The Black Bag Part 26

"I regret, Mrs. Hallam," he announced, smiling his crooked smile, "that a pressing engagement is about to prohibit my 'squiring you through the ticket-gates. You understand, I'm sure."

His irrepressible humor proved infectious; and Mrs. Hallam's spirit ran as high as his own. She was smiling cheerfully when she, too, rose.

"I also am in some haste," she averred demurely, gathering up her hand-bag and umbrella.

A raised platform shot in beside the carriage, and the speed was so sensibly moderated that the train seemed to be creeping rather than running. Kirkwood flung the door wide open and lowered himself to the running-board. The end of the track was in sight and--a man who has been trained to board San Francisco cable-cars fears to alight from no moving vehicle. He swung off, got his balance, and ran swiftly down the platform.

A cry from a bystander caused him to glance over his shoulder; Mrs. Hallam was then in the act of alighting. As he looked the flurry of skirts subsided and she fell into stride, pursuing.

Sleepy Sheerness must have been scandalized, that day, and its gossips have acquired ground for many, an uncharitable surmise.

Kirkwood, however, was so fortunate as to gain the wicket before the employee there awoke to the situation. Otherwise, such is the temper of British petty officialdom, he might have detained the fugitive. As it was, Kirkwood surrendered his ticket and ran out into the street with his luck still a dominant factor in the race. For, looking back, he saw that Mrs.

Hallam had been held up at the gate, another victim of British red-tape; her ticket read for Queensborough, she was attempting to alight one station farther down the line, and while undoubtedly she was anxious to pay the excess fare, Heaven alone knew when she would succeed in allaying the suspicions and resentment of the ticket-taker.

"That's good for ten minutes' start!" Kirkwood crowed. "And it never occurred to me--!"

Before the station he found two hacks in waiting, with little to choose between them; neither was of a type that did not seem to advertise its pre-Victorian fashioning, and to neither was harnessed an animal that deserved anything but the epithet of screw. Kirkwood took the nearest for no other reason than because it was the nearest, and all but startled the driver off his box by offering double-fare for a brisk pace and a simple service at the end of the ride. Succinctly he set forth his wants, jumped into the antiquated four-wheeler, and threw himself down upon musty, dusty cushions to hug himself over the joke and bless whatever English board of railway, directors it was that first ordained that tickets should be taken up at the end instead of the outset of a journey.

It was promptly made manifest that he had further cause for gratulation.

The cabby, recovering from his amazement, was plying an indefatigable whip and thereby eliciting a degree of speed from his superannuated nag, that his fare had by no means hoped for, much less anticipated. The cab rocked and racketed through Sheerness' streets at a pace which is believed to be unprecedented and unrivaled; its passenger, dashed from side to side, had all he could do to keep from battering the vehicle to pieces with his head; while it was entirely out of the question to attempt to determine whether or not he was being pursued. He enjoyed it all hugely.

In a period of time surprisingly short, he saw, from fleeting glimpses of the scenery to be obtained through the reeling windows, that they were threading the outskirts of the town; synchronously, whether by design or through actual inability to maintain it, the speed was moderated. And in the course of a few more minutes the cab stopped definitely.

Kirkwood clambered painfully out, shook himself together and the bruises out of his bones, and looked fearfully back.

Aside from a slowly settling cloud of dust, the road ran clear as far as he could see--to the point, in fact, where the town closed in about it.

He had won; at all events in so much as to win meant eluding the persevering Mrs. Hallam. But to what end?

Abstractedly he tendered his lonely sovereign to the driver, and without even looking at it, crammed the heavy weight of change into his pocket; an oversight which not only won him the awe-struck admiration of the cabby, but entailed consequences (it may be) he little apprehended. It was with an absentminded nod that he acquiesced in the man's announcement that he might arrange about the boat for him. Accordingly the cabby disappeared; and Kirkwood continued to stare about him, eagerly, hopefully.

He stood on the brink of the Thames estuary, there a possible five miles from shore to shore; from his feet, almost, a broad shingle beach sloped gently to the water.

On one hand a dilapidated picket-fence enclosed the door-yard of a fisherman's cottage, or, better, hovel,--if it need be accurately described--at the door of which the cabby was knocking.

The morning was now well-advanced. The sun rode high, a sphere of tarnished flame in a void of silver-gray, its thin cold radiance striking pallid sparks from the leaping crests of wind-whipped waves. In the east a wall of vapor, dull and lusterless, had taken body since the dawn, masking the skies and shutting down upon the sea like some vast curtain; and out of the heart of this a bitter and vicious wind played like a sword.

To the north, Shoeburyness loomed vaguely, like a low-drifted bank of cloud. Off to the right the Nore Lightship danced, a tiny fleck of warm crimson in a wilderness of slatey-blue waters, plumed with a myriad of vanishing white-caps.

Up the shelving shore, small, puny wavelets dashed in impotent fury, and the shingle sang unceasingly its dreary, syncopated monotone. High and dry, a few dingy boats lay canted wearily upon their broad, swelling sides,--a couple of dories, apparently in daily use; a small sloop yacht, dismantled and plainly beyond repair; and an oyster-smack also out of commission.

About them the beach was strewn with a litter of miscellany,--nets, oars, cork buoys, bits of wreckage and driftwood, a few fish too long forgotten and (one assumed) responsible in part for the foreign wealth of the atmosphere.

Some little distance offshore a fishing-boat, catrigged and not more than twenty-feet over all, swung bobbing at her mooring, keen nose searching into the wind; at sight of which Kirkwood gave thanks, for his adventitious guide had served him well, if that boat were to be hired by any manner of persuasion.

But it was to the farther reaches of the estuary that he gave more prolonged and most anxious heed, scanning narrowly what shipping was there to be seen. Far beyond the lightship a liner was riding the waves with serene contempt, making for the river's mouth and Tilbury Dock. Nearer in, a cargo boat was standing out upon the long trail, the white of riven waters showing clearly against her unclean freeboard. Out to east a little covey of fishing-smacks, red sails well reefed, were scudding before the wind like strange affrighted water-fowl, and bearing down past a heavy-laden river barge. The latter, with tarpaulin battened snugly down over the cockpit and the seas dashing over her wash-board until she seemed under water half the time, was forging stodgily Londonwards, her bargee at the tiller smoking a placid pipe.

But a single sailing vessel of any notable tonnage was in sight; and when he saw her Kirkwood's heart became buoyant with hope, and he began to tremble with nervous eagerness. For he believed her to be the _Alethea_.

There's no mistaking a ship brigantine-rigged for any other style of craft that sails the seas.

From her position when first he saw her, Kirkwood could have fancied she was tacking out of the mouth of the Medway; but he judged that, leaving the Thames' mouth, she had tacked to starboard until well-nigh within hail of Sheerness. Now, having presumably, gone about, she was standing out toward the Nore, boring doggedly into the wind. He would have given a deal for glasses wherewith to read the name upon her bows, but was sensible of no hampering doubts; nor, had he harbored any, would they have deterred him.

He had set his heart upon the winning of his venture, had come too far, risked far too much, to suffer anything now to stay his hand and stand between him and Dorothy Calendar. Whatever the further risks and hazards, though he should take his life in his hands to win to her side, he would struggle on. He recked nothing of personal danger; a less selfish passion ran molten in his veins, moving him to madness.

Fascinated, he fixed his gaze upon the reeling brigantine, and for a space it was as if by longing he had projected his spirit to her slanting deck, and were there, pleading his case with the mistress of his heart....

Voices approaching brought him back to shore. He turned, resuming his mask of sanity, the better to confer with the owner of the cottage and boats--a heavy, keen-eyed fellow, ungracious and truculent of habit, and chary of his words; as he promptly demonstrated.

"I'll hire your boat," Kirkwood told him, "to put me aboard that brigantine, off to leeward. We ought to start at once."

The fisherman shifted his quid of tobacco from cheek to cheek, grunted inarticulately, and swung deliberately on his heel, displaying a bull neck above a pair of heavy shoulders.

"Dirty weather," he croaked, facing back from his survey of the eastern skies before the American found out whether or not he should resent his insolence.

"How much?" Kirkwood demanded curtly, annoyed.

The man hesitated, scowling blackly at the heeling vessel, momentarily increasing her distance from shore. Then with a crafty smile, "Two pound',"

he declared.

The American nodded. "Very well," he agreed simply. "Get out your boat."

The fisherman turned away to shamble noisily over the shingle, huge booted heels crunching, toward one of the dories. To this he set his shoulder, shoving it steadily down the beach until only the stern was dry.

Kirkwood looked back, for the last time, up the road to Sheerness. Nothing moved upon it. He was rid of Mrs. Hallam, if face to face with a sterner problem. He had a few pence over ten shillings in his pocket, and had promised to pay the man four times as much. He would have agreed to ten times the sum demanded; for the boat he must and would have. But he had neglected to conclude his bargain, to come to an understanding as to the method of payment; and he felt more than a little dubious as to the reception the fisherman would give his proposition, sound as he, Kirkwood, knew it to be.

In the background the cabby loitered, gnawed by insatiable curiosity.

The fisherman turned, calling over his shoulder: "If ye'd catch yon vessel, come!"

With one final twinge of doubt--the task of placating this surly dog was anything but inviting--the American strode to the boat and climbed in, taking the stern seat. The fisherman shoved off, wading out thigh-deep in the spiteful waves, then threw himself in over the gunwales and shipped the oars. Bows swinging offshore, rocking and dancing, the dory began to forge slowly toward the anchored boat. In their faces the wind beat gustily, and small, slapping waves, breaking against the sides, showered them with fine spray....

In time the dory lay alongside the cat-boat, the fisherman with a gnarled hand grasping the latter's gunwale to hold the two together. With some difficulty Kirkwood transhipped himself, landing asprawl in the cockpit, amid a tangle of cordage slippery with scales. The skipper followed, with clumsy expertness bringing the dory's painter with him and hitching it to a ring-bolt abaft the rudder-head. Then, pausing an instant to stare into the East with somber eyes, he shipped the tiller and bent to the halyards. As the sail rattled up, flapping wildly, Kirkwood marked with relief--for it meant so much time saved--that it was already close reefed.

But when at least the boom was thrashing overhead and the halyards had been made fast to their cleats, the fisherman again stood erect, peering distrustfully at the distant wall of cloud.

Then, in two breaths: "Can't do it," he decided; "not at the price."

"Why?" Kirkwood stared despairingly after the brigantine, that was already drawn far ahead.

"Danger," growled the fellow, "--wind."

At a loss completely, Kirkwood found no words. He dropped his head, considering.

"Not at the price," the sullen voice iterated; and he looked up to find the cunning gaze upon him.

"How much, then?"

"Five poun' I'll have--no less, for riskin' my life this day."

Chapter end

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