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remarkable coincidence that the news of this discovery in Russia should
follow so very rapidly upon the visit of the junior partner of the House
of Girdlestone, the astute clergyman began to have some dim perception
of the truth. Hence he brooded a good deal as he went about his work,
and cogitated deeply in a manner which was once again distinctly
undesirable in so very intelligent a subordinate.

These broodings and cogitations culminated in a meeting, which was held
by him with his two sub-agents in the private parlour of the Digger's
Retreat. It was a low-roofed, smoke-stained room, with a profusion of
spittoons scattered over it, which, to judge by the condition of the
floor, the patrons of the establishment had taken some pains to avoid.
Round a solid, old-fashioned table in the centre of this apartment sat
Ezra's staff of assistants, the parson thoughtful but self-satisfied,
the others sullen and inquisitive. Farintosh had convened the meeting,
and his comrades had an idea that there was something in the wind.
They applied themselves steadily, therefore, to the bottle of Hollands
upon the table, and waited for him to speak.

"Well," the ex-clergyman said at last, "the game is nearly over, and
we'll not be wanted any more. Girdlestone's off to England in a day or
two."

Burt and Williams groaned sympathetically. Work was scarce in the
diggings during the crisis, and their agencies had been paying them
well.

"Yes, he's off," Farintosh went on, glancing keenly at his companions,
"and he takes with him five and thirty thousand pounds worth of diamonds
that we bought for him. Poor devils like us, Burt, have to do the work,
and then are thrown aside as you would throw your pick aside when you
are done with it. When he sells out in London and makes his pile, it
won't much matter to him that the three men who helped him are starving
in Griqualand."

"Won't he give us somethin' at partin'?" asked Burt, the navvy. He was
a savage-looking, hairy man, with a brick-coloured face and over-hanging
eyebrows. "Won't he give us nothing to remembrance him by?"

"Give you something!" Farintosh said with a sneer. "Why, man, he says
you are too well paid already."

"Does he, though?" cried the navvy, flushing even redder than nature had
made him. "Is that the way he speaks after we makes him? It ain't on
the square. I likes to see things honest an' above board betwixt man
an' man, and this pitchin' of them as has helped ye over ain't that."

Farintosh lowered his voice and bent further over the table.
His companions involuntarily imitated his movement, until the three
cunning, cruel faces were looking closely into one another's eyes.

"Nobody knows that he holds those stones," said Farintosh. "He's too
smart to let it out to any one but ourselves."

"Where does he keep 'em?" asked the Welshman.

"In a safe in his room."

"Where is the key?"

"On his watch-chain."

"Could we get an impression?"

"I have one."

"Then I can make one," cried Williams triumphantly.

"It's done," said Farintosh, taking a small key from his pocket.
"This is a duplicate, and will open the safe. I took the moulding from
his key while I was speaking to him."

The navvy laughed hoarsely. "If that don't lick creation for
smartness!" he cried. "And how are we to get to this safe? It would
serve him right if we collar the lot. It'll teach him that if he ain't
honest by nature he's got to be when he deals with the like of us.
I like straightness, and by the Lord I'll have it!" He brought his
great fist down upon the table to emphasize this commendable sentiment.

"It's not an easy matter," Farintosh said thoughtfully. "When he goes
out he locks his door, and there's no getting in at the window. There's
only one chance for us that I can see. His room is a bit cut off from
the rest of the hotel. There's a gallery of twenty feet or more that
leads to it. Now, I was thinking that if the three of us were to visit
him some evening, just to wish him luck on his journey, as it were, and
if, while we were in the room something sudden was to happen which would
knock him silly for a minute or two, we might walk off with the stones
and be clean gone before he could raise an alarm."

"And what would knock him silly?" asked Williams. He was an unhealthy,
scorbutic-looking youth, and his pallid complexion had assumed a
greenish tinge of fear as he listened to the clergyman's words.
He had the makings in him of a mean and dangerous criminal, but not of a
violent one - belonging to the jackal tribe rather than to the tiger.

"What would knock him senseless?" Farintosh asked Burt, with a knowing
look.

Burt laughed again in his bushy, red beard. "You can leave that to me,
mate," he said.

Williams glanced from one to the other and he became even more
cadaverous. "I'm not in it," he stammered. "It will be a hanging job.
You will kill him as like as not."

"Not in it, ain't ye?" growled the navvy. "Why, you white-livered
hound, you're too deep in it ever to get out again. D'ye think we'll
let you spoil a lay of this sort as we might never get a chance of
again?"

"You can do it without me," said the Welshman, trembling in every limb.

"And have you turnin' on us the moment a reward was offered. No, no,
chummy, you don't get out of it that way. If you won't stand by us,
I'll take care you don't split."

"Think of the diamonds," Farintosh put in.

"Think of your own skin," said the navvy.

"You could go back to England a rich man if you do it."

"You'll never go back at all if you don't." Thus worked upon
alternately by his hopes and by his fears, Williams showed some signs of
yielding. He took a long draught from his glass and filled it up again.

"I ain't afraid," he said. "Don't imagine that I am afraid. You won't
hit him very hard, Mr. Burt?"

"Just enough to curl him up," the navvy answered. "Lord love ye, it
ain't the first man by many a one that I've laid on his back, though I
never had the chance before of fingering five and thirty thousand pounds
worth of diamonds for my pains."

"But the hotel-keeper and the servants?"

"That's all right," said Farintosh. "You leave it to me. If we go up
quietly and openly, and come down quietly and openly, who is to suspect
anything? Our horses will be outside, in Woodley Street, and we'll be
out of their reach in no time. Shall we say to-morrow evening for the
job?"

"That's very early," Williams cried tremulously.

"The sooner the better," Burt said, with an oath. "And look here, young
man," fixing Williams with his bloodshot eyes, "one sign of drawing
back, and by the living jingo I'll let you have more than I'm keeping
for him. You hear me, eh?" He grasped the youth's white wrist and
squeezed it in his iron grip until he writhed with the pain.

"Oh, I'm with you, heart and soul," he cried. "I'm sure what you and
Mr. Farintosh advise must be for the best."

"Meet here at eight o'clock to-morrow night then," said the leader.
"We can get it over by nine, and we will have the night for our escape.
I'll have the horses ready, and it will be strange if we don't get such
a start as will puzzle them."

So, having arranged all the details of their little plan, these three
gentlemen departed in different directions - Farintosh to the _Central
Hotel_, to give Ezra his evening report, and the others to the
mining-camps, which were the scene of their labours.

The meeting just described took place upon a Tuesday, early in November.
On the Saturday Ezra Girdlestone had fully made up his mind to turn his
back upon the diggings and begin his homeward journey. He was pining
for the pleasures of his old London life, and was weary of the
monotonous expanse of the South African veldt. His task was done, too,
and it would be well for him to be at a distance before the diggers
discovered the manner in which they had been hoaxed. He began to pack
his boxes, therefore, and to make every preparation for his departure.

He was busily engaged in this employment upon the Wednesday evening when
there was a tap at the door and Farintosh walked in, accompanied by Burt
and Williams. Girdlestone glanced up at them, and greeted them briefly.
He was not surprised at their visit, for they had come together several
times before to report progress or make arrangements. Farintosh bowed
as he entered the room, Burt nodded, and Williams rubbed his hands
together and looked amiably bilious.

"We looked in, Mr. Girdlestone," Farintosh began, "to learn if you had
any commands for us."

"I told you before that I had not," Ezra said curtly. "I am going on
Saturday. I have made a mistake in speculating on those diamonds.
Prices are sinking lower and lower."

"I am sorry to hear that," said Farintosh sympathetically. "Maybe the
market will take a turn."

"Let us hope so," the merchant answered. "It doesn't look like it."

"But you are satisfied with us, guv'nor," Burt struck in, pushing his
bulky form in front of Farintosh. "We have done our work all right,
haven't we?"

"I have nothing to complain of," Ezra said coldly.

"Well then, guv'nor, you surely ain't going away without leaving us
nothing to remembrance you with, seeing that we've stood by you and
never gone back on you."

"You have been paid every week for what you have done," the young man
said. "You won't get another penny out of me, so you set your mind at
rest about that."

"You won't give us nothing?" cried the navvy angrily.

"No, I won't; and I'll tell you what it is, Burt, big as you are, if you
dare to raise your voice in my presence I'll give you the soundest
hiding that ever you had in your life."

Ezra had stood up and showed every indication of being as good as his
word.

"Don't let us quarrel the last time we may meet," Farintosh cried,
intervening between the two. "It is not money we expect from you.
All we want is a drain of rum to drink success to you with."

"Oh, if that's all," said the young merchant - and turned round to pick
up the bottle which stood on a table behind him. Quick as a flash Burt
sprang upon him and struck him down with a life-preserver. With a
gasping cry and a heavy thud Ezra fell face downwards upon the floor,
the bottle still clutched in his senseless hand, and the escaping rum
forming a horrible mixture with the blood which streamed from a great
gash in his head.

"Very neat - very pretty indeed!" cried the ex-parson, in a quiet tone of
critical satisfaction, as a connoisseur might speak of a specimen which
interested him. He was already busy at the door of the safe.

"Well done, Mr. Burt, well done!" cried Williams, in a quivering voice;
and going up to the body he kicked it in the side. "You see I am not
afraid, Mr. Burt, am I?"

"Stow your gab!" snarled the navvy. "Here's the rum all gettin' loose."
Picking up the bottle he took a pull of what was left in it.
"Here's the bag, parson," he whispered, pulling a black linen bag from
his pocket. "We haven't made much noise over the job."

"Here are the stones," said Farintosh, in the same quiet voice.
"Hold the mouth open." He emptied an avalanche of diamonds into the
receptacle. "Here are some notes and gold. We may as well have them
too. Now, tie it up carefully. That's the way! If we meet any one on
the stairs, take it coolly. Turn that lamp out, Williams, so that if
any one looks in he'll see nothing. Come along!"

The guilty trio stole out of the room, bearing their plunder with them,
and walked down the passage of the hotel unmolested and unharmed.

The moon, as it rose over the veldt that night, shone on three horsemen
spurring it along the Capetown road as though their very lives depended
upon their speed. Its calm, clear rays streamed over the silent roofs
of Kimberley and in through a particular window of the _Central Hotel_,
throwing silvery patches upon the carpet, and casting strange shadows
from the figure which lay as it had fallen, huddled in an ungainly heap
upon the floor.



CHAPTER XXII.


ROBBERS AND ROBBED.

It might perhaps have been as well for the curtailing of this narrative,
and for the interests of the world at large if the blow dealt by the
sturdy right arm of the navvy had cut short once for all the career of
the junior African merchant. Ezra, however, was endowed with a rare
vitality, which enabled him not only to shake off the effects of his
mishap, but to do so in an extraordinarily short space of time.
There was a groan from the prostrate figure, then a feeble movement,
then another and a louder groan, and then an oath. Gradually raising
himself upon his elbow, he looked around him in a bewildered way, with
his other hand pressed to the wound at the back of his head, from which
a few narrow little rivulets of blood were still meandering. His glance
wandered vaguely over the table and the chairs and the walls, until it
rested upon the safe. He could see in the moonlight that it was open,
and empty. In a moment the whole circumstances of the case came back to
him, and he staggered to the door with a hoarse cry of rage and of
despair.

Whatever Ezra's faults may have been, irresolution or want of courage
were not among them. In a moment he grasped the situation, and realized
that it was absolutely essential that he should act, and at once.
The stones must be recovered, or utter and irretrievable ruin stared him
in the face. At his cries the landlord and several attendants, white
and black, came rushing into the room.

"I've been robbed and assaulted," Ezra said, steadying himself against
the mantelpiece, for he was still weak and giddy. "Don't all start
cackling, but do what I ask you. Light the lamp!"

The lamp was lit, and there was a murmur from the little knot of
employees, reinforced by some late loungers at the bar, as they saw the
disordered room and the great crimson patch upon the carpet.

"The thieves called at nine," said Ezra, talking rapidly, but
collectedly. "Their names were Farintosh, Burt, and Williams.
We talked for, some little time, so they probably did not leave the
house before a quarter past at the soonest. It is now half-past ten, so
they have no very great start. You, Jamieson, and you, Van Muller, run
out and find if three men have been seen getting away. Perhaps they
took a buggy. Go up and down, and ask all you see. You, Jones, go as
hard as you can to Inspector Ainslie. Tell him there has been robbery
and attempted murder, and say that I want half a dozen of his best
mounted men - not his best men, you understand, but his best horses.
I shall see that he is no loser if he is smart. Where's my servant
Pete? Pete, you dog, get my horse saddled and bring her round.
She ought to be able to catch anything in Griqualand."

As Ezra gave his orders the men hurried off in different directions to
carry them out. He himself commenced to arrange his dress, and tied a
handkerchief tightly round his head.

"Surely you are not going, sir?" the landlord said, "You are not fit."

"Fit or not, I am going," Ezra said resolutely. "If I have to be
strapped to my horse I'll go. Send me up some brandy. Put some in a
flask, too. I may feel faint before I get back."

A great concourse of people had assembled by this time, attracted by the
report of the robbery. The whole square in front of the hotel was
crowded with diggers and store-keepers and innumerable Kaffirs, all
pressing up to the portico in the hope of hearing some fresh details.
Mr. Hector O'Flaherty, over the way, was already busy setting up his
type in preparation for a special edition, in which the _Vaal River
Advertiser_ should give its version of the affair. In the office the
great man himself, who was just convalescing from an attack of ardent
spirits, was busily engaged, with a wet towel round his head, writing a
leader upon the event. This production, which was very sonorous and
effective, was peppered all over with such phrases as "protection of
property," "outraged majesty of the law," and "scum of civilization" -
expressions which had been used so continuously by Mr. O'Flaherty, that
he had come to think that he had a copyright in them, and loudly accused
the London papers of plagiarism if he happened to see them in their
columns.

There was a buzz of excitement among the crowd when Ezra appeared on the
steps of the hotel, looking as white as a sheet, with a handkerchief
bound round his head and his collar all crusted with blood. As he
mounted his horse one of his emissaries rushed to him.

"If you please, sir," he said, "they have taken the Capetown road.
A dozen people saw them. Their horses were not up to much, for I know
the man they got them from. You are sure to catch them."

A smile played over Ezra's pale face, which boded little good for the
fugitives. "Curse those police!" he cried; "are they never going to
come?"

"Here they are!" said the landlord; and sure enough, with a jingling of
arms and a clatter of hoofs, half a dozen of the Griqualand Mounted
Constabulary trotted through the crowd and drew up in front of the
steps. They were smart, active young fellows, armed with revolver and
sabre, and their horses were tough brutes, uncomely to look at, but with
wonderful staying power. Ezra noted the fact with satisfaction as he
rode up to the grizzled sergeant in command.

"There's not a moment to be lost, sergeant," he said. "They have an
hour and a half's start, but their cattle are not up to much. Come on!
It's the Capetown road. A hundred pounds if we catch them!"

"Threes!" roared the sergeant. "Right half turn - trot!" The crowd split
asunder, and the little troop, with Ezra at their head, clove a path
through them. "Gallop!" shouted the sergeant, and away they clattered
down the High Street of Kimberley, striking fire out of the stone and
splashing up the gravel, until the sound of their hoofs died away into a
dull, subdued rattle, and finally faded altogether from the ears of the
listening crowd.

For the first few miles the party galloped in silence. The moon was
still shining brilliantly, and they could see the white line of the road
stretching out in front of them and winding away over the undulating
veldt. To right and left spread a broad expanse of wiry grass
stretching to the horizon, with low bushes and scrub scattered over it
in patches. Here and there were groups of long-legged,
unhealthy-looking sheep, who crashed through the bushes in wild terror
as the riders swept by them. Their plaintive calls were the only sounds
which broke the silence of the night, save the occasional dismal hooting
of the veldt owl.

Ezra, on his powerful grey, had been riding somewhat ahead of the
troopers, but the sergeant managed to get abreast of him. "Beg pardon,
sir," he said, raising his hand to his kepi, "but don't you think this
pace is too good to last? The horses will be blown."

"As long as we catch them," Ezra answered, "I don't care what becomes of
the horses. I would sooner stand you a dozen horses apiece than let
them get away."

The young merchant's words were firm and his seat steady, in spite of
the throbbing at his head. The fury in his heart supplied him with
strength, and he gnawed his moustache in his impatience and dug his
spurs into his horse's flanks until the blood trickled down its glossy
coat. Fortune, reputation, above all, revenge, all depended upon the
issue of this headlong chase through the darkness.

The sergeant and Ezra galloped along, leather to leather, and rein to
rein, while the troop clattered in their rear. "There's Combrink about
two miles further on," said the sergeant; "we will hear news of them
there."

"They can't get off the high road, can they?"

"Not likely, sir. They couldn't get along as fast anywhere else.
Indeed, it's hardly safe riding across the veldt. They might be down a
pit before they knew of it."

"As long as they are on the road, we must catch them," quoth Ezra;
"for if it ran straight from here to hell I would follow them there."

"And we'd stand by you, sir," said the sergeant, catching something of
his companion's enthusiasm. "At this pace, if the horses hold out, we
might catch them before morning. There are the lights of the shanty."

As he spoke they were galloping round a long curve in the road, at the
further end of which there was a feeble yellow glimmer. As they came
abreast of it they saw that the light came through an open door, in the
centre of which a burly Afrikaner was standing with his hands in his
breeches pockets and his pipe in his mouth.

"Good evening," said the sergeant, as his men pulled up their reeking
horses. "Has any one passed this way before us?"

"Many a tausand has passed this way before you," said the Dutchman,
taking his pipe out of his mouth to laugh.

"To-night, man, to-night!" the sergeant cried angrily.

"Oh yes; down the Port Elizabeth Road there, not one hour ago. Three
men riding fit to kill their horses."

"That'll do," Ezra shouted; and away they went once more down the broad
white road. They passed Bluewater's Drift at two in the morning, and
were at Van Hayden's farm at half-past. At three they left the Modder
River far behind them, and at a quarter past four they swept down the
main street of the little township of Jacobsdal, their horses weak and
weary and all mottled with foam. There was a police patrol in the
street.

"Has any one passed?" cried the sergeant.

"Three men, a quarter of an hour ago."

"Have they gone on?"

"Straight on. Their horses were nearly dead beat, though."

"Come on!" cried Ezra eagerly. "Come on!"

"Four of the horses are exhausted, sir," said the sergeant.
"They can't move another step."

"Come on without them then."

"The patrol could come," the sergeant suggested.

"I should have to report myself at the office, sir," said the trooper.

"Jump on to his horse, sergeant," cried Ezra. "He can take yours to
report himself on. Now then you and I at least are bound to come up
with them. Forward! gallop!" And they started off once more on their
wild career, rousing the quiet burghers of Jacobsdal by the wild turmoil
of their hoofs.

Out once more upon the Port Elizabeth Road it was a clear race between
the pursuers and the pursued. The former knew that the fugitives, were
it daytime, would possibly be within sight of them, and the thought gave
them additional ardour. The sergeant having a fresh horse rode in
front, his head down and his body forward, getting every possible inch
of pace out of the animal. At his heels came Ezra, on his gallant grey,
the blood-stained handkerchief fluttering from his head. He was sitting
very straight in his saddle with a set stern smile upon his lips.
In his right hand he held a cocked revolver. A hundred yards or so
behind them the two remaining troopers came toiling along upon their
weary nags, working hard with whip and spur to stimulate them to further
exertions. Away in the east a long rosy streak lay low upon the
horizon, which showed that dawn was approaching, and a grey light stole
over the landscape. Suddenly the sergeant pulled his horse up.

"There's some one coming towards us," he cried.

Ezra and the troopers halted their panting steeds. Through the
uncertain light they saw a solitary horseman riding down the road.
At first they had thought that it might possibly be one of the fugitives
who had turned, but as he came nearer they perceived that it was a
stranger. His clothes were so dusty and his horse so foam-flecked and
weary that it was evident that he also had left many a long mile of road
behind him.

"Have you seen three men on horseback?" cried Ezra as he approached.

"I spoke to them," the traveller answered. "They are about half a mile
ahead."

"Come on! Come on!" Ezra shouted.

"I am bringing news from Jagersfontein - " the man said.

"Come on!" Ezra interrupted furiously; and the horses stretched their
stiff limbs into a feeble lumbering gallop. Ezra and the sergeant shot
to the front, and the others followed as best they might. Suddenly in
the stillness they heard far away a dull rattling sound like the clatter
of distant castanets. "It's their horses' hoofs!" cried Ezra; and the
troopers behind raised a cheer to show that they too understood the
significance of the sound.

It was a wild, lonely spot, where the plain was bare even of the scanty
foliage which usually covered it. Here and there great granite rocks
protruded from the brown soil, as though Nature's covering had in bygone
days been rent until her gaunt bones protruded through the wound.



Online LibraryArthur Conan DoyleThe Firm of Girdlestone → online text (page 14 of 32)