Rodney Stone

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Foul play

My uncle’s impatience would not suffer him to wait for the slow rotation which would bring us to the door, but he flung the reins and a crown-piece to one of the rough fellows who thronged the side-walk, and pushing his way vigorously through the crowd, he made for the entrance.  As he came within the circle of light thrown by the windows, a whisper ran round as to who this masterful gentleman with the pale face and the driving-coat might be, and a lane was formed to admit us.  I had never before understood the popularity of my uncle in the sporting world, for the folk began to huzza as we passed with cries of “Hurrah for Buck Tregellis!  Good luck to you and your man, Sir Charles!  Clear a path for a bang-up noble Corinthian!” whilst the landlord, attracted by the shouting, came running out to greet us. “Good evening, Sir Charles!” he cried.  “I hope I see you well, sir, and I trust that you will find that your man does credit to the George.” “How is he?” asked my uncle, quickly. “Never better, sir.  Looks a picture, he does - and fit to fight for a kingdom.” My uncle gave a sigh of relief. “Where is he?” he asked. “He’s gone to his room early, sir, seein’ that he had some very partic’lar business to-morrow mornin’,” said the landlord, grinning. “Where is Belcher?” “Here he is, in the bar parlour.” He opened a door as he spoke, and looking in we saw a score of well-dressed men, some of whose faces had become familiar to me during my short West End career, seated round a table upon which stood a steaming soup-tureen filled with punch.  At the further end, very much at his ease amongst the aristocrats and exquisites who surrounded him, sat the Champion of England, his superb figure thrown back in his chair, a flush upon his handsome face, and a loose red handkerchief knotted carelessly round his throat in the picturesque fashion which was long known by his name.  Half a century has passed since then, and I have seen my share of fine men.  Perhaps it is because I am a slight creature myself, but it is my peculiarity that I had rather look upon a splendid man than upon any work of Nature.  Yet during all that time I have never seen a finer man than Jim Belcher, and if I wish to match him in my memory, I can only turn to that other Jim whose fate and fortunes I am trying to lay before you. There was a shout of jovial greeting when my uncle’s face was seen in the doorway. “Come in, Tregellis!”  “We were expecting you!”  “There’s a devilled bladebone ordered.”  “What’s the latest from London?”  “What is the meaning of the long odds against your man?”  “Have the folk gone mad?”  “What the devil is it all about?”  They were all talking at once. “Excuse me, gentlemen,” my uncle answered.  “I shall be happy to give you any information in my power a little later.  I have a matter of some slight importance to decide.  Belcher, I would have a word with you!” The Champion came out with us into the passage. “Where is your man, Belcher?” “He has gone to his room, sir.  I believe that he should have a clear twelve hours’ sleep before fighting.” “What sort of day has he had?” “I did him lightly in the matter of exercise.  Clubs, dumbbells, walking, and a half-hour with the mufflers.  He’ll do us all proud, sir, or I’m a Dutchman!  But what in the world’s amiss with the betting?  If I didn’t know that he was as straight as a line, I’d ha’ thought he was planning a cross and laying against himself.” “It’s about that I’ve hurried down.  I have good information, Belcher, that there has been a plot to cripple him, and that the rogues are so sure of success that they are prepared to lay anything against his appearance.” Belcher whistled between his teeth. “I’ve seen no sign of anything of the kind, sir.  No one has been near him or had speech with him, except only your nephew there and myself.” “Four villains, with Berks at their head, got the start of us by several hours.  It was Warr who told me.” “What Bill Warr says is straight, and what Joe Berks does is crooked.  Who were the others, sir?” “Red Ike, Fighting Yussef, and Chris McCarthy.” “A pretty gang, too!  Well, sir, the lad is safe, but it would be as well, perhaps, for one or other of us to stay in his room with him.  For my own part, as long as he’s my charge I’m never very far away.” “It is a pity to wake him.” “He can hardly be asleep with all this racket in the house.  This way, sir, and down the passage!” We passed along the low-roofed, devious corridors of the old-fashioned inn to the back of the house. “This is my room, sir,” said Belcher, nodding to a door upon the right.  “This one upon the left is his.”  He threw it open as he spoke.  “Here’s Sir Charles Tregellis come to see you, Jim,” said he; and then, “Good Lord, what is the meaning of this?” The little chamber lay before us brightly illuminated by a brass lamp which stood upon the table.  The bedclothes had not been turned down, but there was an indentation upon the counterpane which showed that some one had lain there.  One-half of the lattice window was swinging on its hinge, and a cloth cap lying upon the table was the only sign of the occupant.  My uncle looked round him and shook his head. “It seems that we are too late,” said he. “That’s his cap, sir.  Where in the world can he have gone to with his head bare?  I thought he was safe in his bed an hour ago.  Jim!  Jim!” he shouted. “He has certainly gone through the window,” cried my uncle.  “I believe these villains have enticed him out by some devilish device of their own.  Hold the lamp, nephew.  Ha!  I thought so.  Here are his footmarks upon the flower-bed outside.” The landlord, and one or two of the Corinthians from the bar-parlour, had followed us to the back of the house.  Some one had opened the side door, and we found ourselves in the kitchen garden, where, clustering upon the gravel path, we were able to hold the lamp over the soft, newly turned earth which lay between us and the window. “That’s his footmark!” said Belcher.  “He wore his running boots this evening, and you can see the nails.  But what’s this?  Some one else has been here.” “A woman!” I cried. “By Heaven, you’re right, nephew,” said my uncle. Belcher gave a hearty curse. “He never had a word to say to any girl in the village.  I took partic’lar notice of that.  And to think of them coming in like this at the last moment!” “It’s clear as possible, Tregellis,” said the Hon. Berkeley Craven, who was one of the company from the bar-parlour.  “Whoever it was came outside the window and tapped.  You see here, and here, the small feet have their toes to the house, while the others are all leading away.  She came to summon him, and he followed her.” “That is perfectly certain,” said my uncle.  “There’s not a moment to be lost.  We must divide and search in different directions, unless we can get some clue as to where they have gone.” “There’s only the one path out of the garden,” cried the landlord, leading the way.  “It opens out into this back lane, which leads up to the stables.  The other end of the lane goes out into the side road.” The bright yellow glare from a stable lantern cut a ring suddenly from the darkness, and an ostler came lounging out of the yard. “Who’s that?” cried the landlord. “It’s me, master!  Bill Shields.” “How long have you been there, Bill?” “Well, master, I’ve been in an’ out of the stables this hour back.  We can’t pack in another ’orse, and there’s no use tryin’.  I daren’t ’ardly give them their feed, for, if they was to thicken out just ever so little - ” “See here, Bill.  Be careful how you answer, for a mistake may cost you your place.  Have you seen any one pass down the lane?” “There was a feller in a rabbit-skin cap some time ago.  ’E was loiterin’ about until I asked ’im what ’is business was, for I didn’t care about the looks of ’im, or the way that ’e was peepin’ in at the windows.  I turned the stable lantern on to ’im, but ’e ducked ’is face, an’ I could only swear to ’is red ’ead.” I cast a quick glance at my uncle, and I saw that the shadow had deepened upon his face. “What became of him?” he asked. “’E slouched away, sir, an’ I saw the last of ’im.” “You’ve seen no one else?  You didn’t, for example, see a woman and a man pass down the lane together?” “No, sir.” “Or hear anything unusual?” “Why, now that you mention it, sir, I did ’ear somethin’; but on a night like this, when all these London blades are in the village - ” “What was it, then?” cried my uncle, impatiently. “Well, sir, it was a kind of a cry out yonder as if some one ’ad got ’imself into trouble.  I thought, maybe, two sparks were fightin’, and I took no partic’lar notice.” “Where did it come from?” “From the side road, yonder.” “Was it distant?” “No, sir; I should say it didn’t come from more’n two hundred yards.” “A single cry?” “Well, it was a kind of screech, sir, and then I ’eard somebody drivin’ very ’ard down the road.  I remember thinking that it was strange that any one should be driving away from Crawley on a great night like this.” My uncle seized the lantern from the fellow’s hand, and we all trooped behind him down the lane.  At the further end the road cut it across at right angles.  Down this my uncle hastened, but his search was not a long one, for the glaring light fell suddenly upon something which brought a groan to my lips and a bitter curse to those of Jem Belcher.  Along the white surface of the dusty highway there was drawn a long smear of crimson, while beside this ominous stain there lay a murderous little pocket-bludgeon, such as Warr had described in the morning.

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