voice spoke:—
"Excuse me, but may I come in?"
"Come in!" I shrieked; "in Heaven's name yes, come in!"
"You seem in a mighty hurry," replied the voice. "Suppose you open the skylight for me."
"I can't," I answered; "smash it—do what you like—only be quick."
Crash! the glass came spattering down on the floor, a foot came through the window, then another, and in a few seconds the man himself stood before me.
"Well, I'm blowed!" he exclaimed; "what on earth does this mean?"
"For God's sake be quick and set me free," I begged. "It's killing me. Give me something to drink first."
I eagerly drained the tumbler of soda-water he held to my lips. Then he set to work. He was a businesslike man, and there were some stone-chisels and hammers about. In a very few minutes he had split the pedestal down, and was hammering and chipping away at the plaster, which, of course, by this time was quite hard, and came off in flakes and lumps. It seemed ages to me, but he afterwards told me it took him a very short time to get me free, though large lumps of plaster still stuck to my clothes. I was horribly cramped, and could not stir when it was over. He undressed me and gave me a tremendous rubbing, until at length the circulation became partially restored and the agony began to subside, and I was able to talk.
"Well," he exclaimed, "this is the rummiest thing I've ever come across. Goodness only knows what would have happened to you if my parachute hadn't gone wrong."
"Yes—that's how I came here. I'm a professional aeronaut, and I've been making a balloon ascent and a parachute descent at Wembley Park every Saturday afternoon for a couple of months past."
"And you landed on the roof?" I exclaimed.
"Exactly. Something went wrong, and I found myself coming down more quickly than I intended. The wind's a bit high and blew me some distance, and I thought I was going smash against this house, but, as luck had it, I just managed to tumble on the roof, which, luckily, is flat, and here I am. Lucky for you, wasn't it?"
Keen's words had come very nearly true. He had said that only an angel from Heaven could rescue me!
Well, little remains to be told. I was very ill for weeks; in fact, I am only just getting over it now. The only wonder is that I escaped as I did, but as Keen had put me in the pedestal with my clothes on, and had not pressed down the plaster, the pressure was slighter than it might have been, though that was bad enough.
As for Keen himself, he got clean away. You see, he had over twelve hours' start, for it was not until late on Saturday afternoon that the aeronaut found me. I don't know, and I don't much care, what has become of him. I only mean to take good care that he doesn't have another chance of stopping our marriage.
And now, perhaps, you will understand why I feel a little queer at the mention of plaster of Paris.
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