A Rogue By Compulsion (13)
June 25, 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.
For perhaps a second Tommy remained motionless; then sitting up he removed the cork, and poured himself out about a quarter of a tumbler of neat spirit. He drained this off at a gulp, and put down both the glass and the bottle.
“God deliver us!” he observed; “is it really you?”
I nodded. “What’s left of me, Tommy.”
He jumped to his feet, and the next moment he was crushing my hands with a grip that would have broken some people’s fingers. “You old ruffian!” he muttered; “I always said you’d do something like this. Lord alive, it’s good to see you, though!” Then, pulling me up out of the chair, he caught me by the shoulders and stared incredulously into my face. “But what the devil’s happened? What have you done to yourself?”
“I know what I’m going to do to myself,” I replied. “I am going to get outside some of that drink you were talking about — if there’s any left.”
With something between a laugh and a choke he let me go, and crossing to the couch picked up the whisky and splashed out a generous tot into the glass.
“Here you are — and I’m hanged if I don’t have another one myself. I believe I could drink the whole bottle without turning a hair.”
“I’m quite sure you could, Tommy,” I said, “unless you’ve deteriorated.”
We raised our tumblers and clinked them together with a force that cracked mine from the rim to the bottom. I drained off the contents, however, before they could escape, and flung the broken glass into the fireplace.
“It would have been blasphemous to drink out of it again in any case,” I said.
With a big, happy laugh Tommy followed my example. Then he came up again and caught me by the arm, as though to make sure that I was still there.
“Neil, old son,” he said, “I’m so glad to see you that I shall start wrecking the blessed studio in a minute. For God’s sake tell me what it all means.”
“Sit down, then,” I said; “sit down and give me a chance. It’s — it’s a hell of a yarn, Tommy.”
He laughed again, and letting go my arm threw himself back into the easy-chair.
“It would be,” he said.
I always have a feeling that I can talk better when I am on my feet, and so, while Tommy sat there puffing out great clouds of smoke from a huge cherry-wood pipe, I paced slowly up and down the room giving him my story. Like Joyce, he listened to me without saying a word or interrupting me in any way. I told him everything that had happened from the moment when I had escaped from prison to the time when I had given my promise that I would come and look him up.
“I couldn’t help it, Tommy,” I finished. “I didn’t want to drag you in, but you know what Joyce is when she has once made up her mind about anything. I thought the only way was to come and see you. Between us —”
I got no further, for with a sudden exclamation — it sounded more like a growl than anything else — Tommy had risen from his chair.
“And do you mean to tell me that, if it hadn’t been for Joyce, you wouldn’t have come! By Gad, Neil, if I wasn’t so glad to see you I’d — I’d —” Words failed him, and gripping hold of my hands again he wrung them with a force that made me wince.
Then, suddenly dropping them, he started to stride about the room.
“Lord, what a yarn!” he exclaimed. “What a hell of a yarn!”
“Well, I told you it was,” I said, nursing my crushed fingers.
“I knew something had happened. I knew at least that you weren’t going to be taken alive; but this —” He stopped short in front of me and once more gazed incredulously into my face. “I wouldn’t know you from the Angel Gabriel!” he added.
“Except that he’s clean shaven,” I said. Then I paused. “Look here, Tommy,” I went on seriously, “what are we going to do about Joyce? I’m all right, you see. There’s nothing to prevent me clearing out of the country directly I’ve finished with McMurtrie. If I choose to go and break George’s neck, that’s my own business. I am not going to have you and Joyce mixed up in the affair.”
Tommy sat down on the edge of the table. “My dear chap,” he said slowly, “do you understand anything about Joyce at all? Do you realize that ever since the trial she has had only one idea in her mind — to get you out of prison? She has lived for nothing else the last three years. All this palmistry business was entirely on your account. She wanted to make money and get to know people who could help her, and she’s done it — done it in the most astounding way. When she found it was too soon for your sentence to be altered she even made up some mad plan of taking a cottage near the prison and bribing one of the warders with that eight hundred pounds you left her. It was all I could do to put her off by telling her that you would probably be shot trying to get away. Is it likely she’ll chuck the whole thing up now, just when there’s really a chance of helping you?”
“But there isn’t a chance,” I objected. “If we couldn’t find out the truth at the trial it’s not likely we shall now — unless I choke it out of George. Besides, it’s quite possible that even he doesn’t know who really killed Marks. He may only have lied about me for some reason of his own.”
Tommy nodded impatiently. “That’s likely enough, but it’s all my eye to say we can’t help you. There are a hundred ways in which you’ll want friends. To start with, all this business of McMurtrie’s, or whatever his name is, sounds devilish queer to me. I don’t believe his yarn any more than you do. There’s something shady about it, you can be certain. When are you supposed to start work?”
I looked at the clock. “I shall know in about an hour,” I said. “I forgot to tell you that when I came back from Joyce’s yesterday I found a note — I suppose from them — saying that I should have a message or a visitor at five o’clock today, and would I be good enough to be home at that time. At least it wasn’t put quite so politely.” Then I paused. “Good Lord!” I exclaimed, “that reminds me. I haven’t told you the most amazing part of the whole yarn.” I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out the card which had been sent me in the restaurant. “Have you ever heard of a man called Bruce Latimer?” I asked.
To my amazement Tommy nodded his head. “Bruce Latimer,” he repeated. “Yes, I know a Bruce Latimer — lives in Jermyn Street. What’s he got to do with it?”
“You know him!” I almost shouted.
“Yes, slightly. He belongs to the Athenians. He used to do a lot of sailing at one time, but I haven’t seen him down there this year.”
“Who is he? What is he?” I demanded eagerly.
“Well, I don’t know exactly. He’s in some Government office, I believe, but he’s not the sort of chap who ever talks about his own affairs. Where on earth did you come across him?”
As quickly as possible I told Tommy the story of my visit to Parelli’s, and showed him the card which Latimer had sent me by the waiter. He took it out of my hand, looking at me with a sort of half-sceptical amazement.
“You’re not joking?” he said. “This is Gospel truth you’re telling me?”
I nodded. “Humour’s a bit out of my line nowadays, Tommy,” I answered. “The Dartmoor climate doesn’t seem to suit it.”
“But — but —” he stared for a moment at the card without speaking.
“Well, this beats everything,” he exclaimed. “What in God’s name can Bruce Latimer have to do with your crowd?”
“That,” I remarked, “is exactly what I want to find out.”
“Find out!” repeated Tommy. “We’ll find out right enough. Do you think he guessed who it was that sent the note?”
“Most likely he did,” I said. “I was the nearest person, but in any case he only saw my back. You can’t recognize a man from his back.”
Tommy took two or three steps up and down the studio. “You mustn’t go and see him,” he said at last — “that’s quite certain. You can’t afford to mix yourself up in a business of this sort.”
“No,” I said reluctantly, “but all the same I should very much like to know what’s at the bottom of it.”
“Suppose I take it on, then?” suggested Tommy.
“What could you say?” I asked.
“I should tell him that it was a friend of mine — an artist who was going abroad the next day — who had seen it happen, and that he’d given me the card and asked me to explain. It’s just possible Latimer would take me into his confidence. He would either have to do that or else pretend that the whole thing was a joke.”
“I’m quite sure there was no joke about it,” I said. “Whether the chap with the scar belongs to McMurtrie’s crowd or not, I’m as certain as I am that I’m standing here that he drugged that wine. He may not have meant to murder Latimer, but it looks uncommon fishy.”
“It looks even fishier than you think,” answered Tommy. “I’d forgotten for the moment, when you asked about him, but I remember now that some fellow at the Athenians once told me that Latimer was supposed to be a secret-service man of some kind.”
“A secret-service man!” I repeated incredulously. “I didn’t know we went in for such luxuries in this country except in novels. Do you believe it?”
“I didn’t pay much attention at the time — I thought it was probably all rot — but this business —” He stopped, and thrusting his hands into his pockets, again paced slowly up and down the room.
I gave a thoughtful whistle. “By Jove, Tommy!” I said; “if that’s a fact and the gentleman with the scar is really one of our crowd, I seem to have dropped in for a rather promising time — don’t I! I knew I was up against the police, but it’s a sort of cheerful surprise to find that I’m taking on the secret service as well.”
Tommy pulled up short. “Look here, Neil!” he said. “I don’t like it; I’m hanged if I do. There’s some rotten dirty work going on somewhere; that’s as plain as a pikestaff. I believe these people are simply using you as a cats-paw. All they want is to get hold of the secret of this new explosive of yours; then as likely as not they’ll hand you over to the police, or else….” he paused. “Well, you’ve seen the sort of crowd they are. It may be all rot about Latimer being in the secret service, but there’s no doubt they tried to poison or drug him last night. Men who will go as far as that wouldn’t stick at getting rid of you if it happened to suit their book.”
I nodded. “That’s all true enough, Tommy,” I said; “but what am I to do? I took the bargain on, and I’ve no choice now except to go through with it. I can’t walk up to a policeman and say I think Dr. McMurtrie is a dangerous person engaged on some sort of illegal enterprise.”
Tommy came up, and laid his hand on my shoulder. “Drop it, Neil; chuck the whole thing and go to America. Joyce has got that eight hundred pounds of yours; and I can easily let you have another two or three. In six months’ time you’ll be able to make as much money as you choose. You’ve had three years of hell; what’s the good of running any risks that you can avoid? If there’s the least faintest chance of getting at the truth, you can be certain I’ll do it. Don’t go and smash up all the rest of your life over this cursed business. What does it matter if all the fools in England think you killed Marks? He deserved to be killed anyway — the swine! Leave them to think, and clear off to some country where you can start fresh and fair again. It doesn’t matter the least where you go to, you’re bound to come to the top.”
It was about the longest speech I had ever heard Tommy make, and certainly the most eloquent. For a moment indeed I was almost tempted to take his advice. Then the thought of George and all the complicated suffering that I had been through rose up like a wall across my mind.
“No,” I said firmly; “I’m damned if I’ll go. I’ll see this out if it means the end of everything.”
As I spoke there came a sharp “ting” from the clock on the mantelpiece, and looking up I saw that it was half-past four. “By Gad, Tommy,” I added, “I must go from here, though. I’ve got to be back at Edith Terrace by five o’clock, or I shall miss this mysterious visitor.”
“You’re coming back here afterwards?” he asked.
I nodded. “If I can. I haven’t the least notion how long they’ll keep me, but I told Joyce I would come round and let you know what had happened.”
“Good,” said Tommy. “Don’t be longer than you can help. I’ll get in something to eat, and we’ll all have supper together—you and I and Joyce, and then we can have a good jaw afterwards. There are still tons of things I want to know about.”
He thrust his arm through mine and walked with me to the door of the flat.
“By the way, Thomas,” I said, “I suppose the police aren’t watching your place, just on the off-chance of my rolling up. They must remember you were rather a particular pal of mine.”
“I don’t think so,” he answered. “They may have had a man on when you first escaped, but if so he must have got fed up with the job by now. Don’t you worry in any case. Your guardian angel wouldn’t recognize you in that get up — let alone a policeman.”
“If there’s any justice,” I said, “my guardian angel got the sack three years ago.”
With this irreverent remark, I shook his hand, and walking down the passage passed out on to the embankment.
Having a good two miles to cover and only five-and-twenty minutes to do it in, it struck me that driving would be the most agreeable method of getting home. I hesitated for a moment between a taxi and a motor bus, deciding in favour of the latter chiefly from motives of sentiment. I had not been on one since my arrest, and besides that the idea of travelling along the streets in open view of the British public rather appealed to me. Since my interview with Tommy I was beginning to feel the most encouraging confidence in McMurtrie’s handiwork.
So, turning up Beaufort Street, I jumped on to a “Red Victoria” at the corner, and making my way upstairs, sat down on one of the front seats. It was the first time I had been down the King’s Road by daylight, and the sight of all the old familiar landmarks was as refreshing as rain in the desert. Twice I caught a glimpse of some one whom I had known in the old days—one man was Murgatroyd, the black and white artist, and the other Doctor O’Hara, the good-natured Irish medico who had once set a broken finger for me. The latter was coming out of his house as we passed, and I felt a mischievous longing to jump off the bus and introduce myself to him, just to see what he would do.
At the corner of Sloane Square I had an unexpected and rather dramatic reminder of my celebrity. As we emerged from the King’s Road a procession of five or six sandwich-men suddenly appeared from the direction of Symons Street, shuffling dejectedly along at intervals of a few yards. They were carrying double boards, on which, boldly printed in red-and-black letters, stared the following announcement:
A LIFELIKE PORTRAIT
I gazed down at them with a sort of fascinated interest. Somehow or other it seemed rather like reading one’s own tombstone, and I couldn’t help wondering whether I was in the main hall or whether I had been dignified with an eligible site in the Chamber of Horrors. If it hadn’t been for my appointment I should most certainly have taken a cab straight up to Marylebone Road in order to find out.
Promising myself that treat on the morrow, I stuck to my seat, and at ten minutes to five by the station clock we drew up outside Victoria. I got off and walked briskly along to Edith Terrace. Turning the corner of the street, I observed the figure of Miss Gertie ‘Uggins leaning against the front railings, apparently engaged in conversation with an errand boy on the other side of the road. As soon as she recognized me she dived down the area steps, reappearing at the front door just as I reached the house.
“I was watchin’ for yer,” she remarked in a hoarse whisper. “There’s summun wants to see yer in there.” She jerked her thumb towards the sitting-room. “It’s a lidy,” she added.
“A lady!” I said. “What sort of a lady?”
“Ow! A reel lidy. She’s got a lovely ‘at.”
“Is she young and dark and rather nice to look at?” I asked.
Gertie nodded. “That’s ‘er. She wouldn’t give no nime, but that’s ‘er right enough.”
I didn’t wait to ask any more questions, but putting down my hat on the hall table, I walked up to the sitting-room and tapped lightly on the door.
“Come in,” called out a voice.
I turned the handle, and the next moment I was face to face with Sonia.
READ GORGEOUS PAPERBACKS: HiLoBooks has reissued the following 10 obscure but amazing Radium Age science fiction novels in beautiful print editions: 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, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.
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”.