A Rogue By Compulsion (16)
July 17, 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.
The discovery was a beautifully unexpected one, but I was getting used to surprises by this time. I bobbed down at once behind the sea-wall, and crouched there for a moment wondering what was the best thing to do. After what I had found out it seemed hardly probable that Latimer could be there in the capacity of McMurtrie’s caretaker; but if not, how on earth had he hit upon the place, and what was he doing prowling about inside it?
Raising myself up again with extreme care I had another look through the grass. Latimer had left the building and was stooping down in front of the door of the shed, his attention being obviously concentrated on the lock. I was rather a long way off, but as far as I could see he appeared to be trying to slip back the bolt with the aid of a piece of wire.
I think that decided me. However dangerous it might be to show myself, it seemed still more risky to allow some one of whose motives I was at present completely ignorant to inspect my future workshop. Almost before I realized what I was doing I had slipped over the bank and dropped down on to the marsh.
The slight noise I made must have reached Latimer’s ears, for he wheeled round with amazing promptness. At the same instant his right hand travelled swiftly into the side pocket of his coat — a gesture which I found sufficiently illuminating in view of what I was carrying myself in a similar place. When he saw how far off I was he seemed to hesitate for a moment; then pulling out a case he coolly and deliberately lit himself a cigarette, and after taking a quick glance round started to stroll slowly towards me. I noticed that he still kept his hand in his side pocket.
My mind was working pretty rapidly as we approached each other. What would happen seemed to me to depend chiefly upon whether Latimer had seen me in the restaurant, and had guessed that it was I who had sent him the message. If not, it struck me that he must be wondering rather badly who I was and what connection I had with the hut.
When we were still twenty yards apart he pulled up and waited for me, smoking his cigarette with every appearance of tranquil enjoyment.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” he said in a pleasant, lazy voice, “but I wonder if you could tell me who this building belongs to?”
I came to a halt right in front of him. “Well,” I replied boldly, “until I saw you coming out of the door just now I was under the impression that I was the legal tenant.”
He smiled, and taking off his hat made me a slight bow.
“I must really beg your pardon,” he said. “I was trespassing shamelessly. The fact of the matter is that I am acting on behalf of the District Surveyor, and finding the door open and being unable to get any answer, I took the liberty of looking inside.”
If ever in my life I felt confident that a man was telling me a lie it was at that moment, but my belief was certainly due to no fault of Mr. Latimer’s. He spoke with a coolness and an apparent candour that would have done credit to a Cabinet Minister.
“The District Surveyor!” I repeated. “And what does that distinguished person want with me?”
Mr. Latimer made a gesture towards the hut with his disengaged hand. “It’s nothing of any real importance,” he said, “but you appear to have been making some slight alterations here. This wooden building —”
“It’s only a temporary structure,” I interrupted.
He nodded. “Quite so. Still there are certain bye-laws which we have to see attended to. The Surveyor happened to notice it the other day when he was passing, and he asked me to find out the exact purpose it was intended for. We are bound to make some restrictions about wooden buildings on account of the extra chance of their catching fire.”
The idea of the District Surveyor being seriously perturbed over the possibility of my being roasted alive struck me as rather improbable, but I was careful not to give any impression of doubting the statement.
“As a matter of fact,” I said, “there is no chance of a tragedy of that sort. I have taken the place to make a few experiments in connection with photography. The stuff I am using is quite uninflammable.”
All the time I was speaking I was watching him carefully to see if I could detect the least sign of his recognizing me. For any such indication, however, we might have been utter strangers.
He accepted my falsehood as politely as I had received his.
“Well, in that case,” he said, with a smile, “there is really no need for me to bother you any further. I will tell the Surveyor that you are a strictly law-abiding citizen. Meanwhile” — he stepped back and again raised his hat — “let me apologize once more for having broken into your place.”
Whether there was any deliberate irony in his remark I was unable to guess; his manner at all events gave no hint of it.
“You needn’t apologize,” I returned artlessly. “It was my own fault for leaving the door open.”
I thought I saw the faintest possible quiver at the corner of his lips, but if so it was gone again at once.
“Yes,” he said gravely. “You will find it safer to keep the place locked up. Good-day, sir.”
“Good-day,” I replied, and turning deliberately away from him I sauntered off towards the hut.
I did not look round until I had reached the door; and even then I made a pretence of dropping my keys and stooping to pick them up. The precaution, however, seemed a little superfluous. Mr. Latimer was some thirty or forty yards away, walking inland across the marsh in the direction of Tilbury. I couldn’t help wondering whether he had noticed the mast of the Betty, which was just visible in the distance, sticking up demurely above the bank of the creek.
I stepped inside the hut — it was really little more than a hut — and closed the door. The first impression I received was one of being back in my prison cell. The only light in the place filtered in through a tiny and very dirty window, which looked out in the direction that Latimer had taken. For the rest, as soon as my eyes were used to the gloom, I made out a camp bed with blankets on it, a small wooden table and chair, a jug and basin, and in the farther corner of the room a miscellaneous collection of cooking and eating utensils. There was also a large wooden box which I imagined to contain food.
I took in all this practically at a glance, for my mind was still too occupied with my late visitor to trouble much about anything else.
I sat down on the bed and tried to think out the situation clearly. There could be no doubt that Latimer had been spying on the place, if such an unpleasant word could be applied to a gentleman who was supposed to be in Government service. The question was, what did he suspect? I had pretty good evidence that he was up against McMurtrie and the others in some shape or other, and presumably it was on account of my connection with them that I had been favoured with his attentions. Still, this didn’t seem to make the situation any the more cheerful for me. If Latimer was really a secret-service man, as some one had told Tommy, it stood to reason that I must be assisting in some particularly shady and dangerous sort of enterprise. I had no special objection to this from the moral point of view, but on the other hand I certainly didn’t want to throw away my hardly-won liberty before I had had the satisfaction of settling accounts with George.
I debated with myself whether it would be best to let McMurtrie know that the place was being watched. To a certain extent his interests in the matter seemed to be identical with mine, but my mistrust of him was still strong enough to make me hesitate. Beyond his bare word and that of Sonia I had no proof as yet that he intended to play straight with me.
One thing appeared certain, and that was that Latimer had failed to recognize me as the man who had sent him the warning at Parelli’s. In a way this gave me an advantage, but it was a forlorn enough sort of advantage in view of the unknown dangers by which I was surrounded.
I got up off the bed, feeling anything but comfortable, and going to the door had another look round. Latimer had disappeared behind the thin belt of trees that fringed the Tilbury road, and so far as I could see there was no one else about. Getting out my keys, I walked along to the shed and opened the door.
If my living accommodation was a trifle crude, McMurtrie had certainly made up for it here. He had evidently carried out my instructions with the most minute care and an absolute disregard for expense. Lead tanks, sinks, chemicals, an adequate water supply in the shape of a pump — everything I had asked for seemed to have been provided. I looked round the large, clean, well-lighted place with a sensation of intense satisfaction. The mere sight of all these preparations made me ache to begin work, for I was consumed with the impatience that any inventor would feel who had been compelled to leave a big discovery on the very verge of completion.
Coming out, I closed the door again, and carefully turned the key behind me. Then walking back to the hut I locked that up as well. I hadn’t the faintest belief in Latimer’s story about finding the place open, and apart from making things safe I certainly didn’t want to leave any traces of my surprise visit. From what I knew of McMurtrie I felt sure that he had left somebody in charge, and that in all probability Latimer had merely taken advantage of their temporary absence.
After a last glance all round, to make sure that the coast was still clear, I walked rapidly down to the sea-wall and scrambled up on to the top. The tide had risen a bit, but there was just room to get along, so jumping down I set off on my return journey.
There was something very cheering and reassuring in the sight of the Betty riding easily at her anchor, as I made my way round the mouth of the creek. Tommy and Joyce were both on deck: the former in his shirt-sleeves, swabbing down his new paint with a wet mop. Directly he saw me he abandoned the job to Joyce, and with a wave of his hand proceeded to get out the dinghy. A minute later he was pulling for the shore.
“All serene?” he inquired calmly, as he ran the boat up to where I was standing.
“Yes,” I said. “We needn’t hurry; there’s no one chasing me.” Then pushing her off the mud I jumped in. “I’ll tell you the news,” I added, “when we get on board.”
We headed off for the Betty, and as we came alongside and I handed up the painter to Joyce, I felt rather like the raven must have done when he returned to the Ark. As far as peace and security were concerned, my outside world seemed to be almost as unsatisfactory as his.
“How have you got on?” demanded Joyce eagerly.
I climbed up on to the deck.
“I’ve had quite an interesting time,” I said. Then I paused and looked round the boat. “Is Mr. Gow back?” I inquired.
Tommy shook his head. “Not yet. I expect he’s blueing some of that fiver in anticipation.”
“Come and sit down, then,” I said, “and I’ll tell you all about it.”
They both seated themselves beside me on the edge of the well, and in as few words as possible I let them have the full story of my adventures. At the first mention of Latimer’s name Tommy indulged in a low whistle, but except for that non-committal comment they listened to me in silence.
Joyce was the first to speak when I had finished.
“It’s hateful, isn’t it?” she said. “I feel as if we were fighting in the dark.”
“That’s just what we are doing,” answered Tommy, “but we’re letting in a bit of light by degrees though.” Then he turned to me. “McMurtrie’s got some game on, evidently, and this chap Latimer’s dropped on it. That was why they tried to put him out of the way.”
“Yes,” I said, “and if Latimer is really in the secret service, it must be a precious queer sort of game too.”
Tommy nodded. “I wonder if they’re anarchists,” he said, after a short pause. “Perhaps they want your powder to blow up the Houses of Parliament or the Law Courts with.”
I laughed shortly. “No,” I said. “Whatever McMurtrie’s after, it’s nothing so useful and unselfish as that. If I thought it was I shouldn’t worry.”
“Well, there’s only one thing to do,” observed Tommy, after a pause, “and that’s to go and look up Latimer, as I suggested. You’re sure he didn’t recognize you?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I’m sure of nothing about him,” I replied, “except that he’s a superb liar.”
“We must risk it anyhow,” said Tommy. “He’s the only person who knows anything of what’s going on, and he evidently wants to find out who sent him that note, or he wouldn’t have answered it as he did. He’ll have to give me some sort of explanation if I go and see him. I shall rub it into him that my supposed pal is a perfectly sensible, unimaginative sort of chap — and anyway people don’t invent a yarn like that.”
“Look!” interrupted Joyce suddenly. “Isn’t that Mr. Gow coming along by those trees?”
She pointed away down the creek, and following her direction I saw the figure of our trusty retainer trudging back towards the ship, with a bundle over his shoulder. He had exchanged Tommy’s picturesque outfit for some garments of his own, more in keeping with his new and dignified position.
“I’ll pick him up,” I said; “but what are we going to do about getting back? We had better not try Tilbury, or we may run into Latimer; it would put the hat on everything if he saw us together.”
Tommy consulted his watch. “It’s just half-past three now,” he said. “I vote we run across to Gravesend and catch the train there. Old Whiskers can bring the boat back here after we’ve gone — if he’s still sober.”
“Of course he’s sober,” said Joyce; “look at the beautiful way he’s walking.”
I should hardly have applied quite such a complimentary adjective to Mr. Gow’s gait myself, but all the same Joyce’s diagnosis proved to be quite correct. Mr. Gow was sober — most undoubtedly and creditably sober. I rowed to the bank, and brought him on board, and when we told him of our plans he expressed himself as being perfectly competent to manage the return journey single-handed.
“You leave ‘er to me,” he remarked consolingly. “I shan’t want no help — not to bring ‘er in here. Some people don’t hold with being alone in a boat, but that ain’t Luke Gow’s way.”
He went forward to get up the anchor, while Tommy and I occupied ourselves with the exciting sport of trying to start the engine. It went off at last with its usual vicious kick, and a few minutes later we were throbbing our way out of the creek into the main river.
The tide was right at its highest, and down the centre of the fairway straggled a long procession of big hooting steamers, sluggish brown-sailed barges, and small heavily-burdened tugs, puffing out their usual trails of black smoke. One felt rather like a terrier trying to cross Piccadilly, but by waiting for our chance we dodged through without disaster, and pulled up in a comparatively tranquil spot off the Gravesend landing-stage.
Tommy signalled to one of the boatmen who were hanging about the steps waiting for stray passengers.
“This chap will take us off,” he said, turning to Mr. Gow. “You push straight back while the engine’s running; she usually stops when we’ve got about as far as this.”
“And I’ll come over to the creek some time tomorrow,” I added; though in my present circumstances a confident prophecy of any kind seemed a trifle rash.
We went ashore and stood for a moment on the stage watching the Betty thread her course back through the traffic. Mr. Gow seemed to handle her with perfect confidence, and relieved on this point we turned round and set off for the station.
We found ourselves in luck’s way. An unusually obliging train was due to start in ten minutes’ time, and as before we managed to secure an empty compartment.
“I tell you what I want you to do when we get back to town, Joyce,” I said. “I want you to help me buy a hat.”
“What’s the matter with the one you’re wearing?” demanded Tommy. “It just suits your savage style of beauty.”
“Oh, this new one isn’t for me,” I explained. “It’s for a lady — a lady friend, as we say.”
“I didn’t know you had any,” said Joyce, “except me and Sonia.”
I smiled arrogantly. “You underrate my attractions,” I replied. “Haven’t I told you about Miss Gertie ‘Uggins?” Then I proceeded to sketch in Gertrude as well as I could, finishing up with the story of her spirited determination to spend the five shillings I had given her on a really fashionable head-dress.
Tommy slapped his leg and chuckled. “I believe any woman would starve herself to death for something new to wear,” he remarked.
“Of course she would,” said Joyce with spirit — “any decent woman.” Then she turned to me. “I think it’s sweet, Neil; I shall give her a new hat myself, just because she loves you.”
Tommy laughed again. “You’ll find that an expensive hobby to keep up, Joyce,” he said. “You’ll have to start a bonnet-shop.”
All the way back to town we talked and joked in much the same strain, as cheerfully as though none of us had a care in the world. If there had been a stranger in the carriage listening to us, he would, I think, have found it impossible to believe that I was Neil Lyndon, the much-wanted convict, and that Tommy and Joyce were engaged in the criminal pursuit of helping me avoid the police. No doubt, as I said before, the very danger and excitement of our position accounted to some extent for our high spirits, but in my case they were due even more to a natural reaction from the misery of the last three years. Ever since I had met Tommy and Joyce again I seemed to have been shedding flakes off the crust of bitterness and hatred which had built itself up round my soul.
Even my feelings towards George were slowly becoming less murderous. I was still as determined as ever to get at the truth of his amazing treachery if I could; but the savage loathing that I had previously cherished for him was gradually giving place to a more healthy sensation of contempt. I felt now that, whatever his motives may have been, there would be far more satisfaction in kicking him than in killing him. Besides, the former process was one that under favourable circumstances could be repeated indefinitely.
“You’re spending the evening with me, Neil, of course,” observed Tommy, as we drew into Charing Cross.
I nodded. “We’ll take a taxi and buy the hat somewhere, and then drop Joyce at Chelsea. After that I am open to any dissipation.”
“Only keep away from the Savoy,” said Joyce. “I am making my great surrender there, and it would hamper me to have you and Tommy about.”
We promised to respect her privacy, and then, getting out of the train, which had drawn up in the station, we hailed a taxi and climbed quickly into it. Charing Cross is the last place to dawdle in if you have any objection to being recognized.
“Shall we be able to write to you?” asked Joyce. “I shall want to tell you about George, and Tommy will want to let you know how he gets on with Latimer. Of course I’m coming down to the boat in a day or two; but all sorts of things may happen before then.”
I thought rapidly for a moment. “Write to me at the Tilbury post-office,” I said. “Only don’t make a mistake and address the letter to Neil Lyndon. Too much excitement isn’t good for a Government official.”
Tommy laughed. “It’s just the sort of damn silly thing I should probably have done,” he said. “Can’t you imagine the postmaster’s face when he read the envelope? I should like to paint it as a Christmas supplement to the Graphic.”
“Where did you tell the man to stop, Joyce?” I asked.
“Holland’s,” said Joyce. “I am going to buy Gertie a really splendid hat — something with birds and flowers on it. I am sure I know just what she’ll think beautiful. I suppose I had better tell them to send it round to you at Edith Terrace. You won’t want to carry it about London.”
“Not unless Tommy likes to wear it,” I said. “I think I’m disguised enough as it is.”
We pulled up outside Mr. Holland’s imposing shop-front, and Joyce, who was sitting next the door, got up from her seat. Then she leaned forward and kissed me.
“Good-bye, Neil,” she said. “I shall come down on Tuesday and go straight to the Betty, unless I hear anything special from you before then.” She paused. “And oh, dear Neil,” she added, “you will be careful, won’t you? If anything was to happen now, I believe I should kill George and jump into the Thames.”
“In that case,” I said, “I shall be discretion itself. I couldn’t allow George anything like so charming an end; it would be quite wasted on him.”
Joyce smiled happily and, opening the door, jumped out on to the pavement. “You keep the taxi on,” she said. “I shall take a bus home. I can’t be hurried over buying a hat — even if it’s for Gertie. Where shall I tell the man to go to?”
“Better say the Studio,” answered Tommy. “We both want a wash and a drink before we start dissipating.”
For an escaped murderer and his guilty accessory, I am afraid that our dissipation proved to be rather a colourless affair. Tommy had always had simple tastes in the way of amusement, and even if it had been safe for us to parade the West End in each other’s company, I certainly had no wish to waste my time over a theatre or anything of that sort. I found that real life supplied me with all the drama I needed just at present.
What we actually did was to dine quietly in a little out-of-the-way restaurant just off Sloane Square, and then play billiards for the remainder of the evening in a room above a neighbouring tavern. We had several most exciting games. In old days I had been able to beat Tommy easily, but owing to a regrettable oversight on the part of the Government there is no table at Princetown, and in consequence I was rather short of practice.
Afterwards Tommy walked with me as far as Victoria, where we discussed such arrangements for the future as we were in a position to make.
“I’ll write to you, anyway, Neil,” he said, “as soon as I’ve tackled Latimer; and I’ll probably come down with Joyce on Tuesday. If you want me any time before, send me a wire.”
I nodded. “You’ll be more useful to me in London, Tommy,” I said. “All the threads of the business are up here. McMurtrie — Latimer — George” — I paused — “I’d give something to know what those three do between them,” I added regretfully.
Tommy gripped my hand. “It’s all right, old son,” he said. “I’m not much of a believer in inspirations and all that sort of rot, but somehow or other I’m dead certain we’re going to win out. I’ve had a feeling like that ever since the trial — and so has Joyce.”
“Thanks, Tommy,” I said briefly. “You’d give a jellyfish a backbone — you two.”
And with a last squeeze of the hand I left him standing there, and set off across the station for Edith Terrace.
It was close on midnight when I got back, and every one in the house seemed to have gone to bed. The light had been put out in the hall, but the door of my sitting-room was partly open, and a small jet of gas was flickering away over the fireplace. I turned this up and, looking round, discovered a large box with Holland’s label on it, a note, and a half-sheet of paper — all decorating the table in the centre of the room.
I examined the half-sheet of paper first. It contained several dirty thumb-marks and the following message, roughly scrawled in pencil:
“sir the lady with the hat cum for you about for aclock i told her as you was out and she rote this leter gerty.”
Hastily picking up the envelope, I slit open the flap, and pulled out the “leter” from inside. It covered two sides, and was written in Sonia’s curious, sloping, foreign-looking hand.
“I have to go away with my father until the end of next week. By that time, if you have succeeded with your invention, there will be nothing to stop our plans. I would have explained everything to you today if you had been here. As it is, on no account give your secret to any one until I have seen you. I shall come down to Tilbury either on Friday or Saturday, and within a few hours we can be utterly beyond the reach of any further danger or difficulties. Until then, my lover — SONIA.”
I read it through twice, and then slowly folding it up, thrust it back into the envelope.
“It seems to me,” I said, “that I’m going to have quite an interesting house-party.”
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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”.