A Rogue By Compulsion (6)
May 7, 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.
McMurtrie had left me under the impression that he meant to start work on my face the next day, but as it turned out the impression was a mistaken one. Both the paraffin wax and the X-ray outfit had to be procured from London, and according to Sonia it was to see about these that her father went off to town early the following morning. She told me this when she brought me up my breakfast, just after I had heard the car drive away from the house.
“Well, I suppose I had better get up too,” I said. “I can’t stop in bed and be waited on by you.”
“You’ve got to,” she replied curtly, “unless you would rather I sent up Mrs. Weston.”
“Who’s Mrs. Weston?” I inquired.
Sonia placed the tray on my bed. “She’s our housekeeper. She’s deaf and dumb.”
“There are worse things,” I observed, “in a housekeeper.” Then I sat up and pulled my breakfast towards me. “Of course I would much rather you looked after me. I was only thinking of the trouble I’m giving you.”
“Oh, it’s not much trouble,” she said; then after a little pause she added, in a rather curious voice: “Anyway I shouldn’t mind if it was.”
“But I am feeling perfectly fit this morning,” I persisted. “I might just as well get up if your father would lend me some kit. I don’t think I could squeeze into McMurtrie’s.”
She shook her head. “The doctor says you are to stop where you are. He is coming up to see you.” Then she hesitated. “One of the prison warders called here last night to warn us that you were probably hiding in the neighbourhood.”
“That was kind,” I said, “if a little belated. Had they found the bicycle?”
“No,” she answered, “and they are not likely to. My father went out and brought it in the night you arrived. It’s buried in the back garden.”
There was another short silence, and then she seated herself on the foot of the bed. “Tell me,” she said, “this girl — Joyce Aylmer — do you love her?”
The question came out so unexpectedly that it took me by utter surprise. I stopped in the middle of conveying a piece of bacon to my mouth and laid it down again on the plate.
“Why, Joyce is only a child,” I said; “at least she was when I went to prison. We were all in love with her in a sort of way. Her father had been an artist in Chelsea before he died, and we looked on her as a kind of general trust. She used to run in and out of the various studios just as she pleased. That was the reason I was so furious with Marks. It was impossible to believe that a man who wasn’t an absolute fiend could —” I pulled up short in some slight embarrassment.
“But she is not a child now,” remarked Sonia calmly. “According to the paper she must be nineteen.”
“Yes,” I said, “I suppose people grow older even when I’m in prison.”
“And she loves you — she must love you. Do you think any woman could help loving a man who had done what you did for her?”
“Oh, I expect she has forgotten all about me long ago,” I said with a sudden bitterness. “People who go to prison can’t expect to be remembered — except by the police.”
I had spoken recklessly, and even while the words were on my tongue a vision of Joyce’s honest blue eyes rose reproachfully in my mind. I remembered the terrible heartbroken little note which she had sent me after the trial, and then her other letter which I had received in Dartmoor — almost more pitiful in its brave attempt to keep hope and interest alive in my heart.
Sonia leaned forward, her hands clasped in her lap.
“I thought,” she said slowly, “I thought that perhaps you wanted to go to London in order to meet her.”
I shook my head. “I am not quite so selfish as that. I have brought her enough trouble and unhappiness already.”
“Then it is your cousin that you mean to see,” she said softly — “this man, Marwood, who sent you to the prison.”
For a second I was silent. It had suddenly occurred to me that in asking these questions Sonia might be acting under the instructions of McMurtrie or her father.
She saw my hesitation and evidently guessed the cause.
“Oh, you needn’t think I shall repeat what you tell me,” she broke out almost scornfully. “The doctor and my father are quite capable of taking care of themselves. They don’t want me to act as their spy.”
There was a genuine ring of dislike in her voice as she mentioned their names which made me believe that she was speaking the truth.
“Well,” I said frankly, “I was thinking of looking up George just to see how he has been getting on in my absence. But apart from that I have every intention of playing straight with McMurtrie. It seems to me to be my only chance.”
A bell tinkled faintly somewhere away in the house, and Sonia got up off the bed.
“It is your only chance,” she said quietly, “but it may be a better one than you imagine.”
And with this encouraging if somewhat obscure remark she went out and left me to my thoughts.
McMurtrie came up about an hour later. Suave and courteous as ever, he knocked at my door before entering the room, and wished me good morning in the friendliest of fashions.
“I have brought you another Daily Mail — yesterday’s,” he said, throwing the paper down on the bed. “It contains the second instalment of your adventures.” Then he paused and looked at me with that curious smile that seemed to begin and end with his lips. “Well,” he added, “and how are the stiffness and the sore throat this morning?”
“Gone,” I said, “both of them. I have no excuse for stopping in bed except lack of clothes.”
He nodded and sat down on the window-sill. “I daresay we can find a way out of that difficulty. My friend Savaroff would, I am sure, be delighted to lend you some garments to go on with. You seem to be much of a size.”
“Well, I should be delighted to accept them,” I said. “Even the joy of being in a real bed again begins to wear off after two days.”
“I am afraid you can’t expect very much liberty while you are our guest,” he said, leaning back against the window. “It would be too dangerous for you to go outside the house, even at night time. I expect Sonia told you about our visitor yesterday.”
“Yes,” I said; “I should like to have heard the interview.”
“It was quite interesting. From what he told me I should say that few prisoners have been more missed than you are. It appears that there are over seventy warders hunting about the neighbourhood, to say nothing of volunteers.”
“I seem to be giving a lot of trouble,” I said sadly.
The doctor shrugged his shoulders. “Not to us. I am only sorry that we can’t offer you a more entertaining visit.” He opened his case and helped himself to a cigarette. “On the whole, however, I daresay you won’t find the time drag so very much. There will be the business of altering your appearance — I hope to start on that the day after tomorrow — and then I want you to make me out a full list of everything you will need in connection with your experiments. It would be best perhaps to have a drawing of the actual shed — just as you would like it fitted up. You might start on this right away.”
“Certainly,” I said. “I shall be glad to have something to do.”
“And I don’t suppose you will mind much if we can’t arrange anything very luxurious for you in the way of living accommodation. We shall have to choose as lonely a place as possible, and it will probably involve your feeding chiefly on tinned food, and roughing it a bit generally. It won’t be for very long.”
“I shan’t mind in the least,” I said. “Anything will be comfortable after Princetown. As long as you can fix me up with what I want for my work I shan’t grumble about the rest.”
He nodded again in a satisfied manner. “By the way,” he said, “I suppose you never wore a beard or a moustache before you went to prison?”
“Only once in some amateur theatricals,” I answered “and then the moustache came off.”
“They will make a great difference in your appearance by themselves,” he went on, looking at me critically. “I wonder how long they will take to grow.”
I passed my hand up my face, which was already covered with a thick stubble about half an inch in length. “At the present rate of progress,” I said, “I should think about a week.”
McMurtrie smiled. “Another fortnight on top of that will be nearer the mark, I expect,” he said, getting up from the bed. “That will just fit in with our arrangements. In three weeks we ought to be able to fix you up with what you want, and by that time there won’t be quite so much excitement about your escape. The Daily Mail will have become tired of you, even if the police haven’t.” He stopped to flick the ash off his cigarette. “Of course you will have to be extremely careful when you are in London. I shall change your appearance so that it will be quite impossible for any one to recognize you, but there will always be the danger of somebody remembering your voice.”
“I can disguise that to a certain extent,” I said. “Besides, it’s not likely that I shall run across any one I know well. I only want to amuse myself for two or three evenings, and the West End’s a large place as far as amusement goes.” Then I paused. “If you really thought it was too risky,” I added carelessly, “I would give up the idea.”
It was a bold stroke — but it met with the success that it deserved. Any lingering doubts McMurtrie may have had about my intentions were apparently dispersed.
“I think you will work all the better for a short holiday,” he said; “and I am sure you are sensible enough to keep out of any trouble.”
He walked to the door, and stood for a moment with his hand on the knob. “I will send you up the clothes and some paper and ink,” he added. “Then you can get up or write in bed — just as you like.”
After three years of granite quarrying — broken only by a short spell of sewing mail sacks — the thought of getting back to a more congenial form of work was a decidedly pleasant one. During the half-hour that elapsed before Sonia came up with my things, I lay in bed, busily pondering over various points in connection with my approaching task. I had often done the same in the long solitary hours in my cell, and worked out innumerable figures and details in connection with it on my prison slate. Most of them, however, I had only retained vaguely in my head, for it is one of the intelligent rules of our cheerful convict system to allow no prisoner to make permanent notes of anything that might be of possible service to him after his release.
There seemed, therefore, every prospect that I should be fully occupied for some time to come. Indeed, it was not until I had dressed myself in Savaroff’s clothes (they fitted me excellently) and sat down at the table with a pen and a pile of foolscap in front of me, that I realized what a lengthy task I had taken on.
All my rough notes — those invaluable notes and calculations that I had spent eighteen months over — were packed away in my safe at the Victoria Street office. I had not bothered about them at the time, for when you are being tried for your life other matters are apt to assume a certain degree of unimportance. Besides, although I had told George of their existence, I knew very well that, being jotted down in a private cypher, no one except myself would be able to make head or tail of what they were about.
Still they would naturally have been of immense help to me now if I could have got hold of them. Clear as the main details were in my mind, I saw I should have to go over a good bit of old ground before I could make out the exact list of my requirements which McMurtrie needed.
All that afternoon and the whole of the following day I stuck steadily to my task. I had little to interrupt me, for with the exception of Sonia who brought me up my meals, and the old deaf-and-dumb housekeeper who came to do my room about midday, I saw or heard nobody. McMurtrie did not appear again, and Savaroff, as I knew, was away in London.
I took an hour off in the evening for the purpose of studying the Daily Mail, which proved to be quite as entertaining as the previous issue. There were two and a half columns about me altogether, the first consisting of a powerful if slightly inaccurate description of how I had stolen the bicycle, and the remainder dealing with various features of my crime and my escape. It was headed:
STILL AT LARGE
NEIL LYNDON’S FIGHT FOR LIBERTY
and I settled myself down to read with a feeling of enjoyment that would doubtless have gratified Lord Northcliffe had he been fortunate enough to know about it.
“Neil Lyndon,” it began, “whose daring escape from Princetown was fully described in yesterday’s Daily Mail, has so far successfully baffled his pursuers. Not only is he still at liberty, but having possessed himself of a bicycle and a change of clothes by means of an amazingly audacious burglary, it is quite possible that he has managed to get clear away from the immediate neighbourhood.”
This opening paragraph was followed by a full and vivid description of my raid on the bicycle house. It appeared that the machine which I had borrowed was the property of a certain Major Hammond, who, when interviewed by the representative of the Mail, expressed himself of the opinion that I was a dangerous character and that I ought to be recaptured without delay.
The narrative then shifted to my dramatic appearance on the bicycle, as witnessed by the surprised eyes of Assistant-warder Marshfield. According to that gentleman I had flashed past him at a terrific speed, hurling a handful of gravel in his face, which had temporarily blinded him. With amazing pluck and presence of mind he had recovered himself in time to puncture my back wheel, a feat of marksmanship which, as the Daily Mail observed, was “highly creditable under the circumstances.”
From that point it seemed that all traces of me had ceased. Both I and the bicycle had vanished into space as completely as Elijah and his fiery chariot, and not all the united brains of Carmelite House appeared able to suggest a wholly satisfactory solution.
“Lyndon,” said the Mail, “may have succeeded in reaching Plymouth on the stolen machine, and there obtained the food and shelter of which by that time he must have been sorely in need. On the other hand it is possible that, starved, frozen, and most likely wounded, he is crouching in some remote coppice, grimly determined to perish rather than to surrender himself to the warders.”
It was “possible,” certainly, but as a guess at the truth that was about all that could be said for it.
The thing that pleased me most in the whole paper, however, was the interview with George in the third column. It was quite short — only a six-line paragraph headed “Mr. Marwood and the Escape,” but brief as it was, it filled me with a rich delight.
“Interviewed by our Special Correspondent at his residence on the Chelsea Embankment, Mr. George Marwood was reluctant to express any opinion on the escape. ‘The whole thing,’ he said, ‘is naturally extremely distasteful to me. I can only hope that the unhappy man may be recaptured before he succumbs to exposure, and before he has the chance to commit any further acts of robbery and violence.’”
In regard to the last sentiment I had not the faintest doubt that George was speaking the truth from the bottom of his heart. As long as I was at liberty his days and nights would be consumed by an acute and painful anxiety. He was no doubt haunted by the idea that I had broken prison largely for the purpose of renewing our old acquaintance, and the thought that I might possibly succeed in my object must have been an extremely uncomfortable one. I laughed softly to myself as I sat and pictured his misgivings. It cheered me to think that whatever happened later he would be left in this gnawing suspense for at least another three weeks. After that I might perhaps see my way to relieve it.
There were other people, I reflected, who must have read the Mail with an equally deep if rather different interest. I tried to fancy how the news of my escape had affected Joyce. For all my cynical outburst in the morning, I knew well that no truer or more honest little heart ever beat in a girl’s breast, and that the uncertainty about my fate must even now be causing her the utmost distress.
Then there was Tommy Morrison. Somehow or other I didn’t think Tommy would be quite as anxious as Joyce. I could almost see him slapping his leg and laughing that great laugh of his, as he read about my theft of the bicycle and my wild dash down the hill past the warder. He was a great believer in me, was Tommy — and I felt sure that nothing but the news of my recapture would shake his faith in my ability to survive.
It was good to know that, whatever the rest of the world might be thinking, these two at least would be following my escape with a passionate hope that I should pull through.
Just about six o’clock in the evening of the next day Savaroff returned. I heard the car drive up to the house, and then came the sound of voices and footsteps, followed by the banging of a door. After that there was silence for perhaps twenty minutes while my two hosts were presumably talking together in one of the rooms below. Whether Sonia was with them or not I could not tell.
At last I heard some one mounting the stairs, and a moment later
McMurtrie’s figure framed itself in the doorway.
“I’m afraid I am interrupting your work,” he said, standing on the threshold and looking down at the sheets of foolscap which littered the table in front of me.
“Not a bit,” I returned cheerfully. “I’ve just finished”; and I began to gather up the fruits of my two-days’ toil into something like order.
He shut the door and came across to where I was sitting. “Do you mean you have made out the full list of what you want?” he asked, picking up one of the sheets and running his eye rapidly over the notes and calculations.
“I have done it all in the rough,” I replied, “except the drawing of the shed. That will only take an hour or so.”
“Excellent,” he exclaimed. “I can see there won’t be much time wasted when we once get to work.” Then he laid down the paper. “Tomorrow morning I propose trying the first of our little operations. Savaroff has brought me the things I needed, and I think we can finish the whole business in a couple of days.”
“What part of me are you going to start on?” I inquired with some interest.
“I think I shall alter the shape of your nose first,” he said. “It’s practically a painless operation — just one injection of hot paraffin wax under the skin. After that you have only to keep quiet for a couple of hours so that the wax can set in the right shape.”
“What about the X-ray treatment?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders. “That’s perfectly simple too. Merely a matter of covering up everything except the part that we want exposed. One uses a specially prepared sort of lead sheeting. There is absolutely no danger or difficulty about it.”
I thought at first that he might be purposely minimizing both operations in order to put me at my ease, but as it turned out he was telling me nothing except the literal truth.
At half-past ten the next morning he came up to my room with Sonia in attendance, the latter carrying a Primus stove and a small black bag.
At his own suggestion I had stayed in bed, and from between the sheets I viewed their entrance not without a certain whimsical feeling of regret. When one has had a nose of a particular shape for the best part of thirty years it is rather a wrench to feel that one is abandoning it for a stranger. I passed my fingers down it almost affectionately.
McMurtrie, who appeared to be in the best of spirits, wished me good-morning in that silkily polite manner of his which I was getting to dislike more and more. Sonia said nothing. She simply put the things down on the table by my bedside, and then stood there with the air of sullen hostility which she seemed generally to wear in McMurtrie’s presence.
“I feel rather like a gladiator,” I said. “Morituri te salutant!”
McMurtrie, who had taken a shallow blue saucepan out of the bag and was filling it with hot water, looked up with a smile.
“It will be all over in a minute,” he said, reassuringly. “The only trouble is keeping the wax liquid while one is actually injecting it. One has to stand it in boiling water until the last second.”
He put the saucepan on the stove, and then produced out of the bag a little china-clay cup, which he stood in the water. Into this he dropped a small lump of transparent wax.
We waited for a minute until the latter melted, McMurtrie filling up the time by carefully sponging the bridge of my nose with some liquid antiseptic. Then, picking up what seemed like an ordinary hypodermic syringe, he warmed it carefully by holding it close to the Primus.
“Now,” he said; “all you have to do is to keep perfectly still. You will just feel the prick of the needle and the smart of the hot wax, but it won’t really hurt. If you move you will probably spoil the operation.”
“Go ahead,” I answered encouragingly.
He dipped the syringe in the cup, and then with a quick movement of his hand brought it across my face. I felt a sharp stab, followed instantly by a stinging sensation all along the bridge of the nose. McMurtrie dropped the syringe at once, and taking the skin between his fingers began to pinch and mould it with swift, deft touches into the required shape. I lay as motionless as possible, hoping that things were prospering.
It seemed to me a long time before the job was finished, though I daresay it was in reality only a matter of forty-five seconds. I know I felt vastly relieved when, with a quick intake of his breath, McMurtrie suddenly sat back and began to contemplate his work.
“Well?” I inquired anxiously.
He nodded his head, with every appearance of satisfaction.
“I think we can call it a complete success,” he said. Then he stepped back and looked at me critically from a couple of paces away. “What do you think, Sonia?” he asked.
“I suppose it’s what you wanted,” she said, in a rather grudging, ungracious sort of fashion.
“If you won’t think me vain,” I observed, “I should like to have a look at myself in the glass.”
McMurtrie walked to the fireplace and unhooked the small mirror which hung above the mantelpiece.
“I would rather you waited for a couple of days if you don’t mind,” he said. “You know what you used to look like better than any one else, and it will be a good test if you see yourself quite suddenly when the whole thing is finished. I will borrow this — and keep you out of temptation.”
“Just as you like,” I returned. “It will at least give me time to train myself for the shock.”
Quick and easy as the first operation had been, the second proved equally simple. The only apparatus it involved was an ordinary X-ray machine, with a large glass globe attached to it, which McMurtrie brought up the next morning and arranged carefully by my bedside. On his pressing down a switch, which he did for my benefit, the whole interior of this globe became flooded with those curious lambent violet rays, which have altered so many of our previous notions on the subject of light and its power.
McMurtrie placed me in position, and then producing a large sheet of finely-beaten-out lead, proceeded to bend and twist it into a sort of weird-looking helmet. When I put this on it covered my head and face almost completely, leaving only an inch of hair along the forehead and perhaps a little more over each temple exposed to the light.
Thus equipped, I sat for perhaps an hour in the full glare of the machine. It was dull work, and as McMurtrie made no attempt to enliven it by conversation I was not sorry when he eventually flicked off the switch, and relieved me of my headgear.
I had expected my hair to tumble out in a lump, but as a matter of fact it was over two days in accomplishing the task. There was no discomfort about the process: it just came off gradually all along my forehead, leaving a smooth bare line which I could feel with my fingers. As soon as it was all gone, McMurtrie proceeded to decorate me with some kind of stain that he had specially prepared for my face and neck — a composition which according to him would remain practically unaffected either by washing or exposure. It smelt damnably in the pot, but directly it was rubbed in this slight drawback disappeared.
I was naturally anxious to see what result all these attentions had had upon my personal appearance, but McMurtrie insisted on my waiting until my hair and beard had grown to something like a tolerable length. I can well remember the little thrill of excitement that ran through me when, on the fourth day after my first operation, he brought me back the looking-glass.
“I think we might introduce you to yourself today,” he said, smiling. “Of course another fortnight will make a considerable difference still, but even now you will be able to get a good idea of what you will look like. I am curious to hear your opinion.”
He handed me the glass, and the next moment, with an involuntary cry of amazement, I was staring at my reflection.
Instead of my usual features I saw a rough-looking, bearded man of about forty-five, with an aquiline nose, a high forehead, and a dark sunburned skin. It was the face of a complete stranger: at the best that of a hard-bitten war correspondent or explorer; at the worst — well, I don’t know what it mightn’t have been at the worst.
I stared and stared in a kind of incredulous fascination, until
McMurtrie’s voice abruptly recalled me to my surroundings.
“Well, Mr. Neil Lyndon,” he said, “do you recognize yourself?”
I laid down the glass.
“Don’t call me that,” I replied quietly. “Neil Lyndon is dead.”
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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”.