A Rogue by Compulsion (1)
April 2, 2016
Victor Bridges’ 1915 hunted-man adventure, A Rogue by Compulsion: An Affair of the Secret Service, was one of the prolific British crime and fantasy writer’s first efforts. It was adapted, that same year, by director Harold M. Shaw as the silent thriller Mr. Lyndon at Liberty — the title under which the book was subsequently reissued. HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize A Rogue by Compulsion — in 25 chapters — here at HILOBROW.
Most of the really important things in life — such as love and death — happen unexpectedly. I know that my escape from Dartmoor did.
We had just left the quarries — eighteen of us, all dressed in that depressing costume which King George provides for his less elusive subjects — and we were shambling sullenly back along the gloomy road which leads through the plantation to the prison. The time was about four o’clock on a dull March afternoon.
In the roadway, on either side of us, tramped an armed warder, his carbine in his hand, his eyes travelling with dull suspicion up and down the gang. Fifteen yards away, parallel with our route, the sombre figure of one of the civil guards kept pace with us through the trees. We were a cheery party!
Suddenly, without any warning, one of the warders turned faint. He dropped his carbine, and putting his hand to his head, stumbled heavily against the low wall that separated us from the wood. The clatter of his weapon, falling in the road, naturally brought all eyes round in that direction, and seeing what had happened the whole eighteen of us instinctively halted.
The gruff voice of the other warder broke out at once, above the shuffling of feet:
“What are you stopping for? Get on there in front.”
From the corner of my eye I caught sight of the civil guard hurrying towards the prostrate figure by the wall; and then, just as the whole gang lurched forward again, the thing happened with beautiful abruptness.
A broad, squat figure shot out suddenly from the head of the column, and, literally hurling itself over the wall, landed with a crash amongst the thick undergrowth. There was a second shout from the warder, followed almost instantly by a hoarse command to halt, as the civil guard jerked his carbine to his shoulder.
The fugitive paid about as much attention to the order as a tiger would to a dog whistle. He was off again in an instant, bent almost double, and bursting through the tangled bushes with amazing swiftness.
The charge of buckshot whistled after him, spattering viciously through the twigs, and several of the bolder spirits in the gang at once raised a half-hearted cry of “Murder!”
“Stop that!” bawled the warder angrily, and to enforce his words he quickened his steps so as to bring him in touch with the offenders.
As he did so, I suddenly perceived with extraordinary clearness that I should never again get quite such a good chance to escape. The other men were momentarily between me and the warder, while the civil guard, his carbine empty, was plunging through the trees in pursuit of his wounded quarry.
It was no time for hesitation, and in any case hesitation is not one of my besetting sins. I recollect taking one long, deep breath: then the next thing I remember is catching my toe on the top of the wall and coming the most unholy purler in the very centre of an exceptionally well armoured blackberry bush.
This blunder probably saved my life: it certainly accounted for my escape. The warder who evidently had more nerve than I gave him credit for, must have fired at me from where he was, right between the heads of the other convicts. It was only my abrupt disappearance from the top of the wall that saved me from being filled up with lead. As it was, the charge whistled over me just as I fell, and a devilish unpleasant noise it made too.
I didn’t wait for him to reload. I was out of that bush and off up the hill in rather less time than it takes to read these words. Where I was going I scarcely thought; my one idea was to put as big a distance as possible between myself and the carbine before its owner could ram home a second cartridge.
As I ran, twisting in and out between the trees, and keeping my head as low as possible, I could hear behind me a hoarse uproar from my fellow-convicts, who by this time were evidently getting out of hand. No sound could have pleased me better. The more boisterous the good fellows became the less chance would the remaining warder have of worrying about me. As for the civil guard — well, it seemed probable that his time was already pretty fully engaged.
My chief danger lay in the chance that there might be other warders in the immediate neighbourhood. If so, they would doubtless have heard the firing and have come running up at the first alarm. I looked back over my shoulder as I reached the top of the plantation, which was about a hundred yards from the road, but so far as I could see there was no one as yet on my track.
My one chance lay in reaching the main wood that borders the Tavistock road before the mounted guard could come up. Between this and the plantation stretched a long bare slope of hillside, perhaps two hundred yards across, with scarcely enough cover on it to hide a rabbit. It was not exactly an inviting prospect, but still the place had to be crossed, and there was nothing to be gained by looking at it. So setting my teeth I jumped out from under the shelter of the trees, and started off as fast as I could pelt for the opposite side.
I had got about half-way over when there came a sudden shout away to the right. Turning my head as I ran, I saw through the thin mist a figure in knickerbockers and a Norfolk jacket vaulting over the low gate that separated the moor from the road.
I suppose he was a tourist, for he had a small knapsack fastened to his back and he was carrying a stick in his hand.
“Tally-ho!” he yelled, brandishing the latter, and then without hesitation he came charging across the open with the obvious intention of cutting me off from the wood.
For the first time in three years I laughed. It was not a pretty laugh, and if my new friend had heard it, his ardour in the chase might perhaps have been a trifle cooled. As it was he came on with undiminished zest, apparently quite confident in his ability to tackle me single-handed.
We met about ten yards this side of the nearest trees.
He rushed in on me with another “whoop,” and I saw then that he was a big, powerful, red-faced fellow of a rather coarse sporting type — the kind of brute I’ve always had a peculiar dislike for.
“Down you go!” he shouted, and suiting the action to the word, he swung back his stick and lashed out savagely at my head.
I didn’t go down. Instead of that I stepped swiftly in, and striking up his arm with my left hand, I let him have my right bang on the point of the chin. Worlds of concentrated bitterness were behind it, and he went over backwards as if he had been struck by a coal-hammer.
It did me a lot of good, that punch. It seemed to restore my self-respect in a way that nothing else could have done. You must have been a convict yourself, shouted at and ordered about like a dog for three weary years, to appreciate the full pleasure of being able once more to punch a man in the jaw.
At the moment, however, I had no time to analyze my feelings. Almost before the red-faced gentleman’s shoulders had struck the ground I had reached the railing which bounded the wood, and putting one hand on the top bar had vaulted over into its inviting gloom.
Then, just for an instant, I stopped, and, like Lot’s wife, cast one hasty glance behind me. Except for the motionless form of my late adversary, who appeared to be studying the sky, the stretch of moor that I had just crossed was still comfortingly empty. So far no pursuing warder had even emerged from the plantation. With a sigh of relief I turned round again and plunged forward into the thickest part of the tangled brake ahead.
It would have been difficult to find a better temporary hiding-place than the one I had reached. Thick with trees and undergrowth, which sprouted up from between enormous fissures and piles of granite rock, it stretched away for the best part of a mile and a half parallel with the main road. I knew that even in daylight the warders would find it no easy matter to track me down: at this time in the afternoon, with dusk coming rapidly on, the task would be an almost impossible one.
Besides, it was starting to rain. All the afternoon a thick cloud had been hanging over North Hessary, and now, as scratched and panting I forced my way on into the ever-increasing gloom, a fine drizzle began to descend through the trees. I knew what that meant. In half an hour everything would probably be blotted out in a wet grey mist, and, except for posting guards all round the wood, my pursuers would be compelled to abandon the search until next morning. It was the first time that I had ever felt an affection for the Dartmoor climate.
Guessing rather than judging my way, I stumbled steadily forward until I reached what I imagined must be about the centre of the wood. By this time I was wet through to the skin. The thin parti-coloured “slop” that I was wearing was quite useless for keeping out the rain, a remark that applied with almost equal force to my prison-made breeches and gaiters. Apart from the discomfort, however, I was not much disturbed. I have never been an easy victim to chills, and three years in Princetown had done nothing to soften a naturally tough constitution.
Still there was no sense in getting more soaked than was necessary, so I began to hunt around for some sort of temporary shelter. I found it at last in the shape of a huge block of granite, half hidden by the brambles and stunted trees which had grown up round it. Parting the undergrowth and crawling carefully in, I discovered at the base a kind of hollow crevice just long enough to lie down in at full length.
I can’t say it was exactly comfortable, but penal servitude has at least the merit of saving one from being over-luxurious. Besides, I was much too interested in watching the steady thickening of the mist outside to worry myself about trifles. With a swiftness which would have been incredible to any one who didn’t know the Moor, the damp clammy vapour was settling down, blotting out everything in its grey haze. Except for the dripping brambles immediately outside I could soon see absolutely nothing; beyond that it was like staring into a blanket.
I lay there quite motionless, listening very intently for any sound of my pursuers. Only the persistent drip, drip of the rain, however, and the occasional rustle of a bird, broke the silence. If there were any warders about they were evidently still some way from my hiding-place, but the odds were that they had postponed searching the wood until the fog lifted.
For the first time since my leap from the wall I found myself with sufficient leisure to review the situation. It struck me that only a very hardened optimist could describe it as hopeful. I had made my bolt almost instinctively, without stopping to think what chances I had of getting away. That these were meagre in the extreme was now becoming painfully clear to me. Even if I managed to slip out of my present hiding-place into the still larger woods of the Walkham Valley, the odds were all in favour of my ultimate capture. No escaped prisoner had ever yet succeeded in retaining his liberty for more than a few days, and where so many gentlemen of experience had tried and failed it seemed distressingly unlikely that I should be more fortunate.
I began to wonder what had happened to Cairns, the man whose dash from the ranks had been responsible for my own effort. I knew him to be one of the most resourceful blackguards in the prison, and, provided the civil guard’s first shot had failed to stop him, it was quite likely that he too had evaded capture. I hoped so with all my heart: it would distract quite a lot of attention from my own humble affairs.
If he was still at liberty, I couldn’t help feeling enviously how much better his chances of escape were than mine. In order to get away from the Moor it was plainly necessary to possess oneself of both food and clothes, and I could think of no other way of doing so except stealing them from some lonely farm. At anything of this sort I was likely to prove a sorry bungler compared with such an artist as Cairns. He was one of the most accomplished cracksmen in England, and feats which seemed impossible to me would probably be the merest child’s play to him.
Still it was no good worrying over what couldn’t be helped. My first job was to get safely into the Walkham woods; after that it would be quite time enough to think about turning burglar.
I sat up and looked out into the mist. Things were as bad as ever, and quite suddenly it struck me with considerable force that by lying low in this fashion I was making a most unholy idiot of myself. Here I was growing cold and stiff, and wasting what was probably the best chance I should ever have of reaching Walkhampton. In fact I was playing right into the hands of the warders.
With an impatient exclamation I jumped to my feet. The only question was, could I find my way out of the wood, and if I did, how on earth was I to strike the right line over North Hessary? It was quite on the cards I might wander back into Princetown under the happy impression that I was going in exactly the opposite direction.
For a moment I hesitated; then I made up my mind to risk it. After all the fog was as bad for the warders as it was for me, and even if I failed to reach the Walkham Valley I should probably find some other equally good shelter before it lifted. In either case I should have the big advantage of having changed my hiding-place.
Buttoning up my slop, I advanced carefully through the dripping brambles. One could see rather less than nothing, but so far as I could remember the main Tavistock road was on my right-hand side. This would leave North Hessary away to the left; so turning in that direction I set my teeth and took my first step forward into the darkness.
I don’t suppose you have ever tried walking through a wood in a fog, but you can take my word for it that a less enjoyable form of exercise doesn’t exist. I have often wondered since how on earth I managed to escape a sprained ankle or a broken neck, for carefully as I groped my way forward it was quite impossible to avoid all the numerous crevices and overhanging boughs which beset my path.
I must have blundered into about fourteen holes and knocked my head against at least an equal number of branches, before the trees at last began to thin and the darkness lighten sufficiently to let me see where I was placing my feet. I knew that by this time I must be getting precious near the boundary of the wood, outside which the warders were now doubtless posted at frequent intervals. So I stopped where I was and sat down quietly on a rock for a few minutes to recover my breath, for I had been pretty badly shaken and winded by my numerous tumbles.
As soon as I felt better I got up again, and taking very particular care where I was treading, advanced on tiptoe with a delicacy that Agag might have envied. I had taken about a dozen steps when all of a sudden the railings loomed up in front of me through the mist.
I put my hand on the top bar, and then paused for a moment listening breathlessly for any sound of danger. Except for the faint patter of the rain, however, everything was as silent as the dead. Very carefully I raised myself on the bottom rail, lifted my legs over, one after the other, and then dropped lightly down on to the grass beyond.
As I did so a man rose up suddenly from the ground like a black shadow, and hurling himself on me before I could move, clutched me round the waist.
“Got yer!” he roared. Then at the top of his voice — “Here he is! Help! Help!”
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SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable |
Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire”.