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The Black Bag Part 16

The boat gathered impetus, momentarily diminishing in the night's illusory perspective; presently it was little more than a fugitive blot, gliding swiftly in midstream. And then, it was gone entirely, engulfed by the obliterating darkness.

[Illustration: The boat gathered impetus.]

Somewhat wearily the young man released the railing and ascended the stairs. "And that is the end!" he told himself, struggling with an acute sense of personal injury. He had been hardly used. For a few hours his life had been lightened by the ineffable glamor of Romance; mystery and adventure had engaged him, exorcising for the time the Shade of Care; he had served a fair woman and been associated with men whose ways, however questionable, were the ways of courage, hedged thickly about with perils.

All that was at an end. Prosaic and workaday to-morrows confronted him in endless and dreary perspective; and he felt again upon his shoulder the bony hand of his familiar, Care....

He sighed: "Ah, well!"

Disconsolate and aggrieved, he gained the street. He was miles from St.

Pancras, foot-weary, to all intents and purposes lost.

In this extremity, Chance smiled upon him. The cabby who, at his initial instance, had traveled this weary way from Quadrant Mews, after the manner of his kind, ere turning back, had sought surcease of fatigue at the nearest public; from afar Kirkwood saw the four-wheeler at the curb, and made all haste toward it.

Entering the gin-mill he found the cabby, soothed him with bitter, and, instructing him for St. Pancras with all speed, dropped, limp and listless with fatigue, into the conveyance.

As it moved, he closed his eyes; the face of Dorothy Calendar shone out from the blank wall of his consciousness, like an illuminated picture cast upon a screen. She smiled upon him, her head high, her eyes tender and trustful. And he thought that her scarlet lips were sweet with promise and her glance a-brim with such a light as he had never dreamed to know.

And now that he knew it and desired it, it was too late; an hour gone he might, by a nod of his head, have cast his fortunes with hers for weal or woe. But now ...

Alas and alackaday, that Romance was no more!

VII

DIVERSIONS OF A RUINED GENTLEMAN--RESUMED

From the commanding elevation of the box, "Three 'n' six," enunciated the cabby, his tone that of a man prepared for trouble, acquainted with trouble, inclined to give trouble a welcome. His bloodshot eyes blinked truculently at his alighted fare. "Three 'n' six," he iterated aggressively.

An adjacent but theretofore abstracted policeman pricked up his ears and assumed an intelligent expression.

"Bermondsey Ol' Stairs to Sain' Pancras," argued the cabby assertively; "seven mile by th' radius; three 'n' six!"

Kirkwood stood on the outer station platform, near the entrance to third-class waiting-rooms. Continuing to fumble through his pockets for an elusive sovereign purse, he looked up mildly at the man.

"All right, cabby," he said, with pacific purpose; "you'll get your fare in half a shake."

"Three 'n' six!" croaked the cabby, like a blowsy and vindictive parrot.

The bobby strolled nearer.

"Yes?" said Kirkwood, mildly diverted. "Why not sing it, cabby?"

"Lor' lumme!" The cabby exploded with indignation, continuing to give a lifelike imitation of a rumpled parrot. "I 'ad trouble enough wif you at Bermondsey Ol' Stairs, hover that quid you promised, didn't I? Sing it! My heye!"

"Quid, cabby?" And then, remembering that he had promised the fellow a sovereign for fast driving from Quadrant Mews, Kirkwood grinned broadly, eyes twinkling; for Mulready must have fallen heir to that covenant. "But you got the sovereign? You got it, didn't you, cabby?"

The driver affirmed the fact with unnecessary heat and profanity and an amendment to the effect that he would have spoiled his fare's sanguinary conk had the outcome been less satisfactory.

The information proved so amusing that Kirkwood, chuckling, forbore to resent the manner of its delivery, and, abandoning until a more favorable time the chase of the coy sovereign purse, extracted from one trouser pocket half a handful of large English small change.

"Three shillings, six-pence," he counted the coins into the cabby's grimy and bloated paw; and added quietly: "The exact distance is rather less than, four miles, my man; your fare, precisely two shillings. You may keep the extra eighteen pence, for being such a conscientious blackguard,--or talk it over with the officer here. Please yourself."

He nodded to the bobby, who, favorably impressed by the silk hat which Kirkwood, by diligent application of his sleeve during the cross-town ride, had managed to restore to a state somewhat approximating its erstwhile luster, smiled at the cabby a cold, hard smile. Whereupon the latter, smirking in unabashed triumph, spat on the pavement at Kirkwood's feet, gathered up the reins, and wheeled out.

"A 'ard lot, sir," commented the policeman, jerking his helmeted head towards the vanishing four-wheeler.

"Right you are," agreed Kirkwood amiably, still tickled by the knowledge that Mulready had been obliged to pay three times over for the ride that ended in his utter discomfiture. Somehow, Kirkwood had conceived no liking whatever for the man; Calendar he could, at a pinch, tolerate for his sense of humor, but Mulready--! "A surly dog," he thought him.

Acknowledging the policeman's salute and restoring two shillings and a few fat copper pennies to his pocket, he entered the vast and echoing train-shed. In the act, his attention was attracted and immediately riveted by the spectacle of a burly luggage navvy in a blue jumper in the act of making off with a large, folding sign-board, of which the surface was lettered expansively with the advice, in red against a white background:

BOAT-TRAIN LEAVES ON TRACK 3

Incredulous yet aghast the young man gave instant chase to the navvy, overhauling him with no great difficulty. For your horny-handed British working-man is apparently born with two golden aphorisms in his mouth: "Look before you leap," and "Haste makes waste." He looks continually, seldom, if ever, leaps, and never is prodigal of his leisure.

Excitedly Kirkwood touched the man's arm with a detaining hand.

"Boat-train?" he gasped, pointing at the board.

"Left ten minutes ago, thank you, sir."

"Wel-l, but...! Of course I can get another train at Tilbury?"

"For yer boat? No, sir, thank you, sir. Won't be another tryne till mornin', sir."

"Oh-h!..."

Aimlessly Kirkwood drifted away, his mind a blank.

Sometime later he found himself on the steps outside the station, trying to stare out of countenance a glaring electric mineral-water advertisement on the farther side of the Euston Road.

He was stranded....

Beyond the spiked iron fence that enhedges the incurving drive, the roar of traffic, human, wheel and hoof, rose high for all the lateness of the hour: sidewalks groaning with the restless contact of hundreds of ill-shod feet; the roadway thundering--hansoms, four-wheelers, motor-cars, dwarfed coster-mongers' donkey-carts and ponderous, rumbling, C.-P. motor-vans, struggling for place and progress. For St. Pancras never sleeps.

The misty air swam luminous with the light of electric signs as with the radiance of some lurid and sinister moon. The voice of London sounded in Kirkwood's ears, like the ominous purring of a somnolent brute beast, resting, gorged and satiated, ere rising again to devour. To devour--

Stranded!...

Distracted, he searched pocket after pocket, locating his watch, cigar- and cigarette-cases, match-box, penknife--all the minutiae of pocket-hardware affected by civilized man; with old letters, a card-case, a square envelope containing his steamer ticket; but no sovereign purse. His small-change pocket held less than three shillings--two and eight, to be exact--and a brass key, which he failed to recognize as one of his belongings.

And that was all. At sometime during the night he had lost (or been cunningly bereft of?) that little purse of chamois-skin containing the three golden sovereigns which he had been husbanding to pay his steamer expenses, and which, if only he had them now, would stand between him and starvation and a night in the streets.

And, searching his heart, he found it brimming with gratitude to Mulready, for having relieved him of the necessity of settling with the cabby.

"Vagabond?" said Kirkwood musingly. "Vagabond?" He repeated the word softly a number of times, to get the exact flavor of it, and found it little to his taste. And yet...

Chapter end

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